‘What happened to your sisters in the end?’ begins Alison the next and final time we meet.
‘Oh that was interesting’ I say, relieved to be able to change the subject. ‘Justine ended up a lesbian, or at least, I think she was bi but she found men just too unreliable.’
I can still see her that last time I was with her at the hospital, with her wife there (it still seems strange to call Stacy that, her wife) and it’s a huge emptiness in my heart, her absence. I wonder where she is now.
‘I loved her very much’ I say. ‘She stood up for me through everything. Mum told me that after dad died. I don’t know if they ever really made it up, mum and Justine. She was my best man actually. Very nice suit...’
‘Amelia moved to Australia with her family. I went over and visited her twice. Beautiful place. Actually I’m pretty sure I remember her having some terrible accident that left her in a wheelchair in my previous existences but that didn’t happen this time – and before, she would have ended up in Woking of all places. I can’t imagine what I did to change that.’
‘Some unintended effect of something you did. Who knows the ramifications of the changes you’ve made? Was your older sister gay last time?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Maybe your changes had a liberating effect on them, which I call a result, don’t you? What about your parents?’
‘Oh, I don’t think anything much changed there. I did try to talk to them this time – tried to explain what I was trying to do, why I did the things I did but I don’t honestly think they understood. Either dad just went off on one about me taking responsibility for my life and not blaming others for my shortcomings, or once, later on, he just started blubbing and saying “Oh I did everything all wrong.” Mum just said not to trouble him, because he was sick. She wasn’t interested in talking at all – wouldn’t even begin to listen.
Alison just shakes her head – exasperated. ‘That simple original lie again...’ she says ‘...that all parents, apart from a few obvious monsters, deep down, must love their children. It’s simply not true Gabriel. And it’s not your fault.’
‘I know. I do get that. And I know there probably wasn’t anything I could have done to change things, but I do wish I could try again sometimes, maybe show them that I’m not a waste of space, because, surely they’d wish that wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t want to think of their son that way surely, if they could avoid it? Surely they’d rather be happy for me?’
Alison doesn’t have an answer, except to say ‘Perhaps you’ll meet them here.’
And I say ‘Oh God I hope not’ which makes us both laugh, which is nice.
After a pause she says ‘And what about Sophie?’
‘How did you...?’
‘She’s right here in your notes.’
‘Was she another of your many women?’
‘Ha! Not exactly. I knew there was something about her though. I happened to be on the prom near the Palace Pier – the afternoon of mid summer’s day in the year 2000. I don’t know why. She was there by the doughnut stand, with her little girl who was getting into a mess with her doughnut and Sophie was bending down, sorting her out. I didn’t know at the time of course, what I know now, but I had that feeling again, that I knew her. I even knew the little girl’s name – Emily. It was bit creepy to be honest. I know Sophie thought so. I didn’t know how to explain it.’
I look at Alison, sitting there impassively. I wish I’d stopped talking when I got to Andrea but I have to finish now.
‘So what did you do?’
‘Oh, I tried to act natural, you know, just be sociable but I know she thought I was a nutter, or maybe a child molester. I suppose I tried too hard. Funny, after that, I just knew that this immense part of my existence had collapsed – a whole possible future somehow erased. Just like that.’
‘And Nicky. You saw Nicky again didn’t you?’
‘I did. Vikki and I were up in London seeing some friends. Actually it was my idea to go up that weekend. I mean, I liked Rachel and Steve but that wasn’t it. It felt really important at the time. I wanted to go and see something at the Tate that weekend I remember, but that wasn’t it either. Vikki and I weren’t getting on very well really. I think she’d realised my heart wasn’t in it and I’d been up to Birmingham to see Andrea a couple of months before, ostensibly just for old time’s sake, as friends, but...’
‘You slept together.’
‘I know it sounds feeble but I really didn’t intend to, but there was only one bed in her flat and I remember saying “it’s ok, you’re not totally irresistible. I can control myself you know” and she said “Well I’m not sure I can” and that was it, foregone conclusion.’
It was strange actually because I realised at the time that she had never actually been that good in bed – a bit lazy really. She really loved having it all done to her but tended to drop off afterwards. I remember really missing Vikki’s mad energy that night and feeling like crap in the morning. Andrea knew something was wrong and that was the last time we slept together. I didn’t really miss it.
‘Anyway, I wanted to make it up to her, take her out, have a nice time, you know. And then we were up on Waterloo Bridge just as the sun was going down, hand in hand, singing Waterloo Sunset and I really thought “This is it. We can be happy together. I really love her” and I did. I really did. I almost proposed then and there. And then I saw this tall, voluptuous blonde leaning over the rails, looking at the sun and I just had to go and say something. I didn’t know why, I just knew it was really important, and Vikki was trying to pull me away, still laughing and singing but I insisted. I told her she was an old friend and implied there was something really important I had to do. She just looked at me and stepped back. I tried to take her along, to introduce her but she wouldn’t move. I just left her standing there, waiting, as usual, while I went and said hello to a woman that Vikki knew any man would fancy more than her. I tapped the girl on the shoulder and she started and turned. And then she smiled and said hello in a voice that was so familiar and so dear, and, I realised, so free of suicidal intent that I was completely lost for a moment. That was when I noticed the buggy beside her and the little boy in it. We greeted each other like old friends, although we had to remind each other of our names, and I called Vikki over and introduced her and tried to make a joke of it (“Nicky this is Vikki, Vikki this is Nicky”) and she shook her hand and was at least civil. We took a moment to look at each other, me all in black and with my shaved head and goatee, and her in her fresh make-up and perfect hair and what I assume were designer clothes. The last time we’d seen each other we’d been in bleached and wrecked combats, wild and free in the desert. Here, today, a bus passed too close and an inebriated businessman whistled at her. Then I looked at Vikki in that ridiculous purple beret and pink dress and blue leggings and I remember thinking why the heck couldn’t she just dress like a proper woman?
‘Anyway, I had this idea that Nicky had wanted to go to China and she said yes, she had, but now she had little Giles to take care of and she was really very happy. I asked about the father and she told me he was a builder. She was just up for the weekend, to see her father. Then we said good to see you again and take care and I took Vikki’s arm and we headed back to the flat. She never asked and I couldn’t tell her without making it sound like a lie, but I really couldn’t say where I knew her from.’
‘Well you know now.’
‘You didn’t see her again.’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Well don’t make it sound like you’d never consider such a thing, like you’re so blameless. So you didn’t have sex with Nicky. Big deal! Vikki wouldn’t have been suspicious if you hadn’t given her good reason.’
‘I know... I do know that’ I say, chastened.
‘Right. Good. So what happened?’
‘I broke us up.’
‘Actually, I tried a couple of times. It was just so horrible. She just cried so much and wanted to know what she’d done wrong and everything. Then I was crying too and I just ended up saying something about how we could maybe try again.’
‘Were you seeing anyone else?’
‘No, not for a long time before that. I just couldn’t stand it. I just wanted to be honest and straight with someone but it couldn’t be with Vikki. There was too much damage. And she wanted a baby, and I just thought, I’m not fit for this. I’m just too self-centred.
‘Anyway, I eventually did it with a letter. It sounds cowardly but I knew I just couldn’t do it face to face. I just knew when she started crying again I’d give in and it would just be horrible all over again. So I sent her a letter. It was just short, on a scrap of notepaper because it seemed stupid to worry about stationery. I just had to write it and send it. I don’t know if she understood.’
I look at Alison for some absolution, at least for the way I did it, if not for the rest but she just nods and I just have to accept it. I feel so wretched anyway. I don’t really care any more. I deserve this.
‘What happened to her?’
‘I don’t know. I was afraid she’d do something... but I doubt it. She was very strong actually. She said to me once “It takes a lot of strength to be this weak.” I think it was a quote from somewhere. I really did love her you know.’
I see Alison’s expression soften, ever so slightly. ‘I expect you did. But not enough.’
‘I’m not here to condemn you’ she says, after I’ve had a chance to compose myself. ‘I mean, I have my opinions of course, but what I think is irrelevant.’
‘What’s this all been for then?’
‘You mean you didn’t need to have this conversation?’
I nod resignedly. Fair enough.
‘It seems to me that you were under the illusion that your life could be perfected. You thought that if you could just sort out the early part of your life – what happened with your parents and your education, that somehow everything else would fall into place. You’d no longer be this frustrated renegade outsider character and you could relax and enjoy life.
‘And to a great extent you achieved that and you can be justly proud of your achievement. And you did it without going to the other extreme and becoming a tycoon or a megalomaniac. You retained an admirable humility and sense of justice. Not everybody does.
‘Unfortunately as it turned out you found that something else took its place. Your fear of unworthiness and undesirability meant that you couldn’t help yourself craving more and more female company even when you had a perfectly good woman waiting for you at home. Your fear of loneliness meant you couldn’t bear to leave an unhappy relationship even when you found you were perfectly capable of meeting other women. You became what I suppose would once upon a time have been termed a womaniser. For a while there you became a jerk. I’m sure you’d agree.
‘But if you do want my judgement, for what it’s worth, it’s that this is all a bit self-indulgent. It’s really not very terrible, in the grand scheme of things. You behaved like a jerk, true, and you feel badly about it, as you should, but I can tell you right here and now I’ve heard much worse. You’re not a monster, so... The main injury, it seems to me, is to your good opinion of yourself.’
We sit for a time in silence. I expect her to make the sign of the cross and give me some Hail Marys to do but instead she sits silently and leaves me alone with my remorse.
Just as I’m wondering if it’s time for me to leave she sorts out a fresh page, picks up her pen and says ‘Moving on...’
After I’ve had a little time to blow my nose, drink some water and generally sort myself out she continues ‘What happened next? Did you carry on teaching?’
‘For a while. Obviously I didn’t have a pension. Nobody did. I did some gardening.’
‘Yes, I got quite good at it actually – pruning and weeding. Out in all weathers. It kept me fit, tanned.’
‘I expect that would have made your father proud.’
I know she’s trying to be funny but it pisses me off anyway.
‘I wouldn’t have given him the satisfaction’ I say. ‘If he couldn’t be happy for me because of who I was there was no way I was going to give him the pleasure of being happy that I did what he always said I’d end up doing.’
Alison takes a moment for me to calm down again. ‘I can see you’re still very angry with him.’
‘Well, I wasn’t, not before. When I died he’d been gone thirty years. It all seemed a very long time ago. But now... Now it all feels like he’s still here, or like I’m back there.’
‘Do you think you’ll ever forgive him?’
I take a moment to consider.
‘To be honest I don’t know what that means. I mean, on the one hand, what’s to forgive? He did alright, considering we probably weren’t even related - yes that had occurred to me - and I honestly can’t be sure. We looked a lot like each other – same eyes, but I really can’t say. I don’t even know if it mattered all that much in the end. They did their best as they saw it, fed me, clothed me, provided a roof etcetera. But they were from a different generation weren’t they. They didn’t think about children the way we think about children now. It was all so much more, I don’t know, business-like in those days wasn’t it – functional. That’s just how it was...’
I don’t really believe this. If they’d stopped and thought for a moment surely they’d have realised you can’t leave a child to play on his own for five years and expect him to grow up normal? I still haven’t worked out if I was entitled to want what I wanted or if I should have just put up with it. ‘Life isn’t fair’ mum always used to say, as if that made it all ok.
‘And on the other hand?’ she prompts.
‘What? Oh, on the other hand, doesn’t forgiveness require some sort of contrition? Shouldn’t they, to some extent feel sorry for what they did, do you think, or shouldn’t they at least have tried to understand?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it depends on love.’
I know she’s asking the big question now – did I love my parents? I cast about for an answer. Did they love me? All I can think is, if they did, if I do, it is a notion so weak and so lacking in actual content that it makes almost no difference. Its only power is that I know it should exist and that I would have them back right now if only to have the chance to go searching for it again. Alison bends and looks up into my bowed face. We silently agree to leave it alone for now and move on. It’s getting late.
‘Any more girlfriends?’ she asks, all innocence. I just smile enigmatically.
‘I think I was finally over all that’ I say. ‘It sounds cold but I think I’d done what I had to do. I’d proved I could do it.’
It seems strange now. Once it had all seemed so important – to get to art school, to travel, to meet sexy women. I used to be afraid I’d reach a stage in my life when those things would no longer be interesting and I’d die, spiritually. But when it came, in my early forties I guess, the age I look now, it just felt like a release and it was time to move on into the next part of my life. I think it’s something actually quite rare nowadays – to find that peace in life. So many men (and women too, it seems) go through some sort of mid life crisis, horrified that all the things they dreamt of when they were young are not going to happen, and they panic. I never had that. I hadn’t achieved everything I set out to do, certainly, but I was happy with what I had done and I didn’t really feel the need to keep struggling to do more. Why has our society come to see contentment as mere smugness, as such a failure, as giving up?
‘Actually it was a good time’ I say.
‘Still living at... er, what’s her name’s house?’
‘Oh, Mit you mean? No, she’d died actually, some while back. That was sad.’
‘Oh just age I think. She was quite old, although she didn’t seem it. And Mum died around about then too...’ I take a moment to think about that. It just seems like a waste.
‘I had another place by then, still renting. I missed my chance to buy my own house back in the nineties, which was typical. And, I was still painting, and exhibiting, and selling a few from time to time.’
‘What sorts of things?’
‘Much the same – landscapes and portraits, some nudes. All fairly conventional stuff but they never quite lost that spookiness I’m glad to say. I’d stopped putting it in deliberately years before but it was always there. I think they appealed to middle-aged people who still liked to think of themselves as a bit edgy but secretly just wanted a nice picture on the wall, you know?’
She looks at me impassively.
‘Never mind. Anyway... What else did I do? Walking. I walked everywhere.’ I never envied people their cars. A good pair of boots and you can always get away. That’s what I say.
‘And I had an allotment. I did a bit of conservation volunteering. I used to go down the Snowdrop sometimes for a pint.’
‘And friends? What about friends?’
I think about that for a little while. I wasn’t lonely exactly but it still makes me a little sad. I still don’t really understand.
‘I never really got the hang of people, to be honest’ I say casually. ‘I don’t know. I was never really relaxed in company. It always felt difficult somehow eventually. I was probably quite hard work... It was ok though. I was alright on my own. It was a serene, simple, self-sufficient existence. I liked it. I travelled a bit – went and stayed with Camille and her family in Hong Kong once. Justine used to come over, or I’d go to her. We’d have dinner, go for a walk, watch a film, but otherwise... And there were a few people I used to say hello to in the street – just acquaintances really. I suppose I was a bit of a loner but Lewes is a good place to be a loner. I fitted in well. I don’t think anyone missed me particularly when I left.’
She gives me a look that tells me that she thinks I’m maybe being self-pitying again, but I’m not.
‘I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I suppose there were times when I looked around at my stuff and felt a little sad but not often. It was ok. It was a nice place. I had a good view and I was content. I’m just not particularly easy company. I know that.’
Now she’s smiling again, which is surprisingly reassuring. I feel somewhat absolved. Actually that’s how it felt at the time, taking myself away, to atone for my sins, to keep myself to myself, out of trouble.
‘And I’m supposed to believe you had no more women at all, for the remainder of your life?’ Alison smiles at me like she knows what’s coming.
‘Well, there was just the one’ I say.
‘I knew it!’ she says with glee.
It was a Monday, when all right-thinking men should be at work. I was out walking over the hills to Fulking, to the Shepard and Dog for lunch, like I used to do a lot back then – up before dawn to Blackcap for sunrise, then down along Underhill Lane and across to Poynings. It was a beautiful morning – the first really bright day of the spring.
It was late morning when I passed this little group of 50s council houses among the fields and I just had to stop and look because I knew this one place so well. I looked at the sprout plants in the front garden, stripped and gaunt, and last year’s beans hanging off their poles, and as I was standing there, like a character out of Chaucer or Bunyan, I saw what I can only describe as a pretty maid carrying a basket of washing to the line. She had nothing on her feet even though it was still very chilly and there was a black and white collie mongrel with her, watching me patiently, slowly wagging her tail. She ruffed at me quietly but not challengingly and then got up to come and see me. The gate was half open and I crouched down and ruffled the thick fur on her neck and let her rub her head on my, frankly rather disgusting trousers – the old combats I used for gardening. The woman stood and looked at me and I knew she recognised me. ‘Tilley’ she called and the dog went back to her and I stood up. ‘Hey Sophie’ I said and I wanted to say I’d come home but it seemed presumptuous to say the least. She came up to me with a quizzical look on her face and I saw her sweet blue eyes and soft skin. She shook her head slowly and I was afraid she’d tell me to go away again but I knew then and there, if she’d done that I’d come back every day, and camped in the field opposite and got carted off by the police if necessary. But she didn’t. She gave me a look like she wanted to say something but thought better of it. Then she invited me in for tea.
We sat awkwardly across from each other, with our mugs on our knees and I looked around at the faded three-piece and at the pictures on the walls, some by Emily, some by Dufy or Chagall – her favourites. I looked at the dried flowers and the books and the bits of lace gathering dust and the dream-catcher and the crystals hanging in the window. Tilley lay on my feet. I could tell she remembered. I looked over at the bookshelf beside the chimneybreast and before I knew it I said I could fix it for her, where she had bricks holding it up. For a second she looked shocked, but only for a second. Then she said ‘Gabriel?’ and it was all I could do not to fall on my knees and sink my face in her lap. I did cry though and she had to run out and get me the kitchen roll. She knelt beside me as I blew my nose and tried to compose myself. ‘Where do I know you from?’ she said at last ‘Besides the Pier’ she added.
‘I was hoping you’d forgotten that.’
‘You had less hair then’ she said, almost putting her hand up to smooth it.
‘Oh, yes. Well it was a bit severe’ and we laugh together like we’ve known each other forever. Which we have, pretty much.
‘Happy ever after’ says Alison, breaking my reverie. That’s when it hits me that I’ve gone and left her again and I have to hold myself rigid to stop my insides spilling out all over the carpet. It’s intolerable.
‘But it’s not is it? It’s not “ever after” is it?’ I say miserably. ‘There’s all this.’
‘Yes’ she says sadly, ‘there is.’
‘Everybody assumes the afterlife is going to be such a great thing.’
‘I suppose it depends on your life.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But you were never unfaithful to Sophie were you?’
‘Well there you are. You came through in the end.’
‘But that’s what I’m saying. It’s not the end is it.’
She gives me that look again – the one she always has – the one that tells me she knows what I need to tell her before I’ve even thought it myself.
‘There’s this girl’ I blurt out, ‘or woman... here on the boat.’
‘Does she have a name, this woman?’
‘Lisa’ I say wretchedly. ‘But you already knew that.’
Her expression gives nothing away. ‘Do you love her?’ she says.
‘I’m married. I know... It’s different, but I can’t...’
I’m sunk in misery.
‘Apparently I’ve learned nothing’ I say. ‘Sure I got my life sorted out – after a fashion – as much as I ever will but all I seem to have done is substitute my old sins for a new one. I’m in one of those dreary modern English novels. The moral apparently is Give up! All your good intentions will come to naught. You might as well give in and enjoy your degradation because it’s not going to change. Nothing ever changes. I can’t believe that, can you? People can change, can’t they?’
I see her eyes glisten. It’s just the merest touch. She takes a deep breath and looks intently at me.
‘Fidelity’ she begins. ‘Fidelity is not about never loving or lusting after another person Gabriel. Some people seem to think that if you even so much as look at another woman you might as well pack your bags, but it isn’t like that. What fidelity is, is something much harder. It’s a decision. It’s making the decision to stay faithful to her even though you want someone else. Am I making sense?’
I nod but can’t meet her gaze. She leans forward and clasps my hands in hers.
‘You made that decision Gabriel, and you kept to it – ‘til death did you part.’
‘But it hasn’t, has it? Death hasn’t parted us. She’s still here.’ I punch hard at my heart and glare into Alison’s face. She has to look away but still holds onto my hands.
‘You’re lonely’ she says, looking back into my eyes. ‘Probably you always have been. Sophie gave you some time away from that but it’s never left you.’
‘So what do I do? I can’t betray her.’
It occurs to me that it would be easier if I knew that I was never going to see her again, but even that seems like a betrayal. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s the dark side of love. You can’t have one without the other. ‘I don’t know Gabriel. I am truly sorry, but I can’t tell you what to do. All I can say is try not to be so cruel to yourself. This is real human pain Gabriel – loneliness and grief.’
She lets go of my hands and sits back. I take a tissue and blow my nose.
‘Tell me what happened after that Gabriel. You don’t have to tell me the very end if you don’t want to.’
I wipe my eyes again and lean back in the chair. I start as impassively as I can, keeping to the facts.
‘Well we married a couple of years later. We used the money from the sale of my parent’s house to build a place out near Bramber, near where I lived when I was little, and we lived there until the end. I always loved that area.’
‘And now you know why.’
‘Yes. Yes I do. I think in a lot of ways I was living my dad’s dream. Not the gardening of course, although we did have a lovely garden. Dad wouldn’t have appreciated it – too wild, too much “junk” cluttering the place up, but he’d have appreciated me coming to make a living that way, just pottering about, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. I still don’t know what she saw in me. I think even right up to the end I still half expected her to lose patience with me, become terse and irritable, suddenly realise one day what a loser she’d gone and married, but she never did. She used to tell me I was a good man...’
I feel the tears welling up again for the love of her and I have to stop for a while. Alison passes me another tissue.
‘You thought nobody could ever really want you.’
‘Not after they spent some time with me, found out what I was really like.’
‘And yet you seem to have had nothing but good women in your life, women who genuinely seem to have cared about you.’
‘I know... Strange isn’t it.’
I know this is true. Why doesn’t it seem to make any difference?
‘I suppose there’s always that thing about being a man – being the breadwinner, all that. We never had any money but my girl didn’t care. She just wanted us to be happy and you don’t need a lot of money for that, do you? Just enough. She always said it doesn’t matter how much you earn, you’ll only ever have just enough, or not quite enough, depending on your temperament, and the only real difference between people who make money and people like me who just make ends meet, is how much time you have for the important things in life. I know it sounds trite but that’s the best thing we had, my girl and I – time. All the time in the world...’
I’m nearly in tears again. It seems such a long time ago now, my darling girl and I.
‘I wish I could see her again.’
‘Well, perhaps you will.’
And with that I realise it’s all over, and Alison is no longer my judge. I stand up, a little unsteadily, and hold out my hand as she steps over and, smiling ever so broadly, clasps me tightly in her arms and wishes me the very best of luck. It’s been terrific knowing me apparently.
‘Thank you for listening to me’ I say.
‘Thank you for telling me’ she says.