EXCHANGING GIFTS | Richard Farren Barber Now The doorbell drags me from sleep and I dress quickly. “I’m coming,” I call, but when I try to pull the cuff of my dressing gown over my left hand I almost faint from the pain. I think that maybe I do pass out – just for a second, like an empty slide between the frames of a movie. The bandage is almost black with dried blood. Loose strands fold into a wasps’ nest. Downstairs I fumble with the key. A dark silhouette presses against the mottled glass of the door. “Just a minute.” My voice is weak and I’m not sure if the waiting figure hears me but either way they don’t reply. For a second I think it might be... but then I realise it isn’t her. The figure betrays the shape of a man. Mike? A thousand thoughts rush through my head in the moment it takes to unlock the door. With each image that my imagination conjures up, I die a little bit more. When I open the door a parcel is pushed towards me and, because I’m still holding the door, I instinctively try to take it in my left hand. Shards of hot pain flush through my arm and I clamp my teeth down on the scream to silence it. The postman looks down at the ragged bandage around my hand, and I think he’s going to say something, but then he holds out a clipboard. “Sign here.” The paper is soft and pulped by rain. I put the parcel on the floor and sign a spider’s trail across the page. My hand shakes with the effort. I look at the box. The rain has soaked through the cardboard. “Happy Christmas,” the postman mumbles. He pauses for a moment and I realise, finally, that he’s waiting for his Christmas tip. My pockets are empty and I shrug. He snatches back his clipboard and trudges down the path to his bike. The street is empty. In the house opposite a Christmas tree sparkles with red and green and blue lights. I close the door and sink to the floor. Large black spots poison my vision. Nausea rises in my stomach and the heavy throb that comes from my left hand seems to echo through my body. My heart picks up the beat, my lungs start to work to the same pattern. The flashing lights across my vision synchronise with my pulse. Sweat drips down my face and my heart pounds like I’ve taken a shot of speed. The parcel is about the size of a shoe box. The label has been typed and there is no return address, but I already know who had sent it. Jackie. I wonder if she’s received my present yet. When I look again at my parcel I notice the bottom is damp, the paper beginning to soften and tear. Beneath the brown wrapping paper I see the hint of a gaudy Christmas pattern. The tips of my fingers are red.
* Then We met in the waiting room at Nottingham railway station, the air thick with the smell of stale chips and old coffee turned to tar. When Jackie walked into the room I paid her no attention. She sat in the corner, a meek and fearful creature. It was January, so we were both wrapped in coats, but the radiators pumped out hot air and after ten minutes I had taken off my coat and draped it over my bag. Jackie kept her coat drawn around her. I thought maybe she needed it for protection, a barrier against the world. “Can I get you a drink?” I finally offered. People had come and gone and, although we had not spoken, I felt a kinship with this small woman with her legs tucked up into her chest. “I’m all right. Thank you.” “It’s a long time to wait.” The door opened and a man entered. He walked across the room and sat near her. The look of terror on Jackie’s face was clear. “Is everything okay?” “Mike. My boyfriend,” Jackie said. “I mean, my ex-boyfriend.” “Is he likely to look here for you?” She nodded. I sat and watched her as she spoke, her words halting and unsure. Her eyes constantly flickered over to the door. Her lips curved into a soft smile, a thin red line drawn on her face. A spark of life showed in her eyes. I wanted to put my arms around this woman to protect her. “Do you want him to find you?” “It’s over between us.” “And this guy... Mike, that’s what he thinks too?” Jackie smiled. There was sad resignation in her expression. It made me wonder what Mike had done to her. “We weren’t good for each other,” Jackie said. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to ask further about her relationship. I had a sense that she needed to tell someone, but at the same time it seemed too personal. So the conversation continued, halting and uncertain, but it was there. By the time they announced that my train had been cancelled we were tentative friends. Probably even then I had begun to love her. We sat in the warm shelter of the waiting room while passengers moved in and out. The heavy thrum of diesel engines ran through every section of the building, shaking the old clock that hung from the station roof. “Where will you go?” “I’ll find somewhere,” she told me as she stood up, pulling her bags around her. I watched her prepare to leave and knew I couldn’t let her go. “You could come with me... If you wanted?” I suggested. She smiled, a beautiful smile. “Thank you, but I don’t think I should,” Jackie said. She smiled again, my heart thumped twice in response. I don’t think I have ever fallen for a woman so hard, so fast. I pulled a sheet of paper from the middle of my book and wrote my telephone number on it. “Please call me.” I watched her walk out of the room. When I closed my eyes I could still see the way she smiled at me. I went home to wait by the telephone.
* Now It takes me five minutes to crawl the corridor. Five minutes of wheezing and crying and choking but, although there are some grey spells, I make it back to my room. I push open the door with my shoulder. The curtains covering the bay windows are drawn, leaving everything cast in a soft twilight of gloom and shadows. Just putting Jackie’s present onto the desktop takes an immense effort and I have to pull myself into the chair to rest. The top of the desk is covered in papers. Sketches for a new drawing pile up between reference books. I sweep everything onto the floor. Only Jackie’s present remains, centre stage. She hasn’t called. I check the time on the large clock that dominates one wall: 11:57. I pick up the phone and dial her number, but it rings until a recorded message tells me to hang up and try again later. I open the right hand drawer of the desk. Hidden at the back is a small, plastic bag. I take two pills from the bag and drop them under my tongue. I sit there waiting for them to take effect. The bloody tidemark on Jackie’s present is a third of the way up the paper.
* Then After that first meeting at the train station I heard nothing for days. I became paranoid that I had given her the wrong phone number or that the phone wasn’t working. I reported a fault to BT three times. Each time the phone did ring it wasn’t Jackie. It was friends or family who would ask, “Has she called yet?” I cut short every conversation: While I was on the phone, Jackie could be trying to ring me. For three days I stalked through the house like a caged animal. When she finally rang we arranged to meet for a drink the following day. A week later we sat on the edge of my bed. “Turn off the light,” Jackie said. I wanted to tell her that she was beautiful, that she didn’t need to hide from me. But I had briefly seen another side to her; a stronger, tougher woman hiding within the cracked shell of the cowering girl I had met in the station. Now that woman was retreating again. Jackie drew her arms protectively around herself, stared at the floor of my room. “Please turn off the light, Ray,” she asked. In the semi-darkness of my room Jackie removed her shirt. Even in the dim light I saw the marks around her neck. I hissed. I couldn’t prevent the sharp intake of breath. Some of the bruises were old and yellowed but others were still bright; purple and black. “Mike did that?” “I don’t want to talk about it,” Jackie said. “But...” “I don’t want to talk.” Her voice was a strange mixture of pain and passion and strength. After we made love she cried, and I held her until she fell asleep in my arms.
* Then On Valentine’s Day I took her to the best French restaurant in town. It cost me almost all of my savings. I sat and looked across the table at Jackie. “I love you.” Jackie smiled but said nothing. The following weekend she ordered me into a taxi that took us to the airport. We were in Paris by lunchtime. That was the difference between us - she was always ten steps further along in our relationship. For her birthday in July, I bought her a great tome on megalithic sites - not just a coffee table book but the definitive work. When my birthday arrived in October we left Nottingham on Friday night, drove five hundred miles north, caught a ferry from Ullapool to Lewis, and spent Saturday at Callanish. Last month I borrowed a friend's car and drove to the Peak District. The windscreen wipers flapped ineffectually and I had to peer through a tiny segment of clear glass just above the bonnet. The roads were treacherous - snow drifts and black ice - and I struggled to keep the car in a straight line. We stopped in the shadow of a large monolith that stretched to twice my height. We walked the short distance to the edge of the Peaks in silence and looked out over the snow-covered valley. The crevasse ran deep below us. “Do you love me?” Jackie asked. Her words were stolen by a gust of wind, so I couldn't tell if I had heard her correctly. I turned toward her, but she was statue still, standing and watching out over the valley. I said nothing. What did she want me to say? She knew me. She knew that I loved her. She wanted more; the answer to a question that she could not ask. Eventually I told her. “I love you more than life itself.” I thought I was telling her the truth. She took a step forward. “Jackie?” She looked at me and a mix of emotions flashed across her face. I could never read Jackie, never understand her. I think I saw love. I know I saw pain. They can be hard to tell apart. She took another step forward. The edge was still a few feet away but the wind pushed at both of us. “Come back from the edge, Jackie,” I said. “You’re scaring me.” She looked at me and it was hard to see anything alive in her eyes. I think I would have preferred her to say anything, anything, rather than staring at me in silence. “What do you want from me?” Silence. “What do you want me to say?” Another step and she was standing at the very edge of the cliff. I felt a stab of pain rush through me, it sucked the air from my lungs and stole the strength from my legs. I knew what this was; fear. I just wasn’t sure which I was more frightened of – falling off the cliff or losing Jackie. Maybe that was what she saw in my eyes. We stood on the cliff for over an hour. The snow flurries grew to a storm. When she turned away from the edge I managed not to cry. We drove back in silence. * Now I pick up the box and weigh it in my hand. For a moment I think back to that first night in this room, when I saw the bruises on Jackie’s pale skin, and I wonder, if I knew then...? But I can’t even finish the thought because it feels so much like betrayal. Before Jackie there was existence. Not a life. Not a real life. So I dare to ask myself: would I rather have had these few months of wakefulness, however brief, or a lifetime spent asleep? And I wonder about Mike. Now the tidemark on the box rises almost halfway, the red stain encouraged by the rain.
* Then “I’m sorry, Jackie.” “What you want me to say?” “What did I do wrong?” Oh, but I knew the answer to that question. Still, I left the messages on her answerphone. I rang her three or four times a day and asked for forgiveness, pleaded with Jackie to at least talk to me, but each time my words were wasted. I didn’t even know if she listened to what I said before she deleted it. “Talk to me, Jackie.” “I never meant to hurt you. That’s the last thing I would do.” “I’m not Mike.” I went around to her house, but there was no answer when I knocked at the door. I waited outside all day – missed the deadline for a series of drawings I was supposed to submit to the publishers but that seemed so unimportant that I didn’t even consider going home. How could I work when I felt like this? I sat hunched up, my legs drawn into my chest, and waited. I only left when one of Jackie’s neighbours came out and threatened to call the police. A week passed without a word from Jackie. It was torture. She didn’t mean it, but her absence cut deeper than any knife. “What can I do to make it better between us?” “Tell me what to do.” I poured out my heart and soul onto her machine, praying for forgiveness.
* Then Yesterday I sat down at the table and wrote the Christmas card I had bought for her. The card was black and red, handmade. I spent hours preparing what to write. Finally I picked up the silver pen and wrote, “I love you.” When I put down the pen it rolled across the surface of the desk, coming to rest against the knife with a metallic clink. The knife was sharp, the polished steel showed scratches on the metal. The fat blade tapered to a point, the sort of knife they use in kitchens for cutting meat. I put my left hand flat on the desk and carefully placed the knife above the little finger. By accident I scratched the blade against the next finger and drew blood. I brought the blade down, it cut through skin and fat, sliced easily through tissue until it reached bone. My hand shook as I picked up the bloody finger and dropped it into the gift box. Wrapping the present was an agony. Trying to tie the ribbon around the present was almost impossible. The satin material slipped through my grip and fell into a coiled heap on the table. It took me a long time to finish my task. * Now And now I take another look at Jackie’s present. The box is larger than mine had been, much larger. A crimson tidemark discolours the base and creeps up the sides of the box. It takes me a few awkward minutes to remove the sodden brown paper from around the box. Occasionally a flare of pain turns the world silver and grey when I brush the stub of my finger against the present. There is a strange joy to the feeling, a realisation that pain can make things better. Beneath the dull outer layer, the Christmas paper is almost too bright. Cartoon Santa Claus figures grimace and grin at me. When I pick up the box it shifts and emits a dull ‘thunk’ as the contents slide from one side to the other. I gather my coat and the car keys from the sideboard. Before I go out I tuck the box under one arm and pull on a pair of woollen gloves, one empty finger folds uselessly over. It is a long drive out to the Peaks, in this weather it could take me the best part of a day. As I close the door a single drop of cold blood falls from Jackie’s present.