Ashbery went to answer it, pausing in
the hall to calm Zola. Ripley’s voice was different now.
Before moving here, I lived in
Ullapool, in a small row of terraces that looked out on to Loch Broom. My
father was a carpenter and he advertised one of the rooms in our house for Bed
and Breakfast to supplement his wage. Often, he would be called away as far as
Oban and might stay overnight, so that it would be just Mother and me taking
care of the house. While I set the table, she would fry eggs and white pudding;
mound bacon on to hot plates. We had the usual influx of visitors: city types
motoring as far North as possible before returning to the Smoke; Europeans with
monster backpacks. On this occasion, Father was away for a few days in Drumbeg,
helping his cousin to build a barn.
My mother was playing a Nat King Cole
record and smoking a cigarette – something she was not allowed to do whenever
Father was around. When the doorbell rang, night was tucking itself between the
mountains like tar wadded into a fissure. I slipped into the hallway and
watched Mother greet the man with a long kiss that was so gooey it was as
though neither of them had teeth.
‘How was Durness?’ she asked, when the
kiss broke down into a coda of smaller pecks, like drips from a tap.
‘Bitter,’ he said, releasing her. ‘When
will Leonard be back?’
‘The weekend.’ My mother paused,
hooking a finger over the V of his shirt from which coils of black hair
quested. ‘Kim is here.’
He seemed to lessen, the bones in his
arms and legs softening.
‘Ah. Jean, why for Christ’s sake? I
thought this was going to be our time. I thought you were going to send Kim to
her aunt’s place.’ His voice made my name sound hollow. From here he appeared
soul-less; his eyes too pale to be arresting; his expressions too prescribed to
warrant any kind of investment. Yet here Mother was, cooing over him,
apologising, cupping her hand for a brief time at the yoke of his crotch.
‘I thought it would be a good idea if
you two met,’ she said.
He lead her into the study. Closed the
Back in my room I kissed my hand in the
same way that my mother had kissed the hairy man. I squeezed the mound between
I didn’t like the certainty of his
movements; the way he knew where to take my mother – it meant he’d been here
before. I thought of Aunt Alex; was she aware of the stranger? Or did she think
my frequent visits to her house were born of a more innocent spur?
When Mother called me downstairs, I
considered for a moment pretending that I wasn’t there – hoping she might think
me absent, playing with my friends on the quay. But when her voice came again,
more stridently, I knew she was wise to my plan. ‘Coming,’ I shouted, hoping to
disguise the reluctance piling up inside me.
They were in the kitchen, trying too
hard to appear relaxed. My mother’s hair was unfettered, the way it gets in the
wind when she hangs washing. The table was set for three. Mother had lit a
candle. When Father was here, we ate from our laps in the lounge with the TV
‘Now then Kim, I want you to meet Mr
Ripley. He’s an old friend of mine. We were at school together.’ A look passed
between them and I knew she was lying. She seemed much more fluid than when
around Father. I supposed that was Ripley’s doing, and I hated him for it. Her
hands performed lazy curlicues as she spoke; she smiled often. In her voice was
a trace of hysteria.
‘Hello Kim. I’ll not be having any of
this Mr Ripley nonsense,’ he smiled at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes. ‘I’m Duncan to you.’
I went to him and drove a bread knife
through the back of his hand.
Mother locked me in my bedroom before
driving him to hospital. She kept asking me why I’d done what I did, her face
growing ever more ashen. At the table, Ripley was rigid, staring at the bluish
slot in his hand that was rapidly puffing up. He’d turned to me and made to say
something but remained quiet. He looked as though he were about to comment on
how little blood there was; his expression so placid, almost comically
detached. I’d laughed. After a hard clout around the back of the legs, I found
myself on the bed – my feet had maybe touched the ground twice, three times.
Shaking a little, though more from
exhilaration than shock or regret, I opened my diary and wrote two entries in
the section marked Things To Do:
Father about Ripley.
It never came to that because my
mother, in her haste to get Ripley to hospital, steered the car off the road
and into a river. Neither of the bodies were recovered. I might never have
found out, if Father had not returned prematurely.
I worried when dawn came and the amber
lights on the boats in the loch were subsumed by a thickening background
pallor, lending form to the swells of water. The hospital was some distance
away but even if Ripley’s wound was more serious than it appeared, I doubted
the round trip could have taken more than three hours.
I was hungry and soon forgot about
where my mother was. After the fourth day, I managed to assuage my thirst
somewhat by forcing down the brackish gloop that sustained a vase of tulips. I
took to squatting in the centre of my rug and rocking to and fro on the balls
of my feet; a sensation that was oddly pleasurable and it was at such times
that my mind would turn to Ripley and I’d find I wasn’t mulling over my enmity towards
him; he’d seeped into my being with all the fleet absorption of a water based
face cream – and I liked it. I tongued the slit between thumb and forefinger;
my fingers squirmed like severed worms in my lap.
then in failing light, my eyes so dry I can feel the lids pucker and peel away
from their meat; I think of monsters in my wardrobe and their insistent
clamour. I think of running through dream-mud to my parents’ room and slotting
myself between them; their hot breath gently hammering my head, a deliciously
comforting sense of weight around me. But still they knock, still –
It was Father of course, shouldering
down the bedroom door. When he saw me, I noticed him flinch before approaching:
that instant appalled me perhaps more than the sight of Ripley kissing my
mother. For a beat, I was utterly alone. And then his arms blocking out the
light and I couldn’t believe how many tears I cried, when I felt so very dry.
How could I tell him, once the grim
news came through? Father came and joked with me about my IV; said I could use
the stand to hang my cap on. Then his face fell and although I failed to fasten
upon a single word he said to me, I knew what was wrong. I hated the collapse
of his features: all of it down to Ripley’s hand (oh I missed his bland
In my hospital bed, I found it hard to
concentrate on Mother. She skipped through my thoughts like a mischief – I
couldn’t fix her to a stable part of my thoughts so that I might picture her in
various states of distress, or joy, or the many poses of comfort she affected
when I needed succour. All I could hear was her invective, a key in the lock.
All I saw, the seamless union of their lips and her hand, shockingly
knowledgeable, cradling him.
For a few weeks after I went home, I
was visited by Dr Raglan, who would ask about my quality of sleep and look into
my eyes as if for something lost. On my way to the kitchen for a snack, my
shoulders draped with a blanket, I would chance upon Father sitting in a chair
by the fire, his head drooping into the spread of a book about eagles or
crofters or mountains. The blanket arranged over his knees made him appear
invalid. Telling him now might make him withdraw into himself even more.
One day, he took me away with him to
Skye. On the ferry across the Kyle of Lochalsh we stood on the top deck and
yelled into the wind. Driving through all that strange, rich colour, I almost
felt whole again and believed we’d arrive home to find Mother preparing beds to
bright music on the wireless. That night we stayed with Father’s cousin in
Dunvegan and after breakfast, we walked to the beach, through a field that
warned of a bull and made me too nervous to enjoy the bleached sand once we
arrived. The ammonia reek of bladderwrack and Father’s hand on my shoulder. The
sea stretching away north where it would grow sluggish and cold, eventually
‘There’s a man, a Duncan Ripley to see
you. I planted him in the conservatory.’ Ashbery’s voice was gently clotted,
like a palate made sticky with milk. I could, and often did, listen to Ashbery
talk for hours about his childhood in the Orkneys. Now though, all I could here
were the metallic angles of Ripley’s speech.
Ripley was studying a photograph and
taking punctuative glances through the window at my unkempt garden. Now he took
the brown tip of a hydrangea leaf between his fingers and rubbed. The scar on
his hand was like a slit in dead bark. This man, that I had met fleetingly.
This Ripley. Lord of my waking moments for so long.
‘I thought you were dead.’ I’d hoped to
startle him but he merely transferred his weight from one foot to the other and
placed his hand on the back of a chair. The leaf sprang away firm and green as
he turned. I saw how I’d been mistaken; how the light stitched itself into the
whitish buttons of his eyes and fastened me to the spot with their utter
absence of age. A sensation not unlike jarring one’s foot whispered up my
spine, making the light seem tangible, all of it drawn to the jut of his jaw as
‘I’ve spent ten years walking and
thinking. It feels like – ’
‘It feels like ten years actually,’ he
said, sitting down. If I raised my skirt slightly, I’d be a moment away from my
thighs (He kissed her, their mouths meeting like dovetailed joints of wood).
‘What happened?’ To his credit, he
didn’t pretend I was chasing a different line. He described it all. As he
talked, Zola walked in and lay at his feet. He slid a shoe under her chin and
waggled it softly. In a moment, she was asleep.
‘Your mother was a good driver. What
happened wasn’t her fault. I think I was in a state of shock after you stabbed
me,’ his hand covered the scar, ‘and I was being irrational, panicking too
much. But by then there was a lot of blood.
‘I… began clutching at her arm. She
Zola fretted quietly in her sleep, as
if his disquiet were somehow being transmitted through the still cradle of his
‘There was a moment of real silence. I
thought it was the moment of my death but now I realise it was because the
wheels of the car had left the ground.’
Standing slowly, so as not to disturb
Zola’s slumber, Ripley went to the window and looked out on the field, the sliver
of river beyond the forest’s arc.
‘In the water, the car turned upside
down. The windows were open. The car filled up quickly but I just sat there and
watched the blood hang in the water like threads of cotton. Then I released my
seatbelt and got out. I let go of the air in my lungs and rose to the surface.
I walked away without checking to see if your mother had made it.’ All of this
delivered in monotone.
Looking at the tweed weave of his
jacket soothed me and I was able to approach him. Although we hadn’t traded
more than a hundred words in our two meetings, I placed my hand on the curve of
his shoulder, my head on his back. His warmth spread through my fingertips. In
my thoughts, his face bloomed, the way it had appeared all those years ago: thinly
boned and hirsute. I saw myself slipping my fingers beneath the flesh and
lifting it away from the boss of his skull to seek the reasons for his
influence over me. Barely a night went by without my thinking of him.
‘It’s why I’m here, Kim,’ he murmured.
‘I need you to help me die.’
Outside, the light had taken on a
defeated hue. Bruised, it receded beyond roofs that marked the leading edge of
the village. Miles north, it would be dark, lights sprinkling Loch Broom. A brief tang of the early morning
catch, a memory of gorse. Leaving home, I was growing to believe, was a little
like dying. Your soul never really caught you up; mine would be forever bound
up with the minute shift of mountains and brittle winds slung down from the Arctic.
‘Are you okay?’ Duncan asked. My hand had been eclipsed by
his. How had that happened?
‘Yes. I’m sorry, I was just thinking of
His fingers tightened slightly against
mine; the skin warm and dry and pliable. ‘Thinking of your mother.’
‘Not particularly.’ Zola kept time with
our modest pace; gone were the days when she’d scamper ahead only to toil back
dragging half a branch in her jaws. ‘It’s funny how you’re the cause of my
position today. If it hadn’t been for you, I might still be setting tables back
home. I might have married a fisherman, or a carpenter like my father.’ Clouds
blended in the sky directly above us, ostensibly born of nothing more
substantial than the gathering night.
‘It’ll rain,’ I said. ‘I left my
umbrella – ’
‘It won’t rain.’ We stopped. He was
very close to me. I could smell linseed on him, and something faintly bestial,
like horses in a stable. Beneath that coir riot of beard, his mouth was soft
and tamely devouring. It was the closest I’d been to kissing my mother goodbye.
We ate in the dining room, which faced
the westering sun. Ripley looked good; his face trapping light in its planes
and angles, catching in the hooks of his beard like spun gold.
‘Will you help me, Kim?’
‘I’ve spent countless nights doing
unspeakable things to you, Ripley. I’ve dreamed up deaths for you, God yes. But
now you’re here, I don’t hate you any more. I never hated you. Bastard.’
‘I’m an old man. I’ll not be able to
rest – ’
‘At the end of your life you come to me
for absolution. My father died not long ago. Broken. You tore my life apart.
You almost killed me. I should have put that knife through your eyes.’
made her a cup of tea the night before Ripley’s arrival. She was smoking,
listening to Jeri Southern LPs and reading a book though I didn’t see its
cover. I used to torture myself about that novel; how crucial it was that I
discover its identity so I might read it too, so that I might emulate her a
little. Thanks poppet. I kissed her hair.
‘So you’ll help me?’
Throwing my napkin aside I stood up and
leaned towards him, hands gripping either side of the table. ‘You’re the only
man that has meant anything to me. You’ve ruined any relationship I’ve been in;
you’ve driven away everybody I meet because I can’t get you out of my mind.’
I reached down and cupped him in my
hand. Told him to leave. He didn’t say a word. Watching Ripley fold himself
into his car, I nearly called to him. This was more difficult than the funerals
I’d attended; I turned my sadness into resentment.
In the conservatory I picked up the
photograph that had pricked his interest; an old, slightly fuzzy picture of me
as a baby in my mother’s arms. She’s standing on the jetty in Ullapool, Beinn
Eilideach rising behind her shoulder. In the background, a tethered boat. A
figure on the deck, looking towards us, not so out of focus that the sprawl of
a splendid beard cannot be defined. My mother’s smile is pained; I always
thought it was because of the sun in her eyes.
I replaced the photograph and looked to
the lairy sky. Ripley was wrong. Here came rain. Nothing but.