There was a splash, as though someone had suddenly dived into the water, then a sound like the rushing of air: wings flapped, and the geese rose into the sky. The swans were still there with their one remaining cygnet, now fully grown but still brownish in colour. He’d forgotten how long it took for their plumage to turn fully adult. For he hadn’t been here last autumn. This was his first time back. Only one cygnet. He didn’t care to think what brutal death its siblings had met.
Perhaps, he speculated, that’s why the parents acted as though they were the pond’s police beat, riding on its smooth surface, checking up on the skittish ducks and moorhens, half-rising from the water and spreading their wings in menace as a spaniel trotted down to the water’s edge and sniffed where bread had been dropped. Their sinuous necks strained on a taut curve as the air was sucked in.
Malcolm Halliday stood by the pond, outfacing the angry white bird, taking in the brightness of October trees reflected in water, and remembered.
He remembered the first time he’d met Alice.
“Mal, I’d like to introduce you to my fiancée.”
The use of the formal French word had come as a surprise, for his friend John Guntrip was not one for such niceties. He’d have expected any girlfriend of John’s to remain just that – a girlfriend right up to the moment she became ‘the wife’.
But then, when he took her in – the green eyes shining like water catching the light, the clear transparent skin, hair like a tree in autumn with just a little kink of curl – he understood. No wonder John Guntrip had already decided he wanted to marry her. Harder to fathom was why she had agreed to marry him.
They had sat there, the three of them, just a few hundred yards away from where he stood now, at The Mucky Duck, celebrating the engagement and planning the wedding. Yes, of course, Mal would be delighted to act as best man. It would be an honour. And he’d looked into Alice’s eyes, and they’d shone as she smiled at him, and he’d wondered – whoever I find, if I ever do, will I feel for her what I feel for you at this instant, my best friend’s bride, this loveliest of women?
For she was lovely, and gentle. Yes, she was much admired. This must have been why John Guntrip seemed to lurk in shadow behind her, fanning his jealousy like smoke.
Malcolm knew little of their brief married life. He’d already moved away from the area, returning occasionally to visit his widowed mother. But then, when she’d died – about a year after John and Alice married, as far as he could remember – the only thing that pulled him back was his friendship with John. And his dazed cult of John’s wife. For their firstborn, Edward, there had been not a christening but a head-wetting party. As John was the child’s ‘secular godfather’, as his parents put it, he’d come bearing gifts – a case of port, a Thomas the Tank Engine train set and a Complete Works of Shakespeare. These, Malcolm supposed, were suitable offerings from someone with his ambiguous title.
They’d seemed happy then, of course, John and Alice. The baby – he must have been about five months old, for he’d been born just before Christmas, and this was the bank holiday weekend at the end of May – had Alice’s eyes, and his father’s dark hair. After being passed round for a while, he’d sat in his little car seat under a hawthorn tree, watching with his large blue-green eyes as the adults around him grew drunk through the long summer afternoon. He must have fallen asleep; Malcolm watched Alice reach down, filtered sunlight sprinkling through the hawthorn onto her hair, to gather him up and take him indoors.
After the other guests had left, Malcolm had stayed on, making beans on toast with John while Alice spooned mashed banana into her baby’s mouth.
Yes, they had been happy then. Beans on toast eaten and cleared, they’d spread the train set on the floor, all three of them lying on their tummies and whizzing Thomas, Henry and James on their battery-operated way along the rails, through tunnels, over bridges. Eddie had watched from his car seat, little whoops rising over the whirring engines, grabbing at the plastic balls strung across his seat and making them twang.
Alice’s engine – Mal couldn’t remember now which was hers – had fallen off the track; she accused her husband of knocking it off when he’d leaned forward to change the points. She’d rolled over and grabbed him, in mock anger, to be seized by him and clasped in an embrace.
From the other side of the train track, Mal had lain on his elbows watching them furtively. Then he’d looked away, in time to see baby Eddie turn bright red, his features strained and concentrating.
Alice had disengaged herself then, hearing the sound of her son filling his nappy. She’d started to rise, but John had said no – not to worry, he’d change Eddie.
When he’d come back down about ten minutes later, Mal and Alice were sitting side by side on the sofa drinking coffee. They’d been talking about his mother’s funeral, which had taken place soon after Edward was born. That’s why Alice hadn’t been able to attend. The gentle kindness of her eyes as they looked into his, drinking up his remembered grief, so liquid in their sympathy that they seemed about to wash over with tears, was something that would remain with him always. He was startled, as by a thrilling but shaming secret, by how often those eyes came back to him.
He had no idea how long John had been standing in the doorway watching them.
“He’s asleep,” he announced gruffly, spitting out the final syllable.
Then he gave a little snort and turned away abruptly. The fridge door slammed; there was a thud on the worktop. Malcolm and Alice sat together still, listening in silence to the unzipping of the can and liquid rushing into the glass. He felt Alice start slightly at the explosive crunch of crushed aluminium.
As John Guntrip came back into the sitting room carrying his beer, his foot caught in the little hump-backed bridge. He stumbled, beer spilling, like a wave caught in a storm, over the edge of his glass. As he shifted his weight to right himself, he landed on the bridge, squashing it flat.
In silence, the three of them took in the splinters of dark blue plastic. Then together, on their hands and knees, they’d tidied it up, removing the shattered bridge and piecing together the bits of track on either side, slotting them into each other to hide the damage.
A year and a half later he’d received a Christmas card from them with a note announcing the birth of Felicity Marie – another winter baby. Whether or not there was a head-wetting party for this one he never discovered. He received no invitation. He’d only just posted Eddie’s second birthday present – a rather wonderful bus, with an open roof so you could put the passengers in and take them out. The girl in the toyshop had recommended it – said she babysat for a two-year-old who loved playing with his. Malcolm had returned to the toyshop in search of a present for the new arrival. The helpful assistant wasn’t there; feeling lost and ill at ease, he’d plumped for a pink rabbit that didn’t really convince. On the tastes of girls, he was an amateur.
But he sent it anyway, and received in the new year a short note in a round, careful hand, on a card with an unclassifiable bird perching in the corner. Alice, writing as though she were the month-old baby herself, thanked Uncle Mal (Uncle? Where had that come from?) for the lovely fluffy bunny. She’d decided to call it Candy Floss.
She signed it with three kisses. But of course, they were Felicity Marie’s kisses, not Alice’s.
Their next piece of news reached Mal a few months later. A local friend mentioned in passing when he met up with him for a drink in London that Alice and John had separated. She’d walked out on him, taking the children with her. They’d been married for just over three years. Mal’s source knew few details, but gathered she’d shacked up with some other bloke. John had sold the family home and moved out of the village – to a small bungalow in some housing development nearby.
‘Shacked up’. That’s how it was said to him. ‘Some other bloke’.
If only I’d got in first, thought Malcolm. I should have beaten him to it.
He’d felt obliged, after that, to contact John.
“I was sorry to hear about… what happened.”
There was a grunt on the other end of the line, and the sound of swallowing.
Mal registered the intake of breath, like a gasp, the way the man held it, the way it shuddered as he let it go. This was my friend, he thought. He knew he’d let him down – in his heart, in his failure to break through the anger.
“Let’s meet. I’ll be down your way soon,” he lied.
In the ensuing silence, he wondered whether John was rejecting him outright, or turning the matter over in his mind.
His response, when it came, moved them on to a new subject.
“It’s the kids I mind about. Alice – well, we were finished, through before she left.” He paused. “Mal, would you describe me as unutterably selfish and unwilling to see anyone else’s point of view?”
He was wishing he hadn’t rung.
“Don’t worry. No need to answer that one. But the kids – that’s the gutting part of it.”
Why do his children suddenly become his ‘kids’ when a man finds that he’s lost them? Kids. Perhaps, thought Mal, it’s that simple sound, one syllable, harsh, that’s guaranteed to tug at the heart strings. He’d never had any, not yet. He hadn’t found the woman to mother them.
Mal tried to thrust aside the image of Alice’s green eyes and bright autumn hair, her lips curving and pushing out on the words “selfish” and “unwilling”. Keep to the kids.
“I mean, Eddie is my godson, after all. Secular godson.” He felt the need to be strictly accurate, to cause no offence.
And for good reason. “He isn’t known as ‘Eddie’ these days. That stopped when… when they left, and he started at a different playgroup.”
“Yes. Or ‘Ed’.” There was a strangled gasp, obviously intended as a laugh. It sounded bitter. “Reminds me of when JFK was shot. His son wanted to drop the baby names after that. Wanted to be known as ‘John’.”
“You’re not dead, John.” It was not so hard, really, to concentrate on kindness.
“The old life is dead, Mal.”
An uncomfortable silence, then –
“But enough of that. I’m a misery, and I apologise. You’re right. You need to see Ed. He and Fliss are coming to stay with me over the summer. Then we’re off for a few days on the Isle of Wight. Why don’t you come and see us?”
“Where? On the Isle of Wight?”
“Don’t be daft. Here. Your old home, mate. We’ll down a few pints at The Mucky Duck.”
So that’s what they’d done. It was mid-August; sunny; the day before John and ‘the kids’ were due to set off for the Isle of Wight. They’d sat out in the garden of The Mucky Duck, Fliss (about eight months old, Mal reckoned now), shuffling backwards on the grass, not having yet mastered the art of crawling forwards. He could recall what she’d been wearing – a lemon yellow dress with smocking across the front, a white collar slightly stained with the juice from her bottle, and puffed sleeves. When he arrived, she’d also been wearing a floppy white hat, but this evidently proved an irritation. Her father, busy transferring Ed’s juice into his special drinking cup, hadn’t noticed her raise her hand and tug experimentally at the wide brim. But Mal had seen it, relishing her rebellion, eyes transfixed by the plump curve where the baby’s palm met her wrist.
The hat was on the ground. And now Mal saw that her hair, still wispy and thin, was like Alice’s hair. And she had the same skin – clear, its sheen almost transparent, tanned slightly by the summer sun.
“Hey, Fliss.” John had knelt down, gently replacing the hat on her head. “Fliss, baby. Daddy wants you to keep the hat on. So the sun can’t hurt your head.”
The baby, spotting a game, gave a delighted grin and brushed the hat from her head once more. She’d already perfected her technique.
Now Ed, feeling left out, perhaps, came and stood over his sister. As he bent down to retrieve the troublesome bonnet, he managed to tip his drinking cup upside down. Apple juice dribbled from the upturned spout and onto the white hat.
John Guntrip sighed.
“You know what?” he said, picking it up and crushing it in his hand, “You’re right, baby. Let’s not bother.”
“Naughty Fliss,” observed her brother. Then, as though toasting her naughtiness, he raised his cup to his lips and took a large slurp.
“Not naughty really, Ed. Of course she doesn’t like wearing that thing. Let’s forget about it.” He got up and settled himself back at the table, brushing his hand over his son’s dark hair as he passed. “Mum’s not here. So let’s just have fun.”
“Fun!” repeated Ed, screwing up his eyes. “Fun.” His arm suddenly went limp; he let his cup fall; it landed on the grass with a soft thump; Felicity’s frilly backside shifted into reverse as she attempted to reach it.
A sigh like a breeze through leaves. Mal looked round sharply. His godson was crying. He remembered the way Alice had looked at him that last evening, the green eyes not quite melting into tears as she sat by his side on the sofa while he told her about the funeral. Her spirit now seemed spilling out of her son’s eyes.
“Come on, old man.” John was up again, lifting his son, gathering him onto his lap, rocking him gently. He turned to Mal.
“Bloody idiot that I am. What possessed me to mention her?”
Possessed. Both men possessed. In John, this was understandable. But why am I caught up like this? thought Mal. He felt held in the same grip that bound this broken family. That needed exorcism, he decided. And by some act he might free himself.
“Feed ducks! Me feed ducks!” Ed bent his knees and then sprang up into a series of excited little jumps.
Mal pressed a few pieces of shredded baguette into his hand. It had been in the back of his mind when he’d ordered more rolls. Not for them, but for the ducks.
Just as well he’d got something nice planned. John was on edge. Not surprising, after all. This was the first time he’d had ‘the kids’ for longer than a weekend since Alice walked out four months ago. And Felicity was still a baby. At just over two and a half, Edward was perhaps even more of a handful. Mal had heard of ‘the terrible twos’. Doubly terrible, no doubt, when the child has, suddenly, had to work out that his parents are no longer there together. Mal wondered, vaguely, whether the boy half-consciously blamed his sister. Well, maybe she was in part to blame. For Mal had heard also of post-natal depression, and he thought that perhaps he might begin to understand. He asked himself what Ed called the ‘bloke’. Had he been instructed to address him by a particular name?
Uncle Mal. Uncle Bloke.
Ed swung his arm forward in an underhand bowling action. His fingers opened; the bread fell some way short of the water. A pair of geese swished from the pond and waddled across the grass, seeking out the scattered offering with their bills, honking as they went.
Ed laughed. “Funny ducks.”
“Those are geese, Ed.”
All part of the secular godfather role. Teaching the boy, helping him to throw, keeping him happy while his father took the phone call.
John’s mobile had gone off just as they were all walking down from the pub to the pond. He’d glanced at the screen before answering, and his eyes had hardened. Then he’d scooped the baby under his arm, whispered “Keep an eye on Eddie, will you?” and headed off into the trees. The call was from Alice, of course. It had to be. John had betrayed his alarm by carelessly slipping into the old way of referring to their son. But it had been quick thinking on his part to move off so smartly. Mal grasped immediately that he hadn’t wanted the boy to realise who he was talking to, or to pick up, from the tone of his voice, the tense hostility.
Ed had registered his disappearing parent and sister, but the prospect of feeding the ducks overcame any anxiety. So here they were, sharing out the bits of bread, moving closer to the pond, standing side by side and aiming at the water. Mal tried to concentrate, tried not to speculate about the phone call.
Panic, he understood, was beginning to squeeze his guts. Ed might suddenly run into the pond and drown. And he would be to blame. His negligence would be condemned as criminal. That’s what people would call him. An amateur, and a criminal.
Perhaps – who knows? – Ed, with that telepathic alertness to adult mood which sits on children’s feelers, had caught his panic. Without warning, he suddenly started running round and round in a little circle. Mal could see the fright in his wide eyes, the trembling of his lip.
“Daddy’s just on the phone. He’s coming back in a minute.” Trying to make the action seem playful, Mal grabbed hold of him, held him against his legs. The child’s forehead, warm and hard, banged against his right knee.
“Fliss? I want Fliss.”
“She’s with him. She’ll be here very soon, Ed. Look, here’s some more bread. Poor old ducks. They’re so hungry.” He steered him right up to the water’s edge.
For a second, Ed contemplated the scrap of baguette Mal had placed in his hand, then stuffed it into his mouth. After a couple of chews, he spat it out. A mallard hobbled right up to the boy, its bill snapping at the surface of the grass and mud by his red sandals, retrieving the gobbed bread, searching for more.
Ed gave a little shudder as his grief subsided. He watched the duck. My godson. Mal found himself washed over with pride. My godson isn’t afraid.
Quacking like a chatterbox with a cold in the head, the mallard waddled off now, its rear end thrusting at them a kind of feathered V-sign. Then, one sudden and graceful movement later, it was coasting through the water. The surface of the pond, broken and re-formed, winked in the August light.
Mal reached out to touch Ed’s hand. It was an instinct to share with the boy the beauty of the afternoon, the sun on the water, the reflection of the trees. This was the closest he’d ever come, after all, to the love of a child.
Their fingers brushed. Ed’s felt moist and sticky. But it was the sensation of a few seconds only. The child tugged away abruptly and sat down. He was pulling off his sandals. Buckles, of course, were disregarded.
“Don’t call me that.” The boy was scowling, not so much from anger, Mal sensed, as from concentration. Both shoes were off now; the small white ankle socks soon followed. They lay by the pond like bread droppings.
Mal was at a loss. He understood immediately his godson’s desire to feel the cool water on his toes, to wade free as a bird. But he was equally troubled by darker thoughts. No sooner had Ed’s little feet prodded the water’s edge, than the fear rushed in: disease, contamination. What horrors might he perhaps pick up from the dirt left by birds and invisible fish? And, though not in evidence right now, those angry swans might suddenly swoop down from the sky to maim the intruder.
A young couple walked past him, the woman’s back hunched over a pushchair as she twittered to its occupant. Briefly, they both turned and registered Ed, poised there by unknown dangers. The woman, moving in closer to her partner, murmured some comment. Mal was sliced through by the disapproval of strangers.
Shuffling swiftly forward, so that the water lapped over the tops of his trainers, he seized Ed’s hand once more.
“What’s your daddy going to say when he gets back and finds your feet all wet?”
The wrong thing to say. By referring to the absent loved one, he’d made the same mistake as John. Ed was down again – this time, right in the water. Feet, legs, navy blue shorts – all dunked in the cold, muddy pond.
Mal’s instinct, of course, was to reach down immediately and pick him up. The child stiffened against his chest. His sodden thighs and stomach were thrust into Mal’s waist. His hands, with surprising strength, gripped his T-shirt, tugging on it, as though trying to drag the garment off him.
When Mal bent down to whisper into his hair, “There, there; don’t worry old chap,” he felt Ed grow rigid once more.
Then he started to scream.
Mal stood, clutching him to his chest, looking straight out at the sunlight-spattered pond, pretending indifference to the people around him at the water’s edge. These were people whose reaction to the screaming toddler would be a mixture of embarrassment, irritation, shock, sympathy perhaps. The terrible twos. Well here they were. Too terrible for him.
“What’s going on?” The footsteps pounding towards them over the grass stopped abruptly.
Ed’s stubborn fingers still clung to Mal’s T-shirt as his father started to pull him off. He scooped the child into himself, whereupon the screams subsided into that gasping, shuddering noise. Like his father’s grief on the phone, as he voiced his betrayal. The sobs, to Mal’s ear, were just as distressing as the screams. No, he decided: they were worse.
But he wasn’t going to look a failure. Not now. Realising that, in his race to comfort, John had plonked his daughter on the grass, Mal dropped down on his haunches, almost colliding with her as she shuffled backwards, apparently oblivious to her brother’s woe. She was intent, Mal could see, on picking up his discarded sandal. This, and its upturned partner, and the scattered socks, lay like the debris of an explosion.
Mal watched patiently as Felicity grasped the buckle. Then he picked up the other pieces.
“Come on, old man. Let’s get into some nice dry shorts.”
The two men didn’t look at one another as they made their way up to the car, John carrying Ed, Mal carrying the baby. Her breath was warm and sweet; he felt his cheek grow damp where her snot slicked across it. As he lay in the boot of the Espace while his father changed his clothes, Ed seemed suddenly limp and exhausted. That’s how I feel too, thought Mal, turning away, squeamish, perhaps; or call it respect for his godson’s privacy as the pale nakedness of his nether regions was exposed.
They drove back to John’s home in silence. Ed, released from the car first, trotted barefoot to wait, rocking on his toes, by the front door of the bungalow. It was only as he was hauling Felicity out of her car seat that John addressed his friend.
“Thanks for looking after him, mate. When I saw you both, I thought you’d just rescued him from drowning.”
He shut the car door and snapped on the locks, adding, as though on an afterthought,
“I’m sorry I was on the phone for so long. Alice was fussing. Doesn’t entirely trust me with the kids, you know. She sends you her love.”
Together, they walked to the steps.
“When I told her you were with Ed, she said ‘Good’. You see, she seems to trust you, at any rate.”
That had been nice of John, that comment. So thought Mal now, standing by the pond as the final frame of that afternoon’s events clicked across his memory. A breeze ruffled his hair, and a shower of yellow leaves drifted onto the edge of the pond.
He felt a tap on his shoulder.
He knew, before he looked, who it was. He hadn’t heard that voice for… oh, nearly three and a half years, but he recognised immediately its softness, always on the edge of something slightly hoarse. He might even have been able to make a guess when he felt the hand on his shoulder.
When he turned round, the first thing that struck him was that she’d cut her hair. It had brought out the curl – he could see that at once – but it had also darkened it. Or maybe she’d been applying some sort of colour to it. Otherwise, she seemed the same. Just above a green woollen scarf that almost touched her chin, she smiled at him, and her eyes smiled too. Green eyes, like water catching the light.
Then she reached up and planted a light kiss on his cheek. Her smell was apple-sweet.
“I’ve just dropped the children off at John’s. Then I came down here.” She looked away from him, out over the pond. “Such a beautiful afternoon.”
“Well, it’s great to see you again, Alice.” He caught her arm, reclaiming her gaze.
Again, she smiled at him.
“Yes, it’s been a long time.”
Something, suddenly, was taking up a lot of space inside him, and this made the slight awkwardness, and the shyness, seem nudged aside. It had to be joy, surely. What else? But if he said the wrong thing, it would break dangerously out of control. He felt as though he was treading across the glass surface of something beautiful and precious that might crack at any moment.
“It’s kind of…” She paused for a few seconds, glanced away, searching, it seemed, for the right word. He kept his hand on her arm, once more willing her to return.
“Yes, it’s kind of appropriate meeting here like this. In this place.” She gave what sounded like an embarrassed little laugh, then gently touched the hand which held her coat sleeve. “John told me about what you did here… How you rescued Ed.”
“Rescued? Well, he wasn’t exactly drowning!”
“No, no.” Almost furtively, she slid her hand into his. “Though that’s what John said it looked like when he found you both. But you were wonderful. That’s how John saw it. You were wonderful with Ed.”
He didn’t know what to say, sensing the beat of guilt. It had been his fault, surely? He hadn’t actually known what to do.
So his response sounded trite and affected. “A true secular godfather.”
Her laugh this time was more relaxed, warmer.
“You are indeed, Mal. No children of your own yet?”
He looked down. It was round about here that the red sandals had been flung on the grass.
“No. I’m still decidedly… single.”
As he raised his head and met her eyes, he took in that melting effect, that way she’d looked at him when they talked about his mother dying. To melt and dissolve… No, he had grown strong over the years, hardened to loneliness like stone.
“How old are you, Mal?”
“The same age as John. Thirty-three.”
“Plenty of time, then.”
“Yes. Plenty of time.” He needed to change the subject. “They’re great kids, Alice.” Then, correcting his sloppiness: “Lovely children. Edward and Felicity. Yes. You’ve done a great job there. You must be very proud.”
Her hand was still in his, cold and slim. If he stroked it, he’d be able to feel all the delicate bones. Her fingers wriggled, like tiny creatures shifting in sleep.
“I don’t know about that, Mal. It’s been hard. And Ed, in particular, has found it very tough.” She paused. Her hand went still, and she dropped her eyes. “He misses his Dad.”
“Of course. But they see plenty of each other, don’t they?”
She ignored his question, pushing forward in what he took to be some kind of confession. “He and Martin didn’t get on, really.”
Martin? The bloke. Mal registered her use of the past tense.
“No, it was always difficult between them. That’s not why we split up, of course. But it was a factor.”
She’d been looking down still, as she spoke. But then, startled perhaps by Mal’s silence, she raised her eyes to his, searching for a reaction.
It settled on him slowly, like the gentle falling of leaves. We split up. They shacked up; they split up. The bloke whose name he had only learned a minute ago had vanished from the reckoning.
“I’m sorry.” That’s all he could think to say. “Sorry you split up.” Would she be able to feel, in the pulse that beat close to the place where his fingers were closed on hers, that his heart was dancing?
The sunlight in the orange leaves was so brilliant, it hurt. Its gold was dangerous as the touch of Midas.
“I should have brought my sunglasses.” Her eyes were blinking and watering as they followed his, taking in the pond and the trees and the autumn sun.
She was free. And so was he. That he understood, at last. Just over a year ago, in this place, he had performed the act that freed them all. Only a small act. Not even a rescue, really. He had picked up his friends’ family debris. He hadn’t clung to them as they drowned. For no-one had drowned. There was hope now, and expectation, even though winter would soon be here, stealing through the golden trees.