(EXCERPT) Sea Change
Within each horseradish leaf, where it unwinds from the stem, there’s a small bead of rainwater. He sees one there, shining brilliantly in the morning sun, as if it’s been placed, a jewel, pure and dazzling. It’s perfect. This will be lovely he thinks, leading his daughter towards the plant, her hand so small and cool in his own, both of them crouching over the leaves till their shadows merge. Briefly, the sunshine becomes extinguished from the drop of water, he repositions himself, and it sparks back to life. He imagines a direct unbending shaft of light, taut and without substance, stretching between the sun and its own captured sparkle, a miniature sun in itself, caught in some bend of the refraction.
She is captivated. Surprises like this, especially beautiful ones, always bring a brightness in her, too. She’s four years old, and already there is a sense of such conspiracy between them, father and daughter, such gorgeous intimacy. They share the fascination of pausing to look at things they discover, in detail, her waiting for him to explain what they see. It’s a familiar routine. And he knows even then, that he will want to hold on to this moment for the rest of his life, like the leaf holds its soft capture of that beautiful jewel, to be with her, in that wide sunny field in East Anglia, crouching by the horseradish plants.
From his position in the grass he has a low-angled view of his wife, Judy, sitting on a fallen branch about twenty feet away. She’s wearing dark glasses, and is bent over a small open book on her lap. He knows what she’s reading – a collection of poems, it’s for inspiration, for some lyrics she’s working on, and she likes to make notes in the margins. She has the pencil poised, and every so often he thinks he can hear her humming the tune. So typical of her, really, surrounded by such a perfect morning, to enter into her own private world, so readily. He smiles at her, at the thought of her, smiles at the way her knees are drawn together and the way both ankles bend awkwardly beneath them, giving her a childish look. She’s pretty, he thinks.
His daughter leans as soft as a reed against him as she looks down at the water droplet. She’s wearing one of her favourite dresses, and it smells of washing powder and warm cotton and just a hint, even in the field, of her bedroom’s mix of books and toys. It’s lilac, or had once been brighter than that but has faded, and is cut in an old-fashioned style which makes her more doll-like than usual, with a wide band round the waist which she tends to stroke in a comforting gesture. Around the hem at the bottom of the dress is an unusual trim of farm animals in a printed design, running after each other. They’d made up stories about these animals before, how the goose seems to chase the dog, and how the pig is seen chewing a flower. He looks at this design, stretched across her knees as she crouches in the grass, and he knows she’s itching to reach out and touch the bead of rainwater. She’ll probably knock it off the leaf, so he whispers Freya, watch this, as he holds the plant gently, from underneath, bending it gradually so the droplet begins to stretch and tremble. The leaf has prominent raised veins running across its surface in a root pattern, and the water adheres stickily to one of them, then begins to slide along the vein’s length, rolling, leaving absolutely no mark of wetness behind it, constantly gathering into its own flattened egg shape. The little sun in there dances and sparkles with new brilliance, and he can see how the shine from it has added an extra point of light on to the surface of the leaf.
'Is it a raindrop?’ she asks.
‘No – not really.’
‘Daddy, is it a piece of the sun?’
He smiles. ‘That’s lovely,’ he whispers. ‘A sun-drop.’ He coaxes the water further along the leaf. ‘Look, it’s like mercury,’ he says, marvelling at it.
‘What’s mercury?’ she asks, carefully. Her voice is slow and deliberate and made a little husky by a child’s effort of whispering.
‘It’s a metal, but it’s liquid – I mean it’s wet like water.’
‘Oh,’ she says. He smiles at that, at the apparent nonsense adults sometimes say.
He encourages the droplet toward the tip of the leaf. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘look into the drop – can you see your reflection?’
Freya peers closer. He smells the malty scent of her breath which is always there when he is this close, whatever the time of day or night. She sucks in her lower lip for concentration, and he watches the corners of her mouth bending up in a little smile. A few tiny hairs there, above her upper lip. Keep it still Daddy, she says, and he tries to do so, but even the touch of his hands below the leaf, even his heartbeat in a far off part of his chest is enough to make the droplet tremble.
‘See the sun in there?’ he whispers. ‘The whole world’s in there if you look close enough.’
‘Can I touch it?’ she says. He nods, then waits while she reaches out, deliberately choosing a finger, then deciding on a different one, before she touches the water. Both of them see how it sticks instantly to her skin, making a small curving bridge between itself and her, before it separates into a pinhead of water on the tip of her finger, just below the nail. She holds her hand up to inspect the new, smaller droplet.
‘Is that like mercury?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ he replies, thinking, No, it’s not like mercury at all – which is so grey and flat and without reflection, a dead and poisonous thing.
She pretends to lick it off her finger and begins to giggle. He laughs too, a child’s happiness so infectious. But her laughter deepens, becomes something else, not just amusement, but a reaction now, the kind of laugh she has when she watches a cartoon on TV.
‘What is it? What’s so funny, Freya?’ he asks, still smiling.
‘It’s silly,’ she says. ‘That pony’s being silly.’
He looks at her eyes, how she’s angled her eyebrows into an expression which is half amusement, and half worry – an expression of not quite grasping something, a complex expression she must have copied from somewhere. They try so many things out. And even there, even her being so young, there is a little worry-line above the nose on her forehead, like the tiniest of scratches.
‘What pony?’ he asks, amused.
‘ ... it’s doing a silly dance,’ she says, the laughter breaking through her words once more and the worry-line vanishing.
Guy half-turns, still crouching. He sees not a pony but a horse, a stallion, half-way across the field, and for a moment he smiles too, because the stallion does indeed seem to be dancing. It’s standing in a patch of bare earth where the rest of the pasture has worn away, and is rocking curiously back and forth in a restless motion, as if it’s caught in something. He has the feeling the animal may be in some sort of trouble. Maybe it actually is caught – snagged on a loose wire or section of fencing.
‘What do I do with it?’ Freya asks, lifting her finger to inspect the drop of water.
‘Whatever you like,’ he says.
‘I can’t take it home, can I?’
He smiles. ‘Freya, you’re lovely. I’m afraid not.’
She pretends to put it in the open pocket on the front of her dress, patting the pocket for safekeeping effect, the suddenly lifts it again and peers into it – the droplet almost touching her eyelashes. ‘Daddy, I can’t see the pony in the raindrop.’
‘No?’ he says, imagining the horse suspended upside down in the lens of water and, when he looks beyond at the field, he’s shocked to see the stallion is closer, much closer, as if it indeed has been magnified.
He sees then what he hopes Freya doesn’t see. The stallion has a startled bloodshot eye, and is rocking to and fro in an agitated motion, with an edge of wildness that makes it look untrustworthy. His first unconscious movement is to put an arm round his daughter. He feels the thin bones of her shoulder and realizes he is already starting to stand. She seems a lot smaller then, lower to the ground, closer to the field than him.