Claire Carroll


Infinite Husbands

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I have a lot of husbands. I don’t have time to tell you about all of them, but we could talk about some – maybe ten – unless I get tired and then I’ll stop telling you about them. Please don’t be under any illusion that these are the most important husbands, or the most recent, and please don’t ask me any questions about how I maintain a life with so many husbands; that’s none of your business.

My first husband is handsome but quick to emotion. When I first met him, he cried a lot about how his mother had abandoned him as a child. She ran off with a swimming instructor and was never seen again. His father couldn’t cope. As a result, my first husband was very needy, but I looked after him. I gave him what he needed – gave him what he hadn’t had from his mother – and in time he became less needy. We don’t see each other very often nowadays, but he knows I love him.

My second husband is hilarious and cruel and devastatingly handsome, with watery blue eyes. He is so handsome that I can’t even think about him for too long as my heart rate rises unbearably, and I have to lie down. He has been missing for quite some time.

My third husband looks exactly like me in every way, to the point where we are often mistaken for the same person. He likes me to cut my hair very short, to match his. This can upset the other husbands, but not one of them is brave enough to fight husband number three over it. He is prone to aggressive outbursts. Once we were in a pub having Sunday lunch, when a man at the next table bumped into husband number three, spilling some of his drink onto our table. Before I knew what was happening, husband number three had jumped up and flung his own drink, glass and all, into the man’s face. The man screamed and my husband roared back at him. My husband was eventually dragged from the pub by two police officers, his shirt ripped and covered in the man’s blood. I bought him that shirt, it was a Paul Smith one.

My fourth and fifth husbands are twins, two sides of the same coin. They are musicians in a band together, one plays the drums and the other sings. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you can stop right there. It’s not at all like that. They hate being fetishised in that way. They are very sweet boys; sweet men. Beautiful mirror images. I prefer one over the other, but I would never tell them which, or you, so you can stop asking.

My sixth husband is very elusive but is, by far, one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. He lives near the sea. It’s a long journey but I visit whenever I can. He works as a scientist, monitoring the ocean for pollution levels. The house he lives in dates from the early twentieth century and is an excellent example of the art-deco style, with huge windows that look out over the beach. The light inside the house is exquisite; the sun bounces off the sea and reflects on the walls and ceilings. He favours minimalism; doesn’t keep much in his house. He’s very precise, this husband. Neat and orderly. He likes that I am not like this; he likes that I am artistic, messy, even chaotic at times. He likes to think he can smooth my rough edges with his clean, scientific precision. I love staying with him. We walk along the beach in the wind, watching oystercatchers skittering in and out of the little waves that break on the foreshore. Sometimes, on a clear day, you can see pilot whales, far out to sea. My sixth husband doesn’t like me to stay for long, but he likes for us to be in almost constant contact. He gave me this device. Here it is, see? No, it’s not a mobile phone; I think it’s some sort of tracker. Something they use a lot in oceanography.

Can you see the garden any better now that the sun is coming out? Those tulips over there look nice in the light, don’t they? We planted them all when we moved here. I say we, but it was all me. It took a long time but it’s worth it. Yes, they really are that huge, and nearly impossible to grow. They’re quite rare too. Take a good look. They’ll be gone soon.

My seventh husband is vicious and manipulative. If he shows up while you’re here you should hide or – better still – slip out the French windows into the garden. I’ll distract him. No, honestly, don’t worry. I’m not expecting him for hours. My eighth husband is much nicer; more dependable and much older than me. He has white hair that springs back from his forehead. He’s very serious, but wise and calm too. We walk for hours together over fields and woodland. He likes to talk about philosophy. My mind wanders as he talks; I let his voice wash over me like music as we move through slices of evening sunshine. He’s had the same pair of shoes for thirty years. No, he doesn’t live here. They don’t all live here with me. That would be absurd.

I met my ninth husband last year. He’s tall and drinks heavily. He’s the sort of person who wears novelty clothes all the time; a sweatshirt made of neon faux fur, brightly coloured trainers, slogan T-shirts. When I first met him, he was dancing wildly at a party. He noticed me and pulled me towards him. This husband smiles and jokes all the time, even when he’s sober. He’s a clown; a loveable fool. Most women don’t look at him twice, not because he is unattractive, but because he is loud, drunk, ridiculous,prone to clumsiness. But that’s what I like most about him. He calls me Princess, but he does it ironically. We laugh so hard that we cry sometimes. Once he got really drunk and high and he overheated and had a seizure on the dancefloor of a nightclub. I went with him to hospital. The ambulance screeched through the cool morning air as dawn broke over the city. He cried like a baby when he regained consciousness; promised me he’d never scare me like that again.

I need a rest now, a glass of water or something. Do you need anything? Let’s open the windows and let the air in at least. Why don’t you go out there and take a look at those tulips? Honestly, this is your last chance. The company doing the digitising says it’ll look exactly the same, but I’ll know. Just go out there for five minutes and have a proper look. Take a picture of them; you won’t regret it.

I didn’t expect to meet my tenth husband so soon after the incident with my ninth. I had thought that perhaps I should slow down a little, take stock. But love finds you sometimes, doesn’t it? It creeps up on you when you least expect it. Sometimes you’re just walking along minding your own business, or else looking out of the window on the train, and it comes at you, fluttering past you on the breeze. There’s nothing you can do if love finds you; you just have to give in, let the current pull you under. No, that’s not how I’ve met all my husbands. Many of them I’ve pursued, courted, researched, even stalked if I’ve had to. I’m not passive about finding them, but sometimes you have to give in to love if it comes hurtling towards you.

My tenth husband is delicate; sensitive. He’s not as tall or as handsome as some of my other husbands, but there’s something in the curve of his cheekbones, the way he smiles; radiantly but self-consciously. We met on the way to a conference. He sat next to me on the train. It was an ultrafast one – you know, with a glass roof – and the sky sped past above our heads as we talked. We got drinks, realised we liked the same music. It felt easy; natural. He glanced out of the window and mentioned his significant other very quickly, as if he didn’t really want me to hear. He wasn’t wearing a ring, I noticed, but people don’t nowadays do they?

When we arrived at the hotel where the conference was being held, we walked in together as though we were a couple. Instinctively we both reached out for the other’s hand but let go quickly – laughing – eyes sparkling. The hotel was a vast expanse of white, like a ship, with the flat blue sky behind it. Our rooms were on different floors, but he knocked on my door before dinner that first night. We were dressed formally, for work, but I had put on perfume and lipstick. We walked past a wide mirror in the hotel lobby and I had to catch my breath when I saw our reflections. I could tell he did too.

Have you ever been in love? Yes, alright, but have you ever fallen in love without meaning to? And have you ever loved more than one person at once? Have you ever loved a great many people, an infinite number, all at the same time? Well, I suppose not, no. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here, asking me all these questions.

I can’t talk that much more about husband number ten. We need to be careful, or his significant other will find out. It would hurt my husband deeply if his significant other knew about me, and I can’t bear the thought of him in pain. For this reason, we can’t speak in person very often, but he leaves me messages – signs – to let me know he’s thinking of me. Just the usual, you know. Squiggles on walls, soft melodies, cloud formations, tea-leaves. Things like that. It’s kindest that way. I do think about his significant other from time to time. I’m not a monster. I’m not. I know what the significant other looks like (very beautiful, I’ll admit) and I picture them sometimes, lying in bed next to one another as my husband sleeps peacefully. I imagine the significant other’s eyes, wide open in the dark, tears pooling in the corners.

Husband twenty-one is broad and confident, with a kind smile. He plays basketball professionally. He has boundless energy, smooth skin, strong shoulders, long, dark eyelashes. I watch him sleeping sometimes, and I stay as quiet as possible, holding my breath so he doesn’t wake up. Husband one-hundred-and-forty-eight is vast, the size of a planet. He is exceptionally good at maths and can solve riddles better than anyone I know. He’s an absolute riot at parties. There’s another – I forget which number now – who has long limbs; he looks like a daddy-long-legs. He can juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time. He has a mean streak under all that jollity though; stay away from him if you can.

I haven’t seen husband eighty-six for years, but we are connected by a thin silver thread. It’s almost invisible and many miles long. I miss him, but it’s comforting to know that he’s there, at the end of that thread, and I could heave and pull him to me if ever I needed him.

There are more I could tell you about; I could go on for hours and hours. I can see them all now if I shut my eyes; all lined up neatly like binary code, stretching out forever. Imagine any husband and he has been mine, or is mine, or will be.

No, it’s fine, I’m not tired. I can see that the light’s going though, is it? Or is that just me? I’ll continue. You don’t mind, do you? This is the last of these gardens; everything will be in the cloud soon. Are you listening? I was just saying that it’ll all be gone soon. Gone and not gone, or whatever. It’s hard to know anymore what’s there and what’s not there, isn’t it? I suppose you’re used to it. You’ve never known any better.

 

Claire Carroll’s short stories and poetry have been published by journals including Gutter Magazine, perverse, Lunate Journal, The Oxonian Review, and Short Fiction Journal. In 2021, her short story ‘My Brain is Boiling with Ideas’ was shortlisted for The White Review’s Short Story Prize, and her short story ‘Cephalopod’ was the recipient of the Essex University & Short Fiction Journal Wild Writing Prize.


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