FICTION: ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ by Susie Wild

You did not expect him to return to you on the bendy bus, but that is where he finds you. Something about its rubber innards – the accordion ribcage inhaling and exhaling – reminds you of his concertina demeanour. Your squeezebox: he was always stretching, always reaching for something higher. Books from the top shelf; imaginary basketball hoops. Always jumping up to tap at signs and street furniture, swinging from bars and branches as you passed, monkeying down the high street with a spring in his step. As if he wasn’t tall enough already, but he was, two heads above you; so that you’d need ballerina point work to tippy-toe up for a kiss, hand stretched skywards for balance. UpuPUP and he’d lift you; dangle you, a puppet, from his arms. He filled every space with his bouncing and fidgeting and talking but now it is your turn to uncoil.

You say, ‘What took you so long?’ It was August when he last travelled with you. Today, taken at face value, could be high summer. Blue sky. Bright sun. People in shades. The Council has salted any sign of ice from the main drag of the Kingsway, yet the cold still bites. Elsewhere in the shadows, nooks and crannies, the elbows and knees of the city, the ground sparkles. So rare is this whiteness, this paper blank. Closer to the beach the Winter Wonderland whizzes flushed-faced children and new lovers around mini rollercoasters, the big wheel, the temporary ice rink. Bulbs flash in epileptic fits. Eyes light up at hot chocolates topped with twinkling nipples of whipped cream. Chapped lips smack around Bratwursts, steam rising through the Arctic air.

The bus is purple. Like a bruise. A mobile waiting room, it takes the wounded and the worriers between the city’s hospitals, from Singleton to Morriston, sticking on narrow streets and sharp corners. A wheezing box-shaped musical instrument, it plays by compressing coughs and expanding bellows of pain. It is a comfort to find him here, full of life amongst the limping and the listless. You always wondered how someone who had come from so much darkness could shine so much light. Today he has come out to play and you have turned onion layered – peel and cry. You close your book. You say, ‘Forgive me.’

 

 

For the past month you have looked for him far and wide. He is never where you think he should be. You slipped back into each other, into your lovers’ shorthand so quickly. Like the time that had elapsed between your first coupling and now was but a sneeze, not thirty-two years. You remember the (unfounded) nervousness in reuniting – ‘What would you talk about?’ etc. – but it didn’t matter, did it? You were soon back to the old routines, jokes, jibes. The easy familiarity, the tactile nature that others remarked upon when you were not together, when you were ‘kids’. Now, apart again, you ache to be closer to him. You try to go to his bedside but can’t manage to get yourself there. Too scared of what you’ll find. Of what you’ll lose (again).

 

 

Earlier this week you went to the waterfalls. Dangerous to go in this weather, to go alone, friends said. Weather scares people. People who are not you. You took your neighbour’s scrap of a dog for a long walk across snow-glazed fields to a waterfall frozen in motion – that which drips drippeth no more. You stared at orbs of ice swirling in hypnotic patterns in the lake yet the crystal balls did not share their secrets. They did not show future images of you stepping into the stalactite jaws of caves to emerge unscathed and with him. With Jack. Walking gloved hand in gloved hand across an unsullied, vanilla world. Yesterday you searched Swansea Bay. You found only the ghost of Devon. The sand was hard underfoot, frozen, highlighted by salt lines of snow. You left barely an imprint upon its blanched skin, a faint impression of your wayward journey between socialising circles of dogs and dog owners. The sun cooling to spun gold.

 

Words have been dramatically taken from both of you. Bereft you are left swimming in white space, at the mercy of the cursor’s knife: nip, tuck; cut and pause. On the bus, at home, at your office – he was absent, was not online, was not offering a green light to guide you back – although it was social networking that had first brought the two of you back together.

He found you.

It was on a bus then, too, as it happens. You were on your way to work. Looking at Facebook on a mobile outrun by new technology. You saw that he had sent a friend request but you couldn’t look at his photographs on your stupid phone. You wanted to see how he had aged. He was less springy by then, yet still a live wire, eyes animated behind glass panes.

You spent the morning in the office stalking through his profile, trying to work out which friends were current or former women in his life, which one was the inevitable ex-wife. Deciding if he had picked up any unsavoury habits in the decades since college, the decades you had been apart – amateur dramatics, a penchant for axe murder, vegetarianism. Your heart fluttered with a memory of first love. You were glad to see he still had his full thatch of hair and pedantic attitude for spelling and grammar. You doubted that straightened smile still held all his own teeth.

You said, ‘Yes.’ But first you tidied up your own profile, unfriended the latest failing amour, removed the worst photographs documenting the yo-yo years of binges and bulges; culled the more embarrassing status updates. You accepted his request. Sent a couple of short, polite greetings back and forth through the website’s messaging function. You then emailed longer essays, edited versions of your lives, the grown up kids you’d been too scared to have together, back then, had found new mates for later instead. A sprinkle of divorces were glossed over. As were the careering careers. You avoided discussions about money.

You decided to meet up again In Real Life. You went to Curry Club at a chain pub near the station, in a town halfway between your two houses. It went well. You pressed repeat. Occasionally you went wild, met up for Steak Club instead. He ordered a salad, watched as you ripped the sirloin-flesh apart, ate it blue.

You got a hotel room above the pub. It quickly made more financial sense to move in together. He made several jokes about your cooking. You suggested he should take up meat again. Mostly you ate out instead. He liked that. It reminded him of those early courting days, he said, and you wondered which time he meant. He looked at you through your rose-tinted glass, knocked back his pints of Guinness, and patting his rounding gut, he said: ‘Got to keep my strength up for you, darling,’ and then he winked.

Sometimes you’d find yourself – lost – floating through a conversation as he talked, unable to either stand, or believe, how much time you had missed out on… when he was there, always just there… and he’d have to finger-click you back to the present, dirty-dance you forward to a smile; snap you out of that mood. There, in the kitchen, as you twirled – music playing or not – you’d feel all your ages at once, your heart giddy with a first love grown; a line-dancing row of your feet remembering past moves, those wrong and right steps.

After three months you got married. You told your children: ‘We aren’t getting any younger, why wait?’ Your children didn’t protest. They were glad to have someone else take responsibility for you. Glad to get Christmas back to themselves. They knew –one way or another – that these things never lasted. They had stopped buying new hats, had begun recycling old outfits along with the same forced poses and wavering smiles. They had said that perhaps three times down the aisle was enough, but you liked falling in love, liked Elizabeth Taylor, liked the number eight, and liked a fuss. The one that got away had returned to you. You thought this time, perhaps, things would be different. Things would last.

 

 

He got sick on your honeymoon. At first he thought it was the food, then the water. Back home they told you it was neither. You threw up that day too. You had always been a fair weather friend. When the storm came you didn’t visit him much. You felt like you were the one who should be hospitalised. The doctors kept telling you that he was there, that he knew who you were. You knew different. He became delirious. He called you by his ex wife’s name. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. It wasn’t the thing that hurt the most. He stopped looking like himself. Nurses would find you standing in the middle of the ward trying to decide which sick man was your husband, which frail thinning body. Instead of love and laughs his throat only coughed up bile. You preferred it when he was talking, jumping, monkeying, swinging. You ran scared, as you had all those years before. You ran scared, though you wanted him to stop you. (Unconscious, he could not diffuse your drama queen whims).

You decided to seek your husband elsewhere, in health and not sickness. Ignoring his daughter’s phone calls, you continued to search for him in familiar places. On beaches and hills. In cupboards and at Curry Clubs. You wanted to atone for the seed of bad thought, of doubt that had grown inside you, watered by her name at climax instead of yours. That had caused you to curse him. To wish him ill when his snoring kept you awake at night, when his morning hacking cough made you retch too. Now nature was answering prayers that you spoke but did not mean.

You could not find him.

Then the hospital called, said words like, Next of Kin, asked about your ability to turn him off, and flippantly you’d replied that you never could. They talked about changes of underwear and other undercover operations. They asked you to come in, to have a meeting with them, with him, with the machines. You took down the list, you took your time.

 

 

You searched long and hard but now it is he who has found you. He bounces down the bus to your seat, tapping each handhold as he passes. He folds into the vacant place beside you, flashing his straightened smile. He takes your hand and kisses it, a flamboyant gesture. You blush. You thaw and flood, water pooling at your feet. You close your book. You say, ‘Forgive me.’ He stares back at you for an aeon, his smile backflips. He shakes his head. He turns to ice, a brief freeze, a cold snap. He breaks away from you. He drip drip drips from you in stalactites, his sharp edges splintering your skin, leaving you thorny.

The bus splutters to a halt, sticking in Morriston town centre, by the church you’ve never entered. Inside people are waiting for God. On the bus you are preparing for the worst; waiting to say goodbye to his body before they split him up, divvy out spare parts, pull at plugs.

Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

You see this apparition of him, a merge between old and new, soul and body, and you reach for him, fingers splayed… he wags a finger back, reprimanding, accusatory, mocking.

You had thought that them calling you in, your presence demanded, would mean that you simply sat in the hospital corridor during the surgery, waiting as they scooped his remains up, coiled him back in and nailed the box shut. Returned him to the dark, your Jack-in-the-box, finally stilled.

Now you realise this is not the case. He melts before you, on the bus – this jigsaw of him – this memory, and you think you can hear the distant bleep of the heart monitor as he hangs on to life support like you used to for his phone call. It always came… you, sat on the bottom step, stretching the coil of the receiver across your palm, as you later pulled at the curls in his hair, both springing back as tightly-knitted, as lock-tangled as that first time.

You wonder why, aghast at the idea of being without him, you have not spent these last days at his side. How he lay in the hospital with only machines for company and you ran, afraid of losing him again. Ran like you had before.

On the bus he looks at you, one last time, as if to say – ‘I’m still here… I’m still here… I’m still here.’

Then, suddenly, the bus jolts… lurches… forward, nosing through town: on, on, on.

 

 

In a clean and sanitised room, someone is applying defibrillating pads to a naked, male chest.

Someone is shouting, STAND CLEAR.

Someone is trying again.

And slowly, ever so slowly, a heart is bouncing back to life, like a Jack, released from his box.

Hurtling out of his rut.

Jump-started.

Moving forward, forward, only forward.

 

Copyright © Susie Wild, 2015.

Susie SnowSusie Wild is the author of The Art of Contraception and Arrivals. She lives in Cardiff and has been performing her words in dives and dance halls since 2006. She’s been on the bill at Green Man, Dinefwr, Glastonbury Festival, Hay Festival, The Laugharne Weekend, The Dylan Weekend, Hay Poetry Jamboree, Birmingham Literature Festival, The Absurd and many more. Her poetry has been published on websites, in anthologies, magazines and even on cake (Rising, Nu2, Bugged, Spilt Milk, Square, Poetry Digest, Leaf Writers’ Magazine etc). Check out Susie’s website here and follow her on twitter here.

Banner image: Copyright © Anna Hughes. Find out more about Anna’s work here.
Author photo © Torben Schacht, 2015.