I can’t remember when the man who is now my husband first told me he loved me. Was it when we drank cocktails at that windowless bar with the old train seats you could turn to face in either direction? We tried to go back once, but it had been replaced with a hardware store; we priced a set of outdoor furniture and bought some new wire for the clothesline to stop the super-king sheets from dragging on the lawn. Or did he tell me he loved me when I came to stay at his flat for the first time, when he was still living in Gore, within walking distance of the giant fibreglass trout and two doors down from his mother? She could see when he opened his bedroom curtains in the morning; sometimes she waved and held up her overweight dachshund, or shook a jar of Nescafé and mimed sipping from a cup. She still did Christopher’s washing for him, but only because there was no machine in his flat and it just made more sense than taking it to the laundromat, where anybody’s lint and hair and dead skin could end up on your tea towels. A push-up bra of mine found its way into the basket once, and she returned it washed and folded with the hooks done up. It lay on top of the pressed shirts and jeans, a pair of Christopher’s socks tucked into each cup. Was that when he said it? One morning in Gore, when we lay in his chilly bedroom beneath the poster of Abbie Cornish in Candy? I used to stare at Abbie Cornish when I couldn’t sleep. I knew I could never be her, with her collarbone and her upper lip. Even when I closed my eyes, she was still there.
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.
My friend Mel knows a woman who knows a woman who was at the bar in Sydney when Prince Frederik of Denmark met the future Princess Mary. She was just out with her friends, the future Princess, having a few drinks at the Slip Inn, and now she’s European royalty and her wedding was on TV and she’s probably on stamps and maybe even on money. You can see footage of her on the internet, learning how to walk into a room, how to carry herself in a regal manner. The woman who knows the woman who knows my friend Mel still talks about it. I was sitting right there, she says. I was wearing Galliano. Galliano. She’s attractive, this woman – blonde, tanned, takes care of herself – but perhaps Prince Frederik wanted a pale brunette wife. Perhaps, to his eyes, tanned blondes were run-of-the-mill.
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.
I stayed on in the house until it sold. On Sundays, before the open homes, I removed all trace of myself, vacuuming the place from top to bottom, wiping away every last drop of water in the washbasins and the sink and the shub, rubbing the fingerprints from door handles and light switches. One morning when I came downstairs and let myself into the living room something black flitted past me, displacing sour air, forcing it against my face. A starling, fallen down the chimney and frantic to get out: there were sooty smudges on the windows and droppings on the sills, and one black-blue feather on a dirty plate from last night’s fish and chips, caught in the remains of the tomato sauce like something I couldn’t finish. The bird watched me from the curtain rail, its tiny breast beating. I opened every window and waved my arms about and shouted, but it didn’t seem to know what to do, and I was scared to get too close. I went back upstairs, closing the door behind me, hoping it would be gone by the time I came back, but an hour later it was still there, blinking at me, every now and then shitting down the wall. Out in the hallway I sat for a moment by the phone, and then I rang my ex’s number.
‘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 anti-depressants 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.
There’s a man in Delhi who goes by the same name as the man I should have married; from what I can tell, he makes furniture inlaid with bone. And there’s a classical guitarist in Baltimore, and a body-builder in Liverpool, and a tattoo artist in Melbourne. And lately I’ve noticed that the GPS man in my car sounds like him too, or like I remember him sounding. He tells me which direction to take, and when I’ve made a mistake, and when I’m putting myself and others at risk. When I pass by the prostate cancer billboard one morning, there’s an alpaca staring up at it. Turn back now, the GPS man says.
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.
After Dad died, my mother said she didn’t want another husband. She didn’t want to iron anyone’s shirts or turn their dirty socks the right way through or clean specks of stubble out of the washbasin. All the same, when the man I should have married stayed over, she used to make breakfast for him. As if he was the man she should have married. I would come downstairs and find them sitting together at the occasional table, eating croissants and scrambled eggs, her best marmalade glistening in a crystal dish and one of her Sexy Rexy roses jammed into a bud vase. Even now, out of nowhere, she’ll say, ‘Such a shame. Do you still keep in touch? I always liked him.’
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.
The man I should have married is a diplomat posted to Paris; he buys me flawless jewels and we holiday in Cap d’Antibes, where we meet Nigella and Sting and Angelina at parties. The man I should have married is an important eco-architect with a Dublin accent. The man I should have married is a film star who owns an island and employs a personal chef slash masseur to work the knots out of my neck and make plum clafoutis just the way I like it. The man I should have married heads Médecins Sans Frontières and is up for a Nobel for his tireless humanitarian work; House and Garden features us relaxing with our Weimaraners and our three African children who call us Mayi and Bambo because it’s important they know where they come from.
When my latest diamond ring arrives I put it on my finger and observe it from different angles. An Edwardian trilogy, past-present-future, all airy hand-pierced filigree that lets in the light behind the stones. I allow myself to wear it for several hours before checking it under the loupe – and there it is: a girdle chip on the middle diamond, invisible to the naked eye, but enough to compromise the integrity of the piece. People think you cannot damage a diamond, but one knock at the wrong angle, especially if there’s a weak spot, and it will shatter. I’m reaching for the camera, writing the description in my head: Light as a breath yet packed with over two carats of clean white bling, this vintage delight would not look out of place on the red carpet ...
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.
‘The Man I Should Have Married’ was commended in the 2017 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.