It is one of those houses, says Grace. You’ll never get them clean, no matter how much you crawl around on your knees and scrub.
All the corners and the gaps between things that can’t be moved, there are too many of them, no edge fits neatly onto the next, the building work seems to have been done without measuring, the whole structure is like an improvisation, built from the sketch of a house rather than a construction plan. Doors don’t close tightly, crevices and creases everywhere to fill up with sticky dust.
And too many things to fit into too little space, cables and boxes, books, toys and papers and no space to put them to clean around them. No space to shift anything around, all surfaces already taken up by something and no chance to hang up more shelves because the walls are a thin layer of plaster that crumbles away from the drill before it quickly hits solid stone.
Everything makeshift: before sitting down to eat the table has to be cleared from books and papers and plates with candles and other futile decoration that was meant as an effort to make the place more homely but drowns in the accumulation of things and is only one more item to gather dust, armchairs and toys have to be moved out of the way and chairs to be collected from their corners and put around the extended table. And everything back afterwards.
When you’re about to suffocate the only chance you have is to close your eyes, says Grace.
Before going to bed at night the coffee table is moved to the side and the couch is pulled out, the blankets and cushions taken out of the plastic bag underneath it.
In the tub the clothes rack and the bucket for mopping the floor with the cloth hanging over the rim to dry.
Dirty dishes on the stovetop and some of the clean ones forever in the drying rack and in the oven because there is not enough space in the cupboards.
The towel-sized yard off the kitchen where the bins are and the stacks of old cardboard and rows of empty bottles. Clotheslines are spanned between the rain gutter and an old ladder, wood bloated from exposure to the rain, and from there to the funnel from the gas heating.
Grace says: Your body tells you when you’re ready.
She looks at herself as if examining an unknown species, a body. Something disconnected from her, no message coming through.
She is smoking a cigarette in the yard. In the light falling through the kitchen door the pegs on the clothesline cast a shadow on the wall that looks like a group of birds sitting on a wire, shivering in a breeze.
The lights are on behind the kitchen window next door, the house behind the wall with the same narrow kitchen and make-do extension for the bathroom, and now the backdoor opens with the same screeching sound and the grinding of wood over concrete.
A metallic clank and the click of a lighter and the clearing of a throat that she recognizes as the man’s who is her neighbor on this side of the house.
They smoke quietly. Some evenings one of them says hello and they have a chat over the wall, without seeing each others faces, but that had to be done straight away, not into minutes and minutes of silence. One day he had compared these evening cigarettes and conversations to being in a prison and that the only time of the day you where allowed a word with the guy in the next cell and had laughed.
She knows his face though, fragments of his face, from looking at it for a few seconds when they arrive at the door at the same time and quickly looking away again. She has seen him outside on the street, greeted him glancing over her shoulder, key in the door already, and he locking his car and making his way over to the houses. She fantasized about him sometimes, how one afternoon when she is alone in the house, he would come back early from work and they would meet in the yard, maybe hanging the washing, so she would stand with one foot on the ladder and the other on the window sill and be able to see into the yard, and they would talk and he would ask if she wanted to come over for a cup of coffee, he wasn’t used to being at home this time of the day and didn’t know what to do with himself .It was actually something he had said one afternoon when he did have come back early from work and she was hanging the washing in the yard, but without the invitation. He had said it in a way as if he always worked very hard and never had time for himself.
It is just a random fantasy, and she hardly ever gets past the point of the coffee invitation, his face nondistinctive, a man.
It is the same with the butcher in the supermarket and the college boy who works late shifts and weekends in the corner shop.
Her father has been a butcher. They had lived in a flat above the shop and
there was always some piece of meat for the shop sitting in a metal dish on the kitchen table, for thawing over night, underneath a chequered tea towel.
For years after they had to give up the shop her father still stored things down there instead of the fridge in the kitchen and she always had to go down into the freezing semidarkness to fetch a can of soup or cold cuts for dinner. Empty shelves with a few items arranged in the same distance from each other.
Then they had to give up the house as well and moved here.
When she comes into the bathroom to wash her hands after smoking, a stale and visceral smell hits her and she inhales deeply. She can feel their presence like hands on her body, like a ceaseless attempt to find the weak spot and enter, and she closes her eyes against the invasion.
They are taking showers, they brush their teeth, it is nothing unwashed or sickly, just bodies, human beings.
I can’t be close, says Grace. I can’t be there.
Her father is stretched out on the couch, eyes fixed on the silent TV.
He will soon fall asleep and wake up after a few moments with a start he will try to conceal, it has been like that since she and Grace were kids. He used to nod off in front of the TV after a long day in the butcher’s shop, but now his falling asleep somehow has a different quality; it is like the brother of death, a harbinger.
The wind goes right through the house like a drafty corridor, passing the rolled up carpets and towels at the feet of the badly closing doors and the slit for the mail, it is howling down the fireplace and smashes the mailbox lid against the front door with every heavy gust. In the silences between the rapid ticking of the gas meter.
She starts to put away the baby’s toys, trying not to get in the way of the TV.
In the next room her mother is putting her grandmother to bed.
Neither of them says anything, her father and she never talk much, they communicate through different channels, or at least getting messages across, most of the time the same message.
It had changed when she was pregnant, as if the pregnancy was a sign that everything would be allright and having the baby would somehow counterbalance all their failures of the past, no loose ends to be tied up, unspoken words could be left unspoken. For a short time her father had seemed to live in a state of unreserved hope that was surprising and somehow embarrassing for her to witness. She had felt irritation and rejection of his wordless euphoria. She had felt the pressure, but there had been no messages.
But now all is back the way it was.
She wipes the table clean of the spills from the baby’s dinner and puts the chairs back into their corners.
Sometimes words are about to escape but they bounce off her mouth forced shut against their flight and are trapped like birds inside a cave, tiny wings fluttering against the walls.
After dinner, the washing up and the TV drama, she takes her clothes in the babies room, she places them over the back of the chair, jeans, socks, sweater, bra and then rolls out the mattress beside the cot and lies in the dark. Through the air shaft between the rooms she can hear her grandmother’s heavy breathing and her mother rustling with the sheets. In the other room her father fumbles with his pills and then she hears him swallow and then everything is quiet for a long while.
She has the impulse, unbeknown to her in daylight, to take the baby out of the cot and hold him close to her.
It is like a pain, for an instant convulsing through her body and distorting her face and then it passes and she falls asleep.
She is waiting on the platform, 7 minutes until the next train reads the display, the next 7 minutes of her life will slip away on a deserted tram platform.
She heaves the pram off the train and pushes it down the hill towards the part of the city where she has lived all her life, the light is already fading and the traffic is heavier with people returning from work. She passes by the corner shop, the playground and the park, on the benches teenage boys in working clothes are drinking cans of beer in the first hint of spring in the evening air and for a moment she has the familiar sensation that she is about to disappear. Just a subtle shift, a stumble and then a smooth and imperceptible transition. Like Grace.
She often thinks she could go down this road at any time and tell from the light and the sounds of the city what day of the week and time of the day it is, like a sunny Saturday just before noon maybe, transparent sky and sharp-edged shadows, always the distant whine of helicopter rotor blades or a circular saw the overtone in the frequency of the quieter than usual city morning, behind which all other sounds taper and soften. But now the pictures that sometimes float up inside her are like from another country, the same street in an era that appears to be much further in the past than the 15 or 20 years that have gone by since she and Grace were teenagers. Between what she sees now and these pictures some sort of event seems to have occurred that divides the times, like a war or the breakdown of a system, and when she passes someone on the street she knows but has lost touch with it is as if they are survivors of whatever happened and have missed their chance to push along with the young, trample over this without sentimentality and make everything new. They recognize each other and then quickly turn away. But nothing has happened, only time has passed.
When she comes up to the house the baby has fallen asleep in the pram and she opens the door carefully in the hope nobody will make a noise to wake him up, but the room is empty. Hand at her chest to unbutton her coat, she walks over to the half open door of the room her grandmother and mother sleep in. Her grandmother is asleep and her father is standing with his back to the door, face turned to the window and rigid. He is holding one of his mothers hands in his. For a moment her heart clenches the way it had one night at the sight of the cans of soup and tinned tomatoes neatly placed far apart from each other in the empty shop shelves.
A fraction of time among other fractions, barely material for a short story, fragments, rooms, a certain incidence of light and then another angle, close –up, cigarette smoke curling into an evening sky, another street, tears streaming down cheeks on a bus looking out the window at the passing landscape, scraps, cut-outs with no connection to shape a novel, and she wonders if she has been silly not to expect a whole life to be that way.
Then she finishes unbuttoning her coat and turns around to the hall, to the kitchen, to preparing dinner.