It was not a sign. Kate refused to let it be a sign.
She hated driving anyway. As soon as she got home she was going to sell the car, but of course she had needed it to move all her stuff from London. The backseat was piled with boxes of books and holdalls stuffed with that miscellany of her possessions which it had seemed impossible to leave behind, so high she couldn’t even see out of her rearview mirror. She always expected when she was driving to die at any moment, and braked and changed lanes with desperate recklessness as if she were gambling, but actually what happened not long after the Brynglas tunnel coming out of Newport wasn’t her fault. No one was going very fast. She had meant to time her journey to miss the rush hour, but the minutes and hours of her morning, taken up with returning keys and dropping off graded exams at the university, had drifted off evasively as usual. Her life would never fit inside the lucid shapes she planned for it. So here she was in the middle lane in a queue coming out of Newport in dreary winter dusk and rain, shrunken among towering lorries whose wheels fumed with wet, gripping the steering wheel with both hands, longing to smoke but not daring to fumble a cigarette out of her pack on the dashboard. The cat in his basket, strapped into the passenger seat beside her, slunk round in circles with his fur flattened, expressing precisely the mingled unease and ennui that she felt.
Then in the dim light something fell from the sky; at first Kate thought it was a bundle of dirty washing wrapped in a sheet. Even as she took in the catastrophe, the thing bounced against the side of a big container lorry in the slow lane and turned out not to be a bundle that might fly harmlessly apart but a mass flung back by its own weight into the path of a red car ahead of Kate. Which must swerve; what else could it do? The gray formlessness bounced onto the red car’s bonnet and then clung blinding across its windscreen, carried forward as the car slewed into the path of the faster traffic in the outside lane; it threw out one long wing, dazzling white feathers ranged in rows of perfect symmetry, lit up by headlights. Then the mess was thrown free onto the road and swallowed up in the advancing chaos. The red car was hit side-on in the fast lane and went spinning into the center divider. Cars waltzed to a halt, finding whatever space was available. The actual moments of disaster were surprisingly reflective: Kate drove decorously and without fuss into the rear end of a white van; her little Citroën skidded around in a half circle and stopped at a right angle across the road. Something hit her then and shoved her forward another few yards. She wasn’t hurt; she didn’t think she was even jolted. How melodramatic, she thought. What a welcome home. Only the cat wailed an indignant protest.
It was an irony and not a sign.
Astonishingly, no one seemed to be hurt. The woman in the red car climbed out of the driver’s seat and walked around it, examining the damage. The others moved their vehicles onto the hard shoulder if they could and waited for the police: Kate’s Citroën was badly dented in two places but it started without difficulty. It was unbearable, though, to sit waiting inside it; Kate left Sim and joined in the improbable sober camaraderie sharing someone’s umbrella. It must have been a swan, everyone thought, brought down by power lines. No one could tell for sure if it was dead already when it hit the first lorry. Or was it only a goose? A swan, confirmed someone who thought they had seen its long neck outstretched. Kate looked where they pointed; the swan was indistinguishable now from the oily dark wet of the road except in its bulk, like a sodden mattress.
The woman from the red car—who had taken on a certain poetic importance, as if the bird had chosen her and she had escaped it—came and stood among them: a blonde in a white mac that was soon dark with rain. People asked if she was all right and she nodded angrily, staring into the distance as if she was holding back tears and wanted to be left alone. Someone lent her a mobile and she made a call. Then Kate recognized her as a woman she vaguely knew. She couldn’t remember her name; she was married to David Roberts, Carol’s younger brother. Carol was Kate’s best—or, at any rate, her oldest—friend. Kate had met this woman once or twice a few years ago at Carol’s and had thought her a nobody: conventional, a primary-school teacher. Now—probably it was the aftershock of the accident and the romance of all their survival distorting her judgment—she thought she could see what might be attractive in the rather rawboned face and big vulnerable mouth: fiercely shy, as though she might bite if you tried to be kind. You could find that farouche thing sexually interesting, at least for a time. She wasn’t the sort of woman who liked Kate, anyway; she would surely take offense at anything she considered intellectual talk. Kate pretended not to know her, thinking she’d probably prefer it. Certainly Kate would.
kate’s mother, billie, still lived in cardiff in the same house she had been born in. Kate was born there too; like Billie, in the big master bedroom nobody slept in anymore. Billie’s father, Sam Lebowicz, who had owned a chain of haberdashery shops in the Welsh valleys, bought the house when he married in 1910; his wife called it Firenze, because Italy was where they had their honeymoon. It overlooked a boating lake that was the culmination of a long narrow park running up out of the city proper; from the park across the lake you looked into a vista of misty blue and purple hills as if you were at the edge of civilization, although in fact you could walk round the lake in twenty minutes and the city these days stretched several miles beyond it. Firenze was a gloomy red-brick villa built on a rise beside the lake, with a precipitous front garden whose path wound up in zigzags through a gigantic rockery from the road; there was easier access from a side street. It had a round turret and a long enclosed first-floor veranda, in belated imitation of more lovely pre-Raphaelite fantasies in the city center. At the back of Firenze there had once been a broad lawn and shrubberies and beyond those a little wilderness where Kate had had her swing, but Billie had sold off most of this land in the seventies and eighties to developers, and the back windows now overlooked a block of flats and the end house of a small private development.
Kate had let her London flat and given up her job (or at least taken a year’s unpaid leave); she was coming home to look after her mother, who was eighty-three and growing forgetful. Anyway, she was bored with teaching in London; she was ready for a change; she didn’t want to grow old doing the same thing over and over. She drove in at the graveled side entrance, turned off the engine, and sat in the silence, letting the howl and roar of the crazy motorway drain away, thinking that at least she would never ever have to drive again. The dents in the Citroën didn’t matter; she would just give it away.
Expecting Billie to come hurrying down to welcome her, she waited in the car with the door open, smoking the cigarette she had been craving; an intimately known suburban peace sifted down on her through the dark. The falling rain was blotted up overhead by the tall monkey puzzle tree or pattered onto the evergreen bushes. Below, on the lake, an invisible duck blundered splashily. A cold perfume of pines and bitter garden mulch seemed to her like the smell of the past itself. She unfastened the door to Sim’s basket and let him come out to claw on her lap and make question marks against her face with his tail. He knew where he was; Kate had always brought him when she came home for weekends. She had only got the car in the first place because it was too complicated to take Sim on the train.
Billie didn’t come down. When she had finished her cigarette, Kate tucked the cat under her arm and climbed the steps to the front door, which jutted from the side of the house in a long porch with stained-glass windows where once they had grown houseplants. She didn’t need her key; the door was slightly open, although everything was dark inside. She went through into the hall and put on the light. The hall was wood-paneled and baronial, and the one weak lightbulb was screwed into a monstrous bronze fitting like an upside-down cauldron with sockets for four, suspended ever since Kate could remember by chains from the ceiling.
—Billie, Kate called, where are you? I’ve come home! I’m home to stay!
She kept Sim under her arm as she looked in all the dark rooms, though he meowed and struggled to go down, kicking his strong back legs. He was a pure black cat with a small hard head that seemed to stand for the particular density of his cat will.
—Mummy? Where are you?
Hanging on to Sim, she climbed up the wide paneled staircase that rose at the back of the hall and was always lit in patches of color by a streetlamp shining through the tall stained-glass window on the landing; girls balancing water jugs gracefully on their shoulders gossiped around an ancient shaduf. Billie had taken recently to sleeping in a different bedroom every night, although she never slept now in the big front one, and she swore that she didn’t sleep in Kate’s. Kate put on the landing light and found her in a little room at the back where they used to store the spare chairs that Billie put out downstairs when she gave one of her concerts. The bed was made up correctly with striped sheets and a pillowcase and blankets, but Billie lay on top under one of the ancient dirty silk eiderdowns they hadn’t used for years. She was sleeping absolutely tranquilly, not as if she had paused for an afternoon nap but as if it were bedtime; she was in her nightdress, even though it was only six o’clock in the evening, a glass of water and her pot of face cream on the bedside table. Yet Kate had telephoned at lunchtime before she left to remind Billie she was coming. She had expected tea when she arrived, or at least the gas fire and the television on.
She let Sim go and sat for a while with her mother in the dim light from the landing, feeling the cold rise up numbingly through her feet and legs, even though she was still wrapped in her thick black-and-white check winter coat. Billie slept like an angel. That was just what Kate thought she looked like, lying there: an old angel, with her pink skin so fine that the perfect shape of her skull showed through, her deep melancholy eye cavities, and the nose that leaped in its lean strong arc from her face (Kate had inherited the nose). Her snow-white hair was spread across the pillow, unbound from the neat French pleat she could still make in a few quick motions of her hands; perhaps she would remember how to do that when she had forgotten everything else. She always slept on her back, like nobody else Kate had ever known—like a child, her mouth had sunk open and she dribbled and snored lightly. She didn’t have much of a chin; angels might not.
Kate was overwhelmed with doubt, finding herself temporarily alone in her new life. She quite liked the idea of tying on an apron and putting everything to rights, making this a home again, cooking little nourishing dishes for her mother, tending new houseplants in the porch. But she couldn’t genuinely imagine it. She didn’t have much of a track record for domesticity. Closing Billie’s door behind her and treading quietly so as not to wake her, she went back down into the hall, picked up the phone, and dialed. It was the same old fat brown dial phone they had had in the 1970s, before Kate left home to go to university.
—Max? she said.
She really shouldn’t be phoning Max. Max had been desperate for four years with love for Kate; when he finally understood that he couldn’t possess with certainty even enough of her to preserve his dignity, he had saved himself and found a sweet girl instead to have babies with. All this change was new enough for the babies not to exist yet, except as an idea, and Kate hadn’t been good at learning to adapt.
—Katie, this really isn’t a good time, Max said.
His soft American voice that had sometimes made her sick—too compliant, too delighted—seemed to Kate at that moment to promise everything desirably metropolitan: good wine in big glasses, deep designer sofas, conversations about articles in the London Review of Books, expensive gadgets from the right shops.
—I’ve made a terrible mistake.
—I warned you. Where are you?
—I’m here, I’m home. She’s forgotten I was coming, she’s just gone to bed, she’s fast asleep, she’s lost all sense of day and night. Max, what will happen to me if I stay here? You know me; I have enough trouble myself, keeping night apart from day. And she’d left the front door wide open. I’m just going to turn round and head straight back. She’ll never even know I’ve been here, will she? She probably won’t even know I promised to come. Do you think they’ll give me my job back at the university?
—Aren’t the tenants moving into your flat tomorrow?
—I’ll call for the keys first thing in the morning. I’ll compensate them. I’ll make a scene. I’ll tell them Billie’s dead.
—Katie, you can’t do that.
She could tell from the way he measured his voice that Sherie was in the room with him or listening from the kitchen, where she would be cooking up some supper out of the River Café recipe book. Max wouldn’t ever pretend he wasn’t talking to Kate, but he would want to express at the same time to Sherie his regret, his reservation.
Kate banged the phone down, scornful that he had been so easily trammeled. Trammeled was a word, wasn’t it? It ought to be.
She hadn’t even told him about the swan.
She studied the hall. It was at least clean, as far as she could see in the weak light; that meant someone from Buckets and Mops was coming in three times a week as arranged. Perhaps the Buckets and Mops lady had made up all the beds, too, for Billie to sleep in. As yet the only sign of Kate’s arrival in the house, apart from Sim, was her handbag, which she had put down on the oak chest before she went upstairs: very soft dark brown leather, roomy, Italian, with a tortoiseshell clasp. She felt tenderness toward her sophisticated professional self, who had known how to choose such a fine unconventional bag, how to carry it off strikingly. That self surely couldn’t come back and live in this crazy place, this nowhere. Wales, for God’s sake!
At that moment Sim stalked out from the passage to the kitchen. She scooped him up and snatched the bag and shut the front door behind her and forced Sim back into his traveling basket; he spat his outrage and cursed her in cat language. Then she lit another cigarette, climbed into the driving seat, and smoked it.
But she could never really have driven all the way back to London. She couldn’t have faced the nightmare of traffic again. Also, there was nothing to go back to. Anyway, now she’d seen her sleeping, she couldn’t quite bear to think of Billie waking up alone, to an empty house.
david knew something was wrong as soon as he saw Suzie. He had noticed as he parked on the drive that her car was missing, but he’d only thought she must be running Hannah to ballet class or a sleepover or taking Joel swimming; he didn’t always remember the busy running order of the children’s arrangements. He was late; he had left a message on the phone to say he was staying on in the office to finish a paper for a Health Protection Conference the next day. Through the lit window as he came around the side of the house he could see his family in the kitchen eating pizza, and it did occur to him then that it was late for them to be having supper. They didn’t see him, in the dark outside. They lived in a raw new area at the growing tip of the city where it met the motorway that circled the periphery; beyond them there was only a golf course, and then the grounds of an old house, which were open to the public, and then fields. David paused before he opened the back door, enjoying being alone in the humming dark that was always nervous with the noise from the motorway: not a roar but a thin murmur of movement and speed that somehow sucked substance and permanence from everything it reached. David didn’t mind this; he even felt it as a kind of lightness.
—Where’ve you left the car? he asked, while he wiped his feet on the doormat.
Suzie was putting something in the microwave; she didn’t turn.
—Smashed up, said Hannah relishingly. She was standing up at the table to eat her pizza and had a piece of tomato on her chin. She liked crisis. Joel, who didn’t, sat absorbed in some game with his Beanie Babies.
—I was involved in an accident, said Suzie calmly, on my way home from the in-service day at the Gwent teachers’ center, but I’m all right. The car in front of me hit a lorry pulling out. No one was hurt, amazingly enough. But the car’s a write-off.
—Good God, said David, why didn’t you call me?
—I was OK. There was no need.
But he knew as she turned around that she wasn’t OK. Usually Suzie was sturdy and steady; she had a wholesome closed muzzle of a face that made him think of a fox, with its sandy coloring and the fine fair down that showed in a certain light. She was tall and lean and big-boned, her broad shoulders set defiantly against challenge; only now something was jangled loose in her as if she’d touched a live wire, and her hair had dried in a dark mat that clung to her head. It frightened him to see her blue eyes startled open.
—Actually, Suzie said, busy cutting up Joel’s pizza, I called Giulia.
Giulia was headmistress at Ladysmith School and Suzie’s friend.
—It was easier for her to come out from school and drive me home, once I’d given my statement to the police. Then she insisted on taking me for a checkup at the hospital. Jamie was picking the kids up anyway, because I’d thought I might be late. And I was fine, they said. Just a bit shaken up.
—I wish you’d called me.
She tried to smile at him. When she put Joel’s plate down on the table he saw that her hands were shaking.
—Never mind, she said, it doesn’t matter now.
David made her describe to him exactly where the accident took place; he wanted to understand why this lorry had pulled out so carelessly, so outrageously into the traffic. Suzie couldn’t remember things precisely. She said it had all happened very fast. He imagined the chaos, the rain, the scorch of horror that had brushed close.
—Where’s Jamie? he said angrily. Why isn’t he helping? Jamie was David’s seventeen-year-old son from his first marriage.
—Call him. Ask him if he wants pizza.
—You shouldn’t be standing here doing all this. Why don’t you go and lie down? I’ll take over. I’ll bring you a cup of tea or a drink.
—I’d rather be busy, really.
Jamie was in his bedroom in the attic space. He lay on his back on the bed, smoking, and didn’t even turn his head as David lifted the trapdoor and climbed through; the room was thick with the rank smell of dope. A familiar sensation of impotence seized David; he didn’t know how to talk to this boy, or how to know what his thoughts were, or how to forbid what ought to be forbidden him. Jamie didn’t rage or fight, he simply ignored whatever they told him: don’t pull the ladder up into the attic after you, don’t smoke, don’t smoke in the house, don’t stay out at night without letting us know where you are. When they tried to be outraged he smiled as though he was embarrassed for them. David opened the skylight to let out the smell.
—Suzie asks, Do you want pizza?
—Is she OK now? Jamie said. I’m sorry about the swan.
—Hasn’t she told you? The one that came down on her car.
—On her car? What are you talking about?
He thought the boy might be befuddled with marijuana.
Jamie sat up on his elbow. He was wearing some sort of torn sleeveless vest; he shook back the thick copper-brown hair that he chopped off with scissors himself at shoulder length. Something in the wide face, with its faint adolescent rash over the thickening cheekbones, distinctive thick creases under the eyes, and black brows like quick pencil strokes, stirred and pained David, who was not used to thinking of men as beautiful; the boy was like his mother, David’s first wife (which was not reassuring). Jamie’s big brown feet at the end of the bed were bare and huge, with dirty soles and coarse sinewy knobbled toes; they had transformed out of soft child feet in some instant while David wasn’t looking.
—A swan came down and hit her car, made her swerve into the fast lane.
—She didn’t tell me it was a swan. Perhaps she didn’t want to upset the children.
—It must have hit power lines. Then it bounced against the side of a lorry and onto her bonnet.
The picture was vivid to David for a moment: melodramatic, not Suzie’s kind of thing at all.
—Knowing what Hannah’s like, he said, she’d be more upset about a swan than if people had been hurt.
—They rang home from the hospital. Giulia was with her.
David was flooded with irritation again. Sometimes recently when he and Suzie disagreed—over whether they should consider sending Hannah to Howells, the private girls’ school, for instance—Suzie quoted Giulia’s opinions, Giulia’s wisdom at him; she didn’t know she was doing it or that he minded. Giulia was against private education; she involved herself headlong in all the ragbag of social problems the pupils at her school presented; she paid out of her own pocket the taxi fare for a family of Roma children who traveled to the school every day from across the city. David liked Giulia but he thought she acted impulsively, with a dangerous idealism. Sometimes when he came home he found the house empty and all of them over at Giulia’s. Or Giulia and Suzie would be sitting drinking wine at his kitchen table, talking animatedly and rashly, the way women did, so that he felt shut out from their fun.
Copyright © 2007 by Tessa Hadley. All rights reserved.