Living with the Past
My relationship with T is tenuous these days. My fault entirely because he doesn’t live that far away and we could meet more often. He’s changed over the years and the young man I used to know, and of whom we were all a little in awe because of his strident, no-nonsense prose, has faded and taken on some of the characteristics of his own fictional creations.
His smile was the same and I watched him over the table as the girl served up our breakfast. When she had finished she looked down at the spread, and from my face to T’s and he reached to pat her hand. She let it happen, though something in her recoiled. For a moment she didn’t know how to handle the situation, but recognized there was no harm in him. T didn’t recognize that a situation had occurred, and now passed.
‘I want you to do something for me,’ he said, when she’d returned to the kitchen. He split the yoke of his egg, guiding it with his knife as it smeared one side of the toast and bacon. ‘If it’s too much to ask, that’s OK. But if you can do it I’ll be grateful.’
‘You know me,’ I said. ‘I’ll help if I can.’
‘I need to see Louisa. It’s been too long.’
‘Louisa.’ A name I hadn’t heard for some time. A wraith-like picture of her formed in my head. Louisa in her red dress, a painter and a dancer, seemingly always by his side. But a woman who inhabited a battle-ground; ostensibly offering hope and nurture while concealing a psychology that led her adrift, where no one could follow.
‘I need you to ring her for me, just tell her I want to meet up.’
‘I promised not to contact her. Her parents, her mother, they’re so against it. If I ring there’ll be an almighty row, and they wouldn’t let her speak to me, anyway. She’s trapped there, in that house.’
I ate slowly, taking a sip of my coffee, waiting to see where he would go next.
‘You tell them, whoever answers, you just tell them you’d like to speak to Louisa. They’ll probably put her on the phone. If they ask who you are, you tell them your name, you’re John, and you used to work with Louisa at her school, you were teachers together, and you’ve been away and come back and you’d like to see her again. Then when Louisa comes on the phone you tell her you’re ringing for me and I want to meet her, but you’ll have to speak quietly because her mother’ll be somewhere close, trying to listen in.’
He’d stopped eating by this time, though he still clutched both knife and fork. He’d thought long and hard about this, tried to foresee and cover anything that may get in the way of his plan. His Louisa had been stolen away from him or he had somehow agreed to give her up and the stark realisation of that was eating him away.
‘Once we’ve met it’ll be all right,’ he said. ‘We’ll be back where we were. OK, we’ll have to be careful, but we can do that, we managed before.’ He laughed, relaxed for a moment, looked down at his plate and cut off a sizeable portion of toast and bacon, carried it to his mouth on the fork. ‘It was ridiculous, thinking we would manage apart. Louisa’ll be the same, just like me, pining away.’
The serving girl came back to the table, tall like a young maple. ‘Everything all right?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ T told her. ‘I’m good. We’re good.’
We parted outside, T going to collect his car while I headed towards Fossgate and the walk home. My last glimpse of his back before his disappeared into the morning was of a portly man, somewhat unsure of his footing. A poet still, in his depths.
It must be fifteen years since Louisa slipped away from us, shortly after her parents died. I remember being surprised at the time, not that she had taken her own life, but because T himself was surprised. Everyone else who had known her had expected it for some time.
But none of us knew her as well as he.
And none of us, apart from T, had managed to keep part of her alive. We were too busy maintaining our own illusions.