To celebrate Obama’s election, the Wiley brothers threw a party at their house in Crystal Palace. They lived near the park, where the transmitting tower loomed up towards the heavens like a lesser Eiffel, stern and metallic by day, red and lit up by night, overlooking the surrounding London boroughs and the home counties beyond, and harbouring in the green land at its feet the remains of the former glass kingdom – the lake, the maze, the broken Greek statues, the eroded stone lions, and the dinosaurs made of old science.
The Wileys were originally from north of the river and had moved to the south for its creative energy and the charisma of its poverty (they were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually). Bruce, the older, was a well-known photographer, his studio a labyrinth of lights and darkness at the rear of the house. Gabriele was an economist. They were opposites in all things – Bruce was large, Gabriele was thin, Bruce drank, Gabriele did not, Bruce did not own a suit, Gabriele was a suit – but they threw a party with shared commitment and singular intent. First they decided on their guest list, which featured all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew, such as lawyers, journalists, actors and politicians. Depending on the size of the event, less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality, which the brothers went through in their conservatory where they had most of their evening discussions. On this occasion they invited more people than usual, as they wanted it to be bombastic. When the list was finalised Gabriele sent round a text.
Next they arranged for the three essential ingredients, drinks, food and music. The party was scheduled for the Saturday immediately following the election so they didn’t have much time. They bought bottles of champagne and macadamias and chicken wings and pimento olives, all the while going over the highlights of their sleepless Tuesday night when they had watched the blue states eating up the red states and Jesse Jackson’s tears in Grant Park and the four Obamas strolling out victorious on to the bullet-proofed stage – then the weather the next day, so bright and blue for November, and people, strangers, open and smiling and saying good morning to one another, in London! They imagined, as they planned their playlist to pass on to the DJ, Jill Scott, Al Green, Jay Z, wafting out of the windows of the White House. For the purposes of insulation and protection, they covered the metallic bookshelves in the living room with sheets of chipboard and laid disused mats over the walnut floors. They left the Chris Ofili on the centre wall, a sofa below and some scattered cushions, but most of the furniture was removed. Gabriele placed a note on the bathroom mirror asking people to respect that this was someone’s house and not a nightclub.
Then the people came. They came from all over, from the towns across the river and the blocks off the A205, from the outer suburbs and the neighbouring streets. They came wearing faux fur coats with skinny jeans, shiny glinting Oxford Circus sandals and flashy shirts. They too had stayed up on Tuesday night watching blue eat red, and the Obama daughters walking on to the stage in their small, well-tailored dresses and their excited shoes had reminded many of them of the four little girls bombed forty-five years before in the church in Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan. That, perhaps, was what made Jesse Jackson cry, that they walked in their flames, and it was impossible to look at this new advancement of history without also seeing the older, more terrible one, and thus the celebration was at the same time a mighty lament. There were parties all over the city that night, in Dalston, Kilburn, Brixton and Bow. Traffic sped back and forth over the Thames so that from far above the river was blackness crossed by dashing streams of light. Afros were glossed and goatees were snipped. Diminishing clouds of body spray and hairspray hung deserted near bedroom ceilings as they came, as they parked their cars in the shadows of the tower, slammed their Oyster cards through the Crystal Palace ticket barriers and meandered to the house, bearing bottles of Malbec, Merlot, whiskey and rum, which Gabriele, in the spotlit hive of the kitchen, accepted with both his slender hands. It was Bruce’s job to keep the door, which he did until giving himself to the joys of drink. They kept on coming, men in good moods and just-so trainers, women with varying degrees of fake hair, their curls, their tresses, their long straight manes trailing down their backs as they walked into the music, like so many Beyoncés.
Among them were a couple, Melissa and Michael, who arrived in a red Toyota saloon. They were acquaintances of the brothers, from the media crowd, Michael had known Bruce at SOAS. He was tall and broad, with a thin, stubbled jaw and pretty eyes, the hair shaved close to the skull so as to almost disappear was naturally thick and glossy given to a distant trace of India in his ancestry. He wore loose black jeans with a sleek grey shirt, a pair of smart trainers whose white soles came and went as he walked with a hint of a skip, and a leather jacket the colour of chestnuts. Melissa was wearing a mauve silk dress with flashing boho hem, lime-green lattice wedge sandals, a black corduroy coat with a flyaway collar, and her afro was arranged in a sequence of diagonal cornrows at the front with the rest left free though tamed with a palmful of S-Curl gel. Framed within this her expression was childlike, a high forehead and slyly vulnerable eyes. Together they displayed an ordinary, transient beauty – they were a pair to turn a head, though in close proximity their faces revealed shadows, dulled, imperfect teeth and the first lines. They were on the far side of youth, at a moment in their lives when the gradual descent into age was beginning to appear, the quickening of time, the mounting of the years. They were insisting on their youth. They were carrying it with both hands.
Into the Wiley throng they stepped, where their coats were taken by Gabriele’s fiancée Helen, who was pregnant, and transferred via two teenage nephews wearing trousers with creases down the front to an upstairs bedroom. The Obamas had reinforced the value of the high five so the atmosphere was slappy. There was shoulder-knocking and cheek-cheek kissing, multiple recountings of the Tuesday night and the days since, how the world was different now but just the same. Meanwhile the music thumped loudly from the dance floor, Love Like This by Faith Evans, Breathe and Stop by Q-Tip. The success of a party can often be measured according to the impact of Jump, by Kris Kross, on whether there is jumping during the chorus and for how long. Here it went all the way through, the DJ encouraged people to jump when the song said jump, or to flash a lighter when another song said do that, every once in a while exclaiming ‘Obama!’, sometimes in rhythm with the beat. This turned into a call-and-response pattern so that the name, whenever it was heard, was repeated by the crowd, and if the DJ was so taken he might then say it again, or instead simply ‘Barack!’, bringing on another collective response from the floor. Beneath it all there was a faint air of anticlimax, a contrast between the glory of the moment and the problems of reality, for there were boys outside who might have been Obamas somewhere else but here were shooting each other, and girls who might also have been Michelles.
The heat soared as the night wore on. Bodies leaned against each other helplessly hot, and all that seemed to exist was this moving darkness, this music. A song started with a laugh from Mariah Carey and some discussion with Jay Z about where to begin, another conversation followed between Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson in which she apologised for being late. Then came Michael Jackson, his shrieking riffs in Thriller, his honeyed tones in P.Y.T., at which point the dancing synchronised into a two-step that changed direction three times before returning with a lift of the left foot to the first position. This was the climax of the night. Eventually the music would shift gear, the pace would slow, the crowd would begin to thin, making room for a more spacious dancing, for inner rhythms at the wall. Now the nephews went up and down the stairs carrying coats in the other direction. In a long nocturnal exodus the people went back out into the city, their voices hoarse from shouting, their skin damp from sweating, their ears muffled with bass. Slowly the house would empty again, and Bruce would keep on drinking until at some point near dawn he would suddenly feel that he needed immediately to lie down, so he would fall asleep on the kitchen floor or on the sofa beneath the Ofili, and Gabriele, if he came downstairs in the early morning to get a glass of water for Helen, would put a pillow under his head and a blanket over him and give him a little kick, and he would look forward to discussing the highlights of their party, and who would definitely be staying on the list of invitees.
What is a good rave if not an opportunity for love in the early hours? Overdue love. Kissing, touching that has been all but abandoned amid the duties of parenting, the frequent waking of a baby boy and unreasonable requests at dawn for Cheerios from a little girl. What other more pressing obligation is there, when the house is at last empty, for a whole entire night, courtesy of kindly grandparents all the way on the other side of the river, than to fiercely and deliriously copulate, to remind each other that you are more than just partners in the very tedious sense of that word, but lovers, sweethearts, even still, possibly? The urgency of this requirement weighed significantly in the atmosphere of the red Toyota saloon as it journeyed away from the tower, away from the Obama jubilation, down Westwood Hill towards Bell Green. Melissa was driving. Michael was in the passenger seat slightly drunk, his knees touching the bottom of the dashboard and his right hand placed hopefully on Melissa’s thigh. She allowed him to keep it there, even though he hadn’t danced with her at the party and habitually failed to clear the draining rack before washing up, leaving the dry things to get wet again; it drove her crazy. Along the sides of the car’s interior were the telltale remains of a horrible upholstery of dull green and purple leaves that they had compromised on when they had bought it, for it was cheap. Only the seats themselves had been saved from their ugliness, with a grey Type R makeover set, now faded and worn by the regular pressure of Melissa and Michael’s travelling side-by-side backs.
In this car, in the spring of that year, the sweet deliverance of April spilling down through the open sunroof, they had crossed the River Thames from north to south via Vauxhall Bridge, headed for their first house. Melissa was six months pregnant, and then also was driving, for she loved to drive, the thrill of the open road, the speed of the air, and anyway there was nowhere else to put the enormous peace lily that had grown with a beanstalk craze in the living room of the flat they were leaving but on Michael’s lap, unhindered as it was by a bump. He held it steady to stop it from toppling, its big green leaves and tall white teardrop flowers touching the ceiling, the windows, his face. Every available chasm was taken up with their belongings, the boxes of books, the cassette tapes and vinyl, the clothes, the Cuban moka pot and the Czech marionette, an indigo painting of dancers at twilight, another of birds in Tanzania, the ebony mask from Lekki Market in Lagos, the Russian dolls, the Dutch pot, the papasan, the framed photographs of Cassandra Wilson, Erykah Badu, Fela Kuti and other heroes, the zigzag table lamp, the kitchenware, and also their daughter Ria, who was sleeping as diamonds skipped over the river, oblivious to this momentary watery transience in their lives. Over the river they flew, listening to a long song by Isaac Hayes. The water swayed and tossed beneath their loaded red wings, turned and tumbled in the troubles of its tide, shook its silver shoulders and trembled through the quiet arches of the bridges.
And approximately one hundred and fifty-six years before that, not in a car but by a multitude of horses and carts, the Crystal Palace and the things inside it were likewise transported across the river from Hyde Park to their new home in a wilderness of oak trees on the panoramic summit of Sydenham Hill. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was over. There was no more need for that showy glass kingdom in the heart of central London’s prime green space, so south it went, to shine and show off at a margin, where people would come from miles and miles and even across oceans to see such things as the colossi of Abu Simbel and the tomb of Beni Hassan, the air gymnastics of Leona Dare as she hung from her hot-air balloon, and the exotic wares of distant lands. Over the river came mummies. There was velvet, hemp and Belgian lace. There were bedsteads from Vienna, and majolica and terracotta, and awesome blocks of Welsh gold. Also warships, military rifles, interesting shackles and manacles and rhubarb champagne. All of it came slowly over the water at the pull of the horses, down they went through Lambeth and into Lewisham, up the southern slopes they climbed, coming to a stop in the vast expanse of edgy green that came to be known as Crystal Palace Park, the distant peaks of which were now disappearing in the back windscreen of the red Toyota saloon.
Michael was hoping that tonight would be similar to a night of around thirteen years ago, in his and Melissa’s first months together, when they had returned home from some other party, and oblivious to the new day beginning, the requirement for sleep, had continued the music in the soft silence of the sheets with the mist receding and the light rising and the calling of the birds outside. They would let themselves into the empty house. They would take off their coats and shoes and perhaps talk a little, then they would go upstairs to their bedroom with their hands interlocked, and there they would resume, cautious at first, questioning, then speeding up. Gemstones and diamonds do not lose their shine. It would be just like unwrapping a dusty, neglected jewel and finding that it still glowed. He kept his hand on Melissa’s thigh to help them hold on to this glow, though it was dimmed by the fact that they could not seem to find anything to talk about (‘Did you have a good time?’ ‘Yeah, did you?’ ‘Yeah, cool. Are you tired?’ ‘Yeah, are you?’ ‘No.’). Melissa kept her thigh very still, neither encouraging nor rejecting. Down Westwood Hill she drove towards the Cobb’s Corner roundabout at the helm of the high street, where immediately in front of them was the wedding shop, leering out in the dark with its weedy mannequins in their old-fashioned dresses, offering yet more pressure for a long-awaited union. In those first months thirteen years ago, Michael had proposed to Melissa in a surge of euphoria and she had said yes, but as yet there had been no wedding. The wedding was lost somewhere, first in an apathy of implementation, then in a cooling of euphoria which happens generally after three years, according to research, and later in the rubble of domesticity that mounts at the door of passion when a child has come and adult life has fully revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing-gown. Perhaps there might still be a wedding, Melissa sometimes imagined. If there was it would happen in a vaulted room in the old colonial buildings of the University of Greenwich, she in a strapless electric-blue dress with a train, he in a white suit, and afterwards, they would walk out to the river as man and wife, and stand at the railing watching the water as it danced with the sun. At this moment, though, it did not seem likely.
Down they went that spring day with all of their things and the baby kicking and a peace lily leaf toying with Michael’s nostril. Past the wedding shop, over the roundabout, past Station Approach, through a barrage of more shops, where they were continually brought to a halt by traffic. On the high street there were six hairdressers, five chicken takeaways, four pound shops, five charity shops, three West Indian takeaways, two pawnbrokers, a tattooist, a Nigerian printers, and a selection of dingy workman’s cafés. Starbucks and Caffè Nero had not yet arrived and possibly never would, though there was an air of aspiration. One of the Indian takeaways, for example, had printed across its faded fabric awning,
NEW YORK LONDON DELHI
with the intention that the existence of these other distant branches, in other cities of lights, might draw people to their burgundy tikkas and reheated kormas. Near the bottom of the high street was a library which still adhered to dated Wednesday closing, refusing to accept that words had relinquished their midweek sleep. Next to that was a siren-abused children’s playground in a park lined by tower blocks, then finally, upon a five-way gyratory encrusted with the worst of the traffic, a supermarket a little bit smaller than Japan. No matter where you were, in the Japan car park or standing next to a silver birch tree in one of the back streets, or even in the surrounding areas of Beckenham, Catford or Penge, it was possible to see the Crystal Palace tower, soaring over the landscape, appearing and disappearing in the gaps between the buildings. There were in fact two towers – another, lesser than the lesser Eiffel, stood further out at the top of Beulah Hill, mimicking the first. Together they were a tall, far reminder of that long-ago glass kingdom, which was rebuilt on the south side of the Thames after its arduous horse-drawn journey.
The glass itself was bought anew. It arrived at the site in wooden crates lined with straw. Three hundred thousand panes. Two hundred acres of space. This palace would be three times larger than its original self. The land sloped down in the east so a basement storey was added. The central transept was expanded and needed two new wings for balance. There were several courts, Byzantine, Egyptian, Alhambra and Renaissance. The tomb of Beni Hassan was placed in the Egyptian Court. The statues of the lions were arranged in the Alhambra Court. After ninety days of crossings, the velvet, the Welsh gold, the shackles and the rhubarb champagne all found their places. There were birds in the aviaries and lilies in the flower temples. In the gardens the renditions of the dinosaurs were established in the shrubs overlooking the lake. When everything was done the wide staircase to the entrance was swept, the fountains and the water towers were switched on, the kingdom rose again, a palace on the hill, a sprawling house of glass, with a shining, see-through, ferro-vitreous roof.
At the bottom of the high street, a few blocks past the library, Melissa turned left, and parked halfway up Paradise Row, on the right-hand side.
The house was thirteenth along a terrace of its siblings; they were numbered consecutively, odd and even together. It was a slim, white Victorian, with a skinny front door and twins of windows. Inside, at the top of the narrow staircase, there was a skylight, through which on clear nights distant stars could be seen. The rooms were bright though small, and had a slight crooked quality. The path to the front door was very brief. The hallway was not wide enough for two people to walk along side by side.
It was owned previously by a now-divorced couple and their daughter, and over the years had undergone various alterations and modifications leaving an awkwardness of structure, particularly of doors. Someone had wanted to move the bathroom downstairs so a flat-roofed extension had been added past the kitchen, enabling a third bedroom upstairs. Someone else had felt that the front room was lonely and pokey in its separation from the dining room, so had removed the connecting wall during the trend for open-plan living, leaving a wide ecclesiastical arch below the ceiling. And the previous owner Brigitte’s ex-husband Alan (before he became her ex) had felt that a set of double doors would be so much nicer to separate the kitchen from the bathroom than the sliding broken pleated thing that Brigitte had asked him to replace. He had wanted, of a magnificent sun-stroked morning, say, to come downstairs in his silky dressing-gown and stride through into the kitchen en route to the bathroom, and instead of hauling open another awkward and unromantic plastic pleated thing, he had imagined throwing open a pair of stylish white hardwood double doors with his chest full and his head up and his heart open, ready to face another day of his marriage. So he had gone to Homebase, situated a short drive away in a ferro-vitreous building. Although he hated Homebase, he had walked committedly up and down the aisles looking for his materials, then spent the next four weekends installing his doors. He had sawed and sanded. He had squatted for long periods making his thighs ache. He missed a date with his mistress. He injured his wrist. And on the fourth Sunday, as evening was falling, a beautiful, pink-flecked dusk, it was done. Double doors. Majestic, grand double doors, tastefully demarcating consumption from digestion. Brigitte would be pleased. Their love would be rekindled. He would never again have to sleep in his car. But what Alan had not duly considered in the making of this dream was that there was not really enough space for it here. There were already too many doorways in this small passage. The throwing open was therefore not as magnificent or uplifting as he had imagined, the stepping through was disappointing. What he had created instead was a jumble of doors of which his were the most crooked, and which caused morning congestion and the annoying catching of dressing-gown belt loops on brass handles. Brigitte was not impressed. Not long after that, Alan moved out.
Melissa had met Brigitte, along with her daughter, on her second, lone visit to the house (she had not been completely sure, there was ‘a feeling’, as she had put it to Michael, that worried her, more than just the number). She was a gloomy brunette in office clothes, standing rigidly next to the dining table, close to the bottom of the stairs, while Melissa asked her questions about mice and neighbours and burglaries. Only when she was about to leave, having been told by Brigitte not to go into the second bedroom upstairs as her daughter was sleeping in there, had she moved away from the table into the hall. There had been a sound from above, the sound of someone moving. Melissa looked up, and there at the top of the stairs, directly beneath the skylight, was a little girl. She was seven or eight years old, wearing blue pyjamas and a yellow dressing-gown. She was unnaturally pale, especially her hands. A piece of cool winter sunlight from the glass above was balancing on the helm of her white-blonde hair.
‘Lily,’ Brigitte said with anger in her voice, ‘you’re not supposed to be out of bed.’
‘I’m not tired,’ the girl replied.
‘Go on, go back up. I’ll be there in a minute.’
But Lily didn’t move. Brigitte turned, remembering Melissa’s presence. ‘Sorry . . . my daughter. She’s not very well.’
‘Not very well,’ Lily said, in exactly the same tone. She began to descend the stairs. She was limping, and on her face was a small, mischievous smile, a faint wickedness. Brigitte backed away from her. When Lily reached the fifth stair up, she sat down and said to Melissa, ‘Are you the lady who’s finally going to buy this house?’
Despite which, all of it, the ‘feeling’, the number, they did buy it. The ceilings were high. The light was good. That charming butler sink in the kitchen, the persuasive underfloor heating. The garden was nothing more than a paved cubic courtyard a little bit bigger than a stamp, but they needed a house, they needed upstairs and downstairs so that dreaming could have a floor of its own and breakfast and new days could be descended into. By then they had been searching for over a year. They had looked in the north – too pricey. They had looked in the east (the darkness of Walthamstow, the barren lawns of Chingford), and it was only here, on this sloping street in Bell Green, in the deep deep south, that they could picture and also afford this upstairs dreaming and downstairs breakfasting, Ria sleeping in a room of her own, bookshelves in the alcoves, the birds and dancers on the walls, the heroes in the passage of too many doors, the peace lily in the light of a window twin.
So four months later the saloon was unloaded to form a bewildering mountain of things on the new through-lounge floor. The old laminate had been replaced by a buttery varnished oak flecked with the inner blackness of its trees. The walls had been washed down with extreme bicarbonate to eliminate the traces of Brigitte’s cat. Further feline toxins were tossed out with the blue carpet on the stairs and landing, and in its place came a warm paprika similar to the kitchen and bathroom tiles. Ria’s room, her court, where Lily used to sleep, was painted yellow. This room would eventually also belong to the baby, who kicked and kicked, whose feet-shape could be seen on the surface of Melissa’s skin. And the master court, at the front of the house overlooking the street, became a rich, dark, husky red, the colour of enduring love, the colour of passion. Raffia blinds were draped across its three windows. The twilight dancers were hung on the wall opposite and the birds of Tanzania on the landing outside. A king-size bed, bought new from a Camden boutique, was placed in the centre of the room, like an enormous hulking ship, and one night when all of this was done, when the mountain was gone and all that was left was the gradual arranging of the smaller things that make a house a home – the positioning of ornaments, the erecting of tea-towel hooks – Melissa was lying beached on her side in a black cotton slip in the heat of July, unable to sleep, when she felt a large, grasping wave move up and down her body, more grasping and more commanding than all the others before, a pair of big phantom hands gripping her stomach as if about to throw it, and she flicked open her restless eyes and stared wide at the dark and quiet night. She had arrived at the precipice. She was thoroughly alone. Nativity was nigh.
Melissa came from a family of women who handled childbirth with warm and willing stoicism and natural might. Her mother had delivered three girls and a stillborn boy in the screaming days before the mass use of the epidural. Her sisters, Carol and Adel, had survived on only basic pain relief, refusing to pollute their babies’ birth canals with unnecessary drugs. They were earth mothers. The child was the leader, the body was the ship, the pain was the sea, a beauty, a giving, an embrace by the universe, embrace it back. Melissa was not an earth mother. This had been confirmed at the arrival of Ria, who after three days of beautiful embracing pain was cut from her stomach like Macduff. She had been fully intent, this time round, on not visiting at all the house of horror, the cruel sea, and heading directly to the cutting room, until around the fifth month of incubation when it had occurred to her while practising pregnancy yoga to wonder what it would actually be like to witness the mighty movements of the canal, the emptying of the swollen womb, the crowning of the head. The wondering had increased, until she had announced to the midwife that she wanted a VBAC, the term referring to the category of women who are stupid enough to try it again the natural way, to return to the vagina, to risk the rupturing of the caesarean scar in order to know what it feels like to experience the profound and ultimate summit of womanhood.
Standing the next morning then in the cubic courtyard after another grasping phantom wave, she gathered in her brain all that she had been told by the earth mothers, her VBAC hypnosis CD, her antenatal classes, the pregnancy yoga book Carol had given her, and let the sensations – not pain, they were sensations – lead her gently to (the house of horror), which the hypnosis CD had not quite succeeded in persuading her to think of as a benign and relaxing shore, a nice . . . gentle stroll . . . by the calm . . . water’s edge. She swayed and hummed and breathed in the magnitude of what was about to happen to her, each phantom grasping a low song, each rise and fall a misty climbing up and down with her breath, picturing in her mind the helpless, harmless little cub who was also terrified. Imagine what it must be like, an earth mother had written in the sleeve notes of the CD, to be a floating small thing in a warm, protecting darkness, and all of a sudden the waters start to tremble and judder and you’re faced with this colossal, difficult upheaval into the world, the noisy, tumultuous, sharp-edged world. Wouldn’t you be terrified? Wouldn’t you want to stay right where you were and put up every possible resistance you could? If the mother and child are together in one mind, if there is an emotive connection and sympathy between them, the passage will be easier, she had said. So Melissa held it firmly in her mind and in her heart, the fear and the dilemma of her defenceless cub, as the sensations travelled outwards from the centre towards every part of her, down her legs and around her hips, most sensationally of all into her back, where a hard metal plate was forming. She hummed and she blew. She walked elephantine up and down listening to Jeb Loy Nichols, thinking of the good things ahead such as when she could go back to zumba and when she could resume size eight. The plan was that she would accommodate the sensations herself, in the comfort of her own home, until they became ‘over-challenging’ and she required hospital assistance. Babies, the earth mothers opined, do not like hospitals. They are full of forceps, unhelpful stress and premature interventions, and they should be avoided for as long as possible.
By lunchtime, though, Melissa was thinking that maybe they weren’t so bad. Surely she was close, surely she had made centimetres, what sensations! Michael was home from work, giving her humble, loving looks and gathering bags. He was on the other side of the canyon, a distant friend, necessary but also useless. From where he was standing he could see her magnificence and her great bloom. She was the house that held their future, she was giver of life, an avalanching force. He was frightened of her and pitied her at the same time.
‘Remind me not to get into a car with you the next time I’m having contractions!’ He was taking speed bumps like a drunk. He was nervous as hell, and he hated driving even when he wasn’t nervous. Melissa was leaning far back in the passenger seat as another wave took surge. She held on to the window frame, breezy summer air rushing by, the southern sirens of the afternoon, the towers in the far distance behind. They parked on a back street in Camberwell because the hospital car park was full, and she waded, she waddled, Michael holding her arm, into the foreboding building with its reflective windows and sliding doors, where a sad-eyed Indian doctor told them it was time to go to the labour ward. She sent them up in a lift to the third floor, where they sat in the waiting area with two other avalanching women. Strange that waiting rooms are simply waiting rooms at a time like this, a vending machine, magazines, posters on domestic violence and breastfeeding, that women wait together in such extremity of circumstance, in a normal, angular room, not womb-shaped, with uncomfortable chairs.
‘I want to go home,’ Melissa said to Michael.
‘Melissa Pitt?’ a voice called.
A woman in a blue cloth hat and white overalls emerged from the corridor that led within. She appeared as a fixture of a nightmare, white hairs flailing out of her hat, a pink, tired face with one eye higher than the other and a cruel walk, a careless stomping, as if in the many years of her midwifery she had used up all of her sympathy and now it was just plain old work. ‘Come on through,’ she said. Michael was told to stay in the waiting area as if he had nothing to do with any of this, while Melissa went reluctantly with the white-haired witch, who stomped next to her down the hall into a ward and deposited her behind a pale-blue curtain next to a stretcher, an aluminium sink and a wiry machine. ‘Someone will be with you shortly,’ she said, and left.
Shortly was five minutes, then ten minutes. Meanwhile sensations mounted. Out in the corridor two overly relaxed women were talking among themselves. ‘Is anyone coming?’ Melissa asked them. ‘Is someone coming? I was told someone would come soon and no one has come. I’m having contractions?’
These two NHS labour ward administrators were used to such rambling and moodiness. Between them they tried to decipher who it was who was going to come. They were bored, underpaid women. They were continuing with indignation the long affiliation between the West Indian immigrant and the National Health Service. ‘We’re very busy today,’ one said. ‘Someone is coming soon, don’t worry.’
So she went back to her corner, and found that it was less sensational to bend over the stretcher with her head in her hands during the surges. They were getting more violent, more difficult to ride. In another ten minutes, a hand gently, finally, pulled back the curtain, and a pretty, kindly-looking woman in an NHS-blue smock appeared.
‘Hello,’ she said softly. ‘I’m Pamela. How are you?’
This came across as an absurd question. Melissa repeated that she wanted to go home. Pamela smiled, pulled out the wiry machine from the end of the stretcher and began to unravel it. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘first let’s check if it’s safe for you to go home.’ She looked at her folder. ‘Oh. You’re a VBAC. I don’t think you’ll be able to go home if you’re VBAC. It’s dangerous.’ She measured dilation at just one and a half centimetres. So it was true, Melissa thought. It was going to be Macduff all over again. She wanted to cry.
‘Just lie back now,’ Pamela said, lifting the ends of the wires and taking hold of the rubber pads used for monitoring the waves. Lying down was the worst thing. Lying at on your back with the waves raging up and down, yet Pamela insisted, and Melissa let her place the rubber pads on her stomach as another surge began. They were coming faster and faster. She concentrated on trying to be an earth mother but it was becoming increasingly unfeasible, especially in this position. Pamela said she would be back soon, and for a while Melissa lay there as surges came and went, making spectacles of themselves, happy on their new supine stage, singing gloriously, swirling in deepening currents. During this time she forgot all about the feelings of the cub. The earth mothers went up in flames. A giant wave came up that she was unable to accommodate, and she hauled herself off the stretcher and began tearing at the wires. Pamela reappeared.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going home. That’s it. No more. This is unbearable.’
‘Look, why do you want to go home so much?’ Pamela said. ‘Most women, we have trouble sending them home, they want to stay in the hospital where it’s safe, but you, you want to go home. Why?’
‘Because I’m more comfortable there. Oh please, just get this thing off me!’
Melissa tugged at the wires, almost knocking the machine over. Another sensation came and she leaned forward, groaning. That was when Pamela got tough with her. She was no more sweet. She came down on her with a frowning, matronly authority.
‘Listen,’ she said, ‘let me explain something to you, right? The reason why it’s dangerous for you to go home is that you could rupture and bleed to death. Do you understand what I’m saying? We couldn’t save you if there was an emergency. We had a woman in here last week who ruptured in the waiting area. If she’d been at home, she would probably have died. Another woman ruptured while she was at home, and the baby died. Yes, it did. But if you really want to go home, I can sign you out now and discharge you – if that’s what you really want. I would strongly advise you to stay here, but it’s up to you.’
In the dawn of this new reason, Melissa acquiesced. She let go of the dream of slow dilation in the little crooked house. The night was spent in the dim pool of a curtained antenatal bed, in long pulls on a cylinder of gas and air, in wretched holdings on to Michael’s neck. How she needed him then. How she loved him. He was all strength, all rescue, his warm chest and his sturdy length. Over and over again inhaling the medicine mist she told him that she loved him, drunkenly, insisting, the clearest thing she felt. By 4 a.m. she had said goodbye to VBAC altogether. She wanted to be cut. The summit was no longer of interest to her, and later that morning she was wheeled to the operating theatre on a stretcher.
Michael walked beside her in blue hospital overalls, a sea of attendants surrounding. They wore green hats.
In the theatre they erected a makeshift tent between the almost-mother and her stomach so that she couldn’t see. She only saw the snipping tops of the utensils.
The sound of knives, scissors. Silver blades flashed in the light and cut across.
Then a child, like a wet bag being lifted by a sudden hand, rose.
‘He’s a big boy,’ someone said.
Michael brought him over so that Melissa could look at him. A tiny face wrapped in white. Luscious and beige. Beneath the blanket he was hot-pink and jaundiced, pinkest in the cove of his shoulder blades, yellowest on the soles of his feet, which were long, long-toed, one of them turned inwards from compression in the final months. A bow leg. A club foot. Long arms also, slithering, dancing arms, as if intended first as wings. He had shiny black hair with a patch of gold at the back above the neck. Sliding navy eyes that went from side to side like water collected in marbles. A worried stare. A hexagon mouth when he cried. He was her offshoot, her extension. She looked at him, and everything went but love.
They took him home on a Sunday morning, the grey day stretched low and mute over Camberwell. There were shreds of clouds leaning towards the west. The air was silk to the cheeks, and Melissa cried then on the wide steps of the hospital, because she understood that this was the life she would live now, this man, this boy, this girl, it was no more subject to fundamental change, and because she was bringing this new breath, this small heart, into this large unsafety. They took him back to the skinny house on Paradise Row. In the master court she placed a small red wooden heart on the wall above the Moses basket and that was where he lay. Two weeks followed containing the singular magic that surrounds the newborn. Two otherworldly weeks, in which the air sings lullabies, and you stare and stare into the crevices and the movements of the little face, fall asleep together around your sleeping cub, like curlicues, like a treble clef. ‘I feel as if I’ve entered another stage of my life,’ Melissa said to Michael, standing by the window. ‘Yes, I know,’ Michael said. Then the following week, like a crucial protagonist extracted from a play, he went back to work.
Now it was a few hours before dawn. They entered through the front gate and went inside. After the opulence of the party, the house seemed smaller and narrower than usual. Melissa went in first, along the hallway that was not wide enough for two people to walk side by side, and took off her lime-green shoes. She wanted to sleep. She did not want to continue the music in the soft silence of the sheets with the light rising and the calling of the birds outside. But she could feel Michael’s wanting, his earnestness. He drifted after her as she went to the kitchen to make tea. Chamomile, for sleeping. ‘Do you want some?’ she said.
‘No thanks.’ He would rather have a brandy, a late, sweet celebration – the empty house, no toss or turn of little limb, no early requests for Cheerios. He poured himself one from the drinks rack that only he ever used and offered her one in return. She shook her head, yawning, and he leaned against the butler sink disliking her for it. The paprika floor was warm beneath their feet. The Obamas were on the fridge, in magnet, taunting them with their outrageous perfection and success, Michelle’s long arms across her girls, Barack smiling victoriously. Around this magnet there were other, lowlier magnets, such as Ria’s lunchtime star award, a handmade silver Santa, and a lighthearted complaint in capitals, YESTERDAY WAS HELL, AND IT’S ALREADY TODAY!, which Michael agreed with every morning before going to work. He had a firm, recession-proof job as a corporate responsibility coordinator for a management company, having intended originally to be a radio presenter. He had been talented, meant for it, with his good wit and smooth tone. He had got as far as the pirate stations, but then there had come the need for money. Sometimes he was envious of Melissa for being freelance, doing something creative (she wrote for a fashion magazine). He took a wonderful, warm swig of the brandy and offered her a massage instead.
‘Um, maybe,’ she said. But Melissa wasn’t much of a massage person, he knew. That and reflexology and jacuzzis, they did nothing for her. She was a doer; a runner, a swimmer, a yogi. Her physical strength was clandestine beneath the narrow shoulders and thin neck. Underneath she was all power, in sinew and in spirit, whereas Michael was quintessentially laid back and sloping. He was a sitter, a receiver. He liked jacuzzis. It was one of the fundamental differences between them.
When the tea was made she went through the failed double doors into the bathroom. It was freezing in there, even with the paprika heating, and there was a loud extractor fan that gave the feeling of being inside a generator. The panel along the side of the bath was loose and beginning to sag. As Melissa was drying her face, just as she opened her eyes and took the towel away, she saw something crawling along this panel, up the vertical edge against the wall. A wriggling, a strange brown lightening, moving and then disappearing into a crack at the top of the panel. It was a mouse, a big mouse. ‘Shit!’ she said.
‘There’s a mouse under the bath.’
‘I’m serious, I saw it. It went in there.’ She pointed.
‘Are you sure?’ Michael said.
She was stepping from one foot to the other, having retreated to the dining area. ‘That woman said there were no mice.’ She was referring to Brigitte. ‘I asked her. She said there were no mice.’
‘We’ll have to call someone.’ Michael felt irritated by the timing of this intrusion and also deeply disturbed, but was determined not to show it. He hated vermin of any kind. They were dirty. ‘Anyway, I thought women weren’t supposed to be scared of mice any more,’ he joked as she scuttled to the stairs. ‘Call yourself a feminist.’
‘I’m not a feminist. I’m a woman.’
‘I know you are.’ And he looked at her with a shy, private questioning, forlorn and determined at once. ‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘Wait for me.’
But she went, with her tea, all furry and jumpy inside, and once upstairs proceeded to change into the long-sleeved white cotton nightdress that her mother Alice had given her for her thirty-eighth birthday. It was comfortable. She liked the feel of the cool cotton against her skin. Meanwhile Michael remained downstairs for as little time as possible as it took to perform his nightly checks. This involved staring at the cooker for exactly ten seconds to make sure it was off, turning the bathroom taps to absolute infallible closure to obliterate any chances of flood, pulling the window handles to ensure that they too were closed, and finally re-chaining and latching the front door. Only then could he mount the stairs to bed, often with a heavy, celibacy-weary tread but tonight a sprightly pace in which he hoped she would detect his virility and, waiting for him, perhaps in the cappuccino slip he had once given her, be excited by it. He was thoroughly disappointed, passing beneath the skylight and turning towards the bedroom, to catch a glimpse of her nakedness, a flash of sweet brown thigh, disappearing beneath the stiff, long nightdress.
‘Please don’t wear that,’ he said.
Don’t you know why? he wanted to shout. Don’t you understand that we have something important and pressing to do? Aren’t you with me on this?
‘Because it hides your beauty.’
‘No it doesn’t.’ She put on her doo-rag and tied the strings. It would be her, she knew, who would end up being the one to do something about the mouse, to call someone. It was always her who called the people. When Michael left the house in the mornings he forgot all about the workings and the health of this kingdom and she became its lone minister. ‘It hides your version of my beauty,’ she added, a little spitefully, ‘which is basic compared to my version of it. You don’t like me how I like me.’
This was followed by a silence.
‘Will you definitely call someone?’
‘And we need to fix that window, it’s so cold in here.’
The window furthest to the left in this court was prone to a piercing winter’s draught – its frame was dislodged. The rich red walls, the soft light coming from the lampshades, the moon leaking through the raffia on to the mocha bedspread, all of it called for a warmer atmosphere, so the room seemed not quite settled in itself. Beneath their feet the hundred-year-old floorboards creaked as they moved from bed to wardrobe, making an ugly accompaniment to the cold. And the absence of Blake, the cub, on this his first night away, exacerbated Melissa’s discomfort. She missed him, his tiny presence, his small brief breathing.
‘I hope he’s all right,’ she said.
‘Who d’you think? Blake.’
Fuck Blake, thought Michael’s penis. Fuck the window. Fuck the mouse.
‘How do you know?’
Melissa had not told Michael about the time she had been woken in the night by the sound of shuffling, three months ago, when Blake was six weeks old. A muffled moving had fractured her sleep. She had opened her eyes, looked over at the Moses basket, and Blake’s feet and knees were thrashing against his blanket, which had ridden up over his face. She had sprung out of bed in a panic and ripped the blanket away. She’d taken it as a bad omen.
Michael said, ‘You worry too much. Chill out, man. Don’t you think this is nice, just us? Can’t we just forget about the kids for tonight? This is our time. Let’s enjoy it.’
He had taken off his shirt and she watched him, discreetly. He had wide, basketball-player shoulders and thin arms. Inside him next to his heart was a light the shape of a boomerang that made the skin a touch yellower there, he glowed from within; and then, across the small of his back, were lines of a similar paler tone against the dark background, as though perhaps, in a former life, he had been whipped. Michael’s beauty was a question. It was secretive. It posed itself to her like dappled light through trees, in sudden moments, the lamplight in the pool of his collarbones as he unbuckled his belt by the wardrobe, his arms braced, head down, just there. The brilliant whiteness of his matching boomerang smile when she had met him. And the thick eyebrows, those still young eyes, only a little hurt by life. It continued to surprise her, this eventual beauty, which was extreme and hid behind his boyishness. It was there now as he leaned forward on to the bed folding his jeans, his shoulders ready to clutch, to crush around her. She felt a snatch of old feeling, a visceral pull towards him. A hot bolt of love went through her.
‘It’s Sunday tomorrow,’ he smiled. ‘We can sleep all day if we want to.’
He took a hanger out of the wardrobe and flipped the jeans on to it, encouraged by the softening in Melissa’s face, that look in her eyes just now. She lay back, half waiting. He put the hanger on the rail. It was a weak rail, something else that needed fixing. Twice already it had collapsed, bringing all his clothes to a pile on the floor, and as he turned back to his fine, supine woman now ready to ravish her, it chose to do so again, with tactless and unkind calamity, his trousers, shirts, jackets and jeans came toppling out on to the floor, making him swear.
‘Why now?’ he said. ‘Why fucking now?’
‘It needs fixing.’
‘I can’t fix it now!’
‘I don’t mean now, I mean just some time.’
Melissa felt sorry for him as he came towards the big bed annoyed with the floorboards groaning beneath him. He hated the mess of clothes there, the disorderly heap waiting for the morning, but distracted and pissed off as he was, he was not going to let a wardrobe, an alleged mouse or a draught spoil his chances. Naked except for his underwear, which had been carefully chosen earlier that evening for tightness and flattery, he lifted the covers on his side of the bed and got in next to her. The moment was ruined, they both sensed, it would take a lot to get it back, and it was so late now, the birds were actually singing, but the last thing that dies in mankind is hope.
‘Just come here,’ he said, and smelt her neck. Her neck had stopped smelling of chicken around seven years ago. Now it just smelt of her shea butter. Still he searched for it, sniffing at her, his stubble making her itch. She scratched. He tried to ignore that she was scratching. She wrenched her neck away from him cat-like and he moved downwards to the vicinity of her milk-designated chest, which he could not really suck with any degree of self-respect but what the hell.
‘I’d rather you didn’t do that,’ she said.
She felt his hardness against her leg and resented the obligation that she should do something for it. She just didn’t feel like it now. And it bothered her not just that he had proposed to lap at her shore of milk, but that he had started on the left. He always started on the left. The monotony and the lazy lack of adventure in it distressed her.
‘I’m tired, Michael.’
‘Oh, don’t be tired,’ he said.
She lay back, her arm flailed limply around his neck. He kissed her stomach. But he could feel her retreating from him. She was not with him. He tried for a little longer to see if he could call her to him, then unwilling to make love alone, he also retreated. No, there would be no love tonight.
He stilled his hands and sadly drifted. A helicopter was circling in the skies over Bell Green. A lone siren went by. From the wide stretch of land at the top of Westwood Hill, the Crystal tower loomed and shone red.
The palace was no longer standing. It had burnt to the ground in 1936, after a long and steady decline.
‘Damian?’ Stephanie called from the landing. ‘Do you know where the purple fitted sheet is?’
Damian was in the kitchen, wearing his pyjamas and dressing-gown, in the pocket of which was a single decrepit Marlboro Light that he had found with an un-non-smokerly joy at the very back of the vase cupboard above the fridge about fifteen minutes ago. He was on the verge of smoking it, having persuaded himself that after eleven months of abstinence it would be OK. His one regret about giving up smoking was that he had not consciously enjoyed, that New Year’s Eve night out, his LAST ONE EVER. He had been too drunk. The only and proper way to refrain from this filthy luxurious habit was to smoke a tonne of them to the point of nausea, which he had, and then smoke the last one with ceremony, with grave and grieving concentration, gathering strength and determination, so that the final puff was a full stop, which he hadn’t. There had been no goodbye, no bow, no final nicotine curtain, and this was what was holding him back in his life as a non-smoker. So he was going to allow himself to have that last one now. It was meant to be. It had been waiting for him all this time behind the vases, for a morning like this when he woke up desperate and needing and weak and depressed. The only problem was that he couldn’t find a light. After much hungry and irritated searching he had resolved to use the cooker (risky), and had just opened the back door in preparation for his flight out into the garden when this was done. It was raining outside but he was undeterred.
With great reluctance, he went in the opposite direction towards the hall, returning the Marlboro to his pocket and continuing to fondle it. Why did she have to pick this moment to ask about a sheet? Why did he marry her? Why did he live on the outskirts of Dorking?
‘What?’ he snapped.
Stephanie was standing at the top of the stairs wearing Saturday-morning cleaning clothes – tracksuit bottoms, an I LOVE MADRID T-shirt with no bra underneath, a navy-blue and white bandana from which splayed wispy chestnut hairs, moccasins, and no make-up. It often struck him in moments like these how willingly she was colluding in her fading, and it briefly crossed his mind, for some freakish unknown reason, taking him by surprise, in fact, that when Melissa cleaned her house she probably wore lip gloss and perhaps some nice earrings or a nice top, and that should Michael come across her in this way he probably experienced a mild and enduring satisfaction.
‘I bought a purple sheet last week from BHS and put it in the trunk and now it’s gone,’ she said. ‘It was fitted. It moulds around the corners of the mattress through a clever elasticated system so that I don’t have to break my back folding the flaps under.’ The tone of peevishness in her voice was down to a few things. First of all, she did not like his tone, and it annoyed her that she was being made to feel like a pest in going about the general and necessary maintenance of their domestic existence. Second of all, this tone was becoming indicative of his behaviour towards her as a whole – irritability, indifference, neglect, even – which she admitted to herself must be linked to the recent death of his father. The funeral was only a month ago. She was trying to be patient and understanding but it was getting to be a strain, his moping around the house and practically ignoring the children and going to bed deliberately much later than she did and getting up earlier, like last night and this morning, for instance, so that they wouldn’t have to actually communicate with each other, and when asked what was wrong and whether he wanted to talk about it just saying that he was fine, when clearly he wasn’t. And third of all, she hated it when people moved things around without telling her. And fourth of all she really did hate folding sheet flaps, especially under their ridiculously heavy mattress that Damian had insisted on buying because it was cheaper than the memory foam that she had wanted. She was in the process of conducting a gradual sheet overhaul, soon every mattress in the house would wear fitted only, and if she was going to be snapped at in trying to achieve this small utopia then, well, fatherless or not, she had no sympathy for him.
‘I haven’t seen a purple sheet,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’
‘This house,’ Stephanie said sharply, raising her arm in a grand gesture to their ceilings, their walls and cupboards and UPVC windows and generous lawn and to the Surrey Hills beyond, ‘is a communal space, Damian. Do you know what that means? As in, we all live here together, you and me and our children? You have three of them. Their names are Jerry, Avril and Summer. My name is Stephanie, and we are married, and married people talk to each other and tell each other their problems if something is troubling them.’ As she proceeded with this speech, Stephanie could feel herself becoming upset. She had acquired her sarcastic tongue from witnessing her older sister Charlotte’s vituperative exchanges with their mother during adolescence, and she had only discovered that she had it in quite such a large proportion since being married to Damian. But it was wrong for him. It was too cruel. He was looking up at her with a sad, hostile, slightly baffled expression. She felt pity for him, but she continued. ‘And if there is something troubling you, which I know there is, well, now is the time to spit it out and weep on my shoulder, Mister, because if you carry on moping around the house like this I’m frankly going to lose it. It’s hard losing a parent. I know it is. I know I’ll feel just the same when, if, when, my dad, well, I don’t even want to think about it, but . . . Oh, Damian, I wish you’d just talk to me!’
Now she was crying, not copiously weeping, which would be unlike her, but there were tears in her eyes and her shoulders were fallen in pleading. Damian sensed that he should comfort her, which irritated him even more. He was still thinking about the Marlboro, still held in that moment of being about to smoke it. He could hear the rain on the other side of the front door and was imagining it also falling on the other side of the back door, where it was waiting for him, the last one. He would look out at the sky, and blow the smoke up to the water, and feel washed away for a little while of all feeling, all obligation and emptiness, become the embodiment of emptiness itself. In an attempt to return to this brief, interrupted paradise, he placed one foot up on the first stair in a gesture of empathy, at which Stephanie took two steps down, more generous than him in her comparative psychological good health. He was supposed to say something.
‘Look, Steph, I’m fine.’ (Vituperation rose again within her but she bore with him.) ‘Don’t be upset. I’m sorry. I guess I am a bit distant. It’s just work, stuff, you know. I’m fine about Laurence, honestly. It’s really not a big deal.’
‘Do you know how crazy that sounds? How can it not be a big deal?’
It still seemed strange and dysfunctional to Stephanie that Damian called his father by his first name. She had never heard him refer to him in the usual way. She had only met ‘Laurence’ a few times, once at the Southbank Centre in London for dinner with Damian when they were first together, another time at the wedding. She had found him rather stiff and abrupt, a bit condescending, not a happy man.
‘It’s just not,’ Damian said, again in that snappy tone. ‘We weren’t close. I’m not devastated. You know we weren’t that close.’
‘Yes I know I know you weren’t that close, but he was your dad.’
Stephanie stared at her husband for a second as if she were looking at something in a fish tank and realised that there was going to be no emotionally intelligent conclusion to this conversation. She would just have to give him time. She had said what needed to be said and felt some relief, and now she was going to carry on with her Saturday, which after the cleaning would be spent in the rich and all-consuming company of her children. There was a toffee ship to make, a Buckingham Palace puzzle to complete, a swimming lesson to be attended, and – oh, she now remembered – dinner at Michael and Melissa’s to meet the new baby. The thought of a tense drive up to London with Damian did not fill her with joy. She had bought a gift already, a packet of 100% cotton 6-9 month babygros, but maybe it should wait.
‘Are you sure you’re up to going to dinner later?’ she said. ‘Do you want to cancel?’
‘No you’re not sure you want to go or no you don’t want to cancel? They’re your friends, I’m not bothered.’
‘No, we’re going,’ he said. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Yes. I’m fine.’
‘OK. Fine. Whatever.’ Stephanie turned, raising her eyebrows and her hands in exasperation, and started back upstairs. She was not going to let him ruin her day. Happiness was a human right. ‘Just remember I’m here if you need me, don’t shut me out, blah blah blah. I’m going to find that sheet. And please don’t forget to clean the bathrooms today.’
Damian watched her disappear, feeling shitty. The excitement of the Marlboro was somewhat dampened but he was going to smoke it anyway. He returned to the kitchen and ignited the cooker, only to discover on retrieving the cigarette from his pocket that he had broken it in his fondling. There was a slit right near the butt, in the most terminal and irreparable place. He didn’t even have a Rizla to fix it with. The vase cupboard had been cleared of all traces, all temptation, apart from this one accidental omission. The chance for nicotine closure was ruined. He held Stephanie personally responsible.