From Isabel's Skin by Peter Benson (Alma Books - August, 2012)
I wrote this story in a wooden house at the bottom of a thin garden. Turn your back on the sea, cross the lawn, walk past the bushes, the flower beds and the pond with the statue of a dog. Stop, take a deep breath and look.
The house was built to face south-east. Climb five steps, watch out for the loose board, cross a veranda, open the front door and there you are, standing with the light coming in and the sound of birds in the marshes.
The house has a bedroom at the back, a sitting room and kitchen in the front, and a small bathroom at the side. It is built of cedar planks with a felted pitched roof, two windows at the front, the door in the middle, two windows in the sides and one in the back.
The air smells of apples, wax paper, a collection of pinned beetles and dust. These smells collect and concentrate and turn in the air, like leaves drifting through an autumn wood. There are memories in the air too, of spilt drinks and candles burning through the night, and lost days. I say the place has memories, and these are some of the memories I imagine it has, but I do not know. I cannot tell what is hidden in the walls and floors, or what the windows have seen. I know what I have seen and will tell you about the places I have been, and how they have brought me to this place and state, but that is all I will tell you. There are some things I like to be private about, and I will be.
I have good, solid furniture, carpets and rugs, pictures of ships in rough seas and a stove in the corner of the drawing room. There is a table in the kitchen and in a cupboard a telescope that does not work. Three chairs that do not match, a salt cellar and a note on the wall that reads “Please close down the stove before leaving”. A pair of cracked plates, some white pebbles we found on the beach and puddles of hard wax on the sill. All the curtains have shrunk, so there is a gap around the bottom of the windows.
At the back of the house is a low barn with stables for two horses, and a shed filled with old tools, lengths of wood and boxes. A water butt stands by the shed, and a lean-to with room for cut logs.
When the wind blows the house moans, and when the sun shines it creaks, and when it rains it sighs like it wants the rain so much, and now here it is and here I am, listening all the time. I listen for a whimper and a cry, but I know it will not come. I know I wait in vain. I wait in vain, but will not be defeated.
In the old days, my father used to allow members of the clergy to use this place for their holidays, but I do not. Since he left it to me, I keep strangers away. The clergy- men go somewhere else, but I do not know where. They have their own lives and travels, and I have nothing to do with them.
Now I have finished writing this story I must get away and do something I have never done before. With this in mind, I started to read a book about a man who travelled through the greater part of Asia to Siam, where he met the King and learnt to fight monkeys. He was an old man and he always wore a hat. He had survived snake bites as a child and grew up to become an important cartographer. I read the first page and most of the second. The man was standing outside a hotel in Glasgow, he had lost his pen and it was pouring with freezing rain. He was soaked to the skin and wrote a page about the terrible weather and how philosophers would never understand the true meaning of misery. I did not read any more of that book.
I did not read any more because here you can sit at the kitchen table, dab your fingers in a pool of spilt milk and look out at the marshes. You can hear the bitterns boom, the knifed birds of the reeds, perfect for the place, mad and vengeful, never forgetting a slight. Or you can lie in bed and not read a book and listen to the curlews, or you can walk up the garden path, through the gate, across the road and into the marshes.
The marshes whisper and the marshes cry and the marshes threaten. They are like someone you like but cannot trust. They never look you in the eye and they never buy a drink. They whisper behind their hands and walk with a sly smile. If you leave the paths, the ground will look safe but will lead into a swamp, and you will slip and fall and either spend your last night on earth face down in water or face up, and birds will eat your eyes. Some people say, “The marshes are so beautiful and lonely” – and they are right, but they do not know the whole story. It is too easy to say those sort of things about a place, as though beauty can hide a grave.
So this is my house at the edge of the marshes with its roof, floors and chairs, and there go a flock of geese, and this is my house too. It is like everyone’s other house, a place where secrets, promises, dreams and terrors are kept. Mine is like this.
It is not a lasting state, this house, but it changes every day. It holds things that never leave – the memory of the first time I saw her, the sound of her cries echoing in the night, the smell of her sweat, the feel of her – and it grows, twists and adds things to itself.
It could be mad or it could be angry, or it could double back on itself and become taller than the tallest building in a city you visited once and wish you could see again. It could be yellow and black and talk in a language only it understands. It could whisper about careless times, or flare like a candle and become the person you loved, someone who took your life and wrenched it away. Her name could chime, and when you are so lonely and you pull her image from an envelope and stare at it in the middle of the night you know she was the love of your life and you will never forget her. You can smell her skin, the skin that hurt so much, but then the smell passes. It has gone, and before you have a chance, you find yourself screaming in the night and wailing into the day.
It is as bad as that, as bad as the grave-digger who thinks, for a second, about what would happen if the man at the top walked away and left him there with his spade and his bucket and the block of light shining down. Or it could be a pale sky with me walking along, and skylarks are watering the air with their songs. The sky is the roof and the larks are bees in the rafters, and I wake in the middle of the night from a dream about being a more dangerous man than I am.
I sit up, and as the wind plays with the marshes, I remember how her skin used to ripple like water under ice. I used to lean towards her, put my ear next to her nose and listen to her breathing. I used to do these things, but now I sit and wait and watch the wind in the marshes, and dust balls roll around my feet.
I wait and wait, and as the night dies I lie down and fall asleep again and drift through dreams about rare books burning and syringes. But I am not disturbed. I take these things and sweep them into the corner of my head I keep away from. It is exactly like this, and I do not wonder why.
And I remember she was wailing about ants under her skin, and when I tried to hold her she screamed, beat me off and then held on to me. Her shoulder blades were like wings folded beneath her poor skin, and I thought all I had to do was take a knife and release those wings and she would have freedom. I could have folded the flaps of skin, and feathers could have grown from her blood, like her blood was magic and I had a greater power. Her bones might have clicked and spread and sung along their edges, and my knife could have sung in return, but it did not.
I ran my fingers over those hidden wings and kissed the back of her neck. She twitched and buried her head in the pillow. She blinked and her eyes filled with tears, but she did not have to say anything. She did not have to say anything at all. She was quiet and then she was still and there was nothing I could do. I was not lost when I found her, but I had no idea where I was.