Winter, the coldest for fifteen years, and James is wearing the scarf he stole in his university days from a girl who broke up with him for thinking Kundera was pretentious. He still remembers the things she used to say far more than he remembers any part of her body: Paintings are ecstatic. The best of life is improvised. Sometimes he’d ask her to make them up, these pseudo-epigrams, while they were making love and they’d both dissolve into helpless giggles. He has a vague feeling there was something about her eyes; perhaps she had one blue eye and one green, but he knows this could just be a story he’s been telling himself all these years. It occurs to him, as he turns the corner and heads towards home, that in ten, twelve, twenty years there’ll be memories like this of Elizabeth, things he believes to be true which he also knows could be tricks of forgetfulness, tricks of time.
He’d expected the museum to be closed because of the snow, but he’d woken late to sun through his curtains, and he’d taken a chance. And now, on his way home again, the thaw is making soft sculptures of the drifts, and the roads are tracked with black lines where cars have finally found purchase.
He’s been thinking about the dead, how it’s not so much the person who’s died we mourn, but the part of ourselves which we could find only with them. When someone dies, he wants to say, a piece of you dies as well. The fact that he has no one to say this to strikes him as an irony, but before he can work out why, he slips a little on the snowmelt and the thought is gone.
Of course, the visit to the museum had done exactly what he’d known it would; looking at paintings that Elizabeth used to love will always – he’s sure – bring on that awful, simple, dull recognition that things are no longer the same. The two of them had been, to all of their friends, Elizabeth and James, but now there was no more Elizabeth and James because there was no more Elizabeth. Two deaths for the price of one.
There are days, still, when the weight of her is so strong he cannot lift his head from the pillow. And then there are other days – today – when he can wear the scarf of an ex-lover, when he can pack the snow from a low wall into a hard ball, take aim and throw, hitting the car number-plate he aimed for, if not the actual letter.
He remembers the first time they’d gone to the museum. She’d told him how painters often looked at their paintings in a mirror, a way to find distance, perspective, another eye, so to speak. Her words had come back to him, years later – and years ago now – when she’d told him about the affair. Perhaps that was how it’d been: her lover a mirror through which she might get to see him – James – anew. There’d even been the suggestion on that strange, cold spring evening, that they could continue as a three, that there might be some kind of meeting, and if things went well, then…
But by early summer the lover was gone, and Elizabeth – adifferent, quieter Elizabeth – would sleep late on weekend mornings, take long baths at night. Once, James had walked into the kitchen and found her crying. He wanted to hold her, but she looked at him – her makeup giving her face a blurred façade – and told him that when he was close to her she felt like one of those little wooden puzzles people give each other at Christmas.
“Don’t presume to know how to solve me,” she said.
He’d know how to, once, and he told her so. “It won’t take much to learn again.”
He’d simply thought they’d have the time.
The snowmelt is worse as James heads to the north of the city. At the top of the road is a garden, and in the centre of it a snowman wearing a purple scarf. It’s not quite the same shade as the one James is wearing, but almost. He thinks of the girl – and still can’t remember her name – naked, reading Kundera aloud whilst he tried not to laugh. He remembers leaving her flat on their last morning together, picking the scarf from the sofa. He remembers Elizabeth in the spring before she got sick, painting in the conservatory, a canvas she’d never finished, a canvas he’s kept along with everything else, locked away in storage.
He thinks, as he turns the corner and walks towards the park, that perhaps he’ll order The Unbearable Lightness of Being, just to see if after all these years Kundera is still as pretentious as he was back then. He thinks of the conservatory and its view across the garden to the hills beyond, a view Elizabeth thought she had never quite captured, although he told her many times how perfect those pictures were.
He wraps his coat closer around him; perhaps the forecasters are right, and it has indeed been the coldest winter for fifteen years. But he knows there’ll be others which will be just as cold and gone just as soon.
Jason Jackson writes short fiction. In 2018 he won the Writers Bureau Short Story Prize, as well as placing and listing in many other competitions. Two of his stories have been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2019, and his writing is widely published on the internet and in print.