With Silence and Tears
CW: Descriptions of the sexual assault of a minor.
‘I’m sorry, I’ –
Deirdre watched the man’s features switch from shock to recognition. His cheeks coloured, one hand reaching for a fringe that was no longer there, the other gripping his bag strap instead of the Marlboro Reds he used to smoke.
‘Deirdre. After so long. What are you doing here?’
‘I’m off to see my mother.’
‘That’s good. How are you, Deirdre? It’s been so long.’
That was an understatement. She’d married, had a career and raised three children since he walked out of their pensão three decades ago. An aeon that had seen Deirdre nearly die in childbirth; houses purchased, money chased … life. Life had happened, and now they meet again. The forge of experience cooling.
Lisbon’s Old Port quarter thirty years before. The sun hammering empty streets. Anyone who didn’t have to be awake still comatose in bed. The bakeries and gaudy cafés yawning open, the scent of hot bread and coffee. Churches yet to admit guilty tourists to absolution from last night’s vino verdhe and pap açorda. A street cleaning machine blasted at the pavement detritus three floors below Deirdre and Bill’s tiny room.
Deirdre found her way into Bill’s Nirvana t-shirt, slipped out of bed and scooped up her pack of Fortuna and lighter. She brushed the old-fashioned lace curtain aside to perch by the window, lit up and inhaled deeply, smoke wraithing her throat.
Bill lay on the bed, still asleep. His muscled torso and wide shoulders, the fine down on his chest visible. Deirdre drew on her cigarette and looked down at the street. Pigeons pecked at discarded fast-food; a breeze whispered into the city from the sea. A glimpse of the Atlantic between buildings, that expanse sailed by generations of Portuguese explorers to conquer their long-forgotten empire.
They chose to meet in Lisbon because neither of them knew the city. And because after eight years this thing between them needed to define them – or die.
She exhaled smoke and watched as the café’s shutters rolled upwards. The owner came out with a cigarette between his lips and started sweeping the paving stones. Then he set out dark red plastic tables and metal chairs on the paving-stones.
Another Sunday for that café owner. The start or end of everything for Bill and herself. Half way down her cigarette, she recalled their first meeting. She was still at school, he was working in a bar before uni. She remembered his eyes, his hair, that laugh. They fell in love as teenagers do: madly. When they made love, it was his first time, but not hers.
Her brother had made sure of that. The tickling that started when she was eight. By ten, tickling turned to touching. And when she was thirteen, he’d held her down and violated her. Then punched her afterwards and walked away laughing, leaving her crying on cream sheets stained with blood, stuffed toys around her emblems of the childhood he’d torn from her.
Bill’s legs moved and he raised a hand to rub his face. He gave a little groan, still half asleep. Deirdre took a final drag and threw the butt, still burning, out the window. Maybe someone below would put it out. Or it might start a fire. Either way meant nothing to her.
She slid off the windowsill, Bill’s T-shirt riding up her legs.
‘Well, that’s quite a sight.’
Bill’s voice, groggy with sleep. Deirdre slipped off the black T-shirt and got on the bed, placing one leg over his naked body. She felt his arousal beneath her. She mounted him, taking him inside her, moving rhythmically against him.
‘I love you, Deirdre.’
She ground her pubic bone against his groin, their energies melding, excitement rising. She loved the feeling of losing herself. Of forgetting. The slow fire in her belly, the absence of consciousness. This temporary escape from memory. From her brother.
Bill put his hands on her torso and pushed her to one side. She lay beside him, face lost in the bedsheets.
‘Deirdre. We came here to talk. How much longer are we going on like this?’
She looked up at the ceiling and knew she had no answer. ‘This had gone on for eight years. A series of flings that always ended the same: Bill wanting Deirdre to love him above all others. And her unwilling. Unable to tell him about her brother. Unable to love him.
And yet love was there, unspoken but no less real for that. And it had been there since they met on a street corner eight years before this hot morning at the edge of the ocean. Deirdre recalled how people used to believe those who sailed too far might fall off the world’s edge into oblivion.
Then she felt tears start – hot and thick, extruded from her like venom from a serpent’s tooth. After that first time, her brother had come back. This time with his friends. Held her down, laughing, as two of his friends did what he’d done. Then they left her on her bedroom floor, the scars on her soul worse than the pain in her body.
Her mother knew nothing until her father passed away. Her Doctor father hushed it up, his inability to care as painful as her brother’s act. Later, he wrote her a prescription for contraceptives.
Men became her refuge. Men who didn’t even pretend to like her. She went with them to escape herself. Tall and slim with long brown hair and hazel eyes, by her mid-teens she realised finding men was not a problem. If anything, she discovered a power she had never sought, like some cursed gift she felt powerless to refuse. Attractions, relationships she never wanted.
And after she met Bill, the one she wanted became real yet unreachable: love, the impossible made flesh, the summit of her fears, as much a product of her imagination as a living man.
She pushed herself off Bill and ran into their en-suite, tears smearing her eyesight. The en-suite was more of a cupboard with a dirty sink and ceramic pink toilet crammed in. She slammed the door shut and locked it and slumped next to the toilet and wept.
Bill leapt off the bed. He tugged at the bathroom door, hammering away on the thin wooden panelling:
‘For Christ’s sake! Tell me what’s wrong!’
Deirdre reached for toilet roll to staunch her tears. Within minutes the tiles around her were littered with thin, crumpled tissue. And then more crying, as if something inside her had broken open. After some time, Bill’s banging stopped. She heard someone from another room yelling at him in Portuguese to shut up, then English. After that, she heard him getting dressed, packing. Their room door giving a bark as it slammed shut.
Some time later she went down to the filthy entrance that passed for a reception. An out-of-date calendar sat on the desk, together with bundles of discarded newspapers. She spoke to the owner, his wizened body wrapped up in an overwashed yellow T-shirt. He leered at her, telling her Bill had already paid and left her a note:
‘I’m going back to London. Don’t try to contact me. I love you so much.’
She walked out of the hotel with her bag in her hand and hailed a cab for the airport. She had to see him one last time.
In those days, before terrorism changed everything, you could accompany loved ones to a flight gate to bid them farewell. Rushing into Lisbon airport from the cab, Deirdre found the gate for Bill’s plane back to London. She sprinted for passport control, hoping to find him.
He was about to step up to immigration, the official a slim military figure in a pale green uniform. Through the throng of limbs and bags she spotted Bill’s long brown fringe, the stone-washed jeans that had lain discarded next to their bed barely an hour before.
He turned, moved out of the queue. He stepped towards her and opened his arms. She held him, held him hard, drowning in his masculinity, the scent of leather mixed with tobacco. She felt his unshaven cheek on the crown of her head. And those tears she could not name returned.
He let her go and turned to the official, holding out his dark blue passport. Then he walked through the gate and out of her life.
And now they meet again. Her eyes lined by the birth of three children. The death of her father – and the sepsis that nearly killed her after her third child. Each wrinkle etched by fatigue. Mornings where she sustained herself through the brokenness of motherhood with coffee and cigarettes, then wine by night to conjure asleep.
She raced through her life in her head, images colliding with each other as they rose to consciousness. Her fifteen-year marriage to Gabriel, a solid Austrian who works for an electronic testing company in Vienna. The top floor of a townhouse near the Wasserweg. Kids at the local school. Their lives a long, tranquil stream on which nothing ever sinks or soars, just floats along like leaves on water in some Indian summer.
In those thirty years that could be more than half her span on Earth, she thought about Bill every day. She once listened to a business show about reinsurance disputes at 3AM on the BBC World Service to hear him quoted for less than a minute. During one response to the interviewer, Bill gave a chuckle and it reminded her of walking down the street with him when they were young, holding hands, caring for nothing.
At other times the ghost of his presence came to her in early hours when she lay next to Gabriel’s sleeping form, his seed still crusting their bedsheets. In her dreams, she and Bill were together at sunset, looking out to sea, sunlight ablaze against the white wave-caps sparkling in the grey water. Then sleep would come to be broken by a child’s cry, the need to make breakfast and coffee.
Through it all – the ballet lessons, football games, bike-riding and music schools, dressing and wiping and cleaning of motherhood – Bill never left her. He became an ikon, talisman of a life that might have been different had she been willing to give her self, rather than her body, to another. If she had had the courage to tell him she loved him. To commit to their love over all others. But she could not.
When her third child came, the bleeding did not stop and she became infected. They gave her morphine and told her family to expect the worst. She heard medical staff conversing in low, rapid German around her hospital bed, as if she could have understood them. In her delirium she dreamed of a fire-dragon, of descending into its mouth, teeth-edges closing around her as Bill’s smile faded in the distance. Monks singing Te Deum around her decomposing body as she fought the Devil bacteria that possessed her endocrinal system.
Over days, she recovered from her induced madness. Her baby boy brought to her as her two girls stood next to the bed with their father – as always, the bulwark against her waywardness. Lying there, she knew she had never loved Gabriel and always loved Bill. But Bill would never return. What had been sensible, compromise perhaps, had become her life. And from then on she determined to love Gabby.
In large part she succeeded. Yet love, where it is forced or the result of a decision, is never love as we dream of it. We cannot choose who to love, runs the cliché – and that is half true. We can be loving, we can be kind. But real love is given to us, often against our will and not as we might choose it.
Such was her love for Bill – and that love was gone, to be replaced by contentment, satisfaction – happiness of a kind. Not the kind that takes us from ourselves and gives visions of eternity, but the kind of happiness that lasts. The kind people can see and understand – a husband; a home; children. What society tells us we should love.
So Deirdre came to accept the shape of her times. Motherhood and children with all the blessings and limits such a state brings. But in her soul she never forgot Bill. She buried his memory and covered him with the sod of her daily existence. But the passion they had, tongues locked and arms everywhere as they tore each other’s clothes off, the depth of their kisses, the electric snap of their eyes meeting – never left her.
Was it all a dream? It seemed so. But dreams have their own truth, more than the waking world. And the dream that she and Bill might have loved forever, though cold in its grave, raved on inside her. A love untested, an ideal unreached that made her pulse sharp, something to cling to in grey dawns when children squalled and Gabby was away on business. Three little souls who needed her and a house that would not clean itself – the dream of her love for Bill apart from all this: gleaming like some jewel-studded Abbot’s crozier in her mind.
And now the man whose image she had held so long inside stood in front of her.
‘What about a drink? My flight’s not for another hour.’
Bill’s voice cracked with age. His eyes bright blue behind those glasses, the hair – grey to white – now thin and sparse. A paunch protruding beneath his coat. Not the muscular body she remembers.
‘That would be nice.’
Bill turns to look around the concourse thick with crowds of travellers. They walk a few paces to a kiosk festooned with garish branding. Bill orders a double espresso and looks at her. The years melt away and she sees his soul underneath the craggy, lined skin and paunchy body. Still the same. Still the man she fell in love with.
‘Your espresso reminds me of Lisbon. Remember?’
He did not reply. After a pause, he offered her tea or coffee. She feels, the love so strong between them. Bill pays by tapping his phone against some machine. Not with cash, as they did in Lisbon. She follows him to where he picks up his coffee then they sit down at high bar stools near the counter.
‘Well. Deirdre. This is extraordinary.’
That word – ‘extraordinary.’ The drawled vowels of the English upper-middle class. How his life had been since they last saw each other. Respectable. A well-regarded lawyer with some uncomprehended specialisation. Not the wild, floppy-haired romantic she met at sixteen.
Bill picks up his espresso and their fingers touch on the table-top as he does so. Adam and infinity in that moment. Deirdre spreads her hands fully on the table, diamond engagement and wedding rings glinting in the light. She looks down at her rings, then up at Bill.
‘I love you,’ she says. ‘You always wanted me to tell you that.’
For a few seconds, silence. Like monks at prayer. She tries again:
‘I’ll tell you again: I love you. I always did. You know I did.’
Bill sips from his cup. She thinks she sees his eyes grow liquid.
‘Deirdre. You haven’t see me for thirty years. And now you tell me you love me. But you can’t mean it. You don’t know who I am. What about your husband’ – he indicates her rings with a tilt of his cup – ‘and your children?’
He shifts the cup towards the maternity ring on her right hand. Her skin flushes as she struggles to shape phrases. Finally –
‘I have thought of you constantly. Every day. Missed you, dreamed you –’
Bill drains his cup and sets it down with a hollow thunk on the formica table.
‘You can’t love me. You don’t know who I am. I don’t know who you are. Would your husband like hearing you talk this way?’
Deirdre feels tears flush her eyes. Somewhere she finds words.
‘The love we have can’t be found in a living room, on top of a TV or in a kitchen. Our love is magic. You always told me that. You told me I was the only one for you. Always.’
A first tear leaves her eye, travels half way down her cheek. She looks across and sees his eyes shining.
‘Deirdre. I can’t. I’ –
He removes his thick glasses and she notices how tired he is, the weight of life as a father, husband, bread-winner. The burdens that transformed him from the young man she knew into the heavy-set seriousness that sits before her.
‘Deirdre. I wish you well.’
Bill gets up from the table, his thick-veined hands pushing on it to help him up. She follows his movement and stands. She dreams some insensate force, some unknown power, might take them back to when they were young. He looks at her. She opens her arms and he moves to embrace her.
He kisses her forehead. She leans back and cups his face in her hands, their eyes oceans and driftwood. The silence between them a chasm, their words and tears not enough to bridge three decades apart.
‘I can’t,’ he says again, his voice a whisper.
Then he breaks off and steps towards a walkway. Soon he is swallowed by the crowd. As she watches him leave she thinks she sees him wave to her, then he’s gone. She is left at the table, her chest empty, no word to offer, only tears. She’s lost many men in her life, said goodbye many times, ended affairs. But now she’s seen the only man she ever loved leave for good. For ever and always.