At first he was embarrassed telling a woman, older he guessed by perhaps a decade, what to do, but she turned out to be much more biddable than Emmanuel. As they finished the sanding, he on the ladder, she on foot, she lobbed questions in his direction. Despite her careless manner, he sensed that she was in fact listening to whatever he chose to answer. Whereas the doctors, without exception, as soon as he opened his mouth, had focused on pencil sharpeners, radiators, doorknobs. They were paidnot enough, not by himto barely feign attention, scribble a couple of notes, and finally write a prescription that would propel him, thank God, out of their offices. But this woman with her fierce brow, her chapped knuckles, for whatever reason actually seemed interested.
"So." She folded sandpaper onto the sanding block. "How did you become a painter? Is it the family business, or your heart's desire?"
"Neither." In the hope of asking about her, he offered himself. "My father was a greengrocer in Brighton. He got up at four every day except Sunday to go to market. Then he worked until seven at night, keeping the shop stocked, dealing with customers."
"Brighton is nice. Did you live near the sea?"
"If I stood on my bed on tiptoe, there was a little triangle of water." He had done this precisely once, dismayed at what his maneuver had revealed. Now he climbed down the ladder, moved it four feet, climbed back up, and started on the next stretch of cornice.
"I used to think," she said, "life would make sense if I could see the sea every day."
"Not for me." He brushed away a cobweb. "A street makes sense, a house makes sense, but the sea just goes on and on: wave, wave, wave. I couldn't wait to get away. We moved when I was ten." In London, Highbury, his parents had a new shop, bigger and busier. "I used to help in the evenings, on Saturdays, stocking the bins, fetching and carrying. Then one day one of our regulars, Mrs. Oma, said when you're the boss and suddenly I realized what my father was preparing me for. I started to pay attention in school, do my homework. It drove him mad. Do you want to be a dreamer all your life,' he used to say, head stuck in a book?'"
"Careful," she said.
Beneath his savage gestures the ladder swayed like a sapling.
Over fresh sandpaper he admitted he had studied accounting at university. "I wanted to do anthropologyI'd read this book about the rain-forest tribes of Papua, New Guineabut I didn't have the nerve. I needed to know I was heading toward a job." She didn't ask the obvious question, and, as he finished the upper half of the wall, this enabled him to venture into that territory he'd imagined while making tea the previous afternoon. "The day after my final exams I couldn't leave the house. The people I shared with had all gone away, and I'd been looking forward to having the place to myself. But as soon as I stepped outside I worried that I'd left the gas on or the iron or the lights or I hadn't locked the door or I hadn't locked the window or I hadn't flushed the toilet or my mother was trying to phone. It didn't matter how often I checked, it didn't matter if I wrote down that I'd checked, I'd reach the street and have to go back. Remember in Gulliver's Travels when the Lilliputians tie him down? It was like that. Hundreds of strands of anxiety tugging at me. Soon it was easier not to try to get away."
"That sounds horrid," she said.
He set the ladder aside and began to cut the lining paper. She was still listening, he could tell from the angle of her head, and to the accompaniment of the scissors' muttering blades he finished his story. "When I got better I knew I couldn't be an accountant. I like numbers, the way they can't be two things at once, but I couldn't cope with the people on the other end of them. One of our neighbors did odd jobs and I started helping him. Phil is different. Not like me," he added hastily. A strip of paper released from the roll fell to the floor. "Words take longer to get from one part of his brain to another, like running in sand, but they always arrive. I felt okay with him and graduallyhe wanted to be a piano tunerI took over the business."
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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