London. Present day
Daniel Kennedy stood naked in front of his bathroom mirror and rehearsed in his head the lie he had told, the one he was about to tell again. His reflection was indistinct, more a shadow in the violet-edged dawn. As he stared at it, he felt behind his back for the light cord. Tug. Click. Release. Clack. When the darkness continued, he reached forward and gave the fluorescent tube above the mirror a double tap with his fingertip. It crackled for an instant before casting a sallow light over one half of the bathroom. Mounted to the left of the sink was a round, extendable mirror. He examined his magnified skin in it, captivated by the layers of epithelial tissue, by the orange peel, by the inherited, unchanging size of the pores. After half a minute he blinked, washed with a tea-tree-oil facial scrub, and dabbed with a towel before applying moisturizer. This rubbed in, he rinsed his hands and teased his tufty hair with matt clay, spiking it in a way that looked dry and natural. He plugged in his shaver next, on a setting that left a suggestion of stubble. Its electric buzz was soon joined by the aggressive purr of Nancy Palmer’s toothbrush. Nancy was his dentist, the mother of his child, the woman he loved.
As an associate professor of nematology—a branch of zoology involving Petri dishes, microscopes, and steady hands—Daniel felt he had an excuse for occasionally studying Nancy as though through a powerful convex lens, observing her movements, analyzing her behavior. He watched her now as she lowered the toilet seat, sat down, and stared at the floor. She was running the oscillating head of the toothbrush over her tongue. The tendons on her neck were rigid. Her eyes were avoiding contact with his. After two minutes—her brush had a timer—she wiped, stood up, and pushed the flush lever. He admired the way she could multitask like that.
“Don’t wake the baby,” he said as he clicked off his razor and drew attention to the rushing water.
“Wasn’t going to,” she countered too evenly, her voice tight.
“We should let her sleep for as long as possible.”
“I know. I wasn’t going to wake the baby.”
(Although their daughter, Martha, was nine, they still sometimes referred to her as “the baby.” )
Nancy was wearing the T-shirt she had slept in. It was too big for her—one of Daniel’s—and her frame looked adolescent in it. When she tugged it off in order to stand as lightly as possible on the bathroom scale, her hair tumbled gently and the faded barbed-wire tattoo around her bicep became visible. This, along with her stretch marks and neatly trimmed pubic triangle, was, to Daniel, incongruously adult-looking. As he sprayed under his arms with deodorant, he allowed himself a furtive smile, more a twitch of the lips. He couldn’t afford to let Nancy gauge his mood yet. She hadn’t: she was looking the other way, reaching for the main light switch.
“Don’t turn that on,” Daniel said in a muted voice, crossing the bathroom and lifting the seat. “You’ll wake the baby.” His plan was to goad Nancy in such a concealed way that she wouldn’t understand why she was feeling annoyed. It would, he reasoned, make her appreciate the moment of unknotting all the more.
“But I can’t see the scale.”
As Daniel relieved himself, he balanced on one foot and, behind Nancy’s back, pressed his toes down on the scale.
“Un-be-fucking-lievable,” Nancy said flatly. “I’ve put on four pounds.” She looked over her shoulder and noticed Daniel’s toes. “Hey!” She was laughing now. “Bastard!” The tension that had been building between them was dissipated temporarily. Still smiling, Nancy flipped the seat back down, flushed again, and reached the bathroom door at the same time as Daniel. When she opened it, Martha was standing on the other side, rubbing her eyes.
Three quarters of an hour later, Daniel was sitting in the driver’s seat of what the advertisements had called a “green but mean” hybrid utility vehicle. The engine was running, the heater was on, and he was worrying whether Martha was now too old to see him naked in the bathroom. It had, after all, been more than a year since he had stopped her from getting into the bath with him. Making a mental note to consult Nancy—she always had a good steer on these matters—he unfolded his Guardian and turned to the sports section. England on tour in India. Batting collapse. What a surprise. When a council truck hissed by in the slush, spraying salt on tarmac and parked cars alike, he noticed that his windshield was icing up again where he had emptied the kettle over it. He turned the heater on as high as it would go and watched the glass steam up. The hot air was making him feel claustrophobic. He loosened his scarf, opened the window, and looked out. Beyond the amber halo of the streetlights, blackness was shading into gray. It had been snowing steadily throughout the night and, in the absence of a breeze, flakes had settled on the tree next to the car. The phone lines that crisscrossed the square had also turned white, the extra weight causing them to belly. Daniel turned off his engine so he could appreciate the nakedness of the silence.
“Can I get out and make a snow angel?” Martha asked from her booster seat in the back.
“No. Mummy will be here any second.”
“Think she knows?”
“Hasn’t got a clue.”
The sodium lights dimmed and went off, leaving the square eerily luminous. Daniel checked his watch again. “Did Mummy give you your injection?”
“Not yet,” Martha replied with a yawn. “Said she’d do it in the car.” The child gathered her hair into a ponytail. Pulled up her hood. Shivered. Although it had been nine months since her tiredness, blurred vision, and nightly thirsts had resulted in a diagnosis of type one diabetes, her father still couldn’t bring himself to administer the required dose of insulin. He could inject rabbits and mice in a laboratory, but not his own daughter. Nancy had no such compunction. Being a dentist, she was used to the sight of other people’s discomfort.
That was how they met, Daniel and Nancy. She had entered wearing a face mask that exaggerated her eyebrows: two fiercely plucked arcs. As he lay on her hydraulic chair thinking of the impacted wisdom tooth she was trying to wrest from his numbed gums, her eyes entranced him. They were bearish brown, flecked with gold. He fell in love with them right there as he lay on his back, with his mouth open, flinching intermittently. He also fell in love with the weight of Nancy’s left breast, which, under several layers of material, was pressing against his arm. Pleasure and pain. Pain and pleasure. Their relationship had started as it was destined to continue.
What was she doing in there? They were going to miss their flight at this rate.
Daniel probed with the tip of his tongue the soft cavity that had been left by the wisdom tooth—something he often did without realizing, the equivalent of touching a comfort blanket. He tapped his watch again and shivered with excitement as the porch light came on and Nancy emerged from the house shrugging a gray duffle coat on over a fawn polo neck. The falling snow had softened a little, arriving in flurries, and downy flakes were settling on Nancy’s hair as she turned the front door key in the lock, stood framed on the lip of the porch, and closed her eyes—something she always did when making sure she had remembered everything. Watching her, Daniel felt a surge of tenderness. How beautiful you look, he thought. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking more beautiful. “We’ll be late!” he barked through the lowered window. “The traffic is bound to be bad with this weather.”
Snow that had settled on the path creaked as it was compressed under Nancy’s sheepskin boots. “Don’t push it,” she muttered, opening the back door and getting in beside Martha. “And why did you turn the heating off?”
Think. Think. “Global warming.”
Nancy narrowed her eyes. “Now we’ll use twice as much energy reheating the house when we get back. You should have just turned it down.”
Daniel drew breath as if about to reply, but stopped himself. He was becoming mesmerized by the speed at which Nancy was unzipping a medical pouch, removing a needle from a sterilized pack, and slipping it onto a syringe. She did everything quickly: talk, eat, walk, reach orgasm, pick up new languages. Even sleeping was something she appeared to do in a hurry. Something to do with her REMs. Daniel could study her sleeping face for hours.
Nancy was now holding a small bottle of insulin to the car light and giving it an impatient shake. In the same movement, she pierced its rubber stopper, preferring this old-fashioned method to the “pen” because it was easier to keep track of doses. A familiar clinical smell, sharp and metallic, pricked the air. Martha assumed a kneeling position, pulled down one side of her tracksuit trousers, and pinched a fold of skin. Nancy positioned the syringe at an efficient right angle, inserted the needle up to its full depth, pressed down on the plunger, and allowed a few seconds for the dose to be delivered before withdrawing the needle. “There,” she said, massaging the skin. “All done. You had enough to eat?”
Martha nodded, holding up a mottled banana skin.
Nancy stayed in the back and clipped up her belt: as she normally traveled in the front, this was intended as a statement of her annoyance. Daniel shrugged, turned the radio on and, recognizing the thumb positioning of Charlie Mingus, nodded approvingly. He then tuned it away from his preferred jazz station and found a raw, metallic Lenny Kravitz song instead. Better. Less relaxing. He started the engine. They had gone a hundred yards up the road before Daniel said: “Dog!” The brake lights came on and the hybrid began reversing.
While Nancy ran back into the house, Daniel blew on his hands and patted the pocket of his cord jacket, checking he had the passports. He could feel two, but nevertheless pulled them out to make sure he had picked up Nancy’s and not Martha’s. He flicked to the back page and stared at Nancy’s photograph. It was recent and a good likeness: shoulder-length hair that had gone chestnut in the sun, swollen cheekbones, a puffy curve for a top lip. With a shake of his head he flipped open his own photograph page. It had been taken eight years earlier, when he was thirty, and he had looked not only younger—sandy hair thicker, not yet frosting at the temples—but also, somehow, more luminous: his long eyelashes paler, his blond eyebrows more feathery, the rims of his eyes pinker. He was, he felt, cursed with the fussy, delicate appearance of a Victorian clergyman. In recent years he had tried to compensate by growing sideburns and hair down to his collar, but this, he had come to suspect, made him look like a Pilgrim Father instead. He opened the glove compartment, pulled out a manila envelope, and slipped the passports inside it next to the tickets, just as Nancy appeared with Kevin, a brindle-colored mongrel of indeterminate age. She had rescued him from Battersea Dogs’ Home and given him his name because it amused her to think of her socially ambitious parents having to shout “Kevin!” in the park whenever they were looking after him. When she opened the hatch and Kevin jumped into the caged-off space, Daniel grimaced as he waited for her to notice the picnic blanket covering the two pieces of hand luggage next to the cage. She didn’t and, having slammed the hatch door shut, deigned to sit in the front passenger seat. As the car set off again, Martha caught her father’s eye in the rearview mirror, made a letter L sign with her thumb and index finger—“Loser”—and placed it on her forehead. They both grinned conspiratorially.
Nancy turned the volume on the radio down, flipped open the passenger-side shade mirror and, in the partial glow of an interior light, began to apply mascara to her lashes. With her mouth open to stretch her skin, she dusted her cheeks with a brush and removed an eyelash. “Explain to me again why we have to dump Martha at your parents’,” she said, snapping the shade back up.
“Knew something was bothering you.”
“Of course it’s bothering me. You didn’t even ask me whether I minded.”
“We are not dumping her at my parents’. Martha likes staying with my parents . . . You like staying with Grampy and Grumpy, don’t you?”
There was a pause before a fluty voice rose from the back: “Grampy and Grumpy. Mum’s parents. Whomsoever.”
(That was her new word, whomsoever.)
“If your mother weren’t so squeamish about doing the jabs . . .” Daniel said to Nancy, surreptitiously turning the radio volume back up.
“Don’t start, Daniel,” Nancy said, turning the volume down again. “Do not start. I mean it.”
“I never feel it when Grampy gives me my injection,” Martha said. “He told me he was awarded the Order of the Hypodermic when he was in the Medical Corps.”
“I still don’t understand why the baby can’t come with us to the airport,” Nancy pressed.
“Because there won’t be room.”
“Because there won’t be room,” Martha echoed unhelpfully.
“She can go in the back with your uncle Fritz and aunt Helga . . .” Nancy continued.
“Helmut and Frieda,” Daniel corrected, turning the volume on the radio back up as a Foo Fighters track came on. “And they are not my aunt and uncle, they are my cousins. And, no, Martha can’t go in the back because they’re bringing Hans.”
From the Hardcover edition.