You say one thing
By Mark Burrow
As I lay here now, thinking about that night, I wonder about myself. How I let what happened happen.
It was late on a Friday and - as expected - I heard him sliding up the walls, then came the rodentish scratch and tap as he scrabbled for the right key, eventually sliding it into the lock.
When Paul came in, he was in a terrible state, staggering about, so unbalanced he was barely able to stand - it was entirely self inflicted. I was on the couch and when I saw him in the hallway, the anger poured forth. I demanded to know where he had been. Who he’d been with.
‘Stop shouting, stop shouting, I’ve not done anything wrong,’ he slurred, heading into the toilet. I listened to the pathetic patter of his pee hitting the carpet.
The routine Q&A for the past couple of months went like this:
- Where were you?
- Out with friends. Work mates.
- I don’t believe you.
- You need to take tablets for that paranoia of yours. Why are you so controlling?
- I’m not controlling.
Note the clever mind games, making me doubt myself. Leading me to deny the glaring signs because surely my boyfriend would tell me the truth.
Paul used to complain how dull and staid his colleagues were, how they never wanted to go for a drink, not even on a Friday, and then the social scene, to put it mildly, picked up. He’d be out on a Friday until closing, an occasional Tuesday, and on it went until he could be out for four nights of the working week. He’d come in at midnight, two o’clock, and occasionally five in the morning. He said there was a pub that stayed open through the night. I believed him.
- You don’t mind me going out do you? he’d say, making my concern sound like I was acting possessive, controlling.
- I won’t go if you don’t want me to.
Admire the double bluff when he says, - Why don’t you come with me? It’d be nice for you to meet my colleagues. They keep asking about you.
I partly wanted to go along and meet them, but I was reluctant as I felt his invite wasn’t genuine.
When Paul and I talked, I could tell his mind was straying elsewhere, and in bed he started to turn away, leaving me with the cold shoulder. The only kisses exchanged were pecks on the lips, and then he would kiss my forehead or cheek like I was a friend or sibling.
During that period, his reasons for going out ranged from leaving parties and birthdays to company outings, but normally he attributed not coming home to needing a drink and a chat to de-stress, relax.
I often stayed indoors on a Friday. I’d go to the supermarket and get him a pizza for when he finally came home, plus his lagers - I’d be in trouble if I forgot his lagers to drink off his Saturday hangover - , and watch television. I’d buy myself a bottle of white wine and some crisps and organic chocolate, and sit on the couch and watch television with our cat, Mr Johnson, asleep beside me.
Deep down, I sensed Paul was lying to me. But it isn’t easy being honest with yourself. Somewhere within, I was trapped in the middle, stranded. On the one side, I realised he must be cheating on me. On the other, I knew he loved me and would never jeopardise what we had together.
‘Where have you been?’ I yelled when he emerged from the toilet. He didn’t realise he’d forgotten to lock his phone and had accidentally called the home number. Called when he was at a bus stop, saying goodbye to her, Kerry, a South African who worked in marketing.
‘Let’s meet tomorrow,’ said Paul.
‘Come on. Let’s do it.’
‘It’s too difficult tomorrow.’
When the talking stopped I began to feel sick. I heard a rustling sound. The two of them were kissing.
Paul sat on the chair in the lounge, his fly undone. I talked at him and he could barely see me. Within minutes he was snoring, asleep, still wearing his coat. His shoes and tie were on too.
I went and grabbed his phone. Looked at sent items. The text messages were lurid, fantastical.
I love you.
We must be together.
I can’t stand this anymore.
I felt as if I was watching a grand-scale disaster on the news, my innards mulching to nothing, layer upon layer crashing into the next, disintegrating . You say to yourself, ‘This can’t be. This isn’t real.’
Afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, you get through these bad times. In bed, now, hearing the birds in the trees in the garden, I understand how I’m a stronger person.
I’ve moved on.
I’ve learnt that grief and misery are caused by assumptions.
By relying on other people.
Back then, I smoked. I’ve quit since, but that night I smoked, as they used to say, like a train, reading his messages and her replies. I thought about calling the girl. Didn’t she have a boyfriend? Or was it a husband?
(The way people behave never ceases to astonish me).
I was cross legged on the kitchen floor, using a saucer for an ashtray, drinking white wine. Mr Johnson came in, meowing, nuzzling his head against my knee. I must’ve fallen asleep because the sound of the flushing toilet stirred me.
It was early. Mr Johnson had gone. Ever the opportunist, he’d probably sneaked onto the empty bed while he had the chance (he wasn’t allowed to sleep on the bed).
‘Where were you last night?’ I said to Paul.
Such was his hangover, he couldn’t stand straight. ‘Out with work,’ he muttered.
‘The usual lot. Why? Did we row? Was I noisy when I got home? I don’t remember getting home.’
‘Are you telling me you weren’t with Kerry?’
In pain, he glanced at me, blinking.
‘Kerry was there.’
‘I heard you.’
He passed me and went to the kitchen. Opened the fridge.
‘Don’t have a beer.’
He grabbed the can.
‘Don’t drink that.’
‘I have to,’ he said, swallowing.
‘Tell me what’s going on.’
‘What are you getting at?’
‘You were at the bus stop with Kerry. You dialled me by mistake and I heard you talking. I heard you making plans. You wanted to meet her today.’
‘Her bus stop is on my walk home. That’s what you probably heard.’
‘I’ve read your text messages.’
‘You what?’ He tapped his pockets. ‘You’ve done what?’ He was animated now, alert, defensive, almost honest, and he rushed into the lounge, searching his coat. ‘Where’s my phone? What have you done with my phone?’
Then he said, ‘How can you be like this? That’s mine.’
I held the phone up. I read aloud, ‘Kerry, we’re meant to be together. I can’t wait to be inside you, touching your breasts, kissing.’
He snatched it. ‘That’s a joke. She’s South African. They’re crude like that.’
‘You think I’m that stupid?’
‘You’re being paranoid.’
‘You’re having an affair, Paul. Can’t you admit it to me? Why would you continue to lie when I know what you’re doing? Are you listening to me? I know, Paul. You’re in love with another person and she isn’t me.’
‘I’m not having an affair.’
That’s when I lost it.
‘I’m not having an affair, I’m not,’ he repeated, sitting on the chair, head in his hands.
I put on my trainers and a coat.
‘Don’t go,’ he yelled. ‘Stay.’
At that moment, the sight of Paul made me sick. I walked for I don’t know how long, in no particular direction. I remember the coldness and the moon was visible in the grey dawn light. I was angry and alone, violently on my own like when my mum died. Those sorts of feeling were in me and I was angry at myself for being so naïve. We’d been intimate. Close. So together in what we did. Be it going to the cinema, theatre, shopping for food. We had a baby language of our own, silly words and pet names, voices, a code of our own making.
I ended up in the park where, on Christmas mornings, we had a ritual of going for a walk after we opened our presents. A low mist hung over the grass, which was stiff and dappled white with frost. On the far side, by the pond where Paul and I went to feed the ducks and swans, a man played a saxophone. The noise drifted across the glassy surface of the water, mixing with the prehistoric cawing of the crows.
I sat on a bench. A plaque was attached to the back: Albert Joseph: 1940 - 2006. I wondered where the ducks and swans had gone to.
The coldness caused tears to form in my eyes. I was breathing quickly, panicking, forming mini clouds.
I pulled out my phone, wanting to call someone, needing to speak and share what I felt. I pressed dial and stopped. The embarrassment was too much.
Time is a great healer. You do recover. What that really means is you teach yourself to forget. It’s like a functional amnesia. I vowed that once he moved out, that was that, finished.
A couple of months passed and we stayed in touch. We talked on the phone, an hour or two passed easily. Then we’d meet on a Saturday, see a movie, go to the theatre. He liked my new hair style, the clothes I'd bought. He promised to change. That he’d drink less. I thought that was a major step, as I was sure alcohol had caused him to behave like he did. The real Paul was someone else, caring, funny, a person to love.
I guessed he realised what we had was of greater value than the fling with Kerry. Now I wonder if Kerry called things off, saying she didn’t want to leave her partner and he didn’t like the idea of living by himself or staying in a flat share. Either way, I took him back. We made a fresh start.
I put on my dressing gown. We bought a house, three bedrooms. He’s even learnt to drive. Mr Johnson jumps off the bed and follows me down the stairs, meowing for food. In the lounge, Paul is asleep on the sofa, shoes on, tie on, the TV screen is on and yet blank. I take the remote control from his limp hand and I can see he’s been watching the porn channel.
Six weeks after we moved in, he resumed the drinking. At home, he could polish off 8 cans of lager and a bottle of wine, basically falling unconscious during Match of the Day, and that’d be his version of a quiet Saturday night in. He’s going out with his colleagues too, so he says. His kisses are different or, if you like, the same. Perfunctory, polite, like when he was seeing Kerry.
He’s out on Tuesdays, Thursdays.
Last night he got in at three.
He stinks of alcohol.
I take his mobile phone. Scan the messages. I can’t find what I’m looking for.
‘Where were you? Who were you with? Who is she?’
Paul, yawns, blinks. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong,’ he says.