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FREE FICTION


ADAM IN AMBER

 Gary Fry

 
As soon as Alice finished conducting her last research interview that day, she left the man’s house, climbed in her car, plucked her mobile phone from her travel bag and dialled home.

          “Hello, James,” she said the moment the line had connected. Her husband had taken a while to answer – Alice hoped nothing was wrong. “How’s Martin?”
          “He’s fine. We had honey on toast for lunch. He loved it.”
          Honey. Something about the word triggered fond memories of Alice’s own childhood. She was just sorry she hadn’t been around to witness their son’s first taste of this sweet stuff.
          Suppressing too many complicated emotions, she said, “And did he sleep okay last night?”
          “Fine. No problem at all.” James paused, as if withholding crucial information...but this was surely just Alice’s edgy thoughts at work. Indeed, her husband went casually on. “How’s your B&B? The university treating you right, is it?”
          “The B&B’s good. Four star. Yoghurt and maple syrup for breakfast.” But no honey, her treacherous mind added, though she continued as if nothing was troubling her. “I’ve got another interview to carry out first thing in the morning, but I’ll be driving back directly after. Should be home by mid-afternoon.” She paused, swallowed awkwardly, and then finished, “I’m looking forward to seeing you...both of you, I mean.”
          “And we look forward to seeing you,” said James, and if he’d assigned any meaning to her hesitation, he hadn’t betrayed it. Then his voice grew distant as he added, “Isn’t that right, Martin?
          Of course he’d simply held the telephone away from his mouth to let their son burble something over the line. And then the boy did: “Mumbly...mumbly...”
          Alice experienced a fresh wave of unhappiness, of foolishly resentful love. Nevertheless, she controlled herself enough to reply, “Hello, baby! Is Daddy looking after you? Is he? Is he? Is he?”
          Blur...bar...urrr...”
          He wasn’t yet two years old; the meaning of these sounds was nonsensical. But this didn’t prevent Alice from going on. “Well, you make sure he does. Mummy can’t be there all the time any more. But she...she still loves you. You must know that.”
          “Of course he knows that, Alice,” said James, having reclaimed the handset. “Anyway, I’d better ring off. We’re just off out to the park. Have a nice evening. Don’t let any strange men into your room.”
          “As if,” she told him, and seconds later, after he’d hung up, she put away her mobile and gripped the steering wheel.
          The dashboard’s digital clock revealed that it was only two o’clock. If she returned to the B&B, she’d only try and take her mind off matters at home by transcribing the interview she’d conducted...and that would just heighten her concerns. The West Sussex man had a disabled child and had talked articulately about struggling with social services, trying to get facilities to help with his care situation. Restarting the car, Alice placed her own relatively normal situation in this broader context: at least Martin was healthy. Even though she’d had to go out to work fulltime and James had taken on the role of house-husband, they should both be grateful that their son was okay.
          The thing to offer her distraction was a drive around some of the area’s famous sites. She often did this while away on fieldwork, a little perk of the job. She scrolled through the options on her sat-nav’s Tourist Attractions page and eventually settled on a place called Darwin’s Garden not ten miles from her present location in Crawley. Then she put the car into gear and, driving on, was helpless to prevent more complex reflections on what had happened to her recently.
          It was hardly James’s fault that he’d lost his job. The English Department at Leeds University had been hit by a sharp budget reduction last year and forced to dispense with thirty per cent of staff. At the time, Alice had been working part-time in Sociology which, after returning from maternity leave, had allowed her to care for her boy. But everything had changed once their combined income had been slashed and James had struggled to find a new post. And so, more by necessity than choice, they’d agreed to switch roles: her husband would work from home on whatever freelance proofreading jobs he could secure, while she took on a more involved role in the research centre, to which she’d been affiliated since graduation.
           Countryside swept by the A-road, its fields swathed in summer yellows and reds. West Sussex was a beautiful county, far nicer than West Yorkshire. Did Alice and James really want to bring up their son in such a comparatively grim area? The onus was now on her to work harder to ensure a desirable move. But more than this troubled her. The truth was that she felt as if she was missing out on the precious years of her boy’s early development. 
Perhaps she was being selfish: hadn’t guys suffered this for years? Society had more recently made it acceptable for time-honoured gender roles to be reversed, but it still felt unnatural to Alice, maybe because, unlike James, she’d come from a traditionally organised working-class family: a father in employment and a housewife mother. Alice was certain that her parents, as well as her two siblings (who’d also adhered to this age-old familial pattern), had been shocked when she’d revealed her and James’s news.
          She’d reached her destination, the sat-nav system doing its duty. She reached forwards to switch it off and then steered through a gateway flanked by attractive flower arrangements. Innumerable varieties of flora occupied these displays, offering Alice a little respite. While driving along a narrow lane formed by trees, she imagined painting this scene, another recreation she’d had to put on hold for now. But her mind was meandering again. After steering the car into a deserted parking lot, she pulled up and climbed out.
          A sign in wrought iron stood above a fenced-in display area; ivy twirled around the letters of DARWIN’S GARDEN like sinuous limbs. Beneath this sign, at the centre of the fence, was a narrow gateway, which stood wide open. There was no sign of anywhere to pay, so Alice assumed entry must be free. She paced forwards, wondering why nobody else appeared to be here; the garden beyond the fence looked as deserted as the car park. Nevertheless, after reaching the gate, she simply passed through...and then found herself surrounded by beguiling plant life.
          There were flowers of every description amid this wonderful display: reds jockeying with yellows, whites among greens, multiple pinks and purples. Unnaturally shaped leaves dangled like frozen raindrops, while more exotic growths, bearing angular stalks and lethal thorns, occupied deeper regions of the garden. The path wound on, leading Alice further into a rich profusion of scents and bewildering colour. It was all very beautiful; she felt quite light-headed. The tension accompanying her ride here had dropped from her. Glancing down, she saw petals scattered across the stone flags underfoot. Stupidly, these struck her as discarded fragments of her thoughts.
And that was when, after rounding a bend in the garden, she chanced upon the display cabinet.
          The sounds she’d heard upon approaching this glasshouse were birds twittering in the distance, a few insects passing overhead with scuttling wings...but could she now detect a more insidious noise? If so, it appeared to be coming from inside the dwelling up ahead. The glasshouse was around ten-feet square and six high; all its sides were transparent, even its peaked roof. Despite the almost sub-audible buzzing sound emanating from it, Alice’s first reaction was one of visual shock...because standing at its heart, sealed off from public interference, was a naked man.
          Except he wasn’t real, not at all; he just looked real. Perhaps he was one of the works of art sculpted by a notorious German artist from the corpses of people who’d bequeathed their bodies to him. If that was true, this man had died at a pitiably young age. He was remarkable attractive: blond hair, well-formed musculature, a smilingly pretty face. Alice couldn’t help but look at his penis caught up in a nest of finely groomed pubic hair.
Was it wrong to feel attracted to a dead person? Lately, she and James had made love only infrequently, and she’d genuinely believed the reason she’d offered for continual refusal: the birth of Martin had extracted all her lust, and she was always tired from work...But was there more to it than this? She was certainly aroused now. The man in the glasshouse – a corpse, for God’s sake, or at any rate a seductive facsimile of one – looked ready for action, his flawless figure primed for movement.
          Just then, her first impression of the display returned: that potent sound of buzzing. It was surely just this that lent the stationary figure inside an illusion of motion. Alice strayed closer to the glasshouse and put one ear to its side. The noise grew stronger, more strident, more angry. It was like the sound of bees buzzing (...honey, she thought; Martin had honey for lunch...) and it charged through Alice’s mind like guilt, stinging her scalp, making her body cringe and quiver. The noise filled her, as if she stood in the presence of some deafening machine. And moments later, in her peripheral gaze, she saw something on the sculptured man move.
          She jerked away, turning to face the way she’d come. Then she ran – back along the crooked path, between all the beguiling flowers and plants, and finally through the gateway to her car. Indeed, she was driving again, quickly away from Darwin’s Garden, before admitting what she’d seen in that display case.
A bee gently prising itself between its single tenant’s lips.
 
*
 
After arriving home the following day, Alice spent a few hours attending to Martin; she’d missed him fiercely.
          “Hello, my darling,” she said, suppressing the ludicrous impression that her son had grown during the few days she’d been away. “Are you happy? Are you? Are you? Are you?”
          The boy chuckled and gurgled. Alice dropped her travel-bag to the kitchen floor and then lifted him up, wheeling him around in the air with barely contained joy. “Who’s a beautiful boy, eh? Who’s a beautiful boy?”
          James didn’t gather the bag from the floor, just switched on the kettle to make them both a drink. Alice looked at the kitchen table, seeing a popular novel perched there in an inverted V, its spine divided at roughly the halfway point. She didn’t think her husband had even started this book before she’d left for her trip. What on earth had he been doing in her absence?
          Later, once they’d put Martin to bed with mutual delight, Alice noticed that the housework had at least been dealt with. Then, downstairs in the lounge again, James tried to seduce her.
          “Long trip?” he asked, massaging her shoulders. “Fancy a shower?”
          If he’d meant with him, she wasn’t in the mood. With her eyes closed, she felt something brush against her face – an insect, perhaps – but when she looked around, there was nothing.
          “I’m tired,” she explained, her eyes averted. “It was a helluva drive back. I think I’ll just have an early night.” 
          “Yes, of course,” he replied, and then released her, before getting up to lock the doors.
No windows were open: there couldn’t have been an insect in the house. Alice went to retrieve her travel-bag from where it still lay on the kitchen floor and trudged upstairs for the bedroom.
          It was eight o’clock. Ordinarily she and her husband would watch a little television in the evenings to unwind before sleep. But now she recalled that James no longer suffered the stresses involved in her life. Yes, their son could be demanding, but as the half-read novel proved, he had time for other things, too.
          When he stepped into the bedroom, having washed and changed for bed, she noticed that look in his eye, the one that had first attracted her, a masculine glint of strength engendered by youth. He was also the father of her beloved child; she shouldn’t feel so dismissive of him. However, that was exactly what she did feel.
          When he paced across to continue his massage, she shrugged away, using the necessity of unpacking her bag as a plausible excuse. After this latest slight, James slumped on the bed opposite her.
          Alice continued pulling toiletries and nightwear from the bag. Perhaps her husband thought she’d been up to something while away; that would certainly account for her aloofness. Indeed, seconds later, he asked, “Are you...okay, Al’?”
          She had her back turned, which prevented him from reading her treacherous expression. “I’m fine,” she replied, telling herself that the almost inaudible buzzing sound she now heard was just a play of confused perception, of untrustworthy memory. “Like I said, it was a long drive. And I’m very tired.”
          At first James didn’t reply, and his silence surely denoted tentative thought. But then he added, “Yeah, I can understand that.” He paused again, presumably to marshal his disappointment, before finishing, “Come on, get changed and come to bed. I’ll give you a cuddle better.”
          He made her sound like a child; maybe he’d spent too much time with Martin lately. But she was the adult now, the person who went out to work every day to earn their keep. In fact, if anyone was childlike, it was –
          She thrust aside this thought and then, gathering everything she’d pulled from her bag, went to the bathroom, shut herself inside, and stripped off.
          The window bore frosted glass; nobody across the street could see her standing in the nude. She’d even – quietly, so as not to alert her husband – locked the door on its metal catch. Then she examined herself in the body-length mirror. There were stretch-marks on her hips, and her breasts weren’t as pert as they’d once been, only two years earlier, before giving birth. She recalled how smooth and flawless the figure’s flesh had been in that glasshouse. This was perhaps the first time since visiting Darwin’s Garden that she’d reflected on what she’d seen there. James’s flesh – notwithstanding a little muscular slack arising from no longer visiting the gym – bore similar perfection...so why didn’t he arouse her right now? The guilty truth was that she wasn’t at all tired; the touch of her son had physically enlivened her.
          All the same, after dressing in nightwear and returning to the bedroom, she feigned a lengthy yawn. She got into bed beside her husband, her gaze fixed on the blank television screen. He hadn’t switched it on yet and clearly had more to say.
          Then, in a playful voice to disguise the seriousness of the subject matter, he said, “I’m sensing displeasure, my Queen. And what can your obedient servant do to help with that?”
          Maybe I don’t want you to be my servant, she thought, but quickly suppressed the insight and all its implications. Then she asked the question that, in other circumstances, she knew she wouldn’t have dared to.
“Do you think this is working out, James? I mean, you here at home and me out at...work?”
          He stared at her, looking surprised. Then he pulled away, a telling distance from her. His snaking arms didn’t seem so threatening now.
          “Why do I suddenly think,” he began, with a knowing look in his eyes, “that it’s me who should be asking you that?”
          “Well, your question about my well-being prompted mine.”
          “Yes, but I hadn’t suspected anything so...well, so heavy. I thought you might have problems at work or something. I didn’t realise you were thinking that...we had a problem.”
          “Hey, I’m not, really. I just wanted to know.” She hesitated, and then asked again, “Are you happy with our...arrangements?”
          He stared at her more fixedly. “I wasn’t aware I’d offered evidence to the contrary.”
          “Oh, it’s not that.” She thought it was time to relent, or at least to turn the discussion to less personal issues. “I was just thinking about – you know, what Freud said: that all a person needs in life is to love and to work.” When he didn’t reply, she added with conscious manipulation, “I guess I’m just aware that you’re stuck here, alone with Martin. I...I don’t want you to think that you can’t return to work if you want to.”
          Martin eliminated the gap he’d put between them and then hugged her. “Honestly, I’m fine,” he said with a droning voice, and after placing an adventurous hand on her right breast, he added, “Things are different from when that old quack was writing. Times have moved on and the world’s changed. And as for work...well, honestly, did Freud ever have to entertain a child all day and without a nanny? I’d be surprised. I’d honestly be very surprised.”
 
*
 
That night, after James had finally persuaded her to make lukewarm love, Alice suffered a nightmare. In the dream she was laid in bed...but soon awakened by a sound of buzzing nearby. She opened her eyes. Her husband was slumped beside her, all his skin pulsing with activity. Then a bee escaped his gasping lips as the flesh of his face rippled and jerked. Finally his whole body ruptured and bees spilled out in a noisome frenzy which filled the bedroom and tore into Alice’s skull with the relentless intensity of an idiot machine.
 
*
 
She spent the following day in the office, transcribing all the interviews she’d conducted during her three-day fieldwork trip.
          Alice sympathised with the predicaments of people she’d spoken to, but after such a fretful night – Martin had woken later, possibly in response to her brief scream; James had slept through both occurrences – she found it difficult to concentrate on anything other than vague notions lurking deep in her mind.
          Perhaps she should try and clarify them. At noon, after colleagues had departed for lunch, she used her computer’s search engine to do some research on the place she’d visited only two days earlier.
          The words ‘DARWIN’S GARDEN’ summoned only links to an identically titled book published in honour of the great scientist, as well as a recent TV show with the same title. Alice refined her search by adding ‘WEST SUSSEX’, but this similarly produced nothing directly related to the tourist attraction she recalled in such vivid detail.
          Might the place be a new business that had yet to advertise? It was possible, Alice supposed, despite knowing from experience that little slipped the ubiquitous grasp of the Internet. She now felt caught up in her own sticky entanglements, and these didn’t end at being unable to locate information about a sculpture in a glasshouse located in a distant county.
          She decided to take a stroll and get her thoughts in order. After grabbing her jacket from a peg near the door, she stepped out of her office, down the single flight of stairs to the ground floor, and then outside into a mild spring day.
          As she paced across campus, a bee or some other large insect buzzed near her face, making her waft it away with a fretful hand. Then she sat on a wall, watching students with child’s-play anxiety etched across their faces. What did they have to concern them? Exams, early relationships, future possibilities...Alice imagined her son Martin at this age, and realised this would occur sooner than she could imagine. Time passed so quickly. It didn’t seem long since she’d been an undergraduate, taking her finals, dating James, choosing to buy a house, getting married, and then having a child.
          Her discipline – sociology – had shown that a married couple with children needn’t follow the traditional family pattern. Gender roles were social constructions that could be rewritten according to different needs in a changing world. Passive female could become active male; a career-minded man could assume the activities of a domestic woman. Culture must alter to facilitate these new forms of behaviour.
          And was this all her problem mounted to? Was she struggling to come to terms with a violation of the idea – one also put forward by evolutionary thought – indoctrinated into her during upbringing: that men were biologically primed to be breadwinners, and women homemakers? If that was true, what impact did this have on her emotionally and sexu...
          She was interrupted in her thoughts by the sound of her phone ringing. She plucked out the handset and, after flipping up the lid, examined the name of the incoming caller. It was James, and he was ringing from his own mobile.
          Alice frantically pressed call-receive button. “Hello? James? What’s...what’s wrong?”
          She’d been determined not to sound worried...but quickly discovered that she’d had every right to be so. Her husband’s voice was a shaky facsimile of its usual self.
          “Al’, please don’t panic,” he said, and by the time he’d added more – “...we’re at the hospital...it’s Martin...something happened...” – she was headed for her car parked outside the campus to race across the city centre for the hospital.
 
*
 
What had hurt her beautiful boy? What had that inept man done to him? By the time Alice had found space in the pay-and-display car park and was running for Accident and Emergency, she was in tears. After negotiating the reception desk, she thought: A child should be with his mother. Riding the elevator up to the correct floor, she thought: A father should go out to work to earn his family’s upkeep. And while locating the ward in which her son was being treated, she thought: Things must change – everything must change.
          She found James standing stock-still in a waiting room like a...like a corpse in a display case. Alice suppressed this confusing thought and rushed across to beat his chest with her fists.
          What’s happened?” she cried, telling herself that the buzzing she could now hear was coming from her own throat. “Where’s Martin? What are they doing to him?”
          James took her by the arms, though not firmly enough to prevent another tirade of accusations.
          When she was done, her husband looked shaken but somehow managed to say, “It’s all going to be okay, love. We were in the park. He just got stung – by a bee.”
          The word froze her on the spot. Just then, she felt locked in amber. That buzzing sound in her head had finally died away. And before she could reply – what she’d planned to say lay outside conscious awareness – James went quickly on.
          He told her that he and Martin had gone out that morning to have fun in the local park. Then, when James had been removing the boy’s bottle of milk from his carry-bag, an insect had landed on Martin’s face, crawling there a while, before discharging its toxic cargo. James hadn’t wanted to alarm the insect by swiping it off too quickly, but a sting had been delivered anyway. At first the skin above their son’s right eye – where the bee had been lurking – had gone a blotchy red...but then all the flesh had started swelling up. James had rushed back home, called a taxi and had brought Martin here to get the sore checked out.
A doctor had endorsed his precaution (“ ‘Always best to get these things inspected,’ ” the woman had apparently said) and had taken the boy away to carry out standard tests. That was when James had called Alice, but she hadn’t given him time to explain and had hung up before he could reveal that there was nothing to worry about, that he’d just being letting her know about the incident. Martin, a little shaken though essentially okay, was now ready to leave; James had just been waiting for Alice to arrive.
          At the end of this monologue – one twisted into an accusation about Alice’s impetuous response – James stepped through to a nearby treatment room and soon emerged with their son in a carrycot. James smiled as if everything was all right, prompting Alice to follow him back outside.
          But Alice knew that nothing was all right; in fact, everything had changed for good. And later that evening, after Martin had been put to bed following the application of soothing cream from the hospital, she told her husband exactly what she meant by this.
         
*
 
The following summer, they holidayed in Brighton on the south coast. Martin – three now, and as healthy as he’d ever been – had enjoyed paddling in the sea and playing on the beach, and when the holiday was over, it was as if something precious had ended, as if an important time in their lives had moved on and its memories were already fading.
          As James drove north for the M1, however, Alice refused to let this trouble her. Her husband did most of the driving now; his new full-time job in publishing required his attendance at many nationwide conferences, and the role had become natural. Alice had reduced her hours with the research centre, and they’d taken advantage of the university’s well-developed crèche facilities. She and James were also trying to resolve their long-term intimacy problems, but had made love twice in Brighton, so perhaps those difficulties were now also behind them.
          When the car reached the environs of Crawley, Alice instructed her husband to slow down while she took hold of the sat-nav system (the same one she’d used for navigation when her job had involved travel) and accessed its Tourist Attractions page. Darwin’s Garden was still on there, even though she’d continued to search online for the place with no success. Then she instructed James to follow the machine’s directions. He protested briefly, wanting to get home as soon as possible, because he had work the following day. Nevertheless, Alice insisted, and in truth it didn’t feel as if she’d had a choice in the matter. It was as if a final piece of her troubling experiences lately needed manoeuvring into place.
          The garden was much as she recalled and similarly deserted. Someone must tend the place, because all the plants and flowers looked as magnificent as on her previous visit, beguiling them with their scent as they paced through. The same was true of the figure in the glasshouse...but this wasn’t the same one as she’d seen last time.
          There was now a naked woman standing stock-still in the same display case. Despite her palpable lack of life, she was remarkably attractive: pert breasts, narrow waist, a painted smile...But what was the real difference here?
Then Alice realised: there was no sound of buzzing.
She looked quickly away from the blond-haired, firm-skinned beauty, and towards the ground inside the glasshouse. The floor, she noticed with a frown, was littered with thousands of dead bees. The figure at the centre of the display was standing ankle-deep in these insects’ lifeless bodies, as if she’d just disgorged every one of them...Then Alice, finally believing she understood, turned to her husband, who’d already placed one hand over their son’s eyes.
Perhaps James had deemed the sight of a naked woman unsuitable for their growing boy. After averting his own gaze from his wife, possibly even detecting the look of arousal there, James turned away and, with their child clutched protectively in his arms, started walking back along the crooked path that had brought them to this place of nebulous revelation.


 
 

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