A New Place on the Map
The car rolls to halt and I put the handbrake on, knock the gear lever into neutral and turn the engine off. The radio cuts out. I can see the telly through the living room window. Unknown men and women dressed in oversized, furry costumes cavort across the screen, transfixing my children. I see the back of my daughter’s head, my son in profile. They are still.
In the hallway – the letters. It reminds me of when we split up. Living separately, but still corresponding. Together. Apart. I had forgotten she has such beautiful handwriting. The letters – a warning sign.
She’s in the kitchen. On the laptop. Doesn’t look up when I enter.
‘Kids okay?’ I ask, trying to lift my voice, the way telesales men sound when they call me at work.
‘Fine,’ she says, layering this simple word of positive affirmation with something quite different.
‘Good day? Write some letters?’
‘Well, you’ve seen them, so yes, obviously!’
I go to the living room. They’re watching an animated cartoon now. They don’t know I’m there. The cartoon is funny, but they don’t laugh. I remember I didn’t do something I should’ve at work and for a moment consider whether I need to email or phone someone, or whether it can wait. My son farts. He and his sister chuckle, not taking their eyes from the screen. They still don’t know I’m there. I like watching them.
The letters are addressed to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Culture, the Mayor of London and the BBC.
In the kitchen, I put the kettle on. ‘Tea?’ She nods.
I’m not sure how to frame the question: how to avoid the defensive reaction. ‘What are the letters about?’
She screws her lips. Looks at me for the first time. ‘You never take my projects seriously.’
‘A maze,’ she says. ‘London needs a maze. A landmark maze. The kind of maze that people can have an experience in. The kind of maze that no city yet boasts. A maze which will do for the labyrinth what the London Eye did for Ferris wheels.’
‘A maze?’ I say. I try to sound interested. Intrigued. I’m not good at this type of thing. Even to my ears, I sound incredulous. Since the kids and then her illness, there have been numerous episodes like this. A kind of mania for something. A reaching out. Reaching for something beyond her kids and her house, and me.
‘Do you have to rubbish everything I do? I’ve got ideas. Vision. Imagine it: the world’s greatest maze. A landmark. A destination. A new place on the map.’
‘Not everyone likes mazes,’ I say, knowing this is not what she wants to hear, that this is not the kind of response which will ameliorate the tension in the room. ‘Someone people hate that feeling of being of lost.’
She cuts her eyes, shakes her head. I forget about making tea and get a beer from the fridge. I go and watch my kids watching telly. Kids’ TV has finished, so now they’re watching a cookery programme whose drunken contestants are being mocked by the voiceover. My children are utterly still. They still don’t know I’m here. Sipping slowly from the can of beer, I turn from the kids watching telly to the letters by the front door.
If it wasn’t a maze, it would be something else.