Closer to Norway by Emma Jane Unsworth
I saw her before she saw me. She was standing at the gate, hesitating, a finger on her lip, her eyes boring into the gravel. Like the figure I’d seen so many times. I blinked and blinked again. She was buttoned up in her navy pea coat, gripping a small bag, her hair scraped back into a bun. I knew she was deciding whether or not to bolt; whether to just get back in her car and drive back to Lerwick and wait for the six o’clock ferry back to the mainland. Message me when she got home and say she’d come down with something. Terribly sorry. Next year, perhaps.
I’d had the radio off so that I’d hear the engine and as soon as the telltale rumble flooded the valley I ran and closed the kitchen curtains until I had just a chink to peek from. Meredith parked in the driveway next to my campervan, the 2015 model (I’ve got what you might call a taste for vintage things). That would have given her chance to fix her make-up out of sight of the house. No, I thought, knowing Meredith she’d have stopped in a lay-by to do that. She wouldn’t have taken any chances.Knowing Meredith. Did I know her, any more? We hadn’t spoken for fifty years and here she was, at my house for the night. I’d been busy that day, preparing. Baking. Dusting. Making up the spare room, keeping the cats out. Meredith had used to like cats; when I first met her she had one called Pushkin, a pied, pink-eyed thing. She found it dead by the road one day and put it straight in the wheelie bin. It shocked me, that, but I came to respect her for it; that honest cut-off.
As she walked up the path I saw that she was spry. She moved just like the figure, except she was heading in my direction, getting bigger. The figure was always moving away – disappearing into crowds and round corners, sitting on the top deck of a passing bus.
I didn’t rush to the door. I heard George’s voice in my head.Don’t let her in again, Jennifer. (Oh, George. I was much further out than you thought, much too far out all my life, not drowning but drinking.)
She knocked. I waited five breaths and opened the door. Behind her, the October marshes were blotched with rust-coloured gorse. Her mineral eyes stared straight into mine, waiting to reflect.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ she said, sticking out a hand. I looked at it. Brittle, clam-shaped nails splitting the skin at the sides. Liver spots on the slack curls of her knuckles.
I smiled. Shook her hand gently. George had nailed it when he said She wants fans not friends, that one. George had nailed a lot of things. She smiled back with her mouth, wrinkles spoking her cheekbones. She was still drawing in her eyebrows too high. Still dying her hair auburn. My hair had turned white, pure white, the way only true redheads go: a final victory. I said: ‘Won’t you come in?’ Like she was a stranger. Like I hadn’t once taken her to hospital after she drank so much rum that she fell in the hallway of our block of flats and split her forehead open a whole inch. Sew her up neatly, I’d said to the doctor in A&E, still drunk myself. She’s a painter. Aesthetics are everything. Meredith had scowled at me from under the band of blooming gauze. Giving it all away. I was always giving it all away. She despised me for it, loved me for it, despised me for it. What today? Were there still petals to pull off?
I stepped back and she stepped over the threshold.
‘Let me take your coat,’ I said.
She let me take her coat.
‘And your hat.’
And her hat.
‘And your toiletry bag.’
‘I’ll keep hold of that, thanks.’
I hung up her things on the hooks.
‘Strange light up here, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘I noticed it on the road.’
She went on: ‘You must feel very… open to the sky.’
I said, ‘That’s a nice way of putting it.’
‘Oh I’m not sure it’s nice. It’s the opposite of vertigo. Waiting for something to fall on you…’
She followed me to the kitchen.
‘Would you like a drink?’
‘I don’t drink.’
‘I meant a tea.’ (I didn’t.) ‘Or a coffee?’
‘Tea’s fine, thank you.’
I dropped a teabag into a mug.
‘You still do it that way, do you?’
I thought, I’ll have one wine just to show her I’m not afraid.
I told the fridge to pour a Large White. A glass dropped and golden liquid sluiced out. My hand shook a little as I removed the glass from the socket. I looked at her. ‘You sure?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
I put a piece of shortbread on a saucer and another five pieces of shortbread onto a plate. ‘I made those myself,’ I said, pointing to the shortbread. ‘An Ullapool pirate woman taught me how. She said You have to not think of it as baking. It’s more like drrrying them oot…’
She laughed at this. It had never really suited her.
When the tea was made we went through to the lounge and she sat down on the worn-out Chesterfield. A couple of cats scattered from the corners. I sipped my wine.
‘You said in your email you were living in London?’
‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘With my third husband.’
‘Congratulations. I only managed the one, as you know.’
A tortured silence ensued. I broke it. I said: ‘I tried living in the Highlands first. Fort William. Applecross. Wick. The top of Ben Nevis is always misted. Sometimes the rocks on the side of it look like people and sometimes the people look like rocks. But then I found I wanted to get,’ I swigged my wine, ‘loster.’
She sipped her tea. Bit her biscuit nicely. Covered her lips with three fingers as she chewed. When her mouth was empty she said: ‘I read you’re closer here to the Arctic Circle than London.’
‘That’s right. You can get to Norway in an hour. The ferry to Stavanger leaves from Lerwick every day at 6pm. I go sometimes. I like Scandinavia.’
I sounded like somebody who was learning the English language.
She looked at me. ‘Do you admire the clean lines of the interior design?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I go for the pussy.’
She bit her lip. I passed her the plate of shortbread, all in the eyes: There you go, Meredith, this is why you should have always loved me.
She looked around the room, at the paintings of mine that were hung on the walls. I’d left the door to my studio open. She might catch sight of it when she went to the bathroom. Over the years only a few critics had commented on the small dark blue figure that appeared in all my paintings. It was always tucked away in a corner or half-obscured by a tree. A “signature”, one of them called it once in an interview. Tell me about your signature. I’d recoiled at that. It’s not a signature, I said. I don’t do it on purpose. It’s a curse. I could never remember mixing that shade of blue or sketching the shape of the figure, I just found myself pulling back from a painting, near the end always near the end, and seeing it there, staring out at me without a face.
I looked at her now, as she looked down into her tea. She still had a mark on her forehead – a maggoty, papered-over crack. I stared at it, hard. Zinc White and Flesh Tint, I thought, with a touch of Violet Grey for the undulations. Still, there would be plenty of time for all that.
She looked at me and then down at my wine glass. I wondered whether she knew about my plan. We were kindred, after all. Had both emigrated for love. Cut our arms for the scars as much as the distraction. Still, she’d come anyway, hadn’t she? When I’d pressed condoms into her hand as she staggered off with men I’d said You owe me your life, you know. Yes, she’d reply, and I’ll get you back, don’t you worry. She’d given me music for birthday presents, the music I still listened to. When I’d recommended books to her she’d scoffed. Old fool! I’d actually hoped she’d develop Alzheimer’s so that I might be cleverer than her for a bit. (The dark thoughts. I had the darkest, still.) And then that fateful New Year’s Eve where we’d kissed after splitting a pill and my boyfriend had finished with me on the spot, and as I’d listened to him reading me my last rites on the doorstep I’d looked through the wall to see her sitting on the sofa, a closed ball, smirking. As I recalled it had been her idea. She would, no doubt, recall it differently. I’d like to say there was drama to our eventual fall-out, three years later. I’d like to be able to recount a blistering showdown in a city street, both of us turning and storming to opposite ends of the Earth. Alas when she left my house after an awkward dinner she merely said thank you and I didn’t tell her she was welcome. There were other people to blame – George, of course (had he wanted to possess her, too? When I killed him, part of me felt as though it was her revenge, not mine). Then there was the friend of hers who was cruel about my clothes. But really, they weren’t it. I knew it. She knew it. A coldness had crept in and around us, between us, dividing us as we slept. The slow tide of an ice sea. We hadn’t noticed for months and when we had finally noticed, we hadn’t cared. The conclusion was philosophical. Liberating. Desperately unsatisfactory. Sometimes people drift apart.
But she never quite left me. I sometimes worried that she was the love of my life. I’d once found George attacking a still-wet painting of mine, scraping off the figure in the corner with a knife. I’d screamed and he’d stopped.
Now I had her again, here, in my home. And there was tape in the cellar, and a chair, and my easel all set up.
The message was the hardest I’d ever sent. It had taken me a week to write. To my surprise, she replied instantly. Maybe she’d been curious, too. Or maybe she needed a blast of fresh embitterment, or tenderness – or the heady cocktail of the two that we made for each other. Regardless, I had her.
Darkness fell outside. It slipped down the valley sides and crept towards the house. I watched it come as we talked of London, of New York, of Paris. Neither of us spoke of the fact that neither of us had had children. When she said she was sorry to hear about George I thanked her quickly because I saw how dismayed she was at the reveal. She had been following my life, of course she had, with a glass of something, late at night, nostalgic or lonesome or just in the mood to self-destruct. Had she worked it out, what I’d done, what I would do? Intimacy crackled between us. I changed the subject – to save us both the pain, and because I knew she was lying. She wasn’t sorry at all. It was just that her concentration was slipping and she had said the right thing rather than the true thing. She was getting tired. Good, good. That would make it easier. With the darkness outside falling, still falling. It would not stop falling.
I’d had four glasses of wine when she said she’d take one. ‘Red,’ she said, looking over at a cat who had wandered in and stationed itself on the arm of an armchair.
In the hall I snatched a poetry chapbook from the bookshelves as I passed and in the kitchen I did a few hasty sketches inside the back cover. I drew Meredith’s face with its new lines. The way she held her cup and saucer. I couldn’t resist. Old fool! I pulled myself away from the pencil and slipped the powder into her glass. Slipped the chapbook back onto the shelf as I went back through.
I handed her the glass and she took a few sips. I saw her loosen, her shoulders dropping, her eyes thawing.
‘You have a nice house.’
‘And that’s a nice cat.’
She frowned, looked at the floor. I shouldn’t have said anything – I know I shouldn’t – but I couldn’t resist. The words came out before I could stop them. Old fool! ‘You’ve haunted me, Merry,’ I said. ‘Have I not haunted you?’
She looked up, looked at me. Reset her face. ‘No, Jennifer. Sorry to disappoint you.’
She put her wine down on the floor. There was barely a quarter of it gone. Not enough, not enough.
She said: ‘I think I’ll go to bed now.’
She followed me upstairs, our two shadows stretching on the wall and then shrinking.
I stood at the door of the guest room as she went inside.
‘Goodnight,’ she said. Really she did look very tired.
I heard myself say: ‘Oh, Meredith, open the curtains when I’m gone and just sit there for a bit and look at the constellations. You’ve never seen anything like it. There’s no city pollution, no sulphur glow. It’s like a blanket’s been thrown over the cage. A blanket full of tiny holes.’
‘Goodnight,’ she said again.
I went down and tidied the house, fed the cats, put the cup and glasses away. I would wait until she was sound asleep and use a tin of acrylic, they fitted so snug in the palm. She would be no trouble to drag and carry.
An hour later I lay in bed, sensing everything. She was there, in the next room. There was a wall and just over two metres of floorboards between us. A few more minutes, I told myself, and all your patience will pay off.
The figure didn’t make a noise on the stairs, that’s how it got away. I heard the front door go and then the gate. The car’s engine wouldn’t be quiet, nor the gravel, nor the laughing moon.
© Emma Jane Unsworth 2013
Emma Jane Unsworth's first novel Hungry the Stars and Everything was published in 2011, won a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors and was shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Fiction 2012. Her short fiction has been published various places including The Best British Short Stories 2012 (Salt). She has just completed her second novel, The Rogue. She tweets at @emjaneunsworth.
Closer to Norway was read by Denise Poirier for the Age & Beauty Show on 3rd April 2013