He had been in the village less than an half hour when the curb underfoot gave way, tossing him to ground as though in punishment for nosing.
The women he had been observing (because of his curious soul, rather than any perversion) had been lost in argument. His arrival across the road, feet tapping the smooth concrete, had failed to draw their attention, though they had captured his. As if they fought behind one way glass.
Only the split of the curb and the tumble of the stranger smashed the divide. Both women turned. He felt his stomach lurch, as it might if the characters of your favourite TV show noticed you, then began to crawl from the telly like the girl in The Ring.
As one, the women swept towards him. He tried to convince himself they were not as frightening as Ring girl. For one thing, they were walking rather than crawling, for another, they were more attractive. Not that beauty was any guarantee of personality. His mother – not to mention the majority of his school crushes – were testament to that.
“Goodness, are you okay?”
The speaker was the older of the two. Maybe mid-fifties though she looked good for it. Tall and slim with a natural elegance James was not sure he’d ever seen in person. She wore a long green dress that flowed almost to the floor and matched her deep eyes. Her features were sharp, and her lips narrow enough to make smiling difficult, though she tried.
They stopped less than a metre away, hovering like pretty vultures ready to pick him clean. James tried to process the question she’d asked and realised he didn’t know the answer. It had all happened so fast he hadn’t had a chance to analyse the situation.
“I’m fine,” he said, for the ease of it, then was revealed as a liar when a palm placed on the road seemed to set off a bomb in his shoulder.
He gasped with pain as the sound of rushing water hit his ears, and the younger girl came to him with a tut.
“Idiot. Let me help.”
She was early twenties, a few years younger than James, and apparently the daughter. She possessed the same sharp features and deep green eyes as her mother, but was not as tall, and had chosen from a more casual wardrobe. Black T-shirt and jean shorts that stretched at least three inches down her legs. She took the arm that had not flared in pain and helped him stand.
“Thanks,” he said, aware of the awkward rasp in his voice and hating it. Demanding a straight back, he took a deep breath, stuck out a hand and aimed for a confident delivery of his name.
Not bad, then the hand was taken, and his shoulder reminded him of his fall with a bolt of agony.
“Emma,” said the daughter. “And this is my mother, Christina.”
Christina held out her hand and James faced blind panic trying to decide whether to take the pain of shaking with the same hand or the embarrassment of switching. He took the pain.
“What a mess,” said Christina, looking at the destroyed curb as though it were a pet post road accident. “You must be heavier than you look.”
James didn’t know what to say to that and was too busy fighting tears as his hand was released to devise a retort.
“Don’t talk much, do you?” Christina said.
“I think he’s in pain mother,” Emma said. “Or perhaps bowled over by our beauty. Oh, is that why you fell?”
“I’m not sure how beautiful we would have looked during our little -” Christina searched for the diplomatic word.
“Fight?” Emma offered.
“Discussion,” Christina finished. “Actually we were just talking about Emma’s need to find a nice boy -”
“- Mother disapproves of my present taste in paramours -”
“Then crack, the ground shifted and down you came. Like a gift from God.”
James was struggling to keep up with the exchange, so didn’t blush until several seconds after he was described as a gift. Then it got worse.
“Do you have a girlfriend, James?”
“Mother,” Emma admonished.
“You’re so predictable. Why bother dating, why don’t we skip straight to marriage?”
“Well, give it an evening first.”
Mother and daughter swapped sarcastic smiles, and James wondered if he was needed for this or if a crash test dummy would suffice. In fact, he felt a little like a crash test dummy. Damaged shoulder and all.
“Boy’s in pain,” Christina said, ending the stare-off. “Bring him in, play Nightingale. You might even click.” She rapped her heels together as though to demonstrate and turned a motherly smile on James. “See you inside, then.”
Before he could say this had all been a terrible mistake, he had intended only a pleasant evening stroll, not an engagement, she was striding into the house, and he was alone with Emma. She looked at him, looked at his shoulder and as though her look carried weight he flinched with pain. Emma rolled her eyes.
“Come on then,” she said. “Inside.”
Had he been a stronger man he might have said no. Had he ten minutes and paper for his workings, he might even have said it diplomatically.
But he was weak, and before he had processed her instruction, she was departing, once more conjuring images of those crushes from his past, turning from him with snide expressions and laughs of derision.
He came along behind her, as though he was her dog and she in possession of an invisible lead. His mind cried out random but nonsense excuses for why he might have to leave (grandma on fire, shoe fitting, dinner with Mary Magdalene) before he fell through the door in fear, as if it were a monster’s mouth, and felt it close behind him.
“I’ll get painkillers,” she said and, pointing at a chair to reaffirm the owner-dog dynamic, “sit. Stay.”
The chair looked safe enough but was revealed to be a trap when he fell into it and sunk so low he almost kneed his chin. Gripping the armrest, he tugged himself loose, as though escaping quicksand, and stepped fast from the seat in case it tried to reclaim him.
James needed no sign from the almighty that leaving was necessary, though if he had, the sofa would have suited well enough. Truth was Janet and Ted had left dinner in the fridge, and he had stepped into the evening for a pleasant stroll, not to become entangled. This was not what he needed. Far from it.
The relentless gurgling, rushing, flowing sound of water hit his ears again, and he shuddered. He would have fled while Emma was gone, though his unshiftable manners scolded him for the mere thought, but the charm of the room caught him like a net.
It was, in his opinion, what a proper family living room should be. Warm colours and plush, man-eating sofas. Scented candles and beautiful flowers. A carpet you could sleep on, curtains blocked the world from view as effectively as if it was not there and of course, the critical component.
He approached them as a moth approaches light, knowing they would drag him in too deep but unable to tear away. There was Christina, a few decades younger and beaming on her wedding day. Next to her a smiling man in black tux. There was Emma at five, ten, fifteen and twenty, and the same for a boy who looked a lot like his sister and mother, but with black hair like his father and darker eyes.
Above the mantle stood the grandest photo. To his moth eyes a 20,000-watt beam that made the surrounding pictures look like fading Christmas tree lights. A vast family portrait on white backdrop.
In the centre stood Christina and her husband, twenty years from the wedding photo, camera smiles pasted to their faces. To their right the boy. Maybe sixteen, maybe seventeen. Hands stuffed in pockets but otherwise looking smart in pressed jeans and crisp white shirt. Photo smile to match his father’s.
To their left, Emma. Twelve or so in knee-length black dress. The photo smile was absent but nor did she look miserable. She was a cute kid, but her rosy cheeks were not what caught James’ eye.
A step forward, and he examined the photo as an art dealer examines a rare print in search of the telltale signs of a fake.
Strange, wasn’t it? In a room so perfectly kept as this, he wouldn’t have thought to find anything amiss, or askew by so much as a millimetre. Yet here the edge of Emma’s shoulder and arm were missing, and the side of the photo was jagged, as though part of it had been torn away. As a result, the picture did not sit quite right in the frame.
He reached out, as though he could fix it, pressing his finger to the jagged edge as –
“Cute kid, wasn’t I?”
He whipped his hand away as if the torn photo had sliced him. Turned to face Emma.
“Yeah,” he said, then, forcing himself. “Cute adult.”
“You’re supposed to be in pain. Sit.”
He did as he was told, seating himself at the edge of the sofa to avoid demise in its devilish folds. She placed a glass of water on the side table and popped a pill from a wrapper. As she did, he glanced through the open kitchen door into the garden where people shapes were milling. Their voices carried to him as Emma held out the pill, failing to hide her boredom.
“Having a party?” he asked, taking the medicine.
He watched her, popping the pill and chasing it with a swig of water. She released a second pill and pressed it into his hand, huffing as the weight of his watchful eyes became too much.
“It’s my parents’ party,” she said, as he downed the second pill. “Wedding anniversary. Thirty years.”
He smiled, then breathed in as though trying to suck the expression off his face. Thirty years.
“Impressive,” he said, and meant it. His parents had struggled to manage thirty minutes.
“If you say so.”
Their eyes met. He could feel something inside tugging. It was the family room, the photos, the anniversary. It was something from a dream, but all dreams had to end. Sometimes you had to be strong, and be the ending of them. He could hear the water again, but in here, it didn’t seem so bad.
It was time to go.
“My mother wants me to invite you,” Emma said, nodding at the party. Something inside James lurched, and he searched for an inner strength he did not often show.
“I’d love to,” he said. “But -“
“I’m not inviting you,” she cut in. That made things simpler, and also it hurt. “My mother thinks you might be a suitable match is all. Suitable to her, that is, which means not suitable for me. How’s the pain?”
She rolled her eyes. His heart grew wings and fluttered. He caught it before it floated away, tried to think of the lasagne waiting at Janet and Ted’s. Coming into the village had been a mistake. Taking Emma’s invite had been a mistake. He could have handled the pain. His mother was right, he was a sissy.
He rose, thinking about leaving with such determination that, when the door flew open, he rather thought he might have made it happen with his mind. Then came the brother from the photos and thoughts of telekinesis were dispelled in a depressing puff of smoke.
“You told her you weren’t with me Saturday,” the brother said, pointing a finger as angry as the rest of him into his sister’s face.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to lie, Mark. Honestly, a text to say ‘I’m lying to my girlfriend, can you please -“
“Do one,” Mark said and was gone as fast as he had come, making the kind of exit James could only dream of.
“Men,” Emma said with a sigh. “Pain gone yet?”
He was going to say ‘close enough’ and leave when they were interrupted again. Another man James’ age, trailing a woman a couple of years younger, head bowed like a dog who has had her nose bopped for pissing on the carpet.
“What do you want, Mohsin?” Emma asked, hands on hips. “I don’t suppose you were invited, so this would be gate crashing. And dragging along poor, innocent Mac. For shame.”
Mohsin seemed unfazed by the sarcasm. He offered the briefest glance to James, then seemed to disregard him. Focus back on Emma.
“Can we talk?”
“Yes,” said Emma, but didn’t move. Mohsin sighed. “Oh, you mean in private? Would that not upset your girlfriend? Mac, would that not upset you?”
Mac said nothing, but tried a light shake of the head without raising it. Mohsin sighed again, frustration mounting, and gestured to the door.
“Well I suppose it would be tacky to say you still loved me in front of your girlfriend,” Emma said, offering Mac an unkind smile before spinning to James. “Those pills will work their magic any minute. You can find your own way out.”
Taking Mohsin’s hand, Emma dragged him from the room and up the stairs. James looked at the ceiling as though he could use Superman vision to see through it. No such luck, and probably for the best. He imagined a passionate reunion in Emma’s room and felt a twitch in his chest.
For this, there were internal reprimands. There was no reason to feel hurt. Not for him, anyway. Casting a look at Mac, he felt the pang of jealousy turn to sympathy. Even guilt, though this had not been his fault.
He rose from his perch at the edge of the sofa, wanting to say something comforting, but knowing there would be no point. He didn’t know her, so what should he say? Besides, now was his chance to escape from the sticky web of this family home. Going for a walk had been a mistake. Leaving the city, even. Stick with what you know was always the best policy.
“I guess I’ll be off,” he said, owing nothing in particular to his silent companion but feeling it would be rude to leave without announcing it. Mac did not reply.
Chancing another glance at the photo – that tear demanded his attention, but he ignored it – he made for the living room door, half expecting it to burst open a third time.
It didn’t, but escape was not assured. As he reached the handle the tap tap tap of heels on kitchen tiles rushed towards him, and he released his hold on the exit to see Christina enter the room.
“Where are my children?” she demanded of no one in particular, then, “oh hello, Mac, dear, lovely to see you. James, what have you done with my daughter?”
He glanced upstairs, then offered another guilty stare to Mac. Christina stood where Emma had, hands on hips as her daughter had. It was creepy, and there was no resisting that stare.
“She went upstairs with Mohsin,” he said, so he could say he loved her, he almost added, but didn’t. Christina rolled her eyes and tutted in annoyance.
“Unbelievable, I am sorry, James.”
“But I am. Please, go on into the garden. George will be giving his – ah, there it is. Go, go.”
The tinging of knife hitting glass floated through while Christina was speaking and, as though programmed to respond, she resumed her progress through the living room, swishing past James and giving him a nudge towards the garden.
A voice chased the tinging, and James felt himself continuing the course Christina’s hand had put him on like a rock pushed down a gentle slope.
“Thank you one and all for being here, and for being so quiet so quickly. I never quite worked out how to achieve that with my children.”
Tittering from the assembled crowd. James saw them as he moved into the kitchen, gathered around the speaker as the faithful gather around a religious icon.
“I wasn’t keen on making a speech,” George continued, his back to James. “It feels odd, having you all stand around me like I’m your headmaster and this is school assembly. But those of you who know me know my wife is the boss in this marriage. In this family, even. When she says speech I say ‘how long?’”
More laughter and James used the break to slip around the edge of the kitchen and into the garden, standing a little off from the crowd, out of the way.
“So here goes, my first attempt at a speech since my wedding, thirty years ago to the day, when my beautiful fiancé became my beautiful wife, Mrs George Barnes, and made me the happiest man on the planet.”
Like an actress who has been awaiting her cue, Christina entered stage left to give George a brief lips kiss, eliciting a chorus of ‘aww’s from the assembled crowd. The love seemed to pour off the couple like a gas, and breathing it in, James began to feel light headed.
“Like a car, no relationship runs 30 years without the occasional fault,” George continued. “But ours has trundled along pretty damn smooth. My wonderful wife made me a father to my beautiful children. Mark and Emma seem to have disappeared – surprise, surprise – but I’m so proud of them both. Mark, who has overcome the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his youth to get a good job, and stunning girlfriend of his own, plus a home just down the road. Emma who was born with the smarts and sense of a fully grown woman, but who I still see as my little girl.
“And, let us not forget, less than a decade ago my star daughter-in-law gave us our cheeky chappy Grandson, Charlie. Unfortunately, he can’t be here tonight – can’t handle his booze -“ more laughter at this – “but his mother and I are so proud of him.”
More awwing from the crowd. James noticed a few wet eyes and feared, if they looked at him, they might see the same.
“Christina,” George said, facing her, their eyes locked as though they were the only people in the world. “I can only say, with all my heart, thank you for giving me this perfect family, this perfect three decades and can I just say, I cannot wait for the next three.”
They kissed to cheers and applause from the crowd. James dried his eyes and tried not to think of his own family. The parents he had always wished could be like the couple before him, but which never would be.
Choking on the memories, he stepped back into the kitchen, anticipating a comfortable getaway but –
“George, this is our new friend James.”
Christina’s hand found his arm and turned him to face the happy couple.
“Our daughter was supposed to be looking after him, but apparently she’s forgotten how to be a good hostess. Imagine what my mother would say?”
“Pleasure to meet you,” said George. They shook hands. James could smell George’s aftershave and was jealous of it. “I hope you enjoyed my speech.”
“I did,” he said, then, before he could stop himself: “It was wonderful. You guys are wonderful.”
“What a pleasant young man you are,” said Christina. “Will you be staying for the remainder of the party? There’s not long to run, but I see plenty left to drink and, should Emma return, I’m sure she’ll remember her manners. What do you say?”
James looked at the couple before him, and the garden filled with smiling faces beyond. Felt the tug of acceptance dragging him in but knew it was time to walk away.
There was a lasagne waiting in the fridge for him.
He looked at Christina.
“I’d love to stay.”
Christina beamed, and that settled that.