Jewish people, they have this thing, this ritual when somebody dies. They eat a lot of food, and they sit around and talk, and don’t change their clothes for days. Something like that. I’m not Jewish, I don’t even know for sure if this is what they do, or why they do it, but I’m trying, anyway. Today is Wednesday, and I have almost eaten everything in my fridge. I am walking around the flat and talking loudly, singing sometimes, though only to myself. I am still wearing the outfit I was wearing when he died. I can still smell a faint trace of his aftershave on the collar of my blouse, and I bury my nose in it whilst I munch on cereal and noodles.
Today was the day we met for lunch. I’d seen her before, of course. Once, in a faded wallet photo that he hastily hid from sight, claimed he’d forgotten it was there. This was just before I found out that the marriage that was so, completely, over was ... well, not. She’s been in a few magazines as well; mostly just as his wife, but sometimes as a designer in her own right. Once she gave an interview on her successful marriage. I pored over every word, trying to imagine what it would be like to be her, be a wife, be so confident that you would spill the secrets and little details of your marriage on the pages, knowing that there would be countless more to come over the years. Me, the mistress, I am jealous; I hoard the little scraps of moments between us for myself. I read the article countless times, and then burnt it, like a girl trying a love spell.
In the flesh, she was different. Not as glossy as she was in the magazines; her roots needed doing, and she’d forgotten to do up one of her buttons. It was as if the picture had faded slightly. As if to make up for this, she talked fast, a little too fast, and tutted impatiently whenever I spoke too slowly for her, or paused to think. Everything she did showed she couldn’t bear to look at me. The few times she did bring herself to meet my gaze, I saw nothing but contempt. Underneath the thin pretence of polite conversation, I could hear what she was trying to say. Whatever did he see in you? It seemed like only her gritted teeth and clenched fists kept her from screaming the question in my face.
I’m afraid I never managed to think of an answer, the whole time we were talking. As I wander around the flat, all I can see is photographs and portraits of me. They are literally what he saw in me, and I still don’t know the answer. In some pictures I am masked, in some I am completely bare, in some I am an almost unrecognisable blur of colours, but in all of them you can see my eyes. He used to say my eyes looked like rainy windows, and I was never quite sure what he meant by it. My favourite piece hangs above our bed. It’s me, sitting at the end of the bed in an old T-shirt. I’m looking away from him, holding a camera, and out into the night. One of my hands is just grazing the window. I look as if I’m wishing I could just fall through the glass and disappear into the night air. When he mentioned it, I told him that I think I feel like that most of the time. He just laughed and pulled me away from the window. “I’m the only one who can make you vanish,” he said, and then he swallowed me up in his embrace.
What did he see in you?
Who knows? No one else saw anything much, after all. Just a skinny girl, too much hair and not enough coordination, no feminine grace or curves to speak of. Somehow my hair always exploded outwards, my attempts at makeup always smudged and blurred and when I painted my nails, it always ended up peeling, ragged and fragmented. He called me his ragged little beauty, his queen of chaos in the deep dark of the night where no one could see what a mess I was. Once he took a photo of me, sitting in the middle of my bedroom, and you could hardly see me for the sprawl. He loved my room. Said if he stayed ten years, fifty, a hundred he’d never understand it all.
He stayed just five years, in the end. I was just seventeen when I met him, just out of school and preparing for university. I was convinced that it would be life changing, that suddenly I would be this mature, exotic woman rather than a scruffy girl who still stuttered when she got nervous. Instead, I met him, dropped out, and became … what? His mistress? His kept woman? His whore? Pick and choose your terminology.
He bought this place, he gave me the money to buy every trinket, every decoration I possess, and yet I can’t seem to find a trace of him here. Every last scent and breath of him has faded away, floated out the window. Everything here, the borders between mine and his has merged and blurred and I’m no longer sure. That blanket, was it his or mine? Some gift he bought to appease when he’d been away for a week or two, a sweet nothing that he meant as a justification but which explained nothing at all, or just something I’d picked up in a shop somewhere? I convince myself it was the former, and wrap myself in it tightly. I fall asleep slowly, whispering his name like a stolen secret.
Molly Oatham is a student at Essex University (Colchester).
'I've always been passionate about writing from a very young age. A few years ago, I was named Runner Up to The Young Fiction Writer of the Year Award and I received my award from Gordon Brown and Anthony Horowitz.'