"Cool," she said. "You could do a mural, hunting and fishing, golfing and shopping."
"I don't think your aunt and uncle" Then he caught himself: humor. That had always been tricky for him. Even a question about a hen crossing the road could make him pause. "I told them it was a big job. You never know what you'll find underneath the paper. And Emmanuel, the guy who helps me, did his back in."
"How?" she said.
"How"she patted the small of her own back"did he hurt his back?"
"Reaching for a corner, he claims. Snooker, not painting." In the bare space their voices emerged as if they were on a stage. Hers was unusually deep, warm, and melodious. It made him think of the chiming of his favorite clock. As for his, Zeke wasn't sure. He had read that humans hear their own voices through the jaw rather than the air; every time a tooth is lost or filled, the timbre changes.
"When are my aunt and uncle due back?"
"This Saturday, they told me."
She moved her head up and down and finally took off her coat. He had noticed earlier, returning from even a quick trip to the corner shop, how the emptiness of the room made it seem as if the cold had followed him indoors; in fact, the heating was on full blast (not his bill), and the house was snug as a tea cozy. She retreated to sling her coat over the banister and advanced into the room in the same greedy way she'd entered the house, her dark- green dress swaying as she walked. In the bay she turned, and he saw, silhouetted against the window, her belly.
"Don't," she said, "let me interrupt your work."
A sentence appeared in Zeke's head: I'd like to tie you to the bed. How did that get there, inside his brain, about this woman? He had never done, or even considered doing, such a thing. "I won't," he said.
He was no longer certain she was ugly, only that he wanted to keep looking to make sure. But in the empty room he did not dare. This must be why people had furniture, not just for comfort but, like clothing, for camouflage. While he stood rooted beside his worktable, puzzling over these aberrant thoughts, she wandered from one spot to the next, talking about the time she had painted her room.
"I was fifteen," she said, circling the fireplace, "when my parents agreed to let me do it. First I wrote on the wall the names of everyone I wanted to get rid ofmother, father, brother, the boy at school who didn't like methen I slapped on the paint, unfortunately deep purple."
"Did it work?" he asked, imagining all the things he could write.
Her head, her eyes, swung toward him and he had the sense of being seen at last. "Well, it worked for the boy at school, but not"her eyebrows dashed together"for my brother."
She walked over to examine the little tower of empty takeaway containers he had made, precariously balanced beside his worktable. Was he collecting them, she asked and, without waiting for an answer, launched into another story. Years ago, when she'd been hitchhiking outside Oxford, a man who sold these containers had picked her up. "I remember it started to pour. The windscreen wipers were going full tilt and suddenly he said do you ever think of killing yourself? His voice was so casual, I thought I'd misunderstood."
Zeke's skin prickled.
"Then he asked if I'd read Steppenwolf. I said yes, though to be honest I wasn't sure. It's one of those books that for a while was in the ether. I looked over at this stout middle-aged man, and his eyes were full of tears. I think of it every day, he said. There's always the razor and the knife."
Was she trying to tell him she was upset, he wondered. If so, he needed to confess that he was no good at metaphors and subtexts and other people's problems. But already she was examining a roll of lining paper and asking its purpose. He explained about the old houses of London, how the walls were held up by wood-chip paper. When you removed it, which he'd spent the last three days doing, the only way to get a smooth finish was to put on new paper and paint over that.
From Banishing Verona by Margot Livesey. Copyright 2004 Margot Livesey. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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