"Let me make some tea," he concluded, backing out of the room. In the kitchen, he hovered beside the dormant kettle and, to his own stupefaction, imagined telling her the story of his breakdown. Surely she would listen to him like she had the container salesman. Don't, he admonished. You only met her fifteen minutes ago. Even people he had known for years tended to back away when he mentioned his difficulties. As the kettle rumbled to a boil he heard a thud from the hall, followed by another. Her stocking feet appeared in the doorway, and he understood not only the noises he'd just heard but those that came most nights through his bedroom ceiling: one shoe, two shoe.
"Which side are you on?" he said, offering a mug of tea.
"Roundheads or cavaliers? Arsenal or Chelsea? Flat earth or solar system?"
"Mr. or Mrs. Barrow. Whose niece are you?"
"Mister's, can't you tell?" She turned and, heels striking the floor, carried her tea upstairs.
Alone with his own tea, Zeke thought, I am profoundly boring. He searched high and low in the rooms of his brain, checking the long front hall, the living room, the dining room, the narrow stairs, and couldn't find a trace of disagreement.
Normally he quit at five, but today he kept pressing spackle into even the smallest cracks until close to six-thirty. Then, in the face of an unbroken silence from above, he admitted defeat. He tidied his tools, washed his hands, and called the news of his departure, wanly, up the stairs.
"Wait." There she was on the landing. "Are you coming tomorrow? When?"
Her tawny hair was sticking up like a cockatoo's crest. "I aim for eight," he told her. "Not to worry. I can let myself in."
"I need keys." She swam down the stairs into the light, stopping on the last one, hand outstretched. He should have guessed then from the way her hazel eyes fastened on his that something was awry, either she wasn't on good terms with her aunt and uncle or Ms. Fweren't all fetuses female at first?was a problematic guest, but the warmth of her breath, the lilt of her perfume, expunged rational thought. Helpless, he laid the keys in her palm.
"Will you be up to let me in?" he said. One cheek, her left, bore the crease of a pillow.
"Up with the lark, up with the milkman."
"Are you all right?" he found himself asking.
"Probably," she said. And thensurely all the buses of London rose an inch into the airshe leaned forward and pressed her lips, gently, to his.
The next morning Zeke rang the bell, knocked, tried the knob. The door stayed shut, the windows dark. Feeling like a dolt, he even bent down and called through the letter box. By the end of five minutes, he was holding on to himself, a kite on a gusty day. He fished around in his pockets, his bag, and was rewarded with a vision of his mobile phone in the pocket of his other jacket. As he walked around the corner, he counted the cigarette butts in the guttersome crushed, some notto keep himself from floating away. Seven, eight, eleven. Twice he had to stop and retrace his steps to make sure he hadn't missed one. Look down, he thought, not up. In the forecourt of the underground station, he saw a free phone and, trying not to think of all the hands, the mouths, that had passed this way, dialed the Barrows' number. The answering machine clicked on with a brief nasal message. She's stepped out for a paper, he told himself; she's taking a bath. Walking back, he forgot about the cigarettes and placed his feet securely in the middle of each paving stone.
At the house, nothing had changed. He knocked, rang, shouted again, before climbing in through the living room window. He had opened it the day before while using the steamer and, in the excitement of her arrival, neglected his usual security measures. Now the ease with which the sash slid up made him feel stricken. He had left her at the mercy of any passing vandal.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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