A man walks alone. I watch him from my bedroom window as he stumbles through the rough scrub to the place where it fades into the dry, moonlit field. He seems old, or tired, or world-weary. I don't know why he's here, or where he's going, but I do know one thing. Wherever he's going is no place he wants to be. When he gets to the lane that leads here, only here, he drops one foot into the shadow of the trees, then the other, and he is gone. In his absence, the breaking sea below tells me to shhhh, shhhh, shhhh. I will. I will do what it says. I will keep his presence here a secret from the woman who sleeps her chemical sleep in the bed we share beneath these creaking eaves. It's been a bad week for her already. The last thing she needs is something else to worry about. She doesn't need to deal with strange men on the land in the night. Not on top of everything else that goes on in that head of hers. I will allow her this oblivion. After all, wasn't ignorance bliss? It was. It really was. But now here I am, bliss-less and awake at 3 am, alone with my memories. I spend too many nights this way, looking out at that jet black sea with blood red eyes waiting for these aching memories to leave me, but they never do. They never do. Cold, naked, I crawl back into bed next to her and hold her shoulder. My big hands look like old bark against her pale skin while the silver moon does nothing to dim her beauty. Thirty-eight but still so perfect. How can her body look so smooth when her mind is so fraught? Only the deep lines between her brows give hint at the deep cleft inside her. Her hair tumbles and flows over the pillow, the few strands of grey bright in the silver light. Somewhere in her drugged sleep she senses my touch and pulls away, leaving a chill space between us. So, apart from the stray man on the dark land, tonight is like every night, with both of us lying alone, waiting for these dim days to end.
The sun shines bright through a bare window and wakes me alone in an unmade bed. Beyond it, gypsy birds season the early sky. For a moment I feel sad and abandoned. Alone in bed so early. Could she not wait to be out of my company? And if she must rise alone could she not have left the curtain closed and allowed me some rest? Sleep is elusive not just for her. I remember the night before. She took her pill at 8:30 pm then retired to bed soon after. She probably woke around 5:00 am, only a couple of hours after I finally fell asleep. And she didn't leave the curtain open, I did. I remember now. I left it pulled back after watching that tired man walk alone through the fields... The image of him gives me a moment's pause, then I hear the hiss and click of the kettle and am drawn upright by the promise of coffee.
I stagger naked down the wooden staircase. It complains beneath me in a way that it never does under her, so when I arrive in the kitchen she isn't surprised. I scratch and yawn in the open doorway. She's dressed. I'm not. She glances at my nakedness, then flicks her gaze away, as if looking at me for too long would make me greedy for something she doesn't have.
"Put this on," she says, handing me a dressing gown all pretty in pink. I wrap it around myself and sit on a wobbly old stand chair by the window and look out at the yellow morning. She gets another mug from the overhead cupboard and sets it down next to her own. They don't match.
"Did you sleep wel..." I hesitate. "I mean, how did you sleep?" I reframe my question, leaving the ending open in hope of getting more than a one-word response out of her.
"Fine," she says, colder than the morning, but she hands me my coffee and it's how I like it.
"I'm going to bring in the lemon trees today," I say, rubbing my tender arms as the coffee runs through me. "It's getting colder in the mornings. I don't think it'll be long until there's a frost."
"Hmm", she manages.
I blow the steam off my mug. "I was going to put them in the sunroom..."
"Don't," she says hard, then softer, "just leave them by the door. I'll drag them in." I haven't been in that room for years. It's her studio and her sanctuary now. It used to be something else, but now, it's that. I look out of the window toward the trees by the lane, then let my bleary eyes follow the curve of the drive that emerges from it until I'm staring out over the rippled grey sea to my right. The waves break idly against the base of the little cliff our house is perched upon. I run my fingers through the tangle of black hair on my head and wonder about the man who wandered through here last night. Was he drunk? Lost? A man would have to take a lot of wrong turns to end up down here at the very edge of everything.
"There was a man here last night," I say. The words leave me quickly. I wasn't going to mention what I saw but the hit of the coffee compels me, along with some teenage urge to get a reaction out of her.
"What?" she asks, rigid and frowning.
"Nothing to worry about, sweetheart," I reassure her, relishing my role as her protector and guardian. "Just some drunk old boy who'd stumbled too far."
"Did you get rid of him?" She asks.
"Well, no. But I watched him from the window."
"You didn't think to go out and tell him to get off our land?" she asks, incredulous.
"I didn't have to," I lie. "He saw me at the window and by the time I'd got downstairs and opened the front door he was already halfway down the path and away." She doesn't believe me. Why not?
"Did you think to check the store? The gate? The vegetables? He could have been at the chickens..." She wrings her hands and looks about with angst in her eyes, but something about her drama feels like an affectation.
"He didn't go near the chickens, we'd have heard them. Well, I would have..." I blow the steam off my coffee.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asks with narrow eyes.
I shrug and raise my brows.
"Well, when you're out, you're out," I motion to the half-empty blister pack by the sink. "Maybe you should just be glad there's someone here who can get woken in the night." I look away under my still raised brow and sip my hot drink. I expect her rage, her trademarked fire and brimstone, but I get something far worse. Her disdain. With an uncaring roll of the eyes, she discards me like a boy does a broken toy soldier. She lifts her coffee, flicks her hair, and retreats to the sunroom where she lashes out her anger on canvas behind a locked door.
In the late morning a quick wind blusters over the rolling countryside, coming from the direction of the town to the east. It carries with it that place's strange energies, sullying the air of our clifftop retreat with their fumes and their lies and their fears. The suddenness of the wind whips one of the vegetable tunnels into the air and sets the chickens into a flurry of feathers and noise. But as the freak wind dies down, so do they, leaving the land strewn in plastic parts and chicken down. In the relative calm, I trudge outside to retrieve the plastic bits and wire pieces from the dirt, then go about fixing the polytunnel. The parts reassemble easily and before long I am wrestling a clear sheet back over a full frame in the gentle wind that remains. That wind moans a complaint as it passes through the thicket of shrubs and trees that surround the gated entrance to the driveway. It's a small sound, but it's new to me. New to here. I glance back at it. Maybe it's just the noise of civilisation carried on this unusual breeze. A new car perhaps? An old train? Regardless, the wind and the broken tunnel serve as a reminder that autumn is upon us, and that the winds of winter will be angrier still. I take the opportunity to fix the tunnel more firmly to the ground. It's good, I see. Strong and stable. Protecting the weak plants from the angry elements stirs something in me, a little ache in my heart. For a second I see myself as nurturer. A grower of life and a provider of food. I smile broadly, and then I catch her eye. She's looking down at me from the big glass windows of the sunroom, a long thin brush in her long thin hand, a look of incredulity held on her pale face. I smile broader still and wave. She blinks, but she doesn't wave back.
"We need firewood," she says to my back as I eat lunch alone at the kitchen counter. I checked the log store a few days ago and it was just less than half full, but the sky is low and dark and the air has an undeniable bite to it. The only heat we get in the house is from a fire in the living room that also heats a couple of radiators. In the dead of winter and without a good stock of logs we'd soon freeze to death up here on this precarious little outcrop of ours. She gets nervous whenever the store is less than half full, dashing off to town to get logs like it's an obsession. She's too fretful in my opinion, too cautious, but maybe she's right this time. The sky is leaden and heavy. Snow could come at any time, and up here snow becomes ice as quickly as the sun sets. If it was to descend thick and fast enough onto frozen ground we could be trapped up here for days. It has happened before. Yes, she's right. Better to venture out now and get a few extra sacks from Charlie's and live to see the new year.
"Do you want me to go?" I say, asking the question with a raised brow and an innocent face. She looks aghast and clutches the car key that hangs from the bunch that swings from the chain around her neck. I don't drive. Not anymore, but I thought it polite to offer. She lets out a nose full of air that comes close to a derisive laugh, then she is gone behind a slamming door. I listen as she fumbles with the keys then watch through the window as she rips down the track in the car. When she disappears over the hill I breathe a long, slow breath and enjoy the heat of my own friction in front of the kitchen sink, then slump into the old leather armchair where I wait for her to return.
3:35 pm. The car falls to a crunching stop on the gravel. I see her face through the glass of the lounge window and the grub of the windscreen and immediately I know that something is amiss. The look she wears is somewhere between absent and quizzical. She sits alone for a silent moment, then gets out of the car. I rise out of the sunken leather seat to meet her, but she reaches the front door before I do. When she opens it she has that same strange expression still on her face.
"What's wrong?" I ask her.
"I don't know," she says, honestly, quietly. "There was no-one there."
"No-one where?" I ask.
"At the store. There was no-one there."
"Well, it's a miserable day," I say, "people were probably staying in.
"No," she says, with the question still written all over her face. "There was no-one there at all. No customers. No staff. Not even Charlie..."
"Hmm," I knit my brow to match her own and join her in the puzzle of it all. "But you got the wood."
"Yes," she says from the doorway, looking back down the track with a serious face. Then, absently, she adds, "I just left the money with a note."
"Oh, that'll be OK," I say. "Charlie won't mind. He trusts us. We've been going to him for long enough. They've probably just popped out. Some great farming emergency perhaps," I offer, hoping to lighten the mood.
"Yes," she says, coming round, "Yes, you're probably right." Outwardly I nod, but inwardly I glow. Quietly, I love this moment, this togetherness. Something to talk about. A shared mystery to solve. Her face hardens again as the puzzle of the missing people leaves the air. She steps away from the doorway she filled and I know I am to follow her outside to the car. The trunk is full of sacks filled with logs. "You can put them in the store," she says, then begins walking away in the fading light. I don't want to go to the store. Not tonight. I'll do it in the daylight when the mind doesn't play so many tricks.
"But there's room in the house..." I argue to the back of her head. She stops dead in her tracks, then turns, and fixes my eye. Then she tells me a second time, but this time more darkly, more deliberately.
"Put them in the store." There is no reasoning with her. No room for debate, so I do it, I go. I pay her damned penance alone in the pressing twilight like an act of rebellion. I carry each bag to the rickety old shed round the back of the house with a forced spring in my step and a defiant tune whistled through my tight lips. I shoulder each bag of dead wood around the dark corner, past the vague mound with the new grass to the shed full of bags and boxes, taped tight shut. A place of vague shapes and memories wrapped in shadows and black plastic. I keep whistling as I haul the last of the logs. Four bags. Four for a boy.
Night falls fully and I whistle still as I sit in a scorching bath. Heat stings new scars on tracked arms, but still, I shiver. No amount of heat will take away this chill. Even in the infernos of hell, these bones would be cold. I hear the chiming of dishes and smell pig meat sizzling under a flame. I meet her in the kitchen wearing pyjamas and thick socks. It's 6:26 pm and the night is already pressing at the window. I notice a little white pill by the sink. She throws a cloth over the worn table, then lights a candle before placing it between us. The light plays across her pale face, changing her expression like she's feeling a thousand emotions in an instant. With knives and forks, she draws two squares at the furthest ends of the table, puts plates within both, then a steaming dish of mashed potatoes and a pile of sausages between them. She takes a sip of water, and the tablet is gone. It's 6:30 pm. I don't say anything. Her oblivion is important to her, so I let her have it. We chew sausage and gum mashed potatoes with the fire crackling in the background and the candle burning up the dark. It's good. As good as life gets these days. The heat, food and drugs loosen her up, and as her shoulders droop I feel the energy change in the room. She puts down her knife and fork and stares at the window. What is she looking at? The black night? Her own reflection? Both?
"I didn't see a single other person today," she says after a long minute. "Not a single one."
"I know," I say, smiling a little at the way her medication makes her forgetful. "You told me. You left the money on the counter with a note." I cut the end off another gristled sausage and put the nub in my mouth.
"No," she says, drugged and gentle. "Not just that. I drove into town after I left Charlie's and there was no one anywhere. No one on the high street. No one at the bus stop. No buses. No cars. No one."
"Hmm," I puzzle, chewing sausage skin.
"There's always someone in town," she adds, almost to herself. "I don't think I've ever driven through town and not seen someone..." She's right. The town is small, probably more of a village in fact, but it's always busy. It draws people in from remote places such as this, and more during the summer when the tourists descend. But even in the depths of winter there's some drunk farmer falling over a bench, or some idiot kid on a dirt bike screeching through the back streets. There's always some quaint pastoral commotion to draw the attention, some quintessentially English drama to tut at and discuss later over hot tea and a scone. I mean, it's been a while since I went there, but not much can have changed in two years, can it?
"Has something happened, do you think?" She shrugs, tiring of me. The mystery of the vacant town hangs in the air. Perhaps if we had a phone or a TV we could find out what was going on, but neither exist here by our own design, so the question must remain unanswered. She lets a few silent minutes slide by before beckoning me over to sit beside her, patting the vacant chair. I go to her. I see the dagger in her eyes and the knife in her hand. I know what to do. I roll up my sleeve then she blows out our brief candle and in the darkness that follows we play our complicated little game until I'm so cut and numb I'm sleeping.