THE REFRIGERATOR WAS BLEEDING. A tub containing beef mince had split open and watery blood was seeping through the fridge door and pooling on the linoleum. Sarah staunched the flow with a wadded handful of kitchen towels, and Imogen watched as she transferred the wounded meat to a pudding bowl. Her mother had a thousand such crisis-management strategies.
On the oak table in the dining room was a laptop computer, which hummed and fizzed knowledgeably. At the onset of middle age Imagen’s mother had returned to higher education, and was now in the midst of composing, with difficulty, a ten-thousand-word dissertation on the Borgias. Imogen was her last child, not quite an afterthought, but not quite a fully-integrated component of the family swarm.
Sarah was forty-eight. Imogen was twelve, and had two older sisters, who worked in amorphously defined but prestigious jobs in Dublin, and an older brother, who had recently recovered from a bout of river blindness contracted in Cambodia and who now washed dishes in a restaurant in Sydney. It was June, and Imogen had just finished primary school. In two months’ time she would begin classes at Holy Child, the girls’ secondary school perched out on the bay in Killiney. She was too young to work for the summer, and too old, having recently discovered the virtues of self-possession, to endure without embarrassment her childish ten weeks of licensed indolence. She drifted through the days, and suffered most at weekends, when her parents remained home and her sisters came occasionally to visit.
Imogen prodded for a moment at the pile of flesh that now occupied the best pudding bowl. Streaks of pale brown fluid crept insect-like along the ceramic corrugations of the container. Imogen thought for some reason of the bloody skin of a newborn baby. Then she went into the sitting room. The carpet was covered with thin sections of The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post, The Sunday Independent; the usual newsprint gallery of cancer and interior decorating. It was early afternoon, and Imogen, who had been awake since eight o’clock, had read the most interesting parts of the papers already-the gossip pages, the sex columns with their smell of conformity panic. The TV showed the green flicker of unenlightening sports coverage. The remote control had been mislaid yesterday evening, and her father had been thrown into a minor sulk. Imogen found his lack of emotional control over such small matters slightly disappointing. Today he was playing golf at the K Club in Kildare, one of thirty or forty paunchy men in yellow j umpers and baseball caps, yapping into a mobile phone between swipes at the fairway. Dutifully Imogen searched for the remote, shoving aside sofa cushions and coffee tables, but it wasn’t to be found. Bored, she skulked into the front hall, and saw her mother framed by the kitchen door, staring at the fridge, flexing a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince between her pallid fingers.
‘It’ll cost an arm and a leg to get it fixed,’ Sarah said.
‘Maybe you could try and fix it,’ Imogen said.
‘Can’t you find something to do with yourself?’
‘No, I can’t.’
Each morning Imogen’s mother caked her face with two or three layers of faintly orange makeup, as though padding herself against some soul-shattering impact she anticipated later in the day. As far as Imogen could tell the impact never came, but Sarah went on with the padding even so. There was a religious cast to the twenty or so minutes she spent at the bathroom mirror at dawn, tweaking, smoothing, cajoling. Imogen herself avoided makeup, and disliked spending time in the bathroom, that strangely undomestic centre of self-scrutiny. Their bathroom was enormous; none of Imogen’s friends had ever seen a bathroom quite so ostentatiously huge. The chrome fittings and porcelain tiles had recently been photographed by a moderately popular homes-and-gardens magazine called Country Matters. The rest of the house was, as far as Imogen could see, unexceptional: the tongued-and-grooved wooden ceilings, the thirty-foot patio that faded casually into a money-coloured expanse of lawn spotted with bone-white furniture, the view of Dublin Bay with the horns of the Pigeon House smoky in the middle distance.
The blood, with its bronzed, inhuman tang, had left a mark on her index finger. Imogen went upstairs to the bathroom. On its two mirror-free walls hung architectural drawings produced by her father’s firm: the skeletal fetuses of hotels and offices still unbuilt. Imogen hated their ghostly, half-finished quality, their ectoplasmic fade from concrete line-drawings to theoretical air and space. Between the drawings her mother had placed prints by Paula Rego and Lucian Freud, which were designed to encourage Imogen in an enthusiasm she had recently displayed for painting.
Imogen went to the window and looked down into the consoling reach and sway of the garden. Halfway along the lawn a building was in progress. A quartet of Ionic columns already supported the roof of a planned Greek temple, testament to her father’s slightly obsessive fascination with Attic architecture. Sarah had bitterly dubbed the temple a folly; Imogen had needed the word explained to her. In the afternoon heat a young man wearing a pale T-shirt hefted bricks. Imogen watched carefully the sombre, muscular tilt of his shoulders. He was a college student hired by her father to expedite construction of the temple, and he had been at work since half past eight that morning, when Sarah had brought him cafe au lait, and they had chatted for what had seemed, to Imogen, an inordinately long time.
IMOGEN WENT TO THE SINK and rinsed her hands. A spider, camera-black and hardly moving, sat tensed on the tiled wall. She ignored it and went back downstairs.
In the kitchen her mother fretted inexpertly at the loose rubber seal of the fridge door. ‘Maybe I could replace it myself. That wouldn’t cost too much.’
Imogen said, ‘I still can’t find the remote control.’
‘Have you read the papers ?’
‘Why don’t you call Isabelle?’
lmogen sat at the kitchen table, face to face with the laptop, which showed the rude surrealist scribble of a cartoon screensaver.
‘Can I help you with this ?’ she asked.
‘I hardly think you’re qualified,’ Sarah said, with a peremptory snort.
lmogen instantly allowed herself the luxury of righteous anger. Her first idea was to perform the ritual pantomime of hurt feelings: retreat to the garden, or accept, meaningfully, Sarah’s suggestion that she ring her friend. Instead she moved away from the table and put her hands in her pockets.
‘Look,’ Sarah said. ‘Call those organic food people in Wicklow and tell them to cancel our order. It’s costing us a fortune. It’ll give you something to do.’
‘No,’ Imogen said.
Impassively Sarah regarded her daughter for a long minute of summer silence; then she sat, with a series of prim gestures which Imogen found unbearable, at the laptop and began efficiently to type.
MOVING INTO THE GARDEN she felt the first pangs of real hurt at what her mother had done. Sarah, Imogen had proudly deduced a month or so before, lacked the gift of tact which she had somehow managed to instil! in her children; she spoke aloud the small criticisms and damaging retorts which Imogen had always instinctively suppressed. These casual cruelties often caused more damage than would a dozen serious arguments. Imogen had found it impossible to remind her mother of the lesson she herself had taught, six or seven years ago: if it hurts, don’t say it. Sarah needed to be punished for her offhand malice.
On her way across the patio Imogen declared war. At first she had no idea what sort of campaign to wage. A week-long silence was too juvenile and cost considerable emotional effort, and Imogen did not have the patience to prepare a complex insult and wait for the moment of perfect delivery. Her helpless anger, her sudden deep sense of powerlessness, demanded an immediate response. The prints in the bathroom, the kitchen table with its grave burden of scholarly books, the motherly tricks for coping with a bloodied refrigerator- these were irritating in a unique way, the special heat and practiced skill of family hatred.
Industrial sunlight fell the length of the garden, smudging her father’s intricate low-rise landscape of smooth white stone and powdered dust. The patio was shaded except for a gap where the elms had been cut back a month or so previously, and through the hacked yellow branches she could see into the garden next door. Two girls her own age sat in shadow on an iron bench, doctoring each other’s hair with scientific concentration. Imogen turned away from this and moved through the light towards the half-built temple. The young man she had seen from the bathroom window stood beside an inert cement mixer, scratching his woolly black hair and examining a wide sheet of paper.
She wondered if perhaps she might be in love with him, and tried for a moment to remember his name. It was British-sounding, William or Wilson. Then an idea coalesced, and rapidly, with that sudden thrill of correctness which Imogen recognised as inspiration, became the first faint outline of a battle plan against her mother. Imogen would offer herself to this young man. He was an outsider; he existed outside the family, outside the world of the house and its detailed secret life. Whether he accepted or not didn’t matter; the offer itself, carefully conveyed, would be an oblique attack upon her mother’s heartless superiority. The idea was exciting. Imagen felt flushed and authoritative, a creature of purpose once again. Quickly she roughed out the nature of her campaign. Some areas remained cruelly undefined, but she had decided to rely upon what she thought of as her native cunning, an arsenal of instincts she had learned never to employ in direct combat with Sarah.
When he saw her approach the young man looked up and smiled.
‘Hi,’ Imagen said. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Not too bad,’ he said, ‘Progress is being made.’ He made an inclusive gesture which was somehow endearing. Sweat held the T-shirt close to his chest in grey patches. ‘I’m Billy.’
‘I thought your name was Will.’
‘I’m trying to get people to call me Will. My mother calls me Billy.’
‘I’ll call you Will.’
‘Thank you.’ He reached for a plastic water bottle and drank, tilting the bottle sideways so that he could look at her.
She let a strand of blonde hair fall across her shoulder. Imogen was proud of her hair; in sunlight it turned the colour of honey in weak tea. He was conscious of the gesture. She saw a fractional flicker in his eyes.
‘So is my dad paying you for this?’ she asked.
‘Hopefully,’ he said, unsmiling. ‘How old are you?’
‘Do you want more water? You’ve run out.’
‘No, I’m fine. Thanks.’
‘Was that my mother bringing you coffee earlier on?’
‘It was. We were talking.’
He gave one of those significant half-smiles to which children were supposed to be blind. There was clearly some moronic secret from which she was to be excluded because of her age. Imogen felt refreshed anger at her mother. Infuriating conspiracies trailed Sarah through life, and it often felt as though Imogen was the only one to be outraged by them.
‘ls she writing a book in there or something?’ he asked.
‘It’s her thesis,’ Imogen said in a bored voice.
‘What’s it on ?’
‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
He paused. ‘No. Do you have a boyfriend?’
This was patronising, but condescension was reflexive in adults. ‘Not at the moment,’ she said. He laughed. Imogen decided that she might very well be in love with him, after all. She stepped closer, keen to appear curious about the plans for the temple. Heat radiated from his sandy skin. He stared at her. Her message was almost through; in the core of his brain he had already realised what she wanted, and soon the thought would become a conscious one. She played again with the eloquent spray of her summer hair.
‘I could have a boyfriend,’ she said, ‘if I wanted.’
‘Who’s the lucky man?’
‘I doubt my mother would like him.’ She thought she could see his pupils widen. She could hear the semi-distant rattle of an old lawnmower, and beneath that, the proximate swish of the passionless ocean. It raised the hairs on her naked arms.
‘Well you’re very young,’ he said.
Imogen felt tears mushroom softly behind her eyes, surprising her with the suddenness of the hurt. The seduction had been entirely imaginary. Crushed, she smiled at Will, studied the drawings for a painful moment, then said, ‘I’d better go and do my homework,’ only realising how idiotic this sounded as she strode across the patio into the chill darkness of the house.
SHE WATCHED FROM the bathroom window as the cement mixer shrugged back into its stoical task. Will began to move breeze blocks slowly, with a thoughtful grace. lmogen had cried for a minute or two, sitting on the toilet seat and sobbing mechanically into her cupped hands, but she had become bored of this. The older she got, the less energy and interest she could devote to crying, and when the only audience was herself, there was something dishonest about her tears.
Will had stopped and was examining the plans again. She was comforted by the fact that the boy was obviously stupid, and certainly not much of an architect. She would mention this to her father. Usually he would be out there himself, directing construction and tinkering with his drawings. She liked him best when he did this. If he had been here lmogen would have had something to do and the conflict with Sarah would never have happened.
The spider above the sink had not moved. He still crouched inscrutably, quivering a forelimb to some secret insect rhythm. lmogen felt a moment of idle affection for him. The microscopic obsessiveness of tiny creatures, their savage reduction of the complexities of the world to a handful of italicised imperatives: eat, procreate, die.
A MOVEMENT IN THE GARDEN caught her gaze. Someone – it could only be Sarah – was walking across the shadowed section of the patio, heading out towards the temple. Will noticed and straightened up, but just as abruptly returned to work, lining up blocks at the foot of a column. The walking figure emerged from the shade and lmogen saw that it was indeed her mother, carrying a glass of water in her left hand.
When she was five or six feet away Will looked up and blushed a serious shade of red which his quickly activated smile could not conceal. lmogen felt dutifully interested in how adults behaved when there were no children around, but there was something more immediately intriguing about this scene, something which made her retreat a step or two from the window for fear of being noticed. Sarah spoke to Will. lmogen clearly heard the word Billy. A feeling of tension, of energised concentration, buzzed softly in the mild air, and lmogen noticed the set of her mother’s shoulders, newly sprung and carefully poised. Sarah handed Will the glass of water, and watched as he drank the contents in a single movement. When he had finished he gave the glass back with the embarrassed air of a baby petitioning his mother for praise. Sarah took it away, and with her free hand patted Will on the chest, fitting her hand to a dry patch on his T-shirt and pressing against the weight and heft of his body. lmogen couldn’t see her mother’s face. Will watched as Sarah walked back across the patio. After a long moment he went back to studying the temple plans.
lmogen turned on the tap and held her finger under the stream for a few seconds, waiting for the water to run cold. The spider on the tiles made a brief sideways gesture, suddenly a wilful intruder. He was an inch in diameter. She could count only seven limbs. She increased the volume of the running water and unrolled a clump of toilet paper which she brushed against the tile beside the spider. He moved. Encouraged, she attacked him again, causing him to skitter away until he came to rest above the taps.
She turned off the water and used the toilet paper to knock the spider into the sink. He ran around for a few seconds, charting an instinctive course through the clinging droplets, then stopped, stunned, contemplating his situation. lmogen turned on the cold tap, causing a trickle that splashed close to his outstretched forelegs. He quailed suddenly and crawled a millimetre to the left, away from the flow. lmogen collected some water in the cup of her hand and let it fall beside him. He dashed towards the plughole.
Turning up the faucet, lmogen brought a rush of cold water down on the spider, who was suddenly deluged, and washed away from the gravity well at the centre of the sink. She quickly fitted the stopper into place, and within a second or two the spider was skating across the iridescent shadows of his own miniature lake. lmogen had forgotten that their lightness made them impervious to drowning. She turned off the water. The spider paddled unavailingly at the meniscus beneath him. His movements were convulsive. He floated towards the steep incline of the sink’s edge, and made an attempt to climb on to the solid porcelain , but failed, as lmogen had known he would. Using the toilet paper she pushed him again towards the centre of the lake. His legs fiddled and sawed weakly at the air as he drifted with the force of her push.
Again she turned on the tap, and caught him this time, sent him underwater with the force of the fall. She let the cascade continue until she was satisfied that his immersion was total. Curled up in an exhausted huddle, a sudden advertisement for ruin and death, he came to rest at the bottom of the lake, larger than usual under the distorting shimmer of the water. She took out the stopper and let the water drain. The spider remained, gleaming and still.
She leaned in closely to examine him. He was shrivelled and soaked, but he was still alive. One leg twitched. lmogen opened out the compacted toilet paper and gently collected the little body in its rasping folds. She brought him to the toilet bowl and dropped him into the darker water, stained green by her mother’s choice of disinfectant. He swirled away with the flush.
At the window she paused to look down on Will as he bent to his unhurried task, and out at the bay – and, beyond that, out at the city, the world.