life in a suitcase
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by Aubrey Malone



So we fell fell fell. The last words she said to me were, ‘We didn’t fail; we just didn’t bother trying.’ Nobody told us it wouldn’t work, it wasn’t in the plan. My grandparents stayed together, my parents, everyone we knew, even the miserable ones, even the ones who were eating each other for breakfast. You had to give the problems time. They’d sort themselves out. And if they didn’t – tough. After all, what would the neighbours say? Or the family. We were engaged in emotional investment here. Building blocks for the future. It was the way life worked.  Knock one and you knock them all, like dominoes. It wasn’t like changing your fridge or your TV set just because it malfunctioned. We were people, dammit.

The last balloon popped and we sang Auld Lang Syne to the people around us. Not because we liked them  but because they were there.  We were drinking Prosecco, the make-believe champagne, and making make-believe love. ‘Champagne for my real friends,’ she said, ‘and real pain for my sham friends.’ I’d heard all her little jokes before just like she’d heard mine  but that didn’t stop her repeating them. What else was there to do now but go through the motions, speaking our lines like two bad actors in a play most people had forgotten, or stopped caring about.

I was the last one there, a familiar situation for me, too drunk to stay awake, too drunk to go to sleep, too drunk to go to bed with anyone or even myself, emptying other people’s drinks into me as I sat in the half-dark,  waiting for the sun to come up while a needle playing Miles Davis scratched on a forgotten record player and she sat across from me checking her watch, her hemline, her nails, her future.

‘Well,’ she said.

‘Well what?’

‘It’s time to go.’

It might have been a metaphor for the night, for all our nights together as she marshalled the practical details that kept her happy. Discipline was important to her, deadlines. And we were dead.

What were we going back to - each other? Someone else? Each other under the pretence of someone else?  I looked at her through bloodshot eyes and wondered who she was, who I was, where the day would bring us. We were in Act Two of our marriage, the scene where the outraged wife throws the drunken husband out. ‘What drink would you like, dear?’ she asks and he replies, ‘Gin and tonic, dear, without the tonic.’  Unfortunately this drama wouldn’t play out quite as efficiently as one on Broadway or the West End. When I was drunk I saw everything crystal clear. When we were dating she accepted my weakness, indulged it. But now she’d sooner have me drink hemlock.

Everyone was gone. We were alone with our mutual hatred.  I smelt the oncoming dawn. Could we make one last stab at tolerance, pretend the last six years never happened?  No. We were like Adam and Eve in some poisoned garden without our fig leaves, like any other couple bereft of a place to hide, mortgaging our lives as she accused me of drinking away our fortune, a fortune that was never there in the first place though it didn’t suit her to admit that.  ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ I said to her, blaming the recession, ‘and your reckless spending.’ I didn’t see alcohol spending as reckless. You never do. Why waste money on cabbage that could be spent on Cuvee Speciale?

She rang the taxi, poured black coffee into me, apologised to the host. He gave an affectionate sigh as she  dug out my coat from under the fifty others in what I called the futility room.

‘Now buster,’ she said, ‘one arm at a time.’  She spoke as if I was six years old, and maybe I was.

‘Why do you drink so much?’ she asked me.

‘Why do you nag so much?’ I replied.

‘All you alcoholics have to give yourselves reasons to guzzle’

‘Maybe,  but you’re a better one than most.’

Did I drink because she fell out of love with me or did she fall out of love with me because I drank? It was the old chestnut. She told me she could fight other women but not Arthur Guinness. It was a good line but it wasn’t true. She couldn’t fight either of them and neither could I.

The taxi arrived and the sun came up. We drove to the home that wasn’t a home and got inside the door. It was only then I started crying, for her and for myself and what we’d become and what we hadn’t become, the six years of nothing masquerading as success, thrown open now into the nakedness of the morning, the silence laughing at us in that big house with the billiard table lawn and the bay window, space and more space and the pair of us wanting to say these things but too mixed up to do that or even to admit a mistake because there was too much to lose now in the endgame of compromise.

‘What now?’ she asked but  I was too sick to answer her, too sick trying to contemplate a future for myself from the detritus of yet another false start. I told myself this was the end at last, the insanity of the night turning into the insanity of the dawn. I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered who I was, who she was, if we could ever forgive each other for the sin of meeting, or the later sin  of falling so far out of love we nearly met each other on the way back.

She left with the taxi driver. It must have been some run for him, first depositing me here and then her to her mother to bitch about me and work out the division of the spoils. It was an appropriate term for we had indeed spoiled everything.

Afterwards she took up with a man from Wolverhampton, more humble than the usual Brit, an antidote to me she said. She could have put it less politely. I was grateful to him for taking her off my hands. If she was happy, I thought, she wouldn’t needle me. But there was so much damage done to her mind from her time with me  I didn’t know if she could be happy with anyone. She enjoyed hating me too much.

How was it that two lives that seemed to be going in the same direction for so long could take off so suddenly in another direction and cut out all the things that made the work together?  It was like a fugue missing a beat,  a blot at the end of the rainbow, a lock without the combination. I racked my brains for the reason as I remembered the early days, days when a minute away from her was like an eternity, when even being in the same room as her was a thrill. I wondered what she’d be wearing, how she’d look, how I was doing with her. And then we got married and everything settled into the routines of just being together. She busied herself about the house and I pretended to be interested in such things. Then she became bored with that and got into New Wave movies and TM. I wouldn’t have minded that but it didn’t seem to be her. She seemed to be trying to invent an identity to suit her new status as she organised coffee mornings and tried to get in touch with her inner feminist.  Meanwhile I dumbed myself down and started going out with my old friends, people she referred to as lowlifes.

‘They de-stress me,’ I explained.

‘They dehumanise you,’ she corrected.

The problems didn’t start then; this was expectable. They didn’t even start when we began to take each other for granted, or when we started arguing. They started when we took the arguments for granted, when we forgot what they were even about.

‘I despise you,’ she said to me one night.

‘I bet you say that to all the guys,’ I replied.

The death of our love became a kind of protection to us, a shell. It would have been far worse if one of us still loved the other, if we had something to lose  or fight for. This way the shared memory of pain made it more bearable. All we needed was a pen to sign along the dotted line.

Where did we go wrong? Maybe it didn’t matter. One day a friend said to me, ‘Sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason, sometimes that’s just the way things are.’  He consoled me when I lost my job, when the solicitor told me I’d probably lose my house.

She was behind that. Her hatred of me knew no bounds. I couldn’t understand it. Did she not realise that most people broke up these days, that it was almost in the nature of things? Maybe it was as simple as the law of diminishing returns, or even the law of gravity.  What went up had to come down. The moon in June became the bitter harvest.

What I didn’t bank on was just how bitter that harvest was. Could you ever really know a woman until you fell out of love with her, or she fell out of love with you? She blamed me for it as if I was outside it. She forgot I was suffering too. ‘I didn’t sign up for this,’ I said to her, ‘Divorce wasn’t in the contract, not even in the small print.’ But she just glared at me.

I ran into her a few months ago with her new man. She was wearing a leopardskin blouse I used to love but now it seemed to make her look predatory.  I didn’t know what to say to her. As I looked at her I felt like someone who’d just rung a doorbell in an empty house.

She had her sunglasses on over her head. When I looked down at her stomach I saw she was pregnant. She seemed to be trying to hide it.

‘When is it due?’ I asked.

‘When is what due?’ she replied.

‘Don’t feel guilty,’ I said, ‘This makes everything very straightforward.’.

She’d always denied sleeping with him, even when I found them in what we might call a compromising position one time when we were still married. ‘It’s not what it looks like,’ she had said on that occasion, sounding like someone from a bad movie, ‘Nothing happened.’ Then, as now, I tried to reassure her, telling her the marriage was over so what did it matter.

‘We’re not sleeping together if that’s what you’re thinking,’ she said.

‘The last time that happened,’ I said to her, ‘there was a star in the East.’

I couldn’t understand why she was being so demure. Did she think she’d get more money from me in the divorce if she didn’t have a man?

She walked off in a huff and he turned on me, taking a swipe at me. In a strange way it felt good.

‘What was that for?’ I said.

‘For making Dorothy miserable,’ he said.

I tried to tell him Dorothy was the main one responsible for making Dorothy miserable but he didn’t want to hear it. She had seduced him as she once seduced me, with her silken tongue. She was his property and he was her property and I was to be let out with the cat. And maybe I was happier there, out among the dustbins. Anything I said could be used in evidence against me, as they said in the old crime films. So I said nothing. Maybe I wanted to keep my house and my billiard table lawn after all.

It was just as well we didn’t have any children. Maybe we were children ourselves. It was actually the thing I liked best about her but she didn’t know that, didn’t know she was a child or that I liked it. If she did she’d have stopped, or tried to stop. She hated me too much to have my child. ‘It would be poisoned seed,’ she taunted. If she believed that, and I think she did, it was better she didn’t conceive by me. After a year of marriage we stopped sleeping together but preserved the illusion of wedded bliss for those we knew. ‘Oh but you must come over and see us,’ they demanded. Sometimes we did, and put on plastic smiles for the night.

Tonight it’s cold. Outside  smoke billows from a chimney.  The branches of my yew tree snake their way to the sky.  In the distance two lights flash. I listen to the voice of Tom Waits droning like a drunk rhinoceros and time stands still. I have no regrets about anything that happened or didn’t happen. We were who we were – or weren’t. I can forgive her if she can forgive me, if we can forgive one another for the sin of being ourselves.

Tomorrow I’ll be moving out of here. Exit at noon or the bailiff will fine you. That’s what she said, in a voice that made me listen. It’s a funny feeling inhabiting a building where I’m a tenant tonight and tomorrow an intruder. Maybe I’ll feel a sense of adventurousness in being homeless. Or maybe I’ll just feel miserable.

The clock ticks like a metronome, sounding out the time left to me. The more I listen to it, the louder it seems. Each second is precious to me as I gaze out  at the empty streets, the changing contours of the sky. I’ve never liked goodbyes but tonight is different. Tonight there’s nobody to say goodbye to.

Goodbye table, goodbye chair, goodbye polkadot wallpaper, goodbye radio that never worked, goodbye favourite cup with a crack in it..

Goodbye…wife? No, that doesn’t sound right. Besides, I don’t know where she is.

I look around me at the dead walls, the dead furniture. Everything I’m bringing with me is in a small case that sits in front of me:  the heritage of six years. It’s amazing how much you can downsize when you put your mind to it. How much clutter do we gather around ourselves when there’s nobody to tell us most of it is junk? But maybe we need junk possessions just like we need junk food.

My life in a suitcase. Who would have thought it would end like this? Where I’m going there won’t be much space. She can have the antique furniture, the Dresden dolls. Where I’m going will hardly have room for such delicacies. You can’t fit a cocktail cabinet in a phone box.

I won’t be bringing our wedding photo. In fact I have to resist the temptation to rip it up. I look at it now and smile ruefully. I’m standing there in my tweed suit with an expectant look on my face as if I have some right to be happy. She’s more guarded. Maybe she knew something I didn’t…

Earlier today I got drunk again. I thought about emigrating, leaving it all behind. But will there be anything to leave once her lawyers get to work on it? And where would I emigrate to? No matter where you go you’re still you. You still have to make that other journey inside your head and try and forgive yourself for the sins she said you committed. You could walk down strange streets under strange suns but you would still be yourself, still looking for reasons, get-out clauses, rationalisations.

I’m too old to start Part Two of my life, too old to end Part One. I can’t meet anyone new and I’m not sure I want to. And yet I hate the familiar.

‘Your wife didn’t do anything wrong,’ the counsellor said to me, ‘You were just too hard to pin down.’ I swallowed his cliches because it was easier than arguing with him. He had plaques on his wall and letters after his name and my solicitor told me it would look good if I got on with him so I got on with him even though he was an idiot. If he said two and two was five I would have agreed with him. Life was always easier if you agreed with people. Marriage would have been easier if I kept agreeing with Dorothy.

But I didn’t, and now we are where we are. No love, no house, no prospects. Inevitable, no doubt, considering the circumstances. ‘Two can live as cheaply as one,’ my father used to say. Now one may starve. Every divorce, of course, eventually comes down to money. We may shout about outrage and injustice but at the end of the day what it’s all about is that little five lettered word that makes most people’s world revolve. And some people’s stop revolving.

If she takes enough of it off me I’ll be her slave. That may be what she wants. Maybe it would assuage some of her pain. The Germans call it schadenfreude. I call it sadism.

I think I know how it’s going to pan out. She’ll accuse me of hiding my money and I’ll accuse her of hiding her fancyman . We’ll both put our best foot forward for the solicitor as we did once for each other when different things were important. In the end she’ll probably win because she’s better at giving Oscar-winning performances when it counts. For ever and ever, ah men. Pass Go. Collect £20,000.

I can already see her in her Burberry coat, standing at the front of the courtroom with her list of expenses under her arm, a smile of victory playing about her lips. She’ll list my spending habits, my emotional emptiness, my abject unsuitability for marriage. I’ll see my life laid out before me like that of a stranger, only recognising the bits she’ll grudgingly display to drive home some deeper point. Even then I’ll probably be attracted to her seeing her again as I espy her in all her finery. I doubt I’ll ever lose what first drew me to her, that intense self-confidence, that self-aggrandising drive. I’ll want to put my arms around her but if I do that I’ll probably be locked up. ‘A handshake might be permitted,’ my solicitor told me, ‘but count your fingers afterwards.’

There will be a certain satisfaction for her in bleeding me dry, it will be a kind of revenge for the fact that it didn’t work out between us, as if I’m somehow responsible for her own inner unhappiness. I’ll probably let her have what she wants because I don’t really care any more. Maybe there’s a kind of purity in having nothing rather than little. With nothing you can start your new life better. With a little you’re more inclined to hark back to your old one.

The bottom line is that we brought out the worst in each other. We made each other realise just how cruel one human being can be to another when they’re suffering. How wonderful an institution marriage is to facilitate this.

Today I fell off the wagon again. When you’re drunk you don’t feel the pain as you fall. My psychologist tells me I need something else in my life to stop me drinking. ‘It’s like your second wife,’ he says. He’s probably right, except you can trust alcohol, unlike wives. A drink won’t walk out on you like they do. When I find a wife I can trust I’ll give it up. Maybe.

I drink a beer and then another one. The second one is nicer because by that stage the guilt is gone.

There was a time I used to be an idealist, to care about issues. These days everything is more concrete, more basic. You do what you have to do because it gets you from a to b, even if you have to go through c or even z to get there.  Life is easy when you make it mechanical. I don’t think, therefore I am.

If she came back to me tomorrow I’d probably take her. Because what else is there? But she won’t come back. She’ll  do me that mercy at least. Meanwhile I’ll plod on. I won’t try to make things happen, I’ll just let them happen. Sufficient unto the day will be the evil thereof.

I’ll get my dole and look at the other poor souls doing their 40 hours, licking up to their bosses, filling their petrol tanks and doing their shopping and not walking on the grass and getting their golf handicaps down and washing their teeth every night and eating their greens and stopping at yellow lights and buying houses near schools as they plan families and only using bad language after the kids are gone to bed. Oh and never looking at women with sin in their hearts, or going the way of all flesh. Until one day on the road to Damascus the divine light shines on them.

Maybe I’ll make one last burst for grandeur, or even normality. Maybe I’ll sell myself to the highest bidder. Here’s the ad: ‘One ageing bachelor, cured of passion, capable of great things now, shopsoiled but optimistic, Contact Box 3C.’ Or maybe buy me on eBay, best before 2025.

I’ll be decrepit then. Maybe I’m decrepit now.  

Where did I go wrong? When did the dream die? I was encased in cotton wool growing up, encased in glass. People cared then. My world was a Hollywood one, the yellow brick road. My mother loved me, it was enough to be going on with.  Other women followed, those who promised the earth but delivered only that. Dorothy was the big one, though, and yet she probably promised less than all the others put together. Maybe that was why I thought we’d last.

The dawn is coming in now, throwing pools of light into the room. It’s coming up to the time of day I like best, that half light that promises something intangible. The birds are fluttering in the trees, the moon sinks into a violet bed of its own creation. 

The world is getting close, the sun is dying. Rain creeps over the roofs. I feel my heart beating against my chest. The sky is like steel.  

I want to sleep so I can forget, forget my  mistakes and maybe make new mistakes.

People give me advice on how to live but there’s no advice you can give, there’s only the living.

I watch agony aunts and agony uncles on television shows  but there’s nothing they can do either. They’re just in love with their own voices, and whatever gullible people fate throws in their path.

The television is on the floor. I watch news broadcasts about earthquakes and other global tragedies but feel immune to them. We can only see our own bubbles. Once upon a time the world was my oyster; now an oyster is my world.

But things always look worse at night. In the morning I’ll be calm again. The condemned man will eat a hearty breakfast. Then I’ll put the last relics of the past into a kitbag, turn on the engine of my car and drive to the next good thing.




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