Rise of a green hillside. Streaked sunshine and a mist of fine rain. Rosebay willowherb, an oak tree sprouting acorns. A patch of feathered grass. Irma sees it all clearly, every leaf and frond. Static as a film still. Tableau vivant.
Then, a man in blue swim shorts steps through this scene. There’s a towel slung across his shoulders. He moves on down a sloping path. Watch his lowering body and retreating head which does not turn back. He is leaving. As if he’s summoned and his mind isn’t quite his own.
Irma and Gem are together in a London bar. They’ve been good friends for years now. Though they weren’t so close when Irma got together with Joe. The two of them sit uneasily on swivel chairs. They’re out of harmony tonight. Earlier Gem made this cutting remark about Joe, and Irma’s having to stop herself wiping her eye. There’s a tear in it she won’t admit to. The fact of the tear she can’t prevent.
Irma’s needing to do something about that eye because it’s not a matter of one tear anymore. It’s becoming a lake. She dabs with the butt of her thumb and then a knuckle, Gem, acting as though she hasn’t noticed. Irma wonders why it’s only the one eye crying. Can she only be half sad?
Irma thinking of Joe in the heart of the country. Where she always thinks of him. The tall trees, slopes of pink heather alive with butterflies. Joe loves nature, and so she pictures him in this setting where they’d often been together. But he’s alone there, she’s here in London after all.
Her mind is tightly focused. She hears the sound of feet. Round a bend in the footpath comes the man. Joe. He is stepping through overhanging branches. A nearby grazing sheep looks up abruptly but still tugs at the grass tufts with its mouth. As though the man is only part of the natural environment, posing no threat. Nice, that, Irma thinks. There’s a little rasping sound of the sheep eating. Sweet early afternoon, no more rain.
Ahead is the rest of the track, another curve. A river gleaming much further down. Field of long grass; rows of fringing bushes. The man strides through the field agile and purposeful. There’s a swishing noise and a wake of bent stems. Now he’s reached the river. See a willow with a rope attached. He stops, takes hold of the rope, swings forward and back a few times building up speed. Leaps and plunges. Big splash, water like shattered glass. He’s in and gone out of sight. After a minute he emerges near the other bank. He pulls himself forward, river water streaming down his shoulders, his hair gone slick with wet.
“Joe,” Irma whispers softly as she pictures him stepping out of the river. She sees the water seeping into his rolled-up towel.
“Nice the way some people can blend in with nature. They have a feeling for nature, and nature responds to this. Have you ever known anyone like that?”
Irma says this to Gem as if it’s just a general observation. But really she’s speaking about Joe again. Gem notices all the ways Irma has of slipping Joe into their talk.
“I suppose…” Gem goes, riled because of the feigning; the slyness, “You’re talking about Joe.”
Irma gives off a sound, half sob half giggle, which makes Gem wince. She’s annoyed, angry even, but more than this, she’s sorry.
“Fact is Irma…” Gem says after a pause, then stops altogether. Instead she pats Irma’s hand noticing its limpness with pity and distaste. When the patting has stopped, not immediately but after a discreet while, Irma draws her hand back. Because of Joe this is. She always feels the need to protect him from Gem’s condemnation.
Then Irma’s putting verve into her voice. “Remember the good times we’ve had on holiday? Cornwall, the Roseland Peninsular. And what about when we went to Scotland that time?” she goes to Gem, wanting to be positive about their friendship. But also to put Gem off the scent. Both of these.
“Oh forget it,” Gem comes back with, resenting the cover up.
Irma squeezes her fingers against her own palm, surprised by the strength of her hand. She’s hurt because Gem is low on sympathy. Gem never liked Joe. That is what’s behind this. But even so! She drinks her cocktail quickly, hoping Gem will to do the same. She wants them to get drunk together. To let go together. Wants to hear their easy laughter.
Gem swivels her chair sideways, considering. Really they both do want to be talking about Joe, that’s the thing. He is the joint topic, but they want to be saying radically different things. That’s why, at this moment, there is only awkward silence. Irma drifts back into her mental picture. She thinks of the stony, shiny surface of the mountain’s face, its Adam and Eve twin peaks. Pictures Joe in climbing shoes.
Now Joe’s closing his eyes against white sun as it slants through tall trees. Water’s still in his hair. He’s got a hold of his damp towel and is rubbing at his head a bit. This way and that. He is moving through the trees. There’s something mechanical about him as though he’s obeying some directive, as though he’s being pulled by some unseen force. He jumps from rock to rock. See the car keys in his hand.
Now he’s walking to his car. Putting on clothes, getting into the driving seat. Driving towards Irma. Because he can’t keep away.
“Irma, I’d just like to say this one thing,” Gem goes, making up her mind to speak about Joe.
Irma’s first reaction is that she can’t take it, she won’t take it. She thinks about how she’ll get up from this round metal table, kick it hard, turn it over maybe. And her chair and the next one to it. She will walk away, out of the door, go down the street. Imagining herself doing this calms her, and she doesn’t really need to carry it through. Instead she sighs, peace slipping into her.
“What’s the one thing? That he’s just not worth it?”
“I don’t mean to sound hard,” Gem says.
Joe is in his car and driving at speed down the motorway. And though Irma’s here, where she is, she’s somehow right there alongside the man. He drives the car but she drives him. He clicks on the radio. Getting closer to London, to Irma on her swivel seat in the Farringdon bar. Closer and closer. With each passing minute. Roll of tires, buzz of radio chat. Joe’s eyes staring into mirror, desire in them. Desire is what leads him. His mind’s not his own. Irma looks at her watch. She stands up abruptly.
“Just going to the loo,” she tells Gem, but she walks out to the back, to the atrium with its tiny fountain. She concentrates.
Now he’s parking the car, switching off the radio. Stepping along the street. He swings his jacket up behind his shoulders, holds it there on one index finger. It sways when he walks. Somehow that suits his style.
Then panic when Irma thinks: What will we say to one another when he gets here? But, no it’s ok. They’ll be touching and holding, eye gazing, they won’t need to utter a single word. He will be kissing her forehead, her cheeks, working down towards her mouth. She can picture him.
But suddenly Irma asks herself a question which jolts her: Can he picture her?
She lets out a cry and all the little echoey noises in the atrium seem to whittle down to silence around it.
Joe, making his way towards her. Getting closer and closer. Moving fast along nearby streets. So close now. To Irma the loved one waiting at the romantic rendezvous. A man driven and drawn. Nail to magnet, moth to flame, flower to late sunlight.
Then she sees Gem in the lit up doorway. Oh no, has she seen me? is Irma’s uncharitable first thought. Then remorse sets in, she calls across.
“It’s like,” says Gem, “You’re always listening out for something nobody else can hear. Your eyes are forever on the watch.”
“You think I don’t know he’s dead?” Irma screams out the words.
Gem lifts her hands in a pleading gesture. “Irma, you have to let go.”
Irma, concentrating on fast striding legs. Seeing deft feet. Remembering how he’d walked away from her just like that. Brutal and final. Unimaginable. Joe, leaving her for another woman. He had walked away but now she is bringing him back. Hill to river to rock to car to here, to this bar. To her. She makes him turn the final corner.
“I’m doing more drinks,” she says to Gem. “Same?” she asks light-voiced, keeping Joe and all precious things intact at a lower level. Love: her buried treasure. She leans towards the little fountain, makes a switching off motion with her fingers. Smiles.
“Great,” says Gem hoping she’s broken through.
In the bar with its laughter and scatter of lights Irma holds herself in tight focus. Joe, she senses, is coming through the street door. She can’t see him because of the crowd.
Unfinished business. She’s brought him here to settle things. It’s a year ago now when he’d walked out on her. Their marriage was over. A nightmare she couldn’t believe was happening. How? Why? Because… they loved one another! For somebody else? Someone he’d met? Yes, someone he’d been seeing.
Irma couldn’t take it in at all. And then, while she was still trying to come to terms, that terrible phone call from Joe’s father saying he’d been killed in a plane crash. The first tragedy and then the second. Space of just a few weeks. She, Irma, left alone in a state of hopeless grief.
This moment is for redressing things. For having a share in the shaping of her destiny. For having a voice. Control had slipped so far away from her, making her feel like a speck without significance. Like nothing. She needed to take her power back. At last she’s found a way to make that happen.
Irma draws herself up. She looks determined as she hears Joe make a plea for them to get back together again.
“The answer’s no, there’s no going back,” she says into the noisy room; to no one. Speaking these words to the hidden Joe locked in by the crowd of drinkers.
It feels good doing this, it’s totally convincing. Irma feels she’s had a lot of practice at making things up in recent years: Starting with the idea Joe had really loved her. She’d made up a life it seems in which she and Joe were happy together; had believed all kinds of things about the sort of person Joe was. Like that he had a special feeling for nature. Probably he’d never had any such thing and it was just an appealing idea of hers. Who knew what she hadn’t invented when it came right down to it? It isn’t so hard now to make up an ending of her choice. There’s a sense of coming winter. But in a good way. A change of atmosphere that makes Irma want to celebrate. The bad is over. There’s a freshness about things.
“I’m leaving,” Irma says firmly. It’s her own precious liberty she is proclaiming. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
Then she turns and walks with the drinks back towards Gem in the atrium.
In her mind she’s moving to the street door, going out into the evening. Sniffing the coolness of the air, moving along the pavement in the direction of Farringdon tube. She sees herself going down the steps to the platform then rattling away on the eastbound Circle Line. Barbican, Moorgate, Liverpool Street. Change. She studies the Departures board then takes a mainline train. Now she is sitting at a window looking out across darkening fields. On and on she speeds towards her unknown future life.
Jay Merill lives in London UK and is Writer-in-Residence at Women in Publishing. Jay hosts literary events and is a creative partner with the Bloomsbury Festival. Her 2 short story collections published by Salt, are: Astral Bodies and God of the Pigeons. Her latest fiction is forthcoming from Del Sol Review, FRIGG, Hobart, The London Magazine and Reliquiae Journal. Further work has been published in A-Minor, CHEAP POP, The Citron Review, Entropy, Epiphany, Foliate Oak, Gravel, Heavy Feather Review, Jellyfish Review, matchbook, New World Writing, Occulum, Pithead Chapel, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Thrice Fiction, Upstreet Literary Journal, Wigleaf and elsewhere.