The spring my marriage came apart it seemed the world had recast itself in exaggeratedly biblical relief. Across the land prophets preached exodus from Europe; violent rainstorms lashed the streets of Manchester. On the night of the Brexit referendum my husband and I had one final row and I perceived that our private crisis had assumed its place in another, much larger narrative – some crunching of tectonic plates on a mighty scale. Leaving him felt brave, timely. It felt like the only option.
Disassembling a marriage is simple in the sense that there is nothing to create, only things to cut off and box up and dispose of. Fuelled by a brittle, feverish energy, I cancelled contracts and sold most of our furniture, turning my back as the men carried off the table at which we’d eaten breakfast for two years and the shelves on which I’d once arranged our books. Then I mopped the kitchen floor for the last time and moved into an apartment in a converted gothic revival church across town, pleased to have found somewhere suitably befitting the bold, free-spirited woman I’d just become.
The church’s conversion, I soon realised, was a masterpiece in shoddy deception. A newly added external lift shaft of glass and angular metal thrust upwards to the heavens, giving the impression of daring modern intervention, but the lift was always broken and the skywalks crisscrossing the upper storeys damp and mouldy. Panes of the original stained glass were smashed and cracked, languishing unrepaired. Perhaps disgruntled ghosts haunted the place: certainly everything about it was off. The mezzanine on which I slept didn’t feel like a real bedroom and the lower floor, with its odd proportions and unreachable windows, was more the lair of a sullen golem than a living space for humans. Somehow the shower had been plumbed into the toilet and to sit on it was to experience an unpleasant, disconcerting heat. To me these discordant facts were perversely fitting: none of this felt like my real life anyway. Very quickly, my mania fizzled itself out and in its place settled a leaden, numbing despair.
My husband and I married youngish, in our late twenties, and soon afterwards declared London too expensive and anyway too full of childhood (although the photograph of the pair of us clutching our freshly inked marriage certificate outside the town hall bears the trace of some earlier, more primeval victory – the swimming of 25 metres, say, or the passing of a piano grade). On a reconnaissance trip to Manchester we’d been charmed by the city’s redbrick architecture, which resembled the back streets of Brooklyn, and its yellow trams, which struck us as efficient and European. The flats available were of a size and niceness unthinkable back home, where we rented a laughably minuscule attic with a mouse problem and cooked all our meals on a hob by the sofa. Every inch the gentrifying southerners, we packed up our things and left.
When we arrived in Manchester it was late summer; the sky was domed and blue. My husband’s brother-in-law drove us up the motorway in his van, our unopened Ikea flatpacks and wedding presents bumping around in the back. We sat high in the driver’s cabin, munching crisps and singing along to the radio, little King Davids entering our newly conquered Jerusalem.
In the winter America ushered its tangerine sociopath into presidential office, but by now I was barely registering the news. A dull loop of remorse played endlessly in my head: my husband was gone, and I had been the one to send him away. I imagined him everywhere, held lengthy conversations with his ghost, broke down in front of his favourite sliced loaf in Morrisons. The tiny part of my brain that remained unshrouded in useless misery told me I should probably join the women’s march gathering in the city centre, but instead I did what I always did on the days I succeeded in leaving my bed: wandered alone in the park over the road, following the abandoned tram lines that bisected it and pausing to gaze listlessly at the ducks paddling circles of the boating lake. It occurred to me that if I stayed in the city much longer, I’d sink deep enough into my own brackish misery that I might never resurface.
There’s no ur-history of our relationship, no critical edition of the text that sets out the steps that led, one after another, from happy beginning to agonising conclusion. I can only relate the details as best I’m able – or, more accurately, willing – on any given day. And when I do, I invariably fashion something formulaic, with an easy-to-grasp cause and effect: he did x and so – naturally! – I was moved to y. I heighten his villainy, downplay mine. I bend or twist or omit altogether those facts that are too unflattering, too shameful, to include.
So how do I chronicle the thousand things a superficial telling elides? The shared lexicon, the decade’s worth of in-jokes, the hushed conversations last thing at night? The shirts I ironed every Sunday afternoon and the time he met me at the airport with flowers when I’d argued with my dad? How do I convey his helping me to wash my hair after surgery, carefully working the shampoo around my dressings, or the first photograph I ever took of him, grinning and impossibly young, at London Zoo? The blue ceramic vase we brought home from the craft market our first summer in Manchester, the Modigliani print we hung over the fireplace, the potted geraniums with which we filled the kitchen windowsill? How do I express the creeping, poisonous shift from mostly happy to mostly not? The things we hid from ourselves and from each other? The unexamined childhood trauma, the undiagnosed depression, and the rupturing of ancient scars? The time he cried and said, but I like our life, and I told him, I know, but I can’t do this any more? The buttered toast we ate on our last morning together, the final walk from home to tram stop, and the moment I waved him goodbye as the yellow doors slammed shut forever?
How do I begin to narrate all that?
On my last day in Manchester I struggled up the approach to the central station in my red wool coat, umbrella useless against the wind. It was almost spring again but the rains had returned, icy and horizontal. From there I caught the London train and as it journeyed south the clouds began to lift. Chewing on a day-old sandwich from the buffet car, I watched as the orderly northern terraces gave way to open fields and hedgerows and then to boxy grey suburbs and finally to the vast crescent sweep of Wembley Stadium. I was home.
Back at my mum’s, I squeezed the few things I still possessed into her spare room and set about the painful task of re-entering the world. Suddenly I had projects: there were debts to be paid, a job to be found, the punctured balloon of self to somehow reinflate. Galvanised, I set alarms and scrawled to-do lists. One morning the divorce certificate – a flimsy Word document that had been knocked up in a back office of the courthouse – landed unceremoniously on the doormat. I cried, of course, and then I stuffed it into a drawer. Not long afterwards, I heard that the church’s absurdly plumbed bathroom pipes had finally burst. They’d flooded the living room ceiling below, crumbling it into great damp chunks which dropped to the carpet like so much underbaked cookie.
Holly Aszkenasy was born in north London and lives there now. She writes essays, stories, and a newsletter about things that don’t go to plan. www.hollyaszkenasy.com