Though the telephone is a perfectly useless indicator of most human qualities, it’s pretty precise about age. From her tiny office on the third floor, Pam Roberts looked through a window and correctly identified the Martha Penk she was waiting for, a shrimpish girl pushing twenty-two, lost down there. She had on a red overcoat and cream snow boots, putting her weight on their edges like an ice skater; she seemed to waver between two doorways. Pam opened her mouth to call out ‘Miss Penk!’ but never got to make the curious sound—abruptly the girl turned the corner and headed back down Apple towards the river. Pam went to her own door, opened it, worried her chapped lips with a finger, closed it again. The cold was just too extreme; today the first snows were due, opening performance of a show that would last a dreary, relentless four months. Besides, she had her slippers on. Miss Martha Penk, who appeared to believe that two bedrooms and a garden could be had for a thousand dollars a month, would figure out her second mistake soon enough, come back, discover the bell. The confusion was common; it arose from the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the ground floor—a busy bookshop and a swing-doored optician obscured the sign that told you of the dentist, the insurers, the accountant and Pam’s own dinky realty business at the top of the building; also the antique elevator that would take you to them. Pam tapped her door with a knuckle, warning it she would return, and crossed the room to the filing cabinet. On tiptoes she slid open the top drawer and began flicking through files, her Mozart swelling behind her. She sang along with that section of the Requiem that sounds so very like ‘OH I SEE YOU WILL GO DOWN! AND I SEE YOU WILL GO ALSO!’, although it could not be this for the words are Latin. As she sang she ground one of her Chinese slippers rhythmically into the carpet and pressed herself into the metal drawer to reach for something at the very back: ‘OH I SEE YOU WILL GO DOWN, OH! I SEE YOU WILL GO DOWN! ALSO! ALSO!’
Pam found what she wanted, closed the cabinet suddenly with an elbow and sat down in a fat armchair opposite a lithograph of Venice. She put a foot in her hand and said ‘Phee-yoo! Now, there you go,’ pressing relief into a sore instep. She started picking out every third sheet or so from the listings and laying them on the floor before her in a small pile. At the opening of the ‘Lacrimosa’ she removed her slipper entirely, but then hearing someone gallop up the stairs, replaced it and quickly rose to greet a large, dark, bearded man in a sheepskin overcoat, who stood bent at the knees like a shortstop, trying to recover his breath in the hallway. He took a step towards her, looked up and frowned. He paused where he was, supporting himself with a hand on the door frame. Pam knew exactly why he had come and the two spoke at the same time.
‘This temping agency?’ he asked, a heavy accent, quickly identified by Pam as Middle-Easterny. A Middle-Easterny scarf, too, and a hat.
‘No dear, no,’ said Pam, and let her glasses fall to her chest from their chain, ‘It’s above the other Milliner’s Books, right? There’s two Milliner’s Books—you need the one on the corner of Apple and Wallace—this is the wrong Milliner’s, this is above the children’s Milliner’s—I don’t know why they just don’t say that to people—’
The man groaned pleasantly and hit his temple with the hub of his palm.
‘I make mistake. Sorry, please.’
‘No, they just didn’t say, they never do. It’s not you, dear, it’s them—people always come here by mistake, it’s not you. It’s two minutes from here. Now, you go back down, turn left, then immediately right, you can see it from there. I’ve got somebody who just did the exact same, but exactly—only vice versa—she’s gone to…’
A further thundering on the stairs and three more men, younger, also bearded. They stood bent like their friend, panting, one man crying the involuntary tears of a Massachusetts winter. They stared at Pam who stared frankly back at them, with her hands on her makeshift hips, up there where her black linen trousers began, high under the breasts. A black T-shirt and cardigan finished the thing off. Pam was a recognized doodlenut when it came to clothes, buying the same things over and over, black and loose, like a fat Zen monk. She didn’t mind. Her moustache was moist and visible—oh, so let ’em stare was how Pam felt about it. Young men did not register with Pam any more.
‘My friends,’ explained the man, and with his friends began the descent, emptying out a demotic mystery language into the stairwell. Miss Penk must have passed them on the bend. A moment later she was in the room apologizing for her lateness.
‘Sorry I’m late, I’m sorry,’ she said, but did not look sorry. Her face, very black, could not blush, and her accent, to Pam’s ears very English, could not apologize. She stood in the centre of the room, clumsily divesting herself of the loud red coat. She was short, but more muscular, more solid than she had appeared from three floors up. A cheap-looking grey trouser suit and some fake pearls were conspiring to make her older than she was. The buttons on the jacket looked like rusty spare change.
‘No, I saw you, you see,’ began Pam warmly, coming forward to catch what was falling, a scarf, a woolly hat, ‘There’s two Milliner’s—did you see those men? On the stairs? They did the exact same thing—and I saw you down—’
‘The lift’s broken, it don’t work,’ said Martha, and now lifted her head and reached out a hand. Pam felt faintly interrupted, but took the hand and gave it a double-handed shake.
‘Pam Roberts, we spoke on the phone. It’s so good to meet you!’
‘I’m Martha,’ she replied and quickly freed herself. She passed a smoothing hand over her own short ironed hair, cut in a flapper’s style, a helmet brilliant with some kind of polish. A concrete kiss curl had been plastered on to her left cheek. Pam had never seen anything quite like it in her office before.
‘Well. Now, did you come from far? Are you nearby?’ Pam asked, a question that had a little business in it.
‘Near, yeah,’ said the girl, firmly. She stood oddly, hands by her sides, feet together, ‘A hotel, it’s called The Charles? It’s just like by the river—it’s just if you go down by—’
‘Oh, I know where it is—it’s very nice.’
‘It costs too much, man,’ said Martha, tutting loudly, removing a pair of childish mittens, ‘But I came right from London and I didn’t have any place arranged—I just arksed the taxi to take me to the nearest hotel—I been there a week, but I can’t afford it for much longer, you know?’
Usually Pam would use these minutes in the office to ascertain something about likely wealth, class, all very gently—what kind of house, what kind of taste, what kind of price—but she had been wrong about English accents before, not knowing which were high class, which not. Or whether high class meant money at all—if you watched PBS as Pam did you soon found out that in England it could, often did, mean the exact opposite.
‘It is such a nice place, The Charles. They really do things properly there, don’t they? They really make the best of that location, I think. I stayed there once for a realty conference, and I really appreciated the standard of the breakfasts. People talk about pool this, steam-room that, but in actual fact it’s the little things, like a breakfast. A good hot breakfast. But my God the price isn’t any fun—Martha, we’ll have you out of there in no time, I promise, especially if we find something empty—’
‘Yes,’ said Martha, but rather too quick, too desperate, ‘How long would it be before I could move in somewhere?’
Pam felt herself immediately on surer ground and slipped down a gear into patter, ‘Well, as I’m saying, dear, it depends on whether the place has people in it at the moment—but even then, we can turn it around very very quickly. It just needs to happen so that everybody wants to make it work, that’s all. Don’t worry, we’ll find something that works. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it loose and go on to the next,’ she said loudly, clapping her hands and glancing at a clock on the wall, ‘Now, I’ve got about two hours free—it’s really very dry at the moment so there’s plenty to show.’ She bent down to scoop the remembered listings from the floor, ‘I think I understand what you’re looking for, Martha, I received your letter, I have it right here—Wait—’ Pam reached over to her stereo like a woman with one foot each in two drifting boats; she punched at a couple of buttons to no avail, ‘Sometimes it gets a little loud. Funny little machine. It’s completely wireless! It’s like a single unit stereo for single people, very liberating. You can’t really adjust it without the remote, though, which is a little frustrating. And I find it gets louder sometimes, do you know? Sort of when you don’t expect it?’
‘Classical,’ said Martha, and looked at Pam and the surrounding office with determined reverence, ‘I want to listen to more classical music. I want to know more about it. It’s on my list.’
And this she said in such a way that Pam had no doubt that there was such a list, and that renting an apartment today was somewhere on it. The girl had a manner that was all itinerary, charmless and determined, and Pam, a Midwesterner by birth, had the shameful idea that she might go far, this Martha Penk, here on the East Coast.
‘Oh! Well, I don’t know what there is to know, really. I mean, I don’t know anything at all. It’s the violins that do it for me, I guess, the way they sound like somebody’s crying? The “Lacrimosa” means crying, I’m pretty sure. Lachrymose—that’s from the eye, isn’t it? But are you at the university?’
‘No!’ said Martha but her face at last released a flood of undisguised pleasure, as when a girl is told she could be a model or an actress or do whatever she does amateurishly, professionally, ‘I wish! Maybe one day. I’m looking for that next level—qualifications, getting forward, raising myself, my consciousness. But that’s like a dream, yeah, for me at this stage?’
She looked serious again, began enlisting her hands in her speech, drawing out these ‘levels’ in the air, ‘It’s about stepping a bit further, I mean, for me, I really want to improve myself while I’m here, go up a bit, like listening to different music, like that.’
‘Well,’ said Pam brightly, and sounded her desk with her hand, ‘We’ll just have to find you the right place where you can do that. Hmm?’ But Miss Penk had returned her attention to the CD case, and Pam found herself nodding into the silence, and talking to fill it, ‘Oh, I just like all kinds of music, really. I am just the biggest fan of music. Cuban, classical, hillbilly—or whatever you call that sort of close harmony singing? A lot of jazz…don’t know a thing about it, though! Oh my. Maybe I can’t be improved. Too old to be any better than I am,’ said Pam in a saccharine sing-song, as if it were a proverb.
‘Yeah,’ said Martha, the sort of absent yes that a silly proverb probably deserves. She took the sleeve notes out of the case and opened them up.
‘Now,’ said Pam, struggling a little, ‘From your letter I understood you were thinking around the thousand mark—but that’s really a little low—I mean, I’ll show you those places, Martha, but I can’t guarantee you’re going to like them. I mean, they’re not there to be liked,’ Pam said patiently, and gathered up her car keys from her desk, ‘But we’ll find something that works—we just need to get a handle on it. I’d like to show you a big place that’s going for two thousand, maybe—maybe lower—it’s negotiable with the present owner. In more vibrant times, it’s worth at least three. It’ll give us some idea anyway. I’m here to make it work for you, so, I’m going to be led by you…’
Outside a plane roared low like some prehistoric bird, Pam shuddered; Martha did not move. Pam tried jostling her keys expectantly in her hand; Martha put down the CD case leaving the notes unfolded and walked over to the window. From behind she was an even more neatly made girl than from the front, everything tight and defined, fighting slightly against the banal restraint of polyester.
‘We’ll take my car, if that’s all right,’ tried Pam, anxious that Martha should not open a window but unwilling to ask her not to. It was hot in the room, but it was that time of year: you either fried or you froze. But Martha had already tugged on the sash, in a second her head was out there in the open air. Pam winced. She hated to see people lean all the way out of a window like that.
‘Do you get a lot of university people? Students?’
‘Oh, yes. At the beginning of a semester, certainly. Students around here have some money to spare, if you know what I mean.’
Martha took her plastic pearls in her hand and twisted them.
‘They must be amazing. Focused people.’
‘Oh! Well, yes, I suppose. Certainly, they’re bright. There’s just no denying that. But I’m afraid,’ said Pam in her own, overused, comic whisper, ‘They can be pretty obnoxious as well.’
‘There aren’t any black students,’ Martha said in a tone somewhere between statement and question. Pam, who was in the middle of forcing her arm though a recalcitrant coat sleeve, stopped in her position like a scarecrow, ‘Well, of course there are students of colour, dear! I see them all the time—I mean, even before the affirmative action and all of that—I mean, there’s always been the basketball scholarships and the rest—though it’s much, much better now of course. They’re completely here on their own steam now. Lots of Chinese young people too, and Indian, many. Many! Oh, there’s plenty, plenty of people of colour here, you’ll see,’ said Pam and switched off her desk lamp. ‘But have you been to America before?’
‘Only Florida when I was twelve. I didn’t like it—it’s quite vulgar?’ said Martha, and the word was most definitely borrowed in her mouth. Pam, who also occasionally borrowed words, recognized the habit and tried to look kindly upon it.
‘Florida and Nigeria are the only places I’ve been, really, out of England,’ continued Martha, leaning yet further out, gazing across the square, ‘And now here.’
‘Oh, are you Nigerian?’ Pam asked, kicked off her slippers and began to replace them with treasured walking boots. When people remarked that Pam had become ‘so hard’ recently or suggested that she’d turned into a doodlenut since her divorce, they often meant these boots and nothing more than these boots.
‘Penk, it’s very unusual, isn’t it?’ said Pam to Martha’s back, ‘Is that a Nigerian name?’
Nothing further came. Discovering her remote control behind a coffee cup, Pam stopped the CD and then approached, reaching briskly around Martha to close the window. Clearly, the girl blew hot and cold; in the end Pam just needed her name on a contract, nothing more. Even that was not essential—plenty of people take up your whole afternoon and never call again; Pam called them her one-day stands.
‘Look at that sky. It’s gonna snow any minute. You know, we should try to get going before it really starts to come down…’
With a simple, businesslike nod Pam indicated the coat that Martha had left draped over the photocopier.
About a half-hour later the two of them were completing their tour of Professor Herrin’s house, climbing back down the stairs into his open-plan ground-floor lounge. The place was big, but in some disrepair. The carpets felt springy, damp. Mould was the overarching theme. Martha was stepping over an empty cat-food can, and Pam’s voice was taking on the fluidity of a woman who feels she is moving down the home straight of her anecdote, ‘He’s just a very, very impressive man. Not only is he a Professor of Chinese, he holds a law degree—can you imagine—he’s on all kinds of boards, I’m sure he plays that piano—When the President of the United States wants advice on China, the President, mind you, he calls up Professor Herrin. It’s such a pleasure talking with that man about Taoism or, I don’t know, science or health matters… So many men, they just don’t achieve anything at all—they don’t expect to—beyond business or a little bit of golf maybe. But there’s no attention to the spiritual side, not at all. I mean, his wife, well, actually his wife’s a little peculiar—but the mind just boggles to think about living with a man like Professor Herrin, I mean, the attempt to satisfy him, mentally…and it’s such a beautiful house, a little fusty; but—have you seen this? He carved it, he really did. He’s a Zen Buddhist, death for him is just an idea. He made the bookshelf—and of course that would all stay here—he would just want to know from you how many of his books he’ll have to store, I mean how much shelving you would need, and so on. He’s already in New York, and he’s intending to be there until at least next February. He’s a sort of an expert on relations between the races,’ whispered Pam, ‘so he feels it’s important to be in New York right now. In its hour of need, you know.’
‘I don’t have any books,’ said Martha, opening the screen door and stepping into a small walled garden, ‘I’m going to get books, though, prob’ly, I’ll—Oh, it’s snowing—it must’ve started when we were in there. It’s on the ground, look.’
Pam turned to look and already the ebony sheen of Martha’s hair was speckled white, like dusting on a chocolate cake.
‘This house feels sad, man,’ said Martha, and lifted one foot off the ground. She reached behind herself and grabbed the ankle, pressing the foot into her buttocks. First one leg, then the other.
‘Does it?’ asked Pam, as if the idea had never occurred to her, but her passion for gossip was stronger then her instinct for business, ‘Well, actually his wife is very peculiar, a terrible thing happened to her. Terrible. It’s partly why they’re moving again—she can’t stand to be in one place, she broods. Now, aren’t you cold out there?’
Martha shrugged, crouched, and tried sweeping a half-inch of snow into her hands, began packing it. Pam sat on the piano stool and stretched her legs out in front of her.
‘His wife, Professor Herrin’s wife—it’s such an awful story—she was in China, about twenty-five years ago, and this young man stole her bag. Well, naturally she reported it—and what do you think? Two months later when she got back to America, she heard he’d been executed, can you imagine? What that would do to a person, it’s just terrible. It’s a terrible weight to bear.’
‘She shouldn’t have said nothing,’ said Martha, and appeared to think no more about it.
‘Well,’ considered Pam, pushing her glasses up her nose, ‘I think it’s quite a difficult marriage—I think he’s quite eager to leave this place, so I imagine he’d be flexible vis-à-vis the rent, Martha. Martha?’
‘Yeah? Sorry, what?’
‘Now, Martha, let’s talk now. What are you thinking—are you at all…?’
Martha took her half-packed snowball and threw it limply at the wall.
‘I can’t afford it. It’s too much. Loads too much. Why does it smell weird out here?’
‘Okay…well, now I wanted to ask about money,’ said Pam slowly, coming to the opening and hugging herself against the chill, ‘I mean, are we talking about savings? You’re very young. Or will you be working? Just so I have some idea of how much space we have to manoeuvre.’
Martha stayed where she was in the garden but put both hands out in front of her, awaiting whatever came. The flakes were massive, consistent and quick, as if the snow was not merely falling but being delivered, like manna, because people needed it.
‘I’ve been left some,’ said Martha quietly, ‘In a will. My uncle passed. Basically, it’s enough for a year. A thousand a month, two bedrooms and a garden, yeah? Maybe a bit more, maybe. I need space for people. To come.’ She paused. ‘If they want.’ Suddenly she seemed agitated, even panicked; she attacked her bottom lip with her teeth and looked up and over into the next garden, ‘People who might visit, you get me? But this is too too big, I can’t afford it. I can’t. Don’t you have anything I can afford? ‘
It looked for a moment that the girl was about to cry—out of instinct Pam hurried towards her—but by the time she stepped outside Martha had already recovered herself, turning to peer now over the back wall towards the piercing towers and stark white crosses of the university. She seemed calmly framed by them and remote, a figure in a plastic snowstorm.
‘Something a bit further out, maybe,’ offered Pam a minute later as they climbed back into the car.
‘If I had all that education,’ said Martha, fastening her seat belt, ‘Believe me, I wouldn’t live somewhere like that.’
‘I’d live somewhere new.’
‘I see,’ said Pam tersely, starting the car and welcoming the automatic resuscitation of the stereo, Mozart and his death song as background filler. ‘Well, each to their own, I suppose, Martha, that’s what this business is about, of course. Actually, I used to live on this street, at the top end, at this end, in the more modern architecture, and I must say I found it very pleasant for a long time. Though I also enjoy—I have a sort of apartment now, downtown, and that’s also very nice, in a different way.’
‘You used to live in one of these big houses?’ Martha asked, with unseemly incredulity, and as she spoke they drove past the very house. For the first time in months Pam resisted the urge to inspect the curtains, the lawn, the little things he’d changed for somebody else.
‘Why’d you go?’
‘Circumstances. My circumstances changed. I guess you could say that.’
‘My gosh, you are a nosy parker. I’ll guess I’ll have to tell you my dress size next. ‘
‘I’m just arksing, you don’t have to answer.’
‘You should be a lawyer or something, it’s like being cross-examined.’
‘So why’d you go?’
Pam sighed, but in fact she had, some time ago, designed a speech to answer the question, whoever it came from, ‘Well, I suppose at my age, Martha, and especially in the light of the events of last September, I just think you have to make things work for you, work for you personally, because life is really too short, and if they don’t work, you just have to go ahead and cut them loose, and that’s basically—’
‘I’d love to be a lawyer,’ interrupted Martha, ‘My friend is a lawyer. She has a house like that. Big-up house. We used to get the bus together to school. Now she’s a big lawyer. That’s like the best thing you can be.’
‘You know what?’ said Pam, drumming the steering wheel and preparing to lie, ‘I like what I do. I don’t think I’d change it to be a lawyer for all the tea in China. I really don’t. I guess that’s just me.’
Martha pulled down the passenger mirror, licked her finger and began to reshape her kiss curl.
‘She’s my role model, Kara—she definitely took it to the next level—as a young black woman, you know? She didn’t get caught up in a lot of the things you can get caught up in—kids and that. She took it forward. That’s where I’m aiming for—if you don’t aim high, there’s no point, really.’
Martha wound down the window that Pam had just closed and Pam felt she might just scream if the girl kept letting the outside in everywhere they went.
‘Now, good for her! And good for you, too. God knows, when I was your age, all I did was have children, oh my. I’ve three girls. But it’s such a different world. I wouldn’t even want to bring up children in this world now. My gosh, it’s really snowing. That’s a couple of inches since we left the office.’
They drove twenty minutes and then parked a street from the one they wanted so Martha would have an opportunity to see a bit of this new neighbourhood by foot. It was cold beyond cold. Everything laid out like a promise, delayed for summer; bleached porches, dead gardens, naked trees, a sky-blue clapboard house, its rose-pink neighbour. Part of the East Coast realtor’s skill is to explain what places will look like when the sun finally comes.
‘And this just goes the most incredible orange when the fall comes. It’s like the whole city is on fire. Just life, life, life everywhere. Now: the couple we’re about to see,’ said Pam, walking briskly ahead, ‘They are just darling. Yousef and Amelia. He’s Moroccan and so handsome and she’s American, just American, and they have such a beautiful daughter, Lily.’
‘Where they going to go, then, if I move in?’
‘They’re moving to Morocco. It’s just what we were saying, they don’t really want to bring up children in this country, I’m afraid. And frankly, I can understand that. They’re artists too, so, they’re a little bit flaky. But very sophisticated. So witty, and they make you feel comfortable right away, you know? Now, Martha, I’ve shown so many people this house, but it’s a little too small for a family and a little too big for a single person, so it’s awkward—but it’s perfect for you—now, what is that—’
There had been a babbling noise the past minute or so, excited foreign voices, and as they turned the corner Martha saw some snow come flying and guessed at children, but the next second revealed the depth of the voices—these were bearded men, with dark, ashen skins—and the argument was over design, a snowman. It was incompetently begun, a tall upturned cone upon which a future head would never sit. And now work had stopped entirely; at the sight of the two women, the men froze and looked at their gloved hands and seemed to find themselves ridiculous.
‘But those are the men!’ cried Pam when they were not five yards out of hearing range, ‘From my office. They just came just before you. But isn’t that weird? They’re making a snowman!’
‘Is that what they were doing?’ asked Martha, and dug into her pocket for a mint she had quietly lifted from the bowl of same in Pam’s office.
‘Well, what else were they doing. You know, Martha, they’ve probably never seen snow. Isn’t that amazing—what a thing to see!’
‘Grown men playing in the snow,’ said Martha, but Pam could not be dissuaded from the romance of it, and it was the first anecdote she told as they walked through the door of 28 Linnaean, a canary-yellow first-floor apartment with two porches, front and back, nestled behind a nineteenth-century police station. Yousef was handsome as promised, curly-haired and with eyes many shades lighter brown than his skin; he was frying something with a great deal of chilli in it and offered his elbow for Martha to shake. Amelia was very skinny and freckled, with an angular hip and a toddler perched on it. She had the kindly, detached air of a young mother, the world outside the screen door having grown distant and surreal, brought to her only in tiresome reports from other people. But she good-humouredly let Pam hustle her to a window at the front of the house and followed the direction of her finger.
‘Over there, can you see? They’re making a snowman! Egyptian or Iranian or something. They were so sheepish about it. They were so embarrassed. I don’t think they’ve ever seen snow before! And I saw these men, an hour ago in my office. It’s the same men. But the exact same. Martha doesn’t think anything of it, but I think it’s darling.’
‘That is sweet,’ conceded Amelia, and hitched Lily up over her shoulder.
‘Amelia—’ said Pam, suddenly, taking a step back from her and appraising a small bulge around her middle, ‘Now, are you pregnant again?’
‘NO,’ called Yousef from the other room, laughing, ‘She’s just a fat girl now! I feed her too much!’
‘Four months,’ said Amelia, shaking her head, ‘And I’m going to have it in Morocco, God help me. Hey there, Martha. Do you think you’ll take this place off our hands? Please won’t you, please? We’re totally desperate!’
‘I don’t know yet, do I?’ said Martha very fiercely and made the odd, contemptuous noise with her teeth again. Lily reached out a doughy pink hand for Martha’s face; she flinched from it.
‘Oh,’ said Amelia, reddening, and battling Lily’s tiny kicking legs, ‘I didn’t mean to—’
Pam almost blew up right there—she just could not understand what kind of a girl this was, where she came from, what kind of conversation was normal for her. She drummed her fingers on the patch of wall behind her—as close an expression of suppressed fury as Pam ever managed.
‘Martha, I’m sure Amelia only meant—’
‘I was really joking, I didn’t—’ said Amelia, putting an incautious hand on Martha’s shoulder, feeling a taut, inflexible muscle. She soon retracted it, but Martha continued to look and speak to the spot where the hand had been, ‘I didn’t mean that, I mean I meant I think I want to be nearer the university, nearer all of that, yeah? It’s very alone up here, if you’re alone, isn’t it?’
‘Well, you know, there’s a very convenient bus—’ said Amelia, looking over Martha to Pam who was performing a minimal mime with her thumbs to the effect that she did not know the girl well nor could she explain her.
‘I’ll look around,’ said Martha, and walked away from them both, down the hall.
‘Look everywhere,’ said Amelia feelingly. She let Lily loose from her struggle, laying her on the floor. ‘Please, feel absolutely at liberty.’
‘Oh, she will,’ said Pam rather tartly, but Amelia did not smile and Pam was mortified to see that she had thought the comment cruel. Without any skill, Pam turned the conversation to the problem of noisy plumbing.
At the other end of the apartment, Martha’s walk changed; she was alone. She moved through the two big bedrooms, loose and alert, examining the strange foreign things in them: Arabic writing, meaningless paintings, and all those touches that rich people seem to use to look poor: wood floors, threadbare rugs, no duvets, all blankets, nothing matching. Old leather instead of new, fireplaces instead of central heating, everything wrong. Only the bathroom was impressive; very clean, white tiled. It had a mirror with a movie star’s bald light bulbs circling it. Martha locked herself in here, ran both of the taps full blast, and sat on the closed toilet seat. She took a worn-looking, folded photograph from her coat pocket and wept.She was crying even before she had unfolded it, but flattening it out now against her knee made it almost impossible for her to breathe.In the picture a grinning, long-lashed boy, about eighteen months old, with a head like a polished ackee nut, sat on the lap of a handsome black man. Neither the picture nor their mutual beauty was in any way marred by the fact that both of them had sellotaped their noses to their foreheads to give the impression of pigs’ snouts. Martha turned over the photograph and read what was written there.
Martha, Martha, I love U
And I’m trying 2 tell U true
For this New Year 2002
I am going to be there for U
I know that U have many dreams
And life is not always how it seems
But I want U 2 put me 2 the test
And I will do all the rest
Together we will get so much higher
Through my love and our desire
Don’t give up on what we’ve got
Cos Ben and Jamal love U a lot!
It took another five minutes to recover herself. She rinsed her face in the sink and flushed the toilet. She came close up to the mirror and gave thanks to God for her secretive skin that told nobody anything; no flush, no puffiness. She could hear a great deal of laughter the other side of the door and wondered what they were saying about her; especially him, who was probably the worst, because he’d married like that and those ones that marry white always feel even more superior. She hadn’t expected this. She didn’t know what she’d expected.
‘Martha!’ cried Pam as she appeared again in the kitchen-lounge, ‘I thought you’d been eaten by something. Eaten by a bear.’
‘Just looking around. It’s nice.’
Pam sat on a high kitchen stool beaming at Yousef, but he was busy pulling a giggling Lily out from under the sofa by her ankles.
‘So you’ve had a good look around—she’s had a good look around, Yousef, so that’s something. Now,’ said Pam, reaching down to the floor to get her bag, ‘I don’t want to hurry anybody. It always helps to get to know each other a little bit, I think. How can we make this work, for everybody?’
‘But I don’t know if I—I can’t—’
‘Martha, dear, said Pam, returning a pen and pad she was holding back to her bag, ‘There’s no hurry whatsoever, that’s not the way this works at all.’
‘You know what?’ replied Martha. With trembling fingers, she undid and then retied the waistband of her coat, ‘I’ve got to go.’
‘Well—’ said Pam, completely astonished, and shook her head, ‘But—if you’ll give me—just wait a minute, I’ll—’
‘I’ll walk. I want to walk—I need some air.’
Pam put down her coffee cup, and smiled awkwardly between Yousef and Amelia on the one hand and Martha on the other, increasing, as only Pam knew how, the awkwardness on both sides.
‘I think I want a one bedroom thing,’ mumbled Martha, her hand already on the doorknob, ‘One bedroom would be more…’ she said but could not finish. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and again Pam could not tell if she meant it. You can’t tell anything about a one-day stand. They aren’t there to be known. Pam shunted herself off the stool and put her hands out as if for something falling but Martha had already backed on to the porch. She struggled down the snowy steps, felt the same panic that rightly belongs to a fire escape. She could hear the clamour of snowman builders, speaking in tongues, laughing about something.
Photograph © Linda Brownlee