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Carveresque

* Story contains bad language

Of course, it didn't have to end like this. He could call Regan on her mobile at any time and agree that: "Yes, we have to talk". That was the sensible option, the civil thing to do. But endings like that…well, they never truly ended, did they? Just look at him and Carol, his ex-wife. "Sparing each other's feelings" had only spared them the necessity of having to admit to any one of a dozen hard truths about their disastrous marriage. And as for "closure"…

Frank sat low in the front seat with his collar turned up against the evening chill. A police car passed with its lights turned off and he sank into the darkness, remembering all those other times he'd parked outside houses just like this one, awaiting that one false move, that single, fatal lack of discretion. His heart was racing, his cheeks burning and his palms were warm and sweaty, as if he'd already had it out with Regan. When he finally opened his eyes, a distant clock was striking midnight and he considered abandoning the whole thing. But what else was there to do? Where else could he go? Back home to endure another strangulated exchange with his mother over mugs of warm chocolate?

He tucked his mobile into his back pocket, got out of the car and walked to the house. Fully aware that he was improvising, acting on adrenaline, without any due care or thought for the possible consequences of his actions, he took out the copy of Regan's front door key and let himself inside the house. He'd always wondered about that key. It had seemed like a symbolic gesture, but even as she was handing it over (with all her provisos for when he could and couldn't use it) he'd sensed that it signified something else too. He looked at it now - an ordinary Yale key, a shiny copy of a copy - and thought: I'll never willingly return it. She can ask for it back, and I'll give it to her, but I'll make a scene out of detaching it from my key-ring, and I'll press it so firmly into her upturned palm that it will leave an impression of itself in her flesh.

The only lights on in the house were those in the front room, where the curtains were permanently closed against prying eyes. He called out her name, just as a precaution, and went through to the kitchen and poured himself a whisky. He looked around for something to eat, but other than a few pots of cold pasta in the fridge and some pieces of fruit turning brown in the bowl, there was nothing. Unlike Frank, Regan had a small appetite, and was a picky eater; he would sometimes become aware of her squirming in her seat as he devoured whatever was set before him, or failing to hide her disgust as he spoke with his mouth full - so many tiny bones of contention. He remembered all those pointless, hypothetical discussions about how they might cope with situations they would probably never experience as a couple, and realized that they had been wrong for each other from the start, misguided in their hope – spoken with all the conviction of two people cajoling themselves into doing something reckless together - that they might throw a little light on those areas of their lives that had always meant to stay in darkness. And how he hated to admit it now - if only because his mother had been proved right about them all along, though not quite in the way she would have preferred.

At least Carol had had the decency to acknowledge that she needed Frank - albeit too late in the day, and only after she had lost enough face not to care about admitting it any more.

He went into the lounge and turned on the lights. He picked up the telephone and then put it down. He looked around for an address book, but couldn't find one anywhere. On top of the television set, there were some old family pictures set in silver-plated frames. Frank crossed to them and picked them up one by one. A faded Polaroid of Regan with the baby Callum in her arms, another of Regan in an earlier, Gothic incarnation – dark eyeliner, jet black hair razor-parted down the centre, Callum hanging off her shoulder like a Gargoyle - and a school portrait taken when he must have been seven or eight years old. He was in quarter profile against a blue screen in this one: a shiny kid with big teeth in a smart school blazer and orange kipper tie. He thought back to his arguments with Regan about her son, and how she still clung to the vague hope that Callum's rebellion was some post-adolescent phase he would eventually outgrow. And even if Frank knew better, even if he knew that her son's cruel streak would eventually coarsen and define his whole character, even if he was certain - and it might as well have been written in neon lights across that broad forehead of his - that Callum was going to be a man who repeatedly crashed and burned, ruining other people's lives and walking away himself without so much as a scratch, then where was the harm in her sticking to a belief that, in its own way, was as pure and as innocent and just as doomed as the image of that sweet little boy in the picture?

He set the picture down, turned on the television and took a seat across the room. An old friend (a married man with children) had once told him that the nuclear family was all an illusion, extraordinary only in so much that it fooled so many people so much of the time. He was drunk when he said it – of course he was drunk; the rest of the time his kids were the most beautiful, precious creatures in all creation - but Frank had been sober enough to tell that it was something his friend believed, at least in his darker moments. Or perhaps it was just that Frank needed to believe him, knowing he was too selfish to have a family of his own, and too much of a pragmatist to believe that he could ever be any other way.

But what of those like Regan who continued to cling to their beliefs even when they were no longer true? What happened when all their illusions were stripped away and revealed for what they truly were? Confronted with this dilemma, Frank believed that a person reacted in one of two ways: either they accepted the truth of it, and made an appropriate compromise, or they denied it completely by running away (and there were those who ran away from home without ever taking a single step outside their house).

He stared at the television and tried to make sense of a show involving a group of half-naked celebrities humiliating themselves in the jungle, then hopped channels until he came to a local news station. He began to get up out of his chair, and heard something beeping close to him. His whisky-dulled senses took a moment or two to reconcile the sound to the mobile phone in his back pocket, and when he took it out and stared at the display, he saw:

One New Message
Regan Mobile
Open Now?

He stared at the icon of an unopened envelope and touched the YES key.

Hi frnk. jst to let u
knw ive gon to bed
so no pnt u comng
ovr 2nite. c u
2morw? Rgn. xxx

Frank saved the message, turned the phone off and went upstairs to Regan's bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed, removed his shoes and socks, took off his jacket and got into bed on Regan's side. The pillows still smelled of her – of yeast and herbs and a concoction of oils that could sometimes still arouse him, but mostly left him dry in the throat and feeling slightly nauseous.

He pulled the duvet up to his chin and stared at the ceiling. The paint was chipped and peeling up there, and the last time they had slept together, Frank had talked of coming over one weekend to help her redecorate Callum's old room. The idea was greeted with a low murmuring apathy which, in the wake of her son's departure, characterized most of her responses to any of his suggestions for home improvements.

"Why don't you just piss all over my rugs, Frank?"

Now he turned over on his side and found himself staring at a pile of books on her bedside table. His eye was instantly drawn to a well-thumbed copy of Raymond Carver's collected stories sandwiched between a strapping edition of Middlemarch and a bulky anthology of dead poets. He'd lent Regan the Carver book a few weeks ago, and when he turned to the page she had most recently book-marked, Frank saw that it was Neighbors, his own personal favourite. With no hesitation, he started to read it – it wasn't a particularly glum story, or the author's very best, but it was one that had always moved him in a way modern fiction very rarely did these days, and he must have read this story ten or twenty times over the years.

It was about a happy but unfulfilled couple, Bill and Arlene, who agree to look after their neighbours' apartment while they are on holiday. The neighbours are an urbane couple who have the kind of lifestyle Bill and Arlene aspire to themselves, and before long this desire is manifesting itself in a series of small transgressions – from Bill trying on his neighbour's clothes to Arlene's discovery of some "pictures" at the bottom of a drawer – which has the effect of reinvigorating Bill and Arlene's passion for each other. The mordant twist at the end of the story – Bill and Arlene lock themselves out of their neighbors' apartment leaving behind all the physical evidence of their tampering - had struck Frank as funny when he first read it as a young man, but reading it as an older man, as first a married and then divorced man, his mood inclined towards the melancholic, and his gut tightened the closer he got to those last few lines: 'They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.'

Carol had hated the stories. He remembered lending her the book early on in their marriage after an impassioned argument about the relative merits of contemporary and historical fiction. She'd read three or four of the stories before tossing the book aside one night and complaining that they made her want to take pills, or else get drunk like some of the characters in the more downbeat tales. He'd thought, or rather he'd hoped, Regan would be moved by them, that she would not mistake the terse style for cynicism or artlessness, and recognize the cold, clear truths enshrined in Carver's hard-boiled prose. Perhaps on some deeper level he'd even imagined them making some kind of connection. So what had prevented her from finishing this story? Had the subject matter seemed too close to home? Had it reminded her of the "snoop" she herself was dating? Or had she simply fallen asleep while reading it late one night?

He turned back to the beginning of the story and picked out one or two of his favourite lines, and as he did so he became aware of some faint pencil marks on the pages that he hadn't noticed before. He held the book closer to the lamp and saw there were asterisks set in the margins against certain sentences. 'He could not remember their faces or the way they talked and dressed' was one, and: 'He considered her shoes, but understood they would not fit' another. Frank looked long and hard at these isolated passages, but all his attempts at gleaning any kind of meaning from them were in vain. Taken out of context from the story, they were like cryptic clues from a crossword, deceptively high-sounding but ultimately meaningless – a substitute for something else. Was this her way of explaining to him her view of their relationship? He scanned the margins of some of the other stories, but there were no similar asterisks or marks elsewhere in the book – only the ones in this story, his favourite.

He put the book to one side, pulled back the duvet and sat on the edge of Regan's bed with his head in his hands. Then he took out his mobile and called her number. She answered on the fourth ring, and within a second of hearing her speak, he had made an instant and irrevocable distinction between a deliberately sleepy voice and a genuinely tired one.

"Frank. Didn't you get my text? There's nothing wrong, is there?"

"No."

"It's late. I thought I told you not to call me tonight."

"I wanted to hear your voice," he said. What he really hoped to hear was a wine glass being filled, or the slither of sheets being pulled up, but the quality of the connection was poor, and all he could hear was a fizzing pulse of static.

"Frank, I can barely hear you," she said.

"Perhaps I should call you on your land line."

"No," she said quickly, and perhaps realising her mistake, she laughed - a high spiky laugh he felt in the hairs on his neck. "No, that isn't a good idea. I'm really tired. Please, I need to sleep."

"Are you in bed?" he asked her.

"Yes," she said after the slightest pause.

"Tell me what you're looking at."

"What I'm looking at?"

"Yes."

"Frank, I'm not in the mood for games tonight."

"Neither am I," he said. "So just tell me."

"What's wrong with you? You sound odd. Have you been drinking?"

"Describe the room to me, Regan."

"I'm going now. We'll talk tomorrow when you're sober."

"Regan…"

"What?"

"Are you…are you seeing someone else?"

"I'm not going to answer, Frank."

"I'll keep ringing until you do. And if you disconnect the phone, I'll come over to the house."

"What the hell is wrong with you? Have you had an argument with your mother?"

"I just want to talk."

There was a pause at the other end.

"If I go along with this, then you'll let me go to sleep."

"Of course," he said. "I promise."

He looked out the bedroom window and down into the street, as if he expected to see Regan hustling up the path with her mobile clamped between her shoulder and her ear, spinning out these lies as she fumbled in her purse for the front door key. The reception was better near the window, and he looked around the bedroom as Regan described it over the phone - the Gordon Russell oak wardrobe that was a gift from her grandfather, the prints of silent film stars adorning the walls (she loved old movies, knew the names of stars who'd disappeared from the Hollywood annals many decades ago), the knick-knacks and ornaments cluttering every shelf and flat surface. He asked her if she was lying in bed with the lights on or off, and when she told him the bedside lamp was turned off, he immediately leaned across the bed and turned it on.

"What about the curtains? Are they open or closed?"

"They're closed, Frank. You know how I can't sleep unless the curtains are completely closed."

Frank drew the curtains to within an inch of them being closed, then he walked over to the wardrobe and started to remove her clothes from their hangers.

"Can I hang up now?" she asked him, and yawned. It was a fake yawn, and as fake yawns went, not a very good one.

"Not yet," he said. "Keep talking. I want to know what you're wearing."

There was a pause at the other end of the line, followed by a deep sigh.

"I'm going now," she said.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I just want to know what you're wearing. No more than that. Just the facts."

"Well…if you must know…I'm wearing my silk slip."

"The red one?"

"No, it's the one you bought for me, the white one with the roses on it. Remember?"

Frank nodded. It was a nice touch. He almost appreciated it. He scanned the row of clothes before him, removed the garment in question from its hanger, then laid it on the bed, before gathering up the rest of her clothes and dumping them in the bottom of her wardrobe.

"Go on, Regan, keep talking," he urged her. "Just a little longer."

While she talked, Frank examined Regan's modest array of footwear at the foot of the bed. Unlike Carol, who over the years had shelled out a small fortune on every conceivable style of shoe – at first for the sheer pleasure of it, then later as a way of punishing him - Regan was not the kind of woman who hoarded footwear. Sensible black pumps for work, two sets of sandals, scuffed trainers and a pair of suede boots. And then there were her…

"Where are your stilettos?" he asked her.

Regan sighed. "I don't know. In the wardrobe? Who cares…?"

Another lie. He rummaged around at the back of the wardrobe for the stilettos she always wore on special occasions, knowing full well that he wouldn't find them.

"What's all that noise?" she asked him. "Where are you?"

Frank closed the wardrobe door and moved to the end of the bed, then looked at her black pumps and laughed.

"Now what's so funny?"

"I just considered your shoes, Regan, and I understood that they would fit. How about that?"

There was silence at the other end. Frank wondered if she had made the connection between his words and the marks on the pages of the book…and remembered that he'd made the asterisks himself, years ago, during a failed attempt to write an essay about Carver for a literary magazine. He'd written two pages of speculative mush about Neighbors and then abruptly given up.

"If you're going to talk in riddles, I'm going to hang up," she said. "Frank? Are you still there?"

"I'm sorry I kept you, I really am."

"Get some sleep," she told him. "I'll call you tomorrow."

He pressed End Call on the mobile and turned all the lights out. Then he sat on the end of the bed and slid his right foot inside one of the sensible black pumps. Frank had small feet for a man, Regan large ones for a woman, and it was indeed a perfect match.