The pockmarked earth is burnt red and blistered; sucked dry and scarred by the parched air. It is a landscape that seems alien to me – extra-terrestrial in a way in which Spain and Portugal on our annual two weeks away have never been. Thank god for air con. I force myself to keep staring straight ahead; I am determined not to look at John, who is hunched close over the steering wheel beside me.
‘Look out for signs, will you?’ he snaps irritably.
‘I’d be surprised if it’s signposted,’ I counter. ‘There haven’t been any signs since Goldfield.’
‘Well look out for some kind of caravan park then.’
‘I think they call them trailer parks over here.’
He snorts at this, but does not talk to me again – so I have that to be grateful for at least.
I catch sight of it then, the trailer park – about a mile ahead on the left. I do not point it out to John though; surely he will notice.
As we start to draw level with the trailers and cabins, John screeches into a dirt track that’s invisible to us – almost right up until the point at which we are upon it.
‘Christ, I nearly missed it!’ he snaps. ‘I told you to look out for it.’
I do not rise to the bait. I do not want to arrive at his brother’s trailer in the midst of a domestic. I can foresee Charlie’s slightly bemused – and ever so slightly amused – expression, even just contemplating the thought of it. I know there will be a hint of ill-disguised sympathy there as well, and that I will be able to bear that least of all.
The little reception hut is empty. There is a bell on the desk, and we press it expectantly – though we cannot see any doorway other than the one through which we have just entered.
‘Do you have a pitch number?’ I ask John hesitantly.
‘Oh yes,’ his response is sarcastic. ‘Because I visit him all the time, don’t I?’
‘I just meant – you know – for correspondence?’
He shakes his head, and bangs his hand down hard on the bell once more. Decades of long neglected dust rise – and fall – in response to this sudden expression of anxiety. I realise then that John is nervous too.
I open my mouth as if to speak, but then close it again as the door creaks open.
The man is huge – he is probably the fattest man I have ever seen. He does not have a greedy face though; he has a kindly face. I imagine that he is fat because he is as generous to himself as he is to others.
‘Hey!’ his tone is welcoming, as he addresses John. ‘You must be Charlie’s brother – he said you were coming.’ He extends his hand to John – who seems momentarily confused, but then redeems himself just before it is too late by reciprocating.
The man turns to me. ‘And you must be John’s beautiful wife – very pleased to meet you.’ Having first had time to compose myself, I am quicker than John to offer him my own hand.
‘We didn’t know where to go – for Charlie,’ I explain.
‘Oh, I’ll show you. He’s gone for a hike – didn’t know what time you’d get here. But he said to go on in and make yourselves at home.’
There are some old camp chairs outside Charlie’s trailer, and John positions them right up against the side wall, in the full exposure of the afternoon sun. It feels like a long hot death, by radiation firing squad, to me – and I am struggling to breathe; suffocating in the heat.
‘I’m going inside for a bit,’ I say – more to myself than to John. ‘It’s too hot for me.’
‘What’s the point in coming, if you’re going to spend the whole time moaning about the bloody weather?’ he complains – but he follows me inside the trailer anyway.
‘It’s just like him,’ he grumbles. ‘Just like Charlie to leave it all unlocked like this.’
‘He did know we were coming . . .’ my voice trails off.
There is a small table and chairs to one side of the little kitchenette, so I position myself there. It feels somehow more appropriate than slumping down on the sofa bed by the TV.
It seems to me that John and I are like giants in this trailer, we are too big for it; we don’t fit. We bend awkwardly round its tight corners and enclosed spaces, just as we bend awkwardly and edge round one another.
‘Oh, this is ridiculous!’ John is losing whatever patience he had left. ‘I’m going to look for him.’
I half-heartedly try to reason with him; I tell him that he will get lost, that his chances of coming across Charlie in that huge expanse of heat are a million to one. But he says that he is not prepared to waste any more of the day just sitting around here waiting for his brother to take it upon himself to come back.
Now that he has gone, I feel relieved – lighter and freer somehow. A ligthter, freeer somehonw.s the door slams shut, even as its echoes reverberate through me; I have a sense of anxiety discharging. I look around and begin to take in the trailer properly for the first time. Charlie has not made much effort to make it homely – it is functional, utilitarian. The only ‘extras’ are those preinstalled by the manufacturers to sell a lifestyle. I do not think that the lifestyle Charlie has bought is the one that the manufacturers had in mind. He is looking after the trailer though; it is well maintained and clean.
I am tempted to look through his things; I wonder what memories he stores in the little nooks and crannies of this impermanent existence. I stand, and then twist above myself to see what is in the cupboard over my head. It seems empty at first, but then I can feel a small piece of bony material nudged into one corner; it is the unmistakable shape of a bra. I pull it out of the cupboard to get a better look. I does not look cheap and nasty, like I have imagined the women Charlie must occasionally bring back here to be – it looks expensive, like something Elaine might wear. I cannot resist the allure of its scent. I raise it to my face and breathe in – tentative at first, but then inhaling deeply: Chanel No. 5.
‘It’s what Marilyn Monroe wore.’ I can hear Elaine’s voice filtered through the years, still smooth though, still poised. I know that Charlie loved her; that she loved him. I wonder what went wrong for them. If I’d had to put money on which of us would go the distance, surely Charlie and Elaine would have got better odds than John and I. Probably they still would.
The bra has made me feel self-conscious now and, deterred from any further snooping – at least for the time being – I hastily shove it back into its cubby hole, back for Charlie to continue forgetting about. I cannot help but wonder if he ever takes it out and examines it though – not as I have done today, but with something more like sentimentality as his motivation. I momentarily try to conjure an image of Charlie emotionally crippled; wrestling with a sense of nostalgic regret – but it is not an easy fit. It is more like something I would do than something Charlie would do.
I do not want to think about this anymore, so I cross quickly to the little kitchenette area and fill the kettle with water, though god only knows who would drink tea in this heat. I hear the door handle turn behind me, but keep staring straight ahead out of the window in front of me. I am not ready to turn and face Charlie yet. I don’t know how I know that it is Charlie and not John; it is probably something to do with the racing in my chest and the rushing hum thudding just behind my ears.
Charlie comes up behind me, places his fingertips on either side of my waist, just at the top of my hip bones. His touch is slight, I can barely feel it. For a moment I think that I will be unable to stop myself from leaning back against him.
‘Will you spend the night with me Liz, if I come home for Christmas this year?’
I cannot stop the sharp little involuntary inhalation of breath in time, and Charlie chuckles. He lifts my hair, and lightly brushes the nape of my neck with a kiss. His chuckle has broken the spell already though, and I find that I am able to turn to face him after all. I do not need to twist out of his arms; he relinquishes his hold on me effortlessly. This is how everything always is with Charlie; effortless. I do not have time to appraise the passing of time on his face before I respond – that will come later.
‘Lizzie . . . it’s been too long . . . ‘
‘Is it? Is it really that long?’
I nod. ‘John has gone to look for you.’ I think that this is probably obvious to him, but I am taking a pre-emptive strike against any gaps in conversation before they occur. I want to keep this light.
This time, Charlie nods. ‘I know,’ he says. He says it with a smile, so I don’t push it.
The kettle is steaming and, as we turn to it in unison, it clicks off.
‘Not making tea, are you Liz?’
‘No – no, I don’t think so.’
We both laugh then, any tension diffused.
‘Let’s see what’s in the fridge,’ he opens the door. ‘Coke? OJ?’
‘What’s that in the bottle?’ I say. It looks like spring water.
‘Oh that,’ Charlie takes the bottle from the fridge, slowly tips it upside down and then upright again. ‘That’s space water.’
‘From the missions? You’ve kept it all this time?’
He shrugs, and takes down two wine glasses from a cupboard above the cooker. ‘I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.’
I eye the bottle – somewhat apprehensively now. ‘Should we wait for John?’
‘No, I think this is it,’ Charlie smiles. ‘Shall we step outside? It’s cooling a little now.’
I follow him outside, and we sit on the chairs John positioned earlier.
‘Sorry Liz, would you prefer to sit in the shade?’
‘No, it’s fine.’ I like it that he remembers I don’t like the sun, but still I want him to see that I have changed. I am not the person I used to be.
He opens the bottle, and pours us each a glass. I don’t know why, but I expect it to fizz – of course, it doesn’t. Charlie hands me my drink, and I realise that I am suddenly thirsty. I take a large gulp; it tastes slightly bitter – like vitamins. I down nearly the whole glass – it’s been at least four hours since I last had a drink.
Charlie sips his. ‘Still tastes like shit,’ he smiles.
‘What was it like?’ I ask him. I have wanted to ask him for years.
He shakes his head. ‘Most of the time, not as exciting as I thought it would be. The rest of the time, just like you’d expect; like nothing on earth.’
‘Did you ever think about home while . . . you know, while you were ‘up there’, looking down on us?’
‘Did I think about you Liz, you mean?’ He doesn’t wait for my answer. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘All the time.’
I can feel the space water gurgling inside my stomach, I am sure it has started to fizz now.
At last Charlie comes to it. ‘Was she in a lot of pain Liz?’
‘No, not in the end.’
‘I should have been there.’
‘I think . . . I think maybe she thought you were.’ As I say it, I realise it may even be true – certainly it could have been true. ‘She said ‘my boys’ . . . she definitely said ‘boys’ – you know, in the plural.’
He nods, not entirely convinced, but he doesn’t pursue it further. He still trusts my judgement, I think – and I feel a stab of guilt when I recall John’s characteristic bitterness on her passing, though on whose account I cannot say.
I had been driving back from the hospital, John shielding his grief with anger in the car beside me.
‘I can’t believe she asked for him,’ he’d suddenly blurted. ‘After all these years – did you hear her? Over twenty years since he left, and still she looked for him – ‘my boy?’ she said, didn’t she? – looked straight past me, only looking for him, wasn’t she?’
Charlie is waiting.
‘I feel a bit funny,’ I slur; my lips slow to form the words.
He is at once attentive. ‘I knew I should have got you in the shade. Are you ok?’
‘Just a little faint . . .’ and it is true. My fingertips are numb and tingling. Sweat is cooling on my forehead. I can feel myself teetering on the edge of control now, in a moment I know that I will be slipping down from the camp chair onto the hot dust below – and all semblance of dignity will be lost.
‘Come on Lizzie, let’s get you inside. . .’ he lifts me up, and leads my weight back inside the trailer – through the open plan living space and the partition doors at the back – into the bedroom.
Charlie’s bed is unmade but I do not care, the scent of Charlie on the unwashed sheets is strangely comforting to me; like home. And then the sense of home turns at once to a sense of homesickness; a feeling of displacement. I am vaguely aware of Charlie leaving, and then returning again. He presses something cold against my cheek.
‘Coke,’ he explains. ‘Try it, maybe you need a sugar fix.’
I sit up, accept the open can he is proffering and take a sip – then another one. I lie back down, but he is right – the sugar is working its magic.
Charlie is stroking my hair, and cheek now; his hand slightly rough and smelling of sun. I smile into his palm, and murmur that I’m feeling a little better.
‘How are the kids?’ I say.
‘They’re doing good Liz, real good – both high fliers now, in marketing – you know?’
I notice for the first time the slight American accent Charlie has picked up; I wonder if he’s aware of it.
‘And Elaine?’ I ask. ‘Do you ever see her?’
‘She’s remarried – has been for . . . what? . . . at least ten years now. She comes to see me here sometimes. Says it helps to clear her head, escape from reality for a bit.’
‘Seems a strange way to clear your head though, Charlie – with your ex-husband.’ I realise I sound like a bitch, but I don’t care; I can’t stop thinking about that bra.
‘I wasn’t the best husband in the world Liz – back then.’ It is an explanation of sorts; though I don’t really understand of what.
I experience his words with something like a kind of excluded jealousy. I sit up to face him; forcing eye contact; suddenly brazen in my desperation to recapture an earlier – now lost, it seems – connection. Charlie doesn’t flinch or laugh; he just looks straight back at me. The only other people I have ever stared at this intently before have been the children. I have never been this intimate with John. Charlie lifts his hands and cups my face; it is like something from one of those films, only it is happening to me – in real life. I did not think this was something that would ever happen to me. For a moment, I think that he will kiss me and that it will be awkward – and also slightly ridiculous – but he does not, so there is no embarrassment there. We continue staring like this, and I do not see the face of my husband’s brother or a fifty-something ex-astronaut in front of me – I see the face of the kindest man I have ever known. It does not surprise me then that John chooses this exact moment to crash his way back into Charlie’s trailer.
‘In here John,’ Charlie calls. He does not let go of me though – I suppose he must have nothing to hide. I, on the other hand, most certainly do have something to hide – but I do not fear John’s reaction.
‘Liz wasn’t feeling too good,’ Charlie offers, by way of explanation.
‘Never could take the heat,’ John is carrying the half empty space water bottle. ‘Christ it is hot though – is this yours?’
Charlie shrugs. ‘Sure John, help yourself. It’s good to see you.’
John nods, and takes a large swig from the bottle. ‘God, that’s awful,’ he says – but he finishes it anyway. Charlie and I exchange a glance. Muggy and oppressive, the air in the trailer is thick with an adulterous charge. Charlie – reluctantly it seems to me – gets up and crosses to John. It is an awkward hug that John breaks first.
‘Give us a shout if you need anything, won’t you Liz?’ There is a remnant of concern in Charlie’s voice, but still he places a hand on John’s shoulder and steers him away and out of the bedroom anyway.
Once they are gone I lie back down, curling up into a foetal position – and allow myself to reabsorb the scent of Charlie. I hug what has just happened into me, cradling the gurgling space water in my tummy. This is a better secret than sex I think, better than if we’d fucked.
Later John will tell me what he and Charlie discussed outside, what they have agreed about the house and the ashes and the assets. Of course Charlie will relinquish his share to John, just as he has always done. He will give all he has in his power to give to John, just as he has given all he has in his power to give to me. It is his way.