Then the nurse had come with word that my appendix was awake, and I had left, but the friendship begun on page 42 had flourished, and Joe Abernathy had become one of my best friends; possibly the only person close to me who truly understood what I did, and why.
I smiled a little, feeling the slickness of the embossing on the cover. Then I leaned forward and put the book back into the seat pocket. Perhaps I didn’t want to escape just now.
Outside, a floor of moonlit cloud cut us off from the earth below. Up here, everything was silent, beautiful and serene, in marked contrast to the turmoil of life below.
I had the odd feeling of being suspended, motionless, cocooned in solitude, even the heavy breathing of the woman next to me only a part of the white noise that makes up silence, one with the tepid rush of the air-conditioning and the shuffle of the stewardesses’ shoes along the carpet. At the same time, I knew we were rushing on inexorably through the air, propelled at hundreds of miles per hour to some end—as for it being a safe one, we could only hope.
I closed my eyes, in suspended animation. Back in Scotland, Roger and Bree were hunting Jamie. Ahead, in Boston, my job—and Joe—were waiting. And Jamie himself? I tried to push the thought away, determined not to think of him until the decision was made.
I felt a slight ruffling of my hair, and one lock brushed against my cheek, light as a lover’s touch. But surely it was no more than the rush of air from the vent overhead, and my imagination that the stale smells of perfume and cigarettes were suddenly underlaid by the scents of wool and heather.
TO LAY A GHOST
Home at last, to the house on Furey Street, where I had lived with Frank and Brianna for nearly twenty years. The azaleas by the door were not quite dead, but their leaves hung in limp, shabby clusters, a thick layer of fallen leaves curling on the dry-baked bed underneath. It was a hot summer—there wasn’t any other kind in Boston—and the August rains hadn’t come, even though it was mid-September by now.
I set my bags by the front door and went to turn on the hose. It had been lying in the sun; the green rubber snake was hot enough to burn my hand, and I shifted it uneasily from palm to palm until the rumble of water brought it suddenly alive and cooled it with a burst of spray.
I didn’t like azaleas all that much to start with. I would have pulled them out long since, but I had been reluctant to alter any detail of the house after Frank’s death, for Brianna’s sake. Enough of a shock, I thought, to begin university and have your father die in one year, without more changes. I had been ignoring the house for a long time; I could go on doing so.
“All right!” I said crossly to the azaleas, as I turned off the hose. “I hope you’re happy, because that’s all you get. I want to go have a drink myself. And a bath,” I added, seeing their mud-spattered leaves.
I sat on the edge of the big sunken tub in my dressing gown, watching the water thunder in, churning the bubble bath into clouds of perfumed sea-foam. Steam rose from the boiling surface; the water would be almost too hot.
I turned it off—one quick, neat twist of the tap—and sat for a moment, the house around me still save for the crackle of popping bath bubbles, faint as the sounds of a far-off battle. I realized perfectly well what I was doing. I had been doing it ever since I stepped aboard the Flying Scotsman in Inverness, and felt the thrum of the track come alive beneath my feet. I was testing myself.
I had been taking careful note of the machines—all the contrivances of modern daily life—and more important, of my own response to them. The train to Edinburgh, the plane to Boston, the taxicab from the airport, and all the dozens of tiny mechanical flourishes attending—vending machines, street lights, the plane’s mile-high lavatory, with its swirl of nasty blue-green disinfectant, whisking waste and germs away with the push of a button. Restaurants, with their tidy certificates from the Department of Health, guaranteeing at least a better than even chance of escaping food poisoning when eating therein. Inside my own house, the omnipresent buttons that supplied light and heat and water and cooked food.
The question was—did I care? I dipped a hand into the steaming bathwater and swirled it to and fro, watching the shadows of the vortex dancing in the marble depths. Could I live without all the “conveniences,” large and small, to which I was accustomed?
I had been asking myself that with each touch of a button, each rumble of a motor, and was quite sure that the answer was “yes.” Time didn’t make all the difference, after all; I could walk across the city and find people who lived without many of these conveniences—farther abroad and there were entire countries where people lived in reasonable content and complete ignorance of electricity.
For myself, I had never cared a lot. I had lived with my uncle Lamb, an eminent archaeologist, since my own parents’ death when I was five. Consequently, I had grown up in conditions that could conservatively be called “primitive,” as I accompanied him on all his field expeditions. Yes, hot baths and light bulbs were nice, but I had lived without them during several periods of my life—during the war, for instance—and never found the lack of them acute.
The water had cooled enough to be tolerable. I dropped the dressing gown on the floor and stepped in, feeling a pleasant shiver as the heat at my feet made my shoulders prickle in cool contrast.
I subsided into the tub and relaxed, stretching my legs. Eighteenth-century hip baths were barely more than large barrels; one normally bathed in segments, immersing the center of the body first, with the legs hanging outside, then stood up and rinsed the upper torso while soaking the feet. More frequently, one bathed from a pitcher and basin, with the aid of a cloth.
No, conveniences and comforts were merely that. Nothing essential, nothing I couldn’t do without.
Not that conveniences were the only issue, by a long chalk. The past was a dangerous country. But even the advances of so-called civilization were no guarantee of safety. I had lived through two major “modern” wars—actually served on the battlefields of one of them—and could see another taking shape on the telly every evening.
“Civilized” warfare was, if anything, more horrifying than its older versions. Daily life might be safer, but only if one chose one’s walk in it with care. Parts of Roxbury now were as dangerous as any alley I had walked in the Paris of two hundred years past.
I sighed and pulled up the plug with my toes. No use speculating about impersonal things like bathtubs, bombs, and ra**sts. Indoor plumbing was no more than a minor distraction. The real issue was the people involved, and always had been. Me, and Brianna, and Jamie.
The last of the water gurgled away. I stood up, feeling slightly light-headed, and wiped away the last of the bubbles. The big mirror was misted with steam, but clear enough to show me myself from the knees upward, pink as a boiled shrimp.
Dropping the towel, I looked myself over. Flexed my arms, raised them overhead, checking for bagginess. None; biceps and triceps all nicely defined, deltoids neatly rounded and sloping into the high curve of the pectoralis major. I turned slightly to one side, tensing and relaxing my abdominals—obliques in decent tone, the rectus abdominis flattening almost to concavity.
“Good thing the family doesn’t run to fat,” I murmured. Uncle Lamb had remained trim and taut to the day of his death at seventy-five. I supposed my father—Uncle Lamb’s brother—had been constructed similarly, and wondered suddenly what my mother’s backside had looked like. Women, after all, had a certain amount of excess adipose tissue to contend with.
I turned all the way round and peered back over my shoulder at the mirror. The long columnar muscles of my back gleamed wetly as I twisted; I still had a waist, and a good narrow one, too.
As for my own backside—“Well, no dimples, anyway,” I said aloud. I turned around and stared at my reflection.
“It could be a lot worse,” I said to it.
Feeling somewhat heartened, I put on my nightgown and went about the business of putting the house to bed. No cats to put out, no dogs to feed—Bozo, the last of our dogs, had died of old age the year before, and I had not wanted to get another, with Brianna off at school and my own hours at the hospital long and irregular.
Adjust the thermostat, check the locks of windows and doors, see that the burners of the stove were off. That was all there was to it. For eighteen years, the nightly route had included a stop in Brianna’s room, but not since she had left for university.
Moved by a mixture of habit and compulsion, I pushed open the door to her room and clicked on the light. Some people have the knack of objects, and others haven’t. Bree had it; scarcely an inch of wall space showed between the posters, photographs, dried flowers, scraps of tie-dyed fabric, framed certificates and other impedimenta on the walls.
Some people have a way of arranging everything about them, so the objects take on not only their own meaning, and a relation to the other things displayed with them, but something more besides—an indefinable aura that belongs as much to their invisible owner as to the objects themselves. I am here because Brianna placed me here, the things in the room seemed to say. I am here because she is who she is.
It was odd that she should have that, really, I thought. Frank had had it; when I had gone to empty his university office after his death, I had thought it like the fossilized cast of some extinct animal; books and papers and bits of rubbish holding exactly the shape and texture and vanished weight of the mind that had inhabited the space.
For some of Brianna’s objects, the relation to her was obvious—pictures of me, of Frank, of Bozo, of friends. The scraps of fabric were ones she had made, her chosen patterns, the colors she liked—a brilliant turquoise, deep indigo, magenta, and clear yellow. But other things—why should the scatter of dried freshwater snail shells on the bureau say to me “Brianna”? Why that one lump of rounded pumice, taken from the beach at Truro, indistinguishable from a hundred thousand others—except for the fact that she had taken it?
I didn’t have a way with objects. I had no impulse either to acquire or to decorate—Frank had often complained of the Spartan furnishings at home, until Brianna grew old enough to take a hand. Whether it was the fault of my nomadic upbringing, or only the way I was, I lived mostly inside my skin, with no impulse to alter my surroundings to reflect me.
Jamie was the same. He had had the few small objects, always carried in his sporran for utility or as talismans, and beyond that, had neither owned nor cared for things. Even during the short period when we had lived luxuriously in Paris, and the longer time of tranquillity at Lallybroch, he had never shown any disposition to acquire objects.
For him as well, it might have been the circumstances of his early manhood, when he had lived like a hunted animal, never owning anything beyond the weapons he depended on for survival. But perhaps it was natural to him also, this isolation from the world of things, this sense of self-sufficiency—one of the things that had made us seek completion in each other.
Odd all the same, that Brianna should have so much resembled both her fathers, in their very different ways. I said a silent good night to the ghost of my absent daughter, and put out the light.