Inside he began to tiptoe toward the hall; then, reconsidering, attempted his normal stride. "Hello. Anyone home?"
He switched things on: kettle, radio, lights. Even the man at London Electricity had forgotten him. Everything worked perfectly. He made the obligatory cup of tea and set to work, but after ten minutes of sanding he couldn't stand it. The awful possibilityshe was goneleaped into his head and ricocheted around. He laid the sandpaper aside and, wiping his powdery hands on his jeans, climbed the stairs.
He had reconnoitered the first day he had the house to himself, as he always did, flitting through bedrooms, checking wardrobes and cupboards and the dark spaces beneath desks and tables. He wasn't snooping for kinky underwear or exotic substances but ratherit was the way he coped with strange houseslooking for a hiding place. Sometimes, when he felt particularly shaky, he even stored provisions there: a bottle of water, a packet of biscuits. Here at the Barrows', he'd chosen the pedestal desk in the study. With his knees drawn up, the wooden U was an almost perfect fit. Now he moved from one lightbulbless room to another. In the master bedroom the tattered floral wallpaper made his teeth ache. Then the study, his hiding place, surrounded by machines: computer, printer, fax, even a photocopier. Last, the spare room, distinguished by the boxes stacked along the wall and the miscellaneous furniture.
Had he ever been so glad to see a suitcase? The larger of the two lay open at the foot of the bed, revealing a tumble of garments, red, purple, white, blue; the smaller, still closed, stood by the window with a red sticker proclaiming fragile. Neither, unfortunately, had a label with her name. He stepped over to the bed and knelt to bury his face in the pillow. Here she was, and here.
The scrape of a door hurled him to his feet. The last thing he wanted was to be caught mooning over a pillow. "Hello," he called, starting down the stairs.
She was in the hall, her cheeks glowing, her hair darker than the day before, bearing the marks of a comb. "I went to get us fried-egg sandwiches." She flourished a paper bag.
Us, he thought. "Thank you," he said, and explained, though she didn't seem concerned, that he had broken in. In the kitchen he set out plates, salt and pepper, sheets of paper towel. He had had his usual bowl of cereal only an hour ago; now, following her example, he ate ravenously. She was wearing a faded blue sweatshirt, the sleeves rolled up as if it had once belonged to someone else, the hem stretched tight over her belly. How far along was she, he wondered, trying to recall various friends. Six months, maybe seven. Watching her raise the bread to pepper the egg, he realized he had dreamed about her the night before.
Only a fragment remained, her winching a metal bucket, brimming with water, out of a well. But before he could tell her, she was talking again. One spring, apparently, she had worked as a cleaner in an office building and had eaten a fried-egg sandwich every day. From the way she spoke, he understood that this was not her present occupation.
"So what are we doing today?" she said, wiping her hands on the paper towel. "Putting up lining paper?"
He began to stammer. He was making good progress. Besides, her aunt and uncle were paying him a fair wage.
"But you must need help," she said, "and I need something to take my mind off things."
At the time he assumed a covert reference to her pregnancy. Later, when he scrutinized her every utterance, it became one of those mysterious manhole covers, briefly raised over the dark river of secrecy. Meanwhile, before he could urge further objectionsthe dust, the fumesshe had spotted a pair of coveralls hanging on the back door, and the next thing he knew she had scrambled into them and was demonstrating how well they fit; her belly split the front like a chestnut its shell. "Come on," she said. "I bet you're paid by the job, not the hour."
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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