Return to Me –
I’ve split the novel into three (potentially four) sections that, thanks to help, follow a sonata pattern. This is the second draft of the third section, trying to use the italics as a refrain through the piece, but will see how that works. Or if when I step back it all cracks and you paint over and start again!
We can see the truck below the angled field, the route we have come and where we need to go. ‘I see it all. Before we met, us now now, how we will be. All of it. It’s all there already.’
‘What do you see? Is it good?’
‘Would you stop if it wasn’t?
‘What do you mean?’
‘Us, this? If you knew what was to come? If you knew how bad it would be.’
We look for the blue and gold and meet with angry sky.
The dark-haired girl is following me, long hair a wagging finger, a cautionary tale. We have the same-sized feet. Her mustard dress and aubergine scarf, remind me of items I’ve tumbled into charity shops, belonging to another era.
I turn. Our same-sized feet do not stop at the same time. She advances.
Her smug stare meets my question.
Panic swells and amplifies. I turn, run, her shadow clings to me like spider’s webs.
We can see a woman in a salon sipping peppermint tea. Her arms cross on her lap, the thumb tucked in, she angles her head as the stylist displays what the woman already knows to be there. Nodding. Things are taken, shaken, dusted, a polite refusal and subsequent acquiescence of a tip and the woman reveals herself to a golden morning that matches her golden hair, is welcomed to a high street populated with florists and boutique cake shops, cafes that will glitter as the day coasts to dusk with sprinkled fairy lights, a town with a shoreline possessing a rainbow of beach huts and a throng of energy, liquorice allsorts of people to be unique within, a brighter echo of a place she once knew, but which is some three hundred and thirty nine miles away. And here, in this money-honeyed beach town not far from Orchard Grove, there is all the time in the world.
The door chimes to the Treacle Cafe. ‘Lucia.’
She smiles and her red dress swishes through tables and beyond grand glass cake displays, dainty English china and assortment of every kind of tea you could think of.
‘What a beautiful picture. Is that for me?’
The child, blonde, checks with the gentleman. ‘It was for Michael, but you can share?’
‘We’ll let Michael have it.’
Michael who is standing up to give an order to the waitress who already knows, ‘large cappuccino.’ She winks.
The woman scoops the child in a hug who is already glued back to her colouring and leans in towards the man, the man who is smartly dressed, refined. The type to carry a tasteful golf umbrella. Indeed, there is such an umbrella, raven with discreet mulberry stripes and a wooden handle. Her mother would approve of such a man.
‘You’re looking beautiful,’ he says, folding a broadsheet and taking her hand. ‘But you don’t need to pay someone for that to happen.’
She rolls her eyes and catches a dark movement in the glass. The smile is smeared and an illusion, a dark girl with long hair, a mustard cardigan and aubergine scarf. Her hair flicks as she escapes the window.
‘Lucia? Are you alright? You look…’
Two French polished fingernails steeple between her eyebrows. She squints and widens her eyes. ‘A migraine, maybe. It’ll pass. Too much peppermint tea in the salon.’
The waitress hurries a tray over. ‘Here, I brought water as well.’
‘Thank you, Lindsey,’ Michael says, still holding Lucia’s hand and we can see the glitter of two wedding rings, one smooth and grey, the other bold and brightly attractive. The family talk and drink water and tea and Michael returns to the paper, reading out sections and shaking his head while the woman nods and the child draws.
The door chime to the Treacle Cafe sends a tingling shiver through the warmth and familiarity of the cafe, we are confronted by a tall man, lean, leaner than we might anticipate, as though his skin has somewhat shrunk. The waitress takes a beat; he is unfamiliar, and slips over, smiling. The man is beautiful. He has a Viking’s face and his eyes, swimming-pool-blue, are glassy but nevertheless mesmeric. His alien tones order cappuccino to go.
When Lucia glances over her shoulder and out from family, every minute tension in her face, the slight tautness that creates a smile, that interested look, is smudged.
The man with the Viking face and swimming-pool-blue eyes is staring at her daughter.
If you put your hand over your eyes and squint, and you imagine hard, really hard now, see how you have sprung into a future not too far from now. You will see a bridge atop a slim road that ribbons below. Below the bridge you will see a body. The body will be naked from the waist up, the muscles baring the effect of a diminished warrior. Someone who has had to, or been able, to fight. The day will explode, golden, burning. It’s already positioned that way. Those who haven’t risen, already know. It’s a feeling that talks of Spring and chance. The warm riddles of an unfolding life. A day in which most people will chance a look at the sea, its yawning beach and skipping dogs, the bent kneed swivel of fathers skimming stones for daughters, they will breathe in and think: yes.
A runner presses on, muscles flexing and flashing, fists in gloves, breath an almost completed cyclic route that will lead almost inevitably to a body beneath the bridge, though it is not yet there. She will encounter a dark quick shape on the way down, too quick to decipher what she has seen as she is seeing it. It will all happen as if in an instant. As if we are experiencing Newton’s God.
Panting, the runner unplucks her earphones to examine the shape. On investigation, the shape will reveal itself as limbs, limbs arranged in such a fashion, that her stomach will contract. You see her turn away, make the call.
Muna, I asked the glass. Muna, I asked February 21st, overcast. Muna?
I heard only the whoosh of cars, the reversing of a lorry. Somewhere, recycling bottles are emptied into the blue crates the council make you pay for – one misses, strikes concrete, smashes.
The particulars of it all will always be out of focus, but there are some things a man cannot forget. When you go to a room to show you the body of a dead child, you actually want it to be someone else’s. Another father’s. With their kaleidoscope of memories and all the ways in which they’ve changed. Confrontational-cock-sure to conservative. Careful getting up the slide, Chimp. As a guy, no, as a man, you’re supposed to defend. That is your job. Fuck that office, that suit, all those guys under your say-so, that expense account. Whatever. None of it counts when you’re a dad. Careful going down, Monkey. Don’t wanna get splinters (the familiar ripple of irritation you feel towards Clare reddens; Clare who would shrug and say, so what if she breaks a bone, it’ll mend, it’ll learn her, I’m not wrapping her in cotton wool and, the last flicked dig, so light you wonder if you imagine it, not when you’ve got that so well covered). You wrap things up that are precious. Muna was precious. You should not be waiting for a room to be readied, your hands should not be sweaty and cupping your knee caps like a chess geek in the bleachers, your every movement surreal as you force yourself to contemplate it, what will it be like if they’re right – you are that man, you are that father? How the hell do you tell Clare?
You get up. You’ve left Clare in bed. You’ve not told her where you’re going, not like she cares. She’ll get up to smoke a couple of times. Something she does in pyjamas and boots at the bottom of the garden, staring out into the fields. Peering for the shape of their daughter in the distance where they lost her.
What you see of that girl who was uncovered, as you decipher the dead white static, is only this: she is not Muna. And, somehow, her wet brown hair looks like gravy.
Grayveh? Muna is talking to me from a time long ago.
‘Gravy,’ I say. ‘Why’re you talking like that?’
‘Grayveh grayveh graaaaaayveh. Ha ha ha!’
You blink. You’re in another room, a cupboard.
‘Muna says “grayveh”.’ I challenge the looks I get.
‘Mr Munroe, why did you lie about your whereabouts the evening before Muna’s disappearance?
‘Have you looked for someone with an accent? Look, I’m – that poor kid in there, her hair was – alright yeah. Okay yeah, sounds insane. But it looked like gravy, that thing you guys like spilled all over, anyway and it reminded me – well Muna said it just like that. “Grayveh.” Why would she do that?’
One of them fiddles with the button on their shirt; its thread is unravelling. ‘Friend from school. Could be anything. Can you answer the question, Mr Munroe?’
You’re nodding. ‘Could be the guy who was creeping into our house at night.’
‘Because you didn’t fix the window?’
I hear the white clock on the white wall add the time. ‘Mr Munroe – ‘
‘Fine. Because I fucked that girl who sold that story about me and I didn’t want Clare to have to go through that too. You all know that, can we -‘
‘Nice guy.’ The officers nod to each other.
I settle back into the chair, sieving through all the faces in our street, replaying their voices, our meetings. Neighbours, their visitors, grandkids. Who was I missing?
‘Muna?’ I asked the cotton of the duvet that reflected my breath in the static, navy nights in Orchard Grove, the house so chill I felt as though someone had ran ice over me in the night, that I glistened with it like slug trails.
‘Are you alright? Muna?’
‘I think that would be lovely with your complexion,’ I say. ‘The orange-red over the russet works better with your skin tone. It looks quite rocky.’
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ David says. His figure, even thin as he is now, always a confrontation.
The young woman looks as though she’s about to leave.
‘Will you take this one?’
‘I – ‘
‘This isn’t you.’ Hands on hips. He shrugs.
‘What do you want?’ I hiss.
‘What do you think?’
‘Where have you been?’
‘You know that, Clare.’
Do I? I had not wanted to look into what I know, I had not wanted to hear everything I missed. I was her mother. That man – that –
‘Lucia?’ The manager is bright and red-lipped herself. It’s our best seller.
I know, of course I do and I am already pulling at the threads of my life. Unravelling my new, perfect family. It is thrilling to walk out of the store, to coast down the street to the same truck.
We drive in silence. I think of my manager’s gaze, watching me to the door. I think of the gaze of whoever took Muna, how they must have watched and measured. Of Niamh’s observation of us, in obsessive and then discreet ways, how she must have felt some bizarre gratification that life had been so cruel to us as we had been so cruel to her. I think of the dark-haired girl in the rear view mirror, the one behind my eyelids, whose expression I cannot read.
‘Where are we going?’ I say and David glances at me and then back to the road. Because of course I know.
What do you want?
The dark-haired girl’s stare meets mine, smug.
They stop along a services at a country road. It has a black cat winking in the slanted afternoon light. They part to pump gas, to dab their faces with hospital-blue paper towels. To check with themselves: what are they doing? They call people who might be concerned, pacing orbits enough distance from the other for these conversations to just be inaudible.
She . .. will you?
not too long.
I just . . .
love you too.
Their doors a tap-danced flourish percussive, the truck shut up, the two of them inside, which grits up, spits dust, smooths up towards a living myth, their old lives. Muna, still lost, still waiting. And the clinging dark-haired girl, invisibly watches.