The Rainy Season
Story by Charles Boyle
She worked in an art gallery. It wasn’t a good job, meaning neither did it pay well nor did it help to make the world a better place, but it was a harmless one, more harmless even than his own, in the lettings department of an estate agent’s. Did this render them safe? They didn’t shut their eyes to harm. Maria liked to have the TV switched on all the time, a constant grind of injustice and unreason and hilarity – to know that she wasn’t alone, to know that they were not alone. The game-show prizes she could take or leave, but someone had to win them.
She worked in an art gallery. And on a Tuesday in February – the week the rain began, the rain that would rain until all records were broken – she was sitting behind her desk, doing whatever she did (Michael still has no idea, the desk was minimalist), when she noticed a visitor on the far side of the gallery. And then what? He stood in front of one of the paintings, he took off his coat and slung it over his shoulder, he turned towards Maria and smiled and Maria recognised her father, who had been dead for ten years.
‘You didn’t see me come in,’ her father said. He was leaning stiffly on a walking stick. It was a criticism, and Maria wasn’t used to criticism. She was perfect for the job, everyone had said so: the gallery owner, her sister, friends, Michael too. And then this small matter of resurrection.
‘Though I could hardly have walked off with one of these in my pocket,’ her father continued. His hair was plastered down by the rain. The smallest of the paintings in the gallery on that wet afternoon was around six foot high. They were paintings of women, and of women with men, in some kind of early-hours, post-party location, and they were so new that the paint was barely dry. Maria had thought they were exciting.
‘They’re expensive,’ Maria said. Her father didn’t look rich. Her father looked as if he might ask her for the price of a cup of tea.
‘Out of your range.’
‘Come on, show me the list.’
The prices started at several thousand pounds.
‘Are they a good investment?’ the man asked.
‘Is that what you think they’re for?’
He laughed. ‘You’re supposed to say yes. You’re supposed to sell them to me.’
‘Go away,’ Maria said. She said that.
Rainwater dripped off his cheap coat and onto the floor. He had always hated water. Maria locked the entrance door and they moved to the office part of the gallery and they sat among the shiny surfaces, the screens and glossy catalogues, and talked. Her father asked if he could smoke and Maria said no. He placed his hands on his knees, a way of sitting that had always made her anxious: it was as if he was about to stand up and leave, as if he had other places to be.
‘Are you married?’ the man asked her. ‘Are you pregnant?’
He read the answers off her face.
A week later, she’s gone. Michael comes home from work to find an envelope on the kitchen table addressed to himself in her handwriting – her fluent handwriting, as if she wrote letters every day or drafts of essays in longhand, even though the only time Michael can remember seeing Maria with a pen in her hand is at Christmas, when she writes a few cards. Does she keep a diary in which she writes about her days and her feelings and himself? He opens the envelope. She loves him, she writes. But she needs to spend some time with her father. She has gone to her sister’s, where her father is staying, where there’s more room. Her name at the end is a sudden but perfectly legible gust that blows in his face.
That evening, the first time alone in bed for longer than he wants to remember, Michael sleeps badly. He dreams that the police are stopping cars at random on the ring-road, asking to see papers, proof of identity. It’s early evening; the police are wearing yellow waterproof capes and the cars’ headlights are mirrored on the surface of the wet road. In the centre of town Michael has been photographing children all day, which is not as easy as it sounds: they move quickly, they’re here and then they’re not here, sometimes tourists step in front of them or a bus passes between the children and Michael and then they are gone. The noise in a city playground that bounces between the walls of the surrounding buildings, this is what Michael really wants to photograph, but he doesn’t have the skill. He has been photographing children not because they are innocent (that is not his call), but because they do not deserve to die. He doubts that his accusers will find this a convincing reason. Very soon he expects to be arrested. He will go along without a struggle. The electrodes, the pincers, the thumbscrew, all these can be left in the drawer: he is not a brave man, he will tell them everything they want to know.
A dry kiss on both cheeks: Susannah greeting Michael at the door of her house. She points towards the kitchen. Susannah, Maria’s older sister, is the Queen of Clubs: tight-lipped, disapproving. In direct sunlight her hair shines orange, a chemical glow. Maria’s hair is black and long and fine; she flicks it away from her eyes. No one, seeing Susannah and Maria side by side, would know them to be sisters. For a moment, following Susannah along the hallway, Michael imagines genes as a trembling cascade of motes and flecks in a ray of light, which is not what they are at all.
In semi-darkness, in the glow of a single table light, Maria and a man with white hair are sitting on the kitchen floor, picking up spaghetti from a packet that has split open. Supper will be late. They are picking up the sticks of spaghetti very slowly, and they are taking turns: they are playing a game of pick-a-stick.
Maria’s hair is cut short. She has a fringe. She looks ten years younger. She looks like the girl he fell in love with.
The man she calls her father, the man she calls Jules, is asking: ‘Do you remember going to the beach and seeing a man parachute out of a plane into the sea? You ran into the water and wouldn’t come in when we called.’
And Maria is saying: ‘I never heard you!’
‘Your mother was shouting –’
‘She never shouted –’
‘She did when she was angry.’
‘I don’t remember –’
‘You wore a pink bathing costume. Or was it yellow?’
‘It was pink. It was horrible, prickly . . .’
The pile of spaghetti beside Jules is larger than Maria’s pile. Michael, watching from the doorway, thinks Maria is deliberately making mistakes to let him win.
‘I had a yellow dress with red lace on the cuffs that was coming away,’ Maria says. ‘What happened to that dress?’
‘What did happen to that dress?’
Jules goes on a run, picking up maybe ten spaghetti sticks one after the other without dislodging any of the others. It occurs to Michael that Jules is training Maria to be a pickpocket. She will be good at this. She moves quickly and can put on a look of absolute innocence. She will work the crowd and bring home her trophies in the evening. He can retire early.
‘It moved! That one!’
Maria’s turn. ‘You know I always wanted a dog,’ she says. Concentrating, inching a spaghetti stick from close to the bottom of the pile, she has a focused, interior expression on her face that Michael has always believed he could spend the rest of his life watching and never tire of.
Then Jules makes a daring move. ‘We did have a dog,’ he says. ‘Not for long.’
‘What was its name?’
‘You don’t remember its name?’
‘Did he sleep on my bed?
‘She. It was a she. Your mother wouldn’t have it. All that slobber –’
‘A labrador. She would wander off for days.’
Maria never had a dog, Michael is sure of this: women don’t tell all but they do at some point talk about their childhood pets. He switches on the overhead light and walks into the room, intending to help Maria to her feet, but as he leans towards her he trips over, or is tripped by, Jules’s walking stick and falls on top of him. Jules cries out. Michael too is in pain, having bashed his shin against the table as he stumbled. Maria asks him to leave. He knows she is doing this from how she is looking at him, but she says it too.
Susannah is waiting for him by the front door. ‘And there’s no point phoning,’ she tells him. ‘She’s not answering. Even when I’m out. House rules.’
‘Set by who?’
‘Who do you think, Michael? The mother of your child.’
Michael looks up at the ceiling. At the angle of the wall with the ceiling there is a cornice, its scrollwork overlayered by decades of repainting, and on the ceiling itself there are brown splashes. How is it possible to spill coffee on a ceiling? Out of nowhere he smells Maria’s hair, a smell he could drown in.
‘And no emails,’ Susannah adds. ‘She’s in purdah.’
‘For him too?’
‘Not for him. Actually he’s not so bad. He helps around, he does the washing-up.’
‘A man with a walking stick does the washing-up?’
‘He’s not a cripple.’
‘I thought he hated water.’
‘People change, Michael.’
There are squalls and showers; there are periods of persistent, accumulative drizzle; there is, mostly, the kind of rain that is so light you can’t see that it’s there, you can only feel it on your skin like a veil.
Jules is standing outside the front door, smoking, which he isn’t allowed to do inside. He likes smoking more than he dislikes the rain. Can you hit a man who is smoking? A man who is not just smoking but who is smaller than you, and older, and lame?
The true Jules walked out of his family’s life when Maria was a child. He lived abroad and there was no communication until Maria’s mother received an envelope from Italy that looked like a tax demand, so it gathered dust on the mantelpiece for at least a month until Maria herself opened it. She knew enough Italian, anyone does, to understand the word morto.
None of this was news to Maria’s mother, who had known for years that her husband was dead – drowned, in a river below a waterfall. He had never learned to swim. The document from Italy stated that he had died in a street in Rome after being hit by a reversing truck, but Maria’s mother knew otherwise: she had been with him in the river, tumbling down. She wrote a courteous letter – a thank-you letter – to the Italian lawyer, or coroner, from whose office the envelope had arrived; and then, realising that she hadn’t after all drowned beneath the waterfall, that her lungs still drew breath, she rang the numbers in an old address book, crossing out the names of those who were dead or who struggled for too long to remember who she was. She joined a beginners’ class in Spanish, she asked advice about hairdressers. She went shopping, and was relieved to find that almost everything she could be spending her money on she didn’t really want. What did she want? On the third floor of John Lewis in Oxford Street things began to swim out of focus and she felt her legs giving way beneath her. The man who picked her up, who sat her in a chair and spoke to her respectfully, patiently, had such a kind voice she wanted him to do it all over again. Instead he put her in a taxi. I’ll be fine, thank you, I’ll be fine, she told him, but not too convincingly because the next day he phoned her to make sure. He was a Scottish solicitor named Ray, and when he suggested dinner she had the good sense or recklessness to say yes.
‘How is Maria?’ Michael asks the false Jules.
Maria is doing fine. She’s been for a scan, she’s stopped work early, she is happy.
‘I want to see her.’ And then, seeing Jules isn’t going to budge, ‘Can you give her this?’ – a carrier bag containing grapes, underwear and a letter of fourteen pages in Michael’s own crabbed, inelegant handwriting.
Jules takes the bag and offers Michael a cigarette. Michael declines, he doesn’t smoke, and he asks Jules what, since he died, he’s been up to. It’s like interviewing someone with an unexplained gap in their c.v.
Michael has nothing to argue from, just a single photograph of a man wearing a crumpled suit standing beside a picnic table in the snow, with a woman’s scarf tied around his head. The building in the background, behind a stand of trees, looked vaguely like a hotel, but Maria had no idea where the photograph was taken. Her father travelled around a lot, to conferences and galleries and the hideaway homes of aged and reclusive artists. What did they talk about, these artists and her father, these artists whom most people assumed were dead? Who was the woman whose scarf was around his head? As for why he was wearing it, either it was because of the cold or he had earache. He looked like a child who has been sent out to play by himself while the grown-ups sit round a table and talk about grown-up things.
Old-style parenting, before parenting was even a verb.
The new Jules too is a child, even though he has whitish, in places yellowish, hair, swept back, with little tufts at the ends and around the ears. Weatherbeaten, or he’s a drinker. Nicotine-stained teeth and fingers. Very pale eyes. His walking stick is his favourite toy, his comfort blanket. Is this a man, Michael asks himself, whose genes he’d be happy to see given another run-out? Is this a man he’d even be happy to let a run-down studio flat to?
On a day in April Michael is standing under a large yellow umbrella that bears the logo of the estate agent he works for and his shoes are leaking and he has been waiting outside a block of mansion flats for forty minutes. The tenth car that passes by will be his client, looking for a parking space. The client, he imagines, will be Maria, and in the vacant flat on the hard bed beneath the spreading patch of damp in the room with a view over a supermarket delivery bay they will slowly undress each other and make love. The next tenth car . . . The client, he imagines, will be Jules, thrown out by Susannah and needing somewhere to go to ground: if Jules is not Maria’s father he is a chancer, a loner, on the run from someone or something, from consequences he didn’t foresee. If you pass him in the street you don’t lock eyes. He is one of those of those people the police warn the public not to approach.
Back in the office – after a hundred and twenty cars and still no client – his line manager asks to see him. The weather, his line manager explains. No house looks good in the rain. People feel trapped; they stay indoors, they stop moving around. A downturn in the market, and Michael is being let go.
While Michael is clearing his desk his colleague Derek is looking at girls in bikinis on his screen; next up are palm-fringed beaches and columns of prices for self-catering bungalows with/without private swimming pools in Guadeloupe. Some people get cold and wet, other people get skin cancer. Michael wishes Derek happy times on his holiday, and leaves. ‘Goodbye, Mike,’ says Derek, his eyes still on the screen.
On his way home, Michael passes by the gallery where Maria no longer works. There are waterlogged brown squares on the walls, something heavy and ecological but yielding the odd bone or trinket, and a new girl at the desk: younger, cheaper. Fathers too, Michael understands, after they’ve done their biological bit, are dispensable, redundant. What’s left is ageing: carving the joint on Sundays, making paper hats out of yesterday’s newspapers. They are a drain on resources. Not so very long until he too will be hard of hearing, deaf to the beep-beep of a reversing truck.
Jules at Susannah’s front door again: except for the smoking, like a sentry at Buckingham Palace.
Back in the early days, relaxed after wine and/or making love, Maria recalled for Michael not her former lovers but the several candidates she had asked to take over the job of father, the job that Jules had quit. The first, her school chaplain: how could he say no? He had thinning hair and spoke with a soft reasonableness that stilled all doubt, however far-fetched the matter in the books he had to read aloud from. Our Father, he said at morning assembly, and the children all bowed their heads but Maria kept her eyes tilted upwards and he knew she was watching him, she was sure of that. The school prospectus already had him down as spiritual counsellor: it just needed a slight push. One afternoon she found him alone in his classroom, marking books. ‘I don’t think you really mean that,’ he said, and she thought that someone had perhaps asked him before and then it had turned out they were making a joke or doing it for a dare. ‘You don’t have to decide right now,’ she said, and he moved his chair to one side as if he was about to ask her to sit next to him so they could work out sensibly what happened next, but at the same time he looked back at the exercise book he was marking and she knew then that she was doomed. And so was he. And so, judging by his scribbles in the margins, was the child who had written the homework.
Jules is listening as Michael talks. Again he proffers his cigarettes.
Michael takes one.
She went through a phase of favouring loners, men on the fringes whose view of others coincided, she rashly assumed, with hers. Most looked away; a few of them didn’t. Mr X – she didn’t know his name at the time – was often on the same bus as Maria and her sister on their way to school. He had eyes set so far back you couldn’t tell what he was looking at. Then he was in the park too, in summer, sitting on a bench, still with his raincoat on, and one afternoon Maria sat down next to him and spoke. He was never seen on the bus or in the park again. Once or twice in the local shops – head down, counting his change. He moved to Wales. Maria knew this because some years later he sent her a Christmas card.
‘So how did she end up with you?’ Jules asks Michael. ‘What made her change the job description?’
Inside the house the telephone rings. Susannah is out. A wrong number, Michael thinks; or the right number but whoever is ringing will stay silent. This is a ghost story of sorts.
Maria is back! – stumbling out of a taxi, her hair wet with rain, her cheeks wet with tears. She has quarrelled with Jules, and with Susannah too, and Michael enfolds her, kisses her, and she responds, and he takes her – carries her – into the flat. She is tired but doesn’t want to sleep, or she wants to sleep but isn’t tired. She doesn’t know: whether Jules is her father, whether she wants to be here or back at Susannah’s, whether she wants to be a mother or it’s all a terrible mistake. She wants to be here, Michael decides for her. He runs a hot bath and undresses her – this familiar, unfamiliar body – and bathes her and puts her to bed, and after watching until she is asleep he goes into the living room and falls fitfully asleep himself on the sofa. He dreams that he is sitting at a table with Maria in a fisherman’s hut with a corrugated-iron roof, and the rain drumming on the roof is so loud that he can’t hear what Maria is saying. There are fish scales glistening on the wooden floor. He leans close, feels her breath on his face. She is saying how at times like these, in places like these – and, obviously, in crowded bars – it would help if everyone could talk in speech bubbles that come out of their mouths, so people can read each other’s speech rather than having to struggle to hear it. It’s quite dark, Michael points out. But the bubbles could be illuminated from within.
When he wakes it’s still early, before seven, and in the bedroom the bed is empty and unslept-in.
He phones Susannah and arranges to meet her in a bar, but at nine o’clock that evening either she has forgotten or he is in the wrong bar and a woman who is neither Susannah nor Maria is leaning across the table to inspect Michael’s eyebrows, eyes, the texture of the skin on his cheeks. She puts a finger on his chin and he opens his mouth. Wider. She peers inside. Upper left three, filling coming loose. Lower right six – where did that one go? ‘Really, no one in Norway has teeth like these. You should see –’
‘I know, I know. I’ve been told.’
She says that his teeth are a disaster, a catastrophe. Michael thinks she is exaggerating. Her name is Birgit and she is a dental nurse.
‘They didn’t have the treatments, the alloys, in those days,’ he says, knowing this is hardly an excuse that will stand up in court. He wonders if, now that he is unemployed, he can get dental treatment for free, along with the children and the pregnant women.
‘What does enamelled mean?’
Her English is good but not perfect. He says it means something has a hard surface, to protect it. Cars, for example: they use enamel paint. Coffee pots. People. ‘Teeth have enamel.’
‘But very thin. Enamel gets worn away,’ she says.
She shifts in her seat and takes a book from her bag. She searches for a page and again reaches across the table, her finger pointing halfway down the page.
Michael reads: ‘James was enamoured of Alice.’
‘Oh, enamoured,’ he says. ‘It means love, he said. James loves Alice.’
‘Are you enamoured of Maria?’ Her freckles are all bunched up.
‘Yes, I am enamoured of Maria.’ He drinks from his beer. ‘You can be enamoured of more than one person,’ he adds.
‘How many? Ten, twenty?’
‘That’s spreading it a bit thin.’
She looks puzzled. Her clear blue eyes, constellation of freckles. Icy fjords.
Michael conjugates: I rain, you rain, he-she-or-it rains. He watches a puddle expand to the point of touching another puddle, and welcome it, and pool again into another. He is a patient man.
In May Jules finds himself a job. A dust sheet has been laid in Susannah’s hallway and Jules is on a ladder with a tiny mallet and a chisel, chipping out layers of paint from the ceiling cornice to expose the original detail. Why now, Michael wonders – why now, after generations of benign neglect, and why by a man in his sixties who’s unsteady on a ladder? Does looking up to the man make Jules a role model?
Jules has been working, he says, for two days, and has cleaned out a stretch no longer than a foot. He too is a patient man. To finish the whole hallway will take him until the unborn child is in secondary school.
Flakes of yellowed paint decorate Jules’s hair like dandruff. Old paint was made with lead, wasn’t it? The dust can be carcinogenic, Michael recalls reading somewhere. He asks Jules if this if this is a good thing to be doing, if the dust could be harmful to Maria. Jules pretends not to hear him. He drops the mallet, which Michael hands back. The brown splashes are still there on the ceiling.
Two weeks later there is a rearrangement prompted, Michael guesses, by Susannah’s impatience with Jules’s refusal to quit smoking. Jules moves into the garage which adjoins the house. Gardening forks, trowels and shears hang from nails, rusting. At the back, over a workbench, the door of a kitchen cabinet has fallen off; inside are ancient jam-jars, bottles of weedkiller, plant pots. There are cobwebs with mummified flies. Michael thinks: a man could hang himself in here. Jules has a sleeping bag laid over a flattened cardboard box; two folding garden chairs are set up on the concrete floor
‘Have you read Anna Karenina?’ Jules asks.
Michael has seen the film, he thinks, or a TV adaptation. ‘Have you read it?’
‘I read it a long time ago,’ Jules says. ‘When everyone was much younger – Kitty, Levin, Vronsky, all of them. It has recipes for making jam.’
Beautiful and intelligent and rich, all of these people, with country estates and nothing to do during the long fine days except talk and make jam, and Michael resents them: safe, between the covers of a book.
‘How old were you? And those other people?’
‘Your age, maybe. What are you reading now?’
Michael is reading, on and off, The Rough Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, an innocent’s guide to a foreign land of which he, as a mere tourist, will never be granted citizenship. On the other hand, nor will he be conscripted for national service or have to pay the sky-high taxes.
Jules finds a wooden crate on top of the cabinet with the broken door, and they place the crate between the chairs and they play cards. Sometimes Maria joins them. They play Black Jack, which Maria remembers playing as a child, and Jules remembers the game too but they disagree over the rules. Can you play immediately after you’ve picked up, or do you have to wait until your next turn? Jules lets Maria decide. She is looking healthy and strong but her hair, which she has started to grow long again, is dry and straggly. She smells different – a ripeness, new undercurrents. In the womb, new nerve cells are being formed in the brain at a rate of 10,000 per second – half die off, because they don’t make connections with other cells. You have to wait until your next turn, she decides. Michael kneels in front of her and kisses her belly, round and swollen and taut but still yielding, neither solid nor liquid. Amniotic: he can’t get the word out his head. He breathes it into her ear; he feels that he himself is floating, adrift. Jules has fallen asleep in his garden chair, his walking stick on the ground beside him. Every now and then Michael is sure he can hear, not far distant, a child crying, wanting its something.
‘Is there someone else?’ Maria asks him.
Of course there is someone else, he wants to tell her. There is always someone else: even if they are only Derek, even if they have gone away or haven’t yet arrived. Sometimes when Michael switches on the radio in the flat he finds it tuned to strange effervescent stations. The television, which weeks ago Michael threw a rug over – what does it mean, to be told that there is a depression moving in from the west? – is now uncovered and back on: for her English, Birgit says. In Devon and the Lake District there are floods: the news shows fields under sheets of water, bridges washed away, canoes in the high streets. The floodwater is the brown of diluted mud and excrement. Michael sits down and watches, fascinated, as helicopters winch families to safety from their rooftops, the women and children first, as on the Titanic, the elderly also a favoured category.
In bra and pants, Birgit does exercises in Michael’s bedroom. Not as deliberate as yoga, not a full work-out either; something Norwegian.
‘Do you want to go swimming?’ he asks her.
She has a life-guard’s certificate. She is a water nymph.
‘You know,’ she says, ‘you close your eyes when you make love.’
‘Do I close my eyes too?’
‘How would I know, if my eyes are closed?’
‘Maybe you peek when I’m not looking.’
The army is helping out. The death toll is rising. The prime minister is coming under pressure to declare a state of emergency, as if that will change anything.
The sky is the colour of rain. The rain is the colour of the sky.
A drawer beneath the bench at the back of the garage is stuck. Michael tugs and then rattles it, and finally it springs open. Inside the drawer are small cardboard boxes; once upon a time the half-inch nails kept to one box and the three-quarter ones to another and the staples to another and so on, but now everything is comingling, cohabiting.
He remembers those children’s picture books – there must be one still in the house, among the too many things, on a shelf that has gathered dust – whose pages are divided into three parts that you turn separately, and so construct a tripartite animal with the head of an owl, the body of a rabbit and the feet of a duck.
There is a day when Michael goes shopping for new shoes, shoes that will not leak, and in the mall he goes for a coffee. The shopping mall is dry: it is another condition of being, it is like being asleep or on holiday. Everything around him is bright and shiny and new; everything except the air, which is being continuously recycled.
A man with a limp and downcast eyes, unconvinced of the value of what’s he’s selling, approaches Michael and offers him a leaflet – as many as he wants – promising that Jesus Saves. Michael ignores him, but the man persists. Michael makes a gesture with his hands to indicate he hasn’t got any money, or that today he’s not interested in being saved (maybe tomorrow, maybe next week), then looks at the man and sees that it is Jules, and his teeth are even worse than his own.
‘How is the Norwegian?’ Jules asks.
‘She’s only here a few months. To learn how we do things in this country.’
‘She’s an exchange student. She’s leaving soon.’
‘In exchange for someone else?’
‘The student who’s coming back from Norway.’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
‘Where’s your walking stick?’ Michael asks.
As if remembering that he has difficulty in standing up unaided, Jules puts his leaflets on the table and slumps into the seat next to Michael. A woman walks past, hunched down, like a miscarriage of justice. Michael thinks: why doesn’t Jules offer his leaflets to her? Meanwhile, the water table is rising. One day soon the ground around him, this shopping mall included, will be marshland, home to all manner of waders and aquatic insects. As it used to be, only so many generations before.
In late summer Michael has a dream in which he almost makes love with Maria, several times. (In the pregnancy book, there is no entry in the index for dreams; he has looked.) He is in a hotel with deep-pile beige carpets and brass ashtrays on stands along the corridors, or he is in some dictator’s palace with secret passages and torture chambers, and every so often he finds himself alone with Maria and comes very close, close enough for touching and unbuttoning, before other people arrive and they have to rush off elsewhere. One of the other people is Derek. Another is Birgit but it’s Maria he wants now. The touch of her, the juice of her. The juice of her what? Damn this dream, he says to himself inside the dream, but there is Maria again and surely this time . . . He wakes up.
It is 4 a.m. and a thunderstorm is raging overhead – what has woken Michael is the sound of rain pounding on the roof. Except that the flat is on the first floor and doesn’t have a roof, and when Michael goes to the window he sees that it isn’t raining at all. The pounding noise is that of a thousand feet – more, far more – tramping the road below: an unbroken stream of runners in shorts and vests coming up the hill and past the block of flats and, as far as Michael can see, turning left at the traffic lights. An undercover marathon.
Michael puts on a coat and stands out on the balcony. For the past months he has been married to the rain. In its absence he feels light, empty, transparent. If he jumped he would fly. Some of the runners look up and wave. He waves back, like shy royalty.
The sky is damp and dark but the whole scene is lit with a neon glow that makes every detail clear, and with a shiver that has nothing to with the cold Michael recognises the runners: every one of them is male and every one of them is Jules. There are boys as young as ten who are already Jules and there are old men with stringy legs who are still Jules, and there are those who have smoked too many cigarettes for too many years and the fat ones who are in danger of collapsing and who should never have even signed up but who are kept going by a demented team spirit, a stubborn refusal to let the side down.
Either that, or else they have already had their coronaries and their liver diseases and car crashes and freak accidents, so that what in fact Michael is witnessing is a parade of the dead.
Where is the finishing line? Or is the route a continuous loop?
After around half an hour, when the continuous mass has thinned out to isolated stragglers and the occasional Jules in a wheelchair, his arms pumping against the slope of the hill, it starts to rain, real rain this time, and Michael goes inside, runs a hot bath, makes coffee and phones Susannah.
By noon the next day Michael and Maria are in a hired car driving north to visit Maria’s mother, who is ill. Maria’s voice comes from behind him; her seat is tilted back as far as it will go, their child in her belly rising beside him.
‘Sometimes my father would come into my room to check if I was asleep, late at night, and I’d hear his footsteps coming and pretend to be asleep. And sometimes he’d sit for a while on the end of my bed, watching me.’ She laughs. It’s as if she’s never been away. ‘I suppose that’s what he was doing. I kept my eyes tight closed, pretending. I was terrified.’
‘I thought he wasn’t at home much,’ Michael says.
‘But when he was.’
‘Why didn’t you open your eyes?’
‘I was frightened. I was frightened from the moment I heard his footsteps on the stairs, from when I began waiting for his footsteps on the stairs. I couldn’t go to sleep until it was all over.’
‘Frightened of what?’
‘That it wasn’t him. That it was someone else.’
She does a pffft with her lips, then smiles dreamily. ‘Those nights,’ she says. ‘High point of my life.’
Tonight they will stay in a cheap hotel in Edinburgh where the heating cannot be turned down and the window cannot be opened; Highland cattle will stand guard on the walls.
‘You know that scene in a movie where the walls start moving inwards?’ Maria says. ‘What was the name of that film?’
Maria’s mother is not ill, Michael thinks, not in the way she used to be when she believed that her husband had drowned. (And then, when the news of his actual death arrived from Italy, she had wanted to frame the certificate and hang it on the wall. Susannah had said no; it wasn’t a qualification, not like the certificates on the walls of cafés and dentists’ waiting rooms.) She is normal, now. She has a mild cold, and she wants to be visited. She will run down the steps to greet Maria and Michael with an actressy glee; she will do her level best to get them on speaking terms with the American couple who also happen to be staying for the weekend, who are old friends of Ray and whom Michael will dislike at first sight. She will pull out all the stops. There will be clean maroon towels in the en-suite bathroom.
Michael asks: ‘Do you do that with me?’
The times he has watched her sleeping – when he comes home late, after she has gone to bed; when he wakes in the pre-dawn light.
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘you mean, do I pretend? Pretend I’m asleep? No. Why should I?’
‘I thought everyone did.’
She doesn’t answer.
‘I do,’ he says. ‘When you get up for a pee –’
‘If you were pregnant –’
‘And I’m awake but I keep my eyes closed, so that when you come back –’
‘Yes, that’s nice. Getting back into bed.’
‘Chilled, like something from the fridge –’
‘On a hot day –’
‘First touch. Delicious.’
She takes his left hand from the steering wheel and places it on her forehead. ‘Every night,’ she says, ‘just before he left, he’d stroke my brow. Very gently.’
‘He or the someone else.’
‘A kind of signal – he was about to go, and after that I could stop pretending.’
‘And open your eyes.’
‘No one there at all.’
He moves his hand across to the dome of her belly, listening through his fingers for the gloop and slurp of sea-born creatures before their fins become limbs and they struggle on to land, then brings it back to the steering wheel. Sometimes the shifting pattern of the traffic is forcing him to drive faster than he wants to.
‘Any special requests?’
The windscreen wipers sweep left, sweep right, battling the spray thrown up by the traffic in front. Michael sees the bed in the mansion flat beneath the damp stain on the ceiling, the sheets rumpled, needing a wash. He sees the wife of the American man – Doreen, her name is; she has a daughter aged twenty-four who lives in Singapore and a son, slightly retarded, who works in a supermarket just twelve miles away from their home in Connecticut and whom she sees just as seldom – doing the thing with the ring, if Maria doesn’t mind, she’s always wondered if it really works, tying the ring – does it have to be gold? can it be any ring? – to a piece of string and dangling it over Maria’s bump. Is it clockwise for a boy and anticlockwise for a girl or the other way round? Or from side to side? ‘Surely someone must remember,’ Doreen pleads, but no one does. It doesn’t matter anyway. The string with the ring stays obstinately vertical. Michael suggests that someone should blow it, to give it a start, like cranking up an engine, but that isn’t allowed.
It’s a boy, it has to be, because of the whole father thing. Or else a girl.
About half an hour later Maria tells him to drive faster, and if he can’t do that she wants to stop, right now. They are on a motorway; the car is being jolted, rocked, drenched by passing lorries. Through the blizzard of spray, visibility is almost nil. He drives another five miles to the next service station, and even before he has parked the car she is struggling to release the seat belt. ‘Let me out,’ she says.
Charles Boyle is a British writer living in London. Under the pen-name Jennie Walker he published the novella 24 for 3 (Bloomsbury, 2008), for which he won the McKitterick Prize. He has also published two books combining text and photographs and six collections of poetry, the last being The Age of Cardboard and String (Faber, 2001), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award and the TS Eliot Prize. He worked in publishing for several years before going freelance, and in 2007 he founded CB editions, a small press publishing short fiction and poetry, including work in translation. His short story collection The Manet Girl will be published by Salt Publishing in 2013.
*The photo featured above originated from the website www.squareamerica.com, a source of vernacular and "found" photography.