I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
He has seen these cliffs before, in picture books. He has seen the wide beaches and the ruined cathedral. Ellen, his wife, she has shown him. In the taxi from the station, Paul looks over the golf course, and there is St. Andrews: the bell tower, rows of huddled stone houses, the town set out on a promontory, out over the blue-black sea. Further, in the distance, a low bank of rain clouds stretches over the water; waves emerge from out of the mist. He follows them into shore, watching them swell and crest, churning against the rocks.
Ellen reaches across the backseat and takes his hand.
They have come here for her to use a library at the university. They have paid for their trip with the last of her grant money and a credit card. Paul’s latest psychiatrist, the one they can’t really afford, has said a change of scenery might help, a break in the routine of empty days. He’s been gone from work a year now, low as he’s ever been and tired. In their apartment, in a college town in Pennsylvania, he has lain in bed in the early morning hours as Ellen slept beside him, and known that her life would be easier if he were gone. He’s been too fatigued to plan.
Staring at the dark face of the cliffs, his mind quickens enough to see how it might happen, and for a moment, sitting there in the taxi, holding his wife’s hand, he feels relief.
After checking into the hotel and unpacking their things, they go looking for a restaurant. The main street is cobbled, lined with two story stone buildings, dirty beige or gray. A drizzle has begun to fall, dotting the plate glass windows of the shops closed for the night.
Two of the pubs have stopped serving food and after wandering further they come to a restaurant on the town square, a mock American diner lit with traffic signals, the walls hung with road signs for San Diego and Gary, Indiana.
“Charming,” Ellen says, opening the front door.
Paul hangs back, stilled by a dread of the immediate future, the dispiriting imitations he sees through the windows, a fear of what it will feel like to be in there, a sense that commitment to it could be a mistake, that perhaps they should keep going. Though he doesn’t want that either, having already sensed an abandoned quality to this town, the students gone for their Easter break, the pubs nearly empty, the dirty right angle where the sidewalk meets the foundation stones of a darkened bank, the crumpled flier sheet that lies there, all of it gaining on him now, this scene, these objects, their malignancy. He tries to recall the relief of just an hour ago: that soon this will end, the accusatory glare of the inanimate world. But there on the pavement in halogen street light is a scattering of sand that appears to him as if in the tight focus of a camera’s lens, sharper than his eyes can bear.
He takes a steadying breath, as the doctor told him to when the world of objects becomes so lucid he feels he is being crushed by their presence.
“You sure about this?” he asks.
“It’s late—we might as well,” Ellen says. “We can find something better tomorrow.”
He could stop her, try to explain, but as she looks back at him from the doorway he can see the nascent concern in the slight tilt of her head. She will be looking for signs of improvement in him, indications that the trip was a good idea. He will want time alone in the days ahead. If she worries too much now, she may hesitate to go by herself over to the library.
For the first time in months, he finds himself capable of an instrumental thought, a weighing of needs.
“All right,” he says, and follows her through the door.
At their table, the coffee stains and salt crystals on the red and white checkered oilcloth press him back in his chair; escaping them, he looks across the room to see a broad-faced old woman, her skin the color of a whitish moon. She sits at a table by the kitchen sipping at a mug. Their eyes meet for a moment, neither of them looking away; they stare straight at each other, expressionless, oddly intimate, like spies acknowledging each other’s presence in a room full of strangers. She nods, smiles weakly, turns away.
When the waitress arrives, Ellen orders her food. Then there is silence.
Paul reads the description of the chicken sandwich again.
From the speakers, he hears the smooth, crooning voices of the Doobie Brothers.
Time barely moves.
“Paul, do you know what you want?”
He looks into Ellen’s face, the slight rise of her black eyebrows, her sign of apprehension, so familiar from the days she first saw him depressed, a year before they married, when for no apparent reason his basic faith in the world, the faith that there is a purpose in working or eating, dissolved, and she came to his apartment, day after day, with her books, conversation, news—patient and loving. Many times he’s wondered why, after seeing him that way, she still married him. She was wrong to do it, he knows now, seeing her strained eyes and pursed lips, the way the old sympathy must fight against frustration. He is the chain and the weight. No matter how she struggles, he will pull her under eventually. Getting out of the house, out of the solipsism of blank days, coming to this foreign place, he can see it all more clearly.
The waitress stares.
“Honey? What are you going to have?” Ellen asks, trying after a long day’s journey not to sound impatient.
Silence stretches on.
“I’ll have a sandwich … the chicken,” he says at last.
They all seem glad the moment has ended.
At the hotel, in the bathroom, he stands before the mirror trying to recall his reason for being there. Electric light shines evenly on the sink’s white porcelain. Air falls from the sill brushing the edge of a tissue. Water swells on the lip of the faucet.
From the bedroom he hears Ellen’s voice. She seems to be talking about a friend of hers, a woman at the college who like Ellen has no permanent position, and was apparently just let go. There is something about courses not filled. She asks a question he doesn’t follow. He tries to piece together what he’s heard but it’s no good.
“Are you all right in there?”
He opens his fist and sees the pill he is supposed to take flaking in the sweat of his palm.
Ten times, maybe even twenty, he has sat on a doctor’s couch and answered the same battery of questions about his sleep and interest in sex, his appetite and sense of despair; and he’s said, yes, there was an uncle and a grandmother who, looking back, seemed unhappy in more than the usual ways; and yes, there were his parents who divorced, his mother who always had a few drinks after dinner; and no, he doesn’t hear voices or believe there is a plot to undo him. At the end of each of the hours, he’s listened to the doctors’ brief talk about the new combination they’d like to try, how at first it might make him nauseous or tired or anxious. For years he’s done as he was told, and for stretches of time he’s felt like a living person. Then the undertow returns, Ellen hears of a better doctor, and again he must answer the questions. He’s always doubted the purpose of the drugs. Despite all the explanations, he’s never been able to rid himself of the conviction that his experience has a meaning. That the crushing pulse of specificity he so often sees teaming in the physical world is no distortion. That it is there to be seen if one has the eyes. He’s been told this is a romantic notion, a dangerous thing to cling to, bad advice for the mentally ill. Perhaps it is. Though the opposite has always seemed more frightening to him, lonelier—the idea that so much of him was a pure and blinded waste.
“I’m fine,” he says softly, rinsing the damp powder into the drain.
In bed, Ellen leans her head on his chest, laying a hand flat on his stomach. There is nothing sexual about her touch. There has been none of that for a long time.
She is 34 and would like to have a child. He begins, as he has so often, to think of all the things he does not provide her, but knowing the list is endless, he stops.
“You feel nice and warm,” she says.
He runs his hand through her hair. She has never worn perfume or makeup, which for him has always added to her beauty—the lack of facade.
“You all set for the library tomorrow?”
“Yep,” she says, nodding her head against his chest.
She’s come to read correspondence from the Second World War, part of her research on the lives of women on the home front. Her real interests are in the political history of the time, but her advisor told her there was a glut of scholarship on the topic and it wasn’t the best idea if she wanted to find a faculty position. She’d thought about ignoring his advice, but then Paul stopped working, and she decided it was best to be practical.
He remembers their meeting for the first time, at a friend’s house, where they sat in a bay window, overlooking a garden. No matter what she spoke of, she seemed so optimistic: her work, their friends at the party, the cut of his jacket.
Those first months, he would come to her apartment in the afternoons when he’d finished his teaching at the high school. He’d do his correcting at the kitchen table, while she worked at her desk in the bedroom. It was as if he’d been invited into a parallel world, a place where small pleasures—like knowing she was in the other room—could be a daily thing.
She had a bemused look on her face when one evening he tried to explain he wasn’t feeling well. They were sitting on the porch of her apartment after supper, a pop song, as he remembers it, coming from the window of her downstairs neighbor.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” she said. “That school wears you out. You need more sleep.” Her voice had a kindly tone. If he hadn’t known before, he knew then she’d never experienced the kind of dread he was trying to describe.
It didn’t matter, he told himself then. That she loved him, that was enough. Acknowledgement was never an absolute thing.
“I’ll just get started at the library tomorrow, just a few hours in the morning,” she says, reaching up to kiss him good night. “Then we can take a walk around, see the beach.”
He touches his hand to her face.
“All right,” he says, switching off the bedside lamp.
In the early morning hours, a pewter gray light hangs in the middle of the room, leaving the corners obscured, blurring the outlines of the sitting chair and bureau.
He dresses quietly; quietly he closes the door behind him. The air outside is cold, mist blanketing the streets. He makes his way up toward the castle, and from there onto the path leading alongside the wall of the cathedral grounds. Opposite is the cliff, grass running up to its edge. He walks to the verge. He can hear the slosh and fizz of the sea below, the deep knock of a boulder being rocked in place by the waves, all of it invisible down there in the fog.
It is better this way, he thinks.
“’Scuse me dear, could you give me a hand?” a voice behind him says.
He turns to see an old woman buttoned in a green coat. She stands no more than a yard away, holding a grocery bag. He can’t understand how she’s come this near without his noticing. As he looks more closely, he sees it is the old woman from the restaurant, her brown eyes set in wrinkled skin.
“Didn’t mean to scare you, dear. Just that I’ve dropped a bit of the shopping. Shouldn’t have brought Polly down before stopping at the house.” She glances back along the cliff, where a white dog emerges from the mist. A brown paper bag lies on the ground before her.
Mutely, he kneels to retrieve it.
“The chemist—always a new something or other,” she mutters.
When she has the bag safely in hand, she says, “You’re American.”
Paul stares at her, as if at an apparition.
“Come for the course, have you? … Have you come over for the golf?”
He shakes his head. “Air Force? Over at Leuchars are you?”
“No. My wife. She’s … ”
“She’s what, dear? … At the university?”
“Right. Lots of the foreigners over for that. Nothing like the golf though. Last summer was dreadful. We had the British Open. You’d think Christ had risen on the 18th green. More telly people than putters as fer as I could tell. Awful. You live in Texas?”
He shakes his head. “Pennsylvania.”
“Is that near Texas?”
She leans down to pat the head of her terrier, who has scurried up to meet them. “Your wife’s in the books and you’ve got the day to yourself.”
Paul says nothing.
She comes a step closer, barely two feet from him. “Not an easy place to entertain yourself,” she says, leaning her head forward. “Without the golf, I mean.”
She searches his face, as though straining to read the fine print of a map. “Would you like to come for a cup of tea?”
He does not know why he goes with her. She is here and has asked and so he goes.
They walk down past the clock tower. She moves slowly, stopping to look back for the dog, checking her bags and packages. She speaks of the university students, complains of the noise they make during term, says the tourists are generally polite but she doesn’t like all the coach buses.
They take a right turn, then a left down a narrow street of two-story houses. At the door of one, the old woman pauses and finding the key in the pocket of her coat, inserts it in the lock.
The dog runs ahead into the darkened hall and the old woman follows, leaving Paul standing at the entrance.
As he steps into the house, a heavy odor envelops him. His first reaction is to close his nostrils, breathe only through his mouth. Then, tentatively, he sniffs. It is flesh that he smells, not sweat or the dankness of a locker room, but something close. A rotting.
Breathing again through his mouth, he advances down the hall toward a light that has come on in the next room. He won’t want to stay long, he thinks, wondering how anyone could live with such a smell.
She’ll comment on it, make an apology of some sort, he feels sure. But when he reaches the kitchen, she is calmly stowing her groceries.
“Have a seat, dear. Tea won’t be a moment.”
Though it is day, the curtains are drawn and a naked bulb provides the only light. He perches on the edge of a chair by the kitchen table, sampling the air again. The stench tickles his nostrils.
The kitchen looks a bit disheveled, the counters cluttered with jars and mugs, but otherwise it is like any other kitchen. There is nothing here to explain such an odor. He imagines naked, sweating bodies packed into the other rooms of the house.
“I’ve got some biscuits round here somewhere, what did I do with them? Do you take milk and sugar?”
Watching the old woman shuffle past the sink, he feels disoriented, and tries to confirm to himself where he is, the day of the week, the country they are in.
“I saw you in the restaurant last night, didn’t l?” he says.
“Yes, dear, you did. Sometimes I come and sit in the evenings, if I can find someone for Albert. He’s my grandson, you see. You’ll meet him.”
She arranges cookies on a plate. “Have you been visiting elsewhere, then?”
“We passed through Edinburgh,” he says blankly.
“Terrible place. Full of strangers. What do you do in the States?”
Paul has to repeat her words to himself before replying.
“I used to teach,” he says.
For a moment, he sees the classroom on the third floor of the high school, its scratched plastic windows, chairs of chrome metal, beige desks affixed, a map of America, the portrait of Lincoln tacked to the back wall. The students staring, waiting for him to speak.
“How wonderful. A noble profession teaching is,” she says, placing a mug on the table beside him. “There’s sugar there if you like.”
She puts her own mug down and takes a seat opposite.
“And what is it you taught?”
“History,” he says.
“Dates. Yes. Albert’s very good with dates. Are you a father?”
“No,” he says, wondering why he is here, saying these things to a stranger.
“A mixed blessing children are, of course. Up to all sorts of things. When they’re young, though—nothing like it. You taught young ones, did you?”
“Difficult they are.”
There is a pause. The old woman leans forward in her chair.
“You’re tired,” she says.
“You’re tired, dear, under the eyes. You’ve been sleeping poorly.”
Paul feels a surge of anger, and he wants to yell at the old woman. How dare she presume. But there is something so frank in her expression, so lacking in judgment, he can’t bring himself to do it.
“Jet lag, I suppose,” he says.
He sips at his mug. The odor leaks in. He feels he might heave the liquid up.
“Have you ever had fresh mutton?” she asks.
He shakes his head.
“An excellent meat. My friend Sibyl gets it straight from the abattoir. Rosemary, a wee spot of mint jelly. Quite delicious. Perhaps you might come for dinner. I doubt they’ll be giving you any Scottish meat in the hotels.”
The smell has got to him now and he is beginning to feel dizzy. “What time is it?”
“It’s early, dear. Just gone half-eight.”
“I should go back.”
“There’s no hurry, surely.” She stirs her tea. “Just out for a walk this morning, were you?”
He looks up at her, and just as in the restaurant the night before, she does not look away.
“My wife,” he says. “She’ll be waking up. I really have to go.” He stands up from his chair.
“Well, if you must rush then—pity though, you’ve just arrived. But there we are. You’ll come tomorrow. For dinner—two o’clock. It’ll rain in the morning.”
“No … I don’t know.”
“Not to worry about it now,” she says, patting him on the shoulder. They move into the front hall. “It’s getting cold this time of year. The Har will blow by the end of the week. You’ll want to keep inside for that.”
She holds open the front door. When he steps onto the street, he breathes in the cold air, finding it less of a relief than he’d hoped.
He walks to the end of the cobbled street, looking one way and the other, forgetting the route that brought him here. Steps lead to doors on the second floor of row houses, smoke rising from squat chimneys. A child passes on a bicycle. He watches the little figure vanish around a corner and begins moving in the same direction.
He follows the sound of voices down onto Market Street. In the square, vendors arrange stalls of plants and secondhand books. A man wearing a placard reads from the Book of Revelation, while his wife, standing silently by, passes literature to those who will take it. There are etchings of the seashore in the dry basin of the fountain. He walks slowly through, past tables covered with baked goods and china, testing the scent of the air as he goes.
“Where have you been?” Ellen cries as he enters the lobby. “Where in the world have you been?”
He looks at her with what he imagines is a pleading expression.
“Paul,” she says, her voice quavering. She puts her arms around him, holds his head against her shoulder.
“Why didn’t you wake me? What’s going on?”
He’s used all the words he has to describe his state to her; he could only repeat them now. A selfish repetition. How many times will he ask for a reassurance he’ll never believe?
This should have ended by now.
He holds onto her, grabbing her more tightly because he can think of nothing to say.
They spend the rest of that morning in the room. Paul sits in a chair by the window, while Ellen reads the paper; she has called the library to let the curator know she will be starting a day later.
Her way of coping with him has changed over the years. She’s read books and articles about depression and its symptoms, spoken to the psychiatrists he sees, tackled the problem like the researcher she is. She knows the clinical details, reminding him always it is a chemical problem, a treatable disease: eventually a doctor will find the right formula.
From the window, he sees a man across the street depositing a letter in a mailbox and he wonders what the inside of the man’s leather glove would smell of. He runs a hand under his nose, sniffing his palm.
“Do you want to call Dr. Gormley?” Ellen asks.
His glance drops, freezing on the wool ticking of the armchair; strands of dust settle on the blue fibers. He shakes his head.
That night, when he cannot sleep he goes into the bathroom and pees. He splashes urine on the edge of the bowl, then gets on his hands and knees to sniff the rim. He smells the cracks in the tile, the damp bath mat, his wife’s underwear, the hair and skin in the drain of the tub. He runs his finger along the back of the medicine cabinet’s shelf and tastes the gray-white dust. None of it comes close to the stench in that house.
All the next morning it rains, as the old woman said it would. They eat lunch in the nearly empty dining room of the hotel. Across the way, a German couple argues quietly over a map. Ellen suggests that Paul come back to the library with her; he could read the British papers there. She only needs another day or two, she says, then they can take the train back to Edinburgh, see more of the city.
There is a fragment of tea leaf on the rim of her cup; a sheen to the softening butter; a black fly brushing its feelers on the white cloth of the table.
He pictures the library and at once fears some constriction he imagines he will experience there. It is the familiar fear of being anywhere at all, of committing to the decision to stay in one place.
“I think I’ll take a walk around,” he says.
Concern is evident again on her face.
“Did you take the pill this morning?” she asks. There is no impatience in her voice. Over the years she has trained herself to control that, which only reminds him of how he’s constrained her, whittled her down to this cautious caring.
He nods, though once again he’s disposed of the tablet in the bathroom, knowing she will count them.
After she has returned to the library, Paul sets out across the square, past the tables of books and china, heading into the narrow lanes.
As he comes to the house and reaches out to knock on the low door, it opens and the old woman steps aside to let him enter.
“Good afternoon,” she says. “I realize we never made our introductions yesterday. I’m Mrs. McSharon.”
“Paul Lewis,” he says.
“Right. Mr. Lewis. I’m glad you’ve come.”
They walk down the hall into the kitchen.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she says, heading into the other room. It’s then he sniffs the air, finding it as thick and rank as the day before.
A light comes on in the next room, the old woman calls to him, and Paul walks through the doorway.
Running along the far side of the room, completely obscuring the windows, is a wall of clear plastic gallon buckets filled with what appears to be petroleum jelly. They’ve been arranged in a single row and stacked from floor to ceiling. Along the adjacent wall stands a metal clothes rack on wheels holding twenty or more identical blue track suits. A sideboard across from this is laid with dishes of lamb, potatoes and string beans. Mrs. McSharon stands in the middle of the room under another naked light bulb. At the center is a table set for two.
The low ceiling, the electric light, the pale brown walls, the strange provisions all give the room the feel of a way station on some forgotten trade route, or a bunker yet to hear news of the war’s end.
“Now, dear, I hope you’ll just help yourself to everything,” Mrs. McSharon says, standing by her chair.
He is not hungry but fills a plate anyway and sits. “Mrs. Lewis is getting on well at the university then, is she?” she says, once she’s served herself and taken a seat.
For a minute or two, they eat in silence.
“I was thinking perhaps you might meet Albert today,” she says. “I’ve told him about you. Difficult to know sometimes, but I think he’s keen to see you.”
“Do you do this often?”
“What’s that, dear?”
“Having guests you don’t know—strangers.”
Mrs. McSharon looks down at her plate and smiles, almost a demure smile, as if he’d complimented her appearance or charm. “No,” she says. “Tis a bit odd, I realize. But in the restaurant the other night … how should I say it? I felt I recognized you somehow, not like I’d met you or such, but nonetheless. And then yesterday morning …” her voice trails off.
“Would you like a glass of wine?” she asks. For years he’s had no alcohol because of medication—the warnings and the caveats.
“Sure,” he says.
She pours them each a glass.
“My grandson’s not well, you see.” After saying this, she pauses; her eyes wandering left, then right, as if deciding how to proceed.
“Glenda, my daughter. She was awfully young when she had him. Father was some fellow I never saw. Course the old codgers round here never tire of saying, Wasn’t so back in our day, was it then? I don’t know though. Seems to me the world’s always had plenty of trouble to spare a bit for the girls.
“I suppose what’s different is she went off, left Albert with me. Would’ve been harder when I was young, that would—a woman going out into the world like that. But there we are. Manchester she went to first. Then London for a spell.”
She sips her wine.
“You try not to judge.”
Staring into her glass, she pauses again.
“Course when Albert got sick I rang. To tell her he’d gone into hospital. Tried the last number I had for her. No answer though, line disconnected. Been three years he’s been ill now.”
She looks up at Paul and smiles, wanly. “Here I am nattering on about my troubles.”
“It’s all right,” he says. He’s finished half a glass of wine. With the scent of it, the smell of the house has risen into his head again, but he fights it less now.
“You seem like a very sympathetic man,” she says.
When the meal is finished, they return to the kitchen and Mrs. McSharon puts a kettle on the stove.
“Shall we go up then, and see Albert?”
“All right,” he says.
She makes the tea and sets it out on a tray. Paul follows her up the stairs. They pass along a narrow hallway. The smell is stronger here. They stop at a door and she gestures for Paul to open it.
“It’s difficult at first,” she says.
He opens the door and follows her in. The air in the room is so heavy with stench it’s like being pressed to a man’s body and made to breathe through the filter of his skin—an oddly familiar scent raised to a sickening power. It’s a small space with one eaved window, open at the top. In the corner, a boy of ten or 12 lies on a bed. He wears a blue track suit marked with greasy spots. His face and neck are red and crusted with dry skin. Wet sores and patches of rawness cover his wrists and the backs of his hands. He barely moves as they enter, shifting his head only slightly.
“Albert, this is Mr. Lewis. The man I told you about. He’s come for a visit.”
Mrs. McSharon sets the tray down on the bedside table. The boy looks at Paul, his eyes caught in folds of livid pink and red.
“Have the armchair, there, why don’t you,” Mrs. McSharon says. She perches on a low stool pulled up next to the bed and pours a mug of tea. She holds it in one hand, a spoon in the other, lowering the liquid to the boy’s swollen mouth.
“It’s chamomile,” she says softly, “you like chamomile.”
The boy strains to raise his head from the pillow; his lips tremble as he sips.
“Excuse him, Mr. Lewis, if he doesn’t say much. The pain’s been very bad lately, hasn’t it Albert?” She turns to Paul.
“I swear Job never suffered like this.”
At the end of the bed, he can see the boy’s feet, where brownish-white calluses thick as hide cover his soles.
“Remember, Albert? I told you Mr. Lewis is a history man. I’m sure he knows about all sorts of things.”
When she has finished with the tea, she puts it aside, and unzips the boy’s top. His chest is covered in the same angry red mix of sores and flaking skin. Taking up a cloth, she dips it in a bucket by the stool, and begins to gently lather ointment onto Albert’s stomach. He sighs as the jelly is spread over his skin.
“Henry II is Albert’s favorite. We’ve just started reading about him, haven’t we? Do you know anything about Henry II, Mr. Lewis?”
The stench and the sight of the boy is nearly overwhelming Paul, and he feels he might faint.
“I … I haven’t read about all that … not since college,” he manages after a pause. “It was American history I did.”
“But you remember some of the medieval bits, no?” she says, hopefully.
Breathing through his mouth, he manages to calm the swoon in his stomach.
The boy stares at him with a longing that seems to Paul neither desperate nor afraid. It is just a longing, a want.
“He was a remarkable king,” Paul says, transfixed by the boy’s gaze. “I remember that much.”
“There, you see. He knows all about him. I’ll wager he’s got stories you’ve not heard yet. Perhaps he’ll tell you one. Would you tell Albert a story?”
Paul nods, having no idea what he will say.
“Has your grandmother told you about Stephen?” he asks, recalling the name from some course taken years before.
Albert manages a small shake of the head.
“Well … that’s the king that preceded Henry, and he was the son of … ”
His mind goes blank. Mrs. McSharon raises the cloth to the boy’s chest. Paul sees the little white pustules dotting the red skin; the tarnished gold ring on the old woman’s finger; behind the two of them, cartoon figures on the faded wallpaper. “I don’t remember who he was the son of … but in any case, they made a deal … Stephen could rule if his line stopped with him, and Henry would come to the throne … ” Again Paul fumbles, recalling the giant lecture hall, where a man with a German accent had taught Early Europe.
“It wasn’t long before Stephen died, from eating a surfeit of lampreys—for some reason that’s what they always said, ‘a surfeit of lampreys’—too many eels, in other words; he ate himself to death. And Henry was king, at eighteen or twenty, I think, monarch of the largest empire in Europe.”
When his voice ceases, the room seems quieter than when he began, the boy’s eyes calmer.
“He married,” Paul says. And again a memory he didn’t know he had arrives. “Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was the daughter of a man who ruled part of France, and by marrying her Henry added the land to his domain. They had four children. The children fought with their father, though, terribly. And Eleanor, she sided against Henry as well … ”
He tells the boy of Eleanor’s imprisonment at Oxford, describing the cell, embellishing, and the story of how she escaped. As he speaks, Mrs. McSharon draws the cloth across Albert’s forehead. Paul remembers Thomas à Becket slain at Canterbury, the knights acting on Henry’s angry words, which Paul repeats now, as his teacher repeated them to him: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest? And so they returned to England and stabbed him, inside his own cathedral. Henry’s friend since childhood. His conscience.”
Stringing the memories together now, he begins to paint the picture of the restless king who for 35 years never slept in one bed more than a fortnight, ranging over his vast possessions, battling thankless sons. There are the struggles with the barons, the war over France, the last confinement of Eleanor. Soon the tale flows easily, of Channel crossings and broken treaties. He opens the Plantagenet world up like a flower for the boy, knowing the hunger for the dramatic statement, the declarations of war, castle sieges, men fighting to the death, the victorious standing on the ramparts with broad swords held over their heads—all the beautiful wealth and violence of a boy’s imagination.
“Better than any book, that was,” Mrs. McSharon says, when he is finished. She folds the cloth and places it in the wastebasket. “Your granny can’t do that Albert, can she?”
There is just the hint of a nod from Albert. His glance meets Paul’s once again.
“I’m sure I’ve confused some of it,” he says. “There’s a lot to tell—Richard, and the Crusades.”
The light in the room has begun to fade.
Ellen will have left the library now, he thinks. She will have walked to the hotel and found him not there. It seems so unlikely that they are still in the same town, that he has not traveled further than that.
“We’re going to let you rest now,” Mrs. McSharon says. “Perhaps Mr. Lewis will come back tomorrow. Would you like that?” She leans down and touches her lips to the boy’s cheek.
Downstairs in the hall, as she is walking Paul to the door, Mrs. McSharon stops. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I should have said something about the smell … I didn’t want to frighten you.”
“It’s all right.”
“You see, Mr. Lewis. My grandson, he’s going to die. You’ll think I’m a cruel woman, that he should be in hospital, and you’d be right to think it. But he’s been there you see, been there for months after months. I’d heard of psoriasis before. I knew sadness and worry and so on could make it worse. But I didn’t know it could get this bad.”
She grabs Paul’s arm.
“Mr. Lewis, he wanted to come home. He knew what it meant to leave there, but he wanted to come home.”
Outside, it is nearly dark. Lights have come on in the houses and in the square the vendor’s stalls are gone. He walks slowly through the gathering dusk. Down the streets he passes, views open of sky and water, shelves of cloud floating heavily on the horizon.
In the room at the hotel, Ellen is waiting for him. She’s been crying, he can see, but has stopped now. She doesn’t have the same alarmed expression she had yesterday.
For a few minutes they don’t say anything to each other. She’s gotten their bags out and some of their clothes are folded inside. “I asked at the desk about the schedule,” she says, not looking up at him. “We can get a train in the morning.”
“What about the letters?”
She glances up at him. He’s never seen her look this exhausted before.
“I’ve seen them,” she says. She sits perched on the edge of the bed, her hands folded on her lap.
The way she gestured: that was one of the things he fell in love with. Her hands would turn open, fingers spread, her arms moving in quick arcs and circles; energy that seemed miraculous.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
She kneels on the floor and starts packing the rest of their belongings, tears streaming down her face.
It is in the middle of the night that he wakes and goes to sit by the window. The hotel is quiet and there is no traffic on the street. He can hear the steady, washing sound of the sea and he imagines the blankness of night out there in the Northern waters.
Once, when he was a boy, his parents took him on a cruise ship, and after dinner one night his father and he stood on the deck and Paul imagined what it would be like if he were to fall, disappearing into that vast, anonymous darkness. He can still remember how his heart thumped in his chest, how he clung to that railing that separated him from death.
Who could say all that has happened since then, or why?
As a man, he has pictured his own end so many times the thought arrives like an old friend, there to reassure him.
For an hour or more he sits, listening to the water.
He is calm as he goes to the desk; calm as he writes his note to Ellen.
I’ve been a burden long enough. I hope eventually you will remember the better times. Please forgive me.
A taxi picks them up after breakfast and takes them to the station. They board the front car of the train, storing their luggage on a rack by the door, and then they find a compartment to themselves.
The overhead speaker announces the train will be held in the station for ten minutes, just as the schedule that Paul checked said it would.
Ellen roots in her handbag for something. Paul clutches the envelope in his pocket. As she bends forward, her hair, parted in the middle, comes loose from behind her ears. He washed that black hair the week they were married, lying in the tub in her apartment, lathering her head as it rested on his chest. They would have three children, she said. There would be closets of toys and winter coats.
Enough, he thinks to himself, and stops remembering.
In Dr. Gormley’s waiting room, the coat rack would still persist. The beige water cooler. The dog-eared magazines. The humming. The air without scent.
He sees Ellen, alone, walking the aisle of a supermarket, pausing, taking a can from the shelf. He feels incredibly tired.
From the window, he watches as the last of the passengers board at the far end of the platform. The rumble of the engine grows louder. He stands and bends down to kiss her cheek.
“I’m just going to use the bathroom,” he says, and then can’t stop himself from adding, “You’ll be all right.”
“Sure,” she says distractedly, examining their tickets. He moves quickly down the passageway. At the end of the car, he takes his bag from the rack and steps off the train. The conductor is standing there on the platform. “There’s a woman in number 12,” Paul says to him. “Could you give her this?”
The conductor takes the envelope from him with no apparent interest.
“I’ll see she gets it,” he says, putting the whistle between his lips.
Mrs. McSharon is just returning from the shops as he enters the lane. She does not notice him until he is there at the door.
“Mr. Lewis,” she says, glancing down at his bag. “You’ve come for a visit. How good of you. Albert will be so pleased.”
Again, there is the high, rotting odor as they step into the hall, the dog trailing behind. In the kitchen, he watches Mrs. McSharon take her tins and vegetables from her cloth bag.
“Colder this morning,” she says. “The Har’s getting ready to blow. You won’t be able to see a thing in a day or two for all the rain and wind.”
The groceries put in place, she fills the kettle at the sink.
“Albert enjoyed that yesterday, really he did.”
“How do you manage?” Paul asks. “Knowing he’s going to die.”
She arranges milk and sugar on a tray.
“It’ll sound odd, I know, but the idea’s not so strange to me, actually. I used to nurse on a ward, you see. Before you were born, dear. During the war. They were desperate for people. Adverts up in all the shops about how the young women had to come south. I’d never been. A hospital outside Southampton’s where they put me. We got the ones who weren’t going back. Most were healthy enough, just lost a leg or an arm. There were others though, dying ones. Not much to do for them really but keep them comfortable if you could. Some of the nurses, they were young, you see—we all were—and they would tell the dying ones things would be fine. But I have to say, Mr. Lewis, I couldn’t bring myself to reassure them like that. Struck me as a lie.”
She pours boiling water into the pot.
“The beds had wheels on them. After the doctors’ rounds I’d roll the sicker ones up next to each other so they could talk. They were just glad that someone else knew, I think.”
The kettle is rinsed, and set back on the counter.
Once again, they ascend the stairs, Mrs. McSharon carrying the tray. Albert is asleep, his red face turned to one side on the pillow. Mrs. McSharon sets the tray down on the side table.
“I’ll leave you with him now,” she says, laying a hand on Paul’s shoulder.
When she has gone, he perches on the stool by the bed. Here, he can make out the boy’s features hidden beneath the rotting skin: the thin lips and pointed nose, the bony forehead of his Celtic ancestors, the corners of his skull showing at the temples. Paul lets the stench rise up into his nostrils, breathing it in freely.
It will not be long now, he thinks, for either of them.
The boy’s head moves slightly on the pillow and he wakes.
“Would you like to hear another story?” Paul asks.
Albert nods. It is not thanks Paul sees in his eyes, but forgiveness.
“Tell me about the kings,” the boy whispers.
Adam Haslett is a student at Yale Law School and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A story of his appeared in Zoetrope All-Story, and is currently out in the Best of Zoetrope. His first collection of short stories will be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee