THE HORSES OF THE NIGHT
Welcome to the home of Laura and Gordon Talbot. Enter the nursery. A fading mural of Pegasus takes flight on the wall in the half-light. Laura and Gordon lean down simultaneously to kiss their children. Laura’s lips graze Lucie’s plump cheek; Gordon ruffles George’s shiny black mop. “Goodnight, darlings. Go right to sleep now. No talking.”
They move silently into the front room. Snuggle up on the sofa that dominates the room, a soft cinnamon nest in the evening glow. Petty grievances and the day’s observations evaporate unspoken. Gordon lifts the atlas off the russet carpet and opens it across their laps. Lake Erie. Lake Ontario. There’s Toronto where Gordon’s brother lives. Laura waves. Gordon chuckles indulgently. He flips the pages. Rio de Janeiro. Campo Elyseos. Lima. Santiago. Chile slipping down the edge of South America like a red hot chilli pepper. Puerto Rico. Antigua. Barbados. Barbuda. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. “Good name for a pop group, “ says Gordon. Laura laughs. “Around the world in eight minutes.” Fully sated Gordon slaps closed the book infusing the air with must. Laura flings closed the curtains. They move into the bedroom.
Gordon catches himself in the mirror and raises his eyebrow, cocks his head, smoothes his hair and smiles, like Arnie in ‘The Terminator’, then steps back and sighs with the discontent of the privileged.
“Your turn to make the bed.” “Chivalry is dead.” Laura reluctantly tugs the mountain of duvets from the floor swinging them up one by one as Gordon slides down the crisp coolness, a warm lingering human scent, a high note of washing powder. The last of the duvets flutters down on top of him. Laura slips in beside him tucking her cold feet beneath his calves. Gordon plants a quick kiss and turns to the wall. “Can’t we start this way?” Gordon obliges, turning Laura to enclose her spoon style. His breath is humid and rhythmic against her ear. His cheek bristles. They sleep.
Very early morning a glimpse of light begins to penetrate the thin Regency striped curtains. The cat has clawed through the backing on a misbegotten journey to the open window last summer, leaving a mosaic of shifting tones at sunrise. Gordon shifts his bulk to the wall. Laura follows, wrapping her arm around his broad back, seeking out his hand. She curls her legs into his, gently pressing into the soft heat, his spine a cord touching womb, belly, breast.
The lush opiate of sleep descends again, clouding Laura’s limbs, pressing her down. She is in that half world where dreams float near the edge of consciousness. She is in a room. The colours are blues. She is lying on cool floorboards below long windows in thin gold light. A breeze ruffles gossamer curtains that surge and swell, billowing shadows, shivering the cloth of her pale silk gown. Birds are gliding back and forth, in and out the windows, around and around the room as if over sea. There is a man. There in the corner. He is suddenly beside her. She turns away, her chestnut hair spilling over his knee. Her head nestles in the crook of her arm. He places his hand in the small of her back. Warmth begins to emanate. She becomes utterly suffused with warmth. Her back begins to glow. His hand lights up. Her gown dissolves.
“Mummy! Daddy! Wake up! Wake up!” George pats his mother’s face. Lucie kisses her. Laura presses herself against Gordon. Her skin feels alive. A mind of its own. She wonders if he can feel it.
Gordon and the children rush off. Laura fights off the seduction of sleep. She concentrates on coffee and newspapers, an antidote. She stands starkers in the chill, sweeping her hands up her sides, smooth and hipless as a dolphin. She stretches her arms high simultaneously crouching down and emitting a spontaneous eeking sound. The cat jumps down off the chair and peers up querulously. She chooses a soft burgundy cowl necked dress from the confusion of the closet and fashions her hair in a careless twist, admiring herself in the diffuse light, all signs of age diminished.
She opens the curtains in the front room. The burnt orange velvet bursts alight in the sunless glare. Trees emerge gracefully from mist in the churchyard across the road. She is still furious with the council for severing their lower limbs, each swift unbearable slice obliterating their leafy glory. She had longed to run forward screaming Murderers! Murders! Like Marilyn Monroe in the ‘Misfits’. No turning back now from this fragility.
The phone rings. It’s Julia. “No, don’t bring anything. Just yourself. Yes. And Victor. Well, all right, then. A salad. Great. See you Thursday.” Laura turns to the window. She stares at the pigeon on the sill. Its amethyst ruff is suddenly shuddering with gutteral clucks. She taps the glass. It soars towards the trees.
By mid-day she has finished typing research notes for the local historian. (Grammatical and punctuation corrections included at no extra fee, and with no guarantee.) Soaked with facts regarding the fall of the Roman Empire, she puts aside an egg and cress sandwich despite hunger, images of Roman ladies gorging and vomiting too firmly lodged in her mind.
She is restless. Although she has no appointments, she is forever jealous of time. She puts on her mole brown cashmere blend coat and plum velvet hat and shuts the door quietly behind her. She returns with salmon and broccoli and wine, milk for morning and oatmeal for George’s breakfast.
The children arrive home and sprawl across the front room, doing their homework. Lucie is drawing Icarus enflamed by the sun. George insists she return his pen, which she insists is hers. Lucie sucks a slice of cheddar cheese into a sabre point and stabs George, scattering cheese on the floor. Puss sniffs the air, eyes half closed with rapture. He suddenly lunges at his fur nibbling furiously. A gift from a visiting puppy.
George helps Gordon with the dinner dishes. Laura and Lucie sit well sated, watching “Life With Father’ on the telly. William Powell and Irene Dunne are done up with red hair. Lucie imitates Elizabeth Taylor, impossibly Technicolor pink and sixteen, squealing, “A Yale man! A Yale Man!”
The children are asleep. Gordon and Laura are horizontal. The evening paper crackles between them on the sheets. Gordon’s new assistant is driving him crazy. Laura thinks it may have something to do with the proximity of the desk. They all begin to show symptoms of derangement within the first few weeks. Really bright lipstick is the first sign. Tears follow.
The paper flutters to the floor. Gordon traces his hand down Laura’s side and smiles. Laura turns on cue. They merge in time honoured tradition. Familiar, liquid, rhythmic—a stream or a creek.
Laura lies on Gordon’s chest. His heart is beating in her ear. He kisses her crown and turns towards the wall. A hollow feeling grows in her belly and spreads in her chest. “Can’t we start this way?” Gordon obliges. Laura presses into him until his molecules open to enclose her. Gordon softly snores into her back.
Her thoughts skip aimlessly. The purple feather boa she had as a child. The lovely Parisian flautist who loved her fruitlessly. The beautiful boy who stole a crystal prism for her from an abandoned house— who she had loved so desperately. Moonlight slipping in between the curtains creates moving patterns of lacy delicacy on the ceiling hypnotising her into sleep.
She is in a house. A house sailing down a river. Spinning and rolling and swirling down a great rushing river, embraced by weeping willows swathed in Spanish Moss, surrounded by cat-tails, Velveeta brown and bobbing. There are leaves blowing in the open door. Waves of brown leaves pile up in the corner. Claws or monkey’s paws. Gordon rolls over, clawing the covers with him. The house is rocking. The leaves are dry. The river bank is damp and the smell is pungent.
There is the man. He is tcoming towards her with a brigand’s swagger and a seraphic countenance. Her solar plexus blossoms and her heart flutters. He is leaning over her now and takes her face in his hands and strokes her eyelids with his lips. She buries her cheek in his palm, pressing hard.
“Mummy! Wake up! We’re going now.” Laura forces her eyes open. Gordon, Lucie and George peer down at her. Yes, they do look familiar. Laura pulls her hand up slowly and touches her eyelids.
Laura stares out the window and drinks too much tea, each cup pumping her back to life. She stands up. She sits back down and has another cup. Spiky fronds of Earl Grey float in the taupe, little exclamation points proclaiming an indecipherable future.
Laura explores the food counters. Tiny corn as intricate as Chinese ivory. Small carrots luminous orange and preternaturally moist. Evergreen broccoli. She carefully examines the gravadlox, silky smooth slips of peach-pink flesh tightly under wraps; replaces it and buys bright yellow corn fed chicken and puckering oranges from an outdoor stall.
She returns home to find Gordon grumpy and distracted. George is hyperactively ping ponging off the kitchen walls. Lucie is having difficulty with a girl at school. “She keeps hitting me on the head with her books.” Laura carefully removes the plastic wrapped gizzards from the chicken. “That’s very dangerous. Brain cells don’t regenerate.” “I push her away and she pushes me harder.” “I’ll speak to her mother.” Gordon raises his head from behind the newspaper. “George, stop that. Now!” “No, Mom!” Lucie shrieks. “I’ll speak to your teacher about it then.” The chicken stands upright on the draining board, a headless, begging dog. “Oh, great. I’ll be a laughing stock then. Just great,” Laura stuffs the chicken with orange segments and chopped garlic forgetting the main ingredient of the bread stuffing. “Well, I’ll just have to kill her then,” Lucie giggles. George stops bouncing. Gordon looks at her curiously. “No, Mummy,” Lucie says.
Laura pulls the covers up tight around her chin. She is watching the patterns on the ceiling. There is a fire in the grate and it is blazing. The walls dance with crisp orange light boxing dark shadowed reflections. Gordon is turned to the wall snoring severely. Laura remembers how they could not quiet themselves to speak without making love first in the early days of their courtship. Her mind skips to her first boyfriend, the undimmed energy in their fingertips after ten years of intermittent togetherness and then to the key ring inscribed with Latin given to her by the Italian boy she had loved when she was nine. She pondered the meaning of the mysterious words endlessly as if unravelling them would hand her the key to her fate. One day he had caught her pouring over it sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. Placing his large warm hand on her shoulder he translated, “Slowly, slowly run the horses of the night,” and walked away. She wondered if there was enough milk and if Lucie would remember to make porridge for George and if there would ever be a time she could recycle the papers without effort or throw them away without guilt.
She sleeps. She dreams. Trees with gold leaves cast long shadows on emerald fields. A woman paints a red cat leaning against an old stone wall. A Gnarled cyprus bend in the wind. There is a small boat on a lake in which three people are carried to the horizon, lilting. She walks towards an open grove. The long shadows touch her feet. The light is by turns mercurial, sombre, shimmering.
Lucie flings the curtains back with a crash. The cold flat tones of November light define her like a silhouette, a cut-out doll. George bounces like a marionette. “Ribbit! Ribbit!”
Laura lies in the bath completely emersed save her nose and her mouth, the tops of her breasts and her toes. She is trying to meditate but is compulsively trying on dresses instead. It is Thursday. She must remind Gordon to be home early. She contemplates calling Julia and saying she is ill. She decides on Dover Sole with grapes and Pouilly Fume. She will feed the children early and rent a video for them.
Eyes pop from heads and faces melt. Row after row of brightly coloured boxes form a deranged library. Horror films. Slasher films. Psychotic thrillers. In the mainstream section Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford stare earnestly. She lingers over “My Life as a Dog’, finally choosing, ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.’
The fish lie mauve and glistening on ice. Discarded ballerina’s slippers. Laura’s voice echoes in the tiles shop. Dover Sole Sole Sole. Hundreds of eyes gaze blankly from the heads of animals and birds in the window of the taxidermy shop. She stops at the bakery to buy muffins for Lucie and George, breathing in the warm sweet air until she is giddy. She feels treasured by a memory wriggling at the corner of consciousness. She searches with anticipation, grabs it and realises it isn’t her memory but Scarlet’s from ‘Gone With the Wind.’
“Jules, pass your wunnerful salad.” Victor is tall, spacious and erudite with a wide-open face. He is Spanish and trills his Rs, pronouncing certain words with exquisite aplomb and other words with an American twang. He holds court. “Tony Blair…health care…the dollar…the yen.” Julia is emotional and effervescent, just as Victor thinks she should be. Her cheeks flush and her eyes are moist and shiny. Laura looks around the table. Heads bob, masticate, leer and cajole. Gordon laughs, head thrown back, jerking and whinnying. Julia purrs. Victor shreds and munches, small sharp teeth intent on their task. Their eyes positively glitter with wine and good cheer. Victor pontificates, “Europe…Renaissance art,’ Gordon joins in, “arts funding versus social services…creches in art galleries…” Now Julia, “…Monet at the Tate…the Turner Prize…” Laura listens carefully, straining to concentrate but the words merge and blend, a strange hypnotic litany.
She excuses herself. She startles by the mirror. A mouse or a rabbit. The voices follow her from the dining room echoing in the small hall. She opens the front door. The sidewalk glints in the streetlights, wet from rain, curving yellow it snakes up the hill, an erect electric ribbon. A couple stand arguing. A man with matted hair in a brightly coloured serape circles, his hand outstretched for alms, then wanders away. Laura reaches for her coat. The headlights of cars are frightening. They announce themselves like visions, dissolve into glaring feral points, roar away.
Laura steps back inside. She advances swiftly up the stairs, passes the murmuring of children and enters their bedroom. She slips off her grey angora jumper and checked wool skirt, slides her silk slipped self under the fluffy duvets and waits patiently for them to return her warmth. She closes her eyes.
The day trickles from her joints like sand. Her muscles flinch and relax. She begins to drift off. She sleeps.
She is in a room lit up like glory. The curtains billow like victorious flags. Birds fly in, circle, and out. The walls are marigold with sunlight and the floor swims in it. She stands by the window her hair soft on her cheek in the breeze. Her neck is tingling. He is there. He wraps his arms around her and pulls her up into the sky. There is no sound but breath as they fly.