“Enough with the fucking clouds already!”
Tonya had contracted the American habit of using ‘already’ as an intensifier following a prolonged bout of what Dudley called ‘trash TV’. When Tonya suggested that this phrase in itself was an Americanism, that if Dudley really wanted to stay true to the Queen’s English, perhaps ‘Rubbish TV’ might be a better word choice, Dudley’s response was as blunt as he could muster.
“To appropriate the vernacular, my dear – go fuck yourself.”
They hadn’t been getting on for a while now, but this horseshit with the clouds was the final straw. It began with their wedding photos. Tonya found him with them one night in November, spread out on the kitchen table like crime scene images; scanning them one by one into his laptop, then Photoshopping out the bride and groom, the registry office and reception, leaving only the sky and the clouds. Dudley had already filled one notebook with scrawl after scrawl of indecipherable statistics, now he’d started on a second. Plume heights, ripple patterns, layer depth, filament cluster… it made little sense to Tonya, and she had an IQ of 148, just three points short of her husband. Man, how he lorded those three points over her.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, my little organic pesticide, but I’m doing this for us. For our future.”
They’d met three years ago, at a symposium convened to debate ways of tackling potential extinction event scenarios. Supervolcanos, sunspots, dramatic polar shifts and interstellar energy clouds. Thirty-two of the brightest minds of their generation. Thirty considered the symposium a worthwhile undertaking. Two quickly came to the conclusion that if the end of the world really was all that nigh, then they shouldn’t be wasting all their time in futile efforts to avert it when they could be getting drunk and having rough sex in the hotel gardens, the wine cellar, the sauna – anywhere except their own rooms, because that would be the boring, bourgeois place to fuck like bottlenose dolphins.
“Indescribably high sex drives, those dolphins,” Dudley told her, ordering as many rum and cokes as the barman could get out of the bottle.
“But they’re a lot less choosy than I am,” Tonya replied, quoting an article she’d read about a bizarre bottlenose / killer whale coupling in Japan, the resultant offspring dubbed ‘wolphin’.
Dudley remarked that she couldn’t be all that choosy – she had, after all, spent the afternoon on a carnal rampage with him, of all people… but Tonya just smiled. “And that’s why I like you.”
“The word ‘symposium’ means ‘drinking party’,” Dudley gasped later, as they lay spent in the space beneath the stage, another pointless oratory plodding from the speaker’s podium above them.
“From Plato,” Tonya added, “who’d get all his students shit-faced before lessons to help them imbibe his wisdom…”
That the world was being plunged into nuclear death and a ten thousand year ice age just feet from where they lay made their courtship all the more epic.
“The same part of the brain controls both yawning and erections,” Tonya thrust, charging another Bollinger to their expense account at 3am in the hotel bar.
“Parentricular nucleus of the hypothalamus,” Dudley parried.
Tonya repeated the phrase, impressed as always. “I just love the way it trips off your tongue, don’t you…?”
They were married only a few weeks later, and it’d all been downhill from there. She soon became tired of his projects, his research, and his infuriating experiments. Building sensors into the toilet bowl to automatically check their respective urine for diabetes, their respective stool for colon cancer. At least that had been thoughtful. Trying to create a working scale model of the Zero Point Field using parts from Tonya’s hairdryer, five thousand polystyrene balls, and a hastily rigged vacuum chamber (their living room) had been less so. While his attempt to disprove the theory of Schrödinger’s Cat using a picnic hamper, next door’s yappy little Jack Russell terrier, and a matchstick-sized block of strontium-90… the less said about that, the better.
“You’re behaving more and more like the proverbial mad scientist every day,” she complained, the night she found him studying the skies over their wedding day.
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that specific proverb, cherub – I must have missed that week at Sunday school…”
Where once she’d found his sarcasm intoxicating, now she suffered only from the hangover.
“The cliché to which you refer, Tonya, actually has its origin in the fact that many early scientists were exposed to large quantities of mercury vapour in their laboratories – hence the so-called ‘madness’ they succumbed to in later years was actually a tragic by-product of their own scholarly ways.” He gave her a look over the top of his spectacles that made her want to tear off his nose, so she picked up his notebook and began to fan through its incomprehensible pages, with malice. She hated his old man’s handwriting; that his 5’s always looked like S’s; the stupid French line he insisted on crossing through his 7’s. The way he doodled boobs in the corners of the page like a horny adolescent…
“I’ve told you a hundred times, Tonya – they’re not breasts, they’re eyes. There’s a number of peer-reviewed studies from renowned handwriting analysts which strongly suggest that the doodling of eyeballs puts me in the top five percentile of—“
“Perverts, reprobates and fetishists?”
Sometimes Dudley’s sighs shook the double-glazing, like a freight train rumbling by on a still night.
Stymied and embittered, she left him to it. For a time now, her thoughts had been turning more and more towards infidelity. After all, in nature monogamy was a rarity, particularly amongst women. From stick insects to gibbons, salmon to swans, the female of most species slept around like slatterns, thereby increasing their chances of procuring the fittest, strongest genes for their offspring. Not that healthy offspring was at all a concern for Tonya, who’d long since resolved she’d rather undergo quadruple amputation than childbirth. Still, the fact that polygamy was her natural state, that it was encoded into her very genes, seemed a good enough reason to not fight the urge any more than was expedient. Besides, everyone else was doing it, and she was starting to feel left out.
“Toby and Mariella split up last week,” she informed Dudley one morning over the croissants. “He’s been shagging a quantum physicist over from Caltech, she’s moving in with a planetary scientist from the University of Copenhagen.”
“I know,” Dudley sighed – his stock response to any and all statements of information from his wife these days. One further bone of contention between them; Tonya couldn’t tell him anything. And yet, there was something in his attitude this time that struck her as different. He wasn’t strutting or supercilious now, more self-conscious and sad. Her heart went out to him for a second, and she felt an affection that went beyond logic and biology, something harder to pin down, something she’d never recognised before.
“Or knew,” he added, “to be perfectly accurate, that is. I knew… I knew.” Setting aside his half-eaten pastry, he stared into his coffee in silence for the longest time, then got up and retreated to the study. Tonya wondered who exactly might have shared the Toby / Mariella gossip with her husband, since he rarely spoke with anyone these days, not even a phone call since the cloud analysis began. It was his worst and most all-consuming obsession to date.
But any affection or empathy Tonya might have felt towards Dudley was soon extinguished by the aggravation and detachment of living with a man whose head was forever, pun unavoidable, in the clouds. So when she met Graham, with the silver sideburns (at 34!), the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Oxford, and the Harley Softail Heritage Classic, it wasn’t long before they were booking a weekend in the Lakes, and Tonya was hard at work on her alibi. Not that said alibi seemed at all required. With the attention Dudley was paying her these days, she might well have bundled Graham into the spare room and sold tickets to their fornication without her husband paying the slightest mind. The alibi then was more for her own benefit. A lie, for the sake of pretending one was needed.
So there she was, one Friday night in April, checking into that hotel in Ambleside, when officially she was attending a conference in Berlin to debate knowledge and systems science with delegates from Shanghai, Karachi and Helsinki. If Dudley knew his wife at all, he’d have known she’d rather gnaw off her own nipples than ever be part of such a dismal assemblage, but he hadn’t even blinked when she’d offered up the excuse, hadn’t even taken his eyes away from the monitor. Away from the clouds.
“Your ‘partner’ has already checked in,” sniffed the moral guardian behind the reception desk, accustomed as she so obviously was to prejudging couples who arrived separately. Tonya might have got all uppity in return, had at that moment a blush not buttered her cheeks, and her eyes been wrenched down to the carpet. Instead, she took the keycard and scurried to the lift without another word. Her adultery waited.
“Pull yourself together, girl,” she told herself once the lift doors closed. “Don’t be such a nervous Nellie!”
But for the suitcase by the bed, the room was empty. For a moment, she was relieved – hopeful even… Then she heard the flush from the bathroom. How strange that she should be feeling like this. But it was too late to back out now.
And so, determined not to let this unfamiliar conscience ruin her weekend, Tonya let slip her black dress and arranged herself provocatively on the bed, revealing all Victoria’s secrets – for maximum impact. She’d never thought herself suited to underwear like this – she really didn’t have that good a body – but she was smart enough to know it didn’t matter. With men, presentation was everything.
Closing her eyes and listening to the water draining in the sink, she reminded herself what she was doing here, why she was doing it, and everything that had driven her to it. The hair dryer, the Jack Russell, the fucking clouds already! Dudley, Dudley, Dudley… where had all the fun gone? The laughter? The passion? So Graham might not be the mind-blowing polymath her husband was, but he certainly knew how to ride a Harley.
And then: strange, she thought. She hadn’t noticed Graham’s bike in the hotel carpark…
When Dudley stepped out of the en suite, Tonya was so surprised she grabbed the candlewick up off the bed to cover herself.
“So this is what it’s come to, is it, my seraphim – ashamed to let your husband see you… even semi-naked now?”
Tonya could not believe it. Not that Dudley was here. Not that he was holding an ice bucket of Bollinger in one hand and lily of the valley in the other. But that guilt and recrimination were not her immediate response; that relief was.
The explanation was, of course, both elaborate and extreme. Fractal patterns in the clouds; the ancient belief (Navaho, Inuit, Aztec and Aborigine) that the sky on your wedding day foretold the rest of your life together; months of investigation, equations and algorithms; early test subjects (Toby and Mariella – wedding photos ‘borrowed’ from their home after that drunken party in June); the final, deathly conclusion that if this was going to happen, it would be here, and tonight… and that if Dudley was going to stop it, there was only one chance available.
“And this,” he said, “this is me seizing that chance, for all it’s worth. To change fate – to change destiny – to change… what’s written in the clouds.”
Later, much later – after they’d fucked like rats, like crabeater seals, like lions, and like golden hamsters – while Dudley lay spent and the people in the room next door had finally stopped banging on the wall, Tonya arrived at a conclusion of her own. That while it may be true that had Dudley not devoted quite so much time to considering the fractal patterns occurring over their nuptial day, then Tonya might never have been driven to considering her infidelity in the first place… this was information she could happily keep to herself, for now and forever. Because, after all, he was a man: and she couldn’t tell him anything.