Alabaster Conjugal 3.2
By Mark Burrow
I opened the wine and swigged. The moon hadn’t judged me harshly. It was the sun I couldn’t trust.
It’s why I preferred nocturnal living, the 24-hour garages, sitting in a night café, drinking stewed coffee served by bored waitresses with stained aprons and tacky tattoos, looking at the exhaustion on the faces of long-distance lorry drivers, eating their ketchup-soaked bacon sandwiches with dirty fingernails.
In the depths of night, a man could open the boot of his car and freely allow his alabaster wife to take in oxygen and nobody would blink so much as an eye.
He could howl at the universe and be assured a blood-red moon had granted full immunity.
In daylight, under the glare of a bastard sun in a sky of jurisprudence blue, it would be an altogether different matter.
I wondered how they would react to me in X-On-Sea, arriving with Marnie and looking for a room for the two of us. Having a statue for a wife, especially one made of alabaster, could cause a kerfuffle. The Mayor might demand answers at an emergency Council Meeting. Bringing in the Chief of Police, who in turn might cable the Municipality to send an Investigator. The locals would whisper behind my back. Spinning elaborate conspiracy theories. Staring at me in the supermarket with suspicion as I declared I would astonish them with a painting of an apple.
A reporter from the local paper might knock on the door of my rented room and ask questions:
“What’s it like to live with a wife of stone?”
“Do you believe statues should have a right to vote?”
I predicted mass protests on the streets. Placards and marches as the locals chanted that I remove Marnie from X-On-Sea because they didn’t want our sort living in their midst. A propeller plane would fly above the town in slow circles and then above the shoreline with a banner trailing behind, saying ‘Statues Out.’
We would be forced to leave, hounded from the town in a campaign of hate and vilification.
“Why do you think it is only women who turn into statues? Is it nature’s defence mechanism against the evils of patriarchy?”
“You’ve described yourself as a latter-day Paul Gauguin, promising to dazzle the citizens of this town with a painting of decadent fruit, but did you know that it was Paul Cezanne who claimed to ‘astonish Paris with an apple’ in his effort to get his work exhibited in the Salon?”
I swigged wine, realising I had confused my ‘Pauls’. I opened the album of photographs from the wedding. Gazing at those pictures, I tried to imagine what Marnie had felt about me on that day, what she thought a future with me could possibly be like. It was meant to be a happy time, but I experienced a sense of numbness during the ceremony. There was a flatness inside of me, minimal emotion. I listened to the deadening formality of the vicar uttering our names, and followed the instructions of the photographer, ordering us to line-up with our backs against a wall. I struggled to recognise the faces of the people watching us. When I spoke, I could hear my own voice, like I was having an out of body experience. It reminded me of a disaster of a job interview, where you can’t believe the nonsense words that are spewing from your mouth.
The photographer, a girl in her mid-twenties, kept telling me to show happiness.
“Smile,” she said.
Marnie’s mother, Bridget, encouraged me as well, but her tone was sharper. “Come on, smile.”
I tried to pretend I was happy. The photos show an odd rictus, as if I feared I was about to follow through. I looked at the people. They were mostly Marnie’s friends and family. I didn’t have hardly anyone there. A father, of sorts. A mother, in theory. An uncle, dressed like he had been sleeping on the streets (maybe he had). The handful of friends – more mates than friends – who were in attendance had never met each other before.
As a rule, I liked to keep my mates apart.
Seeing them together made me uncomfortable.
They were surprised to be invited, almost as surprised as me to see them arrive.
I was an imposter, a stranger, gate-crashing my own experiment in matrimony.
I closed the album. I wasn’t sure what photographs even signified. I started the engine and drove off, seeing that the former CEO had continued mansplaining to the fake Marnie at the counter. I followed the signs along the corkscrew road, flicked the indicator, pulled out onto the motorway and pressed the accelerator down, hearing the engine rev as I shifted through the gears, speeding by the lorries and trucks.
I wondered why I couldn’t feel emotion at the wedding, except maybe a faint sense of doom, of futility, like I was using the last of my life savings to place a bet on a horse that had no chance of winning.
There was a forest on the road to X-On-Sea. I headed there in the car. I knew the area from my childhood and, when I arrived, I drove along a bumpy rode full of watery potholes. The trees arched over, forming a canopy, and I parked in a spot where I knew I was unlikely to be seen.
I took a slug of wine and lit a cigarette. I listened to the birds singing in the trees. I heard the human-sounding screech of a muntjac.
The blackness of night was fading from the sky, revealing a velvety blue.
I knew the sun was coming.
I opened the boot and pulled back the bin liner, looking at Marnie’s stone head and half-open mouth, ready to swallow a scotch egg. I touched her eyes and cheeks and ran my fingers down her chest, brushing them over her cold, stony nipples.
I lifted her up and slung her over my shoulder, taking a shovel and then I closed the boot, locking the car, and walked through the mud and clay into the forest where Henry the VIII was alleged to have courted Jane Seymour back in ye olden days. I walked off the path and through the high wet grass, hearing the rhythmic cry of a cuckoo.
I came to the part of the forest where I used to hide as a teenage boy. No one ever found me here. Not my mother, who was too preoccupied with her own daily traumas to search for me, or my father, who would be at work, or my grandfather, who would be trying to sniff me out.
I lay Marnie on the grass.
“You cannot come with me just yet,” I said to her.
I scanned around, took a long swig of wine, and then jabbed the shovel into the soggy ground. My plan was to keep Marnie safe until I had established myself as a respectable citizen of X-On-Sea. I could then return and bring her with me, under the cover of darkness, and find a comfy place for her in our new home, where no questions would be asked from prying reporters.
My phone rang. I shouldn’t have answered. I needed to throw my mobile in the nearest river and say to hell with modern devices.
I realised it was Marnie’s mother. She didn’t give up easily. I had answered on videocall and she was looking right at me through the screen.
“Bridget, good to hear from you.”
“There you are,” she said loudly, “why aren’t you answering me? I’ve been worried sick.”
“It’s been busy, busy, busy.”
“Marnie’s phone keeps going to voicemail. Is she there? Can you put her on?”
Without realising, I tilted the phone.
“Where are you?” she cried out. “And why do you have a shovel?”
“Put my daughter on this second.”
“She’s right in the middle of something. I’ll get her to call you back.”
“No, I want to speak with…”
I pressed end-call.
Marnie had a complicated relationship with her mother. It struck me as peculiar that nearly all of the trauma and psychological pain that people suffered in their lives was caused by the dysfunctional families they were born into, and yet they insisted on defining their existence by choosing to create new families of their own, expecting a different outcome.
I lit a cigarette, hearing the percussion of a woodpecker’s beak hitting bark.
“We won’t be together for our anniversary, Marnie,” I said, looking at the top of her head in the bin liner. “But I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I’ll find us a house by the sea with a white veranda and I swear I’ll smile like a real human being every day.”
I flicked the cigarette, swigged the wine, and resumed digging. It made my lower back sore and my arms ache. When I had finished, the sky was bright pink. I hurriedly lifted her from the bin liner and placed her into the muddy hole.
I looked at her lying there, arms slightly apart and eyes half shut. She seemed adrift in a dreamy hinterland, finely balanced between this life and the next, like John Everett Millais’ painting of a consumptive Ophelia.
The sun kept rising. The steady heat caused a gentle, gaseous mist to curl up from the ground.
I knew I had to fill in the dirt and cover my tracks.
Given the hideous intrusiveness of the sun, I couldn’t quite explain why I stripped off my clothes, including my socks, and lay on top of her, kissing her frozen alabaster lips. I smiled with an authenticity I wish I’d shown on our wedding day.
The steamy mist slowly enveloped us, making it feel like we were in a cloud.
I waited for the precious moment when I would turn to stone and the two of us would merge into a single entity.
My reverie was interrupted by a panting sound. A large black dog appeared at the edge of our muddy lovenest, peering down, its coarse tongue hanging loose from its slavering jaws.
Somewhere, deep in the interior of the forest, a muntjac screamed.