In the garden were deep shadows. The bay tree with its rounded foliage was shaded like a moon, the bright half luminous. Glowing leaves shone among complex drifts of dark. The lawn was so bright the colour was washed out. The sun threw a cruel spotlight through the grime on the kitchen window.
A time to be out of doors . . . but this was Inspection Day, and the memory of happy days in the sun was a taunt. Maria, her back to Steve, scrubbed savagely at the worktop with a ragged green scourer. Her movements and the set of her shoulders filled him with dread. But dread of what?
‘Well you certainly messed up, didn’t you?’ she said suddenly, still not facing him.
‘What do you mean?’
Immediately he wished he hadn’t spoken in that higher-than-normal tone like a man on trial.
‘How long did you spend on that job you quoted the café for?’
Now at least he knew what had been brewing.
‘Too long, yes! I didn’t know the panels were warped.’
‘Because you didn’t bloody well store them properly! That’s typical of you, Steve, typical.’
She turned and glared at him. He wondered how a face that could soften at the height of lovemaking or brighten with laughter at some joke could harden to a mask of anger. How the mouth he had often kissed could jut with hate like the spout of a gargoyle. How could he feel love for such a monster?
Typical? Was he always careless? If he was, that it was how he was made, the fault was preordained and he wasn’t really to blame. But no point saying that. In fact nothing he could say would help. But plenty wouldn’t. He realized what he dreaded was letting fly with abuse: ‘I’m so bloody tired of your filthy moods and endless abuse, Maria.’ He stayed silent, humiliated by appearing weak. And braced himself for more.
‘So for a whole week’s work you earned next to nothing. Pathetic.’
He longed to relax and watch a football match, a reassuring saga of missed chances and fluffed shots, of losers saying, ‘We did our best but yeah, our best wasn’t good enough.’
‘Yes, for once I took my eye off the ball,’ he said quietly.
‘And look at the filth in this kitchen. Two hours till she comes. Don’t just bloody well stand there! Mop the floor.’
Steve clamped his teeth together to stop something vile emerging, and filled a blue plastic bowl with hot water. The splashing sound, the cheap-perfume smell of the cleaning fluid, calmed him a little. He listened to the chafing of the mop sponge and counted floor tiles – one done, another done, another. One day all this would be over. Over! Perhaps by then he would have left to live alone. But then those hands angrily scrubbing the hob would be locked in the small of someone else’s back, and would that be worse than this? It would.
‘Squeeze the mop out properly,’ Maria suddenly hissed.
Steve burst out laughing. It was all so ridiculous, like an old-fashioned slapstick film. He pulled the lever to close the plastic jaws to compress the sponge. The trickling of water into the bowl was like someone peeing in a bucket. He laughed again and said in a pretend posh accent, ‘I will squeeze it, I will,’ and waited for her angry comment, but she was silent.
He finished the task and stood the mop on end in the cupboard, its blank yellow sponge face level with his own, each pore very clear with its tiny shadow, like the shadows among the leaves of the bay tree, except that in the cupboard there was no sun. The blue bowl when he emptied it felt very firm and smooth, very real, with a highlight along one of the inner curves. Were the shadows inside it black, or just a darker blue?
‘Shall I vacuum the stairs?’ he asked, then once again hated his uncertain tone with its hint of weakness.
Maria said nothing, stooping to wipe a low cupboard door, the centre parting in her dark russet hair not quite straight. Steve pictured her as a child.
‘I’ll vacuum the stairs,’ he said gruffly.
The whine of the motor, the hiss of suction, were what he needed to counter the noise – it seemed like noise – of the sun beating on the landing window. But the process was unsatisfactory and annoying. The brush attachment didn’t poke into corners and left a trail of grit which stood out against the light cream of the carpet. The annoyance was familiar from occasions when a rusted screw resisted being removed. The sense of righteous injustice was almost rewarding.
The job has to be imperfect because life is imperfect, he told himself. His innards felt tense. He tried to imagine what Maria was doing, what other shortcomings she would be finding in their life together, what she would say when he put the vacuum cleaner away and joined her. But when he did she was making coffee. And surprisingly, there were two mugs.
‘She’ll do her inspection and say I’m not fit to be a child minder,’ she said. But in a lighter voice than before.
‘No, she won’t.’
‘What do you know?’ she countered, but still in the same tone.
‘Not a lot.’
‘If you earned more,’ she went on dully, as if bored by her own protest, ‘I wouldn’t be having to do it.’
Steve had thought they were now on safe ground, and the unexpected switch back to resentment unsettled him. He nearly growled, ‘Shut the fuck up and change the record,’ but despite the lack of warning stifled the words just in time. He took a deep breath and waited for things to move on.
After a pause, taking care to keep a neutral tone, he said, ‘I think I’ll take my coffee outside.’
He wondered whether his tone really had sounded neutral, or whether Maria would think it huffy. He was already in the doorway when she spoke.
‘I’ll join you.’
The sun! Its touch on his face and arms! He closed his eyes and hugged the heat of the coffee mug to his chest. The green wooden seat was almost too small for two, so they were crammed side by side between its armrests. Maria’s thigh felt soft. Her bare arm against his was hot and sticky.
In the small garden they drank in silence. A sparrow lighted on the bird feeder, turning its dark-crowned head up and down and side to side with comical jerks. It saw them and flew off. A magpie went over, very crisp in its blue, black, and white, its tail straight out like a parakeet’s.
Maria got up and walked along the small curving path edged with oak offcuts from Steve’s workshop. He joined her. Looking at their plants was a luxury there was rarely time for. Maria pulled out long grasses from among the ornamental leaves. Steve tried to gauge her mood, but the curtain of her hair obscured her profile, and her mouth, slightly open as if in surprise, gave little away.
He too pulled out grasses. They were easy to spot, as green as the swords of the irises, the soft tubes of the chives, and the poppy leaves with their scalloped edges, but standing straight like wires. Unlike the short paired leaves of the sweet Williams, their long narrow leaves sprouted singly at steep angles at hands-breadth intervals, some folded over and fluttering like tiny banners. And the seed heads – ah, familiar from childhood. Strip the seeds and you were left with a thin serrated fuse you could wind in a friend’s hair to get a satisfying squeal of protest. In a black bucket, which lacking another they were forced to share, they collected the grasses. Which were easy to pull, not breaking like hawkweed or resisting like dandelions, trailing hair-like roots as they came free of the earth.
Unseen inside in the kitchen the mopped floor dried. The vapours of household chemicals diffused and diminished. A fly on the window buzzed its last, tumbled through the fleshy leaves of a money plant, and became a black speck on the black soil of the pot. The red second hand of the round clock on the wall swept its slow circuit.
Steve and Maria pulled steadily side by side, each watching the other for the cue to go back indoors. It would have to be soon. Sometimes their hips bumped and they smiled, sharing the naughty charm of playing truant. And all the time the sun poured its blessing. It had sent the rays that warmed them several minutes before, but this was the present, their present, and like lizards basking on a rock or butterflies resting with extended wings, they absorbed its power for the undertakings ahead. There would be other fights, other times to weed out grasses.
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