I was so careful but she caught me in the child’s room anyway – with the child mind you – before dinner last Thursday.
Some trick of the light was responsible that late August evening on the east coast of England when it became dark so prematurely that the orange lamplight seemed to ooze from Freya’s bedroom when I looked up. I had her by the hand in the garden and it made going to her room suddenly inviting, the way a sinner turns, realising, towards the confessional to be done. On the threshold I glanced back over my shoulder at the swollen, dead thing the sky had become, away to the east over the sea.
A second earlier I had grabbed her and pointed: ‘Look Freya, see that there.’ The wall of conifers at the end of their garden had one side all illuminated by the setting sun while the other faced the sea in total darkness. I did not need to say anything; she said it for me: ‘Empire of Light by Magritte’ – and with that wee strangled ‘g’ too! How gratifying it is when the way you see is taken up and worked through to expression in a child. It is frightening but a risk worth taking if only to stop this nailing down of a springing lid on the past as my daughter-in-law, unceasingly, tries to do. Let me take responsibility: I may be almost ninety but I know better than most what there really is to fear, where love cleaves to the dark, where real harm hides.
In the hallway I listen to see if the guests’ voices stop but she is on the stairs ahead of me, excited, her bare legs scratched and bruised by all those nine-year-old frantic explorations of a summer by the seaside which even parents like these could not stifle. She tugs at my hand, hurting my wrist but I do not say.
‘Come on Gran – we gotta talk, like right now.’
And that is the real frightener, just there: curiosity digging a pit on a sandy beach, the child at the bottom going down and down and it needs shoring up all the bloody time. To be honest, all I am doing is that – shoring up, nothing else.
My intention was to lumber as usual into the wicker chair she had prepared beside her bed with that fat cushion to support my back, but even before I had manoeuvred to sit down she grinned, whipped away my stick and stowed it behind her back. No matter. I braced the cane arms like the sides of a life-raft and flopped down, the chair scrawing across the floorboards until arrested by one; it creaked and shivered me to a stop. Something in my back cracked once but then, strangely, felt comfortable. Freya sat cross-legged on the bed, her head the same level as mine, chin in hands, and we stared at each other silently, listening to see if the volume from below dipped, but drink was making them louder. It felt as though I was about to be interviewed.
‘Gran, those bones on the beaches you told me about – tell me again, and about all the bits; it’s so cool. About those graves you went to and found and dug up – tell me, please. Were there piles of skulls too?’
Today the late morning sunshine washes into everywhere and I am renewed in spite of everything. My son, Fintan, something big in shipping, has marooned me on a kind of concrete plinth in a chair, the beach spread out before me, the North Sea busying itself, the on-shore wind not unpleasant. From my plinth at the top of a ramp I can see over to the right where his wife, Angela, something big in resource management, sits picking at food with a couple of friends – ones who braved last night’s embarrassment and stayed over. A paper plate was brought over by him a minute ago – not Angela mind – and the lentil surprise sits there untouched – a cow-pat leaking oil, attracting flies.
‘Come on over, Ma, why don’t you? Ah come on.’
I look him up and down, suddenly notice a grey hair up his nostril silvered in the light and turn to seaward again to get this sun and breeze on my face, let silence work.
Depressions in the sand have left two pools on the flat, and in the distance Freya shimmers in gathering heat between them, a bamboo pole with a green net in her hand; but from where I sit all I can see is a stick waving,
thin as a wire. Soon she will bring something up to me and what more will I say in my own competition between time and tide? Will I alert her to the hidden significance of hollows on far-away strands where seawater also collects like this?
So I say to him, ‘I’m great son; let the dust settle and we’ll see. Freya will be coming up in a minute, anyway, to keep me company.’
A light goes on in his eyes.
‘Ma, listen to me, no more, do you hear?’ he hisses, and I ask, ‘Can’t I talk to the child anymore? Is that what you’re really telling me?’
‘You know exactly what I’m saying: not about the bodies, not about those times. Oh, for Christ’s sake.’
He says this last bit without heart, I think, so I try to get him to see her: ‘Look out there, what do you see?’ I put to him.
He does not turn but studies me for a second, then looks away and offers no answer.
I will try anything: ‘Have you tested the new Remington range yet?’ He peers down. ‘What are you on about now?’ ‘Your nose and ears are getting like the Mato Grosso.’
He used to have a sense of humour. As he leaves I see them looking over, wondering what the crazy old bat will do next. I meet Angela’s eye and she does not turn away, so I know she is still fuming. So be it. I am glad I am wearing my grey Chanel trouser suit, cut by an angel, with a powder-blue silk shirt and my silver torc. Angela – angular: a brittle Austrian woman with an obsession about body fat, vitamins and work.
I am positive she eavesdropped outside Freya’s door before storming in. I had given details that would fascinate a child about the gleams, glints and textures of what may be found – scraps of clothing, hair slides, the nubbles of teeth – when she bursts in, filling the doorframe like some sort of – yes – a Valkyrie. The flung door judders on its hinges; the silence quivers. There was a rumble of thunder out over the sea; I am convinced of it.
‘Mum, you frightened me.’
Freya jolted upright, her hands to her breast, lips working silently fighting away tears, saucer-eyed. I put my hand out to her.
‘The child – ’ I start to say. Angela stands at the end of Freya’s bed gripping the metal bedstead.
‘How could you! I told you not to – Freya, go downstairs immediately, this instant! You said – ’ She waits for the crying child to leave.
‘I said what?’
‘Not to. I said not to – to poison her with this horrible, this disgusting talk of yours.’
‘Poison is not a word I would – ’
‘Poison, yes, yes, poison. Pollute – ’ Her bleached knuckles fascinate me as she bangs the bed down repeatedly. God forgive me but some scene from The Exorcist jumped into my mind.
She found the word: ‘Contaminate, you contaminate me, us, all of this!’ as her arm sweeps the room.
I wanted to say, ‘If the pair of you took up the slack here … If only you could be bothered with Freya, not be busy all the bloody time …’ But I kept quiet. After she left I was sorry for her for a moment because I could see she was genuinely crying. Then I pitied her.
I waited, rose from the chair with surprising ease and while the voices below stopped on her return, the phrase ‘forensic archaeologist’ managed to waft up the stairs like a bad smell dislodged from a grave. I heard a bicycle bell and out the tiny window Freya pedalled her bike up and down the lane, speeding, head low over the handlebars to reduce drag, legs pumping like mad pistons. I retrieved my stick. It was scarcely worth it but I had to go down. Quietly, with the rubber tip of my stick I pushed the door open and caught them in a tableau of solicitation. Nobody looked up. I took a deep breath and saw Freya at the garden fence now trying to feed next door’s pony. As he bobbed for the wisps of grass she jerked out of his reach arching back from the big head, not able to touch him; but she stood her ground.
‘Listen to me. When I was a child Freya’s age,’ I started, ‘I was lying in bed one night in summer with my window open to look at the moon. We lived in Ireland then. I had nearly dropped off when my father came into the bedroom quietly so I pretended to be in a deep sleep. He stood between me and the moon and he carried his machine gun which he tried to put down gently on the table beneath the window but it still clinked against a plaster Peter Rabbit I kept. The figure rattled on the wood and seemed to take ages to settle like a spun coin coming to rest. I never forgot that sound. Maybe he pulled up a sheet or something for I don’t remember being kissed. When I heard the catch on our front door, I went behind the curtain and watched him go to a car parked at the end of our drive; inside were three men silhouetted. I could never understand how they were so clear, how they were backlit like that until years later I realised it could only be because there was another car behind, lights full on. You know how it is as a child – things are only partial, never whole. My God, what we never forget! I remember too the misted up car windows and the warm shock of a match struck, the yellow flare dying …’ I waited. ‘Don’t we all want to reach out for some meaning before – ?’ I stopped. Is it a failure of imagination or disinterest that makes them look at each other and not me? ‘Look, he can tell you what happened if you want but I’ve got to go outside now to see to this pony.’ I took the bowl from the table and showed Freya how to feed the pony sugar lumps without getting her fingers bitten.
Here I sit and allow myself to feel the rightness, surely, that there is in always searching – for my life depended on that. But more than any excavation, I have come to know what needs to be discovered in the living, looking down this beach at a child I could not love more than if she were my own. She turns to me and waves madly in that hectic dislocated way girls do with their arms and an image springs into my head of a child’s skull in a pit in Bosnia turned to the side, around him strewn his humerus, radius and ulna, so many white sticks. I close my eyes and when I open them I watch how she runs to me racing as if my life depended on it, eyes wide, grinning, the jiggling net becoming green, one hand stuck to her chest clamped over a big scallop shell trophy like a wound.