Four men. Vanessa counted them off on the fingers of her left hand. The first three had been directionless, there was no denying it. Somehow, they had gravitated toward her, she pulled them into her orbit and managed to hold them but only for so long. She hadn’t wanted or attempted in any way to change them, not even John, and she didn’t regret this. Whenever she thought about him, which was often, she always felt sad but she didn’t feel regret, not now.
John had been a writer, had published a few poems in small underground magazines, but for the most part he wrote unwieldy prose, filling journal after journal. Dutifully, Vanessa had read all that he wrote. He didn’t ask and she hadn’t ever proffered an opinion. She found his work difficult and whilst he relentlessly forged his way she was unsure of where he was headed.
As a writer John was without direction and this was to prove dangerous. He began to drink more and more heavily, until eventually he could no longer write.
After he took his life, Vanessa wanted to be blamed, for the others to hold her responsible. But they wouldn’t, not his mother or his sister and not his closest friends. Deep down she knew that they were right and that no-one could have prevented John from doing what he did, but she didn’t want consoling, least of all by them. They had formed a circle of assurance but she couldn’t, didn’t want to be a part of it and so she withdrew.
Determined not to lose the house, Vanessa threw herself into work. She was still young and wanted to move on and of course, eventually, she was ready to begin afresh.
She kept John’s journals, put them in a box and stored it under her bed. She didn’t re-read them but occasionally she would pull one out and, leafing through it, she did wonder how things might have been different if only he had been able to contain his talent, to tell his story.
Three more men, up to and including Michael. Shamefully, Vanessa had to admit that the two in between sort of merged, her time with each of them had become difficult to distinguish.
David was first, that much at least she could remember. After they parted, within less than a year, Peter had moved in and taken his place. They were both younger than her by five and eight years respectively. And whilst she had gotten older it seemed as if the man in her life remained eternally youthful. Vanessa really didn’t mind, rather she enjoyed being with someone who was still interested in the latest bands, who got excited about birthdays and Christmas; about almost everything in fact.
They did work but not enough that they were able to contribute and so Vanessa supported them, often going without herself so that David could buy Cds or Peter could enjoy yet another night at the local pub.
Her father thought they were useless and didn’t ever tire of telling her so. Vanessa wouldn’t listen. After John, it felt good to be with a man who shouted at the television during a football match, who would throw back his head and laugh so hard and for so long that it hurt.
This period of course had to end and when Peter did at last move out Vanessa was relieved. She intended to try it alone, if only to find out if she could handle being on her own. And then she met Michael at a party. He was the friend of a colleague from work and so it seemed that the pattern of her life wasn’t about to be broken. She was plunging headfirst into another relationship and another man was moving into her house and into her bed.
Michael was the same age as her and before he set off for work each morning in his suit and tie they had breakfast together. He insisted on paying half of all the household bills and helped with the chores.
For the first time in years Vanessa had a little extra cash in her purse and she felt like the Queen of Sheba.
He carted some baggage but then how could he not? He was forty five and available. He was divorced and had three young children, was committed to being a part of their lives and there was, of course, the burden of child support. Vanessa accepted the situation for what it was and found that she felt he was worth the challenge.
With Michael, she was stronger, part of a team. She felt like a newlywed taking those first tentative and yet steady steps out into the world. Vanessa was ready at last to confront her past, cast off the shackles and get on with her life.
As soon as Michael mentioned John’s journals, Vanessa knew. She could tell he had been brooding on it, waiting for the opportune moment to broach the subject. But it hadn’t arrived and frustrated and desperately trying to sound nonchalant he asked:
‘What are those notebooks under our bed?’
Vanessa knew that he had read enough, at least that he had already begun to guess. She could easily picture him, crouched down beside their bed, hunched over one of the journals frantically turning its pages.
‘Oh those,’ she said, the tension in the air tightened like a stranglehold. ‘They belonged to an ex-boyfriend.’
‘The guy who killed himself?’ Michael asked.
Hearing someone say it out loud knocked the breath from her.
‘Yes,’ she managed, ‘how do you know about that?’
‘Jane told me about it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you but it isn’t something we can’t talk about is it?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘What are the notebooks, some sort of mammoth suicide note?’
‘No, no, of course they aren’t,’ Vanessa was shocked at this suggestion. ‘He was a writer, he was working on a novel.’
‘And you’ve kept them for all these years, and under our bed.’ Michael stopped abruptly and stared down at the carpet.
‘I’ve been meaning to move them for ages but I keep forgetting about them,’ Vanessa lied. ‘Come on Michael, don’t get upset, I’ll move them. We both have a past, a history. You have your ex-wife and children.’
‘Please don’t tell me you’re comparing those notebooks with my children.’
‘No, of course not. Don’t twist things. Come on, let’s not argue.’
‘I want you to destroy them, burn them, shred them. I don’t care but get rid of them.’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘Why not?’ Michael stared at her, accusingly.
‘Please don’t ask me to do that.’
‘It isn’t War and Peace in them. Come on Van, you aren’t sitting on a lost masterpiece just the ramblings of a sick mind. It’s unhealthy, morbid. If we have a future together then I need you to do this.’
Vanessa gazed beyond where he sat on the sofa, through the window and out into the street. It was beginning to get dark and she wanted to pull the curtains, turn on the lamp and make all of this stop.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll destroy them, just give me a little a time but I promise I’ll do it.’
Vanessa placed the journals in an old suitcase, the one with the broken rods. An impatient hotel porter had pulled and dragged it across the cobblestones in Venice. Whilst John was struggling with his own case, heaving and lifting it up and down the seemingly endless steps this little man had rushed them through the labyrinth and, as they had gotten their first look at that beautiful city, they watched together as the case, this case, was broken.
She pushed it in front of herself, sliding it up the ladder, forcing it through the hatch and into the loft. She was surprised how cluttered it was, how much had made its way up there over the years. Old records that had belonged to David or Peter, football programmes, old copies of the NME, all long since forgotten, abandoned.
Clearing a space, she kicked the case behind some boxes and wondered how long it would be before Michael discovered it and found her out. Weeks? Months? No, probably much longer, years, ten, twenty, possibly even thirty, a lifetime and she wondered what he would say and what he would do.