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He’s looking well. He started playing tennis three times a week, and Brian, Elaine’s husband, sees him sometimes at the club. Afterwards, he has a tomato juice at the members bar. The other day Elaine was there with Brian, and she saw him. Elisabeth knows this because her mother is telling her now. She is saying this all in a nonchalant way to suggest a passing interest, when in fact this conversation has been constructed for Elisabeth’s benefit. Elisabeth is trying to trace back to where the topic of Malcolm began, but she can’t seem to find the source.
“Elaine said he looked tanned. I think he went to Cuba for a few weeks.”
“He did,” Elisabeth says. In fact, he had planned the trip four months before, when Elisabeth was still sleeping at his flat in Islington. She imagines sun freckles peppering his face the way they had after their trip to Madrid. Malcolm has a radiant kind of skin that seems to mop up any gesture of sunlight, christening him with a steady and satisfying glow. Elisabeth’s, on the other hand, becomes irritated by the mere mention of daylight exposure, throbbing like the crimson centre of a juicy steak, and she spent the bulk of their trip shimmering with the sticky residue of After Sun.
“Well apparently he’s looking very well,” her mother says in a conclusive way, which for a moment suggests to Elisabeth that the conversation is over. Then, she adds, “He’s stopped drinking, too.”
Ah, Elisabeth thinks, that was what the earlier reference to the tomato juice was about. She had snagged on that trivial detail at the time. It had struck her as an unusual addition, the kind a writer might include to add dramatic believability or ground their story in a familiar world. She laughs now that she’d missed the relevance of that carefully placed breadcrumb. She imagines her mother plotting out the conversation, meticulously considering whether to leave this cue untouched for her daughter to interpret, or whether to accentuate the point.
The thought amuses Elisabeth, evidently more than she realises, because then her mother says, “What are you smiling at?”
“Well, I just thought you’d want to know. That’s all.” Her mother’s tone is short now, and Elisabeth can tell she’s upset her. She’s not entirely certain what it is she’s supposed to have done, but she’s aware that her mother will already be thinking how difficult and unreasonable she is being. Elisabeth closes her eyes tightly. The past few months have been like this. A constant bartering for her mother’s affections, usually resulting in her mother concluding that Elisabeth is being irrational or sensitive in some way.
The other day, whilst out shopping, they had stopped for a coffee and her mother had bought her a scone. Elisabeth had plainly said she didn’t want one, but her mother had taken it upon herself anyway, and when Elisabeth left the cakey rock largely untouched, her mother had said, “Jesus Christ, Elisabeth – can no one ever do anything nice for you?” It wasn’t explicitly said then, but Elisabeth knew that anyone meant Malcolm.
In fact, her mother didn’t need to tell her about Malcolm, or the tennis and the tomato juice. Elisabeth knows that Malcolm is looking well. She saw him a few months before, when she collected the rest of her things from his flat and Malcolm had convinced her to get a coffee with him at the corner café she liked. Malcolm enjoys looking well. He goes to the gym most evenings, and carefully measures his protein to carb ratio for each meal. He often has protein shakes for lunch, which Elisabeth hates. The smell of the chalky powder makes her nauseous, and she’s taken up running in the park to avoid the dense stench that permeates their local gym. Still, even Elisabeth had to admit he was looking more well than usual.
It was July then and it had been hot, so they’d sat out on the café’s wooden decking. Even though the sun was in his eyes, he hadn’t moved his sunglasses from their usual resting spot, nestled within his hair, which she had liked, and when he squinted to look at her his expression appeared soft and gentle. He had told her that he still loved her, and she’d said something non-committal like, “I know.”
The detail of the tomato juice isn’t especially relevant, because Malcolm only ever drinks a few beers anyway and almost never wine. Her mother is stuck on a fight they had three Christmases ago, when Malcolm had drunk more than usual and had gone on at Elisabeth about how she was judging him. Elisabeth actually hadn’t cared that Malcolm was drunk. She found it strangely endearing how his usual scrupulous self-control had lapsed, and he’d become playfully competitive during charades. But later in the kitchen, when they were stacking away plates, and after he’d been mildly embarrassing during a political family debate, he had told her that she was judging him and that this was unfair because he never drinks, certainly not as much as she does.
His eyes were glassy then, and she no longer found his wilful manner charming. Each time she’d tried to defuse the situation by leaving the kitchen to rejoin the party in the living room, he’d pushed her shoulder with his fingers so that she remained with her back pressed tight against the sink. The gesture wasn’t especially forceful, but it gave Elisabeth a deeply unsettling sense of claustrophobia.
“I actually don’t care,” she had finally said to Malcolm, which was evidently the wrong thing to say because his jaw went stiff then. He let her leave, but routinely when they had fights after that Christmas, he would always checkmate her with, “Maybe you just don’t care.” This would signal that the fight was over and that Malcolm had won. She wasn’t sure when this had been decided, but it seemed an unspoken rule that anytime Christmas was mentioned Elisabeth had already lost.
The following January, Elisabeth’s mother had told her she didn’t think Malcolm had been that drunk at all. Elisabeth had been surprised by this sudden disclosure and had wondered when Malcolm had confided the incident, twisting her mother’s perceptions until they were curdling into new grievances against her. These were the kind of thoughts Elisabeth’s mother would have rebuked her for having. Both of Malcolm’s parents were dead, so it was selfish of Elisabeth to keep her own for herself.
“No,” was all she had responded, because in truth he hadn’t been that drunk and she wasn’t even sure why this had been a fight in the first place.
Still, just as her indifference to Malcolm’s intoxication was a failing on her part as a girlfriend, it also appeared to be an unspoken rule that her concern over these drinking habits was the exact reason Elisabeth had left Malcolm in the first place. A concern that Elisabeth did not have, because there were no habits to be particularly concerned about.
The real reason for Elisabeth breaking up with Malcolm was unclear, although during conversations like this one she remained stubbornly stuck on it like an obnoxious child who refused to eat certain coloured vegetables. Yet often, when she sat alone in her new flat and remembered how Malcolm would come in from his runs burning with sweat and kiss both her cheeks so that her own face became sticky and flushed, she would miss him so much she could feel a tightening sensation in her chest, and she’d have to stand in the shower for forty-five minutes just to avoid calling him.
Elisabeth had been with Malcolm for five years, and it was generally believed that they would get married. Even now, when Elisabeth was renting a flat in Brixton and Malcolm had briefly dated another girl – a meaningless relationship that her mother was at pains to tell her was irrefutably over – it was generally expected that they would reunite, and continue their trajectory blindly towards the altar. Elisabeth wondered whether this was why Malcolm had remained so calm, even after he had said he still loved her at the café and even after they had split their crockery, book collection, and holiday souvenirs with the clinical precision of a divorced couple.
When Elisabeth had originally told him she wanted to move out of his flat, which was how she had worded their separation, Malcolm hadn’t been calm at all. Instead he demanded to know why, and when Elisabeth couldn’t come up with a viable excuse, he had forced her to show him her texts, emails, and call history, as though some hidden clue could be found in her newsletter subscriptions or emails to the pubescent office temp. Eventually he had cried, and she had held him and found herself telling him she loved him and that she just needed some time to sort out the thoughts in her head. They’d had sex that night, a decision Elisabeth now categorises as a mistake. After that, it had been decided Elisabeth was going through a personal crisis and they would most likely resume course shortly. This thought causes Elisabeth a feeling of suffocating sickness and reminds her of standing in that kitchen, trying to leave and constantly being pushed back.
This is another thing Elisabeth cannot say to her mother – in part out of loyalty to Malcolm, for fear it will sound much worse than Elisabeth intends, and also in part due to an intrinsic suspicion her mother would find a way to take Malcolm’s side. It is not particularly the sort of thing you can divulge anyway. She made that mistake once before, after they’d had an especially awful fight during their first year of living together. Malcolm had discovered that Elisabeth’s usual running route included passing an ex-boyfriend’s flat and had demanded she find an alternative. Elisabeth had told him that that was ridiculous, firstly because he wasn’t even a real ex-boyfriend, he was just someone she had gone on a few dates with, which had led to a night or two at his apartment, and secondly because the man in question didn’t even live there anymore. Malcolm had told her it suggested some deep-set desire to see him again. They had gone on like that for several hours.
Elisabeth typically would have surrendered, but this happened to be the only route from her office towards the river walk. She would often allow herself to sit on the bank, the grass scratching at her ankles whilst she soothed the small tremors of exhaustion still catching in her throat. So, she had stood her ground. Even after Malcolm’s incessant haranguing became tiring and her energy waned. The fight resulted in a stalemate, and Elisabeth found herself lying in bed next to Malcolm, her body slack against the unforgiving stiffness of his embrace.
The following day, Elisabeth had returned home to find her gym shoes and running kit stuffed in the outdoor black bin, soiled beneath empty tuna cans and leftover food waste.
Elisabeth had divulged the story with comical exaggeration to a friend of hers at lunch a few weeks later, blindly seeking out a superficial dose of sympathy the way she would if irked over an irritating habit, her eyes mindlessly scanning the appetisers with trifling interest. But her friend had gone quiet and a disquieting expression had set on her face, which left Elisabeth with a disarming sense of guilt. She felt as if she’d stepped over some unspoken threshold, mistakenly portraying Malcolm as a tyrant, and spent the following few days in a relentless state of unease. Her anxiety began to fester, distorting and reshaping itself, until it seemed to Elisabeth that she’d falsely accused him of something abhorrent such as rape and was now carrying a deep and contemptible secret that would infect their relationship, until it was left diseased and rotting.
Her following birthday Malcolm had bought Elisabeth a new state of the art gym kit. She joined their local gym after that.
Now she runs in the park, which she enjoys and will keep doing. Elisabeth often finds herself mentally making these lists, small freedoms she will keep when they make their inevitable reunion. She does this subconsciously, as she is consciously of the mind that they are not getting back together. She has not yet disclosed this to her mother and has not yet explicitly disclosed this to Malcolm. She wonders whether this is because she is afraid of committing to their separation or whether she is simply afraid of Malcolm’s response.
Malcolm is not good at losing people, this is something she knows, and it makes the concept of finalising their break-up especially daunting. She is aware that this fear of abandonment comes from losing both his parents at a young age, his mother when he was twelve and his father when he was nineteen, and she feels disloyal when she gets these sudden bouts of resentment for Malcolm’s emotions needing constant and careful management.
Now she is sitting with her mother, in the living room of the house where she grew up, discussing the wellness of Malcolm’s being. The living room is modern and spacious and feels to Elisabeth in that moment to be sparse of décor and without life. Elisabeth thinks this is how she would describe herself. If pushed to colour her own character with such vivid terminology, she would say she is a well-designed hollow structure lacking in any internal life.
As if of an entirely separate subject and in a tone Elisabeth cannot help but detect as critical, her mother says, “Elisabeth, you don’t especially seem in a good place.” She wonders whether this is true or just another ploy designed to illustrate the necessity of Malcolm. Elisabeth presses her teeth down on the edges of her bottom lip. She considers the varying degrees of puerility she could indulge in, measuring her response in a manner of calculated hostility. Instead, she takes a piece of crystalized ginger from the open tin on the coffee table and bites into the chewy centre. The ginger burns her tongue; an enjoyable, acerbic sensation. At the same moment, her father comes in and says her name with soothing surprise.
“To what do we owe this pleasure,” he continues, leaning down to kiss her cheek. Her father has a deep woody scent deriving from an expensive bottle of cologne and a commanding warmth that seems to govern his surroundings. Elisabeth suspects he has never snapped his fingers at the bridge of her mother’s nose to demand her unequivocal attention. She’s grateful for his arrival, which seems to immediately placate the room, and the remainder of her visit is taken up with frivolous conversation that pulls Elisabeth into a pleasant lethargy.
On the drive home, Elisabeth imagines her parents alone together, the private spaces where their inner lives are kept. She considers them sitting in their cushioned armchairs, discussing the goings-on of the day with blithe intrigue, agreeing and disagreeing in amiable, unending circles.
Once, at a birthday dinner Elisabeth hosted at a small French bistro, a place since transformed into a popular brunch spot that sells watery iced coffees and that Elisabeth despises, her parents had arrived in a state of uncharacteristic agitation. Elisabeth’s mother had conducted herself with a briskness that suggested she found tolerating Elisabeth’s friends just beyond the realm of her capabilities, and it had been left to Malcolm to salvage the evening, swooping in to charm her until she had softened like crushed butter.
When Elisabeth had asked her father if anything was the matter, he had lovingly rested his hand on the indent of her neck and said, “Nothing to worry about, my darling. People fight. We power on.” It had felt at the time a notion of sage reassurance. Now the memory appears misshapen and contaminated; a catalyst of tiny errors.
The day following her visit to her parent’s house, Malcolm calls her. She’s at work so she doesn’t pick-up and instead listens to his voicemail on her way home. His voice sounds boyish and eager, obscured by the metallic froth of the recording. He’s telling her he has a meeting near Brixton, so he thought he’d pop in afterwards to see her new flat. He knows she’ll be back around seven, so can meet her then. She doesn’t entirely remember telling him the address, but it’s not implausible that she mentioned it. She considers texting him to say she’s going for drinks with colleagues, but their work circles are dangerously interlinked and she knows he’ll check.
She takes a detour through the park on her way to the tube station, trailing the familiar ruts of the river walk. She sits on the bank a moment and watches as the water laps gently over itself in slight and steady waves, mounting and smothering each trend with small, imperceptible acts of violence.
He’s leaning against the side gate when she finally arrives, holding a bottle of store-bought wine. He smiles when he sees her, an energetic smile that seems to stretch across his whole face. He looks well, she thinks.