One weekend, Christopher took me to the Goregenheim – yes, that’s what they call it – and we contemplated their collection of African masks and head-pieces and sculptures that were donated by a renowned sexologist. I’ve a notion he said it then, when we were standing in front of the carved figures from Mali – life-size, carrying dead animals over their shoulders – but I can’t be sure.
Sometimes I search online for the man I should have married. It’s years since we had any contact, but he still does a bit of acting so he pops up here and there – as Stanley Kowalski, as Widow Twankey. Christopher has no idea – I wait till he’s asleep, and make sure I clear the history so I leave no trace. (Except you always leave a trace; that’s what Mel says. Anyone who knows what to look for can see exactly where you’ve been. Christopher’s in organic meats, I say. I think we’re safe.) I feel guilty about the stalking, and the covering up of the stalking, but not enough to stop it. After all, he turns his head to check out attractive young women, even if I’m right there beside him in the passenger seat. It used to bother me, but, when I asked Mel what she thought, she said men were visual creatures, and there was a difference between looking and doing. It’s the same with the stalking – I’m only looking; I’m not doing.
The man I should have married still goes surfing. There he is on the Gold Coast, a distant figure snapped by a girlfriend watching from the shore. My Scrummy Man Hanging Ten at Coolangatta! I imagine she’s wearing a tiny two-piece – something with trailing beaded cords that click when she moves – and she’s reading a Grisham or a Binchy while she waits for him. Who am I, she says, flashing a two-carat solitaire, to complain?
I buy antique diamond rings on the internet, but when they arrive there is always something wrong with them. A hint of yellow when the stone is viewed at a certain angle; a speck of carbon not quite hidden by a prong. I know, I know, I’m picky – my mother has told me so for years – but once I’ve seen the flaw in the gem, I can’t see anything else. Some are reproductions, I suspect; they’re too crisp, too unworn, even if the hallmarks are correct. I peer at them through my loupe, looking for the signs of love. I’ve started reselling them on a local auction site to recoup my losses, taking pictures of my own hand resting against white tulle and baby’s breath. I blur the edges so it looks romantic. In another life, says Mel, you could have been a photographer. You have a knack for presenting things in a certain way. I scroll through the competition – pages and pages of shots so bad it’s hard to tell what’s for sale. A blurry object sits on a bathroom cabinet, a tube of Colgate and a scrunched-up flannel in sharp focus behind it. A headless woman in a blue fleece dressing gown stands next to a dented freezer, a gold smudge just visible on her finger. Pictures to cut yourself by, says Mel. And the descriptions: Surplus to requirement. Nice ring just don’t wear it much. One “carefull” lady owner ha ha.
I take my time over my listings: This antique-style dazzler will knock her socks off! Reminiscent of a bygone era, this chunk of ice will keep you warm at night! You can see this old-world baby from across the room! And I start all my auctions at one dollar no reserve. Risky, yes, but I’ve come to realise that people will pay far more than they should when the price just keeps creeping up; it’s like the frogs gently brought to the boil that Sister Borgia used to tell us about in biology. I try to cover everything in my descriptions so I don’t have to answer questions, but a few always appear: What is this worth? Is it real? Will it suit me? When I reply, I imagine myself speaking in the voice of Sister Borgia. I have not commissioned a formal appraisal on this item to establish its value. This is a genuine, earth-mined, untreated, unenhanced, blood-free diamond. It is not possible for me to determine whether this will flatter your hand as we have never met.
The man I should have married is the face of prostate cancer. I always told him he should try modelling. There he is, the last billboard on the main road out of town, before the lifestyle blocks give way to proper farms with proper animals. He’s pulling on a blue surgical glove and there’s a glint in his eye and a smile on his mouth, the same glint and smile he wore when he bought me presents for no reason. A wristwatch that showed all its insides; a set of lolly-pink lingerie one size too small. Man up, says the billboard.
We got as far as booking the venue – the Savoy, all pale blue and silver, with a sprung dance floor and massive potted ferns that were very lifelike. A woman was dusting them when the manager showed us round, wiping down every leaf with a damp cloth. When the manager spoke to her – you don’t mind if we have a quick look in the ladies’, do you, we’ll try not to get in your way, I want to show them the bride-and-groom bathroom tissue – she kept hold of the leaf she was up to so she didn’t lose her place. It was a sign of a quality establishment, we later agreed.
We went to ballroom dancing lessons for months beforehand – his idea. The first dance had to be just right, he said; it represented how we would work together as a couple, how there would be give and take. Can I lead? I said. I don’t think you’re taking this seriously, he said. I believe it was around then that things started to go wrong. (I can still do a reasonable cha cha, though, should the occasion demand.) We chose Moon River as our song; it had been his mother’s favourite, before she drank herself to death. Our instructor, Nigel, said we were made for each other; he could always tell. Wide satin ribbons printed with his many titles hung from the walls of his studio – Juvenile Open Latin, Adult Preliminary Man New Vogue – along with a framed photograph of a chihuahua. My feet left the floor when he showed me the waltz and the foxtrot, his right hand guiding me with the tiniest of pressures. I have never felt so graceful.
‘Hello?’ said a sleepy female voice. It was well past eleven.
‘Is my former fiancé available, please?’
‘Yeah?’ he said.
I told him about the bird, about the mess, how I couldn’t get it to leave.
‘Throw a towel over it,’ he said.
‘A towel?’ I said. ‘A towel?’
Something else I couldn’t quite catch.
‘The open home’s at one,’ I said.
There was a pause.
‘Are you asking me to come over?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s what I’m asking.’
I gave him one of the Egyptian cotton bath sheets – an engagement present from Mel – and waited in the hall.
‘Don’t hurt it,’ I called through the door.
There were a few loud thuds. A stamping sound.
When he emerged he said, ‘You’ll need to mop up a bit.’
‘Is it OK?’ I said. ‘Did you hurt it?’
‘It flew out the window, chirping away, and joined the rest of its flock,’ he said. He folded the towel in half longways and then in thirds, as if he had just brought it in from the line. ‘I always liked these,’ he said.
‘Take it,’ I said.
The agent arrived at ten to one with her jaunty flag and her brochures. Make your best offer! MUST be sold! I insisted on staying that day; I knew she couldn’t be everywhere, watching everyone at once, and I didn’t want people peering in my knicker drawer, fingering the antidepressants in the bathroom cabinet. I sat upstairs while she hovered in the kitchen, near the French doors to the deck we never built. Mind yourself, she said to potential buyers. Bit of a drop out there – but what a view! A few neighbours came to have a look – they always do, according to Mel. Oh, they said when they saw me perched on the edge of the shub. It’s you.
After that the agent recommended I stay away. It’s just the way we do things, she said. Buyers like to imagine a place is already theirs. They like to see themselves in it, not somebody else.
Late at night, when his much younger wife is asleep beside him and dreaming of Tom Hardy, the man I should have married searches “bald cure” on the internet. He could have follicles taken from elsewhere on his body and attached to his head, he reads. He doesn’t like the sound of that. He used to shave his pubic hair when we were together; Mel told me they think it makes their cocks look bigger. It’s an illusion, of course, like the Moon when it’s just risen and you see it hanging huge above the trees or caught between two buildings. That’s what Sister Borgia told us. About the Moon, I mean. If his wife stirred now, if she opened her eyes, she would see his round white pate looming there in the darkness, all aglow from the light of the laptop, looking closer than it really is.
The woman who married the man I should have married has put on a lot of weight. They don’t have sex any more; she’s barely recognisable. She wears track pants and can’t remember the last time she had her legs waxed or her teeth whitened. It’s very sad. He says to her, I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry, but this isn’t working.
It’s a popular listing; it’s been up for less than a day and I’m already in the black. Along with the usual questions, it elicits comments from watchers who have no intention of bidding: Wow, beautiful ring! Why would anyone want to sell this?! Out of my price range unfortunately, but it doesn’t hurt to look! Whoever wins this will be one very lucky girl! I examine it again, and perhaps they’re right; perhaps I should keep it. If you can’t see the microscopic damage, what does it matter?
Then I get a question I haven’t had before: Was this from a happy marriage? I leave it for a couple of days – if people see there’s something unanswered on an auction they’ll keep checking back just to find out what I might be hiding – and then I reply.
Ned proposed to Stella right before he left for Gallipoli. He was badly wounded and they didn’t think he’d pull through; the Colonel wrote to Stella and told her to expect the worst. She had no idea he was all right until he knocked at her door, a cane in one hand and this ring in the other. He always said he was one of the lucky ones – not just because he came home, but because Stella said yes.
Catherine Chidgey is a multiple-award-winning NZ novelist and short story writer. Her many accolades include the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award (2013) and the Listener Women’s Book Festival Short Story Award (1997). Her fourth novel, The Wish Child, took the fiction prize at the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards. In 2019, with sponsorship from the University of Waikato, she conceived the Sargeson Prize short-story competition – New Zealand’s richest short-story prize. She has just released her first children’s book, Jiffy, Cat Detective (OneTree House). Her new novel, Remote Sympathy (VUP), is due in October. She lectures in Creative Writing at Waikato.
This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.