Stone-coloured pillows

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Chapter 6

6

The attic was a big project. Steven loved big projects and he undertook them regularly. He was a meticulous planner and so, even weeks before he had actually started to move the first boxes, he had already designed the entire layout of the new attic: dimensions and paint and all. Although the attic layout was actually fine and the walls were hardly ever seen and no one but him would be venturing up there, he still enjoyed that feeling of stripping something bare, throwing everything away and starting afresh. And so he worked.

He lifted a box closest to him, his feet balanced on the fold out ladder, took 3 steps down and placed it on the floor. He did this twice more. Beads of perspiration formed under his receding hairline and his lower back gave a slight dull moan. Five years ago he would have described himself as fairly fit. Ten years ago he would have described himself as athletic. Now he tried his best not to describe himself at all. The paunch of his belly was unmistakable, and since the beginnings of arthritis were creeping into his joints and his back seemed to be at constant risk of being put out, he excused himself and signed his own permission slip to avoid physical exercise.

It did not matter anyhow, Laura still found him incredibly attractive and though she was a frequent dieter and loved to carve out plans of which exercise regime she was going to take on next, she could not escape the voluptuousness of her hips, nor the excess fat that gathered at her chin. Also, despite the regime plans, she too made her excuses when it came to exercising. In many ways, they signed each other’s permission slips.

He carried down an armful of loose Christmas decorations tossed up there some ten months previously and a couple more boxes. These were heavier, and seemed laden with books and scientific journals that must have belonged to Brian. He put these boxes to the side; they would not be making their way back to the attic again.

Now filled with half a dozen boxes, the hallway was beginning to look like a garage sale and, wanting to let more light into the gloomy corridor, Steven opened the door to the spare room. A discarded purple sock poked its head out from beneath the fold-out bed, and behind the little wardrobe, the three-shade blue feature wall Julia had painted last September called for Steven’s attention.

This room was the real reason Laura had encouraged Steven to sort out the attic. She wanted the furniture gone so that they could renovate the shoebox room into a proper guest room. She wanted the walls painted over. She did not like the feature wall.

Over a year ago, Steven had opened the door as he did now to find Julia dancing around it with a paintbrush. Her denim dungarees and his old white t-shirt were covered with baby blue paint. It was her favourite colour and she had insisted on buying the last tub of it even though Steven had warned her that it probably wouldn’t be enough paint to cover the entire room, small though it was. It wasn’t. Hence the feature wall. His daughter was a creative thinker.

This small incidental memory brought with it a pang of discomfort and Steven thought of Julia’s mother in order to remove it. Immediately anger flared and the faces of the two women, some twenty years apart, merged into one. Any pain or guilt felt by the memory of Julia burned in a flame of anger. Steven picked up the purple sock and flung it into the open box in this room. It joined its companions: a winter coat, a framed photograph of Julia’s first dog, an old leotard - all things Julia had mistakenly, or purposely, left behind. She hadn’t had much time to pack. Lifting the light box, Steven found it to be heavy, and carried it into the corridor, allowing it to fall alongside the scientific journals. This box would not be making its way back to the attic either.

To this day, Julia felt strange about lifting her hand up in class.

As a child she had been eager, almost too eager - teachers would often find her to be a handful. Though it is not unlikely that many of those who are deemed to be handfuls at school are, in fact, intelligent. But now, despite being back in formal education for the best part of 13 months, she did not like to raise her hand.

Kial, Julia’s 40-something history teacher, knew this, and so whenever he would notice Julia’s hand twitch upwards, he would make a point of asking her. This was not because she never volunteered, in as much as that frequent twitch could be described as volunteering, but rather because her view of history and the precise, thorough way in which she made her point was a welcome change from the blabbering seventeen year olds around her.

Julia had caught Kial’s attention on the very first day. She walked in alone, one of the first to enter the classroom - they always trickled in during those first few weeks of term. The college was a big one and the poorly labelled classrooms did not help those trying to navigate their way around - though Kial thought that some of the students did rather milk the “sorry, sir...got lost” tactic when they were still showing up late in November.

Julia had hardly taken her eyes off Kial that first lesson, and he found it difficult not to look at her too. Not because she was attractive, although her blue eyes and angular features suggested that, had he been younger, he might have thought so. But because there was a calm attentiveness upon her face that stood out from her peers. Nothing in her looks demonstrated that she was, and yet, Julia seemed old.

“For this week’s assignment I would like you to discuss the political and economic condition of the Iberian Peninsula in 1469; to be handed in next Tuesday…”. Kial’s voice was drowned by the screeching of plastic chairs on the floor, zipping bags and other conversations. As the students piled out of the classroom, Julia remained seated, carefully writing down the assignment in a worn journal. Kial could see that the date 2009 had been scratched out and replaced with 2012. This made the corners of his mouth twitch upwards slightly. Julia looked up then. She hadn’t said a word all lesson.

“Sorry”, to Kial’s surprise the calmly attentive face seemed embarrassed now; she seemed to be explaining her silence during the lesson. “It’s been a while since I did history…”

“Yes, the summer break is a long one.”

Julia laughed then. “My ‘summer break’ has lasted 3 years.”

“Oh”, Kial said; so she was older. “How come you’re back doing A levels?” Though Kial knew that the college admitted ‘mature students’, in his eight years here, he had never taught one.

“It’s a long story”, sighed Julia. “I went to a vocational dance school at sixteen, straight after GCSEs. But I left in January last year, decided that my learning wasn’t done, and now I’m back; a full 360.” She summarised quickly, with an air of someone who had explained the same situation many times. Nonetheless Kial sensed that there were some key elements missing from this synopsis.

“I see”, Kial said, not wanting to pry. “Well, if you need help readjusting to learning, I’d be glad to assist.”

Julia flashed him a smile as she put the final textbook into her suede elephant-grey bag, and left the classroom.

As the months went by, the elephant-grey bag got darker with

dirt and scuff marks, and Kial and Julia developed a friendship unlike that he’d ever had with a pupil. They treaded the line carefully so that there would never need to be any discomfort when it came to their spending time together. But their occasional coffees in the classroom, during break, discussing historical intricacies or their day to day lives were a welcome distraction from college life for them both.

Kial found Julia to be an insightful twenty year-old and, since she was a good historian, and an engaged listener, they always found something to talk about.

In April, the situation shifted, like a rolling tube, and Julia was turned sideways.

She entered the classroom where Kial sat without knocking. She was pale and her hair fell out of its ponytail and into her face. A strand of it teased the edge of her mouth. Either Julia hadn’t noticed it or she was too preoccupied to care.

“I’m sorry Kial, but I think I’m going to have to drop history.” The tremble in Julia’s voice suggested she was close to tears.

“What?” Pushed the papers he had been grading to one side and placed his palms upon the table. Interlacing his fingers he added, “why?”.

“My dad has kicked me out.” Julia’s sentences were short. She held tightly to her elbows, arms folded across her chest as though in self-defence. “I don’t know where I’m going to live, but I think I need to get another job. Do more teaching. Or something. Anyway, I’m really sorry, but I can’t keep up with four subjects and History takes so much of my time. I don’t need it for uni. I can get in to do English lit with just three subjects.” Julia spoke quickly and with the air of someone whose mind is only half present in the setting in which they are in.

“But you’ve done so much work. You can’t drop it now.” Then seeing the look on Julia’s face, Kial added, “what happened with your dad?”

Ten minutes later, Julia sat with a steaming mug of tea in her hand, face glistening with the tears that had fallen since morning and soaked into her cheeks like a thin sheet of glue - her face was stiff with them. Her voice shook less now, though she still had the air of someone who had not had a good night’s sleep in their lives, and who, if given the opportunity to lay their head down, could have slept into the next decade.

“I can’t believe this has happened. We weren’t even meant to be living with her. You know, Kial, my dad and I were renting our own place when he first moved to Henley: a little two bedroom house on Friday Street. I was still working in France and he was meant to be moving all of our stuff in, and the next thing I know, he is with her every time I call. And, eventually, praying that I am wrong, I ask him, ‘are you living with her?’ and he just goes silent and sheepishly says that he is. And suddenly I am pushed into a house with a woman I hardly know and her eight year old son I’ve never met! And that was when my dad stopped being my dad and became something entirely different, and this house that I was pushed into became unbearable and I got pushed back out just as fast as I was pushed in!” Kial had never heard Julia talk in this way, all ‘ands’, without real time to pause for air, a crescendo of noise that ended with her almost shouting the word ‘in’. At this climax, her voice broke again. Like the snapping of a thread that had been pulled too taut for too long, Julia was back to sobbing into her mug. Kial watched the untouched black tea swill around its ceramic capsule, hoping that it wouldn’t spill over the edge and onto the whimpering lap.

The cursor of the open word document flickered and winked, as

Julia, sitting in the near-deserted library, thumbed through her notes - it was 6:14pm and the library was due to close in three-quarters of an hour. Of course, Julia could go home to finish this essay, but, though she did not enjoy the itchy chairs and slow computers in the library, she appreciated the silence of the building. She could focus here in a way she couldn’t at home: trying to write about Russian serfdom in Jamie’s company was like trying to read Brontë in a dark cinema: frustrating, slow and ultimately fruitless.

Months before, when they had first started dating, Julia would find herself rushing through her work in order to be able to spend as much time with Jamie as possible. Now she allowed the work to consume her time much in the same way that Jamie had consumed it previously. It was not that she didn’t want to spend time with him, but the couple had found themselves in the kind of vortex many relationships experience: a paradox of emotional distance. The less time they spent together, the more they argued (usually about the time they were, or were not, spending together) and the less time Julia wanted them to spend together.

So now she sat, watching the minute hand tick closer to 7pm and wishing for it to slow, despite the rumbling in her stomach, despite her tiredness and despite the fact that she had, in truth, written the essay’s final sentence some twenty minutes ago.

The ticking of the clock and the flashing cursor sent Julia into the kind of monotonous trance that tiredness often brings, and eyes staring at the blink, blink, blink on the document, her mind wandered. Tsarist Russia dwindled and, not quite surprisingly, Christopher was back in the forefront of her mind. For the most part, with the exception of when they were communicating, he had become a white noise, imperceptible while Julia was busy at a task, but the instance she stopped, her mind resurfacing from the deep thought she had been in, he was there.

Christopher’s presence now brought with it the memory of their first, and only, night together. After he had left the kitchen and Julia had shaken her disappointment of his leaving, the decision had been made by Lena that they were going to drive 40 miles and spend the evening, and night, in her brother’s house in Southampton. Christopher hadn’t had a part to play in the decision-making: Lena was not the type of girl to consult her big brother, but Julia noticed that he didn’t seem to object to them involving him in their plans.

The journey, on the motorway for the most part, was a boring one. They passed into the darkness that 6 o’clock in autumnal England brings, and that, combined with the drumming of the rain on the roof, turned the mood within the car into a sleepy one. Christopher followed them on his motorbike, and Julia found herself wondering what they would be talking about if he was present in Lena’s little Ford.

Though the evening got off to a slow start, less than two hours later a small party had gathered in Christopher’s kitchen. They drank Prosecco beneath the cheap disco lights he had retrieved from some cupboard within his bedroom. Amid the bustle of conversations and with red, blue and yellow flashing across his face, Christopher cut a strawberry in two and, with a soft ‘plop’, dropped it carefully into the flute in Julia’s hand. He placed the remaining half in his mouth, and ate it with a smile in Julia’s direction. In that moment, she felt that they could have easily been in the kitchen alone; the chatter of guests blocked out by an invisible bubble around the two of them. Christopher hadn’t asked Julia if she wanted a strawberry in her Prosecco, hadn’t offered it to anyone else, he had simply looked at her as if to say ‘I am putting this strawberry into your Prosecco, and you are going to like it’. And she did.

Similarly, he had not asked permission when he climbed into bed beside her that night. Witching hour had well and truly passed, and having stumbled in from the bar some half an hour ago, half a dozen people were now sprawled in Christopher’s living room. An exhausted, alcohol-fueled conversation could be heard radiating from the twin sofas. Really it should have been Julia who asked his permission, since it was his bed that she had silently climbed into. She had excused herself earlier, with a yawn. Everyone was too drunk to take much notice, but Christopher had looked up as she left the room, and the flicker of a smile had crossed Julia’s mouth. She was, very gently, pulling him towards her.

“Sorry dear, but I’m going to have to ask you to start saving your work. We have to close now.” Julia, so lost in memories, hadn’t noticed the librarian making her way towards her. The middle aged woman was plump and dressed in a floral frock with a white long-sleeve top underneath - a summer dress made suitable for colder weather. It looked distinctly librarian-like, and as she packed up her things, Julia thought with a small laugh, that almost every librarian she had ever seen seemed to have been born middle-aged and made a librarian by nature.

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