There is a man playing an acoustic guitar on next door’s little patio, under the pergola, or whatever those overhead latticework things with greenery hanging off them are called. I am doing the ironing, now the day has cooled down a bit. As the iron moves to and fro I listen in, oddly pleased.
He’s teaching himself that Dire Straits one, ‘Sultans of Swing’ so he plays in fits and starts, a few bars here, a few bars there, a few muttered words sung along. Really, he should stick to the few muttered words because his voice isn’t up to his playing. When he has a go at the high bits he gets seriously out of tune, like karaoke. But it makes a change to hear real music played on a real instrument. It brings the hillside to life somehow.
It took me a while to locate the music since sounds echo most peculiarly in this village. Any loud-ish conversation can be heard by all, at least in part. Shouted phrases charge towards you, then are muffled, then return. Laughter sounds like someone’s laughing at the bottom of an invisible canyon. Sound swirls.
The guitar playing reminds me of Ex, which is sad, though not so terribly sad. He was always sitting around in empty rooms, at least in my memory – abstracted, growling away to himself or playing some complicated gigue or saraband in fits and starts. I’m not even sure if I’ve spelt those right.
I know who this chap is. He’s the husband, or rather, for relationships are so complicated nowadays, the former-husband-not-actually-remarried-but-fairly-frequently-present husband of the lady next door. Whereas Ex is my former-husband-basically-never- present, except once or twice a year over the phone. But that seems to be OK. I suspect I disappear from his mind the instant he puts the phone down. A puff of white smoke, that’s me; what’s left over when you snuff out a candle.
I happened to be talking to Canadian Sister about this on the phone earlier this evening. She is going through another bad patch, the reality of widowhood seeming to have engulfed her all at once. She tells me she can’t abide being alone in the house, that she needs her dead husband to see or have seen what she is doing from one moment to the next. Everything she does she still seems to need to run past her husband first – He would have been interested in that, she says. He would have been proud of me for managing to do this. He wouldn’t have liked me doing this (manufacturing lopsided bright blue buddha candles in his newly-perfected kitchen).
I said when she had been alone for twenty-seven years she would probably find, as I had, that she had evolved in completely the opposite direction, and would find that she could no longer stand the idea of someone else in the house, observing everything she did. For many years after I first was on my own, I confided – casting around for something intelligent-yet-comforting to say and, as usual, failing – I carried Ex around with me in my head. Everywhere I went – maybe for the first ten years – this Miniature Grumpy Hypercritical Ex would be inside my head, providing a running commentary.
You’ve made a complete Dog’s Breakfast of that, haven’t you! Why don’t you do something worthwhile with your life? Have you got the map upside down again? Don’t put apple cores on the windowsill! What you need is a hobby, something to take your mind off things. Etc.
I would hold long, self-pitying, angry conversations with him in my head. But if I asked this apparition its advice, mentally, it would go completely silent on me. Nowadays he is little more than the occasional little cloud of black smoke, a drifting whiff, a kind of Bonfire Night residue. My head is completely empty most of the time. Echoing. Tumbleweed…
… so you see, I said, in my best transatlantic psychotherapist voice, in another twenty-seven years or so you’ll be seeing things through the prism of yourself and not through the prism of your lost husband.
I am likely to be dead in another twenty-seven years, she reminded me.
I must admit I hadn’t thought of that.