Matt waited in the darkness of the verandah, his cheek against the stripped timber of the front door he’d meant to stain one day. As he waited, Dee played the piano and sang at the end of the corridor, on the other side of the door.
Sounded like an original. It suited her voice. At the end of the song he banged loudly and stood back, rehearsing responses. The door swung open decisively.
Door, window, fridge. A non-committal statement. He waited. She stood. She blinked ﬁrst.
– I don’t want you to come in. I’m working.
He waited. She blinked ﬁrst again.
– Just don’t get shitty when I ask you to leave in half an hour.
She left him to close the door and walked towards the light at the end of the hallway.
He nodded at the piano.
– When’s the big comeback?
– Saturday week. At the Railway. (What the hell , he’d ﬁnd out anyway.)
He looked at the bottle of wine in his hand as if he’d just discovered it.
– Should I get two glasses?
He didn’t wait for an answer as he moved into the kitchen with a familiarity that she hated. Once loved, in a way she promised herself she never would after Michael, her feckless ex-husband.
Matt was slick, you had to give him that. From the night he’d walked into that party, he was slick. With friends, colleagues, anywhere there was an audience. She’d given him an audience at home one night, when he’d ‘dropped in because he just happened to be in the area’.
For once he’d said almost nothing and she found her life leaking out, as he listened and never took his eyes of her. The ﬁghts with Michael. Never any money. Her parents disapproval. Her breakdown.
He waited until she ’d ﬁnished. Still without speaking, he pulled her to her feet and
surrounded her body with his arms and waited. And the dam burst.
She eventually stood back, in control again. He said he was leaving now but would be back tomorrow night to take her to dinner and was gone before she replied. She wondered brieﬂy where he got of with that masculine arrogance she had come to despise but later, drifting into ﬁtful sleep, she was pleasantly confused by the warmth his enfolding had left in her belly.
But she knew now she should have trusted that ﬁrst sense of wasteland about him. He was like a desert dressed for a glossy fashion shoot. His mind shifted easily, shaping itself to your response. He felt what you wanted him to feel. But he could hold a room. And he had held her.
Returning with the glasses, he started to pour.
– Just a small one, otherwise I get lazy.
– How do you think you’ll go?
– Hard to know. Five years is a long time. People have short memories, except for your failures.
– Are you scared?
– Of course. But it won’t stop me.
He looked at the face that delivered this message and was convinced. This was new. A great divide had been crossed by that face and there was no going back.
– I thought you were off the booze, Matt.
– Yeah, well …
– How’ve you been?
You bloody idiot. Now you’re going to get the full catastrophe. I can’t do this anymore.
– How’s work?
– I left.
A half-smile slipped through his face of studied torment.
– I want to concentrate on my writing. I’ve been writing about you.
The ringing of the phone jolted them both and it was a moment before Dee got up to answer, as though weighing the arguments for and against. Matt poured himself another drink and pretended to leaf through the pile of books on the table. Mostly feminist but interspersed with fat paperback romances.
– Hello ….. .. How are you? ….. .. No, I’ve got someone visiting. I can’t talk now. ….. .. OK, I’ll see you Saturday night, about seven …..Yeah, and you too. Bye.
– New boyfriend?
– None of your business. How’s your love life?
– Are you trying to tell me you haven’t slept with anyone since you left?
– No, of course not. There was the odd one-night stand when we ﬁrst split but I soon got sick of that.
I’d almost forgotten. Serial monogamy is more his thing really. An endless list of signiﬁcant relationships and bad, insigniﬁcant poetry. I wonder of I should tell him I burned it all when he left.
Matt put down his drink and went to his knees in front of Dee, burying his head in her lap and putting his arms around her waist.
– Dee. Dee, please let me stay with you tonight.
Dee, sometimes you are a complete and utter moron. Now look what you’ve let yourself in for!
– Matt, it’s no good. I know you’re lonely and you must know I still (careful, shit for brains, he’ll hang on every word) …. that I’ll always be concerned about you. But it wouldn’t solve anything.
– I know that. I just need to be held. Dee, I’m afraid.
– What of?
– Everything. I’m lost. Oh, Christ.
Bloody hell. This is new.
– Hey, calm down, it’s not that bad.
– Oh God, I think I’m going mad. Help me. I need you.
Matt collapsed onto the couch and covered his face with his hands, gradually regaining control of his breathing.
Dee, her hands shaking noticeably, struggled to light a cigarette. She puffed nervously for a while until she regained her composure.
Alright, now that he’s in here I’ve got to get him out. But he’s not staying and I’m not going to let him touch me.
– I’m sorry.
– You can’t go on like this, Matt. You’ve got to get some help.
– If you mean a shrink, I’m not interested. I want you to help me.
– I can’t. Not now. I wanted both of us to see someone when you ﬁrst left but you wouldn’t. Now that I’ve made a new start I’m not prepared to go back. You’re going to have to do it on your own.
– But I’m afraid.
How did I ever love this shell?
– And it will probably get worse before it gets better. When you left me I thought I was going to die. I felt totally worthless. (You’ll love that, you bastard.) But I was determined I wasn’t going to waste my life.
– It was easier for you though. You were in the right and you got all the sympathy and support.
Wonderful. I get the kick in the guts and you want the support.
– You helped to make our bed, Matt, and you chose not to lie in it anymore. Sure, I got support but I also got questions from my parents about what I’d done to drive you away.
Matt’s head drooped dramatically.
– Oh, Matt, can’t you see that you have to change. Nobody else can do it for you.
– I just don’t know where to start.
– Try starting with what you really want to do for a change.
– Like all your touchie-feelie drop-out mates?
– You left me, you’ve chucked your job and you’re probably drunk most nights of the week. If you haven’t dropped out, I don’t know who has. The trouble with you is that the world’s in your head. Try to stay with your feelings for once in your life.
– I am but ..
Bullshit. I bet you’re still doing the rounds of the same old friends and the same old places, sucking for sympathy and waiting for the perfect job or the perfect relationship or the one true cause to drop on you like a bombshell.
– I just wish I had your guts and energy.
God help me, I have to say this.
– I know you do but I need it for myself. It’s time you found your own.
– I guess you don’t have much respect for me these days.
How right you are but I’m not going to be stupid enough to say it here and now.
– I respect the things in you that are worth respecting. But I only ever see them when you take off that ridiculous suit of armour you’ve made up out of bits and pieces of other people’s approval.
– It’s ironic really. I’m the one who left and yet I’m wondering if I’m not the one who’s still in love.
Dee didn’t answer.
It’s not me you love, Matt. It’s the hidey-hole that our relationship was for you. I didn’t realise how much you’d drained from me until you left and, speaking of irony, it’s probably the most important thing you ever did for me. That’s why I could never go back to the way it was or anything like it. I want to be a lover not a wet-nurse. I just wish it was safe enough for me to say that.
– I guess it would be better if we didn’t see each other for a while.
– I think so.
Matt reluctantly got up to leave.
– Goodbye, Matt, and good luck.
– Let’s say ‘au revoir’.
Matt moved to kiss her but she dodged him.
– Go on, I‘ve got work to do.
Matt ambled down the hallway and let himself out.
Dee went to the piano and sang and played her song through, ending with a ﬂourish. She laughed and clapped herself, silently, but for a long time.
In the crisp evening air, Matt’s shoulders hunched. Patting his inside pocket to check for his latest sheaf of poems, he wondered if Caroline was home. She was keen on him once. He quickly hailed a cab.