The Wild Camel (1595 words)
Afterwards, I lie on my side enjoying the warmth and solidity of him, my arm across his chest. Through the window behind him, I can see rooftops falling into shadow. The afternoon will soon be over.
“You’re my bear,” I whisper; “I don’t want you to go.”
His face is angled away from me, looking out at the sky; and, at first, he doesn’t say anything. I don’t mind. I’d be happy to lie together like this forever, just resting in the warmth and joy of him.
“I know you don’t,” he says eventually, rolling his head on the pillow to look at me. “I know that; but I will have to,” he pauses, “in a little while, anyway.”
I know his moods and their expression in his eyes. When he’s feeling playful, the brown irises shimmer with flecks of gold; and when he’s tired or tense they cloud over into muddy pools. Now they’re deepening and softening in a way I haven’t seen before.
“What’s up?” I ask, running my fingers over the rough stubble of his jaw. “You look so serious…and sad.”
He reaches up, taking my hand in his, and lowers it against his chest. I can feel the rhythm of his heart under my palm.
“It was Miriam brought you,” he says. “Do you remember? All that time ago. Twenty years, maybe.”
I lean up on my elbow. “Twenty-three,” I say. “I was nineteen. And, of course, I remember; I was terrified!”
“There was nothing of you.” He frowns. “’Why’s Miriam bringing me this scrawny chicken?’ I was asking myself.”
He pauses, looking through me, lost in his own thoughts; and I lie back, wondering why he’s gone back to the beginning. Something I don’t want to hear is coming, I can feel it. It’s like a shadow has fallen over us. I want to say something…anything…to clear it away, but I can’t think what.
“I love you,” I say; and he lets go of my hand and swings out of the bed with his back to me.
I wait, but he doesn’t say anything, just sits on the edge, head dipped, his shoulders curving away from me, slashes of light catching them, burnishing them mahogany above the tapering darkness of his back.
I want you to turn to me. I want you to hold me. I want to feel you against me again and know that you are mine and that you are not going to go off and leave me, disappear. I can’t say these words aloud, but I chant them inside myself like a mantra.
“It’s Miriam,” he says, not turning. “I can’t go on like this anymore. It’s not right.”
He’s not making sense. “What do you mean?” I cry. “Miriam’s dead! She’s been dead for years.”
I kneel up and scramble across the bed to him, putting my arms around him and my head against his. He doesn’t move; he lets me hold him. He’s bending forward looking down, his forearms resting on his thighs
“There is a life after this one, you know,” he says. “And Miriam is my wife; I made my vows to her.”
His voice, it’s so final, as if there’s nothing more to say; but this is crazy.
“You’ve been everything to me,” I say, trying to pull him over. “You are everything to me.” But, I can’t budge him. He may be fifty, but his body is as firm as it ever was and I’m not as strong as I was when he was training me. I give up and link my arms round his chest, pressing the side of my face between his shoulder blades, squeezing him tight and breathing in the familiar scent of him, something between bay leaves and…I don’t know… leather, maybe.
“I had nothing, was nothing, when Miriam first took me to the gym. I was a scrawny chicken, you’re right.” I’m babbling, but I’ve got to say something. He can’t go while I’m talking…while I’ve got hold of him…while he’s still naked. “Miriam wouldn’t mind. She was kind…always genuinely kind. She’d want you to be happy. She’d want us to be happy. She wouldn’t care that it was me. She’d rather it was me…someone she knew loved you…respected you…would be good to you.”
I’m crying and rubbing my cheek against the smooth wall of his skin, smearing us both. And, even though I can feel him quivering, he doesn’t say anything. “We’re lovers,” I go on, stretching my hand round between his legs, finding him, holding him. “We belong together.”
Very gently, he lifts my hand away and, disentangling himself, stands up. I watch him walk to the chair and step into his boxers. He turns for his tee, pulls it on and comes back to the bed, bringing the chair with him. I think I’m going to be sick. My stomach is hollow and I can’t seem to catch my breath.
“You were quite something,” he says, scooping my bathrobe from the floor and helping me into it, tying the belt for me. “You would have been the IBF Featherweight Champion of the World. You were ahead on every card.” Pulling the chair closer, he lifts his hand and strokes his thumb along my eyebrow, his fingers curling round the side of my face. They’re warm and I close my hand over them. “I’d never seen a gash like that before. I could see the bone. Sanchez butted you as clear as day. She should have been disqualified.” He draws his hand away and shakes his head. “I was so proud of you!” he says, and it sounds like tears are gargling in his throat.
“It was all down to you,” I say. I want him to know the truth of that. “You gave me the self-belief. I thought I was…I don’t know…rubbish…worthless. Like I was a loser…and was always going to be a loser. That’s what school had taught me.” I stop. I don’t want to go into all that stuff again. It seems so…so small now, so insignificant…all that name calling…’parrot-beak’…’camel-nose’, just because it was curved and stuck out a bit. I don’t mind my nose at all now. In fact, I like it. I like the strength of it.
I laugh, remembering, and grab his wrist. “’You’re not a parrot,’ you told me, ‘you’re an eagle!’ I didn’t believe you, just thought you were trying to be kind. But you kept on saying it, telling me I was fast, swooping on my prey like an eagle. And you believed in me…believed I could be a boxer…be a fighter…and a good one. You put your faith in me.” I shake his wrist. “You put your faith in me. Don’t take it away now.”
He looks deep into me; but he doesn’t say anything, just draws his hand back. So, I wait. But I’m not comfortable kneeling anymore and I move to the edge, sitting facing him, interlocking our legs, our knees in a row, except mine are lower and paler than his.
The silence is heavy. I can’t bear it. “Don’t do this to us,” I say. “It doesn’t matter about an afterlife. We have to live this one first, don’t we?”
He shakes his head a couple of times and leans into me.
“I’m not good with words, you know that. And I don’t understand this myself exactly…but I know it’s true,” he’s looking at me nodding, his eyes pleading with me; “except I don’t know the right way to say it. This isn’t about thinking, it’s how I’m feeling and I can’t stop it. All I know is Miriam is my wife. We were married in the sight of God. My mother was there. And I had no right to…to…” he closes his eyes and his voice trails off.
“To what?” I ask him. “No right to what?”
“No right to become involved with you.”
“Become involved!” I’m scornful. Those aren’t the kind of words he uses. He’s dodging me. “What the hell does that mean?”
He shuffles his chair backwards, extricating himself. I see the confusion in his eyes, as he gets up and turns away, moving for the window. He stands there with his shoulders hunched and his fists half-raised, clenched tight.
I can feel the tension coming off him like he’s going to burst, like he’s going to punch out the glass. And I’m trembling. I want him to break and I’m scared of him breaking.
“We are involved,” I say and I’m surprised at the conviction in my own voice, surprised how speaking the truth of what I’m feeling brings a relief from my fears and a strength like I used to feel in the ring, when I only had myself to rely on. I might get beat, but I’d fight with everything in me…I never gave in. “We are involved and we’re never going to be uninvolved. What’s done is done. And you’ve no reason to feel guilty about it…not before Miriam, not before God, not even before your mother! Because we have a right to this…here, right now, in this life. Do you hear me? There’s nothing wrong with our being in love and showing it! And, until one of us dies, I’m claiming you. You’re mine now and that’s the way it’s going to be. So you just better get used to it.”
Later, afterwards, he lies with his arms around me, spooning me, his knees crooked up into the back of mine. “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” he whispers.
(Copyright: Charles Becker, March 2020.)