Excerpt: 'Slipping' by John Toomey
…It wasn’t that I didn’t love her. I tell you that for sure. With full certainty. There was too much love, perhaps, or love too pure. But it was not a matter of love’s absence.
So where to begin then? That morning, I suppose. Although there is much more to it, you understand. Asking where a story begins is like asking where time began. There’s always further back again. But since it must begin, let it be like so…
I lay awake beside her, just before the inching break of dawn. Facing her sleepy contours. Listening to her breathe. A beautiful voiceless sound; her lungs heaving gently inward, her dark humps swelling and dipping. Like something oceanic…
Yes, that will do nicely, won’t it…
Come the morning, in fussy daylight, milk splashed over the cereal and her spoon clinked on the bowl, chipping excruciatingly at the silence. I sipped tea, careful not to slurp, and read; my finger held at two inches from the tip of my nose, moving cursorily from left to right, across the grey expanse of the morning paper. Concentration straining to win out over interruption.
Her voice was not typically musical but was capable, none the less, of lulling me to contentment. Through familiarity and distant intimacy.
‘More tea? Any toast? A croissant? My love…Darling…Sweetheart,’ and so on and so forth.
But not this morning.
A shake of the head. And another. If only she could leave it there. But she persisted, as she always did. Persistence defined her.
A smile and a shake of my head.
Still more persistence that soon became insistence.
Finally, I was compelled to speak. And so I did, to castrate that compulsion of hers to provide.
‘No, honestly, I’m fine,’ I said.
I hoped this was us done and I could return to my sound-proofed mind. But she had more words to share with me, more words to which I hardly listened.
‘Four o’clock, darling.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked, trying to collect and disregard in one.
Damn it! I exclaimed. Inwardly, and perhaps a little outwardly. The day had begun without my consent.
‘Four o’clock. My appointment. Should be home by five-thirty. At the latest,’ she said…
Dressed, I turned my shoulder to the audience of the mirror. Nice, I thought. Lean legs, the shoe-shined glint of my black shoes.
I patted my stomach, taut and spare, and permitted my reflection a satisfied smile. Tidy enough. Well-preserved. And that’s none too shabby at forty-nine. I had not fallen to slovenliness, as most men do. At ten and a half stone and half an inch below six foot, there are worse than me. Evading repulsiveness is in itself a success, at a certain age.
I shuffled the loose sheets of notes I’d prepared into a neatly symmetrical block and slid them between a history and an English textbook; held secure and protected from fraying and rumpling. With two exterior buckles I then secured the bag and left the house. One stride became two, then three, and so on, until my feet had grown full and purposeful.
For twenty-five years I have followed the same route, each morning of each weekday of term-time. There were periods when I drove, and another when I cycled, and then – recently – I began walking. But the route that I walk, daily, is the same route travelled all my working life; winding in and around the estate, a mile down the coast road into town, through it and beyond, to the school complex at the far side.
I had been walking months before Val wondered what had come over me. What strange impulse was this, she asked, to begin walking to work at the age of forty-nine? It wasn’t what man of my vintage ought to be doing. ‘Or if you’re to insist on it, you should invest in a smart overcoat and briefcase,’ she said. ‘That god-awful leather satchel of yours is spilling over with books and papers, Al. Have you no pride?’
The weight of the satchel causes me to heave and creak, ‘Like some lamed farmhand from an awful Steinbeck novel,’ Val enjoys saying. And I like the literary reference. It is her tiny acknowledgment of who I am. Of my passions, and talents and taste. That I’m not too pushed on Steinbeck either hardly matters.
What worsens the folly of my walking is that on a couple of evenings I have arrived home soaked through, with dense globules of rain gathered and congealed at the cuffs of my woollen suit; dangling and plummeting to the doormat, as I step inside the porch, beaming like the child who spent the afternoon jumping in mud.
‘Sweet mother of our lord, Albert, whatever has you walking to work again? Take the car, would you? Or buy a bloody umbrella,’ she said on one of those evenings.
‘An umbrella, yes,’ I responded.
‘Why the walking anyway, Al? Having an affair or something? Should I be checking your drawers for new underwear? Some young belle on staff, maybe, fawning over your aloof angularity?’
She was irritable that evening.
‘An affair, Val? Now that would be something,’ I said, engaged, back in regular time again. An affair. An affair?
We both laughed…
The walking began because I could not think. From the moment I got out of bed there were voices and demands rapping on the Lucite coating of my secluded mind; damp thuds and scratchings of other people in my ear. I had believed that when the second of our children, for whom I have an incurable soft spot, it is true, had departed for college that a utopian tranquillity would automatically descend upon us. Upon our house. Our life. I believed that the noise would end when the children did. When they ceased to be children, when they went off about their own lives and left us to rediscover ours.
What actually happened was that Val’s need to fill the silences became more pronounced, and inane. And when she failed to illicit conversation from me, the volume on her morning radio jumped a decibel or four. And not even adult radio but trivial breakfast shows with skits and prizes and too much music and too many sponsors, and all the gravitas of obnoxious adolescence.
It was for silence and fresh air, which is good for the mind, that I began walking to work.
By the time I set foot in the staffroom that first morning of walking, I was so rejuvenated by the experience that I resolved to sell my car immediately. So immediately, in fact, that I offered it to the first person I met.
Aimée Quinn. Our French-Irish English teacher, recently made permanent. She is a delicate (which would be the French in her, I suppose) and decent flower, with a long career ahead of her; only interrupted for maternity leave, a few years in the future, no doubt, after she marries some ego-laden fellow teacher, plucked from among our colleagues on staff here, most likely, or from another school in the area. I’ve seen this sort of thing so often before. It’s inevitable. But she’ll return to teaching out of a desire to be remembered fondly. They all do.
‘Any interest in buying my car, Aimée?’ I asked her, straight out.
‘Sorry, Al?’ she said, taken aback. ‘What’s that you said?’
She’d hardly noticed me in the small kitchen, a Teflon sweat glistening upon my forehead and neck, as she finished the last pages of some Ibsen play, head down, while waiting on coffee and polishing off a banana.
‘Any interest in buying my car? I’m selling it. Knock-down price of…very little. It’s a fine car. Good in all weather. Two years old. I don’t want it. I don’t need it. I’m walking from now on. Walking everywhere,’ I declared, buoyantly.
‘I’m good for a car, thanks,’ she said. ‘How come you’re walking everywhere then?’
‘Well, I walked in this morning. First time since…since a long time. It was refreshing. Peaceful. Invigorating.’
‘Peaceful and invigorating? Seems almost paradoxical, Al.’
‘It does, doesn’t it? So you’re sure you don’t want it?’
‘Yeah, Al. Thanks,’ she said, smiling up at me as she took her breakfast through to the inner staffroom. ‘But listen, I’ll put the word out for you.’
Her face, caressed on both sides by silken blonde drapes of hair, and lit up from within by that slightly skewed smile, projected itself, uninterrupted, above the slow bustle of the room. I watched her walk away, shimmering in a way only the truly sentient can appreciate. She hung there like a projected simulacrum of perfection, for what seemed a longer duration than was plausible…
On the morning in question, however – many months after the first walking – I set a brisk pace. Within minutes I was out of our quiet estate and well on my way along that footpath that winds for almost a mile into the town’s centre.
It was a typical autumn morning, the low sun sifting through September’s plush foliage and blinding me slightly to the passing cars and people. The strange opaqueness of it, and the wet-slap-and-click of my dress shoes, rhythmical and hypnotic on the pavement, facilitated a retreat into my own thoughts once again.
And so I picked up the thread of my most dominant fantasy; me graveside, under an interminable misty drizzle, alone, watching over Val’s weathered headstone. It bestirred in me a peculiar happiness, I might as well admit. There was potency to the free-wheeling sorrow. Beatification! The tears I imagined shedding dampened my cheek; I actually placed the tips of my fingers on my face, to feel them. And they excited me.
The solitariness of the scene invoked other images too, images that were less painful but just as pleasing; a breakfast in the family home with nothing but the rustle of a turning newspaper and the cocoa warmth of coffee in my throat; the sympathetic visit of the children, assuaging any threat of genuine loneliness, but never staying too long; the tender concern of an unidentified, and younger, female acquaintance, itching to be something illicit even as she consoled me on the loss of my wife…
These are scenes that have been teased and worked, you see. Over and over in my mind, over the course of years, though I can’t be certain when precisely it was that they first visited me. But they come on particularly strong when I walk, or run or am at work. Lateral fantasies, you could call them, asserting themselves as the conscious mind looks the other way…
Anyway, to my right lay the sea, murmuring in the near distance, its ancient scent adrift inland. My heavy satchel strained in my shoulder and through to my ribs and down my thigh. Before long I reached town and was glad of the opportunity to stop at the local coffee house, despite realising that it would compel me to engage with the world…
However necessary on a practical level, the act of small-talk is one that I have come to experience as increasingly laborious. Ours is a small town, as you know, and a teacher with twenty-five years’ service under his belt finds recognition unavoidable. So the demands on me are more than they are for others. The law, the medics and the educators; I am one of these societal pillars. I have spent all my working life in this town. People will always expect of me, at the very least, a genial, Hello..