A whole weekend without children: eerie, joyous silence. Only ourselves, our nylon travel bag, our adult rhythms and our musty, apricot hotel room. The plastic and metal clink of the room key. No need to wake at 6.30 (though, of course, we do), no need for plans, time checks, compromises. No need to do anything.
Paralysed and frozen, we stand in the middle of the street. A lorry backs out of a pub car park. The air smells wet and then suddenly it is wet, beads of rain clinging to cuffs, cheeks, hair. We walk along the sea front and look at the pier - a shabby, unlit tangle of rides which will later explode into life. We walk back.
"Thought it would be nicer, end of May," I say.
"Are we going to talk about the weather or what?"
"I wonder how the children are getting on." In the face of this subject, he is resolutely silent. "OK, you bring up a subject then."
He shrugs. "Like what?"
"Anything you like."
He's silent, smiling.
"That's the thing about you," I say. "You're so easy to talk to."
Our coats shimmy and flap in the wind. My hair blows in my mouth. Taste of pub smoke. End of scene.
Later. Still raining. We sit in Brown's. "I want a Cafe Rouge," I'd said 10 minutes ago.
"Because the cappuccino will at least be nice there." "Is that all you care about? Cappuccino?"
"One of the things, yes."
Can't find a Cafe Rouge, so we settle for Brown's. A forest of aspidistras and tall stools and waitresses with dusky shadows under their eyes. We sit and read the Saturday papers. The cappuccino comes and then is taken away again because it was someone else's. Another is put in its place.
I read an article by a woman called Marian Partington, whose younger sister was a victim of the Wests. I begin reading it because it's there, but by the end I am daunted, moved, altered, bereaved.
The piece is long and dark and tangled and straight and shining and pure all at the same time. It's terrible to read because of what it dares to confront: how you deal with an unimaginably horrific ordeal and ending for someone you love. The filth, the pity, the imaginings and the worse reality. How you look agonising death in the eye and stare it out, snatch back from it what you had before: tenderness, sweetness, childhood affection and fun.
I think "I don't want to cry now because we're in Brighton and this is our romantic weekend without children." And yet and yet. I focus on the woman opposite who has soothing white hair and wears a shawl the same Liberty print pattern as Jonathan's mother's sofa-bed. I look at her sandwich. I concentrate on the sandwich's form and width and texture.
The author tells how she finally held her sister's skull in her bare hands and dared to look at where the eyes had been. The skull was like burnished gold. She tenderly arranged the abused and devastated bones in a logical fashion for burial, and left them in peace in the earth surrounded by soft, special things her little sister would have found comforting: poetry, honey, a soft toy, a brown blanket.
I finish the piece. The rain has stopped. Clouds drift in a swollen sky, "Shall we make a move?" says Jonathan.
Evening. We meet our old friend Nadia and go to a Thai restaurant, where her husband Mat will join us. Nadia's a writer and in the cab we talk loudly about a novel we all heartily dislike. At the traffic lights, the driver suddenly turns round. "In actual fact," he says - chewing a sandwich, slowly emptying his mouth. "In actual fact..." We wait, stunned. Does he know the novel? Is the novelist his daughter? "In actual fact, I've never been past that place and seen people there - it's always empty." He means the restaurant.
We arrive and are shown to our table. Mat's not there yet. "Can I get you a drink?" says a young, agreeable-looking waiter.
"We're expecting someone else," we say. "Maybe we'll wait and order some wine in a minute."
A second waiter approaches. "Can I get you a drink?"
"Thanks, no, we're just waiting for someone else."
A third waiter comes up. Same question. "Look," we explain, "You're the third person to come and ask us that. And anyway, there's someone else coming - four in all."
"Oh no," the waiter confidently asserts, "There are only three of us."
"No!" we exclaim in unison, "Us! There are going to be four of us."
"And there are three of you," I add, "And you've now all asked us if we want a drink."
Mat arrives. We kiss. Talk about his work, our work, Nadia's third pregnancy, the vexed, thirtysomething problem of contraception and why the waiters don't seem to be on the ball.
At last, the first waiter sidles up with a tray of drinks, rests it on the table. "Shall I take those off?" offers Jonathan.
The waiter hesitates; something's wrong. "No, these aren't for you - sorry, wrong table."
Later, Jonathan and I walk briefly along by the sea and then climb the stairs to the apricot room. "We should do this more often," we agree. I lie awake a long time listening to the window pane rattling in the wind and when I sleep, I dream of little girls and brown blankets.Reuse content