Windy in that week in February, as it had been last year, when so much of what Mrs G had been was scattered by a single event. Perhaps bits of what had once helped to constitute her identity were still hiding in the hedgerows or sleeping deep in the warm leaves at the bottom of the garden, waiting to be mulched down, returned to earth to bloom again, though differently. But there were other parts, perhaps the most valuable, that were either being constantly rearranged on the pavements: ideograms of twigs and small branches, their meanings tantalisingly present, shifting, yet inaccessible; or they were the very letters of her self, captured by sudden, powerful gusts, tumbling and scooting away with whole branches that had been snapped from a tree, sent wheeling down the street and then off—off into an unimaginable distance.
After all that had happened, it was only natural that such weather should fill Mrs G with disquiet. She looked out of the window. A black dustbin had been bullied up against the wrought iron gate, where it lay sideways, shaking and juddering as if it were being repeatedly kicked. She recognised an old man with a beard who was holding one hand over his red beret whilst gripping an umbrella furled at his side. Only that morning she had collected her new spectacles from the opticians, and although everything was sharper, her feet hit the ground too heavily, and she seemed taller, aligned at a slightly unfamiliar angle to world. Rain etched the scene with silver; above the pitched roofs and gables, a water-colorist’s clouds dissolved and reformed, grey washed into white. It had been on just such a day almost a year ago that Mrs G’s grandson had come to stay.
There he was on the doorstep with his mother, Melissa, the bushes quivering behind them, the gate clanging, the very last patches of snow lying like torn correspondence at the edges of the flower bed. He was wearing a silver-grey top with a hood that came right down over his eyes, giving him the appearance of an astronaut. She could see that he was taller. He was carrying a black overnight bag and from the slant of his head she knew that he was not looking at her. As they came in, Mrs G saw the smile fading from her daughter-in-law’s face and how she stopped, just for an instant, on the door mat, considering whether she could bring herself to go into the hallway, with its musty smell and heavy Victorian side-table and one waxy green pot-plant next to an ugly tray made from Sheffield Plate. Perhaps, Mrs G thought, I should have aired the house, but it was so cold outside, and it would have been foolish to let the wind in. Yes, their journey up from London had been good, hadn’t it, Ashley? Her nudge and then a brief nod from the hooded head. Melissa was sorry she couldn’t stay. Had to be off almost immediately in fact. It was so kind of Mrs G to have Ashley for the first few days of half-term, and at such short notice too. Then she was off—having left a contact number in America and kissed the top of Ashley’s hood—skittering high-heeled back down the path to the waiting taxi.
Melissa had rung only two days previously. She had to visit a gallery in Seattle and Mrs G’s son was on business in Moscow, none of which would have been a problem if Ashley’s friend hadn’t been unexpectedly whisked off to the Galapagos Islands. Turtles were among the animals that Ashley had never been comfortable with and anyway with fees being what they were even at day schools they could do without the expense of hotels. If Mrs G could have him for a few days whilst she completed her business, then Ashley could join her for three days in Tim’s flat in Chicago. Mrs G agreed at once. She seldom saw her grandson as she found London impossible, Tim was always abroad, and Melissa regarded visiting Birmingham as an indignity. Now here was an opportunity to get to know him better. Apparently he was a clever boy, but recently, when Mrs G had spoken to her son on the phone, she had been told that there were worries. Melissa reported that Ashley had become increasingly introverted and the number and complexity of his phobias, which had long included wooden lavatory seats and, very inconveniently, magpies, was increasing. When he did speak, it was only to respond to simple questions monosyllabically or to make brief statements that were either gnomic or faintly disconcerting. He had one friend, a similarly retiring boy with whom he shared an interest in space travel.
“Would like to take off your top, Ashley?”
Ashley was walking into the living-room very slowly and deliberately, as if he suspected that the gravitational pull might prove insufficient to keep him attached to the carpet. Then he was sitting on the sofa almost but not quite as she had remembered him. That morning, as she cleaned what would be his room for the stay, she had told herself that he was a good-looking boy, although not with any great conviction. Now that she could see him plainly she saw that although in some ways he was conventionally handsome, with regular features and a mop of tousled blond hair, there was something unsettling about his appearance. His eyes were blue, but they seemed just one shade lighter than the rest of his coloring would have led one to expect, and his pupils were small black points that seemed to be looking in rather than outwards. Although quite thin in the manner of many eleven-year-old boys, his build was not unathletic, and yet the ponderous way that he moved suggested that he was in an alien element.
After she had poured squash for him, she sat down and steadied herself for conversation. She had few visitors now, and Ashley was her only grandchild.
“Well, it’s kind of you to visit your grandmother instead of going to the Galapagos Islands. I’d have loved to go there when I was your age.”
He was gazing over the top of his untouched biscuits.
“I hear you don’t like turtles,” she added.
“No,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“And why is that?”
There was a silence before he said, “I don’t know. I just don’t like them.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“And he likes turtles.”
“I suppose so.”
“He’s your best friend.”
“He is…quite a good friend.”
“Why only quite?”
Ashley was staring at the biscuits; for a moment it seemed possible that he might be about to pick one up. But then he said clearly, although with glazed eyes pointing in the direction of a chocolate bourbon: “He only exists for part of the time.”
In spite of the fact that he had spoken more loudly than before, she could not believe that she had heard him correctly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite catch that?”
And now at last Ashley leant forward and picked up a digestive biscuit, which he began to eat without enthusiasm, an activity that effectively robbed him of the power of speech.
The wind had awoken her earlier than usual. From her bed she could see the fine hairs of tree-tops rise, as if standing on a white neck of sky: a thrill of anticipatory horror ran down her spine. More than ever in recent months, the days had started uneasily at best and often with a sense of some monitory presence waiting in the garden. As she dressed, she could hear movements downstairs and realised with slight embarrassment that Ashley must already be up. She had assumed that he would want to lie in, but obviously his body clock was still set to the rhythms of the school run.
When she went into the living-room, Ashley was standing by the window and looking out across the street. He was not wearing his hood, but that morning his clothes were several sizes too large for him, even though they didn’t appear to be especially new. She could only see the back of his head, with his long hair, a pale gold in the grey light, curling over his collar. The rest of his body had taken refuge in a fleece with black and beige hoops and stone-coloured trousers with a multitude of zipped pockets. The outline of his arms was not visible and his hands were bunched up, spiral-bound into his sleeves. He seemed not to have heard her come in.
As he turned to face her, she was reminded that he bore little resemblance to either his mother or father or any member of her family as far as she could recall.
“Who’s that man who lives across the street?”
She wished he would call her something. Granny, Grandma, even Grandmother would do.
“I don’t know, dear. Show me the house.”
He pointed at a red-bricked house with a white portico and high gables.
“Oh I think a lot of people live there. That house has been converted into flats.”
“He stands outside on the doorstep, smoking, but whenever I open the front door I find that he’s vanished. And sometimes,” he added slowly, “I think that I can see him looking down from his window into my bedroom.”
“Looking at you. In what way is he looking at you?”
“I don’t know. He’s too far away to tell, but sometimes I feel that he’s trying to put me into a book.”
“Well, I’m sure you’d make a very good character in a book. I shouldn’t let it bother you,” she said in her most reassuring voice. “I don’t think that he’s really looking at you. Some of the people in that house probably don’t have much to do except smoke and look out of windows. If it bothers you, just draw the curtains next time you see him...What does he look like?” she added, careful not to appear dismissive.
“Medium height, greyish hair, glasses…quite stout.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
She went into the kitchen to make their breakfast. At least he was now speaking in full sentences and seemed prepared to confide in her. As she took the milk out of the fridge, she suddenly remembered how she too had experienced the sensation that she was been watched from the house across the street. Then there had been the night when she gone up to the attic—she couldn’t now remember why—and seen a figure in a room that was almost level with hers. Although all that she could make out was a shape, silhouetted against a red background that flickered as if something were burning in there, she had been certain that it was a man. He was close to a window, and his posture and the way that he was sitting completely still made her suspect that he had been waiting for her and would continue to watch her with unfathomable patience even if he knew she was aware of his presence.
Holding two bowls, she made her way back to the living-room.
“He was there again,” said Ashley. “Right outside that house. I went as quickly as I could, but by the time I opened the door he’d disappeared.”
“Perhaps he simply went back into the house. If he was on the doorstep that wouldn’t have taken him long.”
“I think he knew I was coming.”
“Or perhaps he only exists for part of the time?”
For the first time, he looked directly at her. There was no expression in his grey-blue eyes and he did not blink. When it was clear that he was not going to answer, she put the breakfast on the table and they began to eat.
The taxi that arrived to take them to Millennium Point was on time. Mrs G had asked a neighbour with two young children, a girl and a boy, for a few suggestions and had discovered that there was a permanent science and industry exhibition at a facility there called Thinktank. Melissa had said that Ashley was interested in Science at school. When Mrs G had suggested the outing to him, he had agreed with unusual alacrity.
Although she had lived in the city all of her life, it was many years since she had been near the Aston Triangle. The taxi drove through open spaces and past patches of wasteland with an occasional pub in Victorian terracotta stranded on a corner, the houses that it had once served so thoroughly erased that they were not even rubble.
Mrs G wondered what had been there before and found herself unable to remember. A strange wedge-shaped building in a vaguely classical style evoked a distant memory. Apart from the triangle of roads in which it survived there was nothing much around it. Its windows were boarded up. Grass and weeds grew out of the white plasterwork and on top of the roof. Presumably a decision had been made that it had some architectural merit and could not be pulled down. Had there been shops—or offices? Without the tilt of light and shade, the texture of the day created by whatever buildings had once surrounded it, there was no way of recalling whether she had walked down that street, had her hair done or bought a dress in that place.
The exhibition occupied part of an airy building with high glass walls that seemed to absorb the grey light outside and transform it, allowing mercury to play on the chrome and steel in the vast foyer. An escalator led up to an Engineering Department that had detached itself from the main campus of its university, and a gift shop filled with soft toys and glossy booklets about the city’s industrial heritage. There was a play area decorated in primary colours.
They bought their tickets and made their way down to the basement level. To their right, cars at odd angles had been encased in huge glass containers as if they were part of an art show. Against the furthest wall was a café with a closed corrugated service hatch and a huge glistening locomotive that might have escaped from a painting by Magritte, so strangely present that it seemed ready to hiss and billow steam before moving along its few yards of perfectly preserved track. In the middle of the space were the great gods of the Industrial Revolution: vast engines which had once pumped water to fill locks, machines that had replaced whole production lines and could produce everything from buttons and hairgrips to guns. And then there were the turbines, elegant stainless steel sculptures, quicksilver bladed and with the power to turn steam to speed. Smaller cabinets contained swords, microscopes, badges, kettles, curling tongs, billhooks, horse clippers, buttons of horn and bonbonnieres. There were displays devoted to those who had once worked in these industries, not only the owners and inventors, but the craftsmen and the people who had once held long vanished occupations: pin-carders, spoon buffers, bargees, cartridge-gun banders, street scavengers and polishers of German silverware.
“Did you enjoy that?” she asked later that night, as she made the soup.
He watched her as she stirred, tasted, added pepper.
“I think so,” he said at last.
“Do you like History at school?”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Sometimes.”
“But you are interested the past?”
“Of course,” he said patiently. “These days it’s where I’m living.”
“What an earth do you mean by that?” she said more sharply than she had intended. Was he making some oblique comment on her hospitality? Implying, perhaps, that he hated having to spend the weekend with an old woman in an old dusty house? He was looking at the ladle and the tiny bubbles forming at the edge of the saucepan.
“I’m a visitor from the future,” he said. His tone was expressionless, as if he were stating a fact that was no more unusual than having been born in Coventry or attending a school in Ealing.
When Melissa phoned from Portland, Mrs G told her that although Ashley was no trouble he did say some very odd things. Her daughter-in-law sighed and then reminded Mrs G that she had already warned her about that. She spoke in the weary tones of someone suffering from a surfeit of galleries, up-market restaurants and air miles. Right now there was nothing that she could do about Ashley and so there was no point in discussing him. When she got back she might speak to a friend of hers who had a friend who was said to be an excellent child psychiatrist. One of the top men in the country. But right now she had to think about the plane she was supposed to be on in three hours. She’d ring again when she got to Houston.
On Sunday, Ashley’s father phoned from Shanghai. They spoke for two minutes. He hoped that they would be able to meet up some time in July. Possibly in St Petersburg or Tokyo.
After Ashley had gone to bed, Mrs G poured herself a small glass of red wine. No wonder the boy was confused. He was a child of taxis, trains, waiting rooms, and departure lounges. In the holidays he was more familiar with hotel lobbies, serviced apartments, and the homes of his parents’ friends than he was with his own bedroom. And now he was upstairs under an eiderdown instead of a duvet and in a room with dark furniture; on the walls, not posters of pop stars or footballers but dim Edwardian watercolours in massive gilt frames and a sampler stitched by a young girl who been dead for a hundred years.
Now that they were under cover they could now longer hear the wind. As she waited for the shuttle to take them to the airport, Mrs G watched the tree tops shivering under a wash of pale blue sky over which grey clouds, a few with frothy white peaks, journeyed steadily westwards—and, high above, cirrus, seemingly immobile, threaded into the thinnest air.
The nervousness that Mrs G had felt at the prospect of having to accompany her grandson had now all but evaporated. Once again, he had been up before her. When she came down, it was to find him already packed and calmly eating his breakfast. She asked him if he had remembered his passport. He gave a very slight nod of the head, a gesture that might have been disdainful in another child. She had planned to go through everything with him very carefully, but he was so composed, so every inch a traveller, that she had contented herself with going back upstairs to check his bedroom. Of course, he had not left anything behind.
The red shuttle glided smoothly towards them and then docked. The legend To China Twice a Day appeared in large white letters on the carriage. The passengers got on, some glancing around anxiously to ensure that they had left nothing on the platform. Inside the Chinese theme continued. They were reminded that the Year of the Dragon was considered a good time to have babies. For an instant, Mrs G felt that her skin was suddenly drier, saw the rough vellum of her forehand as it gripped her bag, the brown spots, the faded ink of her veins. A recorded voice welcomed everyone to Air Rail. Vapour from a high flying jet formed before being slowly dispersed by the silent wind.
Her anxiety had made them early. There was more than enough time to buy a book and a Coke for Ashley—a coffee for herself. The space was larger than she remembered yet much more enclosed.
She had expected to see aeroplanes waiting on the tarmac, but there was only one window, which had no view to speak of. Voices drifted around them. The sound of a young child crying came from somewhere, although Mrs G couldn’t see one. People waited in queues at sandwich bars and a waiter wiped tables outside an Italian restaurant. It was strange how although one couldn’t see any of the planes the space was imbued with their power, their presence, so that it almost felt possible that the whole building would tremble and then lift off, high over the suburbs, leaving dwindling factories, fields, the mountains of Wales in its wake.
“Are you looking forward to going to Chicago?”
“I have been there before, I’m sure.”
There was a wistful note in his voice. As if he had been there at some very different point in time or visited that city only in a vivid dream.
“Still, it will be nice to see Mummy again, won’t it?”
Then it was time for him to go. As they reached the signs in bold black—Departures and Terminals I and 2—he turned to her and said finally, “Don’t worry, Granny. I’ll be all right. You see, I’ve done this so many times before, and I know there will be someone to meet me.”
She watched him make his way down the tunnel, his bag brushing the floor, the level light a dull sheen on his hair; then, just before he reached Security, he lifted the hood over his head, so that she could no longer see him even though he was still there. At least he had finally called her Granny.
A green shuttle that said To Africa Twice a Day took her back to busy concourses and the platform for the mainline train. They had almost reached New Street—she could see the Euston Arch, boarded up and surrounded by wasteland; the new blocks of the university cemented into higher ground; the serrated façade of a derelict red-brick building with wide empty windows—when she noticed, just behind the Rotunda, a patch of sky; it was such an intense blue—a shade that she had never seen before—that it seemed to have come from an altogether different day, as if were shining on a place a thousand years ahead of her.
And now she was in the garden, wondering why seeing things more clearly made the world less real. It was odd too that feeling taller had the effect of making the ground more uncertain under her feet. No doubt she would adjust, but if it continued this way she would have to go back to the optician and make sure that the prescription was correct. There was, of course, no remedy for what had happened, and, what she found almost as hard to come to terms with, no credible account of an event that seemed almost completely at odds with the natural law: Ashley’s plane, with just over three hundred passengers on board, had simply vanished.
All contact with the pilot had been lost over the Atlantic and suddenly there was no dot on the radar. Rescuers went as quickly as possible to the spot on the map where the crash was presumed to have taken place, but there was no wreckage; no signs of anything—let alone survivors. Government spokesmen and scientists from prestigious universities were produced to assure the public that there was a rational explanation. It might take time, but it was inevitable that one would be found. The investigations continued for months, but no conclusions had yet been reached, although the media had continued to conjecture and theorise with varying degrees of plausibility for week after week.
Bin liners, some with the shine of huge rain-polished blackberries, others with a thick coating of dust, were bunched up in a triangular mound outside the flats opposite. No one had collected the refuse for weeks. Without really thinking about it, Mrs G had kept an eye out for Ashley’s mysterious smoker. But she never saw anyone who matched his description coming out of the house. The sense of being watched had abated. No doubt the man had left the area in search of work or had possibly committed a crime and been returned to jail.
Three months after Ashley’s disappearance, Melissa organised a memorial service at a church in Ealing which was attended by most of his relatives, a representative from his school and Gareth, his friend. The church was half empty, although the congregation was augmented by a pew’s-worth of reporters who sat discreetly at the back. Tim, whose flight had been delayed in Berlin, missed the service but was just in time to meet the mourners who had assembled at his Ealing property for tea and cakes. Mrs G had examined a small display of Ashley’s drawings and inventions that Melissa had put on the table in the front hall. There were, amongst other curiosities, designs for a perfect house on a distant planet, a hollow asteroid to be used as a second home, and a machine for making war on magpies.
Mrs G picked up the dustbin and wedged it between a bush and the railings. Light shifted as the clouds patterned a jigsaw of white, grey and blue. She knew that she had a letter to write, but had forgotten what it was supposed to about. Only the inflammation in her wrists and knees seemed real: a doggedly companionable ache counterpointed with pain, the sting of bone on bone.
The wind had been remorseless for almost a week, but although it was a nuisance, and had felled a tree in a neighbor’s garden, there were days when she was almost grateful for the touch of its icy arms curled around her: a reminder that she was still there, something solid though frail, occupying space in the world: more than her scraps of memory and the torment that flared when she moved. She had not yet vanished into some impossibly blue part of the sky. But soon it would be time to go through her papers, quietly and with great deliberation: to shred all that she would no longer need and to put in order those remnants of her existence that were still real to her. And then, in the tall silent rooms of her home, to continue with her half-life.