It's a slippery slope, once you start on it, once you've
ignored that knock in the engine for long enough and it starts to miss
occasionally as you careen down some hill dazedly gripping the wheel.
At the beach the sun comes out and the sea glitters to the horizon, and Paul is content to sit and watch the surfers for a while. When you're twenty-six, obviously that's what you do, because it's still within the radar range of things you might conceivably try yourself. Then he goes and buys fish and chips and you eat them at a picnic table, everything dazzling and warm. But once that poison has started, once you're committed to giving yourself a measured dose of it every day, nothing's going to be enough. You have traded in your unselfconsciousness for this double-visioned state of standing outside yourself, watchful and tensed for exposure. You will despise yourself for every mouthful and for your insatiable hunger, and you will despise yourself more for breaking away from him as you walk out of the surf to hurry back to your towel to get your sarong and cover up. So that even as he grins at you sitting on the sand and says, 'Isn't this great?', a small, snarling bitter voice will be sounding in the back of your head saying: Yeah. I'm sitting squinting into the sun getting crow's-feet and eating saturated fats. Great.
Waiting for him to unlock the car to leave, don't, whatever you do, look at your silhouette in the reflection of the car window. It will show you nothing but hard contrast. In the solarised shadow and light, you will see lines on your forehead, and those ones etched between your nose and mouth, the awful twist of discontent. Old harridan lines.
Just get in the car. Put your sunglasses on, and get in the car.
And later, when he's not watching, feel disgusted scorn for yourself as you try to covertly open your bag and get out the factor-fifteen moisturiser, and put it on. Neck as well as face. Think of all the mornings when you get up and your neck and chest are creased like an old sheet. Jowls. Crepey skin. Turkey neck. Spinster aunt skin. Wonder if he wakes before you, and looks at those creases as you're asleep, exposed, in the bright morning light.
The ever-relentless sun, inescapable, beats down on you through the windscreen.
All those hours you mindlessly lay on your towel in your twenties, and tilted your face up into it, heedless. You look across at his face, and of course he doesn't care, he doesn't need to. He's got years.
Inexorable, this spiral down. Tell him later that no, really, you want the light off. Don't say a word about turning forty. When he says he loves you, some reflex from those side-effects will mean you won't let yourself believe it. Censor everything. Swallow the pill. Remember this: let the smallest reference to babies slip, and you can kiss this guy goodbye.
Funny how the dye seems to have missed the odd grey hair, which seem stronger and wirier than the others. And the way you only notice them when you can't really lean forward and do anything about them when you're looking in the mirror of a change room, for example, in a fairly expensive department store on your afternoon off, and the sight of your own cellulite (all those chips!) so disgusts you and saps your energy that you doubt whether you can actually get dressed again and drag yourself out of there, away from that ridiculous lingerie or the jeans you've chosen. Why are you even wasting your time with this guy? Why don't you find someone your own age who might actually be interested in a late bid for last-minute parenthood, someone who might be in for the long haul? You're too pathetic to believe yourself. And just as you grab your hairbrush after changing back into your stupid frump clothes, just as you think for a minute you'll at least brush your hair, you notice in these unforgiving overhead lights those dark roots coming through again already any fool could see your colour's not natural. Your hair sits lank and dried-out against your head.
Excerpted from the short story "Dark Roots" in Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy. © 2006 by Cate Kennedy. Reprinted with the permission of Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be 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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