They sat side by side watching the rain. They said nothing that they would remember in later years, nothing to place scaffolding around and try to preserve. And Demeter would only know that this time was a last time when she got the message three days later from a man who could not bear to look her in the face. He spoke slowly into her left cheek, his words slicing her skin so keenly that she was surprised to see no scar the next time she looked in a mirror. Demeter was faintly surprised to see herself there too. She half expected to look and find herself gone. Oh there I am she thought. And paused for four slow breaths before turning and walking downstairs and outside into the world that was noisier than ever, all volume, roars and sunshine. She walked to the café where she had once sat with Amy Boulton. Lumps of flesh everywhere, widening their mouths and laughing hungrily at each other. Like me, like me they waved at the world. A table for one? No I am waiting for someone. Really I am, no lie.
The scraping of chairs and the rush of feet. Lunch time over, Demeter leaned too far to one side as the greedy posse chased after a fat man and his phone. She stumbled into an iron table where a solitary figure was reading. He or she didn’t look up as Demeter shook off little brown crystals of sugar and streaked her cheeks with sticky tears. No one came because no one ever does she reminded herself and walked towards the traffic lights simply because she knew what they were.
She stopped because the light was red.
Why is it always the wrong person? Make do conversations with nobody at all. In fact ,Jamie Thompson with his wobbly grandma. A vision to walk on by.
‘Hi Jamie.’ Shabby Jamie, tired Jamie, besotted Jamie. Wearing red as always.
‘This is my mum Demeter, mum this is Demeter Reynolds from my English class.’
The woman looked straight at Demeter and smiled. ‘I believe you like Hardy more than anyone? So do I. I don’t think I have ever got over Tess. But I bet it’s Bathsheba for you… Jude is much too grim isn’t he? And so cruel? Barbaric I’ve always thought. No one can do that to children? Hardy must have given up? ‘On she went on talking in small pieces about a writer that Demeter had thought was just hers. The criss -crosses on her skirt started to make Demeter dizzy, this way that way on and on they went: brown and red; red and brown . ‘And when Tess kills Alec…good I always say! ‘And these small pieces showered all over Demeter standing there with her head to one side.
Confetti -speak isn’t it? I get it all the time, mind you…a least she can do sentences. Well sometimes. Only I find …
‘Jamie’s like Oak ‘said his mother conclusively and nudged his thigh with her knee.
God how embarrassing.‘ Nice to see you. I have to go..’ But a new Jamie nevertheless.
‘ Goodbye Bathsheba .’ And they walked off smiling again. Two people who were sharing a joke. Demeter didn’t know whether to feel annoyed or flattered. Oddly her head still felt that it was stuck on one side, and she straightened it . Idiot! But who was the idiot she wasn’t sure. She had to act. The lights changed and she started to cross counting each step in her head. Thirteen and she was on the other side. Bloody typical. Our magic number.
What should I do now I am here?
A hand on the back of her neck.’ Boo.’
New hair and a new smell despite the rain. It wasn’t raining. It just felt like it.
Amy Boulton was pleased with herself that was obvious. She gleamed from ever angle, and could barely keep one foot flat to the floor. An arm through hers .A red mouth and black gloves. They were transported to the park, full , empty, who cared .She was here.
‘ I know what you needed to know, ‘said Amy Boulton. And Demeter with all the trust she could muster from her sixteen and a half years believed her. ‘
A letter from someone who knows more than anyone should.’ A yellow envelope . Lots of loops. All in show off purple. But Amy’s hand liberated from a glove, was covered in eczema. Go on urged Amy and opened it herself anyway. Here.
But Demeter continued to stare at the hand knowing now how little and how much she had to learn.’ does it hurt?’
Hurt? Not particularly. Just bloody itches ..most of the time. All of the time Demeter. Sometimes I can’t wear my rings.
A small dog hurried by intent on the ducks ahead. Both girls watched the animals waiting to find what they might risk to say. Both were aware of the space between them and the way the air misted over as they breathed, mingling perhaps more than air.
‘ I asked Gerald in the end Demeter. He said it was quite easy that’s how we got this letter.’
Demeter felt her eyes burn. It was the word easy. Why did this always happen? Easy for others, easy for him easy for them, hatefully hard for her. She held out her hand for the letter and Amy pulled her close and pinched her nose
She tapped her arm and sang ‘Oh Demeter please don’t let me be misunderstood.’
And that of course was the point .
Huddled together like the lovers they nearly were, they read the letter. And the words and the smell of skin and wool mixed so it was impossible to know which was the more affecting. And when the words ran out the smells took over and she cried She had never known Margaret for very long and this letter bore the weight of that ignorance. Margaret described the terrible change in her father, in his moods in his speech and his walking. She talked of his fondness of her garden and the visits from Alex and their rows. And then she talked of Demeter and his certainty that she must never know. And her promise and the fire when he left. Demeter checked the date again: three years ago. He was still alive. Could be.
‘He might be more than just disappeared Demeter. ‘
Amy took her hand from Demeter’s and stood up. She reached down and flicked at her friend’s hair. ‘Come on it’s cold and you’ve never seen my study. If We stay here any longer you will probably run into Jamie and be married before I could even propose.
Dazed and exhausted, Demeter followed Amy to what seemed like the end of the world.
Margaret Shilton had the clearest eyes that anyone could ever bear to see. She would turn her head and the blue would reach you before you could compose a face. They had first met at the bottom of .the stairs, and Margaret had turned to Demeter and offered her some pears. A gift of three pears. Surrounded by blue. Demeter would always thank her and would enquire about her bike without which Demeter thought Margaret would go mad . Demeter could never think of Margaret without feeling drenched in blue and cycling off to the edge of the world, an invincible heroine on her bicycle.. And she was sure that Margaret knew everything. She did that was absolutely .clear. Even now she could feel that glance coming as it always seemed to, from another time and she would stop whatever she was up to and remember.
Margaret had bought the bicycle
from a neighbour when Eric had started with his illness and he had always hoped to ride it but never got beyond his daughter’s, and then he gave up for the sanctuary of his garden and chair. Margaret suggested that it should not be wasted and now she could not function without the steady rhythm of the pedals, the air on her face and the gravel scratching as she cycled through her gate. . Obviously life with Eric was quite happy Obviously happy in the small and large details of her life with him.. he asked little that she was unwilling to volunteer . But for one hour or so a day, God willing, Margaret needed to be Margaret Crowley again, a girl on the brink of new choices, new ideas. And As she would cycle from one place to another on her list, she would take up with a new word, teasing it, tasting it and passing it around her mouth with a tongue that was unfurred and eager. ‘ Serendipity. Serendipity, ser-ren dip- pitty’ And on she rode.
He came early one Friday morning carrying a small brown case and a carrier with his shoes. As he stood looking in on this earlier world of baked bread, and old polish, he asked himself for the millionth time how he had tripped himself up so badly. The rose toilet in her hall chilled him again and he remembered the first time he had met Margaret and had told the family in the car, how peaceful, how quaint this whole place and set-up would be. And he had opened his car doors and left them all on the step with Margaret and her grandson. And then he had made an excuse about the shop floor needing words and hurried off to his mistress who had only the newest things around her .including him. .Poor Margaret of course, never suspected anything at all. Sometimes he realised this irked him and made him want to whisper out his secret lurid life as she asked after his two children, his long journey and the beautiful day which he had barely noticed . Methodist of course. Rare these days|?. He would stand agreeing slightly and plot. There he was, A shadowy, stocky male with a past. Italian shoes too. A private smile. All the circumferences of his thoughts were frilled at the edges with mauve satin and laughter.. Dark, wet ,mauve satin. He shuddered even now. Clothed disgracefully in a navy suit, and nodding like the perfect businessman he was, .he would .mentally .time out .the day’s movements, slipping into the salacious promise of his overlaps( as he would rudely call them) .and readjusting his starched handkerchief with his cleverness.
How shiny he is, Margaret would remark to Eric as she adjusted his pillows and brought another cup of tea. And Eric would sip his tea whilst his wife tried tactfully to dispossess herself of her growing certainty that her lodger was not as he should be. ‘short’ Eric would reply and then ask for another of those biscuits that his doctor thought bad news for his diabetes. To love someone is to know you are still alone except for God. And on they went together, sipping tea, watching programmes about gardening and touching shoulders in the night.
Amy’s study was orange. She had painted it herself when her brother had left home and she no longer had to endure his carefully achieved infatuation with white walls. He had stressed to her on as many occasions as she would remain in the same room that white made you focus, it made you clear, and look he would say, look at where I am and where I will be soon. And Amy would look and see a tall boy with a parting and a black pen and friends who never rang for more than 5 minutes. Colin was a success; everybody said so, everybody knew it, even his car testified to his competence and ideals. White metal and just one stripe, all perfectly parked 2 centimetres from the pavement in front of their house. Amy stood on the pavement when he drove perfectly away, looked for her sadness and fingered a sample pot of lilac in her pocket. She wrote when he typed her his monthly letter and sent cards that were cheerful and left little space for a message.
Demeter didn’t fill any gap left by Colin’s departure. There was no gap to fill she said. Rather she was her own special treat, a strange, multicoloured gift that she enjoyed because he was gone and she could stretch and lean out and enjoy herself.
‘ I sit there to read Demeter, try it and you can see the reservoir on a good day. ‘
It was a good day as the house was all theirs and was warmer than Demeter’s who lived always at a temperature that made the fridge redundant. She felt like an orchid and unravelled her scarf and took off her boots and spread out her feet. Amy glanced down at them and was surprised at their size. Cute feet she thought and took care not to tread on them as she sat down beside her new friend and took out the letter once more. Demeter didn’t seem to notice as she was studying the walls with all the attention of the enchanted visitor. In fact she was terrified. She breathed as slowly as she could and blushed as she saw a picture of herself beneath Amy‘s favourite pet. Joe was a heeler and he liked to dig. The picture showed him covered in mud exhuming something unrecognisable in a field. Demeter automatically started to look around for the real thing and there he was basking on his cushion in the corner occasionally growling at a sodden old bear. Was that Colin’s ?she said.
Colin hates bears. They’re regressive. Joe can’t stand him anyway.. And Joe at his name swaggered across the floor and leapt into the polite space between the girls. So neat! Amy kissed him and he leant to one side nudging her hand into scratches on his furrowed brow. Mr velvet said Amy and wrinkled her nose at this pocket male.
Demeter tickled him too and smiled full into the dark dark eyes of her friend.
‘too much mouth – too much mouth murmured Amy and Demeter fell into the underworld once more.
Callum knew he had to smile more. He rarely smiled at all nowadays and as he arrived late for his extra Greek Class he forced his mouth into a tight beam. Abigail looked up and lost her place. She was translating and had just met Persephone for the first time. Callum steadied his hand on her arm and pushed his bag under her chair. He stretched out his long legs nodding curt apologies at Mr Coulter and rearranging his position so he could read over Abigail’s shoulder. Persephone is lost Callum, lost in Hades for most of the year. And the world is bereft and desecrated. Her mother has to find her. But of course you must know this Mr Coulter coughed and looked around for support with the rather classical aspect to your family names?
Callum smiled back at his teacher who immediately regretted his joke. Callum shrugged and the group at the side watched him carefully. His profile always saved him. Too handsome. Too cool, too dangerous to know. But what Callum knew nobody knew, except that he loved his sister more not less than the world. He spread his fingers on the table and then picked slowly at an old scar.. It started to bleed again. Mr Coulter flushed and swallowed hard. Callum wrote out the word desecrated in his book. How apt he thought. Today of all days I needed such a word. Bereft and desecrated. He had left him. His father had gone. He never called. He never wrote. It was just a blank gritty wall of *********sunlight wasn’t it? He could still see those cells conniving under the skin, luring bits of his father away from him so their was only that ghastly smile .One nurse had been kind enough to draw a chart. War -fare she called it and she had not been wrong. But he had ******** off anyway. What’s a palimpsest Mr Couletr?’
Palimpsest. The class stepped out of their stumbling translation gratefully. Palimpsest Callum? Well callum I fail to see what…?
It’s a trace left by something beneath something else. said Abigail flatly. I always think of wax and printing . She didn’t ask why. She knew. Callum hearing her answer, decided he must love her. Careful love. How much can we love people who just know where we have got to go?.
‘Things often have to stand in for their things don’t they she continued. Shadows of shadows perhaps? ‘
The bell rang and the rest of the group including Mr Coulter left, leaving two friends who had rather more to say than they has suspected.
It’s the anniversary today Callum isn’t it? I remember the sun last year and how it made you feel sick each day. And you must want to scream sometimes? . Abigail paused. She came from a silent family who met only for meals, and she couldn’t trust herself or her words beyond these few sentences. So they sat still and the sun as if on command, flooded the room with its yellow branches, grazing the back s of their hands. Burning and anointing by turn.
The bells again.
It was Amy Boulton – that crazy girl with the rings who made his sister more happy than anyone in her life.. ‘I want you both to come with me: Demeter is waiting.‘
. The ring flashed at them and her hand beckoned from a place the sun had failed to reach within the doorway. So they followed her through the darkened doorway:. But whether this was the door they had come in through neither was too sure. They passed under a grinning gargoyle with some flower in his hand and came out again into the sunshine. It was hot and everyone had gone. Only the chairs from the young family remained and callum thought that maybe they wouldn’t mind if he and Abigail just borrowed them for a while. He stared at the empty streets below; no traffic and hardly a street seller to be seen. Must be a Sunday he thought and reached down for his mineral water and hat. Abigail was being nice he decided. She fitted in. he could speak and she could listen and the spaces between were fine. No other girl except Demeter had ever been so good about words. And as he thought of his sister he suddenly realised that he hadn’t seen her all day and suspected she had been with Amy again. Her friend’s rash had gone. Loved away as Amy would say. Indeed. Loved away by a girl who wanted to find someone who was more lost than they. You can’t find someone who des not want to be found his mother had informed him in a tone that she had learnt from his stepfather. His mother never spoke as herself nowadays of course, she borrowed phrases from others like some crazy kleptomaniac. She was right of course and careered on her way, as lost as her lost husband and just as sick. He just didn’t get it. ‘I don’t get it!’ he would say to her and she would reply in those tones with that newly acquired voice that spoke of clubs and meetings and any gathering where couples met to rearrange their next outings over polished tables and white napkins. Strange to inhabit a world where everyone is always in next time.
Demeter watched Amy cross the forum, picking flowers from the cracks in the path and then shielding her eyes from the sun as she tried to find Demeter in the crowds of tourists watching the ruin. Amy had the gift of being always the same Demeter thought and this above else soothed her. It made her feel cared for above all others. There was none of the feeling of awkwardness and wrench that she sometimes felt with others. Expectation her mother said. ‘Expectation is not a good thing. It makes you sad Demeter’ and so it did. But if you thought someone was this and then they turned into that? And if she had thought she was connecting and then it was all forgotten? Perhaps she just needed to grow up. But then she would have to grow away too and perhaps avoid the very things she loved.
Tow yellow flowers with tiny eyes. Amy squinted at Demeter and handed them over to her friend with a bow. I knew you were picking them for me. Amy pulled Demeter down on the floor so they could lean against each other and whispered good in her ear. The flowers sat in Demeter’s Lap and Amy started to thread them through each others stems. And you knew I would do that!!! And they both laughed and Demeter touched her lover’s face and smiled.
Bloody love birds. Abigail and Callum and tow bottle of frosted water. We have found a guide. He will show us that place dad went on about that time. They stood looking down at the girls and couldn’t decide where one ended and the other began and neither perhaps could the girls. How long this tableau would have gone on for no one was sure, but then a dusty blonde head appeared over the standing couple and a parched voice began. ‘ I am Simon and I will show you under this place, where tunnels feed into tunnels and we may lose or find ourselves.’ Simon gazed earnestly at all four in turn weaning off Demeter from Amy’s neck through sheer determination and Demeter’s grace.
Come on he said, and it started to rain.
Not a trace of it could be seen beneath the white cuff. So crisp, so clean so respectable. Yet it was there and they knew it had to be there, and only the tiny specks of red that scattered over the shirt gave any hint of the day before. His arm lay certain and powerful across the bed. His friend who could not help but blink at his daring, slowly undid the cuff and folded back the sleeve. Niagara engraved script. Only done in certain ports of call. They all read the words and were silent: ‘ and the truth shall set you free.’ A message to live by perhaps. The arm flexed at the touch. The face adjusted its expression. There was a suggestion of return. I looked at the eyes and felt dark light.
What shape fear takes is always a surprise: you are meeting something from within when believe you are meeting something from without. It ransacks your private the defences before you have even sent out any armed troops. Today I saw that dismal glow again and knew he wanted to come back, to come home. And the desire to stop him was total. I glanced at the medical figure beside him and nodded at the door. The others barely noticed, being fixed as they always had been on the man on the bed.
‘I don’t want him to live ‘
The white coat registered little surprise; ‘He is very badly injured but there are thing…’
‘ I don’t want him to come back.’
‘well we could try finding a place where he might be cared for initially..’
I saw only thick walls and green damp and that slant of light. He only ever needed a chink to get back.
Do nothing . I want to let nature get its due.
The medical figure shrugged and walked back into the room. The door was left ajar and through the gap I could see the bed and the still body breathing. The monitor maintained its grip on his careful life : he went on beneath this surface stillness and I sensed my horror that he might get away with it all over again. , I could almost hear his cells realigning, colluding. Don’t heal him I thought, don’t do what you were born to do.
Another visitor. Male, tall and elegantly grey. He skimmed over my step father, notes, pulse, charts, family. He paused as if to select the only listener for his time. ‘ Two days, and then he will fight and return or fade and succumb.’ He stared at me as if to measure the effect of his prediction. I dwelled in the land of the dead and lingered over the word succumb. What are the odds?
I never gamble. He needs inspiration and care.
Neither were on offer here I thought and felt comforted by the alienating vocabulary that did not fit the figure on the bed. Perhaps his luck, like the Consultants words, were about to run out on him.
Ordinary days have a sedimenty taste. Your teeth know it. And sitting on the uneven seat of the tourist’s toilet, Demeter felt happy at the lack of expectation and demand. Much of her life was spent foraging for a reaction to the new, trying to behave in ways that meant she was coping, she always had a plan and a list of possible ambushes. Today she just swallowed and wanted some water.
Walking out into the haze of the street, she decided upon a left turn that would bring her around the back of their hotel. Everyone was out or reading, nothing to hurry or apologise for and so Demeter wandered herself free of thoughts. Each step and down went another, spiralling beneath the hot concrete into the earth. This is not innocent earth, not innocent ground, spoke the rhythm of her sandals, so the shedding went on and her body went looser and she sagged and slowed and came to at a figure who was blocking her way.
Blue eyes. Wrong person. He was small and urgently chattered at her to take notice, to take care. But the eyes didn’t follow his words, they stayed fixed on her face so that the voice seemed separate from the man. Demeter took her head slowly over his voice to the yes, barely acknowledging to herself the thought of his incongruousness. The blue were from another place, they made her start to sway a little and to take her in, and the idle exclamations of his voice sifted away into the crowds.
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