This, for better or for worse, is the “crap but short” story I referred to in yesterday’s post. I just sat down and wrote the first thing that came into my head. What emerged was an unintentional mini-meditation on the issues preoccupying me at the moment: love and sadness, regrets and hopes, the dream state, the question of freewill and choice, and the eternal puzzle of how we learn to live intimately with another person while keeping our own self intact. Writing like this – freely, playfully, with no expectations, no plans, no outline – can bring you face to face with yourself like nothing else can. It’s also great fun.
Iris had been marginally happy for a few years.
One night she had a dream, only it wasn’t really a dream, about a tall woman dressed in red – masculine, rangy, all elbows and angles – coming into her bedroom and standing by her bedside table and telling her she could choose one event in her life, only one, that she could go back and change. The woman gave no guarantee of the outcome.
At first Iris didn’t believe it. When she woke, as she showered, ate, drank, procrastinated, worked, she convinced herself it had been all in her dreaming head. All the same, the routines and small pleasures and considerable frustrations of her day were drowned out by one question that she kept coming back to, again and again: what would I change?
That night she waited. She waited and waited as she slept but her sleep was dreamless. The woman did not return. She waited every night for weeks and every night she was disappointed.
What would I change?
One day, almost a month after the woman had made her strange offer, Iris was tapping away at her computer, inputting figures, when she suddenly knew what event she would change if she had the chance.
That night the woman returned. Are you ready? she asked.
No, you are not. No-one ever is. Tomorrow, take the 324 bus to Headley Park, get off at the far end of the park and buy a bunch of daffodils from the flower seller you see there. Then walk into the park and sit on the first bench facing the lake. Do you understand?
No, you do not. No-one ever does.
The next morning Iris did as she had been instructed, only she bought freesias because she preferred them to daffodils. Freesias, with their heady scent and gently swelling curves, were her favourite flower. She sat on the bench facing the lake and watched as a group of toddlers threw enormous hunks of stale bread at unprepared ducks. One by one the ducks stole away with their oversized prizes, and the children were taken home to bed by their vaguely unfulfilled mothers.
A gardener raked leaves beside her, capturing the seasonal stragglers. The swish and scrape of his rake made her sleepy; so sleepy that she closed her eyes, just for a moment, and felt herself plummet: that sweet, momentary descent into oblivion. Iris jolted back to herself, and opened her eyes.
The park was gone. The park bench was a plastic chair pushed in to a rectangular table. The complicated spring sky had become a white roof, punctuated by fluorescent strips. The trees had become bookcases, the lake a carpet of paisley swirls. She held a pen in her hand. She wore jeans, size ten. There was room to spare. She shifted, familiarising herself with the body of her youth. She put a hand up to her hair and ran her fingers through a long, smooth ponytail. She looked at her hands, unblemished and smooth, her fingers pain-free and tipped with painted nails. The years had fallen away from her breasts. They were firm and unsuckled. The skin of her cleavage was taut and creamy.
On the table in front of her was a refill pad of foolscap paper. The page was titled in blue biro: The Taming of the Shrew: A Feminist Perspective. She had written half a page. To her right was an Oxford dictionary, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and her map of the world pencil case. To her left was a young man. She knew him.
He was looking at her face, then at her essay, then back again. He had brown hair to his shoulders, tied back in a leather thong, and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. He looked like he had just been told a joke that he did not understand.
This is it, she thought. In a moment he’s going to ask me: What the hell does Shakespeare have to do with feminism? Then I’ll reply, Do you really want to know, or are you just trying to pick me up? She remembered how bold she used to be, how certain of her powers.
I have to move now.
Iris got up. She gathered together her essay, her books, her pencil case and her tasselled shoulder bag and walked away without looking back. He didn’t say a word. She imagined she could feel him looking at her in her size ten jeans, at her shiny ponytail and her teenager’s grace, and she wondered if he was thinking: Damn. I let that one get away.
She walked past the rows of non-fiction and fiction, past the children’s story area and past the check-out desk. As she pushed open one of the front doors she felt herself slipping, insubstantiating. She heard a voice ask, Hey, are you OK? before she closed her eyes and let herself fall.
Iris raised her hand to her face and the freesias scattered on the ground in front of her, a fragrant diaspora. She opened her eyes. The ducks pecked and pulled at their bricks of bread. A car door slammed. The wind pulled a duvet of ripples over the lake. The leaves swirled and darted around her as the gardener, in vain, raked on.
She bent to pick up the flowers, settling once more into her middle-aged body. When she had gathered them together in a rough posy she stood and started to walk back towards the bus stop.
From the corner of her eye she caught a flurry of movement on the other side of the road. She turned towards it. A man was waving at her. It was the man from the library, only now he had little hair and a considerably wider girth. She could still see the blue of his eyes from where she was standing, next to the flower seller.
He waved with the intimacy of one who had only waved goodbye that morning, after sex and toast.
She stared back at him, disoriented.
No, she thought. No.
The man didn’t try to cross the road towards her, nor did he beckon her to come to him. He just waved and waved again, until she could do nothing but raise the hand that was not holding the freesias and wave back. Once she had done this the man smiled, then turned and walked to his left, disappearing down an alleyway between two shops.
She stood still for a long while. Then she caught the bus home. That night she waited, as alert as one can be when deeply asleep, and this time the woman came to her immediately.
It didn’t work, Iris said, words tumbling and tripping in their rush to accuse. I saw him today, even after I chose not to ever meet him, not ever. I chose to never meet him so I would never love him, never marry him, never divorce him, never hate him. Why didn’t it work?
The tall woman bent down to smell the freesias that stood, bravely bruised, in a delicate bone china jug.
You chose to never meet your husband, she said.
The woman straightened up. He chose differently, she said.
What do you mean? asked Iris.
I do not visit only you. You chose to never meet your husband; he chose to meet you only once, when you were at your happiest.
Iris thought about this, and was momentarily dazzled by the intricate puzzle of it all. Then she was angry. Fiercely, wantonly angry. She pushed herself up in a blazing tangle of duvet and sheet, and jerked towards the woman, stabbing her finger repeatedly at her own chest. But it was my choice! You said I had a choice! What was the point, if his choice ultimately overrode my own?
The tall woman in red smiled kindly and bent down again towards the vase.
Freesias, she said. Not daffodils.