He's out on the hill again today. I can see him from the kitchen window; those pointed antlers and that bright, white tail. He stomps his feet and a silver mist forms around his snout.
Whatcha looking at? I think as he stares down into the valley where our cottage is.
He jerks his head up, and then strolls down the hill, like a man with money in his pockets and a fine destination. After a moment, he stops and then lets out a call. It nearly has the teacups rattling in their saucers it's so deep and booming. In the meadow, Fraulein pauses from her grazing and looks up; it's not yet time for her to be milked, but when it is she'll amble up to the gate and be there expecting me.
I'm waiting for the news to come on about those astronauts and biding my time in the kitchen whilst the day sorts itself out. It's cold at this time in the morning and my coffee's steaming all about my face. I take careful sips, keen to feel the warmth in my belly, but well aware that a burnt tongue can last two days and be a heck of a nuisance.
Fraulein lifts her head and moans into the blushing dawn. It's a sound like no other. There's thought in there, I know it. She's feeling something this morning. I guess we all are with these astronauts heading on up to where the air's different and bodies get light enough to float away.
What must that be like? When the weight of the world disappears and you're left like cotton in the breeze.
Tim's calling me now. The news is on. We've been waiting a while for this launch. Bad weather's had it delayed. It's a good thing because we had the Stones' baby trapped in a car wreck two days ago and everyone's mind on that. She was in the hospital three nights with me worried enough to turn to God, and it's been a while, that's for sure.
“It's on Marissa!” Tim says and those three words are enough to make me glad I married him. I almost didn't on account of watching too many movies with women that say no (even though they mean yes) just to watch their man get worked up, and me thinking that was the thing to do, back then.
“Don't be silly Rissy,” Tim said, down on one knee and smiling as if he was already carrying me over the threshold, even though I was shaking my head. “Don't be silly, Rissy.”
That's what he called me then, when we were both in our teens and everyone had a nickname. Sometimes he still calls me that: when the evening's silent and the moon's half out and we know nobody's calling. He'll find that spot on my neck and kiss me gentle, and it will feel like silk on my skin, which I've never felt, but in his kisses. “Rissy” he'll whisper, and there'll be something tip-toeing down my spine, hot and cold at once, and I'll be back to that girl with eyelashes that curled on forever. I'll remember how he looked that day he came off the football pitch and said: “man, you sure know how to cheer,” and tugged my pigtails.
“Marissa! You're gonna miss it!”
I take up the pot of coffee and pad into the den, my slippers wheezing on the linoleum. Tim's lying on the sofa in the thick stripy jumper Mother made him for Christmas. He hates it, but it's so cosy that on icy mornings like this it's the first thing he'll reach for. His cheeks are pink and shining in the lamplight, and his grey eyes look sleepy; lids half down as he watches the telly. He reaches out his arm to me without taking his eyes off the screen.
“They're about to go,” he says and I crawl into the warm space by his side.
He smells of bonfires and I breathe him in, running my fingers through his thick, dark hair. I trim it myself, but not all that often: I like it when it licks his shirt collar and hangs over his forehead, and I'll watch for that flick he does to clear it all away when he needs to see something important. The flick that makes me wonder how small our joys can be.
“You missed Stephanie; they had her speaking earlier on.”
Stephanie Lowry is one of the mothers in the town—our very own Kirkby Stephen astronaut. We don't know her, but we know of her, sure enough.
“What did she say?”
“Something about wanting her children to know that they are a part of history and that the space program belongs to them.”
“That's nice,” I say.
We are silent now. Watching the screen. The camera scans the crowd, all those big Florida smiles. They look a lot warmer there, I'm thinking as there is a roar and a bundle of flame. Tim stiffens and claps his huge hands together.
“Here we go,” he says and swings his legs round and sits up.
I sit up with him and we are a picture; on the edge of the seat; how it's meant to be.
In a spray of light and fire the rocket goes upwards and the camera follows. There's not a cloud out there; it's as if they swept the sky clean and sprayed it the most perfect blue. Through the clear day the rocket flies, a thick trail of smoke behind, and we watch and we watch.
“Well, there you have it,” Tim says after a while and reaches over to the coffee pot. He's pouring more into his mug and I am getting up saying that I forgot the cream when there is a loud boom and Tim starts emptying coffee over the carpet. I haven't the mind to scold him because on the screen there are flames. Not like before, when the crowd was smiling, but flames everywhere and debris falling like the perfect sky has cracked and shown itself to be a sham.
“What happened?” I am saying. I had only thought about the cream for a moment, but it seems that in that moment the world stopped and started again and it's all horribly changed.
Tim is pointing at the screen and shaking his head. “Marissa,” he is saying. “Oh god, Marissa.”
“What happened?” I say, wanting something instead of these thoughts that are settling about in my head; wanting Tim to say that some small part of the shuttle came off and blew up, that the Vanguard is still travelling upwards and away.
But he doesn't.
“They're gone,” he says and I fall into his arms and search for that smoky smell.
I am thinking of Stephanie's husband, her two little girls. They must have been there at the launch, waving flags like everyone else.
On the screen they are evacuating the area as debris continues to fall.
“It just exploded; couldn't have been more than a few minutes in the air,” Tim says, hugging me tighter. “It was there and then it wasn't.” And then he reaches over and turns off the telly and we sit like that: clutching at each other's living, breathing bodies.
After a while, I hear Fraulein calling. Tim and I have sunk backwards and his eyes are closed.
“Don't go,” he says.
I pull myself free. “I have to.”
He nods. I stand up and look at the stain on the carpet.
“I'll do it,” he says and I shake my head.
“You stay there. I'll bring a cloth when I've seen to Fraulein.”
When I get outside, clouds have moved across the sky, and are beginning to turn grey. I walk around the house and expect to find Fraulein on the ground, saving up a patch of grass for when the rain comes, but she's not. She's standing over in the far corner, up by the style, and on the other side is the buck. Still staring. I pause for a moment with the bucket swinging down by my legs, and watch these two great creatures. They're like pair of gossips over the garden fence, although nothing in this picture looks trivial. The buck is a rich chocolate, a few worn patches on his back where his fur is growing thin, but his legs are sturdy and his brow wide, and those eyes—great big troughs of mocha. I creep over to the gate, but when I pull the latch he starts.
“Hey no, fella,” I say, putting the bucket on the ground and holding up my hands. But it's no good, he's trotting off up the hill again. Fraulein ambles over and I expect to feel some reproach, but she's docile this morning and lines up by the stool as though this is a day like any other.
She is warm. I run a hand over her soft fur and a musky scent fills the air about my face. Then I settle in and begin tugging on her teats. She stamps her feet every so often and grunts a little as I ease the milk out of her. I lean forward and rest my forehead on her side. I can see the frothy whiteness in the bucket below and feel the movement in her body each time she breathes. Up down, up down. And then I start to cry. Tears roll down my cheeks as I feel Fraulein's fleshy warmth between my fingers. There is no sob in me, but these tears keep falling; dragged out by the morning's horror. After a while, I wipe my face on the arm of my jacket and stand up and pat Fraulein on the back.
“There we are,” I say. “All done.”
Then I look up towards the hill and there he is, up on the horizon, flanked by bleak clouds that refuse to shed their load.
“Who's your beau?” I say, looking into Fraulein's eyes and tugging on her ears. She shakes her head free and snorts and I can't help laughing. It's a blissful relief. I take up the bucket and let myself out through the gate.
Tim's out when I get back. The house is silent when I call his name, the coffee stain gone from the carpet. I boil up the milk and then pour it into a jug and leave it on the counter to cool. There'll be a thick layer of cream when it settles and today I fancy making myself a little comfort and pouring that on top of my cereal with a spoon of brown sugar. I check the house once more, to make sure that Tim really has gone out, and then I set about doing the rest of the morning's chores.
There are ten eggs in the chicken house, which I'm glad to see, we had two dead last week and the others too flustered to do much laying, but it seems they've settled down again. I dig up a bag's worth of potatoes and onions and haul that into the pantry and take some feed out to the goats. All the while I'm looking up at the hill, at the buck. Valentine, I think. He stands his ground and Fraulein keeps on with her grazing.
In the evening, Tim comes home reeking of whiskey and cigarettes.
“I could have used your help on the tractor this afternoon,” I say. “You've made those bales too big for me again, I could hardly lift them.”
He grunts and heads straight for the naughties cupboard, taking out a bag of nuts and a handful of chocolates.
“There's supper,” I say. “I've got vegetables roasting and two pork chops to grill.”
“I'll eat,” he says and disappears into the den.
I know it's not everyday that a space shuttle explodes in front of your eyes, but I'm confused. Or perhaps I'm bitter: seven astronauts dead or not, the farm won't stop for heartbreak.
I stand in the doorway, twisting a dishcloth in my hands and tell him so.
Tim turns, his face mottled and swollen, and looks at me. “What the jesus are you talking about?” I shrug and he leans back on the sofa and wipes a hand across his face. “Don't you feel it?”
“This murkiness. Seems like nothing wants to go right just now. Baby Molly stuck in that turned car and barely got out in time, our chickens dead and no sign of what caused it, and now the Vanguard, blown up and nothing to show for it.” He pauses and picks at the fluff on his jumper. “You know Ralph Myers' kid has been done for cheating in his exams. He told me this evening, the man's a wreck.”
I stand there shaking my head. I know what a blow that must be for Ralph, his boy set on being a doctor and all. I can hear the vegetables sizzling in the oven behind me and the thought of eating them makes me feel sick. The thought of ever eating again makes me feel sick. I'm an idiot, that's what I am, but something's kept me safe today, I know it.
I walk into the kitchen and head for the back door and I hear Tim behind me. When I turn, he is standing in the doorway to the den. He looks so small. This hulk of a man, who can wrap himself twice around me. I sigh long and slow and look up at the ceiling, at the stains and fissures that have always been there, that will always be there.
“There's been a buck hanging about the farm. I saw him this morning.”
Tim looks up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. He was out by the meadow with Fraulein. It was kind of cute.”
Tim nods and we stand for a while, not speaking, just listening to the whir of the oven and the sounds from the farm outside. Then a smell of burning fills the kitchen. “Oh lordy,” I say. “You better turn that off.”
Tim opens the oven and a trail of smoke rushes out and drifts up above our heads. He reaches for the thermostat and brings it back to zero and then kicks the wall.
“Hey, hey, it's just a burnt dinner. Plenty more vegetables if we'd only care to grab the shovel.”
“Well I don't. I don't feel much like doing anything right about now. I don't see the point.”
I lean against the back door, feeling the coldness of the glass seep through my sweater and into my body. “You wanna go outside? We could take a look at the moon.” Tim doesn't answer and I reach out my hand to him. “Come on.”
He shakes his head. “I'm going to head on upstairs and lie down.”
Outside, the air is fresh and as my eyes become accustomed to the darkness I see two shapes ahead. Valentine? I walk very slowly towards the gate and there I see them, up by the style, nuzzling in the moonlight; Valentine and Fraulein; a buck and a heifer.
I lean up against the fence post and watch them. Every so often Fraulein moves away, puts her face to the ground and snatches a mouthful of grass, or simply wanders a few meters and then takes up residence again by the style. The buck stands there watching: keeping guard, stamping his feet, snorting and watching. After a while the wind picks up and I grow cold. I turn back to the house, shivering, and whisper a good night under my breath.
Tim is upstairs in the bedroom sitting on the bed, his hands resting on his knees. He looks up when I come in and watches me as I settle myself down at my dressing table and pick up my brush. He springs up and takes it out of my hand.
“Can I?” he says and I nod.
Then he takes hold of my long, dark hair and begins to brush as though this were the final thing he meant to do in this world, as though all his life he has been working towards this one moment. I close my eyes and listen to the scrape-scrape of the bristles through my thick hair and relax to the feeling of his fingers on my scalp.
“I used to dream about your hair,” he says and I open my eyes and look at him in the mirror. “Before you even knew who I was, I was dreaming about your hair.”
I shake my head. “I always knew who you were.”
I see a tear roll down his face and he leans over and kisses the top of my head. Then he straightens up again and begins to plait my tresses. He moves slowly, holding each section clumsily in his fingers, his face fixed in concentration.
“Fraulein's made a friend,” I say.
“That buck?” he asks, but I can tell he's not interested. “There,” he says, pulling the plait forwards and laying it over my shoulder so that it falls down the front of my arm. I see that it's all crooked and chunky in places. Tim crouches down and puts his arms around me. He rubs my back and I grow sleepy on his shoulder and I let him carry me to the bed and undress me. He kisses me all over and when I start to shiver he pulls the covers up and tucks them around my body. I look up at him, at the cracks around his eyes.
Each morning I wake and go to the window and peer through the curtains, and each morning he is there.
“Hello Valentine,” I say and Tim stirs in the bed and mumbles in his sleep.
Valentine grows accustomed to me. When I come in to milk Fraulein, he'll stand over by the style and wait for us to finish our women's business. Often, he'll let me get fairly close, but he doesn't let me touch. That's Fraulein's affair, I guess. Tim won't come out and see them even though I've asked.
I come home after being at the market all day, with homemade soups and cakes and eggs and cheese, having sold most of it and noted that people were going about with glum faces, shaking their heads over the Vanguard. I told them about Valentine and Fraulein and they didn't believe a word.
“Come see for yourselves,” I offered and a few said that maybe they'd just have to.
I saw Sylvie Wesley who's been nursing her mother at home ever since she had a stroke and can't use the bottom half of her body. She said Mama Wesley doesn't want to eat since the shuttle exploded. They'd been set to watch the launch with scrambled eggs and pancakes, but when the debris started falling Mama Wesley tipped everything on the floor and said, “well, that's that isn't it?”
I sold her some squash and ham soup saying it was easy enough to go down and smelt so good in the pan that if it didn't tempt her I didn't know what would. I'm worried, though. A frail lady like that not eating much in this weather isn't sensible.
I carry in a few cakes from the car, which will go in the freezer and do for next week and I see Ralph Myers up by the meadow with his boy. Fraulein is there with Valentine, nestling up in the corner by the style. Ralph has an arm resting on his boy's shoulder and the two of them are pointing at those beasts in love. They hear me come up behind them and Ralph turns and grins.
“I hope you don't mind, Marissa,” he says. “I heard a tale about these two in town and I had to come up and see for myself. We need a bit of cheering up right about now.”
I smile and nod and ask if either of them want coffee. They shake their heads, say they're as content as two fat pigs with their snouts in the trough, and so I leave them to their gawking and head off up to the stables to get on with the mucking out.
Over the next few days, various people from the town drive on up to the farm and this unlikely pair become a regular celebrity couple. Sylvie Wesley brings her mama in her wheelchair and I serve up a tray of cookies.
“Lovely soup the other day,” Mama Wesley says as she takes a cookie and then she points at the lovers in the field. “I saw two male ducks once, inseparable they were, but I never saw anything like this.”
The locals have their own names for the deer—Bullwinkle, Malloy, Casanova—but I like Valentine best.
On Thursday I sleep in and Tim sees to Fraulein. Later, when I finally wake, I can hear him clonking about in the kitchen below and I wonder if he is making me breakfast. There's something about the rattle of pans that shows a little more agitation than normal. I step out of bed and reach for a cardigan on the back of the chair, shivering even though the heating must have come on. I move over to the window and part the curtains. He is there. The two of them, chatting away over the style. There are three figures standing by the gate and something in me quivers.
Tim swears in the kitchen below and I smile to myself and make my way downstairs. I find a pair of socks in the laundry and pull them on, tugging them right up over my bony knees. The wool is itchy on my skin, but I know in a moment they'll heat right up and I won't mind the prickliness.
When I come into the kitchen, Tim is standing over by the sink, scraping the char off a couple of pieces of toast.
“I'm making you breakfast.”
“I thought so,” I say, coming up behind him. He throws the toast in the sink when he sees me peering over his shoulder, with a, “pretty useless, huh?”
I kiss him and tell him that it doesn't matter, but he pulls away and wanders over to look at some letters on the table.
“Do you know who that is out there?” Tim says eventually.
“I've got a pretty good idea,” I say watching the two girls in their matching red coats and woolly hats. “Dick Lowry?”
Tim nods. “Did you know they were coming?”
“No, but I guess they may have heard about the attraction here. I kind of hoped they'd come.”
“You and your bloody buck,” Tim says and I flinch at his words. I wish he'd take a moment, like all the other folk that have come visiting, to stand for a while and watch.
“I'm going to go out and say hello,” I say, pulling on a pair of boots.
“But you're not dressed.”
“Tim, the man's just lost his wife; I don't think he's going to mind me in my nightdress and cardigan.”
“Well let me get you a coat, at least,” he says, running out and coming back with a parka. He zips me in and I ask if he's coming.
“Maybe later,” he says and I nod and head out towards the meadow.
The three of them turn when they hear me and I put my fingers to my lips and gesture to where Fraulein and Valentine are snuggling. The two girls are standing on the second row of rungs on the gate, their faces rosy in the icy air. I'm shocked at how grey Dick's hair is, it's been a while since I've seen him, but he is still young, we all are, yet he seems from another generation. The four of us stand for a while watching, as birds call out above us. Although it's freezing it's a clear day, and Fraulein's hide is glowing gold in the sun.
“I hope you don't mind us coming up, Mrs. Pedegana,” Dick says eventually.
“Of course not,” I say and reach out and rest a hand on his arm. “It's the least I can do.”
He presses his lips together and I watch him blink hurriedly, wanting to take this poor man in my arms—his dear girls too—and keep them warm.
I hear the back door rattle and when I turn I see Tim coming out with two steaming mugs.
“Who wants hot chocolate with marshmallows?” He says and the girls both squeak gently.
Valentine tosses his head over at us, but he doesn't move.
Tim hands the girls the mugs and then pulls out a pair of lollypops from his back pocket, which he must have found in the naughties cupboard, and I can't help smiling.
“Thank you,” they whisper and Tim pats them on the head and moves over to where I am standing. He shakes hands with Dick and the two men talk in hushed voices for a while.
“Are they in love?” one of the girls asks and Dick turns and smiles.
“I think so,” I say.
“Will they have babies?”
“Cows don't have babies, Shelly,” Dick says pressing her nose and looking up at me.
“Well what do they have, Daddy?”
“Why don't you ask Mrs. Pedegana.”
“They have calves,” the elder girl says and then looks over at me nervously.
I nod. “That's right.”
“But what about a buck and a cow?” Shelly says.
I laugh. “Now that I don't know.”
We turn and watch again and Fraulein tosses her head and wanders away to graze for a moment. Valentine holds his ground, his rich eyes watching.
“I know,” Shelly says after a while.
“What's that?” Dick says.
“A buck and a cow would have buckles.” She then grins a wide toothy grin and the five of us laugh.
“That's a good one,” Tim says and reaches instinctively for me and pulls me into his arms.
“Can we pet her?” Shelly asks. “Is she friendly?”
I nod. “Go slowly, though, Valentine is a little shy of strangers.”
The girls nod and Shelly starts climbing further up the gate. “Come on, Bethany!” she says and the elder girl starts climbing over too.
We watch them, creeping across the meadow with exaggerated movements. Every so often they stop and grab hold of each other and giggle, and then turn and look back at their father who waves at them.
“Go on,” he says. “It's OK, go on.” Then he turns and looks at Tim and me. “I can't tell you what this is like. They've hardly spoken these last few weeks. I can't tell you.”
His voice grows husky and he turns away quickly and I feel I could weep days for this man who stands before me, so grey and still.
Eventually Dick calls the girls and says that it's time to go. By now they have settled themselves into the lovely scene by the style and are feeding Valentine handfuls of hay and stroking Fraulein's coat. They groan and shake their heads.
“It's hard to leave,” Dick says.
“Well, come over any time,” Tim says. “We're not going anywhere.”
The girls plod back over, after they have said their goodbyes to the animals, and we walk them to the car. Dick loads them in, making sure their seatbelts are fastened and then he opens the door for himself.
Before he climbs in, I reach out and touch his coat. “Come back anytime,” I say. “Fraulein and Valentine would love to see you again.”
He gives me a hug and then turns to the meadow one last time. “Who would have thought,” he says and climbs into the car.
He starts the engine and the girls wind down their windows.
“Bye, Mr. and Mrs. Pedegana, thank you.”
“You're welcome,” I say. “See you soon.”
Dick is smiling as he reverses out of the yard and as they drive away I can see their hands waving like mad in the little car.
“What sweet girls,” Tim says.
When we get inside I put the kettle on the hob. Tim is standing by the back door looking out over the meadow and I wander over and lean against him. He puts his arm around me and continues looking out of the window. The kettle begins to whistle, but when I move Tim holds me tighter so I leave it and we stand for a while as the kitchen fills with steam.