EVEN DEAD, I’M NEUROTIC

By Nick Black

“Saul Rubinstein! Did they cover the mirrors before you died?” – these my late wife Leigh’s first words to me in twenty-five years, as she spits on her fingers and rubs at a grease spot on my shirt. I scratch my ear. She slaps my hand away without even looking up.

“So!” she says, finally meeting my eye. “What age did you make it to without me?”

I think back. It was Fish Night. “Eighty-six,” I tell her. “Did you marry again?”

“No.”

“And showgirls?”

“By the busload.” She smiles, or snarls, an expression I’d remembered fondly, either way. Even her happiness has teeth, this woman.

She walks me through an orange grove drenched in warm, syrupy sunshine. The oranges are huge, like grapefruit. All very beautiful, but hazy, like walking through a projector beam on the way to your cinema seat. Leigh, of course, is more solid, her flesh still beige. When we’re close, I can smell her hair lacquer.

“… It’s like I saw you yesterday,” she’s saying. “But I did miss you… Look at you, head swelling by the second! I should never open my mouth.”

“Is anyone arguing?” Just like old times. I look at her looking at me while we laugh, her eyes darting behind her specs, all over my face. I can see my reflection in her spectacle lenses. I look green.   Behind the glass, her eyes are narrowing. I’m done for.

I was less alone after she died than I might have led her to believe. I couldn’t cope so well in the later years, so I found myself an Irish woman to come once a week, help out. Paula. From County Cork. Leigh’ll ask if she was young, if she was pretty, if she was Jewish. The fact is, she was none of these, but she had hair the colour of salami and a rump you could bounce pennies off, though it cost you a pound for the pleasure. I’ll not add that detail. I forget who suggested it first but after a while, Paula and I came to an arrangement and she moved into the spare room, rent free, where she continued to entertain her men friends, always giving me notice so I’d stay out the way and keep the bathroom noises down.

Her presence didn’t pass my neighbours’ notice. What’s with Rubinstein, the recluse, suddenly people are coming and going there, day and night? Eventually, the rabbi popped ‘round, a first, and we sat in the front room, with the TV on low. ‘Deal Or No Deal’. I should have turned it off, I know, but had I invited him? Anyway, we’re both half-watching while pretending not to, and he’s asking about my health, my guttering, who knows?, when in walked Paula with three cups of tea she’d just made us.   The rabbi’s eyes popped out his head so hard they nearly knocked his glasses off. I didn’t acknowledge her at all, took my tea and stared at the carpet. “Are you not going to introduce me, Rubie?” asked Paula, standing behind my armchair, laying a heavy hand on top of my head. “This is my wife Paula,” I muttered. I don’t know why I had to add those two words. Maybe someone was saying them on the telly and I repeated them, without thinking. Maybe it was witchcraft. The rabbi was out of there before his lips had touched his cup, Paula doubling over in hysterics the second the front door was back in its frame. After that, he seemed to always be there, hovering on the street outside, whenever I was taking the rubbish out and Paula stood behind me in her nightie. On the blue moon she and I ever went to the bookies together, there’d be the rabbi, walking out of the drycleaner next door. “You do realise you’ll have to marry me now?” she said over sandwiches one day. “Make an honest woman of me?” Reaching over to take the last of my salmon paste.

All of this I decide I have to confess to Leigh when suddenly she says, “You know Elliot’s here, too?” and the breath to speak dies right in my throat.

The orange groves… Forget the orange groves. Apparently, we’re on a stony beach, now, the sea a sheet of rippling gold.   Beyond us, standing side-on by the water’s edge and frowning a little: Elliot Siegel, with his blue-black inky hair, the light shining off his pale waxy forehead. Just like Tony Curtis, everyone used to say. He’s in a tux, shirt open, no tie, one hand in his pocket, the sea foaming over his bare feet… He died young, so of course he’s still going to look good, there’s no talent to it.  I can hardly stop staring. I wonder how they got his head back on after the crash.

Really, I don’t know why I should be surprised to see him. Leigh had told me on our first date, some five years after he’d widowed her, “I’ll always love him, Saul. I’ve never believed in ‘til death do us part,’” urgently clasping both my hands. I’d taken her to see Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames at the Flamingo Club, and her face and make-up were dripping in the heat. I think that’s when I fell for her. Vwoompf. A lift with its cables cut. Elliot Siegel, then, is inevitably here, though he doesn’t look too happy about it. I knew him vaguely, in our teens, to raise my chin to across a crowded room. He’s barely older now. If Leigh and I had had kids, he could be our grandson.

“Let me go talk to him, Saulie. Your dying’s going to be a shock to him,” Leigh says, just about brushing my cuff with her fingertips as she goes. ‘A shock to him?!’ I think, as memories of someone trying the Heimlich Manoeuvre on me flash to mind.   I watch her walk away toward this handsome young man, her dodgy hip throwing a kink in her gait every few steps. I listen to the waves shhhh over the stones, and I suck on my back tooth.

I think there’s a bit of cod still stuck in my plate.

The beach reminds me of Brighton. Leigh always liked Brighton, though we never went together. She’d spent her first honeymoon there and it was too painful, I was told.   I went a couple of times with a girl from the salon next to my shop. Jackie Goldwyn. I probably told Leigh I’d gone to the races. It was perfectly innocent, jokes and ice creams in the afternoon, that’s all.  I was happy with that.

Me and Leigh’s honeymoon had been in Torremolinos, where we both got food poisoning.

The boys at the golf club gave me grief about dating the widow Siegel. Our first Christmas together, I’d bought her a fur jacket, sable, butterscotch lining, which of course I couldn’t afford. Every hour not spent in my father’s shop, selling off-the-rack suits for the discerning cheapskate, I was at the club, caddying by day, waiting at night. Most of the members and their wives and girlfriends I knew from shul but they looked less pious sat in the smoke and roar of the dining room. Squeezing between tables with hot, heavy tureens, picking up dropped forks, napkins, replacing empties, whipping off tablecloths, I’d be constantly looking around, running a mental finger over what everyone was wearing, guessing its price, wondering if any of that was bought on the HP, too.

Washing up at the end of a night, my friends Tony Feldman, Terry Gold with the runaway eye, Spencer someone I can’t remember, always the same song. “…Working so hard for another bloke’s woman….”

“But one with experience…” You could almost hear their hearts stop. Tony raised his hand, he’d gone too far.

Terry’d jump back in, “There are plenty of girls barely off their ponies waiting for us, Sollie. Waiting for us! You don’t need to marry the first one not to laugh in your face.”

It got tired, week in, week out, but I didn’t mix with girls who owned ponies, and besides, Leigh frequently laughed in my face. Who’d want anything else?

I’d roam the course at the crack of dawn, collecting lost balls to sell back to the pro shop. The dew’d soak my slacks walking through the rough. When the sun was high enough, I could look back and see where I’d been by the darker colour of the grass, like the wake of a ship. Wood pigeons cooing and that laugh of Leigh’s in my head: those are the sounds I put with that picture.

My parents weren’t any keener on me seeing Leigh.

“She can kill off as many husbands as she wants, so long as none of them are my son” – my mother.

“Not a lucky woman,” shook my father’s face from side to side. That Elliot was killed driving through a red light at three o’clock in the morning, while Leigh was fast asleep, counted for nothing. “What sort of wife lets their husband travel round on his own like that?! She should have been with him!”

They’re both notably absent here.

Leigh’s parents I’m not so sure about. It was never a secret they’d preferred Elliott, and sometimes she disappears with him to who knows where. Elliot tried to mouth something to me over Leigh’s shoulder on one of these occasions. I saw his face moving, turned to see who he was talking to, (I couldn’t believe it would be me), and when I turned back they were gone.

I’m ranting, for a change. Leigh and I are in a garden, night-blooming jasmine frothing around us, moonlight trickling through the trees. They seem big on outdoor scenes here: building rents must be ridiculous.

“… Twenty five years behind my back, while I’m busy mourning you?!…”

I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I’m hungry. No-one ever seems to eat here. Leigh’s been trying to convince me that the poor boy Siegel’s insecure, jealous of the thirty-six years she and I spent together, and he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to compete with that and…

I tuned out.   Her eyes, it might be noted, are shining like good gravy to have not one but two husbands chewed up at the same time because of her. I regret my outburst. She’s enjoying this too much.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, “ ‘Twenty five years’! Time….” She looks around and raises her hands in the air, palms up like they’re weighing scales, up, down, not knowing how to finish the sentence. I grunt, conceding.

How she died, I don’t even want to think about, but it took a lot out of this woman. Watching her doing her hand dance, all of the mischief suddenly drains of me, and I bat at the jasmine for something to do.

We had no kids, the doctors could never work out why, but there was a dog.   I had the shop, Leigh did some secretarial work, and we had some money for a few years. Despite Leigh’s concerns, I bought a Rover P6, low mileage, Cameron Green, that I promised to keep under 40. I figured if I never looked at the speedo, that was more or less keeping my word.  We bought a house in Finchley, with a garden.   I bought Leigh a fondue set and an Afghan hound, Lenny, stupid thing, long silky hair. He reminded me of Björn Borg.

The dog came with us everywhere. Leigh was always complaining I paid him more attention than I did her but we were both soppy about him. Leigh used to tie ribbons in his hair until I pointed out he was a boy dog and might not like that. Next morning, I woke to find my own bonce festooned with pink silk bows.

Lenny loved being driven around, his head out the back window. Whenever we took him out, people would stop to admire him, stroke him, Leigh and I kvelling like we’d made him ourselves. We took him to Hampstead Heath when the fair was on, Lenny pulling Leigh through the crowds. I stopped to chat to one of my customers. I saw the two of them up ahead of me, Leigh squatting down to talk to a little boy who was touching Lenny’s snout.   The kid had the darkest head of hair, jet black and bushy. Pale little face. He kind of reminded me of Elliott, maybe how Elliott might’ve looked at that age. I guess Leigh was having a similar thought because suddenly the boy was walking off through the crowd, holding Lenny’s lead, and I was excusing myself from my conversation and pushing through, trying to catch up. There were too many people between us. Thousands of lightbulbs heating the air, onions and burgers sizzling.  Machinery swung into the corner of my vision, out again. Everyone screaming. By the time I finally got to her, Leigh was alone, her cheeks damp, her mouth wobbling all over the place. She said, “I’m sorry, Saulie. He loved Lenny so much, I didn’t know what else to do.”

I searched the whole fairground, snatching at the arm of every brown- or black-haired kid I passed, calling Lenny’s name, Leigh behind me calling mine. I spilled out of the fair and onto the Heath as dusk became night. I couldn’t see a thing. I never found them. Leigh caught up with me on East Heath Road, watching the lights of the traffic crawling up and down the hill.

I know it sounds crazy but I slept with Lenny’s bowl under my pillow that night, possibly the one after too.   I did run it under hot water first.

Even dead, I’m neurotic. I have to stop myself worrying whether Pauline’s turned the outside light out overnight. That’s a hard habit to break. When we married, she converted and changed her name to Sarah. Sarah Rubinstein. It fitted her like a watermelon for a hat. I think she was running from something, debts, the law. If I asked too many questions, she’d laugh off my concerns and threaten to stick me in a home. She brought her two adult sons over from Ireland, men I’d never even known existed, though I hardly ever saw them. Occasionally I might hear one or other of them on the roof. I think they might have been tilers.

There was a home, right at the very end, but I was only visiting. Old Terry Gold, with the runaway eye, we’d stayed in touch all those years (and I still didn’t know where to look when I was talking to him.) Once a week or so, I’d go see him, chat about the old days, play some cards, stay for supper if there was one going spare.   “That’s Malcolm’s,” Terry would tease as my fork poised. “They wheeled his body out this afternoon.”   Terry had never got married himself, been too busy playing the field, he always claimed. People said he was in love his whole life with his first cousin, Rita. A knockout, she was. Ran away and joined the theatre, if I remember rightly.

So. Terry Gold’s care home, Fish Night. That’s where I bit it.   Surrounded by orange furniture and Caribbean nurses, every one of whom I knew by name.

I’m no philosopher. I sold womenswear in Temple Fortune. Nonetheless, it occurs to me that if this is Heaven, we’ve been sold a bill of goods.   For one thing, and I don’t mean to be lewd, the only woman here is sixty years old, and already married.   Hips courtesy of the NHS. Teeth, too. Then there’s that other husband who, for all his chin dimples and unstained tuxedos, looks tortured. Tortured! Imagine looking like that and having to spend the rest of eternity with a woman who’s sixty years old and, again, here with her husband. I swear I caught Elliot shooting her a look earlier that would have copped a life sentence if it had come true. ‘Life sentence’, I’m saying. He wishes. I’m just glad she didn’t see it.

The two of them have gone riding this afternoon – which reminds me of Tony’s pony girls comment, all those years ago – so I’m sitting in a meadow picking bluebells, waiting for her to get back. There’s no-one else here. Nowhere to go. I could kill myself with boredom, if etcetera etcetera.

For all I know, I’m here picking bluebells for centuries. Perhaps this is Leigh’s Heaven is what I’ve been thinking, sat here. I wonder if I have my own Heaven somewhere, and if Elliot has his, and what they’re like, and which of us is having more fun.   I wonder if Leigh’s in mine, too, or if it’s all dolly birds and circuses.

This field should look like a plucked chicken by now but still I’m deep in bluebells.   My mind drifts to Elliot, earlier, Leigh squeezing a riding hat onto his head. Even from a distance, with my old kaput eyes, I could see how nervous he was, eyeing the horses.  Huge things, everywhere muscles, sweat, hooves, chompers. Leigh could never get me on one, are you kidding, but maybe he was raised to respect his elders and couldn’t say no. She’ll have him listening to Cleo Laine next.   One of the horses suddenly tossed its head and snorted and the poor kid nearly fell over backwards.

The memory of it lifts my mood, I can’t deny. Naughty Saul, I smile to myself. Butterflies puff up around me, into the soft sunshine. I tug another bluebell out of the ground and suck on my back teeth. This bit of cod seems to be lasting forever.

*           *          *

Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including the Lonely Crowd, Spelk and Litro. They’ve also won several flash contests and been listed for competitions including the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards.

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