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18 March 2015
London is the most light-polluted city in Britain, but even here in the northern suburbs, you can still see the stars at four o’clock in the morning. The lights are off in our attic study, and I don’t need Kit’s telescope to see Venus; a crescent moon wears the pale blue planet like an earring.
The city is at my back; the view from here is over suburban rooftops and dominated by Alexandra Palace. By day it’s a Victorian monstrosity of cast iron, brick and glass, but in the small hours it’s a spike in the sky, its radio mast tipped with a glowing red dot. A night bus of the same color sweeps through the otherwise empty park road. This part of London has a truer 24-hour culture than the West End. No sooner does the last Turkish kebab shop shut than the Polish bakery takes its first delivery. I didn’t choose to live here, but I love it now. There is anonymity in bustle.
Two airplanes blink across each other’s paths. One floor below me, Kit is deep in sleep. He’s the one going away, yet I’m wide awake with pre-trip nerves. It is a long time since I slept through the night but my wakefulness now has nothing to do with the babies in my belly who tapdance on my bladder and kick me awake. Kit once described real life as the boring bit between eclipses but I think of it as the safe time. Beth has crossed the world to find us twice. We are only visible when we travel. A couple of years ago, I hired a private detective and challenged him to find us using only the paper trail of our previous lives. He couldn’t trace us. And if he couldn’t do it, then no one else can. Certainly not Beth, and not even a man of Jamie’s resources. It has been fourteen years since one of his letters found me.
This total eclipse will be the first Kit has seen without me since he was a teenager. Even the eclipses he had to miss, he missed with me, because of me. It’s not a good idea to travel in my condition, and I’m so grateful to be in this condition that I don’t begrudge missing the experience, although I am terrified for Kit. Beth knows me. She knows us. She knows that to hurt him is to destroy me.
I watch the moon set in its slow arc. Following its course is a deliberate act of mindfulness, the living-in-the-moment therapy that is supposed to stop my panic attacks before they can take hold. The telltale early symptom is there; a subtle standing-to-attention of all the tiny hairs on my skin, a feeling that someone’s trailing a gossamer scarf over my forearms. They call it somatising, a physical manifestation of psychological damage. Mindfulness is supposed to help me separate the soma from the psyche. I play join-the-dots with the constellations. There is Orion, one of the few constellations everyone can identify, and, flung a little to the north, the Seven Sisters that give the nearby neighborhood its name.
I rock back and forth from the heels to the balls of my feet, concentrating on the carpet fibers under my bare toes. I can’t let Kit see me anxious. In the short term, it would ruin his trip, and after that, he would suggest more psychotherapy, and I’ve taken that as far as I can. There’s only so far you can get when you’re holding on to a secret like mine. The psychotherapists always say that the sessions are confidential, like their Ikea couch is a sacred confessional. But my confession is a broken law, and I can’t trust anyone with it. There is no statute of limitations for what I did in this country, and none in my heart.
When my breathing evens out, I turn away from the window. There is just enough light to see Kit’s map. Not the original of course, that was destroyed, but a painstaking recreation of it. It’s a huge relief map of the world, crisscrossed with curves of red and golden thread, measured to the nearest millimeter, glued down with characteristic precision. The gold arcs mark the eclipses he has already seen; the red those we can expect to see in our lifetimes. Part of the ritual is coming home after a trip to replace red threads with gold. (Being Kit, he has calculated his life expectancy using family history, lifestyle and longevity trends, and allowed for infirmity curtailing travel when he’s ninety. So we should see our last eclipse in 2066.)
Years ago, Beth trailed her fingers over the first map and that’s when I told her about our plans.
I wonder where on the planet she is now. Sometimes I wonder if she’s even still alive. I have never wished her dead—for all that she put us through, she was a victim too—but I have often wished that she could be … deleted, I suppose, is the right word. There’s no way of finding out. Try to look up “Elizabeth Taylor” and see how far you get without the actor or the novelist making a nonsense of your search. Using the diminutive “Beth” does little to narrow it down. She seems to have vanished as effectively as we have.
I haven’t looked Jamie up for years. It’s too uncomfortable, after my part in it all. His public relations crusade paid off and these days when you search his name the crime comes up but only in his preferred context. The first few hits are about his campaigning work, the support he gives to wrongly accused men and rightly accused men too, calling for anonymity up to the point of conviction. I can never get beyond the first few lines before I start to feel sick. I still need to keep myself informed, so I got around the problem by setting up a Google alert that links his name to the only word that matters. There’s no point combining his name with Beth’s in a search; her lifelong anonymity is guaranteed. That’s the law whatever the outcome of this kind of trial. I suppose she was lucky—we all were, in a way—that the case pre-dated social media and the keyboard vigilantes whose blood sport is identification.
Light on the landing tells me Kit’s awake. I take a deep breath in and a longer breath out and I am calm. I have beaten this attack. I roll up the sleeves of the sweater I’m wearing. It’s Kit’s, and it doesn’t do me any favors, but it fits and I seem to have been at the stage where I dress for comfort for years now. Even before I conceived, the steroids gave me hips and breasts for the first time in my life, and I still haven’t worked out how to dress around curves.
I pad down the stairs, edging past the flat-packed cots on the landing. When Kit comes home we’ll have to convert Juno and Piper’s room at the back of the house into a nursery. Superstition, a reluctance to do anything until he has survived this trip, has held me back.
I find him sitting up in bed, already checking his phone for the weather report, his pale copper hair at mad angles. The words don’t go try to punch their way out of my mouth. Knowing he would stay if I asked him to is all the reason I need to let him leave.
18 March 2015
I lie awake for a few seconds, listening to Laura’s footsteps overhead, and savoring the Christmas-morning feeling. The thrill never lessens when the abstract numbers on the calendar finally take shape into days. I have known for years that on 20th March 2015, the moon will block the sun from view, making a black disc in the sky. Total eclipses of the sun have been dots on the timeline of my life since I first stood beneath the moon’s shadow. Chile 1991 was the eclipse of the last century; seven minutes and twenty-one seconds of pure totality. I was twelve years old and I knew that I would devote the rest of my life to recapturing the experience. Nothing compares to witnessing a total solar eclipse under a cloudless sky. Until I met Laura, it was the closest I came to understanding religion.
The sheets on her side of the bed are cold. When she comes in, her belly entering the room a beat before she does, her cheeks are sunken from tiredness. Her hair is tied up, the roots showing, a millimeter of brown that looks black against the platinum lengths. She’s wearing one of my old sweaters, pushed up to the elbows. She has never looked lovelier. I had worried, when we first started trying for a baby, whether I’d miss that ectomorph gawkiness I always loved, but there’s a new pride at seeing Laura’s body change because there’s something of me in there.
“Get back into bed,” I say. “It’s not good for you to be leaping around.”
“Ah, I’m awake now. I’ll go back to bed when you’ve gone.”
In the shower I run through today’s itinerary one last time, the finer details in my grand plan. I’ll catch the 05:26 from Turnpike Lane Tube, then the 06:30 from King’s Cross to Newcastle, where I will meet Richard at 09:42. From there a chartered minibus will take us to Newcastle docks and at a pleasingly round 11:00 we will board the Princess Celeste, a 600-berth cruise ship that will take us across the North Sea, past Scotland and halfway to Iceland, where the Faroe Islands lie. Most of Friday’s eclipse will be over water, but even a calm sea is never still and the best photography is done on land. I had to choose between the Faroes or Svalbard, north of the Arctic Circle. (It was Laura who wanted me to go to the Faroes. The biggest crowds will be in Tórshavn, on Stremoy, the largest island, and she believes in safety in numbers.) In two days’ time, at 8:29 a.m., the moon will start to creep across the surface of the sun and slowly build to two and a half minutes of total eclipse.
I towel-dry the beard Laura insisted I grow for the trip, then dress carefully in the clothes I laid out the night before. My work clothes—not a uniform, but they might as well be—hang neatly in the wardrobe, tugging at my conscience. Delighted as I am at the prospect of five days away from the optical lab, I can’t help but feel guilty at taking annual leave to travel when I could have tacked it on to my paternity leave. Then I think about the chemicals I’ve been breathing in for so long that they line my lungs, and the stiff neck that’s been craned over lenses all year finally hinging upward to look at the sky, and I think sod it. I’ve got the rest of my life to play the provident father. What’s five days, in the wider scheme of things?
I put on a long-sleeved thermal vest, and then over that my lucky T-shirt, a souvenir from my first eclipse. It says Chile ’91 on it—countries always claim the eclipse as their own, even when the shadow falls over three continents—and is in the colors of the Chilean flag. A crude black circle in its center represents the covered sun, surrounded by the flares of a corona. When my dad bought it from a roadside hawker it was virtually a dress on me. Mac refused to wear his but I wouldn’t take mine off even to wash it. It fits me now but it won’t in a few years unless I follow Mac’s lead to the gym. There’s a burn on the collar where Mac flicked a lit joint at me during an argument in Aruba, in 1998. On top of these layers goes the magnificent finishing touch, a work of art in chunky black and white wool. Richard and I bought matching Faroese jumpers online months ago. We’re stamping down hard into our carbon footprints by taking them home to the country where the sheep grazed and where the wool was spun and knitted.
I check my phone again, in case weather conditions have changed in the last ten minutes, but the forecasts remain gloomy. There’s a thick blanket of cloud across the whole archipelago. “Eclipse chasing” sounds like a misnomer, and I’ve learned to defend the term over the years. How can you chase a phenomenon when you’re the one moving, and the phenomenon is standing still? First of all, there’s nothing still about an eclipse; the darkness comes at more than a thousand miles an hour. Well, it’s true that there’s no changing the coordinates. The shadow will fall where the shadow will fall, in a pattern that was established when we were still primordial soup. But clouds are not nearly so predictable. An unanticipated cumulus can disappoint a crowd of thousands who only moments before were standing confidently in sunshine. The thrill is in outwitting the weather. My fondest memory of my father is from Brazil ’94, Mac and me riding loose in the back of Dad’s VW, speeding along a pot-holed highway until we found a patch of blue sky. (He was, in retrospect, drunk behind the wheel; I try not to dwell on that.)
These days, naturally, there are apps. Breaks in the cloud can be pinpointed with much greater precision, and it’s not unusual for entire coach parties not to know their viewing destination until five minutes before first contact. I turn my phone face down. I will go mad if I think too hard about the weather. Fortunately I’ve always been good at shutting out thoughts that would distract or upset me. In the moments when I allow myself to think about the past, which is not often—it only gets shoved to the forefront of my consciousness when there’s an eclipse on the horizon, and Laura’s triggers go off—in those rare moments, it seems that life since the Lizard has been lived as though under a malfunctioning neon light. A subtle but constant vibrating strobe that you learn to live with, even though you know that one day it will trigger some kind of seizure or aneurysm.
The smell of fresh coffee wafts up the stairs. Laura’s in the kitchen, five steps down and at the rear of the house. Our scrubby little back garden is in darkness. She has filled a mug for me and she’s wrapping a sandwich in foil. I kiss her behind her right ear and inhale the buttery scent of her. “Finally, the subservient housewife I’ve always wanted. I should leave you on your own more often.” I feel the skin on her neck tighten as she smiles.
“It’s the hormones,” she says. “Don’t get used to it.”
“Promise me you’ll go back to bed once I’ve gone,” I say.
“Promise,” she says, but I know Laura. I had hoped that pregnancy might slow her down but if anything the steroids have sped her up, so she’ll power through the day until collapsing in a heap somewhere around 9 p.m. She sweeps the worktop clean with a sponge and puts the empty coffee pods in the bin. With her back to me, she performs a tiny act, meaningless to anyone but me, that twists at my guts. She swipes at her bare forearms, twice, as if brushing imaginary cobwebs from her skin. It is months, if not years, since I have seen her do this and it always means she’s thinking about Beth. I wish for the millionth time that she had my discipline when it comes to the past, or rather the way the past might impact our future. Why waste energy anticipating something that could never happen? She gets like this with every eclipse, even though it’s been nine years since Beth’s last known movements. She turns around with a too-wide smile, literally putting on her brave face for me. She doesn’t know I saw her brush at her arms. She might not even know she did it.
“What’ve you got planned for today?” I ask her, to gauge her mood as much as anything.
“Calling a client first thing,” she says. “And then this afternoon I thought I’d tackle my VAT. You got anything planned?”
I take heart from her joke. When she’s about to crash, her sense of humor is the first thing to go.
My rucksack has been packed for three days now. Half the considerable weight is camera equipment, lenses, chargers and my tripod, batteries and waterproofs, and then spares of everything. The camera is in its own bag, too precious to leave unattended in a luggage rack. My phone goes into the breast pocket of my orange windcheater.
“Very chic,” says Laura dryly. “Have you got everything you need?” I put the sandwich in my other pocket, check my Oyster card is easily accessible and then hoist on the rucksack. I nearly fall backward under its weight.
Without warning, Laura’s smile drops and she brushes her forearms, twice in succession. This time we make eye contact and denial is as pointless as explanation. Reassurance is all I can give.
“I’ve checked the passenger records,” I say. “There’s no Beth Taylor on the list. No Taylors. No Elizabeth anything. No B or E anything, female.”
“You know that’s completely meaningless.”
Indeed I do. Laura thinks that Beth has changed her name. I disagree; it’s a reflection of Laura’s paranoia. With a name like that, you can hide in plain sight. That was, after all, the inspiration behind our own rebranding. Why hide a needle in a haystack when you can hide a strand of hay? “And even if it’s true,” presses Laura, “all that means is she’s not on your ship. What if she’s on the ground?”
I speak deliberately slowly. “If she is there, she’ll be looking for a festival. Somewhere there’s a sound system and a load of bongos, that’s where she’ll expect to find us. I’m going to be traveling with a load of retired Americans. And even if she doesn’t, Tórshavn’s a big place that’ll be crawling with tourists, eleven thousand people.” I smooth down my beard. “There’s my cunning disguise. I’ll be on the lookout. I’ll be walking around with a periscope, checking all the corners before I go anywhere.” I mime peeping through my fingers; she doesn’t laugh. “Mac’s round the corner, Ling’s two streets away, my mum’s an hour away, your dad’s on the phone whenever you need him.”
“I can’t help it, Kit.” I can see she hates herself for crying by the way she bites down hard on her lip. I draw her against me and with my other arm, I shake her hair from its messy topknot and comb it with my fingers, the way she likes me to. A tear rolls off the waterproof surface of my jacket. I take a deep breath and say the only thing she needs to hear.
“If you want me to stay, I’ll stay.”
She pulls out of the hug and, for a horrible moment, I think this is to let me take my rucksack off. But instead she gets my camera bag and hangs the strap around my neck, solemnly, like she’s awarding an Olympic medal. This is how she gives me her blessing and I can see what it takes.
“Look after yourself,” she says.
“You look after yourself. Yourselves,” I correct, and without thinking of the consequences, I kneel down to kiss her belly. My thighs scream with the effort of standing upright again.
“It could be worse,” I say. “I could be going to Svalbard. Someone got mauled by a polar bear in Svalbard just last week.”
“Heh,” she says, but her heart’s not in it. To her, Beth Taylor is scarier than any flesh-eating bear. I know what she’s thinking; the first time Beth lashed out in retribution, she told us herself that she only stopped because they caught her. She actually admitted it would have been far worse if she’d attacked the person, rather than the property.
Outside, dawn has yet to break and the street glows orange in patches. There are two stone steps from our front door to street level. From the pavement, I turn to look up at Laura, who’s rolled her sleeves down over her wrists, her hands cupping her bump. I have what Mac would call a moment of clarity. I’m about to leave my pregnant, over-medicated, anxious wife to travel across the seas to another country where there is every chance the woman who nearly destroyed us will be waiting for me.
“I’m not going,” I say, and I’m not calling her bluff. Laura frowns back.
“You bloody well are,” she says. “Over a grand this trip’s cost. Go on.” She shoos me off down the street. “Have the time of your life. Take some pictures. Come back with beautiful stories for our babies.”
I take a last look down at my feet; the pavements here are treacherous enough without throwing an undone bootlace into the mix. “The chances of her finding me are tiny,” I say, but Laura has already closed the door, and I realize that I was talking to myself anyway.
* * *
It’s a five-minute walk from our house on Wilbraham Road to Turnpike Lane Station, less if you cut through Harringay Passage, a useful if rather Dickensian passageway that halves our grid of streets. I cross Ducketts Common, looping around the swings and slides where our friends’ children play. Broken glass crunches under my feet.
Sweat is pouring off me already, cooling in my beard. For all the salt on my lips, it’s the lie that sits bitter on my tongue. There’s no way I could possibly have checked the passenger lists. That sort of thing is basic data protection. I can’t believe Laura didn’t pick up on it. When her anxiety’s active, she gets super-powers of perception. Paranoia alerts her to even the tiniest shift in my body language and she picks up the slightest dilution of the truth.
I only ever keep things from her that I know will upset her.
Turnpike Lane Tube Station is still closed when I get there, its art deco splendor undermined by crappy shop hoardings and peeling billboards. At precisely 5:20 a.m. the iron lattice gates are pulled wide by a TfL worker in a royal blue fleece. The only other passenger is a tired-looking black woman in a tabard, probably off to clean some office in the city.
I glide down the escalator, lost in thought. It seems unlikely that Beth will be on my ship, but not impossible that she will be somewhere on the Faroes. I’m glad to be traveling alone, and that I don’t have to think about Laura’s safety. I have been protecting my wife against the fall-out of what happened on Lizard Point for so long. I will do anything to keep it that way.
10 August 1999
The National Express coach was stationary on the A303 outside Stonehenge. It seemed like half the world was traveling into the West Country for the eclipse. The sky was the same gray as the standing stones, the ancient clock on the soft green hill. If I had to be stuck in traffic, this seemed like an appropriate place; people don’t realize that Stonehenge was once used to predict eclipses as well as mark midsummer. But after over an hour staring at the sacred site, even I was struggling to remain awestruck.
Every time the weather report came on to the coach driver’s radio, a rake-thin man with a straggly druidic beard sitting near the front would stand up, clap his hands and give us the update. The chances were we would be clouded out. My fellow travelers to the festival in Cornwall mostly whooped and cheered anyway, in a younger, cooler version of the famous British stoicism that had seen our grandparents through the Blitz and our parents through caravanning holidays. For them, it seemed, the eclipse was just an excuse for a festival; a bonus if they witnessed it, but if they didn’t there would still be the music. Kit cared deeply about the eclipse, and I knew there would be a corresponding gloom in his mood.
He, along with Mac and Ling, had already been on the festival site for two days, setting up the tea stall that would hopefully turn a small profit. I hadn’t eaten since my breakfast meeting with the man from the recruitment agency, and I’d changed in the toilets at Victoria Coach Station. The clothes I’d worn for my job interview were stashed in my rucksack. I kicked my army boots, pressing them down as though onto an accelerator, and wondered if I’d get to Lizard Point before nightfall.
Eventually the coach squeezed through the bottleneck, which was caused not by roadworks but drivers rubbernecking at the debris of a pile-up. Soon Wiltshire gave way to the chalk horses of Dorset. By lunchtime we were in Somerset. The chemical toilet got blocked somewhere in Devon. When we entered Cornwall, a genuine cheer went up. The chimneys of disused tin mines seemed to sprout from the hills almost as soon as we crossed the border, and here and there the county standard, the distinctive black flag with its white cross, fluttered proudly. I felt the press of the sea on either side as England petered into a peninsula and the familiar weight building inside me to know that on the southernmost point of the county, Kit was waiting for me.
* * *
We had been together six months at that stage. That time was less a honeymoon period and more a fugue state. It should have derailed our university finals, but Kit reaped the rewards of a lifetime of study and a photographic memory, and I fluked it with a question about the one text I’d studied and a ready supply of amphetamine sulfate. Kit insists it was love at first sight; I think it took about twelve hours. We agree to differ.
Ling and I were in our third year at King’s College London when she started going out with a media studies student called Mac McCall (even his mum didn’t call him by his real name, Jonathan). I liked Mac, up to a point—he was good looking in a russety sort of way, funny and exciting and generous with his drugs, but he had a way of taking over whatever space he was in, and I resented him slightly for crashing into my friendship with Ling. I was in no hurry to meet his twin brother, who was studying theoretical astrophysics at Oxford. Chalk and cheese, I thought, and I was right. Mac is your classic extrovert—he draws his energy from people, from crowds—while Kit is a textbook introvert. Conversation drains him; ideas recharge him.
Eclipses brought us together, in a way. As a very young woman I chased any experience that purported to be authentic or alternative to the mainstream culture I used to sneer at. I only liked grimy clubs and right-on bands no one had heard of, and I went out with a lot of boys who looked like Jesus. I thought that standing in a field watching a star disappear would be the ultimate climax to the ultimate rave, a special effect beyond the imagination and budget of any club promoter. When Ling said that she and Mac had found a way to see the upcoming total eclipse in Cornwall and get paid for it, I was in.
Mac lived in Kennington, in an ex-council flat with low ceilings and walls covered in swirling fluorescent fractal posters. I walked in across a forest floor of torn-up Rizla packets. The bulb in the living room had blown, and the place was lit by candles in jam jars. Kit, down from Oxford for the weekend, was a coiled figure in a shadowy corner, his face hidden behind a floppy strawberry-blond fringe, a woolly black jumper pulled down over his wrists. He seemed paler than Mac, in all ways.
“Dearly beloved,” began Mac, his hands busy with a lump of hash and a lighter (he could talk and roll a joint the way most of us can talk and blink). “We are gathered here today to find a way we can go to a festival without actually having to pay for it. The best mark-up I can find is on hot drinks, teas and coffees, and if we work in shifts, we should turn a tidy profit.” Mac was surprisingly entrepreneurial for a self-professed anarchist. He wore Amnesty T-shirts and preached peace and love but only to those who mirrored his own values. He made a peace sign by way of a greeting, but thought nothing of keeping his neighbors awake all night with deafening techno.
“Right,” he said, sparking the joint. The lighter’s flare showed me Kit’s angles for a second: brows straight as rulers, an arrowhead nose above a set mouth. “There are about ten festivals in the West Country that week. They’re all still in the planning stages, but I’ve got as much information together as I can, to help us decide which one fits best with our ethos.”
I tried to catch Ling’s eye to share a smile at Mac’s pomposity but she was gazing in rapt adoration. I felt the usual sting of exclusion.
“The big eclipse festival is in Turkey, but that’s way beyond our budget,” said Mac. “Plus, how often does this come around on home turf?”
“Less than once in a lifetime,” Kit piped up from his corner. His voice was Home Counties, educated: Mac’s without the mockney drawl. “A total eclipse needs really precise alignment. It’s hard to average, but the last one here was in 1927 and the next one won’t be until 2090. And we didn’t have a single total eclipse between 1724 and 1925.”
“All right, Rain Man,” said Mac, going back to his list. He discounted three festivals where the music was “too mainstream,” and another where the sponsor was “too corporate.” Ling, who had the predicted visitor numbers, ruled out a tiny gathering that wouldn’t be worth our while. We were left with one festival in North Devon, and another on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. “It’s too close to call,” said Ling.
“Bro?” said Mac. Kit got to his feet without using his hands. He’s taller than me, I thought. Measuring men against my own five-nine frame was often the first sign I had that I was attracted to someone. From a leaning plywood bookcase with half the shelves missing, he produced a sheaf of computer printouts.
“The thing about Cornwall, all of the West Country really, is that there are a handful of micro-climates. The weather conditions really can vary mile by mile. So I’ve correlated average sunlight and rainfall with all the festivals and plotted this against the path of totality. By my reckoning, this location gives us our best chance of seeing the sun.” He unfolded a battered Ordnance Survey map of Cornwall, and pointed at the Lizard peninsula.
“The Lizard Point Festival it is,” said Mac, and Kit’s smile went from tentative to broad. “I think this calls for a celebration.”
The celebration consisted of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, passed around while Mac played DJ and Kit shuffled his papers. I was used to Mac and Ling’s public displays of affection, and I assumed that Kit would be too, but when they started snogging on the sofa, he was clearly mortified, blushing scarlet and eyes looking anywhere but in my direction. After a while he disappeared into the kitchen. I cleared my throat loudly.
“Sorry,” said Mac, smoothing down his T-shirt. “We’ll go next door.”
“How am I supposed to get home?” It was a long, dark walk back to our little flat in Stockwell and the last bus had gone. I hadn’t drunk so much that I was willing to risk the walk, and back then it wouldn’t have occurred to me to get a cab.
“Kit’ll walk you,” Ling said, getting unsteadily to her feet. Her bra was already unhooked. She winked at me over her shoulder. “Don’t shag him, though. It’ll make things really awkward in Cornwall.”
If I hadn’t already been entertaining the idea, I’d have decided to shag Kit just to spite her.
“Oh,” he said on returning to find me there alone, then retreated to his corner where he sat cross-legged, drumming his fingers in perfect time to the music.
“That’s really clever, what you did with those charts,” I said eventually, to break the silence.
“It’s just maths.” He shrugged, but his fingers stilled.
“I really struggled with maths,” I said. “In secondary school, I had this geometry teacher who was drawing shapes on the board, and she paused and clutched her bosom and said, ‘Of course the most beautiful shape of all is the circle,’ and I felt locked out of the secret of it. Of the story of it.”
Kit tilted his head to one side, as if he could read me better on the oblique. “That’s better than what most people say,” he said. “There’s a kind of pride in being crap at maths, an inverse snobbery about it, such a lack of respect. I don’t know if it’s a defense mechanism or what, but it drives me crazy. They don’t realize how beautiful maths is. Like, listen to this tune.” I tried to give the music my full attention, but it was difficult with the bed next door squeaking on the offbeats.
“They’ve been together, what, six months now,” Kit said, his eyes traveling toward the wall where the sounds were coming from. “He’d better not cock this one up like he usually does.”
My head suddenly cleared. “Hang on, what?” Ling and I were used to going into battle for each other. “Is he doing the dirty on her?”
“God, no!” said Kit, back-pedaling clumsily. If Mac had the gift of charm, poor Kit had barely grasped the tenets of tact. “It’s just. He hasn’t got the best track record. You know. With. Girls. Women. But I’m sure this is fine. Ling.” He put the bottle to his lips and tilted, clearly dismayed to find it empty.
“I can see who stole all the moral fiber in the womb,” I said, to put him at his ease.
“Hardly. Mac’s the one who goes on all the marches and stuff.”
“That’s what he wants the world to see. Don’t you think it’s more important how you treat the person next to you?” I asked.
In Kit’s answering smile, I saw a quiet integrity, so different to the boys who’d come before him, their politics printed on their T-shirts, and just as changeable.
“Well, I…” Whatever he was going to say next was interrupted by a low growl from the room next door that could have come from either one of them.
“Anyway,” I said, desperate to cover the noise, “you were going to tell me what this tune had to do with maths.”
Kit took the cue to turn up the music. A sitar riff danced around a thumping bass. His brow was furrowed in concentration. “Leibniz said, Music is the mind counting without being conscious it’s counting. An eclipse is maths; it’s the most beautiful maths there is.” Lost for words in the face of such intensity, I made what I hoped was an encouraging face. “The moon, right, it’s one-four-hundredth the diameter of the sun, but it’s four hundred times closer to earth, so it looks like they’re the same size.”
I got the feeling I was going to need some kind of animated diagram if this was to make sense, but it seemed important not to look ignorant in front of him. “How many eclipses have you seen?” I said, to bring the conversation, if not down to earth, closer to my orbit, and he was off. He told me about driving around the Americas with his dad, about the time in India where they watched the sun vanish with his dad, his brother “and a load of really confused goats” edging their way along the wall of a ruined temple. He told me about Aruba, where they’d stood on sand so hot it melted plastic and seen Venus and Jupiter, “clear and round as pins in a corkboard.” How the planets and stars always came out and stopped hiding, like they didn’t want to miss it. “When you see it, when you stand underneath it, it isn’t science. All that falls away.” The color rose in his cheeks as he got technical again, talking me through the stages of an eclipse, describing the flaming ring of fire called the corona appearing around the sun, how the 1919 eclipse provided evidence for Einstein’s theory of relativity by showing that the sun’s mass bent light from distant stars. Partly I was listening to what he said and interested, but also partly I was watching him talk; the way his face changed completely when he was animated, the way his eyes skittered about in shyness as well as recall. I tried to imagine Mac talking for this long about any subject other than himself, and the thought made me smile. “Ah, I’m boring you,” he said.
“You’re really not.”
“Mac says I go on too much. What about you? You’re on Ling’s course, aren’t you? What are you going to do after graduation?”
I told him about my grand plan, to work in the City for a few years until I had the CV to defect to the charity sector. I’d seen too many of my dad’s bumbling, earnest friends shaking collection tins, spending all day chasing a handful of coppers.
“There’s only one way of making a difference to people’s lives, and that’s with money. And if you want money, you’ve got to go where there’s loads of it.”
“Like Robin Hood, but with spreadsheets and hedge-fund managers?”
“That’s a very good way of putting it.”
As the candles burned to stubs, we exchanged potted biographies, the way you do when you’re young and all you’ve got to offer beyond record collections and your degree course are the people you grew up with. There was a sense, that night with Kit, that this information was important; here’s what you’re getting into, we were saying. Still want to go for it?
I learned that Kit’s parents, Adele and Lachlan, lived in Bedfordshire, in the third house in as many years, downsizing first when Lachlan had lost his job, and again when he’d drunk away their remaining equity. Adele was teaching textiles at a sixth-form college while she waited for her husband to die. Lachlan McCall, Kit said, had been what they call a functioning alcoholic, then a jobless one, until one day, a couple of years earlier, his liver had finally given out. They wouldn’t put him on the transplant list until he stopped drinking. And he was still on the bottle.
“Mac’s never said anything,” I said.
“Well, he wouldn’t, would he? You’ve seen the way he is. I mean, I like a drink now and then, but he’s on another level. I don’t even think losing Dad will stop him.”
His lip quivered once. When I offered up the loss of my mum, Kit simply said, “Oh, Laura, I’m so sorry. That’s no age for grief.”
The floor between us suddenly contained two graves, one full and overgrown, one empty and waiting. I became aware of the background music and for a long time neither of us said anything. When the CD whirred to its end, Kit gulped a couple of times, as if he was working up to a big speech, before mumbling into his jumper, “I like your hair.”
(I like your hair, or some variation on those words, was the first thing most people said to me back then. It had been waist-length mousy-brown string when I arrived at university; desperate to reinvent myself, I’d bleached it in my halls-of-residence bathroom on my first night away from home, turning it into a skein of bright white silk. I’ve worn it that way ever since, doing the roots every three weeks. It makes me sound incredibly high-maintenance, but I don’t wear much make-up and I don’t follow fashion. When you only have one vanity, I think you’re allowed to indulge it.)
Kit reached over to pick up a strand; it looked luminous in the candlelight. “I could never lose you in a crowd, even in the dark,” he said. When he put his hand to my cheek, I could feel his heartbeat in his palm.
We had fumbled, disappointing sex by the dim light and feeble heat of a two-bar electric fire. It was nerves that ruined it; nerves and the unspoken mutual knowledge of how much it already mattered. But January nights are long, and by the morning, apprehension had worn off and something new had taken over. I felt swept clean by Kit, rewritten, unable to think I had been with anyone else. We never had that conversation. I joined the dots between his anecdotes and worked out that before me, his love life had been a series of false starts. And if he was doing the same with me—extrapolating the data, as he would have said, from my own carefully pared stories—well then, he must have known that nothing else had come close to what we had. From his own stories, I soon understood that no one outside his family had ever noticed Kit much unless it was for passing an exam, and felt sorry for everyone who’d overlooked him or hadn’t tried to get beyond his clumsy exterior. They were missing out on a whole world. That he let me in was an honor, and a point of pride; I took the responsibility I felt for his heart seriously and vowed every night to live up to his image of perfection.
Only a very young woman would think this way.
The longed-for I love you came in different words, spoken in Kit’s bed in Oxford, in the middle of the night.
“Laura.” My own name broke urgently into my sleep. “Laura.”
“What’s happened? What’s wrong?” I tried to search his face in a shaft of weak light from the landing, but caught only an unreadable silhouette. His fingers threaded themselves through mine, as if to prevent escape.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t sleep. I need to know.” He sounded on the edge of tears as he took my hot hands in his cold ones. “This. Us. Is it the same for you as it is for me? Because if it isn’t…” He was shaking. I finished the sentence for him in my head. Because if it isn’t, I don’t think I can handle it. Because if it isn’t, end it now. I wanted to laugh at the simple beauty of it, but could tell how much courage it had taken him to ask.
“It’s the same for me,” I said. “I promise. It’s the same.”
That conversation was our marriage proposal. From the following day we talked unselfconsciously in terms of “when we’re married,” of our future children, the house we’d live in when we were old, and when Kit spoke of eclipses he would travel to ten, twenty, thirty years in the future, it was taken for granted that I would be there too, holding his hand under the shadow.
Copyright © 2017 by ES Moylan Ltd.