I had heard the actors were coming and I felt there was a slight chance of my joining them. In the first week of December, I saw their poster on the wall outside Mrs Wyndham’s shop: they were coming, and this time I would be ready. The school term was over. The temperature was minus five degrees and the pavement on Mrs Wyndham’s side of the road was covered in ice and grit. There was no one around. I looked up the street, removed my gloves. I took my time. With one hand on the poster, I prised the edges loose with my fingers, making sure the paper didn’t slip or detach from the wall too early.
When my mother asked me where I got the poster, I told her I found it lying on the path outside the theatre. I waited to see what she would say about that. She wetted an end of thread, adjusted the lamp on the kitchen table, and kept on with her sewing. I drank my milk. I thought she might say something, but she was going through one of her quiet periods.
I put my empty glass in the sink and went across the hall to borrow a ladder from Mr Levy next door. My mother was the only person in Marlborough who wasn’t white, and as usual Mr Levy asked me how come I didn’t look like her. I wandered around his place, closing his windows for him so he wouldn’t catch a cold in the night. I told him, as I told him most days, that I didn’t know but if I had to guess I’d say it had something to do with my father. Mr Levy was unsure how to take that until he saw I was joking with him, and then he smiled. He offered me a shortbread and I accepted it. I knew that if I hung around he would ask me the same thing again in a few minutes before offering me something else to eat. I liked Mr Levy. He was forgetful due to his illness but he didn’t dwell on things, and he was good-natured and unstinting in his hospitality. We talked a while, ate biscuits from a plate. When I saw he looked tired, I wished him goodnight. It was true, what I had said to him. I didn’t know much about my father, only that he had brought my mother to Marlborough from her family home in India before I was born. It upset my mother to talk about him and she said, at first, that I wasn’t old enough to understand. And later, when I was old enough, I told myself I didn’t need to know. I just didn’t want to watch my mother getting sick from remembering, because there was a depression that could come over her, one that was worst in the winter. Sometimes it would become difficult for her to get up out of bed, and when she did get up, she might have a sudden energy for something domestic, or she might stand in our doorway, eyes shining, telling me to get my shoes on because we were going out, or else she might just stare at the black of our window. You couldn’t know beforehand how she would be.
I dragged Mr Levy’s ladder across the hall and into our place, where my mother was moving about the kitchen, wiping the worktop and the table. Positioning the ladder by the bed, I climbed up, stepping over the two loose rungs. My mother paused in her work to pull the free end of her sari tight over her bosom and pin it to her blouse, out of the way. As she fixed the pin, a length of dark hair came undone from her braid. It fell over her cheek. I looked at her, thinking that maybe I should tell her I would soon be gone with the actors, but she continued wiping and so I leaned into the top of the ladder and fixed my poster to the ceiling above our bed.
We lived in one room of a brick house at the far end of the town. The roof above our room leaked when it rained and the sewerage was poor. Every now and then, my mother had me go over the damp spots on the walls and ceiling with a clean whitish paint. We lit candles to cover the smell from the sink. Once, a long time ago, my mother bought metres of dark blue polyester and gold-coloured rope, and we made curtains. With the curtains drawn, we had two rooms. There was the kitchen, with its window and the table where we ate and worked, and, behind the curtain, we had our bed, a lamp on the floor, and one of the plastic chairs from around the table. We had a bedroom. I began taking my time changing into my bed clothes at night. My mother did the same. A few weeks after we got the curtains, a woman from the council came to look at the damp on our ceiling, but when she saw our bedroom and the gold rope, she forgot about the damp. She started talking loudly. She said we were altering the property. She said the council would send us letters, so my mother pulled the curtains down in front of her and left them in piles on the floor. I took the rope. I put it inside my school rucksack under the bed.
When I was done with my poster, I moved the ladder to the window. It was quiet in our room after that. My mother was working at the table and I began washing the shirts she had finished. The soapy water in the sink came up above my elbows. I could hear my mother moving behind me. I could hear the rustle of silk under her hand, and the bangle on her wrist knocking the table when she pushed aside a sleeve or a hem. I lowered my arms further into the water. There was a pile of garments next to my mother’s chair. The following morning, she would take three buses to another town, to a woman who would pay her for the garments and sell them on. And on Christmas Eve she would go again. I made a show of scrubbing the shirts in the sink. My shoulders hurt. I held the shirts under the water and pulled the plug. When I had finished rinsing and wringing, I pegged the shirts on the line my mother had strung from one end of the room to the other. I ignored the water dripping from the sleeves to the floor and took the next batch to the sink.
It was late by the time I lay down on the bed, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep. And when my mother turned out the main light and climbed in next to me, I switched on the lamp and looked up at my poster. It was a good poster. The title, Atalanta, was printed in red sloping letters across the top. Underneath stood Atalanta the huntress, tall and still and calm as anything, while all around her the Calydonian hunters and their dogs crashed about and shook the air with such a spurious violence you could see things were unlikely to end well. Everything was white and gold, except Atalanta’s bow and the tip of her arrow, which were red.
In the half-light, I felt my mother’s arm against mine and heard her breathing. I turned onto my side. I could still hear her. I got up and sat at the table so that I could figure things out. After a few moments, my mother stirred.
‘You need to eat?’ she asked, low-voiced, from the bed.
I sometimes sat up at night when I wanted to think or when I was so hungry that everything was faintly throbbing—my chest, my heart, my head—and my mother would get up too, and she would warm some milk for me or she’d make me a rotlo on the stove with millet flour, dark and buttery. She would rest her head on her hand and watch me eat. Other times, when there was nothing to eat, she would just sit with me. It isn’t possible to sleep off a hunger. It just isn’t. And now that my mother had mentioned it, I felt the throbbing and knew I would be awake until morning. I thought of the rotlo, soft, hot off the stove.
‘No, Mama,’ I said. ‘Go to sleep.’
My mother turned over and I looked at the poster again and tried to concentrate. On December 12th, the actors would arrive in Marlborough. They’d sell tickets and rehearse for a week and after that they’d perform their play every night for four nights, with their fifth and final performance, a matinée, on Christmas Eve. Before the final performance, they’d meet at the Crab House for their lunch, and that was when I’d approach them. I would tell their director I wished to join them as an actor. I’d give some sort of speech. The director, surprised and moved, would offer me a place in his company. And when the actors left Marlborough, I would go with them.
I had seen the actors going about the previous winter, and I’d slipped into the theatre on the evening of their first performance. The curtains had opened and in the warm hush of the auditorium I saw them make palaces and forests out of nothing. Their eyes darkened with love and shone with all the tempers of the world. Everything about them was bright and shimmering, even their boots glinted like fleeting thoughts as they moved about the stage. Afterwards they looked so different, laughing together outside the Crab House, that it was impossible to forget them. I lay my head on the kitchen table and let my eyes close. In five days, they would be here. Five days. I began to feel the pressure of it, like a good tight ball inside my stomach.
The next morning, it snowed. It was Sunday. My mother and I looked at one another, and without a word we put on our coats and went out. The streetlamps were palely lit, and the sky was thick and almost pink. Snowflakes swirled about our heads. Our cheeks were flushed but it wasn’t all that cold and so we walked with our coats open. My mother was looking up and I saw she was smiling, and then I was smiling too. I couldn’t help myself. The snow kept falling, and we were lightheaded with it.
We were passing by Mrs Wyndham’s shop when my mother decided we would go inside. I thought of my poster, that I’d stolen, and suggested we go to the other shops by the pier, where they knew us.
‘We are here,’ my mother said warmly, as if she was agreeing with me, and put her hand on the door.
No one had seen me with the poster, I knew that, but when we stepped inside and the bell on the shop door dinged, I felt my heart thumping a little.
Mrs Wyndham was busy behind the counter taking money, wrapping parcels, talking the whole time to her customers who stood in a line before her. Her white hands were twisting string round and round a brown paper parcel. Inside were tins of syrup, jam, bottled sardines. It was hard to tell where all the bottles and tins had come from because when you looked around, the shelves were nearly empty. And they were covered with dust. The whole place was shabby, even the tired strands of tinsel that might otherwise have suggested good cheer. If Mrs Wyndham accused me, I thought, I would deny it. I didn’t know what my mother would say but I thought that with the snow falling like it was and everything turning soft and white outside, Mrs Wyndham could turn to her and enquire, Isn’t that poster, at this very moment, on the ceiling above your bed?, and my mother would look at me, and then she would look out, and she would answer: No. It isn’t.
The queue had been moving quickly and now we were at the front. Behind us, the line was hushed. My mother was speaking. I had learned to pay attention when my mother spoke because people didn’t always take kindly to what she said.
‘It is baked today?’ she was asking.
Mrs Wyndham stared at my mother and then she leaned her elbows on the counter and looked questioningly at me, as if I might translate.
I felt my cheeks grow hot.
‘Was it baked today?’ I said.
Mrs Wyndham straightened.
‘All our food is fresh,’ she said, and turned to the woman next to us in the line. She didn’t want to serve my mother and no one was saying anything about it. The woman approached the counter and ordered two large rashers, and Mrs Wyndham smiled briefly, lifted a large body of meat onto the counter, and began slicing. I saw that she didn’t know about the poster, and it didn’t seem to matter now.
I tried to take hold of my mother’s hand but my mother stepped forward. She pointed at a floury loaf on the shelf behind Mrs Wyndham.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘One bloomer.’
Mrs Wyndham stopped slicing.
She took the loaf below the one my mother had indicated, placed it on the counter, wrapped it slowly.
My mother was looking at Mrs Wyndham’s hands. There was no expression on her face. She watched Mrs Wyndham’s fingers that were shiny from the meat, and she said nothing, but she paid for the bread and when we got home she broke it in two and tossed the contaminated half onto the frozen mud outside our building.
Later, around five, when my mother was lying down, I went out there, found the bread, ate it. I walked around for a bit and after I came back in, turned out the light and lay next to my mother. And I thought: four days.
Since there was no school, I spent these days helping my mother, and when there wasn’t too much sewing or washing or ironing to do, I wandered the town. I went by the Crab House and though there was no one around I stood on the pavement outside as if I were in a queue. For long stretches I sat on the sea wall in the freezing cold, thinking. The sea was the same as it always was, mostly a pale, washed-out grey rising and falling under a colourless sky. When I joined the actors, there would be other skies. There would be other seas. At home, my mother told me I would catch a fever. Her head was bent over the hem she was sewing and she said it without looking up, her mouth half-closed over the pins she held between her lips. I put the light on for her and went out. There were icicles now, above shop windows, and ice on the pavements. By early evening, the sky was black and there were pockets of light: coloured bulbs dipping over the roads at intervals, red, green, blue; a scattering of stars. I stood outside the Crab House until my face was burning with cold and I could almost hear the heels of the actors’ boots cracking distant ice as they approached our town.
My mother kept working, and I kept on with my chores, and when at last the actors came, I approached Sally Martin, whose father managed the theatre. I gave her a rose-pink purse with silver threading that I had made over the summer, and in return she gave me the key to a disused room high up over the auditorium. It was no more than a cupboard really, filled with boxes and pipes and electronic equipment, but it had a small window looking down onto the stage, and when I stood close to the window I could see and hear everything. I dropped my rucksack and waited.
The actors gathered below me, all dressed up. I could feel my heart beating in the dark. On that first afternoon I watched them rehearse the entire play. The cast members who weren’t performing at any one time were at the back or sides of the stage, assembling mountains and skies, hammering nails into wood. There was Atalanta, the virgin—abandoned by her father, nursed by a bear, fair as the snow and swift-footed as the wind—on a stool behind the Chorus, erecting a tree. There was the Calydonian Boar, sent by the goddess Artemis to ravage the land, whose front and back, a man and a woman, were re-painting the tops of billowing clouds. There were the hunters, who made a great racket and botched things until Atalanta sailed in on a foaming sea; the Fates; the Messengers; Meleager, who loved Atalanta and would murder his uncles for her sake. Amidst all the landscaping and woodwork, I glimpsed Meleager’s face in the floodlights, disfigured with grief and remorse, and in the next moment the lights dimmed and he was turning up his shirtsleeves, nodding eagerly at something the director was saying. It was all so strange and wonderful that I wanted to cry. I stood in the cupboard quietly watching and didn’t leave until the actors had gone.
It was dark outside when I wandered up into town. The night was still. In the windows of the closed-down department store, I saw myself passing. I saw my whole figure, from my white face to my muddy boots. I slowed down. In an instant, I was transformed so that anyone watching would see, reflected in the department store windows, Atalanta the virgin stalking a wild boar amid the green hills of Calydon. The virgin adjusted her rucksack. Slowly, she drew her bow; she let her arrow fly. And then she held her stance. When the one who loved her laid the spoils at her feet and I caught in the air the echo of her faint, chaste laugh and saw in the department store window the rosy blush in her cheek, I was ready to hear cries of ah! and bravo! and a volley of applause. There was silence. The street was empty and the sky was gloomy and low, but I looked up at the Christmas lights, and knew I wasn’t alone.
I returned to the theatre the next day and the next day and the next. I repeated all of the actors’ lines. Before long, I knew in advance what they would say and I mouthed the words as they did. I stood at that cupboard window for hours. Once, when I had been standing the whole afternoon and the air was heavy and warm, I rested my head on a pipe and closed my eyes and soon the actors were no longer below me on the stage. They were standing in the cupboard with me, speaking directly into my living soul.
… What storm is this that tightens all our sail?…
… What shall be done with all these tears of ours?…
… What shall we say now? what thing comes of us?…
… What shall be said?…
Somewhere far back in my mind, I was thinking that I would have to tell my mother she must remember to go over and close Mr Levy’s windows.
The opening night was a success. The whole audience stood up to applaud. I walked home knowing that the actors would have a good time wherever they went that evening. I hadn’t yet seen the actors around town and when I tried to imagine them there, among the holiday lights, dressed in their everyday clothes, I felt an ache inside me.
The second performance was different in some way, and during the third performance, I could see from my cupboard that something was wrong. It was Atalanta. She was forgetting her lines. She left the stage when she should have been speaking. Sally Martin told me Atalanta was sick with food poisoning. I asked her if they would send her home.
‘What home?’ Sally replied, and I understood that the actors only had each other, and I thought that was good, that was enough.
On the fourth night, it was someone else playing Atalanta. One of the messengers. A boy. He stumbled about and the actors gave one another looks. Seeing their anxious faces below me, I wanted to bang my fists on the cupboard window, shout down: Hail thou! Good news! But I knew I wasn’t up to it, and in the end the boy didn’t do too badly. I watched from above the stage and afterwards I walked along the sea wall. I had never imagined the director might give me the leading role, not right away, because how could he? But as I walked up to town, towards the department store, I started to feel that everything was possible. In the store’s huge windows, I studied my face. I began reciting Atalanta’s lines.
When I returned home that evening, my mother was sitting at the table in the dark, looking out of our window. There was a smell of burning from the oat biscuits she had forgotten. I put the light on, opened the window, and ate the rice and yogurt she had left for me, then cleared my plate away. There were clothes all over the floor and on the bed. Nothing was ready. I began washing shirts and my mother lay down for a while before getting up again to sit at the table. I hung the shirts on the line.
‘Mama,’ I said when the line was full. ‘Did you eat?’ I was rubbing my arms with a towel but they just seemed to stay damp.
My mother turned her head to me. When I went over and knelt at her feet, she smiled absently and touched my arm, and then she moved her hand away and murmured, ‘Where is your towel?’
I caught her hand, held it.
‘I won’t always be here,’ I told her.
I won’t be here tomorrow.
‘You have to take care, Mama. You have to eat. Do you understand?’
We both looked at our cupboards, the half packet of rice, the few tins. I thought of Mrs Wyndham’s empty shelves and all her jars and bottles that appeared from nowhere and I felt tears coming. I didn’t know how I could rehearse the speech I was to give the actors, all that ‘as it were’ and ‘if there be’ and ‘what thing is this’. I was sweating and my head was beginning to hurt. I got up and brought the towel, knelt there while my mother held it to my forehead and my arms. I leaned into her. I could feel her warmth, her slow breaths rising and falling with mine. She smelled of biscuits and silk. I saw she would pull away, and when she did, I felt a rush of cool air on my skin, and she was gazing out of the window again. I didn’t move. I wanted her to look at me. I wanted her to explain to me about Mrs Wyndham, and why we had nothing. I wanted her to tell me that it didn’t matter, that we were okay, that she was okay. But it was no use, because what she was looking at was an absence so vast that it consumed her.
I stood up, went to the window. It had been raining. The pavement was wet and dark. I rested an arm lightly across my stomach. This was how my mother stood when she was thinking about my father. I had believed for a long time that the two of us—my mother and I—had disappointed my father. There was not enough life in us. Mainly, it was my mother, it must have been, because back then I was only a baby and I couldn’t be blamed. I believed all this until I was seven, which was when I met a man on the beach who recognised me because I looked so much like my mother. I’d found a whole portion of chips on the pier, wrapped in newspaper. The chips were good; vinegary and soft. I was sat on the wall facing the sea, pushing the chips into my mouth, breathing out from time to time as if the chips were too hot, when this man came up and asked me about my mother. Since I had this whole feast on my lap and the sun was setting and it was warm and the sea was a riot, dirty green and wild, I shifted a bit, made a space for this man. The man was dark, darker than my mother. He wore a suit. He sat down and removed his hat, held it on his lap. He talked. He told me I might not think I looked like my mother, but I did. He told me he had known my mother back home. I should have seen her when she was young, he said.
Back home, he said, she had been the life of the whole town. She made things happen. She only had to walk past and something wonderful would happen. And it wasn’t just that. The man turned his hat slowly, over and over in his hands. She looked out for you, he said. You knew that if you were lonely or in trouble, she would notice. I’d stopped eating. I turned a bit so I could see his face. He was looking up at the sky and there were grains of sand stuck to his cheeks. Oh, he said. His eyes were shining.
I began asking this man about my father, but he became so worked up and disoriented that I had to stop. What had happened, I realised, was that my father had come along, out of the sea or wherever he came from with his thick wet beard and his hungry mouth, and he loved my mother because of those things the man had mentioned. My mother’s people cast her out in shame. My mother was not ashamed. She let my father hold her. She let him carry her away. She let him bring her here. And maybe it had all gone fine to begin with, but slowly my father had eaten all the joy out of my mother and then, one day, seeing what he had done, he left.
After I saw the actors, I imagined myself on a stage in another town. A midnight performance, where the audience would stand under a late summer moon. I would be gazing into the rapt, moonlit faces of the audience and my father would be there in the middle, his eyes shining, like this man on the beach. He might be old by then. A different person. I would address him anyway. I would assure him that I was not going to let another human being eat the joy out of me. And maybe later I would tell him he wasn’t the only one who could leave.
My mother and I got ready for bed. I climbed in next to her, thinking it was all over. I could not leave her. Our arms touched. I stared at my poster, seeing not Atalanta with her red-tipped arrow, but my mother, gazing out of our window at nothing, and then Mrs Wyndham slicing meat on her counter, wrapping our bread with her greasy hands, the bread that I did not want but that I had eaten. I closed my eyes but Mrs Wyndham was still there, offering me a full jar of syrup, the darkest, sweetest sort, and I was getting my fingers into the sweetest part at the bottom of the jar. I felt a slow, jabbing pain in my side, like a hard stone. I turned onto my stomach, but it was no good. I kicked the blanket off me. I waited with the pain inside me until my mother was asleep. I got up, ducked under the line with the shirts. At the window I looked out, and all I could think of was the actors leaving Marlborough without me, and I knew I could not stay.
It was Christmas Eve. I thought my mother would need to rest, but she rose when she heard me getting things ready for her to take on the bus. I removed the shirts and other garments from the line, and she ironed the ones that weren’t completely dry while I sat on the bed, folding and putting everything in a bag for her. She opened her purse and gave me a coin for the loaf cake we would have on Christmas day. I was still sitting on the bed. I looked at the coin and thought: When she walks out of our door, I will not see her again.
I stood up. She turned.
I just looked at her.
She came to me and I held the coin and she put her hand on my forehead. She touched my hair. Make something happen, I thought. Her breath was soft and warm.
‘Stay home today. You feel hot,’ she said. ‘And tomorrow we will have cake.’ Maybe she had some dim, passing presentiment of a new absence because for two seconds, three seconds, she stood near me. And then she turned away to find her gloves and left.
It was already late. I got my rucksack from under the bed and took out the gold curtain rope. I had on the loose navy tunic I wore for school. I gathered the sleeves onto my shoulders, twisted the rope around my waist. On the rope, I hung a small pouch made of leather and inside it put the coin my mother had given me. I pulled on my boots, tied them with new laces, and went to brush my teeth at the sink. My mother had left her bangle on the draining board. I looked at the door, and then I had the bangle in my hands, and I was turning it, pushing it over my knuckle and onto my wrist. It felt strange. I pretended to wipe the worktop in order to hear the knocking sound, but there was nothing. I took it off, left it by the sink.
Once I’d packed my rucksack, I put it back under the bed. I would come and get it once I had agreed things with the actors. I thought that before I left for good, I would go across the hall to Mr Levy. I would put notes on his windows, and I’d tell him everything. Maybe some part of him would understand and he would remember. There was still a letter to write, for my mother. I thought of her sitting on one bus, and then another. There was time. I would do it later.
I pulled the door closed after me and the whole corridor was quiet. There was no sound at all. I adjusted my rope and stepped out the front door. The air outside was freezing. I walked fast, taking the back paths instead of going along the sea wall.
The actors were already queueing in the street outside the Crab House when I came up the road. They were talking together, gesturing wildly, laughing. They were all there: the hunters, the Calydonian boar, front and back, the Fates, all of them. They were dressed in their everyday clothes, their pale, unlit faces both familiar and extraordinary above the upturned collars of their winter coats. I felt like I might shout out, seeing them like that, but I just joined the queue and, after briefly noticing me, they continued their conversations.
The company director was tall. His skin had a bluish tone, and he kept blowing on his hands. In the performance, he did not have a speaking part. He was Iasius the Arcadian, Atalanta’s father, who desired a son and abandoned his unwanted daughter on a mountaintop.
‘Sir,’ I said.
He glanced at me over his cupped hands.
‘I’d like to join your company,’ I said. ‘I’d like to take the part of Atalanta.’
There was the laughter I expected from the actors in the queue, but the director did not laugh. He lowered his hands.
‘I saw you practising,’ he said. He nodded towards the department store. I stared at him.
‘I know it isn’t really about all that,’ I said. ‘I mean, I know acting isn’t about… ’
‘What is it about?’ he asked. He wasn’t smiling. He truly wanted me to tell him.
I felt tearful and became aware that I was shivering. I said, ‘I don’t know.’
The director nodded thoughtfully. The queue moved forward a little.
‘Get on, child,’ said a large man, plump and bald, whom I knew as the Chorus of Calydonian Maidens.
I turned to him, shivering so much now that I thought he would hear my teeth chattering, and he grinned, raising an expectant eyebrow at me, as if he were looking forward to hearing what I had to say. But only when I had the whole company’s attention did I begin speaking, my voice full and clear, not like an actor’s but like a woman beseeching a throng of guilty men.
‘… if toward any of you I am overbold
That take thus much upon me, let him think
How I, for all my forest holiness,
Fame, and this armed and iron maidenhood,
Pay thus much also; I shall have no man’s love
For ever, and no face of children born
Or feeding lips upon me or fastening eyes
… but a cold and sacred life, but strange,
But far from dances and the back-blowing torch,
Far off from flowers or any bed of man,
Shall my life be for ever: me the snows
That face the first o’ the morning, and cold hills
Full of the land-wind and sea-travelling storms—’
I went on for two minutes without intermission, and when I was done, Atalanta of Arcadia’s words hung in the air. The actors in the queue were watching me but, ignoring them all, I faced the director.
He stared at the pavement, as if he were making a decision. It seemed a long time before he raised his eyes to me.
He asked, ‘Do you know the whole thing?’
‘Yes,’ he said, slowly. ‘I think you do.’
I looked at his good, grave face, at this man who understood everything, this man who was going to save me, and I wanted to fall at his feet. And then I heard, as if from a great distance, the ugly roar of the Chorus’s laughter. It was hard, indifferent, and it was meant to shame me, and it did. I turned away, feeling upset and confused, and that was when I saw my mother coming up the road on the opposite side. My heart slipped.
I moved closer to the window, so that the director was blocking me. But he stepped to one side to follow my gaze and, doing so, put me back in my mother’s line of sight.
The door to Mrs Wyndham’s shop opened.
I heard Mrs Wyndham pouring the watery contents of a bucket into the road.
I heard the director’s voice.
‘Isn’t that your mother?’ he was saying.
The Chorus swivelled around, his whole big bulk, to stare at my mother, and then, appalled, at me.
It was cold. It was freezing. The thick dark hairs on my arms—dark like hers—stood upright. I wished I had worn something else, something to cover me. My mouth opened, and I felt my legs give way. I began to sink.
That was when my mother looked over.
She saw everything. Her big eyes seemed to hang on to me. The director put a hand on my shoulder and somehow he was holding me up.
He asked again, roughly, ‘Isn’t that your mother?’
The whole street was quiet.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It isn’t.’
The director’s shirt was white, so white it hurt my eyes staring at it. The pocket needed stitching; I could fix it in a few minutes, I thought. I knew he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at my mother. When he let me go, he moved towards the open door of the Crab House. The others were all inside by then.
At the doorway, he stopped. He looked over his shoulder.
‘Are you coming in?’ he asked.
Inside, the door closed softly behind me.
The windows were all steamed up and there was the smell of frying and beer. The place was noisy with talk. Everywhere, spoons clinked loudly in soup bowls. The director was at the counter. I saw in front of him a line of crabs piled in close to one another, half in and half out of their shells. I heard him checking the time and ordering whelks. The girl behind the counter asked me what I wanted. I looked at all the claws and bones and eyes displayed on ice in the glass cabinets in front of me—pinky orange, white, silver—and my stomach turned.
‘The same,’ I said and slipped my fingers into the leather pouch at my waist. I found the coin, held it, hot, inside the pouch.
I put the coin on the counter.
The director and I stood there not speaking, until the girl handed us a large greasy cone each, heaped with thick, still, yellow things that I supposed were the whelks. A wooden fork was sticking out of one of them.
The director sat next to the Chorus and I took the stool opposite. The Chorus kept his small, watchful eyes on his soup, dipping his head to his spoon, swallowing delicately. The director was watching his actors. He did not move, nor did he speak. I looked at my cone.
‘A bad business,’ the Chorus said into his soup, deeply, wonderingly, in the awful way you say a thing you know you’re going to repeat often.
The cone with my whelks looked huge and terrible. I pulled out the wooden fork, stuck it into a new whelk. It met resistance. I forced it in. I heard the director saying something and someone answering. I raised the fork, pushed the whelk between my teeth. There was the sudden overwhelming taste of the sea. The thing was large and slimy inside my mouth, like another tongue. I bit into it. It was firm, not quite rubbery. I kept chewing it and it would not reduce. The director passed me a cup of water. I drank half, swallowing the thing down.
The Chorus spoke again. He didn’t look up, but he was waiting. He knew he had been heard and he wanted me to answer. I didn’t know if it was for my sake or his own that he wanted me to speak. I could have answered. I could have stood up. I could have told him about Mrs Wyndham’s bread and her hands and the curtains on the floor and the emptiness. I could have told him what I had felt in the auditorium when I first saw the actors up on the stage. I could have told him about my father and how it is that one person can come to blot out another. I looked at the Chorus’s bowed head and I thought that when I answered, it would be to my mother, who would keep on with her sewing. There was only water left in the Chorus’s bowl and he continued spooning it into his mouth, and I hated him. I hated him as unconditionally as if it had been he who had denied my mother and not I.
Someone stood up, and everyone began finishing their drinks, pushing their bowls away, scraping stools. The director stood too. He came around the table, stopped at my side. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Our company is full.’
At the doorway, he paused, and said without turning, ‘But I think you know how to act.’
And he left.
And I kept sitting there.
There was nobody at the counter and nobody came over to clear up. When I went outside, the street was empty. I crossed over, stood in front of the department store windows, feeling weak and dizzy. I could smell whatever mess Mrs Wyndham had poured into the road, and there was that flatness about the world because everything bright was obscured.
When I opened my mouth, the cold air froze my breath.
The department store windows went black.
Everything went black.
And I was on a spotlit stage, all set up to look like Mr Levy’s place, and Mr Levy was there, and I was closing his windows and repeating my lines. But I wasn’t really on the stage. I was up in the cupboard-sized room high above the stage.
‘I’m afraid,’ I was telling Mr Levy.
‘Sometimes you can think too much,’ he replied.
I waited, but that was all he had.
I rested my head on a pipe. I was so tired.
We were quiet a long time, and then somehow we were outside the Crab House. Mr Levy held his hands at his sides. I cried a little. We both looked up. The sky was a dark milky blue and our breath was suspended in front of us.
‘I’m afraid,’ I told Mr Levy.
‘I know,’ he said.
The first stars appeared above us and I looked back into the Crab House: the empty bowls; the wet, balled-up napkins; the discarded bones. I saw my father gorging himself like some heart-swallowing giant. His hands were big blocks, indiscriminate and mesmerising, the wooden fork insignificant in his hands, and then it wasn’t him, it was me, and I was forking whelks and pushing them into my mouth, swallowing them down. But I already knew. It was me. I was the one who had fed until my mother became tired and sick.
The lights came up and the director, walking past, blew on his hands and told me I had my cue.
‘I’m afraid,’ I told Mr Levy.
‘I know,’ he said, and he began climbing his ladder, with its two loose rungs. It was propped against the department store windows and I was standing beside it. The soft black soles of Mr Levy’s boots filled my vision. His climbing went on forever, and instead of going up, Mr Levy was going back and back and back. The department store windows were open and Mr Levy was way back inside and from there he was speaking.
His breath arrived first. Slow, shuddering, pale blue bursts that expanded and filled the sky. But when the sound came, it wasn’t speech, it was a deafening cry, lonely and deep and thunderous, and the department store windows began to shake, and the windows of the Crab House and the shops and the houses. And I was crouching against the wall, covering my ears, watching Mr Levy’s breath that was turning the sky into something else, and I saw that it was only fog and the awful, lonely sound was a fog horn from some ship beyond the sea wall. But across the street, the director was waiting, and so, slowly, I rose to my feet, put my shoulders back, and opened my lungs to answer—