The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.
As I halted in front of the pub, I wondered if I could still rightfully call it ours, since on the outside it had clearly been made over. The masonry is now a fuchsia red and there’s a new name over the door – it’s called Billy Pilgrim’s now. I suspected that inside would be similarly altered ─ primary colours, stainless steel, loud music, themed. Superstitiously, I’ve never gone back there. But needs must. Migrainous from the sun, I knew if I didn’t take the weight off my feet soon, I would fall down on the street. I pushed through the pub’s double doors with the same milky glass panels I remember from before, and became a visitor in my own past.
I made my way through the outer bar to our spot in the long back room, under the big station clock, so, you said, we wouldn’t be reminded of how little time we had. The relief of sinking into pub leatherette was ecstatic. I looked around furtively in case I had registered out loud to the fact. But there was no one in the pub except for the bar-tender, a blocky, shaven-headed young man, with his sleeves rolled up and nothing to do. Apart from him ─ and he was probably still in short trousers when we were meeting in here ─ the rest of the pub was unchanged. The same polished oak, marble-topped counter, partitions of dimpled glass, brass rail to lean your feet on, a snug in the front of the shop, a back room and a mirror behind the bar so that even before you’ve got drunk you’re seeing double. The smell was just the same too. An oozing mix of stale porter and pungent urinal. I sat in our corner gratefully and ordered a mineral water. (A bald woman wearing a wig downing vodkas alone at four in the afternoon would have seemed as big a cliché as our affair – the older married man and the youngish single woman trysting in a pub. These days I’m trying to avoid clichés, even age-appropriate ones.) The electively bald barman landed the glass on the low table with a clink-clunk and obligingly opened the bottle and poured. I drank thirstily. The flinty taste of the carbonated water set my teeth on edge ─ funny aversions afflict you with chemo. I pushed the glass to one side where it spat effervescently still trying to be the life and soul of the party.
I confirmed the barman’s suspicions that I was a mad old bat when I called him back and ordered coffee instead. It came in a thick cream catering cup, slopped obligingly in the saucer. It was thin and bad, from a jug stewed for hours on a hot plate of torture. But it was like a madeleine to our long lost affair. With each sour sip, I was no longer visiting my past, I was right back in it.
After treatment, most sensible people would go home and crawl into bed. But post-chemo, the last thing I want to do is to give in to sleep during the day. If I do, it means I’ll be awake – and alone ─ in the blackout hours. Ironically, I live alone, or should that be I live alone ironically? I have made it a practice to call out “Honey, I’m home” when I let myself in as a joke to myself, on myself, and to puncture the squeamish silence of a house unmolested since I left it. I try to imagine the Sanforized existence that would match my smooth and hearty greeting. The set of “I Love Lucy” comes to mind, a gleaming kitchen rich in appliances, a brave suburban light. Not my dim and over-shadowed household. I use all the tricks of wolfish loners to combat solitude. I talk my way through tasks aloud. Trina, I say, time to sluice the tub. And so I set to, wiping down the surfaces, the tiles, the wash-hand basin and colouring the bowl with a squirt of lemony liquid. And because I can never manage to keep the towel wrapped around me ─ and now my body geometry can’t support it – I end up naked and sweating amidst the disinfectant fumes, the closest I get to a sexual glow these days.
This was the time of day we used to meet. It annoyed me that you would arrive breathlessly as if you were just managing to squeeze me in. But once you sat and calmed, we entered another time zone where all other pre-occupations fell away. So absorbed would we become that a parade of our nearest and dearest could have passed by and we wouldn’t have noticed. This place absolved us from being furtive; it was the only time we were not mindful of our situation, where it became just the pair of us, alone in the world. Perhaps that’s why it was so intense; for an hour-and-a-half twice a week we played ourselves. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to come back. But as I sat there, I found myself soothed by the atmosphere, not haunted by the associated memories. In the torpor of an empty afternoon pub, I realised I’d found the perfect asylum for the chemically blasted.
It didn’t stay empty for long, of course. Students started trickling in, a few pensioners arrived, men with caps and newspapers, and embroidered the bar. A family of tourists, Italians, guide book in hand, joined me in the back room. Mama, Papa, Silvio and Chiara. They took photos of themselves with their phones. Papa tried a pint and didn’t like it; the children bought crisps and released salt and vinegar into the air. I ordered another coffee and settled in. Not out of nostalgia. I cannot be nostalgic for something I destroyed myself; I am not that perverse. I stayed because it was easier than going home. And then, coming up for five when I was totally off-guard, when I had made my own of the place, you arrived.
Really, it was you. You, as a boy, that is. Slender – you always said you’d been a beanpole in your youth ─ a thin hollowed-out face, gaunt almost, a mop of black curls and eyes to match. It was uncanny. The boy wore a sludge-coloured rain mac over a faded t-shirt, a pair of navy drainpipe jeans, dilapidated Beatle boots with pointed toes. If it wasn’t you, this boy must have raided your youthful wardrobe. He sat in the outer bar in the corner but right in my line of vision. He – you, what pronoun to use? ─ nodded at the barman. He was a regular, it seemed. (Did you have a life in this bar before it became our haunt, I wondered?) He fished a paperback out of a canvas satchel and began to read. When the barman steered a pint towards him, he raised his eyes to say thanks and his gaze met mine. Well, I was staring. He raised the pint to his lips – I almost expected him to raise it in a toast – and then over a moustache of foam he smiled directly at me. Then I knew. Knew it was you, because that crease appeared between your eyebrows (the one I thought had come only in middle-age from too much worry) and your mouth turned downwards. You don’t smile up like most people. It isn’t – wasn’t ─ a mirthless smile, just one tempered with a clownish sadness. I felt myself weaken all over again. Shyly, I smiled back. Why shyly? Because I felt all my old uncertainties return as if I too had been spun back in time. To a time before I met you. To a “you” I’d never known. You settled into your book. By right it should have been one of those orange-covered Penguins – Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene – but without my specs, I couldn’t work out what it was. After the initial startlement, I felt invisible and pleasantly voyeuristic. I was happy to sit and watch you. After all these years, I finally had you all to myself.
Sharing. That’s what usually dooms an illicit affair in the end. The mistress not wanting to share. But I didn’t care about that. In truth, I didn’t feel I was sharing you with anyone. She was just the silent partner as far as I was concerned. I just didn’t want anything broken because of our association. I hated it when you talked about your past. Not because it contained her, but because it contained you. You blamed the past for our predicament. Bad timing, you would say. If I’d met you when I was younger we could have. . . We could have what? Obliterated your mistakes? Had children? When I still could. You could have brought out the maternal in me. If you’d known me then you’d understand. . . Understand what, though? That you weren’t always this rueful self? The trouble was I couldn’t imagine you younger; I could only see you as you were. Acting old, your role to impart wisdom, already writing me out.Don’t do what I did, you used to say, don’t marry for gratitude. As if I were inundated with suitors seeking my hand. I was 37 and considered past it. Worse than past it, because I was engaged in a fantasy relationship that couldn’t stand the light of day. That’s what my girlfriends told me. Even if you had managed to leave the silent partner, I’d have got the worst of you, an old man with sagging dugs and slowing walk, enduring a guilty superannuation trying to win back his wounded off-spring. I would get compromise while the silent partner would have had the wholehearted best of you. That ardent, warrior youth you seemed so nostalgic for. I would become the bath-chair pusher, the caretaker, witness to your decline. That was never my style. For one thing, I’ve always been careless. Careless with people. Other people might mistake it for carefree; not the same thing at all. I am free of care because I care less. I was not vigilant enough even about myself, as it turned out. If I had, I might have noticed the giveaway pellet of hardness on the underside of my breast, right over my heart.
The clock struck six and a girl breezed in. She had long, sand-coloured hair and a gapped fringe. She wore something filmy and floral. Not my type at all, but then that’s presuming I was your type. She looked like the kind of girl who’d stand on the shore with a towel to dry you off if you were in swimming. Girlie was territorial about you, fixed you with her big eyes and talked – a lot – some breathless account during which she would snatch your hand for emphasis, or poke you playfully on the arm.
“And then he asked me if I’d cover the late shift. . .” She exhaled indignation. “I mean, really!”
You played with the ends of her hair and gazed at her with an unseemly kind of yearning that made me look away. Then you leaned in and kissed her. She was bruised into silence by your lips. That was something you used to do with me. In mid-flight I would find my words smothered by your mouth. It used to infuriate me that you couldn’t bear my small talk. Looking at it now, I recognised desire. As you disengaged, another person joined you, a boy this time. I thought maybe I’d be able to identify him. Maybe he’d be someone who had survived into my time? But I couldn’t. He had a face whose features seemed in untimely progression. He had a boy’s eyes and soft chin, but a man’s brow and nose. His mane of nondescript hair grazed his dejected-looking shoulders. I christened him Lionheart, but it was you, with your dark looks, that consumed my attention. I kept you constantly in my sight-lines and every so often our eyes would meet and lock for a moment, though as the pub filled up with office workers, it was harder to maintain a clear line of vision. Girlie produced a phone and I could hear you planning the rest of your night. You wanted to go to a gig with a band called Methuselah, Girlie wanted to go for something to eat. Lionheart eyed Girlie, then you – he seemed to have the casting vote. I wasn’t sure who he was most in love with, you or Girlie. Between the standing army of drinkers, I kept on catching your eye. A quizzical eye, at first, lightly sardonic, then more calculating, curious. This is how it was when we met. Even with age you couldn’t cloak your emotions so everything got played out on your face. I felt, somehow, you were communicating with me, over the heads of your friends and the Friday night crowd. But what were you saying?
I hadn’t thought of you in years. Really! Not in that way, I mean. Not in the pained malignant way of the unrequited. But no, that’s not true. I wasrequited. During that time with you I was more alive and more unhappy than I had ever been. Maybe the two go together. Now I am chronically content and half-dead. Though even at the time I knew what we were doing was a recipe for heartbreak – someone’s. Yours, as it turned out. In the end, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting to see who would break first. You? Me? Or the silent partner? I wasn’t slave enough to the cliché to wait for you to say – I can’t leave my wife. So I ended it. Chop chop. A swift guillotine. I remember your face when I said it – here on this very spot. Everything fell, as if I’d struck you. You started bargaining furiously.
“I’ll do it, right now.”
“It’s not that,” I said but you weren’t listening.
“Here, I’ll phone her now,” you said, lifting the mobile like it was a brick with which you were going to smash your life to pieces. On my account. A gesture. Our gestures give us away.
“Put it away,” I said. “It’s over.”
It’s not every day you get a chance to see the prequel to love. That’s what kept me in a sticky, airless Friday night pub sipping cold coffee. I’ve never liked being alone in a pub – call me old-fashioned. Even when we were together, I hated being early. Waiting for someone I was never sure of, full of dread about being hit upon by amateur predators. That wasn’t a problem now. If anyone was a predator in this situation it was me. But I couldn’t bear to leave before you. It seemed important this time around that you leave me. Finally at half seven, the three of you rose, gathering up your stuff and pushed out into the main thoroughfare of the pub. Immediately, in a pincer movement, three of the suited ones moved into claim your space. I felt the betraying heave of disappointment that goes with the beloved’s withdrawal of presence. You turned to go; then you stopped and whispered in Girlie’s ear. She looked back at you briefly then bounced towards the exit where Lionheart was waiting patiently. I could see his face lighting up as she approached. Ah, so it was her he was after. He pulled open the door and she darted through it. He followed her. You turned towards me. I felt panicky but told myself to stop. You were going to the toilets, maybe, or using the side-door, the one that opened out on to a laneway, the one I used to favour when we were together. I could see your head bobbing up and down as you weaved your way around the crowd that stood between us. I was trapped; this was too close for comfort. I had not banked on our worlds actually colliding like this. You stopped in front of me.
Chemo fugue, my friends say. It was your ex-lover’s son you saw. But no, I knew you had fathered only daughters. A trick of the mind, the light. But no, it was none of that.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
When I didn’t answer – well, how could I answer? ─ he rephrased it.
“Do you know me?”
He was more earnest than I expected. You were never earnest; had it beaten out of you, you said, in the rough justice of boarding school. You were playful in company, serious in bed.
“It’s just that. . .” he started. A lighter voice than yours; age makes us growl and grate.
“Yes?” I said, feeling the bloom of ambiguous trepidation show on my face.
“Can I . . .?”
He folded himself on to the small stool opposite me that had remained empty except as a repository for bags and jackets. He laid these carefully on the banquette seat beside me. If it was a delaying tactic, it worked. What was he going to say? Could he do me for harassment? Young people are touchy about this sort of thing and I had not kept custody of the eyes, as we were instructed in convent school.
“You’ve been staring at me all night,” he said simply. No outlandish accusations, then.
“I’m sorry,” I said, rising to go. I had been a bad voyeur; I’d attracted attention by the focus of my own. “I have to go. . .”
I tried to squeeze by him but he grabbed my arm.
“Why is that?” he demanded. “What do you want?”
To turn the clock back, I wanted to say. He gripped my wrist and looked up at me imploringly.
“Are you my mother?”
That broke the spell, the chemo fog.
“Are you my mother?” he repeated and stood up. There was the steel I knew from your eyes, the grit of refusal. I shook him off, my folly made manifest.
“My natural mother,” he hissed in my ear.
The airwaves had been full of stories of adoptees trying to trace their natural parents; I felt I had stumbled into someone else’s reality show. I tried to wriggle out of our awkward embrace.
“Are you the woman who gave me up? Who gave up on me?” He raised his voice. “Who refused to meet me but feels free to spy on me? Are you?”
There was a ripple of anticipation in those around us; a pub crowd recognises when there is a row brewing. What I wanted to say was yes. Yes to everything. Except to the accusation of motherhood. To that I wanted to say – do you think, dear boy, that if I were your mother, I wouldn’t rush bald-headed to claim you?
“Is it you?” he pleaded, “come for me?”
Oh God, I couldn’t bear the interrogative. I had come for you. But the wrong you. I yanked my hand away and ploughed my way through the crowds of drinkers, jogging elbows and upsetting drinks as I went. A couple of aggrieved “heys” followed in my wake. I stepped out into the laneway where more shirt-sleeved drinkers had spilled out into the golden evening. Once clear of them, I ran. I ran, clutching my false hair in case I should lose it too. In my haste I crashed into a stack of shopping trolleys parked in a bay outside one of those late-opening supermarkets. I ducked in and found myself in the refrigerated aisle. He didn’t follow me, or if he did, he didn’t find me. I counted it as a lucky escape, a remission of sorts.
This story appeared in the December 2014 edition of the online magazine, Numero Cinq; see – numerocinqmagazine.com