It’s a Man I Need – story

We would catch other people’s cast-offs and take them home with us. Feed them up and make them ours.

The first one I remember was early in our story, our second or third trip out. In a rural mini-mart, a cashier who’d learned English from the locals was having problems with the barcode scanner. He looked at our plastic-wrapped pork-pie in bafflement. “Eet no gaun, lady. Eet just no gaun.” You squeezed my arm. I had to leave. After you’d paid you came out of the shop and erupted.

“Eet no gaun, lady, eet just no gaun” found its way into our codex, from an over-filled dishwasher to bedroom antics.

It had been your habit, appropriating fragments of overheard speech, but it became mine too. Taking on behaviours as a means of endorsing you, of saying, I want to be yours.

I steeled myself every time a layer fell away, that this might be the time it was too much. I’d been used to showing all that there was to someone who decided he didn’t want it – who could handle the discomfort as I covered myself, gathered what was mine and left. You hailed each version as she emerged.

Life gives no warning of the moments that will change one’s way of being alive. On a day that was so much like any other till that point, we’d met; you making cocktails at your cousin’s 30th birthday party. I immersed myself in the culture of us and you got comfy in the space I cleared. This is how we decided to grow old together—

Me: You’ll still shag me when no-one else wants to?

You: It would be my daily pleasure. Here. (You held your crooked finger out.) Pinkie promise.

A pub manager with three-day stubble saying ‘pinkie promise’ is worth a guffaw. You reddened because you’d said it in earnest; explaining that you’d paid your way through uni supervising kids’ activity clubs. You sang me to sleep with girlish name games.

Lara Lara bo bara

Banana fana fo fara

Me my mo mara

Lara!

I woke you up with the same. My brain had worked out the rules during sleep.

William William bo billiam

Banana fana fo filliam

I liked being the woman you’d changed for. Before me, you said, you couldn’t get close to a thing you thought was beautiful. When you’d tried, all that happened was that it became less it and you became less you. Your hand on the Henry Moore in the park had spoiled both. Your hand on me refined each of us.

You were the type to seek and search; to plant seeds and then not want what sprouted from them. But you kept wanting me.

This is how we decided not to get married—

You: I’m happy you’re moving in, Lala. It’ll be good, both of us here. (You were tugging at an ear hair you’d located by feel.) Play your cards right and I might let you stay fore— for, the duration.

Me: Every girl’s dream, to be someone’s live-in ear hair trimmer.

You: Living together doesn’t… have to, mean, eh, you know… not for everyone.

Noticing I hadn’t burst into tears you carried on: Not that you don’t need taking in hand, Christ, you do, definitely. I’ll still make an honest woman out of you. Just not, as, a…

Me: Husband? Husband my foot. It’s a man I need. Hear me?

I scored big points for that. It was the first time I’d picked off a bit of someone else’s conversation and kept it tucked away till the right moment. A woman talking on her mobile in your pub, when I’d stopped in to say hello. You were mixing her drink. We’d caught eyes but couldn’t make more of it. Producing it from my hiding place for our shared pleasure made you roar. You reached for me, scooping me into your laughter.

We both knew why you’d said what you had; knew why you could claim me but not marry me. We weren’t long back from a weekend with your parents, where your father had done nothing without asking permission: Okay if I pop out for the paper?; Where shall I sit? Here?; Where does this go?; What do you want me to do, lay the table or walk Bouncer?

I don’t know what his punishment would have been for non-compliance but he wouldn’t have removed himself from his choices if the consequences were minor.

It terrified you.

Husband.

When you realised you were safe on the ring-less arrangement, you became cavalier, reinforced it to make sure I knew you weren’t joking; weren’t ever going to change your stance. If I was doing something vaguely DIY, like hanging a picture, you’d say, What you need is a husband. A husband’d do that sort of thing for you.

And I’d say, Husband my foot. It’s a man I need. Affirming it with an air-kiss.

Turning over the soil in the veg patch I’d marked out, in our first house, you opened an upstairs window and called down, It’s a husband you need for that! And I shouted up what you wanted to hear, bending lower over the spade. You knew what I was saying with those purloined words, You are all the man I need.

I didn’t want to be asked permission for your every act – God, no. That you might regress to some child-like obedience made me wince. I wanted the person I’d met, not the person I could mould.

Your posture lifted when I spoke, because you heard the truth in the script. I need a man. And if it was your day-off, if we didn’t have anywhere else to be, I’d add, Know where I could get me one of those? And you’d prove there was one there already.

It could be shocking to others. Hearing us speak that way.

Can I interest you or your wife in dessert?

Wife my arse, you’d say. This here’s my woman.

My woman. Like a Spaniard. Mi mujer. I puffed up as her, because who wants to give up the status of woman to become a wife? Who’d want that?

You didn’t need a boss. Or a spouse who stayed only because she’d made vows.

I’m the woman who’s stayed twenty-one years because she curled her smallest finger around the hook of yours.

Weren’t you right, with your day-at-a-time deal, which has worked so far and continues to, as your days lessen. I’m careful to spare you my thoughts when they blast ahead (how will I manage a moment of this alone?). You have already ruined films for me; taken all the couples on screen and made them us. All the skin explored, all the domesticity, is ours. You’re every fool who chases down a plane to interrupt a wedding. And every soldier who doesn’t make it home. I’m every woman touched and woken. Every woman someday grieving.

When friends are feeling brave enough, because it will have been two or three years, they’ll say, Why don’t you get out there? Shouldn’t be on your own, not at your age.

And your easy laugh will echo, your palm will breeze across my back, and I’ll tell them all, I don’t need a man. You hear?

1200 words.
Published in Throwaway Lines, 2012 and The Glad Rag, 2014.

This story started as a piece of litter (literally). In 2012, the project Throwaway Lines asked writers to produce work inspired by scraps of paper found in the street. Kate’s randomly assigned scrap said, ‘husband my foot. I need a man’ (it also said ‘new project’…?!). Because her story was due for publication on Valentine’s Day, Kate challenged herself to tackle the quote from a romantic angle, but without sentimentality; imagining a distinctive couple who function well (rather than the more usual fictional territory of disharmony).