Authors: Candia McWilliam
This was not somewhere to be with a person you had met as an adult only recently, and then in rooms and cars and lifts, places where account is taken of our human need to remain untouched. In the wood, there was no room for the pod of distance that thickens around us as we carry out our lives.
‘This wood’s vindictive!’ said Nella, pulling some bare sharp twigs out of the back of her hair. ‘It’s taken my hair down.’
‘It’s only the spiky trees,’ replied Christy. ‘It’s how they are. Further in, they get taller and there’s more space. The branches all swarm up to the top of the trunk to get a look in at the sky, so the trunks are quite bare till some way up.’
‘Are branches competitive now, then?’ Nella asked, and Christy wondered whether this walk had been a good idea. It had been essential to do something after the news had come to them.
Christy had suggested the walk in the woods, confident that the air among pines must clear the head. Or why would people lie dreaming in green-tinted baths, inhaling the chemically agreed smell of crushed needles? Also, it was hard to see what else they might have done.
Earlier in the day, Nella could have foreseen none of this.
Now, she could not imagine how she would ever be able to extract herself from the new, unwanted, situation, newer even than what she had suspected was going to present itself as the year’s first conundrum.
Her preparations for this already bruising holiday had been carefully drawn up so as to make sure that nothing surprised her.
She had made lists and timetables, rotas, stockpiles and contingency plans; she had anticipated all the mischief that might be caused by unfamiliar food, by children and dogs, including dogs and children not her own. She had tallied and balanced her wish for solitude with her fear of loneliness.
They had got through Christmas quite creditably. She did not like to catch herself thinking like that, it was as though she was turning joyless through competence, like an adequate, but no more, actress.
Now it was the first day of the new year, the beginning of the slide towards the next Christmas. She had heard the children often, wishing time away. They were as bad as mountain snobs, living for the high peaks, despising hills, oblivious of plateaux. That morning she and Christy had agreed, with the rather boastful shame that comes of exhaustion, that when it came to life, the dull bits were the best.
‘All currants, you wouldn’t want. You need dough, or whatever the stuff in between is called. You’d know, of course, Nell.’
‘I’d know because I clearly have an affinity with dullness, or because you think I can cook? There’s not much stuff between the rich bits in the Christmas pud, if that’s what you mean: probably that’s what’s wrong with it. If we kept to dry toast, and cold water, we’d never get the aftermath. Anyhow,’ Nella had said, ‘I’m for the bits between the thrills, aren’t you now, Christy? Less chance of biting on a bit of broken glass hid in the fruit; more chance of being ready for it if you do.’
Christy had put down the oval serving dish he was drying.
Its shine steamed. He must have hands without feeling, or he must actually often do the drying up. He took a sip of the brandy he was keeping among the plates and desiccating greenery on the dresser. The house belonged to Christy’s mother.
‘I think I’m with you,’ he had said, ‘I love the days to be predictable in runs of about one or two.’
His hair still hung over his forehead like that of a short pony. He was wearing a thick snowflake-pattern jumper. His chin was square and blue, so that it was hard to take seriously anything he said that was not totally direct and virile. Since the bent of his temperament was subversive, his face worked against him with strangers, but the combination never failed to amuse his close family, who would watch them modify their expectations.
Meals for seven days, four times a day, for at least 10, more often 12 people, almost without a hitch, and
had to happen, Nella thought, irritated as though the bites at her face came not from crystals of snow but from mosquitoes, as she followed the noise made by Christy passing into the wood that was, as he had promised, growing leggier as it deepened.
She was refusing herself the pleasure of the walk, she was so annoyed. Within her annoyance lay shame that she was selfish enough to feel it. So large a change in her life should do more than annoy. Was she capable now only of insulated unpassionate responses, even to news as shocking as this? Had her habit of self-protection grown over her like bark?
Christy’s back, with the dark blue knitted snowflakes falling from their dense flurry across his shoulders to small diamonds neatly set at regular points in the white wool, was always a little too far ahead to make talking comfortable. She wondered whether keeping this distance was a matter of habit for him, or if it was aimed at her; was he habitually morose or just a bit knocked back by the news? In the air, snow winked and went, never quite attaining the size or languor of a flake. The light, already sieved by the scented trees, settled on each brief point of snow and passed to the next as though it marked instants in time. Although the air was full of these particles of light and ice, nothing reached the ground or settled on the trees.
Christy had foreseen everything. He’d even sorted in his mind the big thing, which was the children. With great care, he had not sucked up to them, nor let them know that he was in their power, in a way they could not understand. He had not even let on that he was familiar with their preferences as to meat – white or brown, skin or no skin, sloppy or dry – when it came to carving the turkey which he had taken care not to carve like a man with domestic rights over the woman who had stuffed and smoothed, dried, basted, lifted and adorned it. He had restrained his impulse to fold and retain any paper that would do for another year, for in another year, who knew if he would be there? He had foreseen everything, made his plans accordingly; and now this.
He snapped off dead branches when he saw them and broke them into lengths for kindling. There was no need for this, but Christy was a man who did several things at the one time with pleasure. Because it was his habit, established over the years of living well alone, he was not distracted. He could think about one thing and do another to a more developed extent than men who had been married. In this he was self-sufficient like a soldier.
When he and Nella were children, their names had been different. In those formal years, they had been Christian and Eleanor. He had liked her and of course they had agreed to marry. At eight and ten they were parted. She had been the more wretched, or made more fuss, he remembered, perhaps because, as the elder, she was nearer the confusion to come.
Their parents had made the usual careless and public allusions to the parting. Eleanor’s mother used it as a topic to entertain her friends in the street; Christy’s mother to inform her new neighbours halfway up a hill in Ayrshire that there had been close friendships down in England, that there was no sinister reason for returning North beyond the coming back home. As fast as she knitted this frail web, Christy’s father undid it with false promisings and borrowings and gluey stories of expectations, until he one night tore up the whole caper and did a flit. It took Christy the years between growing up and turning thirty-two to make that lot good, and see to it that his mother was sorted. Her success in novelty wools and rare yarns quite took him by surprise. He thought it must be the profitable outcome of her years of talking with other quiet women in rooms, more used to changing things with their hands than with their voices. All at once she was the woman to talk to about angora or welterweight synthetics, the tensile strength of two-ply or the incompatibility of certain silks. She sold east and west, not only the two Scots coasts, but over the world, travelling light and owing not a penny.
There had been no plan to Christy’s life but pleasing himself and his mother. On hearing of Eleanor’s marriage, long after it had taken place, he felt simultaneously the disappointment of an eight-year-old and the pique of a grown man. When, five years later, he heard of the departure of her husband, he sympathised for a moment with the man, remembering how maddening Eleanor was at board games, competitive one moment and uninterested the next.
He sympathised too with any man who had to deal with a woman with so furious a passion for digging. Then he remembered that it was more than twenty years since they had spent the afternoons trying to get to the centre of the earth, ‘where it is hot’, said Eleanor, ‘and only apparently unmoving’. They had found the phrase in a book about science. It was the pomposity to the words and their suggestiveness that got the two of them.
After meeting Eleanor again at an event thrown for his mother by a yarn king or somesuch, he had concentrated his suit upon her for those last London days before normal life put itself away for Christmas. She’d not noticed a blind thing. He was delighted when Eleanor’s father, who’d lived with her since her mother’s death, suggested that both families get together, for the new year. For that most dangerous sake, of old time.
Keeping in store, as he was, his great news.
The sky was harder now to find between the branches.
What had been white was a blue that was as soft as fur. In the dusk the needles underfoot were more treacherous.
Christy stopped and listened, the bundle of kindling held stiffly in front of him, his dues to improving the shining hour, like his mother’s knitting. He was tired.
He turned to look down the many paths for Nella. He tried to sense, almost to smell, down which path she would come. He made her out of the dusk, element by element, gold hair, white coat, cold hands. She materialised not like smoke as he, conjuring her out of the approaching night, had imagined, but short and warm, lost, furious and there. She hit at him with relief as he held on to her, the kindling snapping between them. She asked him the question he had not dared ask: ‘What will it do to us when our parents marry each other?’
Christy pulled the burry kindling off her white coat. ‘There’s enough of what we have to go round,’ he said. They stood there till the darkness was decided, and the kindling which Christy slowly let drop made the ground under them the only rough ground in all the slipping wood.
As will be clear, this story was written
before the reunification of Germany.
‘And, above all, you’ve got to be a people person,’ finished the person, addressing a number of people in the personnel room. As though, thought Patrick, one could ever get away from being so. Since the last tangle with a person, I don’t care if I become a louse-person, or a concrete-person, anything at all in fact but a people person.
A person laughed in a most unseemly way and Patrick followed the sound in case it was he himself who had made the noise. Since Frances had gone, leaving the teapot warm and the paper folded at the ‘How to Spend It’ page of the
, he had suffered from bouts of disembodiment. One time he had seen a very drunk man fall down in the distant purple mirror behind a cocktail bar. Red cherries and tall cocktail spoons made a Miró of the mirror. Only in the morning did he realise that it had been himself, Patrick, who could wash in rye and stay dry behind the ears. Corny jokes come easily to admen, he thought. I think in phrases which would fit on a bus-side. Was his id riddled with quick quips and reflex associations too? He admired the notion that he might be a perfectly functioning phenomenon, a faultless free-market capitalist. A credit to any mother, though in fact considered a debit by his own, since taking up this job. She’d sooner he were a teacher or a preacher. Or anything but what he was.
Patrick was twenty-nine and he was going to live for ever. Or he had been until Frances went. In actual fact, maybe he’d live for ever anyway. That would spite her.
Now, where was that laugh coming from? Patrick minded people looking instantly towards the source of some irregularity, a lunatic on the tube, or a raving prophet on the bus, so he dropped something behind himself in order to pick it up in the most natural way in the world and lift his head, at the same moment darting his eyes to the source of the laugh.
His glance struck and stuck. If that was a person, he certainly was a people person. ‘Certainly am,’ the other guys in the office would say if you asked them if they were going out that night. Was Patrick a people person? Certainly was.
Catch a load of
. She resembled everyone’s sweetest fantasy. Sisterly sexiness shone from her, asking to be licked off like butterscotch sauce. She had that kind of French colouring which looks good with lace and an old bike in some campaign shot in an attic for five hundred grand. Dipped in water, she’d just get shiny, and deepen fractionally in colour, like damp sand. Twenty-four-ish, he supposed, just turning the corner from legwear to food products. None the worse for that, though. Older is bolder, thought Patrick. It was not his own phrase, though he prided himself on learning fast.
But she didn’t look bold, he thought, in relief. Demure was the word, which was how you wanted them when it came down to it, to look at at any rate. That folksy old saying about the perfect chick being a maid in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom was the one Patrick intended sticking to from here on in; he preferred the old ways, the good ways, tried and trusted, passed down from father to son, or was it from hand to mouth?