(c) Sherman Cahal

CREATIVE Maria Apichella

NWR Issue 115

The Red Circle

2. Rhythm of Quiet Questions

We haven’t reached the mountains: the real Pennsylvania where abandoned coal mines still smoulder and burn under the pine-scented ground; where potholes make driving a wheel-skidding adventure; where boulders come bouncing from cliffs and crunch on lonely cars; where elk and moose and bears loom; where a glamorous old woman keeps her door shut to us both. She knows we are coming. Dad phoned her from England a week before we left, and I and all my sisters had brief, formal chats on the phone as we always did. The conversations always followed the same pattern, much like a litany. A litany of sorrows. How are you, Nana? Oh, no. Oh dear. That’s terrible. I am sorry to hear that. I love you. I wish I could see you. Yes, I will write. Yes, I promise. But we rarely do. Even so, how could she not have let her son into his childhood home, or seen me, her oldest grandchild, for over a decade? How do we let these things slip? It’s self-imposed, Mum always says with a snap. People choose their own lives.
‘Choose a station, kiddo,’ Dad says. I lean over and twiddle the dial. A clatter of hollow voices crackles and twines. Send in your prayer requests, the intercession team…. Are you having trouble with your lawn mower? Well, call Bob on…. Vote for Hillary. Get a woman in that…. Do your kids need a mentor?
The afternoon light slants lemon yellow on land that is mine but not mine. The highway cuts through great slabs of brown umber fields speckled by occasional clumps of red barns. The light is harsh here, not like the muted watercolour tones of Harwell and Oxford.
‘Well, it’s just you and me,’ Dad says, grinning and tooting the horn. He winces a little.
‘You OK?’
‘Yep, yep.’
A splay of geese rises, fluttering out of the ruts of the field, honking. The sound welcomes and warns. I have a long way to go. I get out my wallet and search through it for William’s photo booth face. William Bradbury. My family all refer to him by his full name, as if to remind me he is the son of a judge. His blue eyes look into mine: Hurry back, Maria. He didn’t like me going away. I met him on a school trip to an anti-Bush demonstration in Covent Garden last year. It united the whole catchment area, including Culford. He was in the Upper Sixth. His friends and mine all ended up being jostled to the back of the sticky Tappins bus, long and rusty orange like the wrappings of a Toffee Crisp. We were all agog at him and his friends. Their eloquent public school enthusiasm, and the way he held forth all the way to London with his deep, man-like voice punctuated with roars and jolly scoffing. He seemed full of facts, quotes and examples. He knew all about George Bush, and exactly what was happening and where and why. He knew people who knew people; journalists and politicians and so forth; or at least his dad did. I was impressed. I was repelled. I think he fancies you, my friend nudged me as we got off the bus and stepped into the crowds. He was big and golden like a retriever and had that thick bronzed tufted-up hair like Prince William or Tintin or a toilet brush. His eyes were direct and light blue and he seemed a more finished human being than most. The boys at school showered less often, were embarrassed more easily and none of their dads knew anyone famous. That day in London was meant to have been a day of anger and protest, which in many ways it was, as William led us onwards into the crowd, but it had also been a lot of jokes and glances, William taking me by the elbow. My friends faded and the day ended with us slumped sleepily up against each other in the dark, hand in hand as we left the lamp-lit sprawl of Croydon and hummed down the M40. After that I was the girl hanging out with a Culford boy. People treated me as if I had achieved something or betrayed someone. Mum and my sisters were all questions and teases.

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