Authors: Jane Urquhart
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary Fiction
Afterwards she would rise and dress, cross the orchard, walk to her car, and drive the concessions with the smell of him still on her, wanting to keep this with her, not bathing until minutes before Malcolm returned from the clinic.
And then would come the distant days, days when she would not, or could not, inhabit her own body, as if she had taken the decision to go with Andrew wherever he had gone, as if she were out of doors mapping the scant foundations of houses abandoned by vanished settlers, or following the vague line of an old, disused road, though she did not see such things in her imagination. Then, gradually, she would feel her self begin to return, tentatively, like a guest anxious not to take up too much of her time, and a certain taste or smell would connect her to the present for a moment or two: that, or something like the sight of poplar leaves flickering in an otherwise invisible breeze just beyond the glass of the kitchen window. If it were winter, she might become focused on the movement of flame, the snap of cedar kindling, and then the satisfaction one feels when a piece of hardwood surrenders itself, finally, to the inevitability of combustion.
It was Andrew’s voice that now fueled the engine of this car, his voice that pushed down on the accelerator, his voice that chose the distance, the speed, the direction.
She slept on the train, slept as she often did when confronted by noise and unfamiliarity, willing stimuli to move away from her until a curtain of dark dreamlessness closed across the scene. She awoke an hour or so later in a swaying interior to the sight of the tattered edges of the city under a cold blue sky. Sunlight was pushing past the dust on the window, covering her hands and lap, and making her uncomfortably warm in her good wool coat and her winter boots. Someone rustled a newspaper behind her. Someone else across the way was buttoning the coat of a squirming child. A uniformed man careered down the aisle shouting the name of the city as if, without this announcement, no one would notice it was there, as if it would slip by, ignored. The city was not something she was going to be able to ignore. She was going to have to enter it. She was going to have to manage.
After walking stiffly along the cement quay, her purse in one hand, her suitcase in the other, she descended a flight of marble stairs, then walked up a long, sloping ramp into the great hall of Union Station, remembering that as a child she had been led by her mother into this overwhelming world for a series of appointments deep in the city, and that the child she had been had often refused to move through the huge room until she had read, high on its walls, all the carved names of places that did not exist on the maps of her County. Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg: unfamiliar, foreign-sounding names that would be forever associated in her mind with the disturbing cacophony of the trains and the portentous, smooth atmosphere, the hushed tone of the appointments.
The doctor she was being taken to see had an office at Sick Children’s Hospital, an office in which he kept a dollhouse with three dolls that he wanted her to play with. “Why not call the lady doll Mommy,” she remembered him saying, “and the man doll Daddy? The littlest doll can be you.” All of this had confused and disoriented her. She had never liked dolls and could not understand why this man wanted her to pretend the small figures were her parents or herself. She developed ways to shut out the doctor, her mother, the dollhouse: she could think about china horses, for instance, or the County atlas she had memorized, or she could let a succession of rhymes play in her mind. Eventually she learned how to disregard the enormous hospital itself and all the pajama-clad children who lived there. “Sick Kids,” she had heard her mother call it when talking on the phone. “Robert hopes the doctor at Sick Kids can do something,” she would say, adding ominously but also almost hopefully, “She might have to be admitted.”
She had always believed that this admission had something to do with confession, that the fact of her would have to be confessed, that she would have to be admitted to, or would herself have to admit to some crime or another. And, indeed, once she was in the presence of the doctor, his soft questions had always seemed like an interrogation, an attempt to pry from her some sort of dark revelation. She had remained resolutely silent, however; she hadn’t admitted anything, even though she knew her punishment would be her mother’s anger, her mother’s refusal to look at her all the way home on the train. And later, when she lay in her room facing the wall, she would hear the adult argument begin, her own name tossed back and forth between her mother and father long into the night.
She was fifty-three years old now and had never been alone in a city before. Still, since childhood, she had been an expert map-reader and, after finding the name and address in the city phonebook kept in her town library, and marking the location on a map, she had believed that, at least in the matter of way-finding, she was prepared. And, of course, each year since adulthood, she had spent the odd day in one of the larger towns of the County, had been peripherally aware of people hurrying, going about their business. Still, now that she had entered the city, everything about it seemed exaggerated, overstated, and the din almost defeated her at first. Then she formed a fist around the salt shaker that she had placed that morning in her pocket, put her head down, and counted the three blocks that she knew she must walk in a westerly direction away from a central intersection she had found, first on the map and now in the world.
“I am now in the world,” she had whispered to the squares of cement that were passing beneath her feet.
She found herself standing at an alley. On the brick wall to the left was a list of words, and some numbers had been painted in a rough hand. The name she was looking for was on this list along with a title or explanation that read “Conceptual Fragments.” Staring at the wall she was aware of herself in ways she had rarely been in the past, aware of how odd she must look in her good wool coat and her boots with the ring of fake fur at the ankles, aware of the old suitcase she was carrying, and the large black leather handbag she was clasping under her right elbow. Suddenly a young man with strangely colored hair emerged from one of the doors partway down the alley and swung swiftly past her, turning left on the street with one quick glance back in her direction. “Hello, Mom,” he said, laughing, as he bolted down the street. She knew instinctively that he was not the young man she was looking for, but that, nevertheless, the young man she was looking for could quite possibly be of his kind.
After this thought, she lost the courage to enter the alley, at least for the time being. At any rate, she had a task to complete. She proceeded to walk down the street and when she found a mailbox, she took from her purse a stamped envelope addressed to her husband, an envelope that contained the keys to the car. On the back of the envelope she had written
at the station in Belleville
. Nothing more. She wondered how long it would take him to fetch the vehicle, having a car of his own. And it would not be his first concern. He would be frantic, she knew, would be arranging some kind of search. There might even be police involved and a suggestion that she was incapable of looking after herself, a suggestion that she was too fragile to survive in the outside world. But they wouldn’t find her for a while. She had told no one she was going. She had not even told Julia that she intended to take this journey.
When she returned to the alley she read the spray-painted words and numbers until she once again found the name she had been looking for. Then she peered into the passageway that she could now see was lined with a series of industrial-looking entrances and the odd, forbidding steel garage door. Each of these had a number on its surface along with a mass of colored swirls and scrawls that she remembered from magazine articles was something called graffiti. She turned from this in a kind of confusion but did not leave the spot, and almost immediately she found herself focusing on the texture of peeling paint on the metal drainpipe attached to the wall near her shoulder. Several curls of dark blue, and a scattering of rust that, when she placed her gloved hand on it, covered the fingers like orange pollen. She remembered pollen from the woods, how once, long ago, the legs of her slacks had been dusted with it. “Anemone,” Andrew had said as she bent to brush the gold powder from the cotton. “You’re helping it to reproduce.”
Nearer the asphalt the paint was holding better, and yet layers emerged in small islands of color. She was lost in this for some time, lost in looking at the patterns, until the idea of islands brought her back to herself. She was here because of an island. She was not going home. She began to walk forward, across the old, soiled patches of ice – islandlike themselves – that littered the ground leading to the door with the number five on its surface.
There was no sign of a bell so she slapped her palm against the metal several times. Noise came from the interior, a scrambling, followed by silence. The sun unexpectedly plunged into the alley and struck a mound of ice that had been made by leaking drains directly in front of the threshold. Dangerous, she thought, be careful. She was fingering the salt shaker in her pocket nervously.
“Just a minute,” a male voice called from the interior. “Hold on.”
She held on.
This was a door that, as far as Sylvia could tell, could not be opened from the outside. As she was thinking this, the door swung wide to reveal a pale young man of perhaps twenty-five or thirty years who was standing in the shaft of sun. He was wearing an old flannel shirt and baggy pants covered with a number of loops and straps. His dark hair stood straight up at the back, as if he had just been roused from sleep, but his brown eyes were intelligent and alert, and his white skin was smooth. He looked at her face with a hint of suspicion, and then with curiosity at the suitcase she was carrying.
She had her opening speech prepared. “My name is Sylvia Bradley. I’m sorry to disturb you,” she began, “but I am a friend… I was a friend… of Andrew Woodman and I was hoping…”
“The man who died,” said the young man.
“Yes,” she said, knowing she was beginning to tremble, “and I was a friend of his and I wanted to talk to someone, to Jerome…” She paused, unable suddenly to come up with the last name.
“Jerome McNaughton,” the young man prompted. “I am Jerome McNaughton. Are you from his family?”
Then this was the person she had been looking for, Sylvia thought. “No, not from his family,” she said. For a few moments Sylvia looked at the wet ground where a rainbow of oil was moving across a small puddle. Then, without lifting her gaze, she added quietly, “I’ve come all this way to talk to you. Will you let me come in?”
Jerome was silent, his hand still on the door, and, during this pause, Sylvia began to believe that her request would be denied. Then a slim, dark-skinned girl, dressed entirely in black, slipped up behind the young man. She had been standing, a dim silhouette, in his shadow, and her presence had barely registered in Sylvia’s brain.
“Let her in, Jerome,” this phantom said.
At first Sylvia wondered whether she would be able to cope with the cavernous space she’d been led into by these young people. There was an odd kind of music playing and, worse, competing with this were several rows of fluorescent lights. She had always believed she could hear the sound of artificial light and, as a result, had only once ventured into a department store, where the dissonant, rasping sound of the light had proved to be too much for her. Here, however, there was only a dull hum, a kind of undertone to the music. There were stacking chairs placed randomly, it seemed, around the room, a long chipped counter with a sink in it and a toaster on it, a low table on which rested a few stained cups, an ancient refrigerator growling in the corner, and one old sofa covered by a blanket as well as by a considerable amount of orange cat hair. In a further room, created by a partition, she could see part of a mattress on the floor, and the dim flicker of a computer sitting against the opposite wall. At the end of the room in which she stood there was a red door in the center of a wall made of cement blocks. On this door were the words
The girl had followed her gaze. “The studio’s in there,” she said. “Where Jerome works.” She reached forward, gently took the suitcase from Sylvia’s hand, then placed it on the floor beside the sofa. “I’m Mira, by the way. Would you like to sit down?”
Thinking of her coat, of the cat hair, Sylvia chose a chair. The young man and the girl sat on the sofa. For the first time Sylvia noticed the jeweled stud at the side of the young woman’s perfectly shaped nose. She could have lost herself in the glint of that, and in the features of the girl’s lovely face, but remembered her purpose and shut everything – the room, the girl, the light – out of her mind and turned her attention to Jerome. “I want to talk to you about Andrew Woodman,” she began again, with great formality. “I read that you were the one who found him.”
“He has nightmares,” said the girl. “He might not want to talk about it.” She moved protectively closer to the young man and softly touched the top of his head, his hair. Jerome pulled back slightly from her touch and looked at Sylvia. “No, Mira,” he said, “Leave it. It’s all right.”
Not to be put off, the girl linked her arm through Jerome’s and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder.
An echo of this gesture touched Sylvia’s mind. A room, the warmth of skin, a wet mouth on the inside of an arm, long quiet avenues of intimate speech were permanently webbed across her memory. Into the texture of her mind were woven these inescapable memories of tenderness, memories that now brought her nothing but pain. There was no longer any escape available to her in the comfort of her known world, never mind in disorienting, unfamiliar interiors. The young people’s faces were serious, almost shocked, and she knew how she appeared to them: a middle-aged, well-dressed woman in a brown wool coat, perched on the edge of her chair with her leather handbag balanced on her knee, a silk scarf at her throat, the ridiculous boots with the fake fur circling the ankles.