I can feel the closing in of the sky. The day is at the end of its tether and I cannot blame it. Tomorrow will be even longer. What does one do with so much time? If it were snowing one could pretend it was Christmas, but hot days are just hot days and there are only so many baths you can take.
Mother’s on the phone in the kitchen. “I’ll just hang all the laundry out tomorrow,” I hear her say. The hottest solstice on record, the weather report said earlier today, and we’re all advised to stay at home. I wonder how many will actually do so. Mother will make us, she doesn’t need us sick on top of Father. I would have stayed at home anyway for Hamilton. He’ll be coming after lunch. He could have backed out on account of the solstice but no, he texted, he wants to see me. I still feel the warmth that washed over me when I read that. I wish I could call him and tell him about it, but that would break the rules and so I lie back instead and close my eyes and hold on to the warmth as long as I can.
Someone knocks at my door. It’s Clem. I get up and wait for her to speak, suppressing a remark about the pink popsicle stain on her chin. “Do you think long days happen so we can get more things done?” “You’re not making sense,” I say, sounding harsher than I mean to, but what does she know of getting things done at her age? She shuts the door behind her. Time stretches ahead of me like an endless corridor and I look around the room for something to do. The poem is ready, the dress is ready. I should sleep if I’m to look my best.
I will be up at dawn.
I can set the alarm as loud as I like, Clem’s room is down the hall. We’ve always had our own rooms, ever since we moved here when Tessa was nine and Clem was four. I’m glad of it, but sometimes I feel too small for so much space. People look at the house and think we’re rich, but we’re not. No one else wanted the house, which was why it was cheap. Mother took it so she could have a writing room of her own, but all we’ve ever seen her do is cook and wash and clean and do people’s flowers for extra money. Now Tessa’s the one who writes, or says she does.
We’ve all been advised to stay in tomorrow on account of the solstice. Fifteen hours of daylight, though I won’t be counting, every day has been endless this summer. Half the holidays gone and all we’ve done is stay home and suck on ice. Do that long enough and it all tastes the same – raspberry, watermelon, orange, limoncello – chunks of cold that burn your tongue. I’ve had enough. I want a piece of the day to myself before the sun is too high. The sun burns my skin and makes my pimples hurt and the creams don’t work, not even Tessa’s special turmeric cream. I’ve tried it. I guess the creams only work on skin that’s pretty to begin with. I don’t mind. It helps to be the ugly duckling. I can come and go without anyone caring.
A few more hours to the longest day of the year. The night seems to know it. The clouds are hanging heavier. I could almost reach out and catch a handful for myself. What do they think about the sun taking over like this?
It’s not the weather that’s to blame, not entirely. We live too far out of the way for anything fun to happen, even if it weren’t a hot summer. Mother hates the house and herself for wanting it. I remember her writing at the desk in the upstairs bedroom, but that was years ago and she’ll deny it if we bring it up now. I think it’s okay to be sad if dreams don’t work out, but perhaps she thinks that’s weakness. Dessert tonight was pudding topped with my namesake. Had Mother run out of ordinary names by the time I was born? Every time I cross the garage there is that boy who sings “O My Darling Clementine”. I’m scared to ask him to stop. Does that mean he thinks I like it? Tessa and Julia and Mother call me Clem, which isn’t much better but I couldn’t tell them to stop either.
Tomorrow is the summer solstice. Fifteen hours of sunshine. Some of the neighbours were getting up a picnic until the weather channel issued the instruction to stay indoors. They’ve done that five times already this summer. People go out anyway, those who want to. I don’t. It makes no difference for Father, and Tessa will be with Hamilton. I know because the look she had in her eyes just now is one she gets only when she’s about to meet him. Perhaps she was right and I wasn’t making sense, but I’d have liked to know the answer. What are long days for? What does one do with all that extra time? I hear people saying that there’s never enough time in the day, but I feel like there’s too much time and we go crazy trying to fill it up. At least she has Hamilton to think about. Mother thinks he’s 20, but he isn’t. He’s 30. Tessa told me and Julia and made us swear not to tell. I wish she hadn’t. I don’t like secrets, even the nice ones. I don’t like Hamilton either, but I won’t tell her that because she loves him. There’s a light in her eyes when she talks about him that’s almost frightening. What’s even more frightening is that people exist who can make other people feel this way.
Julia is missing. She wasn’t in her room this morning and no one heard her leave. Mother was in a state until I reminded her about Hamilton coming, and then she had a new reason to be flustered, saying why doesn’t he come for lunch I could lay a place. That she is smitten by him doesn’t bother me, but that she makes it so obvious does. Julia will be fine, things don’t happen to Julia.
A quarter to ten and we’ve emptied half the ice tray already. I have worn my sunflower-print dress, the one with the low neck and the straps across the back. Dressed this way I can feel like it’s a real date and that he’ll come dressed up for me too, like the boys who rent tuxedos and take their girls to homecoming. My own homecoming was last year and I didn’t go. That was the day Father fell sick for the first time. Afterwards they said it was permanent and that he’d always need help, more than Mother could give him. And they’d look at me. Mother, her sister, Father’s sister, the neighbours. They never said it in words, but I knew what they meant, and I listened. I gave up Oxford. I stayed back. And it’s because I stayed back that I met Hamilton, so it worked out for me in the end. Mother and I are mostly silent these days. She looks at me sometimes as though she’d like to trust in me, but I’ve come to recognise that look and I change the subject whenever I see it.
Julia was missing this morning. She came back just after breakfast and went straight in to change. She won’t tell us where she was. She ate a whole plate of meatloaf and beans at lunch so we know she isn’t sick. She looks happy. Not happy in the way you look when you’ve had an ice-cream or won a prize, but happy in the way you’d look after a long, unbroken night of sleep. I think she’s okay, she always has been.
Will the mailman come today? It’s past three and no one’s supposed to be out. I don’t know whether that applies to mailmen. I’d like to ask Mother, but she’s unlikely to know and that would be telling the secret before it’s time. I wish the mailman would come. Two months I’ve kept this secret and if I only knew whether I’d get the letter I could tell. Part of me wonders if it’s even worth keeping secret. Perhaps I could just come clean at dinner and say that I’ve been writing poetry. I used to think it was something only Tessa could do, but one day I sat down and tried to put some thoughts I had about school in verse and it came out fine, much easier than I thought it would be. So I wrote some more. And that would have been all, except there was a contest announced in Vogue Magazine three weeks ago for poets aged 10 to 15. It couldn’t hurt anyone, and I had enough allowance left to pay for postage. They’re supposed to have mailed the winners by today, so if there isn’t any letter by tonight I’m likely not one, but there’s the solstice to make allowances for and perhaps the mailman will bring it tomorrow after all. I don’t know how mine will measure up. I’d been reading poets online – Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin – and they made me feel things I wanted to keep to myself and treasure. It’s different from how they teach us poetry in school. There it’s about putting your thoughts into essays – on your own outside, you can feel a poem the way you want without worrying about grades. And when I wrote mine I aimed to bring in those feelings so that people reading it could have feelings of their own. I don’t know what I will do if I don’t win. Will I keep writing? Is it worth a second chance? There’s the feeling of release I get when I write but there’s also the worrying about whether or not it’s good, and I don’t know yet which is stronger.
I get up and go downstairs, out into the garden, thinking perhaps the mailman came and dropped it off without ringing the bell when we were at lunch. I open the mailbox and feel inside, up the sides, along the roof. Nothing. I should start forgetting about it, I tell myself.
And then I see a shadow on the grass and I turn around, and for a moment it feels like I can’t move, like I just swallowed a whole jug of Kool-Aid before my body was ready for it.
“Hello, Clementine,” says Hamilton.
Hamilton is here.
I took him upstairs as soon as I could. Mother was all over him, primping her hair and casting her lashes down and saying oh how good to see you how fine you look. I had to hold back the urge to slap her. Hamilton says I should calm down, that Mother’s as much a woman as anyone else, and I ask him what he means and he smiles that melty-golden smile of his says, “I mean there’s no harm done if she wants to look at a guy.” And that hurts in a way because he doesn’t seem to mind her looking at him, but perhaps that’s just the truth of being Hamilton, women will look at you and love you.
We go inside and I bolt the door shut behind us. On the table there was the poem I wrote last week. “Hamilton,” I said, “I wrote a sonnet for you.” The last time I showed him something of mine he had laughed. This time he just raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Well, isn’t that sweet,” he said, his eyes on my bosom. I glance over at the sheet of paper on the table, lace-edged paper that smelt of grapes and my best handwriting in fountain-pen ink. Let it be enough that I can write it in the first place. Poetry needs love to happen and Hamilton gave me that love, and I suppose if you sell cars for long enough you can’t see the point of poetry anymore. The only things he can bear to read are auto magazines, he once said. And does Candice like reading, I had asked hesitantly, and he had shrugged. “Who knows what she likes these days?” I think of her name as a magnet of sorts, one that pulls me back to earth whenever I dream too much. I try not to say it. I’d rather dream.
He goes over now to the window and looks out. “I saw Clementine at the mailbox as I was coming in.”
“She shouldn’t be outside today, she’ll burn herself,” I say.
“She looked as though she were waiting for something.”
“Who knows,” I say, though I am almost sure I know, “she’s a strange kid sometimes.”
He turns around to face me. “So you aren’t that close, the three of you?”
I open my mouth and close it again. Somewhere inside I get the feeling that I should say something, if only to laugh it off. It’s the separate bedrooms, I could say. But somehow I find myself unwilling to speak and pushing the question out of my mind, and he doesn’t seem to care either as he moves closer and gestures towards the bed. “Shall we?” I look up and listen for footsteps. “I think so.”
He puts his arms around me and we kiss, and his hand moves towards the straps and unties the first one. I try to turn around. He stops me.
“What are you doing, Tess?”
“I want to show you my dress. It’s got such pretty straps at the back. It’s new.”
He smiles and pulls me towards him and unties the last of the straps. “Why should I waste time on what you’re wearing when I can look at what’s underneath, Tess?”
He is right, of course. I’m being silly. I let him pull the dress down and kiss my breasts, the heat in my stomach flaring up at once and spreading through my whole body, both painful and thrilling. It is only the seventh time we are doing it. We’re quiet all the way through but I feel it, I feel the fullness and the emptiness alternating down below and the litany of sensations it creates. I see sweat drip off the tip of his nose as he thrusts and wish I had remembered to switch the fan on. I wonder what it would be like to do it while saying nice things to each other. The fourth time we had done it, out in the woods on a blanket because I was still nervous about bringing him home, I had whispered “I love you”. He didn’t say anything, not then and not after we’d finished, and it was only while he was dropping me back home that he said not to talk while we did it, that he didn’t like it and he needed to concentrate. I wasn’t hurt, not really. I’d been too hasty in saying it. I’m losing focus, I should be grateful for this moment. I close my eyes and let him have me.
Now that Tessa is occupied it’s on me to go to Father’s room. It will be my second visit this week. I don’t go unless it’s my turn to change him, and Tessa and Mother do most of that. Clem goes every day just to see him. She stands in the doorway and calls out to him and he looks at her and says nothing or looks away and still says nothing. She comes back and looks sad and says that Father doesn’t know her, and I say nothing because he doesn’t know any of us and he’d as soon have a nurse come over as us, but it has to be us on account of the money we don’t have. He looks the same as usual, and I strip off the blanket and his pyjamas and sponge him all over and then put them back. He doesn’t meet my eyes except at the end, when I lift his head to straighten the pillow beneath it and he grunts, his way of saying thank you. I manage a smile and tuck the blanket over him and pick up the towel and the bowl of dirty water. I come out and bump into Mother carrying the lunch tray. “Look where you’re going,” she says absently before retreating into the bedroom. It was as I was passing Tessa’s room that I heard it. “So you aren’t that close, the three of you?” I couldn’t hear what Tessa said in response and I didn’t want to hear in any case. Facts are facts, but when a stranger points it out it feels like a judgement. I head down to the kitchen and pour myself a glass of juice with six ice cubes in it. I’m pretty sure I know what they’re doing upstairs but that still doesn’t make them closer than we are with her. Should I care, I ask myself, when likely as not she thinks of me only when I’m in her way?
Mother comes back down with the tray. I see the spoon sticking out of the porridge and most of the pudding untouched. She puts the tray on the kitchen counter a little louder than she normally would. She’d seemed happy to see Hamilton. Didn’t expect you to come all the way out here on a hot day like this, she said. Oh, it’s my pleasure, ma’am, few things I’d rather do than spend an afternoon with you lovely people, he said and smiled that charming smile of his. You can tell he’s practised it a lot, and it works. Seeing that smile makes a part of you melt inside, like butter, and in that moment you feel all warm towards him like he’s done you a great big favour. Mother feels it too, I can tell. Is she crushing on Hamilton? I wouldn’t be surprised. He doesn’t smile at me, he knows it won’t work. The washing machine beeps to a halt and I watch her as she prepares to go out. Her hair goes up in a quick bun, just a twist around the hand and a clothes clip stuck in. She undoes the top button of her dress and checks herself in the marble countertop for cleavage, which she doesn’t have. The laundry is ready, a week’s worth of clothes, and all she has to do is bend down and yank the machine door open and pull it out, armful by armful, and scoop the whole thing up without dropping any. I notice a white sleeve still hanging out of the machine, but by then she is at the kitchen door and considering how to pass through it. She looks at me over her shoulder. “Well?” I take my time about it as she knows I will, getting up and dusting the seat of my pants and putting my hands into my pockets and strolling over and taking my hands out again and turning the door handle. As the least favourite child I have few weapons, but the ones I have I use without compunction. I push the door open and she steps out without another word. I look down and there are two camisoles and one of Mother’s aprons on the ground. I let them be.
I reach towards him and place my head on his chest. He lets me keep it there for about twenty seconds before sliding out from under me, gracefully, and getting up and running a hand through his hair and humming a tune. I listen and recognise it as ‘O My Darling Clementine’. “She hates that song,” I tell him, and he laughs. I don’t want to but I start thinking of her and the way she darted past us and up the stairs with her face all flushed, like she’d been caught doing something she oughtn’t. Was I that awkward, when I was her age? But hers isn’t just awkwardness, it feels as though she’s bottling all sorts of thoughts she’d want to share if she only knew how. So you aren’t that close, the three of you? Guiltily I reach for my dress and pull it back on. Would we have been closer, I ask myself, if we’d all shared a room? I’ve heard of the feuds that happen, over space and toys and clothes. Fistfights even. I’ve never raised a hand to either Clementine or Julia. Doesn’t that make us better off, then? And now Hamilton is facing me and whispering something.
“What?” I say foolishly.
He doesn’t reply at once. Our chests are almost touching and he’s a whole head taller, blinking his eyes at me like I’m a rabbit and he’s the fox. I’d do anything for him and he sees that. He raises a hand and puts it on my face and strokes my cheek, looking at me and breaking into that smile of his, a wistful edge to it now.
“Would you fix me something to eat, Tess?”
And it’s like he’s pressed a switch inside me even though he’s still whispering. I go down to the kitchen.
“I only want to know you,” he said first thing.
Was it the way he said it, plaintive almost, or the way he came in like he needed to be here and nowhere else? Had I sensed it in the way he said hello to me outside, or was it the way I ran away that made him want to? But I had to leave, I couldn’t stay. I went up to my room and opened my notebook and tried to write myself out of it. The only word I could think of was his name and so I wrote it, ten times, twenty times, a hundred times. And then I heard the footstep behind me and I knew it was him. He caught me by the shoulders and pushed me against the wall and dragged me down but it didn’t feel like dragging, it felt like I had turned into something slippery that moved with him because it had to. I could have kicked. I could have screamed. I think I tried. The sun was beating down upon his back and blacking him out like a silhouette. I felt him tear at the waistband of my shorts.
At the dentist’s they tell us to lie back and close our eyes and pretend we’re in a bubble. Tessa and Julia never got the point of it but I do. The bubble keeps the rest of the world out by creating a new world for you, one where it’s just you floating in space, and if you do it right you don’t just block out the world you see but also the world you feel, the world where things hurt. And I’d never been that good at it but today it came so easy I felt like laughing. I was floating throughout, cut off from the act and from him and from the self of mine who was on the floor and being hurt, and when he finally stopped and I looked down I found it hard to believe that it had happened, and then I looked up and saw Julia in the doorway and knew she’d been watching. She turned and left, and he stood up and pulled his pants back on, calmly, assuredly, like he knew time would stop for him. He pushed the window up and put one long leg through, and right before leaving he turned back and smiled at me again.
“Dreadful sorry, Clementine,” he said, and dropped out of sight.
I hear Mother’s scream from downstairs. They will come for me soon. I can’t let them see the blood. I use the red T-shirt I was wearing yesterday. I can stand if I hold on to the desk and keep my knees bent. I see the notebook with his name all over it and wonder whether that means somewhere inside I wanted this. I tear out all the pages at once and throw them into the wastebasket, and when I look at the notebook again I see that I tore half my poems out too and that’s then I cry a little, no noise, no sniffing, like a grown-up would.
She had her eyes closed and her face set like she was getting a check-up at the doctor’s or a massage. He didn’t seem alarmed to see me. He had the door open and the window shades up like he wanted to be found, and when I think about how I went back up and towards her room with no purpose in mind I think I wanted to find him too. If it was up to anyone to see him for what he is it was me. And I saw him, and I saw it happen and I didn’t care for it. Not just the fact that it was Clem, but the fact that it looked so dull. Was that really all it amounted to – a thrusting in and out, over and over? And Hamilton at least should have been enjoying himself but he didn’t seem to care at all, not even when his eyes met mine. He had a little smile on his face and his jeans were pulled down to his thighs and his hips kept moving all the while, and I couldn’t help but see how much hair he had down there and how the thing itself was darker than the rest of him, and I saw how ugly men are for all they can look so pretty in public and I knew I’d never find a man pretty again. And then I couldn’t say why but I got to thinking about what had happened this morning when I got up at first light and snuck out through the window and down the tree and landed in a cleaner, sharper world, like it had been done over in HD. It was the old graveyard I was headed to, the one with the graves of people buried in the 80s and 90s. They use the new graveyard up north now, and this one’s been left alone so long it’s lost all trace of death and gloom. I like to go there and read the names on the gravestones and imagine lives for them. My favourite is Bessie Bishop’s, aged fifteen when she died. Was she sick? Did a bus run over her? Did she kill herself? And what was she like when she was alive? I like to think of her as shy and curly-haired and slightly overweight and fond of dogs. And I’m always alone and I like it that way but today I went to the grave and found someone else there already.
I’d seen him around once or twice. He goes to school in the next town, where his mother lives, and spends the summers here with his dad. He keeps to himself mostly, riding around on his bicycle. He has curly brown hair and dark brown eyes and looks about seventeen.
Neither of us said hello. He looked up at me briefly and turned his gaze back to the grave and I joined him there.
“My dad used to know her.”
He had a neutral sort of voice, like bread and milk.
“She was his high-school girlfriend. They used to go out in his Citroen and sing the Beatles at the tops of their voices. Everyone knew them, around town. Called them Ginger and Fred. And then she got pregnant and had to leave town.”
“But she died, right?” I asked.
“No, the family just made out that she did. Actually they sent her away. They couldn’t bear the shame of it, my dad said. So they had a funeral for her and made out that she died of blood disease. Some months later my dad got a letter from her. The baby was born dead, a girl. He never heard from her after that, and two years later he met my mom and married her. She’s probably still out there somewhere.”
He had his eyes squeezed shut, a breeze ruffling his curls and making him look like a Peter Pan poster I’d seen once where he was flying through the jungle in pursuit of Tiger Lily when she was kidnapped. There was a clump of wild strawberries growing a few feet away, and I went over and plucked enough to fill the front of my dress and brought them back. We sat at the foot of the grave and took it in turns to eat one and when they were over I went and plucked some more. Afterwards we both had red stains around the lips like we’d been kissing. “You have a nice day,” he said. His bicycle was parked at the graveyard entrance and I watched him go until the road took a bend and I couldn’t see him anymore. And then she whimpered, the first sound she had made, and I was back to watching my sister get raped.
I had to tell Mother, of course. She was in the kitchen rolling pastry. She screamed and ran upstairs to Clem’s room, but Hamilton had gone and when we looked out of the window the bike was gone too. The police are on their way here. Part of me feels that there were other ways to handle it. I could have talked to Clem first, maybe confronted Hamilton, but this is what most grown-ups would do, call the police, so I wasn’t really wrong, not as much as if I’d said nothing.
I think the day might be ending. The sun doesn’t feel as bright.
I wonder what Tessa will say.
They are after him.
They took statements from all of us. I’d been making a sandwich when it happened, yes he was my boyfriend, no I hadn’t seen him look at her before this, no I hadn’t heard anything. Mother has been sitting by the telephone since then. Clementine is in her room. Mother gave her tea with a sleeping pill mixed in. She isn’t hurt, not visibly. I passed by her room on the way back up and she looks like she always does in bed.
I have the envelope with me. It came when I was making the sandwich. I know where it’s from and I know what it means. I have known about her writing for weeks now, even caught her at it once or twice, that black notebook of hers. I could go in and give her the envelope now, cheer her up a little. Or I could keep it until later, much later, once she’s ready to remember her life as it was before today, and in return I will ask her what it felt like, whether it hurt, whether Hamilton touched her in all the right places, whether she would do it again if she had the chance.
How is Hamilton doing this? Has he changed the license plate on his bike? Is he wearing dark glasses to hide his face? Did he stop home on the way to tell Candice? What does one say to a wife at these times? I have done something to a minor and the police are after me and if they catch me I get ten years to life. I saw a picture of her on his phone once. It was snooping, but I had to know. She was wearing a lime-green dress in it that showed off her shoulders and collarbones and I could see the long muscles in her legs, the dimple in her chin. Ever since I have had to not think of her and how he must have loved her once, perhaps loved her still, Hamilton’s a man who can’t pass on the love of a woman when it’s offered to him, and this new thought snakes around my heart and squeezes it until I get up and pull the fridge door open and gulp down two glasses of ice-cold water to kill it.
Two hours and no news. The police have put three squads out and roadblocks down the highway. It’s broad daylight, they said, where can he hide? And to look at the sun one would think it still morning instead of seven PM, the hour when daylight ought to have had enough. But even the solstice has to end, and when it does he can hide, there are fields, there are trees. I think of him lying low in the grass or hiding up on a branch somewhere looking up at the stars. I’ll be looking at them too. I’ll be calling on them to keep him safe.
This isn’t goodbye. He will come back, he must. He knows I love him. I love him and nothing can change that, not Candice, not Clementine. Love has no conditions and this is love, it must be love, nothing else could have made him come to me on a day like this.
I am thankful for the night.
Deya Bhattacharya is a freelance writer and former business development manager from India who started exploring the world of literary fiction during the Covid-19 lockdown. Her short story ‘Knocker’ was declared Spotlight Winner in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Eclectica, and her story ‘Adrian’s Affinity’ is forthcoming on Season 2 of Pendust Radio, a literary podcast. She blogs about the writing life at www.oncetherewasasilenttown.wordpress.com.