Six Degrees of Separation
THERE ARE SOME thoughts that make you sick in the belly. Your daughter, blond in the sun, nut brown and seamless, who has grown up long limbed, bright eyed and funny, who has grown up beautiful. She leaves to go to the other side of the world, and you hold your tongue, because you can’t shake the feeling that she’s left to get away from you.
Then comes the promised phone call, to say she’s arrived safely, but there are clicks and grizzles on the line, and you can’t tell if the long silences are because she’s upset or because her voice takes so very long to get down the line to you. You wonder if your voice sounds the same to her all that way away.
And then nothing for a while – the place she’s found has a communal phone, and she doesn’t like to speak on it. A postcard arrives with a picture of a place called Barkers, where apparently she earns her money selling tights. You hope this is not a lie.
You send a telegram at the post office. You tell the clerk your daughter is in London, and the clerk reminds you to write your name. You wire money, and your wife writes long letters about the birds and the floods, the sun in the morning, the weight of the harvest. You speak over her shoulder. Don’t forget about the redbills, the fireweed, the planting tax. Your wife drops her shoulders and sits still until you retreat back to your chair, a ginger biscuit turning in your fingers.
You get letters and photographs, and your wife reads them out, squinting at your daughter’s spelling, holding the photographs up to the light before she will let you get at them. She is fine, thanks. She is happy. Here is her room, a tin hip bath, glass jars of beans and rice, a camping stove, a picture of you pinned above the narrow bed. The light is dim. Outside the curtains it is white.
And then one day she gets back on the plane, brings her bangles and her hairdo with her, dark brown now. Her skin is pale, her green boots and makeup. You poke fun, you pretend to disapprove. New words sound strange in her mouth. You don’t look at the small suitcase.
Of course she goes again. You buy a new tractor, a John Deer. It’s yellow.
And then one year you visit her. This time she lives in a better place, no jars of beans, but an electric refrigerator, a white bathroom, a spare bedroom for you and your wife to sleep in, with the black dial telephone that she calls you from every second Sunday. You are used to that pause now, the silence that comes after every one of your questions, like an engine being cut. You negotiate the quiet smoothly, it’s not personal, it’s science.
In her new place, there is evidence of someone else, and you keep quiet, not wanting to speak it out loud, embarrassed. Your wife closes the closet door on a man’s over coat, you lay your toothbrush on the side of the sink rather than put it in the jar with a foreign one.
Back home, the flies are bad and there’s the careful letter – he is an art dealer, he likes dogs. Your heart is high in your chest – is this how it happens nowadays? No questions asked, just the bold statement of it? You have it out with your wife, as if she is the person to have it out with. She tells you to hold your tongue, wait and see.
And suddenly you’re over again for the wedding, and you meet his parents, and they seem stiff, embarrassed. But you all have a drink, and things look better. And he really does like dogs.
A registry office, less than ten minutes, but that’s the way they do things now. Her hair is cut short, like a boy, she wears green eye-shadow, he wears green shoes. Back to the house for a drink and then out for dinner, and that’s it. But he squeezes her cheeks together when you take their photograph on the balcony, and she is laughing. They sit on the sofa, their dog between them, and there is quiet, like the pause on the phone. You hold your wife’s hand and she squeezes it back.
And that’s just for starters, that’s just what you are told, what you can see with your eyes. There’s the first real fight, the first car, the dog’s death, and then there are twenty five years in-between, and sometime around the fifth year there are children, and somewhere around the nineteenth year, you die, and she travels back, long hours, to hold and squeeze your wife’s hand, to cry with her eyes closed in the front room with the silent phone, to smell your smell in the odd pockets of air on the veranda. To touch the bark of the box tree you walked to daily, for your crook knees, and to watch the line of ants that still carry their way on up the tree and then back down again.
And when she goes back she spends hours standing at the kitchen window looking at that white sky, very quiet, listening for something.
© Copyright Evie Wyld 2011
Evie Wyld’s novel After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is published by Vintage.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Vintage (22 April 2010)