Heat Wave – By Penny Feeny
It’s 80 degrees in the shade again and the air is so thick with humidity I feel as if I’m walking underwater. Cities aren’t equipped for heat waves. A hard light bounces from the tilted windows of office buildings, a black haze of petrol fumes rises from the traffic. Grass withers to straw in the park. The council’s been enterprising though; they’ve imported a quantity of sand to heap beside the paddling pool. Every morning it’s swarming with small children filling their buckets, letting the soft grains spill between their fingers until they become too hot to handle.
I wouldn’t normally know this. I wouldn’t normally choose to spend my days in a public space. My flat isn’t air-conditioned but I could keep the blinds drawn and stay in my north-facing living room. Savour my privacy. I still haven’t got used to being made redundant. I suppose it should be a novelty: time for all those books I haven’t read, all the re-decorating I’ve planned. Except that I can’t face being trapped indoors with the false promises of vinyl silk emulsion while real life goes on outside without me.
So I’m looking after Thomas instead. I’m spending my days by the toddlers’ sandpit, listening to shrieks and wails, with a child who isn’t even my own. A child who in fact belongs to my former husband and his new partner. Because that’s all I am now: an ex-wife. As I ponder my position daily, while extracting chilled cartons of Ribena from the cool box or pacifying Thomas when he loses his spade, I reflect that at least there is one other person more adrift than I am.
Since the heat wave started, since I’ve been coming here with Thomas because his nanny’s on holiday and he has no garden to play in, she’s been on the bench opposite. She’s wearing several layers of black, the traditional muslim hijab over her head, a long black skirt reaching down to her shoes and a black shawl folded across her shoulders. 80 degrees in the shade and she’s sitting in full glare and she doesn’t even look hot. Not a drop of moisture mars her smooth black face. Every day she’s there, passive, unflinching and quite alone. I never see her eat. I never see her speak to anyone. She keeps her eyes cast down.
This is not my normal habitat, this artificial apology for a seaside. I’m used to the drone of office life, stealthy email messages and the quick fix of an important, unexpected phone call. I’m used to a high disposable income and surging through a string of bars and boutiques to dispose of it. Failure is punishing and now I must punish myself even more. I must sit in this turgid pit of boredom, with a child who might have been mine – but isn’t. And when I look into his solemn two-year-old eyes, a tawny hazel flecked with green, inherited from his father, do I miss it? The marriage we once had? The family we didn’t? I’m not sure. To be honest, I’m mostly thinking: have I put enough suncream on him? Has he dropped his apple in the sand again? Will I have to change his nappy? That’s what kids do to you.
Several of the girls around me are foreign au-pairs. They’re soaking up the heat, slipping spaghetti straps off their beautiful bronze shoulders to achieve an even toasting, even though, most of the time, the sun is nowhere to be seen. It’s skulking behind a bank of dirty white cloud, teasing silent ripples of sweat from temple to toe. The other women are local mothers, pasty and overweight, fussing over their children, dissecting their neighbours’ reputations. After noon, when the heat is at its least bearable, they begin to pack up their possessions – rather reluctantly, as if loathe to leave the spot they’ve colonised. They’ll go home for lunch and maybe come back later, after a nap, if they can be bothered re-assembling all their equipment.
Only the black widow, as I’ve come to think of her, doesn’t move. Still sits there as the temperature climbs, unruffled as the waters of the paddling pool when all the children have gone. Why does no-one else have any curiosity about her? I’m tempted to speak to her, to ask her who she is, where she’s come from, what she’s waiting for. Perhaps she’s in the same kind of limbo that I am, not knowing which way her life will twist next.
If I didn’t have Thomas with me. If I didn’t have to wheel him back to his own house, to his over-grateful parents who are being agonisingly pleasant and attentive, who keep buying me ludicrously extravagant presents because I refuse to take their money, I would follow her. At the end of the day, when she stands up, a little creakily because she’s been sitting so long, and sweeps her black layers around her as if there’s a cold wind instead of a heat wave, I would watch to see where she goes, who she meets, what she does, why.
Thomas’ parents are always ready with eager smiles. If they are dismayed at the sight of him, sticky with spilt juice and crusted with sand, they hide it well. They’re more worried about what will become of me. They assure me I’ll get another job in no time, though I can hear the doubt in their voices, the quite unnecessary depth of their concern. My ex-husband squeezes my shoulder in a brotherly fashion and when I look at his hand – the broad fingers, the faint hairs on his knuckles – I shiver at the recollection of those same knuckles gently caressing the side of my face, the swell of my breasts, and he quickly lets go.
I am aware, of course, of the responsibility they’ve entrusted to me. I can hear Thomas’ mother telling her friends what a wonderful relationship we have: so adult, so very civilised. And although I like to plot little schemes of revenge in my head, I’ve no intention of carrying them out. How else do you get through a long day when your life is on hold?
So imagine my horror and surprise when I jerk suddenly awake from some such fantasy to see that Thomas is missing.
A few minutes ago he was at the edge of the pool, kicking up spray and clapping his hands together like two plump starfish. Now even the wet patch he’s left behind is fast evaporating. I scan the sandhill, which each day diminishes, as clumps of it are carried home in buckets or deckshoes or inside the folds of sagging swimsuits. For a second, it seems to me the high trills of laughter and splashing are suspended in the air; then they continue as before. Parents, children, picnickers are placidly unconcerned. No-one is screaming that a small child has fallen unconscious into the water.
Then I notice the black widow is missing too. Can it really be possible that for the past few days she has been sitting there watching him, waiting for me to be distracted? Does he possess some special quality she’s after or does she want to prove how unfit I am as a chaperone? Could she tell I wasn’t really his mother? I lacked that invisible intangible bond? But several of the other women aren’t mothers either and she hasn’t abducted any of their charges.
I run about wildly, ineffectively, because I don’t know where to go, where to look first. Across the vast open prairie of dried grass, sunlight shimmers and dazzles, creates lurking silhouettes with all distinguishing features removed. A concrete path stretches like a piece of tired elastic to the gates on the other side of the park. The roses, their petals brown and drooping are barely waist height, the dusty box hedges even lower. There’s no cover, nowhere for anyone to hide. Why can’t I see him?
Fear parches my throat, empties my mouth of saliva. All the liquid in my body is flooding through the pores of my skin. I’m drenched in sweat; salty drops trickle into my eyes, blinding me.
I can’t swallow and very soon I won’t be able to breathe. Thomas’ parents will not believe I didn’t do this on purpose. They’ll be convinced that I’ve never forgiven their betrayal, that I’ve been playing with their trust, biding my time, storing up bitterness until it spills into vengeance.
I can hear them saying to each other: who does she think she is? Why couldn’t she move on?
I’ve been running in decreasing circles, startling strangers with my wild panic-stricken cries, insisting that surely they’ve seen a little boy being stolen by a woman in black. I flop momentarily onto the ground, gasping for air like a fish. Something hot and sticky tugs at my shoulder. I swivel round, and there he is, in front of me, bare legs planted like little tree trunks, feet in the jelly shoes steaming slowly, grave eyes level with mine.
‘I want ice-cream,’ he says.
I catch his hand and grip it as if I will never let go. ‘Of course,’ I say lightly, as if I haven’t just lived through the most terrifying few moments of my life. ‘But only if you promise never to run off again. I didn’t know where on earth you’d gone.’ I’m still puzzled that I didn’t spot him earlier. Is the intensity of the light playing tricks with my vision?
‘I got lost,’ he confides, as matter of fact as his father when he announced: I’m leaving, I’ve met someone else.
Then I notice her standing a little way off, the stately black widow, observing our reunion. She inclines her head slightly and I shout thankyou at her.
‘Ice cream now,’ says Thomas.
The woman glides away like a ship through a calm sea, to resume her usual position on the bench.
We reach the head of the queue at the kiosk and the ice cream vendor hands Thomas a lurid orange lolly. ‘Cute little chap you’ve got there,’ he says.
‘He isn’t mine.’ Why am I so quick to disown him, this round-faced curly-haired cherub? I nod in the direction of his rescuer. ‘Do you know who she is, that woman in black who spends all day here?’
He’s bending over, rearranging the contents of his ice chest, enjoying a blast of deliciously cool air. ‘Could be an asylum-seeker,’ he grunts. ‘There’s a bunch of them around – too many if you ask me – waiting to be dispersed.’
Dispersed. Sounds like a puff of dandelion seeds in a light breeze. How can it apply to someone so imposing, so dark and statuesque? I picture little scraps of her cloak and veil fluttering in the air like the charred remnants of a bonfire.
‘She just sits by the sandpit.’
He shrugs. ‘Maybe it reminds her of home.’
I try to imagine the possible disasters she might have fled in order to come here: flood, famine, drought, persecution, mutilation, civil war. She might have lost a little boy like Thomas; she might have lost her whole family. Perhaps, after all, it’s a relief for her to rest quietly in the stifling heat, to see the haze of it rising from the ground, to feel it envelop her as thickly as a winter blanket. Perhaps it makes her feel safe. At least, I think, as I settle myself again, alert and wary now, I haven’t invented her. She’d been studiously ignored by everyone for so long that I was beginning to wonder whether she really existed. Whether the baking conditions had created a mirage only I could see: an oppressive presence, black as the misery sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear.
I look across and smile at her. She doesn’t smile back.
The heat wave has broken. Thomas’ nanny has returned; I’m redundant for a second time. Thunder rolls and breaks overhead. It sounds so close I could open my window and reach out and touch it. I could grab a shaft of lightning and shake it at the world. Except the window won’t open because the paint is still sticky and wet. In the mirror I can see pale shiny smears of it on my cheek and collarbone. I ignore them. I take an umbrella and step outside into the street, into the heavy drumming downpour. I splash through puddles while drops as fat as cherries plummet around me. Then, by degrees, the flow eases, becomes a gentle drizzle. I find my feet have led me to the park, to the empty playground, the quiet blue pool, the depleted mound of sand that looks as if it’s been pitted by bullets.
The black widow’s no longer there of course. Maybe she’s found a new home, a new life. I take her place on the bench, turn my face to the sky and let the tears rain down.