Formal symbols by themselves can never be enough for mental contents, because the symbols, by definition, have no meaning (or interpretation, or semantics) except insofar as someone outside the system gives it to them.
John Searle Artificial Intelligence and the Chinese Room
He was walking fast. Already, he could see children heading towards him, their parents close behind, but he didn’t want to run. Wrong shoes, wet pavement, leaves scattered along the sidewalk. He’d look foolish, skidding into the playground, out of breath and rain spattered. He wasn’t that late.
The schoolyard was full. Clumps of children stuck to teachers’ hands and coats. Parents shouted their diaries to other parents over the tops of woolly heads, their arms full of books and bags, drawings and jumpers. Kids’ stuffing, thought Greg. He stared across the playground for Arthur. By the slide, a teacher was in conversation with a mother. Several children of what Greg calculated to be about Arthur’s age were gathered about them. Greg waited for the women to acknowledge him. They would have turned around for Hal, Greg thought. Straight women loved Hal. After several minutes he took a step closer and when the teacher glanced in his direction he seized his chance.
‘I’m collecting Arthur,’ he said, ‘He’s in Laura’s class. Sorry.’ He looked to the talkative parent who nodded and adjusted the bags draped about her.
‘Pryce. Laura’s class.’ Greg repeated the small factual knowledge in his possession.
‘You’ve just missed him. I think he left with the Carsons. Check reception.’ She turned back to the mother.
Greg got out his phone as he walked to the school building. He had never heard of the Carsons. He should call Hal. Greg’s skin felt clammy against his clothes. Their son had left the school with a family Greg had never met. He was absolutely not calling Eliza. He took a breath and pushed at the glass doors.
‘I’m looking for Arthur Pryce. I was supposed to pick him up today.’ Greg could feel the anger creep into the edges of his guilt. The teacher had been so casual. ‘I’m his step-father.’
‘Arthur!’ The receptionist called from her desk to a room behind her.
A skinny boy appeared in the doorway, followed by the bearded art teacher.
Greg’s heart was racing. He put one hand on his chest and another towards the boy. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah,’ Arthur said.
‘I couldn’t find you.’
The art teacher rubbed the boy’s head. ‘You forgot, didn’t you?’
Greg started to protest but Arthur answered.
‘Yeah.’ The boy grinned up at the two men. ‘I forgot you were coming.’
‘We did wait,’ the teacher added to Greg.
‘I was outside. The woman I spoke to, she said he’d gone to the Carsons.’
Paint-splashed fingers rubbed at the beard. ‘That’s another Arthur.’
Greg tugged on Arthur’s hand. ‘Right. Well. Let’s get you home.’
They walked side-by-side back to the house. Greg hadn’t planned on being a dad. He had fallen in love with Hal on a business trip to London, an international conference for new space tech. Greg was a vibrations engineer with New Frontiers and Hal owned the conference catering company. On their third date, Hal told him about Eliza and Rachel. The sperm had already been frozen.
‘That’s a lot of responsibility,’ Greg said.
‘I’ll be there for the fun stuff.’ Hal laughed. ‘The cupcake uncle.’
In the two years since Rachel died, Hal had been on standby for Eliza, and Greg had supported him. He hadn’t minded when Hal, Eliza and Arthur had gone on holiday together, he hadn’t complained about the cash-flow decline when Hal’s work slowed down with all the time off. Together, they even volunteered more financial responsibility for the boy and signed all the paperwork in case anything happened to Eliza. Greg was fine with the theory of parenting. It was the practice that confounded him.
‘Who’s the other Arthur?’ Greg imagined a copy of Arthur with short hair.
‘There’s a big one.’ Arthur’s mouth turned down in resentment at the various playground indignities of being ‘Little Arthur’.
The newsagents was on their way home.
At the sweet counter, they peered at the dozens of packets.
‘Chocolate or crisps. Not candy.’
‘And a drink?’
‘Juice.’ Greg felt the cloud of anxiety lifting as he established some boundaries. He grabbed a bar of chocolate for himself.
They undid the wrappers outside the shop and Greg pushed the straw into the carton for the boy. Beads of apple juice spurted on to the pavement.
‘Stupid carton.’ Arthur imitated Greg’s fading accent. ‘Stoopid.’
‘Yeah.’ Greg laughed. He forgot the kid could be funny. ‘Well, stupid me probably.’
Arthur stopped. ‘Never call yourself stupid, Greg. Mummy told me that.’
‘Sure.’ He took the boy’s hand and they crossed the street and headed to the tree-lined road opposite that Greg liked to walk down. The houses were large, with long sash windows and a dark palette of glossy front doors. If he and Hal ever moved, he’d want one of these. A statement house. He imagined friends from college visiting. ‘Why, Greg,’ they’d say, ‘You’re practically British.’
He almost was. He had a British passport and a British husband and he remembered to say ‘boot’ and ‘queue’ and to ask for the bill in restaurants. Seven years, the entire lifespan of the boy, was all it had taken to acquire this new identity. His own mother mistook him for Hal when she called. Which, since his dad passed away, was often.
They walked on for a while, the juice carton passing between them whenever Arthur finished a mouthful of chocolate. Hal disapproved of processed foods but Greg had grown up on Ding-Dongs and boloney sandwiches and whatever was going in the school cafeteria. A restrictive diet was unhealthy for children. ‘I’m not taking nutritional advice from a man who likes cheese in a can,’ Hal said.
‘Stupid.’ He repeated as the boy dawdled along the pavement.
Arthur looked up at him.
‘What else does your mummy say?’ Greg asked.
‘She doesn’t say anything. She’s dead.’
He never remembered; mummy was Rachel, Eliza was mum.
‘Right. So she didn’t say I was stupid then?’
‘You’re freaking me out, kid.’
A few months after Rachel got pregnant, they all had dinner to celebrate Greg’s move to London.
‘I think you’re very brave,’ Eliza said. ‘To move all this way when you haven’t known Hal that long.’
‘Or lucky,’ Hal said.
‘I only got on a plane.’ Greg shook his head, ‘You’re the ones incubating his DNA.’
Hal laughed. ‘Even luckier.’
They toasted the genetic lottery and Eliza asked Greg how he felt about Hal being a dad.
‘I never expected to have kids,’ Greg said, ‘I’m happy for you all but I’m not going near a diaper.’
Rachel put a hand on Greg’s knee. ‘Don’t look so panicked. You guys will be like the RTG.’
‘Rachel’s obsessed with spaceships now she knows a real rocket scientist.’ Eliza said. ‘A Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator?’ Rachel reminded him.
‘Generators aren’t really my area. I’m on the landing gear.’
‘Cool,’ Rachel said, ‘well, you’re like another power supply. But we’ll only need you for emergencies.’
The flat was warm when Arthur and Greg got back, but Greg turned on the gas fire. He had not got used to the British weather. London kept a chill in the walls, even when the sun shone. It didn’t help that they lived in a converted warehouse with exposed brickwork and a large open plan kitchen for Hal to work in.
‘Want to play one of your Math games?’
Arthur looked at the computer. ‘I can’t remember how to do it.’
‘We’ll figure it out.’
Greg pulled up an extra chair to the desk and helped Arthur log on. He felt the pleasure in defying Eliza. The boy’s screen time was restricted but she couldn’t object to homework.
‘What is this?’ Arthur stuck his finger to the screen.
A picture of pink and green marbles on a plate sat next to the words ‘likely’ ‘unlikely’ ‘probable’ and ‘impossible’.
‘I’d say “very difficult”,’ Greg said, ‘You couldn’t get all the marbles to stay still.’
‘It says, “How likely is it that you’d pick a green marble?”’
‘It’s a Maths question, Greg.’
‘Math is different from when I used to do it.’
‘It’s your job.’
‘When we send a plate of marbles into space, I’ll get back to you. What do you want for dinner?’
‘Something dad made.’
Greg went to the freezer and found the drawer with Arthur’s food. He chose pumpkin gnocchi with pea and sage puree. Step-parenting was the art of reheating someone else’s love. Not that he didn’t love Arthur, but there was so little room left once Eliza and Hal and the ghost of Rachel had had their say.
After dinner, Greg ran a bath and sat on the floor while Arthur splashed about. He felt a physical weariness beyond anything the gym induced, as though the small acts of parenting were muscular devotions. Perhaps they were, Greg thought as he folded the little pile of clothes, the arts of self-sacrifice.
‘Can you live in space?’ The boy peered over the side of the bath with a flannel on his head.
‘We already do. We’re on a planet spinning round in space right now.’
‘What about another planet? Could we live on another planet?’
‘If the conditions were right.’
‘We need an atmosphere,’ Greg said, his glasses steaming over in the bathroom fug. ‘Oxygen, water, the right temperature. Not too hot, not too cold.’
The flannel head disappeared. Greg grabbed a towel and leant over.
‘Come on. You’re turning into a prune.’
The boy was under the water with his eyes open. He smiled up at Greg and blew bubbles from his nose. Greg fished him out.
‘I could live underwater then. All I need is an atmosphere.’
‘Sure.’ Greg wrapped the towel around the boy’s small body. ‘Like in a submarine.’
‘We can live anywhere?’
‘In the right conditions. But they have to be just right. Like in the story.’
‘With the bears?’
‘Uh-hunh.’ Greg rubbed the top of Arthur’s head with the tail of the towel.
‘Then my mummy is living somewhere.’
He lifted the warm bundle of Arthur and carried him through to the bedroom. The boy’s chin rested on his shoulder, damp hair against Greg’s cheek. He felt the full weight of the child, the wholeness of him. He dropped the boy on the bed and pulled the pyjamas from the pillow. Arthur lay where he landed and stared up at Greg.
‘I think she’s in space.’
‘Put your pyjamas on and I’ll get you a snack.’
‘A banana.’ Greg headed out the door.
‘And one biscuit.’
‘Call it a cookie,’ Arthur shouted after him.
‘You’re a cookie,’ Greg shouted back.
In the kitchen, Greg put a banana on a plate with a napkin and tried to imagine his own father doing such things. A bath, a cuddle, a snack. The only time his dad came to his room was if he was in trouble. He placed two biscuits next to the banana, changed his mind and put one back in the packet. That was the problem he thought, the reason his dad had stayed away. If you’re not careful you put all the cookies on the plate.
When Hal returned from work, Greg was asleep on the sofa with the television on.
‘Hard day?’ Hal kissed Greg’s ear and sat down next to him.
‘Oh, you know. Sent a woman to the moon. Raised an orphan.’ Greg stretched. ‘What’s the time?’
‘Late. There was only one entrance at the venue so we had to wait until the guests left before we could clear out. And I think you’ll find Arthur has three parents. He’s the opposite of an orphan.’
‘That’s not what it felt like. You want wine?’ Greg reached for the bottle and poured them both a glass.
‘It was only one evening.’
‘I don’t mean that. He wanted to talk about Rachel and I didn’t know what to say.’
‘I’m sure you said the right thing. Did you get to the school on time?’
‘Maybe we should sit down with Eliza and go over what we want to tell him again.’
Hal sat up. ‘Just how late were you?’
‘Eliza and I get on fine, she’s just a little…controlling. And I want to be there for Arthur. I want to help.’
‘Okay, let’s have lunch together. Next Sunday.’
‘Definitely lunch. I couldn’t handle dinner.’ Greg closed his eyes. ‘And I wasn’t that late.
‘Come on, Superdad. Let’s get you to bed.’
‘Don’t you want to know about the woman on the moon?’
‘Consider it foreplay.’
They took the glasses to the sink and Hal washed up while Greg ate a mini apricot meringue Hal had brought from the party.
‘Thanks for looking after Arthur today,’ Hal said. ‘I know it’s all more than you bargained for.’
‘As long as you keep paying me in dessert,’ Greg said.
Arthur sat on a bar stool and ate blueberries while Hal whisked eggs for French toast. Greg had returned to the sofa.
‘Are you taking me to school?’
‘Yep.’ Hal tapped cinnamon into the mixture.
‘Nothing. I wanted to talk to Greg some more.’
‘We’ll see you at the weekend. Or you can Skype later.’
‘Greg can’t Skype. He doesn’t like the way his hair looks.’
‘True. One piece or two?’
‘Three. With syrup. And butter.’
Hal put a piece of bread into the pan and handed Arthur a glass of milk.
‘What did you want to talk about?’
‘He said mummy is living in space and I want to know where.’
‘He said what?’
‘How old do you have to be to go to space? As old as mummy?’ Arthur kept his eyes on the pan in Hal’s hand.
‘Greg?’ Hal spoke to the body on the sofa.
‘You’re going to drop the bread.’ Arthur nodded at the tilted pan.
Hal returned to the oven and fried the French toast. Greg didn’t move.
‘Will you come to space with me? Will mum?’
‘No one is going to space, Arthur. Eat your breakfast.’
‘Mummy couldn’t live here because she wasn’t well. So she’s gone to another planet.’
Hal took his coffee and sat on the stool next to Arthur
‘We talked about what happened to mummy, do you remember?’
‘And we read that book,’ Hal continued, ‘About the badger?’
‘But mummy isn’t a badger. She’s like Goldilocks. She can live in space as long as everything is just right.’
The boy dipped his toast in the pool of warm lime juice and maple syrup on the side of his plate.
‘Greg? Are you listening?’ Hal said.
Greg put a hand over the sofa and waved.
‘Is there more French toast?’
The buzz of a mobile phone vibrated through the ceiling. Arthur slipped off his stool and took his plate over to where Greg lay.
‘We’re going to be late,’ Hal said as he headed upstairs. ‘You’ve got five minutes, Arthur. And don’t give away your breakfast.’
Greg peered from one eye in time to open his mouth for a quarter piece of toast soaked in syrup.
‘S’good,’ he said when he’d swallowed.
The boy stood in from of him, sleep-shaped hair and a maple moustache.
‘You going to wash before you leave?’
Arthur shook his head.
‘Clean your teeth?’
The plate on the coffee table in front of them had one more quarter of toast left. Arthur sat down. He took a bite and held the rest out to Greg.
‘Our secret,’ Greg said.
Hal returned with Arthur’s bag.
‘We’ve got to go.’ Hal looked at Greg. ‘I’ll see you later.’
At the door, Arthur let Hal put a jumper over his head.
‘Mummy said we shouldn’t have secrets, Greg,’ Arthur shouted as he struggled into the neck hole.
‘The dead one?’ Greg asked from the depths of the velvet cushions.
‘Yeah.’ Arthur smiled. ‘That one.’
Hal pulled down the jumper and gave his son’s shoulder a squeeze. ‘We’re going to be late.’
A minute later the door closed behind them.
Silence filled the flat. Greg mopped up the rest of the maple syrup with his fingers and lay down again. Work could wait. He wanted to replay the conversation with Arthur a few times first.
Eliza had opened the French windows and laid the table outside in the middle of the garden. A late autumn sun flooded the kitchen but the cold air circled the furniture and Greg wondered how they could possibly endure a meal outdoors. What was it with the British and al fresco dining? There wasn’t even a patio heater.
‘Hope it’s warm enough,’ Eliza said. ‘I couldn’t bear not to be out in that sunshine.’
She used to be sensible, Greg thought, now she was more like Rachel every day. Maybe that was what happened when your partner died, you compensated by absorbing them in an effort to maintain balance. Greg imagined his mother in St Louis with a can of beer in one hand and a wrench in the other. ‘You going to stand there with your finger in your ass, or you going to pass me the claw hammer?’ In his mind, his mother had grown a beard.
‘Red or white?’ Eliza said.
Greg stared at her.
‘Wine.’ Hal touched Greg’s head. ‘You okay there?’
‘Sure.’ Greg let his mother morph back into her lavender cardigan with matching hair. ‘Just thinking about my mom.’
‘How’s she doing?’ Eliza handed Greg a glass of white wine and stood in front of him, head tilted.
Greg didn’t know how to take the sentiment. He had grown used to British sarcasm and was suspicious of earnest enquiry with an English accent.
‘Enjoying the role of grieving widow after a lifetime of rehearsal.’ He offered.
Eliza leant so far back Greg thought she was going to fall over.
‘I mean… my mother is.’ Greg was relieved to see Hal’s interest in the conversation had faded as soon as his mother was mentioned. His husband was staring at the garden as though he might start digging the flowerbeds. ‘My mother and father didn’t get on much.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Eliza nodded.
‘It was never going to work. Straight couples shouldn’t spend so much time together. They get confused.’
‘The gender divide deepens with domesticity. It starts with the trash; she does the indoor trash, he does the outside garbage. She vacuums, he gets a leaf blower. Separate nights out with the girls and the guys. Before you know it, you’re in a sex war. It’s not natural. Look at Hal, he can whip an egg white and mow the lawn. I just watch.’
There was a pause before Eliza laughed. But she did laugh, Greg thought as they sat down to lunch in the garden. He pulled at his jacket and noticed how Eliza’s formerly smooth face had lined. They had laughed often in the early days. There had been plenty of evenings shared as Rachel’s stomach grew, and it had seemed as if all their lives, not just Arthur’s, were beginning.
He helped himself to the stir-fry and watched Hal’s expression as various dishes were placed on the table. In the weeks after Rachel’s death, Hal cooked in what he thought of as her kitchen, or delivered meals at the weekends, until the day Eliza asked him to stop. ‘She said they needed to get back to ordinary food, ordinary life.’ Hal told Greg. ‘But I like cooking for them. It’s what I do. She doesn’t understand how much food Arthur needs.’
‘Looks good,’ Hal said now.
Eliza blushed. ‘I nearly gave up and asked you to bring lunch.’
‘I would have done.’
‘See, Hal, that was a little too quick.’ Greg glanced at Hal. ‘Cooking for you is intimidating.’
‘You too?’ Eliza asked Greg.
‘I have my moments.’
Hal snorted. ‘Like the Horseshoe? A grilled sandwich with French fries in cheese sauce.’
‘I could go for that.’ Eliza handed the salad bowl to Hal and sat down. ‘A Croque Monsieur.’
‘Exactly. Hal loved it. We even drove to Springfield when we saw my mom last summer, just so he could try the original.’
‘For the historical perspective,’ Hal said, ‘When’s Arthur getting back?’
‘I’m picking him up from my sister’s at four.’
Greg twirled some noodles round his fork and considered how best to approach the reason they were there. Hal had called Eliza and requested a lunch to discuss Arthur but he had not said why they wanted to talk. When did their everyday conversation become impossible? Every word burdened by twenty-one grams of guilt. They no longer thought of each other as friends, Greg realised. They were more like colleagues in the business of Arthur.
‘Did you tell Arthur that Rachel was an alien?’ Eliza peered at Greg over the rim of her wine glass.
‘Is that what he said?’
‘Pretty much. He came home with a story about Rachel living in space, a fairy tale.’
‘Greg thinks all the interesting things happen on Mars.’ Hal said. They had argued for days about what exactly Greg told Arthur.
‘He wanted to know if you could live in space, I said it was possible, in the right conditions. The kid misses his mom so he decided she could be alive somewhere.’ Greg took a breath. ‘It is kind of what you guys already told him.’
Hal and Eliza exchanged a look that reminded Greg of his parents when he was a child. The ‘which-one-of-us-should-sort-this-out’ routine. Cloud wisps trailed across the afternoon sun. Greg shivered.
Hal started. ‘We said she was ill and her body didn’t work any more.’
‘And we talked about death,’ Eliza said, ‘About what happens when you die. We did not say she was living somewhere else.’
Greg picked at the ginger from his salad. He wasn’t surprised that the conversation was focused more on his culpability than on Arthur’s emotional state. Hal and Eliza were the ones who cared for Arthur, saw him everyday, took him to the therapist. Greg had been at work. He hadn’t been part of the routine. But since Arthur’s last visit he had felt more than an understudy for the boy’s parents. He had his own part to play.
‘You didn’t say anything about her staying alive in your memory?’
Eliza frowned. ‘Are you being defensive?’
‘I’m saying we’ve all told Arthur that Rachel lives on, in some way. Metaphorically, sure. But he doesn’t know the difference.’
‘Maybe we should go back to the therapist,’ Hal said, ‘If Arthur needs to talk.’
Greg saw Eliza’s shoulders sag.
‘I don’t think that’s what he needs.’ Greg held his palms up. ‘He wants to talk about Rachel without the high church condemning him…’
‘We’re not religious,’ Eliza interrupted.
‘I mean the reverence,’ Greg said, ‘the positivity. The special language.’
‘Eliza and I talked about this in therapy with him. Anger and bad feelings, that’s a healthy part of grieving. He can have those feelings but we don’t have to join in.’
Eliza nodded. Her lips were pulled tight and Greg thought she might cry.
‘I want to know; why is it such a big deal for you guys if Arthur thinks Rachel is in space?’
‘Because it’s not true,’ Hal said, ‘let’s start there.’
‘Because he will think she might come back. And she won’t,’ Eliza added.
The light in the garden had muted. Long shadows faint on the grey-green grass. Greg watched Hal take Eliza’s hand as a thin tear slid down her cheek. I will never be part of this, he thought, this English scenery. It doesn’t matter how much my accent slides, or how old my house is.
‘We don’t understand what’s happened ourselves,’ he said, ‘how can Arthur?’
They both turned to him.
Hal said, ‘Don’t flake on me now.’
Eliza shook her head. ‘That isn’t the point. Of course we don’t have all the answers, but we need to protect Arthur.’
‘We just substitute all the conventional religious stuff with voodoo nonsense.’ Greg’s voice rose. ‘I’m sorry, Eliza. Not just you, all of us. We say she’s dead but we behave as if she’s on the other side of the mirror.’
A door slammed in the distance and the group looked back at the house. Beyond the louvered shutters of the French windows, the kitchen glowed in the gathering gloom.
Hal stood up. ‘It’s going to rain.’
Greg helped him collect plates from the table. Eliza didn’t move.
‘I walk into a room and I expect to see her. I go to sleep and she’s waiting for me, standing in a doorway, always just out of reach.’
‘That’s normal,’ Hal said, ‘Of course you want to be with her.’
‘But she’s not there, is she? Greg’s right, we haven’t got a clue. We put all the words in the right order and pretend to understand what they mean.’ Eliza stared at them. ‘But we don’t know anything.’
The two men stood facing Eliza, the towers of dishes in their hands. Rain spots darkened the silvered wood of the table. At the fringes of the garden, the wind caught in the trees. Greg thought about Arthur and Rachel and the three bears. He thought about the forest.
‘We’re looking at this the wrong way round,’ he said. It was almost too dark to see their faces. ‘We want to have answers; we think we should give Arthur explanations, but we can’t. Because death doesn’t mean anything.’
The outline of Eliza stood up. ‘It means something to me, Greg. And it means something to Arthur. Don’t you dare tell us it doesn’t.’
‘Of course, that’s what we feel. But it’s like a computer, we can programme the computer with all the information about, say, falling in love, but that wouldn’t help the computer understand what love is.’
‘Because computers don’t feel anything! My God, Greg, do you ever leave the office?’
There was a rattle of plates and he felt Hal’s hand on his shoulder.
‘Babe,’ Hal’s breath was warm on his cheek. ‘You’re not helping.’
‘We can’t understand death because we haven’t died.’
The hand gave him a shove and the china clinked but Eliza stopped moving
‘Come off it,’ Hal said, ‘shouldn’t we go and get Arthur? Eliza?’
Rain dripped on the back of Greg’s neck. He wanted to wipe his glasses even though he couldn’t see anything now. The three of them had become blackened shapes in the yellow light from the house.
‘We can’t die and live.’
‘We can’t die and live,’ Eliza echoed.
‘That’s why we don’t understand it, why it has no meaning.’
He reached one hand up to smear his glasses with his sleeve and lost his balance. Stepping back, his feet shot out from under him and he landed on the wet lawn with a cry as the china smashed against the table, the chairs and bounced on to the grass beside him.
‘Damn,’ Greg said, after a moment’s silence. ‘Sorry.’
‘You okay?’ Eliza asked, moving over to where Greg had fallen.
Hal walked across the broken plates. ‘Greg?’
‘Bloody wet out here.’ Hal put an arm out.
‘It’s raining,’ Eliza started to laugh, ‘We’re standing in the pouring rain, in the dark, talking about death.’
‘Yes,’ Greg said, ‘Sorry to spoil the party.’
Greg waited in the hallway while Eliza’s sister shouted for Arthur. He had met Fran plenty of times, but he didn’t want to venture any further into the house.
‘Hal’s waiting at your sister’s’ Greg explained, ‘I said I’d brave the rain.’
‘Is it raining?’ Fran frowned. ‘Why didn’t you drive?’
‘I wanted to walk. What’s a bit of rain?’ Greg swivelled his shoulders to demonstrate the amount of water he had absorbed. ‘But you know the Brits. Lightweights.’
‘Oh. Not us. We used to picnic in a layby on the M6 for New Year’s Eve on our way up to Lytham St Annes. Arthur!’ She called up the stairs. ‘Come on, he’s waiting.’
Greg smiled and thought, not for the first time, how glad he was that he had married into Eliza’s new family and not her sister’s old one.
On the walk back he held Arthur’s hand. The rain had slowed to drizzle.
‘Did you have a good time?’
‘Yeah. It was okay.’ Arthur swung Greg’s arm. ‘You?’
‘I fell over in the garden and broke all the plates.’
The boy stopped. His eyes shone in the streetlight. ‘I broke stuff too! Did you get into trouble?’
‘It was an accident.’
‘Oh.’ Arthur walked on.
‘You got into trouble?’
‘I didn’t start it. Joe told me I was stupid to think my mother was in space and I threw my PSP and it hit the picture behind him and smashed the glass.’
‘We need to improve your throwing arm. Was your aunt mad?’
‘She said Joe should be nice to me because I was going through a difficult stage. But she said I shouldn’t make up stories.’ Arthur grabbed Greg’s jumper. ‘I didn’t make it up though, did I? You told me anyone can live in space?’
Greg lifted Arthur up and hooked him round his waist.
‘I did say that.’
‘Like in the story. As long as it is just right.’
‘Yes. But Arthur…’
‘That’s where she is.’ Arthur yawned. ‘She ran away.’
The boy rested against the hip Greg had landed on when he fell. He shifted the child to the other side. ‘Like in the story?’
‘Yes.’ Another yawn.
The house was at the end of the next street. Greg thought he could just make the journey without dropping Arthur. The boy’s head lay on his shoulder. Greg felt the weight of sleep in the small body and held him tighter.
‘Nearly there, kid.’
‘We don’t know the end.’ Arthur mumbled into Greg’s jacket.
‘What’s that?’ They reached the front door and Greg tried to reach his keys.
The hall light came on and Eliza stood on the other side of the glass. Arthur reached out his arms for his mother.
‘Hang on a sec.’ Greg struggled to keep his balance as Eliza opened the door and Arthur leant toward her. ‘Oof. There you go.’ He rubbed at his ribs.
Hal appeared from the kitchen. ‘Thanks, Els.’ He kissed the top of Arthur’s head, buried in Eliza’s neck. ‘Why don’t you come over to us next time?’
Eliza smiled and tipped her chin to Arthur. ‘Say goodnight, Arthur.’
The boy held one hand up.
‘Goodnight, Arthur.’ The two men kissed Eliza and headed out into the damp night.
‘We don’t know the end,’ Greg said as they got into the car.
Hal glanced at him as he checked the rear view mirror and pulled away from the kerb. ‘Who doesn’t?’
‘It’s what Arthur said. He said we don’t know the end…of the story.’
‘He’s right.’ Hal nodded. ‘What story?’
‘That’s why we can’t understand.’
‘Is this to do with Rachel?’
Greg looked at Hal. His husband’s face was blurred through his fogged glasses and the shadows of street lights but Greg could see the statuesque head and waves of dark hair, the deep ridges of his brow and the short beard that softened the lines of his jaw. He put a hand on Hal’s leg.
‘Yes, I think so,’ he said.
‘Arthur said we don’t know the end of her story?’
The hand on Hal’s thigh pressed down a little. Seven years. In that time they had married, had a child, lost a friend and a parent, bought a home, formed an allegiance against the world. A long time, so much lost and won, and a short time, a fraction of their lives.
Hal parked the car and the two men sat in the dark, their breath clouding together. At the far end of the street a woman struggled across the uneven pavement with a pushchair full of tins. In Illinois, his mother would be home from church, making lunch with the TV on in the background. She would expect his call.
‘We don’t know the end,’ Greg said, ‘because we’re still in the story.’