THE COLDNESS OF PEARLS
by Deirdre Barragry
Harry was so punctual he might have been mistaken for someone who wanted to be there. Twenty minutes early, as if about to interview for the position of a lifetime or embark on the holiday of his dreams. If only. He’d come by bus, both to kill time and to submerge himself in the wash of mundanity before the meeting ahead. He was bemused to find a tear of affection welling in response to the familiar asthmatic grunt of the Number 84, the tongue-biting ramps along newly-widened Fern Avenue, and the navy houndstooth seats worn to threads at back and base. He’d let the bus lull him away from his spinning mind as it clambered around each bend, even finding nostalgia in the orange rivulets running from the spilled cans of the youngsters at the very back. This week’s “youngsters’ were last year’s “inconsiderate oiks”. This had been the route of his early twenties, from his parents’ hushed semi-d to the School of Medicine and on to nights under Georgia in her bedsit over the fruit-shop. The smell of overripe bananas still stirred him to this day, occasionally causing him to have to scurry through the fruit aisle of Tesco Express.
Harry chose to alight at the credit union, but as the 84 began to trundle away from him he suddenly felt abandoned and had to fight his instinct to flag it down with a shameless display of arm-flapping and climb back on. He’d intended to walk this last part of the journey at a relaxed pace, but thoughts of Georgia quickened his step until his bladder took precedence and made him jog.
Harry perched deflated on the edge of an overstuffed armchair in the foyer, irritable that something could look so plush and yet be so unyielding. It was stuffed excessively firmly and he’d soon developed a both literal and figurative pain in his rear trying to sit on the velvet dome, before giving up and shuffling forwards on his heels. He crossed his legs one direction and then the other before inspecting his nails and glancing again at his watch. Busy for a midweek evening, he thought with a sniff. Off season tourists and lovers. He ran a hand over his newly soft jaw and jiggled a foot. He’d missed a smear of polish on the top of his left loafer. Harry hissed and fished a crumpled tissue from his jacket pocket to buff and blend it away. A tipsy couple in their twenties wove past him as he crouched, noisy and underdressed for the time of year and not a coat between them. The bloke, in a short-sleeved shirt so tight it looked like it had been misted onto him with an atomiser, had a beefy arm around his date’s ribs. She was tentative in her strappy sandals and laughing too hard to walk straight. It took them a second try to negotiate the exit, her squealing as she stumbled on the lintel.
Harry shook his head and returned the polish-stained tissue to his pocket. His diamonded socks were showing. He stood and pinched the knees of his trousers to adjust them downwards and sat momentarily before rising as if stabbed in a glute. He flung his hands behind his back and clasped the fingers of one with the other, taking decisive strides to the line of pictures above a spray of flowers on the mahogany table. The delicate scent of lilies was incongruous with the yellowing black and white photographs of sea dogs and trawlers. Harry glanced down at the powdery stamens and their earwax-coloured pollen and pressed the tail of his tie to his chest. Crabby Jack (1886-1943) never had to worry about such things. Harry checked his watch again.
One last dinner together was all she wanted. Opinions on how he should respond had been divided, his own among them. He’d flailed between acceptance and refusal since taking the call before caving in. Three weeks on, he was still flailing. He studied Crabby Jack and willed his pulse to slow. He caught a faint reflection of himself superimposed over the old sailor and considered wryly that he looked more ghostlike than the long-dead mariner. He tried out a smile but it was tense as a tetanus victim’s and he swiftly dropped it.
Georgia sailed through the door at eight on the dot, wafting her unconventional fragrance and leading with noiseless browned feet. She startled him with a kiss on the cheek, not waiting for an invitation. Unbidden she fixed his tie, fluid in her ritual despite so long a separation, and with a bright side smile and a flicker of eye contact, led the way to their usual table. The Inn was packed, the intimacy heightened by the low ceilings and density of diners. Harry followed with his nails pressed into his palms and the rising heat of panic and desire.
Harry remained mute while Georgia ordered for them both, her forefinger roaming the menu as she made her selection. She smiled sweetly at the waitress, her eyes crinkling as she stacked and aligned the leather-bound menus and wordlessly returned them. Georgia played with her hair and sat back to study Harry. He looked good, apparently. He didn’t feel it.
Starters appeared and broke the hanging silence. Harry watched Georgia’s steaming soup bowl descend in a slow arc and land on the table. His own had barely contacted the starchy tablecloth, when he found himself pushing back and standing, and then fleeing to the bathroom.
He collapsed into the echoing tiled whiteness. Harry gripped the knot at his throat and yanked at the noose again, staring at the pantomime in the mirror. He looked like an irate turkey, and he might have managed a nasty laugh if he hadn’t been choking. The knot yielded, finally, with a satin whirr. Why did she always have to do his tie so bloody tight? Harry braced against the marble sink, squeezing the cold ceramic, and cleared his gummy throat. The eyes rising to meet his were reproachful and bloodshot. He knew he shouldn’t have come tonight. But he couldn’t refuse her invitation, under the circumstances. He’d never been good at saying ‘no’, and they both knew it.
There was still time to duck out. Harry pinched the bridge of his nose. His soup must be clotting by now, the green of minted peas forming a tideline on the white earthenware. Georgia was out there, sipping hers with the dainty slurp he used to find endearing, while he holed up in the bathroom bunker of the Primrose Inn. He grappled with a brass tap. It groaned and ground into his palm. Harry soaked the corner of a hand towel and dabbed his face. The Primrose Inn took great care over these extravagant touches, the boutique soaps and the stack of pristine hand towels. Fresh. Folded. Frivolously abundant. Harry had always liked the place. It was cosy, upmarket but not pretentious. Not unlike how he used to view his life with Georgia, the comfortable combination of two former general practitioners with reasonable financial acumen and modest inheritances. He smoothed his mussed hair, what was left of it, and tossed the damp towel into the hamper. He would never come here again. He tugged sharply on his jacket cuffs and braced himself for the wall of heat, noise, and contentment on the other side of the bathroom door.
The fish tank’s azure aura lent their usual table an unearthly glow. He followed the tractor beam back to the alien landscape of his marriage. Georgia was studying a clownfish, her cheek in her palm, slowly tracing a finger of the opposite hand across the glass. The clownfish tried to nibble it. Her dimple deepened. She looked up as Harry approached. Her eyes and teeth glinted blue, and the pearls at her throat reflected the light.
“Better now?” she said. She laid a toned arm along the back of his chair and pulled it out a little for him to slip into it.
He hopped his chair tighter to the table top – it might stop him falling through the floor. He could have done with a seatbelt or some duct tape. Georgia planted a hand between his shoulder blades and leaned behind him to say something to the waitress. The tenderness burned him. He wanted to slap her hand away. And then to press it and beg her one last time to change her mind.
Through Harry’s lamb and her salmon, Georgia talked about her friends and her golf. She’d recently attended her sister’s retirement party. Everyone, especially Sharon, missed Harry at it. It wasn’t the same without his legendary air guitar skills. They all sent their love. And the gang were just devastated when they learned he wasn’t to be her guest at the Lady Captain’s Dinner.
So this was how she was going to play it. Cheerful chatter and avoidance. Harry sawed at his meat inexpertly. The knife snagged and mauled the flesh. He cut the served slices into ridiculous little scraps with frayed edges. Georgia beckoned to their waitress with the ready smile and asked her to bring him a sharper knife. But it wasn’t the knife that was blunt. Harry was falling into power-saving mode.
He repositioned his hold on the knife. What was left of his inner optimist was done for. The most it could hope was that this might all be the product of some interaction between his selection box of meds and a case of merlot. That any moment now, he’d wake up hungover in that vast sleigh bed of their marital home, cocooned in security and Egyptian cotton. With Georgia on one side and the dog on the other. He’d open a window to let in the morning air. She’d complain of the draught. He’d have eggs for breakfast with a statin chaser and bring Georgia tea and the papers.
Georgia deftly folded back the salmon’s glistening skin. “And Chloe and Mark miss you too and said to tell you to get in touch. Don’t be a stranger and all that. You know, if you’re in the area, or, well, want to talk or fancy a cuppa.”
If he wanted to talk. If he wanted to talk about what? The weather. His new apartment, with its spotlights in the ceiling and hardwearing carpets. About how his world imploded one November afternoon when his wife told him she didn’t want to live anymore.
Because that is precisely what she’d said, after inviting him into the false shelter of sharing a pot of tea and watching the rain teem down. She didn’t want to get elderly, she’d explained as she raked the hair by her temples with her nails. She’d seen enough death and enough disease to know which of the two she feared more. It was her life, her decision. She wasn’t looking for any second opinion about her assisted suicide. She wanted to depart on her own terms, before her looks faded further and her body broke down. Any attempt to open a debate would be futile. She hoped that Harry would not be so selfish as to attempt to dissuade her from leaving the world in pragmatism, rather than waiting for desperation to set in. There was mention of Switzerland and something about counselling. Then she’d smiled with her eyes and squeezed his knee. Harry doubted that Chloe and Mark could explain away his failure to prove himself worth living for, over a plate of digestive biscuits.
Someone in the restaurant popped a champagne cork. The shot of success and celebration. Harry wondered if he’d ever feel happy again. He’d settle for less, somewhere midway between happiness and emptiness would do.
“They’d love to see you,” said Georgia. She poured béarnaise from the sauceboat and it bled into her roasted root vegetables.
Harry chewed without tasting and watched her eat. He’d hoped she was sick in some way. Mentally, physically, spiritually. Any category would do – anything at all on which he could pin her determination to leave their life and hers. No, she wasn’t depressed, no more than you might expect after a dignified career spent fighting disease and decay. She had nothing else to tell him. Her calmness had unnerved him. A good old-fashioned breakdown of his marriage would have been less painful. Another man he might have come to understand in time. At least that way there was a chance that after much soul searching and getting blind drunk at the golf club, some memories of happier times might survive. It was one thing he’d learned as a G.P. – life can get messy at all levels, from cellular up. People would have been kind to him, sorry for him, instead of morbidly fascinated by the totality of his wife’s solution to the age-old burden of becoming of age-old. He would never escape its shadow. Georgia’s decision razed everything to the ground, the destruction so total that only a charred outline of life as he knew it remained, ashy dust too fine to hold. Had there been a point to the decades of arguments and promises and days out and celebrations, or were they just ways to fill and mark time? How long ago had Georgia swapped building for maintenance?
“I’ve missed you, too,” she said, resting her freckled wrists on the table.
He could see her out of the corner of his eye, seeking his face, but he refused to give it to her. To be fair, she didn’t protest when he moved out. She had wanted to spend time with him, ticking off her Bucket List together. He couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. She’d made a clinical assessment and concluded that she didn’t want to see what came in old age, so sure was she that she wouldn’t like the view. She couldn’t bear to face it and yet she made him wonder endlessly if he was weak for passively letting his clock tick down to nought. Harry had railed against her rationale with abundant affection, and then tried bargaining. He’d finally resorted to anger, and when still she would not budge, he’d left.
Harry wasn’t a fool. He could see how the prospect of catheters and sickly fortified drinks from a carton held limited appeal, but surely there was quality left. She went scuba diving for the first time in her life not a month ago, for God’s sake, in the Seychelles of all places, and was still a graceful woman. Harry didn’t relish disintegration either, but until that wet winter’s day, he’d been confident they would weather it in companionable acceptance, perhaps even joke about it. If you’re happy in your nappy, clap your hands.
“Have you had any further thoughts on the trip?” said Georgia, her voice rising at the end to a girlish tone.
Fatbergs congealed in the gravy around Harry’s sad, rosy islets of lamb.
“Well, there’s a return ticket reserved for you if you want it,” she continued, “and Sharon is booked on the same homebound flight. I’ll email the booking details. I made reservations at the Hotel Avalon for two nights, it looked decent enough. There’s a heated pool.”
Two nights, of which she’d be staying just the one.
Harry set his cutlery down.
Georgia studied him, her lips pursed. “Do you hate me?” she said, her tone less assured.
Harry rubbed his cheeks and heaved himself around in the seat to face her. Her skin was dewy, she was radiant, fish-tank blue. The beach holiday had suited her, softened her lines, and rounded her curves. She looked fresh, and different. He realised with a pang that she was strange to him. Her decision to side with the dead had given her a new lease of life. He wouldn’t be on that plane to Zurich. He suspected she knew it too. It would come as no surprise when he didn’t show up at the airport. Sharon could fend for herself.
“Do you?” she repeated. “Hate me?”
There it was, a flicker of fear. His wife, with the balls to sign herself up for a scheduled appointment to die, feared the judgement of the man she didn’t care to get old with. She fidgeted with her pearls. Harry was so in love with her the day he bought them. He’d been sure they would delight her. Couldn’t wait to present them to her. Georgia always had a fondness for pearls. She said she liked the way they were always cool to the touch, no matter how long they lay next to her skin.
Her lip trembled as she reached for his hand, but he furled his fingers around his knife. Only one of them would have to learn to live with the consequences of what left his mouth next. Harry looked at the mole on the offered inside of Georgia’s wrist and sucked his teeth. He was gratified to see her afraid, asking instead of telling. He could ruin her last days, condemn her to replays of harsh words bitterly delivered. Either way she’d still be dead by Thursday.
The clownfish blew him a bubble, on the watery side of the glass. It had more in common with his wife than he did. There was only one way this could end.
About the Author:
Deirdre Barragry is an Irish writer, currently resident in Dublin. Having lived and worked in many different environments and communities both within Ireland and around the world, he remains endlessly curious about the things that make us different and the same.