by Barbara Latham
t was his wife, Helen, whom I met first.
Rather she found me, in the park near my home. Though I didn’t recognise the considerably altered woman, I glanced her way and saw smiles I distrusted. Despite her over-eager encouragement of two girls, one sensed a steely need to keep those around her under control.
“The worst of a nursery school teacher,” I thought smugly, and took my grandson off to a slide he had no inclination to be swished down. He sat at the top, determined in his indecision, and, when the woman followed us over with her girls, she first tried hearty persuasion and offers to catch him, then: “a big boy like you can’t be scared, surely!”
He stared at this stranger, confident he could resist her, and with an over-dramatic gesture, turned his head away.
As I lifted him from blocking the girls, who wanted to slide, the woman said: “I know who you are. Weren’t you Sally Baxter?”
Helen had the advantage: she at least knew I’d moved to this city, whereas I had her and Francis placed back where we all grew up and where they remained after I left.
If it was disconcerting to find ourselves together, all too soon it began to feel as though tentacles were wafting something of me in for absorption.
She didn’t seem interested in me, or what my life might have been all these years, but the readiness to incorporate me into her orbit was to smooth off the sharp edge of a bit of old history.
I fell in love with her husband once.
Is that quite true?
If I’d fallen whole-heartedly for Francis it would have been quite a different story.
There was something uncomfortable for Helen to overcome in my being the one who threw over the man she had to value.
But Helen had a further reason to encompass me: their daughter had moved far from them, and though they visited, could not be on hand to help with the children when the husband travelled, as he did often.
Next morning over coffee Helen offered me to her daughter as “an old friend of Dad’s and the sister of a school friend I met when I turned 5,” a woman with a grandson herself who could be relied on if needed. And I felt obliged to show ordinary neighbourly kindness to Francis’s daughter, an apparently calm mother of two immaculately dressed children, as she established herself in a new home.
I didn’t meet either husband for months, until the small crisis which threw us all together.
There was a phone call one night; the 4 year old, having woken, headed downstairs and fell, breaking her arm and banging her head. Tim and I dashed round, he took mother and child to hospital, remaining as long as he was wanted, while I stayed in the house in case the 2 year old woke.
After Helen and Francis arrived next day, we were invited for thank you drinks in the garden. The daughter’s husband, who had by then returned from his business trip, drew me to admire scarlet roses. I was unpleasantly surprised to feel visceral dislike. This was not a nice man. All the “niceness” was taken up by his wife and he told me proudly what a lovely mother and sweet innocent she was.
“Perhaps only children have the excuse of innocence,” I said unnecessarily tartly and thought “she should smarten up fast to get a better measure of you.”
I kept away from Francis, feeling all too aware of Helen’s watchful eye. Instead, Tim and Francis spent the time man to man, discussing the economy over gin.
I wanted to leave not long after we arrived but felt glad that the first meeting in decades was now over and relieved to have drunk little and kept emotion tightly bottled.
As soon as we got home the tears began. “I couldn’t even kiss him now,” I tried explaining to Tim. Francis had been a man to kiss, he had mattered, if not quite enough, and – “Worst of all,” I wept, “he hasn’t flourished. Do you think I have, Tim? Do you think Francis is telling himself: ‘she wanted something more yet look what became of her’?”
“What is sure is that Helen must hate how lovely you can still look,” Tim replied. “At one point Francis was staring at you until he caught Helen’s glance. Let’s face it, you put in a bit of understated effort to be at your best and Helen’s brusque ‘I used to keep it tied back but it’s even less bother chopped off like this,’ was meant to imply she had much better things to keep her busy than foolish vanity. I can’t believe she always looked so unappealing.”
“Not everyone values appearance in their women,” I said. “But, no, growing up she had a softness, at worst a slightly helpless air, and you wouldn’t then have called her unbecoming.”
“Then she has no excuse. Belittling sexual attraction is just another way to pay back her husband,” Tim replied as he dressed the salad.
As for Francis, “oh, he’s one of those managing men. Yes, he seems more gentle than many, but it’s all sentimentality, clutching at clichés. He hasn’t been able to use his intelligence to think about his own or anyone else’s character and way of being. It’s not what you can put in your management plan, you add sensibility on at the edges and hand most of it to the woman in your life. I see why you couldn’t have stayed with him.”
“So gratifying to hear it’s clear cut to you,” I retorted. “Might he not have been helped? He wasn’t always as he is now. You may have learned to be considerate at times, but Francis is an instinctively kinder man. And he is more generous.”
“’Kind’ if you prefer a bland being taken care of. And if putting himself aside for others came too easily, he’s never had to consider it properly.”
I had no wish to eat whatever Tim had prepared – trying to talk had only shown how alone I was in my confusion – besides I wouldn’t have Francis so readily dismissed.
Tim put good food on the table but I still didn’t sit. Tim was the man with whom I’d expected to merge body and soul, and it wasn’t easy to forgive how separated we could also find ourselves. There came before us, again and again, what we didn’t share. True, the ongoing conversation during our years together was precious, it was just not the absolute I’d once imagined. It did not rescue me from being alone, though it kept me from feeling too lonely and when exchange came alive between us I felt blessed.
Tonight, however, my urge was to rub Tim out entirely, preferring to remain silent with what had been disturbed. The ferocity of irritation shocked. Though I would not actually shout “Shut up! Just shut up! You can be as rude as you like about Helen, she gets no protection, and as long as there are grains of truth in your criticism I’ll be amused. But don’t even touch that diminished man.”
I may once have given Tim all my heart, before a son came along to show me you could give it all to a baby and find love for its father quite renewed. Then do it over again with a second birth. After children passion became less selfish, obviously you could hold several in your heart without dividing it. And that included a tenderness for Francis.
Others, including her daughter, saw her as inclined to sulkiness but this was not how Helen saw herself though the signs of it lay marked on her aging face. Having failed to recognise disappointments for what they were, and so find some way to come to terms with them, she was trapped in them. Hurts had, over years, churned not to acceptance but to desiccation. She failed to identify where all that promised much, love, friendship, having children, also proved not as expected. You soon heard, listening to her, how the marriage had been sucked down into daily irritations at things being not quite to her liking. Nevertheless she usually had on hand recipes, “his and hers” for how life could be made fulfilling. Her latest was a belief that you have to develop new passions to prevent feeling old, and she has tried out several, like new hats, but without uncovering anything actually stirring. Whatever passions she may have had shrivelled early, and possibly she didn’t truly risk herself in any. Joyous is not a word anyone would associate with Helen, though she can be determined to enjoy herself. On better days she manages to be “jolly”.
I knew something of her at school, where she was in the same class as my older sister, although they were not friends.
Why then does the dried up quality Helen exudes matter to me that I stand back, look at her critically and judge?
Why do her fixed notions on marriage and family, which keep being trotted out to take the place of staying alive to what is actually going on in her life, annoy me so?
My not loving Francis as I might have seems to provide me a maternal right of concern that someone else love him well.
The man I did love, I have gently laid to rest, not seeking to know more of him, yet I continue to scrutinise the living Francis. Perhaps from indignation that, after me, he chose Helen. How could the same man who wanted me possibly want her?
Did he lose heart that he, too, settled for the conventions which rule Helen? Was it entirely arbitrary that he became involved with me and random that he and Helen then married? Or did my pushing for intimacy put him off, make him feel a failure at a closeness I sought and he didn’t comprehend, and send him towards a woman who had firm grasp of what was expected of men, one who would not ambush his past. Helen had a clear map for how a man should look after a woman and what his duties towards children should be. But, in the end, his fulfilling all his duties and more left her dried up.
I’m not sure that Helen admits her equal dislike of me, and almost certainly does not say it directly to Francis, but she undoubtedly makes the tight lipped comments I have heard often about others. She likes to consider herself “fair”, so Francis either fails to notice or doesn’t call her on the aggression in what she says. And as she controls the social life, Francis thinks it sweet of his wife to include “poor Sally” for drinks each second month.
Of course, there is no reason for Helen to be generous but it would be convenient if we relaxed alongside each other, for I see something of their daughter and I, too, am concerned for Francis.
But she is the one who has lived with him 37 years and lays full claim – her way of saying “my husband” means ownership.
Though he proposed to me twice, I didn’t want him as a husband and the second time Francis was devastated. We had both half assumed we would marry and that it was just being put off in the fashion of the times. We were already living together, a novelty back then and a daring act for Francis, tantamount to “marriage modern style” as he told his anxious mother. She, not following developments in contraception, seemed most bothered by the prospect of her only son having to hurry into a shotgun marriage without a properly planned wedding. And the daughter-in-law she eventually got did organise thoroughly. With her more attractive cousin and friend in ugly, hard bridesmaid dresses, they were unlikely to outclass the bride.
My sister Colleen was surprised to be invited and went. She informed me, somewhat sanctimoniously, she felt an obligation for one of the family to attend and give the pair our collective blessing. She also admitted to it feeling a bit dismal, with tension in the air. And, good sister that she is, she gratified my curiosity with lots of photos.
I certainly wished Francis happiness and, though taken aback by his choice, hoped he’d found his way to a rich life. When I left him I reassured myself that Francis would be able to love better with the right person. Even so, I knew I had wounded him and felt it necessary to move right away if I couldn’t commit myself.
Conviction that I would not was absolute when it came – one of those moments of clarity which flash in, leaving no room for doubt, thoughts which amaze at how they connect up threads which weren’t quite accessible before
Francis had no such vision. When he had a serious accident soon after I left, his family, probably correctly, blamed me. And now, I charge Helen with loving him inadequately, with not helping him into more of himself, when I didn’t do it either.
She needn’t worry, he is a decent man and relying as he does on convention, wouldn’t dream of taking up with me again.
It is his wish to be of use that has been roused. That and convention give him comfortable bonds.
Once upon a time he and I relied on sex, closeness skin to skin, and the excitement of that kept us going on for years. Now we occasionally share alcohol.
It is strange to find myself here again, watching distant islands taking shape out of morning haze, as if newly moulded, then over the day see them gain detail before the substantial rock is reduced to flatness with evening light. Closer to us we look out at scrubby trees, leaves wilting, except on pines in a soft green of new leaf, growing up almost barren hills. The country having had a long hot spell, the figs are already out to dry and grapes picked a month before usual.
When I said: “Everything is drying up, as I am. And the last time I was here juices were running freely,” my sister was indignant on two counts. She dislikes mention of our post-menopausal decline and is uncomfortable when I speak of Francis.
Colleen made all the travel arrangements and organised the use of this stone cottage her friend has renovated. She did not realise I had been to this part of Croatia before. The coast seems familiar but when you turn to face the new building and road it’s unrecognisable. We are up in the old fishing village, now bypassed, with all the bustle kept in front of the efficient coastal road.
Colleen and I are together because she is tender-hearted and I no longer have a husband to holiday beside.
I do not, yet, want to speak of Tim although Colleen implies it would be good for me. She seems to have thought that being here I would begin to talk of him and is disconcerted that, having been brought to a place where Francis and I had one of our best holidays, it revives episodes from long ago. I might be astonished at how much is memory lost, as well as which incidents return, but find it all refreshing. There is softness to this remembrance, where before a heaviness weighed on me, along with a fear of going under.
In the late summer heat, darkness leaks out of me and I am freed of anxiety that the rest of my days might be misery. Also, despite our differences, there is balmy comfort in having the company of my sister.
Strong sun stops my mind and I sink into being with shifting light on apparently moving sea, or with unfamiliar lime pines and their unrelenting cicadas.
But if I am pleased at what occasionally jumps out of the past, Colleen remains resistant. She believes me to be re-writing things but I am not, as she suggests, “taking my history with Francis to pieces to re-define it.” I am not even trying to remember him. Memories simply come to me and I am charmed by them.
Perhaps Colleen also fears this interest in an old lover implies that without a husband I am growing predatory and might try to move in on someone else’s, including hers.
Besides, my talk of Francis undermines her long held categories of explanation as to why that relationship did not last.
Her mind was lazy on that score, and why not? Francis had not been her partner and my leaving him made it difficult for all those around us. We had been together enough years for our families to know each other and separating wasn’t common then. When I left, friends as well as family forged themselves a satisfactory account, too pat to be anything other than erroneous. I couldn’t even get hold of sufficient complexity, let alone speak it. At first, if others wished to define what little they knew, I just distanced myself – after all it was only gossip – yet, in the end, I colluded. With Francis no longer in my bed it felt less disloyal as I, too, began to tell a partial version.
And that is what I am determined not to do with Tim. There seems to be an imperative to let each thread to him lie there, and though some entangle me at times, I am wary of imposing a shape on them.
To me it’s obvious Tim is not what there is to share with my sister. What comes to my mind are a few occasions from when I was last here, suddenly pulsing with colour and detail. If these unravel neat stitching from Colleen’s image of me and Francis it can’t be helped, for I can nearly touch the urgency of returning from a reckless climb down to the sea, where we had a tiny bay to ourselves. As we climbed back up, with mutual expectation of sex postponed from arousal in the water, one foot, slipping on a sharp rock, was cut and my green sandal fell off, dropping back to the sea. We didn’t hesitate; we were near the top and in a hurry. Francis piggybacked me to our room. There was blood on the sheet as we lay back and slept. When we woke Francis bathed my foot, turned the sheet over, then went to look for plaster. He liked to care for me but in those days rarely felt fussy, probably because his lust was far stronger.
“How can I have shared packing one useless green sandal with a man and not married him?”
Colleen’s reply was that perhaps she should be relieved I felt guilty about Francis, since she used to wonder if I’d grown too complacent with Tim. Apparently my pleasure in being with him made me rather too pleased with myself. Perhaps that was true in the beginning but being happy also eased me, so I could go with life more simply, feel less buffeted and reduce the high octane emotions.
Had my sister preferred me with all my “sensitivities”? And I hadn’t said it was guilt I felt. But there was a puzzle: if Francis and I could find enough on holiday, why not at home? And was that as much my fault as his? For him sex gave as much connection as he sought, while I was after something else. It wasn’t erotic chemistry that was missing.
“Francis is too unimaginative for Sally.”
“Sally is highly emotional and Francis just too practical for her.”
“Francis seeks to serve others, it comes naturally to him to want to be useful, but Sally isn’t after being helped. She expects a romantic hero and passion, not a man who takes rubbish away without being asked.”
Recalling brings a certain sadness that I was young and blundering into love and Francis got hurt.
But mostly I sit stilled, watching butterflies at trays of figs on our neighbour’s wall, or the sudden speed of a lizard, and let details dart in unprompted to remind me of former energy and impatience. It seems to bring quiet acceptance of all that has passed rather than remorse.
But if, now, I mainly hope not to fret over an imagined future and to be less troubled by inevitable ageing, it is somewhat unnerving to remember how much I once wanted. Not that I wanted any more from loving Francis on that day of the green sandal.
And he has remained one of the few who truly matter. These days he shows me our youth not fulfilling its potential.
Generally I look at him in a sympathetic light, preferring to find the best in the man I nearly married. When it was suddenly clear that I would not, I tried explaining a dream of the jug that had been in my family for generations and is now Colleen’s. It was full of human milk and on the top the fatty cream looked like semen. Francis and I shared only the top on our cereal. Was it the soft light around the jug, making it alive, which gave me such certainty that I must empty it?
Francis had no wish to believe that strange light gave anything definitive force.
“It’s just a dream,” he insisted, and I could only say “And one of the few to show me what I must heed.”
The dream seemed beyond my deciding, but did I impose on it the view that a longing to reach the bottom of the jug could not be satisfied with Francis?
I expected true love to be easy and felt intolerant of the difficulties we both faced.
And it was in being able to give more of myself with Tim that I could finally accept the limits of passion.
Obviously Francis couldn’t give me his blessing to leave, yet I was used to his being concerned for me and it was hard to go. He didn’t make it difficult and three weeks later, when he crashed the car, he insisted I not be told he was in intensive care. Eventually word got to me.
I asked him about it the one day he came to visit Tim at the hospital without Helen.
He was indignant. Why did I believe it had any connection to my leaving? It was much later, at least a couple of years, and he was definitely already involved with Helen. He’d worked too long and fallen asleep at the wheel. He is a man who rarely considers his past yet held doggedly to this version.
I was as adamant that he was wrong but you can’t fight well with a man you have already left.
There is not much Francis and I can do together, even if he remains in a corner of my heart . With Tim, I must be quiet, holding him more carefully than a newborn now he is relatively newly dead.
The living Francis is an unfinished part of my life, without a resting place, and presumably it will never find one. For him I can relish slender sadnesses which sometimes agitate. They give access to minor pain, my own as well as his.
Despite the perseverance of my sister and friends, who expect to be let in on my grief, the sheer force of that, when it comes to break through the grey weight, takes me over and, like making love, is not to be shared.
Whereas with my desire for Francis, any sorrow for him is small and manageable, and when it is roused it, at least, brings me a little life.