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The New Man

The New Man

Whenever Suzanne was in trouble, she flew to Laura, her sister. For each job lost, each temporary boyfriend fled, each flat-share swiftly departed, Laura was available to solace and reassure her. Laura was steady. She worked as a teacher. She would scoop up her younger sister, listen to her woes, throw herself into her problems and sit up until dawn patting her hand. Aaron, Laura’s boyfriend, would clear out of the room.

When Suzanne had tottered back to wherever she was living, Aaron and Laura would talk. He would tell Laura that Suzanne was using her. ‘You indulge her mess,’ he’d say. ‘She’ll never change if she always knows you’ll do that.’ Laura would say he was cynical, that he didn’t understand a sister’s bond. He resented, Laura would say, claims upon her time that weren’t himself. He felt left out, she said, and so he sniped at them.

The injustice of this claim always rankled with Aaron. He would explain, again, that he didn’t resent Suzanne’s claims on Laura. He just didn’t like to see Laura wasting her energies. Suzanne would never be okay, he said, because she wasn’t realistic. She chose to reside in her dreams and was bloodied by each intrusion of actuality. Their voices would raise, they’d open a bottle, at some point one of them would blurt out something wounding, an apology would follow, a hug would follow that and soon they would go to bed. Afterwards, Aaron would say he had been harsh on Suzanne and Laura would say maybe she did indulge her a bit. They would sleep a contented sleep.

On this Friday, they were meeting Suzanne’s new man. Aaron sat on the bed, making reluctant noises and doing up his shirt. Laura applied going-out mascara in heavy swipes. ‘You don’t have to come,’ she said. Aaron didn’t believe she meant this. It was part of the ritual of nights that involved Suzanne.

‘What will this one’s gimmick be?’ said Aaron. ‘I reckon he’ll be a teenager. Or an ex-con. I don’t think she’s had an ex-con.’

Laura said he was mean. Aaron said he was exhausted from work, that was all. He would coax himself into liveliness, shuck off his office skin.

The streets had the twitchy promise of a hot summer night. Couples stepped, eyes trained forward, past shouting drinkers and people hurrying from the tube. Outside the barn-size pub, men in office shirts orbited women telling stories. Aaron and Laura reached the restaurant. Suzanne was not yet there. They were shown to a table near an open window, with a welcome breeze from outside. Laura had a look of willed calm, deliberately unruffled. Aaron ran his thumb along the corner of the menu.

‘What time do you think she’ll show?’ said Aaron.

‘Can we stop taking the piss out of my sister now please?’ said Laura. They ordered a bottle of wine and as it was brought to their table, Suzanne appeared, alone, in a blue silk dress. Aaron noticed a change. She didn’t wave in muddled excitement, she didn’t stop to chat to someone she knew, she didn’t misplace her bag on the way there. She almost strode. He glanced down at her legs but she was wearing her usual improbable shoes. She owned a lot of improbable shoes and somehow, after years, she had finally learned to walk in them. She kissed Laura, waved at Aaron and sat, without giving any confusing reasons for her lateness. She gestured with her hands as though smoothing the air around her. Laura said she liked the dress and Suzanne didn’t apologise for it. She nodded as if the dress deserved its praise.

‘Jim’ll be here in a moment,’ she said. ‘Something came up. I’m so excited you’ll meet him.’ She didn’t look excited so much as pleased, a contained sort of satisfaction, like a pregnant woman in an old painting. She waved across the restaurant and her body seemed to tremor as though she’d had a gulp of something bracing. The new man crossed the room.

He bounded to their table like a chat show mainstay approaching the inquisitional sofa, all grins and ebullient shuffles. His clothes suggested Christianity. He was perhaps the same height as Suzanne but contrived to appear shorter. He sat and held one of Suzanne’s hands in two of his own. Aaron wondered if he was some sort of mentor, an AA sponsor, intent on his own kind of rescue. He had a coppery faun’s beard and although his face wasn’t old, its surface was cracked with tiny wrinkles.

‘Well,’ he said, drumming a brief roll on his calves. ‘You must be Laura and Aaron. I’m Jim.’ Aaron felt himself disliking this little stranger for reasons he couldn’t explain. He looked, with his styleless clothing and tiny frame, like a person Aaron would normally treat with condescension, yet he behaved as though, by being present, he was doing them a favour.

‘And,’ Jim continued, ‘before I say anything else can I just say, Suzanne, you look amazing and that is the most beautiful dress? Every time I’m on my way to meet her, I think to myself, I wonder what she’ll be wearing and it’s always something incredible. I want to give it a round of applause.’

Thankfully he did not. His voice was a decibel too loud. Aaron tried to stifle his irritation: it was, after all, a beautiful dress. There was nothing wrong with saying so, if you could.

‘Isn’t going for a meal the greatest thing?’ Jim went on, ‘just the pleasure of it. The condensation cloud on your glasses, the smells coming from the kitchen. Happy faces around a table. Suzanne, it’s amazing, when she eats – I don’t know how she does it, but her face gets younger. The colour rushes to it.’ He hopped a bit on his seat. Aaron looked over at Laura. She would be wanting to give this new man a chance. Although he was surprised to see her face show nothing of that. It showed only bemusement.

‘Well,’ said Laura, ‘we should think about what we’re eating.’ Jim nodded a lot while Suzanne looked at the menu with her odd new serenity. A mutation had taken place. She looked over the list of pizzas like a victorious general surveying his maps. Laura told her how well she looked and the new man joined in with telling her. The waiter dashed over to the table at a glance from Suzanne and they ordered some more drinks, with Suzanne opting for lemonade.

The new man gave her upper arm a gentle squeeze. There was nothing to dislike in this. Jim explained they’d met when Suzanne came into his café. Possibly it was a Christian café. He had gazed at her and seen a vast potential. She’d forgotten, he said, what she was like. She wasn’t a catalogue of problems, she was a person with great qualities. Watching her remember this was a privilege, he said. Suzanne said she was thinking of going back to university, doing psychology or law. She had been stagnating. She had allowed herself to conform to the expectations of others. She had behaved messily for longer than she’d needed to, because it had become her expected role. While Laura’s face was still, Suzanne’s was all animation. She spoke of new influences, new surroundings. She looked plausible and convincing, as though by voicing her plans she had already fulfilled them. This was absolutely fine. The new man beamed supportively. When the waiter came back, she ordered a salad.

‘You’re amazing,’ said Jim.

While they were still on the starters, he took a call. He spoke loudly but covered his mouth with a freckled hand. Suzanne nibbled, unperturbed, at her garlic bread. The new man’s tones were reassuring, if loud. ‘You’re gonna be alright,’ he kept saying. He put the phone in his pocket, appearing, for the first time, subdued. ‘It’s my friend. She’s, well, she’s in a pickle. I’m gonna have to go over.’ He winced, making forked wrinkles appear in the corners of each eye. Suzanne touched his hand. She hoped the friend was alright. Jim offered to call the friend back with some excuse, but Suzanne said he should go. She raised her hand and Jim kissed it. He said he was ever so sorry. Aaron put his hands under the table, in case he was going to kiss them too. Jim flung down an excess of banknotes and left with a thumbs up.

Suzanne watched him go, then looked directly at Aaron in a way that made his eyes sting. He wasn’t sure she’d ever really looked at him before.

‘Verdict please,’ she said. But the pizzas came, delaying this. Aaron thought he would avoid giving an opinion. His qualms felt unjustified. He couldn’t say them to this new and steely Suzanne. It was probably unfair on the new man that the confidence he had presumably inspired in Suzanne made him appear less deserving of her love. Also, there was Laura. She wouldn’t like a negative reaction. She would be happy for her sister. He focused on his pizza.

Laura coughed into her fist. ‘He’s a bit full on isn’t he?’ she said. A flicker played across Suzanne’s eyebrows as she heard this. She pronged an olive and raised it to her lips, swallowing before she spoke.

‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘How do you mean?’

‘Well… all the hopping on his seat. And saying over and over how brilliant you are.’

Suzanne dabbed her mouth with her napkin. She didn’t speak. Am I not brilliant, said her face.

‘And who,’ said Laura, ‘is this friend he’s running off to? Does he just go round putting out fires or something?’

Suzanne placed the napkin on the table and smoothed it with her fingers, turning it so the red print of her lips faced the table. Am I on fire, said her face.

‘Aaron,’ she said, ‘what did you think?’

‘Oh,’ said Aaron. ‘First impressions, you know. He seemed alright. Doesn’t blink.’ Laura tutted in a way Aaron was sure only he could hear.

‘All these theatrical declarations,’ said Laura. ‘It’s just a bit much.’

‘So he says nice things and he’s supportive of his friends in hard times,’ said Suzanne. She picked up her knife and fork but did not use them. ‘I don’t see these things as terrible, to be honest. They aren’t gaping flaws. They aren’t, you know, murdery.’

‘You can be a bit much without being murdery,’ said Laura. ‘You can just not ring true.’

Suzanne pulled her puzzled face, which was also, Aaron realised, the face she pulled for selfies.

‘Which nice things,’ she said, ‘did you find the most implausible?’

‘Oh come on Suzanne,’ said Laura. ‘That isn’t what I meant.’

‘I hate to say this but… could it not be that you’ve forgotten what it’s like?’ Laura said nothing. There was no way Aaron was going to say a word. ‘I mean, you’ve been together how long now?’

‘Eight years,’ said Laura.

‘So maybe, I don’t know, you’ve forgotten that first rush. The giddiness of it.’ Aaron waited for Laura to defend their relationship. She did not.

‘It isn’t that. It’s, come on, Suzanne, you’ve been pretty shaky these last few years and I don’t want you to fall on your feet.’

‘My…?’

‘Your arse I mean.’

Suzanne twiddled the stick in her lemonade. ‘I’m not about to fall on anything,’ she said. ‘I’m doing okay. I’m doing great. It feels like… please don’t be offended by this. I know I’ve been a state. And I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me, both of you,’ she looked directly at Aaron again, although he had done nothing, ‘but it’s started to feel like you need me to carry on being it. A state. As though it were important you have that. I don’t know why, I don’t think it’s anything deliberate. I don’t think you consciously think it. But it’s true.’ They all sat for a long time.

‘Well this is just very unfair,’ said Laura. ‘After all we’ve done. As though we somehow enjoy it, the sleepless nights, the worry. As though we feel smug about that. It isn’t fair at all.’

‘I’m very tired,’ said Suzanne. ‘I’m not expressing it well. I know you’ve done a lot. Above and beyond.’ She gestured above and beyond with both her arms. ‘I’m just saying it’s going to be different. Now. Shall I go? I think I should go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Please don’t be angry or sad.’ She checked herself in a little mirror and left the table. Laura had stopped eating. Aaron watched from the window at Suzanne striding down the road, until she disappeared. Laura looked like she hadn’t been to sleep in several years.

‘You kept quiet,’ she said.

Back at their flat they sat on the sofa, a foot apart from one another, and watched TV with the sound down. Aaron went to the fridge and opened a beer. Laura kept her eyes on the screen. ‘Incredibly unkind thing to say,’ she said. Aaron asked her which bit she meant. She told him all of it. ‘This idea we somehow need her to be screwed up. When I’ve been nothing but generous. You’ve seen the amount of time I spend on her. And she seems to think I enjoyed it. That we enjoyed it. When you’ve complained about it enough. I should have listened.’ Aaron said maybe his grumbling had been a little harsh. Suzanne had needed her sister. It was only right that Laura had helped her. And it was good those days were over now, at least. ‘Oh but they aren’t over are they?’ said Laura. ‘He’ll let her down, like all the others have, and I’ll have to mop it all up.’

Aaron said he wasn’t so sure. He didn’t think much of this Jim, if he was honest, but Suzanne seemed shaken into newness, new resolution, new clarity, a purposefulness he wouldn’t bet against. He believed she could do anything. She was all anxious motion, whereas Laura and he were still. She would always be going forward, like a shark. She wouldn’t be slumped on a sofa. She had her own restless velocity.

‘Oh you’re soft on her,’ said Laura. ‘You romanticise her, you do. The sad little sister, the broken bird. You say she annoys you, but I know. And now you think just cos she says so, she’s going to soar off and be limitless, when she’s not, because she can’t.’

Aaron had an other beer and ignored this accusation. ‘I hate that she thinks we somehow need it, the way she’s been. That we just sit here, drab and married, waiting for her to show up and give us colour. It’s arrogant.’ There was only one beer left.

‘I’m so fed up,’ said Laura. She switched off the TV and left the room. Aaron sat and looked at the walls with vague anger. He glanced at his phone and saw that Suzanne was online. He looked at her Facebook page for a while, scrolling through her photos. She always looked so glamorous and he used to find this annoying, a sign she wasn’t serious about the troubles she faced, that she wasn’t realistic. Now he saw courage in it, a refusal to bow to disasters, a justified pride. He looked at the photos some more. He dwelled on her lustre, her light-­composed face, the way she managed to have more limbs than everyone else. The green dot showed she was online. What was so good about being realistic? Realism was sofas and four dull walls, it was the same office every day and meals at the local restaurant on a Friday. It held no risks. It wasn’t effervescent and ceaselessly moving. It went slow-paced through mundanity, with none of Suzanne’s funfair lurches from pain to joy. Better to be unreal. He was going to message her. He did it before he could stop himself. ‘I think you’re very brave,’ he wrote. Her green light went off. She hadn’t seen it.

‘I think you’re great,’ he wrote. ‘I always have, really. Jim’s incredibly lucky.’ He drank a bit more beer. ‘I’m thinking about you,’ he wrote. She was still offline.

He looked up how to delete unread messages but couldn’t find a way. He considered calling her and asking her not to read them but felt this might make things worse. He was running out of battery as well. ‘DRUNK IGNORE’ he typed. He added a few kisses onto this and knelt to charge his phone in at the other side of the room. He might as well go to bed. Possibly in the morning it would turn out he hadn’t sent the messages at all.

It was 3AM when the buzzer rang. Aaron reached for his phone and remembered it was in the other room. When they let Suzanne in, she’d been crying and there was a sickly air of drink around her skin. She had a small scrape on one leg, not bleeding but scuffed. Jim had let her down. It was unclear exactly how. Her accusations were muffled and imprecise. He was one of those who hover around sorrow, a distress addict, an opportunist. But she didn’t say what he’d done. She dwelled, remorseful, on the stuff she’d come out with at dinner. She was still wearing her blue dress. She sat down on the bed, then stretched out on her back, closed her eyes and let out the longest sigh. ‘I’m sorry I was so horrible,’ she said.

Laura smiled and kissed her forehead, told her it was alright. She took one of Suzanne’s long arms and started stroking it lightly, whispering it was alright, it was going to be fine. Suzanne reached for Aaron’s hand and squeezed, digging her nails into his palm, before setting it free. His phone was still in the other room. He started stroking Suzanne’s free arm, his other hand stroking her cheek, so warm and smooth. The two of them crouched over the tired girl on the bed, while she told them how sorry she was.

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