I’ll never forget you

30 September 2000 | Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Mariposa (Schildts, 1999)

Roza and Melancholie were sitting in a bar drinking beer. They hadn’t met for a long time because they bored each other. But they were best friends nonetheless. What do you do when you can’t stand meeting your best friend? You switch on your answerphone and tell lies. Today by mistake one of them had answered the phone.

Roza was dressed in her brother Armand’s old clothes, a bad habit which irritated people but which she found hard to break. Her brother had vanished long ago leaving his clothes behind. They smelled of tobacco and sweat. Roza used them to keep him alive. She could spend whole evenings going through his wardrobe. There was a dress shirt, not that you’d have expected it.

The two young women studied each other. Melancholie noted that Roza had bitten down her cuticles again.

‘How’s life?’ she asked.

‘So-so. And you?’

‘So-so.’

They ordered two more beers, lifted their glasses to each other compulsively and stuffed crisps into their mouths with nervous jerky movements.

‘How’s Lydia?’ said Melancholie.

‘What d’you mean? Any reason she shouldn’t be well?’

‘Dunno. Any news of Lilya?’

Roza pulled an unhappy face and said curtly, ‘My godmother sleeps where she sleeps. Lilya’s been unconscious for twenty years. If she moves you’ll certainly hear of it. Besides, I think I shall soon be struck down by the same fate.’

Melancholie spun her beer-glass, not much interested in Roza’s identifying herself with her godmother. She’d heard more than enough on the subject, just as she had on Roza’s equally vague plans to kill herself. She carefully snapped four toothpicks in two before looking up at her friend.

‘Roza,’ she said. ‘I’m going away. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Will you look after my diaries for me?’

Roza gasped.

‘You’re planning to go without me?’

Melancholie leaned across the table.

‘I want you to have my diaries.’

‘Stuff your diaries,’ shouted Roza. ‘I want to go with you. We’ve always travelled together.’

Roza couldn’t sleep. In the bar she’d knocked over a glass of beer, screamed at Melancholie, wept, blown her nose in her napkin, been rude to the bouncer and left Melancholie the bill. It wasn’t like her. And it hadn’t helped. She needed company. Or she’d never get to sleep.

Where could Gustav be? He never rang any more. There’d been a time he used to ring every night and keep her awake. They’d talked about everything between heaven and earth. There’s nothing you can’t talk about so long as you’re in love, Roza used to think. But one night she’d noticed her thoughts were rambling all over the place and she couldn’t be bothered to listen to what Gustav was saying at the other end of the phone.

‘It’s over,’ she’d said to the room at large then pressed her lips together.

He understood at once.

‘It’s been really great,’ he said. ‘I’ll never forget you.’

‘He sounds like an etiquette book,’ she thought, downcast. Always so controlled. As if in another world. Their area of contact had always been too small. Conversations at night about birds and butterflies aren’t enough. That’s not love, just shared insomnia.

‘Bye now,’ she’d said, replacing the phone.

Since then they’d met many times. Like a brother and sister or old workmates or children from the same crèche. Knowing all about each other’s faults and shortcomings, indulgent but incurious. And there for one another in difficult times. Now, in the middle of the night, Roza knew Gustav was the only person she could phone.

‘Did I wake you?’

‘Of course not.’ Gustav grunted. ‘I’m reading the Kama Sutra in the arms of my beloved.’

She laughed.

‘If you’re reading it must be a cookbook, Carl Butler maybe.’

‘Of course I was asleep. It’s four o’clock and I have to get up at six. What do you want?’

‘Get a taxi and come over. I need company.’

‘My dear girl, I’m not a flying ambulance.’

‘And I’m not a solarium.’

This was their old jargon. At least he wasn’t angry she’d woken him.

‘Melancholie’s going away,’ Roza said. ‘Some job. She told me this evening. Have you heard anything?’

There was a short pause. ‘Nothing about a job. But I know she’s going away.’

‘And you never told me!’

‘I haven’t seen you for three months. If she doesn’t want to talk about it you’ll just have to stop being inquisitive.’

Roza sighed as if about to burst into tears.

‘I’m in bed and I can’t get to sleep.’

‘OK. I’ll get a taxi. Be with you in fifteen minutes. Throw down the keys.’

When Gustav came into the room it was as if he’d never left it.

He took Roza in his arms, looked into her eyes, stroked her hair and hugged her hard. Then he went into the kitchen to make coffee.

He grumbled about the sort of coffee she used, much too light a roast. He searched the cupboards for his special cup. It was on the bottom shelf right at the back, covered in dust.

‘At least you haven’t let anyone else drink out of it.’ His voice was matter-of-fact.

Roza, wrapped in a bathtowel, was perched on a high kitchen stool. She looked frozen. Her long hair hung down in front of her eyes. She was vigorously sucking an handful of it.

‘Can you tell me why Melancholie’s going away?’

‘I said no.’

‘If Melancholie goes the town’s empty as far as I’m concerned.’

Roza could hear how wretched she sounded. She knew this kind of lamentation, she’d often heard it from others who came to her. Men howling their loneliness into her ear at the moment of orgasm. Old women imprisoned in their homes. Small children terrified of ghosts and neighbours. Now she was like them.

‘Gustav,’ she appealed quietly.

No answer. His long narrow face and thinning hair roused her tenderness, but she couldn’t understand his silence. Were they friends or weren’t they?

Still silent, he unwound the bathtowel from her. He stroked her skin and lifted her in his arms. She was slim and slight, hardly any weight at all. As he laid her down on the bed he saw she was crying. He kissed her eyes, the salt taste was good. The more she wept the better it tasted. It reminded him of something he’d eaten when he was a child.

‘We shouldn’t be in bed together,’ said Roza. ‘I don’t like you lapping up my tears.’

Gustav lay back and stared at the ceiling. He noticed a spider’s web swaying about. It was descending on them. A butterfly caught in it had dried out like a leaf.

‘Don’t be sad, now,’ he said. ‘Melancholie’s going to Mexico. I’m going with her. Of course it was silly of us not to have told you earlier. We didn’t want to hurt you. Now at least it’s been said, thank God.’

Gustav heaved himself out of Roza’s bed without waiting for an answer. He knew she’d say nothing. She lay still with the white sheet pulled over her face.

Poor girl, he thought. It’s a real shame.

So he rang for a taxi. He would rather have showered first but he didn’t want to use Roza’s bathroom.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

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