Sport 43: 2015
Anna Taylor — Still Here
At that time of the year, the lake’s surface—which during spring was always ruffled by the wind—only wrinkled and parted when a boat broke through it, trailing its wake like a tail. John watched through the window of the bach. Early winter. There wasn’t really much to see.
The television reception was poor, the image broken up by multi-coloured drizzle. Sometimes this was accompanied by an almost inaudible high frequency—a kind of a hiss. John had tried fiddling with the aerials, placing objects with varying degrees of heaviness on the box, standing right in front of it, then far away. Nothing made much difference, and after a while he grew tired of it—this quest to make things right—and allowed the image to do what it wanted, trapped in an eternal rainy day.
This was when he began to take note of the window: what was outside it. His mother would say he was losing his mind.
The lake was familiar to him, but not from this angle exactly. He had come here in the months leading up to summer, for years. There was something charming about the families of trout fishers—many of them looking like schools of fish themselves (large protruding-eyed parents, sleek offspring)—who occupied the marina, and the corner store on Hill Street; the chorus of car-drawn boats creaking and clacking down the road. There was blossom too at that time of the year, of course. The footpath strewn with bits of it, turning brown.page 78
Valerie hated spring—the breeze rising to a gale most days. That’s why they used to come up here often, to the lake, where it was blustery at times but not to the same extent, not every day.
She used to walk down by the water at dawn. There was a large window in the bathroom, and he would time things so he was just hopping into the shower when she left. The sound of the front door clicking shut and then, moments later, the bobbing of the red hood of her windbreaker (she could have been a child from that angle, so slight, hands pocketed, head down) moving off across the front lawn. He would watch her while he waited for the water to go from tepid to hot, standing by the toilet bowl naked, skin prickling from the cold, waiting for the moment when she flicked the letterbox open with one hand—even though no one knew an address to send mail to there, no one would have even if they had—and let it bang shut again. By then the room would have filled with steam, and the picture out the window—where seconds before Valerie had been—became muted and blurry, was completely rubbed out, leaving nothing but the faint lines of the windowpane, and inside it a haze of white.
The agent had shown John a few options—baches for rent—but the one he and Valerie had always stayed at was unavailable; had been sold to a family who were living there year round.
‘How long do you need it for?’ the woman had asked him, her eyes fixed to the folder on her desk, fingers flicking rapidly through the pages. She wore a Holiday Rentals! stripy shirt and matching sweater, her name badge—Dawn—in complementary gold. No wedding ring, but a collection of diamonds and sapphires (or perhaps just coloured glass) armouring her right hand. She hadn’t even looked at John as though he was remotely bedable as he walked through the tinkling door.
‘There are some one-room units—kind of motel-style—available for long-term stays.’ She flicked her eyes towards him then. ‘You need more than one room?’
A sort of golden twilight was seeping through the large window, almost cancelling out the sickly wash of fluorescents. They could have been underwater—the room like a swimming pool, bluish-green, the shaft of weak light breaking through itspage 79 surface, all of John’s movements feeling exaggerated, the woman’s voice only reaching him through the river in his ears. The vague unpleasantness of this sensation didn’t stop him from imagining her body slicked with sweat—slippery, like a fish, perhaps—make-up smudged, little beads of heat around her hairline.
‘I’m after something old-style,’ he said, trying to smile a jaunty, bohemian smile. ‘You know, classic run-down old bach—that kind of thing.’
She glanced at him, briefly, over the tops of her plastic-framed glasses. Her expression—what was it? Harried.
The dawning of the day.
‘I can come back another time,’ he said. ‘If you want to shut up shop.’
She shook her head, the corner of her mouth lifting, opening, a flash of gums and teeth. A smile? Surely not.
He moved towards her a little, elbow resting on the tabletop between them.
John’s mother always phoned at the wrong time. If they didn’t answer she called again—straight away. Her words were always perfectly enunciated, but there was a quaver of uncertainty beneath her breathily punctuated sentences.
‘Oh—you are there,’ she would say when Valerie finally picked up the phone, as if, despite ringing straight back, she hadn’t assumed that they were. She would stall for a moment, after saying it. Was there a hint of humiliation in her voice? Valerie worked hard not to be snarky.
‘No—we’re out!’ she could have said. ‘That’s why we didn’t answer the phone.’
Instead she’d say ‘Yip’ or ‘Sure are!’ with the least irritable voice she could muster. The phone calls were usually in the mornings. Often John’s mother got them out of bed.
‘Not interrupting, am I?’ she said once, as if she could tell bypage 80 the croak of Valerie’s voice that she’d called the moment her son had begun to peel Valerie’s bedshirt off with his teeth. Sometimes he’d continue to do something inappropriate—bat at her nipple with his thumb, or take a casual swipe at her inner thigh with his tongue—while she was trying to hold down the conversation. The collision of those worlds—despite what John seemed to want to think—was not altogether welcome.
He was in his early forties, his mother recently retired, and Valerie, only 25, sometimes had the curious sensation of falling backwards; backwards, into her life. She and John had got married on the quiet. They had a cat—called Molly. Sometimes, lying in the kitchen sink, was a fork, bleeding cat-mince. Sometimes it was accompanied by a death trail—little blobs of the stuff—all along the wooden bench. Perhaps Molly had learnt to extract the stuff from the fridge, from the can. That might explain the somewhat unhygienic approach. Valerie had never liked cats much.
John was the senior geologist at the institute where Valerie had worked as a part-time assitant in her last year at university. That was back in the days when she wore bronze African hoop earrings and wooden clogs, and trailed fabric behind her—long scarves, cardigans round her neck, a coat—perpetually under one arm—which had ties that dragged on the ground—with exaggerated ease. Sometimes she’d applied black kohl to her eyelids on Tuesdays and Fridays, and so tenuous was her grasp of what was driving her that she didn’t even make the connection between those days, and him.
His hair was greying—somewhat haphazardly—but he had a youthful swagger to his walk, wore a corduroy blazer with the collar often turned up. His teeth had a polished look, almost like they’d been varnished, and when he smiled at her, suddenly, as he often did, she was always startled by him—by him, the smile, those teeth.
When he returned a field report she’d worked on with a note—in different coloured pen—scrawled below the suggested changes: Are you the one in the red clogs, whose wood weighted footstepspage 81 I listen for outside my office (no question mark, Valerie noticed), she stood at the kitchen bench shaking her head, making a queasy sound in her throat, feeling sicker, she realised, than she would if those words—wood weighted—didn’t drag her down with them, into—what?—the faint smokiness of the air coming off him just last week, as he’d stepped back and then reached forward, holding the door for her so she could walk through ahead of him, her steps making an arc as she moved past his body, keeping her distance to disguise the fact that she wanted to brush against the taut-drum skin of his hand, the worn fibres of his corduroy coat.
She waited three weeks before she did anything—avoided looking at him, avoided the sudden sheen of his smile, told no one about what he’d written. She stopped wearing clogs. Eye make-up too. She wore old teeshirts and button-up shirts to the institute, sat outside for lunch. When she finally knocked on his office door she had talked herself into believing—what was it?—that she needed to tell him she was taking a day or two off, something like that. She had jandals on; a smock dress shaped like a tent. As she slipped through the partially open door his face was angled towards the sun glow of the window and when he turned his eyes and saw her there, there it was—that smile, the rest of his face wiped clean by it.
‘Valerie—is it?’ Not even a hint of sleaziness. The casual sweep of his arm: indicating for her to sit down in the chair.
Wind blew in and out again up at the lake. Not like at home, where it blew in, and then around and around. Most days there was nothing but a wettish, weighed down inertia. The stillness in the air was like being just under the surface of the earth—the dank quiet of it, a heaviness pressing down from above. John listened out for sounds of life around him. Anything.
The wheeze of secateurs—rust on rust—behind the neighbour’s fence. A weedeater’s blade colliding with sticks. The smooth hum of an electric lawnmower. A woman’s voice—there!—calling outpage 82 to a child (raincoat, gumboots) on the footpath across the road. Drizzle falling soundlessly. No, perhaps a trick of the eyes: the drops just suspended on a current of air, flickering back and forth, never touching the ground.
It evoked wonder and terror all at once, the keen interest he was taking in the minutiae happening all around him. The swoosh of wet tyres against the wet road, a red car going by, and then passing back again half an hour later. A blurred figure—Valerie?—headed for the path to the lake. The aching relief of it. Of company—if it could even be called that. Yes.
The signs and sounds of life.
He pocketed coins and walked the 25 minutes to the public phone on Hill St, smiling at everyone he saw.
The far-off familiarity of his mother’s voice—‘Alison Hazard?’—picking up after only two rings, her phone manner peculiar, the stating of her name sounding more like a question. Was she looking for herself? ‘Hello?’
‘It’s John.’ A boat the size of an insect glided to a stop on the lake’s surface. Above the water, the echo of sky: the tone and quality of the two exactly alike.
There was a shuffling on the other end of the line, such as the sound a nocturnal animal might make, moving through dry leaves.
‘Dad—It’s John. John’s on the phone here.’ There was no audible response from his father—not that a response of any kind would be expected. His father—who his mother had always called Dad (though hopefully—surely—not before John had been born).
‘Dad!’ Louder this time. ‘It’s John. He’s here on the line!’
John leant against the wooden frame of the phone box. Fed another coin in. Heard the faint—the familiar—sound of the radio in his parents’ kitchen. Imagined the last of the light trying—as it had been the last time he was there—to angle in through the large aluminium windows, but the blinds down; the fluorescents on instead. His father’s wishes.page 83
‘Dad’s not the best today,’ his mother said. ‘How’s things up there? Having a nice time?’ The brightness of her voice. ‘Keeping busy?’
Valerie. Leaning down to swipe something off the floor in one fluid movement, her foot lifting off the ground as she scooped it up—a cup, a bowl, something with a handle or without—balanced momentarily (leg up, head down) an incongruous sight, like a crane. The lightness of her—was lightness the right word? Light-footed, and oddly easy, penetrable—like something you could put your hand right through. Like air.
And then her voice when the police came. The way it dropped an octave lower, grew steady and certain. The solidity of it, compared to everything about her he’d ever known.
Sitting in his office in her jandals and smock, Valerie had suddenly felt appallingly young, like she’d shrunk, in her uneasiness, to a child the size of John’s thumb. What kind of man was called Dr Hazard, anyway? The name was hardly a shining endorsement.
He had field logs and rock samples stacked, chaotically, on the shelving, on his desk, on the floor.
‘Valerie—is it?’ As if he didn’t know. The seriousness of his expression, then that flash of teeth.
She felt light-headed; bits of her floating away.
He shifted in his chair, leant forward so his elbows rested on his knees, knuckles supporting his chin.
‘What can I do for you,’ he said, but not like it was a question. When he spoke his face carried a graveness—that was its resting expression, in fact—and the smile even seemed to surprise him, all of his features transformed by it.
She stumbled out an excuse, the need for a few days leave, the date of her return.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Yes, absolutely—of course.’page 84
Outside, in the afternoon white, everything looked washed out, the quality of the light turning the road and concrete high-rises pale. Perhaps it was just her vision, the glare affecting her sight. The sun did seem to slant down on everything, even making the stone steps in the distance seem more like partly transparent particles, just floating there.
‘Your loveliness,’ he had said, as she stepped into the corridor. ‘It shines out of you..
She hadn’t known whether to keep going, or turn back.
Weeks later, after she’d ridden the elevator to the level of his office, wound her way down the sick-lit corridors and knocked cautiously on his door—he brushed the side of her leg with his thumb, moved his head close to her face.
‘Well, hel-lo,’ he said. And that is when she opened her lips to his teeth, felt his smile, taut, against the uncertainty of her own mouth.
I know how to do this, is what Valerie had to tell herself often during the early days of their relationship. She swung between feeling shy, and almost too plucky, like a precocious child. John was recently divorced, lived in a villa with antique oak cabinets and bookshelves, exotic looking throws over the couches. It all reeked of a wife, and the chasm her leaving had opened up. The house was charming, but sunless—the hallway and living room needing lights on, even in the middle of the day. Valerie was living in a flat with three other girls, all students. It was on a hill, had windows that opened up onto a flat roof, where they sunbathed topless in the late afternoons. She lived two separate lives for a while, moving back and forth between the houses, never allowing the two worlds to mix or collide, though it wasn’t that she was ashamed of any of them—of John, or her friends—just that she wanted to keep everything in its compartment, for manageability’s sake, or something. At home she cooked confidently, but when she was with John she found herself at a loss—unsure of how topage 85 chop an onion correctly (into segments, rings or diced?), how to go about slicing potatoes, the most appropriate way to cook eggs for breakfast. She cultivated an appearance of other-worldliness to draw attention away from her own inadequacies.
‘How do you like your carrots,’ she’d say, languidly angling her body over the bench, as if she was simply unbothered; didn’t care enough to decide.
The store on Hill St was lined with wooden beams, its angular height—those steep eaves—making it feel like a cathedral. Photos of ruddy-faced men holding grossly oversized dead fish were scattered across the only wall that wasn’t windows, and fishing paraphernalia—hooks, novelty tea towels, caps adorned with a cartoonish rainbow trout wearing a deranged human grin—were above and all around them. The man behind the counter wore one of these caps, a whistle on a tie round his neck, a worn parker with the sleeves rolled up. He did the afternoon shift, six days a week. It was his store, John supposed.
The prices were absurd, all on little yellow stickers, hand-written. Often a 5 looked like a doctored 3, a 9 like it used to be 7. The excuse, presumably, was that the price of food was constantly going up, and why waste stickers when there were the powerful lines of a black ink pen? This would be his father’s thinking too, though often his penchant for rationing was random, illogical—his slippers worn right through to the socks, socks through to the ball of his foot, but in the heat of the afternoon he preferred the blinds to be down, the lights and heater on, colouring everything with a weak, eerie wash. Valerie was like that, too—always turning the hallway lights on in the middle of the day. That was because the house was lightless (according to her), the hallway like moving through a tunnel underground (her, again). One winter she’d got chilblains on her—otherwise impeccable—feet. She’d bathed them in the living room: warm water in a kitchen mixing bowl, one foot at a time.page 86
There was a sudden scatter of sound, and John, studying a can of spaghetti, found himself in the midst of a moving throng of rubber-clad children, their gumboots slapping and squeaking against the linoleum. There was a whole tribe of them, no adult in sight, and they moved between and around him fluidly, like he was something permanent in a riverbed, a rock or lodged log. The store manager had tilted his hat back, closed the pages of the local gazette, and was watching all of them now—a whole shopful of customers—in a detached, weary way. He rolled one parka sleeve down, and then up again more tidily. John had an assortment of cans, milk, coffee, sugar. He clattered them onto the counter.
‘You staying round here?’ The man had asked the same question three days before. He punched the prices into the till, one eye still on the kids, who were counting their coins, snatching at each other.
‘Lake Road. A bach there.’
‘Yes.’ One of the children pushed past him—headed for the lolly counter—knocking against his back. ‘Another week or so. Something like that.’
‘Not so sure about that, eh?’ he smiled at him conspiratorially.
‘My wife may join me at some point.’ John looped his fingers through the handles of the plastic bag, smiled decisively, turned to go.
‘Motor camp next door here might have done you a better deal. Not that I’m biased or anything.’ Did he own that too? John kept moving towards the door, tried to keep smiling in a friendly but not encouraging way.
‘Lots of new people coming through the motor camp,’ the store manager continued. Sat himself back down heavily. Ignored the children, now queuing up in front of him. ‘You keen to meet new people?’
Outside it had begun to drizzle again—lightly, like a mist. John had placed his watch in the car’s glovebox the day he arrived here, but the smell of cooking wafting around the footpath seemed likepage 87 a good indication of the time. Back at the bach, the small single-bed side room contained a suitcase with field logs, reports, graphs. He was to complete an updated report on subsidence—something of an unfortunate metaphor for his life right now, Valerie had casually pointed out to him, in a voice that sounded like kindness but clearly wasn’t—but of course here, surrounded by all the quiet, all John could do was line the papers up on the kitchen table in the morning, only to shuffle them back into their own room at the end of every day.
The tiredness was astonishing.
This time last year he and Valerie had stayed five days (two too many) with his parents. His father had had surgery—again—and the house smelled like a hospital. It was ironic, because his mother constantly expressed her unwavering disdain of hospitals and doctors, and yet here she was, running her own little hospital at home. She used disinfectants everywhere—sometimes quickly soaking her hands in a bucket of the stuff, before seeing to his father’s wound.
‘That tinea that I always had on my hands?’ she said to him one evening, busily wiping down the benches. She lifted them up in front of her body, for effect. ‘Gone.’
John was watching the edge of the television screen, Valerie curled in front of it, her head resting on the back of the settee.
She ignored that; went back to her wiping.
‘It’s the bleach we’re using,’ she said. ‘Killed it..
She had such an emphatic way about her, such a head for drama. And she bewildered him with her sudden intimacies. Most of the time she avoided personal declarations, her voice going suddenly high, an alarm-like trill, when anybody moved towards some kind of revealing statement.
He had never known about the tinea; she was confusing him with his father.
‘Do you think we might lose him, John?’ He was alarmed bypage 88 the statement, and when he turned to face her fully, the sight of her sent a ripple of anxiety through his chest. Under the garish kitchen lights, she looked suddenly unkempt—the brassy blond of her hairdo uneven on one side, the seep of her real skin-tone (baggy eyes, blue rings) blossoming under her make-up, like an algae just under the surface of water. Her neck was blotchy, raw looking.
He was five years old—his mother crying, bewilderingly, at the school gate.
‘How could I stand it,’ she said, ‘living in this big house all alone.’ But then she disappeared into the pantry, with her cleaning spray and cloth, occasionally throwing an unwanted item—a water-stained box of baking soda, dented can of beans, the last two crackers (broken) in a pack—out the doorway, into a pile on the kitchen floor.
Lying in bed that night, he had felt for Valerie’s sleeping toes with his own foot, held their iciness between his heels. He had tried to explain the feeling to her—his mother metamorphosing into someone else, all her brightness and all-rightness abandoning her. Valerie didn’t seem to have understood.
‘It’s good she’s being more normal,’ she had said. ‘Ordinary people aren’t always perky, you know.’
Her voice was pulling away from him—that sleepy murmur.
How could he explain how he’d had a flash of taking his own mother in his arms, dropping to the floor with her, peeling away her clothes, her talcum powder smell, satin layers, the mustiness of sweat underneath; all that elastic and flesh-coloured lace. The relief of taking her suddenly vulnerable skin in his mouth. That seemingly impenetrable shell of hers. His mother. Her eyes cloudy with confusion, but looking at him like he was the only one who could save her.
At first Valerie had been charmed by John’s parents—by their quaintness. She loved the father: all his bemused, benign extrapolations. He was all knitted vests and shorts with knee-high cream socks; often wore an expression of weary resignation on his face. He thought Valerie too young—they both did, surely—but treated her with an unwavering but distant kindness.
As he grew ill, he appeared more and more like a man dropped from a great height—astounded by the good fortune of still being alive, but bewildered by that, by where he had landed. John, of course, saw him differently. The occasional whack to the back of the head as a child for doing something wrong, his father’s stubborn refusal to hear basic common sense. That and the dumb-founding adoration: his father’s love fired in John’s direction, often quite randomly, quite out of the blue. It was this, Valerie imagined, that he felt towards John all the time, but he would not have thought it right, as a father, to display such emotion openly.
Alison was the tricky one of the two—not in John’s eyes, but in Valerie’s mind, the trickiest of tricky customers. The colour of her earrings always matched one item of her clothing—a neck scarf, or belt—with such impressive consistency that Valerie imagined her wardrobe lined up with pairs, all the subtly matching outfits grouped together. She was often offensively cheery, exhaustingly so. Valerie’s voice would go hoarse, trying to keep up with her bright intonations.
By comparison, Valerie’s own parents seemed painfully ordinary. They’d had her late, were not much younger than John’s parents themselves. But they were quiet, softly spoken, went about their lives with the primary aim of moving without causing a ripple. They were listeners rather than talkers, and would receive any information with the same straight-backed poise, no matter the subject. This is how they’d responded to the news of John and Valerie’s week-old marriage—elopement, they’d called it—both of her parents sitting side by side on the cane couch, hands pressed against their knees.
‘Is it money you need?’ her father had said, after a contained silence.page 90
John’s parents hadn’t been quite so gracious.
‘Married?’ His mother had said. ‘What on earth do you mean?’
Marriages, surely, didn’t follow divorces so seamlessly.
‘How terrible for you,’ she’d said to Valerie, later, when they were alone. ‘No woman should have to endure that, being shuffled away into a back room.’
Valerie was confounded by that: by Alison campaigning for her, fighting for a cause that had never even occurred to her. She’d been seized by a sudden tremor of affection for the woman, who, in their now official relationship, was forming an alliance with her. Over time, though, it proved inconsistent—one moment they’d be on the same team, the next, it would be John who was being failed, by none other than his wife. A fatty breakfast (eggs and bacon?), mismatched socks, a weary look round his eyes. In these moments Valerie would find herself standing back and watching them—the two of them—that unbreakable bond. Once they’d shared the same bloodstream, of course, the same food; both inhabited just the one body. It shouldn’t have been surprising that sometimes they seemed to move around the world like one unit, even when they were apart.
John made pancakes at the bach every morning, slapping a slab of butter, sugar, and lemon juice on them as soon as they were out of the pan. Sometimes he ate the leftovers (rubbery, flaccid) for lunch, dinner as well on a bad day. Once he really got going, he could make towers of the things—some thick, American style, others more feminine and crepe-like; their delicate lacy edges.
Often he wondered what it would be like to return to work, to his office, which now held a peculiar place in his mind, warping like a familiar space in a dream. It was as though that room was surrounded by gaping holes (careful, don’t trip)—a staircase, the elevator moving up and down through a dark vacuum of space, his office, suddenly impossibly small, reports stacked from carpet to ceiling tiles—all the other offices around his in a black-out; just that one light shining.
Of course, he would be going back there, but at the moment that possibility seemed daft, impossible to imagine.
Best not go there—that’s what he told himself when those thoughts arose. Best not go there—his mother’s words.
As a child he’d spent his whole life, it seemed, waiting for his father to come home. Who knows why he’d wanted him there so much—but there was something comforting about the feeling of that thin-haired but fully grown man walking through the door each evening; the sense that he had occupied a different world from them all day, and now was theirs again. It was nothing to do with his father—no, not at all. Perhaps it was just astonishment at the seeming predictability of life—that John could wait so eagerly for his father’s return, and then he would appear, just as John had hoped he would. At that age, even his father’s infrequent but alarming temper, that habitual aloofness, didn’t bother him. It was the feeling of there being someone in his life who left the house each morning, but returned, without fail, each night.
Of course he felt a weight of responsibility for his mother. She was unwaveringly cheery, but he had seen her sprawled once on the floor of her bedroom, pressing her discarded nightie to her eyes, and hiccupping tears—a sight not unlike his baby cousin, he’d thought (with horror) at the time.
After that she would seem to take too long in the bathroom, or, if she lay down with her palms pressed against her eye sockets, John would feel the whir of anxiety click into action in his chest. She thought him too young to notice such small collapses, he realised later, but of course he was not, and he watched out for them—seemingly insignificant signs (the lock turning, alarmingly, in the bathroom door, his mother inside there, key in hand)—and then monitored any possible emotional deterioration for the rest of the day. Every now and then, early in the mornings, her breath was thick, cloudy, a smell with body to it, not unlike the disinfectantpage 92 she rubbed on grazes on his knees. She was so large, it seemed to him at the time, so shiny, her voice so bright and loud.
John’s mother kept calling, even though she knew he wasn’t there.
‘He’s not back yet?’ she’d say, when Valerie answered the phone. And then there’d be the usual list of questions—what was he actually doing whilst on leave, did his boss mind that it was taking longer than expected, would he get it finished, did she think? Perhaps she believed Valerie’s answers would change over time, and so she kept asking, waiting for the moment when she would say no, no to all of them. I don’t believe John is doing anything there at all, she could say to her mother-in-law, and then listen for the small quake in Alison’s receiver-holding hand. Someone had told her once about l’esprit d’escalier, the perfect retort, always thought of too late. The wit of the staircase. Thinking that, she felt the rush of unease flush through her body, her head making a buzzing sound, like a plane preparing for take-off. She felt the synapses in her brain always making that unavoidable connection, firing out those limb flooding signals. Staircase had become a word she tried to avoid. It was ridiculous, the sorts of things that set her off these days.
After John had left for the lake, she had found herself doing peculiar things—emptying cabinet drawers onto the floorboards, just for the sake of it, taking all of his clothes out of the wardrobe and then putting them back in again. She didn’t have the feeling that she was looking for anything when she did it, just that there needed to be some form of emptying out in her life, and tipping things on the floor made her feel like this was what was happening. Things would go out, and then back in again—even old rubber bands, bits of unnecessary note-paper, items ripe for the bin would find their way back into the same cupboard slot or cabinet corner.
The house was just so big, dark. Quiet.page 93
She told people, but only when they asked.
‘There was an accident,’ she’d say, ‘at the institute. Which John was questioned about.’ She would busy herself with whatever was close by. ‘It was a technician of his. That’s why they questioned him. It happened to all her seniors.’
Friends, colleagues and acquaintances willingly slid over the surface of it with her. They were skating, all of them together on ice, moving so fluidly and fast—nothing wrong, nothing wrong. No one seemed to even notice what she had said.
Of course she never used the girl’s name, which had been in the paper. She might have even forgotten it, for all they knew. These small hiccups in people’s lives—just that: a trapped pocket of air, the gasp for breath, and then life adjusting itself, as if none of it had ever happened.
She did die, the girl. Although for a while it looked like she would live. Fluid on the brain; an infection in the tissue. Only one sentence. But that was it—enough to kill her.
In the mornings even a grey sky created a glare in the front room of the bach, but by afternoon a black water chill settled across everything—the brown-and-beige patterned carpet, the wool of the couch (with its almost human smell: old skin, oily hair) seeming wet with cold. It was the lake, trying to get in.
John spent hours stooped in front of the bar heater, arms out in front of him, palms flat, fingers spread wide. The singed dust on the coiled orange elements made the air smell sharp, acrid, as if something in there were being burnt alive.
He noticed things: a sparrow, hopping its way across the white beam of the deck, its little head tilting towards the window. Drops of water on its back, over its folded-in wings.
A silverfish scaling the wall and then suddenly flipping onto the carpet, landing upside down, its legs pawing the air, tail flailing.
He needed to get out.page 94
The air out there was warmer than he expected, warmer than inside. He took off his jacket, draped it round his neck.
Three doors down, the woman that he’d seen a few times now—fuchsia pink gardening gloves, gold discs adorning her earlobes—was out on her front lawn, carrying a bundle of weeds like you would a child. She was unlike his mother in every way—small and neat looking, her creamy hair twisted into a loose bun—but still he had to stop himself from walking right up to her.
She bent down, plucked a dropped stem off the grass, smiled at him, vaguely, as she rounded the corner.
He thought about Valerie constantly; crazy, considering there was nothing new about her. They’d been married five years and at some point she had begun to lose dimension to him, as if he were living with a piece of paper. When she’d leant down to retrieve something from the floor, he’d studied her closely, wondering why the small of her back opening out to that kind of puppy curve didn’t spark the stirring of an erection; didn’t make him want to roll back the lace trim of her knickers, fumble his way inside the somehow always surprising heat of her otherwise cool-skinned body. Desire for her had seemed to be spilling out behind him, like a tail. He only wanted her if she seemed newly packaged—a pair of red pyjama pants that he’d never seen before, a sprinkling of tiny holes forming a pattern across their surface; a beret, coat, gumboot combination on a freezing morning, forming a kind of wall of layers, the bowl-curve of her pubic bone buried in wool, so hard to reach. She had laughed at him that time, lumbering towards her like a Neanderthal, just as she was about to step out the door. She had seemed distracted, vaguely amused, by all the unbelting and unzipping; couldn’t concentrate. But he’d got her in the end—the skin at the base of her throat sucking in, the tiny tilt of her pelvis sending a current up her spine.
Then, one morning, tipping the grey water from the porridge pot, she’d said it: I want a baby. As if it was the most ordinary statement in the world.page 95
The classroom had that wet smell, a disorder of abandoned gumboots and shoes on the porch, damp socks on the feet of the children, the small blocks of their bodies sitting perfectly erect at their desks. They were always pleased with themselves, waiting for her like this at 9 o’clock when she came across the asphalt from the staffroom, appeared, like a small time celebrity, in the arch of the doorway.
Valerie smiled at them.
‘Well good morning,’ she said. ‘And look at you all.’
A ripple passed across their faces: happiness.
After a black-skied downpour the weather was clearing, momentary shafts of light flashing across the desks. The gingko tree out the window had lost almost all of its butter yellow leaves. They were everywhere, pressed golden hearts on the grey of the classroom’s carpet.
Valerie moved towards the blackboard, feeling the drag of a broken sleep on her limbs, a hot sensation at the base of her skull. But all those faces, shining up at her.
‘Let’s get this day started,’ she said.
Jude, the school’s secretary, had paused in front of her that morning.
‘You all right?’ she had said.
She felt the world watching, though this was possibly just paranoia. But people had looked at her oddly for years. Valerie. The young—the too young—wife of such a highly regarded scientist. How old is she? They’d ask each other that, for sure. How old? How young. She saw the flicker of it in their eyes. Sympathy? Not quite that.
In the early days, dinner parties were bewildering—all John’s friends with schoolage children, some of them adolescents. Valerie feeling like some overgrown child herself. John held her knee under the table, slotted his thumb against the sinew at the back of her thigh.page 96
It was a joke—the last of the children tucked in for the night, and John would say: It’s probably time to get you to bed too, V. Everyone laughing, though the women with perhaps less conviction than the men. Valerie trying to joke back, her throat seizing.
Over time they had socialised less and less. They stayed home, watched television from the pillow-laden bed. Sometimes they fell asleep with it on and Valerie would wake, hours later, to the room lit like a stage—no, like an operating theatre. Something like that.
Valerie took the children out onto the field half an hour before the afternoon bell. The fallen leaves and flattened grass were still slightly wet, patches of mud erupting through the muted trampled-on green. The children dispersed, their winter jackets flapping.
Let them run it off, Valerie thought.
They were supposedly out there for a game (rules, winners, losers, structure), but there was all that energy, streaming out of them.
She held the whistle between her fingertips; just watched.
She’d felt it for a week or so: that the light in her had been snuffed out. She’d caught it in her eyes, when she’d been brushing her teeth in front of the bathroom cabinet’s mirror—patches of rust blossoming all over the mirrored surface so that it was like looking into water covered with tiny autumn leaves—and it had made her pause, the vigorous brushing of her hand slowing, then stopping altogether. They were flat in the way eyes in a poorly drawn picture were flat.
She’d spat into the basin, noticed how the toothpaste foam was pink from a tiny cut on her gum.
John would have said, ‘Where’s your spark gone, girl?’ He would have reached out to her with his always-dry hands.
A dream. A house—four walls—and then no house at all. Nothing but a wind, thin and sour-seeming, skimming across clay-colouredpage 97 rock. Nothing seemed familiar; he had never been here before. Then he saw it, a figure—a woman—standing right on the edge of his field of vision. Was it Valerie? She wore a miniskirt, canvas shoes, the stoop of her shoulders—since it was only her back he could see—revealing that she was favouring one side, as if she was hurt. He knew he must walk towards her, but everything in his body felt resistance to it, his feet dragging and grinding like wheels that had lost their tread, their spokes.
Something you should know—she said, and in that instant he realised who it was, the light suddenly dim, that fluorescent flicker. Was this a script? He went for her arm, but she shrugged him off, almost casually at first. He went for it again, then her shoulder. Got her neck; the cords of her throat against his fingertips. It was then that she became water, spilling over the edge of the rock. He could not catch her and when he tried her body slid away from him, scattering in tiny droplets all over the place.
John woke on his stomach, head arched up like he was swimming in a river. Only a dream. Just that.
Valerie arrived home from work in the dark, turned all the lights on. She stood in the bathroom, both hands under the basin’s hot tap, and listened to the song of the water as it fell through her fingers onto porcelain, curled its way out of sight. After she’d flushed it, the toilet cistern hissed for half an hour. Was that normal? She had lived in this house for so many years, but, in it alone, she felt that it contained all the qualities of a living body.
The sky out the kitchen window, washed by a street lamp, was the colour of weak coffee, of earth.
The flashes were like something from a B-grade movie. They came to her unbidden, and with the memories all the muscles in her pelvis—like she was wired up, something electrical—shimmering with a tiny, involuntary spasm. She filed through them, rapidly, or paused, scanning the images, looking for a sign in amongst all thepage 98 rest of it. The cold of the kitchen’s linoleum against her feet and John, jeans around his ankles, sliding three then all four fingers into her, pressing lightly on her windpipe with the side of his other hand. The nervous leap of her epiglottis, firm of his thumb. That time at the lake, when he’d pulled so hard on her camisole it tore, a kind of scraping sound as the lace broke apart. And this one: John, just back from work, fully clothed, boots on, saying ‘Dare me’ and pressing into the shower with her. All that steam, and the sudden bulk of him filling up the slipperiness of that tiny space. His torso knocking her body off centre: the clunk of her cheekbone, colliding with the hard heat of the tiles.
The weather warmed a little, and John began to spend the mornings down on the shore. It made him think of Valerie, her morning walks. The water lapping against the short pier, the pale, crushed shell sand. The boats, which left just on dawn, would return, skimming across the lake towards him, then slowing to a chug. They must have wondered about him, those holidaying fishing families. A middle-aged man, always alone. His clothes unkempt, slightly grubby.
Some mornings he helped with the mooring, helped children in enormous orange lifejackets climb ashore, admired the buckets of slick heaving trout, their scales catching the light, flickering colour. Once he’d returned home with one gifted to him for his lunch. Mostly he just watched from a distance, or helped out and then disappeared, moving rapidly like he had somewhere he needed to be. It was the shame that made him do that—glance at his wrist where his watch used to be, and then bolt towards the path up to the bach, keys jingling in his pocket. He was turning into a ridiculous man. Who on earth was he trying to kid?
Often he thought he saw Valerie—always a red jacket: Little Red Riding Hood. Once it had actually been a child, and when she’d turned her head before crossing the road and he’d caught sight of a soft, unformed face he’d been shocked by that—for his longingpage 99 for that little person to be his wife. As if in mistaking her (willing her, really) to be Valerie, he’d already started to pull the jacket from her shoulders, finger his way under her drab child’s clothes. It was not his fault that Valerie was small like that—delicate like a child—though perfectly adult as well, her breasts filling the palm of his hand, nipples dark as plums.
The holidays ended and the town emptied out. John watched the convoys of cars and boats stream down the main road—some vehicles packed almost to the roof with pillows and duvets and children’s water toys. All of a sudden there were just the permanent residents (most of them white-haired, retired, but alarmingly spritely), the motor camp guests, and him. At night most of the houses and baches were in darkness, just a few of them still lit up. Lanterns suspended in the black.
He began to read again, though only in pocket-sized bursts. A bit of Le Carré for light relief. He often fell asleep after a page or two, or had to reread sections to get them to stick. It was like trying to read in another language—the halting feeling as he made his way through each sentence. And lying on the little day bed in the light of the main window was like a tranquiliser. The exhaustion. Its steady pull.
The small mirror over the bathroom sink made him look like Klaus Kinski—not quite Nosferatu, but close. His hair had got too long and was receding at the front—a look that gave the illusion of the carpet of it sliding away from his forehead and down his neck, slowly but surely, like a caterpillar. What he was losing in the front was being gained in neck coverage—his hair nearly lapping at his shoulderblades. It seemed to have happened suddenly. Was he having some kind of a growth spurt? On days when he didn’t get round to shaving the effect was even more sobering—his forehead jutting out like a cliff, the lower half of his face all in shadow.
He called his mother again.
‘Did you just arrive home?’ she said, as soon as he said hello. She sounded too relieved at that possibility.page 100
‘No, no. Just calling from the lake.’
‘Weather nice?’ She seemed more casual than last time, her voice bright but far off seeming; distracted.
‘Foggy today. Lots of drizzle down here.’
‘Really?’ That incredulous tone of hers. Foggy was too negative, of course. He should have said lovely fog, bursts of sunshine between the rainy patches. After all these years, he still didn’t know how to please her.
‘How are you? And Dad?’
‘Oh, fine. Good. Busy.’ There was a long pause; she was proving the final statement by making tidying sounds on the other end of the line—the slap of books being put in a pile, a newspaper being given a right royal shake. ‘You remember William?’ she said, voice high. ‘Cousin William? I bumped into him. Looking awfully weathered.’
She was saying to him—life goes on, without you, John. Life is going on.
‘And Valerie?’ she said. ‘I talked to her today. She sounds tired.’
The store manager was standing outside the phone box, John suddenly realised. He had things in his hands and he was standing there, a ridiculous benign smile on his large puffed face.
‘Mum I have to go,’ John said. ‘I’ll call again. Best to Dad.’
He opened the glass-paned door, perhaps too hurriedly. Stepped outside.
‘Evening.’ The store man had a twang to his voice, like he’d had an accent once—just the remnants of it hitting some vowels. John hadn’t noticed that before.
‘I could’ve waited,’ he said. ‘Just standing out here, enjoying the air.’
‘I was finishing up anyway. All done.’ John sounded like his mother: too bright.
The guy was wearing his cap again, the whistle around his neck. He held up a spray bottle filled with a bright blue liquid, a yellow cloth hooked over his thumb.
‘Give the phone a quick wipe down,’ he said. ‘Every week orpage 101 two. Just when I’m doing my other cleaning rounds. It’s close to the store, see,’ he said. ‘Don’t want people thinking we’re in bad nick.’
There was something awful in his eyes, John noticed then, a deadness there, a milky film glassing the irises.
‘And you’re still here,’ he said, as if this was proving his point, proving that he’d known that would be the case, all along. ‘And I didn’t catch your name.’ He smiled, teeth perfect in that big red face.
The smile remained, set like a salon hairdo.
‘Don—that’s me! Thought we were a little bit the same.’
He tilted his cap at him, stepped towards the phone box.
‘See you round then, John,’ he said. The door swung closed behind him.
The light had turned strange—a yellowish tinge, seeping through the clouds. And the sporadically spaced street lights were flicking on, one at a time. Even the lake looked odd—the colour of concrete lit up by fluorescents. A hospital light was shining down on all of them.
I need to go to the hospital—those seven words—not his—on a loop in his brain.
He didn’t sleep. He turned all the lights of the house on and then sat there until dawn. The relief of the dawn chorus, and then of the electric lights losing their power as daylight crept in. He slept for an hour or so, and then hopped in the car—the first time in weeks—and drove to the phone box. The smell of disinfectant on the receiver. Cloying. The ring-tone uneven—or just his breathing chopping it up. Then—Valerie’s voice.
‘You still there.’
‘Still here.’page 102
‘Are you staying?’
‘I don’t think so, John.’
He heard her sit down. The creak of a wooden chair.
‘Your mother keeps calling,’ she said. ‘I’m running out of things to tell her.’
‘You can tell her the truth.’
Before he could hear her breathing, sense the aliveness there, but now there was just a shocking silence, as if she’d floated away from the phone, abandoned the receiver to hang from its cord. He held onto the phone box, steadying himself. Cars inched past him, turning into the parking lot of the store.
John looked out at the lake, all that water where once there was an explosion, then just a great hole.
‘Exactly,’ he said.
The police had come when Valerie had a cold—she’d been doing a thyme steam inhalation, towel covering her head, when there was the knock on the door. She had called to John to answer it, had hoped that whoever it was would just go away, so that she wouldn’t be caught with such a hot, partially cooked face. But the voices—more than just one—had continued, low at first and then after some time moving down the hallway, into the lounge. She dried her skin off, tied back her sweaty hair. It was a Monday evening—John, fearing he was coming down with it too, had stayed home from the institute, nursing her.
She knew they were police as soon as she saw them, although they were in plain clothes—detectives, of course. Her first thought was her parents, some kind of terrible death. But the expression on John’s face was bright, unfazed: he would not look like that if it was something to do with them.
‘Does your wife know Heidi Jones?’ one of them men said to him, and Valerie’s first impulse was to allow herself to be overcome by relief—it was no one she knew, no one she knew.page 103
‘Of course not,’ John said. ‘Valerie doesn’t meet my junior staff.’ He smiled at her reassuringly, smiled at the two men.
‘What is this about?’ she said—still standing in the doorway, her nose starting to drip.
‘An accident,’ the thinner man said. ‘At your husband’s work. A colleague, an acquaintance, of his.’ He smiled wanly.
The other one reeled off sentences that seemed to her to loop back on themselves. Routine investigations. Stairs. Finding her, at the bottom of a flight of stairs.
A buzzing sound started up behind Valerie’s forehead—the virus, affecting her head. Only that. She was not at all well.
They wanted her to come in, of course, to sit down. And then there were routine questions—for her. Did she remember, they wondered, what time her husband returned from work, Friday night? Valerie was holding her hand to her cheek, fingers covering one eye—she was sick, she explained, she was sorry to appear to be confused, but she was sick. Friday she’d been on her way down with it, had come home early to go to bed. That afternoon, and evening, tried to take shape in her head—sleeping, the heat in the bed, getting up for water. A burbling sound at the base of her skull, like water in a brook. But then the certainty—a rush of it. She lifted her head, looked at the detectives straight on.
‘Friday I called John to say I was sick,’ she said. ‘He got home early for a Friday, to look after me.’ A tiny shift in John’s leg, the fabric of his trousers against her knee.
‘And what time was that?’ the man with the thin neck said. ‘Do you remember, Mrs Hazard?’
She wanted to say, ‘That’s not my name.’ She took a breath through her mouth.
‘The usual time—for any other weeknight,’ she said. ‘About 6.30.’
‘Your husband explained,’ he said, ‘that he was going to be at work late, but returned home to care for you.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ Her sinuses suddenly clear, everything in her body alert and awake.page 104
After they left, John seemed weary but unperturbed. How awful, he said, that that had happened to her. Heidi was talented, a nice girl. How awful. He had taken Valerie in his arms and she’d felt her heart, beating against his chest. His body had felt steady, solid, his heart—it seemed—not beating at all.
By the end of the evening, he had all her cold symptoms, and more. He was feverish that night, and for days afterwards, developed a wracking cough. Valerie had tried to nurse him as well as he had her, but she didn’t have his gift for it.
He was sick and by the time he was well again, bringing up the girl and her fight for life felt almost impossible. Once, Valerie had enquired after her, asked whether her condition was still critical, and John had shrugged his shoulders—a sort of god-only-knows shrug—and continued stacking clean pots in the kitchen cupboard. She ventured on. Did they still fear foul play, did he think? John had squatted back on his haunches, sliding another pot into place on the bottom shelf. ‘Nope,’ he said.
His tiredness developed many months later, long after all of it had come to an end. He stopped sleeping well, didn’t like the dark. Some mornings he’d move to the living-room floor, lie in a sleeping bag, a pillow partly covering his head. It was burn-out, the doctor said. A midlife sort of thing.
After the investigation had petered out, the accident confirmed as just that, Valerie heard more details from colleagues of John’s, people talking, the way that they do. Heidi had been vivacious, that was the word they often used to describe her, not beautiful as such but striking, impossible not to stare at. A security guard had discovered her late Friday night. Too much blood, he’d initially thought, just to have been a fall. She was partly conscious but confused when he found her, pleading with him to take her to hospital—and she’d lost consciousness—for good—soon after. There was talk of the loss of an early pregnancy, though no one at the institute seemed to know that for sure. Too much blood, he initially thought, to just have been a fall. And what difference didpage 105 an hour make, really? She didn’t even know that that was it, hadn’t looked at the clock when John’s key turned in the lock. The sky, darker than it would have been around dinner time. A colleague—an acquaintance—of your husband. The sound of water in the basin, before he came in to kiss her hello.
John spent the rest of the day down by the lake. Valerie’s voice—the calmness of it—had made everything in him go quiet, a sort of empty feeling, air eddying round the space in his head, his body. A little breeze was up, and the lake slapped against the shore, but the sound of that was just like the repetitions of his heart, his breathing, the silent roar of blood pushing through his veins. He could not lie down—no, not that—but could sit for short periods of time, in between walking, then standing, and walking again. Had he even eaten breakfast this morning? He didn’t know anything for certain.
The next bay over was covered with bush, the roofs of expensive holiday homes only just visible through the mat of leaves and branches. Across the other side of the lake there were hills and the tiny dots of buildings: a town centre. The breeze was blowing away the clouds—specks of sun white sky were showing through the grey.
In the early evening he walked up onto the road, and, even though he didn’t have his wallet, headed for the store. The glare of the sky made him squint all the way, sometimes close his eyes when the footpath was following a straight line. A kid on a bike came pedalling towards him, whooshed past, leaving a little purr of wind in her wake.
Don was at his seat behind the counter, didn’t look up at first when John walked through the tinkling door. His cap was off today—a fine whorl of hair, like a baby’s, on the top of his head.
‘And look who it is,’ he said. ‘My man John.’
There was a woman he had never seen before, using a stickerpage 106 gun. She moved in and out through the plastic-flapped staff-only door. She was young and pale, with a rash on one side of her neck.
John put his hands flat on the counter, tried to keep his voice low.
‘Yesterday you said we were a bit the same.’ John moved his body back a little, so as not to appear threatening. ‘Could I ask what you meant by that.’
‘Just our names,’ the store manager said, and smiled like he’d never had an intelligent thought in his life. Little tufts of grey hair were poking out the top of his shirt. He was all tufts, the bits on the top of his head mirroring the ones at the base of his throat. The young woman, oblivious, stacked some biscuits on a shelf, and then moved back through to the store room, sticker gun dangling from one hand.
Don leant forward, put his closed fist on the counter, so that it was almost touching John’s thumb.
‘Your wife,’ he said. ‘And her not being here.’ He swiped his tongue across his bottom lip. ‘I’m just saying. I had one of those once.’
His face had a purple undertone to it. As he moved to recline back in his chair, he knocked his knuckles against John’s skin.
The woman was back again, this time empty-handed.
‘You’re done, darling,’ he said.
For days Valerie had been trying to pack, and she’d succeeded as far as having got some clothes into a suitcase—old unworn ones, from a box in the attic. Of course, all the furniture, the art, the well-stocked kitchen, didn’t belong to her, although after years of daily use it felt just as much hers as shoes did, just as much hers as the collections of earrings that lay in small pyramid-shaped mounds on the dresser.
‘My marriage is falling apart,’ another teacher at school had said to her, and Valerie had nodded, but she didn’t feel like that was what was happening to her, not really. It was just that Johnpage 107 was depressed and maybe that she needed to do something on her own for a while—go to Morocco, or Brazil, sit in the heat somewhere where there was never any wind. John’s quiet collapse had just worn both of them out, that’s all. Their marriage was actually fine.
That is what she told her parents, her friends—it’s all actually fine. But in the evenings she examined the contents of cabinets in the drawing room, looking for things that belonged just to her.
The cat always watched her, from a safe distance. They had never liked each other much, but now that John wasn’t there she was all there was—so Molly kept a distrustful eye on her, aware perhaps that she too might vanish. Valerie would be busy searching through papers, and when she’d turn there it would be, that cat-shaped silhouette in the doorway.
Valerie’s former flatmates—both mothers now—came over for tea, the sound of grizzling children’s voices like a little swarm of bees sweeping up the path. Children, everywhere. Which considering her job shouldn’t have been destabilising—but the house, with all its polished wood, antique rugs, African figurines, felt so, well, childless.
She stooped to kiss the preschoolers on their cheeks, planted her face in the toddler’s sweet hay-smelling hair, took the baby when he was offered to her. An ache around her lungs, constricting the basket-bones of her ribs—but she was used to that, felt today that she could trust that it wouldn’t move up her chest, lodging in her throat: a feeling that made tears, alarmingly, seem only one breath away. Not today.
‘Hello!’ she said to the baby. ‘Hello there. How beautiful he is.’
Later, the three of them sat on the couches, the children busy with paper and coloured pencils at their feet, and Valerie’s friends talked nights, feeding patterns, their voices a hum in the room.
Valerie’s hands were interlaced under the baby’s nappied bottom, his head bumping her breastbone.page 108
She studied the tiny shell of his thumbnail, the cowlicks of hair on his perfectly-shaped head.
John didn’t want children, by the time he met Valerie said he was too old—which of course wasn’t true.
‘I’m a sensation in bed.’ He had used his wry smile that time, down on the floor removing her socks for her, before dealing to her jeans. ‘But I’d be a terrible father.’ That was supposed to be an alluring statement, she supposed. And since she’d been so young she’d been amused by it, not taking it seriously. Whenever she was sick he looked after her with an unwavering kindness, ferrying her cups of water and hot lemon, warm blankets or summer-weight ones, depending on her temperature.
‘You can be my father any day,’ she’d joke, and he’d smile at her, that sudden shine.
The morning John left for the lake—an odd stillness between them, as though they hardly knew each other at all—Valerie had begun to cry, just as John stepped out onto the porch. A ridiculous crying; a snivel.
She’d shaken her head when he tried to hold her, and when he tried to press his fingers to her salt-streamed lips.
‘I can give you that baby you want,’ he said, ‘if that’s what this is about.’ Which it wasn’t. But the way he said that—I can give it to you. A transaction.
John’s call got her out of bed, although she didn’t admit that. For a moment, when she was woken by the ringing, she wasn’t sure what day it was, whether it was the middle of the night, or morning. One of the many hazards of living in a cave of a house. As she ran to pick it up she caught the morning light slanting through the window, and before she’d lifted the receiver to her ear,she knew it was him.
‘It’s me.’ His voice not sounding like him at all.
Valerie leant against the dining table.page 109
‘You still there.’ A statement, not a question.
‘Are you staying?’
The sky outside was greyish but there were patches of blue, the quality of light all looking dampened down, despite the promise of sunshine. The kitchen bench still had her dinner dishes on it—one plate, one fork, a pot soaking in water.
‘I don’t think so, John.’
She moved the bentwood chair with her foot, eased herself down on it.
‘Your mother keeps calling. I’m running out of things to tell her.’
‘You can tell her the truth.’
Her morning head was all awry—all the edges in her life suddenly curving under themselves, no longer sharp. Not sharp.
The sky above the lake—the reflection of it on its surface—went from red to black in a matter of minutes. The flood of air as he burst out of the doors of the store, as if it were a building on fire. The cold set in then, but it didn’t stop him veering off the footpath that curled along the roadside, down onto the scrubby track that led to the water. He stumbled a bit on the tree roots that had pushed their way through the clay—a sensation that made him feel like his muscles were coming loose from his bones; his limbs jangling all over the place as he tried to right himself each time. Something inside him was unspooling, like the black ink swirling out of a squid. Perhaps it was only the jolt from each stumble that made him feel that way.
The water made him cry out—the vibration of his own voice rising from his throat, out into the air, and being instantly seized by the tiny, alert tunnels of his own ears. He had stepped out ofpage 110 his shoes and clothes, tugged his underpants off with the hook of each thumb. The water seemed to lunge at his skin, clutching at it—the bone ache of it like a vice around his torso, his heart—but, as he fell back through its surface, his body gave way to the cold, and the wash of its surrender flushed through him. There—the sound of it lapping against his jaw and earlobes, as if it was him that was the shore itself, its grainy layers being bunted by that familiar rise and fall. The rise and fall of his chest. His whole body: the lake itself.
It was 6am when John’s key turned in the lock. Valerie had been sleeping—or half sleeping, her thoughts Technicolor, but possibly not quite dreams—arms and legs flung out at her sides, one foot partially bandaged by a sheet. The grating sound of metal on metal, and then the click of the handle. John. She turned just her eyes to see the time, and then lay on her back, perfectly still.
There was the soft thud of his suitcase against wood, the door closing quietly behind him. A tiny trickle of sweat inched its way down her arm.
He was standing by the living-room window when she moved through the bedroom door and out into the hallway—just standing there, not facing out, but in; waiting for her. And when she said, ‘You’re back,’ he shook his head—no—but in a bewildered way, as though it was impossible to know where he was.
Molly began to meow out on the porch, a yowl to it, like when she’d caught a bird.
‘I did something terrible, Val,’ he said, and she nodded, almost eagerly it seemed to her, when she thought back on it. Nodded her head rapidly—a yes, I know.
And even though the morning light seemed lifeless, something around his body seemed to at first shrink away, and then illuminate him, so that the creases of his face showed, his hands lumpy with veins. John—who sometimes slept with his face in the crook just under her armpit, just above her ribs, standing like that in theirpage 111 living room, all those cool hard floorboards between them.
‘I’ve been outside in the car,’ he said, as if by saying that he was revealing it all, was saying everything, ‘since 4.’
There was a wind up on the east side of the house, intermittently throwing itself against the boards of the wall. The door frame in her hand. And the oak frames of the hallway paintings, just hanging there.
She said, ‘Tell me..
John was haloed by the window. She couldn’t be sure in that low light, but his expression was almost exhilarated: the way he’d looked as he leapt into and then out of an ice shard waterfall one winter.
She was the one who moved first, passing so close to the silence of his body. Once she was seated her legs began to shake—tiny, thrumming movements. The first of the sun was casting its light through the dull glass of the window, the wind slapping at it. There were John’s footsteps, just behind her, the heave of the sofa as he sat down at its other end.
Valerie looked at her own hands, at the pinkness of her bare knees, the currents of electricity passing up and down her thighs, making her skin shimmer.
‘Tell me,’ she said again, but she couldn’t have meant it, not really.
And even though he tried to talk at her then—Heidi, Heidi and I, Heidi—the words were more like sounds; indistinguishable to her, no sense to them, non-sense. Was he crying? He seemed a wild thing to her, and then he was too quiet, falling suddenly asleep, his head thrown back against the curve of the sofa. With the morning light making its way inside he looked like an old man, those jowls under his jawline, the tiny tufts of receding hair on his increasingly rock-like forehead. He woke with a start, his head flinging itself forward.
‘You still here?’ And even though she didn’t say a word, he must have sensed her there, seen her in the periphery of his vision, the curve of her bowed head. He was out again, but with his mouthpage 112 clamped shut this time. Not an old man, but a boy—with his whole life ahead of him.
There were the police to call—Valerie could already see them, the thin one, looking at her hard—but the phone was so far away, like a comet spinning out of orbit from the earth, and if she moved towards it, she too would be pulled away from the shoddy cladding of their house, the dark hills around them, the slice of sea, always choppy, at their base.