Homeworkby Margot Livesey
Celia Gilchrist believes that she has finally found the right man in Stephen, but when she moves in with Stephen and his young daughter Jenny, things begin to go subtly, menacingly wrong. Money disappears, a sweater is ruined, small, common-place lies escalate into awkward confrontations. Livesey's debut novel, now back in print, is a chilling portrait of jealousy… See more details below
Celia Gilchrist believes that she has finally found the right man in Stephen, but when she moves in with Stephen and his young daughter Jenny, things begin to go subtly, menacingly wrong. Money disappears, a sweater is ruined, small, common-place lies escalate into awkward confrontations. Livesey's debut novel, now back in print, is a chilling portrait of jealousy and fear, devotion, and the wish to be loved.
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By Margot Livesey
PicadorCopyright © 2001 Margot Livesey
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PART ICHAPTER 1It was the Saturday before Easter and all day the weather had been seesawing between winter and spring. As I approached the zoo the sun came out again. There was no sign of Stephen and Jenny among the queue of people waiting to gain admission, and I sat down on the wooden bench beside the entrance. In the shelter of the high wall, it was warm enough to unbutton my jacket. I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun, feeling the brightness on my eyelids. I could smell the rising smells of spring--damp earth, growth, decay--as if these odours, kept prisoner all winter long, were now released. In our garden the daffodils would soon be in bloom. From within the zoo, barely audible above the noise of traffic and the cries of children, came a strange honking sound and then, from another quarter, a muffled roar.The light dimmed. I opened my eyes. A stand of dark clouds had covered the sun, and a chilly wind forced me to my feet. When I glanced up from buttoning my jacket, I saw Stephen walking along the pavement on the far side of the road; he had not noticed me. He was looking down, talking to Jenny. She was holding his hand and smiling up at him. For a few seconds I stared at them, as if they were strangers, and then, like one's own reflection glimpsed surprisingly in a public place, they swam into recognition. I was suddenly aware of the astonishing fact that this small girl was Stephen's daughter. The relationship between them was as inevitable as the force that lengthened the days; whatever happened, shewas connected to him in a more profound way than I could ever be.While they waited for a pause in the traffic, Stephen caught sight of me and waved. He said something to Jenny. They were hidden by a silver-grey tourist bus. Then they crossed the street, and the three of us came together.Stephen bent and kissed me on the mouth. "Are we late?" he asked, pressing my hand."No, I was early. I didn't know how long the bus would take." I turned to greet Jenny, and found her gaze fixed upon me. "Hello, Jenny," I said. "How are you?""I'm fine, thank you, Celia." She smiled, briefly, and I thought how adult she was in her politeness.We joined the queue for tickets. Immediately in front of us, a man wearing a sheepskin jacket was discussing feeding times with a woman in a green anorak; they both had ruddy complexions of the kind I had come to regard, since I moved to Edinburgh, as peculiarly Scottish. Next to them four sandy-haired boys were arguing, pushing each other back and forth and saying, "I did," "You didn't." Jenny eyed them curiously; her stillness was in marked contrast to their noisy jostling.Before I first met Jenny, the photographs Stephen kept balanced on the mantelpiece had made me familiar with her appearance. She was unusually small for her age. She had pale skin, the colour of paper, which, framed by her dark, utterly straight hair, looked even paler. In one photograph her mouth seemed slightly crooked, in another not, and this imperfection, if such it was, had the effect of making me, whenever I met her, look and look again in an effort to determine her expression."Did you find what you wanted in the shops?" Stephen asked. Jenny was standing on his other side, and I moved slightly forward to include her in the conversation. While I explained how I had walked along Princes Street, trying onshoes, and had then given up and bought a shirt instead, she continued to stare at the boys. "I went into Habitat," I said. "They have some quite nice rugs.""Maybe we could go and look on Monday. I was saying to Jenny that by next weekend we ought to be sufficiently organised for her to come over to the house."As soon as Stephen began to speak, Jenny slid away, squeezing between the man in sheepskin and one of the boys. Over their shoulders I saw her weaseling past the rest of the queue. When we reached the ticket booth she had stationed herself in the doorway and was examining each family in turn. "Two adults and a child, please," said Stephen, and pushed a ten pound note under the small window.Inside the zoo, Jenny led the way up the hill, past a series of pools containing different kinds of waterfowl, to the sea lions' enclosure. Feeding was in progress, and she seemed to stop almost in spite of herself to watch the keeper dispense fish to the three sea lions. The animals sat on the rocks, raising their small heads and adroitly catching the silver fish. Whenever the keeper paused, they began to make the honking sound I had heard earlier. We found a place at the barrier, among the other adults and children."Can you see?" Stephen asked Jenny. "Shall I lift you up?""No. I can see everything." She was observing the scene with an expression of grave attention such as I imagined she might wear when watching her teacher write a problem on the blackboard.The largest of the sea lions raised itself on its flippers and caught a fish with special dexterity. There was a round of applause. Stephen laughed and clapped. "Good catch. Did you see that, Jenny?""Come on," she said. She hurried along the path to the next enclosure, and Stephen and I followed. When I looked over the low stone wall, I saw a pair of otters playing beside a small pool. The surrounding bank was trodden to mud, andon the far side was a little wooden house, like a dog kennel, where presumably the animals slept. The otters themselves were sleek, brown, and much smaller than I had remembered. One of them was playing with a penny, tossing the coin into the air and trying to catch it. The other was scrabbling in the mud at the base of the wall directly below the spot where Jenny stood. "Here, here," she called.The otter glanced up, then continued to dig, with even greater determination. "He needs a penny too, Dad," Jenny said. "Can we give him one?" I noticed that she had decided on the sex of the animal."No, it might be dangerous. The people at the zoo give the animals everything they need." Stephen leaned forward, resting his elbows on the wall. "I wonder what it's digging for. Do you think it buried some food?""I don't know," said Jenny. "Maybe he's trying to get out."The idea of the otter persisting day after day in such a fruitless enterprise had not occurred to me, and I found it distressing. I tried to focus on the playful animal. It rolled over on its back and ducked into the pond. Suddenly I noticed something small and yellow floating on the surface of the muddy water; it was a dead chicken, so young that the flesh was barely dusted with feathers. At once I saw that there were several more. I glanced at Stephen. He was standing beside me, absorbed in the otter's antics. Then I felt Jenny watching me. As soon as my eyes met hers, she turned pointedly in the direction of one of the tiny corpses. Hastily I stepped back from the wall. "Let's go," I said.We passed the penguin compound. A platoon of birds was waddling up and down, squawking and waving their outstretched flippers. They seemed to demand an audience, but Jenny claimed there were better penguins further on and barely broke her stride. She stopped again at the polar bears. Stephen took my hand, and we walked to the far end of thepool. Fifteen or twenty feet below a single bear lay sprawled on the rocks, its rumpled fur the colour of old linen."Do you see how low the water is?" Stephen said. "Apparently when the zoo was started the water level was much higher, and one of the bears managed to climb out. Ever since, they've given them just this puddle to swim in.""How old is the zoo?" I asked."It was founded in 1909, and most of what we're seeing was built then." He smiled. "I've been here on so many school outings that I could be a tour guide. Look."He pointed to the bear, which rose to its feet and lumbered down to the water. It began to swim across the pool. When it reached the wall of rock at the end, it heaved its head and shoulders high out of the water, opened its jaws in a kind of grimace, and, almost in the same motion, threw its huge body down into a somersaulting turn. It swam back to the other end and performed exactly the same manoeuvres. The pool was so small that each length took only a matter of seconds. As we stood watching, the bear heaved, and grimaced, and turned, over and over, with as little variation as a mechanical toy. Perhaps because of Jenny's remark about the otter, I could not help thinking of a prisoner pacing a cell.After a few minutes Stephen stepped back, shaking his head. "This is horrible," he said. "I remember reading an article which claimed that many of the animals kept in zoos become insane. And I can see why."We started walking again. "Somehow I thought that nowadays they kept the animals in larger enclosures," I said."What are you talking about?" Jenny demanded. She was skipping along on the other side of Stephen."We're talking about the fact that the animals don't look very happy, that they don't have enough room."She nodded. "I like it better when we see them on television. Then they have lots of space."We continued to make our way up the hill. I had not beento a zoo for years, and animal after animal contradicted my puny efforts at imagination. I could not have visualised the impossibly large mass of the white rhinoceros, nor the curious proportions of the elephant. While Stephen and I meandered along, pausing in front of each enclosure, Jenny, for whose sake we were there, kept walking at a tremendous pace, as if she were on her way to her friend Anna's house and the animals, like the houses separating her from Anna, were simply to be gotten past as quickly as possible. Other children were running around, but they lacked Jenny's distinguishing air of purpose.We caught up with her again just beyond the brown bears. She was standing in front of a small cage, which according to the sign housed the Scottish wildcat. Although the sun had come out, the interior of the cage was dim, and I searched for a moment or two before I saw the cat. It was sitting on a tree stump, washing itself. As I watched it licking its paws, I was struck by how closely the wildcat resembled my tabby, Tobias. There was something sinister about the spectacle of such an animal in captivity. The cat looked as if it ought to be a beloved family pet; that it was behind bars suggested a ferocity the more frightening for being so thoroughly concealed.Jenny rocked forward on the railing that separated us from the cage. "We learned about wildcats in school," she announced."So what did you learn?" asked Stephen."They are native to Scotland and live in remote places. They can never be tamed. Even if you take the kittens away from the mother at birth, when they grow up they'll bite you and run away." She spoke in a singsong voice, as if she had learned these sentences by heart."Have you ever seen one in the wild?" I asked."I'm not sure," said Stephen. He turned to Jenny. "Do youremember that time we were up near Ullapool and a cat ran across the road?""Mummy was sure it was a wildcat and you thought it was lost. We stopped the car, and you walked up and down the road, calling, 'Pussycat, pussycat.'" She giggled.The cat stood up, walked slowly towards the front of the cage, and stopped just short of the bars. We were only a few feet away, but it gave so little indication of noticing our presence that we might have been invisible. The large green eyes stared unblinkingly through us into some other landscape. The three of us fell silent. Beside us a family had paused; the man carried a baby on his back, while the woman held the hand of a small boy. "Look at the kittycat, Phil," she said."I want to see the camels," said the boy. "You promised there would be camels.""We're getting to them. They're at the top of the hill," said the man.They moved on. Jenny remained staring at the cat. She was, like the animal, completely still and seemed unaware of what was happening around her. I thought how odd it was that after being impervious to the more immediate charms of bears and monkeys, she should be engrossed in this motionless animal. The cat switched its tail and returned to the rear of the cage, leaving behind in the damp sand a neat trail of footprints.Jenny watched the cat retreat and gave a small, satisfied nod. Then she turned her back to the cage. "I'm hungry," she announced to Stephen. "Can we go to the Penguin Pantry?""What about the rest of the animals?" he said. "If we go to the Pantry, we probably won't have time to see them.""That's okay. I've seen enough."We turned back down the hill. At the crossroads Jenny bent to retie the laces of one of her shoes. I waited beside herwhile Stephen wandered over to look more closely at the flamingoes. From where I stood I could see the rosy-pink birds clustered by twos and threes beneath the leafless trees.Jenny gave the knot a final twist and straightened up. As we started walking again I felt her hand tugging at mine. She often held her father's hand in a manner that seemed both childish and proprietary, but she had never before taken mine. In fact it occurred to me that Jenny had never touched me in any way before, not even accidentally. I was struck by how small and cold her hand was. She walked silently beside me. Stephen turned around to ask if she remembered the baby elephant they had seen last year. He saw her gesture, and smiled. Jenny said that she did remember. As soon as he was no longer looking, her limp fingers slid from my grasp.It was near closing time, and the crowds were moving towards the exit. The cafeteria was empty save for a scattering of elderly people who looked as if they were waiting to be retrieved by younger, more active relatives. We approached the counter. "What would you like?" Stephen asked.Jenny pointed to a cake, and he lifted it off the shelf and put it on our tray. Then she demanded a chocolate biscuit, and an ice cream."A cup of tea, please," I said to the girl behind the counter. "Won't you be having supper soon, Jenny?""I'm starving.""Couldn't you get the thing you're going to eat first and then come back if you're still hungry?" I suggested. "The ice cream will melt unless you eat it right away.""I want to eat them at the same time. Daddy always lets me have whatever I want for tea before I go home." She emphasised the word "Daddy" in a way that made it clear that I was intruding."It does look like a lot," said Stephen, "but if you promise to eat everything, I suppose we'd better get it now. I think they're about to close," he added, apologetically, to me."I promise."We chose a table by the window. Jenny sat beside Stephen, and I sat opposite. Someone had left a box of matches on the table, and she picked it up and rasped a match along the side. A faint, sulphurous odour mingled with the smell of tea as the match burst into flame. Jenny blew it out, then struck another. She held the match vertical and watched intently until the small flame consumed the wood down to her fingertips. "Ooh," she said with a little gasp, dropping the charred stick.She was reaching for a third, when Stephen said, "Don't, Jenny. Matches aren't a toy."Slowly she closed the lid. She turned her attention to the cake and took a bite out of the middle."Do you think animals can talk?" Stephen asked, looking first at Jenny, then at me."How do you mean, talk?" she said."Talk like humans. You know, like in Wind in the Willows or Beatrix Potter. When I was six or seven, I was always trying to trick our pets into speaking to me.""That's silly." There was a pause while she nibbled the chocolate off one end of the biscuit. Then she said, "What happened?""They never answered, but for years I was convinced that they could. They just didn't want to because I was a human."A small puddle was forming around the ice cream where it lay on the tray. I was determined not to say anything. I sipped my tea while Stephen reminisced about the dog he had had when he was Jenny's age. Eventually he noticed the ice cream. "I thought you promised to eat everything," he said."But you're always saying chocolate's bad for me." She grinned with pleasure at her cleverness.He looked at me and gave a small shrug. An elderly woman, wearing a head scarf, passed our table. She smiled down at us approvingly, and I knew that she was imagining that I was Jenny's mother and that we were a nice youngfamily having tea. "Which was your favourite animal?" I asked Jenny."The wildcat," she said, without hesitation."Mine were the otters," said Stephen. "They actually seemed fairly content.""Why did you like the cat?"She gave me a pinched look, as if she did not wish the slightest sliver of expression to slip out. "Because he was alone."She seemed to have decided that the cat, like the otters, was male. I followed her lead. "Did that make you feel sorry for him?" I asked.I expected her to say yes and in my presumption already found that endearing, but she shook her head. "Then why?" I persisted."I think he's lucky." She took a bite of cake so large that her cheeks bulged."Lucky?" I said, mystified, but before I could question her further, the cashier called loudly, "Ladies and gentlemen, the cafeteria closes in five minutes. Five minutes."Jenny took a few more hurried mouthfuls, and we got up to leave. I saw her look at the debris on the table with a small smile and thought that I was witnessing neither greed nor bad manners, but rather her need to be reassured about Stephen. This mess of sweetness was a tangible sign of his often absent love.On the way out, Jenny and I stopped at the ladies'. There was a small queue, and we lined up with the other women and children. For a couple of minutes neither of us spoke. I did not realise that I was twirling my bracelet round and round until Jenny remarked that she liked it. The bracelet was the first gift I had ever received from Stephen, and as I described how he had given it to me, a surprise at supper one night, I felt myself smiling."Can I see?" Jenny asked.I passed the bracelet to her, and she slid it on. It was, of course, too large, and when she pushed up the sleeve of her pullover the silver circle dangled from her small white wrist. She stood in front of the mirror, her arm outstretched, her head slightly to one side, as if she could detect more from the mirrored image than from the object itself. We were at the head of the line. A toilet flushed, and the door of one of the cubicles opened. Jenny disappeared inside.I availed myself of the next free toilet. When I came out Jenny was washing her hands. I bent down at the basin beside her. "Could I have my bracelet back?" I said.For a moment I thought that she had not heard me. She finished washing her hands and went to dry them. "Jenny," I said. I held out my hand.Very slowly she slid the bracelet down over her hand and dropped it into my outstretched palm. Then she hurried from the room.
As we drove out of the zoo car park one or two of the street lights were already glowing. Stephen began to talk about the pros and cons of having the house rewired."We could just have the kitchen and dining room done," I suggested."No, if we're having it done at all, we ought to do the whole thing," said Stephen. We turned down Ferry Road. He had insisted on dropping me off before he took Jenny home. Although he seldom saw Helen on his weekly trips to their house, even the possibility of the two of us meeting made him anxious.Jenny was sitting in the back. Throughout the journey she was so silent that I almost forgot her presence. When we pulled up outside our house I turned to speak to her. "Bye-bye. Thank you for taking me to the zoo.""Thank you for coming," she replied, with a speed that robbed the words of their meaning. I said that I would see hernext week, and she nodded; her features conveyed neither gladness nor dismay.She came and took my place in front beside Stephen. I shut the door for her and stepped back, ready to wave. Suddenly I remembered that I had left my new shirt lying on the seat. "Jenny," I called, knocking on the glass.She stared at me. Her eyes, always dark, appeared totally black. Involuntarily I found myself retreating before the force of her gaze; I shuffled back a couple of steps. During the months I had known Jenny, I had assumed, in spite of some difficult moments, that she was well disposed towards me; the malevolent intensity of the look she now bestowed upon me conveyed the exact opposite. It was almost, I thought, as if she hated me. I raised my hand but before I could knock again she had turned away. I saw her lips move as she said something to her father. Then the car slid forward. It gathered speed, the brake lights flared, and it disappeared into the main road. I was left standing, empty-handed, in the middle of the street.HOMEWORK. Copyright © 1990 by Margot Livesey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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