Excerpt from Her by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld and Nicolson – June 2014)
It’s her. I’m almost sure of it.
It’s late afternoon, a Friday towards the end of July. I’ve just left the off-licence with a cold bottle wrapped up in paper, and I’m crossing the square, thinking about the afternoon’s work, whether I’m getting anywhere or whether it’s going to be yet another dead end. The sky, through the shifting canopy of plane leaves, is still saturated with heat, and the golden air is viscous with pollen; but it’s tainted, too, with the disquieting scent of the urban summer: the reek of exhausts and drains and sewers, the faraway stench of the ancient forgotten streams that seep through the rocks and silt deep beneath my feet.
I’m thinking about that exact shade of violet – wondering if I’ve got it quite right against the greens and muddy browns – when I see her. She’s on the other side of the square, stooping a little, reaching out to a toddler. The sensation of it, of finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic, or passion. I feel my hands curl into fists. I’m very conscious now of my lungs filling with air, and then releasing it.
Quickly I change course, walking over to the community noticeboard and standing in front of it, as if I’m taking an interest in yoga workshops and French conversation classes, and all the time, while the scene unfolds right there in front of me, I’m watching her, noting the thin matelot top and the rolled-up jeans, the ugly German toe-post sandals they all wear around here, the hair hooked behind her ears.
I watch as she takes something out of her pocket, a tissue or a cloth, and spits on it and bends over the child, wiping its face. ‘Oh, goodness, Christopher, look at the mess you’re in,’ she says. ‘Ice-cream in your hair! How did you manage that?’ and her voice is still the sort that carries, so I hear how tired she is, the way she finds the words without thinking about them. When she tucks the tissue in her pocket and straightens up, I can see she’s pregnant, maybe four months.
The boy breaks free from her hand and staggers off unevenly; a rolling gait, a sailor’s, or a drunk’s. He’s reeling across the square towards me, and now I feel a moment’s terror: Emma’s heading in my direction, she’ll smile at me in a spirit of ersatz apology as she comes level, expecting me to be charmed by the boy, and maybe she’ll recognise me. Or maybe she won’t.
But then he saves me by falling over, stumbling on the gravel and pitching forward onto it, almost comically, like some creature in a cartoon, and in the dreadful moment of silence that follows this she moves swiftly and strongly towards him.
I walk away across the square, not looking back, as the high scream begins, and I’m thinking: Emma. It’s you. I’ve found you. And when I pay for the bread and cheese at the deli, my hands are trembling, just a little.
I go home. Without Sophie and Charles in it, the house feels exotically empty and novel, as if it barely belongs to me; it always takes me a few days to get used to solitude, on the rare occasion when I’m alone. Lenka has been and gone, leaving the scent of detergent and ironing hanging agreeably in the air. I wander through the rooms, opening windows and correcting Lenka’s corrections, switching the flowers back to the side table, removing the drinks coasters she has placed fussily under the candlesticks. In Sophie’s room, I find Henry curled up on the bed. He pushes his head against my hand as I bend over him, then lies back, patiently exposing his throat, allowing me to give him more attention. I oblige, and then I go to the chest of drawers and find the packet of cigarettes Sophie has forgotten about, hidden under her school jerseys.
I take the Cook’s Matches and a glass of the Sancerre out onto the terrace and sit there looking out over the garden, smoking. I haven’t smoked for several years, and the cigarette is stale and dry and burns strongly, with a sort of crackle, making me feel a little giddy and sick. The smoke drifts through the honeysuckle and the white poppies, whose papery petals will soon litter the grass.
Charles rings when I’m on the second glass, and I’m glad to hear his voice, glad of the distraction, so glad that I wonder whether to tell him, to try to put it into words.
He is in an expansive mood, on the verge of excitement: the flight was delayed, but he made the meeting by the skin of his teeth, and the pitch went well, he and Theo were the last team to go before the panel, and the contractor just rang to say they’ve made it on to the shortlist. ‘It’s a great scheme,’ he says, ‘A fantastic site, not far from the opera house. We could really do with landing this job. I’m going to stay out for a few days, speak to a few people, do some drawings. I can’t draw in the office, everyone’s on my case the whole time. Would that be OK with you, if I extended my stay?’
Fine, I say. We’ve nothing planned.
‘How are things with you, did Sophie get off OK?’ he asks, and as I say what is expected I’m wondering how to mention Emma – although I don’t know quite how to explain it; it’s more of a feeling than an anecdote – when he says, ‘Oh, just a minute, I’ll be with you in a minute . . .’ and then he says Theo’s turned up and they’re due somewhere for supper. So I say, fine, let’s speak tomorrow, and hang up.
Later, I lie there in bed and go back over the scene under the plane trees, analysing it, looking for clues, trying to remember what else I saw. She had a worn brown satchel on a long strap, which banged against her hip as she hurried after the boy. Her hair was lighter than it used to be: dyed, probably. The matelot top. The rolled-up jeans. The bronze sandals. It doesn’t seem enough.
After that, I’m a little on edge when I’m out in the high street or the park. I’m scared of seeing her, and I’m scared that I’ll never see her again.