Friday, he bought me tulips. Always tulips. When there were no tulips in the shops, he brought me pictures of tulips, paper tulips, silk tulips from China, wooden tulips, tulip-shaped soaps. Once, from a winter break with his family in Holland, he brought me tulip bulbs. The mice in my front garden ate them, all but one.
It was yellow, yellow like Chinese silk. I don’t like yellow. It doesn’t go with my hair, or didn’t go with my hair as it was then, auburn with mahogany. There it was in my garden, a proud yellow statement. Surely everyone will know now, I thought, looking at its firm swelling tip. But no.
He liked the formality of tulips, their stiff shapes, like girls in pencil skirts. He found it sexy, he said. Sexy, sexy, sexy, like insistent drum beats colouring all our time together; we were always talking about sexy.
But he also liked the way the colours can break up unto streaks and whirls, like marbling on sheets of paper under water, like soft ripples in ice-cream. It’s all to do with a disease in the bulbs which began in the 17th century, in the period of tulip mania, the mosaicisation. That was what I liked: the fact that the most entrancing aspect to the tulips was the product of disease.
In that case, a virus. With our clients, their childhoods. For me, his unavailability. And all the product of neurotic breeding.
At least there’s that to be thankful for, no offspring. Oh, but wouldn’t I have loved them, with their curly hair and rosy cheeks, long eyelashes on the cheek, intelligence gleaming from their bright eyes and affection rising like perfume from their dimpled necks. Those children he’d never let me have. Those children he had with his wife. I don’t love them, of course. Little bastards.
There were two aspects to our relationship. There was the intense, feverish sexual coupling, over the office table, in the toilets during coffee breaks at staff meetings, in his car, the windows all foggy, when we got to out-of-the-way clinics early. The hot, sticky, slidey, slippy, drippy, smelly, jelly, wet and sock-it intense mushroom sex things, popping out all over the place like phallic Easter bunnies, shoving in like ram-rod ramraiders, sexual burglars we were. Anti (panty) social behaviour, very very naughty. Matron! It made me laugh, it made me roar, scream and come, come, come: how we went at it. Does he ever think of it now, I wonder?
And then there was the formal, decorous man who controlled every aspect of both our lives, including when and for how long we could speak to each other.
He’s the one I hate, which is why I’m writing this.
He’s the one who broke us up, who kept that stupid wife in her chestnut-wood French-polished (but not French-kissed, or so he would have had me believe) French-Marie Antoinette-style tables and curlicued chairs (we choose those together, can you believe it? why did I do it? at a craft fair for prestige furniture, one hot June afternoon when he’d gone out to “give the car a run”) AND the mirror-finish pear wood escritoire (why? She never wrote a thing in her life!), thrown in almost for free “because you seem so much in love”. He’s the one who kept her in the lap of luxury and status.
Me, he kept in the dark. For the dark.
And here in the lonely dark I languish. Loneliness bites. Memories sink their teeth in — and if I could reach my long putrid claws across the seven seas I would. I tell you, I would. I’d maul him. But I can’t, obviously.
Once, I’d have lit a cigarette at this point, but I gave up so very long ago; anyone in medicine who smokes is self-destructive and not me, no, no, no, not me. Destructive; perhaps; let’s hope! but not self-destructive.
Well, I’ve a while still to go, I believe, if not hope. I’ve seen others wither up from the Big C, scuttling up on them crabwise and I’d rather not, if I’ve the choice. What I’ve got is cachexis of the memories: memories can eat you up just as efficiently as terminal cancer. If anyone believes in relief from memories by reliving them it ought to be me. (I don’t though, needless to say.) I’ve my own motives.
Let’s pull a few fragrant fragments out of the undies drawer and paw through them, in search of a bit of relief. A hand job, to end all hand jobs. Dirty, dirty, dirty.
“Ooh, you’re so coarse,” he used to say, pulling himself out of me and spraying cum all over my grey Prince-of-Wales checked suit. Bastard, he never paid even one dry-cleaning bill. So: “coarse”? Marvellous how you can dismiss a person with one word: “coarse”, “fat”, “oik”. Does moaning “Fuck me harder” really sound so coarse? Not quite the thing for the Royal Society dinner, eh what. That’s how he loved to think of me: coarse, a bit of rough. Otherwise he’d have had to have thought of me as another professional person who wanted the things out of life that he wanted: family life, a respectable position, polished-mirror surfaces, G and Ts at the club Saturday, barbecues for family and neighbours on Sunday, a little golf.
An equal. Why not?
No, I was not his equal. He was the one with driving ambition. I’d just be some patch of turf he could whack his club into when there wasn’t something truly important to occupy him. My whole life just a divot, as they call it, hacked out of the smooth slope to success up which Mr Simon Roderick Harper glides, easy as Vaseline.
Well, do I sound bitter? Easy on the gin, slosh in the bitters, Mildred. Bitter? Bitter and biter and bit. Bitter as bile, as that thick yellow stream of tongue-curdling fluid I vomited up when I had appendicitis. And was he there then? Hah!
“You must understand, Jean, it would look very odd to Sandra if I just took off in the middle of dinner. We have guests!” And, because he never could resist not just blowing his trumpet but playing the damn Trumpet Voluntary: “The Minister, you know. This could be very important for the future of the whole service.” Yes, well, it could be very important to the future of the whole of me, if I had a ruptured appendix in the emergency room of some provincial hospital in godawful Kiwi backcountry.
Dreams wither, feelings shrivel. I’d say that bile, all in all, was the most bitter thing I ever tasted were it not that every day I sat and sip tea brewed from the waters of banishment. Woe is me and the whole damn tribe of Israel too. My daddy was a minister. Dreary, dreary Sundays, white gloves and socks, dreary, dreary prayers, only the Holy Book, Jean dear. How I hate the fucking Bible. Ah, I love swearing, love it. One big privilege of being abandoned and alone, you cunt.
But all that time I couldn’t see it. There’s none so blind …
I couldn’t see that all that deep entwining of mind and body, specially body, two hearts that beat as one over the office table (many, many times) and exchanged looks in those interminable departmental meetings, all of that was – no more than smoke and mirrors. That when someone says to you, “In future, always wear that perfume.” Or, “In future, don’t make other arrangements for Wednesday evenings.” Or, “In future, don’t call me at home. It’s embarrassing.” Or, perhaps the straw to break the camel’s back, “In future, don’t speak to me before I speak to you. When I need to see you, I’ll tell you.”
I know now that when someone talks like that, about a shared (or any) future, what they are saying is not: This is how I see us together. This is the plan for our lives. No. They are saying — he was saying — “This is how I will make use of you.” Thus, and only thus.
In future… what future? “This is how, for a limited time, I will make use of you.” In future, whenever it might arise for me, you will do as you are told or I will excise you, not just from my affections (was I ever there?), but from my life, from my field of vision, even unto the very periphery and out into outer darkness.
Pour another gin for Christ’s sake. Turn it up, love, you’re getting maudlin.
But, of course, silly me, Silly, Silly Me for not seeing through him. After all, that was my job, seeing through people. It’s a job that sounds like a gently helping vocation, psychodynamic counsellor, but which is, often enough, helping people rip themselves apart tooth-and-nail and, hopefully but by no means surely, giving them a safe place in which to reassemble themselves.
What utter crap. Do I have a safe place? Is there a safe place? Don’t go to hospital looking for one, friend, or not our hospital, anyway. You might find me or, worse, him. And we know nothing, never knew anything, in our whole lives about being coherent, so how could we ever manage to piece together someone else’s jigsaw? Bit by bit, session by session, keeping notes, watching the clock, pointing out a missing fragment of castle wall, yawning, having sexual fantasies. Thinking, this one is really nuts. Thinking, she seems a bit better than last time. Thinking, tonight at seven.
And what do you think about that? What did you feel when I said that? What did you feel when he said that? That seemed to remind you of something? That was distressing for you. Would you like a tissue? They’re in a box on the table.
You often mention the weather. Do you think the weather has a meaning for you? Do you think there is a meaning? Do you think there is weather?
What do I mean by that? Umm, (Christ, what did I mean by that?) Why do you think you mention the weather? Oh, there are clouds. What kind of clouds? When you mention clouds, how do you feel? What kind of clouds? Do the clouds float along the top of the sky?
No, no they don’t. Not today, sunshine, today they sit on my head and envelope everything in damp darkness.
Boo hoo. Tissues on the table. We’ve worked well today, thank you. Our time is up.
And so we go on and on.
Boo hoo said the bear, in his little honey corner. House in Pooh Corner for wifey pants. Growl said the bear, out in the woods. Nasty dark woods for dirty girl. Hide and seek, you catch me and I’ll catch you. Oooh, our naughty game is fun. For a while. Gin’s nearly all gone.
What if I don’t? Don’t want to play, feel sad, want to go home. Home with you, please? Too bad, sunshine. Cloud-time for dirty girl.
You can just wander all alone in the big dark wood, while the monsters slash you with their sharp, sharp claws and all the little imps of loneliness jab their pitchforks into your most tender wishes and hopes, turning them to zombie fears, black and dead and hard as coal. Hah, see how you like that, discarded woman.
So here’s the thing.
I hope it’s revenge but I can’t be sure. Gin all gone, now.
I’m writing it all down, every bit, and, what’s more, I’m getting it done by this professional ghostwriter. It’s an excellent system.
You pay them some money, no more than a month’s pension from the private health clinic, (Oh, I’ve never lacked for material comfort) and they listen to you for four sessions — rather cheaper than some of my patients, actually. Then they go away and turn it into a story, with chapter headings and nicely laid-out pages, even photographs if you pay a bit extra, and they publish it. But only vanity publishing, of course. You can have the basic version, which is what I’m going for, called Memoir, or you can have the de luxe version, 25 copies, which they call My Life. Then you have this book, not a manuscript, a real, proper, bound book. And then we’ll see what I do with it.
Spilling the beans? I should say so! “The best revenge is a happy life,” so my mother always used to say, evil old bitch. What did she know about anything, stuck away in a Highland croft most of her life? Scared to transgress any of the norms of a Wee Free lifestyle, scared to breathe when my father, that great bully in the shape of Adam, hence the King, God the Father, the Law (unto himself) in our wee cot took it into his head to bellow and shout and threaten. He rarely hit us, that’s true but we were all so frit of him it made no difference. She bore the children, she cooked, she cleaned, never a peep out of her but I knew how bad she hated us all, deep down. Oh, it’s me that’s evil, my sister says, never a bad bone in Our Mam’s body, she’d give you the shirt off her back (wouldn’t touch it, with the sweat stains under the arm) and other such nonsense. Thank Christ I got away, down to Glasgow to study medicine – who could object to that, being a doctor? And when I changed to the psychology route, lots of tut-tutting back hame. “It’s no’ wholesome for a young girl, ye ken,” they tellt me mam and she tellt me. Too much sex or, as the poet William Blake remarked, Not Enough! Well, she’ll tell me nae mair nor any other body neither and who knows if all that self-sacrifice kept her warm those lonely nights when me Dad was down the pub romancing the barmaids (telling them their evil ways, night after night) and drinking away the housekeeping. Scratch the minister and you get the Old Adam all right.
Give me revenge now, that’ll keep me warmer even than the sex, last longer too, cross fingers. Break up all the tables and chairs, wreck his life and burn, baby, burn in hell for what you did to me. No, better, burn while still alive.
Oh, I hope it works.
Getting carried away there. Deep breaths, slow sips, calm down dear girl, as dear old Mrs Macpherson at the High School used to say. I was a star pupil all the way, specially in the sciences. I loved it, slotting the information and the theories together, dissecting the frog to see how it worked, counting and measuring and graphing. Knowledge really seemed like power in those days. It was spread out for exams and packed away in notebooks and files, deployed in case conferences, stored in leather-bound volumes in echoing stacks. It had a special smell, even. It had romance too, in its own way.
This kind of knowledge, that you end up with, this bitter taste of bile and loneliness, that it’s been for nothing, is not like that. It’s a black hole at the opposite end of power. But I will hit back.
So, where to start? At university, maybe, with free love and failing my first year medic exams. There. I’ve never told anyone that, over all these years. But it did begin with failure and the seeds, the bulbs from which those tulips sprouted, were planted in the fertile beds of student amours.
Back in the day, in the fabled Swinging Sixties, being a “chick” was not synonymous with being a brain. Even me, I’d rather have the sexiest lad than be top of the class. Only just, though: top of the class turns off the lads, but second or third, just behind the top boy, that’s a provocative place to be, the best place to be. That boy, Walter, he left. It was the time of free love and smoking pot (as we never called it, actually) and the police found some in his room so that was it, back off to the castle and a career in banking and never a backwards glance at his wee totty frae the glens. What to do?
Lose the accent, lose the course, lose the whole stinking country and go to London. Do something trendy, in with the times, something “anti-establishment”. Naturally, even with a student grant, a lass with no money behind her is never really going to be anti-establishment like these soft young southern things, not unless she wants to end up back in the bonnie braes, but it’s easy enough to pretend. Grow your hair long, flick it about, look up from under it, sway your hips in a miniskirt, learn your notes carefully at night, do well in all the exams but do even better in catching the eye of eminent, or going to be eminent, men. I flatter myself I could smell one walking toward me down the corridors of the college, smell money and success in the bud, and that I could lasso him with my own sexy smell before he had passed me by.
Or that’s what it felt like, anyhow. All gone now, lucky if they offer me a seat on a bus, “Old dear with some shopping, give her a seat?” I’m nobody’s old dear, dear, but I’ll take the seat; why should you have it? Suffer a little, eh? I do.
First husband, then. Lecturer, going to be Professor, so they said. Full of fine theories. Long hair, beard, nice colour, curly chestnut. Jonathan, Biblical name. What an idiot. Blether, blether, blether, morning, noon and night. Even my father couldn’t credit it. “Does yon niver stop?” he asked on our first, and only, visit. Niver, I answered truthfully. Probably because he was, as we didn’t call it then, gay, and wanted to pretend to everyone, but mainly himself, that he was straight as a die.
They’ll always disappoint you, won’t they, men? Even without trying.
Not that he tried, I’ll give him that. There was no harm in him, old Jonathan. He had his dreams. Pity so many of them centred on lorry-drivers from Hull. Meantime, I had my resources. Psychotherapy training is long and expensive if you aim high, the proper organisations, and I got tired of nursing all day and studying in the evenings. I arranged a few “parties”. Not Tupperware, more shareware. The parties were popular, no names no pack drill, but Jonathan found them distracting in our poky little flat. I suppose they made him confront, dread word, his inadequacies in some directions. He got upset.
We had a big row. Both stark naked, in the early morning. He threw plates. He always bloody threw plates. My Dad would have leathered that out of him but his Mummy Darling was soft as butter with those boys. All nancies, the three of them. “You evil bitch!” I threw a glass (his favourite, an antique). “You pathetic apology for a man!” He cried; I didn’t. He wanted me to comfort him. He loved being comforted. That was what he thought women were for: they were the carriers of warm pillows on their fronts, where he could bury his head and cry. Anything else, too hairy and voracious.
Boo hoo, once more. And damned if I’d clear up. I cleared off. I went to bed with his best friend. It seemed a shame not to, in the circumstances. He cleared up. I left him.
For a fully-blown professor (fully blown by me, of course). I don’t think Jonathan’s a professor, even now. He’s living with a ceramicist off the Fulham Palace Road, the last I heard, ideal for a man who loves throwing plates. How they comfort each other I can’t imagine, without breasts, but perhaps they are nicer to each other than I was to him. He deserved it, mind you. But maybe that’s not the point. I sometimes think about what do any of us deserve? Do I deserve this, do I? and it makes me furious.
Henry (the professor) and I, we did deserve each other. This was more like it. Wedding with long skirts and clouds of dope, evenings with classical music, others with folky tunes. Joni Mitchell, she was always on the stereo. Melodic, but knowing, just like us. Dinner parties, candles, stripped pine kitchen, country weekends, skiing, ever such nice neighbours, coffee in the mornings, theatre trips, joint wine buying, charity work at Christmas, the whole shebang. And did she bang! That ever so nice neighbour, at it like a barn door with my professor. I cried; he didn’t. He left me.
And on to New Zealand. I learnt my lesson. I was proud of myself. I could stand on my own two feet. I made my way. A new field, expanding, I was noticeable. Professional, elegant, a little exotic, cool, yet with the knowledge of insight boiling like a field of lava underneath. I didn’t have friends but I charmed conquests. I was out to succeed and I did. On the surface, where, let’s face it, it counts.
And in New Zealand, Down Under ( never was a place better named) I met Simon. Top of his tree, big alpha male, yes please. That’s it, in truth. I never spoke to anyone else, apart from “The two chops at the front, please?” or “I’ll see Mrs Fosbright now, Nina.” In 20 years, it seems incredible now, I never had what they call a meaningful conversation with another person except him. My life was just strung on daily glances (later, weekly as he got more and more important and was less and less there) in staff canteens, hot exchanges of bodily fluids in unlikely places, long drunken phone conversations and bloody, bloody tulips.
First, a hint of tint glows in a bud tightly shut, then they swell and glisten and blare out colour, sap pulsing in petals so intense, so bright, then they throw themselves open like a mother’s arms and reveal their inner darkness, then they slowly droop and lose their shape, shrivel and fall to dust.
I need some more gin. When is it need and not want, Jean? The Lord will provide for your needs but as for wants, Want will be your master if you let him. Well, I let him.
She never found out, you know. Not until now, that is.
We were so very discreet.
Why did I go along with it? I can’t imagine. I knew my place, I suppose. Behind the bikeshed, up the alley, in the bin. I believed him. How dull and repetitive, as I might have noted with a patient. Repetition compulsion: the need to act out in adult relationships the pathological components of the initial family. Shit. I still love to swear. My pathology resists intervention, always has. Shit again and more shit.
Anyhow, he got the big prize, the muckamuck consultancy and Royal Society position back in Blighty’s brilliant shore and moved. He did tell me, in time-honoured fashion.
The tulips were a little sad. Near the end of the season, just before the transition to petroleum-based tulip-shaped substitutes. Red and pink, not my favourite combination, but reliably sexual.
“Well, Jeanie, that’ll be the last time for us, old girl.” Pouring out two gins, tucking in his shirt. Nice shirt, imported.
I gasped. I wish, I do wish, that I hadn’t.
“I got the job. Up the old school, eh? Sandra’s left with the kids today. I’m off next month. You’ll come to the do, won’t you? It’ll be a big one, probably in the Residence. Chin, chin.”
I never cry. Me Da beat it out of us. I felt that sting deep in the eye, I felt my throat swell and choke, but no tears, no letting go. I raised my eyebrow.
“I’ll miss you, Highland lassie, but all good things come to an end. You’ve got a lot going for you here. And thank God I’m out of this arse-end of the universe. I’m a young man still, I can make a mark back home. Wish me luck, hotpants.”
And that was it. Shoes on and out the door before I could unfreeze.
He knew, he must have known. I loved him, I loved him, I loved him. And just to, just to, just to … go. How could he?
Don’t greet, Jeanie, you’re a big lass now. He’s not worth it, as the women’s magazines always say. No, he’s not worth it. But nor, you see, am I.
I stayed there. I worked my way up, I saved my money. I watched and I listened and I waited. I was polite and friendly and remote and more and more people were just a little afraid of me, I suspect. Inside, the bile boiled and curdled and coloured my dreams livid.
I want to inflict the maximum damage. Unfaithful to his wife: not worth much. Sexual activity on professional premises: not quite nice; in professional time: probably breach of contract; sharing confidential information about patients: unethical; with restricted drugs: gotcha. Then, illicit holidays on public time and money: some kind of fraud, surely? procuring abortions when they were illegal: sorry, didn’t keep the receipts.
All, of this, in My Memoir. And what am I going to do with it? Time is running short. I read in the BMJ that he will retire later this year, full honours, a do that will outdo that poor little Kiwi do, Sandra no doubt in her diamonds, skinny hag. Queen of the castle. Didn’t do so well with the children, though. One dead, drug overdose (like father, like son); one girl, three marriages (ditto); third one, boy heading for brilliant future, car accident, now paralysed. Shame!
Ah, you’re evil, Jean. Yes, and I love it. I do. It’s all I’ve got, my revenge, my burning, boiling, bilious revenge. My Memoir, or my souvenir.
If I think of it, of those 20 years, now almost 20 years ago themselves, what do I remember best? I remember the day we first looked at each other and light and life leaped along our glance. I remember the beach and the breakers pounding and our hearts beating like the surf. And I remember the tulips. The bloody, bloody tulips.
I’ve come to a decision. I’m leaving the Memoir under the bed. The cleaning lady will find it, when she finds me, the empty bottles of gin and pills and everything neat and tidy as I always like to have it. She can decide what to do with it. I’ve got no heirs. They were flushed down the toilet on the South Island decades ago.
Maybe no one will read it. Maybe she’ll throw it away, along with the empty bottles.
Is that a waste? No more than anything else. No more than throwing out dead tulips.
And I’m sending the happy couple tulips. A big bunch of bloody tulips. Congratulations on a successful career. Yellow, every one of them. With a card. “From the Highlands. Where you go, I will go and there will I be buried.”
Very Biblical, in the end. I’d like to give him a fright. But perhaps it will just feed his vanity. That monstrous vanity, that peacocking preen of the man who has important guests for dinner.
Who knows where I’ll be buried, though? Empty threats, to match his empty promises and my empty life.
Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to leave my sting in his flesh as a dying present? And, more to the point, will he really feel its barb?
Here are the pills. Here is the empty gin bottle: one decision that was easy to make. Here is the Memoir. Here is my neat and tidy flat. Here am I. There is the phone, credit card and, somewhere in space, a big bunch of yellow tulips.
Shall I? And if not, what next? The long lonely years, reading about the diamonds on her scrawny neck in society pages, more gin bottles — and no more tulips. Defeat, loss, shame.
I’d like to grind those tulips into their smug married faces for what they’ve done to me. Deep breath, Jean. Deep breath.
I put the credit card back in my purse. I leave the pill bottle unopened. I put the Memoir under the bed.
I never bought him tulips and I am not going to start now.