Market square, 9:15 am. If I didn’t know Andrew I would be long gone. This morning’s thick and greedy mist seems to be dissolving. Inch by inch the market benches and a few chilled heads are coming out. Silence. The town seems hibernated in an uncertain drowsiness. I hear steps moving behind me. It’s just a waiter who is setting the tables, hoping that some customers will come. I turn back to my newspaper, trying to bide my time. The coffee has acquired a cold and sweetish taste that makes it deeply unattractive. The shops are now open and the first customers are shyly starting to arrive. At this point I believe that Andrew won’t show up. I try to call him, but there is only a recorded voice on the other side. I’d better go for a walk. I haven’t been in Cambridge for ages. Regret, disappointment. I am trying to figure out how I should I feel. I see Waterstone’s library, the King’s College, the old bridges across the river. After all, I cannot really hate this city. Here I quit Medicine to chase a dream, thinking that a brilliant career wasn’t enough for me.
Do I have to feel sad for this? No, it’s not just that. Despite my attempts to deny it, I know that in the end there is another reason. Sarah. Maybe things could have been different if only I had the strength to deal with them. If only I had been honest and said what I felt. I’ve always thought that a melancholic failure suited me better than a bright future. That’s all. I couldn’t picture myself with friends and family around a table to celebrate Christmas or the New Year’s Eve. I just couldn’t find the strength to lavish enough smiles and handshakes to keep a job and a decent life. Maybe this is why I chose to be a writer. Maybe this is why I wasn’t even able to do that. My book is trapped in a limbo. Waiting, like me. The continuous editing, the story that changes under the burden of yet another winter. I remember when I finished the first draft and sent it to Sarah. She never told me what she thought about it. Just another defeat. One of many. By now it is too late to dwell on the past. I believe I am too tired or too old to be bitter about it. I walk along the alleys without thinking about my direction, the wet pavement crackles under my boots leaving a mark on my way like a wave in a sea of memories. Andrew must have had a sudden commitment at the hospital or, simply, forgotten our meeting to chase after one of his women.
Either way, I would not be surprised. A part of me, in the end, is glad of not having to confront him. I look up, the houses of this street seem familiar. I have found excuses to avoid this place for six years. Hadn’t this been an “extremely urgent” issue, I would have probably avoided it forever. I walk back to my B&B, unhopeful and weakened by the cold. As I walk in, the clouds open letting out a ray of sunlight. I feel a bit lighter. I enter the room and throw myself on the bed with my coat still on. Pressed between my collar and the quilt I feel smaller and more two-dimensional than usual. I would like to disappear, at least for a while.
16:30, I must have slept for hours. The room is in half-light. The smell of the moist walls gives me a heavy feeling of nausea. Headache. I swallow a couple of Nurofens to pull myself together. Mobile dead, I must have forgotten to charge it, as usual. I turn it back on, and after a while a text asks me to check my voicemail. – Hi Ian, it’s Sarah calling. Andrew has vanished since yesterday and I have no idea where he could be. I found your number on his diary at home. It was on today’s page… Well, I thought you could help me. You can find me at this address. – Her voice. After such a long time I’m hearing her voice again. I thought it would have a different effect on me. What has she got to do with Andrew? They could be colleagues or they are having an affair. He has never told me anything about her during all these years. I don’t know, maybe I should just leave and try to forget this story as soon as I can. And I would if I were a serious person and had a bit of self-respect. Still, I rush down the stairs and run through those streets as fast as I can, as if all these years have never existed, as if I had lived here all along. What am I looking for? Life knows how to be cruel, especially if you keep trying to avoid it. For a long time I’ve forgotten the meaning of certain feelings, of certain gestures. Then it happens. For the first time, after years of numbness, finally I begin to see.
Sarah opens the door and hugs me in tears. Andrew’s gone after six years of marriage. Six years that I spent feeling sorry for myself without understanding the reason. I look around. I see their house, pictures of children hanging on the walls, the family car in the driveway. The ordinary life of an ordinary man. A life that could have been mine. Suddenly I feel like a fish whose bowl just crashed on the floor in a thousand pieces. I am choking. Andrew had married Sarah just after I left and had deceived me to keep me away from his life. I wish I was able to get mad, to react. It is weird, I cannot feel anything. Surprise has been replaced by a physical and mental weakening. I would like to say or do something, but I can’t. I go away, leaving that livid and sobbing figure lying next to the door. I need to be alone. Monday is coming and soon my life will fall again into oblivion. An endless sequence of actions and files just marked by the change of the seasons. I will be back to my desk, to my papers, to a job as colourless as my words. As I walk, someone bumps into me keeping on gabbling. It is not my day. There is a crowd gathering around an acrobatic show in the square. All of a sudden a clown moves towards me and hands me a box with a card. – From your friend – he declares, disappearing again in the crowd. At first I think it is a joke, a mistake. I look at the card, and recognise the handwriting.
“Dear Ian, I have something to tell you. At this time you will know enough to be mad at me. You have been betrayed by someone you trusted. I know. As harsh as this might seem to you, I think you needed it. I thought several times about how to tell you the truth, but then I realised that it would have been useless. Maybe it would have made you feel even more alone. I chose to live your life and only now I understand that I was wrong. I’m giving up. In this box there is your first book. Sarah gave me your manuscript and I sent it to a publisher. I knew that you would never be brave enough to do such a thing. You have been stuck in a prison of fears for years, depriving yourself of all the things you love. Perfect or not your book has been published. It is real. Talk to people, move on, like you should do. Don’t hate me and don’t try to find me. Now that I feel even with my conscience, in some way, I can disappear more peacefully. Andrew”.
I look around stunned, trying to catch a glimpse of him among the crowd. I feel my heart pounding up to my throat. Nothing. I run away. I want this game to end as soon as possible.
Evening. I am sitting on the grass by the river. The last windows have lit up and the water reflects them like shaking fireflies. This landscape gives me un unreal sense of peace. I close my eyes. I imagine all the things that I left behind, all the time wasted. It is true, until now I have lived my life looking through a screen. I am still in unstable balance, tired and scared like a hunted prey. What should I do now? I have to find the strength to go back to reality. I get up and take my bag with habitual resignation. Then I glance at the cover of the book. “Illusion”. I smile. This wasn’t the title I chose. I think that there is a fine sense of irony in all this. I am still paralysed, squeezing the card in my hand.
Then something lights up inside me and all becomes clear, tidy.
There is no going back. Maybe everything is wrong again, but I feel that it now makes sense. It has to. I toss the card in the river and start to walk away. I feel free and unusually happy. There must still be a train at this time.
- Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2015 Short Story Competition
- Sullo scrivere