One day, towards evening, as the sun was declining over the distant hilltops, and dusk thickened the air like dust rising from the winding road, a figure appeared some way off, approaching the town slowly, steadily, until some minutes later we could make out that it was a man. At that time, we had been living in the town for about three years. My father was a doctor and we had moved there when I was at an age at which I remembered little before the town. We’d moved there because my father had found work there the year before, when he’d been having trouble with my mother and had left us for a year. But anyone could have told my parents that their marriage was disintegrating not because my father was unhappy where he was – not because he was dissatisfied with his current practice and needed a change so great that it had brought us from the cities in the east to this town in the middle of nowhere, on a large island off the coast, among mountains and fisheries, a lumber mill and a good Catholic school but little else, except for a ski-hill a half-hour drive away – but because my father and my mother were not suited to each other; and no amount of money, false promises or new starts could dissemble that fact. My father was popular with the town, my mother had the children, and for a few halcyon years, we were relatively content there. When my father and mother had started going out together again, often spending nights away at the closest city, towards the ski-hill, they hired a girl who lived down the street to babysit us. It was with her, on the dirt roads outside the town, by the river where she used to go motorbiking and where she would take us snowmobiling in the winter, that we saw the man approach.
Eden had been our babysitter for a couple of years; her sister had looked after us twice before giving the job to Eden, who was younger and more sure of herself. She was still then a tomboy, with straight dark hair cropped close to her head, bright splotches of freckles across her nose, and red energetic cheeks. The beauty that she would become when she’d grown, a stately if thickset figure with a daunting and imperious air, had not yet surfaced, and she was, as far as I knew then, solitary, someone who liked to spend time by herself but was affable and congenial with others at the same time, so that she was quite popular in our little town. Almost everyone called her Eddy, and only her mother, with evident disapproval of the diminutive, maintained ‘Eden’, shooting a glance from under her wrinkled brow whenever Eden’s father used the name. He was apparently less perturbed than she by Eden’s aversion to dresses, or her disinterest in the local high school dances, or even, I might say, in the pool hall, which I was forbidden to enter, where the big kids hung out, and which my friends and I, cycling there on our bikes, feigned to disdain, but to which we were all drawn by fearful curiosity for the raucous music and loud voices, or by the local dogcatcher’s car parked behind it, the big dark car that would move slowly through town with one or two caught strays tied by a rope to its fender as it made its way to the small building behind the ice rink, from where we could hear the strays yelping and where, if they were not claimed after several days, with a momentary quiet settling over the place, they were exterminated.
The man we saw coming down the road, emerging from the shimmering heat the summer had suddenly brought after a bitter winter, was Craig Lawson; and on that fateful day, while Eden was squatted down to fix her bike, and my sister was crying beside her because she wanted to go home, I was the first to see him. Eden stood up after me, wiping the sweat from her brow with her freckled arm, her face, without her glasses, strangely naked to me, her eyes seeming somehow much smaller, like a bush had been parted and a startled animal revealed. She squinted, raising her hand against the sun to see who it was. Even my sister, who Eden was trying to placate, momentarily looked up to watch his slow approach. ‘Shh, Cathy,’ Eden said, bending down because Catherine had started crying again. ‘We’ll be home soon. Shh, we’ll get you some monkey’s blood when we get home, okay, Cathy? Shhh,’ – monkey’s blood being the name she’d given to soda water with cherry grenadine, which delighted us – and on hearing that, my sister nodded, sniffling, and quieted. Edith stood up again and Craig came at us unhurried, like he was fixed on his course, and we waited, watching him come slowly through the shimmering air and the bright sunlight and the dust lifting off the road against the pine trees; waiting for him in a silence pregnant with possibilities, until he seemed, through the wet and heavy air, to suddenly snap into view and, looking at us, eventually came to a stop, already smiling.
‘Hi Eden,’ he said, and his smile deepened.
He was several years older than Eden, and to us, a man. He had already graduated from high school, and Eden knew who he was because he had still been there when she had started going, although three years above her, and had dated Debra Tufts, who had been the prettiest girl in school and whose reputation, though she had long since left for the city and married, still lingered. He was someone, whether she admitted it to herself or not, who she had admired when she’d been younger still. She was startled now to hear her name come from him; and while she looked up at him as his smile focused on her in a way she’d never seen before, if she’d even seen him notice her at all, the tomboy that she’d been died away. It was as though she suddenly grew fully aware of herself, or aware of what she in body presented to the world, the world that had sprung up and was circumscribed in Craig’s eyes, making her feel terribly bare. You could almost see it then. Her eyes were upturned, her face seemed to widen, as if something deep within her was rising and expanding in the gaze he fixed on her. She blinked twice, the smear of chain grease across her cheek shining in the sunlight, and she wiped the hair from her eyes with the back of her hand, surprised still at having heard her name, first, and her true name at that, with such startling familiarity, and then surprised at herself for not knowing whether to use his name, to show that she knew it, or just to say, as she did, timidly, ‘Hi…’
The courting period didn’t take very long, as reticent as Eden may have been in the beginning. She was still seventeen when they were officially recognised as a couple by the town, and the relationship lasted three years. She remained our babysitter, and was as dependable as she’d always been. She grew, if anything, more tender, more womanly, as if she’d suddenly grown up, and not wild and irresponsible as everyone feared she’d become in the incongruous company of Craig Lawson and in the passions of their relationship. She began staying out later with him; he would come down our street to pick her up in his car, with her mother frowning in disapprobation at the front window as she ran out to him, and her father lingering behind with worried care. But during that first year or so it was like she was glowing, like everything that had been latent in her, everything within her that had been trembling to bloom, finally flowered all at once, and her once boyish face – more marked now because she didn’t wear her glasses anymore, except on the nights she stayed over at our place – seemed fuller and more tender and strangely appeased. She played less frequently now the maudlin love songs she used to choose from the stacks of my father’s LPs after we’d gone to bed and which would reach us faintly from the living room, like something, some part of the adult world, that came out only after we were sent to sleep. On the nights my parents stayed in the city, when the roads were blocked with snow, Eden would let me stay up with her late at night because I insisted I was the oldest, and I would fall asleep beside her on the couch, looking out at the light from the streetlamps and the drifts of snow that would mount so high back then that there were some mornings when we, my family and I, couldn’t get out and I would be sent by my father through the kitchen window to dig a space before the back door.
Whatever gossip there was, my father, as town doctor, often heard it: ‘Tha’ Lawson is up to no good with young Sprence, I tell ya,’ he was told; and so he told my mother, and they spoke about it over dinner while my sister and I sat on either side of the table and listened in their growing silences to the clack of cutting on their plates. Craig Lawson’s reputation about town was less than comforting. There were rumours about abusive scenes between him and his old girlfriend, and he hadn’t had a steady job since graduating from high school, even though the truth was that there were few jobs to be had then and on the very day we’d met him, he’d been returning from the mill, where he’d gone to seek employment. And it was true that in the beginning of their relationship, my friends and I would sometimes see him emerging from the back door of the pool hall, passing around a smoke in the back lot, and him much older than the others. But he did eventually stop going there, and, besides, it would have been foolish to think that Eden had not heard or known enough about him beforehand. One evening, I surprised them on the couch together when I should have been asleep. They were sitting in the dark, with the light from a streetlamp through the front window lying across them like a faint gauze. Upon seeing me, Eden sprang up shocked and cried, ‘Bobby! Go to bed! … Craig,’ she shouted, ‘stop it!’ – batting his hands from her, then taking me by my hand and leading me back to my room. ‘I’m sorry, Bobby,’ she said, but it didn’t sound like she was really saying it to me, and Craig was never invited back into our house again. There were times during that first year when she appeared sad and fragile, and we’d suddenly hear the sad love songs coming down the hallway from the living room again, but whatever problems they may have had, they worked them out.
And how he’d changed! How Craig Lawson had changed! The long hair, which was in style at the time, had been cleaned and combed, and the small iron stud in his left ear, which the town eyed warily, was taken out and replaced by a more discreet crystal. There was an awkward and stiff politeness to him when he first met Eden’s parents – there for Eden, conceding to Eden, when it was clear he would have preferred to be elsewhere – and a type of restrained disdain in his cordiality, with something that they, her parents, said afterwards was immature, even proprietary, in the way, when sitting on their couch, he had reached out and taken Eden’s hand in his.
One Christmas Day, Craig was invited over to their house. It was never quite clear what his own family did, though his mother was dead and his father a drunk who lived past the tracks in the poor part of town, where we didn’t go. My father and mother and sister and I had come over, having been invited, as we were every Christmas Day, by Mrs Sprence, and we’d dressed up for the occasion. The red plastic Christmas tree with tinsel boughs had been pulled out and set up again in the corner of the living room. The dining room table was laid out with pâtés and Christmas cake, which were there to assert her Scandinavian ancestry, one of the airs Mrs Sprence gave herself, in the same vein as the family photos neatly arranged on the tables, of husband and wife and the two daughters and then the family together, and the portraits that hung with a certain correctness upon the walls that lined the stairs, as if to say that this were the way the world should be, and that she, Mrs Sprence, dressed up now for Christmas, would accept no other. Eden’s older sister was off at nursing school and had been unable to come. Mrs Sprence was sitting in her chair with her hands crossed on her lap. Mr Sprence was quietly drinking his rye. He looked too old to be the father of such young daughters: his face was wizened, his hair dry, and his gaze, behind glasses, seemed always slightly distracted. When he spoke, his words were always ignored or treated impatiently by Mrs Sprence.
The snow had piled up outside and the sun was shining upon it. We found Craig in the kitchen, glowering. It was the first time he had been invited to the Sprences’ for any formal occasion. He was uncomfortable being there and tried to hide it by being arrogant.
‘Missus Sprence,’ he proclaimed when he came back into the living room and sat on the couch, his leg cocked on his knee, ‘you ’ave a pretty ’ouse.’ He stretched his arm around Eden. ‘An’ a pretty daughter,’ he said, laughing.
Mrs Sprence smiled thinly, nodding. ‘Thank you, Craig.’
Everyone continued talking.
‘Would you like another drink, Craig?’ Mr Sprence eventually said.
‘’Ave you got a beer?’ Craig asked, which made Mrs Sprence glance over from her conversation with my parents and frown at her husband.
‘We have Golden and Labatts.’
‘I’ll ’ave a Golden!’
Mr Sprence rose from his chair and got it for him. Eden was visibly uncomfortable. Craig pulled her closer with his arm and pretended not to notice. ‘Thank you very much, sir,’ he said too politely when he got the beer, and snapped it loudly.
‘Eden tells me you’re working at the mill now…’ Mrs Sprence said to him.
‘That I am,’ he said, flashing his eyes up at her as if seeking something more to what she said, then smiling. ‘I begun there four months ago.’
Christmas carols were playing over the speaker. Mrs Sprence smiled thinly. He seemed to remember himself then, putting his hand on Eden’s knee as a sort of apology, and leaned forward to take one of the homemade shortbread cookies on the table. ‘These are good cookies,’ he told Mrs Sprence.
‘I’m glad you like them,’ she said, heavy with irony.
‘I do,’ Craig replied, pretending not to have noticed, then added with the same irony, ‘I think my pa used to buy the same ones,’ leaning over to take another.
Eden was undoubtedly in love with him, for he had been up to that point – and could later be said to have been throughout her whole life – her first and only real boyfriend. And, despite the surliness that sometimes came over him, from that prickly and false pride he carried with him like some tin trophy – as we had seen that Christmas, after which my mother had glanced up at my father on the way back home from the Sprences’ and my father had said sternly, ‘Not now,’ which I saw as meaning he didn’t want to discuss it in front of the children – it should be said that Craig Lawson, even on that very Christmas Day when he put his arm around Eden and pulled her to him as some deliberate affront to her mother, was, for a time at least, smitten with her, too. The whole town used to speak about them: about how Eden was just a pup and that Lawson was too old for her, how they would see his car (perhaps the one thing he loved more than Eden) waiting by the high school for her to get out, him sitting with his elbow cocked in the window and the music loud till the bell rang when, from some odd sense of decorum, he would turn it down, his face angry-looking or strangely impassive, looking at no-one, until Eden would emerge and get in his car and he would lean over and kiss her. That no-good lout, people would say, just like his father, no wonder his mother died young as she did, God rest her soul, having to deal with the likes of the two of them her whole life, crushed between them, as if God had sent them to squeeze and crush every drop of sin from her, and she suffered it in her quiet and stolid way, she did, till the day – she wasn’t yet 50 then, was she? – she gave up the ghost, and flew straight up to heaven, God rest her soul, and left the old man with the bottle (not that he, the husband, noticed she’d gone anyways) and the young one wild and free and doing whatever he wanted in this world, as if there weren’t any consequences to pay for your actions! They, Craig and Eden, would often be seen together walking down the main street of town, his arm draped about her shoulder, his head held high as a cock’s, his chest puffed out as if he were breasting the air, but all with something too self-conscious about it, even as he was talking with her, as if with one ear he was half-listening to whatever Eden was saying and with the other he was constantly on his guard, ready to take offence.
The summer of her graduation, Eden and Craig moved in together. It came as a shock to everyone, including my parents, though the town had grown used to seeing them together. By then, my parents had come to see Eden as more of a family friend than a babysitter. Her relationship with Craig had caused a definite rift between her mother and her, and it was said that the two didn’t really talk anymore, with Eden keeping to her bedroom in the basement, while her mother and father’s room was on the second floor, and that the only time they gathered together again as a family was when the older daughter Anne came home on vacation from college.
Eden announced the news of her move one day as she was sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea with my mother. My father was there, considering her sternly, as if she were almost, but not quite, part of the family. She had let her hair grow long and called my mother now by her first name, as though it were adult talking to adult, woman to woman. She was eighteen then and her body had not yet taken on the amplitude it would when she was older. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her face was freckled from the sun and flushed with excitement. Her eyes twinkled as she talked about the coming move. She sat at the table with her sleeves rolled up and a necklace hanging from the unbuttoned top of her blouse, brimming with suppressed excitement but attempting to look older than she was by trying to contain her enthusiasm, although her eyes, and her smile, like a rising sun, and the nervous tapping of her finger on her teacup, betrayed her.
‘This is a very big responsibility, Eden,’ my father said. ‘You can’t move in with someone and move out as you please.’
‘Have you thought about the commitment you’re making?’
‘We’re only going to try,’ Eden said. She never called my father by any name, though she looked at him now with that smile that had something in it of respectful distance. ‘He was going to get a house for himself anyway,’ she explained, turning her attention to my mother and smiling more broadly again.
‘I think it’s a great idea, Eden,’ my mother said, reaching out and putting her hand over Eden’s and shaking it. She was also smiling, wistful. ‘You can only try.’
There had already been a few scenes between Craig and Eden, so there was cause for concern. Their fights grew to be infamous, although, surprisingly, she always won. If she wept alone in her room, no one saw it. We only saw her face sad and pale and withdrawn, with something vulnerable and childlike about it at first, when the troubles had just started, as if she could not understand, not the details, but, essentially, why they were fighting. And these fights and the temporary departures of Craig from her life were further confirmed, although she said nothing about them, by sightings of him at the pool hall again, glowering, or getting raucously drunk with his friends; once, on such a night out, he hit a friend who had ventured to make some lewd remark about Eden, and after one punch held his friend up with one arm and with the other fist still cocked told him, ‘Don’t you fucking mention her again!’ The town grew to know they were fighting when he was sighted about town alone for two or three days, passing out drunk on friends’ couches, and a light was left on in the kitchen of the single-storey house they’d moved into, just on our side of the tracks, where Eden waited sadly until eventually and inevitably he stumbled home and told her, ‘I loves you, Eddy’ and she took him back again. They had few fights in public, though everyone always knew when things were going badly, before he began openly seeing other women. Once, towards the end, when things were very bad, her father, who she worked for at the cinema he owned, tried to talk to her about it.
‘Eden…’ he began.
‘It’s too late now,’ she said sharply, cutting him off for the first time in her life.
But all this came later, long after she sat at our kitchen table, with my mother’s hand on hers, shaking it with congratulations. My sister and I were told to go out and play while my father lectured Eden about something we were not meant to hear and which embarrassed her, because when she came out again towards the front lawn where my sister and I were playing, she was flushed. She stopped and squatted down and played with us for a while, then she patted our heads and we watched her walk off down the road, under a low June sky.
It was as though, after that, everything changed for her so quickly and dramatically that it must have become, deep within her, intolerable: and then at one point it all stopped again, for good. I remember when she was older and divorced, with two children of her own who lived with her ex-husband, a thin older man who had once been her teacher, on the other side of town, her body fuller and used now, but like something she sat in without being conscious of it, without it belonging to her, in the way we sit in a chair. Beauty still clung to the fleshiness of her face, like the rays of some dying or hidden light, and whenever we came to visit – for we had left the town a long time before – she would greet us and sit back down again in her chair by the window, in the house where she lived alone, with fierce and lonely solitude.
She and Craig moved into their house that summer when she was eighteen, and they lasted longer than people expected. Eden seemed for a while to have calmed Craig down and Craig seemed to have fully brought that beauty in Eden to the surface. There were some nights that showed what was to come. Craig, making good money, would drink, often going straight from the mill, his hair stiff, the day’s heat still lingering on his burned neck, the wood dust clinging to his used tartan shirts as he stood at the bar drinking with the older men from the mill, his face taking on a slightly amazed look, his eyes growing merry at first, then seeming like they were going to jump out of his sockets with a kind of intolerable enthusiasm. ‘Hey Jason, get Eddy a drink, will ya?!’ he would shout whenever Eden showed up, laughing at his own jokes, putting his arm around her, until the moment, if she couldn’t convince him to leave beforehand, his head would begin to nod, his enthusiasm would abruptly dim, and she would end up carrying him back home. Her mother now refused to have anything to do with her. After about a year’s absence, she came and started babysitting us again. There was a strange look of diffidence in my mother’s eyes when she first arrived, and she spoke to Eden with a sort of straitened familiarity.
‘Hello, Eden,’ she said, when Eden appeared at our back door again for the first time. ‘Everything’s as it’s always been,’ – looking like she wanted to say more but couldn’t. ‘We’ll be home by eleven.’
‘If there’s any problem, Eden, call us,’ my father said peremptorily, appearing in the doorway of the living room before my mother followed him out again. Eden, as though suddenly exhausted, picked up my sister, put her on her lap and looked ahead, distractedly.
The winter that came that year was fierce. It howled in early and dumped so much snow upon our little town that there were days when everything was shut down. Everyone said they hadn’t seen snow like that for years. It brought with it an early ski season, and on the days when the schools were closed, we were packed into my father’s jeep and drove our way to the local ski-hill. That’s what people called it, a ‘ski-hill’, but it was more a mountain than anything else, with trails splintering over its surface, set back from the road beyond the foothills of endless pines. We spent every weekend there, skiing during the day and sitting in the cheap lodges in the evening waiting for my father at the bar, sometimes having to wait so long that it was decided in the end that we would bring Eden with us, too. And even then we sat, with Eden looking after us, and my mother now free to join my father, listening to the voices and music coming from the other room, like a whole other world that we could hear but not enter, and so tired by the end that I could hardly remember my mother waking us up and putting us in the jeep, and my father driving us back along the highway, and Eden quiet in the back seat beside us while my parents exchanged words in the front – ‘Look, Marie,’ my father saying, ‘I’m fine!’, ‘You shouldn’t drink so much,’ ‘If you want to drive, you can drive,’ ‘I’m only thinking of the children,’ – until we arrived back home again. Just how much was happening in Eden’s life then was hidden from us behind the cheerfulness she put on when she played with my sister and me, and the silence she maintained when she was around my parents. But one night I overheard a conversation between my parents in the kitchen that shed some light on the troubles we could only guess at.
‘He’s not to be trusted,’ I heard my father saying. ‘I’ve heard things from patients, Marie. He’s about town with some other woman, some tramp he’s found…’
‘It’s not her fault,’ my mother interrupted.
‘I don’t want her around the children anymore,’ my father said.
‘She—’ but my mother turned then and saw me in the doorway, shot a look at my father, and I was sent back to my room, where my sister was still sleeping.
One day in February, we all packed into my father’s jeep. There was a bright blue sky and a light breeze was wheeling snow from the high banks along our driveway. We had been woken early and given breakfast. My father sat in the front seat beside my mother, with my sister and I in the back, and we drove down the street to pick up Eden at her parents’ house, where she had recently returned to live. She was sitting in the front window, a dark, immobile figure behind the clouds moving across the windowpane. She came out as soon as we arrived, looking like she hadn’t slept, trying to smile. My mother tried to be cheerful when she opened the back door of the jeep, but it felt like a cold silence entered the jeep with her. My mother and father exchanged glances, and we drove down our road in the early morning quiet with the bright clouds passing above us and the banks of snow towering beside us and the road still empty.
‘Ready for another day of skiing?’ my father said.
‘It looks good today,’ Eden said.
‘Eden, dear,’ my mother said, turning around, ‘if… if you’re tired, you don’t have to… it’s not necessary for you to…’ then looked back at my father, as if seeking what to say.
‘I’m okay,’ Eden said.
‘It won’t be a long day,’ my mother promised.
The story, as we heard it later, was that after several well-publicised fights, followed by increasingly tenuous reconciliations, during which time the small house she lived in with Craig by the tracks remained eerily silent as though to reproach all the town gossip, Eden had finally left Craig. She had moved back into her room in the basement of her parents’ house after he had begun impudently parading around town with another woman, or, more specifically, after she, the other woman, many years older than Eden, had one day crossed Eden’s path in the main street of town and smiled at her, then chortled as Eden passed. Craig made the woman suffer for it afterwards when Eden had finally left him; he threw a drink at her in the local bar when she came in weeping, begging, ‘Why, why are you mad at me, baby, why?’
The whole town was talking about the incidents, though no one said anything to Eden, and about how, it was said, Eden’s mother had taken her back in without a word, neither of reproach nor sympathy, and how the bed in her old basement room was made up again stiff and cold, as if it had stayed that way from the moment she’d left to the moment she returned. Craig had tried to approach her many times after that, but she wouldn’t talk to him. When she had stopped working at her father’s cinema, where he used to try to see her, we would see his car driving up and down our street, but he never dared show up at her house. Until the day he did, and her mother answered the door while Eden was still in the basement, and Craig demanded to talk to Eden, and her mother just stood in the doorway – a tall, thin, cold woman who never seemed to age – and told him, without once bending her impassive gaze to his wild, shamed, impotent fury, or even pretending that Eden wasn’t there – told him simply and coldly, before closing the door so that its unhurried click was like a certain, last reproof, ‘Don’t ever come back here again.’ Then she, the mother, went back downstairs and pretended she didn’t know Eden had sat listening; only looked at Eden and walked back upstairs again, with Eden looking up after her and not saying anything either. Craig began going around town shouting, who was she to take his girl from him, did she think them better then him?, and continued to drive up and down the street, as though just to let them know he was still there. One evening he even stopped outside our house so that we could see his car in the dark from our front window, but he never came in, as though he were not sure if Eden was there or not (which she was), or if my parents were there or not. It was around that time that I had overheard my parents’ conversation in the kitchen.
We arrived at the ski-hill while it was still early. Eden had not said much for most of the ride up. She had sat, depressed, in the back seat and eventually my father put on the radio to cover the silence. But when we got to the ski-hill, the mood changed somewhat. The sun was shining bright upon the hill, and we could see from where we were parked people covering it like ants, and my sister seemed to have suddenly grown so full of energy that it was all we could do to keep her still and put on her snow pants and boots and skis. We all skied together, until my father left us to ski the Black Diamond slopes up at the top. It was the type of day when the sun seems to be pushing its way back up some long tunnel, scattering the winter winds before it. The snow reeled up blue and crimson against the blue sky, the sun was warm, the air invigorating, and even Eden, despite herself, seemed to be slowly cheering up. We had had lunch and were at the bottom of one of the lower slopes when my mother, pointing to me, said, ‘Why don’t you take Bobby off skiing on the bigger slopes for a while, Eden?’ and put her arm around my sister: ‘I’ll look after her.’
We went off to the chairlift, and as we stood in line, Eden was smiling. ‘You can handle it,’ she said to me, never really treating me like a child. And we skied then and enjoyed it, going up and down the mountain, with the slopes so packed it was like the whole town was there. We did a few more runs and were standing in line when I saw Eden’s face drop and I turned and saw, though he hadn’t seen us yet, Craig Lawson standing further up with his girlfriend – the same woman who had laughed at Eden, the same one he had thrown a beer at in the bar – towards where the chairlifts arrived with a rusty clank and pulled people back up the mountain again. I don’t know what he was doing there; it was just a coincidence. He didn’t look like a skier. He wore jeans crusted with snow, and no hat. His matted brown hair was slicked under his goggle strap, and he wore the same bulky red lumber jacket he wore around town. He stood looking up the mountain, lifting his face to the sun and turning every now and then to answer his girlfriend in a cursory manner, before they both pushed onto the landing and turned to meet the chair coming towards them. They didn’t see us, but when we arrived up top, they were still there, apparently arguing because the woman was too frightened to turn right, onto the more difficult slope Craig wanted to go down. We had no choice but to ski past them, and when we did – when Craig looked up, no longer listening to his girlfriend, and saw it was Eden – it was like we were pulling a look from his face of dawning recognition and incredulity. I could feel his gaze following us like a cord tied to my back, and I knew, without Eden having to tell me, not to look back.
We skied quickly down the slope, but when we arrived at the bottom and were standing in line again, we saw him, midway up, flying down the mountain as best he could without falling. Behind him, his girlfriend, in her pink ski-suit, was looping from side to side, so that he had to stop every once in a while and wait impatiently while she tried to keep up. He arrived at the bottom, with his girlfriend just behind him, looking for us frantically. When he saw us, it was like his eyes were clamps, and he began, without a moment’s thought, trying to clamber through the other people waiting in line. ‘Craig! Craig!’ his girlfriend was calling, confused, scurrying after him; and when they had both got to as far as they could come, standing now almost right behind us, she stopped as though she’d been struck, and seemed to physically retire behind Craig, hurt, and glaring hatefully, not at Craig, but at Eden. Eden was staring straight ahead. ‘Eddy…’ Craig said, breathing hard, then ‘Eddy!’ – raising his voice when still she wouldn’t turn around. The lift came, Craig was held back, and we were joined by two people from the adjacent line. But we heard Craig arguing with the controller, and we heard his girlfriend, complaining, in a hurt and weak voice, struggling to assert some authority, ‘Craig, can’t you just for—’ ‘Will you just fuck off!’ we heard him yell, then he turned back and watched us swing off the ground, his eyes dark and angry.
Eden turned to me on the chairlift and I could tell by her face that she was trying not to act shaken. ‘Don’t worry, Bobby,’ she said, ‘There’s nothing to be scared of.’ She tried to smile, to reassure me, but her smile was like something abstracted from her face, hanging weakly in the air between us, and her eyes looked like they were trying to cling to something in the wind. We broke off the main slope, down trails that ran through the trees, to a lift that was less busy, about halfway down, and took that back up again; and the whole time it felt like we were racing against the shadows of the clouds running across the mountain face, racing against or away from something, with Eden leading us across the mountain through higher slopes, where the air was thinner and colder and where even in the sunlight the snow blew in our faces like sand, making our way back towards the other side, until we ran into Craig again, and this time he was alone, standing by the bottom of the lift, peering up the slope before he saw us, too. Eden’s body seemed to contract when she saw him. It was too late to go anywhere else. She tried to ski past him to the lift but there was a clumsy clattering of skis, and Craig, with a naked urgency on his face, stopped her. ‘Eddy,’ he said immediately, ‘she never meant nothing to me. Eddy… Eden…’ Eden, glancing back at me, tried to push past, and when he reached out and took her arm, everything that had been welling up inside her, that had been churning there in her silence on the lifts and slopes trembled on the point of breaking, and she tore her arm from him. ‘Leave me alone, Craig!’ she snapped. ‘Come on, Bobby,’ she said gently, and just as gently pushed me ahead of her. We were on one of the trails higher up on the mountain then, where the lift was for two people only. Craig got on the one behind us and began calling out after Eden, without caring about the people turning around before us or the people below stopping on the moguls and looking up. Eden wouldn’t turn around.
What happened then was that, abruptly quiet, and with his sudden silence filling up with determination, he followed Eden down the slope. There were large moguls everywhere, and she broke away from me, and I saw the two of them bouncing through the sunlight and snow and the other skiers. Craig almost lost control several times, but with a will that seemed to envelop him, like some outside force that brought his reeling arms and splayed body back in again, he kept after her; and Eden almost fell a few times too, because the moguls were so high. Eden veered off towards the right side of the slope, where the snow was packed heavier after a day’s skiing and which fell steeply into a dark valley of trees. Craig was yelling after her again. Eden looked frightened, and when she glanced across as he managed to speed up beside her, it looked like she was going to weep. The two swept further right. Eden yelled something at him that I couldn’t hear, but Craig continued to follow after her, scarcely aware of the people before him. He was yelling something at her again, with the back of his head turned to me, when I saw Eden glance ahead at something and turn to him with her eyes frantic and her mouth opening like she was going to say something but then suddenly – and it was a split second – everything seemed suspended, soundless, in the expression that came over her face and drained it mute, like a wind being sucked back up into the sky, leaving everything abruptly still, with Craig alone continuing to move, like some figure across a momentarily frozen background, and with the tree shooting up before him like something implacable, irrevocable, rising through the snow and hissing air to meet him. I don’t think he even saw it. I think he was still yelling something to her, though the words were unheard, and the thud that came then was quick, solid and dull, as though the tree had been hit with the blunt end of an axe, with a small, slight cracking, like the snap of a branch. Eden shot out onto the slope and stopped and looked back, then looked at me, pale and trembling, her eyes wide and beseeching, standing just below where the body lay motionless among the moguls and sunlight, her face looking like something that had been ripped apart, as if her desperate speed had torn it asunder to reveal the face of some frightened child, of incredulous, impotent and injusticed innocence, before her body crumpled and she too fell, light and soundless, into the snow.
In the house where Eden grew old, and where we used to visit her, she would meet us with a determined cheerfulness that did not seem to diminish with the years or after her divorce. She was the only reason we ever came back. The mill had long since closed down, and Eden had spent a while working as a nurse in another city before eventually returning. She had remained close to my mother, and my sister had come and stayed with her once after we’d left, as had I. She stayed there until she died, not yet fifty, and alone, of cancer. I only heard about it when it was too late, because as we had grown older, we had lost touch. No one had ever mentioned Craig on our visits, and most everyone left in town had probably forgotten him. But I remember how sometimes, if we stayed there long enough, Eden used to sit in that front room among the pictures of her children and her vases of dried flowers – that room that was like a room no one ever really lived in, that was just there for guests – looking out the window through the sheer curtains she never pulled back, like she was waiting for someone or was watching someone go. She never married again or dated. Her children have grown up and have children of their own. I came back for the funeral and met them. Her house had been cleared and everything packed up, and among her things they had found a creased picture of her when she was sixteen, with a man that no one recognised beside her. Her son came up to me and showed it to me and asked me if I knew who it was. I looked at it for a moment and looked at him, he who hadn’t really known his mother, and folded it again and gave it back. ‘Oh,’ I said, telling him at least most of the truth, or as much as I was willing to tell: ‘It’s just someone she used to know.’
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