If I think of her now I think of her in increments, in minute physical detail, in close-up, as if she is too much to see whole. I think of the silences and the glances. I think of the pin-prick pores of her scalp as she stands up to me fastening the buttons of my shirt, the breath on my chest from between her tacky lips, and my own breath gently waving through her mussy blonde bob. I think of the thin air between us and around us in that room, the enhanced sounds of fingers manipulating cotton, rustling through the quiet, that buzz just above the hush, our breathing, even the snips as our eyelids blink, the point of her tongue peeking out as she threads the buttons. She curves her back away from me, concentrating, her pelvis pressing at me, her t-shirt too big for her, creased from the night’s sleep, one of her slim delicate legs moves a foot slowly back across the carpet a few inches and rests on the balls of her toes. A button pops through the hole. She does this slowly, almost sensually – everything she did was sensual. Everything she did was considered, performed, displayed. I look over her head out of the lead-latticed window, to the wintry crag of the brittle black woodland at the hilt of the valley. I look down at her, and she pushes the last button through its loop, she smiles, pats my chest with flat palms and looks up to me, the smile widening. She says something. A rare thank you, I think it was. We are alone and she kisses me gently, innocently. That is how I think of her now.
I would like to keep this moment as my most honest memory of Esther Delissen, but there comes a time when we are remembered in our entirety – it is irresistible – the whole novel pressed deep into one full stop, and I cannot see this moment alone.
It is a heavy, bloated feeling that accompanies the news of her death. A Paris hospital at age fifty-two. I imagine the white walls, the desert of pristine nothingness all around her, the fading bleeps of machinery, a nurse, maybe her assistant, a press officer.
It was a long time ago, that morning in that room in that place, her fingers moving slowly up the line to my collar, her soft fawn skin showing the first signs of tiny timid creases at the corners of her eyes. Esther had called me the day before from the only payphone at the retreat. I imagined her bare feet on the cold varnished wood as she explained where she was. I imagined a wide band in her hair, a cigarette in her hand, her head turning to look up the corridor, then down it. She would be in cropped trousers – pedal pushers, they used to call them – and a loose blouse, and she would have all the staff at her beck and call. I imagined her as she looked when she was young, when she was on the cover of magazines, before I knew her, when everybody knew her.
The full story is available in our new short story anthology, A Fiction Map of Wales, available to buy here:
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis