Years from now, Rory would remember the first sight of his grandmother—veins lashed to spindly brown legs, stern lips, grey plait as long as a girl’s. A stillness that deleted you. The look in her eyes. She had heard what he could do.
He must have seen her when he was very small, but not much remained from that time—not even the locket. The night his father had given it to him, the rain washed away his mother’s tomato seedlings, which his father had looked after and planted out, and Rory could hear her voice on the wind. There were tears in her voice. “Rory,” his father had said, “Rory, wake up.” A moment of dismay, but for once he hadn’t wet the bed. His father was sitting on the edge of the mattress, shaking his shoulder. “Sit up for a bit, Rory, and listen.” He slipped the chain over Rory’s head and tucked the locket under his pyjama top, kissed his forehead, held him close. It was his mother’s locket, which had been her mother’s, and her mother’s before that, the photo of his father on one side, laughing at the sun, and the two of them in wedding clothes on the other. His father let him look at it whenever he asked, but not to hold. It wasn’t a toy. It was old and fragile and could break. Rory knew about things which broke. “I have to go away for a while, and I hope it won’t be for long, but no matter what, no matter what anyone tells you, remember that I love you.” His father’s eyes were bright. “That I will always love you, Hurlycurly.”
During the lunch stop he’d refused to get out of the car, working the flabby cheese sandwich down behind the back seat where it could grow assertive with mould. “Suit yourself”—not the approved lingo—and the grunt took his sweet time at the trough while Rory’s stomach groused, while sweat soaked his T-shirt and pants and everything itched, even his toenails, even his balls.
Farming country, the maize fields sucked dry like spider husks and the river so shrunken that he might have diverted its flow directly into his grandmother’s borehole, into her vegetable plot and water pipes and cistern. She grew meaty, succulent tomatoes.
“So here’s Rory,” the social worker said, then declined an offer of tea. They always sent him with a man now, and this one was in a hurry to be away. His grandmother nodded once and set her lips; she wouldn’t beg. He was relieved she wasn’t the begging sort.
But her supper he wouldn’t touch. After she began to snore he spent several hours searching by torchlight for the right tomato to eat. It had to be the right one. Its juice ran down his chin in gouts.
Next morning she let him sleep in, then thumped a plate of grilled tomatoes before him for breakfast. The sun poured into the kitchen like hot butter. There was a glass of milk on the table, some toast, coarse salt in a small glass bowl; nothing else. His eyes went to the box of cereal on the worktop, the jars of homemade jam, the eggshells next to the sink. Then to the bucket of tomatoes she’d salvaged. He waited for her to upbraid him, to yell, to mete out a punishment. Sometimes they struck you, a swipe card to all manner of good things.
“Eat,” she said. “There’s work to do.”
Maybe he’d inherited more than his broad, flat face and impenetrable eyebrows from her. He too wouldn’t beg.
By noon his sweat was running red. No matter how slowly he worked, the tubs had filled with bruised and bleeding tomatoes, and he’d collected the plants ripped out the night before. She came to fetch him, and together they hauled the crop into the kitchen, where he eyed the knife and sharpening steel she’d laid out for chopping. For lunch she gave him tomato soup and a tomato salad, but added thick slices of fried ham. When he mopped up the traces of grease with a piece of bread, she carved two more slices from the ham joint and tossed them into the skillet while he stared at the calluses on her heels, the deep cracks. What sort of old lady walked round barefoot in the garden? Wasn’t she afraid of snakes? He saw her sprawled on the ground near the compost heap, her tongue black and swollen, her face purple.
“You’ve got big, strong hands,” she said. “Like your father.”
The last place they’d sent him, they’d been quick to show him an interview and pictures in a magazine. They were proud to take on the child of such a famous painter. One week, that’s all it took, but the pages went with him, neatly excised with a Stanley knife. Only afterwards did he notice that part of the interview continued on another page. He’d cut off his father in mid-sentence.
He stood up, shoving back his chair with a screech. “I’m nothing like him.” They faced each other across the table till the pan began to smoke. She dragged it from the hob into the sink, where it sizzled as if spitting out a nasty taste.
“Sit down,” she said.
The drawings in the hallway would have paid for a full complement of workers, the large watercolour over the lumpy sofa for plenty of other comforts, as well as a new roof; a new house. And when she’d gone to milk the goats after tea, he’d finally had the chance for a quick look in her bedroom. Didn’t she have any idea what an oil portrait like that must be worth? Tousled from his bath, he dragged on some shorts and settled himself on the edge of his bed, then delved into his backpack for his only pair of woollen socks. Those cankers at social services—their searches were no better than their care. He extracted the bubblewrapped pages and unfolded them, his eyes going straight to the paragraph which predisposed him to short hair: “One of the most important painters of his generation, Unger works from a studio on the Scottish Isle of Barra, where the islanders are as close-mouthed about their famed eccentric as he himself. Before granting the rare interview, he stipulates that there will be no discussing his past or private life. His reticence does his reputation no harm, however— at a recent auction Young Boy with Curls fetched an astonishing € 3.7 million.” When Rory didn’t have a scissors, a knife would do. He returned the packet to the sock before heading for the bathroom mirror; he’d find a better hiding place later.
A week after his arrival, he reread the note on the kitchen table while waiting for his eggs to boil. “Got an errand in town. Weed the pumpkins.” He cut a thick slice from the homemade loaf, the blade of the kitchen knife shaped like a miniature scythe from years of sharpening, its tip bent as though once used to prise open a tin. Tentatively he traced a vertical stroke in the kiaat tabletop. A little pressure, and it would yield; no undue force necessary. He continued to hold the knife till the timer pinged, then sighed a worn sigh and with his forefinger added a please to her message. He ate slowly, dipping each spoonful of egg into the salt, topping it with a generous wodge of butter. You could overlook a lot when the food was good. He weeded the pumpkins.
They settled into a routine. Afternoons, in the heat, she went to her room with a library book for several hours, snores soon offering him the freedom to explore. Elsewhere, attic dust would have been a problem—footprints, smudges, even sneezing—but she must come up regularly to clean. There was so much junk! At first he was afraid to shift stuff around and kept to the boxes and crates nearest the stairs. A stack of what appeared to be sheet-draped paintings in a far corner was irresistible, however, and he was already calculating on removing at least one canvas from its frame and rolling it up to take with him when he left. He couldn’t sell it now, but in a few years it would be a different matter.
In a few years she might be dead, and he the only grandchild, only heir. How old was she anyway? She could live to eighty, lots of old women did. Shit, she could live to ninety.
“If it’s your father’s things you’re after, try the steamer trunk next to the rocking horse. But there’s no secrets in those crumbling sketchbooks and birds’ nests, it’s the old winged horse he loved, made me keep it for him. Said he’d come back for it one day.’
“He hasn’t, though.”
She turned from her ironing, and just for a moment he glimpsed a young woman in the swing of her plait, the limber sweep of reproof.
“You’ve got a lot to learn, boy. My granddad carved that horse, put all his magic into it.”
“It’s only a piece of wood.”
“That horse is family. That horse has wings.”
He didn’t go back to the attic. The drought deepened, and they were forced to scoop bathwater into the toilet cistern, collect every other usable drop for the vegetables. It still wasn’t enough; the tomatoes were thirsty, their bulbous lips sucking the soil dry, leaving nothing for the humbler greens. Cracks sprang open in the brick-red ground, deep cracks which might harbour scorpion, spider, snake. Venom came in many forms. It had been a dare— stupid but no reason to call the priest. Only peasants and fools believed you could poison someone with your thoughts.
Three days of carrying water, and Rory’s shoulders ached; five days and he was ready to smash a fist into one of those clamouring red mouths; a week, and he slipped out at midnight, knelt by the borehole, and thought about water—sweet, thirst-quenching water from a mountain stream. In the Scotland of his imagination, water gushed from the ground at the touch of a rod.
A few hours later he woke with a dry mouth and stumbled to the bathroom, where for once he let the water run, splashing his face and swallowing handful after handful till he could hold no more. It had lost the brackish taste of leaves decomposing in a rusty enamel bucket. Chipped and dented enamelware contained his childhood.
The smell, though. Something lingered, and the feeling that it would always linger, always cling no matter how strong a soap he used. He let the water run again, willing the smell to clear, bending his head to listen for a sweet, stilled voice. It was his grandmother who spoke. Startled, he turned to see her standing just over the threshold, arms folded, the suggestion of a smile on her face.
“That fond of water, he was. He’d build little boats out of anything—wood, cork, paper, plastic bottles, bars of soap even. He was forever down at the river with the latest one, with his net and jars and sketchbook. And swim! He could swim like a fish, though I don’t recall anyone ever teaching him. For a while I thought he’d end up as a marine biologist.”
She flared her nostrils as though she smelled it too. “Do you want pancakes for breakfast? With whipped cream and syrup, real syrup all the way from Canada?”
He tried, and failed, to conceal his greed.
“Get dressed, then. And put on your khaki shorts, not those ragged cutoffs, and a clean T-shirt too. We’ve got a visitor.”
He knew they’d send someone to check up on him, but not this soon—and not someone who trained milky cataracts on him the instant he walked into the kitchen.
“Where’s my grandmother?”
The first time he understood about water, he was five years old. When the bath began to overflow, he’d panicked and run downstairs, crying out for help. By the time Sal remembered about the mains, the water had reached the landing and the carpeting was squishy underfoot and he was hiding at the back of the wardrobe. But without a door to a snowy wood he got a good taste of her hand.
Days later it was the fish which lay on the front room floor near the tank, the guppies and zebras and neons, and his favourite, the lone banjo catfish, which mostly hid in daytime and played dead if disturbed. Sal made him dig a hole to bury them, made him carry the fish out in his bare hands. “You like water so much, you won’t mind a bit of rain.” It had taken him several trips across the muddy yard, each time two or three fish slipping through his wet fingers, cupped as though sheltering an orphaned chick. He knew how easy it would be to squash such tiny bodies. He laid them on a leaf from the rhubarb patch and found a spot under one of the staked tomato plants, then scraped down among the roots with a bent trowel, using both hands. When he’d finished patting the soil back in place, the lower leaves were draggling in dejection. He wiped the rain from his face, leaving streaks of dirt, and thought of the empty fish tank. He’d fill it with tomatoes.
Next morning he heard Sal on the phone. “I’ve got to think of the other kids.” They came for him that afternoon. He couldn’t find his locket, and though Sal said, “Don’t be such a girl,” she promised to send it on. She never did. One day, he’d go back for it. He’d find her.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Rory said.
“A dowser. Someone who finds hidden things. Hereabouts we need a dowser for water, though you get asked to search for other things too. Found a killer that way once, his buried knife.”
The man glanced at the knife on the chopping board. For a near-blind codger, this one seemed to see pretty well.
“You’re one of them?” Rory asked.
“Getting too old to move about much. I could use some help.”
Rory went to the sink and turned on the tap. The old man said nothing as the water poured from the spigot, the sound of it a death rattle in the quiet house. Water is life, they said. If he let it run, would the whole land bleed out?
“I don’t know anything about water,” Rory said.
“Enough not to waste it.”
“Enough not to care.”
Sometimes he thought about what it must have been like millions of years ago, before there were people, before there were dinosaurs, before even the earliest land animals had crawled from the sea. Maybe it would end that way again, the water rising to cover the skyscrapers and shopping malls and theme parks; the factories and schools, the jails and churches and museums. No more school trips to look at famous paintings.
Until this moment Rory hadn’t been sure he wanted to stay. Now he wondered why he’d been so stupid about the water. So what if a few tomatoes died? It’s not as though his grandmother would really miss hers, with the superstore a short driveaway. Its shelves were stocked with plenty of fruit and vegetables, drought-resistant hybrids which she ought to have cultivated in the first place. Heritage stuff meant more work, only worth it to flog the fruit to the well-heeled—or the seeds as hallucinogen to one of those plastic shamans.
His grandmother came into the kitchen with a branch in her hands, which she placed on the table in front of their visitor. If she had looked at the water still running defiantly from the tap, or said anything about it, he’d have marched from the room.
“Your father’s,” she said.
“He believed in that nonsense?” Rory asked.
“I’d like to taste the water,” the old man said.
“Fill a glass for Aaron.” Rory nodded, glad for a pretext to turn off the tap. He brought the glass to the table, where it sweated while Aaron’s hand hovered over the branch. Stripped of bark and gleaming as though oiled, it resembled a superior sort of tuning fork, though Rory was pretty sure you couldn’t use wood like that; maybe it was an artist’s rendering of a tuning fork; maybe, even, a contemptuous rejection of tuning forks—too small, too ordinary, too confining. They only sounded a single note, didn’t they? He was itching to move it out of Aaron’s reach, except they’d misunderstand.
“Indeed, your father’s.” The old man gestured loftily. “Go on, you needn’t be afraid.”
“I’m not!” Rory snatched the branch up, only to fling it down again at the twitching of his grandmother’s lips. Rather than exult, Aaron turned his attention to the glass, first swirling the water round, then sniffing it, then taking a large sip and rolling it round and round in his mouth before swallowing. Rory was fascinated to watch the old man slurp a second time, a third, even more noisily than the first.
“So,” Aaron said at last, “better than sweet. And thank goodness, no chlorine.” He pushed back his chair and with a marionette’s stiffness made it to his feet, waving back Rory’s grandmother. “Dear me, Loretta, I can stumble to the toilet on my own. Piss in it too.” She traded a glance with him before lighting the gas under the frying pan, one obdurate body to another. The dusty schoolyard still rang with their cries. “Practise with the rod, lad.”
“The rod is useless.”
“Not at all. It has its uses.” He gave a deep, rich laugh, as if to defy more than frailty. “One of them is misdirection.”
Rory didn’t bother to ask his grandmother why she’d run to Aaron; the divining rod was explanation enough. If she thought family meant anything to him, she ought to see the families he’d been privileged to live with. Even the policewoman, that time, had said to her partner she’d have been minded to knife the bastard herself.
He’d have to be on his way soon, but the days grew heavy and torpid, his grandmother sluggish, extending her afternoon naps by an hour, then two. Each morning he woke just after dawn to a lingering freshness in the air. Lured from bed, he gazed through the open window at the road unwinding before him to the sea, to the slipstream sea, but by mid-morning the sun, despotic, unyielding, would not let him go. An old story—anyone who ruled this country blazed with bedazzling glory but was hell-bent on extracting the last drop of vitality from the land. Wherever Rory walked—he couldn’t be indoors for long—he feared starting a wildfire by the mere scuff of his takkies, the touch of shoulder or hip to the matchstick grasses. Without being told, he sharpened the machete and cut sheaths of the stuff to erect a fence round their vegetables, though there were few passersby. The blade dulled easily on the tough stems.
The day after he completed the fence, his grandmother didn’t appear to make breakfast. Rory drank a mug of tea and went out to tend the goats, whose antics he originally found annoying but now was beginning to enjoy. He’d miss Marigold most of all, her stubbornness in trying to escape the pen, her wayward behaviour towards the milk bucket, her grin—yes, an outright grin—when she managed to overturn it, preferably over his feet. He found himself whispering secrets to her while milking, which she listened to with an air of wry tolerance. And once he discovered how much she loved a good long story, he made his as elaborate and fantastical as possible. It seemed to work. When he came to write his first novel—stubby pencils for inmates, and you had to fight for a new pad of foolscap—he dedicated it to Marigold.
He brought the bucket into the kitchen, where there was still no sign of his grandmother. This was so unlike her that he took the stairs two at a time, only to hesitate before her closed door. If she’d died during the night, it would be a lot smarter not to cross the threshold. The police loved nothing more than pouncing on a stray hair, a couple of fingerprints, a heel mark on the floorboards.
It would be a lot smarter to grab his backpack and get out.
“Come in already.” His grandmother’s voice was querulous, fainter than usual, but nonetheless imperious. “There are some things I need you to take care of.”
She didn’t die then, though flu was an old woman’s death. Picking a time when the superstore would be crowded, he drove off, ostensibly to do her bidding, awkward with the clutch but otherwise in control of the road; in a good mood (and with a couple of beers in him) his last foster dad had let him fool round with the pickup. The smell of the chill, over-processed air was a small price to pay for anonymity. He stuck to cash and bought a supply of tinned goods and dried fruit and crackers, camping stuff she didn’t keep in the house, and a thick blanket, torch, and batteries; he’d pick up more gear in another town. Then, growing bolder, he filled the tank at the petrol station with her debit card, though the gauge was registering nearly three-quarters full. “You’re a good lad, helping your grandmother like this,” the fat woman at the till said. “I hear Aaron’s been out to talk to you.” He was getting used to the accent.
A few kilometres beyond the turnoff to their land, his heart began to pound, and he pulled off onto the verge. Hands gripping the steering wheel, he stared at the heat shimmer in the distance, at the vanishing point of the road. If he kept going, the road would take over. “You’re the spitting image of your father.” It had only been a throwaway remark, he told himself. His father, who had vanished as soon as his wife died, as soon as he was obliged to look after a child on his own.
When his breathing eased, he cut the engine and got out of the car, leaving the door open. He walked a short ways into the bush, aimlessly, mindlessly, the woman’s babbling seeping into the crevices of his mind, seizing his thoughts. His eyes smarted from the fine red dust which hung in the air, a drought haze which so diffused the light that, with only a little squinting, he might be wandering across an immense watercolour. “I never believed it of him, no matter what everyone said. He was a good man, a little wild, but good to your mum.” At first Rory had only half listened, the accent his excuse. By the time he began to pay attention, she’d realised her mistake. “Ask your grandma,” she said, and busied herself with something on the shelves behind her. He’d seen her watching him drive away, her chins working overtime and a handset pressed to her ear.
In the meagre shade of a baobab tree he stopped to draw his knife. It was a simple matter to tap its trunk for stored water, this upside down tree whose lush but short-lived white flowers were inhabited, according to legend, by spirits. So why did he hesitate?
We’re kin, the tree whispered.
“Like hell we are!” he said, and rammed his knife into the bark— deep, enraged, lacerating thrusts. Soon his hand was slippery, his T-shirt soaked with sweat. Leaning his forehead against the trunk, he thought of the little-kid stories he used to tell himself: his mother wasn’t dead, she was in hiding from the mafia/secret police/a jealous rival; she wasn’t dead, she’d lost her memory and wandered away and nobody knew her identity; she wasn’t dead, she’d been abducted by aliens; she wasn’t dead.
He despised her for not bothering about a seatbelt, late at night, in a heavy rain.
Minutes later he crashed through the house like an accident in the making. His grandmother’s door was open, as though she’d been listening for him.
“Where is it?” He crossed the threshold yelling. “Where’s her grave?”
Unhurriedly, his grandmother placed her bookmark between the pages and set her book down on the bedside table, making space for it next to her jug of water, her box of tissues, the phone.
“There’s a stone in the churchyard, but she’s not buried there.”
“Why not? Was she cremated?”
“Her body was never found.”
“That makes no sense! She died in a car crash.”
“A story for a small child, I guess they thought. It wouldn’t have been my way.”
He was silenced then, reviewing one of his earliest memories, the lasting humiliation of it: flowers, masses and masses of leering, putrid white flowers, someone singing, a plate of iced cakes, the coffin; throwing up over the coffin.
“But I remember the funeral . . . the coffin . . .”
She shook her head. “There was no coffin.” Her face was flushed, and at first he thought she wanted him to open the window, the way she gestured peremptorily towards it, though that would only let in the heat, but then he saw the divining rod lying on the old treadle sewing machine which she’d kept, she said, just in case. Old people never seemed to throw anything away—sad really, ending up like that in a junkyard of memories. “She’s out there somewhere. Why do you think your father’s never come home? Aaron reckons you’re the only one who can set it right.”
He went up to the attic and tore into his father’s things. To judge by the contents of the trunk, his father’s life had ended in his mid-teens. Aside from the sketchbooks and models, it was all boyish stuff. The last school report was from second year, and the bad marks didn’t surprise Rory, except for the abysmal one in art. And why were there no photographs? A journal was too much to hope for, he supposed, but there ought to be at least one or two old school photos. Or maybe not; he’d always ripped up any that had been foisted on him. Long before hearing the expression, he’d recognised generosity for the ego massage it really was.
He leafed through the sketchbooks quickly, vexed not to find any dates or notes. Every sheet—every corner of every sheet—was covered, as though paper had been in short supply, reminding him of interment camp inmates obliged to write their stories on newspaper scraps, on leaves from a Bible or innocuous paperback. His father had filled one sketchbook with drawings of fruit and vegetables so painstakingly detailed that at first glance they could be mistaken for black-and-white photographs, almost a greengrocer’s catalogue, each specimen on display from various angles—above, below, tilted in all sorts of ways—as well as segmented, peeled, halved, sliced. The effect was overwhelming—not cramped, precisely, rather a sense of abundance, of exuberance, of a mind smitten with the richness of mango and grape and pomegranate, of avocado and pumpkin. But the last third of the sketchbook was blank. Why had his father abandoned it? Rory flipped back to the onions and raised the sketchbook to his nostrils. The smell brought tears to his eyes.
And then there were the tomatoes. Eight—no, nine pages devoted to them! His grandmother must have been growing them forever. Rory studied the enormous beefsteak; the delicate cherry; the fiendishly succulent, dark tomato she called her Black Prince; the meaty oxheart, his own favourite. The oxheart—his pulse remembered before he did. He found himself peering over his shoulder, suddenly aware that the attic would be the perfect set for a slasher film. In a moment the rocking horse would start creaking.
Don’t be such a girl.
“Shut up, you stupid cunt.”
He followed the horse’s gaze to the paintings. Of course. Purposeful now, he got to his feet, made his way to the far corner, and went through the hoard, then dragged the tomato triptych into the light. For that’s what those paintings formed, the central panel a riotous garden scene with an oxheart vine in the foreground, serpentine and heavy with fruit, flanked by two smaller panels of growth and decay. Such flagrant symbolism, atypical even of his father’s early work, had to be deliberate—a mea culpa confirming Rory’s original impulse that his father had left a clue, couldn’t help leaving a clue, to where he’d buried her. Artists, Rory thought grimly. Vain, feckless, self-serving. Maggots besmirching themselves with paint in order to squirm across a canvas.
His hands shook on the prongs. Working systematically, he’d moved from one row to the next till he came to a pair of vines which bore such a heavy crop that his grandmother had added a second stake to each plant for support. He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved that they weren’t oxhearts but the rather commonplace Brandywine, tasty enough despite its pale flesh. The sun was hot on his shoulders. He stared at the patch of ground beneath potato-y leaves, wondering how deep he’d have to dig. And then?
And then there’d be bones and teeth and maybe even clothing. Maybe, even, some flesh.
He hadn’t eaten any of the tomatoes from these vines yet, had he?
Slackening his grip on the divining rod, he licked the sweat from his upper lip, then stretched out his right hand for one of the rosy tomatoes. It was warm and firm in his palm, and he knew, rationally, that it wouldn’t scream when plucked. He squeezed his eyes shut. The sun tightened its grip. And tightened. His hand went to his shorts. There was no one who could see him . . . no, not now, not here. He thought about water.
He thought about calm water and turbulent water, fresh water and salt water, ground water and rain. He thought about water which drains from one catchment to another, water which fills a dark cold crater, an abandoned mine. He thought about the waters of Scotland and their monsters. He thought about his father, who loved to swim.
How easy it would be for a good swimmer, ageing now, to underestimate the currents.
After extradition they would let a man see his son. It might take a while, but permission would be granted. Unless permission were never sought.
Rory scooped up the divining rod. Like an appendage that had atrophied in the dry heat, it snapped with a wishbone crack. After the first crack, the two halves lost all sense of bond and made wooden, helpless sounds as he split them into pieces. Then he yanked both vines from the ground and used his knife to demolish each tomato.
How easy it would be for his father to drown.