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C H R I S P A L I N G
(Published as Chapter 1 of the novel, “Newton’s Swing.” Jonathan Cape: 2000
Brown moths pinch the air around the Keegans’ front door. They fly like folding leaves in the soft glow of the porch light. To the east, the Atlantic rolls back and forth over the New England shore, furling and unfurling its welcome mat. It was the ocean that claimed the life of Newton B. Keegan, only son of Maude and Henry. He was six years old. His death claimed their lives too and both of them are facing this truth in different ways. Maude is thirty-one, Henry is two years her senior but appears twenty years older. They own a store in a row of other small one-storey stores (a chandler’s, a deli, a bookshop and an antiques mart that opens only in the season and seems to trade only to those people who are down for the season). Henry and Maude sell groceries and postage stamps, fishing nets, bright blue buckets and shrimp nets. Their stock of beach balls and lilos is tied to the post beside the door. When the breeze gets up along the coast the lilos dance and the balls keep time. Children stand and watch. The salt has stripped the store of its paint but Henry doesn’t prime and fill the wood any more, he blows off the topcoat of varnish with a heat-gun and paints another on. The front of the store looks as rugged and weathered as an old yacht. Over the window is a sign, “Keegan’s General Store, est 1991.” Henry Keegan used to make people smile with his cautious witticisms. He’s a large man with a thick black beard, he wears a dark suede waist coat over his paunch. People used to say he looked like a tough frontiersman. His laugh could be as loud as the tenor foghorn that calls down the coast when the mist comes in, as it did on the day that Newton died.
I can see Henry across the street. He’s staring at the coals in his barbecue. They are glowing orange because Henry has just blown the white dust from them. Some of the dust has silted his eyes and he rubs his sleeve across his face but his eyes continue to sting and Henry knows he has been crying again. Sometimes he can’t stop. He goes alone to cry in the cold, windowless room at the back of the store. When you ring the brass bell at the counter, if Henry doesn’t come out straight away to serve you, you wait until he does. He looks right at you these times, challenging you not to offer the sympathy you feel for this huge, broken man. His blue eyes are dull. They lie sunk in the black of his eye sockets like jewels in a corroded bracelet brought up from a wreck.
Henry used to make me feel small. Not just physically, he also made my life seem small. I used to feel that nothing big enough would ever come along to knock Henry off his feet. I hurt easily. So does my son, Jordan. He’s a bright, wiry kid, all arms and legs, elbows and knees. He can run faster than the other kids. Sometimes he used to run just for the hell of it. And he laughed a lot too. Less so now, of course. Jordan, who’s eleven years old, used to hang out with Newton even though the Keegans’ son was a few years younger.
Sometimes Henry and Maude would argue, but it was only Maude’s voice you could hear across the street: loud and shrill, and you could sense Henry calming her. “You make me scream,” she shouted one night, “because you’re so even. Why do I have to do the screaming for both of us?”
Now she doesn’t scream at all. She sleepwalks through the town, back and forth along the middle of the hot street to the library: two, three times a week. The locals look out for her when they drive into town. She just smiles when strangers honk their horns at her (“Hey lady, trying to get yourself killed?”), but the smile is fixed like it’s been painted on. The drugs do that.
Maude used to help out in the white clapboard library, now she stays home reading her borrowed books. This week she is carrying a stack of French literature. Her friend, senior librarian Charlotte Cale, has made out a reading list for her. Henry says she can no longer make any decisions for herself. So Charlotte – indomitable Charlotte with her Boston ways and selective snobbery – is mapping a route for Maude back to rude health (her concept) through the byways of European literature. She’s already worked her way through the brooding Russians, now she’s taking on the slippery Frenchies. Soon she’ll be well enough to find her way through Faulkner again and tackle the gentle brutality of Hemingway. Charlotte maybe will ease her in with some barbed Scott Fitzgerald. One day, when she can make the choices for herself, Charlotte will be glad to see her select a little Anne Tyler from the carousel of bight paperbacks by the check-in desk.
Two years ago today, Newton died.
“Hey, Henry. How’s it going?” I call and wander over the narrow street, watching for fast cars cutting back from the high street trying to jump the queue for the last ferry. The sky is an ocean of black. If you look hard at it you can see the clouds skimming the surface. Henry stares at me for a while as though he can’t put a name to the face then nods a gentle, “OK, John.” He pushed at the coals with his tongs, picks one up, examines it close to his eyes and lays it back down again like it’s a piece of meat cooking in the heart of the fire. “Help yourself to a beer,” Henry says and points to a bucket by the white table. It’s half-full of iced water, a stash of brown bottles at the bottom like lobsters in a restaurant tank.
“Can I get one for you?” I ask him.
“Sure, why not?”
I’m not familiar with the brand. I open two bottles with the army knife on Henry’s big ring of keys. The round white table is set for one. Rust bleeds through the rim. Beside the table is one chair. Two more stand in the middle of the brown dry lawn, shadowed by the trees. They are angled towards each other: a stage set for a tough conversation or a session with a psychiatrist. Behind them, Newton’s Swing hangs still.
I know that Henry has eaten alone. He wanted to mark the night somehow, but Maude was asleep as usual and Henry couldn’t face letting it go by so he went to the trouble of lighting his old barbecue (an oil-drum cut in half), waited for the coals to burn white and cooking his slab of steak. He wanted to do it right so he made a green salad to go with it. Some of the leaves are left in the glass bowl on the table. Beside the salad, a bottle of dressing. The cork is dark with congealed oil. Henry’s white plate is juiced with red from his rare steak.
I hand Henry a beer. He holds it in his thick fingers and tears of iced water spill down his knuckles. He stares at it, drinks down a long draught, holds back a belch.
“Don’t mind me,” I say. At times like this I’m reminded that I’m an Englishman. Usually I forget. Henry roars a belch into the night. A dog barks in the wire compound behind the fish restaurant.
We hear the horn from the ferry; the line of cars starting their engines; the chains and metallic crash as the ferry drops its drawbridge onto the concrete quay. A radio ignites with the call-sign of a local station, then a DJ crooning a message of love as he introduces the Supremes: “This one goes out to you, Blue, from you know who.” He’s been listening to too many other DJs playing the same tunes. Now he doesn’t know who he is, hearing his own voice through the headphones, night after night after night.
“Baby love,” Henry says and tries to laugh. He sounds like a smoker who has smoked too much. Then he strolls over to the seats on the lawn and pulls one square to the house, but he doesn’t sit down. Instead, he comes walking back towards me saying: “I asked her to stay up with me.” I nod. “But she says she has to sleep through it. You see that’s the way she deals . . . But it’s not dealing with it, John. I want my boy back. And I want Maude back. And I know I have to come to terms with what happened to Newton but I need Maude to help me to do that.” He looks back towards the house, hoping that by some miracle she’s heard him. The blinds stay shut.
“Why don’t you let me buy you a beer,” I offer, not expecting Henry to take it up. He looks back towards the dark house once more then heads off towards the main street. I call to him that I’ll catch him up after I ask old Mrs Lomax to keep an eye on Jordan. She’s in her small kitchen greasing a tin and singing along tremulously and insanely high to the country music on the radio. I tell her I’m taking Henry for a beer and before I have to ask the favour she says she’ll gladly mind the boy. The light is on in his room. He’s reading or watching the portable TV or, knowing Jordan, maybe both. I promised him I’d go in and say goodnight and I feel guilty about that but there’s no time because Henry is already out of sight, striding towards the heart of the small town.
I catch him at the corner where he’s stopped to watch the last of the cars turn onto the quay road. The ferry sounds its horn again, then the engines roar as it backs out into the black tide. The diesels spit up a sudden slick of white foam. The ferry turns and heads away. When it has gone the town is quiet again, just the measured voices coming from the veranda of the fish restaurant and the good-natured clamour from the bar next door. Henry heads for the bar, a white colonial building with a draped Stars and Stripes hanging from a long horizontal staff. When he gets to the door he stops and looks back along the street, then he goes in.
We don’t know what happened to Newton. Nobody knows except Henry because Henry was out there alone with his son on the boat. The sea was not angry on the day Newton was lost but there was a mist. Henry and Newton sometimes headed up the estuary to catch crayfish, but on that day they went out to sea. Henry was soaked through when he came back late that night. He went to call the police, the police called the coastguard. Through the night you could hear the helicopters sweeping up and down the coast, playing searchlights over the waves. I couldn’t sleep so I watched from my window. At daybreak the coastguard drove up in his land-cruiser and went to Henry’s door. I saw him compose himself, run his finger round his shirt collar, pat down the sweat wedge of his hair before knocking. Henry answered. The man said something. Henry stood aside to let him in. The door closed.
By midday the town knew that the body of Newton Keegan had been found washed up on the shore three miles north of the town. The news reports said that the boy was fully clothed. I don’t suppose they meant anything by it but the mention of the boy’s clothing got people talking and opened up all kinds of speculation that Henry and Maude could have done without. It didn’t last, except in the minds of people who need to believe the worst of others just to make their own lives more bearable.
When Henry walks into the bar nobody stops talking. The piano does not stop playing. It is no big deal for anybody except for Henry. This is because the bar is full of visitors: holidaymakers in their tan deck shoes and chinos, striped French sweaters knotted round their waists; an older couple in shorts, looking round like they don’t belong but want to. A man with a sunburnt bald head punches his friend on the shoulder. I buy Henry a drink and I sit beside him on a tall stood at the bar. I can smell the beer-wet wood of the bar floor.
Henry drinks his beer. We don’t talk. It feels like he’s using muscles he hasn’t used for a while, just being there among strangers. I buy another beer. Then Henry asks me about the agency, about Susan’s death and I fill him in. I don’t tell him about Carol because I tell nobody about Carol. That way it stays safe and even though Carol rarely ventures outside of New York City, rumours don’t respect city boundaries. I don’t want to jeopardise Carol’s marriage and, unsurprisingly, she doesn’t want it either. Henry gives the matter some thought. He says I should bring Jordan round to see Maude. He asks before he has a chance to check himself, some of the old Henry coming through. And I say I will, I’ll bring him around before we go back to the city, and we leave it there. Henry doesn’t talk about the night Newton died, but something loosens in him as we sit at the bar buying beers. He drinks five or six bottles. I lose count.
On the way home I get to thinking about Newton, how he must have gone over the side, dropped down like he was weighted with an anvil round his ankles. I see his small head disappearing fast into the black and Henry, frantic, jumping over after him: diving, diving. Coming up for air, bit too much darkness beneath him to find his son. I conjecture that, exhausted, he would have sat in the boat for a while wondering how he was going to break it to Maude before turning on the engine and heading home. Maude in the time I spent with Henry the story just transferred itself between us, in the space between the words we were using; in the half-smiles, the one time he laughed gently.
When we get back to the house Jordan’s light is out. I say goodnight to Henry and shake his hand. He looks over at Newton’s swing. I think he half-hopes Maude will be there, waiting for him to come home: better; healed. Or maybe he hopes for something more. That one day the swing will ride high again, carrying Newton up towards the stars, then back down again so Henry can lift him gently to the ground and hold him tight to his heart one last time.
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