By Carol Farrelly
Tense in limb, we stand on the crevice edge. I take a breath before looking down– as though lava might funnel beneath us, ready to unplug. I look to the rock face and it stares back. My husband stares at his Baedeker and hums. He leafs another page and murmurs more words with beautiful, delicate spines. Cretaceous. I stare harder at the black rock and search for a fossil. Igneous. My skin turns gooseflesh. A nose and cheeks bloom across the rock.
‘What’s that?’ I point towards the white lips on the face opposite, so still and mute.
A cave drawing, perhaps, before they knew how to capture expression.
Walt barely looks up. He squints.
‘Birdshit?’ he says.
I step an inch forwards. The crevice falls into darkness, an absence the human eye can’t square. The rock perspires water. I wonder how it would feel to fall with the rock, as a deep-water diver, as a man leaving a submarine, floating in big floundering steps to the seabed. I wonder if I might feel equipped for such a place, more equipped than I feel here, standing on this edge, Walt hooking my arm now and instructing me on what to see, and not see.
‘Careful, love,’ he murmurs as I edge another inch forwards.
‘Do you think anyone’s ever fallen?’
He blinks. ‘That’s a morbid thought.’
‘Does it mention any accidents in your book?’
He snaps shut the Baedeker. ‘Guidebooks don’t tend to list casualties or fatalities. I suppose they think holidaymakers won’t want to hear such things.’
I smile. He doesn’t want to hear such things. I understand.
‘What does it say, then?’
He smiles now. ‘It says Mary Shelley often visited this spot. She would come and write in her notebook here.’
I look down and notice a daub of mud on my skirt’s hem.
‘How did that happen?’ I brush at the stain.
He squints. ‘I see no mud.’
I rub at a splatter on my belt. I am stained with mud, while Walt is perfectly clean.
He nudges me with his book. ‘Don’t you think that’s interesting?’
‘That you can’t see mud?’ Or the face, I think.
His smile wilts. ‘No–about Mary.’
I nod and try to remember. Water twitters around us. If I reached out and pressed my fingertips to the percolating rock face, I would hear the water clean and clear. And the soft moss growing. I tremble as I turn again to the cheeks and mouth, which are blooming now, more defined.
‘Maybe Mary left traces,’ I say. ‘Maybe she dropped a notebook here. Pages of a story might be lying down there at the bottom.’
Walt’s eyes darken. He shoves his Baedeker into his khaki short and pinches his moustache. ‘Someone would have found them long ago.’
‘Can’t we go look?’
He loosens his hold and peers down the crevice. ‘We’d need boots, love. Crampons. Ropes. It wouldn’t be safe.’
My fingers twitch. I hate the word safe. I long to drop my purse, watch it flounder to the bottom, an awkward white bird–show Walt the bottom is reachable. I wonder what sound the bird would make, whether it would thud rock or swoosh sand or splash water. I want to lean forwards, bridge my body to the rock opposite and brush visible the face watching us. I want to putty-touch the eyelids, open those shut lips. Feel Mary’s face, or Percy’s–I can’t tell–watching.
‘Let’s get equipment,’ I say.
Walt laughs. ‘You strange little bird.’
I laugh back. Part of him knows I can fly.
‘Take up rock-climbing at our age?’
He stands behind me and wraps one arm around my waist. His heartbeat is fast.
‘You really think you’ll discover a lost manuscript?’
‘Or a sketch of her monster,’ I reply.
He falls silent.
‘Maybe,’ I continue, ‘this is where she dreamed up the monster.’
His heart hammers as he clasps me closer, with both arms. The crevice holds his heartbeat. He’s a mountain voice now.
‘No, love,’ he whispers. ‘She imagined that story in Switzerland. Near Lake Geneva.’
I stand still in his arms’ heat. He’s forgotten. Every day he forgets. Little deaths. Episodes, the doctor calls them. They will become more regular, she said, but not to worry–enjoy the lucid moments. The love is still there under your feet. A bedrock, she said. Or is the word rock bed? Just search for the footholds.
‘We’re by Lake Geneva,’ I say. ‘We’re here, Walt.’
I blink and search for the face in the rock, but it’s gone. And now I want to turn and see Walt’s face. I want to see his replying eyes, but my body refuses.
His heartbeat slows. ‘No,’ he whispers.
‘Yes. The lake’s down there. We just came up from the shore.’
‘No, love,’ he murmurs, his voice a child’s.
My eyes burn, but I keep my hands by my side. It upsets him when he sees me cry. I entwine my fingers with his and we stand there above the crevice, arms wreathing my belly as though I’m with child and we’re young and in love and life is all bloom again.
‘We came especially,’ I remind him. ‘You always wanted to come here.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘You wanted to come here. The Lake District.’
I bite my lip. He often plays this trick now, projecting his dreams and his memories onto me: he wants to store himself inside me, make room for us both inside my body, wear his face upon mine–and I try. And he projects his darkness too.
I point at the rock, glinting now, lemon-veined with sunlight.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘See the face. It’s your reflection.’
I see bright blue eyes now. My foot slips.
‘Or mine?’ I ask.
Walt tightens his hold and turns me until we’re facing each other. He smiles and brushes my eyelids shut.
‘Don’t look, love,’ he whispers.