Inside the house his father's clocks were striking the hour. Faintly, the chimes carried to where he stood in the garden, a lank young man in a summer sweater and shapeless blue trousers, wiping the lenses of his glasses with the corner of a crumpled handkerchief. He had spent the last hour with the hose watering the flower-beds and giving the ground around the younger trees a good soaking, as he had been instructed to. Now, having carefully coiled the hose, he made his way back towards the house, his progress shadowed by a cat that pushed through the stems of delphiniums and peonies and oriental poppies. At the top of the house, the light in Alice's room shone dully from between half-open curtains.
It was the dusk of his third day back at Brooklands, the house in the West Country with its grey stone walls, brown-tiled roof and rotting summerhouse, where he had spent the first eighteen years of his life. His own small flat in London was shut and locked, and his neighbour, Mr Bequa, whose clothes carried their own atmosphere of black tobacco and failed cooking, had agreed to forward the mail, though there would not be much. Bequa had even come down into the street to wave him off, and knowing where he was going and why, had done so with gestures of extravagant melancholy, 'Goodbye, Alec friend! Good heart! Goodbye!'
Wandsworth Bridge, Parsons Green, Hammersmith. Then west along the M4 past out-of-town superstores and fields of rape. A journey he had made so many times since Alice was first diagnosed he often completed the entire trip in a daze of inattention, startled to findhimself rounding the last corner by the poultry farm, the sky ahead of him falling in luminous sheets towards the estuary and Wales. But this time, as each familiar landmark had dwindled in the rear-view mirror, then passed out of sight, it had seemed irretrievable, and carrying his suitcase into the hallway at Brooklands he had known with utter certainty that it was his last true homecoming, and that one half of his life was about to slough off like tons of earth in a landslide. For fifteen minutes he stood there surrounded by the soft weight of coats and hats, old boots, old tennis pumps, staring at the over-vivid snap on the wall by the door into the house himself, Larry and Alice; Stephen must have taken it arm in arm in the snowy orchard twenty years ago. And he had bowed his head, hearing from upstairs the chatter of his mother's radio and the rasping of her cough, and had wondered to himself what could possibly comfort him. Where on earth he might look for consolation or ease.
Coming from the garden, the house was entered by descending a short flight of mossy steps from the lawn to the terrace, and opening the glass doors into the kitchen. Here, by the worn mat, Alec slipped off his shoes and went through the house to the stairs, hoping that Alice would already have fallen asleep and would not need him. She had refused to have a room made up for her on the ground floor, despite everyone Dr Brando, the visiting nurse Una O'Connell, and even Mrs Samson, the woman who for as long as Alec could remember had come in one morning a week to clean the house saying how much better it would be, how much easier on good days to get into the garden. Wasn't there a perfectly suitable room downstairs, undisturbed for years other than by the daily swipe of sunlight across the mirror? But Alice had smiled at them all like a child made special and irreproachable by illness, and said that she was too used to the view, to the potato field, the church, the line of hills in the distance (like a boy, she once said, lying on his belly in the grass). And anyway, her bedroom had always been upstairs. It was too late to start 'rearranging the entire house'. So the subject was dropped, though for an angry moment Alec had wanted to tell her what it was like to watch her, that twenty-minute ordeal, hauling herself a step at a time towards the landing, her fingers clutching at the banister like talons.
Some measures she had agreed to. She took sit-down showers instead of baths, had a raised plastic seat on the toilet, and on Alec's last visit he had rigged up a bell, running the wire down the stairs from the bedroom and screwing the bell-housing to a beam by the kitchen door. There had even been some laughter when they tested it, Alice pressing the white knob by her bed (complaining that it sounded like the dive klaxon on a submarine) while Alec moved around the house to check the bell's range, and then went out to the garden, giving the thumbs-up to Una, who leaned dashingly from the bedroom window. But by evening, Alice had decided that the bell was 'a silly thing', and 'quite unnecessary', and she had looked at Alec as if its installation had been tactless, yet another item among the paraphernalia of her sickness. More inescapable proof of her inescapable condition.
She was not asleep when he went in. She lay propped against the pillows in her nightgown and quilted robe, reading a book. The room was very warm. The heat of the sun was in the timbers of the roof, and the radiator was on high, so that everything sweated its particular smell, a stuffiness half intimate, half medical, that hung in the air like a sediment. Vases of cut flowers, some from the garden, some from friends, added a note of hothouse sweetness, and there was a perfume she sprayed as a kind of luxurious air-freshener, which masked very little, but which Alec could always taste in his mouth for an hour after leaving the room.
Cleanliness even the illusion of it was an obsession with her now, as though the sickness were something, some lapse in hygiene, that might be hidden behind veils of scent. For an hour each morning and evening she washed herself with catlike attention in the en-suite bathroom, the only real physical work she still did. But no soaps or night creams or lavender shower gel could entirely hide what filtered out from the disasters inside of her, though nothing would ever be quite as disturbing as that first course of chemotherapy the winter of two years ago, when she had sat wrapped in picnic rugs on the sofa in the living room, alien and wretched and smelling like a child's chemistry set. When her hair had grown again, it had sprouted brilliant white, and was now a weight of frost-coloured locks that reached to the mid-point of her back. This, she said the one thing remaining to her she could still be vain about was the reason she had refused more treatment when she came out of remission, and of all the people who attended on her now, it was her long-time hairdresser, Toni Cuskic, who had the greatest power to soothe. They had a new arrangement: there was no question of Alice making the twenty-minute trip into Nailsea, so once a week Toni drove out from the salon to pull her heavy brush the length of Alice's hair, while Alice tilted her face to the light, eyes shut, smiling as she listened to the gossip from the shop. Sometimes Toni brought her poodle, Miss Sissy, a show bitch with tight black curls, and Alice would stroke the animal's narrow skull and let it lick her wrists, until it grew bored of her and wondered off to sniff at some stain or savoury relic around the fringes of the bed.
'Everything all right, Mum?' He was standing just inside the door, hands in pockets, very slightly rocking on the balls of his feet.
She shook her head.
'Thank you, dear.'
'Cup of tea?'
'No, thank you.'
'I've done the garden.'
'How about some hot milk?'
'No, thank you.'
'You haven't forgotten your Zopiclone?'
'No, dear, I haven't. Do try not to fuss.'
She frowned at him, the old headmistress again, bothered by some wittering pupil. A go-away look.
'I'll let you read,' he said. 'Look in later.'
She nodded, the movement triggering off a fit of coughing, but as he moved towards her (what was he going to do?) she waved him away and he went out, listening from the landing until she was quiet, then going slowly down the stairs, blushing from an emotion he could not quite identify.
On the wall at the bottom of the stairs, where it could not be avoided, hung the Perspex-framed double-page profile of Larry, from the US celebrity magazine PLEASE!. Made up mostly of photographs, the feature was entitled 'America's Favorite Valentine' (heart-shaped point over the final i), and showed, on the first page, an old Press Association shot of the nineteen-year-old Larry holding up his racquet to the stands after beating world number seven Eric Moberg at the French Open in 1980. Below appeared a heavier, browner Larry, leaning against a silver Jaguar in front of the Manhattan Flatiron building, dressed in the type of clothes a successful young bonds dealer might wear to the golf club, this from the time he worked for Nathan Slater's advertising circus in New York. Then there was the inevitable still from an episode of Sun Valley, in which Larry, white-coated and waxy-faced, was plunging defibrillators on to the chest of an attractive cardiac victim. But the largest of the photographs filling the greater part of the right-hand page was a family portrait of Larry and Kirsty and the three-year-old Ella gathered on a couch in their 'beautiful home in San Francisco's North Beach district'. Larry has his arm around Kirsty, who looks cute and excited, the lucky girl who landed Sun Valley's 'perfect gentleman', while Ella is wedged between them, though with an expression so determinedly mournful it was not difficult to hear the pleas of the photographer (bylined as Bob Medici) 'Can we get the little lady to smile too? How about it, huh?' But even at three, Ella had been a tough child to plead with, and ever since the picture had gone up, Mrs Samson, adjusting the angle of the frame or wiping the Perspex with her yellow duster, could not keep herself from muttering, 'Bless ...' or 'Shame ...', and furrowing her brow, as though the child's displeasure somehow amounted to a judgment on them all.
In the kitchen Alec took from his back pocket the piece of folded paper with columns in Una's handwriting that detailed the drugs Alice was to take, together with the times and the dosages. Antidepressants, anti-emetics, analgesics, laxatives, steroids. She had a plastic box beside the bed, its inside divided into segments blue for the morning, orange for the afternoon and evening but illness, fatigue, the pills themselves perhaps, had begun to create lapses, lacunae in her concentration, and on Alec's first day down, Una, sitting beside him on the not-quite-even bench outside the summerhouse, had suggested that he discreetly oversee the filling and emptying of the box, and he had agreed immediately, eager for a chore that would not make him feel incompetent. Now he made a small tick on the list, picked up his leather satchel from the kitchen table, and went on to the terrace.
A pale half-moon hung in the blue of the twilight, and in some quarter of the sky the comet Hale-Bop, that vast event of ice and dust, was making its passage back towards the celestial equator. In the early spring he had often watched it from among the TV aerials on the roof of his flat, and had found it hard to believe that its great ellipse would not provoke some happening in the world, or many happenings countless individual fates falling in an astral rain from the comet's wake but for the moment at least the sky was unexceptional, the usual faultless machine with nothing extraordinary or dangerous happening in it.
He lit the storm lantern and looped the wire handle over a metal bracket beside the kitchen doors, for though it would not be quite dark for another hour, he liked the tang of the paraffin and the companionable hiss of the filament. He intended to work. Alcohol did not agree with him and he had never learned how to smoke. Work was his refuge, and sitting in one of the old canvas chairs he tugged the manuscript, dictionaries and marker pens from the satchel and began to read, holding the script close to his glasses, struggling at first to concentrate, his mind still snared in the room above his head where his mother lay. But at last the work drew him down into the orderly double-spaced world of the text, and under his breath he sounded the words of a language he had made half his own.
Excerpted from OXYGEN by Andrew Miller. Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Miller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.