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Epub ISBN 9781407049106
Thanks to the Arts Council England, to Tom Badger and Dal Chahal of the Metropolitan Police, to my father, John Broadbent, for his tireless editing, to mi amiga, Olivia Lichtenstein, for Spain.
Published by Chatto & Windus 2009
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Copyright © Sabrina Broadbent 2009
Sabrina Broadbent has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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Lines from ‘Ithaka’ from CP Cavafy:
; translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, published by Chatto & Windus. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd.
First published in Great Britain in 2009 by
Chatto & Windus
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The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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BY THE SAME AUTHOR
A Boy’s Guide to Track and Field
For Mum and Dad
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
C.P. Cavafy, ‘Ithaka’YOU DON’T HAVE
TO BE GOOD
Chatto & Windus
noticed his wife was gone a month before she disappeared.
It was night-time, in the dead hour. It was long before dawn, before the milk float and the blackbird, when he woke and saw a face inches from his own staring at him. The room smelt peaty.
‘There’s someone in the house.’ Her voice was afraid, dry like a quill scratching parchment.
‘Bea?’ he said, peering through the grainy dark.
He raised himself on one elbow and listened to the house. Light from the landing leaked into the room and he felt a shift in pressure, as if a door somewhere closed. Dry-mouthed, he looked down at her and saw that she had gone. It wasn’t Bea lying there beside him on the rumpled, sweat-soaked sheet. Not Bea, but a grim-mouthed stranger with clammy skin and a sour tang on her breath.
She brought one finger to her lips and said, ‘Shhh.’
Frank held his breath.
And then they heard it. A small, quiet sound like the click of the latch being eased gently home. Her eyes held his for one last time and then, heart racing and with the cloyed slowness of the dream, Frank struggled from the bed. Naked and slack-bellied, he took two steps to the window and parted the curtains a crack. Outside, Oyster Row was deserted and still. Narrow terraced houses stared back at him, blind and dumb. He watched the space between the crumbling gateposts, but no figure slipped through to hurry down the street.
He rubbed the rough skin of one buttock and caressed the bald dome of his head.
A shudder ran through him. He was afraid to turn round and look at her.
‘Nothing,’ he said, eyes still on the street. ‘There’s nothing there.’
their frayed dressing gowns, the draughty floor chilled their feet. The fridge hummed, the boiler ticked and the sweet smell of decay drifted up from the bin. Nothing appeared to be missing and there was no sign of an intruder. Relief made Bea smile as she switched the kettle on to boil.
Frank came in from the front room and checked the back door again.
‘You were brave,’ she said, feeling shy and strange.
He moved away from her and looked out into the hall.
She heard him open the front door, close it again and turn the key in the lock. She waited.
When he appeared in the doorway, his face was like putty. A laugh escaped her.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
She sat down at the table and pushed a chair out for him with her foot. She wouldn’t sleep now. It could be nice, a dawn cup of tea, just the two of them.
‘Your tea,’ she said, holding a mug out and sipping her own.
She was thirsty, always thirsty. What she lost in the night in sweat, she replaced in the day with tea. She was becoming a tea lady, a teapot, a tea bag . . .
She laughed down her nose. ‘Oh dear,’ she said.
Frank saw nothing amusing in the situation. He sighed. ‘I might as well get some work done now I’m up.’
Bea watched his old-man slouch and the sheen of his head. Crestfallen, she thought. That’s what I’m seeing. Your crest is fallen, Frank, and let’s face it, so is mine. She felt wrung out, hung out to dry. Perhaps they should see someone, a counsellor, a doctor, or a priest. There were books they could read,
Mating in Captivity
Hanging on to the Bitter End
. She should smile more, she knew that for a fact. The plumber said so, and so did Frank. She pulled her mouth wide, and looked at the crowded years of the walls and shelves around them. Apart from the floor, the kitchen felt warm and safe; their home, their hutch.
‘I’ll sleep on the couch,’ said Frank and left the room.
Bea said, ‘Ouch.’ Then, ‘What work?’ to the space where he had been.
We’ve reached the couch stage, she told her window reflection. She could hardly blame him. She had sweated litres of herself during the night, cocooned in her larval bed, metamorphosing in their marriage swamp. She wished there
been an intruder in the house; some drama or event, Frank doing battle on the stairs, defending his homestead, his wife and his chattels . . .
‘Don’t be so ridiculous,’ she said aloud.
Her reflection looked back at her from the garden, where a solitary bird had begun to sing. She drank her tea and saw herself there, on the outside, looking in.
a wolf did come out of the forest.
Frank raised his fingers from the keyboard and looked at the sentence he had written. He shuffled forward in his chair, stared at the crack in the wall two feet from his face and nodded. The writing had gone slowly today. Ten words since lunchtime, and now it was half past five. But, he peered at the screen, this was something.
He cleared his throat, got to his feet and read out loud, stepping around the piles of clutter on the floor of his workroom. ‘Scene 24. Ext. Marsha’s flat with the woods behind. Night. We watch Marsha hurry from the bus stop, look up at the moon and enter the building. Peter steps from the shadows. Dr Anton (Voiceover): Just then, a wolf did come out of the forest.’
Yes, he had found a way to bring the predatory Peter into Marsha’s world. And he had managed to create the requisite sense of threat, inevitability, animalism and— He sat down abruptly and felt his lower lumbar seize. He was tempted to email his agent right away and let him know that great progress was being made with
, but his agent had yet to reply to the last email, in which he had told him that
was proving problematic. Frank frowned. How long was it since then? Two months? Three? The floorboards behind him creaked.
‘Would you rather be stupider than you look, or look stupider than you are?’
Frank sighed and looked up at the crack in the wall again. Adrian, his nephew, had crept into the room.
‘What?’ said Frank without turning round. He had a shocking headache advancing up behind his eyes. He could do with a drink.
‘Would you rather be stupider than you look, or look stupider than you are?’
Frank closed his laptop and swivelled slowly round in his chair.
Adrian had a way of standing in whatever space he found himself in that reminded Frank of the way tall seaweed swayed upward from a rock. At thirteen, he didn’t pose and he didn’t slouch. He just was. In his school uniform, a dismal array of greys in acrylic and polyester, the most striking thing about him was his head of frantic flaming hair. Like a Caravaggio, Bea always said; like a young Bob Dylan, his mother, Katharine, always said. Like a young Frank, in fact, thought Frank, stroking the smooth dome of his own head and wincing at the worrisome fact that all the really great writers possessed a head of magnificent hair. The evidence was there for everyone to see. Hair and genius go together. Look at Chekhov, Balzac, Beckett. Frank’s eyes scanned the shelves to his left. Look at Hemingway, Ibsen, Strindberg. Every single last man of them crowned with a glorious mane of hair. And when it wasn’t what could be called a crowning glory exactly – for example, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy – then there was a beard the size of a beehive. Damn. Was this the real, the awful, the actual, the inescapable reason that he had not had a script or play accepted for . . . what was it? Five years? Had all his creative energy fallen away on his forty-fifth birthday, the year he wrote an episode of
and he and his hair parted company for ever?