I give him my hand. Such a little thing to do and it makes him happy. He melts into the background till only his mouth remains. His lips move but they make no sound. Like a Manx cat. No, not Manx. Like a – no. It won’t come. Perhaps later.
That rotary fan is very sluggish. If I angle my head too near it I know I will be swept down into the vortex. Now that is a good word, a word to smack your lips on. Vortex. From the Latin, vertere, to turn.
Something is ruffling the edges of the greyness, like a breeze playing across wind chimes.
Fleeting notes. Lester Young playing Fine and Mellow with Ben Webster and Gerry Mulligan. Billie Holiday approving. Lester and Billie both dead the same year. That year. Dancing in a room like this? Doors open to the night, our shoes clacking on stone tiles. Chet Baker was so beautiful. The face of an angel. Angels with dirty faces.
Someone touches my face. I slap it away. Take your filthy hands off me. My skin burns with shame. The fog ebbs away and the man’s face is back again. Cheshire! Of course. Not Manx.
Who does he remind me of? I can’t think. I believe a man should not cry in public. I offer him my handkerchief but he doesn’t see it. Does he see me? Too busy talking to the staff. That is what they are, isn’t it?
The mist is rolling in again. It is comforting, familiar. Out there is – what? Brute. Get off me. Stop asking me questions. The man gapes at me. I must have spoken aloud. He calls over the other man, the doctor. No, that is not right. He is not a doctor. He has a rank, I remember that.
And a uniform. Mist. Their faces come and go, talking of Michelangelo. No, that was the women in the room. But yes, he did have the bottoms of his trousers rolled. And a filthy shirt. His breath smelt of –
Black Coffee. Peggy Lee. So sophisticated. Coffee was sophisticated. Like your father.
Your father didn’t propose, exactly. It was a merger. We merged that night, under the stars, listening to My funny Valentine… Does that shock you? I suspect it would. It was never like that again. It became – a transaction. There is a flash of sparks and I see the woman’s nakedness under the flimsy nightgown. Flash. The lightening flickers. Young lovers in the moonlight. Flash. A camera pointing at an old crone. The world slips on its axis and I am rolling.
The lawn is hard and baked dry after the long summer. Teas and macaroons; cucumber sandwiches and potted shrimp. Children rolling down the slope to the meadow at the bottom of the garden. Impossible to tame. Your father wanted to raze it, bring it into line, but I held firm. Hold fast. Cling tight. Clinging to the wreckage. The tinkling of laughter. Ships’ bells.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea. I expected to suffer from sea-sickness, but I didn’t. Took to it like a natural. I think your father was jealous.
Never took the boat out again after you left home. Sold, like the house, the paintings. But you never wanted for anything. I think that’s right. I think that is what happened.
He is squeezing my hand so tightly that there are bruises there. I withdraw my hand from his. His hand is soft. Not like the other one, the rough one. His face scratched mine. Prickly. Like stubs of hay. Stubbles. Prickles.
Hayricks, that’s it. The farm children would play on them after all the hay had been gathered. It was exhilarating. Exhilare, from hilarare, to cheer; see hilarious.
Tell us who did this. God, no. Shame envelops me. I want to sleep. Your father didn’t sleep well. If he was awake, then so must the whole house be. When I became a widow, I enjoyed a lie-in. Lolling about in the bed. His side of the bed. I loved my new bed, my new cottage. Loved the postcards you sent. The airmail letters. Something in banking, wasn’t it? You did well. I can’t breathe. There is just fog, sucking me down into the whirlpool again. It is dizzying. Just stop.
Stay still. If you stay still you will be safe. You won’t be gored by a bull.
He was a beast. Smelt of the outdoors. Soil under his fingernails. Bark in his hair.
Thrusting, poking. Prickling. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Were there grandchildren? I should have liked that. What age would they be?
Oh, the ache in the heart. Your little legs as they climbed the steps to the school entrance. Holding the headmaster’s hand, you turned around to me, looked back down the steps to where I was waving through my tears. Invisible tears. Mustn’t let the boy see them. How I wanted to rush up those steps, grab you back from that man. He was a kind man, in his way. But I let you go. So brave, you were. So gallant. The worst pain was that you forgave me. I should not have been forgiven.
Here you come now, home for the holidays. Not so old you won’t give your mother a hug. To feel your arms around my waist, to smell your hair, musty from the train, yes, that is good. That is a good place to fetch up. Not a sliver of space between us. Head bent to head, swaying side to side to side. Just breathing. No need for words. Such a hug. Hold tight. Drop anchor here, tie up. Here we’ll bide.