Jean Betrays Memory | David Hayden | Granta

Jean Betrays Memory

David Hayden

Knock hard, as if to wake the dead. Hold your shrieks, your flaws. There are shit streaks on the bed sheet. Jean looks into the mirror. Evidence arouses suspicion. A lack of evidence arouses suspicion. He scrapes the foam from his face with a comb. A crack echoes around the room and his head, lustrous, sapphire blue and cold, breaks in half, a calving glacier. The ice-half falls to the floor and shatters, pieces skitter into every corner.

‘I am relieved.’

His half-lips articulate the words quite clearly, with only the slightest of lisps. He takes the bar of soap and washes the newsprint from his hands.

‘My beautiful eye. My clean fingers. My soft palms that squeak when I rub them together. Good mights . . . nights.’

Jean gets a dustpan and brush, sweeps up the ice and deposits it in a tumbler. In the kitchen he sits at the table and watches the contents melt. He drinks it down the grey fluid in one, fluff, crumbs, grit and all. His head reforms, as complete as before. The new eye is blue where the old was green.

‘My father travelled under the name Sheila Bick,’ said Jean to the room. ‘The monster.’

Jean is alone tonight. His love is gone, long gone, but still present, the present still tense with her.

Everything she touches is made perfect to him and he must find its surfaces, its trace of her life, not there, imagined completely, a radiance that opens him to the depths. The hand passes through beauty, through time, reaching on and on without end. He scrapes the wall with the other hand, it sparks, his fingers flame, and he lights a cigarette. Life, a possession of smoke, a walk, barefoot, across a chill marble floor, a knife in flight into the dark, a vine, moving at vegetable speed, over a doorway. When we gaze at beauty, we betray suffering, we betray forgetfulness, we betray remembering.

She, Beth, was bored with being looked at, with being subject to ceaseless, narrow considerations. Eyes were awls that jabbed at her body, her face, her eyes. She had wanted what she hated until she desired it no longer, but even then, she could not escape because she was a subject and an object. Eyes sucked needily at her. There was no relief for anyone in touch. Beauty was a state of being blamed: for excess of presence, for admiration, for incommensurability with what might be felt, for being of a moment or worse, for being unendurable, for insufficiency, for being known, for being unknowable, for being a mirror, for being blank and depthless. The fact that forms and faces vary in their desirability across time and place was no help to one trapped in a time and a place. Ageing, which was to come, might be a relief, but what she had been would still have been, and all the pictures would remain for comparison, pitiful, regretful comparison. Others wanted what they thought she had, a beauty that was not her possession, but which possessed her. All the narcissists accused her of narcissism.

Jean gazed into the wet black window, beyond which was the garden, paths of white gravel, neat grey beds, silver flowers, lead trunked trees with pearly leaves shimmering in the night breeze, the ashen lawn, and on its surface his charming face, bright in the lamplight, streaked in scars. The car had come off the slick heath road at speed, had risen into the air, turned and turned again, and landed on its roof, which crushed into him where he sat on the passenger side. Glass showered them from all sides. A fire started but the rain ensured it came to nothing. Beth undid her seat belt and tried to open the door. It was jammed. She twisted and crawled out the window, she lost a few beads from her white silk dress but was otherwise unharmed. Beth reached in took her purse. She called the emergency services.

Beth crossed the road. She walked past the darkened pub, the pond with the sleeping ducks, down a ginnel and a side street and over to the vale entrance. The path dipped steeply until she was surrounded by dense old trees and briar tangles, where she passed swiftly through fern carpets and down tight muddy tracks. Three miles or so later, she emerged at the south end exit where there was a station that ran a night service. At St Pancras she bought a ticket and a coat. The oyster bar served her langoustines with a white burgundy. She boarded the train for Paris at 3.40 a.m., and five hours later breakfasted at the Café Delmas on the Place de la Contrescarpe before emptying first one bank account and, at another location, not to be disclosed, a safety deposit box. The police suggested to a reporter that Beth had taken a train to Marseilles but a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry stated that there was no evidence, that the claim was mere supposition and that, in France, a person has the inalienable right to disappear. Beth was not seen again.

Beth stayed with the car. Paramedics arrived first and attended to Jean, who was extensively injured, in a great deal of pain, and suffering from considerable blood loss. The fire service arrived and, as they were cutting Jean out of the wreck, the police came. Beth was breathalyzed and found to be intoxicated. She was charged but later, following the intervention of her barrister, successfully avoided prosecution. Jean was taken to hospital and was in a critical state for two weeks. He recovered well, given the seriousness of the accident, and was discharged two months later. Beth was at his bedside every day. Jean underwent extensive work with a physical therapist and needed home care for several months as he found it difficult to care for himself. On the day that the home help, Annie, signed-off for the last time, Beth left Jean.

The car came off the slick heath road at speed, rose into the air, turned and turned again, and landed on its roof, which compressed more than half-way down. Glass showered them from all sides. A fire started and began a slow progress across the chassis. Jean was conscious but could not move his arms or legs. With difficulty, Beth pressed a finger into the catch and released her seat belt. She tried to open the door. The door was jammed. She struck it with her fist, ineffectually. Heat and black smoke spread through the car. Jean could not make a sound. Beth shouted for help. The fire took hold and began to incinerate them. The landlord of the pub up the road was heading upstairs to his flat, after setting things straight and seeing off his staff. He stopped at the half-landing and a flash of orange caught his eye out the window. Less than ten minutes later a fire engine and ambulance were at the scene. Beth and Jean were pronounced dead.

Jean is alone tonight. He looks at his reflection in the wet black window.


Image © Petri Damstén

David Hayden

David Hayden was born in Ireland and lives in England. His writing has appeared in A Public Space, Zoetrope All-Story, The Dublin Review, AGNI, New York Tyrant and The Georgia Review. He is the author of three collections of short stories Darker With the Lights On (Carcanet/Transit), Unstories and Six Cities, and a novel titled All Our Love.

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