Everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea that this marriage can’t last. I know I am. And Sally herself, on a particularly sunny day, post-orgasm, or even at the end of a really uplifting movie, will start her sentences with a dreamy,
When we’re divorced, Henry...
But it’s always in the abstract, as if we just have to sit back and wait for the tide to sweep one of us away from the other. It doesn’t make a difference; the word itself has taken on new dimensions for our little community. Dr Robeson greets us for our sessions, rising out of his chair, with,
When’re you getting that divorce, Sally? Not still clinging on to the old duffer?
One of our children (we have so many) even told her teacher that her parents had broken up, a long time ago. She was a little confused when we both came to the Parent’s Evening a few weeks afterwards, and said she was sorry to hear about the break-up. We both laughed, a little too hard.
The children will survive this. I spoke to one of them – not the same one, this was an older one, Patrick – who was playing in the garden, letting off the sort of imaginary gunfire that explodes, improbably, as it makes its target. I asked him if he was shooting Nazis or Red Indians. It turned out he was shooting zombies, in the years to come after the world’s ended. I asked him if there was any point shooting zombies if the world’s ended. He said yes. A little more enquiry and it turned out that I, and his mother, had been killed in the first wave of destruction. Then, as if realising that this was a pretty poor deal for me, he added,
Don’t worry, Dad. Everyone else was.
You need a space, to survive these apocalypses. Sally has her ‘studio’, the emasculated garden shed, stacked with bad abstract paintings in the style of thirty years ago. I have my study.
On a typical afternoon, I might start off with a bottle of wine. These are the trickiest part; they have to be smuggled in without Sally or the children appearing to notice. Even a carrier bag does the pleasant job of avoiding the necessity of a confrontation. Once the bottle - with my typical luck, an elderly rosé I’d been saving up for a particularly galling day – dropped through a hole in the bag and onto the kitchen tiles. It rolled. Sally ignored it for as long as she could; when it clunked against the back of her heels, she felt she had to comment.
No words. Just a drawn-out hiss.
Then come the spirits. I like to surf the Internet while I’m drinking, as the activity by itself is such an obvious downer. It passes the time, but before long you begin to realise what a nasty little room it really is; worse than spending an hour flicking through Sally’s paintings in the shed to check if any of them have evolved since the last time you were there. It isn’t the dimensions I’m looking for. So it’s Jack Daniels, Imperial vodka, and, occasionally in the summer, Pimms. You have to drink a lot of it to reach climax point, but it loses some of the guilt of drinking yourself into oblivion. Pimms isn’t an alcoholic’s drink.
Sally and I, I’ve come to realise, react to intrusion into our secret spaces in a similar manner. Our heads jerk up, we snap,
meaninglessly, and I duck my glass beneath the desk and she shifts her canvas around so that it’s no longer visible to me.
Blackouts have that wonderful sense of shifting forward in time. For a couple of brief hours you’ve beaten down your own consciousness; walking, talking, if perhaps not brilliantly in either case, but quite asleep.
The older, better developed children seem to be catching on to the time lapses. They corner me in the mornings and insist I promised them gifts and favours in the night. They won’t believe me when I try to convince them it wasn’t Daddy they were talking to.
Henry, says Sally, can we talk?
Or I do it, a little less professionally, stuttering a little on the
We need to t-talk.
And it’s the unspoken duty of the other to reply, eyes elsewhere,
As if, at some point, one of our clocks began running slightly ahead or slightly behind, and we’re not sure which is the correct time. We keep renewing Dr Robeson’s sessions. He’s affectionate and frustrated at the sight of us, every Tuesday morning, laughing,
Just break up, you bloody fools! Do you have any clue how long this has been going on?
He tells us we’re childishly dependent upon one another, and then, more seriously, asks us about the question of his bill.
The money’s running out but Sally says we can get some from her parents. Two days later, it becomes clear that her parents’ money is running out as well.
This can’t go on forever, Sally shouts, as I crouch, attempting camouflage, in the toilet. That afternoon, staggering out into the dying sun, halfway to the crucial blackout point, disturbed by a shriek from the garden, I tell her, tearfully,
You’ll have forgotten me in a week.
She continues to prune. The children gaze at us in shock. I ruffle a head and call it by the wrong name.
The children won’t survive this. They’re too accustomed to the whole thing; apocalypse is their affectionate friend, their plaything. They tag each other in the garden and shout,
I’m divorcing you!
and the person who’s been divorced isn’t allowed to play any longer.
Sally says tomorrow will be the day she leaves me. She put the suitcase out on the bed but she hasn’t packed yet. The children, taking up the joke, start to ask her where she’ll live and if they’ll ever see her again. The youngest of all doesn’t get it and runs off to her room, inconsolable.
Stooped over my laptop, with the cracks of light bursting through the doorway, I drink deep and mutter,
Come, you bastard. For God’s sake, for God’s sake, come.
The raft, warm in the dying sun, swings to her anchor and lies at rest. I nudge my foot out to calm the shivering picnic basket. The first of our number has brought the gift of tea, the second whisky; with typically poor judgement, I arrived with a sponge-cake, and nobody has touched it but me.
A cruise-ship horn bellows, in the distance and the three of us, as if by unconscious agreement, stir ourselves up to observe the prisoner. She gazes back at us, without concern. Classy even now. There was a fourth of our company, who was willing to supply us with the boat, but refused to get involved any further. Perhaps he would have balked at the sight of her.
Twain is the first to speak. Clenching his pipe between his teeth, he reaches across to the neat pile of paperbacks stacked in the dead centre of the raft.
Sense and Sensibility, he says, bobbing it in his hand. He twists, without getting to his feet.
It skims once across the muddy waves, pages trailing, and sinks.
Pride and Prejudice.
He hurls it high in the air. It plummets and drowns.
A doomy splash. Brontë winces and perhaps Twain is not as tough as he imagined, because, a little paler with every throw, he tosses the final three out into the ocean in muttered succession.
Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Done.
There is a general sense of relief, as if an unpleasant but entirely necessary ritual has been dealt with. I cut myself another slice of cake, but feel too awkward to begin eating it.
Milady, Twain begins, moustache twitching in irritation, you stand trial on a number of very serious charges. He glances at me. I clear my throat and begin, nervously,
The charge of being over-loved and over-appreciated.
The charge of excessive lightness and excessive petty perfection.
The charge of Mills & Boon.
The charge of misleading women into the lie that self-absorbed, dislikeable men are romantically desirable. We have, in the vaults of history, a number of divorce proceedings and almost certainly one murder to place as evidence against you.
Brontë, who, I suspect, would like to do nothing so much to Fitzwilliam Darcy as chop off three of his fingers, gouge out his eyes, and set Pemberley on fire, shifts a little on the surface of the raft. Twain, puffing at his pipe, is gazing absent-mindedly out across the sea.
The charge of a nasal sense of humour.
How does the defendant plead? Twain asks. He nods his head in greeting to a seagull trailing overhead.
Brontë helps herself to some more tea. Then she relents.
Would you like some? she asks the prisoner, civilly.
As she’s pouring, Twain reaches across and adds a three-finger measure of Jack Daniels to the mixture. He glances up to see if the prisoner reacts. She doesn’t. She takes the cup but does not drink from it.
I clear my throat.
Perhaps, I begin, hesitant, we should start with the witnesses for the prosecution?
Twain, I know, would rather get on to the sentencing. An antique revolver lies, hidden, beneath the napkins in the picnic basket. He thinks I haven’t seen it. He raises himself to a crouch, and pours the whisky into each of our cups in turn.
More tea, he growls. Do the honours, boy.
I do as he says.
We drink. Austen has to be told twice- Drink! Drink!- by Twain, who’s no longer joking as he was when we first stepped off the pier and onto the raft, whispering into the sackcloth over her head,
The stick up my ass and the stone in my heart are going to break the bone in your head.
Night is coming over us, fast.
You know, says Twain, slurping at his enhanced tea, it’s your kind of writing- your classically formed, darkless, dangerless stories, pretty and perfect but so damn petty- that’s the worst kind of writing there is.
Except metafiction. That’s the worst of all.
We can all agree on that, at least.
I don’t think I’d hate you nearly so much, Brontë says, with a kind of sadness in her voice, if so many idiots didn’t think we were so much the same kind of thing.
They are watching me, I know, waiting for my accusation, though their eyes are no longer clearly visible in the shadows of the oncoming night.
Come on, boy, Twain says, impatient.
I just want…I begin, and hesitate.
I can only tell by the twitch of her lace-capped head in my direction that she’s listening to me.
I just want to see you dream of a monster, I tell her. Everyone else has a monster in their work, in some sense. I don’t know where yours is.
For a moment that makes me shudder, and I imagine that something huge and dark is drifting beneath the raft.
Austen doesn’t reply.
Enough, says Twain. He’s turning, almost unconsciously, the weight of his body towards the picnic basket. Enough. Where are the witnesses for the defence?
We’re in the middle of the ocean, Brontë replies, a Victorian silhouette. She sounds irritated, perhaps a little upset.
If she can’t produce witnesses, Twain snaps back, then we’ll pass straight to sentence.
His body is beginning to shake in the darkness. That movement is all I can make out of him any longer.
She might want to have something to say for herself, I tell him. Perhaps she wants to give a final speech.
A helicopter is chundering somewhere overhead. A blue light flashes in the distant sky, and disappears. An ugly snort. It takes me a moment to realize it comes from Twain.
They won’t find you, you know! His voice comes out of nowhere. They won’t find you! So you just give your final speech, missy! You just give it!
Blackness. The only dimension is the surface of the raft below us, lit up by the gentle pattering of the waves passing below. And then, a low, tortured scraping. Twain is drawing the picnic basket across to him with his foot.
Well? he snaps again. What do you have to say for yourself?
She doesn’t reply. I think she’s laughing at us.
Files, and more files. He recognises very few of the documents more than two years old.
And this is what he wrote, on a brand new laptop, aged fourteen. Not so very long ago, in the greater scheme of things.
What begins to frighten him doesn’t come from the lapses into obvious plagiarism- frequent sentences carry Chesterton’s exact rhythms- or the tendency towards explicit thematics, to the point of lecturing, repeating in piece after piece ideas like ‘We live in a world of illusion’, as if covering fresh ground.
Sentences unravel and burst. There’s no control, and the character of an ‘other’ begins to recur, a demonic alter ego who tempts the Christian, hormonal hero into sexual desire, religious doubt, murder, and manipulation. Every story ends with a falling into unconsciousness, into water, into forest. Maddened, adolescent writing. He’s been reading a neurologist’s casebook, and begins to wonder- have I once been insane?
He is aware, but does not yet fully admit, that his latest story depicts, as if from the outside, a lunatic who transfers one half of an internal dialogue onto a puppet, and who later attempts to gain ‘independence’ from his own psychological creation by diving repeatedly into a murky pool of water.
What’s the phrase? Against these fragments I shore my ruins…
A lie. I am the thought of the lichen coating the stone which once thought. Something has passed over. But I’m not the same man today I was before.
He will not write for the rest of the day; his mind is wide, and he feels like a child.