I guess the few hours of sleep he now gets
are cluttered with dreams. Every single one
will be about her. Some nights she comes
back as a horse, a horse that wouldn’t be patted.
She was in love with him and he with her. No one had any doubts about that. My mother talked about it, my father, their friends, people I had no idea who they were. I knew what they looked like, and sometimes I picked up on their names. He was always just Thelma’s husband. A man who started to look old quite young, who lost most of his teeth and got shiny replacements that made him look a little too hopeful. By the time he was fifty his face was furrowed with deep-seated wrinkles.
I remember noticing the two of them standing out from a crowd once, at a house party hosted by an acquaintance of my parents. Everyone around them was eating and talking and laughing. The two of them were leaning against the kitchen counter with trays of gherkin and egg sandwiches behind them. They grinned at each other and didn’t say much. I was thirteen, and even then they looked old to me. They were the kind of people I didn’t want to become.
All of a sudden she grabbed him by the collar, clearly in charge of him. But gently, gently nonetheless. Her chubby arms wrapped around him like an airbag. She wore a yellow blouse with dark horse prints, different kinds of horses, engaged in different movements, gallops, canters, trots. High above the horses her eyes were now closed, and her lips formed the kiss he was about to receive on his cheek like a splash of water. She was one of those women who had hardly any eyebrows left, and liked to replace them with a crude, hand-drawn line that was easily spotted. The moment she pulled him over looked like slow motion, as if he was heavy, which he wasn’t. The kiss landed on his cheek. Then, once he gave in to her and let his body go limp, it turned into a proper smooch. His eyes were wide open. He looked shocked. The whole thing made me think of sex, sex and what I’d heard about it. It was hard to imagine Thelma and her husband having it. And yet, this moment was like a sketch for something, a taste of something familiar and expected, something they were used to, a mere blur for me, a mixture of dread and outrage that had only just started to bolt through my head every now and again. I stared like any teenager, ready to roll up in a ball and wonder about the world. I can’t remember anyone telling me off. What I do remember is that the line of his closed mouth was tired, warped, as if he was going to say something but decided he’d better not. Perhaps he would have looked better with a moustache, a little more powerful. His eyebrows were wild and his eyes wet. Thinking back now, he might always have had these moist-looking pupils, a man who catches a bus, changes a tyre or buys a packet of cigarettes, with eyes as if he just cried about something or is about to start.
The night at the party is the first thing I remember when my mother mentions that his wife just died. An old friend rang and told her. She hadn’t heard from them in over twenty years.
"He’s not coping too well," my mother says, and for a second it feels as if horses run through my head. Then I wonder how I remember so much about him.