He sits on the edge of the bath, biting his lower lip, hard. They mustn’t hear him crying. His hands grip the bath tub tight, knuckles pushing through the skin.
He tries to think about nothing but the force of his grip. On the bath tub. The coolness beneath his hands. His eyes squeezed shut, pushing the tears out. Liquid streaming down his face. A few drops falling onto his legs. But no sound. Not a single sound emerging from his mouth. His wide open, silent mouth.
Control his breathing. He has to control his breathing. He knows the sobs are about to take over, to overwhelm his body, to have their own way with him.
The cold floor. Beneath his bare feet. Move his attention down. To the floor. Chilled. His toes on the tiles.
And keep squeezing the side of the bath.
And breathe. Try to breathe. Just breathe. Noiselessly.
He can’t shake off the picture in his mind. Her frame standing before him, filling his vision, her finger pointing to the ground, arm taut from shoulder to wrist. The haughty expression she adopted when she needed to. Haughty? Or betrayed?
“You do whatever you want. But I’m going. You don’t have to come. If you want to stay here, you can spend the summer with your father. But I’m going.” And then the turning away, not staying for a moment, not even long enough to register the expression on his face.
And what had the expression been? Incomprehension? Shock? Do the two look all that different from each other, especially on the face of a young child?
He’d tried to ask her if it would be safe to go. Would it be all right, he’d said. Only, he’d seen so many reports, read so many things over the last few weeks, about the danger of the dust. Winds pushing it all north-west, helping it to gather speed, sending it right where they were planning to be.
And then of course, once he’d seen all that, he couldn’t stop looking. Couldn’t stop finding bits of information – picking up snatches of conversation – about consequences, changes, long-term effects. Cancer kept coming up. Maybe something else too, but that was the word he heard more often than any other. Or did he think he heard it more often just because he noticed the grim looks on people’s faces whenever the word was uttered. He didn’t understand what it meant, but he knew it wasn’t good. People in his family had had cancer. Some of them had died. Hadn’t someone…? Hadn’t someone on his mother’s side died from it? Had that been cancer? He wasn’t sure. But he knew the word was to be feared.
More words. They were unfamiliar, but he was bright enough to recognise them as words he wasn’t quite yet bright enough to know. Words that were always whispered. Uttered beneath averted eyes. Toxins. Contamination. Irreversible.
It would take around eight years for the effects to appear, he’d heard somewhere. And then things would happen quickly. There’d be no stopping it. A body completely taken over, with no hope of any sort of cure. He remembered the images he’d seen on the screen that one time, when he shouldn’t have been watching. Bodies pulled and stretched like plasticine by the force of a gale of blackness. In the blink of an eye, pulled and stretched. And then scattered on the air. With only strange shadows remaining in the sand. He’d closed his eyes, but the images had remained.
Eight years. So he wouldn’t quite make it to his eighteenth birthday. For some reason, that was the thing that had stayed in his head — the fact he couldn’t forget. The feeling that if he were exposed to the danger, his adulthood would be taken away from him. He’d be allowed the remainder of his childhood — that much seemed clear. But nothing more. The rest would never happen.
And that was what he’d tried to talk to her about. He couldn’t even remember how he’d raised the subject. He can’t have been capable of subtlety. Not at that age, surely. Looking back, with the hindrances of hindsight, he realised he had little sense of what his ten-year-old self was like when it came to broaching topics, trying to steer conversations into a particular area. Definitely not capable of subtlety, he thought. Or maybe he was wrong. Maybe he’d actually been quite adept. He was skilled at it now, at this point in his life. So maybe it was an ability he’d developed early on. Because he’d had to. Because of the reactions he received when he was too direct, too blunt.
But that particular aspect of the memory was gone. He knew that, somehow, he’d asked the question, tried to find out if it would be safe, if it would be all right to go, if it might not be safer to wait another year.
And then that response. The arm taut from shoulder to wrist. “You don’t have to come. But I’m going.”
Haughty or betrayed? Now he can see how important the trip must have been to her, how she would have tried to deny any possibility that it might not take place. She hadn’t been able to make the journey for years. So she would allow nothing to stop her from making it this time. Nothing. Not even this. The gale of blackness. The dust gathering speed.
“You do whatever you want.”
She must have known. She must have known the anguish this would cause him, the enormity of the decision in his head. The choice. He had to make a choice. She told him that he was the one who had to make a choice.
And then his small frame sitting on the edge of the bath, gripping the sides tight, trying to make the pain in his knuckles stop the tears from falling, the muscles in his neck straining with the pull of the open mouth, the wide open, silent mouth.
And breathe. Slow down the breathing. Slow it down now. Breath by breath. Slower. Calmer. Quieter. And stop the tears. Because you can’t sit here much longer. You’ll have to wipe your face, flush the toilet – just in case they’re listening – and then walk out, as though everything’s well. As though everything’s fine. As though you haven’t just been trying to hold your whole world together in the grip that has been hanging on for dear life to the side of that cold, hard bath.