How the Light Gets In
By M.J. Hyland
CANONGATE U.S. Copyright © 2003 M. J. Hyland
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-84195-548-5
In less than two hours this aeroplane will land at Chicago's O'Hare airport. It's lunchtime. My window shutter is open, the sky is vast and blue and the earth is brown and flat. The air hostess has delivered my drink and my meal, and on the in-flight TV, a panel of Christians are talking about the recent execution by lethal injection of a man on death row in Texas.
'He was a Christian,' says a woman holding a crucifix.
'For his last meal he requested a banana, a peach and a salad with either ranch or Italian dressing,' says a man with a beard.
'He should rot in hell,' says another.
I lift the foil from the white plastic dish on my tray, but I cannot eat.
I don't know how the old woman sitting next to me can stuff warm chicken into a bread roll and eat it, while right in front of her there's a picture of a gurney covered in leather straps in an execution chamber.
Now there's a picture of death row. Men wearing orange shirts and trousers are holding onto the bars of their cells, or lying on their narrow beds staring at the ceiling.
The old woman looks at the screen and drinks her drink.
Now there's a man being interviewed, his eyes covered with a black strip to protect his identity.
'Many years ago,' he says, 'I worked for a certain state penitentiary. I was the guy who pulled the switch.'
The interviewer asks him if he was always certain of the guilt of the men he helped to kill. The man looks away from the interviewer. 'Pretty sure. As sure as you can be, I guess.' And then, after a confused pause, 'Yeah, I was sure. Most of the time.'
The old woman finishes her chicken roll. 'Good riddance to bad rubbish,' she says. 'An eye for an eye.'
To stop myself from screaming, I count the uneaten peas on her tray and start to give each of them a name.
'What do you do with bad eggs in your country?' she asks.
'We put them in the bin.'
Paula, Patrick, Patricia, Penelope, Paul, Pilar.
'The trash,' I say. 'The garbage. We put them in the garbage for the cats and birds to eat.'
She says 'Oh' and then is quiet. I know she would gladly watch an execution, stare through the glass as the needle is plunged into somebody's arm.
'Have you come to America to study?' she asks.
'Yes,' I say. 'I'm an exchange student.'
I look away.
'That sounds like fun,' she says.
I turn back to her, just in case she's a plant from the Organisation, sent to check on my civility. This is just the kind of thing the Organisation would do.
'What city are you from?' she asks. She has green sleep in the corners of her eyes.
'Sydney,' I say. 'I can see the harbour and the opera house from my bedroom window.'
'Yeah,' I say. 'It is.'
I can't see the harbour, or the opera house, from the bedroom window of the high-rise commission flat where I live. All I can see is the edge of the city; the lights spread out in rows like a circuit board.
'Well, you won't have views like that in Chicago. And it won't be sunny all year round, either.'
'I hate the sun anyway,' I say. 'I prefer cold weather.'
'Oh my,' she says, folding her arms for emphasis. 'You won't be saying that in a few months.'
'Maybe not,' I say. 'Do you want my chicken?'
'Oh, no,' she says, disgusted.
When the plane begins its descent, I look down at the edges of Chicago and wonder why I'm only happy when I'm looking forward to something, and why when something happens it's never as good as I have imagined it will be. I'd like to know whether I'm the only person in the world who feels this way. Right now I should be happier than ever. Being on this flight is something I've been looking forward to for a long time.
I keep thinking this way, chewing it over like a cud, so that ten minutes before landing I am so nervous about meeting my host-parents, I can hardly breathe. My teeth feel metallic. I get up and lock myself in the bathroom and coat the palms of my hands with talcum powder.
The seatbelt light comes on and the bell rings. I stay where I am. An air hostess knocks on the door. I open it.
'Please return to your seat,' she says.
I follow her down the aisle to my seat. She smells nice.
'Excuse me?' I say. 'Could I possibly borrow some of your perfume?' She puts her hand on the small of my back and her zombie face does not move.
'Sorry,' she says, 'you'll have to return to your seat now.'
When I sit down the old lady grabs my arm, digging into me with her sharp yellow nails. Compared to the air hostess, she smells like stale vase water.
'Are you afraid of landing?' I ask.
'I think I'm going to die,' she says.
'You won't die,' I say, and immediately blush to crimson at the stupidity of my words.
The aeroplane lands and the passengers rush into O'Hare's domestic arrivals area. It's noisier than a turkey farm, and the hot lights, orange as incubator lamps, beat down on the back of my head.
A man in a dark suit holds a sign with my name on it. I know that he is Henry Harding, my host-father. I know that the woman standing next to him, also wearing a dark suit, is my host-mother, Margaret Harding.
No member of my family has ever been overseas. My mum (Sandra), my dad (Mick), and my two teenage sisters, (Erin and Leona), live squashed together in our three-bedroom flat (four bedrooms, if you count the box-room) and the few places I have ever been with them did not involve visas, suitcases or aeroplanes.
I wave at my host-parents. Henry is the first to step forward.
'You must be Louise Connor,' he says, holding out his hand.
'Yes,' I say, as I offer my hand. 'It's great to meet you.'
'The feeling's mutual.' says Margaret, smiling. 'Welcome to our family.'
'We hope that the year you spend with us will be a very happy one,' says Henry.
'Me too,' I say.
'Let's get you home,' says Margaret. She steps towards me and takes my hand between both of hers.
This sudden intimacy makes me acutely aware of my teeth and the way they don't sit properly in my jaw. My mouth has lost its hold on my face. Nobody has ever held my hand before, except when I was a small child, of course, and except for the first boy I kissed, who held my hand when we were roller-skating. I couldn't stand it then, and I can't stand it now. Nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable.
I let go and she keeps smiling.
'Wait,' I say. 'We can't leave until somebody from the Organisation fills in some forms.'
'Why don't we sit down, then?'
'Good idea,' says Henry, who is fair of skin and hair. His eyelashes and eyebrows are barely visible. Henry is an almost-albino.
We sit in moulded plastic seats and watch the other exchange students meet their host-families.
'I love flying,' I say. 'I love how on the wing of the plane there's writing that says, Do not walk past this point.'
'That's funny,' says Margaret to Henry. 'Don't you think that's funny?'
'No,' says Henry softly. 'I mean, I hadn't thought of that before.' He frowns.
'Well,' says Margaret to Henry, 'isn't it just a great treat to meet Louise at last?'
'It really is,' says Henry, putting his hand on his wife's leg.
'I agree,' I say and put my hand on my jeans to soak up the claggy paste made out of my sweat and too much talcum powder.
The Organisation's regional president comes over. Her name is Florence Bapes and she was my team leader during the weeklong orientation camp in Los Angeles.
'I'm Florence Bapes,' she says, 'That's apes with a "B".'
'Hello,' says Henry. 'Great to meet you.'
Florence shakes Margaret's hand.
'I'll be Louise's mentor this year,' she says. 'You can call me Flo.'
During the flight, Flo paced up and down the aisle and checked on me four times. She said 'How ya doin'?' each time, and I don't think I want to hear her say it again.
'Hi, Flo,' I say. 'How are you?'
Flo has abnormally small brown eyes, tiny and dark, with no discernible pupils.
'I'm fantastic and getting better,' she says.
This is Flo's catchphrase; she says it every time somebody asks her how she is, as though she is the host of a game show.
Margaret smiles at me, then licks her top lip with a tongue that's surprisingly wide and fat.
'Well,' says Flo, 'make sure you ring Lou's parents and let them know she's safe and sound.' She drapes her arm over my shoulder and squeezes me. 'This young girl needs a lot of TLC.'
Flo threatens to hug me, so I move away from her. She thinks I need help because I'm here on a scholarship for disadvantaged students, and because she found out I've never eaten salmon before. At the camp she came into my dormitory, and sat on the end of my bed, so I felt compelled to tell her things. When she found out that I used to eat tinned soup donated by the Salvation Army, she nearly cried.
'Yes, of course,' says Margaret, reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. 'We'll call tonight. I'm looking forward to talking to Louise's parents.'
'You can't,' I say.
Flo looks at her watch. 'Why not?'
'I've just remembered,' I say. 'My whole family's gone to Spain for a month.'
'Oh,' says Flo, not as sceptical as she should be. 'Well make sure and call as soon as they're back from their holiday. And don't forget tonight's meeting at my place.'
'That'll be great,' I say. 'Let's go to luggage-claim and get my suitcases.'
'I'll be going then,' says Flo, as though we should be sad that she has to leave. 'See you tonight. Seven-thirty sharp.'
'We look forward to it,' says Margaret.
'Terrific,' I say. 'Fantastic.'
Henry looks at me, and frowns.
It's true that my mum and dad won't be home to answer the phone. They're staying with my mum's eldest sister who has broken her hip. But Erin and her twenty-five-year-old boyfriend Steve will be at home, fouling my bedroom with dope fumes from their shampoo-bottle bong. Leona will also be there, probably getting drunk and using my mum and dad's bed to make a baby with her fiancé, Greg, a mechanic, who has eczema on his oil-stained fingers.
If Henry or Margaret were to ring the flat tonight, Steve would probably answer the phone the way he always does, with some supernaturally unamusing comment. It was Steve - who works as a bouncer at the pub on the corner of our street - who made me realise that I never want to live with my family again.
Three weeks before leaving home, I took the day off school so that I could have the flat to myself. My mum and dad - who are unemployed and collect fortnightly pensions - spent the whole day lounging together on the couch, smoking and watching chat shows. Erin came home at lunchtime with Steve and three of his mates, each carrying a six-pack of beer.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, reading anonymous lyrics of fifteenth-century poets. Steve stood over me while the pizza rotated and unfroze itself in the microwave.
'Ha!' he said, pointing over my shoulder at the page. 'I have a gentle cock'.
I closed the book and stood up. 'It's a poem about a bird,' I said.
'Yeah,' he said, 'a bird on my cock!'
I kicked him in the shin, and one of his mates said, 'Whaddya wanna do with her, Steve?'
Steve clipped the back of my head and said, 'She'll keep.'
I tried to spit at Steve's friend, but the spit landed on my shoe.
'Hey, said Steve, excited at how much I was blushing, coming towards me with pizza in his hand. 'Does miss scholarship smartypants wanna go down to the car park for some spitting lessons?'
'Yeah, all right,' I said, and went downstairs with Steve and his mates to spit at the washing on the clothes line and drink some beer. I was saying goodbye.
'I'll carry your suitcases,' says Henry.
'They have wheels,' I say, but when he tries to pull my suitcases along behind him, a wheel falls off. I pick it up and turn red.
'It always does that.'
'Never mind,' says Margaret. 'We'll carry one each.'
As Margaret and Henry walk on ahead, I stop and look back. The other exchange students are saying goodbye to each other, hugging and exchanging addresses as though they are lifelong friends.
'Wait for me!' I call out, in a voice that's not really mine, and run towards Henry and Margaret, towards their tall bodies and the backs of their clean, dark suits.
Henry reaches out with his free arm and drapes it over my shoulder. I take a deep breath, and then, at last, it happens. I smell my future in Henry's aftershave.
It is easy for smells to remind people of the past: the smell of a cake eaten at the seaside, a ham sandwich, rosary beads or an orange. But I can smell my future in just the same way, and the smell of Henry tells me that, from now on, I will sleep on cleaner sheets.
Henry drives us home. The Mercedes smells as though it has just come out of its plastic packet.
'Is this a new car?'
'Yes,' says Margaret. 'Do you like it?'
'It's lovely,' I say.
'It's a pretty long drive,' says Margaret. 'We hope you enjoy the scenery.'
'I will,' I say, but all I can see so far are cars and billboards - just like Sydney.
Henry and Margaret take it in turns to ask me polite questions. What food do I like? What sports do I play? How hot does it get in Sydney? Do I like the beach? Have I ever seen a kangaroo?
I sit in the back and wish I did not have to talk. I feel too nervous and can't help lying. I say I play lots of sport. I say I like the beach. I say I once had a pet kangaroo called Skippy. They like these stories and so I tell more of them. I feel dirty. They have such white teeth and mine are so rotten.
'Do you agree with capital punishment?' I ask.
Margaret turns around to look at me. It's the first time she's looked at me without smiling.
'Yeah, and Henry.'
She looks at Henry.
'No, I most certainly do not,' she says, as though I've accused her of something.
Henry looks at me in the rear-vision mirror.
'No, I don't either. Definitely not.'
Margaret faces the road.
'Why do you ask?'
'I just wondered,' I say.
'I think I'll lie down for a minute,' I say.
'If you like,' says Margaret. 'But keep yourself strapped in.'
Henry wakes me as we enter town.
'We're here,' he says, pointing at the sign that says 'Welcome to B-' and tells you the population, which is 480,320. The sign says B- is 'A Great Town to Be In'.
Margaret tells me about the national parks, the new shopping centre and about the teacher-to-student ratio in the high school I'll be going to, and then we pull into the wide drive of the Harding house.
Excerpted from How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland Copyright © 2003 by M. J. Hyland. Excerpted by permission.
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