Her name was Eva and his was Joe, but she liked to call him Adam to indicate that, with each other, they had a new beginning. For her it was a new beginning for sure, as before she met Joe, she had a husband who committed suicide. For Joe things were less clear-cut. After he met Eva he broke up with his girlfriend, but she was not his proper girlfriend as she was married to another man and they never lived together. It always suited Joe to be number two because he did not like to be involved a hundred percent and was uneasy when people had high expectations of him. Expectations equalled disappointment.
However, with Eva it was different because when they met she was already so screwed up that one could not imagine how more disappointed she could be. Joe got in contact with her because he was working with Robert, her husband, when the guy took his own life. Subsequently, with some other people from the firm, he was tasked with helping Eva with organising a funeral and other practicalities. He even carried the coffin.
He still remembered her that day. With her long auburn hair, partly covered in a black scarf, large green eyes, dark eyebrows and slim figure, she was the most attractive woman he’d ever seen. Looking at her, Joe was thinking about the Brontë sisters. He had never read any of their books and on their famous portrait found them ugly, but upon looking at Eva he imagined her as one of them, or their heroines. Unhappiness could not destroy beauty of this kind, only sharpen it. He was not the only one who thought about Eva in such terms. Another man from his firm described her as a ‘lady in black’ and Joe knew that it meant more than a simple description of her attire; there was a mystery about her. How could a normal man leave such a beauty? Joe sensed that he wasn’t the only person who asked such a question, but nobody dared to do so openly. Unlike in religious societies, where people who committed suicide were condemned, in the secular ones they were treated with an utmost sympathy, like cancer sufferers, and their death was regarded as a natural outcome of a struggle which they could not win.
Apart from Eva’s sister, there were hardly any family members at the funeral. The sister asked Joe if he could stay and play with Eva’s small daughter Lily, while she took Mike, her son, to her house. And so Joe stayed for couple of hours that day and, in the days and weeks that followed, kept coming back to check if Eva needed any help. She rarely said so, but it was obvious that she struggled with many things: her job, her children and various practicalities, such as a dripping tap and a creaking floorboard.
At the beginning she was so overwhelmed with problems that at one point she said that the Hindu custom of burning women after their husbands’ death ultimately worked in women’s favour as it saved them from being forever dependent on men. Joe thought that Eva would not say such a dumb thing were if not for the fact that Robert’s disappearance ensured maximum damage to his family. Their boy, who was ten years old, needed a male role model, while the girl, who was less than three years, needed a mother looking after her full time.
The huge detached Victorian house in Didsbury, which they bought only a year before Robert’s death, felt like a life project for a man whose favourite pastime was DIY. For a single mother it was a curse, as it was almost impossible to bring it to an acceptable standard or to sell without making a loss. On top of that, there was a certain oppressive darkness about this particular house. Visiting it Joe understood why Didsbury was known as the most ‘leafy’ part of Manchester; it wasn’t only a metaphor. In autumn, leaves fell in their thousands, maybe millions, enveloping everything, like a memory of a something full of promise which turned sour. In the following years they tried to overcome the house’s melancholia by painting the walls in bright colours, buying light modern furniture and trying ways to increase the amount of light entering the house. But these efforts ultimately pointed to the reason why they made an effort.
As Joe’s job was more flexible than Eva’s, he started to take Lily to and from nursery and make food for her and Mike. Eva was grateful and kept buying Joe small presents, such as a set of screwdrivers or scarves. They were not to his taste, so he told her to stop as this was a waste of money. And then she asked him if he wanted sex instead. He did but found it awkward admitting it, as this would undermine his sense of decency and make Eva a prostitute of sorts, confirming her theory that there were only two paths for a poor widow – to die with her husband or to offer herself to another man.
He said that he was helping her out of respect for her late husband, which was a lie. Joe hardly knew the guy, as he was twice Joe’s age and much higher in the corporate hierarchy than Joe who, at this point, was fresh out of university. Moreover, the guy had a kind of aura of moral solemnity which was off-putting for Joe. Rather than taking Joe’s words at face value Eva asked him what he respected Robert for and he was unable to answer. Then she asked him whether he did not want to shag her because he found her too old. He replied that this was not the case at all; her age did not matter to him. In sum, by this point it was more awkward not to share a bed with Eva than to share it. And it was probably after their first night together that she called Joe ‘Adam’. She said it jokingly, but her tone did not fool Joe. It was in fact when Eva was half-joking that she was most serious.
Although they were seeing each other almost every day and Joe was constantly working on the house, he never properly moved in. He never brought his stuff over and, after spending a night together, he made sure that in the morning, when he went to work, he packed his stuff before leaving. The truth was he preferred to have supper in his house, which meant his mother’s house, because his mother was a better cook than Eva. Their house was quieter and Adam liked his bedroom. Everything he needed to be happy was there: his posters, his guitars, his collection of records and comic books, and some pictures of him with his previous girlfriends, mostly taken during trips abroad.. Joe never invited Eva to share his pleasures, as she knew little about music, and comics were for her just a childish pastime. He also thought it would be awkward to introduce Eva to his mother, not because his mother would disapprove of him dating a widow ten years his senior, but because she would be too enthusiastic and put pressure on Joe to marry Eva. Joe’s mother was herself a widow with a child (Joe’s sister) when she married Joe’s father, who was younger than her. She would like Joe to keep up the family tradition, but Joe was not sure if this was the best tradition to follow, given that both his mother’s husbands died at a relatively young age.
Eva did not question Joe’s habits, but she wanted them to spend more time together. Just the two of them, discussing deeper topics. Love being such a subject. For her love happened when one simultaneously imagined being in the other person’s mind and admired this person from the outside. This is why she invoked the biblical story of Eva and Adam. Eva was created from Adam’s rib, which meant that she was able to empathise with Adam, be a part of him, while also having a distinct identity. There was more of Adam in Eva than the other way round. Maybe this was the reason why men understood and cared about women less than women understood and cared about men. Still, the biblical Adam wasn’t a bad man, he followed Eva and was prepared to give up his life in paradise for a more difficult life with her. If all men were like the biblical Adam, women would be happy. It transpired Robert wasn’t like Adam as, in the final stage of his life, he followed two women – Eva and a lover and couldn’t make up his mind. Ultimately, he chose the third way, abandoning both.
Joe did not like to think in metaphors; for him they obscured real situations and made one’s life seem finished before it even started. It was better to see each person as if boarding a different train, rather than as a passenger on a gigantic merry-go round always returning to the same point. But he was aware that for Eva these myths and metaphors played a therapeutic function. She needed them to understand why she was betrayed and to protect herself against the danger of history repeating itself. Joe did not contradict her when she fed him with her theories, he simply did not engage with them. On occasions, she reproached Joe for not taking her seriously. Joe always denied he didn’t, saying that he was not sufficiently intellectual to see the world the way she did.
To smother such pillow talk, Joe would always suggest doing something specific, like taking the kids for an excursion to the countryside or to the cinema. His favourite way to spend time with her was going to restaurants; just the two of them. Of those, Indian restaurants for Sunday lunch were his favourite because there was nothing better than Indian food in Manchester and, when looking at their patrons; these tired, overweight, unattractive people who blindly followed some religious or other custom, he was thinking how lucky he was, having a beautiful girlfriend and no ambition to conform to any social norm. And he assumed that Eva was lucky too to have him, not because he was anything special, but because he enjoyed life and did not look for reasons to dislike it. Eva, being the one who knew ‘Adam’ from inside and outside, must have been thinking what he was thinking as she sometimes commented, ‘You think this place is a piece of heaven, don’t you?’ And then she added with an ironic smile, squeezing his hand: ‘and indeed it is’. He was very grateful for her stopping at that, as he knew her instinct was to add ‘but it will perish one day.’
Afterwards they would collect Lily from Eva’s sister’s and play with her for the rest of the day. Mike would usually be with his friends, perhaps to avoid Joe. Then Joe would leave, heading to his house or to a pub, to meet his pals. These were usually single men or men with commitment issues, who did not feel ready to move-in with girlfriends, if they had them, or get married. Gradually some sunk into a quiet depression of singlehood, marked by increased alcohol consumption and misogynistic banter, while, in others, the commitment phobia gave way to a more acute fear that no other woman would commit to them ever again. These men would eventually get married, after having had a stag party in some far-away location, such as Budapest, Riga or Bangkok. The idea was to have maximum fun before all joy evaporates from life, or this was how they presented it. But then why to give up on this joy? ‘One has to make compromises in life,’ was the usual answer.
What Joe liked most about these stag parties were the cities where they took place. Whenever possible, he would go there one day before rest of the group gathered and stay one or two days after, to walk the streets by himself and get lost in the districts outside the tourist areas. Sometimes, in a café or in a pub’, he would strike up a conversation with the locals. He was always surprised that people elsewhere were looking to the future. The past for them was to be celebrated during their national holidays and festivals, not as a dead weight, pulling them down and back wherever they went. The young would say ‘nothing keeps me here,’ and confessed to Joe their plans to emigrate where life was supposedly better, like England or Switzerland. Mancunians, by contrast, did not feed on hopes, but on memories, knowing that every regeneration or makeover would not bring the old glory to their city; at best, it would restage it. They also knew that there was a limit to what one could achieve in life and that the ceiling was usually pretty low. Yet, they also knew that there was no point in leaving Manchester because one either could not afford to leave or elsewhere was even worse. Anyway, this was what Eva and his friends used to say. However, when Joe repeated their words in conversations with foreigners, they sounded false and made little sense to them.
Years were passing and seemingly little was changing in Eva and Joe’s lives, except that the children were growing and Eva’s house, after what looked like a never-ending renovation, shed most of its morbidity. Friends were telling Joe that he allowed himself to be left behind, professionally, on the family front, fashion-wise and in any other way. But Joe thought that this stagnation concerned only a façade. Internally he was changing faster than most people he knew of, perhaps because the external stability allowed him to be more perceptive. Eventually he got interested in change itself; in the way something new was created on the ruins of the old. He stopped reading novels and surrounded himself with books about beginnings: of religion, art, capitalism, eventually of humanity itself. He also became interested in how changes were connected, how one invention affected the other and what would happen if they were connected differently. He came to the conclusion that humanity moved towards apocalypse. The journey was slow, but it did not make it any better.
Objectively it wasn’t an original thought, as newspapers were full of apocalyptic news, but it was his thought – he internalised it and it coloured everything that he did. To forget about it, he invented worlds in which things took place differently than in the reality he knew of: Napoleon won at Waterloo, computers weren’t invented and suchlike. He hoped that Eva would find his ideas interesting, but she didn’t. Over the years she herself lost interest in patterns and myths and became very down to earth, practical and intolerant of other people’s idiosyncrasies. This was reflected on her face. She lost her other-worldly look and her slightly mischievous smile evolved into a sneer, which appeared when she talked about other people. Joe also constantly irritated her; she criticised everything he did and, when she had no reasons to attack him, she reminded him of some real or imaginary misdemeanour he committed many years previously. She was also the one who reproached him most for being a loser. This was unfair given how much he did for her and her children, like the wooden kitchen table he’d been making for more than a year. But Joe endured it, knowing that she had reasons to be bitter.
Eight years had passed since they first met and, whilst they still loved each other, they had stopped being happy, at least with each other. Joe realised that something had to change for them to remain together. Such an opportunity arrived thanks to Joe’s company setting up outposts in foreign countries. The management was looking for people willing to work there, recruiting their own teams. Joe was given the opportunity to work in Budapest, which was the most beautiful city he ever visited, except for Venice where he went with Eva. This was his best opportunity for promotion since he’d started working. He told his mother and she encouraged him to go. She did not want to end up as half of the couple from Psycho and if the price was her son moving to a foreign country then so be it. She would manage without him, moving to Devon where her daughter lived and where the climate was better for older people. Then Joe told Eva, proposing that she join him. They would take Lily with them and leave Mike on his own, as he was an adult now anyway. But Eva did not want to go; for her his decision to move was proof that their relationship had reached its end. Maybe she was right, but the matter-of-fact tone she announced it made his heart sink. The only thing they discussed was how to tell Lily that he was leaving. Eva suggested that she would handle it herself. The best thing for all of them would be for Joe to disappear without a trace. Joe was unhappy about this as he loved Lily and did not want to feel like he was abandoning her, but he did not want to argue with Eva. And so he left.
There were so many things to take care of over the next months that Joe had no time to ponder over the end of his relationship, although it was always in the back of his mind. And then, when things settled, he realised that he’d made a mistake: he should not go to the place where people wanted to be better than they were. He should stay where he belonged: in the city of under-achievers. But, by this point, his links with Manchester had been severed. His mother had sold their house and moved to Devon, his company’s headquarters were in London and his friends there were not of the kind to visit especially.
He tried to renew his contact with Eva, but she changed her telephone number and her work e-mails were returned undelivered. Maybe she was worried that he might stalk her. Eventually on one of his visits to England he made a trip to her house. She was not living there anymore, but the new owners gave him her address in Cheshire. It was the most expensive spot in the North, the ‘footballer’s village’ where the stars of Manchester United had their mansions. The place wasn’t easy to reach by public transport so Joe decided to take a taxi. The new house where Eva lived was a mansion, spread out over a large area. Joe was thinking that in such a place one didn’t need any tricks to woo the sun. For sure the owners also had a gardener to collect the leaves.
He knocked the door and Eva opened it. She was surprised to see him, but at least not unhappy. She was alone at home, as her husband was away on business and Lily was at scouts’ camp. She made Joe a cup of tea and explained what happened after their split. She had met a new man only two weeks after Joe left. He was much older than Joe, even older than Robert, but this was a bonus as he didn’t have any commitment issues. He had this mansion and everything which comes with mansions: money and a different mindset. So Eva gave up her job and she was finally happy. Joe felt that he should say something like: ‘I feel happy for you,’ as people say in films, but he couldn’t utter such words, because he was unhappy, even angry, about her happiness; it was an insult to him. She must have felt it, as she changed her tone and said:
‘Do you remember that I always called you Adam. I did so without noticing that you were in fact Joseph. The biblical Joseph was helping Maria to look after her child; he was not meant to give her a new life, but only prepare her to a life without him. In heaven,’ she finished with a laugh.
‘What is your husband’s name?’ asked Joe.
‘What does it mean?’
‘It doesn’t mean anything special. Some names mean, others don’t. Maybe because some people follow the prescribed path, others create their fate. We must have been in the first category.’
Before Joe left, Eva took him to a huge store room where she kept old furniture and other junk from the old house. There was the wooden table he’d made for her and many other wooden things. After all, the biblical Joseph was a famous carpenter, so Joe had to keep up the tradition. Joe gave Eva permission to discard all this stuff and took only some small things from their time together but even those he threw away in the first bin on the road to the station in Manchester, as he realised they would not suit his place in Budapest
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories and creative non-fiction in her spare time. She published over fifty of them in literary magazines. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, ‘Neighbours and Tourists’ (New York, Adelaide Books), which won the Grand Prize in Eyelands Book Award competition. Ewa is also a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.