Lucy Caldwell has won the BBC national short story award for her “masterful” All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which the mother of a young child takes a transatlantic flight after the death of a relative.
Exploring parenthood, marriage, kindness and the glimpse of an alternative life, the story was praised by judges for its “masterful storytelling”, “deep truthfulness” and “deft precision”. It draws its title from the Noah’s Ark picture book that Caldwell’s protagonist is reading to her 21-month-old daughter as she flies back to London from Toronto after her cousin’s funeral.
“All the people, it says, were mean and bad. Except for Noah. Noah was good, and because he was good, God saved him,” reads the mother, who hates the story but needs to keep her toddler entertained for “the remaining seven hours and 36 minutes of this flight” – and does so with the help of the kind, insightful older man sitting next to her.
“I wanted to write about the distance between where we come from and where we end up; between who we think we are and who we turn out to be. Between what we dream, and what we do,” said Caldwell. When writing the story, her influences included Frank O’Hara’s poem Sleeping on the Wing, Walt Whitman’s journey-poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Adrian Tomine’s Translated from the Japanese.
Caldwell likes to explore “in-between spaces” such as planes, airports or cars, “spaces where time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while – places or spaces of exile, of not-belonging, of longing, places where different paths, different destinations, momentarily seem possible”.
All the People Were Mean and Bad is taken from the collection Intimacies, and marks the third time the Northern Irish writer, who is also the author of four novels as well as stage plays and radio dramas, has been shortlisted for the award, which is run with Cambridge University. It beat works by Rory Gleeson, Georgina Harding, Danny Rhodes and Richard Smyth to win the prize, which is worth £15,000.
“I discovered Lucy Caldwell as a short story writer a decade ago. Since then, between bouts of novel-writing, Lucy has turned out a series of spellbinding short story collections, and now been thrice shortlisted for the BBC NSSA,” said judge Di Speirs, books editor at BBC Audio. “I’m delighted that one of our consistently accomplished and increasingly mature story writers, who is always so generous in her curation of others in the field, is this year’s very deserved winner of the award, which was set up to celebrate those creating the very best short fiction in the UK.”
Chair of judges James Runcie said: “Caldwell’s story has a confidence, daring and authenticity that is wonderfully sustained. All five of the stories on our shortlist were excellent, but this totally assured and moving piece of storytelling commanded the award.”
All the People Were Mean and Bad by Lucy Caldwell
Two weeks after your cousin dies, you’re on a night flight back to London from Toronto. Your daughter, at twenty one months, too young for her own seat, but too old, really, to be on your lap, is overtired and restless. Your phone battery is dead. With no more cartoons, all you have to entertain her while the plane taxis and waits, taxis and waits, inching towards the runway and its take-off slot, is the book your aunty gave her as you were leaving, a book from your aunty’s church. It’s the story of Noah’s Ark, illustrated for pre-schoolers, the first in a series self-funded and published by the church.
All the people, it says, were mean and bad. Except for Noah. Noah was good, and because he was good, God saved him. You hate this book.
Shall we look at the animals now? you say, but your daughter says, No. She likes the animals, but she likes these pages even better. Over a whole double-page spread, the mean and bad people are doing mean and bad things: pulling each other’s hair and laughing, aiming slingshots and catapults at each other, gurning and scowling and spitting and stamping their feet. You point at each of them in turn, naming their misdemeanours, and your daughter makes extravagant faces and laughs with delight.
OK, let’s look at the animals, you say firmly, and turn the page, but your daughter throws back her head and wails. I’m sorry, you say to the man sitting next to you – the man who has the misfortune to be sitting next to you, for the remaining seven hours and 36 minutes of this flight; the only, admittedly small, consolation being it’s a whole half-hour shorter than on the way there. No problem, he says, and he starts to say, again, and unnecessarily, because he’s already been too kind to you, lifting your bags up into the overhead locker and fetching beakers and bunnies and bribes of white chocolate buttons and finally the book from the stuffed chaotic tote at your feet, even getting up to ask the stewardess to rinse out a bottle for you in the galley, that he understands, has children himself, two sons – but the pitch of your daughter’s cry is rising. You grimace an apology at him, and he smiles back then looks tactfully away, as if there’s nothing to see at all. Please, you say to your daughter, red-faced now and howling, Please, come on, Matilda, shh, and you suppress the urge to shake her, or start howling yourself, and you turn back and take a deep breath and begin again: All the people were mean and bad.
There is one page in the book that you like: a page of blue, just blue, with a tiny Ark in the very top right-hand corner. No words, nothing, just the sudden giddy perspective; the weight of all the fallen rain. It is, you think, the only truthful picture in the whole story.
Your daughter wriggles and cries for the whole ascent; but as the plane reaches cruising altitude, and the seatbelt sign pings off, and the in-flight cabin service begins, she finally falls asleep on your chest and you hold her, heavy and warm and limp and sprawling, and as her breathing shudders and lengthens you let your own eyes close. Seven hours and three minutes left. Just a little over 3,000 miles. It seems more than time and distance you’re traversing. It is a lifetime ago that you left London. And it will be one of the longest stretches you and your husband have ever been apart; by far the longest he’s not seen Tilly.
You went with him on a couple of shoots after Tilly was born: one to Dublin, another to Cape Town. But it wasn’t what either of you had thought it would be and it certainly wasn’t a holiday, trying to placate a baby in unfamiliar surroundings, endless hours wandering alone or lying in a hotel room trying to sleep while half-waiting for him to come back. A driver, each time, at your disposal, but where to drive to, and when you got there, what to do? It was, in the end, far lonelier than being at home alone with Tilly would have been, and after those two trips, you didn’t do it again.
You think of times apart early on, when you, or usually he, would be away, and of meeting each other again, at train stations or getting out of taxis, and how strange and shy you’d feel, wondering if he’d look different to how you remembered him, or smell wrong, and how sometimes, at first, you could barely look him in the eye. You’ve tried, for Tilly’s sake, to talk every day: Cape Town is six hours ahead of Toronto, so you FaceTimed each night at her bedtime, his midnight, but he was inevitably still up, either drinking with the crew or trying to resolve more problems on an already fraught and overextended shoot.
You are trying not to think of it, this prolonged separation, as a separation; as a test.
Anything for your wife? the stewardess’s voice says, and you open your eyes.
Oh, you say, we’re not – just as he says, Oh, we’re not – and he grins.
I think, he says, she needs a gin and tonic too? and you smile and say, Yes, thank you, that sounds good, and the stewardess scoops the ice and drops in lemon and opens the little green bottle and flips the can’s tab with deft, practised movements, and he takes it from her and sets it on the tray table next to his.
Thank you, you say again, and you shift your daughter’s weight to free a hand, and take the cup from him. Cheers, he says, the twang of his accent making it almost two syllables, like yours, and you reply with your almost two syllables, cheers, and you touch cups and sip. To sleeping babies, he says, and you say, Look, I’m so sorry, and he says, I once flew solo with the twins when they’d just turned three, Vancouver to Sydney, with a lay over in LA, oh boy.
Solo with twins, you say, and he says, Yeah, my wife was away and the childminder was sick, it was like a bad farce, I wouldn’t wish that journey on anyone, and he’s quiet for a moment and says, My sister died an hour before we got there, and then he says, Sorry.
My cousin just died, you say, and I hadn’t seen her in years, but for a while she was like a sister to me. I’m sorry, he says, at the same time you say, Sorry, too, because a cousin you haven’t spoken to in years is not the same as a sister, and even if there’s no real metric to grief, there is, must be, a hierarchy of loss.
You touch cups again, sombrely this time, and sip, and finally break eye contact and look away, and neither of you says anything for a while, until he says, That’s twenty years ago now, and you say nothing, because what is there to say?
The blazing sunshine and high blue skies, T-shirt weather, the leaves just turning on the trees, a stupidly perfect day. The cool and calm of the mortuary chapel, old for Toronto, designed and built, you read, by John G Howard in 1842. White brick and Georgetown stone, deep-set trefoil windows and the steeply pitched roof; a fine example of gothic revival architecture in Canada. In the little vestibule, the tinny bluegrass of Hey Duggee from your phone as the Squirrels arrived again and again at the Clubhouse to bake carrot cakes for the stoner bunnies; Roly, the excitable little hippo, and Happy, the crocodile with his adoptive elephant parents, Betty the octopus rocking up in her dad’s little orange submarine, Norrie the mouse and Tag the rhino, all leaping up, to Tilly’s delight, for their Duggee-hug; while in the nave the priest intoned and the mourners responded, standing and sitting and singing and weeping, and your cousin was no more.
We are all ashes and dust eventually, you think, but now she already was: her warm taut body, pressed next to yours in your sleeping bags zipped together, as she confided about a boy she’d kissed; her long brown legs in their blue shorts with the red piping taking the stairs two and three at a time, the tattoos she tried to give you both when you were 12 and she was 14 with the spike of her compass and a cartridge of ink from your yellow Parker fountain pen, below your hipbone where neither of your mothers would see it, and where a smudge of blue dots still remains.
You think of all of this and you think how impossible it is that all of it’s gone; how the fact of its being gone makes none of it, nothing, feel true any more, not that people can ever really know each other, or truly love, or that it matters in the end if a marriage fails, or ever could have worked; and yet how can it all not matter?
The meals trolley has made its way to you. Your tray table doesn’t fold down over your daughter’s sleeping body, so he takes your meal on his too, arranges both little trays lengthwise.
Shall I cut it up for you? he says, and you laugh in embarrassment as he tears and butters your bread roll, forks up cubes of chicken, the way you might for Tilly. You don’t manage more than a few bites before it all becomes too much – the bizarre intimacy of this stranger feeding you.
I’m fine, you say, I’m actually not that hungry, and it’s true, you haven’t been for a while, and not just because of the jet lag, or since the initial shock of your cousin’s death, but for weeks now, maybe even months. You know you’re getting thin, and you’ve brushed it off and blamed it on running after a toddler, and you’ve made an effort, for her as much as for you, to make yourself eat. But the hollow feeling at your centre, the ache in your solar plexus, voids all hunger, and it feels somehow right to be at a lightheaded remove from the world, this sense of being vague, and insubstantial, as if you could just drift on, indefinitely; as if you don’t really exist, or need to. Sometimes, you think, your daughter is the only person who feels real, because the immediacy of her needs is so urgently, incontrovertibly so.
So what do you do, he’s saying, as if he’s reading your mind, or are you a full-time mom? and you’re saying, No, I’m an architect, then qualifying it with, at least I used to be, because what, actually, do you do now with your days, beyond endlessly push a buggy round the city streets, taking photographs, not even with your SLR, just screens’ and screens’ worth of photos on your phone, stone detailing or glazed-brick facades, ghost signage or board-marked concrete, large Queen Anne sash windows or tiny Huguenot busts to hold shutters in place, not even for any reason, you’ve even stopped bothering to upload them to your laptop any more.
From November, you say, when Tilly turns two, you’ll have the nursery place: three mornings a week to begin with, then when she settles, the afternoon sessions too. Your husband says you should take on some private resi. Leaflet the neighbours. Loft conversions or extensions, something to keep you busy, get you working again. He’s begun to say lately that you could set up your own practice, as if he doesn’t know the first thing about architecture, despite being married to you all these years. But at the same time he’s sort of right: what else are you going to do with your days?
He nods, listening, and you find yourself talking on. Another baby would of course be the logical thing, and as an only child yourself, you badly want Tilly to have a brother or sister; and yet. Every time you have the discussion, about babies, or work, about what happens next, you feel deeply tired; an exhaustion that seeps into, or maybe from, your very bones. Bone-weary: you used to feel a sort of delight when a word or a phrase was a perfect fit, the mathematical logic of it; but now, for the first time in your life, you just feel old.
You stop, abruptly, expecting him to laugh at that, but he doesn’t laugh.
I’m 56, he says, which on a bad day rounds up to 60, and I’m two years divorced, and my boys are almost 24.
You realise you’ve been trying to work out his age.
Fifty-six, you say, not meaning to say it aloud, and he puts up his hands and winces.
I’m not, he says, I know I’m not, but in so many ways I still feel 24 myself.
I know what you mean, you say. I mean, I don’t feel any different, I don’t think, than I did then?
I don’t think, he says, we ever really do.
You don’t think people change, you say, or ever really can?
I think people change, he says, for sure, but only ever become, essentially, more themselves.
You don’t know if that thought is comforting or profoundly sad.
Then where’s the hope, you say, if we can never truly begin again, or become, I don’t know, something else or better?
He shrugs, and smiles. Each moment, I guess, he says. Each moment, here now, that’s what we have. That’s what we have, or that’s all we have?
Perhaps it’s both.
A girl you were at university with had married a man 25 years older, more, technically, than twice her age: she 24, he 49. She’d been engaged before that to a guy from uni; he’d been a Blue and they were something of a golden couple. No one could understand it. You didn’t know her very well, but you somehow once got drunk together and she started crying and said the loneliest thing in the world was lying in bed with someone and wanting someone else’s hands to be on you instead. They had a daughter whom they’d had almost immediately, long before any of your other uni friends had kids, who must be in her teens by now. After that drunken night you’d stayed in touch for a while, and bought a present when the baby was born, a ruffled pinafore from a place whose clothes cost as much as adult clothes, and came, in a sort of performance by the cashier, wrapped in palest lemon tissue. That was the only time you’d been to their house, because you felt so awkward there. They had peonies in vases, and Le Creuset pans, and a magnetic knife rack with proper, monogrammed knives, and different-sized wine glasses for white or red, and acres of white linen on the huge bed you passed on the way to the baby’s room, and the guest bathroom, with its cut-grass scented soap. The house, in retrospect, wasn’t that remarkable – just a modest terrace on a street in Kentish Town – but it felt at the time like being at someone’s posh English parents’, and you’d thought how strange it was that this, now, was her life, a quantum leap away from bedsits and flatshares and badly carved-up Victorian houses and boxy shared-ownership starter flats.
But what struck and maybe discomfited you most was how devoted she was to him: as if, after all they’d done, there wasn’t the luxury of being anything else – exasperated, or bickering. It had seemed to you an exhausting way of living; although you wonder now if maybe it wasn’t that at all, but rather the knowledge that they’d found each other too late in life, or in his life at least, to be reckless, or casual; that the way they loved was careful and tender not because they didn’t, but because they did love each other with a sort of abandon.
You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? How have you come so far from your Pioneer parents, their bottle of Shloer at Christmastime or weddings, the single blue bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream they kept as a concession to your grandma? A wedding of your own; a marriage to a producer with extravagant Christmas and birthday and anniversary tastes. And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at 29, 27, or, yes, 24.
Can I ask you something? he says, and you say, inexplicably flustered, Sure.
He picks up the book, which has fallen to the floor, and opens it.
Do you really believe in – well, that? he says. That people are mean, and bad, and – for want of a better word – damned?
He looks at the mean and bad people for a moment before closing the book and reaching to slide it back into your tote bag.
I was brought up believing it all, you say. God and Noah, the Flood, the Ark – I was brought up believing it was literal truth. That the world was 6,000 years old and the Devil had planted fossils to try to trick us. So that sounds like you no longer believe it.
Your aunty: pale-faced, her hair drawn back to show new cheekbones, gaunt, but lit with the belief that your cousin was finally in a better place. The way the priest talked about the prescription drugs as her demons. The flights of angels that would have been there for her at the end.
I sometimes think it would be easier if I still did.
That’s why you read it to your daughter?
Oh no, you say. No! I’m not – I’m going to tactically misplace the book as soon as we get home. My aunty just gave it to her. It’s something to read – that’s all.
I guess I’d like to think, he says, that people are basically good.
Neither of you says anything for a while.
I’d love to be able to live like that, you say, and just for a moment it feels like a weight is lifting.
Your daughter wakes. Her ears are sore, and she doesn’t understand it. You’ve used your last carton of milk. He goes to the galley and comes back with a handful of UHT sticks which he tears and empties, one by one, into her bottle, the millilitres accumulating until there’s enough for her to drink. While he does this, you pace with her, joggle her, up and down the cabin, and although the lights are dimmed now and most people are sleeping, or attempting to, no one looks at you angrily. When the bottle is filled enough, he holds Tilly while you go to the loo. In the little metal room, you splash water on your face and think: I must do better. I must start eating again, and make a plan for what happens next.
Even when Tilly sleeps again, you don’t, and nor does he. You both watch the minute, ticking progress of the little blue plane icon, over the emptiness of the North Atlantic Ocean, its route curving up towards Greenland and the Labrador Sea before it will begin to fall again towards Ireland and onwards and home, endless, inexorable. You watch it, and talk some more, and these are some of the things you talk about. How unfeasible it is that this great sleek lumbering mass of metal can rise instead of falling, into the sky, up and up, can traverse the globe along invisible, predetermined tracks, corridors in the air, while its passengers sleep and watch films and flush toilets and request more ice for their gin and tonic and eat bread rolls specially engineered to taste normal at low pressure and in dry cabin air. That there is the world, the ocean, the dark roiling waves, thirty-however many thousand feet beneath, and here you are, suspended above it all, hurtling onwards at hundreds of miles an hour into the dawn of an entirely different day. How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. About how – who knows? – for your daughter there will not be transatlantic travel, at least not like this, and it may seem the most grotesque decadence of a bygone age. We think, or rather we live – or at least you do, or have – as if things will continue forever, and we so rarely talk about the only things, in hindsight, that matter. All of these words, these thousands of words, and none of them the right ones, the handful of words that might have meant or even changed something. And, once again, only this time with even more urgency, can people change, or is it already too late, is it always too late? Or is there always another brief window in which anything is possible?
And these are just some of the things.
The plane descends. Tray tables and seat backs, seatbelts, final cabin checks. Blurs of light resolving themselves into constellated pinpoints; buildings, roads, almost individual headlamps. The rattle and grind of the landing gears, the final roar of the engines. The headlong rush of the plane on to tarmac, the shuddering certainty of it. Your stomach lurching.
He carries your bags for you off the plane as you carry Tilly, still heavy with sleep. You wait together as they fetch the buggy, and you kick and yank it upright, and strap Tilly in. By this stage, you’re among the last off the plane, and several other red-eye flights have come in too, and the Immigration hall is packed.
Oh no, you say, and he rests a hand lightly on your shoulder.
Hello, Heathrow, my old friend.
For a moment, you stand there, in the crowd, breathing as one.
Sir, madam, this way, please, a uniformed woman is saying, families this way, and she’s sliding open a barrier tape so that you can pass into the Family & Special Assistance lane.
He smiles at you, and you smile back.
Thank you, you say to the uniformed woman. As you manoeuvre the buggy around and join the other lane, which doesn’t seem to be moving any faster, perhaps even slower, he murmurs in your ear, Though whether this is a help or a disincentive for travelling as a family, time alone shall tell.
You pass through Immigration as a family, through Baggage Reclaim, and pause before the sliding doors of the Arrivals hall, where your husband will be meeting you and Tilly: he’s timed his flight back from Cape Town to coincide with yours.
So I guess this is it, he says. Are you going to be OK? Yes, you say, because what else can you possibly say? And you take the handle of your suitcase from him, and you walk, not a family at all but two entirely separate people now, through the final Customs channel; Nothing to Declare.
Your husband isn’t there.
You find a power socket and plug in your phone. A series of messages: he’s been further delayed in Cape Town, the assistant producer couldn’t handle it after all, the dancer who’s broken her ankle, the problem with insurance, the sequence that needs to be reshot. He had to turn back halfway to the airport to deal with it all. He’s not now going to be home until tomorrow, or maybe the next day, he won’t know until tonight. He’s going to make it up to you. Love to Tilly. Tell her he’s got the biggest present for her. Take a cab!
You knew it, you thought. Even as he was texting you as you boarded the flight in Toronto, saying he was on his way to the airport too, you knew and dreaded this.
You hold down the button until your phone goes dark again.
He stays with the buggy and bags and the charging phone while you go, Tilly grizzling on your hip, to rinse out the bottle in a sink in the loos then beg some warm milk from the Costa. You could do with a coffee yourself, and should have offered to get him one, but you don’t have enough hands. You think of your mother: her jokes about needing a spare pair of hands, her claim to have eyes in the back of her head that you and your cousin once combed her hair repeatedly to disprove. Your mother would have been younger than you are now. You and your cousin just a handful of years from your daughter.
It goes, all of it, and then it’s just – gone.
But here you are, now. The chaotic, impatient bustle of Heathrow Arrivals, all the milling, surging, purposeful, harried people. Seven seventeen in the morning, a September Tuesday.
Tilly, strapped back in the buggy, draining her milk, temporarily quiet.
Right, you say, and take the handle of your case again. OK.
Let me give you a lift, he says, there’ll be a driver for me, a car, I’ll see you safely home.
His eyes are very blue.
For a moment, you almost say yes.
You think of the books that you and your cousin loved, the ones with multiple pathways through, and dozens of endings. You’d read them lying on your stomachs, heads pressed together, holding various pages, options, open. You’d always be careful, trying to make it through, and she’d choose the most reckless routes possible, just to see what might happen. She would have gone with him. You think: If she was still here, at the other end of a WhatsApp stream or the tap of a FaceTime away, she’d say to you, Do it.
But no, you hear yourself saying, it will be easier with your daughter on the train, she’s been cooped up so long, at least in a train you can walk up and down, and besides, she gets carsick. The train to Paddington, then, and then the tube, and maybe a taxi for the last bit, at the very end. But your bags, and the buggy, he says, how will you manage?
People are helpful, you say, they’ve been so helpful, every bit of the way – and it’s true, you realise in a rush, thinking of the taxi driver who found you a trolley, wheeled your bags into the terminal, right up to the Air Canada desk; of Chantal, who upgraded you to premium economy for free, so you and Tilly would have a bit more room. Her long nails, midnight-blue with crystals, tapping, and how, in an attempt to give her something back, you’d said how you admired them, offering up your own short, bitten fingernails, and how she’d beamed. Of the people around you who didn’t roll their eyes or glare at you as Tilly howled; and him, of course; and him – and suddenly, you find yourself on the verge of all the tears you haven’t yet cried.
Oh, he says, oh, and he says, Come here, and he takes your face in both his hands and brushes away the tears with his thumbs, and then there’s a moment, and everything tilts.
Heathrow Arrivals resolves itself back around you. There is an artist whose work you saw once in a Whitechapel gallery: she had stitched to a globe of the world metallic threads representing one single day’s flights, then somehow dissolved the globe, leaving just the sugar-spun mass of threads, and you think of it now, of how it made you think, how fine the threads that connect us from one person, or place, to another, and how precious, and how strong. I have to go, you say, because if you stay for a moment longer, you won’t; or won’t be able to.
What are you going to do now? he says.
Now this minute now, or now in a more existential sense? you say, and somehow you manage to say it lightly. He looks at you, then takes up your cue. Somewhere between the two?
We’re going to watch Hey Duggee on the train, for as long as the battery lasts. We’re going to be home by 10. We’re going to press all the buttons in the lift. We’re going to do the shopping and maybe bake a cake, which will really be a pretext for cracking lots of eggs and bashing the shells up with a teaspoon.
He laughs. You realise you love that laugh. You love that you’ve made him laugh. For a moment, nothing else matters. OK then, he says, softly, and you hear or maybe feel him take a breath, and let it slowly out. Take it easy. Take it easy, you say back.
OK, he says. Goodbye.
Goodbye, you say.
You do let Tilly press all of the buttons in the lift, all seven of them, from LG for the car park to the floors beyond your flat. You don’t sigh when the slow doors judder open and closed, open and closed. You just feel numb. You do bake the cake. You let Tilly crack the whole carton of eggs, far more than you need, and you think it’s OK, you’ll make an omelette later. You tell her the joke about Hamlet and egos that your cousin, at 13, had to explain to you; and you turn away before she can see that your laughter at how clever you thought it is turning to sobs.
From your little balcony, the September sky is high and cloudless.
You could email him, you think. You didn’t swap addresses, but you could Google his name, his company. You won’t, but you could.
You call up a Google tab on your phone.
You won’t. You don’t.
You look at a map of Canada on your phone instead. It’s so vast, is what gets you, there’s just so much space; the cities of Toronto and Ottawa and Montreal and then Quebec City in a tidy row just up from New York state and the US border; and above them the open space of Ontario and Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador; and westwards beyond that the breadth of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and British Columbia; Vancouver, where he was born and lived for the two-and-a-half decades of his marriage, and northwards of it the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the whole sweep of it, so empty, so much, that you have to hold on to the balustrade to steady yourself, on the verge of doubling over with a sort of homesickness, this sudden intensity of loss.
Breathe, you tell yourself, just breathe.
Your husband is only doing his best. He’s been so worried, since Tilly was born, and you stopped work, about providing for you; about the precariousness of his industry; about what it means to be a family. He’s doing his best and you think that you must do your best too, to still love him, and you think that love gone wrong or astray is also a kind of exile.
It was right, you tell yourself, not to accept the lift. It would have been a line crossed; some new frontier, new country, from which you might not have returned. And yet.
You wonder, can’t help yourself wondering, what it would have been like had you gone with him: in his executive car, even back to his hotel, maybe, where he holds you in his arms; kneels before you and presses his face to you; eases your jeans from your hips and unbuttons your shirt and lays you carefully on his bed; and maybe that’s what you want, for someone to undress you and lay you down, to make the decisions for you; but however you try to stage the sequence in your head, you can’t get past the fact of your daughter there, and the whole thing dissipates.
You try to keep Tilly up until her bedtime, but she’s far too tired, and so you give in mid-afternoon. It means she’ll be wide awake at midnight, but so, probably, will you. She wants the book, which you have forgotten to lose, but you barely begin it before she’s sucking the collar of your lumberjack shirt and has fallen asleep. You lie there for a while before attempting to ease her down, gazing at the cartoon people with their ugly, gargoyle faces. All the people were mean and bad, except that what he said is right – they weren’t, they couldn’t be, that isn’t the way you want to live this life, or whatever of it remains to you. They were only doing their best, you think, or the best they thought they could; and unlike stern, righteous, virtuous Noah, no one, ever, told them they were going to die, or be saved, or that any of it, in the end, ever mattered.
• All the People Were Mean and Bad is available to listen to on BBC Sounds and appears in the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 Anthology published by Comma Press, £7.99. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.