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Authors: Raffaella Barker

A Perfect Life

BOOK: A Perfect Life
12.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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This book is for Sarah Lutyens whose grace and
patience I have tested and found limitless.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrouvai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of our life's path
I found myself in a dark wood
And the way forward was overgrown.

Dante,
Divina Commedia
‘Inferno' canto 1

Contents

Angel

Nick

Angel

Jem

Angel

Jem

Nick

Angel

Jem

Nick

Angel

Nick

Angel

Nick

Angel

Jem

Nick

Angel

Angel

Nick

Jem

Nick

Angel

Jem

Angel

Jem

Angel

Nick

Jem

Angel

Jem

Nick

Angel

Nick

Jem

Angel

Jem

Nick

Angel

Nick

Jem

Angel

A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

Also Available by Raffaella Barker

Angel

The air is gentle but the heat is flexing, and summer is at its most perfect blooming point. In the heart of the flowering day, a woman lies, as if thrown, on the black mesh centre of a trampoline. Nothing moves. High hedges and soft red-brick walls have caught the flaring July sun, and the world swims like the view through warped glass in the mid-afternoon. The sky is limitless blue, no clouds, no birds, but one thin pink scar appearing in silence from a high-flying jet. The trampoline sways and resettles beneath the woman; she raises her arms above her head, scissoring her legs, slithering naked oiled skin against the springing latex. She is restless. The whole experience would be improved if she could be bothered to go and get something to lie on but she can't move just now. Maybe in a minute. No one is in the house; none of them will be back for hours. The sweat and oil on her back soak down into the trampoline and she sighs, shifting her hips so every notch of her spine
eases and her body pulses with sensation, with being alive and alone in the heat. Usually she would fill this spiral of time. In fact, time has not existed like this for her since she was seventeen. Lying around doing nothing is for losers, for people whose lives are not full enough. Lying around is an absurdity for a mother, a wife, a woman with a career, a clockwork model spinning and spinning on adrenalin and guilt. No one would ever equate the flung defenceless form, gleaming now and turning pinky golden all over, with freckles appearing on her cheekbones and her shoulders, eyes sleepy, mouth soft, hair a hot coil, with the sharp-edged creature who clacks around the house, an apron tied over her sundress, a telephone wedged on her shoulder like a modern-day parrot and a sense of formless panic rising in her chest. Like dough – and there is some even now proving in three bread tins, as well as a plait made by Ruby before she went to the beach – panic can only rise so far and then it will overflow, pouring sticky elastic chaos over everything, coating all feelings and thoughts with impenetrable glue.

Angel turns over on to her front and stares down through the black, porous, undulating trampoline skin at long vibrant shoots of grass. All around, the turf is cropped yellow and dry, but beneath the trampoline it has continued to grow. It looks cool and inviting. The sensation of lying under the trampoline in the damp, soft grass might be soothing if only she could get there. But moving is impossible. It is as if she has been hit. Violently hit so that everything in
her brain has shifted a little, and when she breathes in, the warm air comes into her lungs in a jagged rush; when she breathes out, it whooshes away and it won't slow down, the momentum is fast and shocked. And the space between her breaths isn't space at all, it is a drum filled with juddering emotion.

Crying was the last thing on her mind when she came out into the garden with a pair of scissors to cut a bunch of sweet peas. She had been meaning to get round to it for days; in a blue jug on the hall table the flowers from the weekend were dried up and smelled of mouldy hay. To actually come out here with the scissors and a basket to pick a bunch of flowers seemed to have become something she needed to book into her diary if she wanted to get it done. And then, as she stood in front of the delicate hazel skeleton on which the sweet peas had woven themselves into a soft cascade, Angel could suddenly see herself with her shoulders hunched and her jaw set as she poised the open scissors over a perfect bloom. She cut the first stem and then the second and laid the two flowers in the basket. She looked at the long, tangled stems, and behind them saw herself so clearly it was like a mirage. There she was, a woman who could not enjoy cutting flowers in a glorious summer garden surrounding a beautiful comfortable house, because even flowers can become yet another thing that needs to be done. She searched around inside her mind for some scrap of enjoyment, a shred of belief that this life, this perfect garden, this beautiful never-ending yet never-returning summer day could bring joy, but
her head felt sleepy and distant. The effort of caring was too much. She snipped another wiry sweet-pea stalk, and then two more, which were twined together, and held them under her nostrils, inhaling, eyes shut.

Smell is the most primitive of the five senses. It can evoke memory and feeling; with overwhelming urgency, it hooks in and tweaks at a part of the heart under which layers of life have been buried. Smell can overwhelm anyone, anywhere. As long as we breathe, we are susceptible to its power. The combination of the warm essence of flowers, the harsh dry whiff of grass, and the always present hint of the sea pierced Angel with ferocious sorrow. A blade plunged deep into her and tears she has not shed for many years began feebly seeping, small and tight from the corner of her eyes. They would dry up and stop in a moment, she was sure. Crying was something she couldn't imagine doing any more. Like dancing in the rain and putting her hair in bunches, it belonged to the past. But the tears swam in her eyes and welled bigger, splashing on to her cheeks, warm and so wet. Her nose was running now too, and when she wiped it on the back of her hand a huge sob leapt from her ribcage into her throat and out, the first one rusty like a machine coughing into life, but the second and third gaining momentum as if lubricated by tears. Stunned and absorbed by her own anguish, Angel had hurled herself on to the trampoline and surrendered to misery. Abandoned sobbing is something she has not done for years, and if she had ever thought about it she would have laughed at the notion that she might
ever again need to be so melodramatic. For her, life is on an even keel, and there is no time or energy to spare for it pitching or tossing. Over the years, her passion has somehow atrophied, shrivelled and transformed without her noticing, and her tears of sorrow and of joy have desiccated and together they have become her determined belief that if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other you will get there in the end. But where? Now, in the grief she cannot control, she is suddenly afraid, afraid of wanting highs and lows again in her life, afraid of losing control, and afraid of her own unstoppable tears. The sun moves slowly on through the relentless blue of the summer sky. Angel watches it through hot swollen eyes, humbled by her own insignificance in the face of the voltage of light and energy pouring yellow through dust motes down on to her, beating heat on to the yielding earth. And the strength around her is calming, the unconquerable force that is nature harnessed within the structure of the minutes and hours of a day reassure her. Nothing is happening, the world is ordinary, and gradually she surrenders, becomes still and loses her fear.

Afterwards she lies spent, blinking, focusing a clean gaze upon the pear tree and the garden wall. The tidal weeping is over. Angel can only match her flat-out feeling, her veins electric and delicious, as if nectar is being injected into them, with the sensation of lying close to someone, skin touching skin, sated after sex. She is aware of the layers of flesh, blood and bone in her body, alive and potent, vital and relaxed. She
shuts her eyes and the sun pulses red against her lids. And now it is gentler, like a caress, a hand tracing the planes of her face. Her breathing is calm and soft, well-being wrapped around her like a man's embrace. She wants to have this after-sex feeling for real. After having sex. It is as surprising as the crying had been to realise this.

Nick

In the car on the way back from the office in Cambridge, Nick Stone is in his shirtsleeves, his suit jacket bundled on the seat next to him. He has attended a lunchtime Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he has put forward an unassailable argument to the powers that be at Fourply Elastics, where he works, for his trip to New York, and has spent an hour watching his son Jem play cricket for the under-sixteens at school in Ely. A good day. Well, that's how it looks from the outside. Nick hits the accelerator on the giddyingly straight road from Waterbeach and the tarmac rushes loud beneath his tyres, drowning the whisper of the engine. Just to irritate himself, Nick deliberately sets his thoughts to wishing his car was a motorbike, and he has a gorgeous babe on the back. She would have long blonde hair, like the waitress in the Neil Young song. The motorbike would have to be a Harley Davidson, but that's fine. Who would complain about that? The babe would wear shorts,
sawn-off pale blue denim jeans, and her legs would be smooth and brown. He would, of course, have a leather jacket. The one he owned years ago in California. They would be on the road somewhere in America – where ever they were in the Neil Young song would do fine. Nick doesn't want to waste too much time on those sorts of details; the bits he is interested in are, in reverse order: the girl, the speed and the freedom. Actually, maybe speed is number one. He is almost hitting a hundred now, and the featureless green of the fenland fields keeps moving past him, the only landmark a distant black row of pylons, ink cartoons scrawled on the landscape. The back end of a lorry, a real blot on the horizon, dawdles into his path from a turning up ahead. Within seconds he is close up behind it, his eyes level with a balloon of yellow writing. The lorry has Netherlands plates, the writing is incomprehensible, and is presumably in Dutch. Probably something to do with windmills. Or sex. Nick suddenly thinks of Amsterdam, a place he has never been to. He has always thought he would rather not go there, as the pleasure of imagining it, bursting with sex and drugs, could never be bettered by a reality.

A moment later he is pinging past the lorry, flying like an arrow towards home, hearth and, of course, heart. He unwraps a piece of chewing gum and flicks the paper out of the window, a small act of lawlessness, but nonetheless enjoyable. His phone rings, he turns it on.

‘Hello?'

‘Nick? It's me.'

Angel sounds ghastly.

‘What's the matter?'

‘Oh, nothing. I just wondered what time you would be back. I've got to pick up the children and I was wondering if I should cook something before I leave.'

‘I won't be long.'

His automatic response to a question is to hedge. Even an indirect one, and Angel has learned over the many years of their marriage to phrase her questions obliquely, but still Nick hates to be tied down. Freedom, a girl on a motorbike and speed. None of them fits very well with picking up the children and a wife cooking supper.

He makes a small effort to sound helpful, knowing what the response will be.

‘Do you want me to get anything?'

‘Don't worry, it's fine. I'll see you in a bit.'

‘Bye, Angel.'

The phone beeps a final full stop on the conversation. The whistle blows on Nick's little afternoon fantasy and everything that seemed lit with possibility is dull now, as if a cloud has passed in front of the sun. Nick turns on his phone again and calls the office. He gets Janet, his secretary.

BOOK: A Perfect Life
12.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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