—Good night ladies …
(Kicking up her legs and swooning round the side of the door like Ginger Rogers.)
… I’m going to leave you now.
The little girls tucked up in bed, the giggles, the panic.
—She’s so lovely, your mum, do you know that, beautiful, everybody says so.
And there’s little Fleur, curled up in bed in the big room, lifting her legs and swinging them side to side under the sheets, each side a different character, a different voice and she’s whispering them all.
—And how are ya doin’ today, missus?
— I’m fine, just fine.
—Glad to hear it.
Swinging her legs back and forth, the stretch being part of it and the scrunch of her body and the laughter that lay inside the voices.
—And how are ya doin’ today, missus?
—Fine, I told you that, I’m fine.
And here she is years later lying flat on her back and staring up at a plaster ceiling, counting things, 32 swirls in the centre of the block, the egg shapes of the edging, the swirls like ribbons, the cluster of fat buds, the coffers, the frieze, the stucco, the soffit, the fascia, all the words you might use to name a ceiling which keeps out the rain, which conceals you from the eye of the moon, of the stars, to see the falling star whiz down the little window above the old range in the kitchen and now there’s the pooling of dark blue and purple like on the Ponte Vecchio, the brilliants, the gold and silver in the jewellery shops, the gemstones, the cut facets gleaming and the sky the darkest midnight blue Giotto blue, the blue of Our Lady’s robe maybe but you would have to check, the gleamings on the river, the quick flashing lengths of light like boards but flexy and flamey like gold and silver melted down (the barbarians are coming) and poured into the river, like the silvers thrown into the bog ( or rather would they be placed with reverence? ) the crowd meshing in the narrow passageway across the striated water, the old bridge the hump of it, the gentle up and down as you move across, standing on the slightly raised centre in the gleam of the gems like starlight that is stolen, like moonlight, like starlight and that’s a repetition, oh well.
And he’s standing in the doorway, a pale figure in the doorway, the flames in the log-burner, the shadows flickering on the curtains, the soft footfall, the hesitation, the shyness, this tender wound of hopefulness in the doorway and the sheath of the sheet, the blanket’s heavy weight, the sheet that she pulls into a layered band tight across her mouth, her eye socket pressed hard into his shoulder the lovely pain of the eye socket pressed into the shoulder, to lie like fur seals, the warmth shifting to her icy feet, the warmth of his body, the soft down on his belly, his chest, the arm under her neck, the fast breathing the slow breathing and the open mouth as she leans over him.
There’s the tug of milk in her breast, after all these years the breast remembers, the nerves in the breast remember the baby butting with its head, a cunning little animal, to make the milk flow, no luck here darling but almost, the milk beginning to well and pour beneath her ribs, under her arm, making for the dry breast which remembers and there’s the tug of milk maybe or else just the memory of milk, the lovely bearing down, the shoulders curving slightly around the baby’s head to release the milk, to feel the flow, the deliciousness of the flow from the body, the pale bluish milk and he is greedy for it, the shame of her delight as the breast remembers the secret pleasure of the baby pressing hard, the mouth wandering, the snuffles of the little animal so warm and sweet smelling.
And just when it all seems too hard and she can’t be bothered and her mind flips out and has to be emptied like the lagoon that fills and spills down the culvert, the way the water runs through the pipes then as the flood increases (the pipes fill with shingle, they choke, the whole lagoon chokes) and spills, the water begins to turn, a lovely long slim line, the beautiful curve around under the road, the sand and shingle and tarseal crumble, slip into the flow and just at the point of despair, her eyes rolling back and up into her straining head, the blindness that comes then, the light in the inner cave, under the water, the impulse to give up and slide under, there comes the image she has to work for, of sandals on sunlit stones, of Socrates come running towards her in the Athenian sunlight, his ample old body, his strong calf muscles, the big toes in the leather sandals and that’s the second before the collapse, the jerk into it, the little convulsion, the spasm and the long slow swelling like the water sliding back into the lagoon at high tide.
—Tuck me up will you.
—You want me to tuck you up?
—Yes, like a baby.
She wriggles deeper into the snug, drags the edge of the sheet tight across her mouth again, such an odd thing to do, pulls it tight across her mouth like a gag, it feels good, ties everything up, stops stuff getting out, maybe, it’s as if she’s a wild pony and she has put herself into a harness, she moves her head from side to side, pushing hard against it.
And he pulls the blankets up over her shoulders, pats them in tight so she’s in a kind of cocoon, he hugs her into the cocoon, leans down further and kisses her on the forehead, it feels so good.
—Jesus, we’re reverting.
—Back to babies.
And he’s lying on her now, his face pressed into her neck, they’re breathing together, she slows her breath, he’s breathing so fast, then his breath slows too, they’re head to head, neck to neck like the horses in the paddock, the way they stand there, one with its hoof slightly tilted, resting up, the tan one and the other one that’s a darker brown almost black, the coarse black hair falling over their faces, the shift and shuffle.
—We could stay here forever.
—Indeed we could but I’m afraid I’ve got to get up for a pee.
—Oh god, we’re a couple of old wrecks, aren’t we. (And she’s laughing.)
He grunts as he pulls himself up off the bed, puts his hand in the small of his back and leans back, a couple of cautious presses, she crows like a baby, swinging her legs from side to side in the bed, it’s all so ridiculous.
—Love you too.
And he gives a little shimmy as he walks to the door, one hand on his hip, her lovely boy, the little boy in the competitions, in the sailor suit, the little boy with perfect pitch, the pure treble, he should have joined a choir, made something of his talent.
—You know something, you should join a choir.
—Too late now.
And he gives a little skip, hitches up the right leg of his pyjamas as if it’s a skirt, shows off his smooth white calf like a woman, like an old-time film star, Katherine Hepburn maybe or Ginger Rogers.
—Or a circus. You could train Poppy. She could jump through a flaming hoop.
—Yeah, right. Woof, woof.
She hears the toilet flush, hears him check the bolt in the front door, the curtains swish as he pulls them apart.
—Hey, there’s a fabulous moon out there. The sky’s full of stars.
She should get up and take a look, the way the Milky Way fills the whole sky in a wide stream like gauze, like a bride’s veil and the stars pinned there like brooches but she’s warm and cosy, she’s been tucked up, it’s time to go to sleep, hush little baby, don’t say a word, Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird and it all comes back, Inia Te Wiata wasn’t it, on the radio, and them all sitting round the table, the salad of sliced onion and apple in condensed milk mayonnaise, the slabs of corned beef, ‘The Golden Palomino’ and the song about Old Shep the sheepdog that had to be put down now Old Shep has a wonderful home and they all knew it was about heaven.
He’s shivering when he gets back into bed, she puts her warm feet on his icy ones, tries to warm him up.
—Did you like junket when you were a kid?
—Nope, I hated the stuff.
—I quite liked it.
—Fle-ur, nobody liked junket. It was shit, white and slimy …
—And I really liked semolina. You know with egg whites beaten up all fluffy and stirred in. It was a bit like cream.
—And the skin of the rice pudding. We used to fight over it.
—Now you’re talking. Rice pudding with butter and real milk.
—Yeah. Heart attack material.
—Hey, we’re happy aren’t we? (And she snuffles into his neck)
—Like pigs in straw.
—Yes, my darling, like pigs in straw.