To everything, there is a season

Selma Carvalho | Updated on January 24, 2020

Barren lands: “We wonder how so much unhappiness can gather in one room”   -  ISTOCK.COM

A time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to break down, and a time to build up

– Ecclesiastes, Ch 3, verse 1-8

Stones turn sepia that summer. Afternoons swelter. Strawberry and peach punnets peek from the canopied shade of open markets in Hillingdon. Shirtless men glisten with sweat. They roam the streets in circling configurations of tattooed arms. They talk loudly, yelling across roads, as if some inner urgency, some primal force, is willing them to become warriors. Women walk the streets too. In bondings of two and three. I devise words to describe this grouping — an oceanary, perhaps? Their hair bleached by the sun, their red calves strapped in sandals, their backs bare, their breasts dunes of undulating flesh.

Luis and I lie naked in bed, pockmarked with sweat, the window cracked open. We’ve lost the will to make love. We wonder how so much unhappiness can gather in one room even when we leave the window open, hoping the sun will melt it away or the wind will dissipate it. But each day, it gathers momentum, crawling into the empty spaces of the room, spilling into the rest of the house and refusing to vacate.

your petaling crusts cling to my wintering shrubs. prune me

Luis sets up a large model train track in the living room; the sort of activity that brings joy on Christmas Day to lads whose voices have yet to break. The train runs through cut-out cardboard mountains and solitary towns of plastic houses. A plastic man with a tall hat walks his dog and a plastic woman led by a child walks in the turf park with its elm trees. There are bridges to go over and signals to change and yet it does nothing to lift Luis’s spirits. Joys in our house feel leaden. Even the most fleeting and frugal of joys feels leaden.

There are things our world is mapped with; arranged almost in alphabetical order. A for scheduled Appointments, B for Baseline temperature, C for ideal days for Conception, D for caffeine-free Diet, E for Estrogen, F for Fallopian tubes. Pills and charts guide us like celestial moons across a landscape of cyclical lunar disappointments.

Farewells: “On the last day of October, she stands on our doorstep in the cold drizzle of a weightless rain”   -  ISTOCK.COM


Marianne comes to us that summer, walking nimbly on our splintered hearts. Marianne is young with slim-bladed shoulders. I believe those shoulders will grow wings one of these restless summer nights and a light breeze will whisk her away. She’ll snag on the silver birch trees across the road. She’ll be laughing at me from way up there. Her yellowing teeth glinting in the lamplight.

She is skint and homeless until Luis suggests we take her in, and offer her board and lodging in return for tidying up the house, raking the yard and dispelling the gloom. She smells of cigarettes and other things I can’t identify but I know are foul. She shakes all the time, even while she speaks, she shakes. And her skinny jeans are streaked with vertical lines of brown, which won’t come out in the wash.

Marianne walks around the house loose-limbed and barefoot. On one of her ankles is a silver bracelet with tiny bells which tinkle, sending, it seems, soft vibrations through the floor. I see Luis listening out for those bells; evening angelus bells they are to Luis. A call to prayer. I know then, Luis is still alive inside. Inside him, the tree rings are dry but not dead yet. They are there — concentric circles buoying at sea — willing more years to leave traces of his existence.

We make new lists that summer. We google for the names of specialists. We zero in on the one we think is most likely to help us. We call her up. We make an appointment. We entrust the house to Marianne’s care. We link fingers while we drive across the city. Only Luis’s eyes don’t meet mine. We sit across from the unsmiling doctor, we search for hope in her dead eyes, we blink in the cold fluorescent light of back-lit X-rays, we hang on to words which might give us courage — clear fallopian tubes, good sperm motility — anything that might make us feel the odds of conceiving aren’t the same as us winning the lottery. When we return, we find the whiskey decanted and the loose change, missing.

Marianne runs me a bath. She pulls my T-shirt over my shoulders and then my head. She lowers my pants. She leads me to the bathtub. She perfumes my water. She rinses my hair. She leaves the door open in case I need her. Then, she makes tea. Luis and she sit on the floor beside the train tracks, drinking from oversized mugs. They run trains through mountains and through towns peopled with happy, plastic smiles. At night, I dream of Marianne trimming our hedgerows, washing our car, stacking our dishwasher, and, all the time, Marianne looks at me with eyes sunk ever deeper in her thin, long face.

you don’t fool me, you’re glass-eyed green under sheets of ice. scale me

Mid-summer the heat surges to record highs. Marianne gets rid of her skinny jeans. She now wears only long T-shirts around the house; her breasts and bottoms, much like her life, remain undefined, unfettered and unsupported. Marianne drives me to Sainsbury’s one evening. We buy smoked salmon and eat it stacked on rye bread. We drink lemonade in the park and watch the children play on the swings. Marianne lies on her back, shielding her eyes from a summer sun mottled on a red sky, imagining, I suppose, a future. I don’t know anything about her. I don’t care to ask.

We talk about the garden and the new rake she needs, the lavender she wants to plant, the catmint she is going to grow. None of those peonies and roses for us, she says scrunching her face in disgust, we want strong, sturdy shrubs and flowers. She sits up suddenly and flexes her skinny arms to make her point. She cleans the dirt stuck in her nails with a twig. She puts the twig in her mouth. She lies flat on her back again. I lie on the uncut grass next to her, with my head on her pulsing breasts, listening to her young heart beat in rhythm to the world. Perhaps there is a message in that rhythmic beating. I want to keep listening to her heart, so that I can decipher the message and keep it as our secret.

There are things missing around the house; the small reproduction of van Eyck’s painting of dour man with pregnant wife, which Luis and I had bought in Amsterdam and loved so much; the compass we’d bought at an antiques fair in Kent, the series of first edition Dickens’s classics we had lined up on the lower bookshelf, the hand-bound chapbook of Byron poems which Luis read out to me at night, the French Reader and the Portuguese to English Dictionary. I don’t yearn for any of those things. They belong to a distant past.

That summer Luis moves into the spare room. The spaces in our bedroom are filled with the eager press of our melancholy. There is no room left in there for the two of us. Marianne moves in with him. I hear the hoarse cries of their love-making, the suck of air, the moan of release, the rustle of retreat, and it quietens me. I know the tree rings inside of Luis are raw again: Growing, thriving. Each night new rings etch themselves inside of Luis. I feel the ebb of expectation from my body and the sweep of slumber. In the mornings, we meet in the hallway; the wormhole connecting disparate time zones and realities. We see ourselves in van Eyck’s convex mirror, the pain in our lives deflected by Marianne.

The garden grows with long stems of lavender; profusions of purple grandstanding against the brick-red of our house. The privet hedges wall off the outside world. The solid silver cutlery is no longer in the upper drawer of the wooden cabinet, the cut-glass decanters are long gone, my iPad is missing and so is Luis’s X-Box.

you’re cold, cold, cold, you deaden my unshod heart. feel me

Marianne grows thinner with each passing day, her rib cage outlined against her T-shirt. She is bruised and broken. I watch as life steadily slips out of her. One morning, when Luis is running trains, she leads me by the hand into his room. I smell the sweat on his unwashed shirts, the stale odour of shoes, the sweet citrus of aftershave still lingering in the air. I smell him, the very core of him in that room. She reaches for my hand and traces it across her naked stomach. She guides my fingers into the wetness between her legs. She teaches me to navigate the folds that lead inside her. Her spidery fingers web my breasts, her thin body folding in on me until she looks like a comma; a punctuation mark laid waste against me. Our moans whip through the hallway to where the trains are whistling.

Autumn comes with the fury of the wind and a flurry of leaves. On the last day of October, she stands on our doorstep in the cold drizzle of a weightless rain; her hair dishevelled, her face beaked, a grey wraith, a life never taking seed. We cannot save her. She has with her a bulging black garbage bag swung over her shoulder. We don’t ask what’s in the bag. We don’t check. There are things of ours which belong to her. There were things of hers which belong to us. Our angular pain has rounded and scabbed. Luis and I kiss her goodbye. We lace our fingers and close the door behind us.

SELMA CARVALHO   -  Ash Bosamia / Kee Photographics


Selma Carvalho is a London-based prize-winning British-Asian writer. Her debut fiction novella Sisterhood of Swans is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger

Published on January 24, 2020

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