AND IT WAS DEAD I - FABIO'S STORY
The old man awoke and touched himself, as he always did, as if to prove he was still alive. That being done, Fabio turned to his young sleeping companion. She slept on her side. Her back was turned to him and he watched as her shoulder gently rose and fell when she breathed. Her long dark hair arranged itself in an extended, unruly cascade on the pillow. The morning sun streamed through the blinds illuminating the far wall of the bedroom, highlighting the small dressing table surrounded by framed pictures he had taken of her. It was maybe 7.00am. The days were growing shorter now and he was about to start another one. He reached out his hand to stroke her hair, in what was now a part of their ‘Good Morning’ ritual, and stopped.
He found himself thinking, ‘What will today hold, will it be like yesterday and the yesterdays before it. Is this our life?’
Once, in the beginning, in the ‘soft times’, she smiled in the morning at the tenderness of his reveille; greeted each morning as a new challenge, a fresh page in life’s book. Now, it seemed, she shrugged him away and rushed off to her first cigarette of the day.
Needs had changed. The contract had changed.
Once they had clung together in bed, building their own world; laughing, smoking, plotting, and dreaming. Now she seemed to cling to the bed’s very edge so as to be as far away from him as possible, as if the collision of their flesh might be corrosive or in some way tainting. The distance between them was a ‘no-man’s land’, a minefield which he crossed at his peril. They were worse than strangers. They had known each other’s warmth and passion and now it was avoided, denied in a silent, uncomfortable pact.
How had they arrived at his uneasy impasse? When did the end begin? Had he missed the warning signs?
His chosen career as a painter had stalled and, as a result of a previous, destructive affair, he had felt lost washed up. He was drifting and dying slowly. His life was devoid of passion, dwelling on the negatives of life; accepting limitations imposed by others to keep the peace. That was the price of his continued relationship with Janine; to be less than he could be, to carry unexpressed dreams and wishes because his partner was stricken with velleity, the lowest form of volition. Everything was too much trouble, tomorrow stayed a foreign country, unexplored. She found a strange comfort in the past even though she could spend hours and sometimes days in gnawing at herself, berating herself for choices not made and roads not taken.
Initially, his energy had been enough for both of them, but, as time went by the weight became too great and slowly he buckled until he could carry no more and the gravity of things unsaid and undone brought him to illness and took away his voice. He no longer felt at peace in the world, he could no longer paint his truths as he no longer lived them.
When he met Carmen it was as if the lights had suddenly come on, she was a breath of fresh air; and he realised that he had been living in the darkness for so long that he had acclimatised to it. With her, all seemed possible. They had met at weekend seminar in Seville on the work of Salvador Dali. He loved Dali for his freethinking, because somehow, he seemed to typify a transcendence of the humdrum. The artist had turned left whereas others stayed on the well-worn paths. There was more than a touch of envy here.
He had met Carmen on the Saturday morning, the first full day of the seminar, and somehow he felt her soul call to him. Or was it his soul expressing a need for her? They were introduced at the first morning break and immediately gelled. She spoke of Dali and painting with knowledge and passion. She drew pictures in his mind with her words. He felt the flame in her and wanted to be close to it. He had so much he wanted to say to her, to share with her, to learn from her. And yet, he knew he had so little time here at the Seminar before he had to return to Lisbon and the dark, cold life he had accepted.
At lunch he was placed on a table with professors and other artists but scoured the room for Carmen, missing most of the in-depth argument and discussion around him. She was not there. His heart sank.
In the afternoon sessions he saw her across the room sitting with the group from Valencia and immediately felt warmed by her presence. His instinct was to go over and call her from the room so that they might continue their discussion.
The afternoon sessions dragged. He was only half aware of the content as he sat and plotted ways to encounter her alone later. When the lectures and discussions ended the delegates started to leave the room. He started toward her and, as he did so Jaime, the delegate from Barcelona University, engaged him in conversation. He only looked away long enough to make excuses and apologies for his unseemly rush, but in that short time, she managed to slip from the room.
Cursing himself and his bad luck, he returned to his hotel to freshen up. The Seminar Dinner was due to take place that night. He had not intended to go but now he felt he must. He felt compelled to see her again. He needed to feel that fire again, the fire that was so absent from his own life. He called the organiser’s to make arrangements for his attendance and then settled into a troubled siesta; his mind flicking through what he would say or do if/once he found her.
He awoke at 6.30pm. An hour to clean and dress himself, then a quick phone call to his other life and off to the dinner. Janine wanted to know when he would be home. Her weekend had not gone the way she had planned and she was upset and angry. ‘No change there’, he thought. Composing himself, he wandered down to the Hotel Estrella for the evening function. He studied the seating plan and found that he was seated near the back, the ‘sad people’ section he called it as it was where all the delegates who were not part of groups tended to be placed. The hope being that they would in some way bond and be less alone. ‘Had the Hoteliers ever considered that some people liked to be alone. In fact, were happy keeping their own company’, he thought.
Dinner was acceptable but tedious, inane conversation, small talk, opening gambits to try and find common ground. All the time his eyes raked the dining room for Carmen but she was not in sight.
The meal done he returned to his room to find that Janine had left a message for him, which he chose to ignore; she needed to talk to him about something. Again, she sounded upset and angry. ‘I don’t need this right now,’ he thought, put on his best suit and returned to the Hotel Estrella, this time to the ballroom.
It was now 10.00pm and he told himself that if he could not find her by midnight he would return to his room, pack and leave rather than prolong his agony. Entering the ballroom he met a group of four women who he had encountered on the first night and rather than prop up a wall and feel like a fish out of water, he decided to sit with them. He spoke with them in faltering English and they replied in a mixture of slow methodical English and a smattering of Spanish. They were professional businesswomen from England who had come to Seville as a special treat. Two of them were single and had wished to let their ‘hair’ down while away, and he took turns in dancing with them while he scanned the room for Carmen.
He was sure he caught a glimpse of her at around 11.45pm so he dispensed with his deadline and manoeuvred his dancing partners around the grand dance floor until he literally bumped into her. He apologised and noted her whereabouts. When the music ended Fabio returned his partner to her seat and took his leave. He crossed the dance floor just in time to see Carmen accept a man’s extended hand and be led onto the floor.
Fabio lingered by the bar until the dance was over and swiftly crossed the remaining distance and extended his hand. Her eyes met his with a mischievous glint as she looked to find the owner of the hand.
‘I thought you’d gone,’ she said. ‘I didn’t see you at dinner’.
‘I was late and at the back, on the sad people’s tables’, replied Fabio.
She laughed and Fabio guided her out onto the floor. The band played a medium paced Salsa tune but Carmen and he were too busy talking to fully follow the beat. After three attempts at dances and much laughter she excused herself.
‘I must get back now or my friends will wonder what has happened to me.’
Impetuously, he asked. ‘We will dance again?’
‘Of course, in a while.’ She replied. ‘I’d like that.’
But the dance did not come. Instead Fabio danced with other women and she, with other men, for two or three dances and then he followed her as she left the Hall. He found her sitting on the stairs with a group of seven or eight people having a cigarette, as smoking was not allowed in the grand Ballroom. He joined them. Some he recognised from the Seminar, others were introduced to him. Three were Carmen’s friends, whose names he instantly forgot. They talked as a group for a while, as people drifted by into and out of the Hall and slowly the group melted away until all that was left was Fabio and Carmen.
The conversation became intense; they were locked in each others eyes and sharing cigarettes, feelings and dreams. He felt so alive that he wanted the night to go on forever. This was what had been missing from his life; intensity, passion. He believed he loved Janine but he had no hunger for her. He realised that their relationship was more based on fear of loss than a future and the adventures it could bring. They did not take risks or step out their cosy norms. Now, talking to this strange woman, he felt the return of life and hope. They spoke of art, music, and travel and found they had many things in common. They both wanted to see new sunsets on strange shores, experience fresh winds on their faces and walk virgin sands. Finally, the bandmaster announced the last dance and Carmen checked her watch. ‘I could run away with you now,’ she said. ‘But I must go back to my friends. They’ll be wondering what has happened to me.’
Sadly he agreed that he had monopolised her time and asked to exchange email addresses so that they could continue the conversation. She agreed and kissed him on both cheeks before starting to return to the ballroom. Fabio checked his watch and found that it was now 2.30am. They had talked for over two hours. He put her address in his wallet like it was treasure and started to walk away. Suddenly, he heard his name being called and turned to find Carmen, slightly embarrassed, a few feet behind him.
‘That was no way to say ‘Good night’.’ She said advancing towards him. When she was close enough to whisper she spoke quietly to him. ‘I have really enjoyed spending time with you and if the situation were different the evening would not end here.’
‘I feel the same’. He replied. ‘But my situation…..’
‘No words now’. She said silencing him. ‘Please just hold me, just for a moment and then I must go.’
Silently he held her; felt her warmth against his body, her cheek against his, her contours, her breathing. He drank it all in because he knew that they might never meet again.
‘Write me soon’, she said breaking from his embrace.
‘I will’. He replied. ‘I will’.
The next morning she was gone and he finished the Seminar with her words echoing in his brain. As he packed and made ready to return to his other life, he was already composing his letters to her.
On his return to Lisbon, Janine was wrapped up in the ruins of her weekend. Things had gone wrong from the word ‘go’. The friend she was to spend the weekend with in the country had come to collect her an hour late which, as Janine was rarely late, annoyed her greatly. Rather than discuss the situation she had chosen to ignore it, to try and ‘let it go’ which in this case translated as being sullen in the four-hour drive to the mountains.
The weekend got progressively worse as her friend, Linda, dived into the bar and nightlife dragging the sullen Janine behind her. Finally, Linda enquired as to what was the matter and a fierce row ensued. The product of this was Janine hiring a car and driving back to Lisbon in the middle of the night and ‘Why didn’t you call me back last night?’
Fabio tried to explain about the timetable of the Seminar sessions and explained that the phone signal in Seville was not the best. He talked about the sessions he had attended and the people that he had met, including Carmen, and that he would be keeping in touch with a number of them by email. He did not, however, mention the hours he had spent with Carmen or the nature of their parting.
‘You gave out your email address to women?’ She blazed. ‘Why? How would you feel if I gave out my telephone number to strange men?’
By way of explanation he said, ’Networking is part of the Seminar; the free exchange of ideas. These people live all round the world and it makes sense to use email.’
A terrific argument followed with her accusing him of at best, not being there when she needed him and at worst, of being unfaithful. She turned on her heels and ran to the spare bedroom, locking the door before he could remonstrate. He had been here before, all too often. This time, he resolved, it would be different.
Instead of attempting to reason with her through a locked door, he strode out across the courtyard to his studio and opened his sketchbook. He felt alive and not willing to compromise or make apologies because he had, after all, done nothing wrong. That she had not enjoyed her weekend was her own affair and of her own construction. She had made choices that precipitated the debacle and he was not prepared to be her whipping boy. He would talk with her when and if she calmed down. At this moment he felt the need to create.
The thought that came to mind was Persephone, Queen of Hades, whose return to the over world heralds the change of seasons. He felt it epitomised Carmen; they had met for the first time and the dark winter was over. He could again feel the light and warmth of the sun on his body. He was brimming with the need to make his voice heard. To draw, carve, write, sing, declaim, argue. To have the option for the last word rather than holding his tongue to keep the peace. As he scribbled furiously into his pad, he resolved no longer to lead the half life he had some how slipped into.
After many minutes and many attempts to find the definitive Persephone he stopped. He now had the sketch that felt right; a mountain-striding Persephone in her flowing Grecian robes sowing the seeds of Spring renewal across the land. But the seeds she sowed were ideas, they fell devastating the towns and villages below her, falling like bombs on the sleeping populace; awakening the minds of the sleepy, the sad, the lacking in confidence, blasting away the fetters from their minds.
‘God! What an amazing idea, so simple, so brilliant’, he thought. ‘But it must be a huge canvas. An idea like this can not be expressed in meagre terms.’ His brain was on fire with the concept of his new project, in truth, the first new, fresh idea he had had in years. He gave himself over to his muse until, spent, he fell asleep in the old studio armchair with his sketchbook on his lap. He had exhausted the greater part of the night refining his idea until he knew exactly how this magnificent work could be presented. Through the whole process of place and replace the only constant was the face of Persephone. He had drawn it unconsciously and it was right; it was Carmen.
Morning came and Janine found Fabio still asleep in the studio with his pad now fallen at his feet. She approached quietly and picked it up. She opened it to find page after page of Persephone’s, all bearing a face she did not know. She shuddered as if a blast of cold air had found her. ‘He has not worked like this for years’, she thought. ‘Once all these faces would have been mine.’ She threw the book at his sleeping form and as he awoke she screamed at him and beat him with her fists, calling him ‘adulterer’, ‘whoremonger’. Fabio defended himself as best he could from the armchair and then, braving the blows, stood up and grasped both of her wrists in his left hand. He pulled her to the floor, so that she could no longer kick at his shins, and pinned her down.
Moving his face close to hers and meeting her flaming gaze he said, ‘Believe as you wish, that is your business. However, ask me any question and I will not lie to you.’
He waited in silence for some response. He held her gaze and, for that long time, failed to recognise the woman he had loved. She had been taken over by some scared, shrill, manipulative harpy.
‘If that is all, please leave me I have work to do’. He said calmly.
And that was the beginning of the end. Over the next few months, Fabio finished his massive Persephone and many smaller works. As his confidence grew and his work rate increased Janine grew more and more silent and sullen while, by contrast, Fabio grew more impassioned and alive. They went through the motions of every day life but never really ‘touched’; they avoided any subjects which might provoke dissent or passion.
He sent a tentative email to Carmen a week after his return from Seville and she responded with a long, bright letter describing her life and work in Barcelona. She worked for an import/export company and frequently travelled. Fabio, for his part, told her of his life in Lisbon with Janine. She asked no questions of him on the latter subject but seemed very interested in Lisbon. She, apparently, visited Lisbon periodically for business and hoped one day that they would meet again. Fabio concurred. She encouraged him in his work and seemed genuinely interested in his life and views. The difference between Janine and Carmen was stark; dark and light. Each letter was a packet of light that he could carry with him and open when he felt as if he was slipping back into the darkness.
After around six months Carmen wrote to say that she would be coming to Lisbon on business and asked if they could meet. Fabio nervously told Janine that one of the delegates from the Seminar was visiting and had suggested meeting and she responded, as expected, with rage. Rehearsing the same arguments they had had after the initial Seminar. He agreed that he would not meet with Carmen on this occasion and made his excuses to her. He felt wounded by the decision but decided that it was for the best; to maintain the ‘status quo’, it could never be called peace. Peace is a time of optimism and there was none here.
Carmen accepted the decision with sorrow but after a few more months wrote a long serious letter. She felt that the energy between them was dissipating and that she felt a reticence on his part to meet. He wrote back and explained, as best he could, his situation and added that he believed that the apprehension could come from knowing that a meeting might not live up to the energy and dynamism of their letters. Carmen agreed but countered that they must meet because they must know. ‘Not knowing is the greatest pain of all’, she wrote. ‘Should we meet and find that we have nothing to say we have, at least, our letters and the joys they have brought. Some people do not even have this much’.
‘I will see what I can do’, he replied in his next letter. Explaining that he needed to try and resolve his existing relationship and that, at present, meeting her would only inflame the situation. However, the day he found the card from her ex-lover changed his perspective.
It was Valentine’s Day and Fabio had arisen early to make Janine breakfast in bed, as was his custom on this day. The doorbell rang and on answering the door he encountered the postman. He wished the postman a good morning, took the mail, sorting it as he walked back to the kitchen where the aroma of fresh coffee was beginning to fill the air. As he sorted the mail he noticed a large ostentatious blue envelope addressed to Janine. It felt like it contained a card and the rear of the covering was adorned with dozens of ‘x’ kisses. Fabio was curious but chose to say nothing at his point. He finished the breakfast preparation, put the blue envelope on the tray with his own hand painted card and took both breakfast and cards to Janine.
Janine smiled to see the breakfast and hugged Fabio warmly when she saw his offering. However, her face turned quite pale when she saw the other package.
‘Aren’t you going to open it,’ teased Fabio.
‘No, no, I know who it’s from’. Replied Janine looking sheepish. ‘It’s from Andres’.
‘Well that’s no reason not to open it’. Said Fabio, trying to keep his voice level and unthreatening. ‘You were together a long time and I know that he still has strong feelings for you.’
‘I’ll open it later’, she replied, placing the card in her diary, which sat by the side of the bed.
Fabio’s curiosity was peeked but he did not push the matter. He did not like Andres and anytime his name came up Fabio knew it would cost one of them; financially or emotionally.
Andres was a two-time junkie and also Janine’s ex-lover. They had been together for six years before she learned that he had returned to his first love, heroin. In time, she left him, at least physically, but he was always around; phoning, writing, and borrowing. At first Fabio had, overriding his primary instincts, tried to befriend him. He had lent him books, PC software and helped him with his research on his frequent ‘self-improvement’ courses; few of which he completed. Even when he did complete a course he failed to apply any of the knowledge gained. Fabio felt that Andres was always waiting for some passing Samaritan to rescue him rather than getting off his backside and making an effort.
After breakfast he returned to work in his studio but he could not focus on his work. He felt too distracted by the card she would not open. Somehow, it did not feel right. After an hour or so he decided to deal with the matter rather than let it ruin the day. He went back to the apartment and up to the bedroom. Janine had got up and in the distance he could hear the sounds of the shower and her high singing voice. In front of him, naked on the bed, lay the card that he had not sent. As he picked it up and opened it a sheet of paper fell to the floor. He retrieved it and read the message; a message of undying love from Andres. He was in many ways not surprised by this as Andres had made no secret of his love for Janine and his wish for them to stay together. They had been together for over six years and Andres felt that she had misunderstood his ‘little problem’ and that she should have stood by him.
The world changed when Fabio read the last paragraph dealing with Andres’s feelings about their ‘last meeting’ and his arrangements for today’s ‘romantic’ lunch. Fabio was incandescent with rage; betrayal, hypocrisy, lies which was worse?
He put the letter back in the card and the card back on the bed and returned to his studio where he sat idly scratching at this notepad. As soon as Janine had called out her ‘Good bye’, to all intents and purposes to go off to work, Fabio set to his own tasks. He phoned around some friends to find out if any of them knew of a room or apartment available and started a new work ‘Perseus and Medusa’.
Detail accumulated on the canvas over the day in between returned phone calls and, by the end of the day, he had his composition; Perseus holding aloft the head of the Gorgon Medusa snake hair writhing. Perseus’ face was that of Albert, the postman; the Gorgon was a nameless old shrew who had ground his foot to a pulp in her stampede for the morning bus a couple of days previous; the two most prominent snakes carried the faces of Janine and Andres.
Janine returned from work at her normal time and, as it was Valentine’s Day, Fabio was preparing the evening meal. He presented her with some flowers he had had delivered and suggested that she relax while he finished his chores. She thanked him and went to the bedroom.
Over dinner she thanked him for his flowers and was light and almost playful. Fabio responded in kind, keeping the mood warm and friendly. He asked her about her day and she responded that it was the same as any other day at work. When they had finished Fabio cleared the table, filled the dishwasher and brought her a glass of chilled white wine. He sat down beside her and said,’ I read Andres card while you were in the shower this morning.’
He waited for a response; there was none just her jaw dropping open and an appearance of gasping for air. He spoke again.
‘I really think it’s time I left you two to sort yourselves out. What do you think’?'
‘I suppose you’re right’, she mumbled, averting her eyes.
They sat in silence for a while and finally Fabio stood up. ‘I suppose you’re right’, he said as he walked through the door.
Now it was Fabio’s time in the spare bedroom. He managed to arrange a flat the very next day but was unable to move for another two weeks. On the negative side it meant two more weeks of their uneasy truce, on the positive it meant he had time to finish his Perseus.
Once the words of dissolution had been spoken he felt free to meet Carmen and so they arranged to meet for coffee at near the ruins of the Carmo church, in the Bairro Alto the following week. It was easy enough for him to get there by Metro. She arrived late and they embraced warmly, like old friends. She was flustered and apologetic and once she had unloaded her days ‘events’ on him she stopped and smiled. He had not stopped smiling since she arrived. He spoke to her of recent creations and life in general. He did not, however, tell her of his impending move and split from Janine. They talked for three hours, again lost in each others eyes. At 10.00pm, she said she had to leave as she had an early appointment the next day. They clung together in a grand hug for what seemed like ages and then Fabio kissed her cheek and said, ’We really must be going. Let’s meet again soon, ok?’
‘Ok’, she replied, reluctantly breaking away.
The move went reasonably well. Fabio moved to a friend’s apartment in the west of Lisbon, near Benfica’s football ground. The rooms were spacious, light and airy but during the football season, he was told, the supporters might be a problem. He could have the place for anything up to a year as its owner was teaching abroad for a while. It was further away from the part time work he occasionally did for the art museums, but it was worth it to have the space and light. He felt he could create wonders in such a place.
After three days in his new home, he was amazed at how liberated he felt. He hardly seemed to sleep and every day seemed to bring more good news or good fortune. He spent most of his time working on his drawings while listening to music that Janine had always deemed too upsetting to have played around the home. The rest of the time, making phone calls, writing letters and emails to people he had lost touch with over the years. He was, in many ways, pleasantly surprised at the reception he got from friends he had not spoken to or seen for a year or more. Each positive response propelled him to make the next call. He was reconstructing his life in a form that better suited his purpose.
Over time he and Carmen wrote and met more, soon they were in daily contact and after a year she started to stay with him on her visits to Lisbon. When she stayed they shared a bed and talked and hugged until the early hours. On a couple of occasions they got drunk together and kissed and wrestled until sleep claimed them. The next day they did not discuss it. They simply got on with their lives. She was always interested in his new projects and he in her work and family. They were good fast friends.
One evening, while snuggling together in front of the fire, she told him of the long on-off affair she had recently finished with a sculptor in Madrid. He listened and was not surprised. After all, she was an attractive woman and, most of all, she was not his.
She asked, ‘Can men and women be just friends?’ To which he replied, ‘Yes, I believe so’.
‘Is it alright for friends to be lying here like this?’ She responded.
‘It feels fine to me’, he said. ‘I feel as if I’m still in recovery and I’m not really sure if I could handle more at present ‘.
She smiled at this and moved in closer to him, giving him a big kiss on the cheek. ‘Thank you’. She said.
At that time he had told the truth. He was not ready for another involvement, the wounds and the scars of his relationship with Janine had not properly healed and he held a fear of wandering into the same mess again if he did not take time to balance himself.
Needless to say, all that changed in time. The boundaries of their ‘friendship’ became blurred each time she visited and he began to fear life without her. She was his muse and he felt that without her encouragement and energy he might never create another work.
His Persephone and Medusa were sold for good sums, which allowed him to make a deposit on a large, rundown apartment where the light was good. He hoped that one day they would share it together. He worked long and hard to construct a home, a place where he could live and work and, hopefully, she would come to join him.
No words were spoken but gradually they seemed to be living together. It was simply understood that when she was in Lisbon, she stayed with him. Some times they made love passionately and hungrily but, in the morning it was as if nothing out of the ordinary had passed between them. It was something of which they never spoke; it just happened. She never regarded them as a couple and he tried not to labour the matter. He was falling into the ‘old ways’ again.
After a while, her interest in him seemed to wane. She was preoccupied with work and home but always asked him not to press her for more information. She would tell him in her own time. She no longer wrote the long letters that he used to love and admitted to only ’scanning’ the letters he sent her. More noticeable and painful was that her interest in his work seemed to wane and instead of appraising each work as she used to do she would mutter, ‘that’s nice’ and move on to another subject.
The eloquence was in the space between the words or the words unsaid. Slowly he started to become
a coward again, fearing the answers to questions he must surely ask. He learned, painfully, over time that he was his own muse and that every interaction with the world was, in itself, a world of possibilities. He did not need her catalysm; but still he wanted her and he knew he could never have her.
So now a new day breaks and here he is again reaching out for affection while almost sure of rejection.
‘Sometimes’, He thought. ‘The fear of living with someone is greater than the fear of living without them.’
Quietly, he withdrew his hand, rolled over and got out of bed. He dressed and walked to the front door. Closing it behind him he said to himself, ‘You cannot lose something that was never yours.’