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Authors: Fiona McFarlane

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BOOK: The High Places
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*   *   *

You might say Janet had brought the Andersons together, although this wasn't quite true. They were engaged when the Dwyers first met them, but toward the end of Eric's PhD Amy considered breaking it off. She'd fallen in love, she confessed to Janet, with someone else, someone whose
greatness of character
, whose
deep commitment to love
were qualities, lacking in Eric, she couldn't afford to be without. Janet approved of these vague qualities – she recognised them so acutely in Murray that she worried, briefly, that Amy might have fallen in love with her own husband – and disapproving of Eric's magnificence, she experimentally encouraged her friend to pursue this new man.

‘First I have to leave Eric,' said Amy. ‘There needs to be a definitive break.'

It was decided they would go away together, Amy and Janet; Amy had finished her Fulbright year and Janet could be spared from work – her teaching credentials weren't acceptable in England, so she filed records in a doctor's surgery. Then it became clear that Murray would have to come too, because without Janet he floundered in their dim flat, which felt at this time of year exactly like a sad hotel. Janet had always wanted to go to Cornwall. When they began the drive, with Amy in the back seat, it felt to them all a little like a kidnapping.

This was a bad time to be in Cornwall: early December, the cold days after a flood. Water remained in the low streets of the town in which they rented a small house. The town had gathered itself on the cliffs as if in preparation for a springtime suicide. The houses were narrow and grey, the hills were green, and continual sleet fell over the sea. Amy and Janet ran from their house to the post office, where furniture subsided gently on the spongy floor, so Amy could send a postcard to Eric telling him it was over. They ran home in the wind. They remained inside during a storm that lasted, it seemed, for two days, playing cards and reading novels. Then someone came shaking the door and demanding to be let in.

Janet, afraid of reports to the landlord, opened the door and Eric arrived among them in a gloomy suit. Massive among them, and silent, with an air of inevitability.

‘How did you find me?' asked Amy, quite calmly, from the couch.

‘The postcard. Then I asked someone at the train station,' said Eric. ‘You're the only tourists in town.'

He sat beside Amy on the sofa and rested his head against the wall behind him. It was as if he had run all the way from London, dressed for a funeral. Janet and Murray announced they would go for a walk. It was far too cold to walk. They dressed importantly in boots and hats. Janet imagined herself blown from the cliffs of Cornwall, but Murray held her arm and they struggled to a tearoom. They stayed three hours among the brown wallpaper and granular tablecloths, and when they returned it was as if to Amy's marital home: Eric, shoeless, spread across the floor, coffee made, and Amy pleased with herself among newspapers.

Eric lay on the floor the way a marble statue sits indifferently on grass. His suit jacket steamed over the radiator. Janet felt herself redden with worry. Was everything settled? Would he stay the night? Should she ask? She didn't ask. He stayed the night in the tiny house, in Amy's bed, which struck loudly against the wall between them and the Dwyers. Janet and Murray giggled into their pillows, they clutched each other with the silly primness of the newly married. Amy and Eric's bed rocked, their own bed shook; all the beds in the riotous house. Murray's mouth fell against his wife's and she pulled away, smiling.

‘They'll hear,' she said.

They buried themselves in the pillows again. Then crept to the floor. There was a rug that smelled of shoes.

‘Bring down the quilt,' said Murray.

The quilt over the rug; the Dwyers over the quilt. The Andersons next door, rocking. Only not yet the Andersons – they were married two months later.

‘Aren't we happy?' said Janet, rolling on the rug, and they were.

Late in the night she walked through the dark house checking the security of windows and doors, the safety of stoves and electrical cords, afraid that her great happiness might be taken away from her by divine accident. Amy, also walking the house, moving silently on felted feet, met Janet filling a glass of water at the sink. The water poured slowly and quietly, and Janet held one finger in the glass so she could tell when it neared the top.

‘Sorry,' said Amy.

‘For what?' asked Janet. She had felt all afternoon that Amy had something to apologise for, although she couldn't have defined it. But at this moment, her finger bent into the glass, she was certain that none of them need apologise to each other ever again.

‘For creeping up on you in the dark.'

‘I'm just getting a drink,' said Janet, and the water touched her fingertip. She let it fill the glass and moved her hand so it flooded over her wrist. She felt as if her intimacy with Murray, the privacy of her love and happiness, had expanded so that it now encompassed Amy and Eric. Her happiness pushed against her chest. If she could preserve this, somehow: the town pressing round her, the floodwater soaking into the post office carpets, the bedrooms of the house hanging over her head, with men in them. She felt the security of a house. The water ran into the sink and she turned off the tap.

Amy stood by the kitchen table.

‘Janet,' she said, ‘you won't tell Eric about the other one, will you? The man I mentioned?'

‘Of course not. Is everything all right?' Janet shook her wet fingers.

‘Everything is perfect,' Amy answered. It seemed that it was. The windows and doors were locked. The men slept on in the house.

*   *   *

Athens gave Janet unexpected allergies and she fumbled continually with sodden tissues – too thin, they clung to her fingers. She laughed, embarrassed, and brought attention to herself. Amy walked into the hot, quiet hour of the day and returned with a box of smooth handkerchiefs, scalloped in blue.

‘How clever,' said Janet. ‘I'd never have thought.'

‘You're the suffering kind,' said Amy – not true, surely? – ‘who won't put others out.' Possibly true, and Janet had never felt so guilty. She was shy behind her quaint handkerchiefs. Money was offered and refused. They were all up on the roof terrace of Amy's hotel. Husbands lay on lounges behind them, Eric with the newspaper, Murray asleep, hands clasped over his ribs, a midday saint.

‘Hasn't it been forever?' said Amy, as if they'd just encountered each other in a supermarket. Forever might have been eight months. ‘Hard to imagine. So many years since Cornwall. Remember Cornwall?'

‘Oh, yes,' said Janet.

‘Cornwall was wonderful. Lately it's all I think about. Remember that adorable little house? And drinking sherry from those tiny glasses?'

‘The sherry,' said Janet. She didn't remember the sherry.

‘Remember how cold it was? And the coin-operated heating? How worried we were that we'd run out of coins?' Amy sat with her chin in her hands, and her head was older, thinner, than it had been in Cornwall. ‘You have to wonder what would have happened without Cornwall. Marriage is like that, isn't it,' she said. ‘It reaches a point.'

Janet was unsure what point Amy's marriage might have reached.

‘Why don't we take a walk, just the two of us?' said Amy.

Janet was tired. ‘What a good idea,' she said.

‘We're going for a walk,' Amy told Eric. He nodded behind his newspaper. Murray looked so defenceless, asleep on his lounge, that Janet hated to leave him. She and Amy walked out into the exhausted afternoon.

‘You know where I'll take you,' said Amy, ‘I'll take you to that café I was in yesterday morning. Now, if I can just remember how to find it.'

She remembered how to find it; it was only around the corner. It was a very ordinary café, and there were racks of postcards among the outdoor tables, where tourists sat drinking Cokes. Janet had pictured something else. She looked at it from across the street, disappointed.

‘Is this where you met Christos of Marathon?'

Amy was unexpectedly anxious. ‘Oh god, I don't know what you're going to say,' she said. ‘I'm just going to be up front with you. I need a favour.'

‘Of course,' said Janet, imagining a small loan, imagining confidences about Eric.

‘I need to borrow your apartment for a few hours this afternoon.'

‘Oh,' said Janet. They were walking toward the café, and a man, a little younger than they were, stood up from a table when he saw them. Everything was so predetermined; it was embarrassing. Amy introduced them. They all stood there, embarrassed, and perhaps Christos was the most discomfited of all. He was the kind of man Amy used to see in England and say to Janet, ‘Look at the quality of his shirt!' Janet never noticed the quality of any man's shirt. She thought Christos had a pleasant face, a face you enjoyed looking at; it seemed so sensibly arranged. She went to pass her key to Amy, who turned away, suddenly fastidious, checking for something in her handbag, so Janet handed the key to Christos instead. Then he stepped away toward the road, discreetly.

‘Do you know where it is?' Janet asked Amy.

‘I have the address. Christos knows how to get there. You must think I'm really something.'

‘No, no,' said Janet.

‘I shouldn't have brought you out. You should be locked up in an air-conditioned room, taking care of your nose.'

‘I'm fine,' said Janet.

Amy's face creased into a shape of exaggerated concern. Janet waved her blue-scalloped handkerchief, a little flag.

‘I'm fine,' she repeated.

‘See you here at four,' said Amy, and then she was gone and Christos was gone, and there was Athens. Janet couldn't go home, or to the hotel. There were no men to meet in a café. She walked to Plaka, carefully, over the marble. Her nose ran. The streets were full of stores selling blue and white and yellow ceramics. She bought three heavy platters, then worried about how to get them home.

*   *   *

The minivan drew up to the hotel with the look of a bashful turtle. It was a generous vehicle, with room for many passengers, and Janet felt conspicuous as they drove away in it, as if the four of them had been abandoned by a crowd of friends and left to the Fates and to Mycenae. She felt a particular anxiety because today was her doing. Why had she suggested Mycenae? The night before, she'd pulled the
National Geographic
article from her suitcase. She was hesitant to sit on any surface; every object in the apartment was suspicious to her, although there were no clues to betray the afternoon's activities. The photographs of Mycenae showed blank and barren hills and a spread of vaguely room-shaped rubble.

‘Let's call it off,' said Janet. And tried not to picture Amy and Christos in the bed.

‘No,' said Murray, rubbing his weary feet. ‘She can't have everything her way. This is the one thing you wanted to do, and we're doing it.' He was bold and aggrieved when they were alone; they also held hands in the apartment, as if to make up for their separation during the day. Janet was grateful, but she didn't tell him about Christos. How else to protect him?

So here they were in a bus, air-conditioned, on their way to Mycenae. They left Athens very early because of the weather – it was going to be the hottest day. Murray, anticipating the heat, had frozen bottles of water overnight.

‘Couldn't do this in a hotel,' he said, with some satisfaction.

Now the bottles were sweating cold liquid, staining their laps but still too frozen to drink, while Amy and Eric sipped at the bottles provided by the driver.

‘You know, I'm excited about this,' said Amy, inclining her attentive head toward the window. Eric sat in the front with the driver, and didn't turn to look at her. No one else spoke, but Janet cooed a little, like a pigeon.

The heat was worse at Mycenae. Janet saw with dismay that it was a hill with rocks on it. She said to herself,
. They abandoned the cool of the minivan and began to ascend. They could stay in the shade of the walls until they passed under the Lion Gate, but after that there would only be the sun.

Eric walked kingly among the stones. The heat was similarly dignified. It lay impersonally over them all. It filled Janet's lungs and pressed against her face whenever she stirred her head. And Eric walked unmoved among the stones. Janet watched him, and she watched as Murray picked his faltering way among the shaded rocks. He struck her as elderly, without being exactly old, and she felt an additional fondness for his vulnerable head. His bottle of ice rattled against his hip as he walked. Dizzy, she sat on a low wall and looked to see if Murray, ascending the slope – soon he would be completely exposed to the light – might turn to find her. He didn't. He passed with determination, with his trim calves and ankle socks, beyond the reach of the shade and out into the heat's flat plain.

‘Come on, you!' cried Amy.

But Janet couldn't bear to look at Amy.

She waved and smiled and watched them all disappear under the Lion Gate. There was dust at her feet and strange birds flew overhead, and the rocks she sat on had been shaped and set in this place so long ago they may as well have occurred naturally. Then Mycenae seemed to her a growth, rather than a construction. It had nothing at all to do with human life. All of Greece seemed that way: as if some other species – the gods – had lived here carelessly, then abandoned it. And she could only crawl about on it, take some photographs, go home.

A man in uniform called out and she understood that it was forbidden to sit on the stones. That seemed right to her, so she stood. She wanted to apologise to someone, but the only person she saw when she passed under the Lion Gate was Eric. He was standing on the edge of the slope with his right hand shading his eyes, his right hand pressed against his great American head, and in this stance his Viking ancestors were so visible, sailing the North Sea in their longboats, that the whole country of Greece became the frigid ocean and there was nothing to do but hurry into the boat with Eric, who would captain it so surely.

BOOK: The High Places
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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