Previously in Unbound Fiction:

A Sign of the Times (April 25, 2001)
"If I wait long enough he's going to have to ask. He doesn't want to. Asking is like inviting cancer to eat out his insides." By Joan Wilking.

Points of Interest (March 21, 2001)
"I had no idea. How could I? It was just a homework assignment. Perfectly pedestrian. I've been giving the same one for years." By Robert Cohen

I Was Just Looking (February 21, 2001)
"Her scarlet djelleba was torn slightly at the hem. He gazed at the smooth, graceful curve of her calf, deliberately revealed, he was certain, for his eyes only." By Joe Kuhl

Daniel Wentworth (January 24, 2001)
"No one knows just when he left, only when they noticed that he was gone, and some of us don't even remember that." By Rachel Carpenter

The Faithful (December 20, 2000)
"It's thirty-two degrees, officially freezing, and we're getting ready for a Christmas Eve swim. Harvey's idea. 'It'll put the fear of God in you better than church.'" By N. M. Kelby

Presidential Election (November 22, 2000)
"My dad wanted his last few years to be in the spotlight. He wanted to be center stage. He drew up his plan to crack the presidency." By Mary McCluskey

More Unbound Fiction

More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly

Atlantic Unbound | May 18, 2001
 
Unbound Fiction
 
A Place of Safety
.....

It is keeping no one warm, the bonfire. People have piled on anything they can find—they have even taken a door off the makeshift lavatory to use as fuel. An old woman is describing how a holy man can walk across burning coals without leaving a mark on his skin. He learns to transcend pain, she says, and his flesh is as pure as his spirit. A freezing wind blows acrid smoke into their faces, and Eva calls her children to come away; she doesn't want them listening to the ramblings of the demented. There are many mad people in the camp, confused and crazed by what has happened to them. Eva clings to the knowledge that her name is on the list, that soon she will leave. Be safe.

It comes as a slight surprise to the neighborhood that Lorna Gregson has agreed to take in a refugee family. Although she is respected as a person of good sense and reliability, she is not known for spontaneous gestures. Her house is comfortable but rather arid, neat with new paint now that her son and daughter are away at college (although Rob still comes home most weekends with his washing). Their legacy of sticky fingerprints and doodles on the wallpaper has been wiped away, and Lorna has discovered with a shock that she misses them. She expected to miss the children, of course, but she hadn't realized how barren the house would feel without their accumulated debris.

The refugee family—a woman and two young boys (her husband is missing, she saw her father-in-law killed)—has hardly any possessions. In a small bag Eva carries a handful of quickly gathered mementos; they have been wearing the same clothes for several days. Fortunately the church group that is organizing the first stage of resettlement has quantities of donated jumble. On Lorna's instruction, with much pointing and miming and wringing of hands, Eva and her boys lock themselves in the guest bathroom and the pipes rumble with the coursing of hot water.

Lorna picks up the discarded heap of clothing, pungent with sweat and smoke. She knows she is storing trouble for herself, that if she can't deal with a pile of dirty laundry she should not be opening her home to strangers. Nevertheless she drops everything—even the bundle of old letters and photographs and a baby's first shoe—into a black bin liner, ties it up tightly so the smells cannot escape, and locks it in the cupboard under the stairs.

Eva emerges from the bathroom wearing a curious assembly of cardigans over a pair of very tight trousers. Her legs are skinny as sticks; the cardigans are wrapped twice around her rib cage. She is not sure she will ever feel warm again.

Lorna does not understand a word of her guest's garbled thanks. Graciously she leads the way down to the dining room, where she has laid the table with special care. Plates from her best dinner service, white porcelain with a gold rim, sit in a pristine pile; not a smudge dulls the polished cutlery. And that most traditional of English dishes, roast beef, is waiting to be carved by her husband, Bill.

Bill Gregson frequently travels away from home, but on this occasion he has made an effort to attend the meal and extend a welcoming handshake. Privately he has doubts about the scheme but is prepared to tolerate the strangers as long as they are not too disruptive. He saws rhythmically through the joint with the electric carving knife, and the bloody slices of meat mount up on the plates. The children stare round-eyed at the food but will not touch it. Eva, who knows she is starving, knows she must eat, cuts one mouthful, then another, then shamefully has to run to the family's cloakroom to vomit.

Lorna lies stiffly in bed beside Bill at night and wonders what she has done. Bill seems to see the sad eyes of Eva even when he shuts his own. He feels haunted by her. Neither of them is prepared to discuss the situation.

On her third day Eva is given vouchers to spend in a local supermarket. Lorna drives her there, helps her to lift the boys into a trolley, shows her where to find toothpaste, shampoo, nappies for the younger one, and suggests she pick out something they might eat. Eva gazes at abundant tumbling mounds of fruit, reflected a hundred times over in banks of mirrors. Sees reflected a hundred thin hands as she reaches out for an orange. And quickly withdraws, overcome.

Lorna finds her patience is rubbing off fast, as if it is only a thin coating of cheap paint. She is anxious, of course, to help restore this poor young mother and her family to health. She knows they have been through a terrible ordeal, and it is not surprising they rarely smile. On the other hand, a little appreciation would be nice. Other friends have taken in refugees, have been charmed by their gratitude and enthusiasm for all things British, have watched their dark eyes brighten and their skins glow like honey. Why should I be denied this pleasure, thinks Lorna, and then instantly feels guilty as Eva casts her a timid smile.

At the weekend her son, Rob, arrives as usual with his dirty sports bag, his scuffed trainers, his unshaven chin. Suddenly the house becomes alive again. He lets Eva's boys climb all over him and kicks a ball with them on the wet grass. Eva watches silently through the bay window, but her shoulders have imperceptibly lifted and her narrow neck is not so tense. Mealtimes become noisy and messy, and mashed potato is trodden into the carpet. Rob instigates a game of hide and seek, and one of Lorna's crystal vases shatters. They run out of hot water for showers, and the burglar alarm goes off accidentally at night.

Lorna decides there is really not room for six people in the house. She will call up the organizers on Monday and explain.

When Bill comes home late on Tuesday night from a firm's dinner with clients, Eva is alone in the peach and ivory sitting room, weeping. Through an interpreter she has been informed she cannot stay where she is because the space is not sufficient for her family. She will be rehoused when suitable accommodation is found.

Eva is bewildered. There are four large bedrooms; in fact it is the largest house she has ever seen. In her room there are two beds (the children share one). The wardrobe is full of evening dresses, festooned with beads and spangles that glitter through their transparent covers. The chest of drawers contains layers of woollen jumpers neatly folded around mothballs and tissue paper. A fraction of this cupboard space is available for Eva to use, but as she has so few belongings she does not regard it as an inconvenience. She knows, therefore, that if she has to move on it is because she personally has failed in some way.

She tries to explain this to Bill when he takes her hands and asks her what is the matter. She wants to say that she had enjoyed the weekend, that she had begun to feel accepted, that she was hopeful for her children, that she does not understand what she has done wrong. But her English is so basic she can only produce a handful of words. And more sobs.

Bill knows he has had too much to drink, but the wine has made him mellow, and he wants to comfort her. She reminds him of an injured sparrow, the way her hands flutter and her eyes are bright and trapped. He puts his arm around her, and momentarily she lays her head on his shoulder. She is so thin he can feel her bird-like bones, as if she could be crushed and her neck snapped in a single enthusiastic embrace.

He draws back and looks at her, breathing rather heavily through his nose. Then he reaches out and undoes her buttons. She often wears a coat indoors, and he has never been able to fathom why.

But Eva is not wearing a coat; she is wearing a dressing gown. Her hands begin a movement of protection but then stop and fall back into her lap. As the front of the dressing gown parts Bill sees her tiny breasts, the nipples dark and pointed with fear. He can see the curve of her ribs, the hollow of her stomach and the ugly vertical slash of the Cesarian scar from both babies. He feels an overwhelming tenderness and desire. Starting at her lips, his finger traces a line down her throat, over her breasts, along the scar, until he reaches the hot and terrified place between her legs.

Eva has no idea what to do. She remains fixed, passive, as Bill's hand reaches into his trousers. She does not scream. She has been raped before, and Bill is not brutal. He is quick and silent, and afterwards he strokes her cropped hair. Then, perhaps, he remembers Lorna, freezes with the fear of discovery. Hurriedly he fastens his fly and Eva's gown, checks the ivory sofa for telltale stains, and propels her toward the stairs.

The next time, and the times after that, he is more careful. He uses a condom. He encourages Lorna to take the pills that help her sleep and creeps quietly into Eva's bed, while the two children stir against each other's bodies on the far side of the room. Eva is always rigid, lying on her back under the white sheet like a corpse in a morgue. Sometimes he worries that her ribs will crack beneath his weight, but mostly he is excited by the sense of power and danger.

There has been no more talk of moving. Once or twice Lorna has made phone calls, but it is not easy to find somewhere with space for three, and she does not want to be responsible for splitting up the family. In any case, Bill seems to have become more tolerant and Eva has certainly become adept at making herself and the children invisible. On weekends, when Rob arrives, they are more in evidence. The boys beg to play football, and Eva's tight features relax. Lorna has noticed the way she looks at Rob, the way her voice softens when she greets him, the way her eyes follow him around almost as if she is trying to ask him something. Beseeching.

Lorna does not often go into Eva's room. She knows she will find the beds neatly made, but there is always a faint smell of nappies and a foreignness that makes her feel uncomfortable. However she needs to check her evening gowns for a function in a few weeks' time. She likes to be organized well in advance. She slips various outfits from their polythene casing and examines them at the window. Having made her selection she turns back into the room and then sees on the floor, under the bed, the used condom.

She cannot articulate her shock; her voice is frozen in her throat. Burying her hand deep in a rubber glove she picks up the disgusting object and flushes it down the lavatory. In her head she plans a furious speech: "How dare you take advantage of my hospitality? How dare you seduce my son, who is so much younger than you..." But Eva is not in the room, and Lorna needs to take action now. Otherwise she is afraid she will want to smash every plate Eva has ever eaten off or slash her bedding to ribbons.

She knows she is overreacting, that Rob probably has countless casual girlfriends, but she cannot help her feelings of betrayal. She remembers suddenly the black bin bag stuffed under the stairs and carts it into the garden with a wad of newspaper and a box of matches. There's already a pile of rose prunings awaiting disposal, and soon she has a good fire burning. Savagely she flings the tramp's belongings into the blaze.

Eva smells the smoke before she sees it blowing toward her. It is the first time she has seen a fire out of doors in this country. She can see Lorna beating at the flames with a stick, and something in the frenzy of her actions keeps Eva in the house, quietly sidling with her sons upstairs to their room. Later, after she has watched Lorna reverse her car out of the drive and roar off impatiently, late for a hair appointment, she goes outside and cautiously approaches the embers.

She recognizes a charred remnant of material, the thick corner of a book still smoldering, the twisted metal buckle of a baby's shoe. She slips off the donated boots and socks she is wearing and rolls up her trousers. She glances back once at the house, but the children are in front of the television and unlikely to be distracted. Deliberately she steps into the dying heart of the fire, the red hot ashes of her own belongings, the little she had left of her past. The soles of her feet burn and blister. The pain is so intense she faints.

Lorna takes her to hospital where they bandage her feet and ankles and where there is much discussion of masochism and the impetus to self-injure. Eva lies on the metal bed, her head hollow with pain, rejecting the tablets they offer her, refusing to speak to the psychiatrist. Lorna says she cannot possibly look after the children without their mother, so they are sent to another family. She tells Rob that Eva has moved out but does not explain where. She is slightly surprised that he is not more interested or concerned.

Bill does not visit the hospital, but he orders a magnificent display of fragrant lilies to be delivered by a local florist. The nurses exclaim at their beauty and take great care arranging them at Eva's bedside.

Eva turns her face to the wall.


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Penny Feeny is a former copywriter and editor, now concentrating on fiction. She has had several stories broadcast on BBC Radio and published in British literary magazines and anthologies. She lives in Liverpool.

Copyright © 2001 by
The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.