MICHAEL SUMMERLEIGH - AU 'VOIR
Michael Summerleigh lives in rural Ontario with a cat named Mina. When he was someone else he published some stuff back in the 80s, but recently there have been stories online with cc&d Magazine, Literary Yard, and a novel excerpt with Lamplit Underground.
The first time she laid eyes on him she was certain he could not be human, rather something elemental, a behemoth, some wild crazed thing of storm-cloud and thunder raging across the stage, stamping the boards to splinters, fists like hammers raised up against the sky railing against Fortune. If there yet lived any gods upon Olympus, she knew they could hear him, and bowed their heads in deference to his greater majesty.
It was just after the war, visiting with an aunt and uncle in London, and she was fourteen years old, wide-eyed at so much of the damage from the Blitz still visible...all forgotten in the instant he had appeared she might yet have her ticket stub to tell her the name of the play or even the theatre...after so many years all driven from memory...everything but the almost physical recollection of a tempest clothed in Elizabethan finery.
"Can I get you anything, William? Are you comfortable?"
He stirred in the chair, a rustle of blanket in half-light from the arched leaded windows ranked along the wall like the nave in a cathedral.
The knave in a cathedral...
That had been the second time. A touring company come to Oxfordshire ten years later there had been a rustle of humanity behind her where she sat through the dog-end of a service...the mock solemnity of his entrance...the transparency of his poor attempts at respectful silence. Grandstanding. She remembered how her heart had jumped to recognise him, and the smile she had kept hidden when her fiancé expressed his disapproval. Thereafter his performances were sell-outs as no doubt he had intended them to be, but she had managed tickets for one of them, a girlfriend providing the necessary subterfuge and companionship for her to get away.
He stirred in his chair...dislodged a tuft of fur from somewhere. The dogs lay scattered on the floor about him... big snuffling throw-rugs waiting for rebirth and the energy to chase something...anything...anywhere...
"A cup of tea would be nice," he said. "With some of that wonderful honey we brought back from Havana...?"
She turned away hoping he'd not heard the quick intake of her breath...her heart jumping...
"I'll put a pot on for both of us then," she said, knowing any honey would do...or perhaps even some brown sugar, because the honey from Havana had been from their first real holiday together. Long gone...now almost fifteen years ago...
She filled an electric kettle and watched him while it hissed and spit and lurched towards a boil like a leper on the road to Jerusalem. It was almost too much for him to stand on his feet. A trip to the fucking bathroom was akin to the preparation of an African safari. She warmed the china teapot with tap water, spooned the very last of their Russian Georgian into it. There would never again be Russian Georgian tea for the world. The cataclysmic ebb and flow of Eurasian politics had destroyed the last of the tea-fields; now the cataclysmic ebb and flow of Life was destroying the last of her heroes.
Beyond the windows and thirty feet below them the river ran rushing by on its way to a lake and then a river and then an ocean...the cold-cold-even-in-summer-north-Atlantic... she wondered if the tiny currents that made for the whole of it knew of the journey before them...that when it came to their time in the sun and a rising up into the sky if they would be aware of it...the endless cycle...Ourobouros snaring its own tail...that someday they would begin again right back where they had begun...and likely rush by the very same house and never even know the last souls to have witnessed their earlier passage through that place were now gone.
"Dear do you remember...?"
There was a deceptive rumbling of strength in his voice as he called to her she filled the teapot...watched the agony of the tea-leaves writhing in the hellish stream of boiling hot water for a moment his voice was as it had always been...the deep and elegant basso profundo to shake the windows and rattle your bones for the times they were indeed a-changin'....
And she did indeed remember that time. Carnaby Street. Kickin' down the cobblestones lookin' for fun feelin' groovy and her two beautiful daughters just now learning to walk the walk in the very best of times and the very worst of them she remembered...looking through a boutique window and seeing him surrounded by shop-girls...each one with a velvet coat in hand or a brocade waistcoat...waiting on his every word...vying for his attention...
She also remembered the hurt...of being too free with her thoughts and her desires... speaking them aloud to her husband who preferred to keep that sort of thing to himself, where indulgence would not threaten his standing amongst his peers she asked:
"Do I remember what...?"
But he had already forgotten whatever it was he had remembered. She poured a thin bone china cup for herself and a sturdy ceramic mug for him, with a fat dollop of local honey...delivered it to his hand gone so bone white she sat on the sofa beside his chair to keep him company. On the big screen television a soccer match unfolded without benefit of sound.
"Are you hungry, my love?"
"This is good," he said. Sipped at his tea. Tried to set it down somewhere and gave up. The dogs wriggled and snuffed.
"Did you remember to tell the Queens people that we won't be attending that dinner...?"
She closed her eyes struggled not to let the scream out where he could hear it the dinner had been years before.
"Oh good then..."
"They were disappointed I told them you'd made a prior engagement..."
She covered her face with both hands turned away where he couldn't see her. The quiet got deep and long she dared to look back at him he seemed lost in an obscurity of grey and white monochrome, the once vivid raven-black bristling spikes of hair as he raged about the stage all gone to a Procol Harum whiter shade of pale...no longer the valiant conquistador...just a tired old jouster in the lists...her Ivanhoe laid low and murdered by the chemicals meant to save him...
He turned his head as if she had spoken aloud and in his cloudy eyes she saw for the first time a spark of something that might have been alarm...a look of sudden startled awareness-- that if she recognised the imminence of his end then it must surely be upon him.
He had never been afraid...not even on the Saturday in 1983 when the Irish Republican Army bombed Harrods...Christmas shopping the girls would be coming home for the holidays...
She had been on the fourth floor, well away from the actual explosion below...not far enough to avoid being flung against a wall by the blast...feeling the displaced air rush past her carrying shards of plate glass and then the stench of her husband's terror...in the smoke and the chaos she heard that voice...his voice...cutting through the cries of pain and fear calling out to survivors...now cast in real life...heroic and unflinching...
She had followed him to a stairwell...waved him on with someone more seriously injured in his arms...later watched him go back for others...tirelessly...until the immediacy of search and rescue was gone and his reputation was loosed forever from the bonds of mere stage stardom. She had wanted to thank him...but more than a decade went by before it became possible...
* * *
"...I thought I heard someone calling my name," he said in mock perplexity.
He turned away from the knot of people with whom he'd been engaged in conversation... elegant and assured a flute of champagne in one hand...she had never been that close to him...introduced herself he was instantly attentive...beneath the self-assurance sincerely flattered that she would remember in such detail the three times their paths had crossed... and then severely embarrassed by her thanks.
"I was there and it was horrible," he said. "What else could I do?"
The rest of the party had become dreamlike she could not say why she had gone at all, except for friends who had told her to mourn a marriage gone bad for too long was not healthy; that it had been well over two years ago even Ariel and Regan had begun to worry about her...
"Your daughters, then?" he had said. "What happened to Titania?"
And they had laughed when she told him she had loved her new children far too much to saddle one of them with a name like Titania, no matter how grand its pedigree. And then
they began a ritual of courtship, and she found him old-worldly and thoroughly charming as she knew he would be. And Ariel and Regan were very impressed...found his easy solicitude for their mother and themselves irresistible......
"We've had so many adventures together," he said.
She nodded, came to arrange a blanket around him, bent to kiss his forehead.
"We have," she said simply.
Twenty years of them she cried to herself. We waited such a long time...
"I imagine we had good lives before....mostly..."
"I thought you might have turned vain and pompous."
"Well I had," he said, smiling a little. "But then I turned around at this dreadful party where I was expected to be vain and pompous, and there you were..."
He had never failed to compliment her. Never once had he not been there to support anything she ever did or wanted to do...or failed to treat her children as though they were his own. She wondered that for all the good things that had come to her because of him there was one thing that always had seemed to be missing.
He grew drowsy again, she could see the haze slowly covering the brightness of his eyes she caught his mug of tea as it left his fingers and pottered around the kitchen...close by...for when he woke again...
He murmured something. It was scarcely more than a breath she was not even sure he had spoken yet she heard him clearly enough. She wound her way through the maze of dogs...moved towards him in his chair that was become like a moth-eaten damned coffin... drew back his blanket eased herself down beside him...put her head down on his chest too tired to fight anymore...
He whispered: "You mean quite a lot to me."
Suddenly she was so weary. A word from another time...a word from so long ago...a word that spoke so much more deeply than just being tired she said:
"You might have mentioned that before now, William."
Beneath her the great bellows of his lungs exhaled with something that might have been mistaken for a sob, eloquent with regret.
"I'm sorry. You're right. I should have spoken. I should have told you."
"You're so damned British."
"But so are you..."
"Not like you, William," she said kindly, "not so damned British as you, who never learned that his love might be something someone else might hold to be precious..."
He was quiet. This then was perhaps as close to a cruelty as she could inflict upon him...now...finally...to hold up before his eyes the mirror of his life...to make him see the wonderful reflection that had been there through his lifetime, only just waiting for his acceptance.
"I love you Caroline," he whispered, and put his hand gently on her head.
She said Oh sweetheart I know and laid her head down again...listened to his breathing begin to stagger and crawl...watched as the afternoon drew deeper grey shrouds down around them and the greatest measure of light she had ever known went out from her life.
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