Sport 18: Autumn 1997
Rowan Metcalfe — Without Falling
It was 8:45 by the dashboard clock as she pulled into the Mitchells’ gravel driveway. She waited until 8:47 with the engine running to see if their front door would open. When it didn't she switched off, unbelted herself, and with a strange uncomfortable fluttering, like stage fright in the pit of her stomach, crossed the noisy gravel and knocked.
‘Coming!’ she heard Sally call and the door was opened, Sally smiling, Sally with her long red hair, knotting the belt of her kimono. ‘Come in a moment,’Sally invited.
She stepped onto the doormat. The stage fright was like indigestion.
‘Chop chop you two!’called Sally for Luke and Melissa who came out grabbing at gym kits and lunchboxes, Melissa still brushing her hair, kissed their mother. ‘Hurry up.’
They climbed into the back, three in a row with Elspeth, and she reversed out. Her heart beat wildly, as if to bruise her ribs. It was getting silly now, she didn't think she could bear it much longer.
At the school gates she watched them running in without a backward glance. Not seeing the cliff edge, not knowing that in the eager race they might come to some invisible precipice. Nobody knowing but her, that each morning could be the last. How could anyone know? That even as she stood with the other mothers there discussing the weather and the news she had lifted her secret chalice to her lips and taken a deep draught, and that as she got back into her car the potion would begin to sting and fizz in her blood, would be popping like sparks in her fingers and toes, squeezing her gut and licking like flames between her thighs. Even the pedals at her feet seemed to respond like part of her own body, the electric windows slid down with two strikes of her thumb and she could feel morning air page 133 already warm across her cheeks, the tangled verges leaning out to flick her glossy metal as she passed. His name mounted up in shining letters and burst out from her temples, her heart pinging like a wild instrument, her throat tight from not crying it out.
In the kitchen her hands went out automatically to clear away milky bowls, cups and cereal packets. Like a beautiful machine lubricated in every part she moved on her own tracks, table to fridge to dishwasher, without friction. Whiteware doors opened and closed for her with soft, magnetic sighs. Fingertip control. She leaned back against her ceramic work top and she felt herself there empowered, the deity of her own kitchen, three copper pans gleaming on the beam above the Aga, the row of blue and yellow splashed Italian crockery on the dresser. She walked about it, smiling, around the kitchen table, her fingertips caressing solid pine. There was possession in the tap of her heels on the tiled floor, it was her own palace, her own order, her domain.
When the phone rang she was only a movement away but she let it ring three times before she answered, knowing that it would be her husband. He would always phone when he got to work and tell her his schedule. Today he was copiloting a DC10 down south and wouldn't be back until late, eleven at the earliest. She felt the poison uncoiling sweetly up her spine.
‘Love you,’ he'd add, and she'd reciprocate, but in her mind he was already up in the air, strapped in his cockpit, and flying away from her. There was no telling what he got up to really, he might have other women, they were all clubby with the cabin crews, there was nothing to stop him. So many nights she had sat alone at home with her bourbon and cigarettes, watching television, their daughter asleep in her thickly curtained room. What was it to him?
She drew breath, pierced by recurring desire, a single searing wand of it. Its intensity was always unexpected. ‘It's true what they say about your thirties,’ she and her friends had agreed. She wondered if they had secrets from her, even her closest friends, as she had from them. Secrecy is its own secret. An invisible, coded vault. But recently she had found the secret burning on her tongue, a creature from within, warted and horned and threatening to leap from her mouth. page 134 She would baulk to swallow it down, pressing her palm to her throat.
Then she would be back in her own kitchen, her own palace, preparing nutritious food, baking delicious lies. And she would think how lucky she was, how gloriously happy. Surely it was not wrong to be so happy. Elation, sheer joy it was, rising up from her very soles, holding her up, balancing her, day after day preventing her from falling into—what dark abyss was it? No, like the highwire walker she could not afford to look down, she was simply suspended above the heads of the crowd, a spangled performer in her element. She could not fall, each day was a daring feat of balance. Her feet made no sound as she ran up the stairs.
She meant to make the beds first but as she sprang upon the top stair so her reflection leapt up to meet her, as it did if the mirrored wardrobe door had been carelessly left open. She stopped, surprised —yes, blonde suited her, it was as if her hairdresser had read her soul. Blonde! She lifted it up with both hands, let it fall again, pulled it slyly across one eye. Cautiously, like a huntress captivated by her prey, she advanced upon herself, step by step, nostrils flaring to the scent of her own perfume, her heart beginning to pound again. The reflection too advanced, eyes widening, then stopped. They gazed at each other a moment in wonderment. Verily, she is so enchanting, she hath enchanted herself. It was terrible to look into those eyes, to see the woman he hungered after, her skin, her lips, her breasts. Slowly, as if hypnotised, she began undoing her shirt, tiny buttons slipping willingly through their silken slots. Here was what he loved, his hands would slide along her collarbones, he would kiss the dip in her throat like a creature drinking there. Her nipples, sensitive to the air and attuned to the loosening of the silk, stared back wide awake. She cupped a breast in each hand, the way she would offer them to him and, lids closing on the dark storm behind her eyes, she pinched her nipples tightly with her thumbs. The bolt of energy that shot through her made her groan out loud. With him, and only with him, she had heard the roar of infinity, its ceaseless boom like the surf on a blowing desert shore.
But now the phone ringing again. ‘Hello?’ She sat down on the unmade bed, white plastic cool against her ear. It was Marion. Marion was going into the city shopping. Did she want to come? But she page 135 did't want to go to the city with Marion. The idea of the stuffy fitting rooms and Marion's relentless quest for size 16 was anathema. All those plastic coat hangers and dangling price tags. Her fingers, still pressed to her breast, strayed to the live wire of her nipple. ‘I can't, not today,’ she said, yet felt obliged to add an explanation. ‘I've just emptied the hall cupboard. It's going to take hours to sort out.’
She heard the note of sympathy in Marion's voice. Such a throwaway lie. She'd been meaning to clean the hall cupboard for weeks. She might even do it. ‘I could pick up Dean from school so you don't have to rush back,’ she suggested. Secret atonement.
Marion never liked to be obliged, protested, but then capitulated. It was arranged. She pressed the receiver back, click. The little lie yawned open in the silence. She would start on the hall cupboard straight after the bedrooms. She stood up and tucked her shirt back into her jeans, looked around the room. Each day she would recreate order around herself, around her family. That was her job. Socks and shirts into the laundry pile, dresses onto hangers, books onto shelves, toys sorted into cupboards and baskets, tiny squares of Lego, the caps off felt pens, bits of jigsaw, crumpled drawings, dolls' clothes, everything had to be returned to order, every day. There was a Barbie dress beside the bed, a little pink number all snarled up in its own velcro. She bent down to pick it up. Two tiny plastic feet protruded from under the valance; she pulled out the naked body and ran her hand in further, finding with her fingers one minuscule gold shoe, a red crayon, a stiffened tissue, and when she looked up again he was in the doorway. ‘Oh god,’ she said, ‘you shouldn't do that.’ But a flash flood of joy rushed through her. ‘What if there'd been someone here?’
‘I took a chance,’ he said. Like magnets they closed together, pulled into a single field of energy. ‘I've locked the door,’ he said before they kissed. ‘You should be careful, anyone could come in here and take advantage of you.’ He backed her towards the bed, unbuttoning her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, mouth to breast, unbuckling his belt. ‘Damn jeans.’ Her belt, zip, denim peeling off her hips and her thighs, nipples like twin stars, points of light and heat igniting, lines of fire spreading, his fingers twisting aside the crotch of her page 136 knickers to reach that tinderbox of flesh between her legs, first one, then, two fingers pressed into her, spreading and kneading her inner walls then smearing the wetness as he dragged her knickers down, opening her lips as he thrust his head between her legs. She reached down to him, to feel his hair, to spread her self wider for him, his tongue first tickling inside her then like a hot poultice applied to the ache of longing, then bringing the pungent musk of herself to her as he kissed her, their mouths opening onto a single cavern, tongues meeting and grappling in a dark, liquid space. And searching, searching, pressing upward for the thing, the one thing that mattered to her, the tip of his penis, to find its nudging greeting, its keen, sharp foil to the thick velvet of her need. A rich soil waiting for seed, a black tunnel into herself, the aching space that only he created and then filled, spots dancing before her eyes, angels pressed, laughing, at the windowpanes. The force of it, the weight and tension, seemed to cleave her apart, and when it reached its goal her whole body seemed to gather itself around it, could feel the sticky mouth at her cervix, its deep, dark inward kiss.
He would say, ‘I love you,’ pressing his face against her, her fingers in his hair. It would cut her like a silver blade. Or he would say, ‘No one must ever know, you haven't told anyone have you?’ That was like a blunt stone. Or, breathing onto her skin, ‘I could never leave Sally and the kids, you understand that don't you?’ That was the fierce twist of a screw. And yet she didn't want him to leave Sally anyway, she wanted everything to stay the way it was, forever, locked up tight. Her heart groaned under the weight of the impossibility.
He said, ‘I'm playing squash tonight.’
She knew that meant he wasn't playing squash.
‘After the kids are in bed.’
The moon would be rising.
In the afternoon the sun struck her such loving blows that she wanted to respond somehow, to lay her head on the warm shoulder of a sunbeam, roll in its arms. She resented going to the supermarket, but it had to be done. Artificial light, and the freezers brushing the warmth off her skin as she passed them. She tugged a wire basket off page 137 the pile. What did she want anyway? Was it continental salad or tomatoes, fish or eggs or butter? Flour, raisins, biscuits? Sometimes she didn't know any more, and had left her list pinned to the kitchen corkboard. She tried starting with bread, had a hand on a loaf when she caught the colour of Sally's red hair, did not know whether she wanted to turn away but was too late anyway. Sally's half-full trolley was in front of her, Sally's face was talking to her.‘I can't get used to the blonde,’ Sally's was saying, ‘I hardly recongnised you, it suits you though, I was thinking of getting mine cut, you know, shoulder length.’
‘But Pete doesn't want me to, he says he likes it long. Have you tried this new bread they've got with herbs in it? Melissa didn't leave her gym kit in your car again did she? I was worried she might start making a habit of it, getting out of gym, you know.’
She looked intently into Sally's eyes; why couldn't Sally see through her mask? Her pants were wet with his sperm, wasn't it written all over her face? If only she would suspect for one minute. Suddenly the truth was there, squatting on the back of her tongue again, if she opened her mouth it would leap out, right there in the supermarket aisle. No, not here!She choked it down, hearing instead the merits and shortcomings of the gym teacher. And more, that Pete had met the gym teacher at a parents’ meeting and Sally thought he fancied her.
‘Surely not,’ she exclaimed, marvelling at the powers of deception. Its wide, sticky web.
She had four children for the lift home. Sally had said Melissa and Luke could come to play with Elspeth and Dean. They were hot and rumpled, sweaters tied round their waists, Elspeth holding her fringe up off her forehead with her face to the open window. ‘You didn't empty the pool did you Mum?’
She reassured them she hadn't. Or the hall cupboard. From the three flopped in the rear seat there came a unanimous ‘Yea!’
It was the biggest paddling pool for miles. When she'd unloaded the satchels and gym bags, sheafs of paintings and project folders, poured four drinks and opened a packet of biscuits, she took up her page 138 place in a deckchair on the lawn to watch them play. All their energy was revived by the pool water. She gave them a sieve to lift out the day's insects and leaves. They shrieked and flicked, darting and leaping. ‘It's only a ladybird. Mum, it's a ladybird, it's still alive!’
‘There's a wasp, Mum!’
She took control of the wasp, its black antennae still wavering even as her heel came down on it.
‘Can we take our clothes off?’ Pulled off dresses and vests. ‘Can Melissa wear my spare togs, Mum?’ Rubbed presented tummies with sunblock, sorted clothes and shoes into four little piles. ‘Luke's throwing his biscuit in the pool!’
‘It's a boat!’ Got down on his knees and gobbled it out of the water, to the delight of the others.
‘Luke's a duck!’
‘Can I have another biscuit?’
‘To feed the duck!’
‘I want to be a duck!’
‘Not all the biscuits please, Elspeth.’
Beyond the garden the field of ripe grain seemed to smoke in the slanting afternoon sun; the light came filtered through its golden haze, paling the hot flowers that turned their heads towards it, seeds ripening in their hidden capsules. The children were showered in arcs of droplets. ‘Can we turn the hose on Mum?’ They danced to the water's thrilling tune.
Marion and Sally arrived within moments of each other. Marion had a big paper carrier bag. ‘Reduced twenty-five percent,’ she said, holding crinkle cotton up against herself. ‘Isn't it fab? So I had to get the sandals to go with it.’
But Sally had been to the hairdresser. ‘Oh god, Sally, you've cut it. Turn around.’
It was one of those bobs with a neat V at the nape, tapering in fine pointed wisps toward her cheeks. She blushed. ‘It's shorter than I intended,’ she said. ‘The hairdresser talked me into it.’
‘Can I touch it Mummy?’ asked Luke, stretching up a wet, goosebumped arm, and she bent down for him. A sudden cold breeze page 139 snaked through the garden. The sun had slipped into a white haze.
‘Clothes on, all of you.’ She handed out towels. They bent to pull underpants up damp legs, dry hair, drag socks onto wet, grassy feet. Then the goodbyes and thankyous.
The sun had set when she came to gather up the scattered toys and wet towels. A host of tiny midges hovered above the pool and there was a shivering rustle in the field of grain. The air was in motion; she could scent the frail drift of approaching rain from the west where long clouds feathered a dark wing. Even as it rose the earth's gathered warmth was being carried softly away on a silent stream. She fetched bourbon and a sweater, positioned the deckchair and waited. Like the earth, she breathed out, the tall hedge at the end of the garden began to whisper, the day's flowers faded but the sulphurous saucers of the evening primrose tilted skyward. Without looking at her watch she knew that the time he went to the squash club in town had come and gone. She knew she could never expect him, and it that it was she herself who carried the blade and the stone and the screw for him, wrapped each in silk, the weapons of love. There was no mercy in it and the end was not in sight. The moon slipped up through the trees, on the wane but bulging with portent, pressed out of shape like a bladder of nacreous oil and throbbing with cold white light. She imagined her highwire stretched out as far as that, across the staggering depths of night, a bending shiver of light that she must follow and follow. Alone, without falling, without leaping.
When the automatic security light came on she watched the moths wind themselves up around its bulb, her fingers drawn into the sleeves of her sweater, her arms across her chest. Soon the dark flood of cloud from the west had spread across half the sky. Tomorrow she would empty the pool.