This Must Be the Place
The Strangest Feeling in My Legs
There is a man.
He’s standing on the back step, rolling a cigarette. The day is typically unstable, the garden lush and shining, the branches weighty with still-falling rain.
There is a man and the man is me.
I am at the back door, tobacco tin in hand, and I am watching something in the trees, a figure, standing at the perimeter of the garden, where the aspens crowd in at the fence. Another man.
He’s carrying a pair of binoculars and a camera.
A -bird--watcher, I am telling myself as I pull the frail paper along my tongue, you get them in these parts. But at the same time I’m thinking, -Really? -Bird--watching, this far up the valley? I’m also thinking, Where is my daughter, the baby, my wife? How quickly could I reach them, if I needed to?
My heart cranks into high gear, -thud--thudding against my ribs. I squint into the white sky. I am about to step out into the garden. I want the guy to know I’ve seen him, to see me seeing him. I want him to register my size, my former -track--and--field--star physique (slackening and loosening a little, these days, admittedly). I want him to run the odds, me versus him, through his head. He’s not to know I’ve never been in a fight in my life and intend it to stay that way. I want him to feel what I used to feel before my father disciplined me: I am on to you, he would say, with a pointing finger, directed first at his chest, then mine.
I am on to you, I want to yell while I fumble to pocket my cigarette and lighter.
The guy is looking in the direction of the house. I see the tinder spark of sun on a lens and a movement of his arm that could be the brushing away of a hair across the forehead or the depression of a camera shutter.
Two things happen very fast. The dog—a whiskery, leggy, slightly arthritic wolfhound, usually given to sleeping by the stove— streaks out of the door, past my legs, and into the garden, emitting a volley of low barks, and a woman comes around the side of the house.
She has the baby on her back, she is wearing the kind of sou’wester hood usually sported by North Sea fishermen, and she is holding a shotgun.
She is also my wife.
The latter fact I still have trouble adjusting to, not only because the idea of this creature ever agreeing to marry me is highly improbable, but also because she pulls unexpected shit like this all the time.
“Jesus, honey,” I gasp, and I am momentarily distracted by how shrill my voice is. “Unmanly” -doesn’t cover it. I sound as if I’m admonishing her for an -ill--judged choice in soft furnishings or for wearing pumps that clash with her purse.
She ignores my high-pitched intervention—who can blame her?—and fires into the air. Once, twice.
If, like me, you’ve never heard a gun report at close range, let me tell you the noise is an ear shattering explosion. Magnesium-hued lights go off inside your head; your ears ring with the three-bar high note of an aria; your sinuses fill with tar.
The sound ricochets off the side of the house, off the flank of the mountain, then back again: a huge aural tennis ball bouncing about the valley. I realize that while I’m ducking, cringing, covering my head, the baby is strangely unmoved. He’s still sucking his thumb, head leaning against the spread of his mother’s hair. Almost as if he’s used to this. Almost as if he’s heard it all before.
I straighten up. I take my hands off my ears. Far away, a figure is sprinting through the undergrowth. My wife turns around. She cracks the gun in the crook of her arm. She whistles for the dog. “Ha,” she says to me before she vanishes back around the side of the house. “That’ll show him.”
My wife, I should tell you, is crazy. Not in a requiring-medication-and-wards-and-men-in-white-coats sense although I sometimes wonder if there may have been times in her past—but in a subtle, more socially acceptable, less ostentatious way. She -doesn’t think like other people. She believes that to pull a gun on someone lurking, in all likelihood entirely innocently, at our perimeter fence is not only permissible but indeed the right thing to do.
Here are the bare facts about the woman I married:
—She’s crazy, as I might have mentioned.
—She’s a recluse.
She’s apparently willing to pull a gun on anyone threatening to uncover her hiding place.
I dart, insomuch as a man of my size can dart, through the house to catch her. I’m going to have this out with her. She can’t keep a gun in a house where there are small children. She just can’t.
I’m repeating this to myself as I pass through the house, planning to begin my protestations with it. But as I come through the front door, it’s as if I’m entering another world. Instead of the gray drizzle at the back, a dazzling, primrose-tinted sun fills the front garden, which gleams and sparks as if hewn from jewels. My daughter is leaping over a rope that her mother is -turning. My wife who, just a moment ago, was a dark, forbidding figure with a gun, a long gray coat, and a hat like Death’s hood, she has shucked off the sou’wester and transmogrified back to her usual incarnation. The baby is crawling on the grass, knees wet with rain, the bloom of an iris clutched in his fist, chattering to himself in a satisfied, guttural growl.
It’s as if I’ve stepped into another time frame entirely, as if I’m in one of those folktales where you think you’ve been asleep for an hour or so, but you wake to find you’ve been away a lifetime, that all your loved ones and everything you’ve ever known are dead and gone. Did I -really just walk in from the other side of the house, or did I fall asleep for a hundred years?
I shake off this notion. The gun business needs to be dealt with right now. “Since when,” I demand, “do we own a firearm?”
My wife raises her head and meets my eye with a challenging, flinty look, the skipping rope coming to a stop in her hand. “We don’t,” she says. “It’s mine.”
A typical parry from her. She appears to answer the question without answering it at all. She picks on the element that isn’t the subject of the question. The essence of sidestepping.
I rally. I’ve had more than enough practice. “Since when do you own a firearm?”
She shrugs a shoulder, bare, I notice, and tanned to a soft gold, bisected by a thin white strap. I feel a momentary automatic mobilization deep inside my underwear—strange how this doesn’t change with age for men, that we’re all of us but a membrane away from our inner teenage selves—but I pull my attention back to the discussion. She’s not going to get away with this.
“Since now,” she says.
“What’s a fire arm?” my daughter asks, splitting the word in two, her small, heart-shaped face tilted up to look at her mother.
“It’s an Americanism,” my wife says. “It means ‘gun.’ ”
“Oh, the gun,” says my sweet Marithe, six years old, equal parts pixie, angel, and sylph. She turns to me. “Father Christmas brought Donal a new one, so he said Maman could have his old one.”
This utterance renders me, for a moment, speechless. Donal is an -ill--scented homunculus who farms the land farther down the valley. He—and his wife, I’d imagine—have what you might call a problem with anger management. Somewhat trigger-happy, Donal. He shoots everything on sight: squirrels, rabbits, foxes, -hill walkers (just kidding).
“What is going on?” I say. “You’re keeping a firearm in the house and—”
“ ‘Gun,’ Daddy. Say ‘gun.’ ”
“—a gun, without telling me? Without discussing it with me? Don’t you see how dangerous that is? What if one of the children—”
My wife turns, her hem swishing through the wet grass. “Isn’t it nearly time to leave for your train?”
“Intensely absorbing. . . . O’Farrell writes novels in which you can happily lose yourself.” —NPR
“Compassionate. . . . Few contemporary writers equal Maggie O’Farrell’s gift for combining intricate, engrossing plots with full-bodied characterizations.” —The Washington Post
“Marvelous, a contemporary and highly readable experiment whose ambitious structure both enacts and illuminates its central concern: what links and separates our 21st-century selves as we love, betray, blunder and soldier on (and back) through time.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary. . . . An engrossing novel . . . from a writer of impressive, perhaps masterly, skills.” —The Washington Times