Authors: Peter Walker
‘I suppose so,’ said Toby who never used the term.
‘I lived in digs,’ said Bernard, ‘once upon a time.’
He paused for a long time, looking at the carpet.
‘He sent me
letters,’ he said.
‘Who?’ said Toby. He was amazed. In all his days, he had never heard Bernard use foul language.
‘Father,’ said Bernard. ‘The old man.’
Candy sighed again. ‘He’s obsessing,’ she said. She spoke at a conversational level, confident that Bernard could not hear. ‘At the moment it’s his father,’ she said. ‘He goes on and on about him. Last summer it was Eisenhower. Nothing but Eisenhower. And there’s the snow storm in 1947. We still have a lot of that. He’s polishing it all up for eternity.’
”,’ said Bernard. ‘Imagine writing that to your own son! I was seventeen. I’d gone to university in Manchester. “
I’ll be as glad to see the back of you as you will be of me
.” That’s what he wrote to me. Of course he didn’t write it himself. He was quite blind by then. He dictated his letter to Reuben. And Reuben wrote on the bottom: “
Take no notice of the old bugger
Toby looked out the window. Bernard had bought the house on Barleycorn Street in 1958. A white pick-up truck went fast down Barleycorn and at the corner sounded its horn – a sort of fanfare of trumpets. A tall black woman was walking up the street. She suddenly stopped, as if seized by dread, and searched through her leather shoulder bag. Then she went on up the hill at a leisurely pace. Another fanfare sounded much more closely. Toby looked nonplussed, then he grabbed at his phone in his inside jacket pocket.
‘Hello, Plum,’ he said. ‘Where are you? What? Can you? Really? Will I pick you up? Of course I’ll pick you up. OK. OK. OK. Yes. I’ll come and get you. I know. I know. I know. OK.’
He hung up, pressing a key, frowning down at the little phone.
‘That was Jojo,’ he said. ‘She just left Honolulu. She’s on the plane. She can see the sea.’
But Bernard’s eyes were closed. His drink, forgotten, was on the square arm of the sofa. Candy chose not to be impressed that Toby had just spoken to Jojo who was looking down 30,000 feet at the ocean.
use that phone thing on the plane,’ she said. ‘I’m just terrified of what it might cost.’
She collected Bernard’s drink from the sofa arm and put it on a coaster on the table, and picked up his soup bowl, spoon, knife, fork and the linen table mat. Toby followed her out to the kitchen and stood there. He turned on his heels one way, then another. He opened the fridge and looked in. Every centimetre, every last millimetre was jammed with pickles, sauces, chutneys. Chip liked condiments. Toby sighed. Nothing, he thought vaguely, had changed in the whole of his life. On the fridge door was a litter of magnet-held data – photos, crayon drawings, scraps of paper with addresses on them.
‘What time does she get in?’ said Candy.
‘Uhhhh . . . late,’ said Toby absently.
‘Do you want the car?’ said Candy.
‘Nope,’ said Toby. ‘I’ll take Caspar’s truck.’
‘Caspar!’ said his mother.
Toby didn’t answer. He was reading an essay in a childish hand on the fridge door:
of Ripley’s believe it or not started his collection of amazing facts as a caratoonist for the New York Globe. Then he went to find every unusual thing of life: such as an sub machine gun with a curved barrel for shotting round corners and over obstercals. He searched 747000 miles for more material and found a snake trying to eat itself and a tooth pick mermaid.
‘Who wrote this?’ said Toby.
‘Romulus,’ said Candy.
Romulus was Merle’s younger son. Merle had been coming to the house every day for six years to get Bernard up and dressed in the morning. Merle was from Jamaica. Her mouth was deeply downturned; in winter she wore a man’s pork-pie hat. She was a clever and thoughtful woman; over the course of the years she and Candy had become friends. Romulus was eleven. Candy, who taught remedial reading, took an interest in his education. She did not approve of Merle’s elder son, Caspar, who treated his mother, she believed, with young black male indifference. As teenagers, however, Caspar and Toby had formed an alliance which appeared to be in place despite the Atlantic. They must have been in touch already, she thought. Who knew how 21-year-olds communicated across space and time?
‘A tooth-pick mermaid?’ said Toby.
don’t know,’ said Candy.
‘Then we’re going out to Middleburg,’ said Toby.
‘Middleburg!’ said Candy. ‘What time does she get in?’
‘Midnight,’ said Toby.
‘Why on earth are you taking Jojo to Middleburg at midnight?’ said Candy.
‘We’re going to see the meteors,’ said Toby. ‘It’s the Leonids tonight. It’ll be dark out there. We’re going to see a meteor shower.’
Candy shrugged but she was impressed all the same. She felt a little lonely as well. Who would ever ask her to see a meteor shower in dark Virginia? She looked at her son from behind – tall, brown-haired, narrow-headed: she liked looking at the back of his head and the cusp of hair in the nape of his neck. But still he was just a child! Just as he used to as a boy, for instance, he now put the coffee grounds in the sink and turned on the waste-disposal switch and peered in, watching. There was a rich grinding of metal jaws, then they whirred freely again.
-erator,’ said Toby, just as she remembered.
Chantilly lace and a pretty face
,’ sang Jojo, ‘
she walks with a wiggle and she talks with a giggle . . .
They came to an intersection and turned west on Route 66 towards Middleburg.
‘Route 66!’ said Jojo. ‘Get Your Kicks on—’.
‘Darling,’ said Toby.
‘Are you going to sing your way right across the US road map?’
‘Yes,’ said Jojo. ‘Yes. I think I will.’
‘OK,’ said Toby. ‘Just so’s we know.’
‘We,’ said Jojo.
‘Caspar and me,’ said Toby.
‘This is not the real Route 66,’ said Caspar. ‘That goes from Chicago to, God – someplace.’
‘They changed it,’ said Toby. ‘Can you believe that? The most famous route in America and some jerk, some board, changes the number.’
‘They did?’ said Caspar. ‘Why did they do that?’
‘You wonder,’ said Toby. ‘You have to ask yourself.’
He glanced at Jojo out of the corner of his eye. She’s angry, he thought. Jojo had thick, short blonde hair and mid-brown eyes. She looked as if she was internally heated, with no need for a naked flame in order to catch fire. Her colouring was the same as his mother’s – Toby was aware of that, and saw no need to examine the fact further. He guessed there was some psychological weight in it and he didn’t care. Jojo’s eyes, side on, sweetly protuberant in the passing night lights – streetlights, headlamps – were transparent. He put his arm around her, his hand was resting on her shoulder. She was in the middle of the cab between Caspar who was at the wheel and Toby on the door. Toby moved his thumb left and right, a gentle arc, on her skin just below her collar bone. Jojo shrugged at this caress, as if at an insect touch.
‘She’s mad with me,’ he thought. ‘I wonder why.’
The American sky, the horizon, was all lit up as if expecting visitors from space. The pick-up turned down a narrower road, hem-stitched with dark trees. After a while the lights of a police cruiser appeared in the distance, coming towards them, and went past.
‘He’ll be back,’ said Caspar, nodding his head several times as if agreeing with someone else.
Caspar was thin and dark, and clever like his mother. He worked part-time as a security guard at the mall at Tyson’s Corner and studied business administration at night school. He looked sure of himself and rather amused at the human race: he didn’t seem to mind or even notice that he was right in only about the same proportion of cases as the rest of mankind.
‘So who’s there?’ said Jojo.
‘Where?’ said Toby.
‘At your place. At your mother’s.’
‘Oh, well,’ said Toby, feeling relieved. It was a normal question, he thought, perhaps he and Jojo had resumed normal communication.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘there’s Mom, and Chip, my step-father—’
‘Step-pop,’ said Caspar.
‘Step-pop,’ said Toby.
Chip had once referred to himself in this style and the boys, then teenagers who found everything adults did richly comic, had heard him.
‘And Granddad. He’s my man.’
‘What does he do?’
‘Oh, Lord,’ said Toby. ‘He’s retired. He sits on the couch.’
The police cruiser came up behind them. Its lights flashed red and blue in the mirror and the siren sounded a single wail.
Caspar pulled over. The road ahead was very dark. The state trooper came up to the driver’s window. He peered in at Caspar. He looked worried, like a man presented with grievous household bills. He took Caspar’s licence, then asked him to step out of the vehicle. He and Caspar went to the back of the pick-up and stood in the headlights of the police car. Then Caspar was left standing there while the trooper walked round the pick-up to look at it. Caspar stood motionless and looked at the back of Toby’s and Jojo’s heads. The trooper bent down at the passenger window. Toby pressed the button and the window came down.
‘Where you folks off to?’ said the trooper.
‘Middleburg,’ said Toby.
‘To see a comet,’ said Jojo.
The trooper looked at her sharply, picking up the accent.
‘Meteors,’ said Toby. ‘It’s a meteor shower, officer.’
The policeman suddenly looked relieved, thankful.
‘Oh, I heard about that,’ he said. ‘You folks have a good evening now.’
He went away and spoke to Caspar who came back and got in the cab of the truck. The trooper came back and looked in the passenger window again.
‘Where you from?’ he said to Jojo.
‘Australia!’ he said, smiling. He didn’t sound the ‘l’. ‘Orstraya,’ he said again. ‘You folks have a good night now.’
They drove on. The police car stayed where it was for a while then did a sudden U-turn and went away in the other direction. In Caspar’s truck, they all thought separately about the encounter for a minute. Jojo started to laugh.
‘Did you see?’ she cried. ‘That was
‘What was so funny about it?’ said Toby.
‘He had sugar on his chin,’ said Jojo. ‘I couldn’t work out what it was. Right there.’
She touched Toby on the upper round of his chin.
‘Good,’ he thought, ‘we’re all right again.’ He thought briefly of growing a beard just under his lower lip.
‘Icing sugar,’ said Jojo. ‘He must have been eating a sugar doughnut. All alone in his police car. In Virginia.’
‘Yeah, that’s funny,’ said Caspar.
he do, before he hit the couch?’ said Jojo, reverting to the subject of Bernard.
‘He was an eye surgeon,’ said Toby. ‘He cut corneas.’
‘Is that a pun?’ said Jojo.
‘No,’ said Toby. ‘He’s in the ophthalmologists’ hall of fame.’
‘Ha,’ said Caspar.
‘I’m serious,’ said Toby. ‘There is one. Bernard went to the Soviet Union to learn some new technique. Radial corneal surgery. He used to go there a lot. When he came back he would go talk to the CIA. He kept his eyes and ears open in Russia. “You were a spy,” I said to him. “I was not a spy,” he said. “They used you,” I said. “On the contrary,” he said, “I used them.
was against the Soviet Union before those boys were even born.” ’
‘Here we go,’ said Caspar. They stopped at a wide gate with a sign that said: Mickie Gordon Memorial Park. Caspar drove in and they went bumping over the open grass.
‘Plenty people had the same idea,’ said Caspar.
Other headlights were roving slowly in the dark, and more parked cars and SUVs showed up here and there in Caspar’s own headlights.
‘Here, I guess,’ said Caspar, stopping. ‘It’s all the same view, hey?’
He pointed skywards with his forefinger. They sat there for a moment, then unbuckled seat belts and all got out of the vehicle.
‘We have sleeping bags, we have airbeds, we have blankets, we have coffee, we have a little whisky to go in the coffee,’ said Toby. ‘And cushions.’
‘I’m going to take a look around,’ said Caspar and departed, vanishing instantly on the unlit sward. One smudge of horizon light showed, in the east, from Washington.
‘So,’ said Jojo. ‘Just what, I mean just what exactly, is all this?’
‘What do you mean?’ said Toby.
‘I mean just what exactly are we here for?’ said Jojo.