Gilbert (the object of my spite, my idiot spouse) is hunched over his typewriter, scribbling in the open novel beside him, muttering indistinctly something like ‘bollocks, bollocks, bollocks’ until I enter. I put the coffee down on his desk. He looks up (one second, no longer) then returns to the sheet in front of him.
‘It’s wonderful! It’s impossible,’ he twitters, not to me but to the novel or its writer, his beloved idol Georges Crepe.
I feel I know him well, Monsieur Crepe, since he’s the only thing Gilbert will discuss, but I refuse to pick up the book. He’s obsessed with it, not due to how exciting or enlightening it is (he tells me the story itself is, in effect, of no consequence), but due to ‘the genius of its linguistic composition’. These were Gilbert’s words, of course – this is the kind of rhetoric which dribbles out when he condescends to open his gob.
‘Yes,’ he told me one night without prompt, ‘Georges Crepe joins with the elite pedigree of writers...’ (he mentioned five or six), ‘who, in striving for perfect form, constrict their writing so severely they even refuse themselves the use of common letters. The Greeks were the first...’
But I never listened to the end. Why bother to write books without the letter E, or revise nursery rhymes by dropping their I’s or O’s or U’s? Whether Poe intended to exclude the letter Z from those long, mind-numbingly repetitive poems of his or not, honestly I couldn’t give two shits. I’d be over the moon to discuss it nevermore.
‘Excuse me, Gilbert.’
His coffee is going cold. But he’s still twittering.
Unhelpfully, Gil’s new-found love for semiotic show-offs did not stop with subjective enjoyment. When he found Georges Crepe, his obsession took off. Right now (the sky is grimly grey over Dulwich this morning), with Gilbert relieved of his job in the city, he is busying himself with his little mission: the pulling of Crepe’s novel forcibly (even violently, I think, judging by the blood vessels bursting behind his eyes) from French into English, continuing to exclude the letter of Crepe’s choice. This is why he is here right now, eight o’clock in the morning, juggling the book with his own copy of The Complete French Verbs, peering into the white sheet currently occupying his typewriter, ignoring me completely.
This bothered me before. Not now though.
He looks up, doesn’t see me. ‘Hm.’
He thinks he'll be up for the Scott Moncrieff Prize. It’s possible he will, but by then, I’ll be gone.
Over the course of the summer, Gilbert’s entire spoken lexicon diminished slowly into grunts. His sole focus lies there in front of him, impossible for me to overcome. I flicked through his unfinished script once, while he telephoned his grubby little four-eyed mistress from the university. It looked like complete nonsense. I did however see one simple, pressing truth. The Missing Letter (Gilbert’s working title, obvious enough) would provide my pretentious spouse with enough fuel to see him right through the winter. I, conversely, would be left with the dishes. My soul cold like unfinished coffee.
‘Gilbert, I’m popping into town for some bits.’
He expects me, in this silence, to get on with my lonely life, the life destined for the wives of ‘men of letters’, expects me to fetch him something to glug, something to smoke, something to chew on whenever he needs it, or otherwise to be quiet, or knit, or go outside.
‘Join the book club if you’re bored,’ he suggested.
I took to messing with him in September. Just to give me something to do.
It’s simple enough to put his newly-pressed trousers on the bed with two loose socks connecting the knees, or to present him his chips in groups of three, joined by the tips, but more difficult to get these little jokes of mine noticed. I smuggled his missing letter into every sentence I could muster, responding to his murmurs with ‘Eh? Eh?’, which he mistook only for mock Scouse. I stopped dressing properly, took to my duties in the nude, dusting his desk with my knickers, until the next door neighbours telephoned to tell me they could see ‘everything’ – the word slipped through the receiver with its own unique gusto. But even these frolics were not enough either to relieve my boredom or force Gilbert to recognise me or my misery.
He doesn’t respond to me, doesn’t even see the coffee beside him. I grit my teeth.
‘Should I fetch you something from the shops?’
Still nothing. Well, so be it.
I bend down to collect my keys (dressed, of course) before tip-toeing to the bedroom door. When my fingers close over the knob, I decide it would be stupid to ditch this little silent despot without giving vent to one or two of my subdued feelings. It couldn’t hurt.
‘Gilbert...’ I begin, but he’s engrossed in his book.
His neck twitches, his typewriter ‘tip-tip’s, his pencil skitters down the side. He is obviously busy, too busy for worldly chores, too submerged in the depths of genius to look, even to look, in the direction of the girl he once fell in love with, before Georges Crepe, before The Missing Letter. His work is his world, the whole of it. It is complete, wholly his. It builds for him the purpose to which every ounce of thought, every ounce of energy, his entire being, everything in life, is directed. It fills him entirely, or else empties him out.
I’d like to tell him these things, something of how I feel, but no. I exit in silence.
Down by the front door, my new life is pending.
The bus will be outside in ten minutes. I hover in the corridor, shoes on, fleece slung over my elbow, my pulse quickening. Is this horror I feel, or impending joy? Without thinking, I rush into the kitchen, rip the old electric bill off the fridge, whip the lid off my pen, begin to scribble. The words come quickly, smoothly, without the slightest drop in rhythm. It’s these words he’ll remember me by, these words which will drive him completely, irreversibly bonkers.
I check the clock. I study the letter. I smile.
I slip my key on top of the letter, scrutinizing it one more time. It would be glorious to be here to witness him discovering it but by then I will be in Luton, queuing up for the flight desk, or else window-shopping in duty-free or even, if he doesn’t come down till this evening, one kilometre over Western Europe, clutching my ticket to Moscow or New Delhi or Timbuktu or wherever Gilbert’s money will get me. I think, wherever it is I end up, I will enjoy exploring my freedom.
The door sighs when I come to open it. Behind me, the letter on the counter is the only thing left of Gilbert’s wife.
Read and understand: an unhappy marriage, diagnosed as terminal, contaminates a relationship, shatters personalities and, ultimately, causes heart attacks. A fact? Plausible as anything, although admittedly unverifiable. Clearer: a husband can disregard a partner, and a woman can always ascertain a man’s apathy. An agonising playact can take a decade and, lacking warning, abruptly draw a final curtain. An everyday happening, perhaps, a break-up, and continually unpredictable. Actually, at a glance, inevitable: shams are always revealed as false. Masks fall, personas vanish. Appearances alone cannot maintain a marriage.
And literature? Lipograms and all that? An eternal fraud, especially amongst egotistical, delusional, phallocentric authors. Mental masturbation - all faux-intellectuals can manage. Cowardly, almost certainly, barely concealing a rapidly-ageing attitude, that same falsehood that says literature demands acrobatics. Realise: a basic narrative can alter nations. An authentic yarn can quash dictators and tyrants. A solitary, uncomplicated image has a value metafiction can rarely command. Understand that and literature may, miraculously, last another millennia.
Anyway, that was a distraction. What a middle-aged, married woman can learn demands a summary. Admire an aphorism: make happiness a primary goal. That means avoiding impracticable situations, and ultimately abandoning unnecessary baggage. After all, bastards are what bastards are, and all arseholes are exactly alike.
Adieu, adios and arrivederci,
Issue 8 & 9
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