It’s always too late in the day to get through to Dylan, or too early.
‘Dylan . . .’ Annabeth says, going up to the sofa where he has sprawled for the past six months, and looking down at his clammy face.
Either he’s just had a drink and entered a parallel plane where he’s unreachable, or he needs a drink and can’t concentrate. Annabeth feels like rapping on his skull with her knuckles. Hello, is anybody home?
He surprises her by opening his eyes. ‘Going shopping?’ His voice is oiled with inebriation. She looks into those dark pools, once bright, now brackish, searching for the slightest shine of affection. She might as well be gazing at a stranger in a tube train.
‘Yes.’ She sighs. ‘I’ve made a list. Anchovies, olives, taramasalata, artichokes in oil, Bombay mix, strong Cheddar, salami, gherkins. Anything else?’
‘Mustard powder. In a yellow box.’
Nowadays he only registers the most powerful of flavours. It seems that chemical self-abuse has blasted away most of the sensitivity in his body. Once she was shocked to find him devouring jalapeño peppers out of the jar like sweets, and for months he’s been incapable of responding to her sexually, regardless of how much stroking or naked parading-about she has tried.
They’ve been together for two and a half years, but Dylan only came clean about his past a few months ago.
‘There’s something I should tell you,’ he said one night as they were eating pizza in front of the television. ‘Before I met you, I was into some heavy stuff . . . ’
‘I used to deal.’
‘And smoke crack.’
Something about the last syllable had eluded her. She’d made him repeat it. There was weed and there was ecstasy, but in her mind, crack belonged to a different order. She’d talked herself out of her disapproval, accusing herself of hypocrisy. In the days when she’d dabbled, the sallow, sinister individual in a hoodie who’d supplied her had seemed several steps closer to the cartel than Dylan ever could. Nevertheless, she’d consumed with pleasure. As for Dylan smoking crack . . . She’d made excuses for that because, well, it was Dylan.
‘I promise that’s behind me now,’ Dylan said. ‘But . . . my relationship with living, it’s always been . . . complicated.’
‘How? You breathe in and out. . . . You wake up in the morning, or you don’t . . . ’
‘The relationship hasn’t always been too good. I tried to top myself a couple of times. Years ago.’
‘I see . . . ’ Although she didn’t. She has always found deep enjoyment in being alive.
But then he’d made love to her in the way that blanked out everything except physical sensation. He could make her come as no one else ever would. He caressed her clitoris as though it were part of his body, as though he knew how it felt. As for the heaven inflicted on her nipples and thighs . . . Her pleasure, the feelings of love it engendered, and her desire to take care of him, were so overwhelming that she felt them like presences in the room.
They were happy to begin with. She still believes this, although it’s becoming harder to credit. The decline began a year ago—all his progress and self-control banished by a few strokes of fate.
His seemingly healthy father died within five minutes, sitting in an armchair. And mere weeks afterwards, Dylan’s best friend since childhood, Mike, was so destroyed by a collision that he had to be interred in his motorcycle helmet, unseen even by his parents.
In Annabeth’s own experience of grief, when she’d lost her beloved grandmother Mavis, the person who’d looked after her when her parents were working, the flow of life receded for a period, but eventually it bore her onwards. Yet Dylan remains like a branch jammed against a riverbank, refusing to let the current embrace him.
Even though she’s beginning to find living with him unbearable, Annabeth can’t yet condemn him.
She goes shopping, feeling resigned.
It’s as she’s turning a corner that she collides with a hard male chest, glimpses luminous green, smells old-fashioned eau de cologne, and looks up into a face as pale as paper and almost as smooth.
‘Sorry!’ she says, as a strong hand pulls her upright.
‘No harm done.’ The man’s eyes are cool grey-green. ‘I take it you’re all right?’ He talks in the clipped tones of 1930s British films. Ninety years behind the times.
‘Yes. Thank you.’
The man’s clone is standing next to him. The sight of them shunts her into a different sliver of reality. She wonders whether she’s blundered onto a film set, but there’s no film crew in sight.
These middle-aged twins have a great deal in common with Christmas trees. The tweed of their knickerbocker suits is pea green interwoven with scarlet and yellow, their red hair identical—short back and sides—and their features eerily similar and youthful. They appear sealed in a pact of serene self-confidence.
She can imagine what they’re seeing: the inverted triangle of her head, a pointed chin, and walnut-coloured hair which sticks up and out like a vampire’s collar.
The men turn away. ‘The rear wheel’s wobbling again,’ one says. ‘It was only repaired last week.’ Annabeth notices a tandem leaning against the window of a nearby kebab shop.
‘Never mind,’ the other replies. ‘Bound to be a silver lining.’
Hearing these words, Annabeth’s attention is even more attracted than it has been by their striking appearance. Could it be that these are people who don’t turn every setback in life into an excuse to wallow?
‘Off we go, Hector?’
The twins straighten the tandem, and in perfect symbiosis, sling their legs over it and launch off.
No sooner have the men disappeared than Annabeth begins to question what she’s seen. Is she suffering from exhaustion? Once, she’d have attributed her disorientation to drug use, but living with Dylan has taken away any taste for that kind of recreation.
After buying the items he requested, she trudges home.
They’ve spent two years in this neighbourhood of 1930s houses built for the workforce of a long-closed wallpaper factory. The first time they walked along this street, she’d expected him to be critical of the naff embellishments of decades—fake chalet shutters, dusty glass porches, flaking white picket fencing—because he was snobbish about architecture. But he’d surprised her. ‘No, babe, I like it here. They’re real homes.’
Sometimes he had a real sweetness. She was relieved; her parents, whom he still hadn’t met at that point, inhabited a bungalow disguised as a transplant from the Costa del Sol—arches, red tile roof and begonias. She finds it faintly embarrassing. Feeling apprehensive at the idea of Dylan’s first encounter with them, she’d been reassured by his liking for this neighbourhood.
‘We’re going to have a home, Bel!’ Dylan said. ‘We can do anything you like, but please—no striped canopies in shades of magenta?’
She’d laughed with joy. ‘That’s OK with me!’ She’d beamed, puffed up with love.
Not long after that, Dylan met her parents. When he arrived at the Bradshaws’ house, Annabeth and her mother were in the kitchen, Annabeth slicing tomatoes, her mother pincering fruit onto a tart, her fingernails sugary pink, her little finger crooked. Startled to hear a bang, Annabeth looked out of the window and saw Dylan’s Renault nudging backwards and forwards. With every backward shunt, his car hit the bumper of the old Ford parked behind it.
Annabeth rushed outside. It was a sweltering day, and Dylan’s hair, usually a dashing ebony wave above his forehead, was drooping. His handsome face seemed to have received a subcutaneous dusting of chalk.
At last, the car parked, Dylan had half-fallen out of it. There was a miasma of alcohol around him. He’s drunk! Annabeth thought. Poor Dylan! He must be so tense . . .
‘I can’t see any damage,’ he said, circumnavigating the Ford.
‘Lucky! It’s our neighbour’s. He’s on holiday.’ She’d been about to murmur words of encouragement when her parents appeared.
Annabeth’s father, Richard, balding and sunburnt, greeted Dylan with the same air of benevolence and weariness which he bestowed on everyone and led him inside the house. ‘It’s good to put a face to the name.’
Annabeth’s mother, Diandra, tight-haired in a pink cotton twinset, smiled one of her small, crimped smiles.
‘Let me get you a beer.’ Richard reached out to slap Dylan on the back, but as he stepped closer, he froze. ‘Or a soft drink?’
‘Beer’s fine, thanks. I, erm, bumped into a car when I was trying to park.’
‘Mr Thomas’s Ford,’ Annabeth explained.
Richard turned down his lips into a half-moon. ‘Write a note and I’ll stick it under Mr Thomas’s door.’
He produced paper and a pen and handed them to Dylan. A struggle ensued, the biro going its own way at every opportunity, but at last the note was written.
‘I nearly forgot.’ Dylan wiped his drenched forehead with his sleeve and pulled a box of chocolates out of his rucksack. ‘For you,’ he said to Diandra, steadying his proffering hand with the other as though trying to coax a ball bearing around a game of skill.
He’s in such a state! Annabeth said to herself. Poor Dylan . . .
Diandra, who spent most of her time keeping trim and flab-shaming Richard, despised chocolate, people who ate chocolate, and people who gifted chocolate. She accepted the box gingerly and deposited it on the sideboard.
Meanwhile, Dylan’s eyes were busy, flickering around the room as though casing the joint. ‘Nice fake flowers! My mum likes carnations.’
‘They’re not fake and they’re not carnations. They’re a rather special breed of rose,’ Diandra snipped. ‘Victorian Halo. Annabeth, look after your guest.’ Visible through the door from the hallway, she went back to pinching fruit onto her tart, each slice of kiwi and sliver of peach being forced to inflict violence on its neighbours, oozes of gore appearing in the form of interspersed maraschino cherries.
Before that day, Annabeth had mainly seen the smooth metropolitan socialiser who lived inside Dylan’s skin, and only rarely the inadequate overgrown boy, but that day, something had flipped. She pulled Dylan into the alcove where Diandra displayed her collection of Wedgwood plates. ‘It would have been better if you’d stayed off the booze . . . Or have you taken something?’
‘Both. I needed them. It’s a big day, meeting your family. Scary.’
‘Mum is scary. And touchy. ”Nice fake flowers”?!’
‘Let’s go into the garden, shall we?’ Richard said, appearing next to them. He led them outside, settled them in the shade of a sun umbrella printed with tropical fruit, and handed Dylan a bowl of peanuts. ‘So . . . you trained as a surveyor, but you ended up in insurance? Yet you say you’re interested in journalism? You seem to have jumped about a bit . . . ’
Dylan shrugged. ‘Just the way life works out sometimes, isn’t it?’
‘Let’s eat something . . . ’ Annabeth interrupted, and steered Dylan towards the picnic table. But the more she tried to persuade him to eat, the more alcohol he downed.
Richard left them to poke burgers at the bottom of the garden, frowning at the grilling meat as though it were infested with maggots. Annabeth carried a tray of buns over to him. From the vantage point of the barbecue, Dylan seemed small, dishevelled, and solitary.
‘Anxious type, is he, your Dylan?’
‘Where’d you say you met him?’
‘At a party, Dad.’
Dylan had displayed interest in her rather than demanding that she be interested in him—a rarity. Before she’d known it, they were dancing. The next day they’d visited a gallery where he’d demonstrated understanding of the artists’ techniques—stippling and scumbling, gesso and glazing. A couple of outings later, and he’d served her homemade sushi with a delicious sauce of his own devising, all the while revealing himself to be the good listener whom she’d assumed to be mythical—gazing at her with his big chocolate eyes and nodding as she complained about her mother. She’d always suspected that if she met a man who was empathetic, well-informed, a good cook, and sexy, she’d lose herself.
On that baking afternoon in the garden, there was an intentness about her father as he wielded his tongs. ‘Bloody hell. He can put them away, can’t he? And he’s a bit vague about what he does.’
The one great achievement of Richard’s life, apart from surviving thirty years of marriage to Annabeth’s mother, has been securing relative financial security. ‘It’s old-fashioned of me, but when a bloke says he wants to spend his life with my daughter, I want to be reassured he’s a good bet.’
‘He’s between jobs, Dad. He can’t help it that his company’s made him redundant.’
‘Hm. Well, you don’t have to go through with anything. Your mum and I’ll support you, whatever you decide. There’s a word for it,’ Richard said with sadness. ‘It starts with “S” and goes on “T” and “U” and “P” . . . ’
‘No, Dad, it starts with “L” and goes on “O” and “V”.’
That was the moment when if there’d been any chance of Annabeth turning back, the road was pulled up, the satnav smashed, the car as destroyed as if a ton of concrete had fallen onto it. She bade goodbye to her family and stalked out to the car, dragging Dylan with her.
‘I’m sorry, babe,’ Dylan said. ‘I’ve let you down.’
‘You didn’t mean to. I love you, Dylan. That’s all that matters.’
Relations between Annabeth and her parents haven’t recovered, and now that they’ve been proved right, Annabeth has no plans to speak to them again. Lately, she’s wondered whether she’d still be with Dylan if her drive to thwart Diandra hadn’t been so strong.
At any rate, she and Dylan won’t be living in this neighbourhood much longer; his manager caught him swigging from a bottle of brandy, and Dylan walked away from any aspiration to a conventional life. Annabeth wonders: Was it a fantasy that they were going to get married and have children? She never understood the concept of bewildered paralysis until now.
‘Have you done any job applications?’ she asks. So that Dylan doesn’t feel antagonised by her scrutiny, she busies herself, squeezing a handful of escaped stuffing back under the rust-red fabric of a chair. It takes her a moment to realise that he’s staring at a motor-racing programme on television, his eyes the sole parts of him to show any life as they follow the cars around the track.
Where has Dylan gone? She feels so lonely living with this almost-stranger that she might as well be on the shore whilst he’s in the ocean. Or vice versa.
All day every day, the same questions circle her mind, a whirlpool tugging her under: where has that keen, acerbic amateur book reviewer and film critic, humorous poet, tender bedmate and styler of glossy black hair gone? How can a personality dismantle itself like this?
Once he’d heckle politicians on the news. Now his eyes just blink. He’d commentate during cookery programmes—‘Tell the viewers to start with the eggs at room temperature!’ But he’s become so indifferent to any food other than his mouth-demolishing favourites, she can scarcely credit that he used to enjoy good restaurants.
‘I get it,’ she says. ‘Most people would struggle if they had to deal with two major bereavements in a short period.’ She tries to infuse her voice with extra sympathy. ‘But you’ve got to fight this. It’s like you’re sinking into a swamp and making me watch you.’
Dylan shakes his head. ‘I’m tired of fighting my own nature. You need to get it into your skull that I’m a different type of person from you.’
‘But you can’t just give up.’
‘Why can’t I? I’ve got the right to choose what to do with my own existence. Or does your belief in freedom only extend to other people, other people’s sexuality, other people’s facile opinions?’
Now, this sounds more like Dylan speaking. She feels a flare of hope. Although not for long. She used to feel enraged when their conversations went this way, used to feel tempted to strike him, anything to penetrate his carapace. Now it takes little to make her feel depleted.
‘Other people may think life’s a rose garden with an occasional shadow passing over it. For me, it’s a pit full of thorns with the odd glimmer of sun—always as fleeting as lightning.’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake! Why can’t you take that offer of counselling? You’re drinking because you’re depressed, and you’re depressed because you’re drinking. Find a different way to deal with your pain.’
‘But I enjoy drinking.’
‘So do I, but you don’t have to pickle yourself in it. If you’re that determined to kill yourself, why don’t you do it in a quicker, more pleasant way?’ She rues the words even as they leave her mouth.
‘You don’t know what it’s like being me.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like being me! If you knew you were going to give up as soon as problems came along, you shouldn’t have let me believe we had a future.’
‘Well, babe, feel sorry for yourself if it helps.’
‘And don’t call me “babe”. I’m sick of it!’
Annabeth storms into the kitchen to put away the shopping and slam cupboard doors. Her eyes fall on a box of matches. She feels like setting Dylan alight. Just to make him value his life.
No sooner has she put away the last tin than a jewel-like flash of parakeet green passes the kitchen window, as if a flock of jungle birds has been shot out of a cannon. It’s them! The tandem is disappearing behind a parked car, its owners’ hair gleaming in the sun like vermilion coins. A shiny image lingers on her retina.
The next morning Annabeth is jogging out of the park when she sees the bird-of-paradise twins standing next to their tandem. The sight of them is so arresting that she stops dead and gazes.
They’re rearranging shopping in the tandem’s basket; a baguette is threatening to fall onto the pavement. One of the men snaps it in half and folds it back into the basket.
She nears them. ‘I . . . ’ Annabeth fishes around in her brain. What does she want to say? Help me to turn my life from dreariness into vibrancy. Lend me some of your courage. You must have courage to look so unusual. I need bravery to free myself.
‘Can we help you?’ one of the men asks.
There are words poised on her tongue, but they stay fettered. She gives up. ‘Nice tandem.’
‘Thank you.’ The man turns back to his twin. ‘Shall we make a move, Hector?’
Once again, they make their escape into the sunshine. Annabeth feels buoyed by the sight even as she’s frustrated by their elusiveness.
Two days later, Annabeth is leaving the supermarket when she spots the twins walking along the road. They look incomplete without their tandem, and something about their gait suggests that they’re unaccustomed to the impact of their feet upon the pavement.
Before she’s realised what she’s doing, Annabeth begins to follow them. She keeps her pace steady, her footsteps quiet. When one of the twins stoops to lace up his brogue, she conceals herself behind a parked van and only re-emerges when the man is moving again.
She can’t even explain to herself why she’s so interested in these people; it must be the unexpected way they’ve burst into her life, so dazzling and different from everyone else she knows.
They enter a house. Annabeth stops at the front gate and considers the façade. With even a little thought, she could have known that this was where they lived; it’s the only building on the estate which has never been altered. The windows are still thin glass in 1930s metal frames, and in the garden blowsy roses are blooming.
She glimpses an austere interior—a couple of framed prints stand out against sombre brown wallpaper. The mantelpiece is bare apart from an antique clock.
She moves on, reminding herself that it’s rude to stare at people’s houses; but from then on, she passes the twins’ home at every opportunity, inventing justifications, and finds herself slipping into reveries, particularly whenever an evening has passed without a comprehensible word from Dylan.
Hector and Noel, listening to soothing music on an old-fashioned wireless, eating buttered crumpets in front of a log fire. Autumn: The wheels of their tandem scattering crisp leaves across the road. Their silences are harmonious. There’s no self-ruination, no cruel obliviousness . . .
Her musings about them meander in all sorts of ludicrous directions. Do they argue? Do they work online from a bedroom? Have they taken early retirement? Are they secret millionaires with a penchant for small houses?
She doesn’t fancy them, but she begins to derive more and more aesthetic pleasure from the pure, straight lines of their appearance. Do they have sex lives? If they have had sex lives, were they a source of pleasure and joy, or did irresistible sensations allow them to be lured into temporary catastrophe? Have they ever bounced back from true adversity, even tragedies, and if so, how did they accomplish it?
You’re being ridiculous! Annabeth scolds herself. Developing bizarre fixations on complete strangers. But she’d rather think about almost anything else other than Dylan and the conundrum of what to do about him.
Who’s going to look after him if she walks out? Social services? He hasn’t got anybody else. He’s made his choice, and it’s not her. But it’s so hard to doom somebody she’s loved, somebody who used to be so good to her . . .
Where does the line between self-sacrifice and self-abasement lie? When does constancy stop being a virtue and become a vice? Wherever the limits are, she crossed them some time ago.
One morning, crumbs of loving pity inspire her to make the kind of all-day breakfast which Dylan used to relish. Perhaps she can lure him back into a few moments of the real day via his stomach.
‘Do you remember how we used to walk in the park on Saturday mornings?’ she says. ‘We’d chase each other around the rhododendron bushes, giggling like kids. Then we’d eat brunch at The Dog And Duck and spend the rest of the day digesting and making love!’ She feels like an aged widow looking back on the distant joys of another lifetime. ‘You’ve got to hang on to those memories, Dylan.’
‘Whatever.’ This blunt abnegation of everything that they were cuts her like a razor. But she reminds herself that the important thing isn’t her pride, it’s his well-being.
She opens the window to banish his smell. When she turns back, he seems to be asleep. ‘Wakey-wakey! Don’t let the food get cold.’ She nudges him, astonished to feel a burning thrust of rage. ‘Are you listening, Dylan?’ He rolls over, turning his back to her. ‘I want to see you making active gestures within a week, or I’m leaving. And take a shower. You stink!’
His eyes crinkle, and she catches a spark of the man she fell in love with an aeon ago. But then his lip curls. A dog about to bite. ‘Always fucking nagging me about something!’ His bared teeth and hostile eyes expel her from the room.
Returning home from a walk, she finds Dylan drinking beer, the breakfast coagulated. Where did he get the alcohol from? There was none in the house when she went out. He can’t pull himself together enough to interact with her or to apply for a job, but he can manage to walk to the off-licence. That gets to her in a way that the long months of gradual withdrawal have failed to do.
As she’s clearing away the food, chewing the cold tomatoes and melancholy little sausages, she sees them—the two vivid shapes shooting past on the road outside. The sky is overcast, darkening their fluorescent jungle-frog green into emerald. Look how speedy they are! She flings open the front door and runs outside. The twins have barrelled along so fast that now they’re a dot at the end of the street. She imagines herself shouting, ‘Wait for me!,’ running after them, sprinting until she’s gasping for breath.
But she doesn’t move. It’s enough to have seen them. They’ve lifted her spirits. And she makes a decision. As soon as she can afford it, she’s going to buy herself a bicycle and bring some of the thrill of their velocity into her own life.
She spends the next day clearing out the wardrobes in the bedroom which Dylan no longer shares with her. Wedged into crevices, in a newspaper rack, behind storage boxes under the bed, in a hollow behind a cupboard, she discovers hidden stashes of booze and berates herself. Did this disaster actually start before Mike’s motorcycle crash and Charlie’s coronary, like a creeping mould undermining the integrity of a structure before it’s noticed? Or a cancer which only makes itself felt in its final stages? Is she just an unperceptive, gullible fool? Was her own judgment ever worth trusting?
She waves two empty vodka bottles in front of Dylan. His face is dissolving like a specimen kept too long in a bottle. ‘Look at these!’
She waits, hoping for one last time that he’ll come out with some reprimand about the banality of her observations, any remark at all to prove that some remnant of Dylan is still there. But nothing comes. This must be what it’s like to deal with certain forms of dementia. She’s about to leave the room when she spies a burger from two days before, lying under the sofa.
On Saturday, Annabeth spends the afternoon extracting dandelions from the garden. With every weed unrooted, she repeats under her breath: I’m going to extract Dylan from my life. Or extract myself from his . . . like one of these dandelions . . .
The chant is working. She’s going to tell him soon, she’s going to yank the agonising words out of herself and throw them at him. But she can’t bear to do it yet, can’t bear to surrender her very last threadbare shred of hope that he’ll reform himself. Today is not the day.
It’s time to walk past Hector and Noel’s house and see what they’re up to. The weather has changed with disconcerting swiftness, and it’s become a hot day.
She pictures them in their garden, having tea from a proper teapot with flowers painted on it.
‘First rate, this brew.’
‘Agreed. As for this sponge . . . Just like Mother used to make.’
There’s something so nourishing about her little Hector-Noel daydreams. She has no evidence that they’re particularly happy. It’s just tempting to imagine they are. Right now, at her self-pitying nadir, she feels as though most people in the world must be happier than she is.
They’re on their lawn, sitting on folding wooden chairs, one of them perusing a newspaper, the other smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. The scene appears a bucolic dream. And by now she can tell them apart: the middle of one of Hector’s eyebrows has a slash of ginger across it, and Noel’s jaw is a little rounder.
Taking her time, she passes the house, reaches the end of the street, and returns. Just as she’s approaching for the third time, the twins stride up to their front gate.
‘May we have a word with you?’ Hector says.
Share our afternoon, they may say. And our fresh scones. We won’t ignore or insult you, won’t spend all our time gazing into cans of beer or being semi-comatose and revolting.
‘We’ve been trying to be open-minded about the situation,’ Noel says, ‘but it strikes us that only individuals who are plagued by serious personal problems are in the habit of following strangers home from Tesco.’ His expression is as neutral as ever, his voice not unpleasant.
Suddenly Annabeth’s throat is dry.
‘Clearly, you have issues which need addressing,’ Hector says. ‘So, we recommend that rather than lurking about our doorstep, you address them. It would be ghastly if one day we were to feel obliged to involve the police . . . ’
Processing the meaning of the words is like having a hot poker thrust through her head. Annabeth’s face turns as livid as though she’s been plunged into a furnace. Oh my God. They think I’m a stalker! I’m not a stalker! Am I? Am I a stalker? My God, I’m a stalker!
She speed-walks away without looking back. She didn’t know such a depth of mortification existed.
The twins are right. She’s going to burst through the front door and tell Dylan it’s over.
Yet, when she gets home, Dylan is not on the sofa. It takes a moment to comprehend that he’s gone. As is her handbag. And the back door of the house is standing open.
She finds a note. “I never want to see you again, you stupid fucking cow. Don’t bother looking for me. I never loved you.”
She doesn’t believe that, but it’s irrelevant. As is the fact that he may have done this to make things easier for her.
She cancels her bank cards.
A week later, the tandem bursts out of a side road and whistles past her.
She hopes their speed has prevented the twins from noticing her. But in that moment, her eyes struck by their brilliance and energy, she feels a sudden confidence. A shimmer of hope. A feeling which she’d almost forgotten.
She’s going to get back to a semblance of the person she used to be. She’s going to let their green glow be her inspiration.