FICTION (May 2018)
Patricia slowed the car when she saw the corpse-house ahead of her. In front of it a track went off at right-angles to the road. The information with the rental she was heading for had explained that this small, stone hut, roofed with slabs, was where the people of the district used to bring their dead. She stopped and got out of the car to take a look. She had time. No one was waiting for her.
She was immediately conscious of being at a vantage point. On either side the ground sloped downward. The road held to the high ridge of the slim peninsula that thrust out westward into the Atlantic. Merely a tarmac’d strip at this point, it had meandered along the ridge-line like a vein on a shin bone. Here, it twisted round a rising corner ahead so that the ocean was hidden from her. The sea could be glimpsed − no more than that − to the right, to the left, where it was penned into fjord-like channels by the mountains that closed in the view.
She stood, expecting to be enveloped by calm. It was the end of a lovely June evening and, from the car, the landscape had appeared tranquil but now that she was actually out in it, the whole place had an unsteady air. The speed of the local tides was famous so maybe it was that − the sea-loughs on each side being harried repeatedly by the inrush and retreat of enormous forces. Maybe it was that.
The corpse-house had no windows. Its wooden door was padlocked. Patricia looked around her, imagining the area when it had been densely populated and so challenging a terrain that people had carried their dead here to wait for the fever-cart to come and take them to the burial-ground. America must have seemed close, as an alternative. Just over the horizon. The sod-cabins were easily tumbled in evictions and the landscape seemed empty now but the town she’d driven through to reach the peninsula bore the bizarrely English name of Hogglesford − in Irish Áth na hOglaigh − ford of the young men. A host of young men, massing to cross the river.
She turned off the road, down the track which quickly became a channel between hedges of fuchsia. She drove for long enough to become uneasy but finally a five-barred metal gate appeared. It was open and, relieved, she went through and pulled up in front of a Nineteen-Thirties bungalow.
That night, as she settled in, she took a little time to pinpoint what wasn’t quite right with the house. It was indeterminate in design. The War of Independence and the Civil War that followed it meant that the Irish hadn’t had their minds on domestic architecture in the Nineteen-Twenties. The Thirties was a decade of struggle too. Modest though it was, this house was evidence that its builders had fared comparatively well. It was adequate, clean. It had been inherited unexpectedly by a friend’s friend who was deciding whether to keep or sell it. It really wasn’t ready to be rented properly, the friend had apologised. The phone line was down and they ‘hadn’t quite done the Health and Safety stuff.’ Patricia said that basic was fine. She could be their guinea pig, letting them let them know if any tweaks were needed for the market.
She blinked in self-mockery when she realised that the problem was the windows. Of course. Every one of them was filmed over, as though a membrane had been drawn tight around the house. She considered leaving things as they were but she hadn’t come to a beautiful place in order not to see it.
Next morning it took considerable effort to wash encrusted sea-spray from all the glass. She was surprised that the effects of the spume would reach up so far from the shore. The bungalow had been a working house in its time, though she found it hard to picture what kind of farming could be done in this landscape of dense furze and rocks.
Now, she resolved, for the serious business of relaxing.
But she found that having time to think meant there was also time to brood. She had come here rather to clear her head and to give Noel space to decide once and for all. It was so much more difficult for him – he’d explained that – being ten years older than her and with all the domestic stuff. So she spent the whole first day outside the house. Assuming there must be a path to the shoreline – which she could make out some distance away − she plunged into the furze and low bushes but every promising lead petered out. She arrived at the shore scratched and tousled. Clearly this was no tourist area! But what magnificence. The blue-black waters of the lough seemed to hurry past her, heading inland, as she strode out across a naked stretch of sand. The vastness of the ocean ahead, its roar, its condescension in deigning to put a limit to itself by arriving, after such distances, was exhilarating − and diminishing. She stopped, suddenly aware of the scale of the decision she had to make and the puny resources she felt able to bring to the task.
She was alone. She turned full-circle. Sky, sea and shore at the extreme north-west of Ireland – no one.
That night she slept badly so she spent the next day walking, determined to exhaust herself. As she walked, she veered between resolving to face up to the factors in her choice and swerving away from the effort. She climbed back up to the house from the shore side as the light was fading. As she walked round towards the door of the house she bumped into a cow which jittered off, startled. Three more swayed uneasily at a distance. Laughing, she shooed them out and shut the gate in their wake. She turned towards the house, pausing to breathe in the warm air, reminding herself that she had time to stop like this, to savour these small actions. It was not a question of taking in a view because the area was not open. From the height where she’d stopped at the corpse-house the landscape had looked expansive but once down among the slopes she found it was made up of a series of small clearings, low among rocky outcrops, and here a row of conifers had been sited on the lough side of the house, further closing in the prospect.
Within moments, as she stood, she could not escape the sensation that something behind her demanded attention. She turned. Nothing but a tall tangle of bushes. And yet… She walked a little further away and looked again. Not until she noticed a certain regularity in the position of a few barely discernible cobble-sized stones in the ground near the gate did she consider that there might be a dwelling concealed there. She remembered the row of sea pebbles that used to be placed a few yards from a cottage perimeter, forming a sort of fringe to the building.
She could see the house to her right: functional, pebble-dashed, prosaic, waiting passively. To her left, the gate, the lane bending sharply to reach it so that only a few yards of it was visible because the rest was hidden by a high rise in the ground. She thought, briefly, of the corpse-house, patient where the road led in, led out. In what she had taken as a congealed mass of vegetation up against this outcrop could there be something buried? It would certainly be strange to have left such a sizeable clump of bushes uncleared. Perhaps they were serving the purpose of keeping something out of sight.
She went as close in as she could easily get and there, beyond the matted stems, something gave back a little light, something mineral among the foliage – a patch of white-washed wall. She pulled back and re-considered. Yes, the height and breadth were right and, now that her eye was in, she could gauge where there might be a door and where something glinted slightly. She fetched a jacket to protect her arms and pulled on trousers. It suddenly felt important to go further.
She parted fuchsia and brambles determinedly and found herself facing a cottage door. The roof-edge, of corrugated iron, projected out, creating a shallow space between the vegetation and the walls. The door was so low it would have brushed the head of anyone entering. There was a small, square, deep-set window on either side. It must have been a picture-book Irish cottage once. The roof had partly broken away from the lean-to in which machinery was rusting.
Patricia was sure no one could be inside yet she was inclined to push the door open gingerly. In reaction to this unnecessary reticence, she shouldered her way in boldly. She expected to find it empty. She was astonished to find it full.
Someone had only just gone out. There were clothes piled on a chair; on a window-sill, rosary beads had been half-returned to their little pouch and a cast-iron pot stood on the hearth-stone – a high, open hearth with a swinging crane; cutlery was piled on the table. Patricia could see a little, dim back room. She felt immediately an intruder’s guilt but as her eyes adjusted to the faint light coming from the front windows she realised that everything she could see was covered in dust. There was no life here.
She took a moment to re-adjust. She need apologise to no-one.
She moved across the room, noting other things abandoned mid-use: a box of matches, a towel on a chair, a tin basin and a scrubbing board. It was like walking back into the way things had been in a vanished generation.
Memories from childhood began to reach her, memories of visits to a few very old family connections, people then in their nineties – single men, she recalled now – whose disinterest in the domestic had led to their cottages preserving the habits and appearance that had served the family in their own childhood. But this interior lacked any of the small evidences of the modern world that even those men had acquired: a radio, plastic utensils, a single shiny magazine. Here, it seemed, the inhabitants had simply walked out one day, leaving their lives behind them.
Had they built the newer house and moved in there? Perhaps. But never to come back to tidy up or fetch something for which it turned out there was a need after all? What could have prompted such a sudden, total abandonment of a life? The need to escape. From what?
And she had forced her way into a place that others had fled. Those carts piled with bodies suddenly crossed her mind. No. No! That was the Eighteen-Forties, the Famine, she reminded herself. Nearly a century before this cottage had been closed up. Nonetheless, she felt a little less sure of herself.
She listened. Absolute silence. Well, she was here, and this was an amazing chance to explore a lost world. She wouldn’t disturb anything. The new owners would want to have the pick of these period pieces: a clock, the hearth-ware, the dresser and its china. The cottage itself could be restored and here she was, privileged to see it before it was sanitised and Health-and-Safety’d.
Her foot knocked over an old candle-holder, dislodging the candle it still contained. She re-inserted the candle, automatically nicking off the burnt wick to a useable length. She was about to leave it aside on the table when she found herself reaching for the matches and striking one. She had meant it as no more than a gesture, a little homage to a homely routine but, to her amazement, the match flared. So she lit the candle. Its flame struggled at first against its dusty coating but gained the upper hand till the room flickered slightly and the depth of the evening was suddenly more evident. If she was to look around, it had to be now.
She held the candle up: hearth on a gable end, windows behind her in one long wall, dresser across from her and a few framed things on the wall to her right opposite the hearth.
Stacked together in a row on the hearth-stone she spotted several picture frames. She set the candle-holder down, picked up the frames and moved them to the table into its light, holding them in position as a block, like heavy filing cards. She could read these, one-by-one, for evidence of those who’d lived here.
The front-most frame held a studio portrait: the head and torso of a young man done in the Twenties or Thirties. He was clearly in his best suit, his dark hair slicked back. His posture was tense, as though he were drawing himself back from the lens, and his expression was one of vulnerability. He was presentable, rather than handsome but his face had a striking feature: his upper lip had a very deep central indentation. It escaped being a deformity because it created a cupid’s bow so exaggerated it made him look exotic despite his conventional setting.
She tilted the frame down and was confronted by a coloured photograph of a young woman, frowning, tired and untidy. Herself! She hadn’t expected to find herself. Reflected in a mirror. It was like receiving a message.
Hastily she laid the frame flat, feeling, for a moment, as though she were somehow placing herself there. Well, she wasn’t. She didn’t belong here. She had nothing to do with this man or this place. She was here for a week only.
In the next frame was a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic: Irishmen and Irishwomen: in the name of God and of the dead generations … It was still an arresting, powerful opening, even in this first year of the new millennium and no matter that the Easter Rising had failed. The confidence of the revolutionaries of Nineteen-sixteen marked a sea-change in what the Irish felt they could expect of themselves.
… Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
…in ainm Dé agus in ainm na nglún a chuaigh romhainn…
… in the name of God and of the generations who went before us…That phrase, in Irish, on an everyday postage stamp, had imprinted itself on her childhood. The dead generations − na nglún a chuaigh romhainn − arrived through the letter-box, lay around the house waiting to be dealt with, dispatched business, friendship and romance. The dead generations expected something of the living and were watchful of their doings.
Behind the Proclamation she found a framed illuminated scroll, adorned with calligraphy in gold ink. Below a little picture of St Peter’s in Rome some cleric begged leave to inform His Holiness that the members of the O’Fachtna family, having dedicated themselves to the Sacred Heart, begged the favour of an Apostolic Blessing. Six children were listed. She imagined an elderly parish priest ducking his head below the lintel and finding the room shiningly tidy, the table laid with a white linen cloth and the necessary accoutrements for the blessing, and the couple and their children readying themselves to receive the touch of the pope himself, by proxy, binding them in, the faithful.
It could reach this far, the authority of the Vatican, across the continent, across seas and moors, glittering cities and bustling towns, through bureaucracies and word-of-mouth to this isolated dwelling at the dark, unstable edge of Europe.
Tears burst from her eyes. Her dilemma confronted her, where she least expected it. There was what she wanted, and there was the Church. And somewhere in the mix God and damnation. There was the whole accumulated weight of family, tradition and faith. And she had walked into a place specially arranged to demonstrate the power of that centuries-old institution which told her dispassionately what was to be done, at no matter what cost. Nowhere was beyond its reach. The alternative, it assured her, was to be lost.
She sobbed, covering her face with one hand as she snatched the candle up. She wanted Noel. He wanted her. She felt tears falling through her fingers and, as she wiped her eyes, she saw the bomb-like impact of a teardrop send up a tiny spurt of dust from the floor. Another must have quenched the flame because she was suddenly in darkness. She dashed for the door, scrabbling through the bushes, gasping as she felt tendrils fingering her neck and back. It seemed to take longer to get out than to get in.
She fell into the laneway where the sight of her car, an insensible machine, was a huge relief. She ran into the house, slamming the door shut and only when she made to bolt it did she realise she was still clutching the candle-holder. She thrust it down on the floor, bolted the door and went around switching on lights, drawing curtains, pulling down blinds. When she came back into the hall, the candle-holder sat there, waiting for her. A ridiculous thought! Yet she did feel as though she had let it in, like an unwelcome and malevolent animal. In reaction, she grabbed it, put it in the kitchen sink and turned the hot tap on it. She scrubbed it, dried it off, put it in a plastic bag and stuffed it in a cupboard.
Then she turned on the taps in the bathroom. The ploshing and plumping of the water as the bath filled was soothingly ordinary. But her forearms and her face were scratched and bleeding and her clothes smeared in grimy cobwebs and festooned with leaves. She sat on the toilet lid, watching the water inch up the sides of the bath and letting her dilemma rise to the surface: Noel. It couldn’t be wrong to love him. But it was. It wasn’t. Her mind went round the well-worn track as she took her clothes off numbly and lowered herself into the bath but instead of finding it a balm her skin became quickly irritated by something in the water. She had to get out, feeling oddly rejected, so that she began to cry again, bereft and – not homeless – un-homed.
She gave way to grief. Sitting on the edge of the bath, she wept. Because Noel was not with her. Because Noel was married. Catholic married. Married, with cousins and uncles and obligations and family parties and the whole who’s-this-he-has-belongin’-to-him? Irish Catholic knottedness. Where was her place in all this? Neither of them was inclined to belittle marriage. She wanted to be married – to him. And she could be. It just took courage. Why hadn’t Noel followed her? She’d told him not to because this was her period in the wilderness from which she expected to emerge resolved and ready but couldn’t he sense she needed him? Didn’t lovers intuit across the miles?
The gin helped at first − got her into a dry-mouthed, stupefying sleep. Next morning, through an incipient hangover, she realised that infection had set in to many of the cuts and that splinters and thorns were making matters worse. She would have to go to the town for disinfectant. A note for the owner: get a First Aid kit.
She whiled away the day in the town, inventing half-acknowledged reasons not to return to the house. She visited the amateur museum in which, among the typical stories of landlordism, poverty and emigration, several episodes from the deeper past stood out. No one could be sure, she read, whether that troop of young men by the river had stayed in the memory from the early Middle Ages or from some desperate struggle of the Iron Age. This was a place where myth and history were close, equally real in their ways, the one as accepted as the other.
Despite gloriously sunny weather, so rare at this time of year that everyone who could had headed for the beach, she strayed about among the nondescript streets but at last drove westward, reaching the coffin-house about five in the afternoon. Dealing with the gate at the lane’s end, she ignored the cottage, once again hardly visible.
In the kitchen of the house she was aware of a certain resolution in the way she put groceries into the cupboards as though she were demonstrating determination to someone. She planted cornflakes beside the lumpy plastic bag that held the candle-holder.
Going into the sitting-room, she saw with dismay that the windows were almost opaque. A white skin had grown over them in the space of a day. With an energy verging on anger she went at them, beginning from the kitchen window, with water and a cloth but it wasn’t work for a holiday so she left the bedroom’s large picture window. What did that matter? She’d be asleep in there.
She stood at the kitchen window, filling the kettle. It was about half past six and a golden evening. The rotund, silver coating on the kettle reflected a distorted version of the greenery outside. As the water flowed, she looked out and realised, with a start, that she was looking towards a side wall of the cottage, matted with creepers, blurred in its outlines, but there as if it had slowly come into focus. The wall was in shadow. Rough grass made a kind of carpet between it and the house. How had she not seen the cottage from here before? And now there was movement in the shadow, people, men and women, standing in a row within it. They bent their heads together, this way and that, as though conversing but she couldn’t hear any voices.
The water overflowed onto her hand so she set the kettle down and, as she reached to turn off the tap, the figures made the slightest possible move in her direction. She froze. They were all looking down, or at one another. They seemed to move again, or was it the distance between her and them that shrank? And one of them was the young man in the photograph. He was both vividly clear and insubstantial somehow – as were they all. She could see that distinctive nick in his upper lip. He was looking at the ground and she was suddenly absolutely sure that if he looked up and her eyes met his something irreversible would happen.
At this the tap gave a jerky splutter. The water had turned an odd, unclean colour. She hastily turned it off. But she didn’t look up. She was too afraid. She glanced sideways, at the kettle. She could see them in its reflective surface. They had not advanced but they were now gazing straight at the house.
They were the dead. The dead of this place. They let her know that they were ready to cross the sunlit space and join her. They had been waiting to make this move and she had come among them, disturbed the dust with her tears, taken their light with her. It was obvious she wanted them to follow. Yes?
She couldn’t breathe. She knew that at the merest assent they would flow across the grass and … Her mind gave up.
The convex silver image gleamed gently. She understood that all across the countryside the dead massed in this way, drawn to crossing-places suited to their past. It was, the dead assured her, only a matter of time. She would join them eventually. Why not now? The young man took a step. Patricia considered. No, she told them. Not yet. They swayed, retreated, nodded together. They would return.
When the reflection told her that the gable was again only a wall she cautiously raised her gaze. The shadow from the eave had come closer across the grass. The house was filling silently with shadow. But those figures – she accepted their reality. The daily duty of a Catholic was prayer for help at “the hour of our death” and prayer for the dead a given. Of course they were real. And it was reasonable for them to appear now because, she bowed her head as she admitted it, she was not particularly attached to life. They had sensed that. The struggle over Noel was draining her. It was all she could do to keep going.
It was such an ordinary problem. She loved Noel; she could make a life with him; she merely had to collude in breaking up his marriage. People did that all the time. They opted for love, for real love, for truth instead of convention. They seized control of their lives. Before it was too late. They didn’t waste their lives ‘doing the right thing’ just because of some rule. What kind of a God could want her to be so unhappy? And she would be unhappy, without Noel. Rules that ruined your life couldn’t be right. Rules that kept Noel in a loveless marriage.
He had been too young. He hadn’t understood. He’d done the right thing because it was expected of him. He had ignored the doubts, he told her. And Cathy was a nice girl.
And Patricia, she asked herself? Patricia was a nice girl. But nearly thirty-five. And very aware of time passing. Why was it always about giving things up? What had happened to place her here in this godforsaken spot, on her own, getting her courage up?
Except, it wasn’t Godforsaken. Nowhere was. God was everywhere. Or nowhere.
Ach! It was time to turn on the lights, to re-assert the ordinary, to cook, to eat, to sleep – if she could!
But, in bed, in the complete blackness of this place, this countryside without lights or distractions, she could not escape the confrontation she knew was inevitable. She circled closer and closer to the terrible but unavoidable dilemma: to love Noel she had to risk losing him for eternity. Unless she was sure that the relationship was truly motivated by love and not selfishness, she would be helping to ruin his soul. She could have him now if she was prepared to involve him in a terrible gamble.
Did anyone think like that nowadays? Even the priests were inclined to go easy.
But the dead had stepped in. They were lined up to make sure she knew what was at stake. They were telling her, with their presence, that time was not finite; her time here was merely a prelude to time-without-end. Her decision would determine her future in the life they lived. They would rather she came with them now than disappear forever by putting herself beyond God’s reach.
That seemed suddenly very attractive – to be where he couldn’t get at her. God seemed to be somewhere within the darkness ahead of her, the darkness which offered no focus to any human eye. Yet she addressed him, God, that sickening old fucker, that snickering connoisseur of personalised pain, always knowing exactly where to place the violating finger. “I hate you”, she told him, aloud. “I hate you. Because you’re always taking things away. You tell us love is the big thing − you even tell us that’s what you are − and then you put love exactly where were we shouldn’t have it. Just so we can prove we love you more than anything, or anyone. Sadist!”
God looked down from the darkness high up in the room and Patricia stared back. With all her soul she hated this god. “I love Noel. I’ll do what it takes to have him.”
She woke into a dark night, surprised to acknowledge that she’d slept, for what she remembered was the long sleepless prelude. The night was warm. The faintest shush reached her from the sea but through it some other sound, surely, as though someone was outside. Waiting did have a sound, she knew, that of someone holding themselves in readiness. Yes! Noel. She hadn’t heard his car but that might have been what woke her. He must have made the effort and braved those narrow roads in the darkness but then why hadn’t he knocked at the door? She listened, waiting. Nothing. Or, something. An intentional shift outside. She wanted to go straight to the door but baulked at the thought of opening the house too incautiously. Noel would give her a sign. He wouldn’t want to frighten her.
But no sign came. She got out of bed and stood, uncertain for a moment. She would peek out, get her bearings. She took hold of the curtain edges quietly and eased them apart a fraction and − right against the flimsy membrane of the glass, where she least expected it − a face was pressed to hers! She tugged the curtains shut, appalled. The white face had a notched upper lip. That man had come!
She backed away, terrified. What could she do? Had her defiance broken some control, some protection and left her alone with…
She leapt to the bedroom switch in an instinctive reach for the antidote of light. Then, stretching her arm out into the dark passage-way, around the door-jamb, she tugged the pull-cord of the bathroom light. Advancing into its range, she could reach a switch for the kitchen. But then?
She knew that light alone was not enough. She couldn’t jettison a belief in Good and in Evil; in the capacity of both to be present and to act, by day or night.
Yet that face at the window had been an old man’s face. He had come, then, as an aged version of himself. The dead can move within the stages of their lives, after all. One age is as good as another.
She would have prayed (she’d been well-schooled in the emergency mode – an archangel, the Mother of God) but she’d cut herself loose. She had to cope some other way. It was still dark. Impossible to leave the only sanctuary she had, the house.
Trembling, and muttering to herself in anxiety, she could only think of filling the time till daylight with activity. She dressed quickly and packed her belongings, stopping now and then to listen. Where was he now. Around the back? Wasn’t that something moving out there? She stripped the bed and forced herself to re-make it. She performed the routine actions of lifting and folding in a state of barely suppressed panic and on top of that she needed the toilet.
Venturing right out of the bedroom was ridiculously hard. Automatically she pressed the toilet handle, cringing immediately at the thought of the noise drawing attention but there was only a protesting cough. She lifted the cistern lid. Empty. Puzzled, she turned the bath taps. Dry.
At the kitchen sink no water came from either tap. How was that possible? Even if the cold supply had failed somehow there should have been water in the hot tank. Her bathful wouldn’t have emptied it. She’d never heard of a house completely drained…
As though in preparation. And then… What would they do? She couldn’t stay here. She would leave at once! But was this their plan? They were forcing her outside, where they waited, shadows within the darkness, impatient. And perhaps they were different shadows now, now that she had thrown her lot in with…
She shuddered as her breath knocked under her breastbone. She could hardly breathe. Her ears hummed and her head tightened. The knocking grew louder. Someone was at the door! She was stricken. She could not get a breath. Her body had jammed.
A male voice. “Hello in there!” A country voice. Of course. That man was a local man. “Hello! Ye have all the lights on. No need for that. Can I come in?”
A figure moved on the other side of the slim glass side-panel by the door. He would feel she had betrayed them, his dead. He was merely the go-between, the one she might trust, and he would hand her over.
“They’re not meant to be in here. I can get rid of them.”
He pressed close to the glass.
For a moment she considered doing whatever it took to stop this but, no. She loved Noel. “I choose him,” she whispered. “I choose him.”
“I’m just wantin’ to explain,” the figure wheedled. “They broke the water pipe, they did. Right up against the house. Can you hear me? I’ll go round the back.”
She heard the voice move around the house and then shout at someone to get out and there was tumultuous movement past the side of the house. Cows. Cows were being hup-hupped along. She heard the beasts lumber towards the gate and the voice go with them. “It’s the oul fella. Me granda. We can’t keep him in the house. He wanders around, for miles, ‘looking for the herd’, he says and he often turns up here where he was raised. He picks up the odd beast as he goes and drives them ‘back home’, the oul eejit.”
As Patricia listened to the lowing of the cattle she gulped for breath. When she heard the gate swinging she opened the front door a chink. Just at the rim of the porch light’s reach a man with a stick in his hand was guiding five cows into the lane. A rational, if bizarre explanation after all, then for the elderly face at the window.
“I’m sorry,” she called. “I didn’t know what was going on. I don’t know what I thought was going on.”
He raised the stick in a kind of backward gesture to her, without turning around, which she read as a considerate signal that he meant to interfere no further.
Relieved, she went on, wanting to make amends, gabbling in her relief, “I was just frightened, you know? I didn’t know what was going on. It’s so isolated out here. I didn’t know what to think. Anything could happen. Being here on my own…”
He paused at that. The final cow passed through the gate. “I thought so,” she heard him say. To her surprise, instead of following the cattle, he shut the gate and turned to her. As he walked towards her, dropping his stick and wiping both hands down the front of his filthy jersey, she saw that his mouth had that strangely notched upper lip. His expression twisted into something like a smile but his eyes were cold. He had lured her into opening the house.
He was here now as a man in middle years, heavily built, coarse-faced. He was backing her across the threshold into the house. She was petrified. He reached towards her. “You invited me in. For the company. A bold woman.” As the smell off him hit her – animal and sour – she knew that in that moment she had more cause to fear the living than the dead.
He took her by the arms. His face loomed over hers. She closed her eyes as his breath closed in – and heard, faintly, an approaching car. The grip relaxed. She struggled frantically as the headlights of a car set fantastic shadows swinging about them. The man backed off. He vanished.
Noel appeared, calling her name anxiously. She threw herself at him, crying hysterically. He tried to guide her into the house but she cried, “I can’t! I can’t!” She clung to him, kissing him so voraciously that he pushed her to arms’ length, telling her to calm down. “You’re not yourself,” he insisted. “That man frightened you.”
She shook her head vehemently. “That’s what it looks like!” said Noel. “What the hell was he doing here?”
“Oh, Noel, where were you?” she sobbed.
“You know where I was. You told me not to come but I couldn’t stay away.”
She flung herself at him, pulling at his clothes but he caught her hands and shook her. “Stop, now. Stop. What’s all this about?” He attempted a laugh. “The lights on and a man running away. Bit of a love-nest, is it? Lovers’ quarrel?”
At that, she howled. Alarmed, he tried to take her into the house but she refused to move. “Noel, I love you. I love you! I’d do anything for you.”
“And you know I’d do anything for you,” he replied, uneasily. “You only have to say the word and I’ll leave Cathy.” He nodded. “You know that,” he added, chidingly, as one admonishes a child. He tilted his head in a coaxing fashion. “Now, let’s go inside, shall we?”
She looked at him. And looked again. In the glare from the car and the blazing house-lights, against the deep blackness beyond and the bushes randomly highlighted as they swayed in and out of range behind him, he was lit like a figure in a weird stage-set: the man-on-the-verge-of-leaving-his-wife. Repeat performances guaranteed.
“I say it? Me? I have to be the one to take the step? Why not you?”
“You can come in the middle of the night but you can’t stay. You haven’t let go of anything to be here, have you? You haven’t come here for me! Once and for all. Forever!”
He protested, shocked but she went on, “I’ve frightened myself! You’ve no idea how far I went tonight – for a man who leaves it to me to pull him over the edge. You can always blame me then, can’t you and crawl back to be forgiven. Was that it? Was that how far you meant to go?”
An hour later she was parked in a lay-by outside Hogglesford. She sat with her head resting on her arms, folded on the steering-wheel. She couldn’t cross the river yet. She was trembling. She couldn’t drive on.
For Noel’s sake she had murdered God.
She had been loved, but not enough. She loved still but she would have to expel that from herself, afterbirth and all: an infant, beautiful − she would never deny that – but unready somehow for life in the real world. “It’s yours,” she told the dead. “Keep it for me.”
She was alone. She was free. She was no longer attached to that God who loved only those who obeyed him.
Six years later, on honeymoon in the West, she did not draw her husband’s attention to the corpse-house they passed as he drove over the final hill that separated them from the shining plain of the Atlantic.