Stella got the giggles twenty minutes after, lying on the sofa pounding cushions and holding her belly. Davis watched. He was laughing too, less so, as he was struck by her expression. She hadn’t looked that way since they were teenagers.
He crawled on the sofa next to her, snaking his legs between hers, back turned, facing the television. It was on and loud, though neither was watching. The room was dark, apart from intermittent flashes from the screen. Stella put her arms around his waist. He could feel her warm breath on the knob of his spine, which perfectly matched the warmth at the centre of his forehead. He let his thoughts drift, eyes open, dappled light playing on his cheeks. He heard a deep hum from his wife.
‘Mmmm,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’
‘We need music.’
‘Want to get some from Barry’s room?’
‘Does that mean you want me to get it?’
‘No. Yes. Yes and no. Oh, I don’t know.’
She giggled again. The room was moving slowly to the left, like a child’s carousel.
‘Are you even sure you want to hear Barry’s music?’
‘I said, “Are you even sure you want to hear Barry’s music?” Cloth ears.’
‘You’re slurring, that’s why. And yes I do. Maybe it’ll sound better.’
They wallowed in the drift. Car engines rose and fell. Apart from that and the whistle of their breath, there was silence.
‘I’ll go,’ he said, struggling to his feet, leaving her smiling.
The world around him spun, but he had that under control. He hauled his own bodyweight upstairs, feeling his heart pound at the top, put his hand out for the light and then Barry’s door. Going in, he was amazed at how tidy the room was, yet again. That wasn’t inherited from him, or his mother. Surfaces were free of dust, books were alphabetically shelved; the computer desk was empty apart from a notepad and pen. Davis had an insane urge to open the drawers and throw clothes around, pull down the books, grab all his CDs and spread them across the floor. It looked like a room kept just so because someone had died, not because they had gone away. It made him scared. He told himself it was paranoia, just like he did in uni, but the feeling wouldn’t leave him alone.
He ended up taking a handful of CDs without even looking at the contents and brought them downstairs to Stella, unable to stem a hunter/gatherer’s pride. He put the first into the deck and pressed play. Who knew what kind of music it was. Dirt, grime, footstep? It was the kind of music they were used to hearing from behind their son’s closed door, or on the cable shows he sometimes watched, or in the car, a full-to-capacity beat and bass that made them feel tired and old. But tonight they listened. Tonight they were re-living their youth, what they had felt and thought when they first met and were open to each other because they were open to the world. They nodded their heads and shuffled their bums on the sofa, and when Stella got to her feet with her hands outstretched he rose to meet her, and they danced together, fingers entwined, palms joined, throwing all of their energy into matching the beat, Stella laughing with her head thrown back, laughing harder then she had in months, and he felt a twinge of worry again, was this too far? He was like this most of the time, searching beyond a smile, beyond the crinkle of her eyes as if he could see past skin and bone to read the flashes of electricity that sparked thoughts, searching for a place beyond the immediate, a desperate farmer scanning clear skies for rain. Sometimes she would laugh so hard and later go to bed early, leave him facing the TV. If he went upstairs he could stand by the door and hear her cry in the darkness. He would turn away, go back down, face the TV and not watch. He would wait a few hours before he went upstairs and slipped beneath the sheets.
Tonight they were time travelling, so he forced his mind from worry. He swung her arms and laughed with Stella, and when the song came to a close they fell against each other, panting and chuckling like many years before. Their bodies came together and their sweat combined and their hair rested against skin.
‘Is there any more?’ she said.
He sat back down, fingered the thin plastic bag.
‘I think there might be one.’
‘Let’s smoke it.’
She sat next to him, all big, earnest eyes.
‘He’ll be cross.’
‘We’ll buy more.’
‘OK, we’ll give him the money.’
‘Oh, so now our son’s our drug dealer?’
‘It’s only this once,’ she said, eyes bright, skirt high on her thighs, and then he couldn’t help it, he wanted her. They leaned forward of one accord, pressing against each other, removing clothes, writhing on the sofa. Afterwards she said nothing, just lay with her toes brushing polished floorboards, staring at the ceiling. He wanted to ask if she was all right, was tired of being repetitive. He felt he might be crushing her, so he eased away, picked up the thin plastic bag. He rolled like an expert, as though it hadn’t been decades.
Once he was done, Stella put on her clothes. She rested her head on his shoulder.
‘Let’s go to the caravan.’
He had the joint in his mouth, lighter in hand.
‘Please. Let’s get out of the city. Just for the weekend. Just go.’
Davis had no arguments, bar the time of night. He took the joint from his mouth and slipped it into his pocket.
The roads were empty, their journey much reduced. They drove with Miles Davis – his father’s favourite musician – hypnotized by the glowing lights and signs of the motorway. The cat eyes were like breadcrumbs leading the way. Service stations beckoned, were ignored. He relaxed on the headrest, let his body fall into the seat. Stella left her hand on his thigh for most of the drive, talking very little. She drank water from her thermos, looked out of the window. If she caught his eye in the rear-view she would smile at Davis, a steady, knowing grin. When the CD stopped, she played it again.
They’d listened to Miles four times over when they pulled into the caravan park, with its bumpy, unlit roads. Davis steered from memories of long weekends in the early days when Stella’s parents would babysit; summers spent later, when Barry was a toddler; of outings with close friends while their son was away on school journey, stolen slivers of time. They pulled up outside their caravan and took in the silence. Now there was nothing but time.
Stella took a few puffs of the joint, then passed it to Davis. An owl hooted. That made them laugh. They unlocked the van and took a good look around, unsurprised that nothing had changed. Davis made the bed. Stella made tea. As he fluffed up sheets, Davis thought he heard her walk onto the steps and stopped what he was doing to listen. Quiet. A bad sign. He shouldn’t have left her alone with so little to do. He should have made the tea. He’d thought he was being helpful when he was just negligent. Stella wasn’t good on her own.
She’d been on her own when the pain came, that was the trouble. Six months after Barry left for Bristol a small bump rose under her dress like baking bread. She’d held his hand, moved it. To replace our goneaway boy, she’d said. She’d been joking, but Davis could see truth in her eyes. They decided not to tell Barry in case he was diverted from his studies. He’d be worried for his mother, at her age. He might even want to come back.
A month after she’d been running a tap in the kitchen when she felt cramps. Fell to the floor, dialled the ambulance on her mobile. He’d been at work, his phone switched off, couldn’t help it, those was the rules. Tending other people’s children.
Davis smoothed a hand over the duvet, plumped up pillows. He sat on the bed and let the drift carry him, body limp, gliding with the current, thinking of everything and nothing at all, sightless eyes on walls the colour of dried tangerine. When the owl hooted again, a soft cry in keeping with the run of his thoughts, he realized how long he’d been there. He heard the mournful sound of another animal, a cat or maybe a fox that reminded him of a child startled awake somewhere distant, maybe in a caravan across the park. He imagined opening his eyes to endless darkness, not knowing why. He let his head drop, stomach churning. He squeezed his eyes shut and whispered her name so low even he hardly heard it. Nina. He gasped and clutched his belly and tried to chase the last sight of her from his memory, but it stayed.
Outside, the night was silent, the darkness like a walled maze. He could smell damp leaves and mud, a faint pong of cows. Davis walked down the tiny steps, hoping to see her resting against the caravan, but she wasn’t there. He tried not to panic, kept going. Sometimes he stumbled in the mud and even thought he should go back for his walking shoes, but he didn’t want her alone a moment longer. Once he was away from the lights of his caravan and the spots of his nextdoor neighbours, the night came down like a fallen brick, and having his eyes open was no different to having them closed. He moved like a toddler, unsure, legs wide apart, arms in front of him, trying to use his feet as feelers, dragging them through the unseen tall grass.
He waited for his eyes to adjust, although nothing happened for a long time, and the dark seemed to spring back when he touched it until he felt as though he’d been consumed by it all; his daughter’s death, his wife’s grief, his guilt. He was tempted to just give up, to sit on the cold damp of the mud beneath him and wait for whatever judgment he was due. He even stopped and looked around, knowing there was nothing to see, caught a glitter of silver he almost took as an illusion. When it happened again, Davis saw he was squinting at the reflection of moonbeams. Of course. The lake. He pretended he hadn’t been scared, hadn’t forgotten, smiled to himself.
She was at the water’s edge, a photonegative silhouette, as if she’d been cut out of his vision, balled up, thrown away. She was smoking a cigarette with her back to him, the mug of tea between her feet. She was shaking, and at first he hoped it was because she didn’t have on a jacket. Davis heard her sniff, stopped a few feet away. Waited. She didn’t seem to have heard him, even though she wasn’t crying loudly. He looked at her feet and saw a droplet splash into the mug. Raised his chin to the sky. No rain.
He moved towards Stella and put his arms around her. They circled her waist easily, that hadn’t changed. She gave a masculine grumble, like she had on the sofa. Davis squeezed tight, turned her.
‘Look at me, Stella,’ he said. ‘Please?’
A cloud passed above the lake. It grew difficult to see her. There was no light, no sound, just them.
Gone Away Boy by Courttia Newland was read by tony Bell at the Liars' League Fun & Games event on Tuesday 12 April 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London
Courttia Newland is a novelist, short story writer, and literary activist. “Gone Away Boy” is taken from his new collection A Book of Blues, published by Flambard Press, and available for ₤8.99.
Tony Bell has been an actor for over 20 years, appearing in West End shows including A Man for All Seasons, for which he was nominated for an Evening Standard Award, and Rose Rage. He has performed all over the world with the award-winning all-male Shakespeare company Propeller. TV credits include Coronation Street, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, EastEnders and The Bill. He is also a radio and voiceover artist.