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 (4 page)

BOOK: February
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The little Japanese girl on the platform in Tasmania reached into the pocket of her dress and took out a cellophane packet, and she tore it open with her teeth. She let the packet flutter to the ground, and although John had no memory of doing so, he must have bent and picked it up.

Littering is bad, he must have thought. He must have engaged the adding machine of morality, the subconscious work of ticking through the rights and wrongs he had committed recently, in case there was a need to defend himself. Jane Downey’s false tone induced in him a vertigo similar to the vertigo he’d felt when he leapt off the cliff a few days earlier to zoom and swoop like some heavy-headed bird over the rainforests of Tasmania. He had not enjoyed the ride while it was happening. It had been something—he realized as soon as his feet left the cliff—he needed to get through. But immediately afterwards—legs rubbery, a crusty line of drool on his chin from breathing through his mouth and yelling his guts out over the treetops—he’d felt a luxurious clap of solitude, the sense that he would always be happy in his own company.

And now, as he reached into his pocket in the Singapore airport to pay for his espresso, there was the purple candy wrapper.

Inside the packet had been a plastic ring with a giant candy jewel. The little girl had put on the ring and sucked the candy, and it was faceted and red like a ruby, and the dye from it had stained her lips. The sun in Tasmania had caused the candy-jewel to pulse, and in the harsh light John had thought of it as emotion: the dull red light in the ring going flat and bright by turns, like a twist of love or fear.

John had felt pretty sure that when he and Jane Downey said goodbye at Heathrow almost seven months ago, it was with the firm understanding that there would be no phone calls. He had tried to work that former understanding into his conversation with Jane Downey. A slight reference—nothing crude or cold—to the fact that maybe she should ask herself what the fuck she was doing phoning him up out of the blue.

And now he was striding through the Singapore airport, and he desperately wanted his mother’s advice. He had phoned his mother’s number without giving a thought to what time it was at home. He had a desire, he realized, to be absolved. John wanted his mother to be indignant on his behalf, avenging. He wanted her to leap at the throat of the world.

The Singapore sun was blasting through the glass wall of the terminal. The airport was cool but a heat haze lifted off the tarmac, and it made the plane rolling slowly towards the building look wobbly. John took the candy wrapper he’d found in his pocket to a garbage bin and tossed it, but some sugary resin or static electricity caused it to stick to him. He shook his hand over the bin and the wrapper clung to the cuff of his shirt and slid down his pant leg and worked its way to the sole of his shoe. He walked with it attached to his shoe towards the endless expanse of glass that looked out over the landing strip. The sunrise or the sunset—whatever it was—and the disintegrating darkness above. The girl behind the coffee bar was calling to him—Sir, Sir—because he had her cup and saucer, but he ignored her.

His mother was groggy and panicked all at once.

The thing is, John said. I think I got somebody pregnant. Then he felt the candy wrapper under his shoe. He stepped on the wrapper with his other foot and the cup jiggled on the saucer, and he lifted the first foot and looked around to see who was watching him. The wrapper peeled off and then it was stuck to his other shoe.

John, his mother said.

She says she’s having a baby, John said.

Who says? his mother asked.

A woman, John said. Who I slept with.

Whom, his mother said. She was half asleep.

With whom I slept, John said. He bent and removed the candy wrapper from his shoe and looked hard at it. The princess in the illustration had an oversize, threatening grin and the print below was in Japanese. He slid the wrapper through a vent in the air conditioner built into the ledge under the window. The wrapper rattled violently and was sucked from his fingers to become trapped in some flickering gadget inside the ledge. It created a low, sick whir deep down in the cogs.

My God, his mother said.

The shock in his mother’s voice sent a shiver through John. He could see her sitting up in bed. That silly mask she wore pushed up on her forehead, her hair mashed flat on one side. Out on the landing strip several men in white suits were sauntering towards the plane. One of them was holding a wand lit fluorescent orange, and he turned towards John and waved it slowly back and forth. Who was the man waving at? It seemed to be a warning from a dream:
Get out of the way
. The plane was bearing down on the man with the wand, its white wings tinted pink with sunlight. The orange wand swished through the moist heat, back and forth, and then the man ducked his head and trotted out of view.

What did you say to her, John? his mother asked. The sun was as red as any sun he’d ever seen. Tropical pollution made it redder. The sun was shedding its beauty in spurts and jolts. The palm trees at the edge of the landing strip looked as if they were scrubbing the sky.

John had said to Jane Downey: Why didn’t you get an abortion?

It was the first thing he’d said. Did that make him a bad guy? He had said it knowing it was too late for an abortion. He had said it knowing it was a useless thing to say.

And Jane Downey had hung up on him. There was just the platform and the giant boulders and the pale yellow dress of the Japanese child and the red candy ring catching the light.

It was uncanny: a woman so far away with his child in her womb. John had believed her, of course. He knew the world could be this way: A stranger might call you to account, wreck your life.

The Singapore sun bored into his skull and he was in the clutches of full-blown bafflement. Dazzled by how wrong it seemed. He had been wronged, and maybe he was wrong too, but his mother might absolve him. Everything around him—the chrome and black-vinyl furniture, the silver carpet, the white espresso cup—was stained red, a creeping blush.

On the platform overlooking Wineglass Bay John had glanced away from the little girl when Jane Downey announced she was pregnant, and he saw that the little girl’s parents were making out. The man’s hand under his wife’s shirt, the shirt bunched over the man’s wrist, the small of the woman’s back. Her black, black hair cut in a straight line hanging just below her shoulder blades. John could make out the woman’s panties through her tight white pants. The elastic on her panties, a lurid pink, rode up over the top of the low-slung waistband of her pants, cutting into the cheeks of her bum and making a voluptuous dent on her bare hip. The parents had not been fighting. They had been aching to touch. The air on the platform had blown in from Antarctica and it was the purest, cleanest air in the world. It made everything look too sharp. John had gasped. Then he’d blurted into the phone: Why didn’t you have an abortion?

He wanted his mother to say that the pregnancy must be the result of an elaborate trick. Especially since he had been generous with laughter and good feeling and even money; he’d bought Jane an expensive necklace after a long discussion with the artisan who had fashioned it. Hardened volcanic lava, chunks of it. The kiss-off present, he’d admitted to himself on the platform in Tasmania. The necklace had been a way of saying he would remember the week for a long time. Or that he wanted Jane to remember it.

There’d been a tacit understanding, sealed with the necklace, that nobody would come out of a seriously fun and even deeply affecting week of fucking and eating and drinking fabulous wine and bombing around glaciers on Ski-Doos and putting white mud on their faces in eerie blue hot springs and dancing to live samba music in Iceland—that nobody would come out of that with anything but fond memories.

There had certainly been an agreement that there would not be a baby or anything remotely like a baby.

But Jane was six months pregnant. What the hell kind of thing was that to tell him on a cellphone? The little Japanese girl had pulled her candy ring out of her mouth with an audible
pop
. Jane Downey hung up, and like a fool John said, Hello, hello, and stared at the tiny instrument in his hand and then put it back to his ear.

Everybody knows wallabies are herbivores, the little girl said. And then: What’s an abortion? John had assumed she didn’t speak English.

The red Singapore sun shot out a fist and it socked John in the eye. Why couldn’t his mother say that Jane Downey must be inferior in some way, a succubus, an old hag. Or an independent and beautiful woman—he remembered her face exactly: freckled, a wide smile, impish—who would be just fine on her own.

John wanted his mother to dig deep into the secret womanly knowledge buried in the pheromones and cells and blood of that murky, heady thing he thought of as femininity, and to report back: John, you owe that woman nothing.

A baby, his mother said.

. . . . .

Dawn in St. John’s, November 2008

HELEN THREW OFF
the covers and pulled her cardigan off the hook and put it on over her nightdress. She went downstairs and switched on the fluorescent light while she listened to John on the phone. The kitchen bounced up and fluttered out of the dark.

She listened to John breathe. Even on a cellphone, calling from the other side of the world, they could let long bouts of silence stretch between them. She would be babysitting her grandson, Timmy, today, and in the early afternoon there would be a trip to Complete Rentals for a staple gun, and then a trip to get skates sharpened. She had a carpenter coming tomorrow. A pork chop thawing on the counter.

But John had got some girl pregnant. There was going to be a child.

Two months after the
Ocean Ranger
sank, Helen’s mother-in-law had told Helen she’d had the dream again about the baby in the tree. It was the same dream Meg had when the rig went down.

I think you’re pregnant, Meg told her. And Helen realized her mother-in-law was right. She’d been throwing up every morning since Cal’s death.

It was a beautiful little baby girl in the branches of that tree out there, Meg said. All wrapped in a white blanket, and it was snowing, and I said to Dave, Go out and get her, and he did.

Helen switched off the overhead light and sat in the alcove in the kitchen with one knee touching the cold window. It had been snowing. The black branches and the telephone wires and all the roofs and the railings of the fences had a white trim.

God, Johnny, she said. Remember when Gabrielle was born?

Gabrielle had arrived in late September. Helen’s water had broken on the sidewalk outside Bishop Feild School, where she’d gone to pick up the children. The water leaked into her nylons in a cold, chafing patch. Cathy and Lulu with their Cabbage Patch Kids knapsacks and patent leather shoes; John with a Star Wars light sabre that glowed blue. He ran ahead of them and stopped suddenly, swinging the sword in big circles with both hands, holding off an invisible foe.

Don’t cross without us, young man, Helen called out. Don’t step off that sidewalk, Johnny. Helen walked mincingly along Bond Street, pausing during the mild contractions. There was a sky piled with gold cloud over the South Side Hills. It had rained all day and then cleared just before she had to go get the children. Every puddle reflected cloud and a white burning sun the size of a quarter. As Helen walked past the streaks of water on the asphalt, the white quarters slid along the length of the puddles until traffic sent a shiver through and broke the reflection apart in concentric rings so that the water became, for an instant, transparent and she could see the mud and cigarette butts and brown leaves beneath.

Helen had called Meg to come and take care of the children. Then she made a plate of crackers with peanut butter and jam. The shadows from the maple trees in the backyard stirred over the cupboard doors and the floor and the table. She just stood still at the kitchen counter, the butter knife upright in her fist, her giant belly tightening hard. The strange thing was that all the pain was in her thighs. Helen felt the contractions mostly in her legs and they were crippling. She lowered herself onto a chair beside John.

He had been watching her intently. Since Cal died, John had become watchful. He’d been sent to the principal’s office a few times. There had been phone calls from the school. Johnny was watchful and his glass of milk was held quite still, just before his lips. He didn’t move.

This is it, she told him. Helen wasn’t speaking to him, but as she spoke she was looking into his eyes. The two of them were alone in the kitchen. What a thing to say to a child. This is it.

Then John put the glass of milk down carefully. How earnest he looked. A ten-year-old boy.

He drew his sleeve across his mouth. Helen was sitting in front of him with the butter knife, chilled by the breaking of a light sweat. Someone walked past the house with a boom box and the racket filled the hallway and thumped into the kitchen. A blast of racket zooming in and zooming out.

It is an afternoon that comes back to her. Not the birth itself; that was so fast. What’s to remember? The butter knife in her hand. The weather. How the street glistened after the rain on that walk back from the school with her children. Johnny watching her, so full of fear he could hardly breathe. The shadows.

I can’t, she said. Why had she said that? She remembered saying it.

I’ll go with you, John said.

No, you absolutely won’t. Helen retrieved some scrap of herself long enough to sound curt and dismissive. The child needed to be dismissed.

The taxi arrived and there was another contraction and she lowered herself to the front step, leaning her forehead against the rail. She could not stand or walk or get to the door of the cab, so she carefully lowered herself to the wooden step for a rest.

The taxi driver wasn’t having any part of that. He took Helen’s arm and eased her back on her feet. The slack, alcoholic features of his face winched tight to one corner, one eye crinkled shut, in an effort to keep his cigarette tilted up out of the way.

BOOK: February
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