Strange Bodies(2)
Author:Marcel Theroux


    It was almost a year before I saw him again. I was closing up the shop at the end of one of those short December days, rushing because the book group was meeting at my house that evening. Just as I was about to leave, I remembered that it was Kath’s birthday. I unlocked the front door and went back in to get her one of the ceramic Seletti jugs shaped like a milk carton. Sleet was rattling against the shopfront. I grabbed some wrapping paper and a bag to keep it all dry. When I turned round there was a dark shape in the doorway. I froze. The jug slipped out of my hand and smashed on the floor.

    ‘Sukie?’ he said.

    I felt a little breathless. For an instant, the last twenty-odd years vanished like a trick of the light: no Leonora, no Ted, no kids, no break-ups and false starts, no ageing, only the two of us in the half-dark just like the first time I kissed him in Grantchester meadow.

    Nicky stepped out of the shadows. He looked much worse than when I’d last seen him: unshaven, tired and badly dressed, but also more like his old self; he’d lost weight and his face had some of its shape back.

    He told me he needed a place to stay. I explained about the book group and warned him that Babette was waking a lot in the night, but he didn’t look like he had many other options. He sagged into the passenger seat like an old man.

    From Ludlow to Barbrook is a twenty-minute drive, assuming you don’t get stuck behind a tractor or a tourist. Nicky ignored my questions and didn’t seem in any mood to talk. I found myself filling the silence by chattering on about my day, but by the time we got to Cleehill I couldn’t pretend any more. I pulled over just beyond the pub. The locals call it the Kremlin because they claim it’s the highest point between there and the Urals, and in the old days the jukebox used to pick up Radio Moscow. The rain had stopped. The moon was out and beyond the hills we could make out the vague orange glow of Birmingham. I turned to Nicky and asked him what was going on.

    ‘It’s a long story,’ he said. ‘I was in the Maudsley for a while.’

    ‘Studying?’ For some reason, I assumed it was a college.

    ‘Sectioned,’ he said. And then by way of explanation: ‘It’s a loony bin outside Croydon.’

    Hailstones pounded on the roof of the car. We’d have to drive home the long way round, because the ford would be too dangerous to cross.

    ‘Does Leonora know you’re alive?’

    ‘The Nicky she knew is dead.’ He said it matter-of-factly, with no real venom, but the hopelessness of it shocked me. And in the yellow rays of the Kremlin’s outside light, his teeth looked crooked and broken. Suddenly, it struck me that he was, after all, really a stranger, and I was seized by a panicky feeling.

    There was something unpleasant about his body in the seat next to me; it seemed oddly bulbous, like an overripe fruit. He smelled a bit sharp and foxy and I wondered when he’d last washed. ‘Things have been difficult for me lately, Sukie,’ he said. Without the reassurance of his familiar eyes, even his voice seemed rougher and strange. ‘I don’t want to drag you into it. I just need a place to stay for a night. It won’t be much longer. This carcass is finally letting me down.’ His voice tailed off and he lapsed into silence. The effort of speaking had exhausted him.

    ‘I’ve got some of Ted’s clean clothes that you can take, and you can eat and have a bath, but you can’t stay,’ I said. If I had lived alone, I would have chanced it, but I couldn’t have him sleeping under the same roof as Babette.

    Nicky just nodded. In that moment, I felt myself relent a little. He seemed so beaten down, and I remembered how tamely he’d acquiesced when I chucked him; not, I think, because he didn’t care, but because that stoicism was part of his nature. It maddened me at the time, because I felt so sorry for myself that he was leaving; now I just felt sorry for him.

    *



    The book that night was by Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I was a little distracted, wondering about the best way to get Nicky back to Ludlow and if I should offer to pay for a B and B. He sat in an armchair at one side of the living room, looking sick and hopeless, even after a bath and change of clothes. I could tell that his being there was making the others uncomfortable; it was making me uncomfortable. It didn’t help that none of the others had liked the book. Ordinarily, we would have chatted about it for five minutes and then wandered off onto something else, but Nicky’s presence made us self-conscious and we dutifully talked about the book much longer than we wanted to.

    Louise was the only one who was openly critical of Tolstoy’s book. It wasn’t her cup of tea at all. She was hostile to all those canonical male writers anyway, and she was also fond of saying that the first rule of good writing is ‘Show, don’t tell’; she said Tolstoy didn’t appear to have grasped this. Me, I liked the book. There’s something of Ivan Ilyich in most men, I think, the way they shut down and turn robotic in middle age. It reminded me of Ted somehow and the way he’d become when we moved to Shropshire: forty, panicking inwardly, throwing himself into work and hobbies, and then this affair which had mid-life crisis written all over it. I was going to say this, but it struck me that it might sound like a reproach to Nicky. Whatever he’d been up to – and I didn’t want to know – made Ted look like Father of the Year.

    In my childhood, there was famously a British politician, John Stonehouse, who faked his own death to escape debts or marriage, or possibly both. He left a pile of clothes on a beach in Florida to make it look as though he’d drowned and then flew away to Australia to start a new life with his mistress. I understand the impulse to make a fresh start. That’s why I came up here to open the shop. But to lie about your death – there’s a level of deceit and desperation in that which made me wonder if I knew Nicky at all.

    Glancing over at him, I thought how different he looked from the man I’d known. He was so old and weary. Then I noticed he was struggling to stand up. He was gripping the arms of the chair and his mouth was open and – shame on me for remembering this, but this is how it was – a big string of dribble was hanging from his lower lip. He managed to lift himself just clear of the seat, then keeled over on the floor. I got his shirt off and pumped his chest while Kath called an ambulance.

    There was the strangest smell on him – like pear drops, but not as pleasant. Also, he had tattoos, clumsy ones, which, if you knew how squeamish he was about needles, made no sense at all. After a couple of minutes he was breathing on his own again and his eyes opened. His lips regained some of their colour. He was whispering something, but I couldn’t make it out. Then he went again. This time we took turns to do CPR on him, but he was unconscious when the ambulance arrived. Kath stayed with Babette and I followed them back to Shrewsbury in my own car. There was a crash team waiting for them outside the hospital, but they’d given up trying to resuscitate him by the time I got there.

    He had some money in his pockets and a coach ticket from Carlisle, but no identification. I told them who he was, and the doctor wrote Nicky’s name on the medical certificate and the cause of death as cardiac arrest. They left the body in their mortuary for Leonora to collect.

    It turned out that Leonora was on holiday with the children at the time, and it took them a few days to get hold of her. When they reached her, she was, understandably, frosty. Her husband had been dead for months, she told them. And she faxed over the death certificate to prove it.

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