He hadn’t been her first, but he was the first who mattered. From that chance meeting at a bus stop on the edge of the city. His car had broken down, she was saving for one. It was early. Sodium light still lit, made him look ill. His hands were deep in his coat pockets, hunched over. Anna thought he had a vulnerability about him, he needed to be fed and held.
“Brass monkey weather.” He spoke well, without a discernible accent. Her friend Jen said she looked for the strangest qualities in men.
“Yes.” Her breath hung like fog in the air.
“Early start?” He smiled. She nodded. In her memory time moved on as if she was being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. She agreed to see him that night. They’d met for a drink, a drink that led to going back to his minimally furnished unit in neutral tones, bypassing dinner. They raided the fridge afterwards, a bowl of olives, an unidentified hard cheese and soft skinned apples.
Anna could feel a certainty about Simon, that she hadn’t in the past. There’d been Mark, loud laughter that grated, nasal hair and an unpleasant, yet unexplained, odour. And Gavin, who lived with his mum. He put his hand over her mouth to stop her cries of ecstasy being heard by the woman who’d birthed him lying in the next room, trying to sleep. Other men, she only catalogued in her mind when trying to fall asleep, like counting sheep. They’d added no weight or shape to her life. And her friends were wonderful but recent. Being orphaned earlier on in her adult life, an only child, when she lost sight of who she really was, there was no one to remind her.
Simon was there, giving her life form, listening to her anxieties, no matter how ridiculous. He’d sit with her, holding her hand while she confided her fears, whether of climate change or over a petty argument with a work colleague. He seemed happy to spend the evening drinking with her eccentric flat mates, Alice, Jen and Pete, buying them rounds of cocktails that glowed in the dark. He held her hair back over the toilet as those cocktails reappeared, stroking her back and murmuring sweet things. Anna thought that if he saw her like that and stayed, he must be the real thing.
Simon never talked of his past. “My life started when I met you,” Simon told her. But she couldn’t help being curious. When they’d moved in together, amid cries of caution from her friends, Simon turned up holding a suitcase and an old-fashioned desk lamp tucked under his arm. It sat on a desk in the spare room, a room she’d jokingly called the nursery. The lamp had a green glass shade, a replica of the sort men leaning over tables smelling of beeswax, once balanced columns of figures. Nothing that gave clues to Simon’s past.
He’d proposed at home, after a big row, their first. They’d eaten at a Japanese restaurant, just the two of them. Anna had had too much to drink, had caught him talking to an older, sophisticated woman as Anna walked back from the bathroom. She watched him from across the room, picking up a napkin the woman, dressed in black with earrings that caught the light, had dropped. Anna’s head swam with drink and jealousy, but she’d kept it together until they got back to her apartment. Simon’s face when he looked into the woman’s eyes. She’d never seen that look on his face. At home, he’d made her feel like a lunatic. An ugly, screaming, crazy woman. Hours later, when they were both exhausted from shouting, he’d dropped to his knees, holding a ring box in her face. Her big moment, one she’d looked forward since girlhood, was splattered with shame, her own. And relief, she hadn’t fucked it up.
Afterwards she wondered how long he’d had the ring, a simple gold band with a tiny ruby, and why he hadn’t had taken it out at the restaurant and avoided that terrible argument.
The wedding had been quick and small, in a registry office. “Neither of us are religious, after all,” he’d said. She’d worn a simple suit, he wore chinos and shiny black shirt. A smattering of friends, no family. Not even his mother. Anna outwardly thought big weddings were for show-offs. But her romantic heart nurtured a sense of loss, and disappointment after their understated day. There were no flowers, she hadn’t even thought to pick up a small bunch of chrysanthemums from the kiosk outside the supermarket next door to the registry office. She reassured herself that the whirlwind of their love story was special, more than yards of tulle and white roses.
Simon adjusted her blouse on the steps on the way in, his nails cut short, fingernails clean, he picked confetti out of her hair before they got in his car. She wondered briefly if his fussing wasn’t an act of care, but one of critique, even control. He’d chosen the suit she wore himself, he’d insisted. A pale blue linen two-piece. Anna looked at her reflection in the mirror. The pale blue made her look insipid, and it didn’t fit. Too tight around the waist, too bulky around the hip. As if it belonged to someone else entirely. It was unusual behaviour for a groom to chose his bride’s outfit. Wasn’t it bad luck to see the dress before the ceremony? She’d only seen the suit once before the wedding, he’d handed it to her with shining eyes. Anna kept the department store plastic bag it had come in tucked in the back of the wardrobe for reasons she couldn’t fathom. Later she’d discovered a receipt in the bag that predated their meeting. Had he recycled the bag, or had it been purchased for somebody else. The skirt gathered uncomfortably at her waist. But on the day Simon had held her hip bones between his hands and pronounced her, “Perfect.”
The tie she bought him, an expensive designer brand, subtle images of flowers, had been abandoned on their bed. He wore a more traditional dark blue one. “It’s my something blue,” he quipped.
At the pub, celebrating amongst the noise of strangers, she sat at the bar, the jukebox playing old rock numbers, feeling as if she was watching all of it from behind a screen. She had invited the witnesses, a couple, old friends of Simon’s, along to the pub. A strange pair. Unsmiling, wearing old clothes, his cuffs frayed, her stockings laddered. They didn’t stay long, she caught Simon giving them money as they left. Wasn’t he kind to give money to those who needed it? He would change, she knew it.
Her parents were dead, but she’d had some old friends, good friends. Simon said they weren’t the sort of friends she deserved. Alice had tried to poison her against Simon. Told her there was something ‘not quite right about him’. Jen had said Simon had made a pass at her. Pete and Simon had a clash of personalities. “They’re not stable, Anna. You can see that, can’t you.” They had been her friends, funny, fearless and brave. They made her feel that way too.
“It’s time for a new phase in your life.” Simon clasped her narrow shoulders.
That night as Simon undressed her, left her standing shivering, as he folded her wedding suit up and tucked it under his briefcase which rested on a chair. They hadn’t a great deal of money, but she’d have liked to have worn a simple summer dress in white cotton, decorated with wildflowers in reds and yellows. “This is more suitable, Anna.” The colour would have looked better on a woman with blue eyes, not the deep brown ones that widened beneath her pale lashes. She had noticed a brown stain that looked like cola, which was odd as Anna was drinking gin and tonic that day. “I’ll get it cleaned, naughty girl.”
On their wedding night he held her in front of the bedroom mirror watching their reflection. He was fully clothed, holding her vulnerable, naked body.
“You’re mine.” Not, I love you or you’re beautiful. It was if the lights had suddenly been turned on and the furniture wasn’t where she left it.
Anna learned that the quieter she was, the happier he was. He did so much for her. Little things, making her packed lunch for work and adding her favourite chocolate bar, sometimes a note telling her how much he loved her. After a hard day at work, he would brush her hair with a brush he said had belonged to his mother. It was this action that made her mind up to persuade him to introduce her to the other woman who must love Simon as much as she did. The only thing he had mentioned about her was that she was beautiful.
Months after the wedding that they drove down to a tired coastal town where she, Marilyn White, didn’t even have the same surname as her son. It rained the entire journey, to the small, dreary town where she lived. Simon hated driving in the rain but would never let Anna drive his Audi, which was silly as she was the better driver. She felt unsafe when Simon drove, particularly in wet weather. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the steering wheel. He didn’t speak much, and his bride knew not to push him.
They arrived in time for lunch. Tinned fish on white bread with white ice cream from the tub. Simon’s mum was a thin woman, with unmanageable hair drying at the ends. Afterwards Marilyn served pale tea in bone china mugs, teabags bobbing in the hot water. Anna’s was covered in pink roses. “Lovely cup.” Anna remarked. Marilyn smiled, showing a chipped front tooth. Simon was quiet. Marilyn wasn’t, and clearly never had been, beautiful but Anna thought it touching that Simon thought she was. The house was sparsely furnished with few ornamental touches. One or two plastic photo frames held fading pictures of Marilyn and her son, unsmiling. Two pairs of dark eyes implored her, as if wanting to escape from the frame. If not for the photos Anna would have thought that the house had been empty only this morning, that the few sticks of furniture were assembled but an hour or so ago. As if his mother was an invention, a character in a book.
As they left Simon’s mum pressed the mug she’d been drinking from, wrapped roughly in garish shiny paper, into her hand. “You said you liked it.” They drove home, the weather had cleared, and the day was still quite young.
At Christmas, before the holidays, Anna asked Simon if he wanted to ask his mother to stay for the festive season, his face clouded over. “I don’t want her here, in our home.”
“What do you mean, Simon. What’s wrong?”
“She wasn’t nice to me, growing up.”
“You never said. Talk to me.” Anna reached out to her husband. Simon recoiled.
Anna remembered the faded photos of Simon and his mum. Not a smile between them. She shivered, wondering what had happened to him as a child. Her heart softened. But she wouldn’t bring up the possibility of them having children yet.
Simon’s dark moods became worse. They had always been alarmed Anna, but they increased in frequency. He didn’t shout, rather he would grow quiet, brooding. There was very little Anna could do to coax him. She would sit it out, treat him as if he were a boy.
Anna was very forgiving. As a child she’d always took on lonely friends, shared her lunch with girls whose mothers had forgotten to pack them. She was kind, saw the best in people.
Simon took her to galleries and sometimes nights out in the city. He knew so much about art and music. He took her to see La Traviata. She’d cried and he’d held her hand. He explained later, in their hotel room, about the fallen woman, Violetta, dying of consumption and struggling with the choice of true love or freedom. Any man who understood such tragedy and love must be a man she could spend her life with.
He started to cry in the bath. Her heart went out to him, but he locked the door. His confident, shiny top layer began to crack. Small cracks at first, hardly discernible. His control over her ramped up. The only time she got out of their flat was for work, they needed the money. It was just as well she didn’t have any friends left; how would she get out to see them? Anna sat at the kitchen table, watching the clock and waiting for her husband to stop crying. It wasn’t a pretty clock, it was blocky and square. But she liked it. It measured time predictably, made her feel safe. She couldn’t remember who had gifted it. She liked the other wedding present clocks, the one in the bedroom, ornate as a cuckoo clock, and the one in the lounge room, pale green and Parisian. Anna wasn’t completely sure who had given them these clocks either. Despite its ugliness, she liked the kitchen clock the most. Unlike digital clocks time passed in visible chunks. They were visual to Anna, like pieces of cake.
Alice rang her at work. “We’ve been worried. I’ve rung your home so many times. Did Simon tell you?”
“He probably forgot.”
“Are you happy, Anna?”
“Of course, I am. I mean, every marriage takes work.”
She heard Alice sigh. “It’s only been eight months. Doesn’t that still count as the honeymoon period?” Before Alice rang off, she said, “by the way, if you are wondering, we sent the clocks, Jen, Pete and me. A bit cryptic I know. We are here for you, always.” The line clicked off before Anna could reply.
More than cryptic, it was bizarre. It occurred to her that her former friends didn’t have many ways to reach her, and she wouldn’t have listened anyway. She walked to the bus stop after work, she’d never managed to save for that car of her own, Anna’s mind itched with thoughts she usually scratched away. It was dark, she usually worked late, they needed her overtime. The streets were badly lit, only one sodium light shone on the pavement. It gave the houses a ghostly hue. She was happy, of course she was happy. It occurred to Anna that when she thought of their future there were no plans for the children they’d never discussed. No holidays to escape themselves. Just days and days of working later, walking dingy streets to bus stops, Simon crying in the bath and his mother’s mug present with roses on it seeming to peering at her from the kitchen shelf.
She climbed onto her bus home and took her usual seat as near the front as was available, she worried about not getting off at her stop in time. That the driver would forget her, and the bus would move on to the next stop. Perhaps today that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. It would give her time to think. She was too young for such a small life. She would get off at the town hall and walk home.
Months of thinking and rethinking, of worrying about Simon, trying not to upset him, thinking and re-thinking how to step around his outbursts, not setting him off, the weight of him pressing on her, her feet were heavy.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Simon sat at their kitchen table, hunched looking up at her. His eyes blood shot, still wearing his dressing gown. “You’re late.”
Anna looked up at the kitchen clock Alice had bought her, imagining the spaces where Simon’s needs filled her waking moments hit her all at once. The clocks let Anna know she was loved. They ticked louder, more than she had noticed before, echoing as she filled a small suitcase and walked out the front door.