Sport 28: Autumn 2002
Susan Pearce — Mrs Methven
Mrs Methven's bell jangled, and Phil hauled himself up the stairs while his phone began to beep. A message. Helen, maybe?
The old lady's head was tilted back on the pillows, her shrivelled chin pointed towards the ceiling.
‘I've been ringing the bell for ten minutes. Where is that hopeless girl?’
‘Don't know.’ He could guess, though. He'd twice found the night nurse, a harried Australian, asleep in the kitchen with her feet up.
Mrs Methven sighed, and the mucus rattled in her chest. ‘I am stranded between rigid sheets. Each day will be the same now until the end.’
He dumped his bag by her bed and went to refill the water glass. When he returned she creaked upwards.
‘Thix,’ she pronounced.
‘What?’ He banged at the window's warped frame. The room was stuffy and sour.
‘Not “What”. Say “I beg your pardon”. Thix.’
He'd picked up his bag and was at the door.
‘You are arrogant. Clambering about the world, whipping it into shape. Thix.’
He turned back. ‘I don't know what you're on about.’
‘I'm speaking to you in your own vernacular.’
‘No one I know says “thix”.’
‘It's clearly displayed on your phone. T.H.X.’
He saw his phone on the quilt beside her. ‘Give it here—I've got an important message.’
But she tucked it beneath her buttocks, and stared at him.
‘Hey—’ He stepped towards her, flinching at the thought of it warmed by her saggy muscles.page 37
‘If you touch me, I'll tell the agency.’ She shifted like a settling hen.
He rolled his eyes. ‘Relax. You can have it till I come back with breakfast. Then you have to hand it over or I'll tell the agency.’
In the kitchen he told the night nurse to go, and changed into a clean tunic. It had taken him several days to get the hang of the breakfast tray. A white linen cloth, two floppy bits of lace, tea in a china pot, one egg in a teacup (the other lying alongside in the saucer), two teaspoons, and her rinsed dentures in a small fluted dish. ‘Appearances. Are. Vital.’ Mrs Methven had thumped the bed with each word, her veined hand bouncing off the quilt.
He couldn't afford to waste time looking for another job. Head for home ASAP, that was the idea: get things back on track with Helen. He'd have the message now, if the old crone hadn't screeched for water. It must be Helen. Thanks. Maybe there was more. He hoped her bony bum hadn't deleted it.
‘Right.’ Phil slouched over her with the tray. ‘I'll do a swap with you.’
She made him wait, then said, as though amused, ‘You give one the impression of a stagnant desire.’
Senile old crow, he thought. But he felt an unwilling acknowledgement. Somehow she had seen into his dissatisfied nights.
‘Do you want your breakfast or not?’
‘Where are the vowels?’
‘I beg your pardon. On your telephone. Where are the vowels?’
‘We don't use them. I'm not standing here all day.’
‘Put down the tray, then.’
‘Give me my phone.’ Phil, holding the laden tray in both arms, was disadvantaged. He would have liked to extend one hand in silence until she placed the phone in his palm.
‘No. Give me my breakfast. I have a proposition for you.’
‘I don't have time for this.’
‘You will be my priest. You have no robes, but your ignorance qualifies you for the role.’page 38
Ignorance. He clenched his hands around the tray, and reminded himself that insults were par for the course in this game.
‘Is that your proposition?’
‘We will converse. I'll pay you for your companionship. We won't tell the agency. Now: my tea will be getting cold.’
‘Where's my phone?’
‘Are you expecting a call?’
He hesitated. He wasn't. His parents had bought him the phone in case of emergencies, but although he handed out the number to most people he met, it remained stolidly silent. Three weeks ago he'd messaged Helen—‘THNKNG OF U’—but she hadn't replied.
But now, maybe, she'd received his letter. He imagined her warm and smooth between her sheets on the other side of the world, composing her message before sleep.
‘No,’ Mrs Methven said. ‘So give me my breakfast, or you'll need to prepare a fresh one. I won't have lukewarm tea. I envisage one or two hours of conversation over the course of the day. Around morning teatime would be pleasant. Can you accommodate that within your duties?’
‘It's not in my job description.’ Geriatrics didn't understand the way things work, he thought. He wasn't some kind of servant.
‘Mercenary boy. I've already mentioned additional compensation—would an extra fifteen pounds per day be sufficient?’
‘Yes, I guess.’
‘Stop guessing! Is nothing certain any more?’
‘It was a genuine question. What can we rely on? Not our language, apparently.’
‘I don't know.’
‘You'll have to do better than that, Mr Aske, to earn your wage.’ Tilting her parched frame to one side, she fished out the phone and handed it to him. It was warm.
In the hallway he squinted at the luminous screen. The message had survived: ‘THX PHIL.’ The number was Helen's. Bingo. He punched the air.page 39
A young man lived deep in the forest with only his elderly mother for company. They were poor, and survived on the plants he collected and the animals he killed.
His mother was blind and very frail. She was too weak to leave the hut, and spent her days by the fire while her son was out hunting. Every morning, he carried her from her thin mattress to the chair, and every evening after he returned, he carried her back to bed.
Even though she weighed less than a pile of sticks, he grumbled to himself over this duty.
Mrs Methven was sitting up, waiting for him.
‘We shall have a contract,’ she announced, and handed him a sheet of paper. ‘Then no-one can say you duped me.’
‘I, Alice Methven (widow), of 41 Cadogan Place, Pimlico, being of sound mind, do on this day of January 28th 1999 hereby undertake to pay Mr Philip Aske the sum of fifteen pounds sterling for each day that he provides me with companionship and conversation.’
She watched him read. ‘Is that acceptable?’
‘Looks fine to me.’
‘Speak in proper sentences, Mr Aske. Now, the phone. Who decreed people should convey their thoughts and feelings like that?’
‘Don't know. The telecommunications industry, I guess.’
‘It can't be widely used?’ She raised her sparse eyebrows.
‘No, millions of people do it. All over the world.’
‘So. The powerful men want us to forget ourselves. If we lose our words, we are reduced!’
‘Guess you could see it like that.’
‘Why the abbreviations?’
‘It's to save time. We use symbols and shorten words so we don't have to type in so many characters.’
‘Losing character. I see.’
‘I don't get you.’
‘No. Do you treat every word in such a fashion?’
‘With texting, pretty much, yeah.’
‘My husband was a linguist. He pried into words but respected their constitutions.’page 40
‘Is that why you nicked my phone?’
Her hand brushed restlessly over the quilt. ‘Reduction again. My story is more complex than that.’
Phil hoped she wasn't going to whinge. He recalled his sister's parting advice. ‘If you're stuck for conversation, ask them about their first love. It's a winner.’
‘How'd you meet him?’
‘I first encountered my husband when I dressed his wife. Victor was in Paris studying the relationship between Gaelic and Ancient French. I was learning French couture. All those self-satisfied women. I hid lardy bulges and tumbled silk over sweaty crevasses. I saw Victor's capacity for devotion, and coveted it. When he hesitated, I pulled off his buttons and crunched his spectacles into the floor. He went mad for my temper and demands. No one had ever wanted him like that before. My secret was that I didn't either. We abandoned Paris for Edinburgh.’
‘So he left his wife for you? Was there a bit of a scandal?’
‘There was a little fuss. He excused himself in his own mind by blaming her infertility. No children in eight years. But with me he was happy enough without them, for a while. I offered him titbits of my soul, enough to make him believe he was getting it all. I introduced him to spiritualism. His colleagues mocked him when he published a paper on the language uses of departed spirits talking through mediums.’
She paused to sip some water.
‘But you have distracted me from my course of enquiry. I've heard that New Zealanders disrespect the vowel, and you are living proof. You fail to open your mouth sufficiently.’
Phil felt a weak rush of patriotism. ‘We don't talk like we've got plums in our mouths, if that's what you mean.’
‘It's excusable, however. The colonies have developed individual, if flawed, understandings of English.’
‘Look Mrs Methven, you—I mean, you wouldn't know what I meant if I said “Tena koutou”.’
‘You are not aboriginal.’
‘The Aboriginals are from Australia. In New Zealand we have the Maori.’page 41
‘The Maoris are the indigenous, the aboriginal people of the land, are they not? Understand your words, Mr Aske, or you will misrepresent yourself. Let us proceed. I was saying that words abused in such a way have been disembowelled, stripped of meaning. They are lost to us.’
‘Disem—vowelled,’ said Phil, pleased with himself.
She looked at him coldly.
‘It doesn't make any difference,’ he said. ‘We know what they mean.’
‘Ah. The “we” of youth.’ She gripped the quilt in her fist and thrust her face towards him. ‘The language is damaged.’
‘That's stupid. Words don't have feelings.’
‘Words are more than a commercial transaction. If they are smoothed into paste, their jolting parts removed, we lose our history.’
‘I think you're being a bit extreme. What's the big deal?’
‘You may find yourself, in your last days, wanting reassurance that what you love will continue after you've gone.’
He stared at her.
‘I will explain my interest.’ She coughed, hacking up phlegm. Some spattered past the tissue she held to her lips, landing on the quilt. Phil's throat closed.
‘When Victor and I argued, I invoked a clattering whirlwind of accusations. Finding his weak places excited me. He was always bemused, hurt, attempting to appease. I had a military mind; he did not, or he would have seen how his pacifism drove me on.
‘At those times I controlled all our words. I could change the direction of our dispute and guarantee he would follow. I had him stuttering with frustration and helplessness. He would continue to try to explain himself, even when he had no more words for it. I, on the other hand, would recognise when my words had run out, and with tears, or a sudden collapse, could have him at my side murmuring his love. I let him minister to me, then I'd take myself off to my bedroom with a headache.
‘Just as I was growing bored with my self-confinement, he'd knock softly and enter with a cup of tea. Then he would give me a word as a peace offering. He was like a cat with a dead mouse, obliviously unwelcome. “Did you know,” he might say, “that in mediaeval England page 42 ‘depressed’ was used by astrologers to describe the least influential position of a planet?” He'd place the tea beside me and continue into the silence. “It's an Anglo-Saxon ancestor. Imagine those astrologers using a word that we bandy about in quite different circumstances.” “Yes,” I'd say. “Imagine.” He took the slightest smile as evidence that we were happy again.’
Phil had heard enough. They hadn't been talking long, but the undersides of his thighs itched, and he was bored. ‘Right, Mrs Methven. Time for me to start making your lunch.’
‘I am kept alive, when I might as well crawl under an archway and feed the foxes.’
He looked at the rain-streaked window. ‘Righty-ho, Mrs M. I'll be up with your lunch.’
The young man wished his mother would die.
I could tell her the hut is burning down, he thought, and lead her outside into the snow. Or that the whole forest is on fire, and we must hold our heads under water until the angels come to get us. Or that the wind in the trees is the roaring of the devil, and frighten her to death.
The snows are very deep, the young man told his mother. All the plants are buried, and the rabbits and deer and boar have gone south to keep warm. My arm shakes with hunger when I raise my gun, and my vision is blurred. But I've found a few shrivelled mushrooms and a dead mouse for you to eat.
You must eat whatever you can find, she replied. Your life is more important than mine. When spring comes, you will leave the forest and marry a beautiful woman. She will give you many strong children who will look after you in your old age. If you can bring me an old stick I will chew on it. But, she said, are you sure there's no food? Earlier this afternoon, I thought I smelled a good stew.
No, said the young man. There's nothing.
Phil switched on the TV in the kitchen and made himself some toast. All her talk about words had got him thinking of his letter to Helen. When had he posted it? Five days ago? That was fast. And her message said it all. Thank you for wanting me back. Thank you for being page 43 sensitive. Thank you for the letter. He grinned. You're welcome, he thought. You are so bloody welcome. He couldn't wait to get home.
He'd put a lot of thought into that letter. He'd wanted to get her to ask him back, in a way that would make her think it was her own idea. Six weeks before leaving Wellington he'd told her he was bored, and wanted to explore other possibilities. But now he missed her.
He missed the way she stretched one corner of her mouth when she considered anything, and how her head fitted beneath his collarbone. There was a stillness about her that made her easy to be with. And recently, she'd come to mean the same as ‘home’ to him. She understood who he was, and let him be. Not like this city, always jostling him and tripping him up.
It was the first time he'd put pen to paper for anyone since his arrival. He'd wanted his words to carry some weight.
He'd crouched on the saggy mattress in his bedsit and written, ‘I'm in a pub that's older than NZ.’ Helen would see him as a romantic figure, scrawling away in an ancient inn with wooden beams and a roaring fire.
‘A 16th-century poet was bashed up outside. You'd love it. I wish you were here.’ The poet bit was from a guidebook.
He'd implied a brief, frantic affair, almost bringing himself to belive that there'd been more than a snog and a hand down his trousers outside a nightclub. When her mates called from the taxi, she'd walked away without looking back.
‘I was thinking of you the whole time,’ he wrote. ‘I thought I'd left you behind, but I can't get our good times off my mind.’ He read it over and heard the rhymes. Cheesy. It was harder than he'd expected.
The pen pressed on the bone of his middle finger, and his hand ached. He wished his writing was spikier. Halfway down the page, the nib broke off. It was no bigger than a mustard seed and for a moment he didn't see it rolling around, but his upward stroke on ‘long’ ground into the paper. He cursed. He'd bought the black fineliner specially for the job. If he bought another, who's to say it wouldn't fall apart too, and he might spend ten pounds just on the writing, let alone postage. Changing pens might seem too offhand. He didn't want her to think he'd stopped mid-flow. But he could write ‘Damn page 44 pen.’ He did, using a biro from his bag, and continued, ‘The landlord's lent me his. Friendly bloke.’
‘Maybe you'll wonder why I'm telling you this when we're not officially going out. I was thinking of you. At the time, I mean. You're like my best friend, or more than that. I guess I'm finding myself, discovering what's important. The real stuff. I know I've made some mistakes.’
She'd think he was sorry, without him having to say it. The ‘I’s worried him. He didn't want to come across as selfish. ‘There's been a lot to think about. It's strange, leaving home. People say you discover what's valuable about what you left behind, and I guess that's true.’
If he got it right, she'd read between the lines and give him the thumbs-up.
‘I'm only telling you this because I care about you. I'm ready now to be really committed to someone, have an honest relationship.’
He reckoned he had a good chance. After all, there was that last time on the beach, the day before he left. He imagined the letter under her pillow, folded in her diary, on her lap in the train as she went to work. She would read it several times, trying to make sense of her churning emotions. There might be some anger, but they'd seen the same movies. She'd know she must still care, if she had those feelings.
He led up to his goodbye. ‘The weather's crap. Freezing cold, rain, grey skies every day. I'm fantasising about golden beaches and pohutukawa. Staying till spring like I was planning seems a waste of time, now I've done some thinking.’
On the back of the envelope he wrote their names, Helen, Philip, on the diagonal and meeting at the ‘I’ so they formed a kiss. Then he reconsidered. She'd see the envelope before she read the letter, and he didn't want to give the game away too early.
In the end he crossed out a few of the worst bits, and sent his first try in another envelope. Standing at the postbox, he'd lifted the letter to the slot and held it there for a moment before sliding it in.
The following day the young man trapped a rabbit, and travelled far away from the hut so his mother would not smell the aromas of the roasting page 45 meat. He came to a large lake he'd never seen before. All the other ponds in the forest were frozen, but the water in this lake was green, and soft as feathers. He peered into the mist that hung over it. Something glinted off an island in the centre.
What's that? he asked a bird perched near him.
Those are diamonds and emeralds and rubies, the bird said, collected from all the kings and queens who have ever lived.
The young man's heart filled with elation. I could be the wealthiest man in the world, he thought, gazing out across the lake.
The journey home took longer than usual. Rubbery darkness had closed in by the time he left the last tube station. It was approaching the shortest day, and he felt the shock to his body, his legs unusually fatigued. The cold even reached underneath his fingernails.
But the thought of Helen made him smile. He'd been waiting for someone to tell him to come home. The big OE hadn't worked out. No crime in that. He'd only done it so he could join in those conversations. ‘Shit yeah, Istanbul, we got to know these carpet salesmen who introduced us to their sisters.’ But now that he was in the bedsit, a third of his income went on rent. Not much left over for excursions to German beer festivals, and anyway, he'd decided he didn't much like travelling alone.
In the first flat, the one Mark put him on to, he'd always suspected that the blokes thought he was a bit of a girl because of his work. He'd explained about dropping the nursing diploma, knowing there was something bigger and better out there for him to do, but he could tell they didn't think much of him lifting around old ladies who needed someone to make tea and deal with the bedpans.
And there'd been some coldness when he said he preferred to organise his own beer. But that was irrelevant now. In the morning he'd call Helen, and it would all be back on.
He fancied that he needed time to contemplate. However, once he'd poured himself a beer from the stock in the tiny fridge, he found his thoughts wandering. He watched TV from his bed, and drank until he fell asleep.page 46
The alarm failed to wake him. No time to brush his teeth. Then someone jumped in front of a train on the Central Line and he had to take the long way round. The night nurse snarled at him.
‘You're half an hour late.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Chill.’
He was frustrated that he hadn't rung Helen. He grunted at Mrs Methven when he took up her breakfast, but she didn't notice his mood.
‘Good morning, Mr Aske. Ah, the tea is just right. Excellent. I'll see you at eleven o'clock.’
‘Yeah. See you.’
He couldn't wait any longer. He wanted to hear Helen's laugh, and the soft tones she'd use to tell him that she wanted him back. If the agency picked up on the phone bill, he'd say that the night nurse had hung around and must have used the phone when he was upstairs.
A stranger's voice told him Helen was in bed.
‘Well wake her up, I'm ringing from the other side of the world.’
A pause, filled with knocks and calls from a house he knew well.
‘Who is it?’
‘Hi, Helen. It's Phil.’
‘I got your message.’
‘So, um, it was good to hear from you.’
‘Yeah … how are things over there?’
‘You know, like I said, home is where the heart is.’
‘Yeah … Phil, don't call again. I don't want to talk to you.’
‘I don't want to see you. Don't come back on my account.’
‘But what—you said “thank you”. In your message. “Thanks Phil.”’
‘Mmm. Stupid attempt at sarcasm. I was … angry.’
‘Hey, look, that other woman didn't mean anything. I didn't even—’
But she laughed. ‘What “other woman”? You mean your one night stand? That's not important.’page 47
‘This must be costing you heaps. I'd better—’
‘No! No. Tell me—tell me what you mean. What're you—what's this about? You can't say “thank you” and then—’
She sighed. ‘What do you expect? You dump me because you're “bored”, then you catch me when I'm feeling dumb and low enough to screw you one more time, and now that … pathetic letter, like I'm suddenly supposed to care about you again.’
That was it, then. Nothing to go home for. Shit. Why'd he give the bitch a chance to dump him back? He microwaved a cup of coffee and sat with his head in his hands.
The young man said to the bird, I will build a boat and claim the jewels for my own.
So he felled a tree and hollowed out the trunk, but as soon as he placed it in the lake, the water sucked it down.
Why did my boat sink? he asked the bird.
The lake is enchanted, the bird said. The waters devour everything. Only the man who sails on the lightest thing in the world will be able to reach the island.
The bell rang for the third time. He stomped upstairs. ‘I don't feel like it.’
‘Mr Aske, we have a contract. And you need the money. Exert some self-discipline.’
She waited until he was seated in the armchair, and began speaking clearly and without pause, as if she'd rehearsed her story during the night.
‘I knew Victor wanted children, but I stopped the first three. After the third I bled so freely that I almost disappeared into the floor. I took a different approach with the fourth, using my tailoring skills to lead onlookers’ eyes away. I pretended a religious conversion and insisted on separate beds. At six months I set up a wailing and threw china at him. I blamed him for my unhappiness and told him our page 48 childlessness must be due to his sterility. I accused him of being a hindrance on my path to God.’
Phil stuck out his jaw and focused on the wallpaper. He wanted to rise, hold up one hand like a traffic policeman and say, ‘Look, Mrs M. I appreciate the extra work, but this isn't the kind of thing I want to listen to.’ But her cracked voice pinned him to the armchair.
‘I summoned a taxi and told Victor I was leaving for some time. I knew he would wait. I returned to France and travelled to a small village near the Swiss border. At the convent, I gave a false name and told the nuns my beloved husband had been killed in a hunting accident. I sobbed, and claimed I couldn't stand to give birth to our child in the house we'd shared. For the remaining months I lived quietly, dreaming up chic new designs for the nuns' habits. I sent Victor only two postcards, written as though to a cousin in case the postmaster was able to read English. I told him that if he came to find me I would never speak to him again.
‘The baby arrived three weeks early. I had no milk, thank God. They found a went nurse in the village. After two days the Mother Superior entered my room and instructed me to spend some time with the child. While they were at Matins the next morning, I left some money under the baby's head and walked to the station. I lied to the porter, telling him that I was going to fetch my elderly aunt, who would chaperone us during our homeward journey. In the next town I telegraphed my return. At Waterloo, Victor welcomed me with such gratitude and honour that I wished I had tried more deceptions.
‘I claimed inspiration from the nuns. I would stay with him, but give my body to God. To do otherwise would be sinful, since we would never produce children. He took me on as a punishment. He shrivelled. Five years after my return he walked in front of an omnibus.’
Did she mean that he'd committed suicide? Poor bugger. ‘Was it—’
‘Let us talk about you now, Mr Aske. What is your ambition?’
He shrugged. ‘Don't know. Be happy, I guess. Successful.’
She had her head on one side, assessing him.
‘You are an uncomfortable combination. Excellent at following orders. A functionary at heart. Yet resentful of authority. Perhaps you page 49 would make a good mercenary. A vision of wealth might move you to action.’
Not fair, not fair. He was beginning to hate her. But he couldn't escape the truth in her words.
‘Why are you telling me all this, anyway?’ He meant his tone to imply that she could give no satisfactory answer.
‘As I said. You are my priest.’
‘So this is some sort of confession?’
‘Is that your understanding of it?’
‘You don't seem sorry. You don't care about what you did to your husband or babies. You seem … proud of what you did.’
‘Well.’ She nodded, but her voice was dry. ‘I'm flattered. I've been wondering if you are present in spirit as well as in the flesh.’
She took every opportunity to tread on him, Phil thought.
‘You may think of it as a confession if you like. Conscience is an invention, but I know I have been wicked. I tell you my story because I want to die without it.’
The tube train was packed. Phil hung from a strap and kept a lookout for empty seats. When a businessman folded his paper and pulled himself up, Phil was right behind him, ready to slide his knee into the empty space. He ducked his head so as not to catch the eye of the old man leaning against the doors.
At his stop he had to push his way out. He took several steps along the platform before he realised. His wallet.
Turning back to the train, he slapped his trouser pockets and dug his hands into his jacket. He leapt between the closing doors and felt suddenly disoriented as the train clattered off in an unfamiliar direction.
Phil tried to remember where he'd been sitting. The old man had gone.
Through the glass window in the connecting door, he saw the angles of the tunnel anticipated in the tilts and sway of the preceding carriage. There he was, the old man, still bent upright. Phil swore. He wrenched open the door and stumbled through the racket and the smell of burned diesel.page 50
A girl with studs through her eyebrows and nostrils was in his seat.
‘Excuse me, I think I left my wallet here?’
She bent her head briefly to search the floor, not bothering to move her legs, and shook her head without looking at him.
He turned to the woman across the aisle. ‘Did you see anyone taking a brown wallet?’
But she ignored him, and continued to read her Evening Standard.
The young man stayed awake all that night, thinking. The next day he returned and built a boat from bark, caulking up the holes with gum. As soon as he placed it in the lake, the water sucked it down.
The following day he returned, and wove a raft from long grasses and leaves. But as soon as he placed it in the lake, the water sucked it down.
He sat on the bank. What is the lightest thing in the world? he asked himself, and he thought of his mother.
Yes, said the bird, which was listening to his thoughts. In a few more days, your mother will indeed be the lightest thing in the world. You can use her body as a boat. She will take you directly to the jewels, and the waters will not consume her. But, the bird said, she has to be alive, so that the air in her lungs keeps you from touching the lake. If a single drop of water meets your skin, you will be sucked to the very bottom.
The young man saw himself sitting on his mother's body. Her grey hair floated in the water, and her milky eyes stared up at him.
In the morning he walked the forty minutes to the nearest branch of his bank, and with every step his legs dragged as though trapped in clay. His skin contracted against the cold, holding in the bitterness of his stolen money.
At Cadogan Place, the covering nurse smiled and told him Mrs Methven had had an early lunch. A quiet old thing. Must be a cushy job.
Yes, he said, and showed her out.
He thought of the old woman waiting upstairs, and had a vague image of her as a malevolent stone, emanating shimmers of evil. But unconsciously he knew that her knowledge of him offered, in some perverse way, his only hope.page 51
She began to talk as soon as he sat down.
‘From Edinburgh we moved to London, and my Chelsea boutique became a church for the female form. At my peak I employed eight girls, patterning, cutting and making up my sketches. The final fitting was always my territory. I had the lady revolve on a small table, one arm supported by an assistant, while I perched on a satin-covered footstool and inserted long pins into the hem.
‘My assistants were instructed to remain silent and expressionaless, even if, as happened occasionally, they were assailed by bodily odours. When I finished I would rise, and, without speaking, gesture to the woman to step down from the table and turn in front of the mirror. Then I would make a single comment. “Madam, that is very charming. You will be the most beautiful woman in the room.”
‘After Victor's death I congratulated myself on being unhindered by grief. I could not remember his face. But he had washed the air around me with his knowledge of language. I'd believed myself impervious, but now it came floating into my thoughts. At first I was irritated. I would be telling a young woman about the dainty trim I planned for her jacket, when Victor's voice would interrupt, reminding me that “dainty” derives from the same Indo-European root as dignity, decorum and decency, all of which I knew this client lacked. I berated my cutters for wasting cloth, and had to put up with the sulks, because I added that “waste” is related to inanity and wantonness.
‘My customers began to age. I looked through the boutique windows one day to find that my belief in a refined and gracious fashion was rejected by women who chose showiness. I saw my own ending with the same clarity with which I had decided on others’. In the following silence I was seduced by words. I found myself possessed of a significant vocabulary; an unexpected bequest from a husband who I believed had only been good for his money. I admired the way the crawling lines had survived over thousands of years, passing on their sibilances, their prosody. The tiny root “ar”, “to fit together”, that connects the armadillo to arthritis, harmony with reason and ritual, seemed a marvel of endurance. I began to appreciate these small and potent entities that contain our ancestors and histories.’
She stopped, and fixed him with her watery eyes.page 52
‘So—uh—that's why you got so uptight about the text messaging.’
‘Is that your only comment?’
‘It was my ignorance you wanted, remember?’
But her raised eyebrows told him that his jibe lacked power.
‘I hope I have explained my objection to your emaciated words. Our language shows us our history. Our history shows us who we are. The deterioration of words may be a cause or a symptom. I do not know. But I do know that I made use of people without respect, in much the same way as I treated words. I see the same poverty of thought in you.’
He leapt to his feet. ‘You—you don't know what you're talking about, don't know anything. You can't—buy me to use me as a—a punching bag. You can stuff your—’
‘Mr Aske.’ She spoke from on high. ‘You are at liberty to reject my views. But let us remain civil.’
‘Civil! You—what about—’
‘Mr Aske. I want my bed remade. Now. Clean sheets.’
He took a deep breath, wanting to show her that he could be pushed too far. He held her gaze. What he wouldn't give to walk out now, slam that front door hard enough to break windows. Mrs Methven looked away first. The moment had gone. He didn't feel like he'd won.
He helped her to the armchair in silence, and tucked rugs around her shoulders and legs. When he returned with the pile of sheets and pillowcases, she met him at the doorway with her direct stare.
‘Get into the bed.’
‘I am in earnest. Get between the sheets.’
For a moment he didn't breathe, frozen with the fresh linen in his arms.
She laughed. ‘Don't worry. What is it people say? “You are not my type.”’
But that was not it. He had been alarmed by the impulse to obey. He struggled, neither wanting to give in, nor to turn his back on all she knew.
What the hell, he thought dishonestly. It's my decision.page 53
Slowly, he sat on the bed and unlaced his shoes. ‘What's the point of this?’
‘Remove your socks also,’ she replied.
He pressed his spine against the headboard, keeping as much of his body in sight as he could. Hard ridges of cotton, reinforced by the plastic undersheet, pressed through his trousers. He avoided her gaze. With his legs stuck out in front of him and his arms unable to swing loosely, he felt unbalanced. He clasped his hands in his lap, but was immediately sickened by a memory of the old woman in the same pose. He grasped his biceps and bent one knee up, wincing at the grittiness under his sole.
‘Right. That enough for you?’
‘No. Stay. Look around you.’
A bloom of dust on the chest of drawers. The light bulb, visible under the shade from this angle, glaring into his eyes.
‘What's your point?’
‘I will tell you a story.’
He was motionless throughout, but when she came to the end, he feigned impatience.
‘I've had enough.’ He laced his shoes with quick movements, and pulled the sheets and blankets tight and smooth as ironed paper.
‘Very well. But consider what I've told you.’
‘If I come back tomorrow, I'm not getting into your bed again. It's very unprofessional.’
‘Ah.’ She nodded. ‘Rules. Do they serve you well?’
For three days, the young man only left the but to retrieve pieces of dried vension that he'd hung from a branch. He listened to his mother's slow and difficult gasps. She was very weak. When it seemed that she might stop breathing, he fed her tiny pieces of the meat to suck on.
What are you doing here? she asked him. Why are you not out foraging?
I received a message from God, he said. He told me to stay inside this but while He prepares a reward for us.
The old woman nodded her head. She trusted her son.page 54
‘What is your opinion of the story?’ she asked the next morning.
‘Dunno. Can't remember it.’
‘Come, sit down. We have an agreement.’
He collapsed into the chair. ‘What do you want me to say?’
‘You must choose your own words, Mr Aske.’ Her eyes seemed brighter.
‘I don't know. God, why don't you ask me something I know about, for once. This is getting boring.’ But it wasn't. It was uncomfortable. Something was going on that he didn't understand.
‘Do you believe one can apply morality to the tale?’
His mind had spun around it all night. The magical, consuming lake. The old woman floating in the water. But he wouldn't be drawn.
‘I don't know what you mean.’
‘Was anyone in the wrong, so to speak?’
She wasn't going to give up.
‘The son, I suppose. Greedy. Wanting his mother dead. But he got what was coming to him.’
‘Do you think the story carries a moral?’
‘Don't know.’ He spoke with exaggerated care. ‘Don't kill your mother, I guess. Or you'll be food for fish.’
‘That's what I expected of you.’
He was sick of being this woman's puppet. Sick of it. He stood.
‘Mrs Methven, I—’
‘But I think you might be intrigued by an alternative interpretation.’
Her eyes challenged him. He felt that she anticipated his every move. Nothing he could do would surprise or disappoint her.
‘I heard the story as a child,’ she said. ‘There are many others like it. Folklore is full of adult children who kill their infirm parents, and the mother is often the victim. In those tales, as in the one I related to you, the killing is generally seen as immoral and punishable. However, I've always thought that there is more than one way of looking at it.’
She paused, and seemed to be waiting.
‘Why don't you tell me, then,’ he muttered, shifting on his feet. To return to the chair would look too much like he was in her control.page 55
‘In the story, we view the world from the perspective of the young man, and at its conclusion, from the bird's. We may assume the son is punished for desiring to kill his mother, and for placing the acquisition of wealth above her survival. However, one could also think of what his mother would have wished for. Fatigued, weak, in pain. And the tedium of it, above all else.’
Her voice was urgent.
‘She knew she had nothing to live for, but she was a sweet and pliable woman. You will have noted that I am not. It didn't occur to her to ask for what she wanted. If she had, she might have said, My son, carry me into the forest and let me sleep on a snowdrift. She did not want to live.’
‘Fine. Can I go now?’ He didn't want to hear it.
She outlined each word slowly with her thin lips. ‘A young man who helped an old lady to her death might be seen to have done good.’
He had resisted it, but that afternoon, as he stirred custard and buttered thin slices of bread, something buzzed and burrowed in his thoughts. The marble counters, the red and white check curtains came to him more distinctly, as if a bass line had been intensified or the contrast sharpened. He saw that she'd been hinting at it for days.
Would the blood vessels burst in her eyeballs? Would she gurgle, and turn rigid beneath him? Would she wink at him over the edge of the pillow?
Because she'd asked for it, hadn't she.
He laughed, and walked around the kitchen's circumference, patting his hand on doors and counters. There it was, the possibility. The magic ingredient in his OE. Men who kill, he knew, contained a weird greatness. He'd go home with a fire in his eyes, and women would gulp and lust after him.
If he'd left the custard to burn at that moment, and gone up to her room, he might have held her arms (gently, to avoid bruising) and mashed the feathers over her face. But although he walked out into the hallway and looked up the stairs, he couldn't bring himself to climb them. ‘Later,’ he told himself. ‘Get psyched first.’page 56
If, later, she'd raised her eyebrows—‘Well, Mr Aske?’—or made a meaningful gargle in her throat, he'd have shut her up for good. Permission to kill.
But she ignored him when he took up her tea, and the frisson subsided. For the rest of the afternoon, he gritted his teeth in frustration.
On the fourth morning, the young man closed his eyes when he lifted his mother from her thin mattress, and it seemed as though he held nothing in his arms.
Surely she must be the lightest thing in the world, he thought, and instead of lowering her into the chair, he walked out the door.
Where are you taking me? the old woman asked, as her son pushed through snowdrifts.
Last night I dreamed of a table, deep in the forest, piled high with all kinds of roast fowl and hams and fruit and cordials.
How wonderful, the old woman said, and went to sleep in his arms.
Later she woke, and again asked, Where you are taking me?
Last night I dreamed of a house for us, deep in the forest. It is filled with comfortable chairs and feather beds, and in the garden it is always summer.
The old woman sighed with pleasure and went back to sleep.
When they were nearing the lake she woke for the third time, and repeated her question.
Where we are going, the young man said, everyone will honour and respect us. They will seek our advice and value our company.
Between Mrs Methven's house and the tube station, he turned into a street with only two other people on it. A man passed, walking rapidly in the opposite direction. Further along, a woman in a beige raincoat peered up at a street sign. He closed his fingers around the straps of her shoulder bag and wrenched it from her arm. The rubber soles of his sensible carer's shoes sprang beneath him. The woman screamed, but he'd seen enough of her creased face. He didn't look back.
He stuffed the bag under his jacket as he swung around the corner, and ran with one arm gripping it to his chest. His stomach fat jiggled, page 57 and the movement of his shoulders was mistimed, but the air parted for him and his legs were light.
He took the steps to the tube three at a time, giving all his weight to the handrail. In a toilet cubicle he pressed the burning stitch in his side, and shook the bag's contents onto the tiles. The leather wallet, credit cards and makeup, he buried under used paper towels. But the earrings and the two hundred quid (enough for a deposit on a ticket!) went into his pocket. Nothing to it.
He strode down the pavements, already sensing the take-off, the roaring energy at his back and the pressure on his forehead. Charisma. That's what he had now. The air-hostesses attentive and turning to him with glasses of bubbly. An upgrade to business class.
And the way her shoulder had collapsed when he pulled on the strap of her bag: that was great, that was a thrill. He'd stretched out and brought it to himself. A couple more decisive actions like that one. That's all it would take. Then, no more mincing around, cutting crusts off white bread.
At the bedsit he rested the loot on top of the small fridge. Souvenirs of London. Mrs Methven had been right about rules. They were never going to get him anywhere. You had to take what you wanted. He didn't have anything to remember Helen by. Not a problem. He imagined himself on her doorstep, his voice deeper, his body more imposing.
Hello Helen, I've come to get what's owed me.
He wasn't sure what it was, but he liked the sound of it.
‘I'm leaving soon,’ he told Mrs Methven.
He wanted her to ask what had happened to give him this reckless air. But she didn't answer, only grasped his hand when he plumped up the pillows behind her head.
She waited until he looked into her eyes, then pulled his hand up to her throat.
‘Can you feel my pulse?’
‘Uh. Not sure.’ The slack buttresses of her neck moved under his palm.
‘It patters like a drummer unsure of the tune.’page 58
He stared over her dry, white scalp at the headboard.
‘Maybe I will decide when you leave.’ She took his other hand, and held them both against her throat. If he swung his thumbs around, he'd have a grip on it. He understood that it was now. She expected it. They breathed together for a few moments. But when she removed her hands, he let his drop: one went to the water glass and the other moved quickly to scratch his shoulder while he backed away.
At the lake, the young man laid his mother in the water, her head pointing towards the island. He held his breath while he waited to see if she would float.
Where am I? she asked. My bones are chilled.
You are lying on a feather bed, he replied.
The bird said, Congratulations. You have indeed found the lightest thing in the world.
The young man nodded, and thought of the riches that would soon be his. But while he was imagining his mansion, the piles of rich food and his beautiful wife, his mother began to float away.
In the kitchen, Phil ran a finger around the inner edge of his palm, and thought of her powdery skin. He'd been able to imagine the act of suffocation: his mind elsewhere while he pressed with locked elbows and considered whether to stop off in Bangkok or Singapore. But strangling, that would mark her neck with purple, and draw him close to her bulging eyes? He'd go down for it.
She was messing him around, he thought. It wasn't like she'd offered to write him into her will. She'd got him all hyped, but hadn't given him a real opportunity. Old bitch.
He watched TV. The cricket was going no better than could be expected. When it was called off due to rain—looked like a poor summer back home—he wandered into the icy dining room, shut off from the street by floor-length velvet curtains, and smelling of furniture polish and old carpet. The murky air doubled itself in giant gilt-framed mirrors. In the speckled glass his reflection promised criminal depths. He moved in close before huffing a sudden mist between them.page 59
The doors to the sideboard were sticky. He tugged them open one at a time, and removed a silver pepper shaker. There he was again, curving away in its contours, his eyebrows dark and larger than usual. He pocketed it.
He expected to hear the bell's sharp summons, calling him for more ‘conversation’. He didn't know how he would deal with it: he pictured himself standing staunch in the doorway, speaking seriously. But by lunchtime he'd heard nothing.
He slid his head around her door. She was staring out the window, the lace on her chest moving slightly. Later, when he checked again, she looked right at him.
‘Bitch,’ he muttered with each stamp down the stairs. ‘Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.’ Was this some kind of test? There was only so much he could take.
He planned his phone call to the agency. ‘She's ranting. You should make her see a doctor.’ She belonged in a home, or better still, a loony bin. He wondered if he could get her committed.
A smaller room lined with books opened off the dining room, and he ran his fingers over the leather bindings. In a dim corner, a lectern supported a large dictionary. He slid his eyes over the words, pausing at those in darker print. He recognised a few—spice, spick and span—with a contemptuous boredom. But there were far more that he didn't understand, and he met them with a rising agitation. Every word was followed by strange abbreviations, as if something was going on that he wasn't privy to. He wanted to swear, but his usual invectives resounded falsely in his head. At the bottom righthand corner of the first page, he found ‘spider’, and snorted as he felt the truth of it wind around him. The weighty construction of ‘a person who or thing which’ almost defeated him, but he snorted again when he absorbed ‘entraps and ensnares’.
‘Hah.’ Helen had been good at noticing these moments, he realised now; those times when everything seemed to fit together in a weird sort of way. There was a word for it, something she used to say, but it was hanging out of his reach in the dim corners of the small library.
‘Stuff this.’page 60
He tore out a page with a sweep of his arm, and wrapped it round the pepper shaker.
In the morning, he gouged a long, interrupted line with his bedsit key along the doors and panelling of the Beemers and Mercs parked down Cadogan Place. At the corner he checked behind him, then squatted and crashed his elbow through a triangular side-window. The exercise warmed him a little.
He tightened his muscles against the chill, hunching his shoulders to his ears. He'd heat up that damn kitchen today, make himself comfortable and watch the rugby. Hot chocolate. Maybe blow some sterling on a pizza delivery. By tonight Mrs Methven would be tied to a hospital bed, and the agency would have found him a new placement.
In the hallway the cold came down the stairs to meet him. He looked into the kitchen. The night nurse was limp on a chair, snoring softly.
Upstairs, the bedroom was like an industrial freezer. In the dim light he saw a small heap of dirty snow underneath the wide-open window.
He switched on the lamp. It wasn't snow, but Mrs Methven, blue feet protruding from her crumpled nightie. He grabbed the hand mirror from the dressing table and held it to her mouth, but when he checked it, he couldn't be sure if the faint mist was from her breath or his.
This was it, then. She'd given up on him.
He lifted her from the carpet to the bed. Her body gave way under his hands as though her bones were already disconnected.
Her disturbing mouth hung open. He didn't feel safe from her pronouncements, and began to roll up a handkerchief to wedge under her chin. A scratching in her throat made him turn.
A glutinous sliver was visible between the eyelids of her right eye. He bent down. The dry meetings of her lips and tongue, the constricted breath, resolved themselves into small, slow words. ‘You must … must not …’
Must, eh. Must not. There was always something. Even now, she was telling him what to do. No more of it. No more.page 61
Her lips were still quivering, but he straightened. He pulled the pepper shaker from his pocket and uncurled the flimsy paper. He took his time, finding the word again.
Her hand waved towards him. She was forcing more air through her dry throat, but her whispers were husky, unintelligible. Throwing back his shoulders, he began to read loudly from the unfamiliar abbreviations, smothering her voice.
‘En. And. Vee,’ Phil intoned. ‘Late Oh. Ee. Spipra. Ef. See-ef. Oh. Aitch. Gee. Lit. Female spinner.’
Wait! the young man cried, and stepped further down the bank, stretching out an arm towards his mother. But she moved faster, as though invisibly pulled towards the island, and the ripples from her wake washed back to the bank and rolled over his feet.
He felt a huge weight around his legs. Help! he shouted to the bird, clasping handfuls of mud and reeds.
Mother! he shrieked, and disappeared under the waters of the lake.
Nothing answered the rising bubbles. In a few moments it was as if the young man had never been there.
But the bird saw that the light from the island glinted more sharply.