When Rory goes out to attend the funeral, he leaves me alone with the dark garden and this pile of hardbacks in my lap. I am concentrating so hard on not being afraid that I barely say goodbye to him, though what I do say is sweet and musical. He makes me so happy. He is very handsome but his clothes aren’t very stylish, not really very stylish at all, and I know it is foolish but this lack of style is what makes me believe he might not leave me alone forever, here in our new house on the edge of the town.
We bought the house with his parents’ money, but Rory says it’s intergenerational wealth redistribution so that makes it alright. I say it’s alright anyway. We’re so bourgeois! We buy so many hardback books these days! Why pretend! He says there haven’t been any days between us when we didn’t buy books, and I say but now they are hardback.
The three hardback books Rory has left in my lap are presents, like going-away presents but he is the one who is going away. He was worried about leaving me, he will be worrying all weekend. This will be our first weekend apart since we moved into this new house and these will be my first nights alone here. I am used to first-floor flats in London or little squalid rooms in university halls.
We moved here for Rory’s new job, which is very important both to him and to me. He will be for the first time not an assistant to anyone or a sub-anything. He might even soon have an assistant or a sub-something. Sometimes, when I am feeling despondent about my ongoing education, I joke that he might make me into an assistant or a sub-something. Rory does not find this line of thinking particularly funny.
The three going-away books are worth almost sixty pounds, I add up their prices precisely. One is a non-fiction, it is about the sack of Rome in the sixteenth century and how the Pope’s family at the time was very corrupt and should not in fact have existed at all. I shall read that one over my breakfast tomorrow, Rory has got me into the habit of reading non-fiction over breakfast, although in fact it is what I used to do too, before we lived together and ate breakfast over separate books and papers, which sometimes we swap so that we can discuss, equally informed, something one or the other of us has been reading.
The second book is a fiction. It is very fashionable and has been in all the reviews lately. I have understood it to be somewhat overrated, but the cover assures me it is a ‘gripping dystopia’ and a ‘thrilling exploration of life after the climate apocalypse.’
The third book is another fiction, it is about a gardener who has a block on growing cabbages. It is very slim, its endpapers are covered with a nice pattern of cabbage leaves. This to me suggests that the book will have a happy ending whereby the gardener learns to grow cabbages properly and in doing so makes the local slugs extremely happy.
My mother used to grow cabbages. I like that about this book, that it reminds me of my mother in her hat in her vegetable garden with the birds around her and the sky. She used to wear such ugly clothes when she was gardening, all browns and utility blues. I discard the book about the Italians and the book about climate catastrophe into a pile on the rug. I smooth and grip the cabbage book in one hand as I move cautiously towards the bathroom.
I have been sitting in our sitting room, just where Rory left me in the big armchair. There are sash windows across which ivy is spreading and this makes the room feel underwater sometimes, particularly on fragile winter afternoons like this one has been. I have countered the effect by putting up fairylights along the mantelpiece, and Rory has put in nails in the darker corners on which I have hung pretty mirrors to reflect the lights, so that there are unexpected exchanges and refractions across different parts of the room. We never turn on the overhead light, we rely on interesting lamps and candles. As I move through the room, patches of light and shade scud across my body and my hair. I see myself reflected in the hall mirror and I look like an angel at Christmas.
In the bathroom, I study the bottles of bath lotion I bought specially for tonight. Usually I have lavender, but I want to have a bath that feels different to the baths I have when Rory is in the house, and a good way to ensure this is to put vetiver, not lavender, into the water with me. I squeak the taps and the water sputters out. It heats slowly, steaming like a fen in winter. I drizzle the vetiver bath lotion into the stream. The bubbles and the scent quickly multiply, it smells of rain.
I slip out of my dress and let it slide to the floor as I piss. The velvet makes a green pond on the tiled floor, I lean over it to search for frogs or newts. Gather up an amphibian companion for the bath into which I now slip, sighing and crimsoning. I am a nymph, a vetiver-scented spirit of water, I splash about and my belly tingles with the slosh around my thighs and waist. Imagine some young Greek boy in a brown suede tunic, crossbow over his shoulder and sleek-haired dog at his feet; he peeps unwittingly at me round the bathroom door and Diana, appearing over my head, grows him a pair of antlers he never asked for because he saw something – me! – he didn’t know he wanted to see. Faint clatter of hoofs on the hall floor as he gambols away. I hope he stays safe. I have clonked his dog over the head and left it some kibble for when it wakes in the hope that it will not chase him.
I settle into the bath and nudge the taps with my toes until the water is perfect. I open my book and begin to read, though I take some time over those distractingly green end pages, drying off my fingers on a towel to trace the forms of the cabbage leaves, which suddenly look florid and brain-like, palatable only with butter, salt, and garlic.
I read, it’s good, but a restlessness gnaws at me and I don’t know why, until I realise I have left my phone all by itself across the hall. I fidget. My fingers are itchy. I put down the book on the windowsill and stand up. Water cascades back into the bath, cooling now, and through the dissipating bubbles I can see the bits of fluff and things that have come off me. I leave wet footprints as I wrap a towel around me and snatch my phone from the sofa. It glows in my hand but when I check it in the hallway the glow is fruitless, the tree is empty, I have no messages.
I slide back into the bath but it’s not the same. I think about bits of skin and tiny insects drowning around me, so I wash my hair in a hurry and rinse myself with the shower as the water drains around my ankles. I make sure I do my feet and between my toes, stepping one foot out and then the other, squatting over the side. I watch carefully as the water glugs and evaporates, I rinse away the hairs it leaves behind. Then I switch off the bathroom light and shudder my way upstairs.
* * *
I have a drawer that smells of chocolate and which has inside it all sorts of useful things. It was one of the first things I set up in this new house, one of the things I knew instinctively would have to be done to make it into my home, too, not just Helen-and-Rory’s. When I can’t sleep at night I wend my way to this drawer and shuffle through it. I look for things to delight or distract me: a pair of headphones for my audiobook, a dark chocolate florentine, a wrinkled-up conker, some batteries, a string of Christmas lights to sling over the door and ward away evil spirits.
I don’t really worry about ghosts, but I do worry about people. I will admit that I do not like having a door that leads straight into a garden, I think there should be stairs, a porch, something in between. When you think about it, worrying about ghosts is stupid because you can’t do anything about it if they decide to come into your house, they can go through walls and watch you in the bath anytime if they want to. There are few precautions that can guard against the entrance of a ghost. But people, now, people can be kept out if you do things correctly, if your gate is high enough or your locks are double enough or your man is strong enough.
When Rory is home I can bury my face in his shoulder, or in my crispy white pillow while he breathes beside me. I can listen to his breathing and know that if a murderer thought perhaps this is the house I will break into tonight, it might give them pause to see Rory’s man-sized shoes stacked muddily by the back door. They might hesitate, should the voice that called out is anyone there be a baritone and not a soprano, and it might be that Rory’s strong hands could deter a bloody purpose where my own slender fingers could not. It might be alright if Rory were to push this someone on a murder-whim down the stairs, they would not have time to grasp at the banisters because Rory’s shove would move them so fast. If my murderer were to push against a door that had Rory’s weight behind it, I don’t think they would be able to get through, or at least not before I had thought to call the police or scream so that the neighbours would hear. In the worst-case scenario in which we were faced with a most determined killer, while Rory fought for his life and mine I would have time to text my mother in her care home and tell her I love her, so that even were I slain I would have left some note of care and attention behind me.
I know how much more likely it is that Rory’s weight and strength should turn on me. A stranger has nothing to tot up against an unsuspecting woman who cannot get to sleep, but her husband-in-waiting might have a whole list ready and waiting to be found, a piece of evidence sure to condemn him in court once the deed was done and I, a young insomniac, buried long since.
Tonight, this night, alone, I strain to listen to every noise, every foxy snuffle and hedgehog’s patter, every passing badger or rat or car, every streetlamp, every footstep, every pause and every silence. I attune myself to the screams of mice and the howling of owls. I frown and grimace and my eyelids droop.
I think deliberately about the yellow pasta I ate for my tea and the phone call with Rory in which he called me love and baby and was slightly, sadly drunk. I think about what I will do tomorrow and the next day, and how I will feel when Rory is back again beside me, in this bed. I stroke the goldish bedspread I picked out so carefully, I trace its quilted, mottled pattern. I cannot sleep. I cannot sleep.
I get up out of bed and go to my chocolate drawer (it’s in the study) and I look for something to send myself away.
An old card, picture of herons, printed letter from the doctor, small book about codpieces. Some post-it notes, elastic bands. Seeds for the garden. Big battery. Vibrator. I rustle through it all, pausing for a wrapped chocolate I find beneath some mothballs. I go back to the picture of herons. It is a lovely thing, embroidered, silky, and I do not know why it is sitting inside my can’t sleep drawer when it could be on a wall in a frame, catching the light, seen.
In the picture, which I take to my yellow lamp to look at, there are two herons, one is taking off and the other is standing still, looking after its fellow with some unfathomable heron expression on its beak. Background of pale blue slippery fabric, perhaps silk, with tiny, deliberate stitching shimmering its way around the shapes of the birds. There are many greys running alongside one another, you can see clearly the ragged patterns in the feathers, some have even been made to stick out at odd angles as though they will fall. Light dances on the flying heron’s wing. Gossamer mist lifts from the water in which they stand.
I am breathless and I don’t know why. I take the herons to bed with me and, though I am still alone, I sleep.
* * *
In my dream Rory is a heron and he is flying above a great lake in a storm. I am an arrow, shot by Diana the huntress, and I shoot, slowly, towards him.
I pierce him. The blood ripples around me, it drips and spatters from my tail of feathers.
The heron falls. It splashes down into the silver water and I
I sail towards the mountains around the lake. They are huge and blue, mottled with a perfect mauve, and it is only when I hit the stone of them and feel their cold that I remember who the bird was.
I shatter into useless splinters of ancient wood. I am stained with the blood of a heron. I cannot go back for him now.
* * *
In the morning, I am reading the book about the Borgias and I have put Joni Mitchell on the record player and my coffee is steaming when there is a clatter in the garden. I go to the door reluctantly, I don’t much like the garden. It is just a little courtyard with so much ivy and greenery it looks like a particularly gloomy Millais painting all smudged and sad and you expect some ivory woman to step out of the pond with a despairing expression on her mouth and wringing out her hair all over the place. The pond lurks, it is full of algae and not much else. I looked inside it for frogs when we first came and it was still warm, but frogs go to sleep in the winter and there won’t be any now.
I go to the door with reluctance and there I see a grey and hunched old bird standing over the pond. I open the door and I tell him to stop looking for frogs, it will only disappoint him. He turns to look at me and I see his eyes. They are wet with tears. I shut the door and pull down the blind. I sit back at the table. Joni plays on. I burn my mouth on my coffee cup.
* * *
When did it begin, my sleeplessness? I remember wakeful nights at seven years old, though my mother always said I was a good baby and slept through early on. I used to stay up with my lamp and watch the shadows on the ceiling. I would read books meant for grownups and make up complicated stories about the frogs I could hear calling outside my window. We had a proper pond then, from which hideous dragonfly larvae spawned in summer. They would cling to the reeds and split down their backs and you’d see the dragonfly falling out of the gash eyes-first, ever so beautiful. Its wings would emerge crumpled, useless, and later you’d find it on the grass in the sun, feverishly waiting. Something inside it pumped up the wings like a paddling pool, it ironed itself out and – zoom! The regenerated insect would whip away unphased, to embark on a second, dazzling life.
The psychiatrist gave me a journal to print out, each day it says Good morning, Helen! How did you sleep last night? Today, I write the number 3 with a question mark some way after it, referring to the number of hours I have slept. It is better than 1, or 2, and I put that down to the herons, which I smoothed out and left on my pillow. I do not write about the herons in my journal and nor do I write about the dream. I crumple up the papers and shove them back in my bedside drawer. I pick up a heavy book of criticism and my notebook and go to my desk to work.
Rory has texted me good morning, but it is early yet and I want him to think I am having a luxurious lie-in without him. I do not allow myself to respond until twenty past ten, when I tell him about the heron in the garden and say good luck for the funeral. He immediately sends back a picture of himself in his dark suit. I can see by the muted light that it is raining where he is. I send a thumbs-up and say, you look very dashing. He says, thanks. I say, I wish I was there with you. Heart. He says, don’t worry, it’s just going to be a big noisy family get-together and no one would notice if you were there or not. I didn’t even know him! I text back, okay, well, have as nice a time with family as you can! And then I add, I love you, and send a picture of my face all scrunched up at the lips. A kiss. He sends a heart and he says, I’ll call you later. Love you too xx
* * *
I am reading the book about the climate apocalypse and I have put the radio on and my tea is steaming when there is a clatter in the garden. I go to the door reluctantly. In my little courtyard, fringed with ivy and greenery, an ivory woman is climbing out of the pond with a despairing expression on her mouth, she is wringing out her wet red hair. The pond, clearly, is not very hospitable, for she is streaked with green and blue like a Celtic queen. I open the door to tell her the side gate is open and she can use it to get to a better place. Look, there is a river running just down the road. She nods her thanks. I watch her out of the gate, my cheeks are rigid. I slam the door shut and I pull down the blind so fast it almost rips. I sit back at the table. The radio speaks. My hands are shaking. I burn my mouth on my tea.
* * *
It gets dark early now, in the house there is only light and shade and no sunshine can fight its way in except in the early mornings when I am pretending to be asleep. I do not know how I will endure another day of this alone.
In the slow afternoon, I watch the sunset from my bedroom window, sitting up royally on my white down pillows with the picture of the herons smoothed out beside me, watching too. There are flights of geese in great vees, honking and floating their spangled way between the yellow sky and the grey world. I wonder, if you look down on them from above (a new perspective), do they look pale or dark or do they blend into what is beneath, the houses and the trees and fields and roads? From the side you would not at all be able to see the shape of their flight, how they flock together but apart, each finding one to follow.
I get out some pastels and a piece of smooth cartridge paper I bought in the art shop in town. I draw the yellow sunset and the grey world and in between them the geese. I put the picture in an envelope, having used my hair spray on it to ensure it does not smudge, and I seal it in with my mother’s name on the front. I realise, too late, that there is nothing inside to indicate that the picture is from me.
Settle back down with the cabbage book, but I am too tired to see the words. It is just a wash of ink and creamy paper and the green illustrations every few pages. Softly at first, then louder and louder, there is the waft of wings and honking goose-music, it is ringing in my cold pink ears.
* * *
The second night is worse than the first. I anticipate the sounds before they happen so that, although they do not happen at the same time or in the same order as last night, it seems that they do and that I am living in some nightmare of repetition. Foxes. Hedgehogs. Somebody walking by. A streetlamp flickering out. A car, cruising and idling. I think we should get a cat, it could keep me company when Rory’s away, but then I think about what I would feel if the cat died, how I would listen out at night for the noise it makes when a car hits a cat at thirty miles per hour. I think I will get one of those cats who stays in the house and gets fat and lazy and addicted to human food.
* * *
I am halfway asleep when I hear the sound of a key in the lock and my body splits in two. The key fiddles about and the front door cracks open. Rory is smooth at opening the door. Rory is not coming back until tomorrow. I cast about for a weapon, but all I can feel is the pillow behind my head. I pull at it with my fingers, I rip handfuls of feathers from its innards. I cover myself with the duvet and lie still and sleek beneath the covers. I listen.
Someone is coming up the stairs.
I am holding an arrow between my fingers.
The bedroom door eases open. I stare at the quilt above my head, the lights behind my eyes make it capacious and domed. I can feel it moving with my breath. I stop breathing.
A hand lifts the quilt. A feather brushes against my cheek. I lift my hand with the arrow inside it. I press it into warm flesh. It dissolves against my palm. I lift my face.
Someone is hunched on the side of my bed, sitting beside me and croaking with effort.
* * *
Rory turns to look at me and I see his eyes, and the wound in his side where I pierced him. It is wet with tears. He has on his beak some unfathomable heron-like expression. He stands on spindling legs amid drifting white feathers. He settles himself down beside me, and without a word he has taken me into his wings.
Catriona Bolt is studying for an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. She lives in South East London and is working on her first short story collection, which explores intersections between domesticity and wildness in a changing climate.
featured photo by Alys Burns