Photograph by Michael Howarth (2023)
She loves to receive a letter, or a package, like this one, especially when it comes from England, from her daughter. It contains a book, it’s a collection of short stories, and a note, handwritten. It’s her birthday present.
Read this, Mama, Alba writes. I hope you like it as much as I do. x
By the time she has finished the seventh story, Marilyn is unsure if “like” is the right word. She wishes her daughter was with her here, sitting at the kitchen table, chatting over a coffee, or one of those teas she’s so keen on. She laughs at the idea of sending a book like this to her own mother. The impossibility of it. Yet Alba seems sure it won’t cause offence. It doesn’t. But still. It’s different when it’s your daughter.
‘Does it turn you on?’ asks Alba.
‘No, it does not’, says Marilyn, answering too quickly, forcefully, while asking herself if she is embarrassed by the question, by her daughter asking that question. Or is she lying?
‘Does it you?’
‘I’ve read it seven times’, says Alba.
Marilyn is daydreaming. She can’t imagine such a conversation ever happening. Not with her daughter. Maybe not with anyone. Except she just has.
It’s a story about a woman with a heartbeat fetish. It’s about transgressive sex, or maybe not, maybe not transgressive, just weird. It’s about multiple orgasm and frenzied masturbation.
Marilyn wonders how it happens. That one minute your girl is skipping and playing games, and the next she is reading about sex and rape and incest. She thinks of what she was reading when she was nineteen. She thinks of Miss Rodriguez, her Spanish teacher at school. Back then, in the early 80s, they had to search for feminist themes. The novels, most of them, were written by men. Twenty-eight years on, things have changed. She wonders if it is for the better. Decides it is, but it’s also more brutal.
She slips Alba’s letter into the book as a place marker and sees her final lines again.
Have you signed up for that MA course yet?
Alba finishes with this question every time she writes.
Why not write about these Enríquez stories? her daughter suggests. Marías is old hat now.
That may be true, but Marilyn has been reading Marías again, considering taking up where she left off on that MA, when she was twenty-four. It’s an idea that has been floating around for two years now. It was Alba who suggested it. It was at this kitchen table.
‘What would you say’, her daughter says, and Marilyn senses that something important is coming. ‘What would you say if I wanted to study abroad?’
Alba completes the question in a rush as if she has to force the words out.
‘Where?’ asks Marilyn, aware of the note of panic in her voice. She is slowly coming to terms with the idea that her daughter will soon leave home, after the next school year, and that she will be left, in her mid-forties, with only her husband in the house. But abroad puts a new slant on it.
‘I’m thinking of applying to the UEA’.
Marilyn thinks that sounds familiar.
‘Where’s that?’ she asks.
‘The University of East Anglia’.
‘Oh yes’, says Marilyn and the idea that England is abroad, which, of course, it is for Alba, when Marilyn still often thinks of herself as living abroad, despite her seventeen years in Madrid, is briefly disorientating.
‘Why East Anglia?’
‘For its creative writing courses’.
‘Okay’, says Marilyn, drawing the word out beyond its normal length. ‘I presume you haven’t mentioned this to your father’.
There’s a brief silence while Marilyn considers how she might break this news to Jorge.
‘What is Norwich like?’ asks Alba.
Marilyn smiles at her pronunciation.
‘It’s a silent “w”’, she says. ‘Norwich. And I have no idea. It’s a city but quite a small one, I think. Much smaller than Madrid’.
‘What did you study, Mama?’
‘Spanish language and literature’, says Marilyn. ‘I’m sure I’ve told you that’.
‘No, I mean, what in particular’.
‘Well, I was part way through a master’s degree on Javier Marías but didn’t complete it’.
And as soon as she says this, Marilyn realises that the moment might finally have arrived. The moment when Alba asks “why?” She wonders if seventeen is old enough to cope with the answer.
But the question doesn’t come.
‘Why don’t you complete it now?’ says Alba. ‘You can probably do it online these days’.
Two years on and that question, the one that Alba didn’t ask, still troubles Marilyn. Not every day but it never goes away. To tell or not to tell? But why tell if you’re not asked. Because eventually you will be asked. And then it’s a choice between a truth—an awkward truth—and a lie. She doesn’t want to lie, not if she can avoid it, not to her daughter. Yes, she’s reading Marías again. She reads Todas las almas for the first time since 1989, the novel that said so much to her then, during her six-month affair with “the writer”, as she refers to the man who was her lover during his stay in Birmingham, the man she has not seen or contacted since, but the man who is behind the question not asked nor answered. She imagines her responses when Alba finds out. Yes, you might have had an older sibling. No, the father wasn’t your father. Yes, he was (or is still) a married man. No, it was two years before you were born. Yes, only two years. Yes, that’s why my MA was left unfinished. Yes, that’s why I went to Argentina. She wonders how a nineteen-year-old would respond. If she would be shocked or would just brush it off with a shrug and a “whatever, Mama”, a phrase that Alba and her friends always say in English. In Marías’s novel, she underlines the sentence that says no secret can be, nor should be, kept for ever. She has never told anyone. Not even Jorge.
She reads on. She reads the new trilogy, Tu rostro mañana, that Marías has completed only recently. She finds that the author has moved on just as her life has moved on. She discovers that Marías is still relevant for her although he may not be for Alba. On the very first page of the first volume, she underlines another sentence. The one where the narrator’s mentor tells him he should never tell anyone anything. Once something is told, control is lost. The story belongs to other people. It seems as if Marías is talking to her again. She reads on. She finds that one of the characters in Marías’s new story is a wife, like Marilyn, a wife in her forties, like Marilyn, a wife with two young children, Marilyn has one, who is older, a wife who wants to break free from her marriage, a wife who does break free from her marriage, a wife who constructs a new independence.
It is what this character, this wife, goes through that fascinates Marilyn. First of all, she finds a lover, an idea that is always present in Marilyn’s thoughts, tucked away somewhere between restarting the MA and finding a better job, one that stretches her more than her part-time role in a local bookshop. She knows her friends of a similar age feel the same. They neither actively seek an affair, nor do they rule one out. Some excitement before they are old and less attractive. Given the chance. Given the freedom. That is what the wife in the novel has. Her husband is estranged. Living abroad. She is not controlled by his presence. She is a good-looking forty-something, still able to entice a roving male eye. Like Marilyn can. She knows she can.
Marilyn wonders who she might attract. What type of man. Because she doesn’t want a quiet romance. If she is going to take the risk, it has to be worth it. She wants fleeting liaisons. No holds barred. No ties. Just fixation. To steal from Enríquez, she wants someone who fucks like a god. She wants an Achilles. Like the wife in the book, she wants an obsession. But not what comes with it. Not the black eye. Not the other bruises that can’t be seen when she is dressed. She wonders if the two come together. Buy one, get one free. She feels the force of the punches and the slaps, the brief shock that masks any pain before it triggers, inevitably, like the bile rising in her insides, and yet, when she finishes reading this section, she goes back to its start and reads it again, and then again, three times in all, unable to move on from it, unable to admit her truest feelings to herself.
When she puts the book down, when she starts to think through what she has read, starts to compare it with the Enríquez stories, she wonders what Marías is trying to convey. Marilyn searches for a particular sentence. It takes a long time to find. It’s in the second volume. It’s about fear and how it dominates any other force in existence. She underlines it. Because, if she considers only this female character, this wife, it seems like the novel is a warning to women. A warning not to stray because this is the result. Violence and abuse, and, most of all, the reason that the woman cannot break away once it has started, the fear. And the only way she does free herself, although she remains unaware of it, is because of the violence meted out by another man, her husband, to her lover.
To Marilyn, everything seems wrong, and nothing is right, in this Marías story. The wife is beaten up by her lover. She is stalked by her estranged husband who breaks up her relationship by instilling fear in this new man. And, although the wife retains her independence, continuing to live separately, this brings about a reconciliation between husband and wife. A reconciliation which the husband views as being for the good of their children. It’s about ownership, thinks Marilyn. Marías is saying that the husband knows what’s good for the wife. Jorge is not a violent man, but neither, initially, was the character in the novel. She wonders how Jorge would behave in similar circumstances. She imagines that Xavi, who comes into the bookshop, who speaks to her when he does, who asks her to go for coffee, who she joins on her lunchbreak, could be a violent man. But she met Jorge in a bookshop. In Buenos Aires.
She likes the idea of living independently, having her own space. She thinks it would work better for marriages, especially when the children are grown. The first step is the MA. It won’t be about Marías. Not solely. She completes her proposal. Her title is, “Emancipation and Control: The Female Characters of Mariana Enríquez and Javier Marías”. She e-mails it to Alba. She doesn’t have to wait long for a reply. Yes! is all it says.
About the abortion. She’ll tell Alba he fucked like a god, the writer. Alba will be shocked. She’ll say, Mama! And then she will laugh. They will laugh together. And about the split with her father. Alba won’t laugh. She’ll be sad. But she will sit at Marilyn’s kitchen table, drinking one of those teas she likes so much, and say she understands. Yes, Mama, she’ll say, I understand.
And, when she has sent off her application, Marilyn wonders if she will go for more than coffee with Xavi. If she was an Enríquez character, she would. But they are younger than her. Fearless.
She thinks he is like Achilles.
She thinks she will.