Between the Hours of Two and Four
‘ “The threat to British lives preceeded the Iraq war from the poison of Islamisist Jihadis … I can’t keep on with this. Someone explain to me how Boris bloody Johnson got to become Foreign bloody Secretary? “’
‘Ugh. Politics.’ Cait plucks the New York Times and holds it out of Peter’s reach. She notices the headlines are the same colour as the pigeons flying in concentric circles in Central Park. She thinks of Mrs Dalloway. “Concentric circles”. This is a line from that. It is to do with time. Isn’t it? They had studied it at college, before she and Peter – before they left. The book talked about realities. It housed several, all co-existing. She had felt her mind hatching.
‘Frowning?’ He thumbs her lip. ‘Okay, no politics today.’ He makes a cross of his fingers and she batted him away. He caught her arms, drew her down with him.
‘How have we managed this?’ he said. ‘This perfect life.’
She moaned. ‘Mm. Yes.’
‘Imagine this, Cee,’ Peter said. His abdomen is the ocean, swelling and falling. A rare day off. The company, his work, took him away so often. Like his name, he burrowed into it. The warrens of his mind. She could have endless fun with this metaphor. Squirrels flicker through Central Park like apparitions. A dog that looks like a lion strains on its leash. She wants to ask what the breed of dog might have been. Peter would know. But then watches a father unknits a cloud of orange from the dog’s face, both child and dog delighting. Trumpeting like elephants. The child receives a cornetto. If it would not so suit her mom, she would love to paint this life. Instead, she closes her eyes and bathes in the thought of how Peter would be a wonderful father. The thought feels like the way she used to swim. Twisting from her obliques, limbs chasing after, under, within blue.
‘Happy anniversary,’ she says.
But Peter is somewhere else, thinking.
The clock woke. A window of light shivered on the wall. Over the airwaves, a breathy sound, that sounded like a person in deep slumber. Or an echo of the ocean.
‘You’re Caitlyn Chess?’
‘Mummy who is playing chess?’
‘Caitlyn Chess. It is you!’
Cait placed the watercolour tube back down. She had in her hands aegean blue, aquamarine, cadmium. ‘Magnus. I got married.’
The woman unhooked her child’s thumb from her mouth. ‘Oh yes, Peter. How is he?’
The store owner looked up. The woman’s hands flew to a sudden wide smile. She laughed. ‘I’m so sorry.’ Touched her smile. ‘I smile when I’m upset. I knew that, too. I forgot – ‘
‘Yes,’ Cait says and goes to leave the shop.
‘If there’s anything I can do – do you need a lift back home? Oh! Is your mam still making those lovely chimes?’
Her mother’s lovely chimes dangled from a corner of the shop. Mermaids with golden hair. Which sold seat cushions and furniture polish, card marking kits and grapefruits.
‘There’s some up there.’
‘Be lovely for the garden. So what did you end up doing – in New York? So glamorous, we all said so. Nothing ever changes here. Me and Dave – you remember, you must remember! – we still live on the same street. Two doors down from his mam now. Bit close, between you and me. So what did you say you did?’
You are just a fact, my love. Peter had told her that there are tectonic plates beneath the ground. Like the plates you get on the waltzers? She had asked. She had not enjoyed the thought of that instability. The molten lava that everything sat upon, when it was supposed to be what it said it was. Just earth. Just mountain. Just ocean. When the plates drew together, what happened to that material in between? It was eaten up? It was invisible? Peter was invisible now. She staggered. Sweat swept her forehead.
‘Oh. You alright? Morello’s is open. We could get a drink. Genuinely, Caitlyn. It’d be lovely to catch up, like.’
A woman entered the shop with her baby in a papoose. She looked at them, as though she had made a mistake.
‘She looks like one of those Islamists.’
‘I … ought to get back. Some other time, huh?’ How American her huh sounded. She felt over-sized, uncamouflaged. Aimed for the shop door.
‘Your paint, pet.’
The shopkeeper looked down his spectacles, which seemed too dainty for his beach-weathered face, at her hands. She saw the tubes of aegean, aquamarine, cadmium red. Hadn’t she put them down?
Whatshername and her thumb-sucking child were a bubble of tension behind her in the queue. The shop smelled close, of age. A note of shoe polish. Perhaps that was what was making her dizzy. They’re buying dusters, kitchen cleaner and flying saucers. She fumbles for silver coins.
‘I’m so sorry for you loss, Caitlyn,’ the woman said. ‘God, as if your family needed anything else. And Peter was just so … I mean all his experiments. We all remember the rocketship! Do you? You must.’
‘Of – of course.’
‘Janet – it was the happiest any of us had ever seen her.’
‘And there was a lot to choose from there. Such a happy kid. And who are we to say, you know. I mean thank God this one’s normal, but still. You grow up alongside that and it changes your perspective. Funny that.’
Cait stared at her and decided she did not like her mouth. It just worked. Worked and worked in an effortless sort of way. Her body functioned, in all its elegant complexity, for her to shoot her trap.
‘But he was amazing. I mean, you too. Obviously.’
Cait felt herself blushing. What had she been to Peter really? The pretty girl with the crazy Polish mom whose parents had bravely fled Poland during some invented history her mother like to illustrate, who had herself fled America when her husband died, setting up stall and anchor as . In another time, men would have tried to drown June. In this one, she’d had her pick. And Jesus, had she picked them. But Larry seemed nice.
‘…suppose that’s why you two worked. It’s – God – it was like you had your own universe. Nobody every understood what you were talking about. God, and they were loaded his parents, weren’t they? Got out of here first chance they could. Not Peter. Always at the beach. It was nice that, like. The boys let the rocket off at the North pier. Do you remember? God, what a genius. Real genius. So unique. We all said so. I mean, you too. Obviously.’
She brushed a film of water across the page. It stood, transparent, a waiting vessel. She was wedged on the sand before the marina, her spot. It annoyed her that when she had thanked the shopkeeper she’d said, thanyou. The loss of the K already. The same sing-song rhythm of her girlhood. Jeez. Jeez, as the Pakistani magazine store holder on the corner of 9th and Brooklyn said, when she was fishing for change. Jeez, as every guy waiting for a cab racing said. In New York, she had once stood through a storm with Peter, belted together. It was ten am, black as night. The bellies of the great trees in central park had hula-danced for them. She’d closed her eyes, heard the surf of home. Rinsing, cleansing.
She heard the familiar percussion of clanging metal and dropped crates behind her. Men worked the nets. A ribbon of an accent. All of the windows along this particular street were some theme on Puffin Cottage. Puffin Nook. Puffin Crook. Puffin View. Rates on sun-worn printouts blue-tacked to dusty windows. It hurt to see sometimes, the town selling itself so cheaply.
From the three colours, Cait had mixed a pallette of purples, ranging from the dark and dense to the light. She had been watching a woman patting sandcastles with her daughter. She etched an outline. The paint travelled and starred, almost of its own will. She shouldered a lighter purple. Pointed it into the backbone of the woman, saw it twist together. Her mother loved watercolours. She needed lemon, she thought. The tension of yesterday’s searing heatwave had mellowed. The sky a Christmas-white, the slow contentment of bird calls. The sea a bowl of blue. A spaniel feigned to chase some driftwood, gave up and dug happily into the beach. Faint veins of lemon and ochre rivering out from the mother and daughter would be the perfect compliment, just to indicate sand. She would have to imagine it for now.
It was the marine biologist. When they had first met, the sun had both bleached and silhouetted his face. Like when you have to drive uphill towards nothing, slowly, the glare and the darkness by turns too strong. Now she could see the capillaries across his nose. A child’s impression of birds waving over his face in red. From pressure? She imagined his job would include diving. Freckles accumulated above and onto his lips. A sweet afterthought that seemed curiously at odds with the rest of him. Sporty, solid. Today he smelled of clean washing.
‘Coffee? Decaff?’ His smile bled away.
She touched her face. She was crying.
She touched the tears again. ‘I – I don’t know.’ She looked at the paper, the colours eating into each other. The half-finished skeleton of the mother. She had not yet drawn the child.