He fastened the zip on her emerald green dress, tightening her sagging shoulders back into the firm curve they once naturally held. He was already dressed: a black suit the same as he’d always worn, black shoes, a black fedora, and forever those black glasses, carrying that effortless dignity men seemed able to attain in old age. It was tradition for him to dress her before these dates, spinning her from the wardrobe, to the cabinet mirror, to the full length mirror. He produced jewellery, dresses, shoes, perfumes, even hair brushes and makeup: playing with his beloved doll.
Of course, now she couldn’t be spun. Now he led her across the room with one hand on the flat of her back and the other delicately over hers, like a carer in a nursing home. When they reached the cabinet he pulled across the embroidered footstool for her to sit down. She could no longer kneel ladylike in front of the mirror, her legs like the cabinet’s: stick thin, knobbled, and brittle.
She lowered hesitantly onto the footstool, facing herself. Everything was thinner now: her frayed strings of white hair, her caved in cheeks, her almost lipless line of a mouth. Even her eyes were smaller in their sockets, their colour a dry crinkled brown.
He lifted something out of the cabinet drawer that twinkled in his hand, then moved behind her. He draped the silver chain over her neck, a sunburst gemstone dangling on its end. The stone’s curve was beautiful, but against her skin it appeared a cheap device to distract attention from the blue veins in her drooping, wrinkled cleavage.
‘Ray.’ Her voice wavered.
‘Don’t start, you know I dress you better than you do.’ He gently squeezed her shoulders. ‘Just look in the mirror Pat. It’s you. You’re beautiful.’
There was a beautiful girl in the mirror, but it wasn’t her. Red lips flowered from her sliced mouth, rose cheeks filled out over her bones, and hair the same soft blonde as the tip of a flame lapped over her ragged threads and lay across smooth skin. She and the girl filled the same space but they were undeniably different women. She turned away, and saw through the window—beyond the girl’s face again, transparent—white flakes drifting down against the evening sky.
‘Ray,’ she said. ‘It’s snowing.’
‘So it is.’ A grin spread across his face. ‘Do you remember when—’
‘Of course I remember! I didn’t mean that. I meant, will we be able to go out in this?’
‘Yes, I’m sure we will.’ He leaned over her and picked out a bottle of perfume, the liquid sharp green. With his other hand he placed two fingers on her chin, and turned her back to the mirror. ‘A little snow’s never stopped us before.’
The girl’s eyes were wide and open, and held within them the reds, oranges and golds of autumn leaves. Ray sprayed a mist of perfume across her wrinkled straw neck, but the tang couldn’t cover the scent she’d recently begun to notice, stuck to her skin and intertwined into the threads of her clothes. It was stale and clinical. More than anything it caused a shiver to run down her fragile spine. She was beginning to smell of the hospital.
She clung to Ray’s arm and stared at her feet, taking careful steps on the white slopes while he talked about how beautiful the city looked in the snow. The wind ached through her and she drew closer to him, pulling on his arm. A huddle of youths passed close to knocking against her shoulder, and she pulled him down again. The flat shape of ice stretched out ahead, the click of her shoe against it the sound of snapping bone, and she pulled him down. She knew if she lost Ray, if she was alone, she wouldn’t be able to take another step: stuck, useless and paralysed, in the cold.
They stepped inside, into the warmth. The tables were still plastic, the same foods were displayed on the boards above the counter, and the thick scent of salt and grease hadn’t aged. The lights were over-illuminated white, as ever. There were differences, dependent on time and place: the organisation of tables, the choice of garish patterns across the seats and walls, even the name above the door, but in their essence they remained the same. It was a fast-food burger restaurant, as they’d always been, and always would be.
‘This seems a well-to-do, respectable sort of place,’ Ray exclaimed, striding forward and swinging the hat from his head. ‘A positively outstanding setting for a dinner date.’
She hobbled in his wake, catching up with him at the counter.
‘I shall order the fillet steak,’ Ray said, in what he called his Prince Philip voice. ‘Served between two slices of seeded wholegrain bread. That’s with a side of potato wedges as well, sir.’
The spotty boy behind the counter stared at him, his mouth hanging slightly open, as if Ray had introduced himself in Russian. Ray leaned forward, placed one hand on the counter, and whispered conspiratorially.
‘That means a beef burger and chips please.’ He winked over the top of his glasses. ‘A coke as well, that’s a good lad.’
Ray straightened up, turned and swept his hand towards her.
‘And what shall you dine upon, my darling Pat?’
Pat. That had been the name of a wild young girl, who ran outside when she saw the snow, even though she was wearing her new red dress. Who laughed when Ray followed after her in his suit, and again when he suggested a funny place they could eat now they were dressed fancily. Who bent her knees in front of him, a coy smile playing on her lips, and pinched the hem of her red dress before slowly raising it up.
Ray and the boy behind the counter were looking at her expectantly. Pat was the wrong name. She was Patricia now, an old woman the wrong shape for her green dress.
‘I’ll have chicken nuggets please,’ Patricia mumbled. ‘And tap water.’
Ray blinked at her, like a puppy whose bowl had been snatched from him. Even the spotty boy looked disappointed, before turning and yelling their order back into the kitchen.
‘Why aren’t you playing?’ Ray asked.
‘Sorry. I just forgot.’
He continued to watch her, as if her next move would explain what had just happened. Of course he didn’t understand. He’d always been Ray, and would always be Ray. The fat extra letters she’d grown, dangling from the end of her name, must have disgusted him.
‘Your steak and bread sir, with potato wedges.’ The boy pushed their tray towards them. ‘And the, uh, roast chicken cutlets.’
Ray turned his confusion towards the boy, then laughed uproariously. Patricia managed a weak smile.
‘Oh very good, very good.’ Ray chortled as he took the tray. ‘You’re a good sport lad.’
He carried the tray to the table, taking one by the window as he liked to. By the time Patricia made it across he’d separated out their food and was waiting with a chair held out for her.
‘Your seat, m’lady,’ Ray said as she lowered herself down. He stood by her chair and there was a pause filled with kitchen noise and chatter.
‘Why thank you sir,’ she said too late, her voice wobbling like a bad actress. ‘You really are, er, quite a gentleman.’
There was another pause, oil sizzling and a child crying, then Ray smiled, left her side and sat down. He reached into his inside pocket and drew out two silver knives and two silver forks. That had been Pat’s idea, that day in the red dress. After she was done and rolled the dress back down over her knees, when she was still laughing and he was still stunned but laughing, she sent him back inside for the silver. That was when she plucked ideas freely from the air, rather than clinging to her last two handfuls of concepts and meaning, watching words dribble between the gaps in her bony fingers and slip away.
Ray began to eat, still performing, holding his cutlery at a prim, upright angle and cutting triangles out of his burger before bringing them to his mouth. Patricia’s gnarled claws clutched her knife and fork hovering above the cardboard box of nuggets. The more she concentrated on steadying them, the more they shook, till it looked like she was pretending to play a tiny pair of drums. She pushed her hands down onto the table and the metal rattled against its surface.
She surrendered the cutlery and gazed through the window. There was a couple sitting at a table out in the snow. A man in a black suit, shoes and glasses with his black hat on the table, and a girl in a red dress with soft blonde hair, who curled and smiled, and burned and smouldered for him. The girl pricked a nugget onto her fork and raised it to her mouth in an easy curve. Laughter drifted out of her without effort or intent, she simply enjoyed—loved—the novelty of being herself, as silly as she desired. The girl talked about everything and nothing, and consequently her lover felt able to talk.
On this side of the window Ray drew in a breath, and Patricia saw he was looking at her untouched food. She grasped her cutlery and then speared the fork down into a chicken nugget. She lifted it in shaking right-angles and took a bite. Ray breathed out and returned to his food.
Patricia looked to the window, to attempt to copy how Pat moved and talked. Three figures loomed forwards, hiding the table outside. Three moon-faced girls with flaking orange powder skin, glittering shadows around their eyes, and luminescent purple lips twisted into cruel smiles. They cackled, muted through the glass but still audible. Their laughter was directed at her: at her gemstone resting against barren cleavage, at her turkey-like neck skin, at her shivering hands tightened around the cutlery. She let go and Ray looked up as the metal clattered on the table. The cackling increased in volume, till it seemed the masked grotesques were on this side of glass, laughing into Patricia’s ears and the back of her head. They were different to Patricia in that they were young, but they were different to Pat in that being young now was different to being young then. It wasn’t only that Pat no longer existed, it was that she no longer could exist. She was of her time and her time had passed.
The three girls turned and left, bored of the ugly old lady in the green dress. She could see the table outside again. Pat was gone, replaced by Patricia bent pathetically, almost foetally, over her food.
‘What’s wrong Pat?’ Ray said, his hand over hers, and she realised he’d asked several times already. The restaurant around them was coloured from the same palette as the three girls’ faces. The table cloths, the cardboard food containers, the walls: all sickly bright and tacky. The girls weren’t warped and grotesque, it was Patricia who didn’t fit. Her colours would die in the white light, her gemstone spinning into yellow plastic and the deep green of her dress rising to the colour they used to advertise “healthy” options on the menu.
She stood and fled, gaining momentum as she stumbled faster than she’d moved in years, lurching dangerously towards the laminate floor. She pushed through the door and the cold smacked into her chest. She staggered in a circle, nearly bringing her foot down on the ice that stretched across the pavement and sloped, glass-like, onto the road. The air ached in her narrow throat and was becoming increasingly difficult to draw in. Ray stepped out of the door, framed by the white light.
‘What’s going on? Pat?’
‘I look so stupid.’ She swallowed an apple sized gulp of the harsh air. ‘I’m too old to be acting so ridiculous.’
‘Since when have we ever cared about looking silly?’ He stretched his hand out to her. ‘Let’s go back inside. You’ve barely eaten anything.’
She turned, half away from him, and placed one foot on the ice. She hesitated, unable to convince herself to shift her weight onto it. She knew falling now would damage her more, cause her more pain, than it ever had before.
‘I’m too damned old Ray.’
‘I’m older than you!’ He was holding back from shouting. ‘But I’m not the one running out on our dinner. You could have snapped your leg.’
She leant onto her foot on the ice. She wobbled, but did not fall. Ray pushed his hand towards her, staring at it pointedly.
‘You haven’t aged like I have Ray. You don’t get laughed at’—Patricia tugged at her necklace—‘in clothes you used to love. You don’t forget what you’re supposed to say to the boy behind the counter. You don’t have to cling to me’—she batted his hand away—‘just to walk down the street.’
He looked disgusted; his nose crinkled and raised his glasses upwards, as if he’d finally noticed the hospital stench that permeated from her skin.
‘What does it matter how we look to other people?’ He shook his head and the disgust faded to something more tired. ‘When has it ever mattered?’
Hunched and halfway to the ground, Patricia clutched the struggling three letters Ray in one hand and his ending mond in the other. She forced them together, mond an anchor weighing on his name and on him. She dragged him with her, down towards the snow.
She turned completely away and brought her other foot onto the ice. It shot forwards, flying up in front of her. Ray’s arms were suddenly under hers and he grunted as his knees shoved into the back of her legs, but he didn’t fall.
‘For Christ’s sake!’ He said while she hung in his arms. ‘You can’t walk out here by yourself.’
She pushed out of his grip, twisting to face him. Her foot swept along the ice like a figure skater’s and she slammed against the restaurant window. She crumpled against it, clasping her shoulder.
‘Pat?’ Ray’s arms were stretched helplessly towards her. His voice sounded, she was sure, the same as it would had he found his mother hurt as a child.
She didn’t dare look into the window her shoulder pressed against. There was nothing of Pat in what she was now, the broken shape unable to lift from the glass. Ray stepped carefully onto the ice and reached his hand out to her.
‘Are you okay? How badly does it hurt?’
‘My shoulder’s fine Ray.’ The cold ached in through it, deeper into her body. ‘But I’m old. Things have to change.’
‘Pat, I know you’re old. I’m old too. Things have changed, and will change, but we don’t have to stop being us. Now, hold onto me. You’re going to get yourself hurt.’
She let go of her shoulder and took his hand. He pulled her upwards, his feet splayed out on the ice. She stood without slipping and they held hands between them. Their faces were inches apart, kissing distance, but she saw her reflection in his glasses. Her face was like a skull, the wisps of hair still attached static and frazzled outwards. Her skin was an even paler white than the snow that lay across everything.
Her hand trembled in Ray’s. She stared into the twin skulls, one in each lens of his glasses. There was so much she wanted to say. She wanted to tell him that she could still be his Pat, that what Ray and Pat were to each other was eternal, beyond this body that wrinkled down and weighed over her, but simultaneously that Pat was gone, dead and replaced, her body all she was: Patricia. The language she needed had slipped away years ago. But she could show him what she could no longer say.
She let go off his hand and ran, stumbling again, through the gutter of snow between the pavement and the restaurant windows. Ray followed behind her, calling the wrong name.
She rounded the corner, down the alley by the restaurant’s bins, and turned to face him. There were neither mirrors nor glass here, but the air was half-frozen, crystalline and twinkling, and it was enough to show a reflection of her.
She bent her knees in front of him, a coy smile playing on her lips, and pinched the hem of her red dress before slowly raising it up. She curled the dress above her hips and held it there with one hand, revealing her smooth legs, flushed pink against the cold. She slipped her fingers beneath her lace underwear, hooked them, and pulled them to the side. Ray stood in front of her, his feet planted apart in the snow, his eyes shocked wide behind his glasses. And not because she was young, but because she was Pat and because she thought it would be funny to see Ray’s reaction, she shot out a stream of pee onto the snow.
But neither of them laughed this time. Ray stood ahead of her and his eyes widened, but his mouth held a grim line. In the frames of his glasses, gargoyle Patricia hunched towards the snow. Her green dress was yanked up in one hand, while the other struggled to keep her expansive underwear to the side. She pushed out a few splutters of reeking piss.
‘It’s never been about what anybody else thinks,’ said Patricia’s twisted figure, still dripping. ‘I’m terrified of you looking at me now. You fell in love with a young girl. You must be so disappointed.’
Ray stepped forward, and knelt down in front of her creaking wooden cabinet legs. His hair was as white as hers now, and thin enough that she could see the dome of his scalp. He’d left his hat, she wanted to tell him, but she could no longer push her chest out against the cold. He led her hand from her underwear, allowing it to slide back into place, damped. He took her fingers in his and uncurled them from her green dress, before rolling it down over her trembling white thighs. He rose, reached one hand around her back, placed the other on her shoulder, and brought her upright. She was too close for reflections; she looked through his glasses and into his eyes.
‘You are old. But I didn’t fall in love with a young girl. I fell in love with you, my Pat. And you will always be my Pat.’
He kissed her and there was warmth between their lips. Her dry brown eyes blazed autumn gold, flame blonde hair flowed from her half-bald skull, and her dress swirled red around the stone on her necklace that shone like a burning sun. The snow melted back from them, retreating from her fire and his black silhouette.
But she wasn’t the girl reflected in the crystalline air, and her lips pressed against his were bulging and numb. The cold penetrated her shoulder, crept inside her old bones and spread through her, out along the underside of her skin. Her frozen ribs crushed inwards on lungs too weak to push against them. The cold reached into the sides of her vision, icy darkness growing across the surface of her eyes. She could no longer see the snow, only Ray, head tilted. Their lips were still pressed, but suddenly neither of them were moving. He drew back from her and the ice black closed over her eyes.
She fell forward and was caught. His bones rattled against hers and all she could smell was the hospital. His arms faded, and the smell faded, till she was only cold. Even here, his voice stretched out to her. He called her name.
Rab Ferguson is a York based writer of fiction and poetry. His work can be found in Litro magazine, The Cadaverine, Indigo Rising UK, Pastiche and The City Fox.
He likes cycling and cats, though has not yet found a practical way to combine those interests. He finds writing about himself in the third person slightly disconcerting. He’d very much appreciate if you followed his twitter @rabtales for updates on his writing.
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