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Read an extract About the book
  • Published: 3 September 2019
  • ISBN: 9780857526670
  • Imprint: Doubleday
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 288
  • RRP: $32.99
Categories:

Shelf Life

Extract

Here are some things I know about weight. A pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of bricks, but a pound of bricks is easier to carry. A pound of flesh may be used as payment or taken as forced retribution. A pound cake is made using a pound each of four ingredients: flour, eggs, butter and sugar, which actually means a more exact name for this cake would be four-pound cake. Most things you buy in the supermarket come in a standard shape, a fixed weight, which makes them feel familiar. For example, a one-litre bottle of sparkling water, the brand you like to drink, weighs exactly one kilo. The weight of the measure of oats that you enjoy in your morning porridge fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. The weight of your suit jacket on my shoulders, when I get cold because I have forgotten to bring a jumper, is exactly the same weight as the end of that night, which is felt in the knees, in the light grip of a migraine nudging at my temples, and is easily assigned to a specific hour, between eleven and midnight, just before the last train home. The weight of your arm, draped across my waist when we are lying in bed and you are falling asleep, and how long it takes for that weight to turn into a different kind of weight, the dead weight of your deep sleep, is the weight of sleep itself. Without it, the notion of sleep is emptied of meaning. You have left an indentation of exactly the size of your body in our bed, but your body is unavailable to substantiate its weight. Which is why I am lying here at four in the morning, sleepless.

 

I was working in A&E when the position at the care home came up. Which was a good thing because I would never have survived the emergency room. Although I remember the training well.

First, you must consider the damage. When the slatted light from the window softens the red glare of the lampshade and your side of the bed is greying, I know it’s time to act. I lift my head and look around. Here is my sore neck. Here are my thighs, stiff and sticky with night sweat. There is your dressing gown on the back of the door, hanging like a bandage. The moccasins are missing; you left the hiking boots behind. You were in a hurry. In an emergency, leave behind anything that might weigh you down: bags, coat and other personal belongings. But why have you chosen the moccasins over the hiking boots?

I am utterly exhausted. I shut my eyes and it’s the wrong thing to do, because as ever with closed eyes, my other senses are sharpened. It all comes back to me with the taste of last night’s dinner: something with leek. I can’t quite remember.

Take a deep breath. Tell me what happened.

 

I liked having dinner with you.

What you did is you collected the plates from dinner, took them to the kitchen, and waited for me to come through and wash them. Fish. Haddock. That’s what I’d made. Yours in a cream sauce, mine steamed and cut into morsels. The plates were there on the side, sticky with fish and wet vegetables.

I ran the hot tap and took off the engagement ring. I put on the Marigolds instead.

Sometimes the body knows before the mind. Something in your tone, or how you began, by calling my name.

‘Ruth.’

Water hit the hem of my right glove, scalding my wrist. I pulled my hand away.

‘Neil,’ I said.

My fingers throbbed inside the yellow gloves. I was distracted, interested in my own task. We weren’t often apart from each other in the evenings and so I cultivated my small solitudes in mundane pockets of the day, retreating to a quiet corner of my mind when busy with something. So that when I was with you – with you – I could really be present.

Now I was busy.

‘Ruth,’ you said. ‘There’s something I need to talk to you about.’

The mind, you see? The truth is that, right then, I wasn’t fully there. Only with difficulty can I trace back to those few moments before things fragmented.

I wondered if you were testing the skills you’d learnt in your mindful assertiveness class. Or if you’d found something else to be excited about, after the percussion box, plant cuttings, upholstery class and fossil collection. This current wholesome phase, at least, didn’t make as much noise or take up as much space.

I made a sound to convey my engagement. You wanted more.

‘Yes,’ I said, finally, looking over my shoulder. ‘What is it?’

‘I’ve had an epiphany. I think.’

Here we go, I thought. I turned around and rested my bottom against the cupboard. Let the tap fill up the sink. Ready for your lecture. I put on my usual smile. I never learn. I’m seldom smug about my intuition, but when I am I always get it wrong.

I gave you a visible nod, so you knew to continue.

Your lips were a line. You needed my help and I was eager to offer it. That’s how it worked for us.

‘What is it?’ I nudged.

‘Nothing we haven’t talked about before, to be honest.’

‘So what is it? What’s your revelation?’

‘About love. Relationships. The idea of a couple, I guess.’

‘The idea of a couple?’

‘Let me speak first.’

‘Oh, come on,’ I said. ‘We’ve talked about this, haven’t we?’

I didn’t get angry. And you didn’t look angry either. I can tell when you’re about to get angry. I turned off the tap.

‘We have,’ you said. ‘I just said.’

‘And we’re not discussing the possibility of an open relationship again.’

‘I’m not trying to discuss an open relationship.’

‘That’s good. Because we’ve discussed it enough times, I think.’

I looked at the white gold ring on the side, deliberately, so that you’d have to look at it too. When you did, I turned back to the sink, picked up a plate and began to scrub.

‘It’s different for me,’ you said.

‘Is it?’ Your hand on my hip made me jump. I turned back around.

‘Listen to me, babe,’ you said. ‘I’m serious about this.’

‘You’re always serious about everything,’ I said. ‘Until you get tired of it.’

‘We’re too good for this, Ruth.’

‘Too good for what?’

‘This conversation. I mean, look at us.’

‘Us? We’re fine. Aren’t we?’

‘Yes,’ you said.

‘Well then.’

Wherever this was going, I didn’t like it. I had stuff to do, stuff to get done. I pushed you to the side and opened the drawer, pushed aside the candle stumps and the empty matchboxes. Found a tea towel, looked at you. You were quiet. You looked sad. I hate it when you look sad. I drew you into me with my elbows because my gloves were dirty and wet and I didn’t want to ruin your shirt.

‘What is it, baby?’ I said. That note of desperation in my voice. I hadn’t intended that. We were fine. Hadn’t you just said so yourself? But the atmosphere in the kitchen had shifted. I clutched at your hips but your arms stayed put along the sides of your body. You rested your chin on the top of my head.

‘Well, I’m just trying to say that … I’ve been thinking. You know what I’m like. That we all have this great love there inside of us.’

I held you a bit tighter and your hands rose to the bottom of my spine. I looked up. You were staring out of the window.

‘I don’t know, Ruth,’ you said into the darkness of our garden. ‘Don’t you ever want to share it with more than one person?’

 

It’s tough to patch together what happened after that.

My forehead becomes damp with the effort of remembering, and I wish I had a wet towel, the folded kind a loving parent might bring to a sick child.

Incoherent memories are a common reaction to trauma. Scraps of last night’s conversation fly violently against the walls of my skull. A subdural haematoma is usually associated with traumatic brain injury. This is what it feels like. My head hurts badly. There are violet dots behind my eyes, lines of dialogue but no punctuation.

I think most of it took place in the kitchen. I broke the hug, pushed you away. I shouldn’t have because you really went for it after that. I stood next to the sink and watched that familiar confidence fill your features. I’m sure I must have been nodding, because you didn’t wait for me to catch up. And that’s how it had worked for us, remember? You, in the driver’s seat. Me, sitting next to you, tracing our trajectory with my finger on the map. Following your route. Except you weren’t even letting me do that. You didn’t seem to care if I came along.

Finally, you lined up the evidence. You went on and on and on and on. My patronizing attitude, your restlessness, my silence, the ways we tended towards and shrank away from each other, never quite meeting in the middle.

‘That’s just us,’ I said. ‘Isn’t that what we’re like?’

‘Right, that’s what we’re like,’ you said. ‘It doesn’t mean that it’s right,’ you said. ‘Like two parallel lines,’ you said.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Of course I’m fucking serious.’

‘I don’t understand why you’re getting wound up,’ I said, because right then I really didn’t.

‘Jesus Christ, Ruth. You know exactly what I’m getting at,’ you said. ‘I want to break up.’

 

I thought you were joking. I thought you were annoyed about something I’d done, wanted to get laid, probably wanted to get laid more in general, had got something into your head. You were always getting something into your head. I remember my cheeks heating up, becoming intolerably hot. Did I raise my voice?

As an accountant you took pride in your end-of-year financial reports. Who knew you’d been keeping tabs on our private life, too? You were unsatisfied with your return on investment, as it were, so you were chucking me. Well, we hadn’t exactly been focusing on team building, had we? When was the last time you’d taken me out for dinner? I did say that. My voice sounded nasal and pedantic, and I revelled in it, trusting my outrage to guide me as I talked, prodded you – another mistake.

I said to you, ‘Go on. Tell me more about your notes on our relationship. You want a reward? For being so meticulous. You want a gold star?’

I slammed the palm of my hand against your heart. You stumbled backwards and I saw something in your eyes that I’d never seen before, and couldn’t name.

I looked down and I remember noticing my hands and that I still had my rubber gloves on. My yellow arms looked stupid. I hated them. And then you hugged me and I stood deflated in your arms.

‘Listen, Ruth,’ you said. ‘I don’t mean to hurt you. I cannot bear to see you hurt.’ And though I registered the official tone – its eeriness, its uncompressed, regular syllables – I let you continue.

 

There are bits that I can’t remember: holes, where the fabric of our conversation is stretched so thin that I can see through to the other side. I can see last night’s Ruth pulling her hair back into a too-tight ponytail; these same strands, thick with sweat, glued to my temples, my cheeks, my top lip, as I wake up alone in our bed.

Home, marriage, kids. You thought there was more to life than just that. You weren’t putting the blame on me. You were willing to take responsibility for your own actions. Throughout our relationship, you’d been the one responsible for both of us, and here you were, once again, doing just that, finally addressing all the fucked-up shit in it. You might as well take the blame for it all – really it was your fault, though purely for going along with things for so long. Hadn’t you bought me a ring, taken me on holiday, produced a bottle of champagne at the restaurant, even got down on one knee in the restaurant car park? Why the car park? For privacy. You thought public marriage proposals were tacky. Didn’t I? Of course I did.

Your face slackened with pity. Poor little Ruth. You stroked my forehead gently with your thumb. That’s when I knew you were going to leave me.

And then I couldn’t see straight. In my head I ran through the first-aid emergency checklist. I ticked all the boxes, over and over again in my frenzy, finishing and then starting again from the beginning: clammy skin, shallow breathing, tachycardia, hypothermia. I slumped against the dry goods cupboard. You were calculating the hours we’d spent decorating versus the times I didn’t want to practise tantric sex. We didn’t even own our own place yet. I mean, I wouldn’t even try anal sex.

You were tired of waiting for your life to kick into motion.

That’s when I started laughing.

‘You’re a fucking cunt,’ I said. ‘You’re a fucking hypocrite cunt.’

Where did that come from? People say stuff they don’t mean when they’re angry.

I know now that it was the cue you’d been waiting for. I fell for it.

‘If that’s what you think about me, Ruth, it’s fucking over.’

 

Things moved quickly after that. You were angry, wired, efficient. You pulled books off the shelves and slammed them into our laundry basket, like it was just a thing for carrying other things and not something that had held your clothes tangled with mine. I staggered after you as you moved through the house, your anger throbbing, turning surfaces inside out. You grabbed an armful of underwear, kept shouting that you knew it, you fucking knew it all along and what was the point in being reasonable with people like me, what was the point in even trying to explain when it was obvious I wasn’t willing to understand. I only looked like I was. Nothing ever went in.

You dragged your suitcase from the bottom of the wardrobe. You opened it and I looked inside. I saw it was already half packed. The numbing epiphany that you’d been making arrangements, that you weren’t acting on impulse but carrying out a plan.

When I managed to speak, I asked a stupid question.

‘Have you met someone else?’

‘You’re ridiculous,’ you shouted from the bathroom. ‘Do you ever listen to a word I say?’

I found you in front of the mirror with the electric clippers.

‘There’s a mindfulness commune in Cornwall,’ you said. ‘Very selective. I’ve been accepted and I’m going tonight.’

‘Tonight?’ I said.

‘God knows I could do with some peace of fucking mind.’

The sink filled up with your thin yellow hair.

 

That’s the last clear memory. I lie very still and wait for the room to settle. I have imagined a life without you sometimes. I did it absent-mindedly after a fight, when we’d made up but my throat was still clenched with resentment. Or when the cute guy at the supermarket rushed to discount the bouquets early because he knew how much I loved flowers, that I always bought myself a bunch on a Friday. You didn’t like it. You said cut flowers made you think of death. It was just another one of those things you said. You said so many things all the time. A life without you always struck me as a life of empty quietness.

Yet emptiness is the opposite of what I am experiencing. It isn’t an emotion exactly, rather a physical sensation: a tingling. I’m thinking about the parts of my body I never think about: the backs of my calves, the tips of my elbows, the shells of my ears, the interstices between my toes and fingers. I’m able to locate it in the middle of my chest – ventricular fibrillation – electricity travelling along the tiny wires of my nerve endings.

It jolts me up and I stand for a moment, stunned.

I start blindly towards the kitchen. With each slow step something of what is packed inside starts spilling out, like I’m punctured somewhere.

Go on, I tell myself. Go on, move, walk. So I walk.

I walk with my shoulder to the wall so that nothing can grab me in the semi-darkness but my arse hits the phone stand and I look at my hips, disappointed, because I have put on weight and my belly sticks out like I’m pregnant. A sharp pain folds me in two and my hands shoot to my back to soothe the period pain. I realize that your and my baby will never be born and I have to lean against the wall while white grief washes over me and I feel the oldest I have ever felt. I think of how often my patients ask for water and how many times I have poured it into a tea cup, cool from the tap, and held it to their lips. My dry mouth meets the edge of your CHOOSE LIFE mug and, as cold water trickles down my throat, the noise within me finally stops and I know what the problem is.

 

I have never been a person alone.

After ten years with Neil, I don’t know how to do it. I place my hands flat on the counter, inhale, open my eyes. Familiar things. I see the engagement ring between the pile of dirty dishes and the heart-shaped post-its. And this week’s shopping list, a neat round water mark on its top-right corner.

I pick it up and read the items one by one.


Shelf Life Livia Franchini

Launching a phenomenal new voice in fiction, SHELF LIFE is the exquisite, heart-wrenching story of a young woman rebuilding herself on her own terms after her partner of ten years abandons her, leaving behind only their shared shopping list for the upcoming week.

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