She is a blurred Madonna, hovering like smoke in slanted light. Has she come to save me? he wonders. Is this the end?
He is in bed, an old man with photographs he can no longer make out. He is sitting, propped up in the late afternoon, when she first appears.
He sees well enough to know she is young, perhaps in her twenties, and that he does not recognise her. She reminds him of someone, but he quickly chastises himself for being delusional. She smiles at him as he thinks this, and he wonders if she can see through the glass of his failing eyes. He wants to know why she is there, but she never says, although she offers many answers.
He waits for her to introduce herself…but no; so he calls her Maria, just in case. She seems to accept this, which makes him think again. He blinks, rubbing what eyes he has.
She is still there.
His reflexes click in. “Autograph?” he asks, feeling for the pen on his bedside. He is used to well wishers and their signature seeking visits.
She smiles again, and he understands that just as she is a stranger to him, so he is not yet the branded him to her.
“You’re not a journalist, are you?” he interrogates. He has been stung before, yet still he welcomes the attention. A few more sales would be nice too.
“No,” she tells him, shaking her head languidly, which sends a slender beam of light through him.
He is confused and is compelled to ask, “Are you working for the church?”
“No,” she says simply. “I’m just here.”
Her answer charms him. “In which case, take a seat.”
She accepts, making the frame of his favourite lounge chair, which he no longer uses, creak sharply. This breaks the ice.
“Don’t take it personally,” he urges her with a wispy but still raised eyebrow. “It’s old. Rather like me.”
She surprises him by saying, “Even I feel old sometimes.” He laughs but she insists. “It’s true.”
“I’m certain it is,” he concedes, smiling still. “I was older at twenty-four than I am now.” The irony of it thrills him: the young are so old, the old are so young. At least in his case.
She wants to know. “So, how old are you now?”
He teases her. “I stopped counting.”
He hates his age, loathes being left in a room with memories as sharp as pins. His heart still shapes for the fight, but the towel is routinely thrown these days. She is yet another impossibility, plain and simple. Time has taken care of that. Her splendour, therefore, has a bittersweet fizz, the sharpness of lemon juice. She is so nearly reachable, an arm’s length away, yet not. Again, he is reminded.
Almost aloud, he thinks, is this my chance?
He squints at her, scrutinising, but she has no idea. She has her hands between her knees, leaning forward, laughing. He sees in this gesture precisely how the scene will be written, and he accepts his part in it.
“Do you ever get lonely?” she asks.
“I have a good memory,” he says, by way of an answer.
“And what do you remember most?”
He peers into the miasma that surrounds him a little harder, straining for details, but there is only one clear answer. “Being in love.”
It is evening, after the dinner trays have been cleared, and he is arguing with his television. “It soaks up the silence,” he tells anyone who wants to know.
He is not expecting visitors, he never is, so the sight of her standing six feet away startles him out of his vespertine diatribe. He lurches into a practiced apology but is stopped by her wide, energetic smile, which he finds weirdly beatific.
She has one of his books in her hand, which she waves above him. She is saying she has read it and loved it, a fact he finds vaguely disappointing.
“It’s quite romantic,” she reports after a while.
He is both surprised and impressed. Hardly anyone reads this in him. He is better known for his violence and darkness. “In spite of appearances,” he says, “everything I ever wrote was a love story. Quite predictable really.”
“Is that why you stopped writing?”
“I never stopped writing,” he answers. “I simply became unpublishable.”
She laughs, impressed by his spirit, still seeking to engage, and by his way with words, which unknots her. Strange, she thinks, but she feels more herself in this cosy, low lit room, his hideout, his cell, than in the house she currently shares with a newly formed and unavoidably besotted couple.
“I’m not romantic at all,” she says, which he instantly takes to be a ruse or a warning.
“How tragic,” he replies.
“It’s just that I can see exactly how it always ends. Quite predictable really.”
He laughs hard, enough to make him cough, and for his already gauzy vision to shimmer a little more. “Are you psychic or just cynical?” he asks her when he recovers.
“Neither,” she says softly.
He begins to wonder again if she might be the Virgin in beguiling form, or some other reincarnated beauty. In his condition, it is hard to know. Her visit, which appears to have no reason, is like a page from one of his books; two souls stranded on either side of a river that even miracles cannot bridge. He is the bleary old gent, she the troubled young woman. As he looks at her she glows in his space, a source of white light, like a killer closing line.
“It’s just the way things seem, that’s all,” she says, with a faint trace of remaining innocence, which he inhales deeply.
“Delicious vapour,” he wants to say, but doesn’t.
“Enjoying singledom, are we?” he asks aloud before he can catch the thought.
To his surprise, she answers instead of evading. “Just for now, I think it’s best that way.”
“Then so it is,” he agrees. He too knows about what is best, so there is no argument. The TV chatters and they are both still, his thoughts drifting back in time.
She is next to speak. “Do you think it’s just random that we met?”
He responds instantly. “No, you chose my door rather than the next one.”
“Do you think I chose your door by accident?”
He wants to know what she is getting at. “I’m not sure. Did you?”
She ponders. “I thought so at the time.”
This pricks up his ears, engages his every sense. He finds himself enjoying the role into which he has been abruptly cast. Is this the part God has written for him, his closing scene with Maria? He feels as though he has woken in the midst of an abstract tryst, much like one of his famously disheveled male leads. (He was always a well dressed gentleman himself.)
“Have you been sent?” he questions her.
“Not for your autograph,” she smiles.
“Good thing. My hands are too weak for signing today,” he explains.
Her response is to lean forward and brush the knobbled fingers of his withered hand. “I’m sorry,” she breathes, and for the first time he is convinced she is real, not merely a vision.
It sharpens him, but he does not know why. “Indeed, they all say that,” he notes, with just a little arsenic.
She knows what he is thinking, understands how he is assessing her in this moment. It forces her backwards. She feels argumentative, a tension in her throat like strangling. It is her automatic response to anything that makes her seem ordinary, not special. She is not fully conscious of this selfish quirk in her make up, this defence, or that it makes her hard to know.
“I feel undermined,” she declares. “By everything,” she adds, covering up.
“So, that’s why you chose my door?”
He makes a joke out of it, hoping to make it allowable, but she does not laugh. For a moment he thinks she must be mad, an escapee. A girl with a Madonna complex.
“I was looking for someone,” she says.
He knows about that as well and guesses that it is better not to ask; but she wants to tell him. In a roundabout way. She searches him for traces and, being a proud man, he automatically runs his hands through his snowy tendrils.
“When I was a girl,” she continues, “I was once shown a picture of God.”
The apparently deliberate enigma of it strikes a chord in him. “And I thought shaving off the beard would keep me safe,” he banters, hoping to calm a sudden crest of nerves.
She laughs brightly and, in a beat, her angles are smoothed. “Your book really inspired me,” she tells him directly. “It showed me something of myself.”
“Pleased to hear it.”
“I wanted to ask you, are you as cynical as your narrator?”
Again, he laughs hard, enduring yet another minute or so of coughing, before saying, “Precisely the opposite. I’m very much a believer.” He is not joking this time, however, and says it in way that makes this clear. People have always misread him.
She is amazed, and wonders if he is telling the truth. She starts to think that maybe she missed something between his tightly drawn lines.
“So, this book is pure supposition then,” she surmises.
He thinks carefully before answering. “Every word.”
“You had me fooled.”
“The truth is often revealed by its shadow,” he tells her. “Fact and fiction are like a pair of volatile lovers in that respect.”
She enjoys his explanation. Its archaic riddle entices her. She tries to imagine him not in his bed, but walking, running around, writing his stories, loving this one and that.
He feels the young man burgeoning inside his skin, the one now incarcerated behind ribs of cinders. He has used up the lion share of his days, and for once there is no time, just this second…and a girl he has no idea about in his room.
She has to ask him, “What would you say to someone like your narrator?”
She shifts her weight and plays with her hair, buying time; but she says it anyway, although she finds it difficult. “Being in love.”
He counts the days for a while, then stops. It is then that she appears; on a weekday morning, just as the tea is being wheeled around. He already has his cup in his hands, enjoying the warmth.
The first thing he notices is her smell, not that of a nurse, possibly that of an ethereal being. He is not sure what scent the Madonna would wear but hers seems like a good candidate. It fills the cavities in his chest and soul.
She brings the world into his room by default, the abundance of everything tagging along. Yet all the while, her movements are strict, economic, and the old chair protests insolently once more as she takes her seat, this time a little closer.
He can feel the weight of her hand on the edge of his bed, and he sighs for two reasons. The obvious, and the realisation that the heart ultimately takes whatever it can get. A tired grunt becomes a sigh. A simple morning a story of forever. In the deep of the existential evening, anything is possible.
She has read more. “I knew there was something about you,” she tells him, and it sounds like victory.
Wondering if this is damnation or recognition, he asks, “Does that mean you’ve worked out who I am?”
She doubts it very much, but that does not stop her speculating. She is on a mission, questing for something, not knowing what, but believing she will find out when she stumbles upon it. She is searching him now, sifting through the multiple lives he has created, probing the cracks in his edifice of words.
“I think I get you, that’s all,” she says finally.
“Don’t be misled by fiction,” he warns her, and he means it.
“All the best truth is in stories,” she responds, which he already knows.
“And the best lies seem the most honest.”
“True,” she says, “but God can see past all that.”
He lets this idea percolate for a few seconds, half expecting a vision of the cross to appear at the foot of his bed. “What about you?” he asks. “Can you see past them?”
She laughs briefly but, knowing things are serious, adjusts her tone. “When you say that everything you ever wrote was a love story, I think that what you were really saying is that all those characters of yours were hanging on for a miracle to save them from themselves.”
He is not sure that answers the question but before he can say so, she is adding, “It’s incredibly self seeking, isn’t it? Like some juvenile wish fulfillment thing.”
He searches out her eyes in the mist, trying on what he hopes is a smile. “Still single, are we?”
It is meant to cut…and it does.
“What makes you so sure that?” She sounds a little upset. The blade has scored, a line of blood wells up in drops.
He answers simply. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
There is a period of quiet, during which she fidgets. At one point she gets up and prepares to leave.
“Tell me,” he calls out, “why do you think you’re here?”
This is a multi-layered question, and he holds his next breath. “To find out,” is her answer.
He is quick to react. “If?”
She smiles, liking the fact that he did not ask ‘what?’. She walks back over to his bed, leans closer. “If you could say something to make me believe.”
Her words burn a hole through him, and an ancient ache resurfaces in his chest, but he decides not to speak of it. “Some things you can’t believe until they’re real,” he informs her. “Love is very much like God and death in that respect.”
“Don’t you believe in God?” she asks, and he catches himself. He has read about the little tests that God sets men in their final hours, and even though he is starting to believe that this is not one of them, he cannot be sure. At his age you can never know who your next visitor will be.
“Perhaps you could say something to make me believe,” he responds, playing it safe.
The tightness in the room evaporates, just as if a test had been passed, and they are both chuckling, the philosophical ping pong game over before match point.
“Maybe I could,” she says. Pointedly, she does not.
Instead, she asks again about the cynicism in his books, and he tells her it helped them sell. She is not satisfied, though. He can tell by the way she shifts on her feet.
“What is it that you want me to say to you?” he asks, thinking that now he will have at least part of his answer.
“Tell me a story,” she says.
“True or false?” he wonders.
“Whatever you think is best.”
Once more he is reminded, and he becomes half convinced that maybe she might be the spectre of the girl who first tested him, the one he could never bring himself to use in his writing. The likeness makes up his mind. Eventually, there is a time for every story.
“I was cynical once, when I was twenty-four and feeling very old. In those days a lot of people my age were already married and having children, but I had never done more than lust after every woman I ever knew. When I heard people talk about being in love I assumed they meant a kind of overpowering desire to which they had simply become addicted. Of course, I had no idea about these emotions, I was merely projecting my own ignorance onto them and feeling dreadfully sorry for myself. Like you, I was not romantic in the least. And then, in a few seconds, not much more, something, everything changed.
“A young lady who was working as a cleaner for the practice I’d just joined had dyed her hair. Auburn, I think. I complimented her, we exchanged pleasantries and somehow…there was this incredible tenderness in the air, like a moment of recognition, or revelation. There was not even a hint of it in the words we spoke, and yet I felt it in the way my breathing slowed, saw it in the way she held my gaze for the faintest second longer.
“Naturally, I did nothing about it, nor she…but several weeks later I was involved in an accident that kept me from work for a few days, and upon my return she knocked on my office door. I turned to find her looking at me in way I had never known anyone else attempt. She asked me a simple question, ‘are you alright?’ but she said it with such care that I was…bowled over.
“After that, she came close and inspected the bruises that were still black on my neck. The feel of her fingers. Like healing.
“Anyway, it was late in the day, and as both of us had nearly finished our work, she accepted my offer to walk her to her train.
“It was first time we ever spent more than a few minutes together, yet by the time I watched her board that train, I was a different man.
“Of course, nothing came of it. In those days girls like her never imagined that boys like me could possibly be interested in anything more than illicit fun. The prince and the chambermaid, so to speak. Before long, she found employment elsewhere, and although I had my chances, I never asked.
“After that I used to see her everywhere. She was like my own private Madonna, appearing when I most needed to believe. An apparition of something more. In fact, I still see her. She hovers in the corners even now; and I long for her touch.”
He leans back against his pillows, exhausted, too emotional for a man in his condition. She is holding her breath, wondering where the story ends.
“I may have failed my first test of love,” he explains, “but my heart has never been silent since.”
He knows that she will appear one more time, for like the contrived symmetry in stories, it must be so. In poetry, everything is as it should be, fated to be lovely.
Many years ago he had shared a fourth vignette with the cleaning lady, a few snatched moments in the streets of a busy town. It was raining, he recalls, and they had both taken shelter under the same eaves.
“I’m engaged to be married,” he had told her. He was lying, building a wall against her eyes.
“So am I,” she mirrored, and it looked to him like the truth.
They talked while it rained, and when the tears of winter finally dried, they parted. Before she left he shook her hand and said “thank you” and when she asked him “for what?” he replied, “For showing me how to believe.”
She merely raised her eyebrows and smiled faintly, and to this day he is not sure if it was a shy gesture or a wrinkle of wisdom.
A second later he walked off into his life of fiction, of gin-soaked wives, desperate husbands and secretive children, and she into the perfection of the unknown. A kind of fame came his way, and with it the false friends and loss of self. His loves too came and went like success, and, at dusk, he found himself alone in a room.
That is, until she came along. His out of focus angel.
She will be here soon, he is thinking. She will form out of clouds, like a figure approaching in fog, and then he will know for sure.
Only then will he earn the right to tell her story, and he will do so by finally confessing his. And only then will all the impossibilities melt away, all the barriers of faith and circumstance.
With his eyes straining for the last of the light, he scratches with his pen on the title page of one of his books:
All these words have kept us apart because they have soaked up the silence left behind by a single unutterable syllable.