‘It’s a death. There’s no other way to describe it.’ Jen is talking about her divorce again. It went through three years ago, but she still relives it if ever something triggers the memory. We are having a coffee break and, as is mostly the case, I am the trigger.
‘Some people are just better off without each other,’ I had said, as I skimmed a week-old article about the latest politician to get thrown out by his wife for having an affair. I should have realised Jen was likely to take this personally.
‘It’s a death,’ she says again, as if I hadn’t heard properly.
In the photos that accompany the article, both the politician and his wife look very much alive, chirpy in fact, suggesting they already relish each other’s absence. I think it best not to point this out.
Instead I say: ‘Perhaps life is a series of events we could call “deaths”, and it’s just that we don’t recognise them, because life itself carries on.’
‘We don’t recognise them?’ Jen’s mug hits the table and splashes coffee. ‘Things expire around you and it simply evades your notice?’
‘Perhaps I haven’t put it very well.’
Jen wipes the spilled coffee with her sleeve. We are taking a break from refurbishing our ‘studio’, and she has on an old sweater and her feminist dungarees, inherited from her mum’s Greenham Common days. But this still isn’t a good sign.
‘You lose a piece of yourself, and you never get it back.’
I know that we are in one of those tautological situations which no amount of listening, let alone comment, can be hoped to resolve. So I nod reflectively and remain silent. This time it works.
A couple of years ago, first Jen, then I, for reasons we could still debate, stepped hopefully into an ideological time warp, described by its participants as ‘a collective of like-minded people’. For a few months thereafter, six of us channeled our belief systems into reversing the structural ruin of a derelict thirties semi. That was to be Phase One of a spiritual but grounded approach to communal life. Now only Jen and I remain, and Phase One has morphed into an open-ended DIY dystopia. And somehow we’ve become an item.
Not that everything about the situation is bad. Jen is a slow but Zen-like decorator, and can float plaster onto brickwork with such finesse that the final surface of the gypsum reflects light. She believes that regular sex is the bedrock of any meaningful relationship, which may or may not have something to do with the break-up of her marriage. Far from least, when the whole thing started she arrived at the house with a stack of her mum’s old vinyl, and can play blues harmonica so faithfully you can’t tell the difference between her and Sonny Terry. As I spent large parts of my adolescence trying to play guitar like Brownie McGee, some people might think we were made for each other.
‘So much is going to be created in this room,’ she says now. ‘I can feel it.’
We both look round us. To be fair the worst of the decay is no longer obvious. I lean over and top up her coffee. Jen, as she often mentions, has a vision, a happy conglomeration of Gandhi’s ashram and Charleston farmhouse, which she visits like a sadhu every few months. As I take in her expression – her eyes are distant but mildly euphoric – I realise she is momentarily in a future where that vision has been realised.
It would seem we are each prone to the sort of hope that rarely gets fulfilled. Jen doesn’t resemble Vanessa Bell, though I suspect she would like to. A few weeks ago I came home late to find her sitting at the kitchen table, deeply involved with a brush, scissors and mirror. Beside the mirror was a framed portrait of Vanessa B in profile, and Jen was scraping her corkscrew curls into an improbable nineteen-twenties parting. Her lips were pursed outward and her jaw extended slightly, meant, I think, to give her features an aristocratic cast. For a few seconds we looked at each other in total alarm, and then I went to bed. Neither of us has brought it up since.
There are other matters we don’t talk about. She has never, for instance, mentioned her father, and I have never asked. Somehow I sense the topic has barbed wire around it. I have never told her about my teenage attempt at arson, for which my psychiatrist prescribed ‘constructive tasks’ as a sort of penance. Perhaps if we shared these things it would lead us somewhere deeper.
I’m just pondering this when suddenly she stands up, energised. ‘Let’s whack the skirting on,’ she says. ‘You mitre, I’ll fix. We could even do the architrave today if that goes skiddly-dee.’
I look at her and something about her expression removes all doubt that she will first tame then civilise this maladjusted old building. I pick up the broom, bristles stiff with hardened plaster, and sweep around the perimeter of the space where we’ll be working. Jen is hardly the first person to bury her hurt in activity, but there’s more to it than that. It’s as if she sees each practical challenge as a mechanism to recharge her spirit. And on the whole it seems to work. For the rest of the afternoon I become the skier behind her power boat.
‘I’m hypermobile,’ she explains. ‘It’s easier for me.’ Jen can be touchingly accepting of my limitations. We are in bed together later that night and, although I can find her approach to sex quite technical, she is more than willing to help where I struggle. ‘The worst thing you can do is to let things get stale,’ she often says, and each time she says it I sense the shadow of her marriage. So we lie together in increasingly contorted positions, and somehow fail to connect.
The following day Jen explains how to calculate the rise and going of a staircase. She has read up on it. She says we can create more space if we accept a steeper pitch. The creation of space, and ‘spaces’, has become a holy grail. If things go well the house will be both spacious and full of spaces. In darker moments I wonder if the two of us will be enough to fill them. We’ve been on our own, and without guests, for a good few months now. It would also be fair to say we have yet to integrate into the local community, which I seem to remember was going to be one of the later phases of the original contract.
The truth is we don’t go out much, although recently we’ve found ourselves crossing the road most evenings to stare at the October sea. It’s hard to know why we do this – I’ve rarely seen a stretch of water so featureless. Its thin, grey waves retreat from the narrow shore in a dour and withholding pattern, as if intent on denying the onlooker any vestige of pleasure. Even Jen has not gone paddling.
This outlook, I feel, as much as the falling-down state of its infrastructure, is why none of the locals chose to bid for our house at auction. In fact, when the gavel fell, I sensed a spectral gratitude that anyone had paid anything for it at all. Perhaps guilt at their share in the folly prevented our fellow idealists from asking for any form of refund, as one by one they abandoned the project. And so Jen and I are co-owners, without mortgage, by default. Jen sees this as karmic.
‘For a couple of years I only listened to Memphis Minnie,’ she tells me, one day while we sit and jam together. Her singing voice is far too big for her, untamably primal, and sounds as if it has lived an entirely different life. Even though I should be used to it by now, I still find myself listening in astonishment, and wondering who the person who can channel such strangeness really is. Also, if playing blues together is really supposed to feel like a search for something lost.
‘Planning permission is for wimps,’ Jen yells into the wind, as she rips jagged slates from the front of the roof, and slashes fearlessly at the aged felt beneath. The random and sometimes unfathomable proportions of other properties in our road suggest she’s probably in tune with local thought. She has decided that the sea will look different through a dormer window, and she could be onto something. It’s surprising what a little separation from reality will do. I stand with my foot on the bottom rung of a ladder we found lying in the garden, craning my neck upwards. Above me is a charcoal grey strip of sky and her tiny but purposeful figure, willing yet more change upon us, even as rain blows in from the sea. Perhaps it will always be like this, I think.
‘I wouldn’t expect you to commit to anything you don’t understand or agree with.’ Jen has drawn up a set of proposals for our future as she foresees it. Once again I’m tempted to blame her marriage.
‘What’s this about in event of failure to recognise the other’s needs?’ I say.
To my horror, she begins to weep. I have never associated her with weeping. We seem to be plunging into some new chapter, or perhaps to be continuing one I’ve failed to be aware of. Sometimes our relationship can feel like one of those assembly kits that arrive with instructions in Taiwanese and no diagrams.
‘But couldn’t we just talk to each other?’ I try again. I can hear that my voice sounds plaintive.
Jen stares at me, her eyes incredulous behind the tears. I go over to where she’s sitting and put my arms round her. This feels strange, because we rarely touch except for sex and building work. I wonder now why this is. She rubs her eyes with her knuckles, sniffs, and begins to read the next paragraph. I go back to my chair and listen attentively.
Christmas arrives like a stranger in a hood. I have no idea how we will celebrate. Last year we just worked through. Jen surprises me by pulling traditional decorations out of a pale blue wooden chest that has stood in the same place since we moved in. She makes a fruit punch which she says is nought per cent proof, but which has the same effect on me as alcohol. I realise the voice I hear singing carols very sweetly in other parts of the house is not that of a trained chorister on the radio, but hers. I wonder how many other beings exist inside her.
By the end of March the house has reached that strange point where you start to wonder if it really did once look as you remember. Jen sits on a new rug in the centre of the polished floorboards of the living room. On the floor around her are small bowls of nuts and glasses of filtered water.
‘I really thought we’d be crowded out,’ she says. She has spent the week tweeting and distributing copies of a hand-illustrated flier, inviting the town to a free taster of breath-led, non-Kundalini meditation. It should have started half an hour ago. We are both learning that what is central to you is almost always peripheral to others.
As the days lengthen Jen removes herself for long solitary walks by the shore, while the spring tide hisses near her feet. Today she returns looking triumphant.
‘Come and see what I’ve got.’
We cross the road, and leashed to the sea railing is an elderly, disheveled donkey. Jen rubs its broad grey snout and it looks at her quizzically but with resignation.
‘The man threw in use of the stable too,’ she tells me. We walk the donkey up the hill path away from the sea to what looks like a small abandoned paddock, with a single shed-like building of old brick and weatherboard. Jen explains her plans while I nod. We will offer the local children rides all summer. She has worked out a rota, involving us both, in her head.
It occurs to me that Jen and I only appear entirely different until you really look. Then at least one similarity emerges. At some point, when we each ceased to find the world mysterious, we ceased to love it. After that we started to use plans to get by, although Jen makes most of them. I suppose without mystery all that’s left is the best certainties it’s possible to create. As summer stretches out we take turns to walk the donkey along the sands. And gradually, without exchanging many words, the locals bring their children for a ride.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story ‘Breath’, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published in Cōnfingō, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story ‘The Violet Eye’ has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. His website: https://www.polyscribe.co.uk. His Twitter: @polyscribe2.