After I kill him I’ll go to Graceland. I can hear him breathing in the dark as I lace up my trainers. He rubs his nose in his sleep. Click-click go his nose bones. I slip the room key into my glove and let myself out.
The mirrored doors in the lift throw my reflection back at me. I shouldn’t have married so young. I’d do better now that I know a crook when I see one. The message is folded six times and tucked into my glove with the key: Our agent at dawn at the Fountain of Latona. I turn it over in my head as I walk through the hotel lobby.
Two porters stand bitching outside the revolving door. Words hang in the air between them. They think I don’t speak French because I’m a wife, but I do. ‘Tell me,’ says one, ‘why 308 has the golden wife.’
‘It’s the money,’ says the other porter. ‘She is as gleaming as his wheat.’
A French expression, but it’s true. I might as well be made of gold. I turn right out of the hotel and run down the Boulevard de la Reine. I breathe in for four steps and out for four steps. After I kill my husband I’ll go to Graceland and play guitar and be revered.
I should have known that it would be like this. My husband said: Mother can finally sleep knowing we’ve settled west of Green Park. When he introduced me to his family he unwound my pink scarf. Too loud, he said. His mother took me aside. Too young, she said, your hair. I grew it out.
The Boulevard de la Reine meets another wide street. White shutters blind windows. Trees comb the cold air. There are two in each island of sand and soil, with benches facing both ways between them. I duck into my headphones as I run, thumb through iTunes and choose a song. ‘Let’s rock,’ sings Elvis, ‘everybody in the whole cell block.’
I should have known that I would feel like this. My husband said: I wouldn’t talk about your volunteering around my brother if I were you. I did anyway, and his brother laughed. Tower Hamlets, his brother said, that borough’s white space to me – or should I say brown space. Ha, ha. He unfolded his newspaper and handed his wife the style section. My husband unfolded his newspaper and handed me the style section. There are still parts of London west of Green Park in which this happens every day.
East of Green Park, in Tower Hamlets, there is a school that looks like an ice cube. This is where I volunteer. The school is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Its loos do not flush and its desks are arranged like teeth, jutting out into each classroom. I am not allowed to rearrange them: I’m a volunteer teaching assistant, not an actual teacher.
I walk between students, trying to be funny. I also try to make them learn, but that mostly happens on its own. The Women’s March? said Hamza last week. Women ain’t starting revolutions.
Somebody has to, I told him.
My favourite student had his head on his desk. I leant over him while the others were writing. Khaled, what’s up? I asked.
Fuck off Miss, whispered Khaled, but I didn’t put his name on the board. I mean go away please, he said. I left him alone.
The Brasserie du Musée is closed when I run past it. Its umbrellas droop like sad ghosts beneath the black sky. They remind me of my husband. ‘Nix nix,’ sings Elvis, ‘I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks.’ My calves are hot. I remember to stop my right foot from pronating. A building billows behind a gate, its windows huge and arched. One is lit and through it I see angels tumbling in a painted sky. Their clothes are red, blue and gold. Strings of flowers float between them.
To the left of the round building a lane leads to another gate. There is a doorway cut into it, guarded by a policeman with a gun. He seems so easy with the gun, peering out into the darkness. I stop running and push my headphones down around my neck, just as someone in black turns onto the lane from a side street. Our agent at dawn? I wonder. The person in black shows the policeman a card and proceeds through the doorway. Beyond him, the palace rises against the lightening sky.
I look down. I am wearing black, except for my trainers, which are bright blue. I feel the message folded against my palm: Our agent at dawn at the Fountain of Latona. I look up. The policeman is talking to another policeman now, who is lighting a cigarette. I move towards them and as I approach I smile and they step aside. I shift my gaze past them and walk into the grounds. ‘Ouf, she’s a cannon,’ the smoking one says as I pass. Another French expression.
I am a cannon. Click-click. I will shoot a bullet into my husband’s head. It will tear through hair, skin and muscle and shatter the bones around his brain. Calcium, phosphorus and sodium will scatter. His skin will burn at the mouth of my gun. It will be a revolution against the patriarchy. Against the elite. After I kill him I’ll go to Graceland and play guitar among the oaks.
I want to go to Graceland, I told my husband last month.
He didn’t know what Graceland was. But we always do Versailles, he said, and the Trianon has three Michelin stars.
Ahead of me a window glows in the ground floor of the palace. Through it I can see a filing cabinet. On top of the cabinet is a hat with a brim, the kind of hat my father wears. He was drunk at our wedding. From one king of the markets to another, he said to my husband. Ha, ha.
I am on the other side of the rounded building now and have a clear view of its ceiling. The angels tumble. The flowers float. I recognise them: this is the chapel. We saw it yesterday, on our tour of the palace, but my mind was too much on the gun (where to get it, how to use it) to really notice the paintings. Now I do and they are lush.
Opposite the chapel is a building that is all straight lines, corners and columns – TO ALL THE GLORIES OF THE FRANCE. Direct translation is funny. Between this building and the chapel a path leads under an archway. I run along it, into the gardens. They open up around me. The sky is lilac. The lake is lilac. The statues are white and naked on the empty paths.
I stop and turn and I am dazzled. The first floor of the palace is drenched in gold: seventeen windows: seventeen mirrors: a riot of glass and light. Venice had a monopoly on mirrors when Versailles was built, I told my students last week.
Monopoly, sniggered Zainab.
Not that kind of monopoly.
Miss, said Khaled, is what Hamza says true?
What does Hamza say? My stomach clenched.
Your man’s a banker, innit, said Hamza. One of them bankers that jacked our flats.
‘Psst, over here,’ says a voice behind me, in French. I follow it down a flight of steps to a fountain, which is floodlit and drained. Latona is wrapped in cloth. I peer into the darkness beyond her, where someone squats among the frogs. My heart is in my mouth. Our agent at dawn at the Fountain of Latona, reads the message folded against my palm.
‘Are you – ’ I have forgotten the French word for ‘agent’. I clear my throat.
‘You know me?’ says the man. ‘I know you. The artist.’
‘The artist? I’m a musician.’
‘You sit here drawing while your father texts.’
‘He’s my husband,’ I say. I sketched the fountain while he checked his emails. That was yesterday, after our tour of the palace. ‘I’m waiting for someone with a gun,’ I say.
The man wrinkles his forehead.
‘I must kill my husband,’ I say. ‘He has ruined our economy.’
The man laughs. ‘Kill your husband.’ He uses ‘tu’, the informal pronoun.
‘It’s not a joke,’ I say. ‘After I kill him I’ll go to Graceland and play guitar among the oaks. I’ll be applauded all over the world. Teenagers will wear my face on their T-shirts.’
‘Oh good mother,’ says the man, ‘you’re not blagging.’ He has switched to the formal pronoun, ‘vous’. He pulls himself slowly up and out of the frogs.
‘Get back in the fountain,’ I say in my volunteer-teaching-assistant voice, ‘we have not finished our conversation.’
The man gets back in the fountain. ‘I am only a sculpture restorer!’ he says. I see now that he is wearing overalls and carrying something that looks like a flashlight but probably isn’t a flashlight.
‘Are you my contact?’ I ask. ‘Answer me directly.’
The man shakes his head. ‘I work for the palace.’ He pauses. ‘Does this mean you don’t have a gun?’
I sigh. ‘That is not the point.’ The message feels flat against my palm.
‘I’m gone,’ says the man. He leaps out of the fountain and runs up the steps behind me.
For a moment, I don’t move. I count the frogs around the base of the fountain. One of them is not quite a frog: it is still mostly a man, but with a grotesquely wide mouth. He is gasping up at Latona as she pulls her children away from him. May you live forever in the slime of your pond, she says, and the peasant sinks into the mud, where he will wallow forever, all frog. Latona reminds me of my husband. He would turn my students into amphibians if he could.
Beyond the fountain, the lake is pale. It tilts into the greying horizon. I walk towards it and wonder where the message got lost. Our agent at dawn at the Fountain of Latona. Last night my husband and I argued. You spend more time with those kids than you do with me, he said, and you know I’m not well.
I threw the decanter at him and missed. Brandy seeped into the carpet. You don’t want me to stay home, I said, I’d get in the way of your lunch-break whores. (I found a blonde hair in our bed once. A honeyer shade of blonde than mine.)
What do you hate more about me, said my husband, my job or the women you think I fuck?
I screamed: Fascist.
Go to sleep, my husband said. I’ll come to bed when you’ve calmed down.
I lay sweating under the duvet, looking at my sketch of the fountain. It was shit. A woman reached towards Latona, webs growing between her fingers. She was meant to be crying but she looked like her face was melting off instead. I felt like my face was melting off. After I killed my husband I’d go to Graceland. I just needed to book a flight and get a gun.
On the table by the window, the previous day’s roses had been replaced with tulips. After I killed my husband I’d wander the earth like Latona, except I wasn’t like Latona. My husband was. I began to drift. My husband arrived in a city and bent down to drink its clear water, like Latona. My students stirred the water with reeds until the muddy loans and subprime mortgages became dislodged from the bottom. My husband’s eyes clouded. May you live forever in the slime of your pond, he said, and my students’ faces began to change. Hamza’s ears shrank. Zainab’s skin scaled. Khaled’s mouth gaped grotesquely wide. They would be left to swim among my husband’s bad loans forever, all frog. He pulled his children away from them, except he had no children – it was me in his arms.
I woke up still sweating, but on top of the duvet. My husband had come to bed. I had not calmed down. My sketch of the fountain lay on the pillow beside me. I held it up to the bathroom light. It was still shit, but there was something new to it. A sentence was written beneath the frogs in black pen: Our agent at dawn at the fountain of Latona. I turned the drawing over twice. The message was still there. I folded it six times and hid it in the glove at the top of my suitcase.
My husband was deep in sleep. I looked around. The purple carpet and velvet armchairs were unchanged, but the tulips shivered in a stab of cold air. I walked over to close the window. Darkness ruffled the gardens below.
Our agent at dawn at the Fountain of Latona. I’d been right: I wasn’t alone. Beyond my husband’s bodyguards and doctors there were people on my side. They’d sent me this message. I pulled my nightdress over my head and stood naked by the window. I wondered if I was being watched. I ran my hands over my breasts. My husband rubbed his nose in his sleep. Click-click. I would be at the fountain at dawn.
‘Mademoiselle.’ I stop running and turn. It is the smoking policeman from outside the gate. ‘One of the staff has reported that he has been threatened,’ he says. He can’t meet my eyes. ‘By a beautiful woman.’
I smile. ‘You think I am beautiful?’
‘Euh, well.’ The policeman blushes.
I tilt my head. ‘And do I seem threatening to you?’
The policeman glances over my body. ‘No.’
‘So may I go?’
‘Euh, yes, Mademoiselle.’ The policeman can’t see the wedding ring inside my glove.
I will have to be more careful. My husband has spies everywhere. Perhaps he intercepted my contact. Perhaps the message was a set-up. I duck back into my headphones. ‘You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see,’ sings Elvis on loop. E flat, E natural, E flat, E natural. A set-up. It was a set-up. I feel my mind loop as I run. Anger rises and I run faster, but sometimes I can’t escape a thought. I must kill my husband and avenge my students. Sometimes an idea snags in my mind and stays there, on loop. Fucking crazy, my husband calls it. He pays his analyst to question me about it. Mixed delusional disorder, she calls it, and gives me pills for the jitters. Her name is Marie.
I can see the sky through the pink arches ahead of me. It is an increasingly pale blue. I pass two other joggers and three people with dogs. I don’t get jitters. I don’t take Marie’s pills. My husband says that she’s the only person who makes him feel normal, these days. She has honey-blonde hair and is a pawn of the elite.
‘One, two,’ sings Elvis, ‘one, two two.’ I picture him hanging on the pole as if he can’t stand. His legs jerk. I smile. The guy behind Elvis pretends to play the slide trombone and does a Charleston thing with his knees. No one notices him but he’s great. I bet he was excited to be in a movie with the King.
I reach the pink arches and sit down on a bench beside them. Close up, their stone isn’t pink: it’s white and red twisted to pinkness. I wiggle my ankles. The hotel is at the end of the promenade, I think. My husband will be turning over in bed. He will be rubbing his nose in his sleep. I’d never lived with a man before I lived with him. In the first weeks of our marriage I woke up feeling so stuck I couldn’t breathe. ‘Everybody let’s rock,’ sings Elvis on loop. My husband would lob an arm across me and pull me under the covers, into his softness. ‘Lay it on me daddio,’ sings Elvis’s backup. My husband can’t touch me since I found Marx.
After I kill him I’ll go to Graceland, but to kill him I need a gun. I want to hear it cock – click-click. I want to see my husband’s blood seep into the carpet. I stand, stretch my calves and start running again. I need a gun. Rows of trees scroll past me. I keep my knees aligned. I need a gun. Mist hangs in the fields beyond the trees. I swing through a gate. I need a gun. The trees on either side of me change shape. They are clipped into squares now. I need a gun. The road ahead of me lengthens and curls like a tongue. My husband’s bodyguard has a gun. ‘The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang,’ sings Elvis on loop. I need a gun. I will get a gun.
I take the left fork onto the Boulevard de la Reine, push back my headphones and coil their wire. My ankles ache. The air is cold on my neck. I turn into the cobblestoned drive of the hotel.
Click-click. A flash. A photo. It can’t be of me: I haven’t done anything yet.
Click-click. Click-click. Two figures walk towards me down the drive, holding cameras up like masks. I cover my face. My head is empty and light.
‘Madame,’ says one photographer, ‘what is your reaction?’
‘My reaction?’ I repeat. I let my hands drop. I don’t understand.
The photographers pause. Their cameras sink to their chests. One is a young woman. ‘Your husband, Madame.’
I look beyond her now and see the ambulance. ‘What happened?’
‘There’s been an accident.’
My chest deflates. ‘Is he dead?’
‘We were hoping you could tell us, Madame.’
It should have been me. I should have killed him. My face won’t be on anyone’s T-shirt now. I peel off my gloves and hold them tightly. The message crumples in my fist. Our agent at dawn. ‘Excuse me,’ I say to the photographers. I walk away from them, between police cars. My husband’s bodyguard is at the hotel entrance. Click-click go the cameras. He follows me in.
‘Where is he?’ I ask him.
‘I am so sorry, Madame – ’
‘Where is he?’ I repeat.
‘The third floor is off-limits.’
I lead the way into the lift. ‘Madame, they won’t let us in,’ says my husband’s bodyguard. The mirrors throw our reflections back at us. I am pink. The bodyguard is pale. His gun hangs useless from his belt. A bell pings: third floor. I turn left out of the lift. Eight doors to 308.
The corridor is full of men. Some are in suits. Some are policemen. Some are in white from head to toe. ‘Madame,’ they say as I weave through them, ‘it is not permitted.’ I recognise the smoking policeman from the palace. He recognises me.
‘Madame,’ I correct him. ‘I am his wife.’
I turn the room key in the door and click-click goes the handle. Here is our hotel room. Here are three men standing at the foot of our bed. I look for my husband but can’t see him. The carpet between the three men is stained with brandy. There are little signs on it reading ‘1’ and ‘2’.
‘You must not enter,’ says the tallest of the men. His eyebrows trail off into nothing.
‘I am his wife,’ I say again. My husband’s bodyguard puts his hand on my lower back.
The man with the eyebrows steps forward to hide something. It is my husband. He is seated at the desk, wearing the hotel dressing-gown with the crest on its pocket. His head no longer looks like a head. It has transformed into something else, something blooming with blood and gore. I walk towards him. Sunlight blows in through the window.
My husband’s mouth is ripped grotesquely wide. I reach out to touch it. I remember the first time we stayed in this room. We ate spaghetti in our dressing-gowns. My husband wasn’t my husband yet. I’m a virgin, I said.
‘Madame,’ says the man with the eyebrows, ‘it is not permitted.’ He catches my wrist.
I pull my arm away from him. He is wearing blue plastic gloves that fold around his fingers. ‘Suicide?’ I ask. My husband’s right sleeve hangs to the carpet.
‘We believe so,’ says one of the men who is not the man with the eyebrows.
I picture my husband unfolding a newspaper. A set-up. It was a set-up. I should have been the one to part him from himself. I follow his right hand to the carpet. His fingers brush a gun.
‘Madame?’ says the man with the eyebrows.
‘Madame is in shock,’ says my husband’s bodyguard.
‘The hotel has prepared a room for her,’ says the man with the eyebrows. He hands the bodyguard a key and guides me back into the corridor. The bodyguard walks me past the lift. I needed a gun and my husband had one. I needed to kill my husband and he killed himself. My husband took everything away from me.
The bodyguard opens the door to 315. It faces the spa instead of the gardens. ‘Madame?’ says the bodyguard. I let my eyes go blank.
A set-up. It was a set-up. I am full of ugly things. I stir my mind and it is murky. Men have all the guns: the means of destruction are in the hands of the elite. The air around me clouds as I look through it to my husband. May you live forever in the slime of your pond, I think, and frogs leap in my chest. But my husband’s face has already changed. His brains are on the carpet.
‘I need to be alone,’ I say to my husband’s bodyguard.
‘Of course, Madame,’ he says. He backs out of the room.
The door closes. Click-click. I unlock my phone. I have missed calls from my husband’s mother and from my father back in London. I put on my headphones and choose a song. ‘Love me tender,’ sings Elvis. I open my news app. Financier found dead in Versailles Palace hotel, reads one headline. There is a picture of me beside it, standing in the drive with my head in my hands.
Photograph © deadmanjones