Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife
A middle-aged couple in an ungentrified part of Hackney, expecting their first baby and covering up the cracks in their middle-class hopes with escapes to the posher bits of London and cupboards full of exotic food and herbal remedies are easy to laugh at. But Emily Perkins makes their delusions and paranoia the stuff of raw, unnerving tragedy. As Tom Stone begins his narration, we know that his wife Ann has died. . . . as Ann’s fears about an unseen stalker and manic nesting take over their lives, he fails to see how intent she is on self-destruction. Perkins expertly depicts a relationship doomed to jump the tracks and shows with compassion how love masks the warning signs.
—from The Guardian, April 18, 2009:
the opening of novel about my wife:
If I could build her again using words, I would: starting at her long, painted feet and working up, shading in every cell and gap and space for breath until her pulse just couldn’t help but kick back in to life. Her hip bones, her red knuckles, the soft skin of her thighs, her fine crackle of hair. (That long red hair. The shock of it spread out on the floor.) I loved her boredom, her glazed look, her dark laugh, her eyes. The way she moved around things, gliding, very near. The warmth that emanated from her skin. Everybody gives up warmth but with Ann it had a special quality, as though she was heat seeking heat, threatening to touch you in the spirit of danger, on a dare. She’d stand in the gutter, off the kerb, while she was waiting to cross the road. Buses skimmed past. She didn’t flinch.
She wasn’t one of those women who hate their feet, who hate their bodies, the kind who turn the sight of their ass in broad daylight into a state secret. (God, you just find yourself dying for a glimpse, you’ll do anything to get it, hover outside the bathroom door, hide under a table, pull back the sheets when she’s sleeping. Then because of all the mystery you end up, when you’re finally feasting your eyes, thinking, ‘hey, maybe she has got something to worry about.’) Ann didn’t care. Her body was open for viewing. It was one of the ways she distracted you from what was inside her head.
And her feet weren’t perfect: they were long and dry, with knobbly toes and a verucca on one heel which never went away because she refused to do anything but laugh about it. She liked pedicures, massage, that slightly sickening world of female self-obsession, and went in for toenail polish in dark, back-off shades. The lightning bolt scar on her right arm was a bubble-edged disaster, a memento of her youth that she kept covered up. What you couldn’t take your eyes off were her legs. She had a sexy stance and walk, sort of hollow around the waist and jutty at the hips, shoulders slumped forward. Now that I see it written down it makes her sound like a gorilla, but was more sort of slutty flapper. Bear with me.
She was a mould-maker; that was her job, to take casts of people’s bodies, the parts of their bodies that were ill and needed radiating to kill cancer cells or shrink tumours. This wasn’t what she’d had in mind during her sculpture major at the Slade but it brought its own satisfactions. A little plaster-dusted room at St Bartholomew’s hospital very like a studio, the Hogarth diorama she could visit there each day, the walk to work under St John’s Gate. She loved the historical location, the feeling it gave her of being part of something, of belonging. It was a raggle-taggle version of the past that Ann had, she picked up scraps about the Knights Templar or pilgrims, 18th century pleasure gardens, I don’t know, there was no grand scheme in her mind, no connecting dots. She was not an intellectual; she had a scattershot approach to knowledge. And she needed the feeling of stone at her back, even if it was in ruins.
I can’t look at Ann in terms of the bare bones. She was this kind of person, she was that. Her parents were whatever, the house she grew up in was blah — it isn’t going to work. Partly because there’s so much I don’t know. It was Ann’s mystery I fell for, her genuine mystery, not the cultivated kind so many of the English girls had. Those girls, I can give you their bare bones: Mummy and Daddy still together, decent schools, hopes of working in television, a pesky brush with the law over shoplifting, an affair with a drug dealer, a lost night waking into a frightened morning (where am I, what is that mark on the floor, I don’t even have tube fare, where the fuck are my jeans) that is better left unexcavated and so she puts the bad-girl days behind her. She flounders for a bit. Drops the media dream and retrains, funded by the parents, in something useful to society (can’t think what that might be), in which instance she is out of my orbit and we’ll never cross paths again. Or pursues the dream with renewed vigour, pulls contacts to get a job on the women’s section of a broadsheet supplement, acquires a new edge, drops the milliners and jewellery designers that she went to school with and goes out to bands at night. Then she meets me, or someone like me, at the launch for a new short film and bang. A few movies, a Malaysian meal or two, the introduce-to-friends dinner party, three months of electric fucking, one midweek trip to a foreign city and then the writing on the wall. They’re paper, those girls, and Ann was flesh.
I’d like to be inside her somehow, to strap her ribcage on over my own and see the world from behind her skin like the serial killer in a lurid film. Breathe with her breath, hear and smell with her senses, taste the inside of her mouth. Speak with her voice. A clear Perspex mask of her head, big holes gaping for eyes and mouth, sits in the corner of my office. She had a radiotherapy trainee do it, lay the cling film over her face, cover her with the cold gypsoma strips, piece by tightening piece — so she would understand how her brain tumour patients feel. Plaster has plastic memory. Ann found it magical. These aren’t death masks, she’d say, they are the opposite. I borrowed her glassy head for one of my creatures, back when I was trying to please Alan Tranter, trying to go commercial. Now I want more than this transparent mould from Ann; want to make her so real that I can hold her. Hish — quiet. Shut off the radio. Close the window on the neighbours, muffle those clangouring workmen in the street below. I’m trying to hear her speak. It isn’t going to be easy, for a man more used to writing about vampires than about spirit, flesh and blood. But I’d like to know what the hell else I’m meant to do. I don’t know how to remember her.