Outside my room the wind whistles. It blows down behind our row of houses, past all the bedroom windows and when I try to imagine the other bedrooms and the other husbands and wives inside I hear my own husband moving about downstairs. He will have finished reading the paper by now and will have broken up the chunks of burning coal in the grate. Then he will carry the tray into the kitchen, walking slowly, with the newspaper folded under his arm. He will wash up the mugs and leave them to drain; he will flip up the blind so that the kitchen will be bright in the morning. Finally, he will flick off the socket switches and gather up his bundle of keys. Occasionally, just, he will pause and make himself a pot of tea to have at the kitchen table, the house silent around him. As he moves I follow him from above. I know the way he sits at the table, his long legs off to the side, the paper propped against the teapot, or staring into the corner near the back door, pensive. He drinks his tea in large mouthfuls and gives the mug a discreet little lick, a flick of the tongue, to prevent a drip. When I hear his chair scrape the tiles I switch off my lamp and turn over. Don is predictable and safe. Tonight he is making himself that last pot of tea.
There are nights when I want to go down and shadow him and stand behind his chair and touch his shoulders. My long pale arms would wind around his neck and I would lean down so that our faces touch. Some nights between waking and sleeping I dream that I do this but I stand and watch him from the kitchen door and I am aware only of the cold of the tiles under my bare feet. There is something severe and imperious in Don’s bearing that makes me resist. He has a straight back and square shoulders and black black hair. His skin is smooth and clear, without blemish, as if he has many layers of perfect epidermii. Beside him, with my pale skin and fair hair I am like an insignificant underground animal, looking out at him through weak eyes.
Lucy, my sister, is staying with us for a week. She is sleeping in the next room and sometimes I hear the headboard knock against the wall as she tosses. I get up and stand at the window. The light from the kitchen illuminates the back garden and the gravel path down to the shed. If I peer out I can see the ivy on the back wall. When I am away from this house I have to let my mind spill over into this room before I can sleep. I have to reconstruct it in the strange darkness of another room before I can surrender. Its window bears onto the old fir trees looming tall and dark beyond our back wall. There is the house and these trees and a patch of sky above and these borders keep me penned in and I like this. I cannot face large vistas, long perspectives, lengthy hopes. When we first came here Don wanted us to take the front room; it is west-facing and bright and looks onto the street. He likes to hear the sounds of the neighbourhood; he likes to know there are lives going on around us. Some nights he sleeps out there. This evening he told me I was intolerant.
Tonight I wish I could be alone in the house. I would walk around the carpeted rooms upstairs, straightening curtains, folding clothes, arranging things. I would lie on the bed and inhale Don’s cool scent on the pillow, hours after he has slept there and this contact, this proximity to him, would be enough to make me nervous and excitable, make my thoughts too hopeful. Sometimes when Don and Robin are away from me and I am alone in the house I am prone to elation, prone to being swept up in some vague contentment at the near memory of them. I let myself linger in their afterglow, and then something—a knock on the door, a news item on the TV, the gas boiler firing up outside—will shatter it all. Lately when I am alone I become concerned for our future. It is not the fact of growing old, but of growing different. Don becomes impatient if I say these things and I see his face change and I know he is thinking, For God’s sake, woman, pull yourself together.
I go into the bathroom and the light stings my eyes. I splash water on my face. He will hear my movements now. I rub on cream and massage the skin around my eyes and cheek bones. My eyes are blue, like Lucy’s. There are four girls in my family and we all have blue eyes. I go out on the landing and lean over the banisters and see the line of light under the kitchen door. I pause outside Lucy’s door. I imagine her beneath the bedclothes, the sheet draped over her shoulders, her hair spilling onto the pillow. Lucy is a musician; she plays the cello in an orchestra and this evening she played a Romanian folk dance in the living room. Robin was in her jammies, ready for bed and afterwards she picked up Lucy’s bow. Lucy let her turn it over carefully and explained about horsehair and rosin and how string instruments make music and she showed her how to pluck a string. Then she whisked her up into her arms and nuzzled her and breathed in my daughter’s apple-scented hair.
‘Have you thought about music lessons for her?’ she asked me a moment later. ‘She could learn piano, or violin. She’s old enough, you know.’ Before I could reply she brought her face close to Robin’s. ‘Would you like that, Sweetheart, would you like to play some real mew-sic?’ Robin giggled and clung to Lucy like a young monkey. They sat on the sofa together and I smiled across at Robin. A bluebottle came from nowhere in November and buzzed around the room.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘She’s already got so much going on. And she’s only six.’ I watched the bluebottle zigzag drunkenly above the up-lighter and for a second I was charged with worry. Every day insects fly into that lighted corner and land on the halogen bulb and extinguish themselves in a breath.
‘Don’t leave it too late, Annie. She’s got an ear, she’s definitely got an ear. I said so to Don today.’
She carried Robin upstairs then and they left a little scent in their wake. It reminded me of the cream roses that clung to the arched trellis in our garden at home. No, it reminded me of Lucy. I think she has always given off this scent, like she’s discarding a surfeit of love. I wonder if all that wood and rosin and sheep gut suffocates her scent. I think of her sitting among the other cellists, her bulky instrument leaning back between her knees, her hair falling on one side of her face, the bow in her right hand drawing out each long mournful note, the fingers of her left hand pressed on the neck of the instrument or sliding down the fingerboard until I think she will bleed out onto the strings. I watched those hands today as they passed Robin a vase of flowers. She has taught Robin to carry the flowers from room to room as we move.
I turn and tiptoe into Robin’s room. The lamp light casts a glow on her skin and her breathing is silent and for a moment I am worried and think to hold a tiny mirror to her mouth, the way nurses check the breath of the dying. She is a beautiful child, still and contained and perfect, and so apart from me that sometimes I think she is not mine, no part of me claims her. Don has stayed home and is raising her mostly and she is growing confident. Often at work I pause midway through typing a sentence, suddenly reminded of them, and I imagine them at some part of their day: Don making her lunch, talking to her teacher, clutching her schoolbag and pausing to wait up for her along the footpath. I have an endless set of images I can call on. This evening as I pulled into the drive Don was putting his key in the door. The three of them, Don, Lucy and Robin had been for a walk. It was windy, they had scarves and gloves on and their cheeks were flushed. Lucy and Robin laughed and waved at me as I pulled in. I sat looking at them all for a moment. Now I have a new image to call on.
If I ever have another child I will claim it—I will look up at Don after the birth and say, ‘This one’s mine.’ I have it all planned.
After dinner this evening Don took the cold-water tap off the kitchen sink. He spread newspapers and tools all over the floor and cleared the shelves and stretched into the cupboard to work on the pipes. He opened the back door and went out to the shed and back several times and cold air blew through the house. After a while there was a gurgle, a gasp and a rush of water spilled out along the shelf onto the floor. He jumped back and cursed. Robin was in the living room watching Nickelodeon and Lucy was practising in the dining room. I had been roaming about the house tidying up, closing curtains, browsing. I had stepped over Don a few times and over the toolbox and spanners and boxes of detergent strewn around him.
‘What’s up?’ I asked finally. His head was in the cupboard. ‘What are you at?’ I pressed.
‘Freeing it up,’ he said, and I thought of the journey his words had to make, bouncing off the base of the sink before ricocheting back out to me. ‘Didn’t you notice how slow it’s been lately?’
I leaned against the counter. The sound of the cello drifted in from the next room, three or four low-pitched notes, a pause, then the same notes repeated again.
‘Wouldn’t the plunger have cleared it?’ I said this so low that he might not have heard me above the notes. I viewed his long strong torso half-twisted and his shoulders pressing painfully against the edge of the bottom shelf. He drew up one leg as he strained to turn a bolt. His brown corduroys were threadbare at the knee and the sight of it made me almost forgive him. The cello paused and then started again and I focused on the notes, and tried to recognise the melody. Lucy favours Schubert; she tells me he is beyond purity. I have no ear and can scarcely recognise Bach.
‘Is that urgent?’ I asked.
‘Can’t it wait then?’
I sensed his slow blink. Next door I heard Lucy turn over a page, sensed her pause, sigh and steady herself before raising her bow. A single sombre note began to unfurl into the surrounding silence and when I thought it could go on no longer and she really would bleed out of her beautiful hands, it touched the next one and ascended and then descended the octave and I thought this is Bach, this is that sublime suite that we listened to over and over in the early months of the pregnancy, and then never again, because Don worried that such melancholy would affect his unborn child.
‘Can’t you do these jobs during the day, when there’s no one about?’ I blurted. A new bar had begun and the music began to climb, began to envelop again.
He reversed out of the cupboard and threw the spanner in the box. ‘What the hell is needling you this evening?’
‘Shh. Keep your voice down. Please.’ It was Bach, and I strove to catch each note and draw out the title while I still could, before it closed in.
He started to gather up the scattered tools and throw them in the toolbox. ‘Jesus, Ann, we have to live. This is a house, a home… not some kind of mausoleum.’ I sat there half listening. The music began to fade until only the last merciful note lingered. I can recognise the signs, the narrowing of his eyes as he speaks, the sourness of his mouth, when he’s hurt and abhorred and can no longer stand me, and when the music stopped I wanted to stop this too, send him a message.
He leaned towards me then and spoke in a low tight voice. ‘Everything has to be your way, doesn’t it? Jesus, Ann, why are you so fucking intolerant?’
He slumped against the sink and stared hard at me so that I had to avert my eyes and seek out the darkness beyond the window. I felt Lucy’s attempt to muffle our anger with the shuffle of her sheet music and cello and stand. I longed for her to start up again, send out a body of sound that would enrapture, and then I wondered if he had heard it, if it had reached him under the sink all this time, and if he’d remembered or recognized or known it. What was that piece, I longed to ask him, that sonata that Lucy played just now, the one we once loved, you and I?
‘Look at you now, Ann. Do you know what you’re doing?’
I thought of them, Lucy, Robin and Don at the front door earlier and the lawn spread itself before me again. The three of them had been laughing. Who was it who had said something funny? Robin is sallow like her father, with long dark hair and some strands had blown loose from her scarf. Don was laughing too but when he saw my car he averted his eyes and singled out the key in his bundle. There was a look on his face. I have seen that look before. It is a dark downcast look and when he looked away this evening perhaps he was remembering another day, the day that I was remembering too.
Robin was newly born and Lucy had come to stay for a few weeks after finishing college, to relieve us at times with Robin. I had wanted a child for a long time and now, when I recall them, I think those early days were lived in a strange surreal blur. At night, unable to sleep, I would turn and look at Don in the warmth of the night-light, his dark features made patient and silent by sleep, and I would think how I wanted to preserve us—Don, Robin and me—forever in the present then, in this beautiful amber glow.
I had gone into the city that day and had walked about the parks and the streets and the shops watching my happy face slide from window to window. Giddy, I bought a packet of cigarettes and sat outside a café and watched people’s faces and felt a surge of hope. An old couple came out with their tray and sat down, reticent, but content. Young girls crowded around tables, self-consciously flicked their long hair and chatted to boys. I lit a cigarette and broke off half of the chocolate that came with my coffee and nibbled it, saving the rest for later, to disguise the cigarette smoke on my breath. I had not smoked for years and the cold air and the deep draw spiked my lungs and the surge of nicotine quickened my heartbeat and made my fingers tremble and I closed my eyes and slid into the drunkenness of it all.
Suddenly I was startled by a pigeon brushing past my arm and landing at my feet. It fluttered and hopped awkwardly on one leg and I saw the damaged foot on the other leg. There remained only one misshapen toe with an ingrown nail coiled tightly around it, swollen, sore, unusable. I met the pigeon’s round, black, empty eye and thought of the word derelict and suddenly it seemed like the saddest word I had ever encountered. Two more pigeons landed close by and pecked at fallen crumbs. And then a gust of wind—tight against the street—came from nowhere and tossed napkins and paper cups and wrappers from the tables. My chocolate, half eaten in its gold-foil wrapper, blew to the ground. My pigeon hopped over and pecked at it and I smiled at his good fortune and then, in anxiety, thought that Don would now smell the cigarette when I got home. I glanced at my watch in panic and remembered Robin and her tiny clenched baby fists and her moist eyelids, and wondered why I had ever left her. I went to rise and a terrible racket of flapping wings and screeching occurred at my feet where the other pigeons had come for the chocolate and cornered my lame one. ‘Shoo, Shoo,’ I called at them but it came out as a whisper. I waved my arms and tried to rise again but with my loud heart and my shaking hands and the terrible screeching of pigeons I fell back into the chair.
Later I fled the city, trembling, and drove quickly towards the suburbs, with Robin on my mind and an odd fear that I might not see her again.
At the front door I reached into my pockets but found no key. I looked in the livingroom window. Robin was asleep in her Moses crib. She was there, safe, and she was mine.
I walked around to the back of the house. The old fir trees appeared to be pressed flat against the sky and everything was still. The neighbourhood was silent and the birds and the dogs and the children’s street-play were all absent, or that is how I remember it, as if all living creatures had sensed danger and fled, like they do on high Himalayan or Alpine ground before an avalanche. The back door is half glass and Don had his back to me. I raised my hand to knock on the glass and then I saw Lucy, in front of him, wedged up against the counter. He stood over her, leaning into her, with an arm each side of her and his palms flat on the counter. He was spread-eagled; he had her cornered. Her body and face were hidden from me; her hands moved on his shoulders, pressing them, and then her slender fingers touched his neck and traced the outline of his face, and her legs, in jeans, emerged from between his. I looked at the back of his head, at his thick black hair, his square shoulders. He was wearing a check shirt I had given him at Christmas, and his dark brown corduroy trousers. He moved his hips and his thighs and I thought: she is too small for him, he will crush her. But I underestimate Lucy.
And then he stopped moving and tilted his head, as if hearing something. He turned his face to the right and I slid back. All he would have seen was a shadow, like a bird’s, cross the back door. I walked lightly to the front and leaned against the window. Later I rang the doorbell and pretended to search for something in the boot. And things started to come out and move again. A car drove into the cul-de-sac and a child yelped and lifted his tricycle up onto the footpath. An alarm went off at the other end of the road.
Finally Don opened the door.
‘I forgot my keys,’ I explained quickly. He looked at me, that too calm unquiet look.
‘You should have come around the back. Robin might have woken with the bell.’
‘Did she sleep the whole time?’ I asked and we looked at each other for a terrible moment and neither one of us heard his reply.
Now I hear his movements below and I become anxious. He is opening the back door. Does he, Don, step outside and gaze at the stars on nights like this? Does he stand under that dome of darkness and wonder at it all, at the waxing and the waning of the moon, the black silence? I have a strange sense of being in both places—down below with him and here in the bed. My heart is thumping and I am agitated and far from sleep now.
Suddenly I am exhausted from the effort of tracking him below. I am restless and my bed is too warm, too familiar, like a sickbed. I move and try to use up all the space and lie horizontally and remember a childhood illness, a fever in my darkened room, and my mother’s voice saving me. And now I want Don here, I want the memory of him here. I want him beside me so that I can find the slope of his body against which to lie. I want him to reach across the wide bed and draw me into his arms. I want him to lay his large hand flat on my belly and press softly and feel desire flood though me. I want to be silent and dreamy and see this room, the treetops, everything, from a different angle. I want to be shielded by trees and forget everything and lie against him and sleep.
I did not hear him come upstairs. He has stolen upon me before I am prepared. He approaches my side of the bed but stands back a little. Though my eyes are closed I can feel the distance. His voice is soft and defeated. I open my eyes and look at him. I am waiting for some sound from within, searching for a few syllables to knit into words that will not disappoint, just a few, to send across this small space and call him. He waits too and a long look passes between us and I know something has been spoilt, and then he moves away and starts to undress. And for the first time his undressing, piece by piece, is too intimate and crushing and revealing and I close my eyes and weep.
He goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. In a moment I hear the flush and the brushing of teeth. When he returns he walks around the room and hangs up his clothes, unplugs the hairdryer, puts his shoes away. Now and then he clears his throat in a precise, emphatic way. He does this when we argue—he appears occupied in his task, untouched, untroubled, aloof. He does it to distance me, to reduce me, to make me think this is nothing. And I am left wondering—do I magnify everything, do I magnify the words and the pain and the silences? Do I?
He reaches for a pillow and for a moment I think he is going to take it to the front room. But he gets in beside me. The lamp is still on by his side. He is sitting there with his arms folded, looking from him and I can feel the rise and fall of his chest. I wonder at his thoughts, at those clear thoughts I imbue him with, at his certainty, at how he seeks always to unscramble things when all I can summon is silence and how I will never know him but always imagine him. Outside I hear the occasional flapping of our clothes on the clothesline and the faint distant whistle of the wind, as if it has moved off and left our house alone tonight. And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him.