Author’s Notes: Exam piece, written under timed conditions. The task was to write a story titled “Always Together”, and to write about an elderly couple. Also, as with all exam pieces, the aim is to show a degree of skill with the written word and use as many and varied a lot of literary techniques as you can think of.
1,300 words approx.
Copyright Emma Maree Urquhart.
In my head, it never fell apart. The garden never overgrew; the walls never yellowed with tobacco and rotted with mildew; I never lost you.
In the mirrors lie the shadows of who I am and who I should be: the young lover with the chestnut hair; the reflection I’ll find, infallibly, happy.
My mind is cracking apart and before long the mirror-glass will follow, then the walls, and I last of all – a body stiff with age and rigor mortis, grey hair and paler complexion. They will say: “She never felt a thing – she was too mad to know.”
You have to understand that you cannot talk us out of this. My husband is beautiful – young and bright-eyed, looking like a fresh young man new to the world, to work and love, to life. I feel it in his shaky breaths and slight brushes, the youth running through him, but inside I know that behind this illusion of our love he’s all wrinkles and dry, stretched skin. One day, the illusion will fade away and we’ll be left with what we are and I won’t live with that. I can’t live like that.
“I fear I’m boring them,” the old woman I am flashes a grin to her husband and raises the pen, stretching back against the chair.”I don’t know what I’m supposed to talk about.”
The young man looks up from his place sprawled across the couch, groaning as he props a sleepy-eyed head upon the arm of the couch. His hair is mussed from the pillows, and it takes a moment for him to make sense of my words, still pulling his mind back from the dream and staring blankly past the strands of dark hair strewn across his face until he finds it.
“Write about us,” he yawns. “And how in love we are.”
“Or you could describe it to me, and I could write it down.”
He considers it, pulling himself upright and coming over to the chair. “Really, really in love,” he says, resting his head on my shoulders, silky hair and warm, rattling breath brushing my skin. “More in love than life with death, light with dark, moon with stars, the devils of Hell with the humans of Earth. More than that!”
I’m gone on the brush of his breaths, completely swept away into distraction.
“Let’s not,” I whisper, suddenly aware of the silence and how clear it makes the sound of our breathing, the cold air of the house and how clear it makes the warmth of his body, the faint smell of mildew and how much stronger it makes his aftershave and all the memories it leads me too. The couch is still warm. The tastelessness of my mouth, the longing on my lips for him.
“Later, maybe,” my husband says gently, resting his lips for a moment against my cheeks. “This won’t wait. Tomorrow, you could lose your mind, and where would that leave us?”
“Together?” I venture.
“Ideally, my dear, but what are we without our minds? You lose your mind, and you could lose me.”
“Except, you promised,” I say.
“Until death-“ he begins, before I interrupt again.
“You promised me longer. Forever.”
“I did,” He’s thoughtful now, pale fingers drumming against my arm. “But forever is an awfully long time. I might get tired of waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
He’s gone before I get my answer. My love is like that, he has a habit of dissapearing. There’s a thrill he gets from making people afraid he won’t come back – but he always returns to me.
So I wait. I lie in the chairs and on the sofa, curled up in corners like a corpse, listening to my death-rattle breathing. Staring at the creases in the fabric of the couch, and raising a hand to feel the creases across my face. Sleep comes as swift as the best kinds of death.
When I awake again, the room’s draped in the muted blues and greys of the night. I’ve slept in front of the mirror again, and when I rise my head I find my worn old face looking back at me, misty behind fine webs of dust. My love is still absent, and I miss him dearly.
“Why aren’t you here for me?” I ask, if only to force my lips back into work and rid them of the foul aftertaste of sleep.
“I always am!”
When his yell cuts through the night-time silence, stopping my heart’s beat for a moment, he sounds hurts, and I feel a sharp stab of guilt at causing it. I look up again and see him, faded i the background of the reflection, caressing the back of the chair.
“Promise?” I ask, voice softened by submission.
“I promised before, and I need not do it again,” he says, leaning into the chair and letting his hair fall down and merge with mine – midnight black on moonlight white. “‘Till death and beyond. What would make you doubt a promise like that?”
I have to force the words out now- his breath against my neck tightens my throat, his gaze knots my tongue. I struggle, and force his answer out. “The feel that you’re not here for me any more.”
The sparkles in his eyes glimmers, held in all it’s brilliance for a moment, before dulling away. The word’s stop him dead mid-stroke. He curls and uncurls his fingers, sinking back further against the chair.
The floodgates have opened, and everything is rushing out now, a flood of unfiltered emotion, a wave that’s been waiting too long to come crashing down. “You haven’t been here for me for years!” I choke.
My love looks up at that, a smirk playing away at his lips.
“My dear, that does make sense,” my dull-eyed man says quietly, pale face in soft-focus in the dusty reflection. “I’ve been dead.”
The tight squeeze of his skeletal fingers on my shoulder sends me turning my eyes away from the mirror and onto him – or what should be him, but instead is the cool shadows behind my chair.
In the mirror, the reflection is the same – an old woman alone – but when I close my eyes and look again, there’s so much more to see in the cloudy glass. There’s he and I, so much older. There’s the old man passing the mirror without giving it a glance, when once he was so vain. Then there’s I, cowled in the black of mourning. I look again, and I’m still sitting in black, alone.
In the quiet of early morning, I can still here the echoes of his voice – “My dear, that does make sense…” – and I’m on my feet, ignoring the brittle cracking of my old bones and the pain of wasted muscles forced into use. Bones loosen, dislocate and collide with the glass, sending a net of cracks across it and a dust cloud in front of it.
The glass falls in showers through the dust cloud to the floor, reflective rain, and crimson lines spread across the cracks in my skin. As fresh tears send streaks across my face, I move and search the house for my love, for his breath, and his touch and oh god…
My search ends where it began, standing above the broken glass and staring at the empty frame.
In my head, it never fell apart.