A collective tragedy. A man in search of his missing wife. Death of a desperate woman. The pursuit of a new life.
The enormous building slowly collapsed in a storm of fire, smoke and incandescent wreckage. It looked like the main scene of a catastrophic film. A scene in slow motion. But it wasnít a film. It was an awful, unbelievable reality. I was sitting at a bar near my office on a hot afternoon at the end of summer. I had a bottle of beer in my hand and, between one sip and another, I looked distractedly at first one and then the other of the two television screens that were in front of me. I remember that there was a type of witty comedy on one and a basketball match on the other. Suddenly, almost in unison, the images of the comedy and the match disappeared. Announcersí agitated voices introduced a newsflash. Then the scene of the collapse smothered their voices and also those of the customers in the bar. At the time I didnít realise that that scene, so tragic and sudden, so devastating from every point of view, would have marked my life for ever. At the moment I didnít think about anything. I was attracted above all by the scene itself because it drew me in like a spectator ignorant of the effects and of the devastating consequences of the collapse in terms of human lives. That building, at that time of the afternoon, was host to hundreds of people. And at first sight it didnít seem as if there were many survivors. Slowly the initial impression, at first superficial and then more and more involving, turned into the knowledge that this tragedy could touch me closely as my wife Debbie, a financial analyst, worked for a company that had its headquarters right in that building, and I became conscious of the danger that she faced. I got up suddenly from the stool, placed the bottle of beer on the bar, paid and left while the TV announcer spoke of a possible terrorist attack as being the cause of the collapse. As soon as I was outside, I dialled the number of my wifeís mobile phone. Debbie worked in another of the companyís offices, but she often went to the headquarters for work meetings. A growing apprehension overtook me as I waited anxiously to hear my wifeís voice. Unfortunately the only voice that replied was that recorded on the answer phone that advised that the person was not available at the moment. In those moments of waiting and of uncertainty I realised that I loved Debbie deeply. Younger than me by several years, attractive and well educated, she had reached an important and well-paid position in her job. Albeit of different temperaments - myself creative and extrovert (Iím a rather successful copywriter at my company), she rational and a bit introverted - nevertheless we had always been able to complement each other to point of fitting together quite well and of being envied by our friends. A well-matched couple, you could say. Our only regret was that of not being able to have children due to a constitutional flaw in Debbie. But with time we had resigned ourselves to life without children.
Now anxiety seemed to overcome me. I asked myself:- ďDebbie, where are you? Why arenít you answering your phone?Ē The thought that Debbie could have been in that building at the moment of the tragedy began to torture me. I had to act without wasting time. Word of the attack, because by now thatís what it seemed to be, had spread quickly through the city. The traffic had become chaotic and people on the street stopped to comment on the tragedy. You could hear the sirens of the police, ambulances and fire services. Queues of their vehicles directed themselves, at a speed permitted by the chaotic traffic, towards the place of the collapse. People like me, who had relatives or friends in that collapsed building, swelled the rescue queues. Everyone was running towards the smoking ruins, driven by anguish over the fate of their dear ones, by a generous attempt to be of some use or by simple curiosity. An imposing line of police prevented access to the area of the attack. There was an impressive coming and going of ambulances and fire engines. In the distance you could see the remains of the building still wrapped in flames and a thick blackish smoke. Those who asked for news about eventual survivors were sent away by the police because it was not yet possible to make a count of victims or eventual survivors.
Given the impossibility of knowing anything from the scene of the tragedy, I decided to return home. Maybe I would find Debbie alive and wellÖ Maybe she would call me to tell me not to worryÖ MaybeÖ I began to fear the worst.
At home I continued to call my wife on her mobile phone, but without any reply. Only the usual voice recorded on the answer phone. I also called her office. They replied that Debbie had gone to head office but they didnít know if she had been held up there or not. They wished me all the best for the circumstances. I didnít know what to do. I didnít know who to go to ask for news of my wife.
I switched on the television. All the channels were talking about the collapse and various experts were agreeing on the cause of the tragedy. It involved an attack, probably with Middle Eastern origins. They estimated that hundreds of people had perished. There were a few dozen survivors, the most being seriously injured, and this didnít leave out those missing. With regards to many of the victims it was impossible to recognise them.
After a night of nightmares, I went to my office and explained my situation. It was essential for me to start searching for my wife. Although I was in the midst of a publicity campaign, they allowed me several daysí leave.
Supplied with a photo of my wife, - it was the photo Debbie appreciated most because apart from highlighting her fascination, it had been taken on occasion of our tenth wedding anniversary Ė during the following days I went to the various city hospitals where survivors of the tragedy had been taken. I showed Debbieís photo to everyone I met in the hospitals, doctors, nurses, clerks and patients, but without any result. I wasnít alone in my search. I often met unlucky ones like me, men and women of various ages and races, of differing social conditions, who showed their photos in the hope that someone would recognise their own relative. But it was a vain search, almost impossible. Some of those asked, as they replied negatively, offered some words of comfort, others limited themselves to a shaking of the head, others still, almost irritated, replied with a simple shrug of the shoulders.
I also went to the various police stations. The replies were always the same negative ones: ďWe donít know anything about your wife. Unfortunately there are many amongst the survivors who have lost their memories due to the shock. And itís very difficult to identify them. Leave us details about your wife. If we have any news of her, weíll contact you without delay.Ē
At the end of that vain search which lasted several days, I reach the bitter conclusion that Debbie had been in that building at the moment of the tragedy and that, very probably, she had died during the collapse. Itís true that I didnít have any certainty of her death and that I was still left with several weak hopes. But it was too little to give any hope. Only then, for the first time after those days of troubled searching, did I convince myself that I would never see Debbie again, that I would never again admire her female fascination, that I would never again make love with her. And in the enclosure of our apartment I cried at length over the photo of my wife. A desperate crying, but at the same time liberating.
Months passed since the event that would be defined as the most serious attack not only in the history of the city, but also of the nation. A great part of the world was horrified by the catastrophe that had give rise to hundred of innocent victims. And as always happens, human curiosity had the upper hand and the place were the tragedy had occurred became a tourist attraction on a worldwide level.
During the first weeks the pain over Debbieís disappearance threw me into a deep state of depression. I went to work against my will, my imagination dried up and it was only because of my excellent past and maybe also a certain understanding of the tragedy that had hit me so hard that I wasnít sacked.
But with the passing of the days and weeks, the pain, initially so devastating, began albeit slowly to transform itself into a sort of brave resignation and I began to accept my new circumstances. Sadness was my inseparable companion, itís true , but at the same time I tried to make a turning point in my life, directing it towards new opportunities. And if for several months I isolated myself, neglecting friends and, in some way also work, I later felt, even if slowly, the desire to begin to live again.
And in this climate of rebirth I met Muriel.
I had taken up the habit of going to, above all in the evenings at the weekend, a bar, a type of lap dancer bar, in order to drink a few glasses of whisky or a few beers. The place was frequented by artists or pseudo-artists and by tourists. I sat at the bar, I drank, I watched the dancers, I listened to the music, and I exchanged a few words with those nearby.
I had noticed Muriel because she was a beautiful girl, a lot younger than me, tall with blond hair and blue eyes, the type you notice easily and that you would like to get to know. The girl had been sitting at the bar for several evenings, she always ordered the same cocktail, she listened to the music, and then after half an hour she got up and left the bar. During that period I had been instructed by a client to create a slogan for a non-alcoholic drink, a slogan no longer than ten words as he had specified. And one evening, while I was drinking my whisky thinking about my slogan, I realised that the blonde girl had sat down next to me at the bar. I felt a pleasing sensation. Since Debbieís disappearance I had no longer thought of women. Now I felt the need to meet another woman and that blonde girl particularly attracted me.
I started a conversation with a triviality.
- Do you like this place?
She looked at me, smiling ironically.
- Whatís that? A chat-up line?
I replied slightly confused:
- I only wanted to exchange a few words. But if it doesnít suit you, Iím sorry.
The girl smiled, in an encouraging manner:
- I didnít mean to embarrass you.
She drank her cocktail, and then she added:
- Iím Muriel, if it interests youÖ.
I told her my name. Then I mentioned my job.
- Ah, youíre a copywriter? Thereís a slogan that struck me particularly, because it was so stupidÖ Donít tell me you created it.
She mentioned the publicity campaign that had made that slogan famous and by a stroke of luck I been its creator. I told her so.
The girl laughed:
- Fantastic! Youíre a genius!
I liked her confidential tone.
- Can I offer you a cocktail? We can drink to our acquaintance.
- Iíll willingly accept a toast to us two.
I ordered two cocktails and we drank to our acquaintance.
Then we talked a bit. I mentioned the tragedy that had struck me, and Muriel seemed genuinely affected by my misfortune.
- It must have been awful. Iím so sorry, believe me. It was a tragedy for many families. Damned terrorists. We should kill them all.
She sipped her cocktail, staring at me with her splendid blue eyes.
- I too have been unlucky, but for another reason. I was married for two years, and then I had to ask for a divorce because my husband was violent. To tell you the truth, at the beginning things went well, then he lost his job Ė he was employed by a transport company - he began to drink, he became brutal with me, he often hit me because he was jealous. And in this way our marriage ended. Amen.
She stopped for a moment, and then she added:
- A shame! Because at the beginning I loved my husband. Then fate wanted things differently.
Then she got up, touching my shoulder:
- Iím going to the bathroom to freshen up. Do you mind ordering me another cocktail?
She went off waddling on her heels. Many looks followed her.
I ordered two more cocktails. She returned after several minutes.
- Here I am.
She sat down and drank in silence. Then she rested her hand on mine and said to me:
- I havenít yet told you what my job is, or rather what it was up until a few weeks ago. Iíve also worked in advertising as a model. Nothing outstanding, of course. No big advertising campaigns. Occasional work, unfortunately. Now Iím out of work, as you say in these cases. Can I ask you a favour? Could you give me a hand in finding some modelling work? Youíre quite a famous creative type, you work in a big company, soÖ
I interrupted her. Of course I could help her. Rather, I wanted to help Muriel because I liked her.
- I could do something for you. Give me a bit of time.
Muriel took my hand and squeezed it firmly. She smiled and even gave me a kiss on the cheek. I felt myself tremble. It had been a long time since I had been near a woman. And Muriel was the sexiest woman I had met.
Then I said to her, smiling:
- I also have a favour to ask you. A client has asked me to create a slogan for an important advertising campaign for a new product, a new model of bra. During these days Iím really putting all my imagination to the test, but without any remarkable results. Do you want to give me a hand?
- Willingly! Iíll squeeze my brain until it hurts. Iíll give you the magic words. It will be a fantastic slogan. I can feel it.
We laughed. We made a date for the following weekend.
During the week I busied myself with getting the girl an audition. I knew a load of people in the field of advertising and I had a few friends amongst the fashion photographers. And so, within a few days, I managed to get Muriel several important appointments. Now it was up to the girl to take advantage of them.
Muriel was on time for the date we had made. She sat down next to me at the bar and asked for her usual cocktail.
She smiled at me. She was beautiful, fascinating and feminine. She was wearing a low-cut dress that showed off her well-formed breasts.
I smiled back at her, then said to her:
- Iím happy to see you again. Iíve been working on your behalf for the past few days.
- Really? Iíve also done something for you.
She held out a piece of paper to me on which were hand written a few words, in a slightly childish handwriting.
I asked her:
- Are these the famous magic words for my slogan?
- Read it Ė she said to me, laughing Ė I hope it will be useful. I thought about it quite a lot. I hope Iíve done a good job.
I read the piece of paper. Sheíd written a type of eight-word slogan. It was rather witty and original. I told her so.
- Naturally Iíll have to elaborate on your creation. Ė I added. Ė Nevertheless you have my compliments. Youíve worked well. And you deserve another cocktail.
I ordered two and we drank in silence looking at each other in the eyes, as if we wanted to penetrate our most intimate thoughts. Then Muriel asked me:
- Do you remember your promise?
- Of course I remember it. As I told you, Iíve worked hard for you. Iíve got you three important auditions.
- Really? Youíre really on the ball!
She gave me a kiss on the lips. I felt a shiver of pleasure.
I wrote the addresses of the photographers on my business card.
- Iím sure youíll be successful Ė I said to her, handing her the card Ė And now Iíd like to invite you to dinner. I know a romantic little place.
- I willingly accept your invitation.
We got up. We left the bar hand in hand.
I took her to a characteristic restaurant where I usually took my most important clients. We had dinner and discussed her next modelling job. Muriel seemed happy. Suddenly I said to her:
- As Iíve told you, Iím alone now. I live in a nice flat in the residential part of the city, amongst the green. Iíd really like it if you came to mineÖ
- To make love? Ė she interrupted, laughing.
- Not only to make love occasionally Ė Then I added in a serious tone Ė In other words Iím proposing that you come to live with me. Iím no longer young like you, unfortunately, but Iíve still got a lot to giveÖ
- Also asÖ a man - I concluded, laughing.
Muriel took me by the hand and she took it to her cheek.
- Youíre really nice Ė she said to me, looking me in the eyes Ė I appreciate your generosity. Weíve just met and youíre offering me not only new opportunities for work, but also a home. I have to be honest. After my divorce, I met other men, but I never wanted a serious relationship, maybe because of previous bitter experiences. I also live alone. Just like you. Unfortunately in a modest one room flat and with some rent to settle. Your offer is generous, without a doubt. Iím pushed to accept it because I like you and I think that a feeling more important that simple friendship could spring up between us.
She took the glass of red wine and invited me to make a toast.
- To our new life together!
We made a toast, emptying our glasses. Then Muriel got up, came near me and gave me a kiss on the lips. Then she returned to sit down.
- Iíll come to live with you, but on certain conditions.
She looked at me intensely and then in a serious tone added:
- By nature Iím a free woman. I donít tolerate jealousy and conditions of whatever nature. I donít want to depend on you as if I were a kept woman. I want to work, to be independent from an economic point of view and arrange my life within the limits of our living together. If you accept my conditions, Iíll be happy to come and live with you.
I couldnít not accept. By now Muriel had entered my life. And after the disappearance of Debbie I felt the need of a woman to love and not only from a physical point of view.
- I accept Ė I said to her simply.
The following day I went to pick up the girl from her one-roomed flat. I paid the rent in arrears and helped Muriel to load her things into my car. There wasnít a lot. A couple of old suitcases full of clothes, shoes and a few things. She hadnít done that well for herself, at least in recent times, given the modesty of her lodgings.
- Mine havenít been happy times Ė she said to me when we left the flat.
Muriel soon settled into my apartment. She behaved like an attentive and efficient wife. She did the shopping in the nearby supermarket, she prepared the meals Ė she wasnít a bad cook Ė and gave instructions to the hourly cleaner who saw to the cleaning of the apartment. As her wardrobe wasnít exactly of the latest fashions, I decided to renew it for her. Together we went to boutiques to buy clothes and shoes. Muriel asked my advice, even if she then bought the models she liked. I liked to accompany her on these shopping trips and to see her happy and grateful. We often made love and under these circumstances she demonstrated herself to be a passionate, hot and sensual woman.
Now I felt happy and contented. By now Debbieís memory had become more and more vague, faded. And yet in the past I had loved my wife passionately. She had really been the only woman in my life. Now another woman, Muriel, was cancelling that same memory. I would have never imagined that this could have happened so quickly.
Very soon Muriel began to work as a model. Her auditions proved satisfactory and she became the female image of an important advertising campaign for a new line of womenís underwear. Her photograph appeared on billboards, in magazines and on television.
I often found, in spite of myself, that I made comparisons between the two women in my life. While Debbie was a fascinating, well-educated and reserved woman, Muriel seemed like a very beautiful and free girl, a bit unconventional, willing to employ all her efforts in the search for success. And she had managed it, even if with my initial help.
Our relationship was now changing. In the first months of living together Muriel had been very close to me. She came to collect me from the office, she received my friends like a true lady of the house, and she was admired for her beauty and kindness. When she began her work as a model, I noticed a slow change in her. The frequent trips, parties and new acquaintances were all the destabilising elements of our life together. I understood that I was losing Muriel. I tried to tie her to me with marriage. Unfortunately there was a bureaucratic obstacle. From a legal point of view Debbie had been declared as missing as her body hadnít been found and, at least for the moment, I couldnít enter into matrimony. A declaration of presumed dead would have been necessary, but this procedure required time. Despite everything I wanted to declare to Muriel my wish to marry her, even if it wasnít possible in the short term.
One evening we were at the same restaurant where, months before, I had invited her to live with me. Muriel had accepted my invitation after a weekís absence due to her work. She was splendidly dressed and made-up. I said to myself that Iíd have even done the impossible to keep her. By now I loved her desperately precisely because she was slipping away from me.
- Muriel, whatís happening to us? Ė I said to her, taking her hand Ė I feel youíre distantÖ
- Unfortunately my job doesnít let me spend a lot of time with you. But that doesnít mean that I love you any less. Come on, donít be sad. Do you remember our pact? Our relationship is free and mustnít be conditioned by jealousy or anything else. Now that Iím a successful model, I canít stop, rather I have to exploit the favourable time. I donít want to go back to living the life I did before I met you. And Iíll always be grateful to you for the help youíve given me in becoming successfulÖ
I interrupted her, worried:
- I fear that your success, desired for so long, will exact a price. Our relationship. And also our love.
There was a brief silence between us, filled with tension.
Suddenly I said to her:
- Muriel, do you want to marry me?
The girl smiled.
- My dear treasure, I would be happy to become your second wife but, as you know, it isnít possible for two valid reasons. Firstly: as youíve already told me in the past, your wife isnít officially dead. Secondly: even if I really appreciate your offer, I donít yet feel ready for a new marriage. Probably because my previous experience was so devastating. Letís wait. Weíve a lot of time ahead of us!
I understood that Muriel didnít want to tie herself to me with marriage. At least for the moment. She wanted to be free to arrange her life.
When we got home, we made love. After I felt happy and sad at the same time.
Just over a year had passed since the day of the tragedy.
My relationship with Muriel continued between highs and lows.
The girl was unpredictable. At times she showed herself to be affectionate and passionate, as during the first months, and at times, however, she assumed a cold and detached attitude towards me, as if she was preparing herself to say goodbye. I was used to such contradictory behaviour and well hoped that she wouldnít abandon me.
But one day the unexpected happened.
Iíd just returned from work and I was alone in the house. For some days Muriel had been out of town for work and she would return the day after.
I got a beer and set down to drink it when someone knocked at the door.
I opened it. A female figure appeared in front of me. She had a scarf on her head that covered most of her face, while a pair of very dark sunglasses hid her eyes. She was wearing a grey dress and her hands were covered by dark gloves.
What struck me unpleasantly was the uncovered part of the face. The skin had certainly undergone burns and now appeared withered and reddish, despite a thick layer of foundation. The lips were chapped beneath a violet lipstick. All this didnít make her appearance pleasing. She appeared clumsy and, when I invited her to enter, I noticed that she walked with a certain difficulty.
- Donít you recognise me? Ė she asked me.
I recognised the voice. It was Debbie!
- Itís you, Debbie! Ė I thought I was living a nightmare.
Debbie, that beautiful, fascinating woman, that had been my wife for more than ten years, was now there opposite me. But in such a physical condition! I drew near to her with a certain reluctance. By now I was used to the thought that she was dead. And then I remembered the splendour of her fascination. In my soul I rejected this being in front of me that reminded me of a time which would never return.
Debbie drew away from me almost as if to prevent contact between us.
I invited her to sit down in an armchair. Debbie took a look around, then she sat down.
- Not much has changed here Ė she limited herself to saying.
I sat down opposite her. I asked her if she wanted something to drink and she asked me for a glass of whisky. The Debbie that I knew would have never drunk whisky at that time of day. I handed her the glass. She drank it all in one go. She played with the glass for several moments, then she said:
- I imagine youíre curious to know my story after the accident, letís call it. And youíll ask yourself why Iíve reappeared in your life, so suddenly and soÖ transformed.
She forced herself to smile.
- Tell me everything Ė I limited myself to saying Ė Forgive me if I act this way, but everythingís happened so suddenlyÖ
- I understand you. My physical appearance isnít that pleasing.
I didnít reply. She asked me for another whisky.
- I drink now, my dear. Do you remember? Before I was almost teetotal. But misfortune changes you. For the worst, unfortunately.
She drank again. Then she put the glass down on the table next to her.
- That day, that cursed day I was there, at the head office of my company Ė she began to say with a tired voice Ė I had been called for a report. As youíll certainly remember I often went there for work reasonsÖ
She stopped herself, as if to collect together her memories of the day that had so radically changed her life. Then she began to speak again:
- I was about to leave the building when the disaster happened. I heard awful explosions and then something very hot, scorching I would say, which hit my head causing me to fall unconscious. When I woke up, I realised I was in a hospital. I felt a burning over almost all my body and above all my face. I also realised that my whole body was covered in bandages and that my right leg was in plaster. But that which struck me most was the fact that I didnít remember anything about the collapse of the building or about myself, about my identity, about my past. I was a person without a history. And without documents because the bag where I had my documents had been lost in the collapse, probably burned. In the hospital the doctors told me that Iíd suffered serious burns on my face, on my hands, on my arms and on part of my body and that my right leg had suffered several fractures. They asked me a load of questions in the attempt to reconstruct my identity, but without any result. I remembered absolutely nothing. And that was the consequence of the blow I received to the head. They told me that a large incandescent metal fragment had hit my head, burning my hair and devastating my face. Other burning debris had hit the rest of my body causing me other burns. They tried to remedy, as much as was possible, the damage caused by the burns using plastic surgery. But, as you see, the results werenít brilliant. Besides I believe that no plastic surgeon, not even the best, can put right so much damageÖ
She stopped, and asked me for another whisky. The telling of her tragedy, my presence and other things increased her pain even more. She dried her tears with a tissue without taking off her glasses. I looked at her and I suffered inside, because Debbie was still my wife and our past had been splendid. Inside me I felt a profound sense of compassion towards Debbie and I cursed the fate that had hit so hard the woman Iíd loved. Now, unfortunately, Debbie appeared to me as a stranger. Even against my own will. Debbie drank the whisky, then she began to speak again:
- I stayed in hospital for many months. I was well treated. My days were terribly empty. By then I was aware of my physical appearance and I was horrified even if I didnít remember what my previous physical appearance had been like. Before they discharged me to send me to some other medical institution given my physical and mental state, one day, a few months ago, I suddenly regained my memory. It was a flash. I was looking through a magazine when I noticed an advert for a drink. Reading the slogan, I suddenly remembered you, because youíd spoken to me at the time about the planning of that advertising campaign. As in a film, seen beginning from the end, through a series of flashbacks I reconstructed my life. And that greatly accentuated the state of depression in which I found myself. I remembered the woman that Iíd been, my beauty, and my fascinationÖ And I was a wreck. A horrible wreck. I remember that I cried for days, almost uninterruptedly. I thought of you, of our marriage, of my job. And I had the knowledge that now all was irreparably jeopardizedÖ
I tried to console her. I tried to touch her hand. But she drew it away.
She continued her tale.
- With the return of my memory, I was given new documents. You werenít advised of my presence in that hospital because I declared that I didnít have any relatives to who to communicate the news. In reality I wanted to come back to you, tell you that I was alive, but my present state would have caused a negative reaction in you. I guessed that I needed time to analyse this serious problem and to look for a solution. I left the hospital a few months ago, and with the money that I had in my bank account, I rented a small flat. Afterwards, needing to begin working again, I went to my office. Great and, I'd add, discomforting at least for me was the reaction of my old colleagues and bosses. The usual congratulations in the situation for not having remained below the rubble, but nothing more. My position had already been covered. There werenít any new possibilities for employment, to hear them speak, because in that period the company was going through a phase of restructuring with consequent staff reductions. The truth was, unfortunately, that my present physical appearance didnít fit their company image. The only thing I got was a generous pay-off that will allow me to live for some time in the wait for a new job, if I ever find one.
I listened to her story and at the same time I didnít offer her any signs of understanding or of participation in her human tragedy. And I didnít understand the deeper reasons for my so cold and detached behaviour. Certainly her physical aspect played an important role in all this, as did the presence in my life of Muriel, so deeply different, from a physical point of view, to Debbie now.
Maybe she realised my internal distress.
- Darling, I understand your uneasiness. I too have thought a lot during this period, day after day. I decided to spy on your life and for several weeks Iíve been in these parts. Iíve seen you on many occasions and every time my heart beat so hard because of the emotion. Many times Iíve felt the wish, almost the urgency, to show myself, but then reason forced me to abandon the idea. And then there was also another reason that prevented me from coming to you. Your companion, that beautiful blond girl that on more than one occasion Iíve seen beside you in affectionate poses. And than jealousy, even more accentuated given my physical condition, pushed me into planning revenge against her. Naturally they were only fantasies and nothing moreÖ
I interrupted her suddenly:
- Would you like to return to me?
She smiled bitterly.
- Iíd like to but I couldnít Ė she replied.
- Because Iím dead for you. Because youíd never give up a beautiful woman, so young and full of life as your present companion is. And then youíve still got a lot to give to the woman you love. Therefore it wouldnít be right to give all this up for sheer compassion. I understand you perfectly. Can you imagine if I came back to you? I would only give you a load of problems and I would constrain you, against my own will, to give up livingÖ
I wasnít able to reply, because I thought exactly as Debbie, sick at heart, was saying to me.
- Youíd probably like to marry your companion and this is one of the reasons that pushed me into coming to you. I donít want my tragedy to involve you as well and precisely in the name of our love, Iím willing to give you a divorce. Iíll do it willingly if this could contribute to your happinessÖ
She sobbed. She stopped for several moments, drying her tears. I tried to comfort her. I tried to go near her but she pushed me away.
- Iíll do it willingly Ė she repeated.
Then she got up and went towards the door. She held out a piece of paper to me. On it was written an address.
- If you need me, you know where to find me.
She stopped for several moments at the door to give a quick look at the flat where sheíd lived for many years, then she said goodbye with a handshake.
When Muriel got back, I told her what had happened.
- Your wife is alive!! Ė she exclaimed, astonished. Ė And now what does she intend to do? Do you want to go back to live with her? And us two?
The sudden appearance of Debbie posed me with painful problems to solve, but one thing was certain: I would never leave Muriel. I said this to her:
- She doesnít want to come back to me and as far as Iím concerned I think this will be the best solution. Debbie is now out of my life due to her and my choice. The love I nourished for my wife died, unfortunately, on the day of the tragedy. Now Debbieís only a past memory for me.
I was lying to myself. Until Murielís appearance, my love for Debbie had remained unchanged, rather it had become stronger after her disappearance.
- Your behaviourís a bit cynical, Iíd say Ė Muriel said to me Ė You loved your wife as long as she was the she you knew: beautiful, fascinating, full of life. Now sheís disfigured, alone and without a future, you abandon her without any scruples. I donít like the way youíre behaving. Iím telling you this honestly, from the moment that your wife canít be a rival to meÖ
I stopped her, slightly irritated by her words.
- Iíll help Debbie. Iíll allow her to live as before. She wonít have any financial problems. Thereís no doubt about that.
- But your wife wonít only need money Ė Muriel urged. Ė Sheíll need comfort more than anything now that she feels so alone and abandoned by everyone.
- Debbie doesnít want to come back to me, she told me that clearly Ė I replied firmly Ė I can only help her to get through such bad times. From the outside, as youíd say.
- Do what you want. Ė Muriel said. Then she concluded with a tone of voice that betrayed a certain concern:
- I feel that your wife will commit some madness. Now sheís got nothing to lose.
A week had passed since Debbieís appearance. Muriel seemed annoyed by the situation that had created itself due to my wifeís presence. She couldnít be jealous, given Debbieís physical condition, but in her soul she feared that my feelings towards her would change with time. Nevertheless, Debbie was an awkward presence for us two and, probably, with the passing of time, she could have persuaded me into taking her into the house again. But Murielís worries were without any foundation. Debbie would have never returned to me because she wanted me to remember her as she was before the accident and as far as I was concerned I was too fond of Muriel to leave her.
It was Debbie, my wife, who resolved all the various problems of her presence.
That week had just passed when one evening, on returning home from work, I found a letter from my wife amongst my mail. I recognised it from the handwriting. I was in the house alone. Muriel would arrive later. At the time I thought that Debbie had written to me about the divorce that she wanted to give me, therefore I opened the letter without feeling any emotion.
The following was written:
ďMy love, when you read this letter youíll have lost your Debbie for ever. Since Iíve got back my memory, my life has become intolerable. Iím terrified of myself, of my disfigured face, of the loneliness that doesnít leave me not even for a moment. Iíve become a nullity, a being unworthy of living. Iíve held out until now, because I wanted to see you for the last time and take with me to the hereafter the memory of the person I loved so much. I donít blame you in any way for the coldness in which you received me. In your shoes I would have behaved in the same way, because neither you nor I are heroes, ready to give up everything to save someone we love. Therefore donít feel any remorse about my death. I die in the conviction of having spent many happy years beside you. Now enough. Soon Iíll go post this letter and on my return Iíll cut my veins with a razor thatís already ready next to me on the table. They say itís the sweetest death, more involving and more conscious because you have the privilege of seeing life slowly leave your body. Maybe itís quite a theatrical way to leave. The truth is that I donít want to suffer any more. I only ask you one favour: have my hateful body cremated. Farewell, my love. Yours forever. DebbieĒ
I cried. These words didnít free me from blame, rather they made me feel all the weight, all the gravity of my behaviour towards her. What had I done for Debbie? Nothing. I hadnít given her any words of affection or understanding. I had behaved like a stranger, annoyed, not to say disgusted by the presence of a person with the physical problems of Debbie. But by now it was too late. I could no longer go back.
I immediately went to the police, I mentioned Debbieís suicide that according to my calculations had taken place twenty-four hours ago and we went to the address that Debbie had left. The policeman that was with me opened the door of the flat with a certain difficulty because it was closed from the inside. Debbieís body was lying on the bed, still, with the arms open, stained with blood. On her wrists there were signs of deep cuts from which a lot of blood had come out and had formed large stains at the foot of the bed. As had been foreseen, my wife had bled to death. On the bedside table there was a half-empty bottle of whisky, while another, empty, was lying on the floor near the bed. I made the formal identification of the body, accompanied the policeman to the station for the legal formalities, then I went back home.
I was deeply depressed. Remorse had begun to act, like woodworm, in my soul. I took a bottle of whisky and drank almost half. I wanted to dull my senses. Not think about anything anymore, even if this was impossible.
I had Muriel read the letter on her return. She read it carefully. I noticed that she was deeply upset.
She didnít say anything. She wanted to respect my pain. She put her arms around me, resting her head on my shoulder. She remained in this position for several minutes, crying slowly. Maybe she also felt to blame.
Two days later I had Debbieís body cremated and I conserved her ashes in a little jade urn.
During the weeks following Debbieís death I fell into a severe depression due to feelings of blame and regret. Muriel tried to help me, to divert my attention. She gave up a well-paid job to be near me, she showed herself to be more affectionate than usual. But all this wasnít enough to bring me out of that situation. My indifference towards her hit her deeply.
One evening she returned home, took her suitcases, filled them with clothes, shoes and various things.
As far as Iím concerned I watched her pack her suitcases with certain indifference, drinking whisky that I usually drank in that period.
- Do you want to leave? Ė I limited myself to asking.
Muriel drew near to, looked me in the eyes, then she said in a slightly altered tone:
- My dear, Iíve desperately tried, and I underline desperately, to help you, to bring you out of this depression, but I seen that I havenít managed it. You donít do anything apart from crying to yourself and drinking whisky. A great way to take care of yourself! Iím fed up of all this now: of your depression, your sense of blame, of the photos of your wife that I see scattered throughout the flat. I note you want to be alone to feel sorry for yourself. Go ahead, if you like. Enough now, I canít cope any longer. Therefore Iíve decided Iím leaving. It will be best for both of us to separate, be alone and understand if we really want to live together. Therefore Iím going to another cityÖ
She stopped. She came near me and kissed me on the cheek. Then in a kinder tone she added:
- You must understand me. Iíve also been through a bad time with you and I need to think our relationship over. Iím no intention of leaving you, believe me. I only need to think about myself a bit now.
Then she closed the suitcases, rang a taxi and before leaving, said to me:
- Iíll phone you in the next few days.
Then she slowly closed the door behind her.
Muriel was right. I had to come out of this depression at all costs and win back the trust and the love of my woman.
I immersed myself in work, able to find again those levels of creativity and efficiency that, in the past, had been the key to my success.
In this way I was able, albeit slowly and with great efforts, to come out of this depression almost once and for all.
But even today I ask myself the same question that I often asked myself in the blackest period of the depression:- Why had all this happened?
Unfortunately Iíve never found an answer.
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