Caroline has stopped buying my fig rolls. When I mentioned it, she said that if I wanted one so badly I could bloody well buy them myself. She’s rather brittle these days. The other day I watched Oscar pick and pick at a scab on his knee until it was bleeding all over again; no prizes for guessing who he got that habit from.
To think that this is all a punishment for my botched DIY job, oh, it makes me laugh! It makes me laugh a resigned, hopeless kind of laugh. When something is over, it is over. Your life carries on and when you look back to the event – whatever it may be – you find that a box has grown around it, meaning that it can never quite touch you. If it is a joyous event, then this is highly frustrating. However, if it is an event that you’d rather forget, you breathe a huge sigh of relief.
I suppose I should be more specific. Yes. The box in the wall; a curious business. When I saw that boy, saw his face, saw what he was holding, saw that look in his eyes, I began to wonder. About the other box, I mean – the box that separates the present from the past. I saw myself popping round to our house just before it was our house, in 1974. For weeks Caroline had been pestering me to go in without the slimy Estate Agent, so we could give it a thorough checking-over for damp.
The boy’s grandmother opened the door. Her hair was in curlers and she was dressed in a silky red dressing gown. I was wearing a suit with elbow patches. I started to explain who I was but she told me to stop jabbering and come on up. I followed her up the stairs. It just so happened that my gaze was level with her shimmering, pearl-like legs. I felt flushed, itchy, beneath my tweed jacket that I was not yet used to; I had never been so close to a woman like that before, a woman with pearl legs – the kind of things that Caroline and her feminist ilk were trying to outlaw. And we were already married by then.
I was surprised when she grabbed my shoulders and pushed me onto a bed which took up a disproportionate share of the room. Silk scarves were pinned to the ceiling; I felt as if I had strayed into a cave. I said that I was interested in seeing the house, and – but she put a finger on my lips. There was a look in her kohl-rimmed eyes that I could not work out; it had a sad element, a knowing element, and triumphant element, and … Something else. Whatever it was, it made my heart beat very fast. Very fast indeed. She untied her bathrobe and leant over me; her long breasts brushed against my nose.
As she undressed me, I thought of how Caroline was waiting for me, a few streets away, at a friend’s house. She would be sitting in a tense, hunched position, and when I arrived, she’d jump up and say, ‘Well, how was it? Was the damp as bad we suspected?’ All that thinking made me go cold and limp.
She asked what the matter was.
I grabbed one breast in each hand and filled my mind with their soft touch and with her department store scent. Then I ran my hands down her fleshy back. When I reached the nylon seam that bisected her buttocks, I stopped. She asked if there was anything the matter. ‘Quite the contrary,’ I replied. ‘Those pearl stockings you’ve got on, ahh…’
‘They’re not stockings,’ she said, offended. ‘They’re tights.’
‘Tights?’ I knew what Caroline thought about tights. I hooked my thumbs into under those soft tight seams. She let out a sharp cry. I imagined that I was whipping Caroline right out of the world. A wonderful crackling as her legs came free; Caroline was gone; I kissed the goose-pimply flesh of her calf. What happened after that filled the moment so entirely that even now, decades later, I only have to think the word ‘peel’ and I fall right back into it.
Just as I’d buttoned up my shirt, she said that would be ‘£100 quid.’
When I protested, she said, ‘Oh, come on, don’t act all innocent. You knew exactly what the deal was.’
I swore that I really had come to check out the extent of the damp, so that we could plan how much we’d have to do when we moved in.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it’s you that’s moving in, is it?’
Some of her makeup had smudged; she looked tired, ordinary, her eyes drained of their something else.
‘Well, I should be asking a lot more. Shall we say £500?’
I stood up, and told her I really didn’t understand. She pushed me back down on the bed again. Instead of crawling on top of me, she stood with her arms crossed, and told the story of the landlords. When she had finished, she looked at me as if to say: don’t you see, it’s all your fault?
It wasn’t, though; if it hadn’t been Caroline and I, it would have been someone else. I wrote her a £100 cheque and made to leave.
She stopped me again, telling me to open the chest of drawers. I don’t like to be bossed around, but I have always been a highly curious person, so I opened the drawer to find two babies sleeping in a nest of tissue paper and rags.
‘So those are the twins,’ she said. ‘Now, you want to see damp? I’ll show you damp.’
She leapt onto the bed and pulled at the ceiling scarves. Underneath, the wallpaper was black with mould.
‘I’ll come back,’ she said. ‘I’ll come back and I’ll tell your wife what you did, if you don’t give me the extra money.’
I told her the truth; I didn’t have £500 to spare because I’d used it all on buying the house. I did, however, know several people who were involved with the council; I’d arrange for her to torpedo to the very top of the housing list.
‘I don’t want to live in those towers, I want to live in a proper house,’ she said.
‘You call this room a proper house?’ I said. ‘And what about the…?’
I pointed at the babies, then the ceiling, then back to the babies.
‘Oh, they don’t know,’ she said. ‘They don’t know what’s going on.’
‘They’re very quiet,’ I said.
‘They’ve got to be, haven’t they? We wouldn’t have done all that if they’d been crying. And if I hadn’t given them both a good dose of paracetemols, they would’ve been at it like nobody’s business.’
I didn’t know much about babies but I knew you weren’t meant to do that. All that pleasure whilst there were two drugged babies in the drawer, why, it made my elbows itch again. I took down her details, and left.
I knew, by the time that I got to the stained-glass door of the house where I was to meet Caroline, that I would not put that woman on the housing list. I would not be able to explain it to anyone without arousing suspicion. Whilst I waited for someone to let me in, it dawned on me that I could live for years in fear of that woman returning to our house. The other option was to draw a neat line around the incident, label it ‘unfortunate accident,’ then imagine putting it into a briefcase, and burying that briefcase in the very depths of my mind.
Eventually my friend ushered me inside, telling me not to trip over the paint pots or to mind too much about the plaster hanging off the walls. Caroline was in their gutted living room, laughing. I walked straight up to her, kissed her hard on the cheek and told her that the damp was a lot worse than the estate agent had led us to believe.
‘Oh Michael,’ she said, ‘Let’s not talk about that now. We’ve got all this to look forward to!’ She gestured at the bare walls as if they were stars. Or children. Then our friends gave us an extensive account of their decoration plans. We drank wine, ate, laughed; by the end of the evening the accident was very far away and I was looking forward, unquestionably forward, to our new life.
And it’s worked out very well, it has. But only so long as everything is in its place – the box here, our life there. So, to bring me back to the original point, the sight of that Jazz with his grandmother’s eyes unhinged me so far that I had to go into the other room and sit down. The bedside dresser was far messier than it had been when I’d gone to sleep that evening; perhaps the house was subsiding and everything inside it was tipping, ever so slowly, from one side to the other, and it would carry on tipping until it was all piled up in one corner, in a huge, undifferentiated bundle. Ridiculous. I closed my eyes and told myself to get a grip.
It was Caroline, in the end, who brought me back to my senses; she took my hand and she said:
‘What should we do? What should we do?’
She looked so frightened, so vulnerable; I took her in my arms, kissed her forehead, and told her I’d sort it out. I don’t know why, but something about the look in her eyes that evening – or perhaps it was her shallow breathing – made me suspect that she knew the exact shape of that dark turn, without – of course – knowing a thing about it at all.
It was the same the day Oscar went missing; we were united through fear. We clung to one another like limpets, squashed into the very middle of the sofa, sometimes craning our necks out of the window with hope, otherwise staring blankly at our living room, wishing there was some way we could exchange the antiques and the paintings for the other hot pulsing human life that ought to have been spread over our laps. Everything we owned seemed somehow sinister, as if this loss had been written into them from the beginning, and we had failed to notice.
Oscar’s return transformed everything; everything in the house sparkled with promise and beauty. His face glowed and his words were like music. As Caroline and I watched him eat his favourite dinner and listening to him tell us the story of his strange day, I had the strangest sensation that we were somehow the children. That night was a saucy one; if Caroline and I had met in our teenage years, it would have been like that.
Unfortunately, things are now back to normal: Caroline and I go to bed with our backs turned towards one another, our faces buried in a book. Sometimes I wish we’d a bit more danger in our lives, so that we clung together more often. Most of the time, we are so certain of ourselves that we wander about the house without touching or even looking at each other; we must look like those prehistoric standing stones.
It was even worse on holiday. For weeks, we’d filled the little gaps in the day with talk of the holiday. We’d moaned about our need to get away from work. Oscar had a great time running around with the other kids, but Caroline and I … we were scared; scared to be just sitting, with no emails to write, no phone calls to make, no meetings; no legitimate excuse not to interact. We were each on a novel a day. I don’t know about her, but I didn’t enjoy any that I read; I guzzled the words in the way that certain people guzzle burgers. And there were quite a few occasions where even that wasn’t enough to quell the desire to put down the book and run from Caroline and that poolside table, to run far away.
At meal times, when we were facing one another, surrounded by other chattering people, we’d discuss work. She’d tell me all about her radical Victorian ladies. From the way she talked, I knew that they fed some part of her imagination – the child-like part that was still holding out for a heroic, fairytale life. I do the same with my seventies radicals; living a life of danger, intrigue, risk and heroism vicariously through them. When we first met, it was this characteristic that had kept us talking to one another all night in the cramped kitchen of a party: a passion to understand the lives of people who got their hands dirty, coupled with a deep, deep fear of dirtying our own. I don’t know where it came from or why it now has the capacity to swamp almost everything else.
Of course, I don’t mean to complain too much. We’re much happier than the other couples we know. In fact, a lot of them are no longer couples – the pair we visited on the day of the box, for example. And on that holiday we were forever overhearing squabbling by the pool, or on adjacent balconies. We didn’t squabble at all. We may have disagreements over petty things like, for example, the DIY. We never let them blow up into what I would call an argument; we never bring out the Big Things. Never. Sometimes, though, I wish we would.
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