‘I am not attracted to you,’ Sonja said one night when they’d stayed behind to drink their tips.
‘Well, thank God for that,’ Ruth replied knocking her shot glass against Sonja’s.
‘I can’t thank God. I don’t believe in baby stories anymore.’
Sonja had left Sweden as soon as she could. It was not how people imagine, she said. No shiny magazine Scandinavia for her. No house of glass and light. Her town was a mud-pit in the middle of nowhere. Her house: low, squat. Church every single day.
‘Breakfast, lunch and supper, those people ate church.’
She came to London to study philosophy where she and Ruth met working in the bar across from the university. Ruth still with a ring in her nose and an accent; Sonja, tall, freckled, hair down her back— auburn not blonde but still the kind of girl who ought to live in a house made of glass and light.
When the tip money was spent, Sonja went off in a taxi to meet someone. At home, drunk to stumbling in front of her bedroom mirror, Ruth examined herself this way and that, wondering what was so wrong with her. Sonja had sex with everyone. Three and foursomes, quick shags in stairwells, in club toilets, an affair with the lecturer who taught early childhood psychology then an affair with the woman’s husband. She didn’t seem to need pills or shots either; she’d do it with the light on and go for coffee afterwards.
Life lived without total freedom is slavery.
Oh yes, Ruth agreed, pretending not to be shocked at the sticky details. She did a lot of pretending back then. They all did.
And now, years later, more pretending.
‘You haven’t changed at all,’ Ruth says to Sonja when she steps off the train with little Alice.
Oh, but growing number two has clearly worn her out. Dark circles under her eyes— as if a man’s fat thumb has pressed down on the curve of each socket bone, leaving a big dirty smudge. Ruth imagines saying to Mark when he comes home from up north: see, two babies is just too much. Yet that night, bringing in the brandy from the kitchen, she catches a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror. Worse. Much worse. And what is her excuse?
Well, the day did not start well. Ruth soon peeled raw running after Arthur while trying to give Sonja and Alice the tour along with the usual spiel about how their town might be the last stop on the line but, oh, such lovely parks and a bookshop and an art fair and…and…
She managed not to say up and coming yet it was there when she pointed out the new coffee shop, the bike shop, the pub that used to be a Wetherspoons and now sold handmade burgers and triple-cooked chips. She had tired. Tired of her own voice and the effort of trying to see the good in everything, here at the end of the line. Then, after lunch, she snapped at Arthur, screamed perhaps, certainly shouted louder than she would ever wish to. Sonja scooped him up. Had him look at something, anything to stop his wailing. Aw the big truck going down the road. Look at it. Look at it go. Wheeee.
Evening. The children are in bed. Christ, Ruth says, collapsing into a chair. Sonja sighs yes, tucking long legs up on the sofa, pulling the red velvet throw around her shoulders.
Ruth watches Sonja examine the fireplace, the new rug, the oil painting bought cheap at the town hall art fair.
‘You know, this place is really lovely. Cosy.’
‘Oh, there’s loads more to do,’ Ruth says with a wave yet when she walks into the kitchen to crack the brandy, she smiles. Last week, she said to Mark that the house was a bloody state. So shabby.
‘You always do this,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why. It’s only Sonja. She’s not the type to mind if the place is a dump. It’s you and Arthur she’s coming to see, not the carpets.’
He was right, of course. Only Sonja. Good old Sonja. Yet when they haven’t seen each other for a while, Sonja becomes a story, a boast perhaps that involves her job, her home in North London, the places she eats and drinks, the people she knows. Good old Sonja with the dirty laugh and the direct questions is somehow forgotten. So Ruth, how is your sex life now?
A light flashes on the coffee table next to Ruth’s elbow—the baby monitor despite Arthur no longer being a baby really. In the pauses during she and Sonja’s talk of who is doing what and living where and working how, Ruth listens for the sound of his breathing. In, out. The monitor crackles—a cough, a sob and her stomach leaps. No, all is fine. As for Alice, she passed out in the guest room next door. No rocking to sleep. No monitor. Go to sleep Alice, and the girl turned on her side and put her thumb in her mouth.
Sonja is talking about the last time she smoked a joint and how wiped she was after two tiny puffs, in another world, gone completely, then she shrugs, says out of nowhere: ‘I want to go home. This is no city for children. No place to live.’
Ruth opens her mouth to deny it but instead nods. Sonja speaks then of free childcare, fresh air, houses made of glass and light.
‘At least you have a plan,’ Ruth says, staring into the fire. Gas but it looks real enough. At least she thought so in the showroom.
‘But what’s your plan?’ Sonja shifts, stares. That same cool look from years ago. ‘What do you want, Ruth?’
The phone rings. Jon. He has caught an earlier flight. Sonja asks Ruth if he can stay. Just for one night. The builders won’t finish until Tuesday. Or she can wake Alice up and go to a hotel.
‘No, no, wouldn’t hear of it. He’s more than welcome. Of course he is.’
Jon’s taxi roars up the street, the driver shouting out of the window: Here it is, my friend.
Ruth glances at next door’s curtains.. ‘Come in, come in. Quick.’
So much luggage. Four or five steel suitcases filled with cameras and lenses used to shoot the desert race. And presents too. Jon kneels on the rug and opens a suitcase to reveal treasure from the hammam and the market: soft leather shoes in jewel colours: ruby, sapphire, emerald green; glass bottles of rosewater; cones of dark incense; packets of saffron, cinnamon, sumac and a wind-up bird for Alice that clack-clacks its metal beak. And for Ruth, a tiny figwood chest with brass hinges she holds in the palm of her hand. How many of these miniature chests did Jon bring home? Presents for their cleaner perhaps, Alice’s nursery nurse, the secretaries at his agency.
Jon asks for wine and when Ruth brings him the bottle, he gives the label the same look he gave her living-room when he first walked in. Still, he takes a glass and kicks his boots off, lying down on the sofa, head resting on Sonja’s lap. The scented candle on the mantlepiece has gone out. Now the room smells of leather and aftershave and feet. In a voice hoarse from smoking hookah and just a little hashish Sonja, he talks of souped-up racers revving at the edge of the desert, snow on the Atlas mountains, searching his shoes for scorpions in the morning. From her stiff chair on the other side of the room, Ruth stares at the scattered sand that fell from Jon’s boots down onto her Habitat rug. Sand all the way from the Sahara on her half-price hexagonal rug. Imagine that.
Jon instructs Ruth and Sonja, the assembled women, about Marrakech and the snake charmers, the jugglers, the men who stand every night in Jemaa El Fna square to tell stories. The storytellers say that the first story in the world was told in that very spot, before there was a square or a market. They say the oldest story in the world is still being told there; a story about a prince, a princess and an evil sorcerer passed down from father to son for hundreds of years. Only when there are no more sons, will the story end.
He tells them this, and he tells them about the Blue Gardens and the Three Thousand Tiles of Aayan and how the Bedouin carry Russian guns until he yawns and yawns and finally falls asleep, mouth open, nostrils flared as if smelling something he doesn’t like.
Ruth looks at him, the genie who can’t be put back in the bottle. Sonja, one hand on her bump, the other on Jon’s head, shrugs, smiles. Hey, what can you do?
‘Time for my bed,’ Ruth says, standing up.
They are sipping champagne in a restaurant close to Hyde Park. The type of place with chandeliers and silver sugar bowls and waiters who speak more languages than were ever taught at Ruth’s school. Sonja laughs and spoons cream onto her scone then spoons a little more. Ah, what does it matter? Yet there is so much more of her than there ever was before. She has swollen, risen, then collapsed into a great doughy mass. She wears wide trousers and a big-girl-blouse that billows. The flesh on her feet pushes up, out between the straps of her sandals. Her heels are cracked. You can get a treatment for that, Ruth thinks. The hard skin flakes off like French pastry.
‘You know, I enjoy being old,’ Sonja says. ‘It’s a relief to be invisible.’
Ruth frowns at her reflection in the silver teapot then immediately relaxes her brow. She buys expensive serums from Thai pharmacies, and at night, wears an electronic contraption on her face that’s supposed to renew the skin as she sleeps. Last week in Mumbai, someone asked if she was in her thirties. So what if he was a salesman. Take it where you find it.
‘All I wanted was a kind man and I got him.’
Sonja has married a Swede, an architect who wears light-blue shirts and thick black glasses as if unable to go against type. At last Sonja has her home of glass and light, a home designed by her new husband, built on an island in the Swedish archipelago surrounded by cold sea. There is a see-through staircase to a mezzanine level and baskets filled with pale stones from the beach. Ruth knows because she bought the magazine the house was featured in. There were no photos of Sonja and so when they met outside the restaurant, Ruth was surprised.
Now at the table Sonja laments for how much time has passed. Visits were planned then had to be cancelled— Sonja busy with this or that, Ruth always away for work. The worst was when Sonja got married to her architect and Ruth had to do an inspection in Goa. Just no getting out of it.
Mark and Arthur complain that Ruth never wants to go on holiday. Oh, but how she loves the last stop on the line and how, on her return from work, wants to gather the whole place up into her arms, breathe it in, inhale it—the Beware of the Labrador signs in porch windows; the drowsed roses in neat gardens; the new extensions; the ugly conservatories. In the face of all she has witnessed abroad and, yes, in parts of her own city, living here feels like the best good fortune. To live without fear under her own roof in a street of elms and oaks, food in the fridge, fruit in the bowl, surrounded by good, ordinary folk—some of whom love her—why is this not enough for the world? Why is this not cheered and clapped and made headline news?
Sonja is telling a story about her youngest daughter. Four children now. ‘It’s why my hair is so grey.’
Ruth decides grey actually suits Sonja, though she wonders whether the skin around her own eyes crepes as much when she laughs. And Sonja laughs all the time. It seems to Ruth, sitting there denying herself a second scone, that Sonja laughs more than she ever did. That great dirty laugh that causes waiters to turn their heads and the people at the next table to lean over to try and catch the joke.
‘You seem…well, you seem happy.’
‘I am.’ Sonja cuts through a lemon tart with the side of her fork. ‘Of course, it helps that my parents are dead. Complete freedom at last, no?’
Good old direct Sonja. The people at the next table turn back to their teapots.
Sonja talks about studying for a Masters in permaculture at Uppsala. ‘Now my babies have all grown up, I will tend the earth.’
She laughs at her pretension yet the laughter stops when they speak about the children and Jon. It seems he hardly sees the kids, and when he sends presents, they are always too young or too old or just not right. He lives in Thailand. Runs hotels with his girlfriend who is a nurse and that’s no surprise.
‘He was always such a baby. A nurse is just what he needs.’
Sonja speaks of what Jon used to do or rather not do, then shakes her head.
‘God, Jon, let’s not talk about Jon. But you know what he was like, Ruth. I don’t need to tell you. You know, I always meant to apologise for how he embarrassed you that night. Years ago.’
Ruth makes a good show of working hard to remember.
‘To make a pass at you like that. No wonder you didn’t say anything. I could’ve killed him when he told me. ‘
‘I’m surprised he did tell you.’
‘Oh, he liked to tell. It was his thing. Behave badly then confess.’ Sonja rolls her eyes. ‘Sometimes he’d go away to work and have a one night fling or whatever, then fly home to bury his head in my lap, tears pouring. He was Catholic–at least when he was a boy. Confession was his thing, you see. It got him off or something.’
‘God. How awful for you.’
‘Oh, it didn’t bother me that much. At least I knew what he was doing. At least he wasn’t lying. Then I had the babies and well…things change, don’t they? But to do that to you…a friend. Well, that was it. The beginning of the end. So to hell with Jon, no? Though without him I wouldn’t have the kids so perhaps skal or cheers to Jon is best, the bastard.’ She raises her glass and the restaurant seems to swell and roar its appreciation. ‘Oh look, all finished. Let’s order more. And more cakes. Yes, lots more cakes.’
Arthur woke in the middle of the night, wailing. The shit had leaked up his back and all over the cot. Aw Arthur, it’s everywhere. After he was changed, she sang and rocked him though he was too big really. When that didn’t work, she cradled him on the armchair, whispering a convoluted story about a lion that lost its roar in the jungle, went up a mountain then flew in a rocket to the moon. He was sleeping before she could get to the happily ever after.
Downstairs in the kitchen she scraped the shit off his pyjamas with a butter knife then threw the clothes and the sheets in a bucket to soak. Sometimes, despite it all, she didn’t mind being up at this time. It was like stepping into one of Arthur’s books. Her ordinary everyday world told slant. The kitchen cupboards, the table in the hall re-drawn in shadowy blue-black ink, curious, strange and almost sinister. Picture-book creatures—the owl, the nightjar who steals milk from sleeping goats—flitting from tree to tree out there in the back garden.
Ruth switched off the kitchen light and went to the window to peer out, wondering how many other mothers in dressing gowns were standing over their sinks in the dark at that moment.
A mild night, moonlight picking out the abandoned tricycle and the sandpit, casting odd shapes on the patio. Far above the sagging garden fence, the matt-black cardboard sky was punched here and there with stars. More, at least, than you’d see in the city proper.
It was then that Jon leaned out from the bench under the greengage tree. Ruth grabbed the cold sink, biting down a scream. He beckoned, waving; she dithered for a moment, then clumped to the back door, sniffing, checking that her hands, her dressing gown, didn’t stink of shit.
‘Couldn’t sleep,’ Jon said, holding up a joint between his fingers. ‘Needed something to help.’
Everything was silvered. The full moon frowned down. The trees shivered and shushed. She sat on the creaking bench and he offered her a smoke.
Almost, she shook her head but instead, said, ‘Did you get this from Morocco?’
He nodded but it didn’t taste of Morocco. It tasted of old wasted days and nights and parties and discarded boyfriends who shouted and punched walls. After a couple of drags, she handed it back then watched as the stars above their heads began to swirl and swirl. Up there on the moon, a lion was still looking for his roar. Poor old lion.
A yowl from one of the gardens and Jon jumped. Foxes, she told him. Foxes fucking. Perhaps it was that old vixen. At it again. The one she’d seen staggering across the lawn one slow afternoon, fur all mangy, dugs hanging low, fat pups tumbling after, snapping for more.
‘They always wake me. Every night. I think it’s Arthur crying.’
‘Don’t talk to me about crying babies. Jesus, Sonja would have fifteen if she could. I have a theory, you see.’ He laughed to show he wasn’t really serious. ‘Sweden’s a small country right? There’s not enough people, not enough of a gene pool, so to stop in-breeding these irresistible women have evolved to go out into the world and procreate, then when the deed is done, all they want to do is return to their home country and make use of its superior childcare and excellent living conditions blah blah blah.’
She eyed him through the gloom—his expensive leather jacket, his hair long, messy. He came from a place not far from her home town. Had fled parents who hit him too much or loved him too much, she couldn’t quite remember, but he had fled as she had, at a young age, leaving the old story behind.
‘Was it warm in Morocco?’
‘Beautiful. You know I’m going to buy some Riads out there. Knock them through and rent them out. Sonja doesn’t know yet so don’t say anything. But she’ll be into it. She’ll go for it.’
Was this how people even at their age turned the page? Wrote a new chapter? Just like that. Money helped, of course. Money and something or someone you could believe in.
She asked him about the desert and when he talked about the jeeps the Bedouin used, she shook her head. ‘No, tell me a story, a proper story.’
He thought for a moment then in the same voice he probably used with Alice at bedtime, he told her about a lost city called Zerzura buried under the sand and a King and Queen cursed to sleep in a minaret a thousand fathoms deep under a dune.
He was still talking when he handed the joint back, a little damp with spit. Instead of taking a drag, Ruth leaned over and kissed him, a smear on his rough cheek that could well have been considered a kind of thanks for the joint, for the story, for the company perhaps, if she hadn’t then placed her hand on his crotch. She didn’t look at him, just left her hand there and stared up at the paper moon. Moon, moon, Arthur had pointed when he first saw what he had only ever seen in picture-books. Perhaps the moon was to blame for this now. Perhaps this was moon madness.
‘You don’t want to do this, Ruth.’
He took her hand from where nothing much seemed to be happening anyway, and placed it on her thigh, squeezing her fingers in that matey way of men who just want to be friends.
‘You’ll regret it. Trust me.’
Her hand was alone on her leg, limp and ashamed. She frowned at it as if all this was its fault.
A rustle over by the shed. Too small for a fox. A mouse perhaps. Or dear God, a rat. Jon took the joint and sucked, the tip glowing orange.
‘You know,’ Ruth said. ‘You’re wrong. It must’ve been a mother who told the first story in the world. A story about hunting maybe or a great big woolly mammoth. I don’t know. Something, anyway, to stop her baby from crying. Sometimes it’s the only thing that works. It’s like magic.’ The bench creaked as she shifted an inch or so away. ‘And that story, the one that never ends. That’s not right either. It can’t be.’
Jon turned. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘If it never ends, if it keeps going forever, then what’s the point? Why bother? How will we know who lives happily ever after? The princess, the prince or the evil sorcerer? Who will it be?’