Sunday 20 September 1998
He was sitting in front of the fire, its yellow halo flickering behind his head, the cigarette between the tips of his fingers ghosting a veil over one eye. She was waiting for him to speak, just say it. It would be a relief to hear it, she thought, even once, to listen to the sound of those words finally spat out. But he didn't say it. He said something else.
It's OK for people to want different things, he said. It's OK.
Sure, she said. It's hunky fucking dory.
Don't be like that, he said; thon bitter way. It's not like you.
Oh, she said. Oh really.
No, he said, firm. She felt like he'd said it differently somehow. Like he'd never been firm with her till that moment. Like this was the first thing he'd able to be definite about in his life. Like he was trying it out for size. She looked at him hard but it was her that looked away first. He was so good-looking, so apparently collected. The hem of his coat needed caught up again, all the previous stitching she'd done the worn colour thread showing like a shark's mouth near his knees.
It's absolutely OK for two people to grow in different directions, he said over her head. It's OK for people to want different things.
Sure she said. It is. Very civilised. Very - she kept her eyes on the hem - sewn up. D'you read it someplace?
He looked. If Grace had been where he was she would have looked as well. This wasn't like her. She'd thought herself above being spiteful for some reason; vanity, competitiveness, fear he'd be better at it. Taking a turn like this now wasn't doing her any favours. Tables would turn, Aiden would get to be the reasonable one and she'd get to be the sarky cow. Who had any moral high ground would disappear behind manners. In a contest between manners and morals, manners won every time. She had to rein herself in, calm down, even though the last thing she felt was calm. Especially when the last thing she felt was calm.
Yes, she said. Yes. Her heart felt seized, as though something that didn't like it very much had hold of it. You're right. It is very civilised it is it is. She lifted her eyes from the zig-zag red threads unravelling, looked at him. But is it OK if they have children?
He tilted his head on one side, breathed out like a car tyre and poured himself more whisky. He poured her one too, chinked the edges of its crystal against his own. The bottle was near enough to reach without anyone having to get up. It kept everything more contained, more literally in one place, because right now, if he'd had to stand up, walk out the room, what? What would happen? Nothing. Nothing a-bloody-tall. But she didn't get up, nobody moved. They just sat in front of the coal-effect fire, letting the dark getting thicker. She looked into the coals now and again, wondered how long it had been since she cleared the grate, wondering how she could wonder such a thing. Blue bits on the middles of the flames like the cooker, the invisible deadly gas that had taken millions of years to make so the two of them could get pissed one last time in comfort. She sat on, staring at nothing. The two of them did. All this introspection was costing fortunes.
I'm going to go now, he said eventually. He got up. You OK?
She looked at him. He asked again anyway.
And there he was getting up from his knees, looking down at her. A beautiful hell behind his head, his skin lit up with yellow bloom. He looked right into the middles of her eyes. She examined the way he did it, narrowing his own till the whites were no longer visible, till they were just a wash of blue. Aiden had great faith in eyes, he did a lot with them. Now, he looked at her as though she was a child or an animal, a pitiful, uncomprehending thing; a thing that couldn't begin to fathom the insight and depth that he himself was full of at this moment. A creature on the brink. And she looked back at him as though she wanted him to die, as though she wished his ribcage would just fucking blow up from pain. This is it, she thought. After all the lying awake, trying to hear if you were back, all the wondering if you were OK; all that falling asleep with the lights on, sometimes waking up and it was after three, after four, after five and you weren't there, you still weren't home; after the mornings of finding you downstairs, crumpled in the corner of the settee with the stink of alcohol like an old dog coming out of your mouth when I bent to see if you were all right; after tiptoeing round the house on fucking eggshells, round the subject for years, telling myself not to nag, telling myself it's just part of the package, part of how you are, how he is and YOU picked him lady YOU picked him; after learning to say nothing when you didn't come home, when you went out without saying, when you came back at five in the morning four nights in a row and then asking, pitching myself for asking and the only answer was you bursting into tears because it was a hurtful question, an intrusive thing Grace because everything's about fucking YOU; after listening to you explaining how many times, explaining through the sobs you just didn't come home sometimes, it wasn't anything personal, you just sometimes stayed out that was all and after all, after all I don't hit you Grace, I'm not that kind of man; after learning not to ask, watching you look right through me and walk away just the same because it came out in my eyes anyway, me thinking anything at all just showed; after all that shouting and silence and you're so fucking self-righteous, Grace, so goody-fucking-two-shoes; after all the self-help manuals, trying to listen more, understand more, let's-try-seeing-this-another-way more; trying not to resent and wondering why that was my job all the time, not yours; after wondering all over again if it really was me, what I did to make you like this, what did I do that I could haul out of myself and fix, there had to be something else I could fix; after the fights about how I washed the dishes, how I didn't wash the dishes, about the colour of the/texture of the/size of the fucking dishes; the fights if I asked you if you needed someone to talk to, fights if I said it was OK not to feel OK don't patronise me, Grace; after realising that things that used to feel like caring, like love was called moaning now, became moaning, it just did; after the greeting and the screaming and the for-show packing of suitcases you're not getting rid of me that easy, Grace - after all that and after all that. This. This was what it came down to. Aiden was getting up in the living room that was his, that used to be his, he was getting up and asking if it was OK. He was going to use the phone he was about to make not his, forget the number of maybe, wait for the taxi to come. But he wasn't going to say what she needed to hear. Say it Aiden just fucking say it. Aiden raised his glass, rolled the last dregs of whisky in his mouth, then strode past her into the kitchen. And that was where he stayed till the horn sounded. Grace remembered just in time not to tell him to hurry up. That wasn't her job any more. It would have been intrusive. The taxi sounded the horn again. The cab would leave if he didn't get a move on, it would drive away. They'd done it before. Listening to it out there, ticking over, raring to go. He had a knack of turning everything into waiting games, test, stomach-turning loops. The horn again. Any minute the damn thing would leave.
So, he said. So. He was standing at the living-room door, adjusting a scarf Grace had never seen before, a third of a cigarette on his lip. He had been crying. He took a last drag then reached for the saucer on the hall table, crushed it out slowly. His eyes were still full, loaded. Ash craters, Grace looked at the ash craters he made, the way they fell into the tray holding their shape, not crumbling. Engine noise was clear in her ears, the sound of brakes creaking. She felt without looking up, felt Aiden's warmth and body-weight move back in front of her.
I'm away then. OK?
He had perfect teeth. He'd always had them but they were somehow more obvious now, more white and regular. His lips looked bitten. And if she had to answer that stupid question, she would hit them.
Grace stood up quickly rather than answer, than say anything at all - it wasn't a question anyway - and went out into the hall. It was freezing after the heat of the living room, freezing and far too bright. A black bag, one she had bought Aiden for his birthday the year before last, was sitting in the corner under the hall table. One of the seams bulged, beginning to split; she could see an edge of his good shirt poking through. Weddings and funerals, she thought, blocking a need to know what else was in there, if he'd packed the things she would have chosen for him if she'd had the chance: we never go to weddings and funerals. Aiden came out of the living room and stood behind her. She could hear him but he didn't come any closer. She could turn round maybe, look at him again. Maybe if she looked hard enough she could will him with her eyes to take it all back, to change his face in a way that meant none of it had really happened. April Fool: say April Fool and smile. He swept past her suddenly, reached for the bag and hauled the zip fully shut. When he stood up he kept looking at the zip, as though it might be about to undo itself again without warning. Well, she said. He looked up. Well. She could have sworn she saw him reach one hand, almost touch her. Then he changed his mind, regripped the handle of the bag with both fists and walked towards the door, opened it using one knuckle and his knee, the way he always did. Grace felt the whip and eddy of the wind all the way back to the stairwell, its sting. Poised in the draught from outside, Aiden turned to look back.
I love you, he said, almost too fast to be definite, bolting for the safety of the porch. Don't ever forget that. His voice fading out as he ran. I really do.
THE NIGHT Aiden left, the night her man left, Grace went to the opera. She packed two cartons of apple juice, the wee ones with straws, and took both to be on the safe side. A packet of crisps, two wee boxes of raisins instead of sweeties. A picnic demanded more, though. Her eyes found out the bread-bin. They should have the whole thing. There were only two slices left, door-stop ends, but they'd do. She opened peanut butter for quickness, cut the spread results into squares the size of stamps. Easier to manage. Nothing in the fruit bowl. There was never enough fruit. Anyway, there was all the rest. She put them in a box with a snap-on lid that had been living purposelessly under the sink for ages, then got out the kitchen. Halfway up the stairs she banged her shin and noticed her feet were freezing. That meant slippers, Danny should have slippers. Enough toys not tidied up left on the stairs gave her two cars - one for each of his hands. She thought some more and wasn't sure he would manage with that few, rounded up some more. There were six before the top and that seemed fine. Food and six cars. She wanted everything to be right before she started. Before she went into Danny's room.
Inside was pitchy, the room trailing a faint scent of peaches and sweat. She stood in the dark listening to the noise of his breathing, gauging how deep he was, and for a moment that was all she wanted to do. Then she heard him moving. Something about her being there, something different about the way the room felt with her in it, must have woken him and he was ruffling the sheets, trying to sit up. Danny was like that - either asleep or awake. He didn't wait in the space too long. Grace could tell by the noises that he was sitting up properly now, scratching his head, yawning. Then he reached. She reached back, picked him out of the bedsheets. So warm you could have cooked eggs on him. He rubbed his eyes, speechless, and she caught the familiar scent of his breath. She knew he was looking at her, not thinking anything was strange about this, nothing at all. It was frightening sometimes, that he took your word for it. He wasn't going to ask where Aiden was because Aiden hadn't been in at bath-time. There was nothing to explain. Not yet, anyway. Silent, then, Grace carried Danny through to the bedroom, bouncing him in her arms. If Danny laughs everything'll be OK, she thought, knew it was cheating. Bouncing always made Danny laugh. So she bounced him up and down as she walked, something simple, nothing at all, and he laughed as she knew he would. Hearing him laugh without knowing what had hit him, what had hit either of them, Grace knew suddenly she would have to be good. She knew that more than anything else. She would have to be a very very good person from now on. Danny sucked in ready to yawn, put his head against her neck. She reached for his legs and stroked them, trying not to shake, not to give anything away. Thigh to ankle, ankle to thigh. His legs went on forever.
You used to wave your legs in the air, she said.
He said nothing. Danny's little feet circled in her head like bees over flowers on a padded plastic background, blue rabbit ears sticking out behind his shoulders. He hated the changing mat but not at bed-time. The flushed pink skin and perfect cat-moue of arsehole as he swung his knees up and towards his head. What age was he when he did that? Chest smooth as an unripe plum, little boy coming out behind the puppyfat stomach. Legbones, he's all legbones: where was all that length coming from? she used to think. Milk. He grew out of milk. My breasts started it. Holding his legs to feel the hard bone underneath coming through, wondering how in god's name it had happened. Her breasts made bones. Male bones.
You used to lie on a changing mat, she said, but he wasn't in the mood. The bouncing had stopped and he was getting restless, not listening to someone trying to establish she was his mother, his history, someone with secrets he couldn't remember himself.
You did you know, she said.
He just twisted his head from side to side. She patted his bottom, cupped the bunchy handfuls and squeezed. Cmon, Danny. Cmon.
Where are we going, he said, toying with querulous, hoping for something nice.
We're going to see Madam Butterfly, she said. There's a picnic. We're going to the opera.
SHE PUT a cushion next to where she was sitting but he didn't want it: he sat on her instead. The conductor's extremities were waving from the open pit like something drowning, then the curtains opened and tiny people far away started to move.
Who's that? he said. He whispered.
Pinkerton, she said. He's a sailor, he's going to get married. Where's the lady? he said.
Soon, she said, she was coming on soon.
Who's the other man? he said.
Sharpless, Pinkerton's pal. Now shh. Watch and see.
The female chorus came on, all suddenness under the lights, the dresses, flowers in their hair, and reminded him he wanted juice. And Grace had it, she had it right there. There was a momentary temptation to ply him with sandwiches and crisps, stick the extra pair of socks on him to show how efficient she'd been, how on top of things. But he was watching so hard, concentrating.
Who's that? he said, sucking.
Cio-cio San had come on: the big entrance and she missed it. Never mind.
That's her, she said, the lady. She's going to marry Pinkerton.
Pinkerton. The sailor, the man wearing a uniform.
Why doesn't he talk to the lady? His eyes never leaving the screen. Why does he only sing?
Singing is what they do, it's what they have for words. They only do singing in this thing.
Why, he said.
Because there are things you can sing you can't say. Because they do. It makes it special.
He didn't look any too convinced but he watched without more questions. She didn't notice when he fell asleep, only that he had. They didn't do adverts either, just ran straight through, raging to get to the betrayal. He'd been hanging limp over her arm for ages when the orchestra ebbed into One Fine Day. Despite the soreness in her arm, knowing it was a bad idea, she watched Butterfly and her son, waiting for daddy to come across the water and remember them, take care of them, alone. They'd got a real toddler, a tiny wee thing, to sit dumb on stage beside her, and between listening and wondering how they'd got the kid to be so still for that length of time, Grace couldn't stop thinking about taxis, taxis tearing through the night to christknew where. It dawned on her they'd need to wait for him to phone, that they hadn't a clue when they'd see him again. Holding Danny, cuddled up to her like he was a baby again, she couldn't wipe her eyes so she didn't cry. Not much. It would be a while before she put him down, though, slid him back into his bed, and maybe she wouldn't do that at all. Maybe, she thought, looking down at him, the soft tucks and folds of his limbs, maybe he could come in with me tonight. She watched him for a long time thinking it. Then she told herself Danny wasn't Valium, he wasn't a hot-water bottle. She told herself a wee boy shouldn't be out his bed at this time of night. She didn't want to see Butterfly impaling herself anyway, the toddler stumbling about, far too obedient, too unflinching against these roaring adults, on stage. But nothing moved her. The curtains went down, the applause started up, and she didn't want to put the telly off, to shift at all. It was Danny who did, startling up like something had tried to attack him. It's OK, she said. Just people clapping. And he draped into the shape he'd just left and went to sleep again, as though nothing was out of place at all. She held him there till another programme played through, something she couldn't remember now if her life depended on it, blue light from the TV casting on the wall like candleflame. Then she carried them both upstairs.
! This is an extract from an untitled novel in progress.
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