Title: The Light That Charlotte Glimpsed
Author: Elizabeth Weir
Charlotte looked at her husband, at the livid red strip that bridged his nose. Liam didn’t believe in sunscreen; ‘We’re screwed anyway,’ he’d say, meaning those summers back in the 70s before sun cream was invented.
‘Global warming … no need to go abroad any more!’ He pointed his glass at the low red sun.
‘I know – it’s like August in the Med.’ Charlotte replied, heat from the barbecue rippling the air around her. His sunburn was an embarrassment – a social no-no, not as bad as smoking of course, but a sign of a certain carelessness nonetheless.
Inside the house, the boys started up on the piano. “Ikonik”, their school band, had played at the graduation ceremony earlier: a melancholic Leonard Cohen number, which given their thirteen years was a little unconvincing. Still, the haircuts were a talking point and the moves were getting there.
The girls had played it more demure. There were poems (“A Giant Leap Taken in Baby Steps”), first day photos, school trip souvenirs, and posters along the walls: Things We’ve Learned, Different But Equal, Friendship Is…The mothers cried, remembering the early years. The fathers panned their cameras across the stage.
Lukas and Martha had invited a small circle of parents back to their house afterwards. This evening there was a common bond: their children had made it through primary school. They all felt it – sadness for the innocence shed; anticipation for the lessons to come.
‘Jesus, I remember all we had when we finished primary was a long mass!’ Róisín handed out the paper plates.
‘Yeah, that and a kick up the rear – don’t come back!’ Padraig glugged his beer like a man who’d crawled across a desert. Obviously, Róisín was doing the driving tonight. Charlotte and Liam had argued before they left:
‘Fucksakes, Charlotte – I can’t drink Fanta all night! It’s alright for you…’ Liam didn’t continue but she knew what he meant: It was alright for her, she’d be on familiar turf, but Liam only knew the other fathers from party pick-ups or the odd fundraising pub quiz. And this was Lukas’s house. Lukas suffered terribly from boredom; he was not the type to talk about football or politics for long. Sooner or later things would turn personal.
Martha swished past with the tray of burgers, and called to her daughter to bring out servers for the salad, but her voice couldn’t carry over the lash of “Chopsticks” being dealt to the piano. Charlotte stood up, ‘I’ll get them, Martha – it’s no trouble – really!’
The girls were eating their food leaning against the counter. Their chatter stopped dead when Charlotte came in, discussing boys perhaps. Hard to believe that, at twelve, Emily was taking an interest. But the rest of them were nearly fourteen; it was inevitable really. Charlotte found the servers in a jar labelled “Utensils”. Martha liked to label things, a rub-off perhaps from her years in Germany. Or maybe it was Lukas’s doing. He certainly did the jokey captions for the family photos spread salon style over the back wall. Charlotte’s chest tightened as she clocked the milestones in Lukas and Martha’s relationship: not, she told herself, out of jealousy. No, it was seeing how simple it was for others: being happy, how open it made you.
Lukas was describing some barbecue his brother got in Hamburg, a real swanky job apparently. The men discussed the merits of charcoal versus gas. The women, meanwhile, marvelled at the changes in their children; the girls especially – those curves! Everything seemed to start so much younger now. Was it the food? Or was it the additives? Were children really bigger nowadays?
‘I mean, we were all such skinnymalinks! I don’t recall any of that starting until secondary.’ Charlotte remembered still the shock: her blood – how horrifying it had been: a part of her body she could not control. For months, she’d told no one; had stolen money from her mother’s purse to buy sanitary towels. But Emily had come up to her the moment her periods started, proud almost.
‘And then, later on, those summers working abroad, do you remember how tall the other Europeans seemed?’ Roisin was getting excited, a point forming in her mind, ‘Maybe we’re just catching up – maybe now we’re the same as the Danes and Germans!’
Martha wasn’t convinced. She cut into the men’s conversation, their charcoal/gas debate having petered out, ‘Well, Lukas? Did we all seem like runts when you first came here?’
‘Yeah, sure! Felt like Gulliver in Lilliput!’ Lukas laughed, held his hands out wide. Lukas was five foot four max. Dark too, like a little hobbit Charlotte always thought – a busy hobbit. Still Martha loved him; you could see it in the way she looked at him: eyes soft and tender.
By ten o’clock, the children were hyper. The unlimited access to Coke and crisps was taking full effect. Lukas was sent in to have a word. Charlotte caught Liam looking at his watch.
Whatever was Lukas’s intention, the effect was not what Martha ordered. There were roars of laughter, competing shouts. He was playing one of his games with them. Martha rolled her eyes to heaven.
‘Sure, leave them alone. Today’s a special day.’ Róisín refilled Martha’s glass.
‘It’s all ahead of them,’ Padraig draped his arm across Róisín’s shoulders, ran his fingers through her hair.
Charlotte and Liam were on opposite sides of the picnic table. Sometimes at night, she could feel him beside her, longing for her; there was always that signal rise in temperature when his desire became like desperation. Charlotte would stiffen, keep her back firmly turned, wait for it to pass. Sometimes he would touch her shoulder, hoping maybe. It always kept her awake for hours afterwards: the anger, the frustration, binding her limbs like ropes. Occasionally, he’d wake up later, catch her crying and he would stroke her back, saying, ‘Ah, Charlotte!’ Just that, ‘Ah Charlotte’ like he didn’t know what else to say.
‘I wonder how they’ll end up…’ Martha’s eyes sparkled. ‘Wouldn’t you just love to know what your children are going to do with their lives?’
‘We can’t hang onto to them forever – they have to go out and make their own mistakes.’ There was a hint of irritation in Róisín’s voice.
‘I just mean it would be nice to know that they’ll get what they want from life.’ Martha looked up at Lukas who had returned to the table.
‘But isn’t that half the challenge in life: to find out what it is you want to do? Find the person you want to do it to…?’ Lukas sat down, wound his arm round Martha’s waist and laughed. Róisín leant forward:
‘So did you two meet at the Academy?’ Lukas and Martha glanced at one another; exchanged a knowing smile.
‘Well, actually…’ Lukas turned to Martha, inviting her to explain, ‘You tell it better than I do.’
‘I was doing my Masters thesis…’85, or was it ’86?’
‘Anyway, there was a score I needed. It was pretty obscure and I had to get an Inter-library loan from the music school in Berlin. So…when I got it there was this score sketched in pencil on the back of one of the sheets. It was sweet…’ Martha trilled a short burst. Lukas hid his head in his hands. ‘So, underneath there was a name: Lukas Friedmann and a phone number. I remember thinking “Poor sod!” Anyway, I made my copy of the score, but something – I don’t know what – made me write out his name and number too. I forgot all about it, until a few weeks later, the tune came back into my head, and I kept thinking: Lukas Friedmann. Who the hell is Lukas Friedmann?’
Martha was laughing now; she couldn’t help it. The others encouraged her to continue. Even Liam had sat up straight and was listening close.
‘So anyway, I was out drinking the following night with a friend of mine, Julie. I told her about the score and she suggested we try ringing the number…It was a bit of a fiasco: we had to get the code for Germany and we only had two quid in change. By the time we got our act together, it was one o’clock in the morning!’
‘Two o’clock for me!’ Lukas reminded her.
‘God yeah! So we dial this number and this guy answers in German, of course. We were so drunk we hadn’t thought of that! We kept laughing… could barely hear what he was saying. Well, anyway, our money ran out half way through our rendition of his score. I remember the next day feeling so guilty. I decided to phone him back to apologise… so we got talking and I gave him my number and…well, that’s it really.’
‘That’s so romantic!’ Róisín clamped her hands over her mouth.
‘So what about you guys? How did you meet?’ Martha tossed the question back to Róisín.
‘Us?’ Róisín looked at Padraig and laughed, ‘We did it traditional Irish style: got pissed at a party and snogged one another. I didn’t even know your name!’ She gave Padraig a playful elbow.
‘Oh, I knew yours alright!’ he almost growled.
The patio door opened and Roisin’s eldest emerged, complaining of tummy-ache. He slumped against her and moaned to further illustrate his point. The other kids were upstairs, he said, watching TV.
Charlotte tried to send Liam a look to say Let’s go. If they left now, they’d escape the inquisition. But Liam kept his head down and Lukas beat her to it.
‘So, Liam, Mystery Man, how did you two hook up?’ The constriction in Charlotte’s chest took hold; she pressed the glass of chilled white wine against her cheek. Damn Lukas and his hobbit quests.
‘Ach, you know, fate had a plan…’ He blew out some air, but Lukas pushed harder.
‘”Fate had a plan?” What – like two cars about to crash?’ Mischief gleamed in his dark eyes. ‘Come on! Cupid was on the wing: where were you and where was Charlotte?’ Everyone was laughing now, getting in on the spirit – well not quite everyone. Couldn’t Lukas see that? Did happiness actually make you blind? Charlotte gulped back her wine. She and Liam locked eyes across the table. It’s okay, she tried to say: Just get it over with! Liam looked away. The table fell silent until eventually his voice emerged – quiet and determined.
‘I was in my first year in college. Fresh from the country – hadn’t a clue – green behind the ears, green to my toes.’ He grinned, wrung his hands. ‘My first time living away from home, thought I was the business though…’ Lukas nodded, obviously understanding. ‘So, anyway… there was this girl in my class – I’d noticed her on day one.’ Padraig slapped out a drumroll on the table. Charlotte felt frozen, the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. There was nothing she could do to stop this. ‘I’d wanted to talk to her, but she seemed so… aloof; I didn’t dare try.’
‘Charlotte! You old Snow Queen!’ Was it a jibe? Was it a joke? Charlotte couldn’t say which Martha intended.
‘Anyway, I was waiting to make my move. But, in the end, it was Charlotte who made things happen.’ This was torture, sheer torture. Why didn’t he just say they met in college? Charlotte looked at him; couldn’t take her eyes off him. Perhaps the others interpreted this as love. Perhaps they were that blind.
‘I remember it was sunny and we were in this lecture hall… I became aware of someone staring at me. I thought it was Charlotte, but I couldn’t be certain without staring back, so I kept my head down… Anyway, later I snuck a glance, and sure enough – it was her; she was staring at me alright. She lifted her chin and gave me this look. I don’t know…it was like the air was charged ‘ Liam gestured to the space between them, ‘…yeah, charged…and she was pulling me in. At the end of the talk, I went over to her. The hall was emptying fast but we were like two pillars, stood there, looking at one another. Then she hands me this picture – some guy sitting at a desk. I didn’t know what to make of it!’ Never, in all their years of marriage had Charlotte heard Liam opening up like this. ‘”Thanks!” says I, “Who’s that?”. “It’s you!” “What d’ye draw a picture of me for?” “You were in a pool of light” she says, like that made perfect sense…’ Liam was laughing now, but Charlotte wanted to scream: ‘Stop it! Why are you doing this?’ But he wouldn’t stop. ‘”You were in a pool of light!” Imagine!’ Liam laughed again, quietly though and to himself.
‘I didn’t know you could draw, Charlotte.’ Martha was first to break the silence round the table.
‘I gave it up.’ Her cheeks were burning. ‘With good reason.’
‘You were talented, Charlotte!’ Liam spoke quickly. ‘You don’t remember that, but I do!’ Charlotte stared at him; but he held her look, and it was like those nights when his body would beg her to turn round to him, except this was worse; people were watching. Panic coursed through her. She ransacked her mind for a way to handle this.
‘Well –’ Charlotte stood up, ‘the kids must be exhausted.’ And she thought she might collapse with the pain of it, because she remembered now: that shaft of sunlight, and the lightness of her heart as she sketched the marks that would map her future. Every line had been a string cut.
Padraig got up too, hoisted up his son’s dead weight.
‘Come on, sleepyhead!’
The women gathered together bags and coats, exchanged thank-yous, and expressed regrets they hadn’t done it more often. Liam stayed at the table drinking his wine, with Lukas beside him, silent for once. He would not look at her.
‘I’ll get Emily, you call the taxi, okay? ’ Charlotte pulled together the sides of her cardigan, turned away.
It was quiet as she ascended the stairs. Emily hadn’t answered when she’d called. Charlotte wondered whether they’d fallen asleep, but just as she reached the top step, she heard laughter, and a sudden thump, as though of feet jumping from a bed. Emily came out from one the bedrooms, ‘Mum!’
Charlotte noticed the flush on Emily’s chest, how her top was loose and suddenly she understood. ‘Emily!’
‘Please Mum! Don’t!’ Charlotte ignored her; pushed the bedroom door open. It was dark inside but still Charlotte could see: Tom on the bed, trying not to laugh or maybe plain embarrassed, Rachel and Sam lying together on the other bed, their hands over their mouths, also stifling laughter.
‘Okay – party’s over!’ Charlotte switched on the light. The children got up. The boys, taller than she was, shuffled past her out the door. Rachel’s laughter exploded half way down the stairs.
‘Mum!’ Emily’s tears were spilling freely now.
‘I’m sorry, love. I – ’ but Emily pushed past her.
‘I hate you!’ she cried, flicking her hair over her shoulders. ‘So much!’
Liam sat up front and did small talk with the taxi driver. Emily sat beside her in the back, arms folded, face turned away. The driver was a glum sort and it wasn’t long before Liam too sank into silence. Charlotte looked at the back of his neck, at the line of red where it met the white. She thought about touching him, about feeling the heat of him but she turned instead, and reached her hand out to Emily. Charlotte saw her daughter flinch. She wanted to grab her, tell her No! It’s not like that! That’s not what love is like! That’s not how love should start! But she didn’t of course. She would never say it. Charlotte would never tell her daughter what love was, because she’d only glimpsed it once, and it had been in a pool of light, and like everything else she tried to contain, that light had vanished the moment she set it down on pape