Sometimes she woke to find her wedding ring on the wrong hand, but usually not. Celia Idlewild in her long chocolate dressing gown, stepping lightly down the stairs, belt tightly wound several times at the waist in the Japanese style. The coolness of stone slabs beneath her feet and faded rose damask parting with a satisfying swish on both landings, the wooden curve of the banister like silk. In the kitchen everything as it should be: black lacquer tray, two white porcelain cups, ginger thins, the Sunday morning worship just starting on the radio; gathering cereal boxes and setting them out for Ed and Laura while celestial voices soared.
Breakfast: an act of faith, for Ed and Laura rarely got up before lunch at weekends. She couldn’t remember needing that much sleep when she was a teenager. She never wanted to waste the time. Fallow fields grow weeds, she says, and sets the table for them, regardless.
Bowls. Jam. Italian coffee pot on to a sputtering flame, herself on to her mat with one of her cold rosewater flannels fresh from the fridge, sliding it out of its polythene, unrolling it, lying with it cooling her eyes, fading the bruises of her dreams, and precisely twenty-five abdominal crunches, the same every day, remembering to pull up her pelvic floor with each one, taut as elastic, before her coffee percolated.
She heard the rattle of the letter box. Checked her watch. Too early for the newspaper. Glanced to the window but didn’t see anyone; through the slats of the blind only great waves of grey sea reaching for the sky, curling over, collapsing, still a while to go before high tide, patches of sand still visible beyond the shingle. An empty promenade, not many gulls. She tightened the belt on her dressing gown and added the coffee pot to the tray.
Espresso coffee, ginger thins and upstairs Graham asleep beneath the eiderdown, oblivious to the sea’s comings and goings, curled into his pillow, contented as the biggest brown bear should be. His back smooth, speckled across the shoulders from a summer at home, working right there at the beach with the aid of a dongle and his computer on a board across his lap, an old straw hat with a faded air-force blue band to keep the sun from giving him headaches.
Graham had done nothing to offend her from one sunny day to the next: he hadn’t taken calls in another room on his mobile late at night, hadn’t been to London even once – it was so much easier for him to stay in touch with his office since she’d bought him the dongle. And he’d only worn the straw hat she liked while his panama grew dusty in the cloakroom. Celia thought the blue hatband a perfect match for his eyes. With a happy sigh she added a quilted pot warmer to the tray.
Up she’d go with the tray, lose the gown, slip herself beneath that eiderdown, tuck her knees into the back of his and lie with her face to his back, arms wrapped around him, her cheek fitting along his shoulder blade like a ball in a cup, like warm clay. Just for a while she’d mould herself to his brand of warmth, to his smell: buttered toast, walnuts and bread, and the coffee in its pot hot for a while yet.
She checked the front door as she passed with the tray to see if by some happy miracle the newspapers had arrived and almost dropped it, hot coffee and all, on to the floor when she saw what was waiting for her there. She had to put the tray on the hall table and take a closer look: it was disgusting what some people would do.
She could see at once what it was, spreading itself over the stones like a stain, split yolk spilling a gob of a sunset, a nacreous sea, oh God, and someone had written something on the shell. Celia could see a few letters still intact. Someone had posted this egg through the letter box with a message. So, not mindless hooliganism then. For a few soft and carefree moments, Celia could not imagine who would do such a thing. Then, as the swan’s down blew away and it dawned on her who might, she had to turn around and check that there was no one coming down the stairs to witness her outrage.
For once she was glad that her children were happy to sleep their lives away and she was the lone early riser; even Graham slept the sleep of the blameless and never stirred
For a moment she was puzzled by what was written on the egg. HAPPY FAT. But not for long. She felt suddenly quite shaken and had to sit down on the stairs.
What a revolting thing to do! She stood again and bent closer to the broken egg. Its shell was pale brown. A full half remained capsized in a sea of gloop. Celia’s stomach turned at the sight of it. There were capital letters in what appeared to be black pen. HAPPY FAT. The rest of the message was lost in smithereens of shell that smattered in the slime.
Celia hated eggs almost as much as she hated eggshell. She hadn’t eaten anything eggy, not even meringues, since she was forced to as a child, though she sometimes, very kindly in her opinion, boiled them for Graham and the children: stripy blue and white egg cups, buttered toast cut into soldiers, nicely done and set before them without a word. Yolks burst as they plunged in, dribbled over jagged shells, bits of gritty salt sticking to slippery blind whites. Graham insisting they smash the shells with their spoons: an Idlewild family tradition, he said, to stop the witches using them as boats in which to sail out to sea and sink ships. Then came the crunch of the spoons on the shells. The wooden stools at the breakfast counter ranged so they all faced straight out to sea. From every window the Idlewilds could watch the waves that would bear the witches along; the sound of the weather came to them first and the ancient sashes rattled with rumours.
The wanton devastation of those eggshells among the surviving soldiers and crusts made Celia gag every time and she wished her family would eat porridge instead, or let the witches have their boats. There were shards of eggshell in her mouth, stuck for ever in the careless scrambled eggs that her mother made, the unexpected crunch of it and it sticking against her throat and lodging in the bite surfaces of her molars so she’d keep finding its grittiness along with buttery scrambled egg as she was made to chew: ‘Oh don’t make such a fuss Celia, just swallow’, but Celia couldn’t swallow.
She looked back up the stairs quickly to check there was still no one coming. She thought she heard a door opening, so shot to the kitchen for a cloth. Normally she would wear rubber gloves for anything involving a dishcloth but on the occasion of the egg she couldn’t wait to get the mess off the floor and out of sight. Away into a carrier bag, cloth and all, knotted in the way people do when disposing of nappies, and deep into the bin.
She sat at the table and started working her way through the pot of coffee alone. The egg had reduced the crystalline possibility of her morning to slime. The domed shell of it in that smear of sunset; the crispy sound of it crushing inside the dishcloth as she closed her fist. Slime and shell. Egg bomb. Stink bomb. Bombshell.
Sometimes too much caffeine could bring on an annoying twitch, just the outer corner of her right eye. Look quick. Outside the sea rose in foam and dashed itself on to the shore. In a dark grey sky white gulls battled the wind. Not, then, the sort of day that should bring a visitor to the coast.
Celia used to watch her twitch in the mirror. Graham claimed he couldn’t see it when she tried to get him to notice. He wasn’t quick enough: blink and you miss it. Tickety tic. His eyes slid away, back beneath the brim of his hat. Not nervy like her. Steady and kind so he’d hate to think that he’d been the one to put the tic in there. She’d always been quick to flinch, like a horse that was easily spooked. She gulped the last of the coffee, feeling it hit her insides. Shut her eyes.
Graham upstairs in bed. She’d take up coffee. The tray on the floor, him turning on to his back. Through the window, despite the bad weather, three kitesurfers galloping over the waves, powerful backs and legs hinging up and down like well-oiled machinery and Graham’s strong hands keeping her steady, sails billowing, rising and falling, crashing
But the egg. Her fingers tapped the work surface as a sermon on the radio reached its happy conclusion. It was, as these things so often are, about forgiveness and she hadn’t listened to a word of it. No point crying over a broken egg, she told herself. The whole family together and people for lunch later. A good leg of lamb and white peaches for Bellinis beforehand.
She thought about starting again: a fresh pot of coffee, maybe squeezing some oranges. She summoned up a picture, one of her favourites: Graham, from the early days.
The fading light of the Idlewilds’ garden, running away from him between dark green hedges of clipped box, a summer’s night.
‘Come here and let me kiss you’, and skitting away across the lawn, laughing. Allowing him to catch her, and pretending to struggle as he kissed her. Holding hands, she in the loveliest yellow cotton dress, the belt was like a daisy chain. Him pulling her to an octagon of lawn in the furthest reach of the Idlewilds’ jewel-box garden, a scented paradise wrought even lovelier by time. The setting sun gilding their limbs and flowers overflowing like baubles, glowing hypnotically against the green of the hedges. Impossibly tall hollyhocks, shimmery-stemmed, silver leaves of artemesia and roses, roses, roses, geraniums and lilies, rubies, garnets and pearls.
‘Kiss me back or I’ll bite you,’ he said, growling into her ear, backing her against the only tree, a golden russet with rusty leaves and fruit as hard and round as little brass knobs. She let him bite her neck.
‘Kiss me and I’ll tell you a secret.’
‘Never,’ she said, turning her face away.
‘Something I’ve never told anyone before.
‘We never eat the fruit from this tree, by the way,’ he said, looking up into its branches, keeping his knee pressing her against its trunk. He held her arms above her head: ‘I think you’d better promise me you won’t,’ he said as sternly as he could muster. He could make her promise him anything just by kissing her.
She could feel the bark against the backs of her hands and through the leaves two marble statues, their heads turned towards the tree: Adam and Eve, garlands falling from their hair, blind eyes beseeching.
‘OK.’ She laughed. ‘I won’t eat the fruit if you tell me your secret’, and he blew a little warm air into her ear.
‘Do you think we’ll get a chance to you-know-what while we’re here?’ she said. ‘Will they really make me sleep in the tower room on my own?’ He kissed her.
‘OK, a secret,’ he said when the kissing was done, though his knee stayed where it made her ache. ‘It’s about Eve.’ He nodded to the statue. Eve stared reproachfully back at them from her pedestal.
‘Something I’ve never told anyone before.’ The serpent had been carved winding up Eve’s leg, its head reached rather suggestively beyond her knee. She was four feet tall, five with her pedestal, naked but for a fig leaf, an apple in the upturned marble fingers of her right hand.
‘It’s such pure white stone,’ Celia said, trying not to let it show that she could barely speak as he brushed his lips along her neck. No one had ever had this effect on her before.
‘Is it English?’ she managed to squeak. She had a vague recall of something from her art history course in Florence. Didn’t all the best marble come from Italy in the eighteenth century?
Graham let go of her and sprang away. He stood, grinning at her from behind Eve. His hands covered the statue’s breasts and Celia felt a spiteful jolt that took her by surprise.
‘I used to love her bare bosoms when I was a boy,’ he said, laughing, pretending to tenderly caress them until she felt that she would like to kick the statue over. ‘Sometimes,
in the holidays, she was the first thing I’d think of when I got home.’
Celia stuck her tongue out at him. ‘Well, I rather fancy Adam,’ she retorted. And then, wildly for her because she rarely let down her guard, she threw herself at the hideously veined feet of the Adam statue and knelt, kissed his knees, then his bulging thighs and finally aimed her mouth at his well-placed marble fig leaf.
‘Mmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmm,’ she mimed, with
her lips to the cold stone.
‘Mmmmmmm’, as though her mouth was full.
‘Celia!’ said Graham again, but with greater urgency.
She moaned louder still, pretending to pull Adam closer, her hands running up and down the cold ridges of his stomach.
‘Celia! Stop!’ Graham hissed, but still it took her far too long to register that standing there, along with the elderly local doctor and his wife, were Graham’s parents, all four affecting coughs. ‘Ah, yes, musk roses,’ his mother was saying, fluttering her hand at her chest.
‘Commissioned by my grandfather . . .’ Graham’s father told her, completely deadpan, ‘because he thought this place was like Eden.’ While she smoothed down her skirt: ‘Well, it is like Paradise,’ she said, chattering, holding out her hand to be shaken, ‘all the flowers and the lovely grass and the view, and yes, hello, it’s very nice to meet you, too.’
‘They’re going to love you! I can tell,’ Graham said after they’d been left alone, tactfully but not without tangible reproach, together in Adam and Eve’s garden, but Celia knew that she would never be lovely in their eyes. Despite becoming the provider of two unimpeachably marvellous grandchildren, she was always a little bit the slattern in the yellow dress who came up for the weekend from London, shocked the natives, fellated their statue and won their only son.
In my perfect life: a song on the car radio, a dark brown voice that they both liked. The roof peeled back, her headscarf tied like Grace Kelly, or so she thought at the time.
‘In my perfect life my son won’t go to boarding school. When we have a son I want him home by the fire.’ Another trip later that summer, her in the same yellow dress, Graham at the wheel of his beloved MG Midget.
‘In my perfect life I don’t mind playing the fool . . .’ They sang along to the chorus, they could both sing in tune, her voice slotted naturally a perfect octave above his: ‘In my perfect life there’s you, you, you. And no matter what you do I will always love you. In my perfect life . . .’ and then Graham changing the words and looking straight at her, singing over whatever it was in the song, ‘. . . and my daughters will all look like you.’
Celia remembered the directness of his smile, the shape of it: lips almost like a handle hanging from a deep dimple in each cheek. Nowadays those dimples were lost to a pair of creases running all the way from the corners of his eyes. In brackets was how she thought of his smile now. And those air-force blue eyes! How delicious it’d been when he’d turned them on her that day to sing to her, as she hugged herself beneath the car blanket, legs tucked up and radiating warmth and happiness like a broody hen.
She hugged herself through her dressing gown as she remembered. That lovely yellow dress. Standing together for a while in the octagonal garden, the black darts of swallows and house martins ticking across a sky that was streaked in silvery layers of pearl and mauve, like the inside of a shell. The dress undone. Nuzzling the crook of his arm.
Celia rose from the table and slid her hand inside her gown where the warmth of her left breast was a comfort. At the window she peered through the slats of the blinds. Already there were more people about. Men crouched Neanderthally over their metal detectors along the shore. Early birds to the worm. The first joggers and the dogs brought to shit on the beach.
Every morning Celia began her day the same way. Called to attention by the window, its sashes shaken by the onshore wind, usually more than a breeze. She gazed out at the beach as she invariably did, trying to hook her eyes to the sea all the way to the horizon and not to let them fall on the litter blowing about across the shingle, the scavengers, the shitting dogs. Three men in wheelchairs often stopped for a while in front of the house, not through any choice of their own; stargazers brought for the air, catching her attention. Always one man in particular, when he was there. Neck twisting like a corkscrew, head tipped back, a full head of dark hair and a clean padded black anorak. Long arms and legs; lips, shiny red and wet as sea anemones, open. Once, out on the pavement, she heard the sounds that he made, the baby-cry and yodel of it all and when she passed she saw the wedding ring, loose on his pale finger, and started to weep. Him with his head turned to the sky but looking elsewhere, maybe having a dream, hair being blown about, hard to say if he liked the sea air or not. Too awful if he didn’t. Never his wife. Always one of the men in green care-home uniforms pushing his chair to a standstill, like a barrow of fruit, in front of her window. She stood the second pot of coffee on the tray. The same stretch of beach every morning, green painted railings, caramel-coloured shingle, stones and shale thrown carelessly on to the groynes.
The same stretch of beach, their house new to them then: ‘Yes, we’re incredibly lucky with the position,’ and she’d so carefully laid out the party between the groynes, all those candles and flags of years ago. Graham’s birthday: tables and chairs, lilies in glass fishbowls, so much expense and trouble. Crystal and linen, not plastic partyware. Thinking at the time that they’d have many more.
Billowing windbreaks made with long wooden poles and dazzling white cotton sheets. The bleached lace tablecloths weighted down with stones from the beach. She had candles in jars, some hanging from long bamboo canes wedged into the stones, and plates piled high with tiger prawns, hot chilli dip, dressed crab, French bread and cheese that had to be eaten with a spoon. The oyster man was on hand to shuck the oysters, wearing a striped apron. There was lean roast beef and potato salad, bottles lodged in silver buckets of ice. There was a birthday cake, candles. Celia suddenly found herself craving a cigarette. Instead she set about clearing up the old coffee grounds, using the side of her hand to push them on top of the plastic bag that contained the egg mess. The forty golden birthday candles were never lit.
‘So would you press the red button then?’ A handsome young dandy who’d been brought along, a friend of a friend. He was wearing a waistcoat that looked like it was made out of gold foil, and eyeing her suggestively as he took a swig from the neck of his beer. He said he wanted to know if she’d push a hypothetical red button that would make all her dreams come true if it meant exterminating an anonymous Chinaman in the process.
‘No one would know you’d done it,’ he said, now quite openly flirting, running his knuckles along her arm. ‘I wouldn’t tell anyone.’
‘But all my dreams have already come true,’ said Celia, laughing, pulling her arm away to gesture up at her house standing tall and creamily-stuccoed above the beach like a lone tooth.
A woman in tight jeans scrunched towards them across the stones, talking to Graham. Bright lipstick, shoes too high for the beach but rather than take them off like everyone else she had to keep hanging off Graham to steady herself.
‘This way for cold beer,’ he said, introducing the bucket
of ice and Celia in one wave of his arm. ‘Or maybe champagne,
thanks to my beautiful wife.’
‘Beautiful wife’ – he always knew when to reassure her. ‘This is Celia,’ he said. ‘And this, Rachel. You may have met before.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Celia. ‘But maybe.’ The flirtatious man with the hypothetical red button offered to open some champagne to wash down the oysters.
‘I’m not sure we’ve met before either, but I did set eyes on your gorgeous daughter yesterday morning,’ said Rachel, claiming her attention. There was lipstick on two of her incisors. ‘What a sweetie! Watching her in her Connaught House uniform! So little with that great big satchel! Bobbing up and down on the end of Graham’s arm.’
‘What?’ said Celia, about to laugh. The man in the foil waistcoat was being comically inept with the champagne bottle. He had it wedged between his knees.
‘Yes, I stopped at the crossing. I hadn’t realised that you had one so young.’
Graham had gone puce.
‘Our daughter goes to school down the road from here, not London,’ said Celia. ‘She goes on the bus.’
‘It wasn’t me,’ he said.
‘Oh yes, you were wearing your long dark green coat, and . . .’
Celia stared at him. He was like a beetroot beneath the cream panama; a proper Borsalino it was, they’d bought it together in Milan at Easter. She would never find him
handsome in a panama again.
‘Don’t you remember? I waved,’ Rachel continued, as though now she’d started she couldn’t stop. She seemed to have become swept up, for she couldn’t have missed the tempest in Celia’s blue eyes. It takes just one thing: a freak in the weather; a bit of a rage; a tsunami snatching people up from the shore like jacks in its giant fist; a thermal maelstrom; the wrong sneeze; the bad geography where tectonic plates rub themselves into a frenzy; or a Rachel at a party who can casually shatter a perfect life with a few words.
‘Hey, Mum.’ Ed came into the kitchen and stood with her at the window. A man in a tracksuit was at the railings swinging several dog leads. The man in the chair had been wheeled away.
‘He’s got really shitty dogs,’ Ed said knowledgeably,
yawning, scratching under his T-shirt.
‘What are you doing out of bed this early?’ Celia reached up to feel his forehead, to get a breath of him. Ed at seventeen, his father’s smile: out in the open, just happy, not in brackets. Hair unbrushed, sticking up all over, stripy pyjama bottoms with the T-shirt, making him look like her little boy all over again.
‘Laura and I were planning to bring you and Dad breakfast in bed,’ he said, wagging his finger. ‘But you always get up so early, so it’ll just be Dad.’ He scowled at the door. ‘But Laura’s still not awake.’ He sighed. ‘I’ve told her it’s Father’s Day three times already. I’ll have to go and pour water into her ear.’
Celia took the second pot off the tray and poured herself another cup; so what if she started to shake.
‘What have you done?’ Celia masking her scream while that Rachel woman prattled on. Her own voice a hiss and the horrible silence when Graham didn’t answer. The Rachel in her tight jeans looking from one to the other, still confused, stupid woman, and then looking swiftly away. Little Ed and littler Laura running along the groynes to join the party. Laura’s blonde hair flying behind her, Ed punching the air, leaping, glad to be at the sea on a summer’s evening, stones flying up as they ran, the pair of them as joyous and sleek as porpoises in bright water.
Ed clattered back into the kitchen, followed by Laura in her unflattering pyjamas; still her same darling porpoises but bigger. Impossibly bigger: Ed’s rugby physique; Laura’s milkmaid beauty of the kind that makes you expect to see laced corsets and dimples. Out of the window the sun hit the waves, blades of steel flashing and slicing and the daredevil kitesurfers still going strong. Celia turned from the view, away from the sad tidings and the hum of the pavement sweeper along the promenade. She could feel the twitch start up beneath her eye as Ed and Laura started the noisy business of making smoothies, the buzz saw of the blender and asking her how many minutes to set the timer so they’d be soft: eggs for their father, though Celia wished they wouldn’t, reaching to the shelf for a pill, always bird-like between her two children, sharper than she thinks she should be. But what big frames teenagers all had these days. Probably the good nutrition. Even the girls: it wasn’t unusual for them to have size eleven feet. Something of the dairy about the lot of them, especially the noise a whole herd could make clonking around the place like heifers.
The letter box rattled. ‘The newspaper.’ Ed scraped back his stool.
‘No, let me,’ Celia pushed past him, ‘I’ll get it.’ What if there were to be another egg? And another? A dozen? She rested a hand on the door jamb to steady herself.
On the beach, the children told to stay inside, all the guests gone. Ed and Laura’s little faces peaky at the high window like workhouse orphans. In the morning nothing left of the party but ragged remnants of the white sheets obscenely strewn like old shrouds on to the shingle, still attached to the snapped windbreak poles. Nothing left of the flowers or the cake or the dressed crabs that she’d smashed into the seething foam. Everything gone, most of it snatched by a sea that grew hungrier and wilder until it roared hard enough to drown out his voice. Everything gone except the rented tables and chairs but by morning they had gone too, stolen by two men with a trailer.
They’d seen the men drive off. Silently sitting side by side on the balcony, watching the tide melt away, the empty beach, a slight pinkening at the edge of the sky.
‘I will stay with you if you promise to never see that child again.’ Celia watching the wind pull at a scrap of fabric, bits of white sheet flapping up and down like the wing of a dying bird.
‘If you do see it, I will divorce you. I mean it.’ Both apple and snake in one hiss.
The surprising thing to Celia was that she did mean it and she meant it again and again as her rage was brought back to her by tides that came bearing cruel souvenirs from that night. Once Celia found a birthday candle still attached to its cup washed up on the stones. The plastic holder had been worn white but the candle was still partly golden.
It was only the newspaper and not another egg waiting for her by the front door. She inhaled deeply but the long sigh that was to follow stalled in her throat. She heard the rattle of the tray, Ed’s voice. Ed and Laura started up the stairs ahead of her. ‘Coming, Mum?’
‘In a minute.’
She went back to the kitchen and looked out at the beach. A girl was standing alone holding the rails, looking out to sea, her long fair hair blown in ribbons about her head. Celia thought again of the flirtatious young man in his fabulous foil waistcoat, his fingers on her arm: ‘Go on, push it. You know you want to.’
She looked back to the girl, hair whipping out, jeans and grey sweatshirt, no coat. About the right age. She imagined the girl turning around. A face she might know in an instant if she opened the door. Would she open the door?
Would you press the red button?’ His hand on her arm. He’d had the most bewitching smile, very bright teeth. Would she? She swallowed hard, waiting for a while, almost willing the girl to be the one and then, picking up the newspaper, wondered that she wouldn’t welcome the intrusion.