“In a carpark!”
Nan lowers her voice, unsure of the sound-proofing. “Look, it was a beer garden. Back of nowhere.”
Imogen raises an eyebrow. “However primitive they may be north of Inverness, not even the teuchters screw al fresco in March.”
The vacuum lasts perhaps half a second, then implodes under the pressure of their mirth, the pagan laughter of siblings under the bedclothes: Imogen’s a throaty barmaid’s cackle, Nan’s an ambiguous mewling that could almost be taken for tears.
Effortfully she regains control. “There wasn’t a soul for miles around. Anyway, if they’d blinked they’d have missed it.”
That sets them off again.
The door opens and a towel turban briefly appears in the strip of daylight. Guiltily, Nan draws her knees up to free a section of the slatted bench, but it’s too late, the woman has gone. Imogen has no such qualms, she remains full-stretch, propped on one elbow like an art school Venus.
At first Nan was self-conscious, elbow-clamping the apple green towel to cover breasts and pubic fuzz. Imogen has tucked hers into a casual toga around the midriff, revealing dark nipples the colour of old brickwork, coarse grained and fissured, the teat robust, steep sided, with a greyish bloom which reminds Nan of the dull fur of freshly picked raspberries. She finds them curiously repellent but is aware that it’s a minority view; in the world’s eyes those warty areolae are a token of sensuality more prized than her own pale circles, now smoothed to invisibility by the melting heat.
Women aren’t meant to compare and contrast in this way but most of them do. Divide and rule. She wonders if in some secret corner of Imogen’s sisterly subconscious she’s doing the same. There’s certainly something artificial about her abandonment, that blissful sphinx expression. It’s not that relaxing barbecueing yourself in this sweat-box, the caramelised air singeing the nostrils, heat filling the throat with a luxury just tinged with panic.
It’s Nan’s first time in a sauna but already she’s sorted it into the category of overrated pleasures along with stand-up comedians, face packs and home-made pastry. Nevertheless she’s sticking it out, still hoping to be convinced by the older woman’s pleasure, maybe even to understand a little of how it feels to be Imogen Reiss. Not for the first time she thinks how easily her attachment could be misunderstood: solicitous, admiring, affectionate, physical, who knows, at some level probably sexual too. Only the absence of hostility distinguishes it from love.
“Did you climax?”
It’s exactly the question she would expect of Imogen, and entirely to the point, but that doesn’t help her find an answer. Imogen’s mouth puckers with delicate amusement.
“Suppose not, what with the wind chill factor.” The grin broadens. “What about since?”
Is this really what Sixties children discuss in saunas, trading bedroom details like bubble gum cards, holding impromptu workshops in technique? Or is it another example of Imogen’s idiosyncratic wiring, a professional’s shock tactics?
“I don’t think I’m relaxed enough. I have to be. Very. It’s not that he’s not attentive or affectionate. Cosmopolitan would score him very highly. It’s me. It’s enjoyable. But. I’m just not. Relaxed.”
Imogen purses her lips, evidence of a heroic effort to defer judgement until she’s heard the full facts. A wasted effort. Nan knows her well enough to read the expression as the sentiment it’s there to forestall.
“Of course it takes two, but in this case it really is my problem.”
She expects some contradiction, or at least an attempt to probe further, but Imogen doesn’t reply. She is staring, eyes narrowed, at Nan’s breasts. Looking down, Nan realises the towel has slipped and in the aquarium light of the sauna the scar is darker, more defined than usual. Perhaps it’s a heat reaction.
“Did he do that?”
She’s shrugging in confirmation before she realises the misapprehension.
“No, no, not him. Kilner.” She hates the expression but in the interests of clarity she hasn’t much choice: “My husband.”
Imogen’s face is neutral, forensic. Seen it all before.
“What was it, cigarette?”
“Kebab skewer. Vegetable satay. Straight off the grill.”
Imogen nods as if ticking it off her checklist of domestic weaponry.
“He used to start it in the kitchens. Usually between eight and nine. Rush hour. I couldn’t even raise my voice in case the customers heard. I had this green top on. Don’t know what it was made of, something stretchy and synthetic. It shrivelled up and started sticking to the wound.”
The smell of melted fibre and seared flesh, the latter disconcertingly close to the mouth-watering tang of sealing meat. Worse than the pain, the thought of that nylon skin-graft. She fingers the scar absently.
“It was Pam’s night off so I was on the tables. She had this big butcher’s apron which covered you from the neck downwards, I put it on and no one was any the wiser. I thought about going up to Casualty, but the satay was getting cold.”
Evidently the joke is not to Imogen’s taste.
“He made a habit of attacking you when you couldn’t retaliate?”
She cocks her head, considering. “Not always. I think actually he wanted me to hit back. Anything for a reaction. Does it sound mad to say he was jealous of the restaurant? Of the customers. Anything that wasn’t him. I could’ve screamed at him or gone off to hospital, or closed up for the night, but -” she pauses, knowing she’ll be misunderstood but saying it anyway “- if I’d done that, he would have won.”
This is the first time she has made a story of it and it converts well. Amazing that she can find the vocabulary to render her experiences intelligible. Fraudulently so of course: not even a blow-by-blow account could begin to convey what was really happening. Linear narrative, cause and effect, get lost in the switchbacks of love and survival. The screaming fits, the suicide threats, the silent treatment, the talking cures. The marital fruit machine: so many flavours, so many ways to lose. But not infinite. It is possible to exhaust the permutations of appeasement; one day, there’s nothing left to try.
It was the night of the storm, a Monday. The restaurant was closed. She went to Soraya’s to see the new baby, an unusual expedition: she didn’t go out without Kilner and she’d long since learned not to pay social calls with him. He’d wanted to come, though, wanted to see her hold the child; wouldn’t she like a little baby of her own? She always said she had no maternal instinct, but she could feel the stirring even as he wheedled her, miming the sucking reflex at her breast, baby-talking, nudging against her stomach, changing the game from product to process, Mummies and Daddies. Yes, she had the instinct: she would protect her child at any cost, even that of not being born.
After the initial nervousness, the terror that she might inadvertently snap the sunflower neck or crush that soft-boiled skull, she was caught in the baby’s magnetic field, tugged into the rhythm of its underwater mouthings, slow-motion sneezes and the mysterious language of its puckers and creasings. She felt the undertow of life, knew that for those minutes, to the thing in her arms she was everything; and knew even as she savoured the experience that she was excluded from it, a tourist in the land of the living.
Soraya teased her out of her trance. “You only think he’s cute because he’s a picaninny. I can see he’s an ugly bug and I’m his mother.”
And then the child cried and Soraya caught her lip in joke-remorse and took her son to her, the grasshopper limbs folding neatly against her shoulder, the mother beating a slow, hollow tattoo on the wishbone ribcage until the angry eyelids uncrumpled and fluttered in sleep.
Nan said she’d pick up a cab on the main road but in truth she wanted to walk, to continue the possibility of connection with other people’s lives before returning to her desert island, the Crusoe and Friday world she shared with Kilner. They were known locally as a close couple. As they walked along the street hand-in-hand, road gangs would snicker, construction workers catcalled that ‘they must be in love’ and the invisible handcuffs would tighten, binding them still closer. They were everything to each other, misery and consolation, ally and foe, life and death. She would have left him, but her imagination failed her.
Stepping out of Soraya’s overheated hallway she was surprised by the turbulence. The front door bucked in her grasp. A pair of no-entry signs guarding the junction rattled like tin cans. The wind grabbed her hair in its vertical hold and tugged her upwards like a potato picker shaking off topsoil. Entering the commercial sector, burglar alarms ricocheted into life. A reproduction carriage lamp blew out like a candle, its glass crashing to the pavement. She clung to walls and doorways, street silt stinging her legs like birdshot, while her fellow-pedestrians, learning to walk in the teeth of the wind, pushed off from the knees like figure skaters. Now and again she’d pass through unaccountable pockets of calm, her limbs suddenly light, the night air almost caressing. The next moment, just as inexplicably, she’d be forced off her path by the whim of the storm, like crumbs swept from a table.
Clutching at lamp posts to save herself from oncoming traffic, watching the chaos, hearing the distant screams, she knew it was dangerous but felt only exhilaration. He might own her life; he didn’t own her death.
“Did you go to the police?”
Imogen’s question takes her by surprise.
“Nan, that isn’t a love bite. If it looks like that now, it must have been serious. How long ago was it?”
For the first time Imogen looks shocked.
“My God, he’s not still around?”
She smiles to herself. “No, he’s not still around.”