Valiant: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
For Idris Baker
A few days ago I heard that Melanie is back in Llandudno. I ran into her mother outside Ottakar’s, where she told me that Melanie has given up college, and is staying with her and her dad near Deganwy. ‘She’s been so poorly,’ said her mother, with tears, ‘that I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me telling you. It must be fate, our meeting like this.’ I tried to ignore the hand which clutched my arm, to make the comments which encourage girls’ mothers to talk, and before we said goodbye, that bewildered woman had been persuaded to tell me her phone number. ‘Oh, Tom, it’s a terrible disease,’ she said, dragging my ear to the level of her lips, ‘but I know my daughter can count on her friends.’ I watched her moving away through June crowds towards Mostyn Broadway, and I tried to come to terms with what I felt, since I have tried to forget Melanie in the two years since she left.
She used to tell me that she was two people, the one in Llandudno I was seeing and the one she was going to be; and she could speculate at length on what that future person, the real Melanie Pritchard, was doing. She was twenty-four years old when she joined the HIV group, infected already for the last three years, but with her faith in life still intact. And she was hopeful of a career in fashion design, convinced that they would develop a cure, even though she decided to leave the HIV group because she wanted to forget that she had the disease, at least for a few years longer.
What do you do if you’re twenty-four years old and may not see your thirtieth birthday? You Live Positive of course, Tom – you just don’t go to the meetings. You find a flat to escape your hypochondriac mother, and a job in a boutique to gain experience of fashion. You don’t have the A-levels for college, but you take evening classes and work on your designs, and you send them in hope to Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. And you find a man who’s had it for longer than you; you learn to look after yourself and take your pills when you should, stay celibate because you’ve already had enough, and make jokes. Pass the salt please, Positive. Oh, Tom, I’m Positively dying to try on that dress. But the real Melanie Pritchard is starting at fashion school. The real Melanie Pritchard is working on her first show. (Has the real Melanie Pritchard, I asked her once, met the real Tom Ballantyne?) And as you realise your time is being used up, you will only achieve a few steps towards the career you wanted, then you let the life that will be yours become the life that would have been, and you persuade yourself that your shorter existence will be richer/fuller/more meaningful than the long one.
But you are proved right to hope when you are accepted by a fashion school in London, and you find a longer future to believe in when you decide that this man you are leaving will not develop Aids. It’s true that I have had the disease for over eight years without (since the beginning) any noticeable symptoms, but this does not prove me a non-progressor. And I don’t trust these hopes and wishes; they make it harder to live in yourself. I like Llandudno, especially at this time of year, and my flat and job will see me pleasantly enough through as many years of health as are left me. I see no purpose to living for the future when no one can know what the future holds, but neither do I waste my energy pretending that life with the disease is better. And I don’t fear death, which is only the self made crystalline, and consciousness cast off when it has outlived its function. The only thing I have hoped for is that Melanie and I would spend a few years together, until I realised it was a selfish hope when she was sure to outlive me. And now that she’s back, after telling me if she stayed in Llandudno I would never go out and fulfil my potential, I wonder if there’s anything that she is still hoping for.
So I am sitting on Prince Edward Square where we have arranged to meet. It is a hot mid afternoon. People Living Negative are showing themselves to the sun, and the army are out on the promenade looking among the wheelchairs and Zimmer frames for recruits. I catch sight of her now, crossing the road from Gloddaeth Street, and I feel my throat thicken with longing and relief, for it is still the Melanie Pritchard I knew two years ago. She has lost weight and must feel the weariness, for although she has seen me she does not change her pace. But I see men’s heads turn to admire this girl in her tiered skirt and toehold shoes, and as I get up to meet her I feel the lurch of knowledge that comes from the sight of someone who will die soon. I have lost my seat to a blind man and his crippled wife, and we cross the square slowly to lean on the balustrade and look at the sea.
‘I’ve missed this,’ she says, ‘I’ve been in Deganwy a month and I’ve hardly left the house. You don’t know how good it is to be walking around, to feel air.’
‘I didn’t know you’d been back for so long. You must have had a hard time.’
‘The strange thing is, I don’t feel ill – I think my mother has more symptoms than I do.’ And putting her hand on my wrist, the same gesture her mother made when I saw her in town, she says, ‘Shall we go for a walk, Tom? I’ve not seen the park for an age.’
So we walk. The sound of traffic on Gloddaeth Street becomes the insistent boom-de-boom of a one-man band as we press our way past the pier; there is a crush of people around the games and rides, but Melanie slips her hand through my arm and leans close, and I know from a momentary waft of stale air that she is wearing incontinence pants. I say, ‘After what your mother told me, I was worried – I didn’t expect to see you up and about so soon.’
‘Well, that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? My mother.’ She takes a moment to calm herself, and explains, ‘I’ve had some fevers and coughs and fatigue, but everyone gets those – if it weren’t for the Athlete’s Foot, I’d be fine.’
‘And college? Is it what you expected?’
‘Not really, Tom. The people weren’t what I thought. I knew before I started they were going to be shallow, and well, bitchy. But I thought when you got to know them, they’d turn out to be other things too. And it was a shock to discover that’s not how it works, and the nastiness is so – unremitting.’
The road climbs here, and she has to stop. Her breathlessness turns to coughing. Crossing, we reach the footpath into the Happy Valley. A group of teenagers are sitting by the Victoria Fountain, and we make our way up the slope to the shade of the beech trees. Her breathing clears. We watch the boys lolling bare-chested, too lazy for football, the girls lying yielding against their boyfriends’ sides, or leaning forward in pretty confidence. Melanie slides close to me on the bench and I feel her body warm against mine. ‘It’s a nice fashion,’ I say. ‘Why do you want to change it?’
‘Because I do,’ says Melanie. ‘But the next fashion will be nice too.’
‘I like this one,’ I tell her, and she laughs. She says, ‘You don’t seem to have changed, Tom.’
‘Do you think I should have done?’
‘I used to look up to you in the HIV group – all of you, but especially you, Tom – because you seemed so accepting about it all. And I thought it was because you were older than me, so I put it out of my mind because there were so many other things to think about. And I felt it would drive me mad to stick around here any longer, listening to my mum going on at me like it was my fault. And it just feels strange, after everything that’s happened to me, to find you and the whole town just the same. You don’t have any symptoms? Nothing at all?’
‘I’m okay, but it doesn’t mean what you think.’
‘I did enjoy my time in London. I didn’t tell anyone I was ill, and I managed to forget about it at first, until I noticed – the little things you notice happening. I was busy with work, and out most nights, but I thought about you a lot, Tom. I didn’t get in touch because you’d been so sure you’d get it first, and because if you were wrong… it didn’t seem fair to drag you down.’
She’s slipped off her sandals while talking to me, and she is sitting with one bare foot on the bench, inspecting her toes. I can see she still paints her nails to hide the effects of AZT. She says, ‘I have the early symptoms of Aids, and I may be dead in three years. And I wouldn’t mind being ill, if only I didn’t have to leave all this. But you, you don’t have any symptoms at all, and even if you get it, it could still take years. So what do you get for being willing to die? And how can you sit in Llandudno so calm and content when we’re both being robbed of life?’
What I get is the world on my skin: the sound of a jazz band carried from the pier, Melanie held fast in my arms, a group of women meeting with shrill, exultant cries. And being with Melanie gives me hopes and ideas. I could find room in my flat for this girl; I could swap strains of the virus with her, give my T-cells something to whinge about. And it’s just then it sinks in that I’m going to outlive her, and in this moment of loneliness the world feels transient and flimsy, a girls’ fashion that will be memory by winter, that already is a memory. Melanie takes tissues from her bag and wipes her eyes.
‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m feeling better. Thanks, Tom.’
‘Are you doing anything tonight? Do you want to come back to the flat?’
‘I’d love to, but it’s my first time out. I’d better just catch my bus.’
Her shoes, her bag, and she’s ready to go. On Prince Edward Square the recruiting squad are still at work. (Are non-progressors allowed to join up? ‘You may think you’re smart, Ballantyne, but by God I’ll bugger you!’) We kiss a few feet from the road barrier.
‘See you soon?’
‘Yes, Tom. It’s good to be back.’
A loose breeze flutters in the folds of her skirt. Her feet move lightly in their toehold shoes. At the kerb she waits for the traffic and crosses, and again on the traffic island she stops, her left heel raised, her left calf cast in shadow by her skirt. She waves – and now she’s gone. Get a grip on yourself, Tom; concentrate on the present. Don’t think about girls. And if the future makes you dizzy with its sudden vistas of joy and pain, at least make some sensible plans for the evening. Watch a show by Professor Codman And His Wooden-Headed Follies. Stop and listen to Trevor Forever, the Amazing One-Man Light Orchestra. Unexpectedly I feel hungry, and I’m turning round to find the hamburger stall on the East Parade. Watch yourself. Don’t let your guard down. This is where it gets difficult, Tom; this is going to take nerve.