They had not even opened the windows since their arrival three days before, let alone the doors. Given the copious amount of pollution Dad was creating, Emma felt that they must somehow have been violating a voiceless but inescapable human rule. Perhaps there was a page somewhere left unturned in their comprehension of health and safety. It seemed ill-advised of them to inhale such stale and smoked air. There was something short-sighted about living in the belly of a nicotine-run power station.
Arguably, the age of the house was a buffer against such rasping breaths and thickening gulps. The house had holes and rips around the edges that it owed to decades of weather and wind and footsteps. There was therefore little chance of them suffocating in their grief – there was only the smell of cigarettes that settled, heavy like hailstones, on their tongues.
Although it was early July, there had been no sunny reception prepared for them. Emma had even been reduced to knotting herself into her scarf in the musty, bruising gold of infinite evenings. She was not sure if this was due to genuine cold or a need for comfort but she crawled back to it with the determination of a homing salmon.
It would have suited them both well to never be forced in to progression from the state of anti-social lethargy in which they were consumed. Eventually they resigned themselves to the unreasonableness of this desire. They knew that standing still forever was simply not an option. Even as a withered and incomplete family they still required nourishment and the rapidly diminishing supplies in the cupboards meant that this simple human fact became a gentle but constant pressure.
Emma put aside her book and turned on the TV. She had been chopping between the two all afternoon and could not decide which was less appealing. The TV was a bizarre world of abstractions. She knew that she ought to have been prepared for it but she was still thrown-off by the way that English TV was so similar and yet so different to French TV. It did not air any of the shows that she was accustomed to watching back at home, only contrived and twisted versions of the same concepts. She could follow the programs but had no interest in doing so. For some reason, the fact that the contestants on some game show were called Shannon and Richard made them seem even less human.
“Yes?” he replied from upstairs. He and Maman always used to tell her to come into the room when they were trying to talk to her. She supposed that such rules had lost their potency now.
“There’s only canned tomatoes and a packet of LU biscuits in the cupbo-”
“We shopped at Carrefour before we left.”
He said it like he had lost all grasp of time and reality.
“Yes, Dad, and we’ve eaten it.”
He didn’t venture any further with his response so she turned back to the television to distract herself from the necessities of life.
Shannon got kicked off and, without any trace of disappointment, Emma switched the program off again and picked up her book instead. She’d never realised how untruthful books were about everything until that point. Their characters cried over death and horded bitterness over stupid things. In Emma’s experience it actually worked the other way round. In her book, the characters’ conversations were complete – they didn’t end with ‘Oh’ or cut each other off; they rarely occupied themselves with anything as menial as going to the supermarket.
For some reason the prospect of leaving the house was an uncomfortable one. Like climbing into a cold swimming pool on a damp day. Like peeping into the blackness beneath her bed as a child. Beyond the house she’d have to see real people, breathe real air, take real steps with real purposes. Not only this, but the village was so unfamiliar to her that locating a supermarket seemed as comparable to navigating a scarcely remembered dream.
She chucked aside the book and slid on flip-flops even though it had been raining intermittently.
“I think I’ve grown out of reading,” she told her father’s wallet as she extracted a couple of English notes. Glancing around furtively, she pushed them into her jean pockets along with an assortment of shards of adulthood.
The village was neither bustling nor quiet. It was not quite as dead as she had perhaps been expecting on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. It was not early enough for the shops to be closed for lunch but not late enough for children to have torn themselves from their school desks and ricocheted out of their confinement. In fact, the feel of the whole collection of streets and houses was one of uncertain middle ground. The day was grey but not cold and for some reason its entirety seemed to be hung in a balance between extremes.
There was an undeniable closeness about everything – the weather, the people, the buildings – and the tilting, drunken houses seemed to be in danger of falling forwards into the high street. It was not really much of a high street when she thought about the bustling squares of Rouen but it was a definite focal point for the village, it was as if every inhabitant had craned their necks towards it.
The road that she now lived on led down towards the village centre, past a windmill, and onto a rustic road that was marred by the obscenity of traffic cones and workmen’s drills. In a city, such things were somehow acceptable, but here they were like holes in a knitted jumper.
Craft store, Haberdashery, Butcher, Drill, Bakery, Café, Bank, Road diversion, Church, Vegetable store, Tea room… She counted the stitches as she walked past them without being entirely sure what she was looking for. A shop, of course, but there she couldn’t remember supermarket names from her infanthood.
She sidled into an organic health store, trying to look causal, and pretended to be very interested in the packets of assorted pine kernels, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
“Can I help you?”
“Could you tell me where there’s a supermarket round here?” She asked, relieved that she had not had to approach anyone. She knew that it was pathetic of her but, despite having been brought up with two languages on her tongue, English was always inexplicably threatening. It seemed to be a part of her that would always be foreign and unchartered. The thought of speaking it to anyone besides her family alarmed her.
“Well, there’s that one just across the road – just opposite – and a bigger one up the hill,” the woman responded with an expression of wearied irritation. Emma turned to the green-branded Co-operative that squatted not ten metres away. Co-operative was presumably some sort of English supermarket; it was not a name that she recognised but that was hardly surprising given that her memories of England as a whole were so scarce. She nodded and made a beeline for the tinkling shop door. It was only as she was closing the door behind her that she realised her apparent lack of manners. She was not sure how important such things were anymore but she grabbed a couple of courgettes from the stand outside and took them to the till to make up for it.
The English were big on manners, she recalled. Someone must have told her that once – In England, there was no such thing as too many ‘sorry’s or ‘after you’s.
“Is that all?”
“Yes. Thank you,” She replied hurriedly.
“Yes.” She extracted the notes from her pocket and put them both on the counter. “Thank you.”
“87 pence; you’ve given me far too much,” the woman replied, vague bafflement clouding her face. She pushed back one of them and returned several coins in change for the other.
“Sorry, sorry, so sorry,” She reeled off her apologies like bullets.
“You’re new around here? To England?”
“Yes, sorry, I’m from Rouen,” she flushed, “in France. Thank you.”
She stuffed the money blindly back into her pockets and left as hastily as possible.
Once outside and heading up the hill towards the larger store she collected herself and berated the way she had been such a source of embarrassment. A few boys in their late teens skidded down the road on bikes, shouting excitement at each other and she felt suddenly and inexplicably out-cast. It was not that anyone or anything had shut a door in her face; she just simply didn’t belong. She wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t English.
The Co-operative was pleasantly familiar with its strip-light-ceilings and creamy, plastic floor. There were aisles and freezers and the distinctly cool smell of supermarkets. After filling her basket with a random assortment of items she began to search with more purpose, scouring the shelves for what she wanted and eventually finding the courage to approach a member of staff.
“Excuse me?” She ventured and the tall figure that was stacking shelves turned to face her to present a young-ish, lanky-ish boy who still looked uncomfortable in his shop uniform. His half-complete smile caught her by surprise.
“Oh, um, I was wondering,” she began, aware of the fact that he was scrutinising her and not in fact wondering about shopping but about why she did not at the very least put on some clean clothes before she left. She’d worn the same jeans and shirt for the past several days and her persistent moping around the house in them had left them shabby, stale and crumpled.
“I was wondering where I can find the cheese.”
“I’ll escort you if you want.” His face was pulling up at the corners, laughing at a joke she didn’t quite grasp.
“I’m joking – you’re literally standing right next to it.”
She turned and saw a small congregation of blocks of cheddar among the rows of milk bottles.
“Yeah, well this isn’t Waitrose you know.”
She ignored his comment because she didn’t understand it and instead picked up a few packets as though hoping that they might merge into something more interesting when she held them. They were cold and clammy.
“I didn’t believe it until now but you English are really pathetic when it comes to cheese.” She intended to say it to herself but so much time alone had given her a warped sense of thought and speech. Somehow the words spilled out in an undertone that exceeded her expectations and the shop assistant insisted upon hearing them.
“Aren’t you English?”
“I grew up in France,” she said shortly, feeling self-conscious about it once more. She glanced sideways at him to see if he was still staring at her; did she have some massive rip or stain on her clothes or was he simply one of those people who had no understanding of courtesy? He offered her a second smile, this time it was fuller, more like a boast, and then he turned and walked back to his stack of crates.
She supposed that, had she been the sort of person to add mystique to herself like seasoning to stew, she might have removed the battery from her wrist watch in a gesture of magnificent metaphorical resonance. She could have picked it up and shaken it and there would still be no beat from the broken heart she wore at the end of her sleeve.
It was a nice watch; white leather, elegant, prettily garnishing the plate on which they served their apparent affluence. It had been a birthday present and, although the strap had been scuffed and tarnished by the seconds that had flickered through it, it still had some sort of glamour eight years on.
Perhaps stopping the clock that had been ticking its way through over half her life would have made some sort of statement. It would have given some meaning to her otherwise pointless decisions.
As it was, she’d continued to let the silver hands spin, mainly out of a lack of motivation to do anything else. Although she liked to be able to glance down at her wrist and see that life was in fact still continuing and the world was not in fact ending, she had not left her watch untouched for any dynamic reason. She simply hadn’t wanted to concern herself with anything as illogical and superfluous as symbolism at the time of the fire and had not even considered watches as anything more significant than time pieces. Or at least, she hadn’t until Dad had laid out this particular poem before her in his vague attempt to ‘Home School’.
Dad’s teaching consisted of poetry, pre-Anastasie-and-Maman memoirs and rolling cigarettes. Dad was proficient at the first two and less so at the third. It was somewhat ironic, Emma observed, that he had managed to wean himself off cigarettes over his twelve years in France, a country which was not quite as desperate to clamp down upon social smoking, and then had reverted automatically upon return.
“The English worry too much about lung cancer,” he’d said when he realised that you couldn’t smoke on train stations. As though lung cancer was the sort of thing that only the fastidious and fussy were concerned about. He himself had spent her childhood preaching to her about it – drawing devil horns all over her idea of smoking.
Emma looked up at him and observed the way that the clockwork behind his face seemed to have sped forward several years in the past few months. The flimsy afternoon light in their new kitchen didn’t help the hollowness of his face and the rugged corners of his stubble. Clocks had not been stopped; they had been fed. He was a mess, Emma thought privately.
“Stop all the clocks,” he mused as he exhaled and jogged ash into a pot plant. “Cut off the telephone.”
“I can read Dad.”
“He’s got a point. I just don’t know if it would work,” Dad continued as though she hadn’t spoken. He was not really conversing after all, merely thinking and experimenting with how thoughts sounded when they mixed with the tar in his throat. There was something pathetic about his words as though he was a child trying to piece together a toy from an instruction booklet. “Poems are like clouds – we always demand facts from them when they’re really only able to make suggestions.”
“I thought it was meant to be summer. Oh my God Emma. It was meant to be summer. We were meant to go down to the south coast and I was meant to be forced into buying Anastasie ice-creams. Oh my God Emma, I was meant to tell you off for wearing skimpy bikinis. I was meant to look at the sun and be happy.” He dropped the cigarette into the plant pot and leaned his head against the wall as though the weight of it was too much for him.
Emma had never worn skimpy bikinis in her life but she knew what he meant all the same.
“And here we are in some bloody dolls house that we bought because we didn’t know what else to do with ourselves! Crying over poems and clouds.”
“You’ve become very British,” was all Emma could say to the wreck of her father, propped up next to the fridge. Watercolour dreams dribbled from his shattered face like ice-cream that had sat too long on the beach. “You can’t stop talking about the weather.”
“Can we give up all this pretending about home schooling? If you want to read poems and tell the kitchen appliances about them then go ahead but I really think I’m cynical enough without reading other people’s misery.”
She left the room not out of spite, or disgust, or frustration but simply out of the agony of watching Dad press all the blood from his wounds.