By Neil Grimmett
These were her friends. Until now, just about all those coming into our space - no matter how briefly - were connected in some way with my previous life. So this would be a first - her show. Tammy, my wife, was so nervous about the whole thing she’d been up and down all day. It even felt at one stage as if she was deliberately trying to bait a row that would prevent us from making the visit.
"You think everyone is so dumb and ordinary," she snapped, when I’d asked again - with genuine interest - what exactly it was that her friend's husband did for a living. "This is your big trouble: if it's not one of your arty-farty pretentious friends, you don't want to hear about it; or if you do, it’s only so you can sound smug and condescending. I’ve known Kate since I was a little girl. My best friend for eternity - so whoever she's decided to marry is fine by me. So is that enough for you?"
I let it go. She’d claimed to love my musician and artist friends when we were first dating. They were all so interesting - she was always saying it, before adding: "I only hope they like me as much as I want to like them."
She knew right from our start that they did not. I knew it too, and had heard it voiced in variations on the same theme from those closest to me: ‘She only got pregnant to trap you.’ ‘Think of your career.’ ‘The band.’ ‘She’s so plain’ ‘Such a straight.’ None of their opinions mattered a damn and I’d just about stopped seeing any of them by this period, so they would not even get the satisfaction or disappointment of seeing if their easy assessments turned out right or wrong. Who did we need when we had each other? That was how it felt to me: like everyone and everything before us did not count. We could shape a new world around us without the need to look back or listen to any negative echoes filtering through the life, not wall, we were building. I believed that then and I still feel, for a brief time, so did Tammy.
I sat in our little flat listening to her in the bedroom trying on one more outfit for the evening. I’d switched on the television and was trying to feel - and learn a fundamental lesson from - the pain of the simple misunderstandings that were destroying the lives of this latest group of fresh-faced boys and girls. While just the thinnest, artificial wall away, the actual truth of the matter was being shown - clear and exactly what any right-minded person expected it to be. That sweet boy would never have been cheating so openly and cruelly on his young and trusting partner. But of course, she is the other side of the scenery, locked with all the circumstance and doubt that have been conspired to make it appear otherwise. The music came and the credits rolled. And that is just how it ends, every time: week after week: a constant action replay with only the outer bodies and names altering while the tainted, easily-corruptible hearts and souls remain the same. And no-one learns a thing from history or the similar events occurring all around them. No-one sees anything beyond the obvious and immediate.
I thought, and always did when I saw, or read, or heard of something like this, why didn't they just trust? That would have made everyone curl up and die. If anything like this ever happened to me, I swore out loud, I would just keep on trusting. Tammy said she would like to believe she could be that strong, but sometimes felt the evidence might be overwhelming. Or even that someone more clever and devious could have deliberately fooled you into believing it was. “But why?” I’d asked her, thinking of all the times in great drama and literature that just such events had been portrayed with the truth always coming out, but always too late for any redemption. I wanted to know why Tammy imagined such a thing might happen to us. “Because they could,” she’d replied. "People can sense weakness like sharks smell blood. They see through all the disguises."
Tammy came out as the final note of the sad sad song finally sounded and paraded for my approval. This time she was in a loose-fitting, light blue smock with daisies all over it. She had brushed her dry, mousey hair straight down. I’d liked her better the last time, in jeans and with her hair up, but I tried to act impressed.
"At least I don't look like I am six months pregnant," she snapped, recognizing that I was not so keen.
"That's true," I answered. "You look radiant. "
"Listen," she said, "I couldn't even get my top button done up if you must know. How do you think it would feel by the end of a long evening - after drinking and then eating supper?"
"Come here," I said. And she fell onto my lap. I held her tight and she was sobbing against my neck for no good reason that I could yet understand.
Tammy’s friend, Kate, had recently moved back into this area after getting married, and I knew that Tammy was longing to see her and her new home. She told me her friend had promised at school she would never get married or settle down. When they spoke about it Tammy came off the phone and said now she understood. “Understand what?” I’d asked. “A big secret,” she replied: “But let’s just say what he most wants he will never get. And that is her most solemn vow.” I knew she was referring to having a child as recently she’d started implying her pregnancy was all down to me, and the fact that I’d been led to believe - and keep believing - that she was on the pill at the time was now forgotten; or rewritten to fit the new circumstances.
They lived about twelve miles away from us but it felt like we were going to a different planet. After shucking off our tatty estate, and then the few modern housing developments - pretending to belong to some lost way of life: mock Georgian or Tudor or worse - we’d reached the real countryside where old money and poverty still existed side by side and gave no picture card illusion to any idyllic past. Then that thinned out and we hadn't even seen a house for about five minutes, and there were no longer any pavements or gutters to the road, and we were becoming surrounded by water. In fact, for some time I’d realized that the water was actually higher than us and being held back by raised banks and pumped away by machinery. I could feel its heavy pulse through the ground which was soft and spongy and trying to sink back into the swamp below. "Are you sure it is this far?" I asked Tammy again.
"Look," Tammy said, holding up the list of directions, "I am giving them to you exactly as they were given to me. These are his own directions - not mine. You did not want to speak to him, remember?"
I could remember her taking them down. How after all the giggling and excited nonsense of a long phone call with her friend she’d suddenly gone all formal. I heard her saying, "Yes, I understand. Yes of course I have that clearly. No, you don't need to speak to my husband." It went on for ages. And I could tell whatever was being said was making her mad. Afterwards, before I could find out why, she told me to shut up while she tried to recall all of what he’d said. She had sat there staring into space and then writing down bits that came back.
"Why," I asked as we go over another fragile, narrow bridge, "didn't you ask for a pen when you were on the phone to him? Surely he could have hung on for that short time."
"Left," she said. And we arrived. It was a very big, stone building - more a manor house than the large farm ones we’d been passing - with dense patches of ivy clinging to the walls and making the windows appear deep and undefined as if they’d organically evolved their own barrier to any prying eyes. There was a large, well-kept garden stretching away into the distance, and stables and outbuildings forming the courtyard we were in. It was way above anything I'd envisaged.
"Wow!" Tammy said.
"You married the wrong guy," I replied.
"Sure looks that way," she said. “Lucky, lucky Kate.”
Her friend Kate came rushing out. She was tall and elegant with long black hair and sensual features that made you feel at once both aroused and warned away. She was stunning and there was no way that you could imagine her having Tammy for a best friend. Then I recalled a thing my father once said about a beautiful woman always tagging along with some ugly duckling or plain sidekick so that it made them look even better. I felt, after her comment, like mentioning it and letting her know exactly who has got what out of this deal.
"Kate," Tammy said, "this is Peter. The one I told you all about."
“Which one of them all didn’t you tell me about,” Kate joked with her, and the two of them passed knowing looks.
I shook Kate's cold hand and felt one of her long, painted nails scratch my wrist, and could not decide if it was an accident or done on purpose.
"And this," Kate said, stepping aside, "is my husband, Christopher."
Kate had blocked the path until now and I'd not known anyone else was present, or had heard the comment about all the supposed men in Tammy's life. The man was short, plump and going bald. He was much older than the rest of us and was dressed frumpily in a thick, tweed jacket and corduroys. He appeared angry or irritated and gave me the limpest, quickest handshake I’d ever experienced. "Take your friends indoors and fix them a drink, darling," he said, before marching off across the yard without looking back.
I followed the girls into the house. They were arm in arm, talking non-stop and I was clearly superfluous to their needs. I ended up with a glass of beer, sat alone in a spacious front room. The walls were covered with paintings of animals that I took at first glance to have been copied from cave drawings of long extinct creatures. Then I came to realize that they were all farm animals: ancient breeds of cattle and pigs, but with a strange wildness about them: that even as they were being broken and reformed by another species’ dominance was still there in these images, lingering like a roar of defiance. I looked at the rope dangling from a ring in one of the beast’s noses and then another: in all of them the ring and rope but without the need to show any hand holding anymore. I found them sickening and arrogant and did not want to think about having to eat in the same room: to be devouring whatever might remain of their spirit.
Tammy and Kate were sorting out some food and I'd been warned away from the kitchen. “We have girls talk to get done,” Kate told me when she basically ordered me away. And I recognized a sly, cunning quality in her that in my music days I’d come to associate with women who fucked around too much and then tried to go from groupie to star, or more usually, star’s lady. I could imagine what their ‘girls talk’ consisted of and how Tammy would delight in telling me later the bits she thought pertinent to her own need.
In the one corner of the room there was an arrangement of polished wooden shelves with rows of duck decoys on them. I got up and went over for a closer look at the carvings. They were exquisite. Each of them was better than perfect. I picked up one with the name 'Canvas-back' labeled on a brass plaque in front of it. It was light and you knew it would float forever if it was given the chance. But there was no way this was ever meant just to trick another duck into getting shot. This was a work of art - every single fiber on every feather had been cut and burnt and I could not believe they weren’t real, or that my breath was not ruffling the down. I was holding it up to the light, waiting for it to start struggling or for its little glass eye to blink, wondering why anyone would put so much effort into what was basically nothing more than an illusion of what is was luring to its death, when I saw Christopher standing outside the window staring in at me. The moment he saw me look at him he moved quickly away. I put the bird back and wondered if he was spying in case I might steal something.
I listened to him move along the hall and go into the kitchen, followed by his loud, posh voice telling Tammy that she must go and sit with her husband. My wife sounded like she was pleading to be allowed to stay and help. "Not in your condition, my dear," he said. "Besides you are our guests."
I knew that Tammy would hate this man. She came in and looked flushed and as mad as hell. She sat in a chair as far away as possible from me as if I was to blame. She did not say a thing, but I could already picture the drive home and what was going to get said and how I would somehow get the blame. I pointed toward the decoys, "I bet you think they are stuffed," I said.
"What?" she said, angry and uninterested, flaring her nostrils like one of those pigs above her head.
"The decoys," I said, trying real hard to get her in some sort of mood before things got out of hand, "they are so lifelike they would fool anyone."
"There are more in the kitchen," she said, "and in the hallway and up the stairs. I haven't made it to all the bedrooms yet but I bet there are some there too."
"It's a regular duck-pond," I said and the door opened.
"We are going to be very informal," Christopher announced. "Trays on the lap, I'm afraid. Kate is trying to drag me into a modern way of life."
There were corn and cold meats, home-made pickles and chutneys and stuff like that. It was very nice and fresh and I kept on about it as Tammy was still brooding: "You didn't make this great pickle did you?" I asked Kate.
"His mother did," Kate replied. Christopher smiled at us for the first time.
"This chutney is fabulous," I said a while later.
"His aunt did that," Kate said wearily. This time no-one smiled and Tammy gave me a warning look. After that we all just carried on chomping away and I kept the anxious, well-meant compliments to myself. The instant we finished they both cleared away everything and fetched more drinks. I got another beer without being asked, Tammy, an orange juice as since the pregnancy alcohol makes her hormones play up and she goes a blotchy red as if what inside her is angry about what is being ingested. Both Kate and Christopher were drinking large glasses of a single malt out of cut crystal glasses. I was sort of hoping in the naïve, expectant way I always have, that Christopher was going to offer to take me for a look around and that we would get a chance to know each other, maybe become slightly friendly - if only for our wives’ sakes. Instead we just all sat around waiting, it seemed, for something to happen.
Kate was sat on a sofa next to Tammy,
"I bet you two are just longing to have your baby." She suddenly said, stroking Tammy's bump. Christopher watched and I could see that he would love to have a go. I felt like telling him to carry on and touch - but then I could imagine his hands smoothing those cold, dead feathers, visualize them tugging on one of those dangling ropes in the drawings, or see them clawing deeper into the pillow at night as his wife lay under him with her self-imposed bareness.
"You can feel it move," I said, "sometimes it even kicks it is so alive."
"Of course you can," Kate said. "She is moving now."
"She is never still," said Tammy, and for whatever reason - and for the first time - agreeing on the sex of the fetus, "not anymore."
"You wait," Christopher said, "until it gets born. Then you will really know movement. A house full of it day and night"
It was the first thing he’d said that you could not describe as being necessary for politeness or duty. And there was a longing in his voice that I knew was not in mine. The two women held the same expression: one of smugness and shared knowledge about what can be given as well as denied; and the reasons that may lay behind such actions. Then I saw Tammy turn away and give Christopher a sad, understanding look, as if the two of them were the victims not the perpetrators.
Then we all became silent. At first I decided to remain quiet and let one of them make the move and get things going. I tried to will Tammy into making the effort: "This was your idea," I thought: "This is your friend: you have all the secrets and history to share. Say something interesting or nice, anything." Then it was too late. It did not matter how hard I searched for a word to break the growing tension, I could not find one. There was nothing that I genuinely wanted to say to any of these people. The smallest whisper would have been the biggest lie. Soon, nobody dared to even move.
Years and years later I am still able to recall that exact moment with clarity. Each time I see us frozen in that tableau I wish I could step back and force it into life and get some of the issues that lay in all of our minds resolved or at least disclosed. Because every time I see it, I think of our unborn child. Knowing how bad she was destined to turn out and all the terrible things she would do to us both before the end. I imagine her looking out, or sensing the four of us at that instant. Recognizing, in an instinctual way, the reality behind what she has been moving so happily and confidently toward. But too late to stop or escape the trap waiting for her arrival.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004