“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942
Man, 22, kills young wife in their own home.
It has always struck me how a newspaper headline can at once seem so alien and so familiar. It is stilted, rarely grammatically correct, a language outside of human language, yet its bullet-point staccato is a comfort, reducing all the horrors of humanity into easy to swallow chunks. Man, 22, kills young wife in their own home. Perhaps the “own” and “young” are a little unnecessary, but you get the picture. It’s very hostility is what makes it so comforting, as if “man” could never really be man, never one of us.
The comfort even works, oddly enough, if the headline is about you, if you are “man”. Because then, at least, “young wife” was never her, and “own home” was never the little semi-detached on Bermondsey Road, the one with the green garage door. We didn’t paint it that colour, it just came that way.
But I have never been one for comfort, especially not that of other people. I want to tell you what really happened. From one cliché-ridden idiom to another, I want to tell you why, or how, I killed her.
We were certainly young, the newspapers got that much right. She was 19 when I first saw her, working in a sandwich shop in town, Gemma’s Tasty Bite. Well, that’s not entirely true, I first saw her at a family party when I was eight and she was six, she threw a mini sausage roll at me and I chased and forcibly kissed her behind the wooden Wendy-house. She was a disgusting child and licked my face in retribution, her breath smelling of orange cordial and pink wafers, primary school blocks of colour.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, or perhaps behind. Wind the tape on, through 13 years of wasted education, the zoo of secondary school, the circus ring of university. With a Geography degree, a bad haircut and no prospects, I stopped in at Gemma’s Tasty Bite on the way home – from a sweaty, overcrowded Job Centre if you must know.
She was sat on a high stool behind the counter, lazily reading one of her rubbish magazines. Through an elaborate display of crisp packets I could see the sheer sheen of her black lycra legs, her plump calf catching the light as her canvas-shod foot bobbed up and down, up and down as she read. To turn the pages she licked a finger and stuck it to the gloss in the top right hand corner. A badge pinned onto her apron above the left breast said “Angel”, but that was not her name.
The rest is a fairly pedestrian story. It was as if someone had stolen that first memory and mixed it with a few of my choicest fantasies to produce her, displayed so nicely on that high stool. We couldn’t see much of each other, her father was housebound and required a lot of attention, while my housewife mother welcomed her for dinner and Coronation Street but no more. Not that we were entirely chaste. Life always provides room for the odd kiss and fumble, if you know where to look. I particularly remember her in what was termed a local beauty spot, an area of fairly dense woodland criss-crossed with gravel paths. Her laugh as she led me off one or another such path into the trees, to a spot where charred circles and empty cans proclaimed the nightlife of this our sanctuary. Oh, and she still tasted of pink wafers, after all these years. Pink wafers and bubble gum.
But, given the difficulties and her reluctance to let her guard down too much in public, we decided to wait until marriage for the final consummation. Yes, I know, in this day and age we were the only ones waiting, but we were young and she was romantic, and we didn’t have that long to wait. We were married within a year of that first sandwich shop meeting.
I wont bore you with the details of our wedding, paid for by the housebound father who made a special wheel chaired trip out to the church to see off his daughter. He had a lot of money and nothing to spend it on, with only one more daughter who was old and shaped like an overly sat-on cushion. He also bought us our first house, the one from the newspapers, with a low wall in front and the green garage door. We didn’t paint it that colour, it just came that way.
I admit, I was happy. I had never been that happy before in my life, and neither had she. “Michael” she whispered to me in the dark on our first night, “Michael, I’ve never been this happy in my life”, and I swelled with pride. That’s the joke, really. We were entirely happy. Angelically happy.
We spent the first few days in bed. I’m no blushing bride, but I draw a veil over the ecstasy of the long awaited consummation, a slide available only for our private viewing. My private viewing, as I now own the sole rights, mores the pity. For days we ate in bed, and saw no one but each other, and then each other again, reflected in the mirrors of the built-in wardrobe. Of all the mediocre, flat-pack furniture in that suburban house, the mirror is the only piece that I could have torn from the walls and taken away when they came to arrest me. That mirror, which reflected the arch of her naked back with all its tiny blonde hairs, the constellation that her freckles formed from the broken wing of her left shoulder blade to the sweeping curve of her hip bone as it peeked shyly from a fold of feminine flesh. Her perfect, far too perfect body, formed just for me, from all my fantasies and wet dreams. The body that I still love, in spite of everything that I now know about it.
It hurts me to leave the memory of this happy time, when no space seemed to divide us, our one body that ate and slept and made love on one bed. But it was inevitable, given what she was, given what I married. The morning came when I awoke, and she was not there. At first I was confused and thought myself at home, with mum downstairs making breakfast, the hum of the microwave heating the milk. But the disturbed sheets on my right brought me back to the present, as did the pathetically little heap made at the foot of the bed by the skin she had shed in delicate, off-white folds. For the first time since the wedding I found myself slightly disgusted, looking at that pile. On top a perfectly formed knee could be seen, with all its particular curves and concavities, the tender bit behind that made her squirm when you stroked it, but all hollow and transparent, discarded like a used condom. I caught sight in the mirror of a face with screwed up lips and realised with a shock that it was me, thinking about her. I got up hurriedly, shook myself into my dressing gown, and padded out to find her.
At the top of the stairs I halted, and listened. From downstairs came something at which the banisters, the carpet and the clock on the wall strained towards in shocked amazement – voices, two of them, one female and one undeniably male. The female voice was definitely hers; it had her accent and pitch, her pause and rhythm. But somehow the tone of it was wrong, it was as if the same voice was coming from a different person, like it had been recorded and was now being played back. And that laugh. It was hers, but at one remove, as if she were imitating herself. The whole effect was distinctly chilling.
As for the male voice, it was gruff, low and cheerful. Though I do admit that it crossed my mind to object to that gruff, low, cheerful man seeing her in her new, untouched-by-me skin, I never, despite what the courts say and my lawyer thinks, never did I suspect her of having an affair. For Christ’s sake, we had been married for all of four days, we hadn’t even been on our honeymoon yet, it wasn’t the right part of the story for an affair, not even for her, and it never, as I said, crossed my mind.
Besides, though I couldn’t make out their words, the intonation of their exchanges were not that of intimacy, snatched or otherwise. No. The intonation was distinctly that of conspiracy. They were plotting something, those two voices, plotting something with the casual assurance that they were not being overheard, that the one person who could possibly overhear them was tucked up sound asleep in bed.
I was stood a-top the stairs like a gaping idiot, wondering what to do about this, when the kitchen door slammed, and the voices got louder as their owners tramped through the hallway towards the front door. She was wishing him goodbye. The door opened and she walked him down to the front gate. I rushed the bedroom window just in time to see her from behind, leaning on the gate, waving to someone in a white, unmarked van. She wore a knee-length summer dress with no shoes, and the stones of the front path dug eagerly into her new, clean skin. She didn’t stand like she usually stood, the angle was off, but even so I admit that I wanted her, like that, as she was, stones and all. Even more than I wanted her on our wedding day.
From then on I did my best to avoid her, my changeling of a wife. We were due to travel to Brighton in two week’s time for the honeymoon, and I had hopes that the change of scene or the sea air would have some kind of effect, that I would look at her at the end of the pier with the wind in her hair and see again the woman that I married. Not to mention the escape from constant anxiety about the man in the unmarked van, whose return I dreaded. Once, when watching the street outside, I saw the same van go past, very slowly. I spent that day in the kitchen with a vegetable knife, held ready in my pocket so that she wouldn’t know, but nothing came of it.
Of course, I asked her about the man.
“Who was that man this morning?” I said.
“What?” she replied, not looking up from where she lay sprawled stomach first on the brown sofa, flicking and licking through another damned magazine.
“That man,” I said, calmly, so calmly, “this morning. I heard you talking to him. Who was he?”
There was a pause, then she said, casual as anything, “Oh, him, he was no one, he just came to read the meter. Checking that we weren’t stealing gas or anything like that. We aren’t, apparently.”
Then a bat of her maddeningly fake eyelashes.
Of course, sex became difficult. Needless to say I couldn’t bear to touch her, not while she was like that, though she was beautiful, far more beautiful than she ever had been. I pleaded a headache, mentally chastising myself for the sheer clichéd nature of it all. The bed, once a whole world, now became suffocating small as I groped helplessly for respite from the absent woman beside me, frequently escaping to franticly masturbate in the en-suite. I couldn’t risk it, you see. She wore make up all the time, even in bed. In the morning she tripped into the bathroom and the noise of running water could be heard, but she emerged made up again just the same. That was just one of the clues. The fake eyelashes was another. And the skin, which she shed carefully before I woke but left in a little pile by the end of the bed. Disgusting. And then there were her expressions. Her face once had a million different expressions, ways of laughing, smiling, joking. Now it settled into a more or less blank, with a few variations for when she wanted something or was apologising. It was as if they had become lazy, now that I knew. I never doubted that she knew that I knew, and didn’t care. It was shameless.
I tried to avoid her during the day too, but of course it wasn’t always possible. We lived in the same house, after all, mores the pity. And of course, she still had that strange fascinating aspect, her gloss, her beauty, so that I found myself spying on her, taking every opportunity to look at her when she didn’t know that I was there. Big mistake.
It was to this damned weakness that I owe the most terrifying experience of my life, even worse than when I felt her body go limp and realised that she wasn’t breathing. She was in the bedroom, sitting at the mirrored dressing table that my mother bought us as a wedding present. I knew by now that if I sat on the landing outside and angled myself properly, I could see through a chink in the door straight to where the padded stool supported her, her bare feet tucked under it so that the shell-like soles showed. On this day her hair was tied up in a careless bun so that blonde wisps whispered about her ears and tickled the back of her neck, and I couldn’t help imagining running a finger along the top of her spine and resting it in that tender hollow at the skulls base, where her normally straight hair began to crinkle and curl.
This was distracting. But gradually I began to realise that she seemed to be engaged in a rather odd activity. Before her, in the mirror, I could see a large glass full of water with something in it, so that it fizzed slightly, like the water than my grandmother had for dentures before she died. She had her left hand held out, and with her right seemed to be doing something to it that I couldn’t quite see. I shifted slightly for a better view. Then a minute passed before I, quite justifiably I’m sure, fainted.
What I had seen was this: with the slender fingers of her right hand, she was delicately unscrewing the tips of her right hand fingers. When one came off, she held the part with the skin on, the part that I had kissed so many times and which had touched me in so many unmentionable places, and dipped the other part, the exquisite silver spiral, into the fizzing liquid. This done, she lay the tip on a piece of paper towel in front of her, presumably to dry. She then proceeded to the next joint, unscrewing that in turn, dipping it and laying it out next to it’s companion until she had a grotesque floor plan of her fingers laid out on the dressing table. She then blew on them, as I had seen her blow on her nails to make the polish dry, tenderly. This done, she picked up the pieces one by one and screwed them back on, in perfect order.
She must have already done her right hand before I arrived, because once the left was in order again, she raised both hands to the back of her ears. I saw the skin peel and the glitter of silver before I passed out.
When I awoke she was kneeling over me, looking worried. I turned over and was immediately sick in a corner, down the skirting board. She helped me up, put me into bed, and trotted off to clean up the mess. When she came back it became obvious that she didn’t know that I had been watching.
“You went down with such a bang,” she was saying, “I was in here cleaning my jewellery ready for Brighton, and I came out as soon as I heard of course and you were lying like you were dead on the landing, it gave me such a shock.” I managed a weak smile. “Are you feeling any better yet?” she asked.
“Much.” I said.
And the funny thing is, I was. I had imagined so many awful things, but this, in a strange way, seemed to fit exactly. Of course, she was made from my memories, my fantasies and wet dreams. Someone had to have made her, something had to hold those components together and why wouldn’t that something be delicate silver screws, pure angelic silver? The man in the unmarked van, he must have been checking up on her, making sure the surrogate had not been rejected, as any good manufacturer would. I smiled to myself, and she smiled back as she dabbed my forehead with a wet paper towel, like the one she used for her fingers. I took hold of her left hand, and felt each tiny digit. They looked so real; they even had tiny purple veins showing on the underside. Amazing.
That night, the last night. I was still in bed when she came up, tiptoeing towards the bed like a frightened child in her old-fashioned white cotton nightgown. I sat up on the edge and removed the gown, and saw that she was actually crying, smiling and crying at the same time. She said something as I kissed her stomach about missing me and how distant I had been, but how she was so glad that it was just because I was unwell, well, not glad that I was unwell of course but just that…I kissed her mouth, and she stopped talking.
We lay side by side and I pressed close to her, thinking of all the hinges and bolts, all the ingenious little connections that made up her body. I had never been more excited in my life and believe me, I loved her at that moment more than I ever had, more than when I first saw her, more than that day 14 years ago when I had kissed her behind the Wendy-house, and she had licked my face. I’d known even then that she was mine, that she was made for me, put together just for me, out of my parts.
But for some reason I couldn’t leave it at that. I couldn’t just know. For the perfect connection, I thought that I had to show her somehow that I knew how totally she was mine.
And so I reached down and, with all my strength (who knew how tough those screws would be?) I disconnected her beautiful head.