HE WATCHED HIS fingers playing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and tried to ignore the telephone directories, neatly stacked on the lowest shelf of the bookcase across the room. She wouldn’t be in them, they were for Oxfordshire, but the three fat books, last year’s, this year’s, and the yellow pages, seemed to hum the question: Should he? Shouldn’t he? In the swimming pool he had realized with a twinge of shame that the decision, for now, was moot; he did not know his first mother’s name. His mother had told it to him only once, when he was three or four, not old enough to hang on to the strange syllables.
Mid-chord he stood up, went over to the bookcase, and pulled out the residential phone book for 1999. Column after column of names met his gaze. He turned to the Ls, and there, halfway down the first column, they were: Lang, Hal and Betsy. Then he looked up Will; his father Henderson, Brian was near the bottom. On the next page was Humphreys, Eleanor. Almost everyone he knew was included in these busy columns. He was searching for Mr. Griffin when he heard a soft thump at the door. Lily stepped into the room, circled the table, and stopped beside him. Bending to stroke her, he recalled Zoe’s suggestion.
“Would it be okay if I painted your portrait? For Gordon.”
This was a fine idea, Lily indicated, much better than moping over phone books.
In his bedroom she jumped onto the window seat and offered him a three-quarters view: black dog as figurehead. Duncan remembered his last disastrous attempt to draw her, when she had fidgeted her way off the page. Today Lily sat motionless while he pondered various decisions. Should she be at the center of the canvas? Should he include her surroundings, or any aspect of her life: black dog with red rose and glove? Then there was the challenge of her short, glossy fur, how to paint her so that she was both light and dark. He was drawing her ears when Matthew put his head round the door.
“Supper’s ready,” he said. “Nice picture.”
Stepping back from his easel, Duncan decided to seize the moment. “There’s something I need to tell you.” While Matthew lingered in the doorway, he repeated what he had told Zoe, about his first mother appearing in the garden, his dreams of the beautiful room. “I want to look for her. Mum says I have to ask you and Zoe.”
Matthew was pushing his hands through his hair, over and over, as if trying to push away Duncan’s words. “But you’re my brother. I can’t imagine—”
“Suppertime,” called Zoe from the kitchen.
At the table, his parents asked about his day. It had been quite ordinary—Mr. Griffin had shown them portraits by a painter named Lucien Freud; Will had a new calculator—but they kept saying “Well done” and “Great.” Zoe didn’t interrupt. Matthew didn’t tease him. As his father said “Great” for the third time, Duncan understood: they were all afraid. Don’t worry, he wanted to say. I’m just the same. But that wasn’t entirely true.
He woke to find himself struggling with the French doors into the garden; beneath his bare feet the flagstone floor was frigid. Where was he trying to go on such a cold night? Gradually, in the almost darkness, the familiar room assembled: the fireplace, the sofa, the television, the armchairs and lamps and tables. He sat down in one of the armchairs and tried to sidle back into the dream. Once again, all the doors were closed.
He must perform three tasks.
1. Find out his first mother’s name.
2. Finish Lily’s portrait.
3. Meet with Karel.
Then he would know what to do.
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YOU CAN TALK to Mum, Duncan had said, but the person she wanted to talk to was the American. She imagined them walking along the Oxford canal, or sitting in a café. He would listen, and then he would say something that made her stop worrying about her father’s affair, Duncan’s desire to find his first mother, Matthew’s mysterious activities. Maybe afterward he would let her come back to his room. She pictured a narrow bed and a large desk. She wouldn’t take off a single piece of clothing, not even her jacket, not even her shoes.
When she got home from the butcher’s, her mother was on the phone, frowning slightly. Zoe guessed she was talking to her sister. She mouthed “Oxford,” and her mother, covering the phone, said, “I think your father’s going. Be home for supper.”
Her father was in the parlor, typing invoices. She stood in the doorway, watching his nimble fingers. He was the fastest typist in the family, never looking at the keys, almost never making mistakes. As he typed, he gazed out of the window at the garden. They had changed the clocks last week; already the sun was closer to the rooftops. Was he daydreaming about the woman? Looking at the cirrus clouds and thinking of her hair?
“What’s up, Zozo?” He turned to a new invoice.
“Mum says you’re going to Oxford.”
His fingers paused. “Yes, but I’m not sure what time I’m coming back. I might be meeting my friend Ralph, and ...”
“Dad, don’t worry. I can get the bus back.” A few weeks ago, she might not have noticed his confusion; now it seemed blatant. They agreed to leave in ten minutes.
In her room she slipped a cowrie shell from her collection into her pocket and put on her silver earrings. She wondered if her father too would make special preparations, but he still wore his faded blue shirt, his worn jeans. “Don’t let me forget to return my library books,” he said as they pulled into the street. “Has Matthew finished his university applications?”
“Last week. He and Benjamin both put LSE as their top choice, and Sussex as their second. Did you ever think of going to university?” The possibility had only just occurred to her.
“All the time. When I was your age, I had my heart set on going to Cambridge. I wanted to be a surgeon. My father wanted that too. I used to help him on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, but he was always telling me to do my homework. ‘You don’t want to end up like me,’ he used to say.”
She pictured a TV surgeon, masked and gloved, holding a scalpel. Then she pictured her father, who could thread a needle, twist an iron bar, weld a hitch onto a tractor, glue a broken plate so that the cracks vanished. “I think you’d have been a good surgeon,” she said. “What happened?”
He stared at the road ahead. “Dad went off to work on Monday morning, and dropped dead at his workbench. We had the funeral on Wednesday. On Thursday I was at the forge at seven, lighting the fire. Mum got a job at the butcher’s—she’d be pleased you’re following in her footsteps—and Joe did a paper round. It never occurred to us that we could have sold the forge, or leased it. At the time Mum was so broken by grief. Don’t get me wrong, I like what I do, but when I chivvy you about schoolwork, it’s because I want you to have the choices I didn’t.”
Was that why he saw the woman? He wanted a choice. His profile, clean shaven, gave nothing away. He braked for a cyclist and deliberately changed the subject. “So, we’ve decided about this year’s Salon. We’re calling it the Salon of Second Chances and asking people to dress up as the person, real or imaginary, they’d most like to be. Who would you come as?”
“Joan of Arc,” she said, without thinking.
“Great. You can make your armor at the forge.”
In Oxford she went first to the café where they had drunk tea. Two women, each with a round-headed baby on her lap, sat at their table, oblivious to its historic importance. Then she went to Blackwell’s, which he had said was his favorite bookshop, but the many rooms, even the philosophy section, were filled with strangers. Back outside the shop, the only other place she could think to try was the Natural History Museum. Hadn’t he mentioned working there?
She had last visited the museum on a school trip. Now, as the elegant facade came into view, her pace slowed. It was entirely possible, she thought, that she would live all her remaining days on the planet, however many or few there might be, without Rufus’s company. She felt an unfamiliar pain beneath her rib cage. Inside the wooden door, a stuffed brown bear waited to greet her. She touched one of its paws for luck and stepped into the courtyard, with its vaulted glass ceiling, several stories high, a cross between a greenhouse and a railway station.
A group of tourists was gathered around the dodo display. Another group was studying a large skeleton, some kind of primitive lizard, its tail almost as long as its spine. On her last visit she had tried to draw it. Duncan had laughed at her attempt. She headed past the display cases to look through the doorway of the dimly lit Pitt Rivers Museum. Her father had told her that when the museums were built, people thought it important to keep the works of God—animals, plants, rocks—separate from the works of man—bows and arrows, masks, opium pipes, baskets. A dozen people were wandering among the shadowy vitrines, none of them him. Then she checked all four sides of the arcade that surrounded the courtyard. More people, not him.
Seized with the desire to know the worst—he was not here; it was over—she ran up the stone stairs to the first floor. A broad corridor, overlooking the courtyard on four sides, mirrored the arcade below. On the side nearest the stairs was a row of tables. Several were occupied by couples, families. The pain beneath her rib cage sharpened. Looking down into the courtyard, she saw that both groups of tourists had scattered. As she turned away, Rufus rose from a table at the far end.
“Give me a minute.” He noted a couple of page numbers and put his books in his backpack. Then he was leading the way to the stairs. On the top stair he kissed her cheek. “Thanks for finding me.”
Briefly she put her hand on his arm. They descended the stairs together. In the street the sun was shining beneath the clouds. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said, and they headed down Parks Road.
“What were you working on at the museum?” she asked.
“One of those philosophical problems that will never be solved about necessary and sufficient causes. I’m hoping it’ll be part of my dissertation.”
“Does anything in philosophy get solved?” Beneath the plane trees fallen leaves crackled underfoot.
“Some problems, in some areas—logic, math—but things with solutions tend to stop being philosophy. I don’t think we’ll ever finish discussing ideas of the self, or the problem of evil. Maybe that’s why the consolations of philosophy aren’t very consoling.”
He led the way down a narrow street and along a lane between two buildings. As they reached Christchurch Meadow, a bell chimed. “And there are always new ethical questions,” he went on. “Should the government be allowed to kill people, or make them send their children to school, or have them vaccinated?”
“No,” she said. “Yes, yes.”
“So you believe in the law of excluded middle.”
When she asked what that meant, he explained that either a proposition was true, or its negation was true. There was nothing in between X and not X. They took the path across the grass to the riverbank. Willow trees hung down. In the slow green water two moorhens, red beaks bobbing, swam briskly; a male mallard followed, effortless and stately.
“Last year,” she said, “we read a story about a town called Omelas. Everyone who lives there is happy. Then it turns out they’re only happy because a few people are kept in a dungeon.”
Why was she babbling about dungeons? But he was saying he knew the story; he’d given it to his students. “We had a really good discussion. Was it right to sacrifice a few people for the good of many? If so, who got to choose the scapegoats?”
Across thousands of miles they had already been thinking the same thoughts. “In the Bible,” she offered, “it was the priest’s job. He’d pick a goat, probably the oldest or the skinniest, and dump all the sins of the village on it. The villagers drove the goat into the desert.”
“To starve, or be eaten by lions and jackals.”
“Or live happily ever after, with the other scapegoats.”
“A utopian community of scapegoats.” He took her hand.
She was so amazed she wanted to shout. The path curved toward an enormous beech tree, its lower branches supported by stakes. When she could speak again, she told him about Duncan wanting to find his birth mother.
“I wonder why he suddenly wants to look for her?” Rufus said.
Fleetingly Zoe recalled the beautiful boy, bleeding in the field, but she was not ready, not yet, to break her promise to the detective. “I don’t know.”
A woman with two golden Labradors approached. “Good afternoon,” she said, addressing both of them as if their being together was perfectly natural.
“Hi,” said Rufus.
“Good afternoon,” said Zoe. Meeting the woman made her think of her father. Was he walking somewhere nearby, holding hands with the woman? What if they ran into him? But no, knowing she was in town, he would be hidden away in her flat, or some dusky pub. Still holding hands, she and Rufus stepped apart to avoid a puddle.
“I have to go soon,” he said.
He did not say why; she did not ask.
They turned back. For a few minutes neither of them spoke. Around them the world fell silent: the sun sinking below the horizon, the clouds massing, the dark water flowing, the ducks swimming with invisible ease. “I hope your brother thinks things through,” he said. “It’s a big decision.”
She confessed her suggestion about the phone book. “I feel like I handed him Pandora’s box.”
“But Pandora had no friends, and a terrible family. Of course she opened the box. We don’t”—he squeezed her hand—“ always have to act on information.”
“I brought you something.” Holding out the small pink shell, she explained that cowries used to be a form of currency. “I found it on the beach in Wales.”
“Thank you.” He cupped the shell in his palm, then put it in his wallet.
Before they parted at the gates of Christchurch, he wrote down the number at Holywell Manor, the place where he lived. Then he made her write down her address and phone number. “Don’t worry,” he said, seeing her expression. “I won’t knock on your door.”
“Or phone,” he repeated. “You can phone, and the porter will take a message.”
We don’t have to act on information, she thought as she walked away, but we nearly always do. Her hand, without his, felt empty.