The Weekend Read
Light Moves like Water
By Carol Farrelly
16th Nov 2018
The problem, my Aunt Stella suggests, is that I shouldn’t be wearing my green heart pendant. I tell her it’s made of Murano glass, to try to distract. And such a shade of green, I say, must be rare in nature.
Stella shakes her head and taps at her watch.
Every New Year’s Eve, I visit my Aunt Stella, the kind but firm therapist. A health check, she calls it. The tradition started during my first term at university. A difficult term. Whenever I think on that time, I see fish-tank glass and cloudy pea-green water. Now, five years later, I still knock at the door of her L-shaped office. I squirm into her pink armchair and wish for the velveteen chaise longue I once pictured there. Before the ritual started, I imagined a Hollywood glamour to her work; I looked forwards to the fascination in her half-closed eyes; I thought I would be unravelled and explained, manipulated like soft dough into something new and healthy.
Today, for the first time, I tell myself it’s possible. There’s a static in the room I’ve never felt before.
Why, she asks again, am I wearing this pendant, a gift from my last boyfriend? Seven months have passed, yet still I clasp this token around my neck. Perhaps, she says, I’m still attached to my loss, still seeking resolution. I don’t mention Rob to her.
The pendant, I reply, is simply a pretty piece of jewellery. My favourite. I don’t regard it as a gift from my ex-boyfriend. I love its veined greenness, which reminds me of Venice. Sometimes, when I hold it up to a window’s light, scenes ripple, iridescent, inside the curling glass. Gondolas drift, sober black, towards violet and turquoise sea mists. The canal water laps across mossy piazza steps. Plum-black bottles of wine turn glass-green as hands lift and pour. Baskets of bread scatter into crumbs. Matchstick people jostle for scraps of sunlight in St. Mark’s square. I stand on a bridge, wondering if and how Venetians play pooh sticks.
‘So, Anna, what do you remember in particular about that last summer holiday? With your ex?’ Stella asks.
‘Time passed more slowly—’ I answer, ‘like it always does on holidays.’
She nods and smiles, waiting for me to say more. This is our usual cat-mouse game. I’m not sure what else to say yet. She doesn’t push me. She hasn’t divined the right question to ask. It’ll come, though. She always finds the right question for me, in the end. That’s the reward of this ritual.
I shrug my shoulders. ‘I suppose you feel more yourself on holiday, don’t you?’
‘More alive.’ I offer.
She smiles. ‘That’s nice. You feel more alive.’
I glance over at the moon-white clock. Still forty minutes to go. Forty more minutes of her nodding silver bob and her patient echoing of my words. It doesn’t seem a hard job. Easy money, I thought in the beginning; but all good artists wear their tools lightly.
I reach for the glass of water on the table and take three long sips.
‘I think—I suppose what I remember most about this holiday was what he said…’
‘He split up with me.’
‘While you were there? On holiday?’
I unclasp the pendant.
We were in a trattoria.
Locals ate there, which Paul said was the sign of a good Italian restaurant. Sturdy wooden tables fed squabbling families and murmuring couples. A waitress sailed towards us and clattered two steaming plates onto our table. I leaned in over my spaghetti alla carbonara, plump with chunks of pancetta. The egg-yellow sauce oozed between the prongs of my fork. Paul sliced through a bloody steak
‘You’d have yours well-done, would you?’ he raised an eyebrow.
I gave him a weak smile.
‘Did you have an argument?’
‘No. He just told me one evening it was over.’
‘He said I was too lower-middle class.’
She says nothing; she remains the therapist rather than my indignant, protective Aunt Stella. I wonder how long it took her to learn such silence. She never draws breath, never widens her eyes. All the stories she must have heard. Perhaps my story this year seems ordinary. Ever since the first year, after my parents died, the stories I tell her are ordinary in comparison.
She wants his name. ‘Paul…’
‘Yes, Paul—what class did he think he was?
‘Upper-middle, I suppose.’
‘The difference was important?’
Her blue eyes widen now. I don’t know if she’s asking me or him. She pushes her shoulders back against her chair. I’m not sure if I’m meant to say of course not—of course I don’t agree with his absurd snobbery. Or yes, he thought it mattered. His opinion mattered.
I shrug my shoulders again.
She’s the first person to hear this story. I haven’t told Rob, unsure what it might mean to tell him, whether it would pull him closer or send him farther away. I realise I’m testing it out on Stella first and I want something more definite from her. I want her to feel on my behalf, to take my part as I never did.
‘You were shocked?’
‘Of course, I didn’t know people thought like that. In categories. Boxes.’
I lift the glass heart up against my chin and stare down into its flaming green.
Once, he tested me on my vocabulary. We were sitting on the mattress in his attic room. Books grew in piles all over the dusty floorboards. He wanted to know how I named the different rooms in a house, hoping, perhaps, that I’d mention a study and refrain from a ‘front room’.
Another time, I took him to a friend’s party. He stopped in front of the crammed bookcases. ‘How quaint,’ he craned his neck forwards, as though peering at a dying wasp. ‘They keep their books in the living room.’
‘He said it was unbearable,’ I tell Stella.
She clears her throat. ‘So what did you say to him?’
My fingers close around the heart.
‘I don’t remember.’
She shifts in her chair. She thinks I should have picked up the carafe of red wine and poured it over his pompous head.
I remember how I wished for a cardigan, sensible taupe cashmere, as he spoke his words and stared at my cleavage. A woman’s body, his eyes said, should cower in public places; my skin should only curve and goosepimple in his book-strewn bedroom.
‘It’s so banal, Anna,’ he said. ‘You drink cheap wine. You smile at these bloody kitsch accordion players,’ he gestured towards the canal outside.
My cheeks burned. I had become a list. A list of habits and pass-me-down behaviours. And he made them burn under my skin.
His cheeks puffed. ‘I can’t take it anymore. Cheap Murano pendants and well-done steaks…’
I wanted to laugh. Instead, I walked.
I walked back to our pensione alone and threw myself onto the double bed that the maid had smoothed and preened for us. I wondered a moment how it felt for her to tidy away all those creases every morning, all those imprints of strangers’ passions and separations, sleeps and sleeplessness. She didn’t give it a second thought, perhaps. And I’d follow her example. My hand didn’t stray towards his pale blue pillow. My body didn’t long for the smell or voice or touch of him. Already, I imagined returning home. Already, I thought I might sleep with the blonde boy from my Boccaccio seminars.
‘Too lower-middle class,’ Stella frowns. ‘It’s a very odd thing to say.’
‘And why do you think he said it?’ she asks.
I stare across at her and she stares back, all blue-eyed patience—the teacher who thinks the weight of silence will somehow push you towards the answer.
I rub at the nape of my neck. ‘It made him feel better, I suppose, to discard me. Treat me as the runt—’
‘What?’ she frowns.
‘The runt—’ I pause again. ‘Of the litter.’
I imagine a tiny, pale pup, curled like a leaf against a drain.
She swallows ‘He said that?’
‘I saw it in his notebook once. I realised afterwards—he must have meant me.’
She leans forward in her chair, steepling her hands together. ‘Maybe.’
I glance towards the clock.
She persists. ‘Or maybe he meant himself.’
‘Maybe,’ I say.
‘And you still wear his pendant. This man that calls others runts? You don’t seem angry with him. Not then. Not now.’
She’s back on track now.
‘It’s not his. I wear it because I chose it. It’s mine.’
She arches an eyebrow.
‘And because it reminds me of Venice.’
She leans back in her chair.
My Aunt Stella wants there to be a problem where there is none. It’s my own doing: I’ve come to her again this year, as though I still agree to the idea of fixing. But the truth is my skin no longer burns.
‘This pendant reminds me how much I love Venice. Even after that evening, I loved it. He made no difference to that.’
Her eyes fix on the Murano heart, which I still cup in my palm. We both stare into the sun-fed greenness and I wonder if she sees what I see and hear and taste again.
Columned white palazzi cast their shadows across a red piazza floor. Clusters of geranium wind around the white columns and trail upwards to rows of darkened windows. I look up and know that inside all those white-walled apartments, behind all those green and black shutters, there’s a jungle of colour. Flowers unfurl into hungry life. Burnt brown pollen powders windowsills and table-tops. A radio chatters beautiful open vowels onto terracotta tiles. Plates clatter. I smell the beginnings of a tomato-red ragù.
And a peek of this life is enough— or was enough. The last three days of that summer holiday, I wandered alone through the streets. I sat at café tables and drank prosecco. I bought apples and grapes from stalls and ate them on steps splattered with all colours of gelati. I could have lived those days forever. I thought I was the happiest I’d ever be.
I don’t tell any of this to Stella.
I simply say what I know now.
‘For a few days I was nobody. Just another foreigner. Free. It was wonderful.’
‘You enjoyed being on your own?’
She smiles. ‘And now, back home?’
She’s asked the question. I reach for the glass of water and I think of Rob. His blue eyes wait; his words from last night repeat; his name is honey-salt on the tip of my tongue. And it would be so easy and delicious to speak his name.
I close my eyes. Sunlight curls like caramel leaves upon the turquoise water. Behind me a man in a black cap, an accordion slung across his belly, begins to play an Italian love song. He plays for the tourists, of course. And it’s beautiful.
Rob sits beside me on the canal steps. His fingers draw soft circles on my bare shoulder. The sun burns into our sandalled feet. A purple petal drifts down from the window-box sky and catches a moment in the crook of his arm. He leans in and kisses the back of my neck. A dark-haired woman throws back the shutters in the palazzo opposite: I see into the heart of her house. Red and gold flowers, orchids perhaps, twist inside a green vase. Cinnamon walls flicker as though they hold the sun inside them.
Rob turns to me as the song plays and asks me to translate. He listens, without interruption, through my explanations, pauses, ambiguities. When I’m finished, I pick the petal from his arm and twirl it between my thumb and forefinger. I cast it into the water which laps so clean below us, and it drifts, a veined purple heart. He smiles. It’s one of those moments when life unmakes you. Colours swirl. Light moves like water.
Rob’s words whisper inside my head again. I open my eyes. The green pendant turns violet in my hand.
‘How do you feel now?’ Stella asks.
‘Alive,’ I say.
Light Moves like Water was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize in 2010.