WHEN GLIDED IN PORPHYRIA
(A story inspired by the poem Porphyria's Lover, by Robert Browning)
The weather is vile. The rain is hammering against windows that rattle frantically in the wind, the furious thunder bellows, and lightning dances across the sky, fracturing the dark blue with blinding flashes of blue-white. But the tumult outside, violent and dramatic as it is, is nothing compared to the violence of my own raging emotions.
She was supposed to come to me tonight. She called the day before yesterday and said she would come tonight, that she could make it because she and her husband (oh God, her husband) would be at a gallery opening just five minutes away.
"I can slip away for an hour or two," she had said quietly, calmly, "he'll barely miss me, and it'll be a complete crush anyway. He never has a moment to spare at these events." I just made a non-committal, safe noise of agreement, and started running plans over in my head for what I would do, what I would say, when I saw her again after all this time.
I have been waiting, wanting, visualising the moment I would see her again for so long, so very long. In the endless time alone I lay there in the darkness, or sat there in the light, watching the days and nights pass my window. And all the time, I was thinking of Ria, dreaming that we would be together again as we had been before the trouble, before the demons got to me.
Dreaming as I ate like an automaton, clearing my plate of the bland institution food. Dreaming as I went through the motions of 'taking exercise'. Dreaming as the people in white padded past at night murmuring to each other, pressing their drugs on me. Dreaming as the talking heads gabbled at me. Dreaming as the groups of other, sad, broken people 'shared' their own darknesses. Those dreams were all I had to cling to, my one small piece of a reality outside of the place I was in, something to lift me out of the nightmare that was my life.
Until three weeks ago. Last month, when the doors of hell closed behind me, releasing me back into the world. "You are over the worst," they said, "you'll be OK. You seem to have come to terms with things. Just keep taking the meds, and come and see us every month. You'll be fine." Such prosaic words they used to grant me my freedom.
And so I left the little secure unit where I'd been looked after so thoroughly and objectively, and went silently back to the flat that I'd bought outright in the brief heady days of my success. The flat I'd intended to share with Ria.
It was clean and aired when I got there, with fresh flowers in vases, and a 'welcome home' note from my sister that I barely glanced at before I reached for the phone. It didn't even occur to me that it might not be connected until after I heard the hum of the dialling tone. These things were taken care of in the world I'd been living in, and it seemed they had continued to be taken care of outside. I smiled a little to myself. My sister Valerie always had been very competent at looking after anyone who needed looking after. I wondered, if she hadn't been overseas back then whether things would ever have got to the stage where I needed to be locked away.
Of course, the first thing I did was to call Ria. I would call Valerie afterwards to thank her, I thought to myself. I listened to the shrilling sound that meant the phone was ringing, trying to imagine how she'd sound when she heard my voice. But, when the phone was eventually picked up, instead of Ria I got her mother. She explained the situation, very gently, very compassionately. I could sense how much it hurt her to have to tell me. We had always got along. "Oh God, I'm so sorry Luke," she had said, "I never dreamed... It's been five years..."
My Ria was married, it seemed. Had been for the last year. Not my Ria anymore, she was Mrs. Somebody-or-other. I asked her mother for her phone number. "I'd like to speak to her, congratulate her," I explained. She was very understanding. If she was reluctant to tell me how to get hold of Ria, it didn't show in her voice. We talked banalities for a few minutes, she asked how I was, I told her I was fine, and then we said a friendly goodbye.
I dialled the unfamiliar number. It was the first time in longer than I could remember when I'd had to think about a number I was calling, rather than just press buttons automatically. Then her voice on the phone -- bright, cheerful. "Hello, this is Ria". I caught every little nuance of that voice. The catch in it at the moment she recognised me. The little, gasping sob of desperation as she explained to me "They said you would never really recover, never be the same." The growing calmness as she told me that yes, she loved her husband, that he was a good, loving man. The hesitation as finally she agreed to see me, talk to me. The competence as she said she would sort things out and call me back when she could arrange a suitable time.
She was supposed to come tonight.
I curse the weather with every word in my extensive vocabulary, as I realise that she won't come, can't possibly come, not in this. It isn't even vaguely reasonable to expect her, and I'm back in touch with reason now. So, I'm going to have to do it all again, call her, persuade her to see me, convince her that it is the right thing to do, and that this storm wasn't some kind of omen or message telling her she shouldn't do it. And I don't know if I can, it hurts so much. I watch the storm raging, feel hot tears of frustration, anger and loss start to slide down my cheeks.
I only want to see her, I tell myself, That's all. To see her, to talk to her, to find out when she stopped loving me. To bring things to a closure. The talking heads were always very keen on 'closure' and 'resolution'. They emphasised over and over how important it was. If I can get some of that, I think, maybe I really will be fine. Without it, without seeing her, I'm just floating, drifting, lost. I resolve to call her again in the morning, to press her to see me as soon as possible.
Now, suddenly, behind me, a noise. The unmistakable snick of a key in the lock. Valerie? But no, it can't be Valerie, she's away for the weekend, she came round yesterday to tell me. And besides me and Valerie, only one person has ever had a key to this place. She's here. Against all hope, and all reason, Ria has come.
The first thought that comes to me is "My God, She kept her key! All this time, and she never threw it away!" I can't turn, my body won't let me. I'm glued here looking out of the window, my eyes fixed on the storm. I want to turn, to see her, to drink in how she looks. Still I stand, petrified, unmoving. Behind me she calls my name, softly. Her voice frightened, pleading, calls again, begging me to look at her through her tone, although the only word she says is 'Luke'. At last my body responds, and as I face her, I see her putting her dripping coat over the back of a chair with trembling hands, the hair wet, plastered, clinging to her head, the water dripping onto her shoulders. She looks scared, and bedraggled and very young and uncertain.
After a long moment one of us moves. I don't know if it is her, or me - perhaps it is both, but we cross the space that separates us and meet, somewhere, and I'm hugging her, holding her tight, and telling her how much I missed her, and she is crying like a broken-hearted child.
"They wouldn't let me see you," she says, "they said it would make things worse. They..." she breaks down in tears again and sobs against my chest. Over and over again she says, "I'm so sorry, so very, very sorry..."
I put my hands on her shoulders and step back a bit, so that I can look at her face. I shush her, gently, putting my fingers on her lips, then, very softly, I brush the tears away with my thumbs, and tilt her face to kiss the tracks they have made. She pulls away from me, just a little, clearly embarrassed and awkward. I apologise, and step back putting a safer distance between us. I berate myself internally for my clumsiness, angry that I had forgotten that we aren't lovers any more, that she is some other man's wife.
She shivers and I suggest we go and sit by the fire, before she catches a chill. I grab a large cushion from the sofa and throw it onto the floor beside the fire, in front of a large armchair. "Sit on that and get warm," I say, "and I'll go and get a towel, and dry your hair." She nods, smiles, and sits. As I go to the bathroom to fetch a towel, she wraps her arms around herself, hugging herself and rubbing her hands vigorously up and down her upper arms. I wonder if it's for warmth, or comfort.
I return, with a towel, and a cup of coffee, which I pass to her. As she sips at it, blowing the steam away, I sit in the chair behind her, leaning forward to rub the wetness out of her hair. While I'm doing it, I ask her about her husband. She tells me that he too is an artist, a good one, successful, renowned even. "Not like you though," she tells me, "he paints landscapes, very serene, very detailed." We both look at the large painting over the fire - my first prize-winning picture, the picture that I painted for her 2Oth birthday. A female figure, in bold strokes, wild-eyed, wild-haired, face distraught -- Woman wailing for her demon lover. "No, not at all like you." She smiles. He's quite a bit older than her, she tells me, but he is nurturing and caring, he helps her with her own work. I say mildly that he sounds a wonderful person.
"He is," she replies, and her voice is warm and very certain, "I love him very much." She turns and looks into my eyes then, trying to gauge my reaction.
I drop the towel now and look her over properly for the first time . She is wearing her hair shorter now, in a kind of blonde bob around her face. She is thinner, and looks willowy, elegant. She is dressed in muted colours, soft greys and dusky pinks. The cut of the clothes is soft too, and they seem to drape her and cling to her at the same time, expensive fabrics, expensive clothes. Most people would probably call this an improvement over the plump girl with the flowing hair and the hippy look she used to affect I suppose, but to me she seems subdued somehow, like the colours she wears, and she has lost some of the vitality and bounce that I knew in her. I realise that she must have turned thirty recently, and that she is no longer a girl in any way. The eyes that look back at me, accepting my scrutiny are the same deep blue though, and my Ria looks out of them. I wonder how I appear to her, as she scrutinizes me in her turn, but I don't have the courage to ask. I know that I am very changed, outside, but inside I am the same Luke Bresson who has always loved her.
The silence lengthens as we look at each other, until it becomes oppressive, painful. I have to break it somehow, and I say the first thing that occurs to me. "Do you love him the way you loved me?" I ask. A stupid question, I know. One I should have kept to myself, but one I badly want to know the answer to.
"God, No!" she almost laughs at the idea, shaking the bobbed head. "I loved you to distraction. I was wild about you Luke. My first and last thought every day was of you, and so were most of the thoughts in between, come to think of it. That was a dramatic, extravagant love. My love for Anthony is quite, quite different - calm, companionable, comfortable." She looks at me again, "We could never have been comfortable, you and I," she says.
I agree, smiling, that whatever we had, it wasn't comfort, but even as I say it, I feel the smile slide from my face. Not comfort, I think - something far richer than comfort, something so very much more valuable. The memories of the times we shared flood through my mind, pictures of the excitement, the uproarious laughter, the torrents of tears and the searing, consuming passion. No, I reflect, bitterly, you couldn't call that comfort by any means; but I'd trade my soul to have it back, all the same. What is wrong with drama and extravagance, after all? Wouldn't most people really prefer that to mere comfort? And if not, how does Hollywood survive? But I can say none of this to Ria, without risking her running away from me, so I move onto safer ground.
"How did you get away, in this?" I ask, gesturing to the window, "And when do you have to be back? I have so much to ask, so much to tell you. It's been a long time Ria, for both of us."
"I told Anthony an old friend from university was in town, it seemed easiest. It isn't even a lie, entirely." Suddenly, she blushes very red. "I knew we'd have a lot to talk about so...." The next words come tumbling out in a rush, "I said I might not come back tonight. I said I'd call him, if I was staying."
I sit, completely motionless, looking at her sitting on the floor in front of me, her knees tucked up, her arms wrapped round them and her face turned to look at me, tilted upwards, still blushing furiously. I lean forward, and caress the hot cheek gently with a fingertip. She bites her lip and a shudder shakes her whole body "And? Do you think you are going to make that call?" I wait, but she says nothing. I take a deep breath and ask her again, trying not to beg, "Will you stay with me tonight Ria? And, if you stay ... do you want to do more than talk?" I whisper.
She seems to stop breathing for a moment, and complete silence falls over the room. Then she nods, just once, almost imperceptibly.
"Please," I say, "call him. Now, before you change your mind."
She pulls a mobile phone from her bag, punches in a couple of numbers. There is a hesitation as she waits for an answer, then she speaks.
"Ant? It's me...... Yes, absolutely drenched, it was bucketing down...... Listen darling, I'm going to stay here tonight ...... Yes, I know, I miss you too, but you'll be engrossed with Piotr till four at the earliest, you know you will...... You never even notice I'm there once the two of you get started...... OK, I'll call you first thing in the morning...... Oh, alright, maybe not first thing, but quite early...... No, you've got the keys in your pocket...... Look, as I won't be there, why not take Piotr straight home rather than going out drinking first? That way I won't have to worry about you driving. There's several of bottles of Muscadet in the fridge...... Okay darling, I'll see you tomorrow... ... Yes, you too, bye darling." Her voice throughout is light, easy, relaxed. I wonder idly where she learned such deceit.
She puts the phone away, taking several deep breaths, keeping her eyes downcast, seemingly lost in thought. Then she looks up at me again, her eyes pinned on my face, a long piercing gaze. "You do know this will be goodbye, don't you Luke?" she asks, "I can only do this once, I really can't bear any more than that. But ... well...I wanted to say goodbye properly, and this was my only chance." Her expression is completely open, unguarded, and full of pain. I think I can see love there, and regret too, but most clear is the pain.
I stand, and hold out my hands to her, helping her to her feet.
"I know, I understand." I say the words gently. "Even though I wish it could be different, I do understand."
With that, I turn, and lead her to the bedroom. We could talk all night, I don't doubt, but it wasn't for talk she came, any more than it was for talk I invited her really. Closure wouldn't be found in words, not for Ria and I. We could only really find release from whatever held us to each other by burning it up in a final conflagration.
Even so, even though, in the deepest recesses of my mind, I had probably always known that talk wouldn't be enough, I hadn't been expecting this. I hadn't dared to hope that there could be any more than a brief, painful conversation. The only reason the bed is made and the room tidy is because that Valerie came by yesterday and I spent all last night in a chair, fretting over what I was going to say and do tonight - pure luck. Devoutly, I bless my nervousness, because Ria has always hated mess, and I don't want anything to spoil this, if it's going to be the last I shall ever have of her.
I move to turn on the light, but she gestures a 'no' at me, and I drop my hand. We undress each other in the half-light of a streetlamp filtering through the flimsy curtains, caressing as we do, gentle, hesitant touches. At last we kiss, slowly, but with gathering intensity, our breathing becoming more and more ragged as the heat overtakes us, the way it always has. We lean into each other, drowning in the kisses.
And now all moments melt into one moment, and we move to the bed, naturally, with no trace of awkwardness. We lie, side by side, touching each other, our hands and lips and tongues unerringly finding the things again that we always did to please each other most. The rediscovery is tentative at first, but with each movement comes a growing of confidence. We have forgotten nothing; nothing that we used to do - a caress there, a kiss here, each contact lifting us higher, delighting us more. It is still dramatic, still extravagant, still everything that I remember, more intense even, being, as it is, tinged with the desperation that comes from us knowing that this night is all there will ever be, forever. Finally, we reach ecstasy, together as we always have, so perfectly attuned that neither of us can find release without the other. And now, after, we lie locked in each others arms. I let myself cry at last. Tears are permitted after such heights of emotion, even for me, who must keep such a tight hold. Surely, I think, after this, I am, I must be, allowed to cry.
"I love you Ria," I tell her. It is not enough, but they are the only words I have left in me at this moment.
She holds me and comforts me, stemming my tears, stroking my face. Then she kisses me. "I love you too Luke, " she says, "I always have, and I always will. Nothing you do, or I do, nothing I feel for anyone else, can ever change the way I love you."
She takes a deep, slow breath and goes on. "You know that if things had been different I would have been happy to be yours forever, that I would have been yours forever. I wish they had been, Love, I really do wish they had been different, but they aren't. However much I might want to be with you, and I think you know how much that is, I simply can't. I'm sorry Luke."
She kisses me again, and once again we lose ourselves in each other, and in our love, not speaking any more, because the words that matter have all been said.
And now at last she sleeps, exhausted with passion, and pain, and perfect communication. I look at her, my Ria, at the tousled head, the eyes fluttering behind the eyelids, the chest rising and falling with the steady, even breath and the relaxed arm thrown across the pillow, as the curves of her body fit themselves into the hollows of mine. I know she meant everything she said, for Ria has never been able to lie to me, and wouldn't, even if she could. Her dearest wish is to be with me forever, spend eternity with me. If she could, she would, and only circumstance stands in her way.
She loves me! Oh, of course she is fond of him, this Anthony. He has been good to her, when she needed goodness, he is kind and caring and of course she is grateful. No doubt she loves him in that comfortable way she described, and she owes him a duty, a loyalty for his care and compassion. He is a worthy man, and she will never hurt someone who loves her, and who deserves pain as little as he does. So, she will return to him, and live out her comfortable, companionable life, and never even give him a hint that he has denied her her heart's desire.
But, even if she manages to deceive him the way she deceived him last night, I know, and she knows, that at heart all she truly wants is to be mine, forever. She will yearn for the drama, the extravagance, the wildness we've known together, even while she relaxes in the comfort he offers. She will always be wishing for more - for me - for us to be together always.
It will be such a little thing to grant that wish, I think. A matter of moments. All I need to do is this. "Relax my darling," I whisper as I lean over her, "it's all so simple, so very easy." A smile ghosts over her face at the sound of my voice.
She struggles a little at first, my love, resisting, as her sense of duty and honour says she must, before she surrenders to her heart, and to her own selfish desires. But soon she is still, her head on my chest, that soft pillow supporting her, behind her beautiful head, well away from the peaceful face now. A satisfied, fulfilled smile seems to hover on her lips, and I keep her there against me, the way she wants to be held, the way I want to hold her.
I don't know how long we have lain like this, hours or moments. It hardly matters. The dawn has been and gone with a riot of exultant birdsong and the room is flooded with golden sunlight which touches Ria's pale cheeks with colour. She is getting cold now, so I pull her closer and tuck the duvet round her.
From the living room a mobile phone shrills its high insistent tone. It rings on and on and on and then finally falls silent, as no-one stirs to answer it. No-one will ever stir to answer it now, however often, or however long it rings, because Ria is where she wants to be. Here, in my arms. Forever.