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That yellow sun, so hot, so blinding. It blocked all thought though I could still hear the scream. I held my hand up over my eyes, trying to see things: the beach, that drifting sand, odd bits of dried-out wood, the sea with frills of foam. They seemed to fade to nothing. But the scream went on. At the time I didn’t realise it was coming from me.
Liane recalls these details and talks about them later at her new apartment just off the Fulham Road, sitting with friends over drinks. How it all had been, how she’d felt then, married to Franz. ‘What is love?’ she finds herself asking. Then she’ll give a shrug, the shrug saying probably you won’t know, nobody will. ‘Well, happiness then. What is happiness?’
‘I’d had that accident, cutting my foot badly. Blood was just oozing out onto the sand. Then you know, I’ve always wondered, maybe it wasn’t an accident. I could have done it on purpose, I was in that much of a state. But it’s all such a jumble. The glint of glass on the dune, the surge of red, also the pain. I was so angry with Franz and so desperate for him to love me. That much I did know, though I was confused about everything else. Maybe it was like this—I saw the shard of glass, my own naked foot, and thought, I’ll take the misery out on my own body, or, I’m going to punish Franz. Though I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, it could very well have been.’
Liane talks a lot about that day, says she can still feel the prickly sweat of her body and the agony in her cut foot. Can even recall how the sand on which she lay had a ribbed surface embedded with curved lines of shells. Looking up suddenly she had watched as three grey birds went flying through the sky. Behind it all, her own agonised cries.
She shrugs, spreading her hands helplessly as she comes to that part of the story when she’d screamed alone on the burning slope of sand and Franz hadn’t come to her. Her eyes wince and darken as she lifts up her wineglass, replaces it, then picks it up again. Next she takes a piece of cheese from the central plate, then a biscuit or a wedge of bread. She chews a little, dabs at scattered crumbs, pours more wine from the bottle. Her eyes are everywhere. She looks at the wall, looks at the untidy pile of plates. From object to object she goes, her voice rising and falling.
‘It used to be so hard to swallow,’ Liane says. ‘But really, you know, that day was the start of things beginning to get better, even though there was worse to go through first. If that makes any sense.’
Outside it’s getting dark. The lights in the flats on the other side of the communal gardens are going off one by one. Her balcony door is still open. Breeze comes in, and it feels good. Liane sighs, leans back in her seat. As though to locate herself in the present she flicks her hand through her hair and smoothes one finger along the edge of the table. All solid, all in order. Good. She continues with her story:
‘These friends, Andy and Nina, were with us for the weekend. Franz and I were having a row which lasted the entire time. They were upset by us I think.’ And she laughs saying, ‘That was nothing, rows could last two weeks or more, or they’d subside and start up again, blowing in all different directions like the wind can up there in the Frisian Islands.’ She catches the side of her finger on her collar, the nail snags, she makes a face.
‘I crashed into the soft powdery dune and lay in a crumpled heap but with my bleeding foot sticking out straight. Blood gushed out and got absorbed in the sand. So dramatic. My blood, I thought. And the pain was terrible. Had I meant to do this to myself or just fallen on the glass? Part of my screaming was the terror at the not knowing. I so longed for Franz to come, but the row between us had been bad that whole day and he did not. In the end it was Andy and Nina who came back for me, just the two of them. Actually, I think that day was the crossroads. I turned away from Franz. I’d always been hanging on you see, waiting for things to get back to what they’d been at first, or move on to some new bright point, but this was the moment I let go of all hope. And you know something, I started to become stronger.’
Outside in the London street darkness settles. A few night sounds can be heard—the slam of a car door, occasional laughter, music here and there in snatches. There’s the soft zoom of a plane overhead, and the sudden swoosh of night wind. The late-talking hour.
Liane is an architect, when she’d married Franz she was just starting off. Franz had an import-export business. They’d met when Franz had come to London from Rotterdam and he’d moved in with her after only a few weeks. Then later, they’d bought a little house, a rundown sort of a place on one of the Frisian Islands where they’d first gone on holiday together. Terschelling. They had cycled through the pinewoods. Dreamlike echoes, bird cries. Liane remembers rambling through a wild marshy part of the island purplish pink with orchids. And they’d walked hand in hand, so necessary to keep on touching then. Just ahead of them, a tall spiky grassed bank in the shadow of which they had sex. Easy and happy. Liane says she’d felt blended in with nature. All this before the island had come to mean grief, because her marriage was grievous.
After the time of the cut foot Liane began to leave Franz by stages, trying out being separate in her mind before making the real ending happen. Franz noticed no changes, living to the full his blithe London existence. Liane’s first stage of leaving was going out herself whenever Franz went out. It got more frequent. Franz was never home. He went away for the weekend, most weekends. So Liane did too—not that he knew. Franz’s business was doing well. Now he had money he had flings, the two seemed to go together with him. Another stage in the leaving was giving up caring about his infidelities. She used to be in a torment and rage. Franz had told her, ‘But you’re my best girl.’ Liane repeats this odious phrase of his to friends in the late night recollections. She’d been desperate, and then she wasn’t any more. Franz was away on business quite a lot, going to Brussels and Rome. On one of her weekends away Liane had a one-night stand herself, later she began an affair. In this way she had started on her new life. At last she said to Franz they should have a trial separation, that she couldn’t bear things as they now were. How were they? Franz had raised his eyes as though asking this question. ‘You’re my best girl,’ he reminded her. Liane said she thought he should go to Terschelling and fix the house up when he wasn’t away on business. She agreed to go out to him every couple of months and they’d see how things went.
Liane in the bright kitchen of her new flat entertaining friends. They sit at the table sipping wine, chatting, later they loll around in the cushiony living area, addressing issues, enjoying the night. Liane says things like: ‘What is for real? What is fooling?’ What she keeps going over is Franz’s attempted suicide. She’ll never give up trying to understand that.
She says, ‘How could he have done that to himself? When he looked down at his arm, did he hate that arm?’ Liane uses her own arm as a model; taps at it, asks: ‘Did he say, Arm you’re not going to be any more, you’ll be dead?’ Her little performance gets her a laugh. She’s hardly expecting anyone to come up with an answer.
Terschelling. That yellow sun. Liane had gone up to the island for two weeks. Franz had renewed hopes. He’d given up his mistresses now he told her in a voice bold and emphatic. There was just this one tiresome woman who was hard to drop, one who hounded him. But there was really nothing in it, he just saw her now and again. Franz looked hopefully into the amber eyes of Liane. The greater his hope the more she had to disillusion him so the greater her coldness. The sex between them was distant in her case, desperate in his. The greater his renewed hope the more he was capable of blotting out her indifference, so the more she had to punish him with a show of apathy. Liane says she got some sort of pleasure out of the idea he loved her and couldn’t let go; that she was becoming addicted to his hopeless zeal. ‘Was I just craving retribution for the years when things were safe for him and when he hardly noticed me?’
Liane feels at ease in her Fulham Road flat, friends round, soft music on, balcony door left open all weathers. She’s been with clients all afternoon in her office at Mansion House. It’s good being part of the noise and rush of the centre when you know you’ve got your peaceful nook to come back to at the end of the day. Here, where it’s all quiet sociability, a place for night-chat, she works through the details of the past.
‘Out there in Terschelling it’s a different life experience, such a beautiful spot. There you can find another kind of happiness and I’ll tell you about that in a while. But what’s right for one time may not be right for the next. And I didn’t feel comfortable on the island after things fell apart with me and Franz and he went to stay in the house full time. Franz thought I was punishing him, and partly I suppose I was. Yet he didn’t seem to imagine what it would be like if we were to stay together. Strange he wasn’t able to foresee a life of despair, of bitter recrimination, when by now we could hardly bear to see one another do a simple thing like walking on the beach.
I always went carefully after that accident, skirting the dunes, stepping round sharp stones, blobs of scum, tangled seaweed. Everything. Franz was more casual, missing the bad bits naturally but yelling if he didn’t. It’s scary how much we annoyed one another with our different styles. I can see Franz walking moodily, kicking up foot-loads of sand, feeling, I’m sure, that this glitch in the relationship was all my fault. He said I mustn’t leave him. It hardened me. When we had sex those days it was tense because this was the way I reminded him that I had nothing left for him. I held back, refusing to be fluid. When I went away, back to London, he took to brooding, did drugs, slept during the daytime, refusing to accept it really was over between us. He spent so much emotional energy in the effort of hiding from the inevitable ending. We walked separately in a state of tension, tormented by pity and dislike. I remember wondering if there could be a resolution or whether we were doomed to go on like this forever.
I’d bought a beach ball, gaudy, red-and-blue-striped, a light air-filled ball. We threw it between us without enthusiasm, and it was always just out of reach, slipping to one side, falling. Was it the wind doing that? So light that ball, no substance to it, and there was this smell of soft perishable plastic.’
In the living room of the London apartment Liane lies back on her sofa, legs thrown over one of the arms. Friends recline on various chairs, the sky outside passing from pearl to grey to black.
Liane: ‘What is for real and what is only fooling? Even if Franz had said, Arm you’re gonna be dead, he mightn’t have really meant it. Most likely of course, he never thought about his arm at all or any other part of his body. But I was afraid, because even if he was only acting the part of being suicidal he still might have killed himself. He was in a bad state. You know, suppose he was acting all the time, and just meaning to punish me, or punish himself, then oops, the breath was gone, the arm inert, and it had happened. All over, meant or not. Drowned. Silky-salty water lapping round him, making the pink parts of his body look pinker, a swirl of loose sand shaly against his knees. Franz lying down in the water and saying he was going to kill himself. Out of malice, out of hate, out of anger, out of pain, out of terror, out of what? Well, for one thing, as if to say, You’d love me then, you’d be sorry. And you know something, a terrible part of me needed to know that he really was going to do it—that insecure, worst part that wanted to believe he couldn’t live without me.’ And Liane recognises there is still that in her which needs to know she really has been loved. As if this will make her into one of the lucky ones, a success story, no matter what.
‘He said his life was empty, that he was going to end it, but as for me, when I saw him lying there, helpless with resentment, I knew I would never love him again and also that I had to be strong, to get both of us past this terrible moment. The sad thing is, this threat of suicide was the last emotional experience between us, a great force which drove both of us, almost a bond, and maybe neither of us really did know whether it was genuine or a sham.
Franz said to me, ‘You don’t want me any more.’ He said, ‘You just want to destroy me. You don’t care what happens, do you?’ He said, ‘I’m going out into the sea, the North Sea, and I won’t be swimming! I’ll be drowning. Drowning! Then you’ll be satisfied.’ His face which had gone a dark beetrooty brown, looked frightening, unresponsive, sealed off from any possibility of hope. He took off all his clothes and left them on the sand in a careless heap and waded out. I called him back, called and called till my voice went hoarse.’
Tears have come into Liane’s eyes, remembering. ‘He just kept on walking, as though he couldn’t hear me. I thought, he’s really going to do it. He didn’t falter though he must have been able to hear me calling. Didn’t even look back, you know, and the water out there was getting so deep. Not even when I called his name would he turn round.’ Liane’s hands start to shake with the memory. ‘I could not believe it. That Franz would do a thing like this. But on the other hand I had to put the idea it might just be a game out of my mind. It would have seemed too churlish not to have taken him seriously. Maybe that’s what he wanted, I don’t know.’
Liane takes a sip of her wine. ‘If it was a game it could have been a dangerous one, tempting an accident, flirting with it. People can die in a game if they’re crazy enough. To hell with intention.’
‘He’d chosen a stretch of water where the current was strong. If you were a cynic you could say he knew I knew that. One part of me hated him, for being out of control or being too controlled, whichever it was. The main thing was, I hated what was happening. He went out further and further and still I was shouting and still he never looked back and didn’t start swimming. And then I went in after him. I cried out, “Franz, you’re not to do this thing. I don’t want you to. I’m sorry.” Yes, I had to say things like that. I told him I loved him and I said I’d stay with him, that it wasn’t all over. I had to.’ She wipes sweat from her face.
‘And still he wouldn’t look back. He was much further out than I was. I was up to my neck, I couldn’t get out that far, you know I’m a poor swimmer. And I wasn’t sure if he could still hear me. I felt sick agony as though it was all over. Then, on the beach which seemed so far away now, I saw moving shapes. Silent and unreal, silver shadowed. Two moving shapes. With the agony inside me I waded back towards them shouting as loud as I could. And they heard me. It was two Australians, guys here on holiday. They swam across. By this time Franz had slipped down under the water. I couldn’t even see him. Whole minutes went by and I thought that was it. But the guys got him out. Thank God, they got him, and they hauled him back to the beach. He’d gone so white I thought he was dead anyway. But they lay him on the sand; pumped the water out of him. He just lay there completely still. He was ok though. Thank God for that.’
Very few lights are still on in the flats across the gardens, but now and again you can hear spurts of music, talking, coughing, as people pass close by. Once or twice there’s the quick burst of a car horn from the Fulham Road, discordant, high-toned, and now as it gets later, the wind shudders making the curtains puff out. There’s the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, the occasional hum of a plane overhead. Shifting sounds settling us into night. Liane’s voice gets softer, goes back further.
‘I have an earlier memory of us. Me and Franz on holiday. I never wanted to leave this place. Before we bought the house, it was. We were stretched out at the base of this embankment in a band of shade. We lay where we were on spines and prickly tangles, not minding, postcoital, coming to. Finally we got up, arms still wrapped around one another because we couldn’t let go. It took us a while to climb to the top of the bank this way as we kept on toppling and having laughing fits. At last we made it and sank down out of breath. Pinkish haze of flowers all around us, that yellow sun. Below us the long line of the sea stretched grey-blue to the horizon, ending in mist. Terschelling, with its own kind of perfection, its power. Being there can absorb all the possible questions, can make you think of nothing. You have this sheer unburdened happiness, you feel quite free.’
Fiction by Jay Merill is published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Berfrois, Epiphany, Hobart, The Irish Literary Review, Per Contra and Prairie Schooner. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’ Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Email: jaymerill[at]talktalk.net