Deleted Scenes for Lovers, by Tracey Slaughter

Deleted Scenes for Lovers, by Tracey Slaughter (Fiction)

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The knowledge of everyone they’re about to hurt is not an element easy to breathe in. They’re the lovers. You can blame them now, if you want to. That’s your choice: this is the director’s cut."
Seventeen powerful stories of contemporary New Zealand life from a writer whose penetrating gaze reveals the full experience of her characters' lives—tragic, comic, rich.

From: Deleted Scenes for Lovers, by Tracey Slaughter

note left on a window

I had sex with the hitchhiker down on the beach, because I couldn’t bear to take him into the caravan. By that stage I knew he wasn’t the dangerous type, but I also knew a part of me had hoped that he was. He was just dirty in that arty way: I’d pulled up expecting something criminal, but I’d got a thinker, equally unclean but without the cruel streak. I should have guessed from the image of Che Guevara on his op-shop shirt, the sideways visionary stare unclouded by the grease. I might have wanted to take someone derelict, someone mean to the caravan, a guy who’d fill its room with smoke and the mechanical racket of a sudden hard fuck, someone prone to smashing up things that deserved it the way that caravan did. But I couldn’t have stood gentleness there, or thought. What I had wanted was a kind of assault: what I got was method, tenderness. It was bad enough down on the beach, his stroking approach to the places I wanted cracked open, his fingers exploratory, creeping slowly in and out of me as if following some kind of protocol. I could hardly stand such an analytical fuck: under his ribs and hips the sadness almost rolled up from me, almost got loose from my eyelids. He murmured to me, proposals of touch, of entry: with knuckles and heels I clawed up and rammed him in. His hair fell forwards and picked up sand and weed in pods and husks and star shapes. I stared at that, and that was my mistake. His eyes were a forgery of Michael’s, and so, I admit, for a while I clutched his face and the collarbone that spanned out into the angle of shadow that Michael’s also sharpened to. The hitchhiker might as well have been Michael’s twin.

The one good thing was his philosophy had the same effect as violence: he was too absorbed to pause and ask about a condom.

When I got inside the caravan, later, I remembered a movie where a suicide note was left on a window. Someone breathed all over the glass in the dead one’s room and there it was; a reason, a clue. Perhaps I had even watched that movie with Michael’s warm head dumped, dozing, on my legs, the shaved hardness of his skull bedded back on my stomach. But I couldn’t be sure I had. And that thought—that I could not be certain of the place of his head, its dark mongrel cut, the dust that turned yellow and resinous along the curves of his ear, which I’d clean with my fingernail, poking him, teasing, Scruffy bugger, for a spunky bastard you’re a right grot—the thought that I couldn’t remember exactly where his body was when I watched that film, made me push round the caravan even more quickly, huffing on its windows until the whole metal hut sang and shivered on its chocks and I stood, clinging in the aisle in the middle, waiting for my ribs to remember the right way to breathe. I held on to the hooks on the row of skinny cupboards along the cabin and I thought of how he would’ve been too tall to stand up in here, thought of the black stubble over his skull pushed up against this squeaky ceiling, and slid my hands across it as if some grit might have stuck along there like braille. And I thought of the thumb-sized dent behind his ear where I’d once discovered he’d picked up headlice from his little brother, and thrown his head off me like a ball, and then, calmer in the bathroom later, I’d yanked it back and scrubbed it till it foamed, and traced all his hair (it was long then) for the dead gluey stars. I thought of that exact feeling, the delousing, his wet hair slipping up my fingerprints, the tiny hulls filtered down the length with my nails. It took so long to strain all of the eggs out that way: but I loved his hair, its wild, black rigging. And then he cut it, probably tired of my scratching. I thought of the pulse in his neck I could look down over, then, lazy, half-asleep myself, watching it flex in the haze from the fizzling television. But nothing I could remember was on the screen. Except the reflection of him.

Nothing was on the windows of the caravan, either. Webs, of course, a whole city of strings, triangular nests at the corners, sticky and dense, a complexity of clear lines trickling out. That was the film I watched while I stayed in the caravan the old lady had rented to me. It became so quiet I could hear the white scabs of fly bodies tapping on the windows. But I never saw a spider the whole time I was there.

The old lady’s hair was the counterpart of the spiderwebs, just like the asterisks of grass that blew on their parched rays around the caravan were the counterpart of the stars that had long blurred spokes above it each night. Dusty wheels of grass; the stars hard as staples; the blues overlapping in Michael’s iris like the stretched rings on his tie-dyed shirt: that’s all my head let occur and recur as I spent my first days toking up in the caravan. I drank a bit, too, but not a lot. Mostly I crouched on the steps and the day patched into night, and I thought of the hub of diesel at the centre of Michael’s eyes, the strokes of black that leached from it, warping the blueness. I smoked and looked outwards with my back to the room and sometimes it felt like Michael was in there behind me, his warm untidy body taking up the whole coop: Gizza durry, he would have mumbled, sticking out a toe to nudge my neck, and the splints at the corners of the wagon would have creaked with his clumsiness. Fuck off and get your own, I would have said, then maybe gone to kiss him, nuzzling his thick lower lip that felt like flax. I wouldn’t have gone out, staggering over the grass and hurling onto the sand dunes, the kind of sick that flies out like a liquid scream. Or even if I had, Michael would have held back my hair and whispered to me as I jerked: I would have known that I was not stifled, I was not extinct, because I could hear those whispers. Michael would have dug me up out the sand and held me there kneeling, would have laughed and said, I’m about to break the last commandment: never kiss a girl that’s just puked. Or maybe we would have brought his little brother with us, and we would try to stay mostly sober so somewhere in the night we could peel Smudge out of his sleeping bag and cart him to the long-drop so he didn’t piss his bunk, or even if we missed it, we wouldn’t have made him feel like a criminal, wouldn’t have belted him for it. So when I woke up the caravan might have smelt like pyjamas gone fuzzy with piss, and we might have spent the semi-dawn groaning at his brother to stop scuffling round and singing those chewed-up little TV tunes, Dinosaurs, of all fucking predatory things, singing about happy families. But even groggy, sleepless, it would have been good: it could’ve been, if we had ever come.

Instead, I turned over somewhere about the fourth day and felt my brain in my head like a bruised fist. The caravan was not a little family cocoon. It was a crypt. And at the door stood the old woman who had rented it to me. Obviously disgusted.

The old woman’s hair was spiderweb, watered and combed across a tiny skull. It was scraped into a bun no thicker than one of her knuckles and stabbed in place with a wheel of yellow pins. I had seen her, over the last few days, when I surfaced, banging stakes into her garden with the back of a tomahawk, climbing up a ladder to a tilted birdhouse, scraping at the pelt of a mangy cat she held pinned to the lawn with a small implacable hand. She was miniature and ruthless. Mostly she’d ignored me, not out of hostility, but industry. She was simply too busy to be bothered with a waster like me. But at the door of the caravan she fixed me with eyes whose colours seemed to have dissolved beneath the lens, almost as clear as blisters except for the pinprick at the centre. That black fleck of pupil was shrewd.

After she stared at me she looked out over the lawn beyond the caravan.

‘About time for drying out, I should think.’

Of course, she could have been talking about the lengths of rain above the section, so thin they were almost invisible, and seemed to rise rather than drop. Even on the tin this rain was soundless, except for a sudden thicker slap. You could see a few of these darker patches twitching over the washline, a weak sun exposed through them.

‘I don’t care,’ I said, looking out. Even that light made my eyeballs ferment. When I talked I felt fibres break, crackle. My throat felt like tape.

‘You’ll come to,’ the old woman said. ‘If it lasts. If it sets in you’ll be crying out for a change.’

In her grip was a plastic plate with one of those paper doilies you never see now. Dinky sausage rolls, biscuits cut into stars, a lamington bleeding grease and syrup. Just looking at it I could taste crystals, coconut the shape of the skin you chew away from your nails. Pastry, clumped and humid, forming a dam of butter behind your front teeth. She passed it to me, the gladwrap blurred with icing sugar.

‘From down at my cardiac club. I told them I would fetch some leftovers back here for you. I always say you may as well take what you need. While it’s offered you. Waste not, want not.’

She trudged away across the lawn in her rubber ankle boots. Her dress was checked with a tea-towel pattern. Veins slithered through the tough skin of her calves. Before she turned at the brick verge of her house, she looked back once at me, a shaky rotation of her head. At that distance the discs of her eyes looked like liquid. I flattened myself against the door of the caravan. She would be kind but not lenient. Wondering what she guessed made me start to breathe badly.

It came to me, with a strange kind of longing, that there had been no one like her at Michael’s funeral. There was no one catering, sorting, bustling, dishing round teas as if holding the cup straight was the first step in getting over a hard knock. As if survival was a process plodded towards through the small ordinary routines. If the old woman had been at Michael’s funeral I could imagine her closing her ragged lids, her blue-brown head with its wrinkle of bun nodding slowly in recognition. Then putting on her apron with a grim flick, directing me, away from despair, around the kitchen. But there was no one old. No one bleakly cheery. No one to pat you with a hand crooked with know-how, to tell you, Chin up, you got to keep on.

I wondered if that was why Michael had chosen her.

There were two kinds of people at Michael’s funeral. And there was me, who belonged to neither of them.

Mostly I stayed with the university group, the circle Michael and I had met in the few months we’d spent together on campus. They loitered, in the consciously deranged clothes they paid too much for in chic charity shops. Over their tight, ancient dresses the women wore men’s jackets still dense with working-class smells: smoko, Brylcreem, betting stubs. The male heads either spilled coils of ratted hair, or shone gauntly through caps of stubble; their glasses were two revolutionary circles, earnest and clear. They discussed Michael’s death with me, monotone voices assembling the facts, intellectualising them. Some of the women touched my arm, blinked heavily, clasped the bone-carvings at their necks. It was not that they did not care. But their mode of caring took place in their heads, in the effort to comprehend Michael’s actions. Outside the church, a kind of impromptu tutorial was held, and Michael was material, a case study. I could see that here, as much as in their lectures, they were proud of their faculty for analysis, for stringent debate. I stood amongst their talk—Michael’s rationale, his choices—and knew I would not be returning to any of my classes.

I’d thought Michael would last at university. It seemed he had found his element. I’d watched him, as he crouched in the quad, his elongated limbs curled around his satchel, squatting on the platforms to listen to a speaker, then straining forward in contention, illogical but charged. He had never had a chance like this in his life. His childhood had been too messy to achieve in; as an ‘adult’ student he closed everything out but books. All at once he read everything, stacks of scuffed Penguin classics kicking round, shucked pages highlighted and flapping from the fridge by magnets or pegged along the walls. But he read everything too late. The whole flat smelled like extinct theories, a nest of broken social contracts, disused principles. I took them all down after he died and dropped them in one swoop from the roof of the apartment block.

Outside the church on the day of his funeral one of the university women started to talk of her own attempt. She had been meticulous, she said, from her first experiments, slicing vertically just below her elbow; she had mapped and planned, made annotations, she had compiled a kind of dissertation on death. It had defined her, the deadline she had set for finally extinguishing herself. She had worked towards it as she did for an assignment’s due date. There was an academic chill in her voice, as if she still believed a razor could be pulled across a wrist in a postmodern sense.

I thought of how, when I dropped Michael’s pages, they rippled into factions, all the great thinkers, hung or plunged through the shadows, hissed across the concrete forms, disappeared into the city.

The only other people at the funeral were the men who had been, or still were, in the life of Michael’s mother.

Michael’s mother was a slut and a slave.

By the end of the day of his funeral I had told her that to her face.

Perhaps it helped me to stand up through that day; it reinforced me, that hate. When she got up to read out a poem she had written for him, a current arced out from my spine, so strong I thought it might shatter some ribs. It was the rhyme, the da-di-da beat of what she was saying, the chattering fuzzy effect. It was the fact that she really believed in the healing cuteness of what she had written, thought she could simper through some cheap scribble and that would help Michael, help all of us, rest. She rhymed that with best. Her head bobbed sweetly on the final rhymes. Once, her fingers even tapped on the altar rail, di-dum. She sucked a lot of air as if her jingling voice was hindered by real grief. When she’d finished she staggered off delicately. I heard her graze her skinny arse past some man in the front row, notches of lace tugging open as she bent to coo her apology.

For the rest of the service I sat behind her and stared at her head, so tiny, so flat in its hood of hard gel. I stared at her ears. The two nodes where her long clips dangled, the gutter of skin up the back of them, a white seam through the bottled glitter of her tan. I thought about how Michael had not liked his head once he’d shaved it because it reminded him of his mother. I thought about being left with him for a while in the funeral home, climbing up to lever his head onto my lap, the vacant heavy orb of it, bristled and chill. I thought about the inquiring look on his face, the texture of his lower lip, mottled and dry, the scope of incoherent, soulful light that kept gathering and breaking on the lens of his eyes although no soul was under them. It was just the wavelengths of emptied fibre shimmering at me. Catching and deflecting all that useless radiance.

I thought about how, very soon, that shimmer was going to be replaced. By the shimmer of his ash. By his ashes as they lifted, released, dispersed into shade, as they spread across everything, just for an instant, coated trees, stones, water, clung in currents of air like the form of a ghost. Then I would close and open my eyes, and all that dust would be breathed away, invisible. The outline of everything I saw would look sharp, detailed again, but empty. Haloed by his nothingness.

Right then, I knew I couldn’t leave him to his mother. She’d put the urn up somewhere gaudy, show it off for a few pissed days, she’d stroke it with her tacky hands, I could just hear her false nails clicking on it, the remains of her baby prickling at her touch. She’d stumble round the after-party with it, yelling stories, rocking it down by her pelvic bone. She’d give up the act when the drinks hit double figures or something stronger rushed her brains. If she didn’t spill him, Michael would end up on the bench somewhere among all the empty vessels. So I planned it, right then, how I would take him myself, although I didn’t know yet that I’d drive him straight back to the caravan.

She had done a surgical job on her make-up, his mother. I noticed that when I went over to her after the funeral. Strokes of pencil were oily in the sparse fluff of her brows. Her lids were lined with black wedges, and the sockets shone with blues. She thought she could talk to me, that I would stand and listen to her melodic blabbing, the cadence of a born slag. While she prattled I could see in her body she was aware of several men looking on. Her hips, working under the lace, her gaze, in its visor of sticky lashes, her talk, with its travesty of Michael-centred stories—highlights of his childhood that I knew were shit—everything about her was gauging the notice of men, as it always was. She was no more interested in me than she’d ever been in Michael. She would look you in the eye, but you could feel the pull of her attention, sleazy and lateral.

I told her what I thought of her. Michael wouldn’t have liked me to be so cruel. He loved her the way a child loves a rodent or a bird, some mauled thing you retrieve from a pulpy nest to watch it die slowly in a shoebox. But I had outgrown the idea of rescue. I knew hers came at the cost of her kids. When she was nourished she fluttered away to bring the next predator into their life. How she tracked them I just don’t know: she had radar. When she was smacked-up once again she crawled into the corner of the kids’ room and expected to be pitied, although by the stage her beatings were dished out the boys had already lived through weeks of their own. I thought she should have been put out of her misery long ago.

The funeral director must have sized her up anyway. It didn’t take too much convincing to get him to hand over Michael to me instead. I paid: Michael’s mother had told the guy she’d need welfare assistance to cover it. He had a mass of forms filled out in glitter pen, her printing loopy and babyish with oooo’s and aaaaa’s. But I put it down in cash, everything we had saved. Sometimes when Michael and I got somewhere in our savings we’d talked of a kind of future, of things we could use the money to try to set right. Mostly we’d talk of taking Smudge from his mother, of trying to keep him safe. We had thought it probably wouldn’t be hard to make her cave in and leave him for good; she wasn’t much interested, except in the welfare, and sometimes we had Smudge camped out for weeks, while she was AWOL, toasted or ‘in love’.

When I tipped the money onto the desk at the funeral home I thought about that. I thought maybe I should be using it to take home the living son, not the dead one.

It might have been the thought of that that made me so angry when I got Michael’s canister that I kicked it under the back seat and just kept driving, shortcuts I’d never taken before but which I knew were headed somehow out through the hills to the caravan he’d killed himself in, and picking up a hitchhiker I was planning to fuck before I had even pulled into the gravel, because the simplest way to hurt Michael was to act like his mother, and show him that now he had done what he’d done I could easily settle into her life, sink into her dress, put on her red shoes and get myself a man who’d make my nose bleed, my hips black, my heart too blurred to see straight back into the past.

I swallowed some of the food the old lady had left me and lay in the caravan trying to come round, clean up. But I had trouble. That caravan was as good as a dark room. And the images were cleaner then, so distinct they moved along my skin and through my insides. There were images of Michael that would not leave me, unlike the real thing. He met me at a service station where I was pumping gas, and he had just pulled his wagon in from the nearby beach he’d been surfing at. He only had boardies on, crusted with sand, knotted with a shoelace where the hair spiralled down on his belly. He’d cut his leg on the fin of his board and it was bleeding. He limped off to wash it at the tap on the concrete blocks at the end of the pumps. But he turned to stare back at me while he did it, looking hard at me while blood diluted under the long rub of his hand, streaked down his foot and dripped from it, joining the slick of petrol that belched from his car when it reached full. I didn’t know then how precious that was, that stare. I didn’t know then how his usual look was past you, into the space beyond the left side of your head, as if your angel, your double, stood there, a trace of a past self that hung around or a future one, a shadow you hadn’t quite stepped into. When he came closer, the day we met, I said, I’m so sorry for spilling the gas, and he looked right at me, right in the face for a while, before his gaze slid away to the side, where I would learn it would mostly stay in our years together, eerie, cute, off-putting. It was long enough for so much damage to be done: in a single look I’d already learned him, especially the eyes with their troubles and stains and translucence rippling ring through ring, the pillar of bone up the middle of his chest, the thinned blood still drizzling down his ankle, the bud of joint there very white amidst the dark hair wrinkled darker with water. Forget it: those were the first words he said to me. I kept saying Sorry.

No way, forget it, he kept repeating. He wore a necklace like a dog tag on his chest, and on its bright metal there was still a single suspended fleck of the sea. He went on saying Hey, forget it: I went on staring at that drop, that clarity. I should have known then that Michael had brought me a terrible gift, of images that wouldn’t leave.

In the caravan I thought, if I choose to follow Michael, that fleck of salt water glinting from his necklace might be the last thing that I see.

But I also lay and thought about that water, that tiny circle shining and irrelevant … and thought I saw everything reflected in it. So much beauty left behind in something so useless. A nothingness and a shrine, at once, a waste and a universe. Like the cell he may have left behind in me.

I couldn’t stay in the caravan thinking that. To think it was to watch all the questions, everything beginning with if, coming into focus like the ghost of Michael’s fingers brushing words onto the glass for me. Waiting for my breath.

I crashed out the caravan so hard I startled the old woman who was in the garden. She was pushing a spinning blade on a stick along the concrete rim of the flower beds. It droned and squeaked, opened a dark scar of dirt. Her mouth opened in a smile as dark and dry.

I said nothing, because I couldn’t. I walked straight ahead, through the weeds she had neatly stacked onto polythene, through loops of her washing, the wilted singlets as thin as webs strung across the light, not clothing but apparitions of thread. She clucked but she didn’t bother staring at me. I heard the whining of her garden tool go on, the gritty sound of it chipping at the concrete.

I got to the beach and stayed there a long time. There weren’t many people down there: a couple of grommets wagging school to surf, a few brisk, pastel-toned women in plastic sun-visors with handbag-sized dogs. A guy clicked by in jandals and a cap, a red-brown paunch jogging over his speedos and a cigarette pack tucked down above his arse. He stared at me through wraparound shades and slid his tongue in and out so I heard saliva jostling. But when I ignored him he just shrugged and squeaked past. Out to sea the light was so thick it looked like someone had spilled sand along the horizon, and a triangle of shimmers too painful to focus on poured down. The waves moved in like a diagram of themselves, measured and rustling. I thought about tipping Michael in with them, but every time I looked black tangles of debris were dragged to the same place in each wave, as if the sea kept spitting up the same junk, unable to leave it. So I lay down then and closed my eyes, and the sound of the waves became a dream, the sound of Michael trying to fix his secondhand finds, taping their pages at one place while their spines just cracked straight open at the next one, until he gave up and plucked them, pinned them up round the flat. And we’d lie there on the bed under those strings of thinking and watch them, flicking yellow kites, and I’d forget how flimsy, how limited those theories seemed mingling on our wall when Michael climbed onto me and peeled my pelvis and his out of the basics of underwear and joined us, gently and wetly, into the one glazed body we were meant to share.

When I woke I thought about fucking the hitchhiker there on the same stretch of beach. Stumbling the dunes the hitchhiker had tried to talk, to add a dimension to the screwing, but once we reached the hard sand I’d pulled up my skirt and taken his fingers and shoved them under fabric, wedged them as far as I could get them in one jolt into me. As earnest as he was, he had gasped and unbuttoned. But he wasn’t happy without his ideals for long. When we were done he went on talking, about himself when he found he couldn’t learn about me. He told me about his project back at art school, an installation, cross-referencing cyberspace and God, he said. He blended things like chat room threads with religious texts; he was going to call it Cannot Find Server. He was hitching this way to look through junk shops and dumps; he wanted old circuit boards, valves and cylinders, anything that looked mechanical yet obsolete. He was going for a look of intricate components, technological complexity, yet ultimate emptiness, a vast systemic void. He was planning to splice other objects in, odd defunct icons from routine existence, and an active current would run through to randomly light up words he had taken from the bible or the net: No New Messages, Unable to Establish a Connection, Click Here for a List of Errors. I told him I could give him a great piece; I told him to come back to the car with me. I still don’t know if I would have gone through with it. I heard my voice talking as if it was a voice on tape. ‘Put it under Deleted Items,’ I said. I got as far as unlocking the car, brushing under the seat for the canister. It spun and slithered away from my hands, but I got a hold of it and turned and offered it to him. I wasn’t sure if it was shame or pity in the hitchhiker’s face, but it was not neutral. He twitched as he was talking, nothing but shocked platitudes. ‘But I thought we were talking about the postmodern,’ I said. I held Michael out. ‘He didn’t leave a reason. So it was like all of the things you just said, pointless, disconnected, drained of value, arbitrary. All of the fucking clever things you just said. An uncommitted suicide,’ I said. ‘Ha, an uncommitted suicide.’

When the hitchhiker left it was what I wanted. I let myself into the caravan alone. I still had Michael in my hands, and the residue of the hitchhiker trickling inside me. If and when I had to face the baby as definite at least I could pretend its source was unclear, and a child that potentially had nothing to do with Michael would be easier to dispose of. But, really, I knew that line of thought was irrelevant. I knew it all broke down to just us three: me in the caravan, Michael in his chrome, the possible baby cooped inside me. One dead, one alive, the third one somewhere in the middle, undecided.

Uncommitted. Perhaps Michael had not let himself know either, had not been certain, until the very end, which way his decision, or indecision, would go, where it would take him. Perhaps he had been keeping his secret the way I had been keeping mine, even from myself. Perhaps when he came here he did not drive the distance head on, fixed on his suicide, but only felt the suggestion of death wavering along the outskirts of the strange road, a wayside of hazy possibilities, hissing as lightly as the fenceline crosses or the ferns. Perhaps he could lie down in the caravan and trick himself, dozily, pill by sip. Perhaps no capsule or gulp seemed terminal, not even the small knife he steered down his forearm, docking it finally in the deep mess of his wrist. He only cut one—maybe he still was irresolute, playing at that slash, unfocused. Maybe he was fooling himself. The same way I could walk back there from the beach and trick myself that my body was empty, except for an accidental rivulet of no one special’s sperm.

Any way you stared at it, that caravan looked like death’s door. When I walked back towards it after my short crash on the beach, the sun was shooting off it in all directions. I suppose my eyes were done in with more than just glare, but at first I didn’t see the old girl was still outside. Only then, as I got across the section, I spotted her and I could tell she wasn’t herself, not picking or fussing or digging at anything, just kneeling, making little bursts of off-pitch, scrawny movement, trying to claw up, then swaying back as if the buffalo grass was too spongy for take-off.

We’d hardly spoken two words but the sight of her, withered like that, made me run.

Her breath was scratchy, so I made her sit back and stop clambering about for a moment. She was not an easy old bugger to boss, so I got down with her and propped her up from the back and told her off, gently. She snapped, Leave off, will you. But after another lurch or two, she came back against me. Fragile lengths of rib shimmered through her old frock as she wheezed, and I could feel her heartbeat, puckering oddly. I didn’t have to bully her still anymore, so we just crouched, watching the caravan.

Finally, when her torso was steadier, she tampered with the fingers I was holding her with and said, ‘Well, that was a bad business.’

‘What? Did you fall?’

‘No,’ she said, gruffly. ‘I meant what your fella did. That was a bad business. What he came here and went and done to himself.’

I owed her something in reply but the cold in my lungs was packed solid. No words were getting in or out.

She said, ‘Thought you’d keep mum about it, did you? I spotted you right away. It’s a giveaway, your face, did you know that, dearie? I was wondering when you were going to pipe up and say. Anyway, I don’t get that much call for the caravan. I only pin up that little note to rent it at the dairy and it’s not like we get lots of outsiders through here. And never back-to-back like the two of you’ve been. We’re the black stump out here, love. God’s last shovelful.’

She nodded at the caravan, light still sharp all over that hutch. It looked even more rancid, bent on its piles and the scruffy grass I’d flicked full of smoke butts.

‘We lived in that, you know. Me and Bert, when we first came here. He built the house later. Every last brick, he did. His back was a swine of a thing ever since,’ she chuckled. ‘I’ve never let it get run down to this state. Not in a month of blessed Sundays. But since your young man put his lights out in there I’ve felt too funny to get in and do it. The young cop gave it the once-over for me, but you know young blokes. So I bring the bucket and things out to get stuck in and give it a real good going-over. But I come over all unnecessary, I don’t mind saying. And that’s not something I’m used to, my girl.’

‘Not me,’ she tutted on. ‘Not ruddy likely. Tough as an old boot. Always have been. I tell myself, there’s worse things happen to old birds like you stuck on their own. There was one not so long ago. Bludgeoned, she was, in her bed, and the fella they caught for it was only a mite. So I’m a darn sight luckier than that poor duck. Nothing to stop your young fella being one of those. And how would I’ve known.’

She shifted, creakily, fastening herself, tapping away at sticking grasses. Her fingers were fibrous, a pinched blue at the joints.

‘I need to get into gear now,’ she said.

I stayed behind her, levering. I didn’t have to see her eyes from there. She took a few steps once we were upright, but they were curtailed, doddery. I told her I could taxi her to the doctors. Mad, her eyes were wide in their crinkle of skin and she looked like she fancied cuffing me.

‘Not ruddy likely,’ she said. ‘I’ll be right as rain. The way that doctor fluffs about gets me peeved. Good and proper.’

I hobbled her over to the house, her twitching me away, then relapsing, vexed, into my grip. In the long run she wasn’t going to be thwarted. She waved me down a side of the house I hadn’t been. Along the end wall was some kind of knocked-up cage or sun porch, just a frame stretched with tatters of black mesh.

I said, ‘Michael had … a rotten time. When he was a kid.’

‘Well,’ she said. ‘You hear a lot of that talk these days.’

‘But Michael never would talk about it. He wouldn’t tell me anything. Not any details. But once I had to drive his mother to the hospital and she jabbered out a whole load of stuff. I think she was sorry for a flash, but really only for herself. Anyway, she told me that once a guy she’d moved in with had lived at an old zoo park. He was closing it down, and he’d sold off most of the animals, and just had the leftover birds hanging round. He’d open the cages from time to time, but they couldn’t get the picture. You know what they say, the cliché, too used to being locked up. So one night, when Michael does something, or nothing, like little kids do, to piss this guy off, he drags him out and chucks him into one of those cages. She said some of the birds went crazy, him being in there, screaming like you can imagine. But it was the dead ones that bothered him the most. There were some that were dying cos the guy couldn’t be bothered feeding them.’

‘Sounds like a nasty piece of work.’

‘She had a stack of them. His mother.’

She said, ‘Well, I expected something like that when I never heard from the family. You’d think that someone’d be out to ask me about it, if he’d come from a decent bunch.’

‘He didn’t.’

‘As things go, dear, you seem decent enough.’

I watched her from a pace behind as she shuffled to the back door, holding back the streaks of vinyl that flagged away the flies. She jimmied off her boots and worked her feet into wizened velvet slippers. Holes were sawed into the tips to leave room for her corns.

She turned and said, ‘If you ask me, mothers like that want being taken out and whipped. I can’t fathom them. I would’ve gone to any length, for a kiddie. But Bert and me were never blessed. Not for want of trying, mind you. That’s why Bert started work on the house, y’know, even though we only had the dough to get going slowly, to put it up brick by brick. He said it’d come to him that while we were stopping in the caravan a little soul would think we didn’t have the room to take it in. It sounds like an odd idea for a man to get, but it turned out that it really worried him. He couldn’t rest easy in the old crate fretting that our little chap might be out there, in the ether or I-don’t-know-where, looking down on us but feeling we weren’t making the space to squeeze it in.’

There was a silence.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said finally. ‘About it all. You having to find him. I don’t know what … else to tell you. Do you—you know—need me for anything?’

‘I’ll be right as rain. Like I said. You get used to being alone. I don’t think I could stomach anyone now. Couldn’t put up with it.’

I didn’t think I should walk off but she clutched at the doorframe, wiry, not to be crossed.

As I moved back the cat sidled up to her, croaking. She nudged a saucer, speckled with congealed meat, towards it, talking back to it in coarse little yowls.

‘Oh, and this is Widow,’ she said across the lawn to me. ‘When I was telling one of my pals down at cardio club she thought I said Pussy Widow, not Pussy Willow, you see. Silly old duffer. Then Widow just stuck. Just thought I’d tell you in case she tries to take over that caravan.’

‘Widow,’ I repeated.

‘Still, I don’t suppose you’ll be long in staying. I imagine you’ve got plenty of things to be getting on with. Being alone’ll do me. But it’s hardly the ticket for a girl like you.’

I thought about my plenty as I wandered back to the caravan, lay down in its hovel.

There had been a baby there on the day of Michael’s funeral. Someone tacked on to the ‘family’ through one of his ‘uncles’ had come along with one, humping it late along the aisle against her leather skirt, smirched with reflux. She’d slumped down beside me, yanking an older child into the pew before her. The older girl came down clumsily—there was a hardbacked bible on the seat and she gripped her leg, tittering. All through the service I could hear mucus and misery squealing through the baby’s tiny face. The mother stuck it out on one knee, shook it back and forth a while, making its whine come up in waves. When she tried to swing it to her other knee for a break it bucked and made a grab for her, catching the ring in her eyebrow. The ring unclipped and dangled from the socket, joined by a tiny dash of blood. Cursing, she shoved the baby sideways onto the girl’s lap and stomped off down the carpet. But the girl only smiled, hauled the baby up by the armpits, and shimmied her ponytail down at it with jolts of her head. She nuzzled close, letting it suck on her hair. In its dirty stretch-and-grow the baby’s legs hung like little pipes.

Later, in the toilets, I was in a stall when I heard the mother laying the baby down on the tiles. Its stench choked the cubicle and it shrilled louder as she pushed its limbs in and out through its clothes. When I came out she had pulled paper down from the dispenser and was scratching at the dirty skin. She stuck the fresh nappy on wildly, then knelt back and stared, blank, at the baby. It was still thrashing. She shot forward suddenly, dropping her face down right over the kid’s. ‘Am I pissing you off, am I? Well, now you fucking know how I feel,’ she screamed at it.

‘Go easy,’ I said.

The mother looked at me. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘Well, it’s all yours if you want it.’

I said nothing.

‘Nah, didn’t fucking think so,’ she said.

I walked away. Around the corner from the stalls was a long bright bench of mirrors. Standing there was Michael’s mother, eyelid hooked down by a little finger, calmly tracing the pink band with a tube of silver grit.

If there was one word I’d have expected to find appearing under my breath it was his brother’s name. But if the caravan was death’s door, death’s windows didn’t have a mark on them. I don’t know why I kept looking. I kidded myself there might be some science to it, some principle of friction, the moisture content of exhalation, the differing qualities of light. I had no shortage of dreams of Michael’s fingerprints, traced on the window, on my face, or on the inside of his flask. But no good ever came of them. Except the surplus of shivers which made me grope for his container and hunch around it, or snarl at it and shake it.

When I left the caravan I’d really no idea what to do. The old girl just shrugged when I dropped her keys back, as if she wasn’t much bothered. But then she rambled beside me, out to the car, sinewy in a fresh frock. The cat toddled behind her at first, then darted off, shifty and primitive, flicking through the toetoe. When we got to the car, the old woman looked at the canister I had cradled in a jersey on the seat.

‘You mind?’ she asked me. I reached in and passed him into her hands.

‘Well,’ she said. She rocked him in her grip for a bit, weighing him. I think she was testing herself. I heard him in there, gliding along the surface.

‘I got my Bert back in a ruddy box,’ she said. ‘Fancy that. Cardboard. I suppose it was daylight robbery for this.’

Then she said, ‘He was a handsome type, your lad. Strapping, you know. I would have said, robust. Not likely to go down without a fight. Still, it takes all sorts, I suppose.’

She bent down and tucked him into his nest in the car.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘You want to come back for a spell, the caravan’s there.’

I would have reached out and touched the ridges of her cheek or knuckles, the streaks of scalp that shone through her hair, but she was too spry.

‘Off you get now,’ she grumbled.

I obeyed and drove away, Michael taking the corners beside me.

From time to time as I drove I thought about making a switch, a trade, about driving straight to his mother’s house and saying, Here, give me Smudge, I’ll give you Michael. But I didn’t feel like giving anything up.

On my last night in the caravan I had dreamt of upending his ash. But instead of his silt there was a rush of birds and pages, pulsing out into the dark, my breath pouring with them, a part of their luminous thrash. When I woke up I remembered the last message Michael had sent to me, a text before he left, just a dumb saying I thought he tapped out for a joke: WHT DSN’T KLL U MKS U STRNGR. Sometimes at the point that you get a message, it makes no sense. What it means might get clearer, later, or you just have to breathe the meaning in for yourself. So I drove back to the city, choosing a vowel.

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