Read February Online

Authors: Lisa Moore

Tags: #Grief, #Widows, #Psychological Fiction, #Newfoundland and Labrador, #Pregnancy; Unwanted, #Single mothers, #Family Life, #General, #Literary, #Oil Well Drilling, #Family Relationships, #Fiction, #Domestic fiction, #Oil Well Drilling - Accidents

February (3 page)

BOOK: February
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In the summer they bought ice creams and sat by the fountain in front of the Colonial Building. At dusk, fans of shooting foam burst up from the bottom of the shallow pool. Sheets of mist drifted in the breeze, covering their hair in a netting of tiny beads. No woman should be left alone to take care of four children, Helen had thought then, the baby with a wasp sting that made one eye swell shut like a prizefighter’s. The music, faint, coming up from downtown, and the smell of barbecues, and kids on skateboards floating past—a Friday afternoon at suppertime after a day in the park.

She had John bouncing the basketball and Gabrielle in a high chair slopping food. Cathy and Lulu were capable of sitting still at the supper table. The girls could use a napkin. John wiped his face on his sleeve.

By
outside
Helen meant that there was a transparent wall, a partition between her and the world. She could be yelling her head off—
Stop with the goddamn ball
—but nobody heard her.

After the
Ocean Ranger
went down there was a very long wait for a settlement. People always want to know how much the families got, and Helen is in this camp: none of your goddamn business.

People who want to know about the settlement seem to think a life has a figure attached to it. A leg is worth what? An arm? A torso? What if you lose the whole husband? What kind of money do you get for that? They think a husband amounts to a sum. A dead husband does not add up to an amount, Helen is tempted to tell these people. People who want to know about the money don’t know what it’s like on the outside. They are still inside. Or they have never been in love in the first place. Helen watches those people with interest.

What she would like to tell people is that she and her four children waited a very long time for the settlement. There was a charity fund for the families, yes, and people had the best intentions, they were generous, but the charity didn’t go far. She doesn’t say that to anyone. But that money didn’t go far.

It would be best if people don’t get her started on that subject. Her sister showed up with groceries, is what she would like to say. More than once, and Louise didn’t have extra either. Louise just showed up and started unloading the car and she didn’t want to hear thank you. A week’s worth of groceries.

Louise wouldn’t hear thank you. It was a terse business between two sisters, putting those groceries away in the cupboards. Louise had gone into nursing and she was just getting started and didn’t make much money then and she had two children of her own.

This is, Louise said. Don’t mention it.

Thank you, Louise, Helen said.

Do me a favour and shut up.

Helen folded laundry. Matching socks was an act that looked very much like matching socks. She looked exactly as though she were in the world, engaged in the small work of
Here is one sock, now where could that other sock be
? And when she was done there would be an actual pile of socks.

She had the radio on all the time. Or she turned it off.

That’s one mouth we can shut, she’d say. And snap the radio off.

The more time passed, the more convincing Helen became. There was the smell of chicken nuggets; there were bread crumbs under the toaster. She made lunches and had the oil company fill the tank and she went to the children’s Christmas concerts. Her lowest point ever was when the pipes froze. Down in the basement with its earthen floor, low ceiling, and damp stone walls, going at the pipes with a blowtorch. The hawking sputter as the flame shot out, strange blue, and the hiss. It frightened the life out of her. She couldn’t afford a plumber.

Louise did not miss one of Helen’s children’s Christmas concerts. Husbands and wives sit together at Christmas concerts, so Louise went with Helen. There was a program that went on for three hours, and there were costumes, and silver snowflakes hanging from the rafters, and the exuberant, insistent piano, and the dramatic gestures of the music teacher with her baton directing the overly animated, deadserious kindergarten choir,
and now, and now
, and the children enunciating the syllables. Louise dying for a smoke. Louise falling asleep. Louise crying when Lulu played her solo on the violin.

But the girls became sophisticated fast, and harder to fool. So Helen took another job, she started sewing again, and she went to yoga. Nobody said, Have you thought about meeting somebody else? For a long time nobody dared.

. . . . .

John Likes to Phone Her, November 2008

HELEN SLEEPS WITH
an eye mask to block the light. The phone: Singapore. She thought for a minute that it was Thailand, but it was not Thailand. Singapore was China. Or was it Hong Kong? It was a stopover. John was on his way to New York. He said about the sun. We’re just touching down, he said. Getting fuel.

I’m having a little espresso, Johnny said.

The phone had rung and it might have been Louise with a heart attack, or God knows. Helen lifted the eye mask and saw how different the two kinds of darkness were. She could believe the world was made of atoms that buzzed and jostled, and if she wanted to, she could put her hand through the dresser, murky and insubstantial, and rub her nylons between her fingers, rub them away like fog on a mirror.

Her black cardigan hanging on the closet door. Always there is that high-pitched terror when the phone rings at night: Is someone hurt? Louise has had a few scares with angina. An ambulance last winter. Helen is frightened of the phone.

Her cardigan looked like a presence, a ghost. She was old, after all, and yes, years had passed. The bed flying over the edge of a cliff and a siren ringing out across the water and her body seemed to fall at a slower rate than the bed and she felt the bed hit with a
plosh
and then she hit the bed and began to sink, but it was just the phone, not a siren. The phone. Answer the phone. I’m certainly not old, she thought, snatching the receiver before she missed the call.

It was just the phone; it was just her cardigan.

Where are you, John, she said.

Mom, you’re screaming in my ear. John could speak blandly when he wanted to make fun of her. He could be dry. She was not screaming. But she would try to speak more softly.

I’m in the Singapore airport trying to get myself an espresso, he said.

Helen heard a cash-register drawer snap closed. John had been all over the world on business. Tasmania was the most recent place. Meetings in Melbourne and then an adventure vacation in Tasmania. Some outdoorsy package. If you go all that way you want to take a few days, see the place, he had explained to her.

And now you’re on your way home? Helen asked.

. . . . .

There’s a Baby Coming, November 2008

TWO DAYS AGO
I was feeding peanuts to a wallaby, John told his mother. Now I’m in the Singapore airport.

He had been reaching into his pocket to pay for the espresso and he’d pulled out a candy wrapper and wondered how it got there. A purple wrapper with an illustration of a comic-book princess brandishing her hand—on her hand was a giant ring she wanted someone to kiss—and John thought of the wallaby nursing its baby. How the mother wallaby had seemed both lulled and dangerous as the baby nuzzled at her teats. The mother had rocked and swayed while the little one suckled. Splotches of scouring light had fallen through the rainforest onto the hard-packed earth and boulders.

There had been a Japanese girl beside him, maybe eight or nine years old, in a yellow sundress. Her parents were a little farther down the path. John could hear their voices through the leaves. The little girl reached out to pat the baby wallaby and the mother wallaby hissed. Drawing back her lips to reveal mottled gums and yellow teeth. John put a hand on the child’s shoulder. Shadows flickered across the ground like the raggedy end of a film in an old projector; there was a rush of wind high up, a shuddering light.

He’d made the little girl take a few steps back, his eyes on the wallabies. They were animals no bigger than mid-sized dogs and appeared to be as innocuous as teddy bears, springing up and down the trail. But they were not cute; they were wild—maybe rabid, for all he knew.

John was sure the mother wallaby would pounce and tear out the little girl’s throat. Big eyes with thick, feminine eyelashes. John looked the mother wallaby in the eye, but if there was intelligence in the animal—something he could bargain with—John did not see it. The eyes were amber, a splintering of darks and lights, browns, rusts, golds, and devoid of anything other than dumb instinct. The mother shivered. The muscular tail thwacked a bush. Then the baby sneezed.
Ker-chew
. It rubbed both paws over its nose, eyes shut, a headshake, a clownish unclogging of water droplets and snot and mother’s milk that startled them all, put things right, and both wallabies leapt through the underbrush and were gone. The little girl rolled her shoulder to release it from John’s grip. Then she was running up the path away from him, her straight black hair flicking from left to right.

It was a five-hour hike to Wineglass Bay, and how white the sand of that beach had appeared when seen from the lookout above. And that’s when John’s cellphone rang.

They were a small crowd of tourists on the lookout platform. The sibilant
shuck-shucking
of cameras, the crescendo of surf from far below. It had been a hard climb, and now an eerie solemnity fell over the group. They felt mounting awe, and the inevitable dip from awe to irritation. What did any of them have in their ordinary lives that could measure up to the stark virginity of that beach? They’d seen signs down on the beach requesting that they not remove the seashells.

It seemed to John that the parents of the Japanese girl were bickering. They hardly spoke to each other once they reached the summit of the hike, and when they did speak their words were horked out, guttural and crisp, spat in the direction of their shoes. The mother lowered a pair of redrimmed sunglasses from her hair and crossed her arms tightly over her chest.

The other fifteen tourists glanced at one another when John’s phone rang, a techno-drone that brought back offices and subways and busy streets and cancelled the otherworldly whisper of criss-crossing palm leaves. John slapped at his pockets as if he were on fire.

He thought it must be his mother, but it wasn’t his mother.

It was a woman he’d slept with months ago. A woman he hardly knew.

It’s Jane Downey, the woman said.

John tried to think of her face and drew a blank. There was a hint of eucalyptus in the cloying heat. The smell made him think of Vicks VapoRub, the dark indigo of the glass jar. The
plock
when the metal lid was unscrewed and the welling aroma that cleared the fog of a half-sinister, seductive dreaminess. His mother had wiped a slick of it over his top lip and smeared it on his chest. Someone had told her to put it on the soles of his feet. This was when he was eleven and had a fever that kept him home from school for three days. He had missed a math test on that occasion. Dysgraphia—that’s what the specialists called his condition later—made him see all numbers and letters backwards and sometimes upside down. John had overcome this, compensated, faked his way through. He could always get to the answer by going the long way around. He took engineering in university out of spite. He’d gained from his mild disability an unshakeable certainty that things were not always what they appeared to be.

Are you good? Jane Downey asked. John said about the beach and the climb. He talked about a zip ride he’d tried out a few days before—a long cable stretched across the roof of the rainforest, how he’d worn a crash helmet and how it had felt like flying.

Just so fast, he said. Once you jump off that cliff there’s no turning back. Everything he said sounded as if it were translated from a dying language. Why did he talk about not turning back? The more he tried to keep the conversation light, the heavier it became.

I had some work in Melbourne, he told Jane Downey, and I took an extra week. A ferry to Tasmania. Thought, I’m here, check it out, right?

Absolutely, she said. Tasmania. Wow.

It’s been a tremendous year, he said. And then: I thought you would be my mother. He turned around as he said this, half expecting to see Jane Downey stroll up behind him and tap him on the shoulder. He moved away from the cluster of tourists on the platform but the little Japanese girl followed him. Perhaps she’d heard the mewling tone that had crept into his voice. Like everybody else he had a phone voice, but he was not using his phone voice. His voice sounded guilty.

He had stopped himself from speaking to Jane about the feeling of accomplishment that came with taming a fear. He did not tell her how the zip-ride cables had squealed and sagged under his weight during the plummet. There was a video camera, he told her instead, in the crash helmet, and he’d purchased a
DVD
record of his ride.

They gouged me for it, he said.

I’d like to see that, Jane Downey said. She spoke with false gusto.

John could not remember anything false from the week he’d spent with Jane in Iceland six or seven months before. He had a presentiment that she was going to tell him something true and inescapable. He did not want to hear it.

Jane Downey had perfect skin, John remembered, pale and freckled and lit with honesty. There must be some inner virtue, he’d thought when he met her, to account for the uninjured beauty he saw in her face. He had been reading pamphlets that promised a dirty weekend in Reykjavik, blondes in bikinis cavorting in the Blue Lagoon. Jane was not Icelandic. She was from Canmore, Alberta.

John had been in Scotland on business and a friend had suggested Finland. He’d only spent a few days there; Finland was too austere for him. The people in Finland were either morosely sober or blind drunk, he decided. But from Finland it was a short flight to Iceland, and he thought, Why not? He liked islands. He’d heard you could run into Björk on the sidewalk.

Something old-fashioned, a rogue honesty Jane Downey probably wasn’t even aware of and couldn’t control—that’s what he’d seen in her face. A girl from Alberta who was writing a PhD thesis in anthropology. She was in Iceland for an academic conference and they met in a bar.

BOOK: February
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