Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Rufus had, as he had promised, set aside almost the whole of Tuesday for her. And Monday evening too. Together time, he said. I owe it to you, don’t I? She cooked dinner for them in the cottage; he lit a fire in the sitting room and set a good bottle of wine to warm before it. The
next day they went to Kimmeridge and walked the miles of coast from there to Lulworth Cove. He held her hand the whole way and talked of his aspirations and his plans. He’d probably come too late to politics ever to make it as Prime Minister, he supposed. But he’d give it a good shot in the cabinet, after the election. And after that, who knows? Probably he’d get bored of politics, as he had of banking. But having been a government minister was a pretty good springboard. Europe? The World Bank? Ambitious, restless Rufus. Or, he said to Stella with a grin, we could chuck it all in and sail around the world together, thee and me, a second honeymoon.
Afterward they had lunch in a pub chosen by Rufus for its obscurity, so that he would not be recognized. It was obscure for a reason, Stella thought, as the reek of chip fat settled on her hair. But it was also warm and friendly and sustained Rufus’s good humor; they had not been out together for some time.
Let’s have coffee at home, Rufus had suggested. It’s not likely to be drinkable in this place, jolly charming though it is. Stella knew when they got back that he would want to go to bed. Remember how we used to make love in the afternoons? he’d say. Before the kids came. We’ve just got time before the taxi. Wasn’t I clever to make sure that I was booked on the late flight?
Stella remembered. She remembered making love in the mornings and most of the night as well. In the beginning she had thought their lovemaking would be more fulfilling when it was less frantic—when Stella was Rufus’s adulterous secret, there had been an element of desperation in their meetings. Much later, when they had put the misery
of his divorce behind them and were settling into their own marriage, they made love regularly and often, but for Stella it never became the passionate experience she had hoped it would be. She blamed herself for that. Everything that Rufus did—eating, drinking, talking, walking—he did with great dispatch: why should it be any different in bed? When Stella and Rufus walked anywhere together, she had to quicken her steps almost to a run if she wanted to keep pace with him. Speed and efficiency were intrinsic to her husband. That he brought the same qualities to sex should not have come as a surprise. And now, although he was still businesslike about it and would fit it into his schedule when he could, as he had done the day before, that schedule was too full to leave much room.
Love in the mornings, in the afternoons . . . well, one could live without it. It was not as if there was a choice. Stella had found a compensating pleasure in the intense physicality of the relationship with her children, in the days when they were small. There had been a lover’s joy in the touch of them, in the grace and ease with which they had embraced her, the softness of their knees and elbows before they were roughened by hard use.
Felix would still allow her to hug him and to stroke his hair. He would not do so for much longer. Before he went to boarding school, his days began in Stella’s bed, where he would slide in beside her in the mornings to ask the questions that came immediately to mind when he woke up, or to speculate about the hours ahead. He did not do that now. And it was quite correct, as Stella knew, that he had made this little distance of his own. It was the same as his new rules about the bathroom. Once,
bath time had been a good time for communication with the children. Then, one by one, inevitably, as they grew older, they began to shut and lock the bathroom door. It was strange, in a way, that bodies you once knew as intimately as your own should later be kept hidden from you. Stella had known and loved every tiny portion of her children—the insides of their ears, the gaps between their toes; she had felt each emergent milk tooth with a finger. She had loved her children purely, wholeheartedly, without inhibition, in a way that she could not have extended to an adult’s body.
As her children progressed to adulthood, they rightly closed the doors on this unembarrassed closeness. In the changing rooms of the gym where Stella went, women who were strangers to each other thought nothing of being naked. If they looked at one another it was only to reassure themselves through comparison: she is fatter than I, her breasts are saggy. But Camilla would not take off her clothes in front of Stella. Stella would never again see the naked bodies of her sons. Unless they were dead, she thought with sudden horror. Dead and laid out on a marble slab.
Stop this. These sentimental, morbid thoughts. Evolution was a fitting thing, and Stella recognized it. She expected her relationships to change. It was her great fortune that Barnaby, Camilla and Felix stayed close to her in their own ways, were open with their thoughts and feelings. But even so. When they were really grown and gone—to careers and households of their own, to marriages—what then? She would necessarily be peripheral to their lives. Then would she be an aging woman on her own, talking to herself as she was doing now, comforting herself with
toast and milk jugs? Or a woman still married to a man she could no longer love?
The uninterrupted day began to seem too long. Do something useful with yourself, Stella admonished sternly. Stop moaning. Think of Mrs. Armitage.
She decided to do some gardening. The small path at the front could do with weeding. After a while she felt more cheerful. The writhing worms and the shy leaves, the thin tendrils of young roots, earth just beginning to be warm, a counterweight to somber thoughts. There were grape hyacinths, and blossom on the damson.
In the late afternoon she went for a walk. A lane at the edge of the village led uphill through woods and, on the other side, to a small lake. When she got there the light was fading, the water silvery and still. The trees on the far shore like a bank of smoke or a mass of gauze, still leafless, only the tallest branches distinct against the sky. Two swans drifted close together in the gathering darkness, pale as moth wings, pale as falling snow.
No one else was there. If there were, would that voice speak? Standing on the lakeshore, with tears in her eyes, Stella called to it. There was no sound, or answer, but on her own, in the silence, after a while, she found a kind of peace.
Say the word, say the word, Mary-Margaret urged. She was on her knees in the Church of the Sacred Heart, waiting for the morning mass. Wednesday. Three days to go. Last night she dreamed He came to her and kissed her softly; she pressed her fingers to her mouth in memory of Him, touched them to where His mouth had been. He had given
her a folded sheet of paper. She opened it and there was writing on it, but she could not read the words.
She was making herself ready. Most of the day and half the night she spent in prayer. The only time she stopped was when she was with Shamso. Already they had made a routine for themselves. Every day Mrs. Abdi collected Shamso from his nursery and brought him home for lunch. Then she popped him across the corridor to Mary-Margaret. Even though the school holidays had started, the older Abdis had some kind of day care in the afternoon. Only Shamso and the baby didn’t—maybe because they were too young. Mary-Margaret had not understood Mrs. Abdi’s explanation but, in any case, she was more than happy to look after Shamso whenever she was asked. She’d gladly have the whole pack of them, in fact—Samatar, Bahdoon, Sagal, Hodan, and Faduma too—but they had other things to do and, truth to tell, it was Shamso she loved most. He seemed to love her too. Now, when his mum dropped him at Mary-Margaret’s, he didn’t give her so much as a backward glance. Cheerfully as anything he’d scamper up to Mary-Margaret, his little fingers wriggling in the pocket of her fleece, where he knew that she kept sweets for him—chocolate drops or Smarties. As long as he had something in his mouth, Shamso was content.
Yesterday it had been warm enough to go outside to play. Although Shamso couldn’t walk very far on his little legs and the new baby seemed to have sole use of the buggy, he could just about get to the park. There were swings there, and a pond, with ducks. Mary-Margaret took some scraps of bread. The poor mite didn’t have a clue at first—had he never fed ducks before?—and kept putting the stale crusts
in his mouth. So Mary-Margaret broke off some bits and chucked them in the direction of the birds, bringing them at once toward her in a great splash and cluck and clack of wings. And Shamso was thrilled! She had to hold on to him really tightly to stop him throwing himself into the water with the scraps of bread. Gorgeous hair your little boy has, remarked a passing woman, and Mary-Margaret was so proud. She scooped him up and hugged him until he squirmed to be put down; oh he was adorable, so sweet and so delicious.
This afternoon she would have him again. Excitement swelled up in her like water under pressure—she felt her blood flow faster—her whole world was about to change and it was already filled with love. She was willing and her lamp was full, like the wise virgins’. When the bridegroom came He would not find her wanting. Three more days.
On her way home she’d nip into the shops and pick up something special. She hadn’t been paying her mum much heed of late. The image of Fidelma wedged into her chair and staring blankly at the window swam to mind. What would her mother like? Mary-Margaret thought of chocolate cake, dark and rich with chocolate-fudge topping. Or those things with layers of custard cream and pastry. White icing on the top. Her mother would love that. You couldn’t fit them in your mouth, all that thick cream oozing out and squishing. Shamso would enjoy one too. Mary-Margaret laughed at the thought of Shamso covered in cream, the doll, the precious poppet.
Mrs. Armitage was celebrating too. Two weeks today. And for Fraser only one more week, in fact. Then he’d be going to Malta for a debrief, or was it decompression? A week of that, whatever it was, then home. The icing on her cake was that on getting back today, there had been a letter on the doormat. Imagine. She’d crawled in, wearier than usual—it had been a hard day at the depot with two of the regulars off sick and that waste of space who called herself the boss getting her knickers in a twist, and Mrs. Armitage did hope she wasn’t coming down with the same bug. She ached as if she’d gone twelve rounds with Big Frank Bruno.
Dragging herself up the garden path she’d also hoped that Larry was in but then remembered he had gone to Croydon. A pity. No one could be nicer to come home to than old Larry. He’d have made a cup of tea and given her a neck rub. He was brilliant at that. He’d never been a man exactly liberal with words or given to romantic gestures; it was as if all his sensitivity and love was gathered in his fingers. Magic hands, Mrs. Armitage would tell him. He knew where the pain was without you even telling.
But just when she was feeling sorry for herself, there was that letter waiting. It wasn’t very long, mind. Weather getting filthy hot,
’s the word, can’t wait for a real shower, tell Dad mine’s a pint on April the twenty-second!
It didn’t have to be long. Fraser was like his father, economical with words; the point was that he had written. Those ballpoint letters had been formed by her son’s hand. Mrs. Armitage kissed the paper they were on, feeling a little silly. Then she left the letter on the table in the hall for Larry, and put the kettle on.
Fidelma and her daughter faced each other over a paper bag of cakes and a bottle of Irish Cream liqueur. For Mary-Margaret, when she shopped, cost was the chief consideration. Ends must be made to meet on income support and a disability allowance, and consequently she was careful. Always bought own-brands and Basics. But once in a while she did leave room for a bottle in her basket. She was drawn to things that reminded her of her heritage, with green fields on the labels and words on them like
was a word that tasted of itself, she thought, and filled the mouth exactly like the real thing.
Mary-Margaret got home just in time for Shamso. Fidelma was asleep, so she hid the cakes away, as a nice surprise. When he arrived, Shamso made quacking noises, to her great delight. Of course then she had to take him to the park. Everything was a new pleasure, when you were with a child. Things you’d seen a million times before—the berries on a dusty bush, a cat on the pavement, a sparrow in a puddle flicking water from its wings—were fresh discoveries to Shamso. Even the lifts in the block excited him. Every time they went in one, Mary-Margaret had to hoist him up and help him push the right button with his finger. It took forever to get to the park because he had to stop and examine everything he saw along the way. He also had a tendency to pick up whatever he found and put it in his mouth, so Mary-Margaret really had to watch him. But she didn’t mind. She had all the time in the world for him, or at least for the moment.