M T Ingoldby
The older I become, the more I notice a tendency in myself to spin undue romance from the most ordinary memories. I’m sure this is commonplace: The brain’s faithful attempt to turn one’s past into personal mythology, drama into melodrama, and mistakes into meaningful lessons. And not only my childhood, which is the same haze of blissful inconsequence as described by my friends. Later and more serious events take on the scale of legends; some to be laughed at like the errors of old kings, others as bleak as the nightmares of childhood. One memory in particular – sadly mundane on the surface – has since acquired the aspect of a truly chilling horror story with inexplicable elements that time has done little to reconcile and much, I expect, to exaggerate. I hope now that time will dissolve the bias of a younger woman’s heart, and that writing will force a framework of sense onto what remains the most bizarre and painful episode of my life. I owe it to myself to succeed where my subconscious has failed in drawing meaning from my one encounter with the supernatural.
He came into my life preceded by a waft of cigarette smoke and a low, husky murmur:
“Excuse me. Is anyone sitting here, please?”
A bit of a cliche, I knew at the time, but in those days I was keenly attuned to pre-set romances of any kind. And there he stood; tall, not altogether handsome, and gentle in a fumbling, uncertain sort of way. I looked at him and thought, ‘God – he’s one of me!’
As he sat down to my obliging gesture I felt a spark of our potential crackle the air like static, and spent the following hour trying hard not to extinguish it. He talked and I listened – hapless money troubles mostly – then I talked and he listened and nodded and I kept going until every festering thought found life in fresh ears. I talked about my painting, my dreams of being an artist, even describing some of my work to his obvious interest. I talked about my sister – we weren’t speaking back then – and he laughed delightedly at my cruellest depictions of our childhood. He liked listening, not least because talking made him nervous, and I’m sure he too was aware of the delicate atmosphere about us, as fragile as silence, that thickened with every minute that passed without anxious incident. The wine certainly helped. We were like two clouds meeting and melding by an accident of weather.
In an hour or two we were both tipsy, and one of us – me, I’m fairly sure – invited him back to my flat. The taxi ride was swift; we kissed all the way from outside the bar to my bedroom door and what followed, common decency and the effect of alcohol upon memory prevent me from detailing here.
I do not wish to give the impression that I was in the habit of soliciting this kind of encounter so soon after meeting someone. But I didn’t feel cheapened, nor that a demeaning precedent had been set. It was simply an uncomplicated continuation of what had begun at the bar and within a fortnight it was as though he had never slept anywhere else.
Mark Portaz wasn’t like other men. For some, you have to drop hints with such a clang that you wince to recall them. But Mark was quick on the uptake: As if he really knew me, which was a welcome shock especially when I hadn’t felt a man’s gaze in over a year. I suppose I was in something of a nosedive, and Mark levelled me out.
He didn’t mind sharing my poky third-floor flat, which even in its best days could be said to have seen better days. The growing number of dents in the flaky plaster we covered with tasteful pictures and photographs of us grinning like teenagers next to unimpressive local landmarks. Our shared clumsiness – especially after a bottle of red in front of our book-sized TV – meant we decorated with insight rather than taste, but if home is where the hat is hung and heart resides, it gave us a glorious sense of belonging.
But soon an insidious falseness crept into our familiarity.
It wasn’t lipstick on his collar, or a strange scent on his clothes, or even dubious late-night commitments explained in suspicious detail. It wasn’t anything so specific, but there were clues. There usually are. Something veiled by those over-inflated compliments, like:
“I think this is actually the best painting I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m so lucky, babe. You’re one in a million, I swear. .”
“You look so damn sexy in that chair.”
And soon enough I found this text on his phone: ‘Sounds great!!! See you tonite xox’
No, I shouldn’t have looked. Marriage is built on trust, they say. But we weren’t married. We were together five months. I don’t know what made me think of that. Well, I do of course, but even after all these years it pains me to confess it.
But the worst thing, worse than the certainty that something pure is irrevocably soured, was the name of the contact saved into the phone: Sadie Baschurch. My name.
Like a punch to the gut I felt instantly sickened and weak. I felt an unjustifiable respect for all those husbands who through decency strive to separate their mistresses from their lives completely. This was a kind of betrayal I’d never heard about, let alone expected. But, poor insecure creature that I was, I bottled it and let it ferment into silent spite. The explanation should come of his own accord – prompting it would only be further humiliation. Maybe – though I wasn’t at this moment inclined to be charitable – maybe it is a simple misunderstanding: Crossed wires, something to laugh about in a few years when securely attached by family and mortgage. Whoever this imposter was, Mark was more than happy with the real thing. I had proof of this. Meanwhile I would outwardly pretend nothing had changed, and shadow them later to their glamorous rendezvous like a vengeful ghost.
And so, when Mark kissed me goodbye with apparent reluctance on Wednesday night, bound, I remember him saying, for drinks with an old friend who would bore me rigid with tales from back in the day, I was already worked into an eager frenzy of discovery, fuelled by imaginings of bold recriminations and scene-stealing accusations, part Joan of Arc, part soap opera. Proving my suspicions would ally their strength with mine: Right then my doubt was a greater threat to my well-being than my presumed rival. And I had no other plans – sadly, I hadn’t seen my own friends in months.
I pulled on a mountainous overcoat which both disguised my appearance and fit my romantic image of a hard-boiled detective. I followed him on foot from a furtive distance, though with his head lowered and engrossed in private thoughts I could have caught his heel and he wouldn’t have turned.
I began to suspect where he was headed, and it was with grim satisfaction that the harsh candle-light and red tables of Paula’s Bistro grew towards us like a lurid mirage. I had come this way before with Mark and remembered suggesting we head there one evening, but we never did and it hadn’t come up since. If he’d been keen, he’d have said. Or did he log it, my suggestion, for future use with a better fit? I sidestepped into a doorway sliced with shadow and watched him stride through the entrance, turn and approach with a smile someone whose legs uncrossed in greeting while the rest of her was obscured by a pillar. Her tights were black, her shoes were fun, colourful flats. Mark’s face flushed with the heat inside. He jumped his chair closer for what soon became the most interesting and entertaining conversation of his life. I’d never seen so many emotions animate his face in one sitting. His eyes glowed with an eager tenderness.
I fused with the darkness of the doorway. Several times I considered crossing the street and bursting through the door like a demon, spitting curses. My foot even cleared the shadow. But the longer I waited the more my confidence ebbed away, and confrontation seemed not just impossible, but unjustifiable. Here I was skulking in the dark like a criminal, and there they were, inside, faces lit by that spark of connection and enjoyment shared. Before long the whole restaurant seems complicit in their affair, and my lonely resentment was their enemy; cold and only capable of causing pain. All I could hear were the clatters of cutlery and laughing police sirens on the lookout for malicious loiterers. Frustrated, I decided to circle the block and when I arrived back both chairs sat empty. I ruled at last to go inside and see if any information could at least be gained from the waiters.
The staff were disconcertingly blonde and surly to a man, and left me on threshold long enough to substantially weaken my resolve before I was acknowledged.
“Ah,” he said when he reached me, then turned smartly and disappeared again. He returned with a folded receipt – only then did he meet my eye. I saw myself as he did: Dressed in dirty black but for my shoes, in a shapeless overcoat, shivering after two hours outside on a cloudless night. “£37.88,” he recited.
“No, I’m not hungry. I wanted to ask about the table by the window. Did the-”
“Yes.” He was unmoved, uninterested, and made a great show of rereading the receipt. “£37.88.”
“No, but do you know the names of who was sitting there?”
Like a tired parent indulging an infant’s games, he grudgingly informed me: “Booking under the name Portaz for eight-thirty. You are Mrs Portaz?”
“I- Yes.” Possessiveness giving voice to presumption.
Now his stern manner made sense. Mark and his mistress had fled laughing into the night, leaving me (unwittingly – perhaps) to foot the bill.
“Oh… I see.” I replied. I was suddenly gripped by the character of a noble victim; stiff and stoically sensible. The weary martyr extracted my credit card from a battered purse and fed it into the proffered slot. The machine beeped, satisfied, and I was forgotten again. Sloping off unobserved, I retraced my path to the flat in slow steps, all the time deeply immersed in a vat of silent victimhood.
To my surprise when I trudged through the front door Mark was sitting there waiting, smiling at me like a physical assault. As well as scaring the strength out of me, it meant I had no time to prepare a course of action and a few choice remarks in the safety of an empty room, as I had intended.
“Where have you been?” he asked brightly, before I could remove my ugly disguise. He smiled with the warmth of the restaurant. I coughed out a laugh in response.
“Me? Where have you been?”
“Just sitting here.” He grinned at me.
“All this time?”
“Since getting back.” His arms now became wings over the backrest.
“Right,” I said, deliberating on a suitable spot to deposit the coat, and postponing eye-contact for which I hadn’t the courage. “How was it?”
“Good, yeah. I had a good time.” He folded his hands behind his head contentedly. “Did you?”
I dumped the coat. “Fine,” I said curtly. I still didn’t face him. “I need a cup of tea. Do you want tea?”
Diving into the kitchen I flicked on the kettle. He followed after a second and stared at me, leaning on the doorframe. “Well?” he prompted.
“Really. No.” I quietly replied, sweeping crumbs off the counter. Not an answer as such, but an expression of the sudden defensiveness that armoured me then like spikes on a blowfish.
He sighed violently. “Oh, not this damn…” He swung around for an audience to share his exasperation. “What? Just tell me.”
I couldn’t say anything. I was drying the sink with kitchen towel.
“For god’s sake. Can’t you even get properly angry? Why can’t you even…” – he mimed thrusting something large through a small gap – “…push back ever?”
“Push what back?” I was being facetious, but it was easier than forming a point which he wouldn’t hear anyway.
“Just say. What are you so damn scared of? Where’s that- Where’s that passion that you… Sometimes I see it. Then I think, ‘is she just putting it on to be cute?’”
I didn’t say anything, just wiped with renewed vigour.
God’s sake, Sadie!” Without warning he sunk his fist into the soft flesh of the plaster, leaving another dent for me to cover. He blew flakes from his knuckles like gun-smoke. The momentum of his violence carried to his voice:
“Like this loan. You don’t say no, you say you don’t have it yet and walk off, then I come home and there’s another damn photo in a gold frame like, where did that come from?” His hand became caught in a loose loop of curtain thread: There was a horribly comic struggle – “Fuck sake!” – and the curtain was torn away on ragged strings, exposing the dark glare of the warped glass and our own shadowy reflections. I could hear nothing but blood.
“I know, Mark,” I managed.
“Oh you know? What? What do you bloody know?”
Details choked me. “About her.”
“About…” He blasted a breath between his teeth. “Oh. Jesus, I get it.”
“I know she’s-”
“No. Don’t pin this on me. You did this, Sadie.”
His reflection grabbed the coat from the chair and charged from the flat, re-appearing outside as a dim figure hurrying away through flashes of shrinking fluorescent cones.
A minute slithered by. Dull ticking sounds rose to my ears from somewhere close; and the endless breath of traffic from the distant road. I stood there, frozen. The woman in the window stared back through blackened hair: A heavy, pathetic figure with trembling shoulders and weak, half-buckled knees.
Suddenly and violently I was again gripped by a second, overwhelming strength: A role that had lain dormant in instinct until then swept over and quite without thinking my hand reached for something heavy and in a single, swift motion launched it at the glass. It exploded frame to frame in a shower of lethal fragments. I remember it in excruciating slowness, like the disintegration of an ice floe in summer currents; each second faithfully suspended for future scrutiny. Shards of all sizes fell with a crystal clatter onto the patio. And there, where the glass had been…
…yes, memory tends to edit and embellish with a preference for the camp. Ghosts may be interpreted as mere manifestations of a guilty conscience, or of intense feelings undisclosed in life; and yet they are ghosts nonetheless. Memory often reveals a subtle truth to us in other ways when facts alone will not suffice. All I know is what I remember seeing…
…there, where the glass had been, my reflection remained, floating above the road. But she was not me, for she tilted her head into the streetlight and grinned with such open cruelty that I almost recoiled. She balanced on empty air with terrible grace, in defiance of all known laws and limitless in capability. A pitiless wave of contempt broke over me. She threw back her head and laughed in silent scorn, fixed me once more with glinting black eyes and, apparently of her own free will and not a conscious resurgence of reality, she vanished. I knew then I would not see her again.
Then a cold, extinguishing wind rushed through the empty window and followed me upstairs to bed.
Shortly thereafter I met Gregory, and we soon resigned ourselves to each other’s company for a good long while – three children, a nice house in the Midlands, cheerful comfort in cold winters and temperate summers. I have my own small studio where I paint ripe fields and reed-cloaked streams from memory. One I particularly like – I’m looking at it now. A stretch of river runs into the foreground, twisting and drawing the eye upstream to a near-flat horizon, save for the silhouette of a lightning-struck tree and the suggestion of storm clouds in the distance, top-right. It is painted hurriedly and with no great skill, but what makes it unique among the frames hanging on my wall is that I have not been able to find that spot, nor even that fast-flowing river ever since.