"You smell of soot," their father said to their mother. "And cabbage and milk."
"And you smell of failure," their mother said.
Their mother used to smell of all kinds of interesting things, paint and turpentine and tobacco and the Je Reviens perfume that their father had been buying for her since she was seventeen years old and "a Catholic schoolgirl," and which meant "I will return" and was a message to her. Their mother was "a beauty" according to their father, but their mother said she was "a painter," although she hadn't painted anything since they moved to Devon. "No room for two creative talents in a marriage," she said in that way she had, raising her eyebrows while inhaling smoke from the little brown cigarillos she smoked. She pronounced it thigariyo, like a foreigner. When she was a child she had lived in faraway places that she would take them to one day. She was warm-blooded, she said, not like their father, who was a reptile. Their mother was clever and funny and surprising and nothing like their friends' mothers. "Exotic," their father said.
The argument about who smelled of what wasn't over, apparently, because their mother picked up a blue-and-white-striped jug from the dresser and threw it at their father, who was sitting at the table staring at his typewriter as if the words would write themselves if he was patient enough. The jug hit him on the side of the head and he roared with shock and pain. With a speed that Joanna could only admire, Jessica plucked Joseph out of his high chair and said, "Come on," to Joanna, and they went upstairs, where they tickled Joseph on the double bed that Joanna and Jessica shared. There was no heating in the bedroom and the bed was piled high with eiderdowns and old coats that belonged to their mother. Eventually all three of them fell asleep, nestled in the mingled scents of damp and mothballs and Je Reviens.
When Joanna woke up, she found Jessica propped up on pillows, wearing gloves and a pair of earmuffs and one of the coats from the bed, drowning her like a tent. She was reading a book by torchlight.
"Electricity's off," she said without taking her eyes off the book. On the other side of the wall they could hear the horrible animal noises that meant their parents were friends again. Jessica silently offered Joanna the earmuffs so that she didn't have to listen.
When the spring finally came, instead of planting a vegetable garden, their father went back to London and lived with "his other woman" which was a big surprise to Joanna and Jessica, although not, apparently, to their mother. Their father's other woman was called Martina the poet; their mother spat out the word as if it were a curse. Their mother called the other woman (the poet) names that were so bad that when they dared to whisper them (bitch-cuntwhore- poet) to each other beneath the bedclothes, they were like poison in the air.
Although now there was only one person in the marriage, their mother still didn't paint.
Copyright © 2008 by Kate Atkinson
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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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