“You’re not leaving me,” I tell her.
It isn’t a plea. It’s a fact. It’s written in stone.
I’ve seen it.
She stands in the hallway, mostly hidden within a raincoat of garish red. It’s two sizes too big and the hood is bunched up at the back of her head. Her small face looks out at me, jaw set firm but something shifting and uncertain in the eyes. She would have me believe that she is about to walk out the door, never to return. She would claim, if pressed, that her cartoonish raincoat will never again hang draped on the banister at the foot of these stairs.
“We’re not doing that old thing, Tom,” she says. “Oh no you’re not, oh yes I am…”
“Take the raincoat off, Carla. You look so cute it’s killing me.”
She eyes me wearily. I know that I sound like a fake, that my confident words are undermined by my fevered expression. I cry at movies too, though I know that they aren’t real. So my voice quavers. My eyes may well be wet. Who knows what dumb show this body is putting on. Regardless, I know what I know.
She isn’t leaving.
Because I’ve seen that raincoat, hanging right here. Years from now. The deal is done. I’ve seen the past and the future locked in amiable handshake.
“You know, I remember – “
She cuts me off. “I don’t want to hear about your memories. I’m sick of them.”
She calls them memories now, as I do. In the beginning she called them predictions. That she has come round to my vocabulary is a hopeful sign, if such were needed. Predictions are not something known. They can be wrong. Memories are quite different. Memories are truth.
I wave away her objection. “No, no. The past, I mean. Do you remember when I bought you that raincoat?”
“Of course I do. Even I can remember the past. That’s a gift most of us have.”
“The Seafront Hotel, Brighton,” I say, ignoring her sarcasm. My aim is to coax her into the tranquilizing mist of a happy memory.
“It was the Waterfront Hotel, actually.”
I raise an eyebrow but say nothing. This would be a bad time to question the competence of her recall.
She holds her keys loosely, the goofy dog key-ring dangling. I picture the keys dropping to the floor. I see myself picking them up, striding into the kitchen, returning the keys to their place among the assorted junk on the counter by the radio. I daydream myself re-emerging into the hall just as Carla is placing her raincoat on the banister.
I blink away the vision. In reality, the keys don’t fall. The goofy dog sways. Carla stands her ground, refusing my invitation to the Brighton of a happier time. I try a different tack.
“It’s fading, you know. My so-called gift. It’s like dementia.”
Her eyes widen slightly.
“It’s like what happened to my gran,” I say. “Her recent memories went first, and she was left only with memories of long ago, of her childhood. I have that too, it seems. Except in the other direction. I can only remember the distant future.”
Her face gives nothing away. I feel like that stupid dog, dangling from Carla’s hand. “That’s a pity,” she says finally. “I was going to ask you whether I’ll need this raincoat today. But I guess you wouldn’t know.”
“I wouldn’t know? This is Scotland, Carla.” I wave a warning finger. “The rain is coming.”
Brighton, five years ago and only yesterday: we strolled to the end of the pier under a darkening sky, joking about the inevitable rain. When the storm came, everyone dashed indoors. But we stayed, and we had the walkway to ourselves, and the deranged sea was like the world’s biggest dance performance, for an audience of two. When I said as much to her, she rolled her eyes, and leaned over the railing and pretended to vomit. The rain had eased off by the time we arrived back at the Seafront Hotel – or was it the Waterfront? – looking like two deliriously happy drowned rats. I said that to her, too, about the rats; she liked that one. We showered together and then lay naked on the soft, four-star blanket of the hotel bed, feeling as fresh, warm and loved as newborns.
The following day the sky was clear. The forecast said dry spell. So I took Carla to an outdoor goods store and bought her the raincoat. This will shelter you from yesterday’s rain, I told her. She played it straight, expressing heartfelt gratitude and wearing it, red hood up, for the rest of that cloudless day.
It has been many things, that raincoat. A joke, of course. And also a symbol. Then it was a souvenir, a memento from the most meaningful week of my life. These days, to Carla, it’s mainly of practical value. She doesn’t see it, because she wears it. She can no more see the raincoat from my point of view than she can see the movement of her own dark eyes when she is thinking about something I have said to her.
Recently, the coat has adopted yet another role. It has become a promise.
“Is it true? The memories are fading?” There is sympathy in her voice. She imagines part of me would grieve to see the end of this malady.
It’s what she wanted to hear. I can see the cogs of her mind turning; the mysterious workings of the machinery of choice. The outcome is already certain. And yet I notice that my hands are clutching at each other, as if the course of something important is moving out of my control.
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Why did you wait until I’m half way out the door?” The fabric of the raincoat swishes as she swings an arm back to indicate the door in question. “No, wait. I’ve got it.” She points a finger at me and her keys jangle. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? It’s cinematic or something.”
“Me?” I point at my chest and attempt an exaggerated expression of injured shock. “As much as I appreciate a bit of drama, you’re the one wearing the symbolic raincoat while threatening to storm out the door. And me?” I cast an appraising glance down the length of my body. “I’m just standing here in my slippers.”
We stare at each other until she can’t take it anymore and a smile breaks out. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. And there’s not much symbolic about your slippers.”
“These things? No. Not unless there’s some symbolism in the colour brown.”
“Oh, there is. There definitely is.” She sighs, and her smile fades even as I will it to stay. “Seriously, couldn’t you have mentioned this hugely important development a little earlier?”
“What can I say? You know I’m an idiot.”
She shakes her head sadly. “It’s my fault, too. We don’t talk enough, do we?”
“But yeah. You’re also an idiot.”
We don’t talk enough. I don’t know about that. It’s certainly true that we don’t talk a lot. We have always taken pride in our disdain for incessant chat. We like to sit together in silence. We communicate in symbols. Like the raincoat. Pranks, sometimes. Mute in-jokes. In Brighton she responded in this silent way to my remark about happy drowned rats. Upon entering the bathroom that evening I found the bath tub partially filled with water. On the bottom of the tub, skilfully rendered in blue crayon, a cartoon rat grinned wildly. Drowned, yet happy.
“I know it was never your fault,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like you applied for this weirdness. But it’s like when… God, it sounds so petty.”
“Say it. Please.”
“It’s like when you watch a movie with someone who’s already seen it. It’s no fun, is it? You want to discover it together.”
“I know what you’re saying. But the memories were never as clear as you assume. It’s not so much like I’ve already seen the movie. More like… more like I’ve seen the trailer.”
“Yeah, well, these days that’s pretty much the same as – “
“ – as seeing the whole movie.” We finish the sentence in unison, and then we both laugh. My laugh is a little louder than hers.
The memories started two years ago, out of the blue. Following a brief period of bewilderment and fear for my sanity, I concluded that I had been gifted with a form of precognition. Full of romantic intention, I announced to Carla two weeks before Christmas that the first snow of winter would begin to fall while we were eating Christmas dinner. When the snow came as foretold, it delighted her. Only later did she come to understand that it had been more than a guess. And she told me that her memory of that white Christmas was soured. Beautiful surprises are not beautiful, she said, when they’re not really surprises.
“Are you sorry that they’re fading?” she says.
“I don’t need to know my future, Carla.” I lower my voice. “Except to know that you’ll be in it.”
I wait for her to mime sticking her fingers down her throat. But she remains completely still, and for a moment she looks sadder than I have ever seen her. Then a small smile. “But if your brain goes back to normal we’ll be equal again. Could you handle it?”
“Equal? You’re nuts. If my brain goes back to normal I’ll be like your pet monkey. Just as I’ve always been.”
“Right. So what are you now? I guess you’re like my pet monkey with a crystal ball…”
“Yeah, I was. But looks like the crystal ball got smashed. Moral: don’t trust a monkey with anything made of crystal.”
“Anyway, with or without a crystal ball, you could outsmart me with your arms tied behind your back.”
“I’m not sure about that. If we tied a monkey’s arms behind its back, it could just as easily use its feet.”
“This metaphor is beginning to confuse me. Also, what you’re suggesting sounds like animal cruelty.”
She looks down at her hands, which seem to be fighting over the keys. “You know, it’s nice of you to say how smart I am, and of course I agree with you. But if you acknowledge that I’m the smart one, why don’t you accept my prediction? That this is goodbye.”
I should have kept the monkey thing going. “Yeah, well. There are a few shards of that crystal ball that still show me things. They’re not much, and they’re fading, but I’ve been hanging on to one in particular. It shows me that you won’t leave.” A thought grabs me. “Or at least, that if you do leave, you’ll come back.”
My own words arrest me. Somehow this interpretation has eluded me until now. She may leave for a time. A few days or weeks of lonely Netflix nights, passing time until her inevitable return. The thought doesn’t depress me. What’s that old saying? It’s not the journey, it’s the destination.
Something like that.
I feel that it’s Carla’s turn to talk but she stares through me. Lost in troubled thoughts. Detained by uncertainty.
“I was kidding about the weather forecast,” I say. She meets my eyes. “It’s going to stay dry.” I hold up a hand. “Now don’t fret. This isn’t news from the Dead Zone you’re getting here. I saw it on the telly. And you know, they’ve never been wrong.”
She smiles and shakes her head, as if in reluctant praise at something mischievous I have done. Then she shrugs off the raincoat, drapes it over an arm and takes a step in my direction.
Her movement affects me physically. My shoulders relax. My breathing deepens. The inevitability of this turning point does not lessen its impact. Sure, the hero of the movie was always going to prevail. Nonetheless, the tension builds, and finally, relief.
She stands before me, under me, looking up. Her dark eyes are pained. I resist the urge to enclose her in my arms. There will be a moment for that. There will be thousands of such moments.
“Tom. I need more time. My head’s all over the place.”
“Just give me a day or two to think things over.”
This all seems right, somehow. Characters should not change course in a heartbeat. There should be a period of reflection.
“Sure. However long you need. I’ll be here.”
She steps past me to hang her coat on the banister. She takes her time, presumably doing it with great care. As if she somehow understands the significance of it. Perhaps someday I shall tell her.
I close my eyes and take pleasure in the familiar soft whispers of the fabric as she arranges the coat on its resting place.
She leaves without touching me. Without a word. The door closes almost soundlessly, and I open my eyes, and she is gone.
Sometimes, memories from both directions arise simultaneously, and when that happens there is a perfect tension, a sensation of symmetry. My whole life appears as an intricately woven tapestry, and it simply hangs there, complete, in need of nothing.
The sensation always evaporates before I can properly grasp it. Like the form of a dolphin, glimpsed from the shore. The waves pulse, the light shifts, and there’s nothing out there but endless sea.
They’re all fading now, all those future memories. Like dreams, the more I struggle to see, the further they recede.
I wonder, not for the first time, why? Why me? And why those particular memories? Why, for example, this one, that tells me she will never leave me?
In it – that partially glimpsed promise – I stand right where I stand now, and I look at the raincoat on the banister. That’s it. That’s all it is. I only know it’s in the distant future because when I reach out and stroke the hood of the coat, my hands are wrinkled. An old man’s hands.
Ergo, Carla and I grow old together.
And within that simple memory, a curiosity. The coat hangs as familiar as my own face in the mirror, but for one idiosyncrasy. The arms of the coat are tied together in a bow. Like something… yes, like something a child might do! Perhaps the greatest blessing of our lives is to be a surprise after all.
Arms tied, in a sweet little bow.
Tied at the back.
A memory intrudes. A past memory, from mere moments ago:
“You could outsmart me with your arms tied behind your back.”
I freeze in the hallway. The front door seems far away. Gentle taps of rain begin to spatter its frosted glass. A key rests in the lock, and a goofy dog hangs down. To my side, unseen, the raincoat.
I turn, slowly, to look.
Carla’s playful, silent reply to my words: arms tied at the back, in a sweet little bow.
She was right, I suddenly realize. It was the Waterfront Hotel.
The present and the distant future converge. I have built a dream around the image of a raincoat and an old man’s hands. Years of blissful companionship, a promise sealed by this simplest of motifs.
But why would the hands of an old man tenderly stroke the hood of an old raincoat?
The handshake across time was duplicitous. The deal apparent was not the deal in fact done. The house is empty, and the rain is coming down harder against the door. The future is unknown, but one thing is certain: the arms of the raincoat are tied, and tied they will forever remain.