Short Story: “…and I Love The Distant…
About this Short Story
He swings by the hospital to see an ex-lover - no big deal, but he’s shocked to find she's turned back into the woman he fell in love with - and the change is permanent. She'll cope.
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It’s not just the heat he’s feeling. It’s something else; something about the way the nurse looked at him, tip-toeing concern on her face. His face feels as if he has an extra growth of stubble on his chin; appeared in the last five minutes; forced out, pushed through the skin by raised blood-pressure. Being made to wait with no explanation, intercepted at the desk and made to wait in the corridor. Left. Without a word. But at last, on the point of slipping away because … because why was he here anyway - this woman, this nurse woman comes up to him and now here he is. She says, all serious and gentle, “I’ll take these, shall I? They’ll need a vase,” swishes a curtain, closes it again behind him, and seals him in this new space, closeted, by a bedside, seeing details at first, only isolated details: the crack in the linoleum, the crushing tightness of a white…
Short Story: “…and I Love The Distant Princess.”
It’s not just the heat he’s feeling. It’s something else; something about the way the nurse looked at him, tip-toeing concern on her face. His face feels as if he has an extra growth of stubble on his chin; appeared in the last five minutes; forced out, pushed through the skin by raised blood-pressure. Being made to wait with no explanation, intercepted at the desk and made to wait in the corridor. Left. Without a word. But at last, on the point of slipping away because … because why was he here anyway - this woman, this nurse woman comes up to him and now here he is. She says, all serious and gentle, “I’ll take these, shall I? They’ll need a vase,” swishes a curtain, closes it again behind him, and seals him in this new space, closeted, by a bedside, seeing details at first, only isolated details: the crack in the linoleum, the crushing tightness of a white sheet, the soft green of the counterpane, the empty water jug, the head, her head, on the smooth, white pillow.
Her head on a pillow. Her hair.
He had forgotten how beautiful.
Her brown-red, gold-red, combed flat hair; strands of it sleek across her white forehead. Her jaw, stiff but not clenched, not tense. Her lips, faintly blue. Closed. A thin tightness there but a soft smiling calm in her face; face in repose.
Bird-fine marble cheekbones, brow bones, sockets ... bridge of nose ... alabaster. A translucency in the fine sculpture of this face on this pillow, with its eyelids shut.
There is no chair. Should he sit? Where? Remain standing? Leave? Or wait? How long? He waits, looking at the curtain screen. It’s striped. Pink, orange, green and white. Some sort of light cotton, polyester probably. Bright. Hospitals are done out in much brighter colours these days, he thinks.
There is no sound affirming his presence. No sign. He stands waiting for something to happen. Breathes out, quietly. His chest is still and he watches hers. He wants to inhale but he wants her to do it first. He used to time his breathing to hers while she slept. Her rhythm was so slow he could never last as long as she.
The night was warm, so warm the covers were heavy. They threw them off, their bodies dampened with the sweat of love-making, with the sweat of early July in the city. “I want to come,” he said, “but I want you to do it first.” Her rhythm was so slow he could hardly ever last as long as she, and she wanted it thus ... She said she wanted his first burst of energy to burn itself out. She wanted his pace to slacken and his limbs to move more heavily, then she’d come. She said she’d ache for it till then, but it would escape her until it turned and took hold, the way her fingers then took hold and the hair of his neck slipped moist under her palms and she hung from him as strong as he. The sleep they fell into soothed their fear of escaping love. But in the morning the weather had changed and the light came with a draught of air and traffic through the window. The night before they’d thrown the windows wide, so wide, letting so much of the night air in they’d thought of sleeping next time by the sea. Next time was going to be better, because each time always was, but when was the surprise of that going to stop? Neither got up. Neither made the first move to rise. His arms enclosed her and his embrace tightened, tighter than ever before. He wanted to let her go, but the more he wanted to let go, the tighter he held her, his fingers like a drowning man’s that whitened and groped for purchase on the slipping weed, weed coming away from the rock in lumps. They fell back on the bed. They lay still, and let the current take them down. No outward sign moved them as he let go, and love drained away, unstemmed. She rolled on to her side and watched him walk to the bathroom, and heard the ordinary sound of a shower turning on.
He wants to inhale but how long will it takes for her to do it first? Already, though, he’s realising. He knows. His chest tightens. Like the man in the gas chamber trying to live without oxygen, he knows.
So this is how shock works, he observes. He had thought it was the other way around: physical outburst first, then the emotion. But this is stasis. This is nothing. But then he knows about emotions. He knows all about them. How to bury them. This is how shock works on him, is it? Interesting. The next breath will be it then. The last intake before ... before acceptance.
The nurse is hovering at the curtain listening for a sound, a step, a sigh, a signal to caution intervention. He can sense her standing there, behind the screen, waiting. This is her doing. This nurse and all the other females at that desk out there. If they hadn’t stopped him on his way in, with his bunch of flowers, told him to wait. If they hadn’t told him somebody would come and see him in a minute. He had been on the point of getting up and leaving when the woman’s shadow had fallen across him, sitting on the chair against the corridor wall. He had looked up into this kind-faced Madonna of a woman, doing that professional calm thing. “Visiting isn’t till six, normally ...” she’d said. He’d looked at her blankly. Ah. Right. Visiting time. Yeah. He hadn’t thought about that.
He’d wondered at her questions, her smile of concern, her consoling hand on his arm as she walked ahead of him, making an exception, apparently. God, these people were so relentlessly nice. How could anybody be so nice - all the time? He’d looked at her and said ... nothing. He should have said something. That would have been the right thing to do. He knew that now. How come you only ever know what’s the right thing to do after it’s too late to do it? He hadn’t taken time to explain he’d only popped in for ... just stopped by because ... heard she was in hospital so ... no big deal. He had followed the nurse into the ward.
His neck was clammy and hot, his palms sticky. It was way too hot. A trickle was running down his spine. His old, favourite, scruffy, leather jacket fitted so close to his frame it was trapping the sweat soaking into his shirt. He hadn’t known what to do about the jacket. It was just going to have to stay on. Taking it off would look like he was okay with all this. Like he was adjusting to being here. Like he wasn’t going to leave pretty much as soon as he’d dropped off these ridiculous flowers, said hello. But he’d been left sitting there like that for so long! And being escorted in like this. How was any of this helping him be cool? Literally.
“I’ll take these, shall I? They’ll need a vase,” the nurse had said, her eyes on the bunch of wilting chrysanthemums flagging in his fist as if it was oxygen they needed, petals like tongues hanging out in his knuckle-white grip. He’d been clutching them since he’d got ambushed into buying them in the hospital concourse, having lost the line of green chevrons he was supposed to be following to Winston Wing. He had turned a wrong corner and walked straight into a canyon of the blooming things. Losing his balance and grabbing for a hand hold, he’d coming away with a bunch out of a bucket. The woman at the kiosk had smiled and said, “The roses are on special, if you prefer. Four ninety-nine. Roses say so much more, don’t you think?” He’d tightened his face into a smile and paid for the chrysanthemums.
This would be interesting, he’d thought. She’d think he’d flipped. It was a long time since he’d seen her. Long time since he’d thought about her— allowed himself to think about her. She’d be surprised to see him. And she’d know right away where he’d got the flowers. She’d probably laugh. That’d break the ice. He was expecting some. Ice. But that was only natural.
“I’ll put them ... “
“What?” His voice had boomed through the ward like as if he’d had headphones on. “What?”
The nurse had prised them out of his grip as his attention was drifting around the ward. Here and there a head nodded in his direction, a compassionate smile offered through pursed lips, a mouth disappeared behind a hand as two heads nodded and looked him up and down. Eyes peeping out over an oxygen mask were sending beams of curiosity and concern his way.
The flowers had been taken off him and then it had all happened so quickly. The nurse had looked into his face and he had shrunk and stepped back as she stretched past him, reaching up for the edge of the curtain behind his head, slipping him, choreographed, into the enclosure. One step forward, one swift swish, and he was in. Shut in. Looking at this face on this pillow. Knowing, almost as quickly as love, as quickly as at first sight, this was the woman he'd come to see.
This was the woman he still loved. This. Look how still she lies. Self possessed, pure essence of herself and lying here so still, as if in thought. Unaware, unconcerned, indifferent to anyone or anything, her face unlined, its colour drained, the skin shining and tight over the slim bone of her brow. This was how she had been. The woman who had had no need to change, conform, adapt, placate, cajole, persuade, seduce, attract, argue, plead, bargain, beg, worry for his love. He gave it her before she saw his face. He had loved her for that - for her ignorance of him. He loved her life before they met. He saw her. She shone. And what he saw is here, all of it is still here and it’s enough. He loved her still as he had before. At a distance. Man loves a woman for her perfection; she loves him for his flaws. Hers, sad for her therefore, is the longer torture. What she deserves, of course, for the imperfection of loving him.
Her thoughts now, however are private, turning slowly on themselves, deleting the files of her life, one by one, vanishing, discarding, sifting through, consigning tracts of memory to the void. She’s working her way towards oblivion, checking for one scrap, one glimpse of the past to carry with her, that can’t be erased. An image lingers then passes. There. A picture of him. And another. Deleted. If she could turn and look at him, if her eyes could open once and search his face, there would be no sign of recognition. Would there be interest? Would there be that trusting smile he saw the day they met? That open unconditional gaze. But there were conditions. There always are conditions.
He had taken to watching her some nights, sleeping in his arms, no sorrow, no excuses on her face. He watched the rhythm of her breathing. So slow. So assured. So predictable. He had wanted this woman so much. But she had done one wrong thing and spoiled it all. She had loved him. And he was going to let her go. Not now. Not yet. But he would do it. For her. For him, really. He wanted that pain, that tugging, dragging pain as strong as love and almost as heavy, almost as precious. That was a feeling that lasted. That was a feeling. Longer than love. Love already waning. He’d hold her tight, so tight, so tight and let her go. He would let her go with the pressure of his arms still in her mind. Knowing it would fade, in time, like heat from the bed when the sleeper has risen. He'd return her to her clean, white sheets, crisp and freshly laundered all anew.
She is untouched. She looks cleaned of him. It’s gone; the angry glance. It is gone. If she could open her eyes and look, it would be gone; the puzzled smile, the thousand looks his careless hurts produced. That part of her that wept is gone.
“Had we never met, had she never loved, this would have been her perpetual state. Peace in life.” This was good. This was right. He had, after all, done the right thing before it had been too late.
He’s not moved a muscle since the nurse left him with her. He’s not made a sound, no sign. The curtain moves, not with a sudden noise, but the nurse’s presence, appearing in a gap behind him, jolts him. His breath rushes him and he stretches a hand to the bed-end for a handhold to steady himself as the air surges in. The bed shakes as he gropes for balance and the figure in the bed seems to stir, disturbed, her head rolling slightly to one side, her lips parting, his chest heaving as, with every breath, he gulps in particles of her final breath still hanging in the air.
Later, walking past the flower kiosk, he takes off his jacket and slides a resentful eye at the till containing his four quid. He doesn't see the ashen-faced, grey-headed couple, hanging on to one another, until they nearly bang into him, hurrying in the direction of green chevrons. “Too late,” he’s tempted to call out. But what's it to him now, really?
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