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DISFIGURED LIBERTY

With my finger poised, I glanced in the rear-view mirror, examining my eyes, searching them for encouragement, for a sign that I was doing the right thing, but I found only despondence. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button. I sent the email, and my marriage was over.

I lit a cigarette and coughed. It was ten years since I last smoked. The first time was at a disco. Michelle Fox had stolen a pack of Marlboro from her older brother. We smoked and covertly passed around a bottle of vodka, and when the party was over, and everyone had gone home, I lost my virginity to Paul Granger in the back seat of his mother’s station waggon. There had been a lot of fumbling and apologising, a lot of bumped heads, a little pain, but I had felt alive. Paul Granger, the star rugby player, was in my arms, he was in me, and I was happy.

We laid together naked, under a blanket, and he told me that he loved me. We talked about our dreams: where we would go to university, the trip around Europe that he was planning, the novel I was going to write. We had talked about friends, the teachers we liked, Mrs Hathaway who encouraged me with my writing, Mr Thomas, the rugby coach, who told Paul he could go pro.

Through University I’d had several boyfriends. Each one was exciting in a different way. Each one was disappointing in another. But it was this discovery that made me feel alive.

Tom had been doing research for his doctoral thesis when we first met at the library. Hunched over old books and maps, strewn across the table, he didn’t notice me approach. I fell in love with his passion, his love of history, the way he stumbled over his words in his excitement to elucidate how some ancient people had lived.

Things had drifted, as they do, from excitement into normality, lust into familiarity. Passion was a distant memory. I couldn’t remember the last time we had been together in post-coital bliss, limbs entwined, talking and kissing. Even the idea of it seemed ludicrous.

We had sex every Saturday night. Tom had learned over the years what I liked, and I knew his preferences. But the sex was perfunctory in its effectiveness. I missed the fumbling and the banging of heads, the discovery of each other, the uncovering.

I found Beth sitting at a table in the garden of The Tickled Trout, one foot tucked under her thigh, the shoe lying on the grass beneath her. The River Whey gurgled under the arches of the granite bridge at the bottom of the lawn.

Beth took a bottle of chardonnay from an ice bucket and poured me a glass. I drained it, slumped back, and lit a cigarette.

“What’s going on?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
Beth nodded at the empty glass, and then at the cigarette in my hand.
“I’ve left Tom.”
Beth paused, her glass pressed against her lip.
“Is there another woman?”
“Maybe I’ve found another woman.”
Beth snorted. “I love you, Kate, I really do, but if you had joined my team, I would have heard. It’s a small community in Ashford.”
“I go into London every fortnight.”
Beth’s eyebrows raised and she leant forward. “Honey, I’m good at this. You are not gay. And if you had suddenly come to your senses and come over to us I would be so awfully hurt that you hadn’t come to me first. You do remember I’m recently single?”
“Have you heard from her?”
“Jodi? No, I haven’t. And I would like to say that I didn’t want to either. But I would be lying.”
I reached across the table and placed my hand on hers.
“If only you were gay.” She winked as she sipped her wine.
“Things would be easier.”
Beth glanced at me but ignored my remark; she reached over to refill my glass. I knew that her sexuality, her life, had been far from easy.
“I’m sorry,” I said touching her hand again.
“You’re forgiven. So what happened?”
“I was suffocating.”
“How did Tom take it?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t reply.”
Beth choked on the wine and began thumping her chest. “You ended your marriage by e-mail?” She started to laugh but soon modified it into a cough. “I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you too,” I said feeling a little foolish. “I didn’t even pack anything.”
“Dear Kate, you are not very good at this.”
“I’m not sure that is necessarily a bad thing, is it?”
“You can stay with me.”

Beth lived in an old farmhouse shadowed by the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills running through the south-east of England and terminating in Dover. It was late September, but the fireplace was unlit. Beth played a Bob Dylan CD, and we sank into the huge sofa, strewn with pillows, and opened another bottle of wine.

“Stay here as long as you need,” she said, lying back and stretching her legs across my thighs. “I never have enjoyed living alone.” Noticing me shiver, she reached behind her and lifted a jumper from the back of an armchair.
“Sorry,” Beth said as I pulled the jumper over my head. “It was Jodi who lit the fire. I’m useless.”
“When was the last time you heard from her?”
“She messaged me to say that she wanted to collect her stuff—her work mostly.”
I didn’t answer, and Beth looked at me and squirmed.
“I haven’t replied,” she said, sheepishly. “Painting was her life—it was her. It was how she saw the world. She has gone, but I still have her, in my spare bedroom.”
“Could I see her work? I mean. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask.”

Beth shrugged, motioned for me to bring the bottle, and led me up the stairs. She pushed open a mahogany door and felt around for the light switch. An easel was facing the large bay window. Canvasses lay stacked against the wall.

I took the paintings individually, propping then carefully on the window shelf, resting them against the dark purple curtains. Jodi painted people: children, adults, black people, white people, middle eastern, all in various stages of mood and undress. I was captivated by a homeless man with a wild brown beard and black teeth. He was laughing. But it was his eyes that held me spellbound. I could see all his misery: every loss, every regret, every fear, every sorrow. It was all there. I lost myself in the stories that were tantalisingly just out of reach, tangled in the mesmerising swirls of his eyes.

Beth placed a hand on my arm, breaking my trance. She took down the painting of the homeless man and rested it against the wall.

“Promise me you won’t laugh.”
I nodded, picking up my glass from the table.
She put another painting on the window sill.
“Jodi painted me for my birthday.”

I gazed at the canvas before me. Beth was dressed in a loose green robe, open just enough that her left breast was visible. Her right hand was at her head, grasping a hair-clip as if she had just freed the curls that now cascaded around her shoulders. She was smiling. But it was a smile that I had never seen. It was an intimate smile; It was a secret smile. There was no torment painted into Beth’s eyes; there was no sorrow. The love she felt was so intensely apparent as she gazed upon the women she loved, the painter, that it caused me to smile at first. But then I began to shiver though I no longer felt cold. The intensity of emotion made me feel impoverished, as though my whole life were barren in comparison.
Beth put her arms around me, and I gently patted her arm. It was an empty gesture.

“I miss her,” Beth said.
I had no words. I ran my free hand through Beth’s curls and inhaled her fragrance.
“I’m sorry,” she said with her mouth pressed into my shoulder. Tonight was supposed to be about you.”
I thought again of the homeless man in the painting and wondered if he had ever felt as insignificant as I did at that moment.

END OF EXCERPT


Disfigured Liberty

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A Psychiatric Hospital, a London bomb, an abusive father, a hedonistic rock star, bereaved parents, and a suicide bomber, come together for this literary sojourn into the grimy depths of sadness and regret.

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