Us: A Retrospective

Dan Purdue

1. “For Want of a Nail…” Bronze resin; 2003

At first, neither of us can work out what it’s supposed to be. It’s cylindrical, two meters tall by a meter across, tapering to a screw thread. It looks something like an upturned bottle, only huge and made of metal.

Cassie gasps. “I know — it’s from the lock! The, um, the little handle piece that connects to the slidy bolt thing.”

I look at her. “Slidy bolt thing?”

“From the bathroom door.”

I shrug.

She waits. Her eyes widen and she pinches her bottom lip between her teeth. She’s itching to tell me. I shake my head.

“It’s hard to recognise because in real life it’s only this big.” She holds up her hand with a small gap between her finger and thumb. “But that’s it, the bit that was missing. Remember? If it’d been there, I could’ve locked the bathroom door, and you wouldn’t have…”

“Blundered in,” I say, suddenly understanding. No wonder I didn’t recognise it; I’d been on the wrong side of the door. “Yeah, I suppose that really is how it all started. Aaron’s New Year’s Eve party. God, I was so embarrassed. I backed out so quickly I practically fell down the stairs.”

You were embarrassed? You weren’t the one with your knickers round your ankles.”

We smile, the way we smiled whenever anybody asked how we met. At a party, we’d say, grinning helplessly. What a ridiculous start to a relationship.

I gaze at the sculpture, this tiny, mundane thing made significant by a trick of scale and the events its absence set in motion. I try to think of something clever to say to Cassie about our relationship beginning with a door that couldn’t be locked, but I can’t quite marshal my thoughts before she pulls me away.

2. “Love Potions” Vodka, Rum, Pernod, Lemon Juice, Tizer, Unknown, Glass; 2003

“Look, look,” she says, hauling me towards the next piece. “Your ‘apology cocktails.’” She picks one up and sniffs it. “Jesus. What did you put in these? No wonder I couldn’t remember getting home.”

“I recall Aaron’s party dramatically improved after we drank them.” I glance over my shoulder. “I’m not sure we’re allowed to touch things in here. Maybe you should put that down.”

“Relax,” she says, in that soothing, infuriating way of hers. She smiles a demon grin and takes a sip. “Urgh! It’s Las Vegas in liquid form.”

Somehow she forces the other glass into my hand. I take a hesitant sip; a riot spills into my mouth. I look at her, her lips pursed around the straw, her cobalt-blue eyes sparkling, and I remember how she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever met.

3. “Back Row” Velour, Plastic, Digital Video; 2004

Behind a heavy black curtain, we stumble over a dimly lit row of cinema seats. We sit down. The room is too warm and smells of popcorn and melted cheese. On a screen a couple kisses in a Hollywood rainstorm. Concealed speakers pump out an overwrought ballad, underscored with stifled coughs and rustling sweet wrappers.

“Our first date,” she says. “Can you believe we were such a cliché?”

I laugh. We didn’t deliberately set out to see a schmaltzy rom-com, but it was the best of a poor selection. I can’t remember the name of the film, although potentially it had Sandra Bullock in it. The film itself was largely irrelevant; the important bit had been the chance to quietly assess one another for irritating habits and hygiene issues, without the need to say anything for two hours. I had been anxious about meeting again after the party, worried the few things I could remember about Cassie would turn out to be alcohol-fuelled invention.

“Come on,” I say after a minute or two, “let’s get out of here.”

As we leave I notice we’re holding hands. I don’t remember whether I reached for her hand or she for mine, but it feels natural, and good.

4. “Nesting” Paper, ink; 2005

Initially the fourth room appears empty. The floor is bare but the walls are covered with slips of paper, each tacked in place with a nail. They’re receipts, and above or beside them all are little pen-and-ink sketches of the items drawn onto the walls, detailing everything we bought in that first year, things with which we filled our lives and the draughty little flat we rented. The receipts rustle gently as we move through the room. It sounds like the sea, or leaves on a tree.

We find the beginning and work our way around. It’s like a treasure hunt – among the records of banal, everyday transactions like groceries and taxi fares are more telling glimpses of our relationship. We reach our first Valentine’s Day, and I recall the decidedly unromantic discussion we’d had about whether we were “doing” Valentine’s or not and how much we would spend. We’d only reached our fourth or fifth date and were cautious of making too grand a gesture. I bought her a book of poetry; she got me a CD. Nice, safe, dull presents.

“We got a bit more daring as we went, though, didn’t we?” Cassie says, seemingly reading my thoughts. She’s found the receipt for the vibrator I bought for her birthday. A blush ignites across my face. It had been the most mortifying purchase of my life. I could never have faced going into a shop and buying one – thank god for the internet – but still I spent the best part of a week breaking into cold sweats at the prospect of them trying to deliver the thing while I was out and having to collect it from the sorting office.

It was well worth it, though. I can’t help smiling to myself.

“What are you thinking about?” Cassie asks, raising an eyebrow.


“Yeah, right.” She play-punches my arm. “You and your one-track mind.”

We move on. Occasionally one of us points something out with a, “Hey, do you remember that?” or a, “I forgot we’d had one of those.” Basking in nostalgia, we shuffle along with our arms wrapped around one another.

Just as we’re leaving I notice the receipt from the bottle of Rémy Martin I gave her for Christmas that year. I don’t think Cassie spots it but for some reason I can’t think of anything other than how annoyed I’d been when I found it had all gone by New Year’s Eve.

5. “Look, Look, Look” Perspex; 2006

For the next piece, we’re directed to stand on opposing sides of a huge Perspex lens. The device magnifies our faces, like we’re watching each other through binoculars. I’m uncomfortable looking at this giant version of Cassie, it feels too much like an intrusion, but I can’t help gazing at her beautiful eyes, the perfect domes of her cheekbones. Even the way a little of her hair falling across her face looks as though it’s following some elegant law of aesthetics.

“Hello, Gorgeous,” I say. She rewards me with a coquettish smile, a meter wide.

We pull faces and laugh. As time passes I begin to notice things I’d rather not. Before long all I can focus on are her flaws and blemishes. There’s a clot of mascara at the corner of one eye. She has blackheads on her chin. One of her teeth is chipped and she shows too much of her gums when she smiles. A sense of unease takes hold. I should be able to overlook these things, I tell myself. But I can’t, and I end up trying not to look at the lens, while simultaneously trying not to look like I’m not looking.

“This is weird,” she says.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I’m not sure I like it. Shall we go?”

She looks offended. Immediately I realize I’ve said the wrong thing. “Sorry,” I say, sheepishly. “I didn’t mean it like that. We can stay if you want.”

“No. It’s fine.”

In an instant, she’s gone from the lens and I hear the door to the next room swing open.

I follow her, my hands thrust into my pockets.

6. “He Said / She Said” Gramophones, Acrylic Paint, Digital Tape; 2006

I catch her up in a long, high-ceilinged room. An old-fashioned gramophone is painted pink and installed in one corner. A blue one is positioned diagonally opposite, facing it. The gramophones produce sound one after the other, mimicking a conversation. The noises are our voices – that much is obvious – but the words are distorted and unintelligible, no matter where we stand. We crane our necks and frown as we try to interpret the noises flung back and forth between the two sets.

Initially the gramophones “speak” in turn, but they soon begin to overlap. The tone changes. There’s a shift towards aggression as the exchange becomes an argument, each voice trying to drown out the other. Eventually, it disintegrates into a kind of white noise. The speakers can barely cope. It’s so loud and ragged it’s painful to listen to. It’s a relief when, after a near-hysterical shriek from one (or possibly both) of the gramophones, the room falls silent.

Cassie is impatient. “Okay, I get the point. Come on,” she says, although she doesn’t really direct it at me. Her impulsiveness is infuriating. I want us to stay. There must be a clue to what went wrong, somewhere in that muddled blizzard of sound. I want the recordings to begin again. I’d really pay attention this time. Perhaps I could pinpoint the exact moment we stopped talking, or stopped listening, or whatever it was.

At the very least, I imagine that if I wait long enough the blue gramophone will say something conciliatory, admit defeat, try to smooth things over. That was usually how it worked.

I stand listening to the ringing in my ears until I realize I’m alone.

7. “Found Items” Found Items; 2007

Cassie stands at a glass cabinet. Inside are two foil pouches, their ring-shaped contents obvious even without the kitemarks and the Durex logo. My heart sinks.

When she turns to look at me her eyes are wet. “I still don’t understand why you took them with you.”

I sigh. We’ve been through this a thousand times. “I didn’t take them with me. Not deliberately, anyway. I just grabbed my wash-bag and they must have been in there – from before we, well, before you went on the Pill. I honestly didn’t know I still had them.”

“How could you not notice them?” She points at the condoms. “The packets are bright red.”

I can’t think of a useful reply, so I just nod. I’m telling the truth, more or less. I didn’t intend to sleep with anybody at the conference. With things the way they were with Cassie, I had been weighing up the possibility of starting afresh with somebody else. But that’s as far as I’d got. I certainly hadn’t set off for Barcelona with the goal of cheating on her. And despite the exotic surroundings and the open bar, not to mention a willingness for my fidelity to be tested, the opportunity hadn’t arisen. I still don’t know whether to be grateful or disappointed.

“Why were you going through my things, anyway?” I say, sounding like a petulant teenager.

“I wasn’t ‘going through’ them,” she snaps, “I was tidying up after you! If you want to keep secrets you should learn to put things away.”

“Secrets?” I say, throwing my hands up. I’m about to roll out my well-worn protestations of innocence, point out the packets are unopened, unused, probably well past their use-by date, but I don’t have the energy. It all seems so futile.

Instead I say, “When exactly did you stop trusting me?”

She looks surprised at the question. She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear. “I don’t know. Do you really just stop, like flicking a switch? Sometimes I think I trusted you the whole time. It was difficult to find a reason not to. But I kept looking. Maybe that was the problem.”

I shrug. We’re subdued, lost in thought. The air feels empty, wrung-out.

I gesture towards the display. “It’s not like we broke up because of this,” I say. I’m not sure what difference it’s supposed to make.

“No,” she says, “but it’s this that made me realize we were breaking up.”

8. “Love Sublime” Carbon Dioxide; 2006

The last room is draped in black velvet, walls and floor, and on four pedestals stand the letters L, O, V, and E, formed from blocks of dry ice. At room temperature, carbon dioxide becomes a vapor, and the letters are slowly dissolving into a white mist.

We stand together and watch for a while, following the vapor as it drifts away from the surfaces of the letters and trickles down the folds in the cloth. The floor is already ankle-deep in vapor; the blocks shrink imperceptibly with every passing moment. The mood between us has changed; the anger and bitterness have burnt themselves out. In their place are a quiet sense of loss and the first, fledgling stirrings of regret at a path not taken.

“It really is beautiful,” Cassie says wistfully.


“Love. For all its shortcomings, it’s still beautiful, when you think about it. I suppose that’s what the title’s referring to.”

I curl my lip. “Sublime doesn’t just mean that. In chemistry it describes something solid evaporating into thin air. There’s only so much you can do to prevent it, if what you start with isn’t stable enough in the first place.”

“You always did over-analyze everything.” She smiles, a sad, tired kind of smile. “Maybe that’s enough for today. What do you reckon?”

I look around the room. She’s right. We’ve reached the end of our shared past, and although I don’t want to leave, there’s nothing to be gained from loitering here. “Okay,” I say.

We walk out together, close but not too close, into the sunlight.

Outside, we stand on the steps and say goodbye.

Cassie tilts her head to one side and gives me a look worryingly close to pity.

“Are you going to be alright?” she says.

I start to answer but my throat tightens up. I nod instead.

She hugs me and I find it hard to let go, but she gently pushes me away. She looks behind me, at the gallery.

“You shouldn’t keep going over and over this,” she says. She holds my hand and strokes my forearm with her free hand.

“I know,” I say.

Then she turns and I watch her walk down the steps, her hair shining in the sun. I wait until she has disappeared around the corner before I sit down on the steps. After a while I get back up and walk towards the gallery entrance, to where I know I’ll find her, by the first exhibit, waiting for me.

“Us: A Retrospective” previously appeared in print in the anthology, The Graft.



DAN PURDUE lives and writes in the West Midlands in the UK. His short stories have been published in numerous places online and in print, including Writers’ Forum, Defenestration, The View From Here, and The Waterhouse Review, and have won prizes in various competitions, most recently the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition. His blog goes a little like this:

6 thoughts on “Us: A Retrospective

  1. A really enjoyable story, Dan. The twist at the end made me go back to the beginning and do it all over again – just like the characters! :)

    I loved your take on a romantic tale!


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