From The Pools

An extract: Chapter One

Howard
Christmas, 1985

Since the night he disappeared, she’s kept her hands to herself. No fingers stray towards me as we lie together, not sleeping. At seven o’clock I shake her shoulder. The brushed cotton of her nightie is soft against the rough skin of my fingertips. I know it’s rough because she used to tell me, in bed. If I stroked her back she would say, ‘Howard. Skin’s catching.’

I shake her shoulder and she ignores me. So I speak. ‘Time to get up, Kathryn. Come on now, time to get up.’

Her arm twitches, but there’s no sound. So I try again, a bit sterner. ‘Come on, now. You have to get up. This morning you have to get up.’

Neither of us has slept, of course. For the last hour I’ve been watching the blue-grey light push through the curtains, listening to her breathe. From her shallow, quiet breaths, I knew she was awake, too; probably her mind was stuck, like mine, on that moment when we saw the policewoman opening the front gate, carefully closing it again, and taking off her hat as she walked down our path. Then we knew they’d found his body.

I rise and leave her, knowing it’ll be ten minutes before she’ll move. But when I come back from the bathroom she’s standing there in her winter nightie. Her hair is still in waves, but they’re all in the wrong place, as if she’s wearing a wig and it’s slipped. There’s a big patch of mottled red on her chest where the cotton has made its imprint.

On our wedding night she wore a very different nightie. It was all layers of stuff, a bit see-through, short, well above her knees. But it hung there as if it wasn’t on her body at all, as if she’d just stepped into a tee-pee made of nylon. ‘What’s that you’re wearing,’ I said, smiling, wishing I could see more of her lovely curves. At the power station Christmas parties I knew the other men were watching her, their eyes following her movements; some of them even looked slightly scared if she spoke to them, I noticed that. They would lean towards her to catch her voice.  They patted other women on the hips, shouted things out as they passed, but with Kathryn it wasn’t like that. Even her hair seemed curvy to me, and her eyelashes, the way they swept up off her cheeks just as women’s eyelashes are supposed to. I never saw any other girl with eyelashes like Kathryn’s, except at the pictures. On our wedding night she touched a layer of nylon and gave me a twirl. ‘It’s a powder blue negligee,’ she said. ‘Can’t you tell?’ And she lifted up the hem and laughed.

I reach out and hold her elbow for a moment, but she doesn’t make a sound; she just stands there, waiting for me to let go. I release her and she walks past me, out of the door. Then I hear water running in the bathroom.

When she comes back her face looks a little pinker so I ask her, ‘What’ll you wear?’

She looks up at me with clouded eyes. I lean forward and press my forehead to hers. The tip of her nose is cold against my cheek.

‘What’ll you wear, Kathryn?’

‘Anything. Anything.’ She lets her weight fall against me.

I sit her down on the bed. ‘Right then, let’s have a look.’ I go through her whole rail, my fingers trailing over dresses, skirts, blouses, and there’s nothing black. I pull out every drawer and pick through the folded corners of her knitwear, and there’s nothing black. Plenty of brown, and quite a bit of blue, but no black. I think it best not to say anything. Instead I select a dark brown pleated skirt and a navy blue jumper.

‘This is nice,’ I say, laying it all out on the bed beside her. She stares at the skirt but doesn’t move.

‘Come on, Kathryn. Let’s get that nightie off.’

I wait a few moments, in case she stirs.

She lets me hook the hem of the nightie round my fingers and lift it up to her thighs, and when I say, ‘Lift your bottom up for me,’ she does so. She sits there naked on the bed, her arms clutched round her waist. The skin on her forearms hangs. In the half-light of the bedroom I can see the curves are still there; a little wilted, but still there.

‘Here’s your knickers,’ I say. ‘Are you going to stand up for me?’ I hold the knickers out so she can step into them. ‘No? All right then.’

I lift her left foot, guiding it into the elastic hole. And as I lift her right foot I smell her there above me, all sleepy brushed cotton and something faintly vinegary, and I find myself stopping and dropping her foot back down again, so she’s sitting there with her knickers round one ankle, and I’m resting my cheek against her shin and mouthing Robert without making a sound and knowing our son is dead.

She must feel my breathing go heavy, because she puts her hand on my head and we sit like that for a few minutes, my knees digging into our thin purple carpet, my cheek feeling the dry tissue of her shin and the knobbles of bone in there, all rounded, like a row of marbles.

‘I should have bought a black dress,’ she says.

I lift her right foot again. ‘No, no. It’s all right. People don’t wear all black at funerals these days.’

I guide the knickers beyond her knees. ‘Lift your bottom up for me.’

I keep thinking of the time I took Robert to the tank museum. Kathryn refused to come in, waited in a café down the road, wearing her red raincoat (she used to wear a lot of red), sipping a milky coffee, reading a novel. At least, that’s how I imagined her as I walked around that place, yards of camouflage and unspeakable weapons everywhere.

In that museum there were lots of fathers and sons. All the fathers seemed to have big hands with which to guide their sons around the Whippet, the Sherman Crab and the Somua tanks. They would stoop and point, ruffle hair, share interesting facts. I didn’t know anything about those grey and brown hunks of metal. I knew about turbine halls, not armoured vehicles.

I walked behind Robert as he ran ahead. I’d never seen him so excited. I let him weave between the tanks with his anorak wrapped around his waist in the way he liked. I smiled as he sat in the cockpit of the armoured Rolls-Royce, his hair sticking up on the crown of his head, his straight teeth shining.

When we got back to the café she embraced him as if he’d been gone for weeks, and he told her all about the tanks in one long breath, and her eyes lit up at the very mention of the word missile, even though she’d refused to set foot in that place. ‘Did you enjoy it, Howard?’ she asked me. I hesitated. Robert said, ‘Dad hated it.’ And they laughed.

The iciness of the kitchen floor seeps through the thin soles of my slippers. I warm my hands in the steam of the kettle. The blind with the fruit and veg print is moving slowly in the draught from the window. Sucked in, blown out. I drop the cold tea bag from the pot into the bin. I can’t cook like Kathryn so the bin is full of empty tins. She used to feed Robert plenty of meat; chops grilled with a little salt, boiled potatoes and tinned peas on the side. I never understood it. She doesn’t like meat much, but for her son she let the fat ooze over the bars of the grill and fill the kitchen with a sweet stink.

For the last fortnight she’s said nothing as I’ve handed her beans on toast, spaghetti on toast, cheese on toast, night after night. She says nothing, chews on a corner, leaves the rest. Since the night he went, we’ve eaten our tea on our laps, in front of the television. And we do not watch the news.

I almost pour the tea into the mug he bought for her, years ago — the one with ‘World’s Best Mum’ on the side. When I say he bought it, I mean of course that I got it, and said it was a gift from him on Mother’s Day. He must have been about six. She looked pleased, but she never used it. Kathryn doesn’t go in for that sort of thing, slogans.

I jerk the spout away so quickly the tea burns my hand. Then she’s there, standing beside me in the kitchen, wearing the brown skirt and the blue jumper. She’s put some earrings in.

‘You’ve got earrings in,’ I say, pushing the mug behind the teapot.

‘I’ll take them out,’ she says, quickly, before I can tell her that I like them. ‘It was a mistake. What was I thinking? Earrings.’

‘Right,’ I say. ‘Tea.’

Eleven o’clock. The car arrives in plenty of time for the service. We stand in the hallway. I am wearing my only black suit; it’s a bit tight round the waist. It’s all right, though, because I’ve put a belt round and left the top button undone. I hold out Kathryn’s wool coat. She slips her arms into it, and I heave it onto her shoulders. I button it right to the top; the collar is so high it’s like I’m tucking her neck into it. I comb her hair, which sticks out above her right ear. The ends of it look frazzled, as if they’ve been burnt.

‘Have you got any spray?’ I ask.

She looks at me. ‘Spray?’

‘For your hair.’

‘No,’ she says.

‘A hat then.’

‘I’ve never had a hat.’

‘Oh. Right then.’ I smooth the shoulders of her coat. ‘You’ll do,’ I say.

She reaches past me and opens the door. Outside, a blast of wind brings water to my eyes as I hurry to keep up with her, to keep hold of her herringboned elbow.