Emma spent the day tidying the bedroom. Tidying was not something she’d done since moving house and she had never been particularly good at it anyway. Her tidying went through oscillations; it could be intensive and attentive at one point and lacklustre a few minutes later. She had always been easily distracted although, on this occasion, there were fewer distractions. There were not years of childhood tucked in and behind boxes because she was – as far as this room was concerned – not yet two months old. In the past, tidying had always been like counting the rings of a tree trunk; it involved tracing herself back to her beginnings. It was a scavenger hunt fed by snippets of former games or occasions and it nearly always led her into diversion.
The task felt different this time, not least because she was still unfamiliar with all the hidden corners of the room. She had less time to unravel and chase like a cat for a ball of string. All the same she seemed to have acquired a few layers since she arrived. She had not expected herself to be anything more than the girl who had stepped foot in England but she was pleased to find some pebbles from Dungeness and the jeans on her floor with chip fat stains on. They proved that she wasn’t just standing still. They proved she’d done something and gone somewhere; she was not just a fly trapped in amber.
The conversation she’d had at the police station swilled around in her. She had rejected the comment at the time but, as she thought it over, it seemed more and more apt for the situation. They had, after all, moved away from something and been re-confronted with it. In many ways they’d only dug themselves deeper into graves that they were too young for. All the same, these tokens of the sea-side suggested something alternative; a tunnel that was – if not lit from one end – then at least broadening.
Sat among the clothes that had settled to roost on her floor she stroked the pebbles. They were awkward in size and almost indigo in colour but just holding them she could feel the beauty of that place scratching back into her palms. They stained her with the tide and she could feel their heaviness like she could feel the sky on their shoulders that day.
For that minute, as she curled herself into a lethargy of distracted thought, she could once more believe in pointlessness. She could convince herself that the girl who’d died on a patio was pointless and so was she and so was the village and the thought was, fleetingly, worth its old and worn-out comfort.
Then she broke herself back into reality and put the pebbles on her bedside table. Humans might be miniscule to the universe, she realised, but she was not the universe. She was another speck on the surface of a peppered planet, no greater than any other speck and therefore no better able to deem human life as insignificance.
What had given her the idea that she had the right? What had given her the arrogance?
She was equally small and so equally subjected to the agonising consequences of other people. She had taught herself about pointlessness and obsolescence out of desperation to make Maman and Anastasie smaller. The problem was that she couldn’t make herself bigger, no matter what she tried; she could merely know about size and scale but couldn’t feel it.
She could not make herself too big for the pain and the significance by just knowing that there was more to the universe than humanity. She couldn’t because, no matter what she pretended, she was human and so was not immune to the harm that other humans could inflict.
A girl who dropped from a window was earth-shattering, as was an angry explosion of flame, as was a boy who made jokes about cheese and a man who had recreated his world so that it stood inside a cigarette packet. Emma herself was just another droplet in a pond that was stirred and rippled by the stones that it threw into itself.
She turned her back on the thoughts and decided that giving up on her philosophies was something for a dendrochronologist to analyse.
She started plucking all the jeans from the rug beside her bed. She had barely bothered sorting her clothes; occasionally she’d remembered to put them into the washing machine. Mostly she trampled them beneath her feet and wore the first garments that came to hand before returning them to the floor at the end of the day. They rotated like a juke-box, trying to figure out their odds among the tangles of trouser-legs. She had a lot of clothes, she noticed, now she was tasked with sorting them. She’d had a lot of a lot of things actually.
Growing up, she’d never seen her possessions as superfluous but she did now; she was surrounded by cloth of such little meaning that she wiped her feet on it daily. She supposed she should probably give things out to charity or something – as sermons back in France had always encouraged her – but she was too accustomed to the blind process of getting dressed that she did not want to have to reconsider it. It was good to have things that didn’t demand consideration. Half of the items she wore she neither liked nor needed but kept anyway out of the materialistic desire to feel grounded somewhere and to feel like there were certain things that were hers to own and to control. She could not keep her little sister hung up in the wardrobe and her mother was no longer worth folding carefully and putting into a drawer. No matter how much she wanted it, she was only granted such power when it came to clothes.
Just take them for washing; stop over-thinking them, she had to tell herself. The thing about loneliness was that it inspired a deep and calculating evaluation of every aspect of life. From the mundaneness of garments to the extremity murder, she automatically began to tease it all apart; ever searching for the solutions to her own failed reactions.
She recalled all the chemical flame tests she’d had to learn for her Brevet. She almost wished that someone could hold her to a spark and wait for the colours to discern precisely all her impurities. She wasn’t quite sure why; it seemed foolish to want flames to teach her about herself when it had been flames that had confused her in the first place.
She turned her attention the library books that had scattered themselves, largely unwanted, across the room. They were like cats in their judgemental solidarity and they perched on the edges of things in the same way – erect and sagacious. Each rested spine begrudged her lack of inquisitiveness and she collected them up on the bed so that they all glared at her from the same place.
She had never quite recaptured her love of Chemistry and these books had not lured her back. It was, after all, by chemicals that she’d lost half of her family. She wanted to be able to fall in love with it again but her conscience wouldn’t let her. She was not supposed to be lured in by danger and poison.
There was a knock at her door.
“Hello?” She asked and Dad cleared his throat in response.
“I can come in now, can’t I?”
“Yes” she wondered whether to speak and decided at the last moment that she would. It was like the one time that she had tried using a diving board and had jumped off, still not sure if she was plunging forward or stepping back, and so had fallen sloppily and only narrowly avoided the plank raking her spine open.
“I threw away the padlock.” She wanted him to know because she wanted to prove that she was worth something as a daughter. She wanted to be enough on her own. The words, however, were incapable of sounding satisfactory when she spoke them; she felt as if she was reciting lines that she had scarcely bothered to learn. He must have heard the awkwardness too – it was like an unpleasant smell in its pervasion of their senses – but he was just about selfless enough to pretend that it had not leaked into the air.
“The police said that it wasn’t murder. They decided today – I don’t know why they couldn’t have decided first and asked questions later.” He drifted on this point, his eyes not quite seeing the mound of dirty laundry or the cobwebbed curtains.
“Probably because she was young and beautiful and tragic and so they felt she was too big a wound to let hang open.”
“They were beautiful too,” he expounded and there was no need to elaborate because they both knew what he meant. There still had not been enough questions asked about Anastasie and Maman and all those other faceless matchsticks. There was still no solution. Perhaps there had simply been too many of them for them all to be young and beautiful and tragic together and so there was less need for answers.
Emma did not really know how it worked.
She only saw how it failed. How there was now a man who was supposed to be strong and clever and successful but was instead twitching his tears onto her shoulder.
“And the woman from next door gave us a card,” he was weeping bitterly as he said it so that the words “an apology” were spat out like profanities. “Look at it!”
It was floral and generic which perhaps was why it was so repulsive; all the sympathy cards in Rouen had been floral and generic. No one had had the time or the care for precision. She took it from him and read the hasty taking-back of unfounded accusations before dropping it distastefully onto the bed.
“Hypocrites,” she cursed. “We are very sorry about your unjust involvement in the affair – as if it wasn’t them who put the blood onto our hands!”
Dad crunched his eyes so that the tears stopped running and stood up to leave. In a weird way she hoped that he wouldn’t. She had shut him away for so long that it was nice to have him close both physically and in emotion. He was like a childhood novel that was pleasant to revisit even if the plot was not. Sometimes just turning the pages was enough to feel safe and treasured.
“Anyway,” he said resignedly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. It was an Accidental Death. The blood’s on the hands of the woman who left the window open.”