Early by Lucie Whitehouse

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Silently, aiming for weightlessness, Eleanor moved to the edge and lifted the blanket. The parquet floor was chill underfoot. She skirted the end of the bed, feeling with her hand for the protruding corner responsible for the yellowing bruise on her shin. Behind her, the shape beneath the blankets made a sound between a sigh and a groan, and turned over. She held her breath, thinking she was caught, but he only sighed again and buried his head deeper in the pillow. The steam heating grumbled in sympathy.

[private]The door was ajar and in the slant of light from the next room she picked her clothes from amongst those strewn across the rug. She dressed in the relative sanctuary of the bathroom and ran her hands through her hair. There was no comb in her bag; she only had what was in it when she’d answered her phone in the library, keeping her voice as low as possible. She’d packed away her books and come straight over. Her hair didn’t matter, though; no one knew her here. Contact lenses were more important but she didn’t have those, either, and her glasses were in Manhattan, eight stops away on the C train. Well, things would have to stay hazy for the time being.

He’d dropped his keys into the shallow dish on the counter last night and now she picked them up, threaded the one for the front door off the ring and slipped it into her coat pocket. Shouldering her bag, she quickly scanned the room, then turned the catch and noiselessly let herself out. In the hallway she exhaled. There was a dull ache in her head as if someone was squeezing her temples between thumb and forefinger.
In the lift – the elevator – she held the key in her pocket, stroking her fingertip along its serrated edge. In a few minutes, she thought, ten or fifteen at the most, she’d be making this journey in reverse, taking the lift back up. She’d use the key and open his door for the first time. Perhaps he’d be awake by then, making coffee. Perhaps, it occurred to her suddenly, he might think she’d gone, walked out without saying goodbye, but he’d see the breakfast things and laugh. They’d eat and then go back to bed. Or perhaps, exhausted, he’d still be in there when she got back and she’d leave the breakfast in the kitchen, drop her clothes on the rug and get under the blankets again. She’d mould her body around his, pressing her breasts against his back. Her fingers would be cold on his skin.

Opening the lobby door, Eleanor stepped out into a sudden trumpet-blast of light. She closed her eyes tightly and opened them again, seeing only the outlines of the trees and houses opposite for the seconds it took her pupils to adjust. When they did, she was dazzled again, this time by the sheer beauty of what she saw. Spring: in the eight hours since their third Martini and the shivery stumble home, spring had arrived.
For almost a month now, banks of filthy ploughed snow had bordered the streets, and the pavements – sidewalks – had been strips of greasy ice stained by cigarette butts and dog shit. Day after day the city had gone to work under an inscrutable grey sky. In a matter of hours, however, the long spell had been broken and a rinsing sun bore down so keenly on the piles of dirty snow that they seemed to shrink before her eyes. She could hear running water – she heard it before she saw it. It was sluicing down the gutter, clean and rapid as an alpine stream, making a lovely, bubbling music as it flowed down the drain. Tick, tock; tick, tock: the beat came from overhead as water dripped from the trees and the scaffolding on the building next door. Overhead the sky was so intense and perfect a blue it resonated in her chest.
It was still early, at least for a Sunday, and there was no one else on the pavement. A single car, one of the huge ones she’d only seen in films before coming to America, was cruising up Lafayette Avenue past Ralph’s deli on the corner, Simon and Garfunkel trailing from the driver’s open window. Eleanor felt a fresh awareness of her foreignness and was thrilled by it. Everything was new and filled with potential. Things were just starting.

Last week, the night she’d come to Brooklyn for the first time, they’d passed a great-looking deli and bakery. Marafioti’s: the name had been written in gold across the window. She’d find it, she decided; that was where she’d get the sort of breakfast one should eat at the beginning: butter croissants, cinnamon rolls, pains au chocolat, freshly-squeezed orange juice. Smoked salmon and eggs for scrambling. Coffee beans, ground to order. The coffee was one of her favourite things about New York. Round the corner from her apartment on Minetta Street she’d found a café that did the best she’d ever tasted; she was going to take him there when he came to her place. When would that be? she wondered. This week? She’d come here all three of their nights so far.

She crossed South Portland Street and carried on down the hill. There was a bagel place on the next corner but no Marafioti’s. It couldn’t have been on this side of the street, though, she thought now, because they’d been coming the other way, from Park Slope. She remembered how she’d pressed into Eric’s side and he’d pulled her round for a kiss.

Waiting to cross Lafayette, she saw a tiny Asian woman – Japanese, perhaps – standing on the pavement opposite. She wore a pair of Hunter wellingtons and a chocolate-brown quilted jacket of the type that looked ludicrously hunting-and-shooting in England but contrived to be chic in New York. Her age was hard to judge but Eleanor guessed forty. Her hair, still raven, was cut in a crisp bob.

The lights changed and Eleanor started crossing. The Japanese woman, however, didn’t move. She seemed distracted by something but glancing down the street, Eleanor couldn’t see much. What she did see as she got nearer was the red and white striped bag in her hand. Marafioti’s was written across it in gold.

In London she wouldn’t have done it, but New York had made her bolder. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, stopping and pointing at the bag. ‘Could you tell me where I’d find that shop?’ The woman looked at her, eyes wide, and Eleanor felt obliged to explain. ‘I don’t know the neighbourhood – I’m new here.’

The woman stared a moment longer and then seemed to focus.

‘You’re English,’ she said.

‘Yes. I’m here studying – at Columbia.’

The woman nodded, as if that was satisfactory. ‘It’s a little way,’ she said. ‘I’ll show you.’ Her accent was almost American but not quite.

‘Oh, you don’t need to show me,’ Eleanor said. ‘If you just tell me, I can …’

The woman shook her head, suddenly adamant. ‘You won’t find it.’ She turned and started back the way she’d come. A little hesitant, Eleanor followed, hoping it was nearby. The bag of books was heavy on her shoulder. When they reached the end of the block, however, the woman crossed the road again and went on. Embarrassment growing, Eleanor went on, too. She felt as if she should say something but the woman kept her eyes on her feet, seemingly determined to walk in silence. She moved quickly, the bag describing a tantalising pendulum swing.

They made to cross again and Eleanor decided to tell her not to worry. Just as she started to speak, however, the woman sniffed and Eleanor realised she was crying. She was taken aback – alarmed, even. Standing at the crossing, she’d been intimidating, one of that New York breed whose poise seemed a moral challenge as well as a sartorial one. The sudden vulnerability was disorientating.

Without looking at her, the woman took out a ball of macerated tissue and pressed it against her eyes.

‘Are you all right?’ Eleanor asked, tentative.

There was silence for some seconds but then she turned.

Her eyes brimmed. ‘I’ve left my husband.’ She blinked and two streams ran down her cheeks.

‘Oh.’

‘Just now. I walked out.’ Her attempt at self-control collapsed and she broke into violent sobbing. ‘I still bought breakfast – I didn’t know what else to do.’

Eleanor looked round wildly, trying to think. A little way up the street there was a place with benches outside. ‘Would you like to sit down?’

The woman shook her head savagely, bob swinging. ‘He never does anything for me.’ Her voice was choked, too loud in the peaceful morning. ‘When he comes home tired from work I always pour him a beer but if he’s home first, he never pours me one. I have a job, too, and I cook and I clean and I look after his mother.’ She sniffed hard. ‘She lives with us.’

Eleanor was bewildered. How had the morning taken this abrupt turn? ‘Is that difficult?’ she tried. ‘Living with his mother?’

The woman shook her head again almost as fiercely. ‘No. No, that’s not difficult. It’s my husband – he doesn’t care about me.’ She sobbed again and then thrust out the paper bag. ‘I could do this every day – buy his food – but I don’t. I cook everything – every meal. I cook his favourite dishes, it takes so much time, but he doesn’t even notice.’

Into Eleanor’s mind came a memory of Eric pressing his face into the pillow as she’d picked up her clothes. ‘What does he do?’ she asked.

‘He’s an accountant – we both are. That’s how we met, when we were students.’ She pressed the tissue to her eyes again and swallowed. ‘He was good-looking and clever – the best one in the group. And he chose me.’

She gave a half-smile, remembering. ‘But now he leaves me to do everything. What about my career? I’m ambitious, too. And I was the only one who ever beat him in exams.’

They’d stopped outside a restaurant and Eleanor watched as melt-water dripped from the eaves to collect on bags of garbage from the night before. Here the tick, tick was arrhythmic, out of step. ‘Do you still love him?’ she said.

The tissue had fallen apart irretrievably now and the woman wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She looked up, defiant. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes. I love him.’

All of a sudden, Eleanor saw her mother standing at the kitchen sink with her back to the room, her shoulders shaking. Eleanor was standing next to her, watching as small circles spread across the surface of the dishwater, one after another. Saucepans were piled on the counter. ‘Have you talked to him? Sometimes people don’t even know what’s wrong.’

The woman looked at her, waiting to be convinced.

‘My parents met at university as well but after they had us, my father seemed to forget my mother. She was a great cook, too, and he ate everything she ever put in front of him but to him it was just fuel.’
‘So what happened?’ The woman’s eyes narrowed.

‘She never told him it pissed her off.’ Eleanor shrugged. ‘Just started hating him for it instead. They’re divorced.’

The woman drew herself upright and sniffed hard, as if trying to re-inhale her dignity.

‘All right,’ she said. ‘Okay. I’ll try. I’ll try to talk to him.’ She looked at the bag in her hand and without another word or backwards glance, she dived across the road.

When she’d disappeared, Eleanor looked around and saw that Marafioti’s was on the corner: they’d come right to it. Through the window, the baskets of pains raisins and croissants were so golden they seemed varnished. Her appetite, however, was gone.

Seeing herself reflected in the glass, she took her book bag off her shoulder and held it in her arms. Through the window on the other side of the building, the subway entrance was visible. Holding her books tightly, thinking about how the sunlight would look as it streamed through the library windows, she walked round to it.

The ground was trembling with the approach of a train into the station but she paused for a moment at the top of the steps. The drain at the pavement’s edge was partially blocked by a sodden cardboard box, and, its progress impeded, filthy water was churning beneath the grate, threatening to bubble up and flood the street. Eleanor hesitated just a second but then reached into her pocket, took out the key and dropped it in.[/private]

Lucie WhitehouseLucie Whitehouse grew up in Warwickshire and studied Classics at Oxford. She lived in London for several years and now moves between London and New York, where she lives with her husband. Her second novel, The Bed I Made, was published by Bloomsbury in June.

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