“If you go to the right places at the right times, you’ll see a group of men sitting together in the sun, smoking pipes and blowing smoke rings.” Back in the woodshed, where candles kept appearing, we were huddled together. Rain wasn’t falling but the ice wind was blowing.
“Each man has a long pipe with a tiny bowl at the end, a pale white colour, like bone. Gradually, as they smoke, they start to talk. They don’t talk to each other, or to anyone else but themselves, but as they talk the smoke drifts out of their lungs so that each person’s smoke ring passes through the words of the man to his left.”
My mind was blank darkness and all I could see was a drifting white smoke ring when I shut my eyes. I seemed to have been sitting here with Jilla forever and everything else was a dream, horrible but remote and now unimportant.
“Instead of disappearing as they rise, the smoke rings pass through each other and form a pattern in the sky. And as the men continue to speak, the pattern spells their lives in the air, as they tell of what they know. If you know how, you can learn from these men by reading the shapes they make with each other.”
“Are you my girlfriend?”
I closed my eyes again, seeing smoke rings pass through each other against inky black.
“How do you know all this stuff?”
There was a small silence. With my eyes shut and almost asleep I couldn’t say how long it lasted.
“Secrets.” Jilla blew out the candle, and when I opened my eyes again, I couldn’t tell the difference.
One day shortly after this, I came home from the school to find a man I vaguely recognised sitting at our table with Granma. As I blundered through the door, they looked sharply at me and a sudden uncomfortable silence reared up. They had been talking about me. I knew it as sure as if I’d heard them. I blushed and stood rooted to the doorway.
“Well are you coming in or are you going to stand there and let the whole house get freezing cold?” Granma was on good form – she often was when she had a visitor. I imagine she relished speaking to adults instead of Mani and I all the time.
I shut the door and nodded wordlessly to the man, trying to place him.
“You don’t know me do you?” The man had eyes that were amused by what they saw, and not in a way that invited you to share the joke.
“This is Jilla’s uncle, Leni.”
It clicked. There was even a slight resemblance.
“How do you do?” I had been brought up to be polite to people older than myself. This obviously excluded my brother.
“Well. Well. As well as we all can expect.” Granma and Leni turned back to each other across the table and continued their discussion on new tracks after this momentary derailment.
“She doesn’t want to go to the school,” Leni was saying, staring into his steaming tin mug, “and she won’t discuss it with me. Runs off, gone all day mostly I don’t know where. Well I have to work, I can’t watch her all the time, it’s not possible.”
“Leni, the girl is a free spirit like her mother and with all this on top of it, she was never going to be easy.”
I was sitting on my bed, pulling off my coat. Teren’s coat.
“You spend a lot of time with Jilla, so I hear.”
I stood up and came towards the table. I nodded, uncertain. They both looked at me. I wasn’t sure what they wanted.
“What do you do together?”
My thousand possible replies hurtled through my mind in a haphazard symphony: we talk about smoke rings, the dead, flowers that don’t exist, stars under the ground. We sit in the dark and listen to the weather, we hold hands in the dark.
I shrugged. “Dunno.”
They both sighed. This was the expected answer. Granma pulled herself to her feet. “Go and wash your hands and help me peel these potatoes.”
I bolted for the standpipe, just catching Leni’s refusal of a meal as I went through the door. He wanted to check whether Jilla was back home.