They were quarrelling on the phone when it happened, although anyone overhearing them might easily have failed to detect the fury that lay behind their pragmatic sentences.
"I don't see why you need to bother Mrs. Craig," Hazel said, "about a leak in your study."
"But my hunch," said Jonathan, "is that the water's getting in through her roof as well as ours. No use fixing one without the other." He was standing beside the window, tugging at the dusty leaves of the indomitable cheese plant. Since Hazel's flight the other plants had, one by one, succumbed to his lack of care and now sat, brown and desiccated, on windowsills and tables. This monster, however, almost as tall as he was with its perforated leaves and hairy roots groping from the lower stems, had not merely survived his abuse but positively thrived. In the midst of his struggle with Hazel, he found time to apostrophise his old enemy. Die, you bugger, he thought, and shredded a leaf.
The brittle green flakes were still falling when Hazel's steady speech swerved, slewed across several lanes, hesitated at the guardrail, and plunged off into a dark field. "Elephants," she whispered. "Caracals."
"Hazel, is something wrong? Hazel?"
The receiver emitted a gurgling sound, then a thud. Jonathan held it away from him, glaring at the rows of holes, as if the machine itself might be responsible for this aberration. But the black plastic was mute. He dropped the phone, grabbed a jacket from the stand in the hall, his keys from the table, and ran. Miraculously, his beleaguered company Saab started on the first attempt. Only as he pulled away from the kerb did he realise he could see nothing; the windscreen was dark with snow. He climbed out again to wipe it clear with his bare hands.
The pillowed streets, rare in North London, had served as the pretext for his phone call. "Look at the snow," he had exclaimed, so exhilarated by the downy, festive weather that, briefly, he had forgotten he and Hazel were no longer looking at anything together. He had felt like an idiot when she replied, in a peculiarly quiet voice, that she'd had an accident on the way home. A car, unable to stop, had knocked her down in a zebra crossing.
"Oh, my god," he said. "Are you all right?"
"I think so. It wasn't going very fast. I just feel . . ." Her breath whistled into the phone. ". . . a little wobbly."
He offered to take her to the doctor, the hospital, but she said no, she'd have an early night; time enough to seek help if she still felt out of sorts in the morning. Then, eager to prolong the conversation, Jonathan had mentioned that he'd finally called the roofer about the damp patch in the ceiling and his belief that it was partly the fault of the next-door neighbour, who let everything go to wrack and ruin, and so they had drifted out of the calm waters of weather and health onto a familiar reef: his attitude towards Mrs. Craig.
Now Jonathan drove heedlessly, swearing at red lights. The deep-seated vexation, at Hazel, at himself, at the cheese plant, which a few minutes earlier had possessed him utterly, was gone. This is an emergency, he told himself; unbidden, the Latin emergere
, to rise up, came to him. He was rising up to meet . . . he didn't know exactly what. Was Hazel under attack from someone? Some thing
? He couldn't imagine what had produced those odd words -- caracals, for christ's sake -- or that gurgling. He turned off the Holloway Road. The car was still shimmying when, from between the parked cars on his left, a dark shape pelted into the street.
A tiny interval existed during which Jonathan could have nudged the steering wheel or applied the brake. He did neither. The wheel jumped, and he was past it, whatever it was. The rearview mirror showed only the lights of other cars falling farther and farther behind as he hurtled down Camden Road. He leaned on the horn and overtook a taxi.
Pausing for a red light, he had visions of scaling a drainpipe to Hazel's second-floor flat, breaking down the door, and immediately doubted his own capacities; that kind of thing was much harder than it looked in films. Perhaps one of her neighbours had a key? Then it came to him: he himself had a set.
He had acquired them in a manner he could scarcely bear to consider, the complete opposite of that happy occasion four years ago when he'd given her the keys to his house. They were in a restaurant when he handed her the envelope. Hazel had peered at it, held it up to the light, and, finally, as the waiter put bowls of pasta before them, torn it open. At the sight of the Yale and mortice, still glinting from the locksmith's, her eyes widened. Shall we use them, she whispered. He had hesitated only a moment before taking twenty pounds out of his wallet and hurrying her home to bed. But last autumn, in the looking-glass world of separation, he'd agreed to pick up a light fixture for her flat -- weeks of argument had reduced him to stony helpfulness -- and she had asked if he could get some keys cut. For Maud, she explained. No problem, he'd said, dumbfounded once again at how poorly she understood his feelings.
For weeks he carried the extra set of keys in his pocket. Just knowing he had access to Hazel, that she couldn't keep him out even if she wanted to, made him feel better. Then one night, several Scotches to the wind, he ended up pacing her street and got as far as opening the outside door. After that, not trusting himself with such temptation, he put the keys in the glove compartment of the car and did his best to forget them.
In the one-way system of Kentish Town, afraid of a wrong turn, he slowed down. During the months before Hazel moved out, he had twice lost his way walking to the tube station and once, in a moment of fiercely lit, jostling panic, been unable to find his office. But now the same irradiating urgency that made him careless of the dark animal's fate guided him through these unfamiliar streets towards Hazel's shabby terrace. Skidding slightly, he double-parked and extricated the hateful keys.
The outside door was open. Rushing up the stairs, he pictured Hazel unconscious on the floor, clutching the phone. He would carry her into the bedroom and hold a cool cloth to her forehead until she opened her eyes and begged him to lie down beside her. As soon as he unlocked the door of her flat, Jonathan knew this was the easy version. Sounds he could not parse into sense came from the living-room. "Hello," he said, not loud enough to be heard.
He stopped to pick up the phone, beeping on the hall floor, and went slowly into the living-room. Hazel was lurching away from him across the carpet, as if her legs were of different lengths or different substances, one wax, one lead. A table lamp, directly in her passage, fell to the floor. She was wearing a black pullover and, surprisingly, a blue skirt he had given her.
"Hazel," he said.
She reached the wall but still she did not stop. She kept walking until she was pressed right up against it, her toes nudging the skirting board, her thighs moving in a parody of an exercise machine. She raised her hands and began to claw at the plaster, her fingers scraping the magnolia paint, over and over.
When at last she turned around, he would not have recognised her. The whole shape of her face had changed. Her cheeks were puffy; her eyes, always so large and luminous, were rolling back in their sockets; saliva frothed her lips, and even her jaw seemed to undulate oddly. Only her fine, feathery hair was the same. "Barasingha," she said in an unnaturally deep voice.
Jonathan fled. In the hall he seized the phone and dialled Emergency.
"Which service do you require: police, fire, or ambulance?"
"Ambulance," he shouted. And then he was speaking to a calm-voiced woman. Next to the phone was a bookcase, and as he recited the address he caught sight of the faded binding of Ovid's Metamorphoses
, his second gift to her, squeezed between The Poems of Rumi
and A Guide to Seashore Birds
; at least she hadn't thrown it away.
"How long will it be?" he asked, but the operator was gone.
At the prospect of returning to the living-room, dread washed over him. Whoever was staggering back and forth, that person, that creature, was not Hazel. Barasingha? It sounded exotic: a small monkey, perhaps, or a complicated curry. He touched the spine of Metamorphoses
, the gold lettering almost gone.
"Anything," he vowed, "I'll do anything to get her back again." His fingertips came away flecked with gold.
Hazel had sunk to her knees and was scrabbling at the wall, a desperate prisoner. Cautiously he knelt beside her and reached his arms around her, then almost let go. Deep, uneven zigzags were leaping through her, not like the vibrations of cold or grief but rather as if she were plugged into some wayward generator. He tightened his grip against the shocks. She continued to claw the paint. "Hazel," he pleaded, "stop it. Please, stop
Like the beginning of an answer came the faint seesawing of a siren
Excerpted from The Missing World by Margot Livesey. . Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.