into the grey afternoon
In the woods with the child his impotent rage subsided some. He breathed deeply among the trees and crouched with the child by huge fungi and fallen logs and pinecones and many other treasures, and he held her close to him and felt her warmth and her life against his skin and felt very stupid and sorry. He wanted to call her at that moment to apologise but he had left his phone in the house when he had walked out so hurriedly. The child ran into thick piles of orange leaves and kicked and threw them like tickertape into the grey afternoon, squealing as she did so with delight. He joined her and they threw the leaves together in great fistfuls and they stuck in their hair and to the fronts of their jumpers and they were so crisp like left toast and perfect, skeletal, and they fell into them and looked up laughing through the falling leaves and the mostly bare branches and to the sky, and the smell of the earth was deep and damp and tremendous.
He had hit his wife but not – and never – meant to; the argument was heated and ferocious and, he knew, worthless, but it happened and kept happening as those things – the worthless ones – do, impulsive in all the worst ways. The child watched television while in the kitchen they went at each other in cruel competition, the benchmark of caused pain raised ever higher with every shouted sentence. Their troubles were small but niggled persistently, money, ambition, attitude, just trifles, really. The timbre of her raised voice turned his stomach but not at the expense of love; it reminded him sadly of his age, of the youth they had shared but now lost. He was punishing and measured with it, traits that had worsened with the years. The argument lasted for only minutes but caused immeasurable damage. His wife cried and he offered no comfort for it felt false and wrong to do so. She had slapped him twice, the argument by then in its death throes, the energy subsiding; he should have let it pass but hit her after the second one, not hard but still. He felt as though he was watching it happen and not participating in its deployment, which of course he was. Such detachment was the cause of many arguments; “you knew what I was like,” he would say; “you weren’t like this”, she would say. They were both incredibly right. Her face was very betrayed clasped between her open hands. He took the child, all smiles, and they left. The air would clear everything.
There were several steep hills in the woods which had once extended for many miles north, the sites of sand and gravel extraction of generations ago. He sat at the top of one such hill and the child sat in his lap, and they slid down over and over again, running each time right back to the top and then sliding down again, the gravel cutting into the seat of his jeans, themselves weathered and left clammy by the disturbed topsoil. They balanced on logs and large root systems and he pretended to fall from them, flailing his arms and yelling, and the child found this incredibly funny. There were dogs barking in other distant areas but they saw not a soul. In spring the place was swamped with frogspawn, the dew pond and even deep puddles forged into the various declivities that lined the tracks all teeming with the stuff, and they would watch then with baited breath in hopes that the spawn would hatch and mature before the rising sun dried the waters to nothing. By the Autumn there was no frogspawn, and the muddy water of the dew pond was very still as they stood at its edge and caught their breath, jolted only to occasional life by the child’s thrown stones which rained in great handfuls one after the other like prophesy.
His wife’s face at the edge of the windowpane as he and the child drove away from the house seemed etched into his memory even as it happened. A symbol of all of his failures, he would see it when he closed his eyes; it reflected the minutiae of their lives back to him as his did to her, clear as mirrors. Everything else, all of it, now gone.
He lifted the child up into his arms, and kissed both of her cheeks, and she laughed, and he threw her up and caught her when she dropped, and she was mute with the excitement of that split second of flight, and he would take her home and would tearfully apologise to his wife, and kiss her softly, the kettle would be boiling, and he’d beg her forgiveness, and they would know that they were meant to be together as without doubt they were, for they, theyhad created this child, this perfect child, and know that these blips – for what were they but that? – could and would stop, and they would all three sit on the sofa or lay upon the bed and be so happy and strong and all would again be well, and he threw the child up, he wassorry, and he caught her, oh how peaty and damp the smell of the earth!, and he threw her up, he loved her, had never meant to hit her, and he caught her, and he threw her up, her shocked face frozen above his then gone ever so quickly. There was blood on his hands and the child’s body fell lifeless to them, almost weightless, face down; her little skull and her little brain were pierced by the lowest branch as he had thrust her up to it, she was dead in an instant. They said it as a comfort on television programmes: she died instantly, but it was no comfort at all, it was all too instant, everything happened in an instant, leaving no time at all for it to be otherwise, for him to make it otherwise. How quickly the joy of life becomes not. He turned the child’s body over and straightened the frown on her face and kissed it many times and walked back along the paths they had earlier shared to his vehicle and to more.