This is the one thing I know from the minute I lift the receiver and slip that voice inside my ear: it will happen.
‘I need you. I need you to come right now.’
‘And I’m not. I’m at home. Come on.’
‘I do. Tell them you’re feeling ill. You’ve got to be somewhere. There’s an emergency. This is an emergency.’
‘Will you come now. I want you to. I want you.’
‘I want you.’
‘Really, it’s impossible.’
But it happens: I walk through the crashing or silent corridors and clean out of the building without even noticing whether I’ve put on my coat. I’m already on the way to somewhere else.
It seems a kind of falling, and anyone can fall. I wonder if we don’t all wait from time to time, ready to make a dive, to find that space where we can drop unhindered. Like an internal suicide.
So I start my fall and the door into the outside air swings snug behind me and I’m somewhere I can’t go at other times. Here we all walk together; are together. Watch for our feet, see our bodies; we all of us have the same music romping inside our heads. We’re moving through a big, blue waltz without a collision or a slip and I have my very own personal direction, smooth ahead of me: build a wall and I will simply walk it down. Today I can do that. Look for my heart and you’ll see it beating, even through my coat.
This is the only time I have when to be nothing other than me is quite enough. I love this.
It may have been raining for weeks, there may be salted snow and litter greasing together under my feet, dog shit and vomit–the usual pavements we have to use–but today I will neither notice, nor be touched. Angels have decreed it; I will be clean today. The air will shine. And if I glance to the side, the effect is disconcerting. Things are blurred, as though I were watching them from a moving car. Once I have my direction, I can get up a fair head of speed. The final corner spirals off to my right, the sun is blazing a banner in every window and there they are, the reason I came: the taxis.
I can’t be sure why the taxis are always involved. I only know I have always taken taxis when I’ve been falling. When I could afford them and when I could not and when I had to borrow money before I climbed in. It was almost as if they had some claim on me. Sometimes I would find myself clipping that phone call short, just to get moving, to get aboard.
‘Yes, I’ll get a taxi, I’m on my way.’
That kind of thing.
You should never have married me.’
‘I haven’t regretted it for an instant.’
‘Not you, you fool! Me! You shouldn’t have got me to marry you if you loved me. Why did you, when you knew it would let me in for all this. It’s not fair!’
‘I didn’t know. I know it’s not. But what can I do about it?’
‘I’m being mashed up and eaten alive.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s not your fault. But what can I do?’
‘I don’t know.’
So the conversation had gone last night in bed, followed by platonic embraces. They were on ice at the moment, so far as anything further was concerned. The smoothness and sweet smell of their children, the baby’s densely packed pearly limbs, the freshness of the little girl’s breath when she yawned, these combined to accentuate the grossness of their own bodies. They eyed each other’s mooching bulk with mutual lack of enthusiasm, and fell asleep.
At four in the morning, the baby was punching and shouting in his Moses basket. Frances forced herself awake, lying for the first moments like a flattened boxer in the ring trying to rise while the count was made. She got up and fell over, got up again and scooped Matthew from the basket. He was huffing with eagerness, and scrabbled crazily at her breasts like a drowning man until she lay down with him. A few seconds more and he had abandoned himself to rhythmic gulping. She stroked his soft head and drifted off. When she woke again, it was six o’clock and Matthew was sleeping between her and Jonathan.
For once, nobody was touching her. Like Holland she lay, aware of a heavy ocean at her sea wall, its weight poised to race across the low country.
The baby was now three months old, and she had not had more than half an hour alone since his birth in February. He was big and hungry and needed her there constantly on tap. Also, his two-year-old sister Lorna was, unwillingly, murderously jealous, which made everything much more difficult. This time round was harder, too, because when one was asleep the other would be awake and vice versa. If only she could get them to nap at the same time, Frances started fretting, then she might be able to sleep for some minutes during the day and that would get her through. But they wouldn’t, and she couldn’t. She had taken to muttering I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it, without realizing she was doing so until she heard Lorna chanting I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it! as she skipped along beside the pram, and this made her blush with shame at her own weediness.
In her next chunk of sleep came that recent nightmare, where men with knives and scissors advanced on the felled trunk which was her body.
‘How would you like it?’ she said to Jonathan. ‘It’s like a doctor saying, now we’re just going to snip your scrotum in half, but don’t worry, it mends very well down there, we’ll stitch you up and you’ll be fine.’
It was gone seven by now and Lorna was leaning on the bars of the cot like Farmer Giles, sucking her thumb in a ruminative pipe-smoking way. The room stank like a lion house. She beamed as her mother came in, and lifted her arms up. Frances hoisted her into the bath, stripped her down and detached the dense brown nappy from between her knees. Lorna carolled, ‘I can sing a rainbow’, raising her faint fine eyebrows at the high note, graceful and perfect, as her mother sluiced her down with jugs of water.
‘Why does everything take so long?’ moaned Jonathan. ‘It only takes me five minutes to get ready.’
Frances did not bother to answer. They were all four in Dorset on a week’s holiday. She was sagging with the effortful boredom of assembling the paraphernalia needed for a morning out in the car. Juice. Beaker with screw-on lid. Flannels. Towels. Changes of clothes in case of car sickness. Nappies. Rattle. Clean muslins to catch Matthew’s curdy regurgitations. There was more. What was it?
‘Oh, come on, Jonathan, think,’ she said. ‘I’m fed up with having to plan it all.’
‘What do you think I’ve been doing for the last hour?’ he shouted. ‘Who was it that changed Matthew’s nappy just now? Eh?’
‘Congratulations,’ she said.
Lorna burst into tears.
‘Why is everywhere always such a mess,’ said Jonathan, picking up plastic spiders, dinosaurs, telephones, beads and bears, his grim scowl over the mound of primary colours like a traitor’s head on a platter of fruit.
‘I want dat spider, daddy!’ screamed Lorna. ‘Give it to me!’
During the ensuing struggle, Frances pondered her tiredness. Her muscles twitched as though they had been tenderized with a steak bat. There was a bar of iron in the back of her neck, and she felt unpleasantly weightless in the cranium, a gin-drinking side effect without the previous fun. The year following the arrival of the first baby had gone in pure astonishment at the loss of freedom, but second time round it was spinning away in exhaustion. Matthew woke at one and four, and Lorna at six-thirty. During the days, fatigue came at her in concentrated doses, like a series of time bombs.
‘Are we ready at last?’ said Jonathan, breathing heavily. ‘Are we ready to go?’
‘Um, nearly,’ said Frances. ‘Matthew’s making noises. I think I’d better feed him, or else I’ll end up doing it in a lay-by.’
‘Right,’ said Jonathan. ‘Right.’
Frances picked up the baby. ‘What a nice fat parcel you are,’ she murmured in his delighted ear. ‘Come on, my love.’
‘Matthew’s not your love,’ said Lorna. ‘I’m your love. You say C’mon love to me.’
‘You’re both my loves,’ said Frances.
The baby was shaking with eagerness, and pouted his mouth as she pulled her shirt up. Lorna sat down beside her, pulled up her own T-shirt and applied a teddy bear to her nipple. She grinned at her mother.
Frances looked down at Matthew’s head, which was shaped like a brick or a small wholemeal loaf, and remembered again how it had come down through the middle of her. She was trying very hard to lose her awareness of this fact, but it would keep representing itself.
‘D’you know,’ said Lorna, her free hand held palm upwards, her hyphen eyebrows lifting, ‘D’you know, I was sucking my thumb when I was coming down stairs, mum, mum, then my foot slipped and my thumb came out of my mouth.’
‘Well, that’s very interesting, Lorna,’ said Frances.
Two minutes later, Lorna caught the baby’s head a ringing smack and ran off. Jonathan watched as Frances lunged clumsily after her, the baby jouncing at her breasts, her stained and crumpled shirt undone, her hair a bird’s nest, her face craggy with fatigue, and found himself dubbing the tableau, Portrait of Rural Squalor in the manner of William Hogarth. He bent to put on his shoes, stuck his right foot in first then pulled it out as though bitten.
‘What’s that‘ he said in tones of profound disgust. He held the shoe in front of Frances’s face.
‘It looks like baby sick,’ she said. ‘Don’t look at me. It’s not my fault.’
‘It’s all so bloody basic,” said Jonathan, breathing hard, hopping off towards the kitchen.
‘If you think that’s basic, try being me,’ muttered Frances. ‘You don’t know what basic means.’
‘Daddy put his foot in Matthew’s sick,’ commented Lorna, laughing heartily.
At Cerne Abbas they stood and stared across at the chalky white outline of the Iron Age giant cut into the green hill.
‘Do you remember when we stood on it?’ said Jonathan. ‘Five years ago?’
‘Of course,’ said Frances. She saw the ghosts of their frisky former selves running round the giant’s spreading limbs and up on to his phallus. Nostalgia filled her eyes and stabbed her smartly in the guts.
“‘The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free,'” quoted Jonathan. ‘Will you be able to grow your hair again?’
‘Yes, yes. Don’t look at me like that, though. I know I look like hell.’
A month before Matthew was born, Frances had had her hair cut short. Her head had looked like a pea on a drum. It still did. With each year of pregnancy, her looks had hurtled five years on. She had started using sentences beginning, ‘When I was young.’ Ah, youth! Idleness! Sleep! How pleasant it had been to play the centre of her own stage. And how disorientating was this overnight demotion from Brünnehilde to spear-carrier.
‘What’s that,’ said Lorna. ‘That thing.’
‘It’s a giant,’ said Frances.
‘Like in Jacknabeanstork?’
‘But what’s that thing. That thing on the giant.’
‘It’s the giant’s thing.’
‘Is it his stick thing?’
‘My baby budder’s got a stick thing.’
‘But I haven’t got a stick thing.’
‘Daddy’s got a stick thing.’
‘But mummy hasn’t got a stick thing. We’re the same, mummy.’
She beamed and put her warm paw in Frances’s.
‘You can’t see round without an appointment,’ said the keeper of Hardy’s cottage. ‘You should have telephoned.’
‘We did,’ bluffed Jonathan. ‘There was no answer.’
‘When was that?’
‘Twenty to ten this morning.’
‘Humph. I was over sorting out some trouble at Cloud’s Hill. T. E. Lawrence’s place. All right, you can go through. But keep them under control, won’t you.’
They moved slowly through the low-ceilinged rooms, whispering to impress the importance of good behaviour on Lorna.
‘This is the room where he was born,’ said Jonathan, at the head of the stairs.
‘Do you remember from when we visited last time?’ said Frances slowly. ‘It’s coming back to me. He was his mother’s first child, she nearly died in labour, then the doctor thought the baby was dead and threw him into a basket while he looked after the mother. But the midwife noticed he was breathing.’
‘Then he carried on till he was eighty-seven,’ said Jonathan.
They clattered across the old chestnut floorboards, on into another little bedroom with deep thick-walled window seats.
‘Which one’s your favourite now?’ asked Frances.
‘Oh, still Jude the Obscure, I think,’ said Jonathan. ‘The tragedy of unfulfilled aims. Same for anyone first generation at university.’
‘Poor Jude, laid low by pregnancy,’ said Frances. ‘Another victim of biology as destiny.’
‘Don’t talk, you two,’ said Lorna.
‘At least Sue and Jude aimed for friendship as well as all the other stuff,’ said Jonathan.
‘Unfortunately, all the other stuff made friendship impossible, didn’t it,’ said Frances.
‘Don’t talk!’ shouted Lorna.
‘Don’t shout!’ said Jonathan. Lorna fixed him with a calculating blue eye and produced an ear-splitting scream. The baby jerked in his arms and started to howl.
‘Hardy didn’t have children, did he?’ said Jonathan above the din. ‘I’ll take them outside. You stay up here a bit longer if you want to.’
Frances stood alone in the luxury of the empty room and shuddered. She moved around the furniture and thought fond savage thoughts of silence in the cloisters of a convent, a blessed place where all was monochrome and non-viscous. Sidling up unprepared to a mirror on the wall she gave a yelp at her reflection. The skin was the colour and texture of pumice stone, the grim jaw set like a lion’s muzzle. And the eyes, the eyes far back in the skull were those of a herring three days dead.
Jonathan was sitting with the baby on his lap by a row of lupins and marigolds, reading to Lorna from a newly acquired guide-book.
‘When Thomas was a little boy he knelt down one day in a field and began eating grass to see what it was like to be a sheep.’
‘What the sheep say?’ asked Lorna.
‘The sheep said, er, so now you know.’
‘And what else?’
‘What do you mean, why?’
‘Look,’ he said when he saw Frances. ‘I’ve bought a copy of Jude the Obscure too, so we can read to each other when we’ve got a spare moment.’
‘Spare moment!’ said Frances. ‘But how lovely you look with the children at your knees, the roses round the cottage door. How I would like to be the one coming back from work to find you all bathed and brushed, and a hot meal in the oven and me unwinding with a glass of beer in a hard-earned crusty glow of righteousness.’
‘I don’t get that,’ Jonathan reminded her.
‘That’s because I can’t do it properly yet,’ said Frances. ‘But, still, I wish it could be the other way round. Or at least half and half. And I was thinking, what a cheesy business Eng. Lit. is, all those old men peddling us lies about life and love. They never get as far as this bit, do they.’
‘Thomas 1840, Mary 1842, Henry 1851, Kate 1856,’ read Jonathan. ‘Perhaps we could have two more.’
‘I’d kill myself,’ said Frances.
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