He could feel her standing behind him. Don't touch me, he thought.
"I take my cooking seriously," she said, "even when it is just tins. What makes you angry?"
You drinking beer, Emmanuel being a wanker, my life. Using the tongs, he moved a knob of coal an inch to the right, an inch to the left.
"If I promise to be quiet will you come back and keep me company?"
She walked away, not waiting for an answer, and he thought of all the tiny motions, the vertebrae sliding against each other, the hip joints swiveling in their sockets, the tarsals and metatarsals flexing and straightening, that make up departure. Yet the most essential motion, the one that couldn't be named or diagrammed, was what spilled a mood into a room. How he knew, with absolute certainty, that she wasn't taking his answer for granted, in either direction, but leaving him alone to figure it out.
Follow, said the fire, and he did.
As he sat back down at the kitchen table, she was peering into the oven. "Is there a reason," she said, directing her words to the lasagna, "for upstairs to be plunged in Stygian gloom?"
He told her about the five lightbulbs of the day before.
"Interesting." She closed the oven door and turned to face him. "I'm usually all right with appliances, but I can't wear a watch for more than a few days before it goes haywire. It's happened four times now."
"Why?" he said, fascinated.
She moved her shoulders up and down. "Who knows? The watchmaker I went to had some mad theory about personal electricity."
They ate off a card table in front of the fire in the freshly papered room. In the light of the candles the ladder cast a hangman's shadow and the pile of furniture loomed. They talked about computers, and whether a person could ever really disappear, and if life was better in Papua, New Guinea. She told a story about her grandfather, who had fought in the First World War and come home to start a railway. As she finished, the phone began to ring in the kitchen and upstairs. They both sat silently until it stopped. At last she spoke about herself but almost, Zeke noticed, as if she were talking about another person. Well, that was something he understood. He often felt as if the events in his life, the things people claimed he'd said and done, were really part of a stranger's story.
"Once, years ago, I had a friend called Marian. She was the opposite of me: tiny, ferocious, funny, incredibly well-organized. We shared an office at my first real job, and four or five nights a week after work we'd go out for a drink. We couldn't get enough of each other's company."
But when she'd been promoted and Marian hadn't their friendship had dwindled. "She would phone and write, but I was always too busy to get together. We'd meet every two or three months. Then one night she phoned around eleven. She said she had the flu. She kept talking about a cat she'd had as a child. I'm worried about Pushkin,' she kept saying. I'm worried I forgot to feed him.' I promised to come round first thing in the morning. When I got there at nine-thirty, the ambulance was already parked outside."
He watched her lips, her eyes, her cheeks, the muscles of her throat and forehead, and fewer and fewer of her words reached him. But when her story was done, the candles guttering, the fire dying, her face wore an expression he understood. He reached across the table and took her hand in his. "You did what you could. You don't expect people to die of the flu, not young healthy people." As he squeezed her palm against his own, her face changed, the light in her eyes leaping and fading. Had he been too bold? No, the candles were the culprits. Together they snuffed the flames.
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