***

 

She always loved fairy stories: Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood – tales of misadventure and revenge and cottages hidden in the deep dark wood. At night, when she wanted to lull herself to sleep, she would close her eyes and conjure up one of those imaginary cottages. It was white, in her mind’s eye, with a low roof and wisps of blue smoke curling up from a pink brick chimney. It was in a clearing, covered in vines and lit by a million blinking stars. So when she saw this place, she knew it was hers.

     And here she is. Can you see her at the clearing edge, in the dark and the silence that are so absolute? Impossible not to be seduced by a silence like that, she’s thinking, watching from the shadows, waiting. Here, no one bothers you. Here, all that happens between one day and the next is the slow stretch of black sky over fields. No stars tonight. Tonight, the sky is lagged with cloud, insulation so thick it would guarantee anyone the deepest of sleeps. They’re sleeping now, inside, tucked up in their warm bed, while outside her teeth chatter, her toes freeze.

     And it is freezing. It is bone-penetrating, lip-chapping, bollock-tightening freezing. Look at the ice, hanging in frosted pendants from the low window ledges, the short white walls hunkering down against the cold. Feel the cold, pushing its wet, frozen fingers down the back of your neck. Enough to make you tremble in your boots – so why? Why is this woman standing out here alone, shivering away at this God-forsaken hour on a Scottish winter’s night? You probably think it’s all a bit strange, probably think she’s not quite herself. And you’d be right.

     Forty-eight hours ago, she would have said the same.

     Now, the air has changed. From under the lazy arm of the sycamore she smells bitterness. If she looks closely, she can see the glimmer on the roof giving way to patches of matt lead grey. That’s the ice melting. Heat pushing through slate. Any time now, the living room curtains will recoil: crisp cotton transformed to gothic lace. At a certain temperature, the flames will break the windows. They will pull at the sky, beg for escape with their long ragged wings only to give up, recede, reach out again.

     Fire is a fascinating spectacle. It’s hypnotic. She should get away now, really, before she becomes too transfixed to move.

 

***

  

ONE

 

I remember the day we moved here, back when the two of us thought only happiness lay ahead, how the tyres crunched on the gravel, how the tree branches knocked against the roof of the jeep. The pair of us were leaning so far forward we practically had our noses squished against the windscreen. I remember running into the hall, clambering upstairs and back down again, dashing into the garden and out onto the vast lawn. Honestly, I was so excited about our new home, about our new life straight from a magazine, I even laid a fire for us that first day. We didn’t need one – it was late May – but I laid one anyway.

     We didn’t light the fire that first night. It was the second night, I think, and the funny thing was, instead of going up the chimney, the smoke billowed back the way, right into the lounge. Next thing, the smoke alarm goes off. What a laugh. See us, all aren’t-we-brilliant one minute, the next, we’re running around like turkeys at Christmas trying to find the damn thing. We found it, of course. It was on the ceiling by the living room door.

     “Push the button,” I shout up at Mikey. “It’ll wake the baby.”

     Mikey’s standing on a chair by this point, jabbing with a kitchen knife at this white plastic saucer thing with its flashing red light and all the while the screaming racket’s setting our teeth on edge.

     “I am pushing it,” he shouts back. “I keep pushing it but it doesn’t do anything!”

     “Mikey! Let me try!”

     He steps down, hands me the knife. “Listen, you’re more practical. You try.”

But I couldn’t reach it – I’m too short. In the end we had to bring the stepladder from the barn and I had to go round taking the batteries out of every single smoke alarm in the house. It was only supposed to be a short term measure, until I changed them for something less sensitive. But I suppose I never got around to it.

 

And then, on the Saturday, Mikey had to go. He’d got a job offshore, you see, that’s why we moved up to Aberdeenshire. It meant that he’d be away to the rig two weeks out of every four. I knew it was going to happen, don’t get me wrong. I’d psyched myself up for it, knowing the first week or two would be the trickiest. And so that morning, I had to wave him off from the front step, Isla’s head hiding my tears. I had to watch the taxi disappear down the lane, clouds of exhaust lingering in the air, like things we meant to say but never did.

  That afternoon I couldn’t settle. I tidied up, sorted through some of the packing boxes, even made soup, for God’s sake. When I coaxed Isla to eat her mushed up greens, my voice trembled with a kind of simmering hysteria. That’s what comes from trying too hard to pretend everything’s OK. Your real feelings do nothing but knock at the surface of you. You know you can’t let them out. You know that if you do, you might never get them back in. 

     And then I was up half the night – pacing, shushing, pleading with Isla to go to sleep. Then, when she finally did sleep, I was scared, way more scared than I’d thought I’d be. The black of night out in the countryside has this way of chasing reason into the darkest corners of the rooms, bringing its shifting shapes and throwing them against the walls. I hadn’t figured on how frightening the nights would be without Mikey, out here, so far away from the city, and now I lay awake and alone, primed for every noise. What was that scratch at the door? Was that a figure I could see at the window? Was that creak a foot on the stairs?

     At 4am I heard a car outside and opened my eyes to see an amber beam slide across the bedroom ceiling. I shot out of bed and ran to the front window. A little way into the lane, a car had parked. The headlights died for a moment then relit. The car pulled out of the mouth of the lane and crawled past the front of the cottage, away up towards the big house at the end of the track. I waited, straining to see through the trees, but saw nothing. I opened the window a crack. The freezing air shot down the front of my nightie, sending me swearing through chattering teeth as I dashed to get my dressing gown. As I returned, the car passed by the cottage in the opposite direction and headed back up the lane. Slowly, the red tail lights receded to nothing.

     Someone must have taken a wrong turn. And at this hour of the night. Maybe someone had had too much to drink and lost his way home. That was the logical conclusion, the one I used to talk myself down from the crazy ledge as I crawled back under the covers, dressing gown still wrapped tight for comfort, to stop me from shaking.

     The next morning at 6am, I staggered down to the kitchen, made tea and sat cradling Isla in the half-light. And from there I saw it: an entire fortnight without him stretching ahead of me. The day was too long. There were too many hours in it. And there were thirteen more days like this until he came back. As I said, I’d known it would be tough, of course I had. I’m not stupid. But in all the excitement, all the novelty, I hadn’t reckoned on this: my own intolerance for solitude. Stands to reason. I grew up in a flat with three brothers. I worked in news. I lived for other people.

     So that was the problem, you see. Loneliness. If I hadn’t got so lonely, I would never have met her. I know that now. I’m fucking well blessed with knowledge now. But it’d be easy to start beating myself up, blaming myself for everything, so I hold on to that loneliness and how it felt, otherwise I’d go mad. And as with most outcomes, there’s a chain of events, isn’t there? This happened and because of it, that happened: simple cause and effect.

 

c. 2016. S. E. Lynes

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