Saturday, December 28

Introduction to Astronomy

MADELIENE THOMKINS WAS visiting her village for the first time since she had moved away to the city, and, upon her arrival, she was thrown into a flurry of emotions she could almost not withstand. She started to walk home from the train station—disappointed, slightly, that her parents were not there to welcome her—and all that had been familiar became unfamiliar, all that had been solid became abstract. She walked to her parents’ house in the unkind spring weather with her collar turned up and her new shoes cautiously avoiding country puddles.
Even the trees had new haircuts.
She was city now.
The village, its voice in the small, unattended shops and the worn wooden signs and the slow-walking, was a far cry lost in the cave of her new existence. Things were very different for her now. They had changed very quickly.
All of the silence unsettled her. This would not do. She would have to busy her thoughts. When she arrived home—the front door opened; the arms that greeted her; the inimitable warmth of her mother’s her father’s embrace; the smells she had forgotten but for nostalgia—she felt calm and nothing like it. She moved into it, and farther, putting her bags by the door. Dinner was served on recognisable plates with a couple of new knife-scratches, here, where knives are pulled so hard. The clocks chime together; meticulously choreographed by her father. Madeleine put down her cutlery, answering the questions that her parents asked, about her new job and her new home—because she had forced the word ‘home’ into it—and a good deal of smiling occurred and soft jazz played out of her mother’s stereo that her father had tuned and her mother, upon grasping the fruit salad, danced all in circles and wispy lines from the drink and the joy of her daughter’s return. The three of them devoured the fruit salad and cream. A window was opened; a breeze. All evening was a gaiety. Madeleine thought of the room she would occupy for the night, not her old but the spare. Her parents shone in a colour of love that could blind lighthouses. Occasionally she would look across at them, smiling. Why had time, the beast, slain so many days so quickly?
During the night she lay there in the spare bed and stared at the ceiling—not willing to turn herself over to sleep—but just to stare and to stare like the root of fire and to think of all the things that ricocheted in the silent letters of her sadness.
Upon waking she lay there some more. She knew the smells about her (accentuated by absence). All the mornings she had experienced in that house before were not house but were home and she stared at the ceiling in hands-on-her-breast confusion. Slivers of sunlight came on her brow. She walked, in a new gown her mother had laid out, down the stairs into the kitchen. The gown covered lovely her delicate young frame. There was a hocus pocus love in the kitchen: her mother was hobbling over the stove’s frying-pan, and her father was clawing at the morning’s paper whilst trying to peel the shell off a boiled egg. And they ate breakfast together, recalling stories. Madeleine saw the sun, framed by the window, coming up in the meadows beyond; she missed the country ridiculously —now that she thought of it—and was moved to touch her mother’s hand and—‘Shall I make us a pot of coffee? I’ve become an expert at it since I moved out.’ The coffee was delicious. The coffee made the house smell delicious.
After breakfast and a television set, she showered and let the steam escape while looking out of the bathroom window at all the gardens that layered upon her own. They stretched out to the horizon of tree teeth.
‘I’m just popping out… down the library.’
‘Okay, we’re gonna be having lunch soon.’
‘All right.’
‘Shall we wait for you?’
Madeleine walked to the library. The library in the village, its size dictated by the imagination of its occupants, stood over her and patted her head most lovingly. Its bricks were red and the lintel over its front door dictated in weathered numerals the date of its erection; its scent—‘Hello.’ There were leaflets in the foyer about local attractions, museums, walks, monuments. Mrs Guy, even on a Saturday, was proposed behind the only desk, her eyes cast down, the uncertain grey brown of her hair tussled by wind and never reset. She looked up at the entrance—‘Hello, Madeleine!’ The two embraced as old friends. Mrs Guy was married to a sailor who took her on voyages when he could and sung to her in a Scottish accent. She was deeply in love with him, had shown Madeleine all the photographs of them (the stories behind each) and her voice was how Madeleine imagined friendly dragons sounded (the sort of dragons who protect pots of glowing gold). The pair of them caught up. Eventually, after so much, Madeleine was free to peruse the books. (Mrs Guy informed her, a trifle embarrassingly, of a recent rearrangement of the books. ‘It wasn’t my decision.’)
Above the seven-foot bookshelves was the stomach of the library, reaching to heaven. Madeleine felt the soft carpet. She trod. Fingering the spines, she navigated—determined to explore, not to ask Mrs Guy (who was back at her desk (staring now & then at Madeleine)). If she followed one of the topics on the markers it led her to where her mind wandered. Where was she? ‘Marine Biology’. She wandered along; through the hollow of the library could the wind be heard as it pestered the windows.
‘Physical Sciences.’
Where was the book?
‘Physical Sciences.’
The book that had, on some shelf or other, started her along the path, planted solitary and fingered, from the village in which she had grown. It was gone. ‘Introduction to Astronomy’. It was so seventies-lovely with its photographs in kodachrome shade. She went here and there over the shelves.
She asked Mrs Guy, but her answer—past the bystanders to this Saturday afternoon din—was defeating. Defeated, her hand fell down the stacks. No book. Twenty-eight-day lease. She could have, with an excuse, returned home and to the book. Though the book had cannoned her out of the village and into the city, into the job, into the love of occupation that one sings during every minute and is tired through the pursuit of years. She breathed. She stepped away from the books and, bidding good-by, stepped back out on to the street where the cars went by.
The cars made some racket.
Their silver bonnets glistened.
So, the book had gone. She walked homeward. Her belly growled; it was tall and reached upwards.

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