Blank Walls - by Hannah Persaud

Blank Walls

There’s a new photograph on the wall in the lounge this time. Estella spots it as soon she pushes through the heavy double doors that lead from the drab fourth storey landing into the light filled apartment.  With the strap of her travel bag slung over her shoulder, she sidesteps the merino rug and leans over the oak sideboard to get a closer look. It’s definitely him.  Antonio. She rolls his name around on her tongue, silently. Seven years older than he was in the first photograph she saw of him all those years ago. The years have weathered him tenderly.  His dark laughing eyes meet the camera, challenging the photographer to capture the view; black windblown hair sweeps across his brow.  Behind him the Alps stretch out like undulating meringue peaks, Mont Blanc rising triumphantly to his left, king of the mountains.   Estella leans closer.  Something is different. Her eyes rove from his face to his jacket clad arm and his hand that rests on his ski pole. There is no ring.  She gasps.

            ‘Are you going to give me a hand with these darling?’ – she turns to see Mark struggling to squeeze through the doorway with the rest of the bags.

            ‘Careful –the pot – watch the…’ the potted palm by the entrance crashes into the wall and fragments of cobalt blue china scatter over the smooth wooden floor like loose snow.

            ‘Great start,’ she tosses the words at Mark and walks to the cupboard under the sink where the dustpan is.

            ‘Perhaps if you’d bothered to help carry them in, that wouldn’t have happened. You knew we had more stuff than normal.’ Her jaw tenses as she sweeps up the last of the broken pieces, putting them into a bin bag along with the remains of the soil.  The palm tree sticks out of the top of the bag, life draining out.

They unpack quickly, his drawers are on the left, hers on the right.  The bedroom is exactly as it was when they left it a year ago, and the year before that; the crisp white sheets could be the very same ones.  It’s as if the apartment has been waiting for them all along.  In the lounge the room breathes out as she throws open the shutters, drinks in the view of the Avenue Rene Coty, the unrelenting queue for the Catacombs on the corner to the left.  In the distance, to the right, the green Parc Montsouris simmers in the afternoon sunshine, a respite against the dry streets.  In London the parks are staged nods towards gentrified pasts, but here in Paris they feel like glades amongst the city’s sprawling streets, pulsing with art and the promise of love. She loves this view, this city.  A part of it belongs to her for two weeks of every summer, has done for the past seven years since they stumbled across this place when searching for a last minute city break. ‘Beautiful apartment in central location in Paris, 2 minutes from Denfert Rochereau metro station. A home from home,’ it had said, and it was. Unease crawls into her drying mouth as she recalls their joyous abandon the first time they’d walked through the door.

            ‘It’s spectacular’ Mark had said as he peered out of the window, ‘come.’  She’d joined him at the window and his arm around her shoulder had slid to her waist, his lips had turned to hers and then they were making love on the sofa. Antonio’s sofa in Antonio’s lounge. She shudders.

            ‘Where shall we go for dinner?’ Mark says, as she knew he would.

            ‘Why do you bother to ask?’

            ‘’s half seven, we’ve been travelling all day and I’m ravenous.  Is that reason enough?’

            ‘I’m hungry too, I just don’t know why you bother to ask when we know exactly where we’ll end up.’

            ‘Stop being so grumpy, lighten up, we’re on holiday for gods sake.’ He nudges her with his elbow playfully.  ‘We could try somewhere else, go for a walk, see where we end up.  Lets go wild.’  He winks.  Two hours later they are seated at their usual table on the familiar terrace of the same restaurant that they always go to.

            ‘Told you we’d end up here.’ Estella rummages in her bag.  ‘I’ve gone past the point of hunger now.’ She watches him in silence as he eats his steak frites, working her way through the litre of vin blanc that sits between them.

Back at the apartment, Mark is snoring within minutes of his head hitting the pillow, but sleep evades her.  Wandering to the bookshelves in the lounge she runs her finger over the books that line the walls, two whole walls of books.  What it must be to be with a man who reads so much.  Mark didn’t even bother bringing a book on holiday this time.  There are a few new books that were not here last time, the latest Murakami, a French author she’s never heard of.  Opening the front cover, a message For Antonio, with love, Michelle xxx. Michelle – was she the woman in the photos that last time that they visited? They had ruined her mood for the whole visit, those images of a dark and sultry eyed woman with stormy hair pouting at the camera, at Antonio behind it. Was that this Michelle? Or simply a muse? He was a photographer after all, he must come into contact with any number of models on a weekly basis. Well, they were gone now, those photos, along with his wedding ring, so whoever Michelle was, she was no longer here.  Estella smiled, yes, this visit would be a happier one.  Not like the one four years ago, when they’d come still reeling from the news that they could not bear children of their own. A break from it all, that’s what we need, Mark had said, and then flung open the doors of the apartment to find the whole place littered with images of a new born baby nestled in a joyous Antonio’s arms, suckling at the breast of it’s mother (a blonde curly haired woman whose figure looked far too lithe to have just given birth) - a bouncy chair tucked in a corner, a changing mat hanging from the door.  The presence of the baby had sulked in the rooms and sullied their mood for the whole two weeks, it had been a relief to leave Antonio and his perfect life behind when they boarded the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord.

            Estella walks again to the photograph on the wall, leans in close to the rugged face that stares back.  She wonders if he has gone to his coastal cottage in Normandy this time, or if he has gone farther afield – she found ticket receipts in the recently emptied bin earlier, they were ripped up but when she put them back together like a jigsaw the word Venice emerged like a glittering promise. Venice. She’d love to go there, but Mark would never take her, that’s for sure.  A man like Antonio would take her to Venice though, wouldn’t he? A man who roamed freely through life with a twinkle in his eye and a hand that would hold hers firmly.  Poor Antonio, unlucky in love. Where is the baby now? Probably with the mother, deprived of a life with a father who would provide everything that any child could want – art, travel, adventure –skiing in the winter, lake swimming in the summer (last year, a photo of Lac D’Annecy had been here, where this photo is now). Poor child.  Poor Antonio.  Walking to the kitchen she pauses, remembers a drawer that was left unlocked last time, careless of Antonio, unusually so.  She walks to the desk in the corner where Antonio would sit, leans her elbows where his would rest whilst he searches for creative inspiration.  She hasn’t been able to stop thinking of him. Leaning down she grasps the brass handle of the drawer and tugs it. It doesn’t budge.  She searches for a key in the tobacco tin that holds paperclips and pens, but to no avail.  Why would he lock the drawer this time, but not the last?  Surely he was glad when she found it open last time, for if she hadn’t she would not have come across his personal email address (the booking website does not allow for direct contact with the owners).  And if she hadn’t found his email address, then she would not have been able to contact him, and they would not have enjoyed the flurry of communication that they have over the past twelve months, emails that started as formal notes but rapidly progressed into longer passages, sharing stories of their lives, their hopes and dreams.  He hasn’t written to her for a while now, not since he told her that he felt uncomfortable developing this closeness (the very words warmed her heart) at least, whilst she was married to another man.  That explained why he never spoke of a partner or a baby when he wrote then – he was a gentleman at heart, a man of honour whose values shuddered beneath the burgeoning weight of this attraction to somebody else. He was frightened by the strength of his feelings. She likes him more for that, though that final email hurt.  She has a plan though, a plan that will fix everything, put everything right.  That photo on the wall is for her, that expression on his face, the ring free hand. She walks quietly back to the bedroom where sleep finally comes and she dreams of waking in his arms.

The next morning Mark is happy, refreshed. He wants to make love, moves his fingers against Estella’s thigh under the cover.  She pushes his hand aside –the idea of such an act in Antonio’s bed is unthinkable.  She ignores his sulking over coffee.

            ‘What shall we do today?’ He suggests the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe, and in the end she agrees to a walk through Sacre Coeur, because something needs to fill the time between now and what is about to happen.  The two weeks feel interminably long now that she has a plan, this formerly entrancing city feels tedious with its tourist stamped streets.

Monday, their last morning before they catch the train back to London.  It is her birthday, and she can think of no greater gift than the one she is about to bestow upon herself.  The cleaning of the apartment and the packing of their belongings feels perfunctory, she exercises extra diligence to compensate for her fluttering heart. The next time she sits at this table will be with him, the next bottle opened, for them. Antonio and Estella.  Their names fizz upon her tongue like popping candy.  Mark is preoccupied, his mind already back in his office in Marylebone.  She doesn’t mind, it’s strange how little things cease to be annoying once there’s a bigger plan.  Putting the final items into her holdall, she slips her train ticket underneath the bed. In the hallway Mark runs through his pre-travel checklist before they leave the coolness of the building and step onto the sweaty street. At the Gare du Nord the next departing train flashes on the departures board, and as they walk towards the departure barrier Estella rummages in her bag.

            ‘What’s wrong?’ asks Mark, as she kneels on the platform and starts emptying her bag.

            ‘I can’t find my ticket, here, there’s yours’ –he holds out his hand and she places the ticket in it. A hairbrush, wallet, a tampon; the contents of her bag form a pile beside her and Mark shuffles impatiently.

            ‘They’re calling our train, we need to go.’ He runs a hand through his hair.

            ‘I can’t find it, it’s not here,’ her voice rising slightly she looks up, flushed.  I must have left it back at the apartment, I’ll have to go back to get it. It’s an open return so I can get the next train.’

            ‘I’ll come with you, I can get the next train too.’

            ‘No darling, you have that conference call scheduled with New York later, I can’t make you miss that because of my mistake. Honestly, I’ll see you at home later, it’s fine.’ She watches him struggle between loyalties.

            ‘If you’re sure then…’ he leans forward and places a kiss on her forehead.  ‘We’ll get take out and a bottle of champagne to celebrate your birthday, I’ll plan it. Oh, and take this, don’t open it until you’re on the train.’ He passes her a card from his pocket.

            ‘Thanks love.’ Estella marches back down the platform without a backward glance. The journey back across the city vibrates with her thundering heart. The city spins past the window, trails of music from the buskers winding through the carriages. At Denfert Rochereau she slows as she walks up to street level, she smooths her hair and puts on her lipstick. She knows that she looks good for her age, sees men checking her out from behind their newspapers on the commute to work. Checking her watch she smiles – good, three hours since their checkout time and Antonio runs his schedule like clockwork, always returning their deposit within five hours of their departure, after he’s checked the apartment. He should be there.  Walking up to the door of the building she buzzes number eight –it’s the first time she’s ever pressed the button, a thrill runs through her. She waits, head tilted.

            ‘Bonjour?’ a man’s voice answers.

            ‘Bonjour, hello.  This is Estella. I forgot something in the apartment.’  Silence strains against the buzzer.

            ‘Hello?’ she rests one knee against the door, bends her head. Passers by are looking at her, shut out on the street. Scorned.  Finally, a buzzer in the guts of the building vibrates and the door clicks open.  She has to stop herself sprinting up the stairs. Up to the wooden doors that will welcome her back. At the entrance to the apartment a stout man stands sentinel like a meerkat. As she approaches he raises his head and appraises her with his milky grey eyes.

            ‘Is Antonio here?’ she is frustrated by the proprietorial angle of his body against the door.

            ‘I am Antonio.’ Not a windswept hair in sight on his shiny bald head.

            ‘No –there must be some mistake, I am looking for the man who owns this apartment, I rent it from him.  I know him.’

            ‘Please – come in.’ He gestures her in with an abrupt sweep of his short arm.  In the lounge she stops.  The walls that just hours ago were populated with photos and prints are now bare; against the wall, a stack of canvases displaying various comic strips.  The bookshelves of her ideal man are bare except for a few transformers and a plastic spider man. The man purporting to be Antonio looks at her apologetically.       ‘The next tenants are comic book convention members,’ he mutters. In the corner the Murakami lies dejectedly beneath a pile of penguin classics, it’s cover bent.

            ‘I don’t understand’ she squeezes the words out.

            ‘I found your note.’  He waves at the note that she so painstakingly wrote last night, so carefully balanced on the table after Mark’s back was turned and descending the stairs.  It lies open and exposed.  A dull heat rises through her body.

            ‘But what about the photos of the baby, the woman, the ski trips?’

            ‘All borrowed from other lives.’

            ‘And the books?’

            ‘I don’t read, never have. Never set foot on a ski slope either.  There is a group of us who rent our apartments out, we rotate the décor based on our guests. Everybody wants the fairytale.’

            ‘Why did you write back? Why pretend to be someone you’re not?’

            ‘Who would not be flattered by the attentions of an English rose?’ His eyes rake over her.  She’d sent him photos. 

            ‘But I risked everything to be with the person you pretended to be.  My husband…’

            ‘Is right here watching you.’  She stiffens at the sound of Mark’s voice, turns to find him leaning against the doorway.  ‘You left the keys to the apartment in my pocket, I found them just before the train left. I brought them back.’  He tosses them onto the floor where they clatter. And suddenly, in the space where Estella has chased a life sketched on blank walls, she sees what she has missed.

            ‘Mark, I can explain, wait.’  Mark turns away.

            ‘Please, Mark, I’m sorry –this was all a misunderstanding, just…’ Turning back to face her, he spots the note on the table.  He strides over and reads it.  Time slows in the foamy silence.

‘You were going to give it all up? Well that explains everything.’ His face locks and she knows that it is too late. As he leaves the apartment he exhales his last breath of absolution.

‘Mark, please, wait’ - she hurls the words at his departing back. Estella is gripped by the certain knowledge that the man who has loved her all along so very well, is leaving her for good.  

On the train she shuffles restlessly in her seat, remembers the card from Mark that is in her pocket. Opening it, she sighs at the kitsch puppies on the front, a long-standing joke between them. Happy birthday my love, lets make this a trip to remember. A plane ticket to Venice falls out onto her lap.

The End

Business As Usual at The Yew Tree - by Hannah Persaud

Business as usual at The Yew Tre

Scarlett can scarcely conceal her relief from the back of the taxi.  The guesthouse is glorious. The corner of it nudges against the woods and the Cotswold stone glows in the sunshine.  She’s been worried, with such high expectations for this trip. They wanted Mexico, or Morocco, but the recession has hit them hard.

Scott sits beside her immersed in his phone.

            ‘Darling, look at it –it’s lovely,’ she says. He hasn’t put the damn thing down since they got on the train in London, and has missed the entire journey. Who is he texting? She pushes the question aside. Not on their honeymoon, he wouldn’t do that. Leave the past in the past, he always says. She sighs. Easier said than done. And it’s not like his record is spotless. She feels her mood darkening.  No. A new beginning is what this is, and what better way to kick-start it than four full days of relaxation here, at The Yew Tree. ‘A Honeymoon Idyll – Peace, Privacy and Relaxation,’ it had promised.  She nestles into Scott’s shoulder and averts her eyes from his phone. 

‘Welcome to The Yew Tree, come on in.’ They enter and find themselves in a spacious lounge. ‘The wife’s out at the moment with the daughter, but she’ll be back later.  Call me Boris.’ 

Yes the sofas are a bit mottled and the rugs threadbare but the fresh sunflowers and smell of cut grass are inviting. The man who stands before them with his trousers fastened at chest height seems friendly enough. A great billow of a shirt hangs theatrically from his shoulders. Reaching out a large hand to shake theirs, he gestures to the suitcase –

            ‘You’re in the cottage, I hope that’s alright? You’ll have the place all to yourselves, apart from our daughter, who has a room at the back. When you first booked there was plenty of space in the main building, but since then we’ve been inundated, and as some of our guests are of, well, the older variety, we thought you young honeymooners might be happier in the cottage anyway.’ He winks lewdly.  Scarlett grimaces whilst Scott frowns at his phone.

            ‘Do you not have Wi-Fi?’ He asks.

            ‘Nope, no Wi-Fi, no phone reception – we like to keep things simple.’ Scott glares at him.  Boris carries their suitcase out through the kitchen to the back door.

            ‘The man’s a pillock,’ Scott says after they’ve been shown to the cottage and their room.  He throws his phone on the bedside table and walks to the window, pulling back the blue linen curtains. The view is glorious – only the attic window of the main house can be seen from here, the rest is just grass and trees and sky.

            ‘Oh it doesn’t matter, we’re here to spend time together anyway, aren’t we?’ Scarlett says. Scott stretches out on the bed and kicks off his shoes. 

            ‘Come here wifey,’ he reaches out for her hand. She wants to make him work for it but she never has been able to resist him.

They doze off after making love, Scarlett’s leg thrown over his. They awake to find the night settled and the temperature grown chilly.  Scarlett has the distinct feeling that she is being watched.  But she prides herself on being practical and level-headed. She turns the side lamp on.  Scott walks to the window to close it.  From behind his back Scarlett squints - she could have sworn she saw a light flicker in the attic window of the house.  She stands and peers out but by then Scott has shut the window and the main house is steeped in shadows.  The stillness of the countryside must be playing with her nerves. Outside the garden is silent, woods behind mounting up like dark clouds.

            ‘Come on, let’s go and find a pub. I’m starving.’ Scott passes her clothes.

It’s a twenty minute walk to the nearest village and at Scott’s insistence they settle for the only pub that shows sports.  Whilst he cheers on the England football team, Scarlett glugs her wine, aware that people are staring at them – a gaggle of workmen in heavy muddy boots, a couple of kids who look distinctly under age, a lone woman who leans against the bar in riding boots and jacket. When Scott goes to the bar for more drinks she can’t help but notice the woman leaning in towards her husband and the way in which he assumes immediate intimacy with a tilt of his head.  She can’t hear what they are saying.  She won’t ask.

As they leave the pub, the riding boot woman does too. Scott calls out goodnight as she sets off in the opposite direction. 

‘Happy honeymoon,’ the woman replies.  Scarlett detects laughter in her voice. 

Scott wants to take the shortcut, along the old disused railway path that the bartender told him about.

            ‘Come on, it’ll be fun, you’re not scared are you?’

            ‘Course not –but we didn’t bring a torch.’

‘There’s no point going the long way back, there’s no street lighting.  And we get to see whether there really is a big black cat that prowls here.’   Maybe that’s what they were talking about, Scarlett muses. He grabs her hand and tugs her towards the fork in the road where it joins the path. She can’t see her hand in front of her face.  The wine she has drunk distorts her footsteps. A stream on their left gurgles and their feet crunch against the stones.  A splash shatters the silence and Scott tightens his grip on Scarlett’s hand.

            ‘A fish?’ she says.

            ‘I need a piss. Wait here.’ He vanishes into the inky night. She doesn’t move a muscle.  She hears his footsteps moving towards her and relaxes but after growing louder they pass straight by her, receding into the distance.

            ‘Scott? Scott? This isn’t funny.’ And suddenly all her pent up frustration of earlier is uncontainable. ‘You fucking idiot come back here.’

It’s colder by the minute.  She shuffles forwards, trying to tread lightly. She’s not even sure where the turn is from this path to reach the guesthouse. Suddenly, pausing, she tilts her head to the sky – giggling, a splash. Swimming at this time of night? It’s coming from the left, beyond the stream. A woman calling; a man laughing. She has no desire to interrupt a skinny-dipping session but she doesn’t see what option she has, so she feels her way down the bank and wades through the stream. Thank God for wellies.  As she climbs up the bank on the other side, she realises there is a millpond just beyond it.

The moonlight has broken through the pitch-black sky and she sees two figures. The cold mist from the water curls against their pale bodies. They are naked, she realises as she draws closer.  The woman’s back is turned to her, affording only a glimpse of her long dark hair but the man is facing her, his smile clearly visible. Scott.

‘Scarlett?’ He sees her. Turning, he looks to where the woman was. Scarlett sees her run off into the trees. The woman from the pub? Perhaps she followed them. Maybe they’d planned it!

 ‘How could you? Who is she?’ Scarlett spits the words at him as he reaches her, cradling his clothes against his dripping body.

‘I thought…’ he drops to the floor, shivering. ‘I thought she was you. You’re the same.’

‘You left me on the path, remember? I waited for you. How could that,’ she points towards the trees, ‘possibly have been me?’ He tugs on his clothes.

 ‘You can’t seriously think that I would run off with another woman on our honeymoon, can you?’ He’s right. It’s ridiculous. But the evidence is in front of her.  Scott grabs her hands. ‘She came down the path behind me as I was turning back towards you. You, I mean she, was skipping. I followed her to the millpond where she laughed your laugh and looked at me with your eyes.’ Scott’s teeth are chattering.  He needs to get to warmth, quickly. The Absinthe shots at the end of the evening were a bad idea. She has no wish to linger here. Though if it wasn’t quite so dark and the landscape so unfamiliar she’d hunt the woman down herself.

They find the turning easily now that the clouds have parted, and the remainder of the walk to the guesthouse is in silence. Scott is clearly shaken, and Scarlett can’t rid herself of the image of the woman’s body outlined in the moonlight. It’s late but the lights in the main house are on.  The door opens as they approach. This time it’s a woman who stands before them.  She would have been beautiful once, before life stained her face with sadness. Her expression when she sees Scarlett’s face is dark.

            ‘Good evening, I’m Eloise – the wife.’ She passes Scott a towel. ‘It’s a cold night for a dip,’ she comments. Scarlett blushes. ‘Come in and have a drink.’

            ‘It’s so late, we don’t want to put you out.’ Scarlett longs for the privacy of their room.

            ‘Nonsense, just a quick one.’ The hot toddy warms Scarlett. The proprietor tells them tales of previous guests. The walls are lined with photos.

            ‘And that’s the mayor shaking my hand,’ she says.  Scarlett points to another. ‘Who’s that?’

            ‘That’s my daughter after she passed her first piano exam, proud to bits we were.’ Scott nods off by the fire that has been lit. Though they said it was a full house, Scarlett hasn’t seen any other guests.

            ‘Is the cottage okay for you?’ Eloise asks.

            ‘It’s lovely thank you,’ Scarlett replies.

            ‘If you get cold there are more blankets in the cupboard.’ Scarlett has become used to the strange way Eloise looks at her. She rouses a dozy Scott and they head towards the kitchen and the back door.

            ‘Scarlett?’ Eloise calls out. Scarlett walks back in towards the lounge.


            ‘Tomorrow perhaps you’d like to look at my studio?’  Only now does Scarlett remember that she is an artist, it was mentioned in one of the reviews.

            ‘That’d be lovely,’ she replies.

            ‘And dear – make sure he looks after you.’  What a strange thing for her to say, Scarlett thinks. She follows Scott out into the icy garden.

The more she thinks about the incident at the millponds, the more she thinks it must have been a genuine mistake. She can’t be sure that the woman looked like her.  She didn’t see her face.  But Scott loves her. After all, it was he who wanted a fresh start. Back in the room he is sleepy and remorseful. Scarlett decides to drag it out just a little longer.  She falls asleep with her back to him and the covers wedged firmly under her body. 

            She awakes in the night to cramping stomach pains.  She knew the food in that pub was dodgy.  Stumbling through the room, she opens the creaky door and just makes it to the bathroom before throwing up. As the hours pass with her head hung over the toilet seat, she wishes fervently that Scott would wake and bring her a blanket. At one point she hears the floor creak and her hopes rise but silence falls again soon after. He’s always been a deep sleeper. Only as the first light of day seeps through the window netting does she feel able to drag herself back to their room, where she falls into a dreamless sleep.

            ‘Wake up darling,’ Scott’s face is centimetres from hers when she opens her eyes. She can see that last night at the millpond is a faded memory.  Her stomach feels fine now.  She loves making love in the morning and after all he is her husband.

            ‘You’re keen,’ he whispers when she reaches out her hand. ‘Twice in one night. I am a lucky man.’ She whips her hand back in to her chest.

            ‘What are you talking about?’

            ‘No need to play coy with me my love,’ he grins. ‘Of course you’re going to find it impossible to resist my allure.’  Sitting up, Scarlett pulls the covers up to her chin.

            ‘I’m serious. What are you talking about? Twice in one night?’ she says. He looks confused.

            ‘Come on, don’t play games, it’s not funny,’ he says. A long silence follows.         ‘In the night, don’t you remember?’ he forces a smile.  ‘You woke me up, on top…wearing nothing but your wedding veil.’  Scarlett stares.  ‘Don’t tell me you don’t remember? It was…well…quite something, even by our standards.’   She doesn’t register this ranking system of his that usually winds her up.  He’s serious. Jumping off the bed she pulls on her blouse and jeans, drags the suitcase out.

            ‘What are you doing?’ Scott snaps into action, wrestling the case from her arms.

            ‘What I should have done a long time ago. I’m cancelling the whole thing and going back to London. Alone!’ Scott takes a deep breath.

            ‘Scarlett, this is insane. We’re on our honeymoon for God’s sake. Perhaps you just forgot. We were both sleepy and had been drinking.’

            ‘No, I didn’t forget. And you know how I know? Firstly, because I spent the whole night with my head down the sodding toilet.’  She throws her wedding ring at him. ‘And secondly, because I didn’t bring my fucking veil here. I left it at home.’  She shoots him a dark look.  ‘Explain that!’

He has not changed, will never change. She’s been chasing the end of the rainbow the whole time.

‘Maybe it was a dream,’ he offers, as she drags their suitcase across the garden. ‘Come on darling. This is insane – and embarrassing.’ The proprietor and his wife are watching them through the kitchen window.

‘You should have thought of that before cavorting with the local temptress and then shagging her in our bed. I was willing to believe that what happened last night was a misunderstanding but…’ the backdoor opens and Eloise walks towards them.

‘What happened, did you not sleep well? What– are you leaving?’ She sees the suitcase.

‘We’re sorry, but we need to head back early. Would you mind calling us a taxi?’ Scott attempts to smile as Scarlett stomps across the dewy grass.

‘Why of course, but won’t you at least stay for breakfast?’ Eloise looks at Scarlett.

 ‘I’m sorry, but I really need to leave as soon as possible,’ Scarlett replies.  Eloise lays a cold hand on her wrist.

‘Look dear, you can’t rush off whilst you’re upset. Decisions made in haste are never the best ones. Why don’t you come with me whilst you calm down, then if you still want to leave, well, who are we to stop you?’  Despite her reservations, Scarlett’s upbringing has instilled in her an inability to be impolite.  So she allows Eloise to lead her through the kitchen and into the main hallway, where Eloise stops abruptly.

‘You can go with Boris and have breakfast,’ she says to Scott, who stands awkwardly in the doorway.

Scarlett is led up a long set of stairs, across a landing, and then up again, into the eaves. The room at the top of the house must be the one they could see from their window. Eloise unlocks it with a key that hangs from her neck. The door creaks open.  As she enters Scarlett is vaguely aware of the door shutting behind her. The studio in which she now finds herself entrances her. 

‘Tea dear?’ Eloise asks.  Scarlett nods. Unlike the rest of the guesthouse that is caked in dust and layers of old age, this room is clean and clutter free, clinical almost.  There is a faint smell of chlorine. In one corner of the room stands a bathtub. When she drinks the tea it is bitter. She forces down a grimace. She feels her stomach clench; perhaps it is still not quite recovered from the night.

The room is flooded with light. It streams through the skylights and a large window at the end that opens onto the garden and the cottage.  Portraits adorn every single inch of wall space. They are skilfully done, some with oil paints, a few with pastels.  A couple are crudely drawn in angry black pencil. A woman seen through an open window, her leg thrown over her sleeping partner.  In another, the woman’s eyes wide with fear, across a lake. No.  A millpond. In superb, dazzling detail, the portraits are lifelike and utterly convincing.  They are all of Scarlett.

Scarlett steps back, stumbling over the leg of the huge easel that occupies the central space. It is covered with a white sheet.

            ‘I don’t understand,’ she whispers, realising too late that the door is locked.  Eloise walks to Scarlett and puts an arm around her.

            ‘It’s not surprising that you are confused dear. Most people are.’

            ‘What do you mean, most people?’

            ‘Our guests, the ones she chooses.  Of course most of them leave without mishap – you’ll know that from the reviews no doubt. But the ones we keep, well – you can’t blame them really, it’s not their fault.’ A thread of fear slices through Scarlett.

            ‘What do you mean, she?’ Her voice quivers slightly. Eloise visibly relaxes. Dropping her shoulders she walks to the window.

            ‘Our daughter of course,’ she says. ‘Come and look.’ Eloise takes her hand and leads her to the window where she points to the cottage.  Scarlett longs to hurl herself from the window but she knows that if she were to jump it would not be without injury or possible death.

            ‘See?’ Eloise points to one of the windows that is flung open.  Scarlett recognises the blue curtains as those of their room. ‘I know it’s a bit far away,’ Eloise passes Scarlett a pair of binoculars. ‘Try these’.  And with trembling hands Scarlett raises them to her eyes.

Scott is sitting on the bed facing the window, the tight expression of earlier gone. He laughs as a woman enters the room behind him, stands and turns his back to the window as he lifts her blouse over her head.  As they fall onto the bed the woman turns her face to the window and jolt of recognition runs through Scarlett.  It is like looking in a mirror.  As the woman stretches out her arm towards the curtain, her full breasts tumble against Scott’s chest. He pulls her against him as the curtain closes.

Eloise turns to Scarlett.

 ‘They make a good match don’t they dear? We knew when we first saw you that she’d choose you. Or perhaps, I should say, that she’d choose Scott.’ She laughs girlishly. ‘Don’t worry too much dear, her appetite for one man doesn’t last long, she’s quite the black widow! A voracious appetite but gets bored easily. We have to keep her well supplied.’

            Scarlett is aware of the room shifting around her, just before she throws up on the floor. Eloise pats her back and leads her to the chair.

            ‘Don’t worry about the mess.  But you’ll need to drink a little more tea to top you up.’  She grips Scarlett’s face with a firm hand and pours the remains of the liquid down her throat.  Scarlett sputters.  ‘It’s nothing compared to the mess there’ll be later,’ Eloise adds. She covers an impish smile with a coquettish hand. ‘Our daughter is far better at cleaning up than we are but for some reason she doesn’t like finishing off the women, so that’s down to us.’ She giggles, seeming younger by the minute. ‘A mother’s work is never done.’ She rubs Scarlett’s shoulder. ‘You’re rather quiet dear. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take long. Oh, silly me! You’re probably wondering what happened to her? It’s quite simple. She was such a lovely child, so full of joy. And then on her wedding night, her husband ran off with her bridesmaid. Boris and I didn’t like him from the start but of course she wouldn’t listen. After he left she was in pieces, couldn’t get her out of the cottage at all. And then when she finally seemed to be on the mend, they found her body down by the millpond.  Hanging from a tree.’  Scarlett’s body convulses slightly.

            ‘We were devastated of course, as anyone who loses a child would be, so you can imagine our relief when she came back to us. Even if it were in shadowy form.’ Walking to the easel, Eloise removes the sheet. ‘See? Just an outline of a person really.’  The canvas is blank save for a faintly pencilled outline of something formless, like smoke.  In the centre is a grotesquely distorted mouth, wide open. ‘When she sees someone she likes, she watches them from here.  She’s very good at reinventing herself.  Always was resourceful. She studies you before she becomes you.’ She sweeps her arm around the room. ‘These are all hers, quite the artist she would have been.  I’m not bad, but really the talent’s all hers.’  She opens a cupboard and pulls on overalls that smell of rubber.  Slides a plastic mask over her face.  ‘You can’t blame her really, wanting a small slice of the happiness that she was robbed of.’ 

She reaches further into the cupboard and pulls out one large container, and then another.  Walking over to the bathtub she puts the plug in and snaps her gloves on. Opening the first of the containers, she pours the brown liquid carefully into the bath. After emptying the second, she turns to Scarlett. ‘I used to use three each time,’ she gestures to the bath. ‘But it was a little wasteful.  The body dissolves you see, and as it does so of course it sinks into the liquid.  I find that with a little bit of stirring to speed the whole thing up, two containers are just enough.  Sodium hydroxide is hard to come by – as you can imagine.’

She walks back to Scarlett who has put her head between her legs. The locking of the door was quite unnecessary; she could no more walk to it than she could fly out of the window. The room lurches.  What was in that tea?

 ‘Sweetie, look at me.’  Scarlett forces herself to raise her head. ‘It won’t take long’ Eloise reassures her.  Scarlett is vaguely aware of Eloise propping her up against the back of the chair, and unbuttoning her blouse. ‘We take your clothes off first, as it’s only living tissue that gets dissolved. These…’ – she unfastens Scarlett’s bra – ‘we burn later. The rest is simple chemistry. You will dissolve almost completely.  All that will be left is a reduction.  Completely untraceable.’

The room pulses as Scarlett tries to focus.  Putting her hands underneath Scarlett’s armpits, Eloise half lifts, half drags her towards the bath. ‘And when it’s over, well, you don’t really leave. No one ever does. We’ll be closed for business for a while, until she’s bored of Scott.  It can be a little distracting – like I said, she’s voracious.’  She smiles. ‘You’ll stay here with our other guests, and when she tires of him, Scott will be here too. As if you were never parted. Then he’ll be all yours forever. Isn’t that the best wedding gift you could have asked for?’ A phone rings, and Eloise props Scarlett on the floor against the bath whilst she reaches for it.  It seems to Scarlett that she is miles away.

‘Good afternoon, The Yew Tree? Why yes, we’re the perfect honeymoon retreat, we’d be delighted to have you.  Four weeks? Should be fine. We’re closed at the moment but we’ll be open as usual for business by then.’

As Scarlett hovers on the edge of consciousness, she hears the laughter of young lovers through the open window.  She feels herself being lowered into the bath and is faintly aware of a remote gnawing pain


Cyfannedd Fach

Cyfannedd Fach by Hannah Persaud

The cottage is as they left it. Each time they return he holds his breath, as if it might have disappeared in their absence. But the crumbling sheep barn is still there, obscuring the slate roof until the very last moment. This slice of Welsh farmland that sits between the Forestry’s land is a void between the trees. Grass winds it way up through the rough surface of the driveway and wind felled trees lattice themselves together like gnarled fingers.

When she jumps out to open the ninth and final gate, the forest twitches news of their arrival along the length of the valley.

‘It’s just as glorious,’ she whispers, though their closest neighbours are five miles away.

They bought it fifteen years ago, this ruin of a Welsh farm perched on the edge of a hillside populated only by sheep and birds of prey. The road hasn’t been repaired since the end of the Second World War, the agent had said, looking at them with a challenge in his eyes. The house was derelict. It had been madness, this purchase that balanced precariously just below the ridge on Tyddyn Shieffre, but when they’d walked up the land behind the cottage and the Mawddach estuary stretched before them shimmering in the last throes of summer sun, they’d been sold. Barmouth sparkled below and beyond that the mountains of Snowdonia stretched out in mist soaked peaks; in the distance the Lleyn Peninsula jutted out defiantly and beyond that, Bardsey Island rose nervously from the sea.

Since the day they’d got the keys they’ve been fighting the wilderness, chasing the brambles and sheep from the door.

‘We wanted a challenge,’ she’d laughed, leaning off the roof as she held her hand out for another tile. They’d called them working holidays, and had put the cottage back together piece by piece, like a jigsaw. The day the new roof was on they’d lain beneath it, a lazy breeze blowing through the glassless windows. Our space, she’d murmured. It wasn’t a secret. There wasn’t a choice. Their spouses agreed, silently. Complicit.

They’d return home after every visit with blistered hands and windburn that healed slowly. They knew the locals referred to them in hushed tones as ‘the visitors’. He didn’t blame them; their visits were fleeting, their departures signalled by a new pile of rubble, a flapping tarpaulin.

They’d found a trunk in the attic and spent hours pouring over faded photographs and spidery handwriting that crawled over the pages. It was built in 1757, she’d said in awe. They were the first owners who were not farmers, married to the land. We’re frauds, he’d whispered. They’d struggled with the local dialect, it had taken him 3 years to pronounce the name of the nearest town correctly. Dolgellau – Dol-geth-lie.

She plunges her feet into muddy puddles as she runs to catch up with the car that he has swung in front of the cottage. They’d tried to arrive before night fell, but he’d been late leaving and she’d got held up in a last minute drama. By the time they’d hit the motorway it had been a race against time, and as the speedometer had nudged 100 he’d wondered not for the first time about the wisdom of this, these stolen days. Usually they come in summer and her call had surprised him. Of course, he’d agreed. For you, anything. She’d opened every gate to get here, the heat in the car dissipating as the wind tore the door away from her hands. Each time she’d thrown herself back in beside him she brought the damp curling air. It tangled her hair. Each gate took her a step farther from being the woman who’d climbed into his car at the beginning, her neat lines unravelling with each mile that drew them closer to the mountains. At the cottage, white shapes scatter as she walks round to the barn where the key safe is. They leave the key here. She likes the magic of arriving with nothing.

She goes first as always. A click as the wooden frame groans, a sigh as the house breathes out. The matt black night floods in. Within seconds she has the lights on; he fetches the wood from the store and a flame licks the cold stone. When she turns towards him, he sees the etchings of time in her face. He pours the wine whilst she unpacks. He puts the water heater on in the kitchen, lays the mat in front of the bathroom door to catch the water that always overflows. She seems quieter than usual. He watches her as she slices the chicken for dinner by candlelight.

‘Is everything okay?’ he asks as she stirs the white sauce, passes her the salt and the pepper, the small slice of Welsh blue that she always saves. The sweet aroma of rosemary fills the small space, and he puts his arms around her waist, feels the tensing and twisting of her torso as she chops and seasons.

‘Of course.’ She abandons the spoon and turns into his chest, ‘Never better.’

Still, he wonders. Over dinner and by the fire afterwards, doubt nudges him. Swinging her legs off the sofa, she picks up a book from the bookcase and reads out loud –

‘In the inaccessible fastness of the mountains,

We built a lodging place for angels between two worlds.’ She sighs, ‘I love Gwenallt.’ She leans forward and kisses his forehead. ‘I’ve missed you.’

Before bed, they shower, separately. Whilst he listens to the hum of the shower he heats the kettle for the water bottles. ‘We’re old before our time,’ she’d said the first time they came, all those years ago. ‘Not old, wise,’ he’d replied.

This time, she emerges fully dressed from the bathroom. In bed, she keeps her clothes on until the last moment. When he peels off her tracksuit trousers and vest he is thrown off sequence by the concave dip at her hip where there is usually a curve; the softness of her rendered sharp.

In the morning she sleeps late and he brings her tea and an OS map. Sitting up in bed it’s like old times, just them and the mountain. Their phones don’t work inside; only on the ridge can a bar of reception be gained, depending on the weather. After a breakfast she slips away. In her absence he wanders round the front of the cottage that faces the trees that the Forestry has sculpted the barren mountainside with; listens to the sounds of the wind sweeping in across Cadair Idris that dwindle to a whisper as they creep across their clearing. With no sign of her he walks to the right of the house, checking that the car is still there. It sits there dark and covered in the morning frost that spreads across the bonnet like stale breath. He walks back around the front of the house and turns right against the west wall, striding out up the clearing towards the top of the hill. He hears the sighs of the valley, the creaking of the trees as they adjust to the mist lifting. Nearing the top he sees her, but she is not looking at the estuary and sea below. She stands there fixed, staring at her hands. She does not hear him coming, visibly jumps when he approaches. As he slides his icy hands up underneath her windbreaker, she gasps.

‘I didn’t see you, you scared me.’

‘I missed you, why didn’t you tell me you were coming out?’ She knows that he loves this routine, but it is theirs.

‘Sorry darling, I just needed some fresh air.’ But he sees the corner of her phone that she thrust into her pocket as he approached.

Later, as they walk around the Cregennen lakes, he watches her whilst she crouches low and puts her fingers in the water. The lake is sky blue despite the grey clouds that hang like puffed curtains over the tops of the hills. It’s the granite in the water… he’d started explaining the first time they came, when she exclaimed at the colour of the water. It absorbs the light from the sky and reflects it back through the water… Shhh, she’d whispered, putting her fingers to his lips; the blue is the lake’s memory of summer days, it stole it from the sky so that the underworld could enjoy it for all time, out of the strength of the wind. He’d laughed and pointed to the sky, well that explains the weather then! The lake is cursed, she’d said, that’s why it is always cold. It carries the colour of summer in its water but it can never feel the sun. This has always been for her a land of 16th century highwaymen and winged dragons, of trolls resting beneath the bridges and pterodactyls screeching through the sky. Though she is a scientist too, she’s always been a dreamer.

‘Taste it,’ she says, crouching down and submerging her hand in the water. He holds her finger to his mouth and thinks how not so many years ago, this would have been a precursor to finding a secluded spot. She laughs as he pulls her to her feet, and she peels off her layers one by one in the marbled January light. Her body enters the water without a sound, and he dives in after her. Momentarily he is unable to breathe. Perhaps he is too old for freshwater swims. When his lungs fill with air she surfaces and he notes her bony shoulders, fragile against the rugged elbow of the mountain behind her. When he passes her a towel as she shivers, he sees a missed call on her phone. He wills himself not to look, not to be that person.

That evening, nestled up beside the fire, he asks her,

‘Is everything ok?’

‘How could it not be okay, being here with you?’ He feels a flash of anger at her evasion, betrayal flickers in his chest.

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers later, when the taste of her is in his mouth, ‘I’ve been distracted, finding it hard to switch off.’ He knows – whereas once these trips were a way to forget everything else, this time he has been worrying.

‘Perhaps this is what age brings us. An increasing inability to disconnect.’ He runs a hand over her shoulder as she puts another log on the fire. And though she laughs it off, he recognises understanding in her eyes.

They slip into their routine. Jobs around the cottage in the stark morning light; venturing out around midday when the ground has defrosted. He wants to replace the pipes to the shower, widen them. He brought new ones with him. Why do you want to do that in the middle of winter? she asks. Leave it for another time. It is unlike her, to delay things. The cottage is restored, but there is always work to be done, replacing tiles that the storms from the sea rip off, clearing the drains of leaves. If we don’t stay on top of it, the mountain will be upon us, he says as he fetches the piping from the car.

It is close to midday when she suggests walking to the summit of Cadair Idris. They’ve walked it many times, but always in summertime. Already in the distance they can see the mist is swirling along the top of the summit. Snow sprinkles the peaks like icing sugar.

‘Are you sure?’ he asks, ‘We’ll be racing against the daylight.’

‘Don’t be such a worrier,’ she’d replied, packing her rucksack, ‘We’ll be fine, we know the paths well.’ They do, and the possibility of disappointing her is too great. By the time they pull into Minfordd car park the mist has started to descend and the summit can no longer be seen.

‘Come on,’ she calls as he pulls his walking boots on. The paths are steep and the mist has made them slippery. Usually the slopes are covered with heathers and bilberry, but now the ground is barren and the landscape moonlike. Moraines and cwms punctuate the landscape. The walk feels longer than usual, the stiles higher. Even in summer the temperature drops with increasing altitude, and now in the midst of winter it is close to freezing. He crunches his hands into fists to warm his fingertips. She walks a few steps ahead, stopping now and then to inspect the ferns that cloak the trees. After two hours of walking he feels his legs start to cramp. He should take better care of himself.

‘Look,’ she stops suddenly, walking precariously close to the edge. ‘It’s like flying.’ The clouds are above them and a sea of white mist carpets below. Even their voices sound muffled. The final ascent is treacherous, on a fine day it’s tricky, but the wet ground is turning icy and he’s bitterly regretting his inability to say no. He catches up with her near the top, and though her smile is jubilant she looks more exhausted than he feels. They haven’t seen a single person the whole way up. When they reach the summit of Pen y Gadair, he sits on a rock and pulls out a sandwich. The bread is soggy and the cheese rubbery. He passes one to her and they share a cup of coffee from the flask. He makes a mini snowman, the size of a ping pong ball. 2,930 feet high but they may as well be two feet off the ground for all the views they have. Standing, she peers into the swirling mist. He looks at his watch again and readjusts his hood, pulls his zip up to his neck.

‘We should get going, or we’ll be descending in darkness.’ As he turns towards the path she calls out.

‘Look.’ He turns and as he does so, the clouds part –she is there, too close to the edge again. He follows her finger, and on cue, the first sunshine they’ve seen this trip forces its way between the clouds and falls away from them towards the bottom, its shards splintering as they hit the bright blue of Llyn Cau Lake.

‘They say that Llyn Cau has no bottom, and that a monster lurks beneath.’ And despite himself he smiles, for she tells him this every time they come. As quickly as the clouds parted they close again and then the rain starts, slow drops that land heavily. He feels a flash of anger at finding himself here when they could be back at the cottage in front of a roaring fire.

‘We should go,’ he calls, his words falling into silence. ‘Lucy?’ turning, he sees her there against the rocks, leaning forwards. Walking over he reaches out his hand. ‘Lets go.’ She turns and he sees something in her face he has not seen before.

‘Maybe we should spend the night here,’ she points to the shelter, ‘they say that anyone who spends the night on Cadair Idris will awaken as a poet or a madman.’ She laughs, but there’s a hysterical edge to it.

‘Come on, we need to go.’ He reaches for her hand again, grasps her fingers.

‘Can’t we stay just for a little while?’ that look again. He tugs her towards him and wraps his arms around her.

‘We need to go, now. Look, it’s already getting dark.’ Finally she allows him to lead her back to the path. They descend in the diminishing light in silence.

On their last night on the cusp of the New Year, they feign joy but sorrow leaks beneath the surface. When he proposes a walk to the ridge to take in the view, she shakes her head. He walks to the door and opens it, breathing deeply. Though the wind is still there it sounds different, wheezing into corners instead of hitting him like a wall.

‘Tell me,’ he says after they have curled up like mice beneath the covers, ‘What is it?’ And this thing that she will not speak of, cements itself between them and cannot be budged. He forces himself not to examine the pills that she has left in the bathroom.

When they close the gate for the last time, she clambers back into the car and turns her laughing rain sprinkled face towards him.

‘Thank you for this, I needed it.’ He kisses her cheek and looks at the slate sign they’d attached so proudly to the gate. Cyfannedd Fach – small inhabited. In the car behind the steamy windows, she puts her hand on his thigh.

The journey passes too quickly. When he drops her at the end of her road he holds her tightly; her hair and skin still smell of woodsmoke from their fire. After she climbs out, she taps on his window and he winds it down. She leans in through his window and whispers in his ear. It is a struggle to hear her over the traffic noise; a siren shrieks through the night. When he pulls away from the kerb, her outline blurs in the drizzling rain. When he does a U-turn he sees her standing motionless beneath the streetlight, hand raised in farewell.

He drives ten miles before he has to pull over in a layby. He presses his palms against his eyes. Seven months if I’m lucky – or unlucky perhaps. She’d pulled back to look him in the eyes. Feigned a smile. I need to be with my family now. He’d nodded. He understands. The snowy peaks of Cadair Idris are no more than a memory.

He knows that he will not go back to the cottage, that the forest will grow between its stones and the wind will sweep between the sheets; knows that the rain will wash away their taste of one another. Cyfannedd Fach. It was never really theirs to take in the first place.

The End






"All the Birds, Singing" - brutally beautiful writing by Evie Wyld

I recently went to a Faber social where Joanna Cannon was reading from her new novel, "The Trouble with Goats and Sheep". It was a great evening in a cavern beneath the London streets, filled with bohemian types.  There was a brooding intensity that filled the dark corners, and aside from the dim lighting, was probably very similar to such gatherings hundreds of years ago. 

The Faber poets were fantastic, poetry is made for performance I think. An unexpected highlight of my evening was listening to Evie Wyld read from one of her novels, and watching her be interviewed. The next day I ordered her second novel, "All the Birds, Singing", because I was curious (she mentioned that in each novel she seeks to strip the language back more and more). I finished reading the book within 24 hours, and today, several days later, I still can't shake the images that she put into my head. It is a stunning piece of writing, a tragic and brutal story, told in a structurally interesting way, leading the reader to unravel Jake's tale slowly and intermittently to its shocking conclusion. 

One of the things that I most loved about Evie's writing was that despite paring her language back to the point where the sentences cut right through you, she has sacrificed none of the beauty of language. Her images are sharp and visceral, succinct and precise, but they are there on the page to be read and re-read, repeated and re-imagined afterwards. Sometimes I think the fads that writing goes through can override the exciting possibilities of language. It feels to me that at the moment there is a tendency for writing students to be taught to avoid descriptive language, that in many of the new novels coming out there is a paucity to the style -that in some cases the author has been encouraged to strip back the language like old wallpaper until all that is left is the bare wall; stories driven by plot and action, rushing the reader through from beginning to end.

There is nothing superfluous about Evie's style, every single word justifies its existence on the page, but she paints a multi-layered landscape confidently and sacrifices none of the beauty of it in her telling. Hers is a world I want to re-visit, her stories ones that I want to be told by her. Her debut novel "After the Fire, A Still Small Voice" is waiting on my bedside table.

The Waiting Game

I was delighted to find out yesterday that my short story "Business as Usual at the Yew Tree" has been shortlisted for the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize 2015.  To be in the final ten out of almost 1,000 entries is a real confidence boost, and those I am discovering, are few and far between in this industry! It would be incredible to place in the top five, but I am thrilled with being shortlisted and plan to dine out on this happy feeling for the foreseeable future!