This is a sometimes bleak yet ultimately uplifting story, just right for Valentines day! It was short-listed for the Bedford International Writing Competition and showcased at the ‘Is This Love?’ reading event at the Happy Heart Café, it is one of my favourites . Hope you enjoy!
I carefully folded the paper in half and drew the heart with a soft yet steady hand. I cut around the perfect curves, down, down to the sharpest point and all the way back up again. A wisp of anticipation hit as I unfolded the paper and one heart became two. Relief! They were in perfect symmetry. I painted my hearts with the brightest, brilliant crimson and lifted them up to gaze in wonder at their beauty. I sprinkled them with a glitter of hope and breathed life into them. I was a fledgling heartmaker, but I allowed myself a soft sigh of contentment. My work was good and I was as proud as any mother, as I watched them float, out, out into the world ….my two fragile paper hearts.
I am knotted and tangled into this life. No matter how I wrangle with the enigma that is marital harmony, I cannot unravel the tight bindings. I watch through slitted eyes, darting eyes. Sometimes I breathe long, slow, painful breaths as I wade through time. I am immersed in a vat tar. It is choking me, seeping into my nose, my eyes, clogging up my thoughts and pushing the world out of focus. I am stuck tight, blind with time. I can see nothing ahead. Then there are the whirling, spinning weeks. The months where I cannot keep up. I don’t know how to function at this pace. He whizzes by and I cannot slow him down. Stop. Talk to me. See me. Please. But he just carries on. Don’t look down dear, only forwards. Only forwards. I have ceased to exist in one world or another. I move and breathe and that is enough. Enough for him not to pry. Enough for him to choose not to come down from his pedestal and open the box.
From under lowered lashes I simmer at my husband. I watch as he lays in blissful contentment on the sofa, sniggering at the inane babble of the TV. With phone in hand, he alternates between his diversions. He doesn’t ask about my day. About my thoughts, ideas, plans, hopes or dreams. Does he know I’m here? He leans forward, picks a tea cup up from the floor and holds it up, nodding in my direction with a grin . Oh yes, he knows I’m here. He smiles, only with his mouth. I have the privilege of serving him. He jiggles the cup from side to side. He is a funny man…in his eyes.
A song drifts from the TV. I fall backwards through time and suddenly my heart begins to beat again. I am flooded with memory. It fills my soul and I feel the sudden surge of long-forgotten joy. It wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always like this. There was a time, long ago. A time when I danced to that song……
I kept a close eye on my paper hearts as they were jostled and pushed against the crowd. Sometimes another heart got too close and I blew them gently into a clean space where they could breathe and spin in playful whirls. After a while they found a rhythm, their rhythm. They began to beat in harmony to their own song. They preferred a slow, steady beat. That’s when they would shine their brightest, swaying gently on the tide of my breath as it swept them away from danger. Their colour darkened to a deeper crimson, red cells of love grew within, making them stronger every day. I was told to let them go, let them find their own way. That is how it must be done otherwise …otherwise….. But they were mine…..and I could not.
Bolts of coloured lights jabbed at the darkness. I licked the salt from my top lip as the rhythm pounded and my body moved in time. My hair stuck to my forehead as I writhed on the dance floor. Bodies came close, leaning into me, hands on my hips, the sweet tang of alcohol in my nostrils. I moved in time with them, one after the other, after the other. I stretched my arms high above me and threw my head back. I was dancing. I was happy. I was free. The beat picked up and I sucked in hard, catching my breath. The crowd moved up and down. I jumped too. High and fast. I was ensnared by the pulsing rhythm of the crowd. Hands up. Thump, jump, thump, jump, a heavy, heady beat of sound and sweat. Behind me, hard against my back, a body. Strong hands encircled my waist and lifted me higher with each beat. I giggled, giddy in the moment. I turned my head back and laughed into the dark eyes of a stranger. I felt his heart beating in his chest to the fast heavy rhythm. It pounded into my back. Its rhythm matched mine. He held me very tight, as we jumped to the same beat….together.
Later we tumbled outside and spiky rain washed the sweat from our faces while we ran for cover. In the bus shelter we huddled together, giggling in the amber glow from a jagged streetlamp. He covered my cheeks with those strong, warm hands and kissed me. He was liquid mercury pouring into me. Hot, molten….toxic. When he pulled away he gave me a wicked dimpled smile. I could see the steam of my blush in the air around us.
‘Come next week, to Compton’s. I’m in the band.’
Lust curled its tongue around my stomach. I was almost breathless.
‘I like boys with guitars.’
He leant his forehead onto mine and with all- knowing eyes, he whispered
‘Does your boyfriend know?’
It was the rain. I couldn’t stop it. It washed over my paper hearts with a fury and drained the colour from them. Rivulets of water stole their crimson brilliance away, leaving them marbled with a delicate pink hue. In the tempest, another had stuck fast. A heart so dark in colour it was almost black. I blew and blew but I couldn’t separate them. They fused together in a sticky papier-mâché. All three. And all I could do was wait, wait for the rain to stop.
He wasn’t always like this. But then again neither was I. I have a fog whirling inside my mind but sometimes I catch a glimpse of him, of us, and what we were. It is Sunday and I am aimlessly wiping with a sodden cloth. I wipe around the smoky, steel of the sink, across the smooth rink of the worktop, around my reflection, distorted in the milky plastic of the kettle and the toaster, until the cloth is mottled with the scum and crumbs of our daily life. A stench of bleach and mould sours my nostrils and I walk across to the bin and toss the cloth away with disdain.
I pass him in the hall. We side step around his bulk and the hooded clank of golf clubs. I glare as he pulls open the front door and bundles himself outside. Cold air slaps my face and jolts me. I am still alive. He mumbles something and hurries down the drive. I don’t bother closing the door. I stand for a while, in the hall, letting the cold seep into me until I ache. I look at the couple in the photograph on the wall and wonder where I know them from. They are bathed in brilliant sunshine with colourful drinks dashed with brazen umbrellas. Their smiles are different to ours. They smile from their eyes and not with a cranking jerk of the jaw.
A leaf blows in and perches on the top of the radiator. It is brown and crumbling, its withered veins are desperately dry, no longer pumping with life. Another lift from the breeze and it somersaults upwards and sticks to the photograph, masking the faces of the happy couple. I move toward it and gently peel it away. It crunches against my thumb and forefinger and I ball it up in my palm until it disintegrates. I go to the front door and throw the dust outside and slam the front door shut. I wander around, pick up towels and boxer shorts from the bathroom floor and throw them in a wicker basket. I run the tap to wash away the sticky clump of toothpaste from the basin then I lower the seat on the toilet before going down stairs to the chill of the fridge and the promise from the bottle of a nice, quiet afternoon.
When he returns he snaps me from the darkness with a flick of a switch. The kitchen light buzzes and flickers for a moment before finally steadying its gaze onto my tear stained face. He sighs. I bristle. There is a tussle, some shouting and a crack of crockery echoes across the kitchen. Then finally I deflate. He drip feeds water into me and later he bathes me and wraps me in the warm blanket of his arms. When he lays this close, inhaling my essence, I can feel the rhythm of his heart. It beats in perfect opposition to mine.
He sang for me. The cliché clutched at my heart and dragged me in. I thought I was better, knew better, but I fell, just the same as you would. I buried my guilt under a duvet, sullied with the stench of selfishness. Drenched with lust I crawled home with dark- circled eyes and the taste of him embedded on my tongue. The same tongue I used to lie, lie in a way I never thought myself capable of. A whole new network of old school friends jostled with late night meetings and family emergencies to form last minute stories, woven as I staggered home, giddy with attention. The lust rebounded off the walls of our flat and formed a barrier against the man I had loved. He was pushed as far into the corner as I could, armed with the vicious lash of a critical tongue, his flaws were illuminated and I was smug with justification.
He knew of course. They say it’s the gift of women to know. But he unwrapped me bow and all, the muddied pool of betrayal seeping out to drown and choke us both in bed of tears. I gave him the courtesy of leaving. I didn’t look back. Not that first time anyway.
I went to the workshop, to the elders. There must be a tool? Some way I can unpick the glue. Something sharp to separate them. They were kindly. It often happens with fledglings they said. They don’t realise the dangers, they get too attached. If a black heart sticks, they told me, almost nothing can remove it. I was weeping when I asked…. almost nothing? Almost?
You must cut them apart they told me. But there is danger. You may damage the good hearts….forever. I was as careful as I could be, but I was new to this. I lacked experience. With trembling fingers I sliced them apart, but there was a sticky residue of black around the edges. The cut was not clean.
For a while I lived in a world filled with a light so brilliant it beamed me high above the rest of the world. Buoyed by angel’s words from a serpents tongue, nothing could touch me. I was his, wholly and completely and he was my puppet master. The caterpillar morphed into his butterfly of choice as I disrobed from my past and stepped into his future. His magic seeped into my bloodstream and pumped through my heart, filling it with his essence. As with every light, there is a shadow. But I was blind to the darkness he cast…until it was far too late.
I was working late. Torturous minutes that kept me from him, until finally, finally, I was released. I ran, out of the office and into the road to try and catch it, but the flash of red hissed passed and the dreary faces peered from the dimly lit windows, as I stamped my foot on the sodden tarmac. It would be another twenty minutes before the next one and rain drenched my sunken shoulders as the nearby driver made the choice to press his foot down hard to beat the amber light. It was many hours later when the pain hit.
More brilliant white light. Scalding my eyes. Day in day out. But this light was painful. Probing. It sucked me from the refuge of sleep where I could cocoon myself in a blanket of darkness and be free from the pain. Broken. Some shattered completely, but my bones hurt only a little. It was the slice in my heart that stung. It never went away. Like an open sore that would never heal. I only had one visitor the whole time I was there. … It wasn’t him.
Later when I called from a crackled line, in a box rank with the stench of urine, I choked and sobbed for answers. He simply said it wasn’t his style. He didn’t do hospitals. But I could call round sometime, if I liked, when I was feeling better.
I went home then, floated back down to a life where the light was muted and cloudy. Picked a white dress from a magazine with a glossy coat, and looking into blue eyes filled with love and forgiveness, I danced on a Saturday, to a slow and steady beat.
I felt safe in this world, secure in the glow of another’s happiness. The pain receded and I was feeling better….so I called round.
The waiting room is full and I can feel the walls looming over me. A toddler arches it back over its mothers lap and lets out an ear splitting wail, snot splatters over its burning cheeks and its greasy haired mother pulls a ball of grey tissue from her tracksuit bottoms and attacks its face with a down- trodden sigh. He shuffles closer and puts an arm around me as I lower my head to hide the disgust. A sharp buzzer hits my back filling and my jaw clenches as we stand and he leads me to small room at the end of a darkened corridor.
I do not speak. He speaks for me, about me, for a very long time. Yes dark thoughts. Yes, she drinks. The doctor speaks about me too, then pipes out instructions that sail above my head like transient lift music. Take them with food, try to reduce the alcohol. He nods and thanks her and we leave, and that is that.
When we get home I hang my coat in the hall and sit on the sofa while he makes me tea. He brings it in and sits next to me. His weight shifts the cushion and my handbag slips onto the floor, vomiting the contents onto the polished wood. Lipstick, pennies and fives, keys, my purse, all skitter across the floor and the phone spins like a neon- skirted ice dancer then crashes into the leg of the coffee table. I launch off the sofa, sliding on my knees toward the phone. …immediately giving myself away. He is quicker. I lay on the floor, foetal, the cold wood tiles absorb my silent tears, as he reads the text message.
‘Hey. I miss you.’
He sits back on his haunches, fingers scratching through his hair as he rocks to and fro. He shakes his head.
‘Not again,’ he whispers.
He is defeated.
I pull my hearts in close. I will not give up on them. I take the glitter from the shelf and sprinkle another generous helping of hope over them. Then I take the scissors. With a deep breath, I steady my hand and try again. I cut around them, slicing away the sticky black residue. They are so much smaller than before and their colour is faded and mottled from the rain, yet they have held fast, still together, still glittering with hope. Just one more thing to do. I take a small piece of card and with a soft yet steady hand I cut out a shape, a tiny heart. I paint it sunshine yellow and place in the centre of the other two. For a second I stop time, I reset the beats then I breathe life back into them and wait and wait…..suddenly they start to pump…all three hearts together…to a slow and steady beat.