In the black fog of her grief, Anna Kraft received an invitation. It was delivered over the telephone by a member of the committee established in the village of Niewehoop, near where the accident had taken place, a committee designed to address and, where possible, repair all possible devastation, particularly emotional, following the crash. The woman on the other side of the phone had evidently spent much time conversing with the bereaved because she seemed comfortable with the unfamiliarity of words in Anna’s bee-stung mouth, her warbling voice, the gaps between sentences, the slow thoughts, the silences covered only by her lonely breath.
In the event you’d like to come to Niewehoop, the woman on the phone said, In the event you’d like to see the site and the memorial that has been built, which is, if I may say so, both respectful and beautiful, a couple from our village would like to offer you a room in their house. There are few hotels in the area and the citizens of Niewehoop are eager to help in any way they can. The house is comfortable and you would be welcome in an apartment built at the rear of the house which, I’ve been assured, is private, should you wish for privacy.
I wish for privacy, Anna said, more as an attempt to extricate herself from the phone call than as a condition of her visit.
You are welcome to stay as long as you like. There is no question of money. The citizens of Niewehoop regret that this happened on their doorstep, but none of us can change fate, and we’ve accepted our part in it. We wholeheartedly want to alleviate where we can.
The citizens of Niewehoop seemed to Anna to be irrationally full-hearted. Of course they couldn’t help it. They were guilty of nothing but geography.
She considered the trip the woman on the phone had offered the way that a middle-aged man prudently considers a visit to the doctor for a prostate examination. For two weeks, she forgot. It vanished, along with the other particles of her life, in the soup of time she swam through. These other particles included washing, bank details, meals that were not cereal or microwavable tikka masala, driving, recharging her phone and her computer.
When the woman from the committee called back, Anna was surprised by the suddenness of her definite desire. I’ll go, she said.
So Anna was picked up from her home in a taxi the next day, a Friday, and taken to the airport. Her plane departed at 2.35 and she arrived at her destination at 4.10. She flew over the mountains where Niewehoop nestled and she didn’t look down. She ordered three whiskies on the flight and wore an eye mask. She was not the only nervous flier on the plane but she had the best credentials.
There was no airport near Niewehoop, so she had to take a second taxi when she arrived. The driver was the sort of man who talked without provocation. He told her of his second wife and her expensive follicle treatments. He thought his youngest son might like boys. He was balding with grace. He wore no glasses although, he confided with a laugh, he was half-blind and could barely see the signs on the side of the road. But, not to worry, he drove this road the way bats find their way in the dark: echolocation.
The car toiled along a dual-carriage highway and then, after a time, took an exit to the red-earthed mountain road. The mountains circled them like a mouthful of teeth. They were bigger than she’d imagined, large, jagged and white, with patches of black rot. The taxi wound through the mountains as though it was following the convolutions of a gut. With each bend, they rose.
The driver was a jack of all trades. In his spare time he was an electrician, and a plumber on the weekends, a practice that had started as pure curiosity and wound up being surprisingly remunerative. But that was not to say there weren’t greater tasks. He had volunteered last year for the operations on the mountain.
You’ve probably forgotten about it, he told her. It’s been a whole year. But for months we didn’t talk about anything else. Even now, it’s often in our minds. A group will meet at a cafe or a party and a small quiet will settle on us. I volunteered because I couldn’t just let strangers who didn’t know the mountains scramble up and down like mompies. We’ve done it since we were babies: we know the crevices, we know the sides where the rocks are loose, we know the mouths of the caves and the gradients of the slopes. There were a lot of professionals flown in: the government, for all its bankruptcy, spared no expense. They like PR campaigns. But we helped them, at no charge. The pilot of course was taken off while we weren’t looking so no one could rough up the body. Only a savage would do that, you say, and maybe you’re right, but a tragedy like that brings out the savage in you. We all felt it. We would have done something to him.
At length, the taxi took a detour from the mountain road and, ten minutes later, pulled into Niewehoop. It was a small and insignificant hilltop settlement. There were other mountain villages nearby of more historical or aesthetic significance: one built on the site of an ancient massacre, the driver told her, and another the seat of a reclusive landscape painter. Niewehoop offered paved roads, a cafe, a grocery store, at least two churches of differing denominations, a town hall crowning a town square, a humble fountain. On another street it seemed likely there would be a school, a mechanic, a police station, a clinic. Locals seemed to go around on foot. Anna stared through the tinted windows of her dark glasses and watched them walk their dogs. She didn’t see any children.
The taxi pulled into the driveway of a large house. It was modern in design, built of dark wood in long horizontal lines and large square panes of glass, entirely at odds with local architecture. It looked like the mountain home of a famous film director.
I can’t say I like the idea of flying anymore, the driver said as she climbed out of the taxi. It used to feel safe. Now it just feels like another way for fate to fuck with you.
When they walked to the front door along the pebble-lined path, she became aware that she’d have to ring the doorbell and announce herself. She’d have to have a good opening number. Before she could worry any more about introductions, the door opened and the owners of the house came out to greet her. The man and the woman smiled quietly, without exuberance or aggression. He was tall and narrowly built, with an untidily kept beard. She was also tall and fine-boned, like an elegant piece of wedding cutlery, white-haired and unwrinkled. Her eyes were very small, a sparkle above the woman’s cheekbones.
We’re glad you found us, said Peter. Ingrid didn’t offer an embrace, but stood at ease in her white trousers and her white blouse, her diamond eyes giving off flints of reflected light.
The taxi driver had disappeared without being paid. The bag was in Peter’s hand, the car was no longer in the driveway. But, Anna said. Some spectre of old habit suggested that she should have paid his fee. But he was gone and there was no use throwing money after him.
Come inside, Ingrid said, and I’ll show you your room. The house is too big for us, so we’re very glad to have someone else living here. Peter’s uncle was an architect and he designed this years ago. He never lived in it, though.
Why not? Anna asked.
He died, said Ingrid. Afterwards, we came to live here, thinking there’d be always people coming and going, a house full of voices. She paused and added thoughtfully, It was like that sometimes.
They were foreign. They spoke fluently but the arcs of their sentences were misplaced, so their voices dipped when they should have risen in pitch, and pivoted upward when they should have sagged.
They passed from the foyer to the entrance hall, along an open-plan kitchen, and through the corridor for the length of the house until they reached a flight of stairs. From what Anna saw as she walked through – lamps on side tables, kitchen counters uncovered by blenders or percolators – her hosts preferred sparseness to profusion, and objects of use rather than sentiment or beauty. The walls were bare, without photographs or nature prints, but the effect was elegant rather than sterile.
They took the flight of stairs and at the stairs’ base there was a room with a locked door.
Ingrid produced a key. Peter was coming down the stairs with the suitcase after them. This is yours, she said to Anna, for as long as you need to stay here. Go ahead, open it.
Anna put the key in the lock. The shaking of her hands was almost unnoticeable. It was a well-kept lock and the door opened easily on a small but tidy room with a double bed, its cherry-red coverlet invitingly turned up, a desk under a window that looked on to a square of light just above the earth the first floor of the house was set into. Ingrid showed her how the en suite shower worked, and the locations of the light switches and power sockets.
I’m sure you’re tired from your travel, so I’ll let you unpack. But if you’d like to go out sooner – to see the memorial – let us know.
Now that she was here, Anna had no interest in seeing either the memorial or the site where the accident took place. She would have gone straight home if it hadn’t been beyond her capability to organise it.
After Ingrid left, respectfully drawing closed the door, Anna took off her dark glasses and laid them on the desk. The world softened into whites. She sat on the bed and wondered if she’d cry. The feeling came and went and she didn’t. So she dragged her bag onto the bed and unzipped it. She put her bag of toiletries next to the sink in the bathroom but she didn’t hang up her clothes.
At six o’clock, she ventured out of the room and up the stairs. The house was so quiet she was surprised to see both Peter and Ingrid in the kitchen.
Anna, good. We’re just about to eat dinner. I hope you don’t mind vegetables. We don’t eat a lot of meat.
Neither Peter nor Ingrid seemed discomfited by her blankness. They continued at their tasks – frying, dishwashing – as though they were intricate craftsman’s tasks requiring absolute attention. Anna looked around at the kitchen, a large quadrangle of counters, and found no object to disclose her hosts and their habits. They didn’t have a microwave. And they had a wooden block of ten or so knives, handsomely kept.
The three ate at a table, which Anna rarely did at home, and the table was laid. There was buttered asparagus and a wild rice pilaf, with a fruit salad of pears and walnuts to follow. Anna thought the pilaf and asparagus needed more salt but there was none on the table. The intimacy of eating with two strangers was unbearable. They ate slowly and spoke irregularly.
They were Swiss; so was the architect uncle. They found that it was easy to live on their savings with the exchange rate the way it was. Peter had been a civil servant and now he was a vegetarian. He believed that the body was a temple and drank very little. When Ingrid offered him wine, he laid his hand over the top of his glass and she almost dribbled onto his fingers. Instead, he poured water into the glass with the attention of a clumsy sewer threading a narrowly-eyed needle.
Ingrid had never held a job but Peter said she wasn’t bad with figures. They practised mindfulness, which, Ingrid said, was a way of making sure you lived attentively in the moment. It put things in perspective, Peter said. They had both found great comfort in mindfulness, which was not very hard to pick up but was sometimes difficult to sustain. They smiled at Anna sympathetically.
Their knives and forks made tinny music. They asked few questions, as if they knew she preferred not to give more of herself away. The silence was too tolerant. Do you have any children? she asked. There was no answer for a full and heavy minute in which they looked at each other, finished chewing, laid down their silverware, took a sip of water.
We don’t, said Ingrid, in a voice that told Anna that it was a sad, ordinary story. Ingrid could have asked Anna about Jessa – Anna felt the frame of the question being assembled – but she didn’t. We did have dogs for a long while, Ingrid went on, but there was always something or another with the dogs, even though we loved them. One of them shed hair, another barked at ghosts, a third kept dashing into the road. Eventually that was what got him. Do you have pets at home?
No, Anna said, I never have.
After the fruit salad, Peter asked Anna if she’d like to go for a walk. There was a route with one or two good views nearby. He said they did it for digestion. Air out the old temple. After a pause, Anna apologised and said she was tired. She thanked them for dinner and retired downstairs. She heard their soft steps coming through the ceiling of her room and she heard their voices, the soft conspiracy of married couples, as they closed the front door behind them.
In the morning, they ate breakfast without ceremony and, without arrangement, together. Granola was set out on the table in a plastic container with yoghurt and fruit in hand-painted ceramic bowls. There was a silver carafe of strong coffee with a pitcher of milk and a small bowl of sugar.
Her hosts were curious about how she’d slept but she couldn’t remember. That’s a good sign, said Peter, with a smile. She almost told him about the pills but she didn’t. She preferred to keep them to herself.
I’d like to go into town, she said, to prevent Peter’s asking about it.
I’ll drive you, said Peter. I need to pick up a few things and we might as well go together.
Ingrid came too. The three of them sat in Peter’s olive-green 4×4: Peter and Anna in the front, Ingrid unconcernedly in the back seat, her poise uncompromised. Anna wore her dark glasses. Still she noticed the bright border of fleshy aloes at the side of the road. She saw how close the edge of the road was to the mountainside. She saw across the chasm made by the mountains a series of crosses set onto a crest of rock-like tacks. She wanted to ask Ingrid and Peter how they could bear living in such a murderous landscape, but when she turned to them, she saw their eyes shining. The coming into Niewehoop was sudden: a manifestation of buildings among the red soil.
You can leave me here, Anna said, as they paused at a stop sign, when the Saturday shopping pedestrians thickened and it felt to her as though she couldn’t go wrong.
Where are you headed? Peter asked. We can take you closer.
Oh no, she said, I’ll wander.
Peter parked at a small corner grocery shop. Holding her purse tight to her body, Anna walked down the street that served as a main conduit for Niewehoop. She passed the local interpretation of an American-style cafe, a bank, a chemist and several shops that appeared to sell an assortment of objects: toys and nature guides, cheap underwear and car oil. In the bank’s window there was a black flag, and a display of battery-operated candles flickering like real tapers. There was also a sign with an inscription in a funeral parlour’s script, but she couldn’t bear to read it.
The town square was indistinguishable from other town squares. Its shape was conformable; the ground was cobbled in the manner that snagged heels. It was clean and well swept. A small market was under construction on the outer rim of the square: three stalls and a food truck. The clang of metal poles driven into each other echoed off the buildings. The fountain at the centre of the square had been turned off for the winter and it had not yet been warm enough to reinstate it. Streaks of sludge and pigeon shit marked the basin and the lasciviously-lipped stone fish arched uncomfortably, without function. Benches were established at regular intervals. Upon them sat an old man at his cigarettes, tipping his ash into the gaps between the cobblestones, a young mother in bright fabrics with her unsettled infant, two middle-aged women drinking coffee and laughing. There was one bench remaining and she sat on it. From her perch she could see the revolving door of the town hall: the mailman, a stout, sober-looking woman with padded shoulders she thought might be a judge, and two backpackers, holding hands and chattering delightedly to each other. It was still early and a Saturday. The odd passerby stared at her for a fraction longer than she regarded them. A small town, she told herself. They know each other’s faces, nothing more.
She sat there as the sun changed positions overhead and, when it withdrew itself from the clouds, bathed sections of the square in light. When it came to rest on her, she felt a hot halo enflame her head. Then it was extinguished. The old man finished his box of cigarettes and left the square to find a new occupation. The woman with the baby wept silently for a while and Anna couldn’t begrudge her the crying to come.
You’d never come to Niewehoop on holiday. The young backpackers were Americans, indefatigable and adventurous. They came out of the town hall and kissed each other on the top step, winding long unwashed arms around each other. Anna wished them well. She wished them dead. Then she stood and forgot them, the way you forget to make dinner, suddenly, after hours of near-hunger. She didn’t know how long she’d sat for, or how to find her hosts. She had neither their phone number nor address memorised. Doing so didn’t seem like a guarantee of not forgetting. After Sara Meyer’s husband died of an aneurism during the preparations for their son’s tenth birthday party, Sara memorised Hamlet, a list of the hundred most endangered animal species worldwide, and a substantial portion of the Quran. Anna, on the other hand, recently had trouble distinguishing the number six from the number nine, and it seemed like only a matter of time before the letters of the alphabet lost their distinctiveness, and p, b and d were used interchangeably. The phrase ‘Happy Birthday’ would be unwritable. Sometimes in the mornings, in the minute after she first woke, she thought that she had lost a son, and suffered deep spasms of grief before she remembered that she had never had a son and had never wanted one.
She was still standing next to the bench. She began to walk, stiffly at first, and then emphatically. The scent of frying animal fat billowed from the food truck; its steady hiss accompanied the static of a radio station flickering between stations of nostalgic rock.
She passed the Anglican church which, like the church she was married in years ago, was called St Mark’s. The name conjured up the discomfort of her new clothes, the seeping cold of the sanctuary so that she shook under her veil, the smell of young lilies and the fatty taste of her bright lipstick which, at the end of the day, at the hotel with Michael, streaked her dress and her veil, and reddened a ring around her mouth. It had rained that morning. Too many witnesses laughed about portents. In the doorway of this St Mark’s, not on a city block but in a mountain dorp, stood a priest. The priest wore his uniform as though it gave him a body, rather than covered it up. He had a trimmed goatee and round glasses that gave away his vanity.
The priest looked at her twice, as though he recognised her. Hello, he said, and from the quaver in his voice she could tell that he hadn’t talked for a while.
Hello, Anna said, carefully.
Would you like to come in? he said. I could use the company.
Inside, Anna knew, was a nave and an altar, and that candles had lit the nave and candles had graced the altar. And somewhere near the altar had been no caskets or bodies, but pictures of the dead, and there had been candles and flowers looped around them, making one rich mound. She had seen it on the news, at the time when the television was her intermediary, like a husband, or a sister, erasing the need for her presence on the other side of the camera, as just another relative sitting in a darkened sanctuary or wandering around the mountains in disbelief.
I don’t think so, she said. I’m not . . . religious. He didn’t take her seriously. Nor did he speak right away. He had already learned the art of not replying to every utterance addressed to him.
It’s good to talk, he said at last.
We’re talking now.
You know what I mean, he said.
She would have followed him into the sanctuary if he’d commanded her, or threatened her with some piece of scripture she remembered enough from childhood to still carry a living dread. But she could turn down an invitation. Her sunglasses gave her the final advantage, her last mask.
Excuse me, father, she said, and continued to walk. She felt his eyes behind their round frames on her back.
She found Peter and Ingrid crossing the street from the bank and they were glad to see her. Peter had paper bags in hand. We’ve done all our errands, Ingrid said. Are you ready to go? She didn’t ask, as Anna expected, whether she’d had a nice time.
When they pulled up to the house, it was early afternoon. A store-bought bouquet was set against the front door: indigo larkspur, asters, ivory gladioli and heather. Ingrid bent over, picked it up and silently read the card.
It’s for you, she said to Anna, holding the bouquet out to her so that she could catch the ripe smell of the flowers expanding in the afternoon.
Anna took the flowers in both hands. For me? she said, wondering if it was the priest’s doing.
It’s from the mayor, Ingrid said. She closed her hand around the card, which was the size of a large matchbox, and drew it down to her side until it vanished.
But I’ve never met him, Anna said, and then added, I used to buy flowers every Friday.
Michael had said it was extravagant. He found the receipts from the florist, even the grubby slips from the markets she stopped at, and calculated the expense. In the last year, however, she’d been given so many flowers that she felt they were substitutes. They were supposed to replace, in sheer mass, her daughter’s substantial weight, like the films where the hero or heroine sneaks out of bed in the house where he or she is hiding, leaving behind a dummy under the bulked-up sheets. Her widowed friend Sara had talked about the macabreness of giving bouquets of flowers to the bereaved: Here, said the giver, take another handful of death, show it off, luxuriate in its smell, it’ll rot soon enough. Why don’t people give potted plants? Probably because they believe the recipient is in no state to tend to the living.
They’re beautiful, aren’t they? said Ingrid. How kind of him. But that is the sort of man he is. If we go inside, I’ll find water to put these in.
It troubled Anna, this gift from the mayor. How did he know to send them? What did such an arrangement mean?
Anna followed Ingrid into the kitchen as she stretched to open a cabinet and pull out a glass vase that was swollen into a plump sphere. She poured water into the vase and cut the stems of the flowers diagonally with a heavy pair of kitchen shears. When finished she dropped an aspirin into the water. My mother used to do that, Ingrid said. I don’t know the science. But my mother did it and so I do too. It’s inevitable. It’s just the way that mothers and daughters are.
Jessa did nothing because Anna did it. Even when very young, without experience of the world other than the one that her parents demonstrated for her, Jessa was suspicious of her mother’s advice. If Anna told her that she shouldn’t eat mud, Jessa became a gourmand of dirt. If Anna warned her about strangers, Jessa collected them. The therapist said that, after Michael left, contradiction was the way in which Jessa kept herself intact amid the crumbling pieces of their previous life. But Anna knew it was fundamental to her daughter’s nature. When Jessa started crawling, a fat bundle of splayed limbs and determination, neck stiff with the effort, she tried repeatedly to stick her fingers in the power sockets. Anna warned her not to in a voice thickened with anger, fear and exasperation, and Jessa would push herself onto her fleshy rump, sitting upright with kingly indifference, and regard Anna with black-eyed subordination. She accorded Anna no respect for her age or experience, no deference for her role as progenitor. Jessa seemed to believe the two of them were opponents in a lifelong game; her youth was a handicap, a spur to learn everything twice as fast in order to oppose her mother’s unfair advantage. Anna was deflated without their perpetual warfare: the snickers of hostility, Jessa’s jeers at her attempts to develop herself: to take up Russian, to do yoga, to go to live drawing sessions as an artist, and then, in an attempt to prod herself into a new confidence, as a model. Anna missed Jessa the way you miss a broken bone.
There you are, said Ingrid, and held out the vase in both hands to Anna. The sun came through one of the large windows and sealed light within the rind of the vase so that it glowed in her hands.
Thanks, said Anna, and took the vase to her room. She set it on the desk and settled onto the bed. Two hours later she stood up, emptied the vase in the sink, dumped the flowers in the rubbish bin and stored it under the desk where it couldn’t be seen to collect light, to hold flowers, to show its barrenness.
That night Anna dreamed of Jessa. She crouched on the floor, her long dark hair hanging down her broad shoulders, feeding on the flowers in her hands the way some people eat chicken wings, rivulets of water and sap staining her chin.
The next evening after dinner, when Ingrid was taking a bath and Peter was taking a cigarette on the back stoep, as though Ingrid couldn’t smell it through the bathroom window, Anna left the house and began to walk on the mountain road to Niewehoop. A battered red Toyota stopped for her and her old friend, the jack of all trades, invited her in. Hello, again, he said, without surprise. This is my wife’s car. The cab’s strictly business.
When she sat in the passenger seat, she found herself cushioned by three or four chip packets. Just throw them in the back, the driver said. A lager tin rattled in the footwell. He didn’t ask her about her stay. He was concentrating on the road, he said. After a silence, the driver added that he’d received a phone call from a cousin who had run into financial difficulties, asking for help: a couple of thousand just to tide him over until the bank got off his back. It was the last straw, the driver said. A man can only take on so many lost causes.
The driver dropped her off in front of St Mark’s and drove off quickly, without any good wishes. She half-expected the priest to be standing in the portal again, waiting for her to come, as though they were all in it together, as though all the citizens of Niewehoop, even the jack of all trades, had been part of the plot’s orchestration. But there was no one in the doorway.
She walked to a bar. It was Sunday night in a small town: the only patrons were taciturn alcoholics that sat alone with their bottles, and the convivial drunks with their naughty jokes and snatches of songs. She found a table in a corner at the back of the room and a middle-aged waitress with a grizzled ponytail drooping along her spine brought her a whiskey neat. Living in the quiet of Ingrid and Peter’s wooden sanctuary made her want to stain her liver. She had eaten nothing that wasn’t good for her. She wanted to be violently sick. She could sin and redeem herself: no need for professionals.
She drank from her whiskey, leaned her elbows on the table, and felt the golden heat lick her throat. It was only when she heard the clearing of a throat that she realized there was a man standing in front of her, holding an amber pint.
Can I sit with you? he asked. He was not a tall man but he wore his middling height with unconcern, which she knew was better than pride. He was dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans, and his shirt was wrinkled and unbuttoned at the neck. There was an uneven start to a beard at his jaw, and while his hair was thinning quickly on top, its dishevelled crosshatching gave him a rakish look. He wore no wedding ring.
There are plenty of tables, she said.
It’s the end of the week, he said, and no one should sit alone if they don’t have to. They, he said, indicating the lonely drunks with his free hand, are alone because they’ve chased off everyone else. Including me. But I don’t know you. Maybe you’ll chase me off too.
Not tonight, she said, go ahead. She waved at the chair. Her hand clipped the rim of her tumbler and she had to grab it quickly to avoid it toppling.
Are you new to town? he asked.
I’m visiting friends, she said.
Do I know them?
I wouldn’t be surprised, she laughed sharply. Doesn’t everyone know everyone here? Didn’t you know instantly that I was a stranger?
You’re wearing a black dress and you’re wearing good shoes. Someone paid a reasonable amount of money for those. You live in a city where you might meet friends on a Sunday night, where you might spend money on a pair of shoes and not know it might have been better spent elsewhere.
Is it really so provincial here?
You say that as though ‘provincial’ is a synonym for ‘small-minded’. A resident might speak of alternative priorities.
She couldn’t tell if he was complimenting her or calling her frivolous.
So you are a local.
Born and raised, he smiled toothily, and when he did, she could imagine him as a boy, running along the mountain road, throwing tin cans and rocks into the mouth of the valley. I lived abroad for a while but I always came back. That’s the real curse of local life: not the provinciality but its ability to draw you back every few years, to become again what you were when you still knew nothing about the way life was.
What did you do abroad? Anna asked.
This and that, he said, taking a sip of his ale. I learned to fish and to sail. I learned to speak a few languages. I learned not to spend all of my wages in a weekend.
You sound like a responsible pirate, she said, surprising herself. She could hear their conversation – so fluent! – as though it were heard over the radio.
That’s exactly what I tell women. It suggests I’m both dashing and conscientious. Is it working?
Conscientiousness is overrated, Anna said, without meaning it. Or did she mean it?
In that case, he said, I will not offend you by asking you conscientiously if you’d like another.
Her glass was empty. Her head felt simultaneously clear and encased in gold.
That’s not conscientiousness, she said. It’s hospitality. I’m a stranger in your village. Like the beginning of a fairy story.
You bring some kind of curse.
Probably, she agreed.
You must be satisfied.
Have your people ever sacrificed to the mountains? she asked.
He paused. In a manner of speaking.
He stood up to buy a second round and was back shortly. There was no queue at the bar. The drunks were in their cups.
What’s this? She asked after tasting what he’d brought her.
You like it?
It’s better than what I ordered.
It’s a gift from the barman. He owes me one.
Under the table, she pushed off her left shoe with her right toes, eased the heels and then shucked the toe, and then did the same with her right one. Her stockinged feet stretched at their liberty.
His name was Stefan but he looked like a Leo. Did she tell him that? It didn’t matter. They talked about unlikely things – magic mushrooms, near-accidents (electrocutions, exploding glass), favourite instruments: scientific, culinary, musical. The loss of spontaneous conversation is the first of the losses you suffer when you are bereaved: not only are the wheelings of grief monotonous, but your friends and acquaintances, assuming you must be kept company in your monomaniacal state, lose their courage at proposing to talk of unrelated matters. No one asks a recent widow her opinion of Russia’s territorial advances or whether she thinks a watch that you can use as a telephone and a camera and a computer is a good or stupid idea. They give her books about coming to terms with mortality, or books with exquisite but ultimately repetitive poems, rather than books about undiscovered planets.
Anna felt a greening of some withered part of her chest, like there was a stretch of moss on the bark of her heart that had died and was now starting to regenerate, a quiet, rich life close to the ground.
After fifteen uncomfortable minutes of her bladder aching and pinching, she excused herself. The bathroom was in the back of the bar, down a flight of concrete steps. It was the sort of place a gang might keep and torment a sorry hostage: low-hanging pipes contorted into an inexplicable alimentary system overhead, dim corridors where empty cardboard boxes lay strewn about like rubble from a dismantled fortress. The lock on the door took effort. She realized when she sat down that she had not put on her shoes again. The toilet bowl had little flames of rust ringing the bowl, there was only barely enough toilet paper, and the taps screeched and hummed before eking out enough frigid water for her to wash her hands. The lock took more effort to open than it did to draw. Her cold wet hands didn’t help. She put her whole weight behind it, and when the lock suddenly gave way, she staggered and was embarrassed, although there was no one to see her.
When she stepped from the dank staircase into the warm bar she felt ashamed of her stockinged feet, the sort of shame felt by someone who disregards cautions about flaunting her possessions in the poorer areas of a city known for its street robbery and is mugged. Stefan’s leather-clad back was to her, tapered like the spade on a playing card. He had a mobile phone up to his ear and was talking into the mouthpiece angled at his jaw.
It’s definitely one of them, he said, a mother. We haven’t talked about the kid yet. Have a heart, give me time. You can’t just barge into something like this. It’s like making bread. You have to let it rise. I could have a pitch to you by tomorrow.
She stood in her stockings, catching his words slowly, a net billowing around a shoal of sardines. The moss in her chest whitened into ash.
From across the room, the barman saw her standing behind Stefan like a murderer in a play. Stefan, listening now to the person on the other side of the line, turned his head and saw the barman staring behind him. He turned sharply and Anna was there, standing in her own shadow.
Jesus, he said, and hung up the phone.
You’re a journalist, she said, and when he said nothing she said, It’s been a year for Christ’s sake.
Wait just a minute, he said, with a face that became too easily kind. Wait a minute.
Go to hell, she said, and put on her shoes messily, so that the heel curled in and rubbed against her bones. She grabbed her purse and her coat and began to walk away. She stopped and returned. He was on his phone again, pressing on the expensive screen.
Grief isn’t a story, she said. It’s a fucking disease.
She saw a small match-light kindled in his eyes, his fingers itching at the phone.
Don’t write that down. You can’t write this down, you cannibal.
On Monday morning, she rose early. She wore the same black dress and the same black shoes from the night before. She left her room and locked it and walked through the corridors of the dead architect’s house to stand over the breakfast table.
I’d like to see it, she said, and of course they knew what she meant.
Peter, Ingrid and Anna left after breakfast and sat soberly throughout the drive on the mountain road to Niewehoop. Peter drove through town and Anna lowered her dark glasses, as though she were an actress preserving her fragile anonymity. No music, no conversation. They squinted at the clear day, and from time to time Peter angled the drop-down visor above the windscreen to shade his eyes from the light as the road curved.
Their journey took them along the outskirts of Niewehoop, and five minutes beyond there was a turnoff from the paved road onto a red gravel road which headed east, towards the slopes plunging down into the valley. The car stopped when the road was no more. There was a small veld which had its own horizon before the steep shelves of rock dropped off like illustrations of gravity: long, elegant lines leading to the inconceivable base hidden between contortions of sediment.
Peter, Ingrid and Anna climbed out of the 4×4 and the air was sharp, although there was no wind. They walked to the edge of the veld where a wooden platform was constructed to rise at the very place where the ground fell off into the abyss, divided by the bracing confidence of a wooden railing. It was large enough to admit twenty pilgrims if they stood quietly side by side. In the centre of the platform was a stone bearing the names of the dead. To the memory of the passengers of flight 881 who perished here. Kneeling so as to bring herself level with the stone, Anna found her daughter’s name surrounded by the others like bees in a hive. The mason had spent his time urging his tool into the stone to make the grooves that spelled her name. Jessa wasn’t just Anna’s dead daughter. She was twenty-five minutes of time transfigured into stone. She had teeth or nails or hair in the valley still, between the mountains, pieces of lint, her bubblegum, an earring, the coins from her pocket, slivers of silicon from her smashed mobile. She had escaped the coroner’s thoroughness. She could still sprout.
Anna stood at the limits of the platform and looked out on to the mountains: careless of their guilt, they held their ancient poise. Ingrid laid a bouquet of crocuses before the stone, her limbs weighted with respect. There were older bouquets mouldering beneath the new flowers, mulched by the old, brief snows and thaws.
You’re vampires, Anna said. All of you. A town of bloodsucking ticks.
But their eyes were so kind, shining out from a sheath of tears, from sheer density or absolute goodness, taking neither offence nor accepting reproach. How terrible it must be, the citizens of Niewehoop think, how greatly you must suffer. How good that we are here to help.
Photograph © Damian Gadal