“Why is it that you’re always out walking around on Sundays?” Ryan asked, having accosted her down by the river. She wondered why he was asking when he apparently followed the same pattern that she did. He must also have spent his Sundays traipsing around the village because he always seemed to conveniently meet her by accident. Sundays were days for coincidences that felt deliberate.
“I never see you on any other day anymore,” he said.
“I like being on my own,” she said although she did not really believe it anymore. “And everyone goes to church on Sundays so it’s nicer without them there watching.”
“I guess,” he said, glancing over his shoulder in the vague direction of the church. It was an intermittent black hole that swallowed the villagers each week before spewing them back into Monday.
“I’m guessing you’re not a Christian then?” He asked and Emma shrugged, noting how odd it was that religion had been reassigned some importance in her life.
“Technically I’m a Catholic. Realistically I’m more of a reluctant atheist.”
“I wouldn’t have said you were reluctant”
“I would,” she painted the atmosphere a shade darker with her words. Maman had led them to church every Sunday as children; she had never been a particularly strict Catholic but was one of those people who was unfalteringly certain of their faith. Maman had never given any indication that God might not be true, Emma thought jealously, if only everyone were blessed with such conviction.
“I did my first confession age nine, like any other pure little Catholic girl,” she could not resist being scathing when she remembered herself; perched in that little box of crimes and wishing upon wishing that there really was a God to take them all away.
“What did you confess?” he asked and she shrugged.
“God knows. It was a long time ago and church never really mattered to me much.”
He shrugged too and failed to unpeel the blatancy of her lie. Of course she remembered, not even a reluctant atheist could forget the first secrets to be pressed into that expectant wooden ear. She remembered everything; the intricate carving of the devil plunging to flames, the breathy quiet, and the weight of the truth on her filth-tongue. “I swore at my little sister. I hurt her.”
She had told the priest of the way she scalded Anastasie’s skin with her pinching fingers and she had wondered if she was made of the same darkness as the Satan she was staring eye-to-eye with.
“If God exists, that is.” He said eventually but the joke was too brash and too late to be funny.
“I don’t think he does,” she declared.
“I’d kind of realised that.”
“He’s a nice-ish concept but kind of improbable, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so, I’m a ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ kind of person,” he told her and she was faintly – and disgracefully – impressed although she didn’t like history or politics much herself.
“I didn’t know you were into history,” she said.
“Ah, well, you see, even shelf-stackers have hidden depths,” he smiled and hovered at an awkward distance from her. He was utterly dissatisfied with the gap between them but pinned back by the knowledge that she would disapprove if he drew any closer.
“Maybe I should go home,” Emma suggested in a flat, disintergrating voice. She was not particularly interested in him, or in the road, or in any of the geographical features that surrounded them. She was interested in the past tense and the way that nothing could escape it.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” he countered because he was apparently incapable of sensing reluctance and being sympathetic towards it.
“Maybe you shouldn’t decide that for me.”
“Maybe you should come to my house.”
“Maybe we should stop saying ‘maybe’”
“Maybe we should, yeah,” he smirked. He was pleased with himself and also seemed to be pleased with her although she could not decipher why.
Time passed, and the past tense gnawed away at their conversation. Neither of them was quite sure whether they were meant to be going somewhere. Emma traced circles on her jeans with the pads of her fingers, looking absently at the way his face seemed to pinch around the narrowed chin.
“Where’s your house then?” She asked eventually and he cracked a grin.
“By the church, funnily enough. I think my parents missed the point somewhere – sitting your kid next to a stained-glass window doesn’t give them a God to believe in.”
“My parents believed that too,” Emma said, venturing forth information she was still processing. “Well, Maman did anyway. I don’t think she ever convinced the rest of us. I was always too cynical to believe in her.”
“You sound so cool when you say ‘Maman’ – like, so French.” He broke the silence like an excited child trusted with cracking open an egg.
“Is that really so surprising?” she raised her eyebrows and he could only shrug.
“Well no, it shouldn’t be, I guess… but it is. Somehow. I think I sometimes forget-”
She never asked him what he sometimes forgot but it did not take her much to guess. I forgot that you were French he would say because, for him, there were no air pockets to remind him of France. For him there was no thought behind the language they exchanged and no consideration of the fractional co-ordination and realignment of every word she spoke. For him France was not an old part of him – a lock of hair or a milk tooth that someone had lovingly collected – but a vague and withdrawn destination.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he teased her.
“Like I’m some crap on the bottom of your shoe.”
“Sorry. It’s a natural reaction,” she told him.
“Yeah, now I think of it actually, ninety-nine percent of the time I am crap on the bottom of the shoe…”
“Don’t act hard done by – for most people its one-hundred percent.”
“Ahh; your mysteriously permanent lack of company now seems less mysterious. Anyway,” he snapped some sort of signal and the conversation shot sideways to chase a different horizon, “It’s not far to my house.”
He bounded up the pavement, past the haunt-less haberdashery and the toy store, leaving her to mooch awkwardly behind him. She was afraid of eagerness almost as much as she was afraid of getting left behind.
His house proved to be a spectator to the graveyard it guarded. It could only be described as ‘English’ as it posed between the deli and the dead. It was quintessentially embellished, of course, with honeysuckle around the door frame. The morsel of garden was lined with forget-me-nots and tarnished pebbles that had been long since forgotten. In place of the intended neat edges and smoothed slates were plastic plant pots and a sense of nostalgia that grew from the discarded football boots. The haphazardness of it had a vulgarity that Dungeness had been incapable of.
He shouldered the door, forcing the twisted teeth of its hinges to relent, before nodding her inside. There was suddenly something brash about everything he did, like he had lost control of a long-contained anticipation and she teetered on the bristles of his doormat.
“You can come in,” he said pointedly. “Just take your shoes off – Mum’s kind of funny about it.”
She was afraid of leaving traces of herself behind and so removed her flip-flops with the precision of a seamstress – setting them just behind the door next to his. She shuffled in his wake, questioning once more the reasoning behind her presence in his house. The air was cold and somehow stale; like rested water that you are not thirsty enough to drink.
Emma stopped abruptly in the hallway; her eyes laced to something that froze her from inside to out. They had a long low table in their entrance and the whole thing was washed under a tide of six-inch-tall people, trapped in photo frames.
Except they were not ‘people’ but one person: every single frame held the face of the dead girl.