The Other Side of the World
She clambers over the fence and strides out into the field. It is autumn, cold—an arctic wind blows and her coat billows behind her. Rain falls in a sudden shower, but she pushes on into the green distance and further, towards the blue rise where the woodlands begin. It is like wading into the sea, she thinks. The wind against her, the grass up at her knees. They go on for miles, these grazing lands, and the further she walks the smaller she becomes, until she is just a thin black mark against the fen. Henry must be wondering where she’s got to—she could never be lost here, but she could disappear, she thinks, as she passes the slow cows chewing frozen ground, steam rising from their flanks. She passes the pond, covered now with silvery ice, the frosted hedge of brambles. Above her the sky is mottled brown and grey, and the air smells of dung and grass. The leaves on the hawthorns are gone; those on the horse chestnuts are still browning and falling. She is on her way back from the doctor’s, so it must be a Monday, or perhaps Tuesday. Dr. Pascoe only sees patients Mondays and Tuesdays. How can I lose track of time like this? she thinks. Dates do not seem to matter; one day feels the same as the next. But they do matter, the doctor assured her, they do indeed. “You must be mistaken,” she said. “You cannot be right.”
She startles at the sound of a crow. The certainty—impossible—that the call is that of her child. The sound coming towards her as she moves further away, her own voice drifting back: Lucie? Is that you? No, of course not, it’s just a bird, the baby asleep at home. Charlotte watches the crow swoop down, coast on a low
current of air, and land further out. She can count on one hand the times she’s left the house alone, without the baby. And every time it is the same—how she startles at every long, high note, thinking it is Lucie. She feels the strange phantom sense of the child’s weight against her hip, the loose stone of her head lolling, asleep, on her shoulder. The crow calls again—she sees it call, the open black beak, the silky, lifted throat—and her skin prickles. A gust of wind disperses the cry; the sound rises up, then floats down over the field, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Her arms suddenly ache to hold her daughter. She looks back but can’t see her bike. Where did she leave it? Perhaps it is over that way, behind the hedges. But the field appears the same from every direction. She finds her way to the fence and begins to trace a path back along the perimeter. Above her the clouds ripple and bend, moving herdlike towards a distant corner of the sky. Her stomach heaves. She stops, holds on to the fence, leans down towards the grass, and vomits a string of yellow bile. She stays that way a moment, hunched over, gripping the wood and dry retching, then wipes her mouth with the sleeve of her coat and rests her head against the railing. “It’ll pass soon,” the doctor said. “These things always do.” She weeps then, at the memory of his words. “All for a good cause now,” he’d said. “All for a good cause.”
She remembers last night’s dream, that the two of them, she and Henry, were looking at rainbow-colored paintings in Vienna. They stood before a very bright canvas, and Henry said to her, “It is the color of your soul forming.” He looked at the painting as he spoke, and she knew he was not talking about her, about her soul, but about the soul of the child now growing inside her, the child she has not yet told him about, although it is his.
She pushes back out into the field, walking faster now, puffing
a little, her breath white in the thin, cold air. Icy grass crunches underfoot, her toes numb in her wet shoes. She was supposed to ride into town and ride home again, not stop like this and disappear into the wilds. If only the doctor had given her a script and sent her home. Just something to settle her. Then a cup of tea and a lie-down. Further ahead a flock of birds lifts up from the grass, sways in the sky a moment, then swerves back down to earth. She doesn’t know what she’ll say to Henry. She doesn’t want to have to tell him.
In the warmth of the living room, Lucie grunts—her arm jerking up into the air, then falling back down. Henry shuffles forwards in his chair to check on her. She is asleep in her pram and he rocks it a little with his foot, pushing the toe of his shoe against the lower rung. Has it really been seven months since she was born? It seems so much longer, that Sunday dawn when the midwife set him to work, boiling water and fetching cloths. The baby grunts again, kicks her legs, squirms. Henry holds his breath and checks his watch: eleven thirty. What’s keeping her? Charlotte should be back by now, he thinks, running his palm along the armrest of his favorite wingback chair. The chair is covered in gold velveteen and he strokes the smooth grain of the fabric as if petting a calm animal. Lucie settles, then snuffles in her sleep, and Henry sits back and returns to his reading, examining the brochure that came through the letter box early that morning. Come Over to the Sunny Side! the brochure says. Beneath the curve of blue writing two blond women in red swimsuits skid over Sydney Harbour on water skis. Australia brings out the best in you. You could be on your way to a sunnier future in the New Year. Fine for your wife. Good for your children.
It is not that he expects Charlotte to come home and say she’s perfectly well. She isn’t, of course she isn’t, that’s why she went to the doctor in the first place. The headaches, the nausea. The way she works through the night, sleeps a couple of hours, then gets up for Lucie at the crack of dawn. He has to clear her paints and brushes from the bench in the morning to make himself some toast.
A dog-eared copy of Yeats’s The Wind Among the Reeds lies open, facedown, on the coffee table beside him. He’s supposed to give a lecture next week on the early love poems, but every time he tries to prize one apart he finds himself lost in a tangle of memories. Reciting “The Cap and Bells” to Charlotte in the summer, the two of them lying in the grass and watching puffs of bright clouds. Or reading the poems together by winter firelight: “When You Are Old” and “To an Isle in the Water.” Shy one, shy one, shy one of my heart.
Someone once told him that the southern sun could cure all manner of ailments. It does look bright, in the picture. It is certainly an improvement on the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence pamphlet that Charlotte keeps taped to the side of the fridge. In case of emergencies. She likes to think of emergencies. That pamphlet also came through the letter box, a long time ago now. The paper is grimy with dust and the tape has browned and been replaced, the top right corner torn away with the old Sellotape, taking with it part of the title—something about the larder and what to stock in an emergency, all that bother about the atomic bomb—but the rest of the lettering remains clear. Henry knows it by heart; from a slight distance it looks like a poem and he is unconsciously drawn to read it, over and over again, so that by now the thing has lodged itself permanently in his brain.
Suggestions for Food that would be Particularly Useful:
steak and kidney pudding
cooked pork sausages
baked beans, carrots, tomatoes, etc.
peas and beans
MEAT OR YEAST EXTRACT
TEA OR COFFEE [instant if possible]
Boiled sweets [in tins]
The list is followed by instructions on how to fireproof their home with various quantities of borax and boric acid. It is something they have both laughed over: Just wait a moment, darling, I hear a bomb’s coming—I think I’ll spray the thatch and paint the woodwork. Yes, yes, I’ll dip the curtains while I’m at it. Henry can’t imagine. He doesn’t want to imagine. His gaze drifts back to the picture in his hand. Any Briton who lives in the United Kingdom may apply for an assisted passage by sea or air to Australia for permanent settlement provided he is healthy and of good character. The sea, it says, is warm enough to swim in all year.
He wonders how they might decide if he is of good character. He is educated. He has a job. He has a wife and child. Such things could be the sum of a good man. He does like the look of the sun, glinting on the water like a million little pieces of shining glass.
The picture stirs a memory—something about his mother’s blue dopatta, the one dotted with small mirrored circles. It smelled of violets and neroli. He remembers pushing his face into his mother’s body, the circles of glass filled with shifting color and light. This is an image but perhaps not quite a memory. Broken, moving, far away. No, he must be wrong; servants wore dopattas. He and his family wore what the British wore.
He stares at the brochure and finds himself filled with a strange nostalgia—for the light, the color of the sky, as if he’d already been there, to Australia. The picture makes him think of his childhood before the war, before he was sent to Southampton in the midst of battle. He remembers hiding on deck behind wooden crates while distant liners were bombed and sunk. He was eleven years old. It was 1945. A younger boy crouched beside him and clung to Henry’s back. They sat there and cried, terrified that they would be bombed next. What was his mother thinking when she packed him off during the war? Only of his safety. India, she said, was going to the dogs and England was where he belonged—it was his ancestors’ country after all. What did they used to call him? Kutcha butcha, half-baked bread. There had been, before this, some discussion of moving to McCluskieganj—that promised homeland for the Anglo-Indians. But there was his father’s job with British Petroleum and his mother’s extended family. Besides, they were used to the city—they were not farming people. They’d be no good living off the land, and they didn’t want an enclave. “Why would I go there?” said his mother, full of disbelief. “McCluskieganj, that is for the Indians.” This is how they were, too British to be Indian, too Indian to be British.
Nevertheless, their future was uncertain in an independent India. “And independence will come,” said his father. “It is just a matter of time.” The problem was what might come with it—the
violence, the unrest, at the very least the erosion of status. It was possible that Henry and his family would come to represent the enemy. They were, after all, children of the Raj.
He remembers that last conversation—they were on the veranda, near the mango tree. The monsoon was upon them. Henry was home from boarding school and sat on the ground, pushing a toy train along a track, his parents assuming he wasn’t listening.
“Better to send the boy home,” said his father, meaning England. “Get him out while we still can.” His parents promised they’d follow later but never did, and now here he is.
The picture on the brochure reminds him not of India exactly but of something else, something more elemental, of running through damp green space, of fine grass beneath his feet, of running fast into sunlight—flash—and then back into shadow—flash—and then out into sunlight again—flash, flash. It looks lovely. Magical, that is what people said. Why has he never thought of it? There’d be no harm in applying for an assisted passage. It might be good for them. It is so cold outside. The house is so small. And there is Charlotte. Perhaps he will suggest it to her, if the doctor doesn’t have a solution. Something to lift her spirits. Truly, he’s never seen the likes of it—the yellow tinge of her skin, the grey-brown circles under her eyes, and her body, how she’s grown so thin, eating little more than dry toast and a bit of potato. Meanwhile, the baby cries and cries. If she is not sleeping, she cries and cries.
He looks down at the book of poems. He hasn’t the heart to sit there with his sharpened pencil and decipher them, scanning the poems line by line. These days he prefers the memory of a poem to the actual reading. Could he tell his students this? He likes the way the sounds hover in the mind, merging, drifting. What does one learn from a poem? he wonders. He feels he
should have learnt more than he has, or rather, if he had learnt more they would not be in the mess they now find themselves in. As if there were something he should know about love, something these poems should teach him.
Leaves fly past the window and for a moment Henry mistakes them for birds. Brown and slow, then quick and tumbling. It begins to rain. In the field across the road, children play in the drizzle. Alfred, the dog, sighs and slumps down against the door. Henry switches on the radio just in time to catch the weather. A cheerful voice tells him it will be cold but bright. Bright cloud is on the way, the voice says merrily. It is exasperating. Surely nowhere else has so many ways to tell you to expect cloud, the forecast regularly listing several different types (low, grey, white, high). Henry adds “bright” to the list. Rain, too, comes in more kinds than he would have liked: light and heavy showers, scattered or isolated showers; patchy, fine, light or heavy rain. Even the prediction of sun is compromised: “sunny intervals” really means “intermittent rain.” When he first came to England he didn’t mind the weather. He liked the novelty of putting on layer after layer of woolly clothing, and he found the quick changes—from showers to wind to fog to sun—exhilarating after the predictable weather of Delhi, where you had, simply, hot and hotter, wet and wetter. But he is older now, and he has a child. The damp makes his knees ache and creak. It is no good. He is a man for a dry land. Australia is a dry land. In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.
Henry’s thoughts are interrupted by the sound of Charlotte’s bike clattering against the side of the cottage. He presses himself up from the armchair and goes to meet her at the door. “What is it?” he asks, seeing her eyes red from crying. “What did he say?” But she only dips her head and falls against him. He bends to kiss
her hair and smells vomit. He puts his hand to her back and feels her spine beneath her coat, reminding him of an old skinny cat. “Come along,” he says. “Let’s get you inside.”
He leads her to the table, sits her down, and pours tea. He made it half an hour ago, when he expected her home, and now it is stewed and a little cool. Charlotte wraps her fingers around the cup and stares out the window. “Charlotte?” he whispers. There is not much time. Any minute the baby will sense her mother and wake, crying. Then the conversation will be over. Charlotte’s gaze drifts further out, over the fields and towards the hedges. “Charlotte? Tell me. Please. What did he say?”
She chews at her bottom lip and looks down into her cup. “I’m three months pregnant,” she says.
It is an announcement, Henry knows, that ought to make them happy. For a long time they both imagined themselves surrounded by a large family, but then Lucie came along and everything changed. At least it seemed to Henry that everything changed, because Charlotte changed so much. She forgot the names of people and places, forgot terms and definitions. She described objects by tracing their shape in the air. For weeks she’d struggled to remember the name for a certain kind of bent and twisted metal; unable to bear it any longer, she’d knocked on their neighbor’s door, with Lucie on her hip, and tried to describe the thing she’d lost the words for. Wrought iron, the neighbor said, and Charlotte started to cry.
In those first months Lucie hardly slept, and Charlotte began to lose other things: she found her watch in the freezer, the citrus press in their wardrobe, and she put Henry’s hat in the oven one night when he came home from work. “What is a memory?” she asked him when he found the hat and she could not recall how it got there. She meant this in the spirit of inquiry but it sounded
as though her forgetfulness had spread to such a degree that she had lost the very concept of recollection. “Don’t worry yourself about it,” said Henry. “It is a detail, a minor detail—the whereabouts of your watch or my hat.” Henry hadn’t thought it possible for a mother to be sent mad by her child. And now here she is, weeping over her tea and expecting another baby.
Henry reaches across the table and covers her small hand with his larger one. She is incredibly beautiful, even like this. Her translucent skin, her wide-set eyes. They are the color of the sea at Land’s End in the sunlight. She chopped a fringe into her dark hair over the summer, and this only makes her eyes seem bigger, if sadder now, and somehow even more lovely. He strokes her cheek with the back of his fingers and from the corner of his vision spies the brochure lying on the carpet, beside the armchair, where it must have slipped when he got up to get the door. He does not think as he says it, the words just come out. “We should move to Australia,” he says.
“What?” Charlotte replies, uncomprehending. He sees the shock on her face but once the words have settled he knows he is right. It is the only option. It is the only way.
“You know this means we can’t stay here,” he says.
“What does? Why on earth not?”
But before Henry can respond the baby wakes, letting out a shrill wail. Charlotte leaps towards the pram, lifts the bundle to her shoulder, and walks to the window, where she stands, watching a robin peck at the bird feeder that hangs from the branches of the apple tree. Henry thinks it a barren, pointless view: all muddy fields and black hedges and more fields. A line of trees in the distance. Charlotte says she loves the different shades of winter grey, that she loves to see the structure of plants beneath their leaves and to notice how whole trees sway at once. Great, heavy,
empty branches dipping and lifting in the wind. Not the twigs. Not just the leaves, as it seems in summertime. But the whole, almost human, structure, the body and the arms.
Henry, however, does not like the wind; he does not want another English winter. He had not planned on another child. He cannot bear the thought of another child in another terrible winter. Although he’s been in England more than half his life, still his body rebels against the cold—too often the weather seems a kind of punishment. As a boy he taught himself to numb his limbs at will, in defense against the worst of the elements. He remembers his arrival in England—the boat trip, the long train journey, then the ancient grey boarding school by the sea presided over by a one-legged headmaster, injured in war. There, each morning, the headmaster would march the boys down to the beach and order them into the water. The headmaster always went first—he’d drop his crutches on the sand and throw himself into the ocean. “Come along now!” he’d call. “Tonic for the soul!” It was the only thing, he said to the row of children who stood shivering on the beach, that made his body feel whole again. Then the bravest of the boys would plunge in and do their best not to scream. Every day they did this, no matter the season—the landscape perpetually bleak and windy, snow settling over the sand during winter. For Henry, the pain of being in that freezing water was always something terrible—the cold clutching at his lungs, the slow, burning loss of sensation. But so routine was this suffering that after a time he could bring the numbness on in an instant.
Henry goes to the kitchen and stokes the AGA cooker while Charlotte feeds the baby, Lucie’s hot red mouth working the teat of the bottle. She drinks quickly, making little glugging and um
ming noises as the milk goes down. “We’ll be all right, you and I,” Charlotte says to Lucie, to the unborn child, to no one in particular. “We’ll be all right.” But if he is serious? Once he sets his mind on something, there can be no stopping him—and everyone is talking about it, about getting out and moving somewhere else. “Every man and his dog are moving to Australia these days,” her hairdresser said, just a fortnight ago. “I’d do it if I could.” But it is impossible for Charlotte to even consider such a thing. This is her home—there could be nowhere else. And things will pick up again soon, she is sure. The commissions will come again.
When Charlotte was seventeen she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Later, after she married, she had the letter framed and hung in the bedroom so she could see it from her bed. Through the last phase of her pregnancy she’d gazed at this letter as if it were a riddle. A code for a past life now irretrievable. Then for months after Lucie was born she hadn’t the strength to lift a brush, and when she started again it was for the money alone, painting forgeries (“pastiche” was what they called them in the business) of Dutch flowers that she sold to the dealers for a tidy sum. But things will change, she is certain. She can do better than this. There will be more money. They could move to a bigger house. She will make herself right again. He must believe her. If she can somehow get herself back to what she was before.
Lucie’s suckling slows and becomes erratic. One-two. One. One. One-two. Her eyes blink, heavy. A few more sucks and her eyes close. The teat comes loose from her mouth and a line of milk dribbles from the corner of her lips. Charlotte stays very still while Lucie’s head grows heavier in the palm of her hand, then she wipes the milk from the curve of her daughter’s chin. The baby’s mauve eyelids tremble. What does she see while she is sleeping? Such a perfect child. So perfect when she is asleep.
Charlotte can love her well then, she can admire her then—the dimpled chin, the curious tilt of the eyebrows, the apple-round cheeks. She bends down to kiss her. When Lucie wakes, the two of them might go outside for a walk. It is lovely out there, cold and crisp and brightening; it looks like the clouds are brightening. The weather will improve, she thinks, and he’ll forget this mad idea. God willing, he’ll forget.