Authors: Emily Barr
I fished the keys Liz had given me out of my pocket. Every time I looked at them, or felt them, I felt a small sense of triumph, but now it was elusive. I knew I had done something that was good for the project, but I could no longer feel it.
I undressed, but couldn't be bothered to find a T-shirt. Instead, I climbed naked into my single bed, pulled the duvet around me, and thought of Matt. I stared at the ceiling for a long time before I fell asleep.
There was a gentle, but persistent, rapping on the door.
'Who's it?' I managed to mumble. My head was thumping and I wanted to die. The world was bleak and miserable.
'Only me!' Adrian poked his head into the room. 'Jeez, I'd forgotten how small it is in here. Do you want a ... Oh! Sorry.'
I rubbed my eyes. 'What?'
He was out of the room already. 'I'm sorry, Helen,' he called from behind the door. 'I was going to ask whether you wanted a cuppa. It's a quarter to twelve, that's all. I'm going to be cooking some lunch in a while. Can I tempt you with one of Sainsbury's finest chicken breasts, and some mash? I may even throw in a vegetable. Girls seem to like that sort of thing.'
I realised that I had been lying, naked, on top of my duvet. I was sweating slightly, and the more I woke up, the worse my head felt.
I wriggled under the covers. 'Um. I feel a bit shit,' I muttered. 'Um, but a cup of tea would be good. Thanks. Actually, coffee. And a big glass of water.'
'Coffee and water coming up. Bit fragile?'
'Mmm.' I could hear him clumping around in the kitchen, which was next to my bedroom. Coffee would be bad for my head, but I didn't care. It would make me feel rubbish in a more bearable way. I wondered whether caffeine and cocaine were related. Their names were alike.
'Adrian?' I shouted, suddenly.
'Real coffee! Not instant!'
'Your wish is my command, O Mistress.'
I sank back on to the pillow. I was supposed to have gone by now, but I couldn't even muster the energy to get some clothes on.
I was tense as I waited for my new lodger. Letting Helen move in was a mistake. It had been impossible to say no, but I wanted a stranger. I wanted a nice student nurse, or similar. I wanted my lodger to be someone who would lead their own life, who wouldn't want to be a part of mine. Still, it was too late now
The windows were open and a warm breeze was fluttering the sitting-room curtains. I was sitting on the edge of the sofa, absently stroking a poking-out baby foot, and waiting. I could hear distant music.
Her bedroom was ready. There were only a few purple patches on the walls. I'd bought a cream duvet cover. All the spare room clutter was now in my wardrobe and under my bed. I'd allocated her a kitchen cupboard and half of the bathroom shelf. I told myself, again, that she was fine. She was a nice girl whose only fault seemed to be that she was too keen. When I had fallen out with her, she'd been new in London and probably clinging on to me as the closest thing she had to a friend. Now she had a job, and, as far as I could see, she appeared to be going out with Matt.
'She'll be different, now,' I told the baby, with a stroke. 'She won't drive us mad, and anyway she knows she has to move out when you're born. And you're due to be showing up in eight weeks.'
When the buzzer sounded, I was relieved. She rang it once, then twice, and then three more times in quick succession. She had a set of keys, but I supposed it was only polite to ring, the first time.
'Steady,' I said, into the intercom's handset, and buzzed her in.
I went down and opened the flat's front door, at the bottom of the stairs.
Roberto was standing there, nose to nose with me, and he did not look happy.
'Leave my family alone,' he said, before I was able to begin to collect my thoughts.
I tried to smile. 'Not the person I was expecting,' I said, and ushered him up the stairs. It was depressing to have to deal with this. For the first time, I wished I hadn't got involved with Julie. 'What can I do for you, Bobsicle?'
I had been dealing with Roberto for twenty-six years and I knew that the thing that made him furious was being patronised.
'How's my favourite little brother?' I asked in a baby voice.
He frowned. 'Stop it.'
We were in the kitchen. He spun round to face me. Roberto had always been thickset, but recently he had grown the sort of belly you saw on news items about the 'obesity epidemic', cut off at the neck. I decided to go on the offensive, and patted it.
'Sympathetic pregnancy?' I inquired. 'That's sweet. When's yours due?'
I opened the fridge. 'Beer? Actually we haven't got any.'
'Tea? Coffee? Juice?' I looked in a cupboard. 'Gin? Vodka? A dribble of tequila?' I shuddered at the tequila. I could almost taste it at the back of my throat.
He looked at me. 'Tequila,' he said, seeing that it had some sort of effect on me. I filled a shot glass. He took it, clearly not intending to drink it, just intent on getting at me in any way he could.
'OK.' I sat at the table and motioned for him to do the same. 'Go on, then.'
He huffed importantly.
'Lizzy,' he said. 'Right.' His voice was gruff. He looked down at his drink, tipped it from one side to the other, and swirled the liquid so it almost splashed over the top. 'Look, I know you're pregnant and everything. Which apparently means you get to say and do what you want and no one can pull you up on it.'
'But? There's a big "but" coming, isn't there? I know it.' I smiled. 'And you should know about big butts.'
'Why? Why do you do it?'
I knew what he meant. 'Why do I do what?' I asked.
'Why do you fucking interfere? We were getting along just fine, all of us. I'd even say we were pretty happy. A baby on the way. Julie and I were going well. She comes to visit you for an afternoon. Suddenly, she wants us to move, she wants me to get "a proper job", she wants a home of her own. Julie's always been a lovely laid-back girl, but all of a sudden she needs material things. She wants
and I have to provide it. If she doesn't get it, she's going to be out of the door before you can say apron strings.' He looked at me with distaste. 'Apparently that's a phrase you've used.'
'I think it was Julie who said it first.'
I tried to look as if I didn't care.
'Is that it?' I asked, lightly. 'Is that Roberto Does Angry? Meh?'
He glared. 'Don't push it. And you spoke to Mum, too, and fed her something about African villages. You
that saying shit like that gets to her. I know she wants us there, and I know she's dying to have the baby under her roof, but you seem to have got her to say she'll take "a step back" and that she doesn't care if we leave. Apparently we should be building our own mud hut.'
'She does care. But she knows I'm right. She knows I'm right because she wouldn't have wanted to live with her in-laws. In the case of my dad's parents, she
'Yeah, I think we lived with
dad's parents for a while when I was a baby. That wasn't the most fun for her.' He looked at me and his anger flared up again. 'But it's different! No one can mind my mum and your dad. They're not exactly demanding.'
'They're not to you.' I watched as he picked up his glass, and drank the shot in one go. 'But Julie already wanted to go, Bobs. And you know that because she'd already said so. And then I was the only person she felt able to talk to about it. Yes, I encouraged her. Because it was what she wanted. So shoot me.'
Neither of us said anything. I picked up the bottle, and refilled Roberto's glass. He emptied it again, and stared at me challengingly. I was beginning to feel nervous. I hoped Helen would arrive soon.
'So you think Julie's going back to Terry?' I asked, after a while.
'Yeah, cheers for bringing that one up. Appreciate it. She says not but I reckon so. I think that's her plan. In fact I think it's a plan you two have cooked up together.'
'Oh, don't talk crap.'
'I don't know what else you've said. All I know is that she wants out, all of a sudden, and since she does, in fact, have a husband busy being heroic in a war, I guess that's where she'll head.'
I laughed. 'To Iraq? You think Julie's going to go to Baghdad? To Basra? I hear Fallujah's pleasant at this time of year.'
'Well, all I can say is that I wish you'd left it all alone. You have no idea how much trouble you've caused. So, thanks for everything. Yes, she's married to a soldier. Yes, I have a crappy job in a supermarket, and yes, I live with my mother. Yes, I am useless. OK? We're agreed on that. Now, can we move on?'
I stared at him. 'I never knew you felt that bad.'
I shook my head. 'You're just trying to manipulate me like you do Sue. It won't work. Oh, poor little Roberto. You see, you don't need to be in the real army like Terry, because you're already Mummy's special soldier boy.'
At this Roberto jumped up and walked towards me. I was scared, because I knew he was a bit drunk and I knew that I had pushed him. I put my hands on my stomach, to protect my baby. He reached out, and grabbed me by the shoulder. His fingers dug into my skin. I stepped back.
'Bobby,' I said, and now it seemed urgent. 'Bobby, you have to go now. You have to go home. You can see that.'
He paused. I held my breath. Roberto had been in fights before, and although I hoped that he was just trying to scare me, I wasn't sure. His grip tightened. I wanted to push him away, but I didn't dare to move my arms away from my baby.
He took a step closer and I shrank away from him. My back was against the wall. He leaned over, so his face was far too close to mine. When he spoke, it was in a hiss.
'Leave ... my ... family ... alone,' he said.
I nodded, furious with him for doing this to me, but too scared to do anything but agree. As I nodded, my nose hit his. I tried to look at his eyes, but he was too close to me, and I just saw a blur of eyes and stubbly skin. I tried to pull back but my head hit the wall.
I waited, knowing that if he was going to hurt me, there was nothing I could do. We were face to face, far more intimate than we had ever been before. His breath stank of alcohol.
A door slammed downstairs, and he pulled away suddenly. As soon as he released me, I shoved him hard, and caught him off balance. He stumbled and fell on a chair.
'Fuck!' he yelled. He rubbed his bum.
We looked at each other. I dared to smile. To my immense relief, Roberto smiled back.
'Cheers for that,' he said, his eyes wide. 'See, I'm going to be the one with bruises now. Julie will ask me what happened, and I'll say I fell downstairs.'
'Say you fell on top of a chair,' I suggested, relief surging around my veins. 'Tell the truth. Tell her you were physically intimidating someone because you'd lost the mind games. That'll make you a hero.'
We looked at each other.
'Sorry,' I said.
'Sorry, too,' Roberto muttered, in exactly the same voice he'd used as a child, on the rare occasions Sue had forced him to apologise to me. He didn't say anything else. Instead, he turned and headed down the stairs without looking back.
Mary chose a corner of the hut for her bed. Most of the others were sleeping on the bus, but she wanted to be out here, in the stone building with the wonky floor. The two Dutch guys who were also bedding down in here were already out cold, next to the glowing embers of the fire. Mary would have slept in here anyway, even without them. She depended on no one, these days. She would never owe anyone anything. That was the way she liked it. This was why she was so happy. Her head was pleasantly fuzzy from the hashish.
The inside of the hut was pitch dark, apart from the soft light that came from the last of the sticks they had burned. She curled up in her sleeping bag. It had been a magical evening, up near the Tibetan border. They had cooked over the fire, sung along to Bob Dylan songs thanks to an Australian couple and their guitar, and, to her slight surprise, Mary was still ecstatically happy. She kept expecting that this would wear off, that she would find herself miserable again, or pining for the baby, or guilty. But it wasn't happening.
Nobody here knew that she had a child. She hardly ever thought about her, and when she did, she knew that Elizabeth was better off without her mother. She gave thanks every day for the fact that she had managed to effect an escape, after getting so deeply into the wrong life.
She had cast off her shackles. Most of her fellow-travellers had had no shackles to begin with. She thought she was the only one among them who was literally running away. Running away was by far the greatest thing she had ever done. She thought she might stay in Nepal for ever. She would find a way to make some money, somehow. She would find a way to live. She had seen Buddhist nuns in Kathmandu, their hair shaved close to their heads, and she had admired the focus and the serenity on their faces. Although she felt humble before them, and knew that she would struggle to live like they lived, she felt that one day, perhaps, she might try to join their number. If she had a plan, which she didn't, Buddhism would be it.
It was a cold, clear night in the Himalayas.
The sense of wonder would never wear off. Al, the bus driver, said he had only just started running trips to Tibet, or as close to Tibet as you could get. The bridge that marked the border between Nepal and Tibet, or China, was about a mile away. Nobody was allowed to set foot on it without travel papers to get into China, so instead Al and his people camped by this old hut, and imagined the magic of Lhasa, back when it had been a proper mountain jewel, before the Chinese came. Mary was ignorant of many things, but she was learning fast. She knew exactly who the Dalai Lama was, for instance, and had spent half yesterday afternoon standing as close to Tibet as she could go without being shot, shouting, 'Long live the Dalai Lama!' and 'Free Tibet!' at the border guards. To everyone's disappointment, the guards had stayed completely expressionless. They were frighteningly smart in their green uniforms, and most of them looked younger than Mary was.