Read Mercury Online

Authors: Margot Livesey

Mercury

DEDICATION

FOR KATE, ANNA, ALASTAIR,

KIRSTY, AND EMMA, WITH LOVE.

1

M
Y MOTHER CALLED ME
after a favorite uncle, who was in turn called after a Scottish king. Donald III was sixty when he first ascended the throne in 1093. He went on to reign twice, briefly and disastrously. As a child I hated my name—other children sang “Donald, where's y'er troosers?” in the playground—but as an adult I have come to appreciate being named after a valiant late bloomer: a man who seized the day. Of course most Americans, when I introduce myself, are thinking not about Scottish history but about a cartoon duck. They are surprised when I tell them that a Scot invented penicillin and that James VI, for whom the Bible was so gloriously translated, was a keen amateur dentist. I used to believe that in my modest fashion, I was contributing to the spread of Scottish values: thrift, industry, integrity. I have my own business, a full-service optometrist's, in a town outside Boston. More than most people, I have tested the hypothesis that the eye is the window to the soul.

Give us a child until the age of seven and he is ours for life, the Jesuits famously claimed, so perhaps it was my first ten years in Scotland that inoculated me against American optimism. I am pleased by an average day, and I know I am neither great nor awesome. What's more, I don't believe other people are
either, although I am too polite to say so. Before I started my business, I practiced as a surgeon, which taught me precision and humility.

It was my mother who brought us to the States. In 1981 she was offered a two-year position in the Boston office of her advertising company. My father, a manager for British Rail in the days when there still was a British Rail, was happy to have an adventure. On the plane over, while my little sister, Frances, made her dolls cups of tea, the three of us studied a map of America and made a list of places we wanted to see. We rented a house on Avon Hill in Cambridge. I attended a nearby school where I gradually made friends but my real friend was Robert, whose parents ran a flower shop in Edinburgh, round the corner from the house I still regarded as home. Every week I wrote to him on a blue aerogram, and every week I received a reply to my previous aerogram. Despite the stingy American holidays, my parents worked hard at our list, and from each place we visited—Washington, DC; Yosemite; the Berkshires; New York; Montreal—I sent Robert a postcard.

During our second Christmas I sent him a card from Key West, and it was there, beside the hotel swimming pool, that my parents announced that we were not going back to Scotland. In June, when the tenants left, our house would be sold. I had already written my Christmas thank-you letter to Robert—we'd exchanged model airplanes—and week after week, as I put off breaking the news, my aerograms grew briefer. I was suddenly aware that he would never see the Frog Pond on Boston Common, where my mother had taught us to skate, or the famous glass flowers that I had tried so hard to describe; that my new friends—Dean, David, Jim, Gerry—would never be more than names to him.

At Easter Robert wrote that he and his family had spent a week in a caravan near Montrose. They had played cricket with the family in the next caravan, and he and his brother had slept in their own wee tent. “It was fab,” he wrote, “though Ian thrashes around in his sleep like a maniac.” I didn't answer. I planned to, almost daily, but I could not bring myself to write even “Dear Robert.” After three more letters, which I didn't open, he stopped writing, and when we went back to pack up our house, he was visiting cousins on the Isle of Wight. In the years that followed, my parents returned for a fortnight every August, but I chose to go to summer camp; a brief visit was worse than none. When I returned to Edinburgh at the age of eighteen, to study medicine, one of the first things I did was to go to the flower shop. Over the door hung a sign: Bunty's Bakery. They moved, the woman said vaguely. The new owners of his house were equally unhelpful. During eight years in that small city I never glimpsed him, even from afar. I still have all his aerograms in a shoebox that, although I have no plans to reread them, it would grieve me sharply to lose.

Fran was six when we moved. Within a year, her memories of Scotland had faded; she was a robust American. She has always been on easier terms with life than I have. My mother claims I didn't smile until I was nearly eight months old, and then was miserly with my new skill. “You'd look at your father and me playing peek-a-boo,” she said, “as if we'd lost our minds.” Even now I sometimes have to remind myself to tighten my cheek muscles, raise the corners of my mouth. I would fit in well in one of those countries—Iceland, say, or Latvia—where people seldom smile. Which is not to say I don't have a sense of humor. I enjoy puns, and have a weakness for silly jokes and slapstick. One of the things that drew me to Viv—you will not see much
evidence of it in this narrative—was that she made me laugh. She is the only person I know well who calls me Don. We have been married for nine years and have two children, aged ten and eight. At the wedding reception Viv, already six months pregnant with Trina, carried Marcus instead of a bouquet. Our parents were, at that time, all four, still alive.

The year before Marcus was born, I qualified as an ophthalmologist in Massachusetts. But four years later, when Trina was fourteen months old, I gave up practicing surgery, and we moved out of Boston to be closer to my parents. One unexpected consequence of the move was that Viv, who had loved horses as a teenager, began to ride more often. Her old friend Claudia lived nearby and ran a stable that belonged to her great-aunt. One day, as she knelt to tie Trina's shoes, Viv announced that Claudia had suggested they run Windy Hill together. I knew at once, from the way she focused on the laces, that she had already agreed. One of the things I first admired about Viv was her impulsiveness. She was born saying, “Yes.” And I was born saying “Let me figure that out.”

The three of us, Viv, Claudia, and I, met with Claudia's accountant, who made it clear that even in a good season, Viv would earn a small fraction of her current salary working in mutual funds. While the accountant went over the numbers, Viv and Claudia exchanged the kind of look that might have passed between members of Shackleton's expedition as he described the challenges ahead. What did they care about horrendous odds? They were bound for glory.

But after the accountant had packed up her spreadsheets, and Claudia had gone home to the house she shared with her great aunt, Viv turned to me. “You have to say, Don, if you don't want me to do this. It was never part of our deal for you to earn all the money.”

She had spent most of our second date describing Nutmeg, the horse she rode as a girl in Ann Arbor. What I recall even now, more than a decade later, are not so much the details—his chestnut coat and four white socks, how he whinnied at the sight of her—but the wistfulness with which she recounted them. When I asked if she still rode, she said, “Just enough to know how bad I've gotten.” We had both had previous relationships, but this was the only one Viv cared to describe. You could say I'd been duly warned.

So, even as she offered to refuse Claudia, I knew that to accept her offer would change a certain balance between us. Instead I reminded her of her favorite quotation from Margaret Fuller: “Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live.” Her earning less, I said, was fine with me. I was happy to support our household. And for several years that was true. I enjoyed my work, enjoyed my egalitarian marriage. I learned to speed around the huge American supermarket; my cooking improved; I bought a vacuum cleaner and found a person to use it. In Brazil, Alice had designed commercial spaces; in Massachusetts she cleaned houses with surprising cheer. My life, despite frequent emergencies, fit me like a well-made suit.

Most of the emergencies then had to do with my parents. My father had Parkinson's, and my mother and I wanted to keep him at home for as long as possible. I arranged for Alice to clean and cook for them, and several days a week I brought Marcus and Trina over after school. I had been a dreamy child, but I became an adult without a minute to spare. As a boy in Edinburgh I had loved visiting the orrery at the Chamber Street Museum. At the turn of a switch each of the planets would begin spinning on its own axis, at the same time orbiting the sun. That was what my life, and the life of my family, was like
in the years when everything worked. Unlike the planets, Viv and I touched often.

When Viv and I visited Edinburgh the spring she was pregnant with Marcus, I took her to see the orrery. It had been moved to the ground floor of the museum, and the mechanism that spun the planets had been disconnected. Standing beside the glass sphere with its painted constellations, I had done my best to describe the various orbits.

None of us shared Viv's passion for horses. I was neutral, Marcus hostile, and Trina, who loved most animals, had fallen off a pony when she was four and remained wary. I tried to make up for my lack of enthusiasm by being a good listener. But there is listening, and listening. When my patients talk during an exam, I respond appropriately even when 90 percent of my attention is focused on the cornea, the iris, the lens. And that, I fear, is how I listened when Viv first told me about a horse named Mercury.

We were in the kitchen. I was doing the dishes after a not-bad lamb curry—Marcus and Trina are adventurous eaters—and Viv was leaning against the counter, eating a peach in greedy mouthfuls. It was early September, and the peaches would soon be gone. Nearby in his cage, Nabokov, my father's African grey parrot, was also eating a peach; I had cut his into wedges and removed the poisonous pit. As I rinsed plates, as Viv talked, I was thinking about the woman who had come into my office that morning, so upset she could barely speak; the undertaker had forgotten her father's glasses.

“Mercury,” I repeated, the schoolboy's trick for feigning attention. “Commonly known as quicksilver. Also the smallest planet.”

“Quicksilver,” Viv said. “That would suit him.”

His owner, she went on, was the mother of their worst student. When Hilary phoned, Viv had been sure it was to say that her daughter was quitting—but no, she had inherited a horse and wanted to board him at Windy Hill. Mercury had arrived that day. Five years old, a dapple-gray Thoroughbred, the most beautiful animal Viv had ever seen.

“I'm hungry,” cried Nabokov, eyeing her peach. “I'm starving.”

I took advantage of his interruption to tell Viv about the dead man's glasses. “His daughter was beside herself. We gave her a display pair. I only hope they fit him.”

“I can't imagine Dad without his glasses,” Viv said. “Mom either.”

Even after all my years in the States, the word
mom
, so similar to the British
mum
, still strikes me as a simpleminded palindrome. Our children are resigned to my calling Viv by name, another palindrome, or saying “your mother” like some stern Victorian parent. I tell them they're growing up in a bilingual household. We used to make lists of words that are different in funny ways:
vest
and
waistcoat
,
pants
and
trousers
,
sidewalk
and
pavement
,
sick
and
ill
. I explained that “I quite like him” in Scottish means you don't, and in American means you do.

But I don't blame our two languages for the chasm that opened between Viv and me, so much as Mercury and my poor listening skills—and also, only now as I write this, my father's death. The road to his final exit was paved with so many losses, so many diminutions, that his end should have been a relief. But the psyche is capable of endless surprises; perhaps that's why it was named after a nymph. Looking back over the months following his departure, I can see that I lost track of certain things. So that September evening I failed to notice Viv's excitement.
She was eating a peach, she was talking about a horse, she looked just like herself, her hair, fair when we first met now closer to brown, hanging down her back like a girl's. I did not understand that grief has many guises. It can make a man oblivious to his wife's needs, or susceptible to a hazel-eyed woman, or a thief of keys and codes, or an outright liar. It can obscure the direction of his moral compass. Or utterly change that direction.

I was saying that Viv's father had nice glasses when we heard a sound unusual on our small street: the wail of a siren, growing rapidly louder.

“Something's wrong,” said Viv. She dropped her peach stone, I dried my hands, we hurried out into the street. Two fire engines, lights flashing, were parked outside the yellow house five doors down. Dirty smoke billowed from the doors and windows, but there were no flames.

Other people, strangers and neighbors we knew, were making their way towards the fire, drawn by whatever draws our species to disaster. Someone tugged my sleeve, and I saw that Marcus and Trina had followed us. “Will the house burn down?” said Trina.

“No,” I said. “The firemen will save it.” I bent down and picked her up, more for my sake than for her safety.

A policeman stepped from between two cars and told the small crowd to stand back. “Does anyone know how many people live here?” he asked.

“There's three apartments,” a man called out. “The guy at the top works nights at the post office.”

Someone else added that the woman on the ground floor worked at a health club.

The house was less than a hundred yards from ours, but I had never seen anyone enter or leave. Even after blizzards, when
everyone else appeared with shovels and snow blowers, no one emerged from the yellow house; their stretch of pavement was cleared, or sometimes ignored, by a service. We watched while two firemen forced the front door. Another climbed a ladder, checking windows. Trina started coughing—the smoke had an acrid odor—and I remember thinking we should not be exposing our children to this scene. What if someone jumped from a window, or was carried out unconscious? But neither Viv nor I could tear ourselves away. There were still no flames.

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