Sing Like You Know the Words, page 32
When Matthew returned, the mood was calm again. He had no idea what they had talked about, but it seemed that the women in his life had a knack of dealing with stressful situations. Tim stayed a while longer: when he went home, he thanked them and sounded like he meant it.
Outside the house, David and Matthew shook hands on parting. The habit was new to them, and Matthew was not sure what it meant; advancing middle age probably. He paused.
-You know, whatever mum said about immigration, I´ve never seen her treat one person different to another. She’s not a racist.
-You don’t have to apologize for her.
-Maybe it’s us. We grew up when there first started to be blacks and Asians around. There was all that casual racism, remember; the TV comedians and the jokes you heard at school. It was supposed to be harmless, just a bit of fun. We laughed at the time and we´re still feeling guilty about it. It was easier to know where you stood in the seventies, with the National Front idiots around. But now, I see there are real problems, and I don’t trust myself to think about them, even in my own head. I just don´t think about it.
David shook his head. Same old Matthew; paralysed by self doubt even in his own thoughts. There was nothing you could do with him. As for Tim, there was no point in hoping for much. Sometimes he´d seemed like his old self, especially when he was angry. The rest of the time it was as if he was on medication, struggling to keep up with the conversation. David supposed that his mind would soon be gone if his body did not collapse first.
Amy and Matthew had been together for three years when she told him that the bank had offered her a secondment in Canada, and she was thinking of accepting it.
-Great, we should go online and start looking for a house.
-It’s only for twelve months Matt, it´s not permanent.
-But then how are we going to manage?
-I was thinking I´d go out there on my own, rent somewhere with space for when you visit. The bank pays for a few trips during the year. I’ll be back before you know.
Matthew said nothing for a moment. Amy felt as if an invisible liquid presence had entered the room and changed the temperature of the air that separated them.
-How much do you want this love?
Amy decided that the thing in the room was one of those monsters from childhood that grow in power if you admit they are there; so she answered in a bright, straightforward voice.
-More than I thought I would. It’s kind of a big deal at the bank, you understand. It’s like, do this and you´ll be considered for bigger and better things. Turn it down and that´s the ceiling right there.
-That’s not very fair.
-But that’s the way it is. There´s a lot of people they could have offered; and they´d all have jumped at it. Maybe it´s a test of commitment as well. Especially for a woman: they´re convinced we´ll all run off and have babies if the job get´s tough. But anyway, it´s actually something I´d like to do. The only thing that’s stopping me is to know how you feel.
-I never realized the job meant so much to you.
-Maybe I didn’t realize either. It’s all very sudden. I mean, I honestly didn’t go looking for this; it came to me. But it is a big thing.
-Okay, well, we can’t be apart for a year, so I’ll give my notice at the paper. Probably a good thing for me to move on anyway.
-That’s just silly Matt. You’re talking about something that is a big part of your life. It would be like asking you to cut an arm off. I couldn’t let you come with me, knowing that you´d done that. I’d rather not go myself.
-It´s only a job at a newspaper. You´re what matters in my life.
-But it’s more than a job.
-How can you know that? We never talk about it.
-We talk about more than you realize Matt. We just do it in small ways that you don’t notice. I know that the paper means a lot to you.
-But then what do we do? I can’t ask you to give up the chance and stay here. You can´t ask me to give up work and come with you.
-It’s only for twelve months. There’s holidays and visits like I said. We can get through it. It will pass before you know.
-Of course it will. Sorry, I was being unreasonable
But when she’d gone and he was living on his own, Matthew admitted to David how he really felt.
-I can’t live this way anymore, he said. On my own all the time. Not when Amy and I were so close for so long.
David told him he sounded like a spoilt kid.
-Look at all the time I´m away. It´s life, unless you want a little woman to follow you around. And don’t talk about the two of you in the past tense, she’s coming back.
-I feel like she’s never coming back, and that even if she does nothing will be the same.
-Why shouldn´t it be the same? I wish you could hear yourself. You’d laugh.
-I know I´m being ridiculous. I can’t explain it, except to say that it´s not just about feeling lonely. It´s that I know that if we were to never see each other again, it wouldn’t mean the same to Amy as it would mean to me
-That’s your old craziness coming out again. I warn you, if it takes proper hold, I´ll have to beat it out of you. When you´re like this you´re no use to Amy or anyone else. You don´t need to plan your personal life three moves in advance, responding to things that aren´t going to happen, unless you make them happen.
The twelve months passed quickly enough, and Matt flew out to see Amy twice on the bank´s ticket. Afterwards everything seemed to be fine. If Amy noticed any difference in Matthew when she returned, she thought it best not to comment on it.
But though he tried to pretend that nothing had changed, Matthew was different. He couldn´t even speak to Amy about it: it was David who heard his confession.
-I thought about her all the time she was away, every day, until eventually I knew what the problem was. There´s nothing in me to inspire the kind of feeling that Amy says she has for me. Either she´s mistaken about her feelings, or else her feelings have nothing to do with me as I really am. I’m nothing special, you know that. I´m in a trap. I have to believe either that she’s in love with the feeling of being in love for its own sake, or else that she sees more in me than there really is. Either way I´m living a lie. One day she’ll see me for who I am and that will be the end.
-Why should Amy trick herself into caring about you?
-But that´s what she´s done. And you have to understand. I love her. She deserves the best there is. I don’t want her to be tricked into falling in love with someone, even if it’s me
-You need professional help my friend. You should fall on your knees and give thanks that this girl loves a moron like you; which she clearly does; not waste your time wondering why. What gives you the right to think that you know what she´s thinking better than she does? That takes a special kind of arrogance, Matthew. You say I manipulate people, but you’ve gone beyond me: you’re ready to tell them that what they believe they´re thinking is not what is in their minds at all.
-I’m being deadly serious Matt. And one more thing. I know you will think this comes from a closet catholic, so you won’t like to hear it, but it’s true anyway. If you walk around feeling that you have to deserve your happiness, or else it can’t be genuine, then you’ll never be happy. Ever. I shouldn’t put it this way for you, but it’s a question of grace. Grace that is bestowed on you when good things come your way and grace that you must find accept them. If we only received what we had deserved, the world would be in flames.
Matthew refused to be persuaded. He´d got an idea in his head that he clung onto stubbornly even if it threatened to annihilate him. Amy could see clearly that he was in pain, but there was nothing she could do to get him to talk it through. They were caught by the notion they had always shared, that true feelings could only bloom in the dark secret places of the heart. If you exposed them to sunlight and prodded the
-I feel as if we’ve spoiled something, and we might never get it back, she told him. I wish I’d never seen Toronto.
-You had to go love, and you’ve not spoiled anything. I just have some stupid, pointless feelings that I have to work through. Everything will be alright, it will pass. It’s just taking me a while, and that’s my own fault. There’s no reason to spoil your time brooding over it.
-Maybe we should do something about it instead of talking. We could get married.
-You were the one who said no to that.
-So why would you suggest it now?
-Does it matter? Do I have to be able to explain it?
-I don’t know. It’s a nice thought, but now isn´t the time. We should talk about it later.
In fact it was already too late. Amy´s next overseas trip was only a three months posting, barely more than an extended business trip; but when she returned from Mexico, Matthew told her that he´d met someone else and that it was over for them.
Amy had known that something was badly wrong from the moment they held each other in the arrivals hall of the airport, but to hear from his own mouth that Matthew had been with another woman sent a wave crashing over Amy´s life that demolished the defences she´d been able to put up against hearing bad news and destroyed everything. She didn’t scream or cry and she stayed polite; a little too polite. The screaming and wailing was going on inside; where some small but precious part of her was twisting up and blackening, dying a horrible private death.
-Someone younger and prettier, I suppose.
-No: she’s closer to my own age, seven years older than you. She’s got a kid.
-Is that supposed to make me feel better?
-The boy´s handicapped. He’s twelve I think, but he seems younger..
-What is wrong with him?
-I don’t know what they call it. He needs a lot of help though. It’s hard on Jane.
-Do you think you´ll be able to provide... Jane, with the help she needs?
-I haven’t really thought about it
-Well you need to.
-Amy, this is really uncomfortable for us both. I know you don’t want to talk about someone else’s family just now.
-You’ve been through this kind of thing before. I expect you know how it works.
-Yes I’ve split up with girls before, and you’ve never reproached me about it or asked me anything about them, and I´ve always been grateful for that. But this situation is different anyway. This is a situation I never, ever wanted to happen.
-It seems that you´re the one who is making it happen.
-Because it just has to be this way. What can I say? I spent so many years not wanting to be responsible for anything or anyone and then I met you. You’re perfect. You’ve been everything to me. You are everything to me still, except that I could never believe you needed me, as much as I need you. If I died tomorrow, you’d be sad, but you’d cope. Life would go on. I admire that about you Amy, I really do; your self-possession is beautiful: and you never ask for anything for yourself. But you woke something in me that I didn’t think I had; some hunger, but it’s more than that, to be needed, not just wanted. And now I have that hunger, I can’t shake it off.
-What you´ve just said is so full of crap that I can´t even begin to answer you. I suppose you think that Jane needs you more than I do?
-I believe she does.
-I hope you know it. You need to do more than believe. God help you if you don’t. You’re a person who can change what he believes overnight. I know how weak you can be Matthew. It never changed how I felt about you. I know that you think that because I don’t talk about what passes between us, it means I don’t understand. You feel unworthy of what we have, in some stupid part of you that I can’t get through to. If I could talk to you about it I would, but there are some things you can’t talk about without causing damage. Once you´ve spoken, it’s already too late.
-Don’t be angry
-I’m not angry. I’m sad. You‘ve hurt me with what you´re doing and more with how you are doing it. I know that men sometimes sleep with other women to escape from the relationship they´re in, but you didn’t need to do that to us. You could have just told me how you felt. And if I thought that you had only started to see this woman as a way to get away from me, and that you didn’t even love her; if I heard afterwards that you´d run away, after letting her believe that you would be there for her and her poor son; then I would begin to hate you. I’m sorry to have to use that word.
Matthew knew that if Amy had fought against him, if she’d refused to accept that it was over between them, or even if she’d only broken down in front of him; there would have been no way for him to walk out. He didn’t have that much strength. But she was too proud and in any case, the damage was done. Amy shed the rest of her tears in private. Within a week she´d found somewhere temporary to stay and moved her things out, but that night Matthew left her in the flat, not knowing where he should go. Oakland Ridge seemed like the only place.
David was telling a story to Evelyn and didn´t hear Matthew arriving downstairs.
The boy and the faery princess met by chance as the princess was riding out in the woods near her faery palace, on her favourite white pony. The boy and the princess fell in love the moment they saw each other. The princess was enchanted by the gentle brown eyes of the farm boy and the noble spirit that she sensed under his rough appearance. The boy knew that the princess was the most delicate and magical creature he would ever see.
He agreed to steal her away from the faery castle, but on the night they planned to escape they were seen by the palace guards. In the struggle, the boy accidentally killed the captain of the guard. He was brought before the faery King in chains of silver.
The sentence of the King was that the boy should be hung for his crime, but when the faery princess heard this she cried so much that her father offered the only compromise that their law allowed. If the princess agreed, he would decree that the boy should be imprisoned in the palace for twenty-one years and a day, and for that time the princess would be banished from the palace and live among the mortals outside the walls. Only once a year, on the anniversary of their crime, would she be able to visit the boy at the faery palace.
The princess agreed, and once a year she came back to the palace, bringing news of the boy’s family, and all the things that were changing in the wide world. There the princess met other handsome boys, but she stayed true to her farm boy, even when men who had heard of her beauty came from far and wide to woo her.
The years passed at the palace. At first the boy was alone in the dungeon, but in time the King became a regular visitor to his cell. The King missed his daughter so badly, and the boy was the only person he could talk to about her. Eventually the boy and the King became friends, joined by their shared love of the princess, and they would ride out to hunt together in the cold morning air of the forest, but the boy had to be back at the palace before sunset or the penance would be broken.
More years passed, and the boy became a man, and though he remained human, he had learned the ways of faery. He was happy to stay within the walls of the castle. He had his own horses, hunting birds and hounds, and he had the free use of the palace library that was full of interesting books, that no-one else in the palace bothered with, because faeries are extremely negligent regarding knowledge. But of course he still longed for the day when he would be released from his sentence and free at last to start his life with the beautiful princess who was waiting for him in the cottage in the wood, on the other side of the palace walls.
Eventually the day came, twenty-one years and a day after his crime, and the princess came to see him at the castle, as she had in all the other years, her heart full of excitement because at last they would be together.
The boy was now a prince
The prince could still remember the deep feelings that he had held for the beautiful princess, and he knew that the dowdy woman who stood before him was that same person he had held in his heart for so long. He tried to control his emotions, reminding himself that he had loved her so much, and telling himself that he must still do, even though she now seemed to him only human and ordinary. When he thought back over their meetings, once a year since his imprisonment, he could not remember when she had begun to change, or when his love for the princess had begun to fade.
The faery King came to meet them in the drawing room of the palace, eager to see his missing daughter again, and to discuss plans for the wedding. He seemed not to notice the effects of time as he embraced his daughter with great love. But the prince announced that he had bad news. He was very sorry, but he no longer felt the same way about the princess. They had grown in different ways while they were apart, he said, and now there was a gulf between them that could not be crossed. He suggested that it would be better if they both carried on their separate lives, rather than spoiling the memory of what they had enjoyed. He was sure that the princess would see it that way too, in time. His own life was now at the palace.
In the next moment, as the room began to spin away from the prince, he could see the faery King, still embracing his daughter, but now she was again the young princess he had first loved, impossibly slender and beautiful. The next thing he knew, he was back in his old cottage in the woods, lying on the floor of earth, in his rough clothes: but something was different. He felt his face and looked at his hands. He had become older. Twenty-one years had passed. And he was alone.