A walk by the sea (45-50)

(Part II)

45.

Deep into the water, deep into the dark, deep into the water, deep into the dark, the words repeated themselves in her mind under a starless night sky by the sea. Sitting on a cliff, letting time go, letting everything go, envelopped by a cold wind and the darkness of the lonely night.

Crushed once again, having to bear the pain of certainty, given two choices. Letting go they meant, both of them, freeing herself of his memories, or freeing herself of the pain. Her unblinking eyes scanned the blind vastness ahead of her: the horizon was but a thin line, where sky and sea overlapped. Waves of the sea touched the sky, hands of the sky reached down to the sea. Nothing was clear, nothing was more than a dark blue blur of never ending fears, her life. A shimmering horizon, a few stars, the unknown of the dark depths. If she could only do it.

The torn pice of canvas at her feet. Splinters of frame. All of it, in the trash, found later when she walked back to her house. That was what he took with him. No beauty, no fire, but garbage to be discarded, burnt, forgotten. She was already but a forgotten blur to him.

The more her weeping mind thought of it, the worse the pain became. All that beauty she had, she had shared, they had shared, was it only a torn canvas for him? In the light of his obvious opinion, her most wonderful days slowly turned into grotesque struggles of a pathetic old woman. She saw herself through his eyes: old, clinging, hiding her mortality with ridiculous manifestations of passion. The truth shone brightly, giving what used to be God’s gift a face of ugliness. What a farce. Believing he cared. Believing she cared. She was past caring as she sat shivering on the flat rock, facing her darkest hours.

A few steps into blissful oblivion. Not to see his face ever again, not to be tormented by shreds of memory, once beautiful, now mocking. Why couldn’t she do it?

Why had she been unable to do it? The lightless night with only a few weak starlets still lived on inside her as powerfully as on that end of day. Sitting on the luxurious leather couch in her son’s brand new apartment in Los Angeles, she waited for minutes and hours to pass, as usual. A different existence, at least for a while, until the beginning of next year was a relief. Spending time with her little family, numbing her own dreams. What was the use of dreaming? After it came true, it was quickly forgotten. If unrealised, it kept haunting, turning reality into dull, grey nothingness. On the night of fears and truths faced, Mary had made a resolution not to ever give in to dreams again.

Eileen sent her a smile from the kitchen, and Mary smiled back at her. Eileen was kind. Almost too kind, and she was close to turning resentful, but her conscience stopped her. They were generous to her, putting her up in their not very spacious apartment for such a long time.

Everything was different. It was sunny and significantly warmer than in Bodeford. People were open and smiling, however superficial. It suited Mary: she needed smiles, she needed the lies of happiness to stop herself from sinking back into self-hatred.

-Tim Burrows called. He said he was ready to take a look at your work -Eileen said while she stirred the vegetables on the stove.

-Oh -Mary said. She was not sure she was ready to show her work to anyone.

-Jo was right to make you bring them -her daughter-in-law stated. -I’m telling you, if you are meant to become a famous artist, this is the time and the place.

-If I want to become one -Mary replied, turning to look at the sea. Yes, the sea that she had longed, and feared, to leave behind. Joseph and Eileen chose to live on an avenue that was practically five minutes from the sea. The irony of it all struck her when she stepped out of Joseph’s car, hoping to be surrounded by buildings, enclosed and buried, if possible. The sun was just setting when they arrived back from the airport: grand, golden, bright pink and red, a sunset that looked so different from what she had seen back home. Positive and relentlessly happy.

-People should see your paintings, Mary. They are not only expressive, but also gorgeous.

She acknowledged the praise without a sound. Her one pride, her paintings: perhaps now, after a life wasted, she could exhibit them and… Well. There was nothing more to it. They were only paintings, after all.

-I told him he could come around five. Is that okay with you? -Eileen asked, placing a lid on top of the wok.

Mary nodded and tried to look thankful as she got up to help Eileen with the cooking. Her daughter-in-law, as on every occasion, gently forced her to sit back and do nothing. Well, it was the only thing that felt right to do. Protect an old woman. Mary turned away and walked to the large window that offered her a glorious view of sun blazing over a blissful sea. People on the beach, despite the cool weather. How she yearned to walk among them, brush their hands with hers, feel connected. She was gradually slipping away, she knew it. She felt so much older now, useless and grumpy, a sad human being that she should have ridden the world of, that dark night.

-I think I’ll take a walk, Eileen. Are you ready with the cooking? You and Andy could join me.

-I wish I could -Eileen sighed. -My boss loaded me with work that I couldn’t finish in two weeks. To be done by Monday.

-I’m sorry -Mary said, and she meant it, or tried to mean it. She could have done with some company. Then again, she still preferred being alone, despite the frightening mask of solitude that was every day growing thicker on her face, little by little fusing with her skin, until one day, she knew she would not be able to take it off. -I’ll be back by half past four to meet Mr Burrows.

-Sure -Eileen smiled. -Jo comes home for lunch in a while, I’ll tell him you’re out. Do you want to grab a bite before you go?

-I’ll have dinner -Mary said, touched by Eileen’s petty concern. -Thank you.

A mere two blocks away the sea called at her, whispering mischievously. I’m still here, you can’t get away from me, I’ll keep haunting your days till they last in this life. Mary faced the unknown sea: she couldn’t do otherwise. They say, to kill your fears, you have to face them… Her fears grew stronger each day, but she bravely fought against them, meagre proofs that she was still alive.

People and dogs walked past her, couples, lonely figures, families, friends, so many people. She was surrounded by noise and breathing, and yet she felt lonelier than she had ever been back home, on her solitary beach, where only her thoughts kept her company.

On a December afternoon, someone with his hair and his eyes walked past, and Mary caught her breath, giving herself a moment to steady her heart and walk on. He was everywhere she turned: on the corner of the street, at the grocery, on the beach. Several times a day. Despite the truth that gnawed at her already shattered soul, the truth of having been a burden to him, she saw him in everyone, in everything. The setting sun had his warmth, the loud lapping of the sea had his laughter, the cool breeze had his breath.

After repeatedly telling herself how pathetic she had been, time mercifully softened her anger and disillusionment, and his face started to return to her. First, at a breakfast eaten together with Joseph and his family, carefree chattering and the gurgling laughter of Andrea, their two year-old daughter, her only grand-child. Holding the fragile little body between her broken old arms, she thought she felt his smile radiating at her from somewhere. Startled, her heart beat frantically, telling herself she was imagining things. Then, she saw his face in two young boys who ran past her on the beach. Then, she heard his voice behind her back in a shop. He was everywhere.

Standing in the warmth of the sun that should have been the same, but was not, Mary gazed at the calm waves chase each other across the wide stretch of sand. Sand until the eye could see. No cliffs, no shrubs, no depth, only a superficial, shallow beauty, and shouting, happy people.

But she was being unfair. Happiness had its merits, too. Ignorance, bliss, peace of mind: things she never possessed, and would never possess. Things humanity subconsciously fights for: not knowledge, but ignorance. The more one knows, the less happy one can ever be, she knew that now, watching two children play with a dog and their parents looking at them with smiles on their faces.

She had only been happy before she met him, before she knew what life could be like, torn away from her safe solitude.

She shuddered in the sun, sending her bitter realization into the cool breeze, then, after a little more time spent on the vast sandy beach, she slowly walked back to her son’s home.

46.

Accustoming himself anew to an existence that was supposed to be familiar, at least subconsciously, was taking its toll on Joshua. The interviews and seemingly adhoc performances after a several year-break made him feel like he was no master of his own life any more. The limelight that shone in his eyes with a more blinding strength, the expectations that coming out of the blue, seemed exaggerated and unreasonable, the newly-awokened curiosity from the critics and the public, and the singing, the constant singing- when he first entered the studio to rehearse the new songs after the self-imposed break that had alienated him from the hardships and rewards of being a singer, his voice sounded so unknown to himself he had to stop after the first notes to regain his composure.

His uncertainty may have also been derived from the fact that ever since returning to Los Angeles, his nights kept him awake and tossing on his pillow, while he constantly pondered what he had done wrong, where he had been mistaken, what exactly had happened that had pushed Mary to end her own life. He tried to recall their last words, their last exchanged glances; was it his fault? Should he have returned earlier? He should have been more insistent… The quiet nights in his apartment on the seventh floor gave his mind plenty of time and space to think, contemplate, wonder and question himself, over and over again. In vain trying to shut his mind to the remorse and the doubt that ensued in increasing quantities.

Listening to the nightlife underneath his window, he craved to hear the waves of the stormy sea crash against the cliffs, the bugs and insects rub their shiny wings and armours against grass and flower stems, the stars sparkle almost audibly in the sky. A distant thunder preparing to unleash the wrath of the gods, ample rain pouring down, wind howling against the closed windowpanes. In the twilight huddled against another sleeping form, loyal and caring. Taking in her breathing, resting his arm on her fragile waist, making out her closed eyes in the dark. The sense of belonging, not only to someone, anyone, but to the person who spoke her love, acted her love, lived her love for him.

Turning around, pummeling into his flat pillow, he recalled moments of abandon and moments of pain they had shared. In the daytime, when he was working, the noise of people scurrying by and a hecticly mechanical existence (the fusion of mankind with technology) drowned out the memories of her, but at night, with no angry sea to fill his senses, he heard and saw only Mary. The person who saw his past and future, and the woman he had fallen in love with. Swallowing his tears, he wished he could fall asleep and make at least one night go by, and maybe make the next day easier to take.

It is a fact that in love, there is no sense of time or distance, not even in death. Joshua lay awake in his bed, tormented by the ghosts of his screaming conscience, thinking of Mary despite the pain he felt stronger each day. He knew she was gone and there was nothing he could do to change that, but he was helpless against his sorrow. Who to tell? There was no one he could confide in: his only real confidante was floating away, carried by the waves of oblivion, further and further from him, the one stranded on the shore. She was fading away but the guilt he felt was stronger with each day passing. First Susan, now Mary… Perhaps she had been right, after all. Women who loved him loved him too much. Perhaps his existence should have always been a solitary one, that of a leader, and not that of a companion. The idea was cruel and gruesome but as he lay in the half dark, he found it terribly and frighteningly true.

It was early December and the preparations for his next album were taking most of his time and energy. He was to perform at shows hints of what he was to release early the following year. Furthermore, the talks about his album and a possible tour following it were in progress, but for him, these were only powers that pulled him back into an old routine. He was not keen on starting all over again something that he had done his best to run away from in the first place. He was a little bird who flew from the raging of a storm into a sheltered cranny, buried deep inside a vast cliff that seemed everlasting, but now the strong cliff that was his haven had crumbled to pieces and he lay shivering among the cold splinters of stone. It was impossible to place the splinters back together to form the original cliff, but it was also impossible to fly back into the angry howling winds of the storm.

He wanted to rebel against it all, but there was nowhere to run. Neither to his old life that was encircling him and cutting all his exits, nor to the place that without Mary had lost all its significance and warmth.

Sitting on the edge of his bed with a heavy heart, he longed to talk to someone but it was too late. For many things, and as he walked to the bottle that he had pushed to and fro on his living room table, not wanting to open it, he found unexpected solace in the sharp, stinging sensation that the liquid caused as it trickled down his throat. It felt familiar, reassuringly so: in the flash of a moment he was back in his home by the sea, now empty and probably weed-grown, but then, it had been safe, it had been cosy, welcoming. The fireplace and the fire in it, with the sea outside his window, far yet close enough for him to hear it. Wine to smother his fears. How warm he felt after each glass. There was no glass now, but he didn’t need one. Neither did he need too many mouthfuls of alcohol to make him drowsy enough; he walked back to his bed, the liquid not yet upturning his balance, and threw himself onto the softness of layers, then buried himself underneath all that warmth.

Work was going to be good. Recording an album, a dream of his for so long. The new songs that had roamed his mind ever since he met her. Perhaps a little too melancholy, but his audiences have always preferred the dreamy, sentimental fool in him, and he always indulged in their preference. The safety of a life he at least knew, and knew well, was starting to rise above the ghosts of his past, and together with the numbing sensation in his limbs from the quickly consumed alcohol, he was very close to seeing the world in a better light.

Squinting at his alarm, he marvelled at how fast time actually flew. He was to get up in a few hours, but he was still hovering between sleepiness and a scary alertness that exposed him to all the things he tried in vain to shun. One moment he thought he was going to be alright, the next one he swallowed his instinctive fear and the loneliness that loomed around the corner. Perhaps… perhaps it was going to be fine. He was positive he could make it all work again. He had it within him, the power to lead, the discipline and the respect towards his profession. He could make it all work. But he couldn’t bring back the dead.

And the dead would not let him be. For now, there were only two of them, one who wanted to cause him pain, and one who wanted to spare herself pain. In his moments of doubt he was unable to blame Susan, either.

Snoring into his pillow, then waking up with a jerk, he mumbled in his half sleep, thinking he saw a face from the past lingering by his bedside. A young face without a smile and with eyes that showed no feeling. She stood there watching him doggedly, a mute reminder of his old mistakes. It was not a dream and not a vision, but something he couldn’t explain, definitely unreal and beyond his control- but even so, behind the subconscious fear that kept gripping his heart, he wished it had been Mary he could see. He knew, without the slightest doubt, that she would never blame him for anything. He knew her love would conquer jealousy and hate, and she would be smiling at him even beyond her grave. How he wished to see her again, and get lost in her love again!

But despite his wish, she never came to see him. Only Susan did, the uninvited one, the one who never ceased to stare at him in a feelingless and resentful way. He turned in his sleep to avoid her unfeeling eyes but she stared through his bones and through his flesh, right into his heart, with a glare that burnt and destroyed the remnants of tenderness he could have felt for her memory.

When he woke up, he remembered her, like on so many previous occasions since he had returned to the States. Rubbing his eyes, he faced the floor and his curled in toes that felt cold. His feet felt cold. But he had to get up and go to work. His mouth tasted foul and acid and he blinked at the consumed quantity of alcohol which the significantly emptied bottle revealed. He thought it was only a few sips.

Never mind, never mind, he muttered to himself, saying things incoherently to keep himself focused and on the move. He spent a good half hour under the shower and brushed his teeth three times to chase the smell of booze out of his mouth. Drinking two cups of coffee made him scarily alert, but his limbs were still in denial, and realizing he could not drive, he called a cab.

~~~

-Good morning –he heard as he stepped out of the elevator on the fifth floor of Capital Tower. The voice was strident and he hissed inwardly. It was going to be a very long day.

-Good morning –he replied after a moment’s hesitation, looking at the blurry face that seemed to smile at him. –Has Mr Ferguson arrived yet?

-No sir, he called that he was being held up by traffic. Please take a seat in the lounge and I will notify you when he arrives –the proficient voice chirped in his ear and he nodded, taking unstable steps towards the luxurious leather sofa. –Sir, would you like some coffee?

He turned to the source of the voice, slightly indignant.

-Is this a bar? No. Thanks.

-Okay, sir –she said, subdued and humbled, and he instantly felt his stomach turn at his own behaviour.

-Thank you –he made sure to add and to stress the words. As if they could help his hangover and the fact that he was being a total dick with a nicely polite member of staff.

He avoided her obviously curious glance and made to walk towards the sofa but he almost stumbled in his own feet. Literally falling onto the squeaky leather, he heard a soft and prolongued sigh as his weight pressed into the sofa and it received him reluctantly. His boggled mind circled around the issues he was supposed to discuss with Mr Ferguson later on, but he simply couldn’t put his finger on any of them. Why was he there in the first place?!

It was going to be a long day, and possibly, a very, very long year, he thought gloomily, moistening his lips and wondering why his throat felt so dry.

Maybe a drink before that bigshot arrived would help.

47.

-Mr Morgan… Mr Morgan, Mr Ferguson is expecting you.

Joshua opened his eyes and blinked a couple of times in a state of complete oblivion. Where was he, what was he doing… asleep on a leather couch… with a woman in a mini and high heels standing in front of him, shaking his shoulder. Strong perfume, nasueatingly sweet, similar to her smile, nauseatingly sleek.

-Mr Ferguson has arrived, sir –she repeated, her smile turning exasperated.

He looked at her and decided to not resent her artificiality. She was only doing her job, carrying out orders.

-Yes. Thank you –he said, sitting up straight, combing his hair back, feeling uncertain about everything.

-Here’s a glass of water, sir –she timidly suggested, her hand slowly presenting crystal-clear water. He took it gratefully, gulping it down together with the stale taste of bitterness and dejection.

-You are very kind –was his way of thank you, and stood up to walk to the door that in itself would have been enough to save two hundred starving people, or more.

-Ah, Mr Morgan. Good morning –a sprightly-looking man, despite his age and stumpiness, extended the words towards him, together with his hand. It felt moist and repulsive, the hand of luxury, of comfort, of power. –It is very nice to meet you, our most precious, and shall I be frank, expensive prodigy.

And he laughed. Joshua nodded and mumbled the formalities, feeling less and less inclined to go through with the ridiculous talks. Why did he have to appear in person?

-I can read your first question in your eyes –the man said, sitting down at the oblong table, propping his elbows on the shiny, expensive surface. –It was my personal request to meet you face to face and present you with our offer… after all, a career like yours, broken in two, and then a glamorous return… is not an everyday story, not even in our field.

-I’m very flattered –came the words, automatically, to Joshua’s lips. Flattered he was not, but the survivor in him was pushing him forward.

-We believe you will be extremely pleased with what we can offer –the dumpling said, presenting a fat file, tossing it towards Joshua. The folder skated on the shiny flatness and was stopped by Joshua’s hand. –Apart from what your manager, Mr Gordon has probably told you, we wish to extend our generosity to a further increase in the…

-Do I need to do more dates than we agreed on? –Joshua cut him off, which was not customary of him. Surprised, he looked into the pair of eyes that became thinner and more malignant.

-What are a few more dates when we’re talking… a few hundred thousand, Mr Morgan? Or even, half a million.

Joshua felt bile in his throat. His stomach was empty save the glass of water so kindly offered, and the remnants of drinks and fear he so eagerly consumed the day before. He saw a wall of responsibility he could never conquer: it rose and rose, higher and higher, and he knew that if he was to open the door that led inside, the wall would start encircling him, closing in on him, reducing him to an automaton. There was no joy lying ahead, no satisfaction derived from performing. How could that ever happen while they were talking numbers? How was he ever able to… to conform, and be happy?

-Mr Morgan…? Without a doubt, you will not receive an offer more generous than ours, Mr Morgan.

-I can’t discuss this right now, Mr Ferguson –Joshua replied, pushing the thick file back to its owner. The instant he did that, he felt relief spread throughout his body.

-If you would reconsider taking a tiny peek at the figures, Joshua… you would see what I meant by expensive.

Joshua raised his head. They had no right to call him Joshua… only his mother was allowed to call him that… and her.

-The world has almost forgotten you, Joshua. To bring you back into the consciousness of the public equals bringing Lazarus back from the dead. Do you have any idea what pains you put us through when you decided to erase yourself off the face of the earth? We knew it was only a matter of time before you returned, therefore we invested time and money to keep your public persona from drowning.

-Glad to be that predictable –Joshua said quietly, wishing he could rise to his feet and walk away. He felt very different from the person he used to be only a few hours before.

-Believe me, when you’ve seen the rise and fall of legends, you obtain a knowledge that could save many artists such as yourself a whole lot of pain and struggle. I’m not implying that you’re one of many, but trust me when I say that I know how difficult a singer’s life can be.

Joshua was torn between the false paternal feelings he was being covered in from head to toe and a feeling of anger he couldn’t shake off. He knew it was not all bad… but all he wanted was to be left alone.

-Thank you, Mr Ferguson –he said firmly, standing up. –I will consider your previous offer and my manager will no doubt inform me about the updated contract.

-There is not much time, Mr Morgan… if you don’t strike the iron now, it will get cold before your feet touch the elevator floor.

-Goodbye Mr Ferguson –Joshua said before closing the door behind him.

The ocean… to see the waves. To smell the salt. His lungs heaved and panted and he felt suffocated by the stuffy, artificial smell of the industrial building where everything spoke about money and power. He almost heard the inward sigh of the mini-skirt as the person sitting in it turned after him to say goodbye. She was probably a simple soul, unfamiliar with the complexities of strategy and politics. He felt a strange desire to talk to her again, to see if her eyes retained that kindness, or if her act was part of a larger scheme, one designed to incorporate him into a world he did not feel ready for yet.

He looked up and met two eyes that were uncorrupted, and following him faithfully, perhaps a little pityingly- but even pity was better than patronizing arrogance, the effects of which he started to feel in his stomach.

-Please sit down for a few minutes, sir… I can make you a cup of coffee if you’d like one –she said, her painted lips round and eager to help.

A cup of coffee… such small gesture in a jungle of viciousness, and yet, his instincts told him to stop and consider. The sea was beckoning from afar, but the pull of a pair of gentle eyes was stronger.

-I will gladly accept that –he replied, and the way she bounced to her feet to swiftly walk into another room made his hands sweat. He stood at the counter, his eyes scanning the objects she was befriended with, wondering why she was so kind to him.

She returned before he could arrive to any conclusion and handed him a tiny cup of coffee, European style. The strong smell rose to his nostrils, a firm slap to his senses. He was uncertain, and he stood there clumsily, taking a sip from the liquid.

Did she await any gratitude? She probably wasn’t, but he felt like giving her some, anyway.

-This is exactly what I would have needed before going into that room –he told her, placing the saucer and cup down on the counter. Then, seeing her apologetic face, he added. –You did offer. It’s all my fault. I think I managed to screw up the contract of the century…

She bit her lip and laid her pen down.

-I’m sure Mr Ferguson will be happy to see you again and discuss the conditions –she said knowingly, giving him a smile.

He took it and stored it deep inside. Perhaps he could take it out later on.

-Thank you for your kindness, miss…

-Angela. Very pleased to meet you, Mr Morgan.

Her smile was gradually lighting up her whole face, and he found himself leaning on the counter, looking for a pretext to stay longer.

-Listen… Angela –he cleared his throat. So unprofessionally. –Would you like to have a drink with me later?

-That would be wonderful –she smiled, then blushed, then smiled again.

-I… I’ve been away for months… do you know any good restaurants in the centre?

-Yes. Meet me at six outside the building and we’ll walk –she replied, so knowingly. He almost felt overwhelmed.

-At six then –he said, giving her an uncertain smile that was lost in her flashy one.

-Yes. Bye, Mr Morgan.

-Joshua –he told her without thinking.

-Bye Joshua –she smiled, and he left.

His head cleared by the strong coffee, he called a cab, thinking of missed opportunities and unexpected chances. How easy it all seemed: something lost always meant something gained, and as he walked on the pebbles and sand towards the frothy ocean, he wondered if he was going to gain anything. Angela. A pretty face, a pair of gentle eyes, a cup of coffee. Even if she was nothing more, she was enough for his lonely soul.

Seagulls flew above his head, quick and soundless except their shrieks. He watched the people taking a stroll on the quiet beach, getting away from the turmoil of the city. The seaside in winter was too cold to be densely populated, but it was far from the distant, solitary beach he had grown to love and depend on. Here, wherever he turned, his vision bumped into someone else’s. Open-hearted people ready to confess and make friends with anyone coming their way. He was not sure he wanted to surround himself with strangers, but it was certainly better than drinking himself to unconsciousness, an alternative that felt frighteningly attractive.

He listened to the waves chase each other on the shallow sands, walking alongside the water, turning his face to follow her every move. She was larger, stronger than his old friend, but she sounded just as forgiving. The waters came and went, generously whispering unheard of truths into his ears, inviting him to stay longer and bathe in the sounds of waves. It was, in the end, fulfilling; but the feeling of anxiety kept lurking behind his every breath.

Standing in the dim light of an early afternoon, he thought about Angela, her round lips and eager smile. Maybe she would help him forget his demons for a while… he knew they would return, but a brief time of peace was all he needed.

A little time only.

48.

-I’m telling you, Mary, these are exceptional paintings –he was saying, and she blinked from across her champagne to the man with grey hair and a painfully distinguished look. She had always felt intimidated by the men of his type and stature, and now, sitting at a secluded table of an elegant restaurant, discussing details of a possible exhibition, she was positively flabbergasted.

-Thank you, Andrew –she forced herself to say, and use his first name. After all. –I… This is all new to me… not too much praise has been bestowed upon my work so far… To be sure, I never kept fame in mind.

-I know. You only painted to fulfill your heart’s desire –he nodded understandingly, leaning back in his chair.

He kept his left hand on the table, beside his glass, and Mary couldn’t help her eyes focusing on the fingers aligned with precision, wearing no ring, with nails trimmed meticulously, and skin surprisingly soft and young.

-Yes. I painted because it was… or, felt at that time, a joy, because through painting, I discovered myself… however dumb that sounds.

-It sounds enviable –he replied, shifting comfortably in his seat. –The whole world is looking for themselves, and most people die without finding out who they really were. No wonder there are so many broken marriages… how could our spouse know who they married, if we have no idea about ourselves?

-Is that why you left your wife? –Mary popped the question that froze her own blood. It was too late to apologize, though, unless she wanted to look uncertainty personified.

-You British are extremely direct –he smiled, not at all taken aback. –Our second dinner and you already want to know about my most cherished secrets.

-Why not? We’re both responsible adults…

With not much time left, she added to herself. Why act reserved and shy? She had no reason to believe life had any more glamorous surprises in store for her. Unless she considered Mr Burrows’ long, distinguished fingers and brown eyes that had a warm glow to them whenever he smiled.

-You’re just like your art, Mary. Exceptional –was his reply as he leaned forward. Thankfully, their glasses and a bucket containing ice and champagne was in the way.

She felt a little lost in his glance, turning a blind eye to the fact that she had only known him for a few days. He had arrived to her son’s flat precisely on time, and had looked through her paintings with the expertise of a well-established art dealer. The knowledge of their very brief past puzzled her, her silent confidence notwithstanding. She knew her work was good. It was good for her, therefore it was good. To hear it from an unbiased stranger, though, upset the delicate network of truths and certainties she had previously entangled herself into. She used to think the paintings, faithful depictions of her inner battles and blissful moments were merely good for her tired, obsolete soul: and now, a stately stranger came to concur.

The smile she gave him felt alienated from what she thought herself to be, but as it spread on her face, she heard the soft murmur of her beloved sea in her ears, beckoning from afar. She hadn’t heard the sea since her arrival to Los Angeles; the ocean was large and monstrous and frighteningly happy. It was not her, it was not a friend she could rely on, share secrets with. But now, on a tete a tete with Andrew, a divorced art dealer who apparently found something attractive in both her paintings and herself, the sea returned to her memories and whispered long forgotten beauties to her grateful heart.

-Before I forget, the reason why I disappeared a few minutes ago. I received a phonecall from Romain Devigny, the director of the gallery, who said he would be delighted to put your work up for a temporary exhibition –he added, obviously pleased with the news, and her surprised face.

-Oh –was all she could say. An exhibition. A whole exhibition, only of her paintings. It was shockingly much. –I… I don’t know what to… think, let alone say –she mumbled and burst out laughing.

-It will be an honour and a privilege to host your amazing talent in our gallery –Andrew replied, his elbows on the table, his hands clasped.

-This is all terribly flattering, Andrew. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking it upon yourself to recommend my paintings… not to mention seeing to the arrengements. You make the life of an old woman seem purposeful… thank you.

-Nonsense… you and I both know that age has nothing to do with how we feel… and judging from the sparkle in your eyes, I would bet a thousand dollars that you’re feeling eighteen right now.

She smiled involuntarily. Eighteen! The last time she felt younger was…

She knew exactly when that was, but to dwell on those memories was still excruciating. So she kept a smile on her face and her hands glued to her glass, waiting for Andrew’s help.

-I’d really like to know all about you, Mary –he uttered, slightly bashful, which made his warm glance and not so brave smile endearing.

A man wanted to know all about her. A man of her age, moving in her field of interest, someone who seemed to have a relaxed attitude about his age, and hers. There was no sense of ridicule about two middle-aged people spending time together. No one could say it was an out of the ordinary occurance, and the fact that in her eyes, despite his self-assurance, he didn’t feel out of her league was invigorating.

-There’s not much to tell… I suspect your vision is terribly blinded by your professional opinion of my paintings… I’m really no one special –she smiled, feeling daringly the opposite.

-Let me be the judge of that –he smiled back at her. –I have not spent hours in the presence of such nice company for a very long time, and for that alone, I’m immensely grateful.

-Same here –she blurted out and felt more embarrassed at his abrupt smile than if she had started effusively thanking him.

-Oh, I have a deep feeling in my guts that this will be a flourishing relationship –he stated directly, leaning forward and catching her right hand before she could have fully retreated. –I’m not scared to say what’s on my mind, Mary. Why should I? I’ve lost a wife, a marriage that started out as nothing short of perfect, a son… killed in an accident. Friends who turned out to be enemies… And here I am at age sixty-two, when most people prefer to bury themselves alive. I could have done the same, you know…

-What stopped you? –she asked, barely able to breathe. His unasked for confession shook her very core, not only because he chose to show his vulnerability, but also because in his candid words she discovered a person hiding behind appearances, like herself, whose bravery was everything she would have wanted to achieve: to be able to walk through the crowd, unscathed by the unkindness of strangers.

-Nothing I could explain, really… one day I just stopped being scared.

-I envy you –she whispered, enjoying the feel of his warm fingers on her hand. His touch was nothing too personal, or pushy, but a mere acknowledgement and appreciation of her presence. Something that didn’t force her to give herself to him, but didn’t create an impression that she was redundant, either. He was touching her the right way. –I’ve lost things and people, too… but the greatest loss I’ve had to suffer was that of myself… I lost myself, I don’t know when, or why, but I did… and painting seemed to be the only way out.

-Art is a blessing to the one who gives it, and the one who receives it, too –he stroked her hand gently, and before she could have felt intimidated by his tenderness, he let go of her, leaning back in his chair slowly. As if to give her time and space to rediscover herself.

-Oh, art… if I can call what I do art… is a very painful process… I’m compelled to paint, otherwise I’d lose my sanity… but if I could, I would give it all up. I would –she replied, honestly believing what she said.

-Don’t say that, Mary… don’t think you mean it –Andrew told her slowly. –How could you give beauty up? You’re a mirror to all the beauty we, bystanders either see, or we don’t. You’re here to cast a light on all that for us seems average and pale, even if there is a price you, the artist, have to pay.

She remained silent, contemplating his words. He was, of course, right. There was no way she could give any of it up: she would probably paint until her last day. But the price… if only she could redeem it with something else, the loss of which would not make her so completely miserable.

Because despite her common sense, she believed, stronger every day, that losing Joshua was a result of her sick entanglement with her artistic self.

Meeting him was the result of the artist gazing upon a piece of beauty, and the artist’s eternal wish to project it into her art. That destructive wish to own, if only on canvas, or words, or musical notes, or a piece of stone; to own and possess, and object to its natural course, that of vanishing into oblivion. She wanted to own him in a way artists do… and then, the woman in her forced her way between the two of them.

Mary drank from her glass only to discover it was empty. She placed it down with embarrassment, watching Andrew grab the bottle of champagne and pour her some.

-At the risk of sounding gushy and ridiculously enthused for my age, I’ll say that I think I’ve come across an exquisite treasure when I agreed to take a look at your work –he said. In a way that made her skin tingle with involuntary excitement.

-You’re way too kind, Andrew Burrows –she mouthed her lame reply, sitting in the wonderful stupour induced by champagne and unexpected compliments on her work and on herself.

-No, I’m only appreciating a good thing in my life when I stumble upon it –he smiled confidently, his teeth that may or may not have been false, discreetly showing under his distinguished lips. That she thought of touching with hers.

Shame crept to her cheeks, but his confident presence soon overpowered her deep-ingrained shyness, and the thoughts that would never have grazed upon love for a man again, slowly crawled into her consciousness and brought her face to face with something ostensibly forgotten: desire.

Desire to be held, desire to be looked at, desire to be appreciated.

To give the little she had within herself.

49.

It was late, past eleven when they drove up to Joseph and Elaine’s house. They had been talking for what seemed like forever, and especially after a moment of indecision where she contemplated giving herself up once more and perhaps losing her dignity again, she was faced with the wonderful possibility of not being alone.

Andrew was sitting beside her in silence, buried in his own thoughts, in no haste to say or do things, apparently. He seemed so relaxed about the situation that she was perplexed. A middle-aged person who didn’t care about his age or the fact that life was slowly passing him by. Not to mention that he threw her off-guard with his candid compliments.

-I had a lovely time –he said slowly, almost neutrally, staring into the void and the cold evening outside.

-I had a lovely time, too –she replied. It was only fair. Despite his audible breathing and a slightly nauseating cologne, he was a nice man.

-If I told you that I really want to take you out tomorrow, would you be shocked? –he asked, glancing at her sideways.

She opened her mouth to say yes, she was, but only managed a giggle.

-Say yes –he pleaded. –I feel very youthful, especially with you near me, but I’m fully aware that time doesn’t stop for us. I feel like I had wasted a lot of time before knowing you, and I only got one chance to take advantage of… of you. Of us.

Mary looked at him to see if his eyes meant what he said, too. They did. The grey hair and wrinkled skin were beautified by the sincerity of his eyes. He was turned sideways, one hand on the wheel, the other on the back of her seat. It was a gesture that required a lot of trust on her part, but what would have seemed difficult in the summer, she found scandalously easy now. His talking of them as of a couple didn’t shock her, either.

-You’re a strange man –she smiled, enjoying the fact that his eyes followed suit. –I feel very tempted…

-I believe that all ages can be beautiful, and if you let me, I will prove it to you –he said simply, stroking the tips of her hair with a tentative finger.

She gasped inwardly when he stroked her hair with one slow movement of his hand. He was going too far, and definitely too fast. But could she blame him? Time would indeed not stop for either of them… Perhaps he, like her, wanted a little more togetherness, a little more tenderness.

-I haven’t told you this yet, but… I’ve hardly got over a… a relationship. Of some sorts –she added, puzzled and ashamed. She was at a loss as to what Joshua had been for her… and what she had been for him. Then, diminishing all the wonder of that quaint, earth-shattering love to something as mundane as a relationship, she was filled with shame.

-I’m sorry –he replied, withdrawing his hand.

-I guess I’ll live –she smiled ruefully, thinking of that night on the seaside when she almost stepped over the edge. She still had no idea what pulled her back. –It’s just that… trusting someone is very difficult.

-I know –he nodded, gazing into the dark night. –After my wife left, I was a wreck for a long time.

-Mm –she agreed, looking at his profile. She noticed he had hair in his ears and a grey stubble was pushing through his skin. Strangely enough, neither repulsed her.

-Her loss –he shrugged, turning back to her and adding his smile that Mary found more and more endearing. –And his, whatever he left you for.

-No, it wasn’t like that, I… well, he… we both left each other, I guess –she admitted. –I never really managed to find out what exactly happened… I was scared, I chased him away, but I gave him a last chance and he never took it…

-The definition of idiot –Andrew smirked and she smiled gratefully.

-No… he was out of my league, really…

Then, seeing his amused face, she hastily added.

-I mean… no, I didn’t mean to say that you…

He gave a generous laugh and smacked his thigh with glee.

-I just love to tease mature women –he laughed on, pointing at her shocked expression and making her laugh, too. –Oh, you ladies think you can deal with us… but everyone has their weak points, and I’m sorry to say, I can spot them very early on. In any case, I sympathize with you, as I certainly feel way out of your league. So there.

She laughed and covered her face. Oh. What was he doing? Flirting wit her. Openly, scandalously, with no restraints. It was exhilarating and frightening, to say the least.

-Pray, what are my weak points? –she asked light-headedly.

-Are you sure you want to hear this? –he asked back. His lips were in a smile but his eyes were gentle, like he really cared. He made her feel so warm…

-Yes –she said without hesitation.

-Well, I don’t think you’re aware of your own virtues, to begin with –he replied. –Don’t get me wrong, but at your age, a person should be in full posession of themselves… but you’re not. Let me tell you, you’re amazing.

His voice carried his words gracefully and their meaning flooded her with emotions she was struggling to cope with.

-I think you should trust more… not everyone will hurt you, you know –he added gently. His hand jerked, probably to touch hers which was in her lap. He stopped mid-way.

-I know –she whispered, feeling terribly exposed. –But I’m old and I know what people think of the likes of me… I heard them, I saw them. Society has rules and I’m too weak to break them… I tried, but I failed.

-A person like you is above all rules, Mary –he replied. And grabbed her hand, finally. –You are meant to fly and amaze us. You shouldn’t care what others think of you.

-I also failed as an artist, I guess… –she went on, not pushing his hand away. –I thought I was strong and self-dependant in my art, but… without inspiration, there’s no art… and inspiration only comes when… I took advantage of my inspiration, Andrew –she faced him, feeling tears gather in her eyes. –I got a wonderful gift, and I abused it… because I wanted more.

His thumb stroked her palm and his eyes were searching hers.

-I should have separated art from reality… I destroyed everything –she was hardly able to speak. As she said the words, it all became so clear… so painfully clear.

-No –he shook his head. –Art is your reality, Mary… you cannot separate the two. Can’t you see?

She felt his hand on her cheek, wiping a few tears off. He was so understanding she wanted to melt into his generous soul.

-It was him… the one in your paintings –he said slowly, still stroking her face.

She covered her mouth in shame. He knew. He must despise her now. It was okay. She despised herself, too.

-He’s a beautiful, intriguing man –Andrew said the words that made her heart jump. –Don’t you think I understand? Artists fall in love with their muse, it’s the way God created them. Artists have to own the subject of their art in every way possible. But for that love, you wouldn’t have been able to see through him, and the world would be without your fascinating pictures.

Mary swallowed her tears in silent amazement. She had never known anyone as open-minded as Andrew… was it the time of miracles, after all? He seemed to have an answer to all her doubts. He didn’t condemn her.

-You should go in, it’s really late –he added quietly, giving her a smile that warmed her heart.

-Thank you –she said, squeezing his hand.

-You’re most welcome –he replied, stepping out of the car and briskly going around it to open the door for Mary.

A gentleman, a soulful person, a wise friend- how did it all happen so suddenly? She smiled at him as he walked beside her, wondering about him, about them, about the future. Was there a future? There was a present, surely.

-Goodnight, Mary –he said, taking her hand when they reached the front steps. He placed a slow kiss on the back of her hand, making her shamelessly weak. –I’ll call tomorrow.

-Yes –she smiled, wishing for more than a kiss on the hand. –Goodnight.

With a smile, he went. Short, stocky, but gracious and one of the gentlest people she had ever met.

She entered her son’s house in silence, contemplating her day. Her prospects. A friend, out of nowhere. The miracle of finding a kindred spirit… it hit her so suddenly. It was frightening. What was she supposed to think about it all?

And the way he looked at her… She knew they would become more than friends.

And Joshua would become history.

She lay on her bed, sleepless, excited, scared. She could not forget Joshua… she didn’t want to forget him.

But maybe it was time.

50.

He wanted to ask her many things but her replies lay in her fingers, her lips, her eyes that shone in the darkness of his living-room like burning embers. The wine and truffels shook in his stomach and made him dizzy enough to need her supple body for support. She sustained him and in the meantime, kissed his chest through the material of his shirt.

There was no speaking between them as she slowly, gently pushed him on the bed and performed the magic rituals needed for the mundane connection of two human bodies. He let her do whatever she felt like; his brain was falling in and out of consciousness, and a warm uncertainty covered his every part. He was connecting with another person, a very attractive young woman. It was liberating and reassuring: he wasn’t such a lost case, after all.

Their encounter was brief, or he fell asleep, he wasn’t sure which; but when he woke up in the night, he was all alone again. Empty sheets retained only the ghost of her warmth, and her broken confession on a crumpled paper note on her pillow: Need to go to work early. Thank you for everything, you’re really special. Here’s my number, please, please call me. A.

Staggering to the bathroom, he relieved himself of the booze and the luxurious food he had consumed in the elegant restaurant she had taken them to. The splashed cold water landed in minute ice-drops on his skin, but only washed away part of the bitternes from his mouth. He drank, gulping the water down thirstily, again and again, until he felt he could drink no more. Straightening up, he saw a stranger in the mirror with bags under his eyes and a trickle of translucent liquid on his chin. He wiped it off, switching the lights and he walked back to his bed.

He had needed just what he received: a neutral conversation, spiced with innuendoes and covert glances, anticipation of exciting things to come, and awaiting the development of a bond tighter than that of passing acquaintances. The interaction with someone who looked up to him despite the fact that he had messed up the greatest deal of the century. She, of course, practical like most women nowadays, had suggested a second chance that he, Joshua Morgan would surely receive at the slightest flick of his fingers. He was to go back, and say he changed his mind. He was ready to give more live shows in exchange of a larger sum of money, money that he did not need, he wanted to interject, but she had put her shapely finger, undoubtedly capable of miraculous things, on his lips. Oh.

And her stockinged foot under the table. Shamelessly sliding up his calves.

He didn’t mind being influenced. All he needed was to be directed and shaped by someone; he was tired of making decisions that later on would turn out to be disastrous. Or fatal. No. He was done deciding about his own fate: let fate decide for him. Perhaps then, he would be able to start sleeping with a clear conscience, and not one that bled from a hundred wounds. The blood of people he had killed, and would kill for certain, if he didn’t change things in his life.

That decision, the last one he was ready to make, the decision to stop making decisions, floated around him with its invisible irony: he didn’t perceive the fact that every tiny little aspect of a human life, every event is a decision made. To cry or stay brave when our childhood knees meet the cold pavement while playing; to smile or turn hateful when our chosen sweethearts turn to give a kiss to someone else; to be resigned or keep fighting when an exam turns out to be a bigger obstacle than we had expected; to be happy or to feel locked in forever, at the altar, saying yes, I do. To fall into jealousy or be generous and understand if our spouse trespasses into forbidden territory. To mourn the loss of someone, or accept it as the inevitable deed of powers higher than we are.

He couldn’t see, because his eyes were blinded by fear and resignation, that he had made a decision that would shape his life like none other.

But the night was only concerned with things that happened in the night, and woke him up a short time later. He was sweating beads of shock and pain. He had seen Susie, again, the impassable Susie, face of a stone angel, eyes filled with ethereal blame, all the while staring at him. Nothing said, nothing suggested, nothing shown but her face, her mutely accusing face. Was he to draw the consequences? If he was, there would be no more love in his life. Then, Mary, weeping at his grave. His grave. His name inscipted into marble, two pudgy, plump baby-angels playing on the stone.

He woke up sweating, or crying. A drop of it had reached the corner of his mouth, and the taste was similar, after all. He felt spent and exhausted, empty. He only wanted to sleep, get some rest, and wake up fresh to a new day, void of decisions. He would act upon Angela’s suggestion and go back to Mr Ferguson. But for that, he had to sleep.

Closing his eyes and instinctively opening them in synch with his heart sending gallons of blood throughout his body, he scanned the darkness for something to stare at, anything to draw his attention and preoccupy him. His thoughts to send him into drowsiness, finally.

The last time her presence had permeated his was in that shop, surrounded by strangers and their unkindness. Their mocking. And he had done nothing to alleviate her shameful pain. He had let her down. He had chosen to keep a distance and let her fight her demons, and her demons had defeated her, eventually. Just like they had defeated Susan. He had never told her she could count on him… he had never told either of them. Never showed them, either.

With the clairvoyance of a graced artist he lived through the agony of two human beings left alone, who loved him so much that they decided to live no longer without him. How could he have not learnt his lesson after Susie died? How could he have fallen into the same trap fate had set him? He was weak, twice: he had craved companionshop, against his forebodings, against his better knowledge. He had thought he could love anyone freely. He had considered himself powerful: a god to revert the winds of society and conventions, a generous hero to give back the life of an old lady on the brink of self-oblivion. Could he have been as arrogant as to think he could stop change, and gossip, and life from evolving? He should never have set foot in her home, he should never have agreed to pose for her painting. Her attention flattered him… it had felt so wonderful. So against the odds, so special. To defy the trodden path and choose an invisible track where no one had walked before… it gives one a sense of privilege, of being chosen. It is also meant for those strong enough to face the demons attacking from all sides… but they were not strong enough.

He drifted in and out of sleep, breathing in blame, breathing out relief, trying hard to focus on the present. All he wanted was to stop his thoughts from coming, but he couldn’t. Two of them were dead… what kept him alive? What was keeping him alive, still, despite the death, the pain, the blame? Was he too weak to acknowledge his responsibility he had ignored… or strong enough to face the consequences, despite everything?

Before he was transported into the land of no dreams, he knew he would act upon someone else’s decision for him the next day, and the knowledge made him infinitely happy. If anything went wrong, it would not be his fault. Not his fault. Perhaps then, self-blame would disappear and let him be.

~~~

Morning came late, slothful, shrunk to a feeble procession of things to do because they had to be done. Automatically. He vaguely remembered his terrifying thoughts of the night before, but a good shower and a cup of strong coffee cleared his head. Dressing up, he looked at himself in the mirror: the face of a resolute businessman stared at him, clearly smiling and fresh enough to face a new day.

Calling Mr Ferguson’s office. Talking to a guiding angel who decided to temporarily inhabit his life: absolutely fine by him. Agreeing to everything Mr Ferguson and Capitol would offer. Then, taking Angela out for a drink. Maybe more, later.

His schedule seemed surprisingly bright. He performed his morning routine in the firm belief that he had chosen wisely in all respects. He must let go of his ghosts and get on with his life. Defying the shallowness, the demands, the fame, the money, the solitude. What was loneliness when there was always a warm human body to turn to? If she left, there would always be another Angela around the corner, willing to satisfy his primordial needs and mould his fate in a reassuring way. He was rich, he was young, he was handsome and talented.

He would never be alone.

He even whistled at the realization of the suddenly happy prospects. As he was stepping out the door, he remembered he had left a cup in the sink, and had the crazy urge to place it on the dryer. Whistling, he turned back and stepped to the sink, reaching for the still wet and slippery cup.

He stared in shock and a definite sense of having been there before at the broken cup on the floor, dozens of pieces scattered. Why? He stooped to collect them and throw them in the bin, but his first contact with the broken cup resulted in a bleeding wound on his palm. Cursing, he decided to let it all be, and pressing a piece of kitchen paper on the wound, he exited his flat.

(To be continued)

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