This was my competition entry for a national Franco-British Council short story competition. It came second. Always the bridesmaid. I can’t remember if I won anything but I know the chair of the judges was Ian Rankin. I almost cared. Not still resentful or anything. Anyhow: it’s a short story with a rather curious little twist.
The Anecdotal Wife
by J R H Greenwood
Even the sun seemed weary of its own heat. For months the air was sick with warm impatience; and M. Léon, being the sort of oleaginous little man who might have lived a happier life in some Norse pine forest, like from a toothpaste advert — with cool breezes, ice-white teeth, endless freshness straight from a tube — well, frankly he was fed up with all of it.
As it was, the office was a migraine of body-heat. The water sunk foetid in plastic cups; the talk of marketing slurred itself into a soupy stagnation which thickened over the midday hours. The workers could barely see their screens for the endless, slanting sunlight. Eventually the collective will to continue burnt out: frustration gave way to delirium, and delirium to the phrase “je m’en fous.” A brief hiatus was called for. All pretence of work decomposed, though for hours it had malingered; and when the young Jean returned from the Shopi with the beers by two o’clock, the tightly-bound atmosphere had collapsed into itself, rupturing into a babble of jeers and talk of sport. Ties were removed from wet collars. The beer bottles first went to the forehead with a sighing, icy relief, then to the workers’ awaiting lips.
But Léon was not a man to talk of sports. He in fact had no interests. Nothing a self-respecting man would freely admit in an office environment, anyhow. The office, and perhaps the bar up the street, were the only places to find this elusive urban hermit. Otherwise, he didn’t really do anything. He might be called by some, driven perhaps to defend him from accusations of pure idleness, as being “laid-back”. And at present, he was a lethargic man in a lethargic state of mind.
In the freedom of that afternoon, Léon found himself surrounded by the smarter, younger and generally better men who worked for his firm – men who had social lives, and knew him only for being an acrimonious gent – with whole hours to pass until it was time to clock out. The situation necessitating conversation, he once again led into his favourite topic, which was the Wife.
The stories he had for them! The way she insisted on ironing socks, the dusting of lightbulbs, all the compound neuroses of the housewife — the same tales which echoed at the bar every weekend were stirred into the warmth and lethargy of his workplace. His colleagues laughed, noted how uncannily Mme Léon reflected women they themselves knew, or had the misfortune to be married to, and congratulated the stumpy gentleman on being such a straight-talking guy. M. Léon resented the company, but he secretly relished the attention.
The working day officially ended, and in its exhausted retreat left a wide gulf in the sky for the purpling light, le crepuscule; and the plod towards the bar gave Léon the time to notice the low, lingering ricochet of sunlight dashing off the pavement, to recognise the strange distance of the sky. He was not an unhappy man, with a mind full of meat, brewing with contentment. He giggled inwardly, returning to the homeliness of the subterranean watering hole, because once again he had fooled all of his colleagues into thinking he was actually married.
And the barman too nodded encouragingly, in this grotty little place with its patchy floral upholstery and rank, reminiscent odour, as M. Léon trickled out his drinks and repeated anecdotes that had never happened. The barman offered his condolences, shared his laughter and revelled in their mutual state. Léon talked of unworkable holidays and uneventful evenings. As he rubbed his wedding ring, he dwelt on the soreness of his married life.
The Wife of these adventures was nothing but fiction. Léon had thankfully never been married in his entire life (indeed, one could hardly imagine a less agreeable arrangement for the poor woman); and he wore a ring on his swollen finger to keep up the charade, for the benefit of his credulous audiences. Married indeed! He was the chief misogynist of the town. But all the men listened with respect and gratified him with laughter — as his countrymen were in the habit of doing, out of a deeply-rooted, possibly Catholic spite for the fairer sex — so Léon had no intention of revealing the truths of his domestic situation to any of them. This was his pastime. The actual truth of his private life was very much his own business.
Perhaps, Léon considered upon lifting up his tatty jacket and his battered body from the barstool – perhaps this friend of mine, who serves me drinks and watches me drink myself to death, who stands on the other side and watches me rub my wedding ring and defame a woman he has never met, and indeed will never meet; perhaps he was no friend at all. Perhaps this was some pleasant cruelty, watching his sad little customer’s liver swell, corrupt and cirrhotic, before his very eyes.
With appalling clumsiness the key scratched the door paint in the old man’s attempt to get into the flat. He could barely squint to see his own hands in the complete darkness, and some part of his inner self hiccoughed contemptuously at his own incapacity to find the lock. With practiced difficulty, Léon managed to get in.
Somewhere a lamp was on, which he was unaccustomed to on returning home. He was awkwardly aware of a scratching sound, which might have just come from his own ears, and the smell of fried eggs.
Someone, he told himself, is cooking eggs. In my flat.
He didn’t want to investigate — he would much have preferred to just stumble into the bedroom and pass out — but something in his sodden mind warned him against losing consciousness with burglars in the next room. He also knew that, ultimately, the beer he sought could only be found in the kitchen, and he would rather have been beaten to death with a grease-coated spatula than forfeit his drink. He resolved to examine the intruder.
There in the kitchen was a floral dress, clinging to the back of a woman who stooped over the grill. The woman told him there was no beer in the fridge.
“What have you done with my beer?”
The woman suggested that he had drunk it already. Léon considered this eventuality both suspicious, and quite likely. The woman herself was herself suspicious; but not very likely. She turned, and there stood a middle-aged lady whom Léon had no means of describing. She was not distinctly ugly or beautiful, old or facially expressive, but there she stood, a fact of nature, demanding that he take a bath before he stunk the house out.
She responded by reminding him that he knew exactly what she had said, and that he was an embarrassment. He nodded.
“Who are you?” he asked eventually. The creature replied simply and suspiciously that she was his Wife, idiot, and that she grew tired of being ignored and forgotten by him.
A fearful sickening, like the realisation of a deadline, took Léon by the stomach and tortured his innards. How could he have forgotten his Wife? How did he not recognise her patchy floral dress and rank, reminiscent odour? Nobody just forgets they’re married, try as they might. It seemed absurd that he could have done such a thing. In fact it was singularly absurd — all the more singular, with the memory of his never having a Wife.
“But I’m not married!”
She said, all too quickly for him to process in his worsening condition, that merely her standing there was all the proof he needed; that he had often said such cruel things; that many was the time he had conspired to be rid of her, in their miserable past; that she was always at home while he was away, working, gambling, drinking or worse; and that he wasn’t making any sense, as usual.
“Sense has got nothing to do with it! You shouldn’t be here because… you shouldn’t!”
He felt stupid against her angry voicelessness. He couldn’t be wrong, surely? He had never seen this remarkably familiar woman before in his life. He needed to sit down and he needed beer, and he needed to say everything about this all at once.
His Wife told him that he shouldn’t have drunk all that beer, then.
“What in God’s…?”
Thoughts crept on him with dangerous consequences. He was drunk, and tired, and confused after a deliriously hot day; this was a trick played by someone who had found out about his private life; he was mad and delusional, and very drunk. That was the explanation.
He was told by the woman to stop drivelling and have that bath. The woman carried on, nondescriptly busying herself as women do. If she was his Wife after all, Léon slurred under his breath, then he would have to divorce her anyway. The Wife reminded him that he was Catholic, despite everything, and needed a bath. He nearly fell over. Could he just run away from this apparition? Couldn’t he have made a daring bid for sanity, to some other bar perhaps? Léon was dizzying himself into submission. He took her advice as an excuse to leave the room. Her voice was like a thought spoken in his head, as he clung to the walls en route to the bathroom, warning him not to sleep in the bathtub, or else. He locked the bathroom door in a graceless, vertiginous sweat.
It took a moment for him to make eye contact with his reflection. What an effect the day had had on his face. He looked like death, like an old woman, and extremely drunk. Even his eyes weren’t the same colour, somehow. The Wife, he told his swimming conscious, might not exist. Logic says she’s not there, but all the evidence says she is. He was only truly aware of the sensation, the feeling of her presence. Was it comforting to have this woman in his home? This woman, his Wife? He stopped thinking — not purposefully, he just forgot how to, staring into the mirror. He soaped his face with cold water, afraid of the bath and unready to confront her. The tap-cold water hurt his eyes and skin, and gave the impression of refreshing him.
Suppose he was married, he started again, to this woman, all along. He would have been insane to have forgotten her, but accepting her existence would be the first step to recovery, or so he reasoned. If not, it was either madness or deception, or a joke, or even a dream. In any such case, the experience of it was in his mind; the fear was in his mind, even if it drained his face and shook his livelihood as it did his knees.
She may have been in the kitchen that very moment, tunnelling away; or she could have walked out, or vanished entirely, washed away by tap water. But she had been in his mind, had filled his world and invaded his thoughts, and that was all that mattered. So, unbathed and with unready steps, M. Léon returned to the hall to confront it.
Heavily reliant upon Camus and Sartre. Again, he says in defence: it’s palimpsest.