COMINGS AND GOINGS
“That’s it, they’ve gone for good,” Evie said, that little whine in her voice. As though offended. “Buggered off. Never coming back.”
It was one of the first things she said, though not quite the first. When she’d eventually opened the door to Sam’s knuckles against the frosted glass, stood there blocking the way, she hadn’t smiled, she never did, though Sam knew she was pleased to see her.
“So you do remember where I live then.”
Same words every time. Sam ignored them. Raindrops from an unruly rose draped around the doorway trickled down her neck.
“Doorbell’s still not working then?”
Sam knew of course that Evie wouldn’t fit the battery she’d bought last time, that it was probably in a drawer with string and a candle, odd keys, nut crackers,and god knows what else she’d never use.
“Why do I need a bell? No-one ever comes calling.”
“And how d’you know when you wouldn’t hear them if they did?”
A great start. Sam had arrived full of good intentions. She’d wanted this visit to be a happy memory for them both. Now she glanced up at the sky, a patch of blue edging across. Summer rain never lasted long. Newly washed leaves glittered in the overgrown hedge.
“Coming in then?”
Into the narrow dark hallway, same Laura Ashley wallpaper faded now, same smell of oranges and lemons from peelings Evie swore dissolved the smell of cigarette smoke. The smell of cigarette smoke.
Sam dropped her bag onto the floor.
“How long are you staying?”
“Just tonight. You know, so many things…”
She knew Evie would be disappointed.
She held out the bunch of dejected motorway flowers, then realising Evie was busy closing the door, she abandoned them on the sideboard. A stupid idea, carnations from across the world when Evie’s garden was always crammed with flowers. Foxgloves, poppies, daisies, long strands of greenery knitting everything into a tangled mass. Clouds of insects.
“So. Let me look at you.”
Evie seemed smaller than last time Sam was there, more scrunched up. A hint of pink scalp could be seen through her bleached hair. She was wearing purple, of course; her favourite colour. Sharp fingers pulled Sam close, thin arms wrapped around her shoulders, a grip she seemed reluctant to release.
Sam wriggled free.
“Know what I fancy?”
“Of course. Tea, no milk, two sugars.”
There was pride in Evie’s voice for remembering.
The kitchen hadn’t changed either. Everything was where it had been when she’d been growing up. Sam took mugs off the vinyl lined shelf, ignored the dust. Her mother had never been one for dusting and polishing. She had a life to lead, she’d say. Had had.
Now she stretched across to push the window wide.
“Listen,” she said. “Hear that?”
A van roared past movinf way too fast, then was gone. A flurry of startled sparrows emerged from the ivy that matted the walls.
“What? What am I listening to?”
“Open your ears.”
Sam bent closer to the window.
“But there’s nothing special…”
And then Sam heard it. Silence. None of that clicking sound that meant summer was here, small black birds zipping like arrows up into the sky then round and back to the row of nests tucked along the roof, a dozen or so, sometimes more when the winter hadn’t been too hard and they’d managed to stay put. None of the silent whooshes as they dropped down again, then soared. And later, the chattering of fat nestlings anxious to be noticed as one parent or another returned with food.
“Where are the house martins?”
“Not come back, have they? “
“What? Not one of them?”
Evie shook her head.
“Not a single one.”
“But they’re always back by now. It’s… what, the end of July? They should have been here months ago”
“Heard someone on the radio.” Evie poured water onto the teabags. “Said it was the strangest thing ever. Happening all over the country. Some have come back, but whole colonies have just … vanished. Never left Africa I suppose.”
Evie stared up at the empty sky, shook her head.
“Or stopped off en route at the French Riviera. Sunshine, beaches. Can you blame them?”
Sam picked up a mug, sipped. Something was wrong. The house martins always came back. Always.
“It feels weird.” Evie stopped. “Can’t explain it. Don’t like it.”
She turned, sat heavily on a chair.
“So anyway. No idea what we can eat tonight.”
She lived on tomatoes on toast, Sam knew that. It was a family joke, that all she could grow was tomatoes. They’d tease her. Said she’d go red if she ate any more, like people turn orange when they eat too many carrots. More recently Sam had worried that her mother needed to be eating something more nutritious, had nagged, brought with her ready-cooked chicken, fresh ravioli from her corner delicatessen, the gorgonzola that used to be Evie’s favourite. She knew most of it would be left in the fridge, ignored until it went rotten.
“No,” she said now. “We’re going to The Crown. My treat.”
Evie shook her head, claimed she’d nothing to wear, though Sam knew the wardrobe was crammed with dresses from the days when the pub was her regular haunt. And now she had an excuse to dig one out.
It wasn’t until they were onto desserts – sorbet for Sam, a single scoop of vanilla ice cream for Evie – that Sam found the courage. With most people in the garden the inside of the pub was quiet, except for the low hum of music playing to provide atmosphere..
“Anyway, I’ve something to tell you.”
Sam took a deep breath.
“I’m going away, with my work. A new office. They want me to help set it up.”
Evie carried on eating.
“I was lucky to be chosen. The fact that I’m single probably helped, you know, they didn’t have to relocate a family, kids and dog and…”
To be honest, Sam still felt a twist inside when she thought of him, the man she’d thought might really, finally, be The One. Stupidly. At her age she should really have known better.
With a small clink Evie put down her spoon She didn’t speak.
“It’s in America,” Sam went on. “Boston. It won’t be for long. A year, possibly a bit more.”
Evie’s shoulders seemed to sag.
“Listen Evie. Mummy.”
Evie had always refused to be called mummy, would tut and shake her head. Now she said nothing and it was like she’d given in.
“We’ll chat on skype. I know you’re not keen, but really, it’s easy. I’ll go through it again. We’ll set a regular time Sunday mornings, yes?”
Sam had bought her the laptop, made notes about how to use it. Another item in that drawer of unwanted items no doubt.
Evie didn’t reply. With one hand she fumbled for her bag. Pressed the fingertips of the other against her forehead.
“That music’s getting on my nerves. Can we go now?”
Sam had known it was going to be like this. Part of her longed to shout at Evie for being selfish, for wanting to hold her back. It was what she’d always tried to do with both her and Greg. Clinging on. Not wanting them to grow up, to leave home.
But then, a hug would be good too.
In the car, for the short ride home, neither of them spoke. Once the engine stopped an awkward silence settled over them. It was dusk, a single street light clicked on. An owl hooted. Evie dug in her bag, took out a cigarette but didn’t light it, just twirled it. Like worry beads, Sam thought.
“It’s not fair,” Evie said suddenly.
“Everyone leaves me. Goes off and doesn’t come back. Greg did. Here one day, off to Iceland or Norway or somewhere, didn’t even give me an address. Hardly a goodbye. When they ask – the old girls here, they do you know, I see them down at the post office or on a bus or waiting for one more like it – they ask how’s your son, how’s your daughter, any grandkids yet? I say what son? Haven’t got one, and my daughter is too busy in London, works for a charity, important work, way too important to even get away for a few days…”
“Don’t accuse me of being like Greg.”
The injustice stung. It was true, he’d gone off with the briefest goodbye, but then he’d always been a loner. Self sufficient. He’d broken their hearts and probably hadn’t even realised. He genuinely thought the odd phone call and bottle of Yardley perfume was enough.
“And then dad, all that lovey dovey stuff about always being there for me into our old age, how he’d make sure I never even had to change a light bulb”.
A sudden flutter of white across the front of the car as the owl swooped down and then disappeared into the trees.
“Dad didn’t choose to abandon you,” Sam said. “He had cancer and they operated, and then he had chemo and then he died.”
“He left me. He could have tried harder. He gave up.”
Sam closed her eyes, counted to ten.
“It’s not nice getting old, Sam. You don’t understand. How could you? It’s painful and sad and you can’t make plans for the future because there isn’t one. Worst of all, it’s lonely.”
She paused, reached for the door handle.
“Cup of tea then, before we got to bed?”
Surprisingly Sam slept well, better than she expected. She’d forgotten how quiet nights could be away from the city. Still it was early when she slid out of bed, the floorboards familiar under her bare feet as she headed for the kitchen. Coffee, she needed some caffeine even if it was instant.
The kettle was warm. Evie had beaten her to it. Through the window she could see her sitting out on the bench at the top of the garden.
Evie glanced up when she joined her, shuffled along to leave space.
“D’you remember that time we found a nestling, by the back door. We thought it was dead.”
The house martins again. Sam knew straight away what she was talking about. You couldn’t sit there and not notice their absence, the gaping hole in the sky. And yes, she remembered picking it up, surprised that it weighed nothing, a puffball of feathers. They’d fed it on insects that she and Greg had chased around the garden, so proud when the tiny bird opened it’s mouth wide for these scraps of what seemed like nothing.
“And in autumn,” Evie went on. “They’d sit along the wire, fluffing their feathers, chattering away. So excited to be off on that big adventure. I was always sad to see them go but never thought for a moment that they wouldn’t come back. Never crossed my mind. That’s what migrating birds do, isn’t it? They come and they go and then back here again, and then off. Stupid really, all that rushing about.”
A robin dropped down suddenly, pecked at seed near their feet, not at all scared. Obviously used to being fed.
“I will be back, mummy,” Sam said. “I promise. I won’t let you down.”
Evie put her hand over Sam’s and curled her fingers tight.
“I know you will, love. I know that.”
Sam was opening the car door when she stopped. Stretched her ears, as Evie would say. She could just about make out that distinctive little clicking sound, only a couple of birds, but she was sure it was house martins swirling around way up there. And yes, she could see them. Specks. Three of them, then four. Were they coming down to their nests so very late, but having made it, finally? Or just passing through, heading further north? Either way it meant they were back. They’d come home. That they hadn’t abandoned Evie.
Debating for a moment whether to go and tell her mother what she’d seen, Sam decided against. She’d hear the good news soon enough.