Plastic Heart - a short story

Plastic Heart
Jeremy Page

She folded the pale green angora sweater and put it on the bed next to the dark jeans, the red crop top, the Oxford cotton shirt that had once been a man’s shirt, his shirt, it should never have been hers, the belt and the imitation print tartan trousers.  It didn’t help – in the wardrobe her remaining clothes still pressed tightly against each other on the hangers, as if they were growing in there, reaching into the corners.  
    She leant into the spooky proximity among her clothes, reaching for a corduroy jacket concealed behind a skirt and pulling at it till the wire hanger began to bend, like she was pulling the arm of someone in a crowd, trying to make it come to her.
    ‘Got you,’ she said, freeing it from the rack.  The jacket was slightly stiff with unwear and there was a smell of wood in its lining.  She looked in the outside pockets and found a dark red stone - a piece of jasper from a beach, with a thin vein of quartz running through it like a line of fat in a chunk of braising steak.  She wondered where it had come from.
    On the bed her clothes were now a large pile, scattered across the quilt like she’d been dropped from the ceiling and that was all that remained of her.  A mess.  It felt just about right, she supposed.  But that angora sweater, near the pillow on her side of the bed, the way she’d folded the arms made it look hurt, as if it was giving itself a consoling hug.  She tried folding it differently, making it look upset now, a little bit cold and a little bit pissed-off, and then she set about neatly ordering the rest of her clothes.  When she’d finished they’d been arranged into sweaters and tops, trousers and skirts, and the jacket.  It no longer looked like she’d fallen from a great height.  It was worse than that.  It looked like she’d been taken apart.

The British Heart Foundation was glad to accept her bags. ‘Having a clear out?’ the assistant said, with her permanently grateful expression, and Helen smiled back bravely, nodding, and already secretly beginning to feel lighter than she’d been.  She felt the urge to celebrate - I’m free, she wanted to yell, at the woman, at the shop that took everybody else’s vanished days too, at her own discarded clothes in their bright orange bin liner sacks, slumped on the floor to the side of the till.
    She wanted to treat herself to a glimpse of those clothes being pulled behind the counter, or better still, dragged the length of the shop to some nameless room where they would be divided and rendered, like a corpse, placed onto shelves and into big plastic vats on the floor.  She imagined them being dropped into these vats and stirred round with long wooden paddles, while green chemical smoke rose and bubbled like it would in a witch’s cauldron.  She wanted to see their final moment, to see if they made any resistance, to see if she made any resistance herself.  
    However, the bags stayed on the floor, by the counter.  Helen tried on a trilby hat.  She felt ridiculous – like a spy, like a bad actor, pretending to be someone she had no right to be, a woman of character, of mystery, it was plain stupid.  To her dismay she saw someone watching her – a young assistant, an art school type, arranging the men’s trousers at the back of the shop.  The girl smiled at Helen, nodding approval for the ghastly trilby, apparently without sarcasm.  Helen hurriedly put the hat back and left the shop, the door making a loud ring as she opened it, like the ring at the end of a boxing round - she felt that much punched.

Jamie had bought her that angora sweater during their first trip to Ireland.  It had been a cold bleak day in October or November and they’d seen about ten different types of rain falling since breakfast.  The best had been a kind of light drizzle - at least they could get out of the car in those spells - but she remembered most of that day being sat in the passenger seat watching rain flinging itself across the bonnet, or looking past the windscreen wipers at long peaty valleys and isolated grey bungalows built at the end of small tracks on the hillsides.  Despite the weather, the fields and moor had been incredibly green – it almost hurt to look out at it.  She remembered making a joke about this, and Jamie had taken that as a kind of compliment, for some reason.  He’d been in an odd mood.  
    They’d driven round for hours looking for a farm where his grandparents - or was it great grandparents - had worked.  He hadn’t been sure of the family history himself, and most of the day had been spent reversing, it seems, from the end of ever-narrowing farm tracks, with him straining to look through the back window and her looking forward, as each track wound away from her between its high hedges.  He’d say things like ‘we’re getting nearer,’ or, ‘I’m sure this is it,’ and when he said ‘sure’ it had the flat vowel sound of an Irish accent that he never had back in London.  But still, she had been young and that was their first trip to Galway.  She had been green.  And she supposes she had a lot of tolerance back then.  
    To lighten the seemingly endless quest to find the right farm track, he’d told her the story of being in the same area when he was a kid, twenty years earlier, being driven round the same labyrinth of nameless roads by his father, who’d also been determined to see the farm where his family had once lived or worked or tenanted the land.  Jamie had said how utterly bored he’d been by his father’s obsession, but had kept quiet, because his father quickly lost his temper and would blame anyone but himself if the day proved to be fruitless.  And Helen had listened to this story and felt oddly comforted that she was somehow re-enacting a cycle of family tradition – as if everyone who comes to Galway must spend all their time in a maze of farm tracks and muddy hedgerows, looking for the mysterious source of misleading family histories.  Maybe sometime in her unmapped future she’d be bringing a child here too, while a greyer Jamie took wrong turns and right turns till he found what he was looking for once again.
    ‘This must be so dull for you,’ he’d said at one point, trying to lift her spirits and acknowledging how this day of their holiday was really his day and she had little choice but to go along.  
    ‘I’m fine,’ she’d said, or something like that, and she remembered how she’d wound the window down and smelt the lovely muddy wet air and the scent of cows and manure and the drizzle had wafted in at her like she was on a boat at sea.  
    But as the dusk had approached, and the roads were even harder to follow, it had been her that had suggested they give up.  ‘We could look tomorrow?’ she’d said, but he’d taken that meanly, snapping back ‘how do you think I feel?  I’ve been doing the driving all day,’ and like some godly mischief played at her expense, that had been the moment when they’d found the farm.  Somehow, the grey stone wall looming this time out of the dark meant something different to him than all the other grey stone walls they’d seen that day.  ‘This is it!  This is it, Hel!’ he’d said, not quite able to mask the accusation in his voice that a minute ago she’d just asked him to give up, and she’d pretended to share his enthusiasm when really she thought it would’ve been more appropriate if he’d said:
    ‘This is it.  Hell.’

Back at the flat she shut her wardrobe doors and lay on the bed where her clothes had been heaped an hour earlier.  The bed felt large and clean and for the first time in years it was all hers.  She put his pillowcase into the laundry basket, packed his pillow away into a trunk of spare bedding, then lay down in the centre of the bed.  It felt strange, being so far away from either side.  
    The room seemed lighter in weight without those clothes.  She imagined clear square space stretching into the corners, and where there’d been such suffocating pressure inside her wardrobe she now imagined the hangers swaying, in a breeze, like branches on a tree.  Pruning, that’s what she’d done.  Lopping off the dead to make way for life.  He’d bought her the angora sweater in Galway, the beaded belt in Edinburgh, the corduroy jacket from that thrift shop in Cambridge – she remembered the look he’d given her when she first tried it on.  She’d seen something flicker in his eye – like he was trying to imagine her as a more exotic person that she was.  In truth, she still liked that jacket, but it was the look she wanted to get rid of.  It had to go.  The tartan trousers, from the retro shop, they’d never felt right on her.  They were cheap, a party gimmick, and she’d worn them at parties, with him, a funky young couple wearing funky young clothes, because all the other couples were doing the same – girls dancing in gold glitter shoes, leaving unconvincing trails of gold-dust behind them on the dancefloor, men with big belt buckles with words written on them like STUD or SEX, and daft ties worn ironically, mouthing along to the lyrics they could remember and doing Saturday Night Fever impressions even though it was twenty five years since Saturday Night Fever had been in the cinema and not many of those men had even been born.  Copying what goes before, she supposes, nothing’s new. 
    All the energy spent, all the energy she’d like back now.  Yes, kitted out in those tartan print trousers she’d always felt a fraud.  Good riddance to them.
But the loss of the angora sweater – that felt different.  She remembered putting it in her freezer, to stop it moulting.  And now she’d thrown it away.  It felt like a betrayal.  A betrayal of her former self – of a time that felt uncomplicated.  Even its colour – so pure and fresh and pale as an apple – even that colour felt unpolluted, unpollutable.  
    She propped herself up on the bed and looked at the piece of jasper she’d found in the jacket pocket.  They call these kind of stones - with the vein of quartz running through them - a wishing stone.  She’s not sure why, but she tried it right there, in her new big bed which was as big as a beach – she made a wish.

She’d stood in that dark windy farmyard in Galway hugging herself in the apple green angora sweater he’d just bought her, while Jamie wandered round the outbuildings imagining how his dead family two or three generations back must have lugged machinery in and out of the shadowy doorways in the wall.  He was saying ‘wow’ a lot, and pacing about, but she could tell he wasn’t really feeling anything authentic there.  He was probably feeling thwarted, wanting the place to be special, whereas all it probably meant at that moment was the end point to a very frustrating day.  
    She touched the lichen growing on the stone wall, as rough as the stone itself, and noticed the drizzle settling on her sweater in tiny beads of water.  She was beginning to have the musty smell wet sheep get, she thought, while Jamie searched in vain for the ghosts of his family.
    ‘Let’s go,’ he’d said to her from across the yard.  It was so dark she couldn’t see his face.
    ‘Don’t you want to knock at the farm house?’ she’d replied.  
   ‘Nah – what’s the point,’ he’d said, walking briskly towards the car, and she’d known that the evening would now be spent looking after his disappointment in all its manifestations.
    True enough, they’d talked about him all night long, at the pub, and then at the hotel.  The only time they’d talked about her was when he said how good she looked in that sweater he’d bought her, and how soft she felt when he stroked her in it.  My fluffy bunny, he’d said, referring to the expense of the angora, before giving her a flirty look and telling her to keep it on, while he turned out the light. 

Yesterday, over the cereal, before they both set off to work, while the radio was on, that had been the moment he’d picked to tell her he didn’t love her.  He didn’t say they ‘needed to talk,’ or that he was ‘finding it hard to commit,’ or any of the other gently misleading knife wounds he could have inflicted.  No.  He simply told her he didn’t love her, while she looked at the pool of milk tilted to one side of her bowl.  Drinking milk, she had instantly thought, so innocent really, like a cat, like a baby, how could he have chosen that as his moment?
    Perhaps he’d expected her to throw something at him, or shout, or generally make a scene.  If anything, he had looked a touch disappointed by her reaction, which had been to finish her cereal and place the bowl in the sink.  Keep things tidy, she’d thought, that’s where it must begin.  You’re stunned.  But you’re in control.  She put the cutlery into the washing up, then poured herself and him another cup of tea, fascinated that the kitchen had changed so irrevocably in such a tiny moment.  A stranger had inhabited Jamie’s body, it was wearing his clothes, it had the same hairstyle, still wet from his shower – the curls not yet emerged, but a stranger nonetheless.  She didn’t recognise the angles of his elbows, so wide spread across his side of the table, or his left foot, stretched out too far across the lino.  Jamie was a sweet thoughtful man, but this thing, this strange being at her breakfast table, he was large and rude and she’d never seen his face before.
    She’d wanted to escape the kitchen.  The rest of their flat still belonged to another time, surely, a time where she and he still loved each other.  But she imagined it as an untrodden space like Tutankhamen’s tomb had been - once the seal is broken it will never be the same again.  She didn’t want to see the shape his body had left that morning in their bed, because if she touched the sheet it wouldn’t feel right – the warmth that remained of him would be unnatural, because betrayal is cold.
    Jamie was looking up at her, a little perplexed.  ‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’ he’d said.
    ‘I don’t think so,’ she’d replied, in the faraway voice he hated.  He had a thing about her vagueness.
    She saw his shoulders tensing like they were being squeezed.  Men are so strange, really, they shrink when they feel challenged.  If she were a man, she’d never shrink.  She’d run around breaking things with her large strong hands and she’d laugh in the street with her big new lungs and she’d wee everywhere, while she was walking even, because she could. 
    ‘Right,’ he’d said.
    ‘Right,’ she’d replied.
    Followed by a silence.  The first silence that was going to stretch into many silences, no doubt, across the years, until it was nothing but silence.  He ate some toast, needing something to do with his hands, and he made a crunching sound with his teeth so loud it could have broken every bone in her body. 

Monday morning.  On her way to work she felt good about the weekend’s clearout.  She was on the bus, sitting on the top deck, riding down the hill toward the row of shops where the British Heart Foundation was.  The approach of the shop felt positive – it was a place where all the old things in your life could be taken, where your clothes and knickknacks and unwanted presents might be left, without guilt, to disappear.  It was like dropping coins into a lake, you knew you would never see them again.  But as the bus moved along the row of shops, and began to slow for the traffic lights, she had an unsettling feeling that there was something familiar down there, like seeing someone you’ve once known pass by on a pavement.  And then she saw it – in the window display, a mannequin dressed entirely in her old clothes, an arm raised in half-greeting, as if it was trying to hail the bus she was on.  Oh God don’t stop, she thought, oh no, and she stared forward to concentrate on the traffic light so the green would shine into her eyes and fill her and keep filling her so it wouldn’t be able to change to red.
She got off the bus at the next stop.  How dare they do it, how dare they put her in the window like that, to wave at all the buses that passed?  In the angora sweater.  It made her feel sick, as if a part of her reflection was caught somewhere else, in a window, beyond her control, arm raised in a senseless pathetic greeting.  She walked back to the shop and, as she approached the window, she had the sensation that she was creeping up on someone she knew, full of familiarity and bodily presence, standing in the apple green angora sweater that was hers and had never been anyone else’s.
    The mannequin stood unnervingly still on the other side of the glass.  As well as the angora sweater and the tartan print trousers and the beaded belt he’d bought her in Edinburgh, they’d given the mannequin the trilby hat she had tried on.
    And it looked good.  Cheeky, pushed back on the head at a quirky angle.  On the floor they’d placed an open satchel by the feet, containing a vintage copy of Vogue, a make-up compact, an old flock bound Jacque Derrida and a city guide to Barcelona.  Full of ideas, ready to see the world.  Helen scoffed - how crude to build her up like that – how insensitive, but how right, too; Jamie had always poked fun at all the things she didn’t know about all the things he did.
    The mannequin looked confident and fresh and a lot of fun, with that arm raised, not in a hailing gesture, as Helen had at first thought, but in an acknowledgement, the capture of a compliment received, a casual way with those long plastic fingers that made her look relaxed.  And the pale brittle face, with those impeccable cheek bones and childlike nose – so innocent, but a touch devious too, that push of the right leg in the tartan trousers, a glimpse of naughtiness there that Helen had never had, not in these clothes, not ever.

That night, she lay in the centre of her bed, thinking and thinking and trying not to think about the mannequin, with its hard moulded body that was never going to change shape and its jointed legs that could just about do any kind of living expression it chose.  Smooth glassy buttocks pushing those tartan trousers out in just the right places, a belly as hollow and rigid as a coffin, because it had never eaten anything, never worried about age or calories or trying to have five different portions of fruit every single day of the year.  No, its plastic body was just that, plastic, heart-less, blood-less, and in those clothes, better, taller, brighter, and younger than she was.   
    She lay there thinking these things, trying not to think these things, imagining how many ways that hard plastic woman would have been a better match for Jamie.  She imagined the mannequin travelling round Galway with him, how it would sit with a model’s poise in the passenger seat of his car while he showed her his family’s unclear history, she’d have such a perfect expression of interest throughout the day, then he’d buy her some clothes and the clothes would hang perfectly on her skinny starlet’s frame.  His own fluffy bunny.  Then they’d come back to London, where the mannequin would sit opposite him at the breakfast table with its bright young face looking glossily back at him.

The next morning she called in ill at work and was outside the British Heart Foundation before it was open, looking up at the shop’s logo which was of an ECG line rising into the shape of a heart.  A good, healthy heart.  She became angry about it.  This shop should be fixing hearts, not keeping the broken ones in pieces.
    Through the glass door she could see the assistant milling about, and saw with dismay that it was the young girl, the art-school type, busily playing around with everyone else’s discarded lives, no doubt, before the shop opened.  Helen nearly turned away, but the presence of the mannequin, to her right, still hailing phantom buses, made her stay.  She noticed that the belt - the one he’d bought for her in Edinburgh – was gone.  Bit by bit Helen would be taken apart like this, she could see that now, till there was nothing left.
    A few minutes later she was inside the shop, pretending to look at the shelves of bric-a-brac while she gauged the assistant writing up labels. 
    Helen walked up to the till.  ‘I’ll buy that green sweater,’ she said, nervously.
The assistant looked up at her, calmly, chewing the end of a pen.  She had a glint in her eye that might be recognition.  Helen flinched.
    ‘From the window?’
    ‘That’s right.’
    Instead of going to get it, the assistant looked at Helen, as if about to say something.  Don’t be pathetic, she imagined the assistant saying, you brought that in last week - get over him.  That’s the kind of thing her mouth looked capable of saying.  
    ‘It’s a lovely colour,’ the assistant said, at last.  ‘I think it’s Irish.’
    Helen nodded, feigning an interest, while the assistant stepped into the window display to start undressing the mannequin.
    ‘It’s very soft,’ she said, reaching her arms round the mannequin’s waist.              Helen watched them, fascinated, as the assistant and the model began a kind of eerie dance together, swaying drunkenly in the window while the sweater was removed.  Surprisingly, the mannequin wasn’t wearing anything underneath.  Helen looked at its small precise breasts and long flat-fronted belly. In this light the dummy looked emaciated and bony, with long painful wounds where the rotating hip joints circled above the trousers’ waistband.  She saw how the model’s skin was dirty and blotched, as if the paint had flaked away in places.  Of course, it’s probably quite old, Helen thought, they don’t buy these things brand new.  It could be twenty or thirty years old already – its face had that spray-painted Dallas look, really.  All those years, wearing other people’s clothes, quietly falling apart beneath them, while the world moved on.  It was pitiful.  Plastic to the core.
    The assistant handed the sweater to Helen.  ‘You can try it on over there,’ she said.
    Helen shook her head.  ‘That’s OK.  It’ll fit.’
    ‘You should try it.  You never know.’
    The assistant became a little impatient, losing her cool somewhat.  ‘We can’t take it back…’ 
    ‘Don’t worry.  You’ll never get your hands on it again, alright?’

Back at her flat Helen lay on her bed wearing the pale green angora sweater.  She tried to stay perfectly still, like the mannequin would do, if it was in her shoes.  She could be perfect if only she didn’t move and didn’t breathe.  When you start to move, that’s when the trouble starts.  Each new day with all that potential to be perfect, the planet turning into a brand new part of space, lit up by that glorious sun, and still you manage to mess them up.  
As if prompted by her thoughts, the sun shone into the room, and Helen felt its glow moving slowly across the bed, warming the cold empty space beside her.  If only she could sleep, now, for a year or two, then wake up an entirely different person.  She opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling, imagining how the world would look to be rimmed by the star-gazy plastic fringing of the mannequin’s lashes.  She imagined there was a glow above her, shining from off the angora sweater – a glow of pale green almost staining the air, and she thought about Galway, how the valleys had been stained with this similar pale shine of green, suspended in the rain and drizzle wherever she looked.   How even the sheep, dotted across the hillsides, had this green light on them, shining on them, weaving its way into their wool.