WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Ad Altiora Tendo

Write Across Sussex
Write Across Sussex
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by Daisy Pearce

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

He was nervous, I could tell. Nevertheless he did not lose his composure. Only the tell-tale sheen of sweat above his recently shaved lip gave it away and you’d need to be very close to him in order to see it. As close as I had been, once.

I just want you to understand. I couldn’t help myself.

When he had introduced himself to me it was by his first name, and he had shaken my hand. I’d noticed the glint of a gold band on his finger but wouldn’t think of it till later and by then I didn’t care. He been washing paintbrushes, sleeves rolled to the elbows. His forearms were tanned and freckled, embroidered with delicate golden hair. The studio had been lit with sunlight the colour of sucked butterscotch and had the deep earthy smells of paint and clay. He was talking to me, hands moving through the running water, telling me about his trip to France, the artist retreat where he had drunk too much cheap wine and painted too many landscapes. He told me to call him David. He asked me if art was ‘my thing’. I told him I wasn’t sure what ‘my thing’ was and he’d nodded as though he’d understood, pushing his glasses up his nose. I could feel a heaviness within me as though I had been filled with lead and sunk to a great depth. The warmth of the room had made me somnambulant. I couldn’t converse. Each time I raised my head to look at him my eyes would skitter off to look somewhere else - the corner of the room, a chair, the floor - and I’d find myself tucking and untucking an errant strand of hair behind my ear as I clumsily tried to engage him in conversation. All the while I’d felt as if he’d known, as though he had seen the slow burn inside me, and even when he’d grabbed my elbow to stop my arms from shaking he hadn’t stopped smiling that same askance smile. That was the effect he’d had on me.

I just want you to understand, remember? I couldn’t help myself.

David was married to Tania. He told me this over coffee. He pronounced it Tarn-ey-a and would roll his eyes at the mention of her name. They had been together over ten years and had two children together. They liked to watch serials about Scandinavian murderers and sometimes went for dinner with other couples but mostly left each other alone.

“Since the children came along,” David had said and then fallen silent searching for the right expression. His eyes had filled with tears. I had reached across the table and given his knuckles a quick squeeze, my cheeks flushed with colour. He had smiled.

“Thank you, Mandy.” He’d said.

Later he had sat me down on a raised platform in the centre of the studio and asked me to recline. I’d blinked at him like a dumb animal and he’d smiled without mocking.

“I mean for you to lie down.” he’d said and so I had done, leaning back against the cushions he’d arranged there. My t-shirt had ridden up over my pale stomach and I’d pulled it down, embarrassed.

“Are you comfortable?” he’d asked me, watching me from behind the easel.

“I guess.”

“You don’t seem it.”

“I’m fine. I have the cushions.”

“That isn’t what I meant.”

I stared at him.

“I need you to be comfortable. Otherwise I will pack all this away and drive you home. None of this will have happened.”

“I’m fine.” I repeated quietly, feeling my chest swell with anxiety. Outside rain had begun to fall from clouds the colour of slate. My heart jack-knifed into my stomach as he stood and approached me. My stomach curdled. I didn’t think about Tarn-ey-a or the way my pulse fluttered in my throat. I thought about the way he was stooping over me, reaching out to cup my face in his hands and lift it to his. To my credit I hesitated and he smiled at my resistance.

“It’s just a kiss, honey.” he said and then he bent lower, pressing his mouth against mine.

He bought me a phone. Handed it to me in the car on our way to a hotel. It was small and black and fit snugly in the palm of my hand.

“That’s just between me and you.” he’d said, “Don’t give out the number on it to anyone else, don’t leave it lying around and for God’s sake don’t lose it.”

He lit a cigarette and stared hard at the windscreen. He’d been tense since we left the city. Told me his daughter had chicken pox and that his son had needed to be taken to football practice. That’s why he’d been late to pick me up he said. I told him I didn’t mind and he shrugged as if how I felt made no difference to him either way. Perhaps it didn’t. I was glad it was just the two of us now though. During the week I longed for him with something like a physical thirst, a feeling which started thickly in my throat and chest, a pounding behind my rib cage. I’d lent my head against his shoulder as he drove and remembered him telling me that he was the only man who understood me. He was right.

He contacted me sparingly, on my secret phone, which I hid at the bottom of my bag. His messages to me were like code, a secret language spoken in slurred tongues. ‘T. Car. 16’ Tesco Car Park, four o’clock. ‘6day.14.Foot.’ Saturday, two o’clock, his son’s football practice.’ We meet at the back of the leisure centre, near the fire exit where no-one will see us and press into each other urgently, and I am breathless with him.

Only once did I receive an email; a pleading missive he had written when drunk, Mandy. I love you, it had begun simply, I love you I love you I love you but this deceit. It is eating me alive. I know it’s wrong…but…I long for you, to feel your skin next to mine. I think about us always.

He had signed off David Says Delete This Message.

I saw them together just once at a School Sports Day of all places. Tarn-ey-a. She was blond and very thin. Her hair had been tied up in a knot and her breasts were small and high. You would never have known she had borne children. When I caught sight of them, flushed from running, I could see him leaning down to whisper something in her ear. I saw the way he moved his fingers along her jawline as he spoke, causing her to laugh, head tilted back to look at him. She had responded by twining her fingers in the curls of his hair playfully, one hand pressed against his chest. He saw me and continued without pause, even kissing her a little on the side of her mouth. He saw me, blushing brick red to the roots of my hair and still he continued. I felt acid burning a pit in the soft tissue of my stomach. A wave of sickness. He was staring at me, his mouth set in a grim line. His wife had her back to me and I could see the curve of her shoulders through her thin shirt. I pictured him caressing them with his slender fingers the way he did with me, and then my stomach somersaulted queasily. I made it to the nearest bush and vomited neatly, all my breakfast. My mouth tasted sour and I was shaking but when I felt a hand press into the small of my back I knew it was David, leaning over, conciliatory, helping me upright. Are you alright, he was asking, are you sick, perhaps you should go home.

Tania beside him, pretty face creased with concern. I wanted to tell her that she wasn’t how I’d pictured her. I wanted her to be frowsy and shrewish. I wanted her to be a mother, not a woman, not this sexual being with a cool wintry gaze and dainty pink nails. I stared at her, my mouth agape. Beside me I heard David ask me again if I was alright. Tania asked me if I wanted a drink of water. I nodded and she pulled a bottle from her bag.

“You poor thing.” she said, “It’s such a hot day. You look ever so pale.”

I looked at him searchingly. There was nothing in his face. It was a stopped clock.

I thought of him calling her Tarn-ey-a in his mocking, singsong way and felt a wave of revulsion - for him, for me, for what we doing - so strong it rocked me on my feet. Of course he loved her, I told myself bitterly, look at her! He was never going to leave. He never had any intention of it.

As if to confirm this David patted me vaguely on the shoulder and said quietly,

“It would probably be best for everyone if you went home now.”

So now here we were. Another hot day, but here in the assembly hall it feels cooler, the light more diffuse. The hard plastic chair bites into the back of my knees where I am sweating lightly. My hands are curled into my lap like two small animals nesting. I can’t look at him on the stage anymore. He still makes me feel vertiginous and dizzy, even as he gives his speech, his grand end of year speech the same way he does every year to all the pupils. David’s ‘goodbye and good luck’ speech, the same old tired routine. I’ve taken off my prefect badge. I don’t think I’m going to need it anymore. I don’t think I deserved it in the first place.

The audience are growing restless. I can hear people sighing and shuffling and here and there the quiet hum of a phone set to silent. We’re all just waiting till we can sing the school song and get out of here into the late afternoon, pale as milk. School is done, for us. Up ahead, David tells us, his hands gripping the lectern, is a bright and wholesome future of more education, and jobs and families. I twist in my seat. The last day for us. For David too, although he doesn’t know that yet.

We all have our song folders in front of us, containing the music sheets with which we sing from. ‘Ad Altiora Tendo’ the song is called. ‘I Strive to Higher Things’ and God knows I do, yes I do. I put the folders on the chairs myself, all one hundred and fifty of them - for staff and pupils alike. Just one more prefect doing her job. A dark haired schoolgirl with a pale, pinched face and a secret phone she has hidden in her wardrobe. Only there aren’t song sheets inside. There is just one page of printed text, one which I couldn’t delete, despite clear instruction. I know it line for line but mostly I am waiting for the moment when David opens his folders and sees it on the page.

I love you. I love you. I love you it begins and now that is how it ends too.

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