Perfect and private things
An exclusive short story for the New Statesman by poet and author John Burnside.
At two o’clock, on the last Friday of every spring semester, Amanda Bax would make her way along the High Street, pausing occasionally for a perfunctory and, in some cases, barely intelligible exchange with a passing colleague or one of her soon-to-be-former students, before disappearing, not just metaphorically but – in something close to a vanishing act that delighted her every time – almost literally, into the florist’s on Blackberry Lane. She had been doing this now for 13 years, but today – which also happened to be her birthday – it felt no less strange and sensual a pleasure than it had the first time around: the little shop, damped down against the summer heat, was, as always, a wall of perfumes and thick, humid shadows, the floor and the long water-stained counter a profusion of roses and stocks and gypsophila, and little Elspeth, white-faced and abstracted, like an illustration from some old fairy tale, busy at the back table in a nest of flower bottles and polypropylene ribbon, assembling bouquets for weddings and exam dinners, her blue-black hair streaked randomly with sap and pollen. By now, Elspeth was used to Amanda’s yearly ritual, but she didn’t know its purpose: one of those innocents who can only survive in certain more or less isolated vocations, she thought the large bouquet of red roses that Amanda carefully picked out and sent, without a greeting, to a different young man every year, was nothing more than a kindly gesture, a small memento from a dedicated teacher to a particularly intelligent, or particularly well-mannered, student.
As it happened, nothing could have been further from the truth, but Amanda had no desire to let Elspeth in on her secret – and she was grateful that the tiny, elf-faced woman who made up her order, in what could only be described as a near-reverent silence, appeared to have no further interest in this transaction than the usual consolation of customer satisfaction. Elspeth, Amanda knew, was religious – she read obscure tracts in her little storeroom-cum-kitchen at the back of the shop when business was slow and she had once offered up a small, rather faded pamphlet on the Manichean controversy for Amanda’s consideration, back in the early and less fastidious days of their business together, but Amanda did not think – could not, in fact, imagine – her as churchgoing. The idea of Elspeth in a good winter coat and a hat, standing among the other worthies in the nave of St Salvator’s seemed to Amanda just as unlikely as the idea that she might have a sex life; and, sure enough, their long, if somewhat reserved acquaintance had revealed that Elspeth was, in fact, both a confirmed spinster and something of a spiritual dissenter – on which, had she been inclined to break the terms of their now almost perfect customer-client privilege, Amanda would have been more inclined to congratulate the little florist than to commiserate with her. Amanda was herself married and she had learned long ago that matrimony was not so much the occasion of romantic desire as its final and inescapable cure.
“These just arrived,” Elspeth said quietly, as she laid out a box of deep-red, almost crimson roses. “I always get something special in for . . . Well . . .” The woman looked at Amanda, with just a hint of dismay in her face.
Amanda nodded. She knew the florist had nothing but good intentions and that she wasn’t trying to start an inappropriate conversation, in order to pry. “They’re lovely,” she said. “Two dozen of those would be perfect.”
“And gypsophila?” The florist looked up at her enquiringly, then immediately bowed her head. Amanda thought she detected the smallest trace of a blush in that chalk-white face. She didn’t like the smell of gypsophila, but they added something – a neither-here-nor-there quality that contrasted sharply with the blood-coloured roses – and she always had a little, just to lighten the bouquet. “Oh, yes,” she said, her voice no more than a satisfied murmur, directed mostly to herself. “Most definitely. Gypsophila.”
Sending the flowers was a break in her normal day-to-day routine but it was nothing compared to the ritual she observed, directly upon leaving the shop. It was a ritual that, for several reasons, she preferred to observe alone – usually the simplest thing in the world to arrange except that on this particular morning, halfway through breakfast, Simon had suddenly asked, quite out of the blue, if she wanted to meet up after his last tutorial of the year and go to the Westport for a drink. He had made this suggestion while she was about to pour the tea and, for one delicious moment, she considered spilling the hot liquid over his outstretched hand and the sleeve of his natty hound’s-tooth jacket – quite accidentally, of course – before pulling herself together and fashioning a more or less unlikely excuse. Fortunately, the one good thing about marriage, after it passed the ten-year stage, at least, was that excuses no longer needed to be plausible. Simon knew she wasn’t seeing anyone else – had he considered the idea for a moment, he would only have found it amusing – and it was easier on them both if she claimed a prior “postgraduate pastoral meeting” or an impending deadline, rather than simply admitting what she knew for certain, and suspected that he suspected, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, that she would rather stand up to her neck in slurry for a week than sit with him for a perfunctory birthday drink in some café-bar while he eyed up the waitress.
Still, it had been a close call. If he’d arranged something that involved someone else – some kind of celebration with Matt and Sarah, for example – she wouldn’t have been able to get out of it so easily and she couldn’t help lingering for a moment over his basic lack of tact. Didn’t he know how their life was organised by now? What could possibly have prompted him to suggest they go out together – by themselves? Didn’t he understand the unspoken rules that, as far as she had understood, they had contrived, in a tacit mutual exercise in trial and error, to build conveniently separate lives? For a long moment, after he had returned to his copy of the Times Ed, she considered him with something close to rage. Or not rage, so much as loathing. She had married Simon when he was a rising star in academic circles but he had stopped rising long ago and settled, not altogether deliberately, for comfort. Now he worked in the cultural studies department of the respectable, but unexciting new university where she, the perennial academic wife, had first taken a part-time post teaching modern poetry – she had written her doctoral Weldon Kees and enjoyed reciting the opening lines of Kees’s heartbreaking elegy, “The Smiles of the Bathers” to her startled
students when they first arrived for her “US Poetry in the Twentieth Century” module:
The smiles of the bathers fade as they leave the water,
And the lover feels sadness fall as it ends, as he leaves his love.
The scholar, closing his book as the midnight clock strikes, is hollow and old;
The pilot’s relief on landing is no release.
These perfect and private things, walling us in, have imperfect and public endings –
Water and wind and flight, remembered words and the act of love
Are but interruptions. And the world, like a beast, impatient and quick,
Waits only for those who are dead. No death for you. You are involved.
She loved that poem and, with this untimely and unexplained recital – followed immediately, after the briefest pause for effect, by a taking of the class roll – established herself as an eccentric among the students, and so, if not liked, then at least regarded. Eventually, she had drifted into teaching full time and, during the occasional unexpectedly stimulating class, she actually enjoyed it, becoming more caught up in her professional existence with each new failure in her marriage, till all she and Simon had in common were New Year’s parties with a handful of similarly faded colleagues and the occasional dinner with Matt and Sarah, who both worked in art history and were too wrapped up in their research interests – abstract expressionism and pre-Columbian pottery, respectively – to notice that their closest friends could barely sit in the same room together for more than a couple of hours at a time. What couldn’t be concealed, however, was the long-term hiatus in Simon’s professional standing, and his recent lack of worthwhile publications. For a long time, he had traded on the reputation of his one good book – a more or less Marxist study of Robert Louis Stevenson – but that flame had burned out long ago and all that remained was the confidence he had acquired during his brief but, to him, utterly deserved period of high standing. The book’s thesis – that RLS was, in effect, Scotland’s Goethe – had been cobbled together from a close reading of Marshall Berman, a probable misinterpretation of The Strange Case of, and youthful arrogance; and went something along the lines that, with the Jekyll/Hyde paradigm, Stevenson had gone one better on the Faust-Mephistopheles pairing, claiming that, in response to the high period of modernity, what had been a post- Enlightenment vision of intellect set against and complemented by raw power had been resolved by RLS into an essentially schizoid model, where the hero, instead of being assisted by some supernatural force from without, was left alone with himself, divided perhaps between intellect and id, but divided inside the single, riven soul of a truly modern man, for whom human nature has become at once a monster and a liberator. So far, Amanda supposed, so run of the mill, but Simon had then cobbled together a Marxist interpretation of this schismatic self that, apparently, nobody had ever though of before – perhaps because most people had better things to do with their time. Of course, in the early days, she had tried to see the brilliance of her new husband’s thesis but she had never been altogether convinced and now, a decade and a half later, she had come to the conclusion that the only regrets she had – not just in this case, but in so many others along the way – was that she had too often allowed herself the luxury of misplaced loyalty.
But loyalty, of any kind, was a thing of the past now. Now, her anonymous bouquet duly despatched, she was ducking in from the May sunshine to the dim, beer-scented bar of the Withies Tavern, for the second half of her yearly ceremony of perfect and private things. The roses were on their way to the boy she had chosen this year – a tall, skinny Mancunian named Tim, who had stood with her for just a moment too long once or twice in the quad, rambling about William Carlos Williams – and now it was time to relax into the warm, slow lull of forgetting that had become her once-yearly pleasure. It had taken her years to understand that, when it came to romance, she preferred certain varieties of subtle pain – physical, when that was possible; emotional and psychological when it was not – to any conventional notion of happiness. She had, in fact, refused to give the idea of happiness anything more than passing consideration: it had immediately struck her as an illusion, a sorry bribe offered by social convention – that complex, mediocre Authorised Version of life and love – to divert its subjects from other possibilities, possibilities that Amanda had explored, alone and occasionally with others, enough to understand that, for her at least, the unnamed alternative to this insipid happiness consisted of blood and fire and absence in more or less equal measure. Naturally, she had never conducted these experiments in pain with the boys who, like Tim, drifted through her poetry classes, too self-absorbed or too inarticulate to claim the prize that they sensed might just be available behind the ironic facade she maintained through the occasional intense conversation after class, a prize that, had they been able to claim it, would have cut them to the quick. She knew that. Fifteen years of being married to Simon had made her dangerous, too hungry to be left alone for too long with anything that might, in a certain slant of light, begin to look like prey. All that longing had to be contained, all that desire had to be ritualised. A bewildered boy called to the door in his PJs, hungover from a post-exam party, to take delivery of two dozen blood-coloured roses, a secret held in her mind in much the same way as the one thorn she would break from a rose stem and clutch to her palm as she left the shop, a glass of malt whisky in the dim bar of the Withies, among men she didn’t know.
This year, however – this year, for the first time ever – there was someone she knew in the bar of the Withies. He was sitting at a table in the middle of the room, part of a large group that included several boys and a few girls, all obviously fellow students, though none of the others was from any of the classes Amanda taught. They were the only other customers in the bar and they had dragged chairs from the tables close by to make a wide, untidy circle around a table littered with beer bottles and half-eaten packets of crisps. A few looked round when she came in but Tim had his back to her and she was grateful for that. Still, she hesitated, nonetheless, before she made up her mind and walked over to the bar. There, quietly but firmly, she ordered a whisky from the large, horse-faced landlord whose name, she had once heard, was Bill. She didn’t know the man, naturally, but she could always tell from his expression that he remembered her from previous visits. Maybe this was part of his inner calendar: early summer, strange woman comes in, drinks one or two whiskies, then leaves. The Withies wasn’t a pub generally patronised by students or academics – that was why she had chosen it – so she probably stood out enough for him to recall her face. Or her manner, perhaps. Usually, she was happy, usually she felt strong and confident, someone in charge of her life and going about it with a certain relish. Today, however, she didn’t feel confident at all. She felt studied. She felt looked at – not just by this man, but by the entire room. Still, she ordered the whisky, paid for it and started towards her usual place – the table by the garden door, where she could sit with her back to the bar and look out at the flowering shrubs in the walled yard – because she was determined not to let her ritual be spoiled. She wouldn’t stay long, perhaps – just one whisky this time – but she would do what she needed to do and, when it was done, she would catch a taxi home and open the bottle of wine she had left to chill in the fridge. And she would be damned if she let anything divert her.
Tim still had his back to her as she crossed over to the table by the door but one of the other boys looked up and, as if making her out for the first time, he gave her an odd look, a smile that wasn’t quite right, something close to but not altogether a smirk. She didn’t know who he was but there was something in that half-smile that made her look away a little too quickly, so he knew she had noticed him and she hadn’t wanted that at all. She moved quickly to her table and sat down, her back to the group; then she drank some of the whisky right away, not lingering over it a moment as she usually did but gulping it, rather, the ice butting at her teeth, the taste too sudden and too warm in her throat. She didn’t know why she was upset – Tim knew nothing at all about her yearly ritual and she wasn’t besotted by him, like some lovestruck girl – but she was. In fact, she was very upset and she had to allow herself a long moment to calm down, before she took another sip from the glass. Only then did she look up and that was when she realised that Tim had seen her and was watching her – had, perhaps, been watching her for several moments – with a detached, even impassive expression. He didn’t say anything, and his face remained still, but he kept on looking at her for another moment, before one of the others spoke and he looked away, his eyes alighting on the girl’s face as if he had suddenly found something he’d lost and had been trying to find for the longest time. Amanda couldn’t make out what the girl had said, but she was smiling and, after a moment, Tim laughed.
Amanda looked away. She didn’t want to hear that laugh, or see him like that, with a girl he liked, among friends, celebrating the end of exams. Now and then, she would imagine him drinking, or at a party, she would even imagine him out with friends but those others were never very clearly defined. They were amorphous, anonymous, the merest background to the leading actor in her fantasy. Not that she fantasised often; that wasn’t the point of this yearly ritual. It wasn’t about the boys, it was about her. It was about the ritual she had created, a form of discipline, a process by which she entertained and, at the same time, purged herself of certain impulses, going through the stages of something clear and well-defined so that this year’s Tim, or Andy, or Greg could begin the long process, not of fading from her memory so much as merging into the massed weight of those who had gone before. She didn’t want them. She didn’t want anything to happen with them. She didn’t want to take these boys home to her bed, or creep from their rooms at three in the morning, mussed and sticky and stupidly illumined with guilt or lust. This had always been a game to her and that game had only one true player.
Now, though, the game had been interrupted. A rule had been broken and, as she finished the whisky and rose to her feet, she felt cheated, just a little – cheated and deceived, somehow, though by whom she couldn’t say. Not by Tim, or his friends, not by the landlord, certainly, and not by anyone she could have named. Yet, even as she made her way to the door – not looking at Tim’s group as she passed, though not visibly averting her gaze either – she couldn’t altogether dispel that sensation of having been tricked and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to redeem the ritual until she got herself a taxi and headed for home. She still didn’t know why she felt so upset – but she was and it seemed to her that she had given something away, she had let something become visible, or rather tangible, that should have been kept concealed. Not from those boys, not from the landlord, not from the world, but from herself. Something had dawned on her that made her feel awkward and ordinary. It was a feeling she didn’t want to have, an understanding she didn’t want to have to acknowledge. She couldn’t name it – it wasn’t really about sex and it certainly wasn’t about love either. It was something else, something more basic and needful – and it seemed to her, as she walked to the far end of Church Street and got into the first available taxi, that it was about touch, if anything: touch and then, inevitably, what touch led to – and that was what made it so frightening. If one of those boys had ever though to reach out and touch her face, she told herself, if he had just brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes as they stood talking in the quad, she would have dissolved into the moment and let go of the stupid grief she had carried for so long – so long and yet so lightly, it seemed, a light and steady and habitual dismay, part of what she was to herself and, so, a subtle trapdoor in the world through which, with the least contact, she and whoever touched her might fall forever, into the pleasurable pain that, presumably, they both secretly wanted. A pain that could not be ritualised with roses and whisky, a pain that could not be kept from the world but demanded to be celebrated, openly. It would never happen, of course, she knew that, or at least, she told herself she knew it, staring silently out of the car window at the last of the houses sliding by, and then at the water meadows, and then at her own house, set in the tidy garden that Simon paid a young man with a nose ring and the most absurd acne to keep in immaculate condition, even though they never used it. She told herself that she had always known that nothing would ever happen and she reminded herself once again that she didn’t want anything to happen – just as she knew, now, having paid the taxi driver and walked, steadily, to her all too familiar front door, that the only real pleasure remaining to her was an ordered solitude that, from time to time, would present itself as a gift – just as it did right then, quite unexpectedly, in the moment when she stepped inside and stood quietly in the hall, sensing that the house was, for some reason, mercifully empty. She didn’t know where Simon was – he’d indicated at breakfast that he would be back by mid-afternoon – but at that moment everything brightened and she walked straight to the kitchen to pour herself some Chablis from the bottle she had left cooling in the fridge and she didn’t notice until her glass was full and she went through to the last buttery sunshine streaming in through the windows of the dining room, that someone had left a huge bouquet of roses on the time-weathered table just inside the door – two dozen of them, blood-red, but lightened here and there with a few strands of gypsophila, the dense, almost black thorns just visible through the plastic wrapping.
John Burnside is a poet and author. His most recent collection is “Black Cat Bone”