signs of life

Maria is sitting in the sunshine at the kitchen table, a newspaper spread out in front of her, a cup of coffee to the right, a pink wafer biscuit on a square of black slate to the left. She’s staring at an article all about the latest Mars landing. There are detailed drawings of the descent, how the boosters deployed, cutaways to explain all the instrumentation carried on the probe. It’s quite a thing.
‘What an amazing achievement, sending something all that way,’ I say, taking a seat opposite.
‘What is?’ says Maria.
‘The Mars probe. The mission to discover traces of life.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Is that what it is?’

Maria could be some kind of alien visitation herself, landed on her chair, her white blouse glowing brilliantly in the sunshine, her lipstick a shock of red, the coloured beads in her headband sparkling red, blue and green.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask her.
‘Lost,’ she says.
‘It’s understandable. You’ve been through the wars.’
‘Have I? You see – that’s the worst of it. I don’t really remember. I used to be in control. Now I’m not.’
Her husband Klaus strides back from the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a biscuit for himself. He’s as striking as his wife, his long white hair swept back, his blue eyes preternaturally sharp against the liver-spotted leatheriness of his face.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cup?’ he says to me. ‘It’s very good.’
‘Absolutely. It’s kind of you to offer, though.’
‘Not at all!’ he says, sighing and settling next to Maria. She barely acknowledges him.
‘Don’t forget your biscuit, darling,’ he says, giving the slate a little turn, as if that’s all it need to capture her interest.
‘Thank you darling,’ she says, but carries on sitting as inertly as before.

The house is filled with Maria’s paintings and sculptures. I’m guessing the bronze on the little plinth by the window is Klaus as a young man. The face may be longer and thinner, the hair more tightly curled, but the birdlike intensity of his expression is the same. It’s an unsettling experience, sitting with her amongst these things. It’s as if the artist is gradually fading from the room after decades of creation, leaving only the light and the colour and the breath, a twist of steam from a coffee cup, a glimmer of moisture in the corner of an eye.

‘Could you speak up?’ says Klaus, when I start to ask them about the sequence of events, the tests that were run at the hospital, the things the doctors said. ‘You see – that’s the devil with those damned masks! We’re both rather deaf unfortunately and we rely on seeing the whole face.’
I apologise, and speak up.
He answers my questions, then when I pause to write a few things down, takes a sip of his coffee, putting the cup back on the saucer so carefully it barely makes a sound.
‘Mind you,’ he says, dabbing at his mouth with the corner of his linen napkin, then spreading it out on his lap again, ‘…of course – one gets so much more than that from a face. Take you, for instance…’
He stares at me, leaning slightly forwards.
‘Yes,’ he says, relaxing again. ‘Yes. Your eyes are nice enough. But who knows under that mask? You might have evil lips.’

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