Being a Prof’s wife had its perks. So did being married to an archaeologist. Agatha Christie’s supposed to have said that her archaeologist husband was more interested in her the older she got—an old joke even then, and it wasn’t true with us either. Dave arrived at parties as if he’d dashed straight from a dig—bearded, shirt half tucked in. The world was one big dig for him, always more to uncover. They leave patches of each site untouched because they don’t want to disturb evidence that future techniques might reveal. But unless they begin to disturb they’d get nowhere. When developers sank foundations into the heart of London and discovered old remains, Dave thought archaeologists should have been grateful for having a few weeks to explore a site they didn’t know existed, before it’s safely covered up again. Better to have loved and lost.
Except for the odd day I never visited his sites, but I knew how everyone mucked in. Lots of wine in the evenings. Improvised showers. At home he bathed with the door open, splashing as he sang. It’s funny but in all the years of my reading on the settee as he went through his repertoire, I never shared a bath with him. We didn’t belong to that generation. On digs though, who knows?
The phone rings. It’s James the church treasurer. He asks how I am, says actually he’s phoning to see if I might be interested in helping with the accounts. No obligation of course, let’s just see how it goes. I say yes. He asks if perhaps we could meet at La Mimosa on Thursday evening to discuss it.
So that’s how it’s done, I realise, when I put the phone down. He’s a widower, has been for a while, so he knows what it’s like. I couldn’t say no to the meal once I’d said yes to the church. Even through the bad times I continued going to church each week because it’s how I was brought up—an easy network to join and a welcome wherever we went. I still help with the collection and attend committee meetings. Dave steered clear of all that, which didn’t stop him entertaining people with his theories at parties. You know how dog years are like 7 human years? Well, he said, human years are like 50 religion years. There are adolescent religions and grumpy-old-man religions. Between them is Christianity, he said—middle-aged and respectable. It’s lost its early ambition, though looking back it’s satisfied with how things have turned out, smug even. I’d sometimes challenge him by mentioning Hinduism. “Old hippies,” he said, “bright colours, every day a festival.” “Buddhism?” “Not applicable.”
I’m reading Drabble again. I used to read her in my twenties. I wanted to live in the world she wrote about, full of professional women who could talk about books, longed for an artistic life, and looked like models. At least I managed the last bit, carefully casual with a weakness for frocks, letting my looks do the talking. Only Drabble’s newest books are in the library. Perhaps New Fem defaced her earlier novels. I found a copy of “Jerusalem the Golden” for 40p in the Sally Ann shop. I began to read it and realised why her books weren’t more common – her heroines use too many words, sound so posh. And yet I fell for it once, the life where “beautiful people in beautiful houses spoke of beautiful things” (p.32). Maybe later on we learn that the narrator’s trying to show off. I was never quite that bad, was I?
When I was a student I was very serious with a young music lecturer. After we broke up I thought I’d never meet anyone else like him. I took different routes to lectures, ate at irregular times in obscure canteens, kept my head down in case I saw him in the distance. I worked like crazy, telling myself not to hurry into relationships, not to make deadlines about love, only about essays. I’d not long begun at the museum when my boss suggested I should go to a conference–only down the road—because Prof. David Hall would be speaking. I met a friend there who I’d not seen for years, one of his students. I ignored her warnings. Dave and I got talking. A few months later there was a conference in Prague. I told the museum I’d make my own arrangements. Our room overlooked the Charles Bridge. This was in the communist days. We gave up shopping around once we realised prices were the same everywhere. We kept thinking we were being followed. No crowds then. I wouldn’t like to go back.
He was found in the bike-shed outside his department. “Just popping out. Back soon,” he’d said to Rachel, his secretary. They tried to revive him, did all they could. In his prime they said, not even sixty. So down-to-earth, unpretentious. A lovely man. At least it was sudden and painless, people said. No tears each time we said goodbye, watching the inevitable decline, the pain that can’t be shared. All crap of course. I mean, about wanting to share. We’re all alone. We suffer alone. I used to console others that at least their spouse’s death hadn’t been sudden, that there had been time to adjust, to resolve any lingering regrets. I didn’t believe that crap either.
The Coop Funeral people were amazing. They and the department dealt with everything—invitations, announcements, obituaries; I couldn’t have asked for more. Post for him to our house had been redirected to the department (by Rachel? Surely I had to give permission. Maybe I did).
I wanted to tidy up at home while I was still numb. His clothes were easy, bin-linered away, ready for a charity shop. Pens and the stapler he wouldn’t let me use all had to go. His books I piled into big boxes for his colleagues to deal with–auction them and give the proceeds to a heart charity? Then there was his filing cabinet, his desk, the papers that he was working on, notes from his last dig. Between the notes were letters, some going back years, that had nothing to do with work. And what about his address book? There were people who should be told, and people I didn’t want to know about. And then there was his computer. There must be an etiquette to it, I thought, a standard procedure nowadays. Around the edge of the screen were a dozen post-its with passwords. Work or play? I didn’t know. I’m not good with computers.
By the time I came out of shock (it was gradual, drug-controlled, like coming out of an induced coma) the world had fully recovered. People didn’t know whether it was inconsiderate to ask me to do things, or whether they were doing me a favour by keeping me busy. The plumbing and the roof knew what to do. I’m always getting menders in.
Sometimes the bereaved come out of their shells or absorb the mannerisms of their late partner. I’m still me, the me I discovered in my teens. What should I feel for him now? Gratitude? The agony of not being able to say thank you? Or simply the old-fashioned feeling that there’s no one left who cares about me, no one at all. After listening to one of Dave’s party monologues, a guy suggested that people had layers, that under all the conditioning and habits there was a true self waiting to be uncovered. Dave would have none of it. “It’s all equally part of us,” he said. “When one bit goes, we’re different. Losing long-term memory’s a bummer I grant you, but Jane’s mother still fluffs her hair up after laughing, she still likes wearing yellow tops. All those little habits are what she is. Bit by bit, connection by connection, she’s becoming less.” He might as well have added “There is no soul.” I wouldn’t have disagreed.
I’m not a weak person. I dealt with my father’s stroke, my mother’s expensive dementia. I can look after myself. Looking back, looking forward, looking away—I’m good at all that. We bought a big house. It was going to be our project, decorating it room by room. We were only-children with few relatives, we were used to having space. Yet now I’ve put the bed against the wall. I often wake pressed against it, watch the walls around the curtains start to glow, then the curtains themselves, along the top. The day beckons, then I remember I am old, that there’s no rush, that I can take hours to choose what to wear, that finding the ingredients for a meal and preparing it can take all afternoon.
Being childless I can do as I like. I don’t have their constant pressure to make me ‘face facts’. Facts aren’t everything. I had already resigned myself to solitude before I met him. We were each other’s consolation prize in a way. It’s hard to believe, but he used to be quite a loner. He didn’t know how to use his intelligence, always going off on tangents, but I understood that when he started to monologue about the composition of Nefertiti’s mascara, he meant that he liked my eyes. He had a mind like Troy, supposedly in layers, but actually a mess. I was the tour guide. Sometimes when I get home after a busy day it seems that years have slipped by. In the weekends I often walk through the parks and feed the squirrels. It’s my hobby, I suppose. I know I shouldn’t encourage them, they’re only rats with tails, after all, but I can watch them for ages as they nibble the nuts they hold in their tiny hands, or bury them, step over the hole, then mark their place with scent. You get a lot of entertainment for the price of a peanut. And there are the ducks to feed, especially this winter. The lake is covered with one great sheet of ice except around the shore where the thaw is setting in. I approach the edge, put one foot on the ice and press down. The whole plate bobs under my weight and I feel a sense of power, of being able to reach out gently to the far shore. All things considered I think we did okay, Dave and I.
Part of my job was to scour old libraries, hoping to find an uncatalogued, misfiled sheet—a bookmark that was more valuable than the book. In the days when parchment was expensive, they’d turn an old text upside down and write something new between the lines. Or they’d bleach the text, though old layers show through. I worked in the museum for years with rubber gloves and eyeglasses, correcting botched restorations and deciphering old scripts. When UV and X-ray took over I specialised further, though I was only ever a back room plodder. By then he had so many letters after his name that they went onto a second line. I could of course have dropped in on his conferences, checked out his stories, phoned him at awkward times. I could have found lovers of my own to show that I knew, that I didn’t mind, that I was strong. I remember being in the kitchen once with a builder who I often made coffee for. A nice man. Life hadn’t been kind to him. After I took his empty cup to the sink he stood behind me and massaged my shoulders. I didn’t freeze. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t repressed a sigh. He returned to his seat, started discussing how long the plaster would take to dry. Days later, when the job was finished, Dave and I inspected the work, ticking items off. I said that though it wasn’t perfect, we could make do. That summer I struggled to get up each morning, wondering whether this was what people meant by depression – the hours in the museum, the lonely summers while he was on digs.
Dave and I never tried La Mimosa. That wasn’t a good enough reason for me to go with James, but I went. I translated the menu for him. We watched the authentically dressed cook pound the dough and use a long-handled shovel to slide the pizza into the oven. The herbs were grown in a greenhouse behind the restaurant. James had brought a folder. It stayed on the table while we tucked into the Quattro Stagioni and Mimosa Speciale with rocket and pear. After the Tiramisu he suggested that I shouldn’t open the folder now. I should take it home, see what I thought, phone him back. I knew he meant well. Some of my best friends are religious. Dave never complained about my church-going – it gave him some peace on Sunday mornings. In return, what did I turn a blind eye to? I’m not a shallow person. I’m cleverer than my frocks made me look. I’m good at playing roles, but there’s no point playing detective now.
I invited Rachel to sort through his work. I’d often talked to her on the phone. In person I found her a stuck-up bitch, like lots of professors’ secretaries I’ve met. She wore a necklace with red beads big as golfballs, the only interesting thing about her—Dave described them as her testicle trove. When she described him as “popular” I wondered what she meant. Was she trying to tell me something? Did she book double rooms for him, hear strange noises when female students met him in his office? I tried to be friendly to her. I wanted to know more, but not too much more. “So much energy,” she said. I left her to raid his study, fill the crates with material, use her discretion to smuggle things out of the house. She took an hour to return to the kitchen. I’d been listening to a play on the radio while cleaning and re-cleaning.
“I found this in his desk,” she said, handing me a can of Heinz Baked Beans with Pork Sausages. It was his favourite meal as a child. He’d remained partial to them. But they were bad for his cholesterol, so I didn’t let them in the house. Whenever I caught him warming up a saucepan of them I’d rant, pick them up, and chuck them straight in the dustbin. No sooner had I taken the can from her then I convulsed into tears. She rushed to the kettle. She wasn’t really such a bad person. We talked about looking after old parents, kitchen fittings, the different shapes of tea-bags you can get nowadays. But she still gave nothing away—a spinster surely.
When I found the note in James’ folder I wasn’t surprised. I imagined my friends on the church committee discussing who should tell me, and when the right moment would be. I’ll phone James to tell him that I knew already, that I appreciate their concern, and that I don’t think I can handle the accounts just yet.
I read a lot. I always have. I even had theories that I prepared for dinner parties. I said that each layer had rules that have nothing to do with the rules in other layers. The errors are different, too. The closeness of slaughter and laughter is only at the word level. Only deeper can one little mistake turn love into hate. That stirred Dave’s interest because he sometimes had to date finds according to the layer they were found in. But also, if they discover church remains in an upper layer, the odds are that there’ll be another church deeper down. “Books aren’t like that,” I said. “Ah,” he replied, “but what about poetry? When the words suddenly rhyme you know that something’s happening down below.” “So when did you last read a poem?” I asked. That was what we had in common—we weren’t stuck in any layer for long. We never clashed. It’s not that we didn’t want children. We tried. It just never happened. It was in our genes, before IVF. Neither of us made a big deal of it. In time the bedrooms we’d delayed decorating became guest rooms.
Are couples supposed to grow more like each other, or cancel each other out? Perhaps it’s only their worst features that should cancel out. He always saw the bright side of life, yet when people were amusing, he sought a serious edge. He was always mixing, jumping, zooming out. I miss his curiosity, his teasing. He had a little series of photos he’d show guests–”Someone pretending to push-start a car?” “Nope. How about this one.” “Well, it’s someone on a beach with his arm out, finger pointing down? I give up.” “This?” “Arms akimbo, palms pressing out. A mime workshop?” They were pictures of tourists posing at Pisa, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal, taken from the side so that the building didn’t show. Wherever we went he tried to extend the series. He’d added a picture of me reading on my settee. I don’t know why. One of his little jokes. I can’t see the title of the book I was reading. If I could, I’d read it again.
© Tim Love
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer]