As if it were yesterday, she sees herself sitting in the lobby, the cup of coffee curdling in her hand. Feels the soft wool of the cardigan against her flesh, hears Chris’s words in her head: You’ve made the right decision, Helen. You won’t regret it.
Actually, of course, he had said no such thing.
Now Emily is wearing the same cardigan. She discovered it when searching for suitcases in the loft. “Hey, this is pretty. Is it yours?”
“It’s at least 20 years old,” said Helen. “It’s probably moth-eaten.”
“Seems okay to me. Can I have it? Please!”
Emily looks so like her mother that Dan, coming home, is confused by her new attire. He blinks through his glasses, trying to recall where he’s seen it before.
“She’s started to pack,” Helen says.
It’s hard to tell which of the three is the most apprehensive about Emily’s departure: the child, who has been so cossetted and indulged, at the prospect of slumming with a crowd of strangers, or the bereft parents at the thought of their curiously silent house. Emily trundles noise wherever she goes — whether the chirp of phone conversations, the blare of rock music, the howl of dismay at homework going badly, or the furious erratic pace of her piano practice.
At the threshold of her daughter’s bedroom Helen is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of possessions piled onto the bed.
“You’ll never fit all this into three suitcases. And you’ll have to bring it all back in ten weeks.”
“Ten weeks,” declares Emily, “is ages.”
Her hair slips silkily past her shoulders. She’s still wearing the blue angora cardigan but two inches of taut flesh show above her low-slung belt. Kohl around her eyes, a tiny stud glittering by the side of her nose, rings on her bare toes: she has the demeanour of a sultry sexually aware adult, but to Helen she’s still the vulnerable child who used to nestle into her lap, scared of insects and the dark.
“Those student rooms are tiny. You won’t have nearly so much space as you do here. I don’t remember taking anything like as much as this.”
“Oh, mum, things were different then.”
She can’t possibly admit, of course, to her real fears. How can any child know how much a parent has invested in their creation? How can any parent let go?
“The thing is,” Helen tries to say. “I know what it feels like for you, but you can’t yet know how it feels to me.”
Emily is unimpressed. “Why do you always have to do that been-there-bought-the-tee-shirt routine? Like you’re the only trail-blazer on the planet.”
Helen bites her lip. “Sorry, it’s just I know how easy it is to make mistakes . . .”
She is thinking, of course, of Chris.
Chris attracted trouble. Helen first met him outside Sheffield Students’ Union, distributing fliers on behalf of the miners’ strike and “Coal Not Dole” badges. He was immediately noticeable, so much taller than anyone else. He could pick her up with one huge hand and tuck her under his arm like a mascot. He stooped to thrust her a leaflet and flashed her a breath-taking smile. “I’m trying to organize a coach to support the local pickets tomorrow. Fancy joining us?”
“I have a seminar,” she said feebly.
When Chris shrugged, his shoulders reached his ears. He looked like some giant marionette operated by a puppet master in the skies.
“Maybe another time,” she added, but he had turned to accost someone else. For a while she stood at a distance watching him: the central point in the looping spinning web of students criss-crossing the forecourt. As a result she was late for her lecture on the early influences of Robespierre.
Once noticed, Chris became unavoidable. She seemed to see him all over the place, in the lift in the Arts Tower, at the bar in the Union, on the steps at City Hall, rising like a beacon above his companions. He was studying Russian literature and in danger of failing he spent so little time in study, though his tutors — like Helen — were easy prey to his charisma. He seemed to single her out, she felt, each time they passed in the street or along a corridor, with the fierce intensity of his gaze. Meeting again at a concert, he offered to buy her a drink. Several shots later it wasn’t altogether surprising she ended up in his bed.
The bed was narrow; his feet and ankles poked well beyond the end of the mattress. She tried to lie as straight as she could against his washboard ribs, but sleep came late and the alarm sounded at 7:30. Helen’s eyes were red and smarting, her tongue felt as thick and furred as the tail of a beaver. She wanted to doze again in the warmth of his body but he leapt up and began to wrap thick sheets of cardboard and newspaper around his torso. Beneath the blankets Helen watched in surprise as he completed his padding and pulled his normal clothes — tee-shirt, underpants, jeans, and jacket — over the top.
“Protects the organs,” he explained.
“But . . . d’you really need to?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Could be a big day today and you should see some of those riot police in action. Coming?”
“Oh God, Chris! I mean . . .”
Going out with Chris was never knowing when he might disappear for days on end, when he might beg her to sit up all night stuffing envelopes, or when he might rap on her window with bleeding knuckles and a black eye. She thought he was crazy, but she loved him for his ideals, for his compassion, for the way he could light up a room full of people, and the way he yelped for joy when he made love to her. She had no particular vision of their future together but she couldn’t imagine being without him or finding any other man as electrifying.
Falling pregnant at the beginning of her final year had never been any part of her plan.
Emily is getting cold feet. She keeps putting off the moment of departure. She needs to buy a new toothbrush, to deliver a message, to return a library book. She has a whole weekend in which to arrive at university but the hours are sliding past. She spends her last night in tearful sentimental communion with the friends she is leaving behind. She’s still lying in bed on Sunday morning, tucked into a fetal position, when Helen goes in for the third time to wake her. “It’s my last lie-in,” she groans.
Helen resists the temptation to snap back the covers. Part of her wishes Emily might linger there forever, soft and warm as a dormouse, a daughter who still needs her. “I’ll run you a bath if you like,” she says.
Suddenly Emily sits up in bed, begins plaiting fine strands of hair, a nervous habit, something she can concentrate on when she doesn’t want to meet her mother’s eye. “Would you mind,” she says, “if you don’t come with me?”
Helen rocks slightly, steadies her shoulder against the doorjamb. The preparations of the past few days have revived so many of her own memories, she has been steeling herself for the moment they drive up to Emily’s hall of residence, collect the key to the anonymous room that will soon see God knows what action. She clears her throat but doesn’t speak. Emily reaches out a hand and pulls her down on to the bed, making room for Helen to sit. Their faces, only three feet apart, are identical except for the signs of age: Helen’s color more faded, the contour of her cheekbones more distinct.
“Don’t be offended,” says Emily. “Only I don’t want to look like a geek who has to have her hand held and I think it will be easier if it’s just Dad there. Anyway, he’ll be more use carrying stuff.”
Dan is not on call this weekend. He’s not submerged in paperwork. He’s frying bacon. “Breakfast will tempt her down,” he’d said when Helen sighed despairingly at the clock.
Now she closes her lips tightly on a little blurt of pain.
Emily cocks her head to one side. “You don’t really mind do you?”
“No, of course not. You’re right. He’s a much better porter.”
“It’s nothing to do with you,” says Emily, who can’t quite judge when enough is enough. “Only he’ll be, like, cool about it. He won’t make a fuss.”
“Right,” says Helen, getting briskly to her feet. “You’d better get a move on. He wants to leave before lunch.”
At first Helen told no one, not even her housemates, as if denying her pregnancy could somehow make it go away. As for Chris — his head was so full of strategies and battle lines, and where to get the best deal on coach hire or print, she feared her quandary would only occupy a fraction of it, would be edged out like Turgenev and Dostoevsky, by matters of greater importance.
The house she shared was at the high end of a long sloping terrace; even though her room was on the ground floor she could perch in the bay window and feel as if she were at the summit of the world. Sitting there late one night, she heard a slump on the doorstep, but no one rang the bell. Cautiously she peered through a crack in the curtains. The body outside was too long and tangled to belong to anyone other than Chris. When she slipped off the latch and pulled open the door he tumbled into the hallway. It wasn’t until she’d helped him stagger into her room and switched on the light that she could see the state he was in. She covered her mouth with her hands.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said. And collapsed.
She tried to straighten him out on the carpet but there was scarcely enough floor space between bed and desk, where her essay notes were neatly stacked. Piles of concise historical analysis, weighing cause, circumstance and consequence contrasted with the sight of her lover’s skin daubed with drying blood and deepening bruises. He was an easy target, she told herself, wringing out a damp towel and trying to sponge his face. It would have been obvious he wasn’t a striking miner, from his height and his soft schoolboy hands. She felt him wince as she tried to clean the blood from the wrists he’d have held up to protect his face. The wads of newspaper under his sweater were soaking, disintegrating. She sat back on her heels, defeated by the scale of the damage before her.
“I’ll have to call an ambulance,” she said.
“Don’t need . . .” he croaked.
Suddenly she was furious. The father of her unborn child could be dying in front of her eyes. “No taxi driver will take you in this state,” she hissed.
“Need a bath . . . get clean . . .” His eyes, as far as they would open, were hopeful, but each word was uttered through a grating of pain.
“How are you going to get into the damn bath? I can’t lift you. Jesus, why couldn’t your bloody mates take care of you? No, don’t tell me. They’ve all been arrested. Shit, Chris, what are we going to do?”
In A&E they put him on a trolley behind a curtain. Helen, wrenching her hair off her face, wrapping her favorite cardigan around her chest, stood guard. Lights glared overhead. Relics from drunken battles sprawled across several chairs. A young man in a white coat, a stethoscope hanging around his neck, whistled along the lino. He was the nearest thing to a doctor Helen had seen. She stepped out in front of him, holding up her hand as if directing traffic and hoping he wouldn’t swerve away from her. He stopped.
“Please can you help us,” she said.
“Sorry, I’m only observing. I haven’t qualified yet.”
She flicked back the flimsy screen, pointed to the trolley where Chris lay white and still. “I’m afraid he could be hemorrhaging and no one’s been near us for ages.”
The medical student hesitated, but he didn’t brush away her fears or make excuses to escape. Calmly he checked Chris’s pulse and reassured her that patients were not normally left to die in corners like poisoned rats. “Someone will come soon, I promise,” he said.
Emily perches on the kitchen table with her feet on a chair. In one hand she holds a cell phone and in the other a bacon sandwich. She’s alternately munching and gossiping. She’s wearing a capacious tee-shirt over a scanty pair of briefs. She looks as though she might be there for the rest of the morning; she shows no sense of urgency.
Helen leaves the kitchen — Emily gets irritated if she clears up too obviously around her — and follows Dan into the garden, where he is inspecting their small vegetable patch. Dan doesn’t see the point of growing what he calls “bog-standard produce,” so the patch is currently festooned with curious trailing gourds, tiny winged asparagus peas, and a final few purple lettuces. As a hobby he likes to cross-breed the gourds, creating ever more fanciful shapes and colors.
He doesn’t hear Helen come up behind him. Her hand creeps around his waist. She feels the need to hold onto something sturdy and reliable. He turns and presents her with a lettuce: frilly leaves encircling a dense heart, its color shifting from rich royal maroon to dusky ink. “We should eat it before the slugs do,” he says.
Helen cradles the lettuce, leans against him as he surveys the rest of his crops. “She asked me not to come with you,” she says.
“What do you think? Is she right?”
“I think it’s up to you.”
“That’s very helpful.”
“She’s not rejecting you, Helen.”
“Of course not. She just thinks one parent’s better for her image. And I have more brawn. She’s very practical — like you.”
She’s at the back door now, calling: “Mum, I can’t find my jeans. I know I put them in the wash days ago but they’ve disappeared off the face of the earth. Honestly, I . . .”
Not so much like me, thinks Helen, interrupting: “Which jeans? You’ve at least six pairs.”
By now Helen has reached the house. She puts the lettuce on the draining board, takes Emily’s arm, and steers her back upstairs for a final check on her belongings. Several times she has told her to make a list, but Emily doesn’t believe in lists. She tries to keep things in her head where, she says laughing, there’s already too much crap so stuff’s always falling out. Anyway, she confessed once, she didn’t want a nice, safe middle-class life like Helen’s: a history teacher married to a doctor, living in the suburbs. Emily wanted to live dangerously. “It’s your age talking,” Helen said and Emily took umbrage: “As if age is everything and personality nothing! Can’t you see that?”
Now Helen rescues Emily’s jeans from the airing cupboard, re-sews a loose button onto the old angora cardigan, buckles the straps around the suitcases, checks the roll of bedding, rearranges the stacks of books and CDs, and finally straightens up. There is absolutely nothing more she can do. Emily, dressed at last, her face flushed, her eyes sparkling, throws her arms around her passionately. “Thanks, mum, for everything.”
Chris had a broken tibia and three fractured ribs.
“How on earth did you make it to my house?” wondered Helen when she saw him encased in plaster like a character from a children’s cartoon.
“Willpower,” he said with a grin. He had also lost a couple of teeth, which gave him a fierce manic look. Restorative dentistry would come later. Sometimes, when she saw him reporting from a war-torn country on the television news, Helen would notice the way the powerful lighting bounced off his gleaming porcelain caps.
“You’ll be here till Christmas,” she said crossly. “Still, maybe it’s the safest place for you.”
He winced a little as he tried to settle himself more comfortably against the hard hospital pillows. “Yeah — and I managed to keep out of jail too.” He had achieved this principally by rolling into a ditch. Several of his confederates were due to be arraigned before the magistrates that morning. “I have a charmed life really.”
This is not the time, thought Helen, gazing at his cuts and bruises, the closed left eye, the gappy teeth, the white cocoon around his ribcage, to tell him I can’t be part of it. I can’t stay with a man who lives so near to the edge. I can’t have his child. She sat with her hands folded in her lap and didn’t try to stop the tears splashing down on them.
“Hey,” said Chris. “It’s no big deal. A few broken bones. They’ll mend. I’ll get better.”
“And when you’re better you’ll go out and do it all over again.”
“We have to win this, Helen. It’s important.”
“We! What we?”
“I’ll be part of the labor force some day, won’t I? The next generation will be grateful to us, you’ll see.”
“Look, I really don’t need you to cry over me.”
“I’m not crying over you, you selfish sod. I’m crying over me!”
It wasn’t quite the end of their relationship. That came some weeks later, in the New Year, when he was up and about again and the miners’ strike was finally, brutally crushed. He didn’t understand why she wouldn’t see him, why she wouldn’t answer the letters he wrote her or come to the phone.
He never knew of the decision she’d taken, scared and alone. She had visited him regularly, dutifully, in his hospital bed — with the exception of the couple of days she’d spent as a patient herself. She was on a different ward of course, so there was no danger of running into him. Her housemates had promised secrecy and she’d risked the chance that one of the nurses might spill the beans: “Saw your girlfriend today, yeah? The one who brought you in. Over in Obs and Gyny she is now, having a termination.” Chris would stare back in confusion through his one good eye. “No, no, you’ve made a mistake . . .”
She was confident he would have approved. Chris was his own millstone; he didn’t need further encumbrances. She wasn’t ready to become a single parent, unable to finish her degree. Simple facts, common sense dictated her option, but didn’t make it any easier.
“Isn’t anyone coming to fetch you?” the ward sister asked, when she was discharged.
“My boyfriend’s broken his leg,” said Helen, not adding that he was several corridors away in the Orthopedic wing and she was quite unable to face him. “I’ll be okay getting a taxi.”
When she reached the ground floor, however, she felt a sudden reluctance to go out into the world, to leave the safe confines of hospital care and present herself at lectures as if nothing had happened. She bought a coffee and a KitKat from vending machines and sat down to try and gather the threads of her life together.
She looked up. Without his white coat she had no idea who he was.
He smiled. “Thought I recognized that cardigan — the blue matches your eyes so well. How’s the boyfriend?”
“Oh,” she smiled weakly. “He’ll live.”
The memory doesn’t leave her. Every time she sees Chris on television (which isn’t all that often as she generally watches the news on another channel), sees his fervor and enthusiasm as strong as ever, she is reminded of the past and the child they might have had.
Emily, beautiful, exuberant, joyous, irreplaceable Emily leaps down the stairs two at a time. The car is loaded; she even has shoes on her feet. She is ready to go.
Dan’s hand brushes against her fluffy shoulder as she bounds onto the doorstep. “Hey, now I remember this,” he says. “And if you hadn’t been wearing it that morning in the General . . .”
“If . . .” Helen begins.