Yellow Room by Shelan Rodger Chapter 1
Buttercup-yellow walls shine in the warm, late afternoon sunlight that spills into the room and through the slats in Emma's cot. Emma and her four-year-old sister are lying side by side, playing babies. Chala pretends to be asleep, even trying to produce the funny, spluttering sound that comes from her father's open mouth when he snoozes in front of the television. Then she rolls over suddenly and gently shakes or tickles her baby sister to show that she is really awake. Of course, Emma has been watching her all the time. She knows perfectly well that her sister is pretending, but this doesn't stop her delight every time Chala pounces on her. She looks at her big sister with her brown-dog eyes that haven't yet learnt fear. There is no one else in the room.
The game gathers momentum and, each time she pounces, Chala's movements are a little stronger and Emma's giggles a little louder, but it is Chala who grows bored first and looks around for something else to play with. The only toy in the cot is a rag doll, called Rosie.
'Now Rosie can be your sister,' says Chala. "You go to sleep next to Emma,' she says gently, lifting the small pillow so that Rosie and Emma can lie more or less side by side. Emma gurgles with pleasure, while Rosie stares up at Chala with unblinking, black-cloth eyes.
'Go to sleep, Rosie,' says Chala, covering Rosie's eyes with the pillow. She lifts the pillow, but Rosie's eyes still stare at her. 'I said close your eyes,' she says more roughly, forcing the pillow back down over the two baby faces. Emma's gurgles have changed key and suddenly she is crying.
'Shh-shh -' says Chala, growing distraught and pushing the pillow down harder to muffle the sounds of her sister's cries. 'Stop crying, Emma. Stop!' Emma struggles and splutters, and Chala pushes harder and harder, and suddenly the crying stops.
When Chala lifts the pillow, her sister's eyes are wide open.
'Chala! Food's ready!' She jumped. After three years of marriage, Paul's voice could still make her jump. There never seemed to be any warning. He was either there, in your face, loud and utterly present, or simply not there, no background clatter to give him away. The same was true of his moods, which flashed inexplicably from playful optimism to gruff despondency, with no apparent transition from one state to the other.
'Are you coming or not?'
Paul's voice again, rising and impatient. Sometimes Chala wondered how he was able to deal in the subtleties of colour on canvas when his words were so often black and white. But maybe that was what made the canvas so important; perhaps it was the one place in his universe where contradiction was allowed to flourish and the decisiveness he projected to the world became blurred.
She raced downstairs to the kitchen and remembered why she loved him. Paul was standing by the table, an open bottle of wine in his hand and a tea towel draped across his arm. He removed a rose from her glass and poured, beckoning her to sit. Candlelight, soft jazz and an avocado mousse for starters. The seductive pull of black and white.
'No reason,' he cut her short. 'It's good to have you back, that's all.'
'But I've only been away a week,' she protested softly, defensive.
'I don't resent the fact that you've been away,' he cut in again, looking straight at her. 'I just think life's too short and it's important to remember what's good about it every now and then. Sorry f that's too romantic for you, but I'm genuinely happy to see you!' Paul was laughing now, but serious.
'I'm sorry. What an ungrateful old cow you married! I didn't mean-'
There was an edge now. She felt chastised, guilty for not giving him the benefit of the doubt. And yet Paul's spontaneity had been one of the things that had attracted her to him. When they first got together he was constantly staging small surprises. He would insist on packing her things for a weekend away, so she would have no idea where they were going. He would send her a text, saying meet me at such and such a place in an hour, which might turn out to be a comedy club or just a walk on the beach.
But when she had first been introduced to his parents and affectionately told an anecdote about turning up to one of his surprises in totally inappropriate clothing, she had seen Paul's face cloud and his mother had talked over the end of her story. Chala had been disconnected to realise that her open admiration for their son was a source of embarrassment to them. Their hallway was filled with signs of his achievements - a star pupil certificate, a rowing trophy, a class portrait and then another with the New College, Oxford crest, a framed law school certificate. Their only son's stepping stones to success were on proud display, but there were no smiling photos and - most shockingly to Chala - no clue to his passion for art.
Surely, she had said to him later that evening, you must have been good at art at school? Yes, Paul had sighed, I loved art, but Mum and Dad didn't. In that moment a sense of purpose was born in her; the resolve, come what may, to stand by his art, to fill the cracks his parents had left and help make it part of his life.
'So, tell me about your week away,' said Paul into the silence forming between them.
Over avocado mousse and a Jamie Oliver special of pasta with chorizo and fennel, she talked. She told him about the chaos of bicycles on the street, about the delicacy of the food and the earnestness of the people, their desire to welcome and to please. She described the hotel in the centre of Ho Chi Minh, long hours talking behind closed doors that could have been anywhere in the world, and then stepping out at night, in to a feast of light and warmth. The humour of animal noises in different languages, which served them so well over dinner one evening with their Vietnamese hosts, and how this gentle congeniality clashed with the sex trade that lurked so close to the view all around the city. But Vietnam was a place she would like to return to, a place to add to the must-visit-one-day-with-Paul list.
What she didn't tell him was that a colleague had made a pass at her one night. She hadn't responded, hadn't even been tempted, but she had been flattered. So why didn't she mention this? The question gnawed at her.
'Paul,' she said suddenly, changing the subject, 'the words we used at our wedding, do you remember? Kahlil Gibran - "Let there be spaces in our togetherness" - something about two trees growing side by side with their roots reaching toward each other, but without obscuring each other's light?'
'Mmm...' Poor Paul. He had that look. Caught suddenly in a conversation he hadn't chosen, knowing that he was about to be asked to talk about the dreaded 'f-word' - feelings. The place for these was in his paintings, not in conversation. He tensed almost imperceptibly, but Chala reacted to his body language.
'Don't panic. I'm not going to ask you if you still love me. But -' She saw him for a second with stranger's eyes - permanently tanned, healthy from the time he spent outdoors, with none of the pallor of the commuters who poured back into their Sussex village at the end of each day, his boyish, blue-eyed square-featured looks radiating self-confidence. She knew it hadn't always been the case, but the cliché was made for him: he was comfortable in his own skin.
She grasped for the thread of what she had been about to say.
'But what does any of that really mean? Does it mean we shouldn't be totally honest with each other? Should I keep things from you if they're hurtful or insignificant? Do you keep stuff from me?'
For a moment Paul look trapped, but then he relaxed again.
'Yes, I "keep stuff" from you. I mean, I don't tell you every time I have a wet dream about Cameron Diaz.' He was laughing, trying to coax her back to the easy exchange of anecdotes and impressions.
'What if it's a dream about someone we knew?'
'No. I don't see the point in that.' More serious now. 'Chala, what's this about? Where is this going?'
'Please, Paul, don't be defensive. If we are "two trees" then it's good to talk about this kind of thing, isn't it?' Chala didn't really know where she was going. She paused and looked in to her wine - and suddenly, inexplicably, emotion was rising in her throat. 'It's just... I don't know. I think it must be different for you. The only thing you can think of to mention is wet dreams, for God's sake! It's just that... sometimes...' There were quiet tears on her face now. 'Sometimes, I'm afraid of myself.'
A gentle weariness dragged at the lines around Paul's eyes. He had always wanted Chala to be open. As their trust in each other had grown, he had encouraged her to dig in to the black holes of her memory, thinking she would be able to move on. He respected her darkness, loved it at some level, but the pull was always there and increasingly he found himself reaching deeper and deeper for the strength to draw her back.
'Che, my lovely, what's brought this up all of a sudden? Don't do this to yourself. This is just your imagination talking. Come on, let's leave all this. Let's go to bed.'
As he drew her up from the chair and into his arms, she felt equal tugs of gratitude and fear: gratitude for his ability to paint away the bubbles from her past, for his faith in their future, and fear that she didn't deserve it.
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