Short Story of the Month
Let Her Go by Maggie Ling
Our featured Short Story of the Month is ‘Let Her Go’ by Maggie Ling.
Illusory boundaries, previously respected by a holidaying couple, begin to break down when, watching her husband emerging from the sea, the wife picks up an urgent call on his mobile phone and looks back over the years of misplaced love.
Previously a children’s book illustrator, a humorous illustrator and a cartoonist, Maggie Ling has since swapped dip pen for iMac to concentrate on words alone. Her short stories have been Commended by The Bristol Short Story Prize and Words & Women Inaugural Prize, longlisted by Cinnamon Press, Fish Publishing, Ink Tears and the Asham Award, shortlisted by Mslexia, for Ikley Literature Festival’s Short Story Competition, The Asham Award and the Bridport Prize, and published in Unthology 1 (Unthank Books 2010), the Asham Award-winning ghost story collection Something Was There (Virago 2011) and Unthology 5 (Unthank Books 2014).
Abandoning London to live for a decade on the Suffolk Coast, she recently moved to Norwich, a UNESCO City of Literature.
Let Her Go
Your head is just breaking the water when I hear that tedious new ring tone of yours – mercifully muffled by your beach towel. Do you have to bring your phone to the beach? I moaned that morning, We are supposed to be on holiday. You know what it’s like, you’d said, Someone might need a quick comment, a quotable line. I can never be totally out of touch.
What liars we are.
I let that awful, tinkly, tinny tune go through several more ring cycles – less painful, less drawn out than Wagner at least – watch your sea-slicked seal head rise up, watch you turn to look back to the vast expanse of ocean, unwilling to leave this element that is so much your own. Torso fully exposed, now, you wade a few steps, stop once more, turn once more, hands on hips, back to me, looking back. Reluctant to face the deserted beach, no doubt. Your ‘flipper’ feet unwilling to make contact with the desiccated land, unwilling to rejoin the landlubber lying here waiting for you. Although, looking back myself, haven’t I always been the fish out of water.
The caller persistent, I decide to do the unthinkable. Rules, they say, are made to be broken. Though you and I have always prided ourselves on our mindfulness of rules. The concern we have for each other. The boundaries we respect. We have, you could say, made it a rule: a stick with which to measure our so-called easy-going, independent spirits; one we need not beat ourselves up with, since we do stick to the rules. No wishy-washy one-for all, all-for-one sentimentality for us. Oh no. We respect each other’s privacy, each other’s bank accounts, each other’s digital interactions. We two of the Me/Myself/I generation honour each other’s individuality. We are good at holding on while letting go. It was you who coined that arsehole, oxymoron of a phrase. Except, I seem to remember, you said You are good at holding on while letting go. It was back in the days when I was fool enough to take this as some kind of compliment.
I am unmuffling your smothered Blackberry from its multi-coloured cocoon when it comes to me: Who would bother to call, rather than to text you? No one calls you now – except me. And you and I both know I don’t count. All manner of correspondence done, arrangements made with all and sundry, without a single word said by you, heard by me. Who, I ask myself, would be this persistent? Who would feel a need for such urgency? And, suddenly, in spite of having no warning signs, no reason to expect it, I know who is making the call, know why she is making it.
Meanwhile you are, quite literally, dragging your feet across the sand. Dry land already tiring, already tiresome to you. So much effort a body must make just to stay afloat on boring old dry land.
Yes, Izzy, Louise is saying, She’s gone. Too late to do anything. Can I speak to him? Is he there?
He’s here now, I say. Louise! I tell you, as droplets of seawater drip from your hair to dot my oily thighs. Lingering there, they remind me of those little golden domes of plastic that keep dropping off the insides of our kitchen unit doors. And I notice several extraneous pubic hairs have escaped my home-waxing treatment. Notice pink pinprick spots left by my home-waxing treatment. While you demand details from Louise: time, place, time before the ambulance arrived. Ask what more might have been done, say what should have been done, who could, should be blamed, sued, shouted at. You appear to almost blame Louise for not being there earlier – she who is there every Saturday afternoon. You exercise your phenomenal powers of outrage, while showing not one smidgen of sorrow.
He’s in shock, I tell myself.
Bye then, sweetheart, you say, Chin up!
And dropping the phone, you reach for the towel and energetically rub your hair with it. Before, sitting down, garish towel around your neck, you stare out to sea, where, I imagine, you would rather be.
While I stare at your profile: the one to which some of that rugged youthfulness still clings. Has, according to you, recently returned. And though loath to admit it, I have to admit it: You do look younger. You see! you’ve said. You were right, love. It is never too late. Forty-nine doesn’t have to mean you’re over the hill. A bit of abstinence can really have an effect. I should have listened to you years ago. Why didn’t you then? Why wait? Why wait until now? As if I didn’t know.
I suppose at this point a wife should hug her husband, should comfort him in his distress. But then at this point a husband should look distressed. Should even manage to say to his best beloved, Are you OK, love. Bit of a shock, eh?
I should’ve had a few more words with poor Louise, I say to fill the silence, Back there. Coping on her own.
Oh, you know my sister. She’s a coper par excellence. Always has been. Nothing much fazes Louise.
Not even death? I think. Surely death has a way of fazing us all. Is that not its main purpose in life? To scare us into living – after the grief has passed.
We’d better get back to the hotel! I say, standing up.
You remain lying there. Lying quite still. As still as death. Your eyes looking up at me, you look, dare I say it, somewhat bemused. Pack up? your expression seems to say, Why? We’ve only one day left.
The funeral won’t be for ten days or more, you say, unmoved, not moving.
But seeing her? I say. And Louise? The preparations? We can’t carry on as if nothing has happened.
One day, you say. One day! Don’t worry, I’ll do my bit when I get back.
And you proceed to stretch out your newly slimmed down torso, flex your freshly toned arms, hook your well-manicured hands, with their beautifully buffed fingernails, beneath your head, and, sunglasses in place, stare up at the blue sky for all the world as if you are on holiday.
How will this pan out now? I ask myself. Now that the woman you loved the most, hated the most, is no more. Who will be next in line for your troubled heart?
My mother hates me!
You said this. You told me this. Told me this within two hours of our first meeting. We were in The Roma. It was late. Very late. Back then Carlo lived above the shop. Kept open until the last punter left. Whatever the time. Carlo was never in a hurry to boot his customers out. And that evening, young and believing ourselves to be falling in love, we two were in no hurry to go anywhere.
Surely not, I responded. It’s counterintuitive. Almost all mothers adore their children. Almost all mothers molly-coddle their sons.
Almost all, you said, but not mine. Mine molly-coddles my sister. Hates me. You’ll see!
Overcome by those two little words, by the prospect of a future with someone in which to see, overwhelmed by the fact that for the first time in my life I was with a man whose intentions, even at this early stage in the game of love, appeared to be entirely honourable, this all-embracing pleasure managed to override my initial desire to expose the soft underbelly of your hard words.
We had sex in the small hours in my bijou garret bedsit in that Dickensian yard just off Goodge Street. It’s a brutalist hulk of concrete now: a car park. Very La Boheme, you said as I drew back the curtain to expose my kitchenette, Where’s the bog? Next landing, I told you. You were not impressed. This was really roughing it for you.
I have never been able to clearly recall the sex we had that night. I don’t believe either one of us was, as they say, blown away. Yet I do remember feeling . . . comfortable. Yes. Comfortable. That was it. Feeling comfortably at ease with you, and with myself. Which was new to me – in that position, at least. Insecure as I was in respect to my face, my body – my entire persona – previous sexual encounters, although more memorable in terms of the quality of the sex, had, for me, been obstacle courses of embarrassment. Courses where I had felt myself a failure: a spotlighted, stage-struck performer, fearful her makeup might melt in the glaring heat of her fiery desire. Felt, orgasm or no orgasm, on the outside looking in.
Until then, I’d got into the habit of draping gauzy scarfs over lampshades in order to attain that flattering rosy glow – while fearing the cool clear light of day come the morning. But with you, joy of joys, none of this applied. You may remember – though I suspect you were asleep by then – that after the long forgotten act, I went upstairs to my, quotes, scuzzy bathroom, where, cool as a cucumber, I cleansed my face of blusher and mascara and brushed my teeth as I would have done had the bed below me been empty (as it had been every night of that year and much of the year before), a voice inside my head saying, There is a freedom in this, there is commitment and freedom. And returning to you, I lay my greasy, freshly moisturised cheek against your warm back. You, oblivious of my absence, my return.
It worries me now. Has worried me since. How little we needed to impress one another, to be special for one another. For amongst all our rules, our obsessive need to ‘protect’ our identities, the rule of give and take has not played a big enough part – in my opinion. I wish I had wanted to look beautiful for you in the morning. I was passingly attractive back then – am still. I wish you had chosen to take a similar pride in yourself. Had not waited twenty-five years to get yourself in shape for someone else.
The truth must have hit you, eventually. Hence the makeover. Although I think your mother sensed the mismatch from the start. I detected discomfiture in her face on first seeing us standing side-by-side. You said it was because she was a ‘jealous old bitch’ who couldn’t bear to see you happy. Which may have been true. I bought that line at the time. But why, if she was a jealous old bitch, did we spend so many weekends in her company? You surly, snapping at her half the time, I, so unused to the protocol of what to me was, near as dammit, upper class society, I felt I was tiptoeing through a minefield of etiquette, felt so on edge as to be practically struck dumb. Felt like a child from another era who only spoke when she was spoken to. No wonder your mother disapproved of your choice of spouse. For, at the start, there was little evidence her future daughter-in-law had any neurons up there in good working order.
Do you recall that first weekend Louise came down too? What a relief! I could begin to be myself.
My first thought was how unmolly-coddled Louise was. My second, how much your mother – despite being no more than fifty-seven at the time – demanded of Louise. As well as how much poor Louise was prepared to give, and how little thanks she got for her labours, you, lying back, the only man in this harem household.
He left us!
Your admission coming as a result of my persistent questions.
By then I had known you for several months. You were fourteen when your father left, you told me. Told me you would never forgive him for it.
Why did he leave? I asked you.
Probably because he’d had enough of the bitch he married, you said.
But you stayed in touch, surely?
Why would I? He pissed off. He made his choice. I forgot him.
I asked you if there had been another woman. One who might have been a better mother to you than your mother. I told you, at fourteen, you could have chosen to live with your father. You shrugged, smiled that strangely oblique smile of yours, There was no other woman, you said, My mother is enough to put a man off women for life.
I once asked Louise about her father. She would have been eleven when he left. Not a good age for a girl to be abandoned by the first man she has known, the first she has loved. Louise showed me a few faded photographs of him, secretly, one Sunday afternoon. Showed me as a pre-pubescent girl might, pulling them protectively from her bag, looking furtively over her shoulder, as if fearing she might be found out. He was dark, like you, olive-skinned, beaming, Louise, a golden-haired sunny bundle in his arms. How time has diminished Louise, I thought at the time. Have thought since. Where does it all go? All that optimism. All that hope.
Where are they? I asked you. Where the fuck are my pills?
They’re preventing all those itsy-bitsy bits of microbial life from reproducing I expect? you answered. I flushed them down the bog!
And I let it happen, didn’t I. I let you decide my future. Let you tie me to you. Tie me down. I let a child be born because it was what you said you wanted. Where were our boundaries then pray tell? I let a few soft-centred words, your rough lips on my neck, your insistence, wipe out my inner fears, my regrets, my wishes. Yes. I had wishes. Hopes. Desires. I even had desires that went beyond you. For a while that did not include you. Shame I did not voice them. Shame I did not act on them. Shame our son was born. Yes, in a way, it was a shame. Poor Josh. If he knew? But he can’t know, can he. Which is why I’ve spoilt him rotten. Which, as you know, doesn’t help. Another cover up. Protection come too late. We’ve both needed that, haven’t we. Both of us, as they say, have kept ourselves to ourselves. Kept the fucked up bit of ourselves holed up inside.
Will you cry at her funeral? Will you show some genuine feeling at last?
You must know she’s been calling you. Texting you. Why can you not at least talk to her? Tell her what’s happened. Tell her how you feel. You must have done a lot of ‘opening up’ to her before now: before your mother’s death got in the way of your affair. Anyway, I’ve saved you the trouble, I’ve told her for you. Told the woman who only a month ago was your new best friend. I assume she’s the A-M-I-E sort of Amy, since she sounds pretty young to me. Sounds pretty, too. Don’t know if a pretty voice indicates a pretty face, but my guess is this Amie, your Amie, is pretty. You’d go for pretty, wouldn’t you, if pretty would go for you.
No! Don’t get me wrong. I have not been snooping. You and I have rules. Hell! Why let everything fall apart? I’m holding myself together. In fact, better than that, I am working on re-building myself. You should try it. You need to try it. You’re a fucking mess! Despite all that ‘getting in shape’, the diet, the fake tan, the new haircut, new ringtone – a favourite of Amy’s I suspect. Despite all this you are one fucking mess! One heap of shit!
She called on the landline, did Amie. Called more than once. Called several times. We’ve become quite close, she and I. It’s rather nice, the old landline springing to life now there’s a death in the family. Poor Amie was completely in the dark, of course – until I enlightened her. You’ve let her down big time: Amie’s words, not mine. Though sweet, unknowing thing that she is, she softened when I told her you had ‘lost’ your mother. I deliberately used that childish euphemism, overused by church, state and owners of furry animals, which, as you know, offends my atheistic sensibilities. I only use it now because it seems altogether apposite. Since I have the sense you are still looking for her, looking to find a way back to her. Looking, as the Americans say, to find closure. Too late for that, buddy. Instead you’ve closed down. Closed up. Shut up. Put the shutters up on Amy, on poor Louise, and on me. But what’s new in that respect? Now you commune only with the dead.
Our marriage was a strained affair. Oops! Freudian slip. Meant to say our marriage ceremony was a strained affair. Guess I was right the first time. You looked ill at ease in your tailcoat. I felt trapped in that flouncy crinolette concoction that was as winter white and stiff as the royal icing piped around our five-tier wedding cake. Felt like at giant cake decoration myself in all that crumpled silk, that stiff netting, the dress moving independently of my body. Where was my body? I was certainly out of my mind. Halfway up the aisle I wondered if, by magic, I could slip out of that dress, could run in my, supposedly, sexy underwear and stockings to hide behind a gravestone, to escape into a wheat field. Could let the dress continue up the aisle of its own free will. Let it say I will? Let it marry you: the man who was about to become my husk of a husband.
We’ve never spoken of our Big Day, have we. We’re not the type, you’d say. Why did we do it? I’d say.
My parents, who could barely afford their contribution to this madness, looked awkward, mingling uncomfortably amongst the groom’s guests – looked even more uncomfortable than was I.
I still have a clear picture of you putting the ring on my finger. Sliding it on as if you were playing that children’s game: the one were a buzzer goes off if the guided ring touches the wire, your face cool, detached. Frightened.
Afterwards, cake frills and fripperies removed, the tiers dismantled, waiting to be sliced and shipped in silver-belled boxes to distant relatives, unwilling or unable to attend this alleged joining of one man to one woman, married to you, not hiding in a wheat field, dressed in our comfortable, if formal, Going Away clothes, we made our fond farewells.
My parents wished us ‘all the best’, my mother, hugging each of us with egalitarian vigour, kissing her new son-in-law with as much warmth as she had kissed me, my father, triumphant at her side, a job-well-done expression on his face.
Then came your turn. Your side’s turn.
If I asked you now, you would probably say you don’t remember. But I would know you were lying.
She stood in the shadows. Did not step forward as my parents had done. In fact, having previously been in the foreground, she appeared to melt into the background, so that you were forced to search her out. Leaving me standing there in my neat dogs tooth suit my inner puppy – wishing it had the strength to growl and snap – whimpering silently inside.
He’s probably gone for a quick leak, my father said, managing a cheerful smile just as you reappeared, after what felt like forever, your hand clasping hers.
She walked toward me, took my hand – just the one: the one without the band of gold on it – took it awkwardly, as she leant forward to kiss me on the cheek. No warm embrace for me, from the inaptly named Cordelia, now that my place in the family had been legitimised. Then, letting my hand slip from hers – as you might a piece of wet fish you rather wished you hadn’t touched – turning to you (you standing by her side, not mine), she wrapped both her arms around you. While I, embarrassed, suddenly aware, watched your lips brush her forehead, your nose nuzzle her hair, as tears streamed down her delicately rouged fine-boned cheeks. Stood there waiting for it to end. Let her go! I willed you as each second ticked by, Let her go! I’m here now. I am all you need.
Liars in love. Liars both.
You dive too deep. Always did.
On that first holiday, that first summer after our honeymoon: on the Spanish Coast. Remember? South of Cadequez. You took to diving off the rocks each day. To escape me? To scare me? Anyway, you left me watching from the safety of the beach. Left me unable to relax. Terrified. Thinking, if there are rocks above, there are rocks below. My heart thumping somewhere between my ribcage and my mouth. Yet still you dived, day after day. Still you walked away from me day after day, bent on climbing higher and higher, diving deeper and deeper, staying down longer and longer, my scaredy-cat voice receding in your watery ears.
You go to extremes, don’t you. Always have: you the quiet, keeping mum boy. So why not go there? Go back to the beating heart where your life began, your diver’s body, lithe as a baby seal, embracing your first watery home.