The two of them stood on a glacier in Iceland, watching the Northern Lights flash and burn across the sky. Then Tim let go of her hand.
He said that it wasn’t as beautiful as he thought it would be.
‘It’s just like a planetarium,’ he went on to say. ‘Those places are cold too, just like this.’
She didn’t look at him. She wasn’t angry, just really, really sad. She shivered. He rolled a cigarette, and by the time he had smoked it, the show was over. They got back on the coach, and he fell asleep on her shoulder.
The first thing she did when she got back to England was to take Abbie to the playground in the middle of the estate. Walking through the estate was like returning to land. It was the same feeling she got as a teenager when she would swim in the sea in Brighton and be so scared of sinking. She wasn’t meant to be out there, in the sea, she thought. It was for fish, and crabs and huge whales. It wasn’t made for her.
But once she had her shoes back on and she was walking across the beach, she remembered feeling she could do anything, back here on the land, where she belonged.
This is the feeling she had now, in the playground, as she put her niece on the torn rubber seat of a rusty steel swing. It was the same torn rubber and the same rusty steel as every swing in every council park in England. The same weeds growing out of the same tarmac.
Tim was up in the flat smoking weed. He had started selling it on the estate, but the amount he sold only levelled out with what his own habit cost. She smoked sometimes too, but they both knew it was not good for him. He would get so scared and useless, but without it he was so anxious. She understood it was the better choice sometimes.
She would walk in after her shift at the fruit shop and he would be sitting by the computer in his underwear, eyes bright red, unable to speak or move, staring at nothing, falling deeper into himself and away from her.
Her dad had paid for the Iceland trip for her and Tim, as a brief apology for the twenty year absence from his daughter. She hadn’t heard from him since he came round to buy the tickets. He had hugged her for a whole minute, as if he liked the look of a father and daughter reuniting, as if it were on a cinema screen in some English Indie film like Billy Elliot. He didn’t say much, and then he left.
This is the story of a certain kind of person she seemed to attract so far in her life. They never said much, and then they left.
On the flight out to Iceland, her and Tim cuddled and made little statues out of empty food containers and salt packets. They tittered and poked one another after the air stewardess took them away. They made up stories about the people around them, and when everyone started to sleep they put coats over themselves and touched each other.
On the flight back Tim looked out the window. His foot shook nervously. He grimaced when the plane dipped and rose. She tried hard to make conversation with him. She tried so hard to make him laugh. But soon he closed his eyes and slept, first pretending, then for real.
In the playground she pushed Abbie absent-mindedly on the swing. Her niece half-sang a nursery rhyme. It could have been any of the ones they taught at nursery, they were all so similar. It sounded most like ‘Polly Put The Kettle On’.
It was starting to spit and they’d have to go in soon. She wondered how Abbie would change as she grew older. Or Tim. Or herself. It was all out of control.
It was almost raining now but Abbie wanted to go on the roundabout before they left. The roundabout got faster and faster. Abbie giggled adorably and swung her head back.
The curtains were closed in her sister’s flat when they got back. She had a spare key. Her sister was asleep on the sofa, an empty bottle of Frosty Jacks on the floor.
Abbie skipped into the kitchen area and started pushing a toy car across the white lino. The little girl sang again, clearer now: ‘Polly puts the kettle on…..we’ll all have tea…’
She kneeled down by the sofa and stroked her sister’s hair. Her sister opened her eyes and looked up to see who was there. Her sister’s face looked old. It was discoloured with big patches of red. She smiled at the person who had woken her, but didn’t say anything, only turned over and went back to sleep.
She left her sister to sleep and went over to the kitchen. She put the kettle on then sat with Abbie on the floor. She asked her what she wanted to eat. Abbie shrugged. Minutes went by. The kettle hissed and rain tapped on the windows trying to get in. ‘Suzey takes it off again…,’ her niece sang, ‘they’ve all gone away.’
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Photo by Aleksei Drakos.
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