NWR Issue 110


He’d slept badly, as he always did at his parents’ house, and had woken to find Anna propped on one elbow, staring into his face.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘You were whimpering.’


‘Like this.’ She made a high, childlike noise in the back of her throat.

‘You must have been dreaming.’ She swept her tangled hair back from her face and leaned forward to kiss him. Daniel took the kiss absently. ‘Maybe I was,’ he said. There was something there at the back of his mind, but not an image, nothing he could lay hold of; just a faint sense of unease.

‘That’s not a kiss.’ She pressed her mouth hard against his and ran her hand slowly down his belly. He stiffened at her touch.

‘I forgot to bring them,’ he said. ‘The condoms.’

‘We could take the risk.’

He lay still, saying nothing.

‘It wouldn’t matter,’ she said at last. ‘Your mum’s desperate for grandchildren. She told me so.’

‘When did she say that?’

‘Yesterday. When we were in the kitchen making the tea. She says she wants us to have children while she’s still young enough to appreciate them.’ She nestled closer, settled her chin in the dip behind his collarbone. ‘It would give meaning to her life, she says – a new family, everything starting again.’

He’d been unable to explain to Anna just what it was about that revelation – his mother’s longing breathed into his ear like an obscene secret – that had unmanned him. He put his arms around her, feeling with a pained detachment the shifting pressure of her body against his own, but after a few moments he turned away and buried his face in the pillow.

Bad start. And later, when breakfast was over and his mother was washing the dishes at the sink, his father set down his teacup, rose heavily from his chair and leaned over him. ‘A quick word,’ he said, ‘if you have a moment.’

‘What about?’

Mr Collett glanced at his wife’s bent back. ‘Not here,’ he whispered, shaking his head. He led the way out of the breakfast room and into his study, conspiratorial and subtly coercive. ‘A favour,’ he said, reaching behind Daniel’s back to push the door shut. ‘A little errand.’

‘What kind of errand?’

His father stepped over to his desk, opened the top drawer and drew out a clump of tissue paper. He placed it on the surface and began to tug at it with clumsy fingers. ‘I bought this’ – he extracted a small object and held it out towards Daniel – ‘when we were on our honeymoon.’

He remembered it from his childhood, one of his mother’s dressing- table curiosities: a faceted scent bottle, elaborately but tastelessly decorated. Around its body, a circle of plump cherubs in tarnished silver, pointing their toes and straining upward on their feathered wings; set slightly asquint in the cap and winking now in the wintry light as his father turned the bottle in his fingers, a single crudely cut topaz.

‘What’s that got to do with me?’ There was a trace of aggression, not quite unintentional, in the question.

‘I want to give it to her again. Replenished.’ He lingered on the word, and Daniel realised, with a faint queasiness, that his father had conceived of this second giving as a reconsecration. He would offer the little vial to his wife as an emblem of love’s restoration after years of dryness. ‘I wondered...’

‘If I’d buy the perfume?’

‘If you wouldn’t mind.’ His father placed the bottle reverently on the desktop. He drew out his wallet and counted out three five-pound notes. ‘Folle de Toi. That’s what she always used to wear.’

It had been years since his mother had worn perfume, but he remembered her sweeping into the room one evening while the babysitter was reading to him, the fragrance enveloping him as she stooped to kiss him goodnight. It was a memory he’d clung to: his mother radiant as he’d never seen her since, his father unaccountably absent.

‘I shouldn’t think they make it any more,’ he said, snatching up the notes and stuffing them into his top pocket.

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Jem Poster is the author of a poetry collection, Brought to Light (Bloodaxe, 2001), and two novels, Courting Shadows and Rifling Paradise (Sceptre, 2002 and 2006). A third novel is in progress, and he has recently completed editing volume 3 of the six-volume Oxford University Press Edward Thomas: Prose Writings.


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