The weekend away had been her idea, which made things worse somehow; she wondered for how long she had been singlehandedly driving the relationship, plotting and planning things to do which would bind them to each other more. Plays, meals out, galleries and now a weekend’s stay in a cottage in Yorkshire.
The cottage itself was a disappointment, after driving for nearly ten hours, most of it spent in London traffic watching the golden day melt away from inside the stuffy car. They had grown irritable with each other before long, him snapping, her outwardly contrite but inwardly seething. He hadn’t noticed her new dress, or her haircut and lipstick, which she chewed off as the hours went by. When she had left home to meet him, she had been fresh and glowing, her skin gilded in the morning light; as the journey went on, she felt herself grow dull. They drove further north, and the sky darkened and the air grew cold, until she couldn’t believe that the sun had ever been shining. She had told him how sweet the air would smell, how soft it would be on their faces, how spring was the loveliest time. It’s near where I grew up, she told him.
They had driven through dour market towns and become horribly lost, him swearing and crouching over the wheel, peering furiously at little white signposts in the gathering darkness as she had stared helplessly at the sheet of instructions she had printed out. She had known before they reached the cottage that it was doomed, from his angry silence, the irritable way he spoke to her, the way he twisted angrily at the steering wheel. His silent rage, his disapproval, made her stupid with misery; she could think of no way to make things better, no little joke that would make him look at her fondly again.
By the time they neared the cottage, she knew that he was regretting ever coming away with her; he was thinking that he should have ended things in London, that very morning perhaps. At this moment he could be sitting in a pub with his friends, talking about that strange girl he had been seeing and how she had always been more keen on the thing than he was, and it had been unpleasant ending it but it had gone on long enough and she had taken it well, all things considered.
She had always thought him a good driver, careful and quick, but now he was clumsy, and he handled the car badly on the narrow lanes. There had been one moment, when he’d driven the car hard up a grass verge to avoid a truck coming in their direction, that it had crossed her mind that they might die out there because of his poor driving – go skidding off the road into a ditch, their limbs snapping and cracking like twigs. Eventually, sitting in a lay-by as he glared out of the window, she had rung the contact number she’d been given and had been put through to the farmer who owned the cottage; his voice as he gave her directions was polite but she felt that it also held a sneer in it, at her softened London vowels.
The grey stones of the cottage walls were damp to the touch and covered in lichen; she rested her hand against them as he brought their bags from the car. When he reached her she realised that she didn’t have the key, although something stirred in her mind, some instructions about where it was. She muttered that she was an idiot for not checking, and he didn’t disagree. They hadn’t brought a torch – how could she have not thought to bring a torch? – and they fumbled in the dark outside for what felt like ages. She dared not call the number again to ask. Eventually they found it, pushed into a lamp shaped like a cat, and let themselves in.
Inside, the air was damp and cold and she could see straight away that it was an unprepossessing, squat little cottage. And yet something stirred within her as she stood on the threshold, some familiar memory. She felt as though she could walk up the steps to her old bedroom, and get under cold sheets, covered with a pink bedspread that was puffy and would slide off the bed in the night. The wallpaper would be cream-coloured, with pink roses, and at intervals a shiny stripe, and the bed would have a wooden headboard. In the bathroom there would be a narrow bath, a hand-towel that was stiff with starch, and a small sink with a hard little pick of soap and taps that hurt your hand as you tried to turn them.
Now, in the darkness, she took a step out of the front door, and then took another step, and then another. Lying in bed, it had seemed impossible that she should leave the cottage and wander out into the night; now it seemed impossible that she could return.
She turned and looked back at the cottage. A dank little grey house with a dismal trail of roses around the door that had given it its name, which had so appealed to her. She should have been suspicious because it was the cheapest one. It had all seemed so exotic and adult –doing the shopping for the weekend, planning the meals they would eat together. Baguettes and cheese, bars of dark chocolate. Packing warm jumpers and her best underwear. Telling her friends at work, oh I’m going away for the weekend, with my boyfriend, and loving how those words sounded in her mouth.
She had chosen a selection of old films, romantic but sweetly so, nothing that he in his cleverness could call ‘cheesy’ or ‘trite’. Plenty of wine and spirits, which she imagined drinking curled up on the sofa. They would walk across the moors to a pub where they would drink ale, and watch the old men chatting, and eat salty peanuts. Simple, clean living, a change after a year of extravagant meals out with his friends, which had left her broke and permanently anxious; never in her life had she been in debt before.
She decided to take the path to the moor, and with each step the air seemed to grow clearer and kinder in her lungs. They had walked there together briefly before dinner, to get some air he’d said, him striding quickly and moodily ahead, her stumbling after, a smile fixed to her face, a hard lump in her throat. They had found a torch in the cottage, and he’d shone it about him, his face a mask of disbelief. He seemed to be silently asking her, is this it?
His boots were expensive and pristine, she had noticed. Hers were slashed and filthy from years of use. Now she was wearing her boots but no socks, and just his sweater over her long white nightshirt. She wondered briefly if she were foolish to walk out here alone. Strange things did happen on the moors, she knew that; you would have to be a fool to ignore the stories, her grandfather had always said.
There were tales he told her – tales of beasts, of giant hounds, of flapping white shapes, and of treacherous hobgoblins. These spectres would lure you into peat bogs, which looked just like an ordinary bit of moor but then drew you down like the strongest quicksand, into a bubbling, greasy death.
She remembered once, as a child of perhaps five or six, walking with her grandfather on the moor above the house, and they had seen a child’s yellow Wellington boot emerging from a bog. He had pointed at it and told her that it had belonged to a little boy, who had been sucked under, and that she had to be careful and wary on the moors because once you were caught you were unable to escape. Grown men, ponies, even his cattle, had all been sucked in. She had imagined a pony’s rolling eye, its panicked snorting, blood and foam at its nostrils, its front hooves kicking desperately. If you go in, her grandfather had told her, I won’t be able to help you. There will be nothing I can do.
She stopped now, breathing hard. She had walked a long way, far enough, she thought – the cottage was a milky blur in the darkness. She felt as though she could walk for miles up here. The air was fresher now, and cooler, and she stood confidently with her shoulders back. She couldn’t have stayed in the cottage another moment. It was all his fault. She had done everything she could to make the evening pleasant. She had even cooked a lasagne in advance, a lasagne that had sat sweltering in the boot of the car all the way, which she’d re-heated. She had made him a gin and tonic before dinner, stronger than was necessary, and encouraged him to take a hot bath in the small tub and had poured him wine with dinner.
She laughed with him about the cottage – the woefully thin towels, the light in the sitting room that went out with a large crack, the horsehair spilling out of the sofa. But she had hated him a little bit too. If he had brought her to a place where he had once been happy then she would have done her best to love it.
She stopped on a ridge and looked out over the moors, feeling the sweet wind on her face. She thought of her grandfather. She must have been no more than ten when he died, and she had lived with him between the ages of five and seven. She had been handed over, while her mother went through a mysterious rough patch, and then handed back again. She wasn’t sure she’d even kissed him goodbye, the last time. Probably she had walked off without a backward glance, delighted to have her mother back, cringing around her like a dog, or distracted by some new toy or present.
She didn’t think, though, that he had been a one for kissing; she thought she remembered laying her cheek against the rough tweed of his jacket and feeling it scratching. She remembered his pipe, the smell of tobacco, the chewed stem. And his garage, out back, the old cars he took apart and put back together, the smell of engine oil, the tools neatly stacked, and her driving lessons – sitting on his knee, her small hands on the wheel of the Landrover as they bounced up the lane, his face above hers as stern as any driving instructor. Being roused at dawn to feed the geese, the angry hissing as they hurried closer for grain, their rigid little tongues in their open mouths. His cattle, lowing and pushing, snarling little twists of ginger fur in the barbed wire fence, and him slapping them on the flank to get them through a gate – “There you go, you daft connies.”
A muddy bootjack by the back door, and a series of incremental marks on the wall in the pantry to show how much she had grown. Milk not in glass bottles but, rankly, in big metal pails, animal smelling and foul She could not drink milk to this day. The biscuit tin, pale blue, with different tiers so if one was empty there was still the hope of more. She supposed, looking back, that he’d been an unusually good cook, a widower who’d had to learn to feed himself and a small child, and done so thoroughly and well.
She remembered standing on a chair at the kitchen table, watching him make scones – making a well in the flour and pouring in the milk. Leaning against the Aga for warmth, looking at the thick dark grease spots and spatters of hardened old food. His tough hands slicing rhubarb of the prettiest pale pink and putting it to stew in a pan with water and too little sugar, for it always tasted painfully sour. Him showing her how he liked his tea so that she could make it for him. “You’ll probably think, that’s not a real cup of tea,” he’d said, dipping the bag once in the hot water and then swiftly removing it. “Just once,” he’d said; just once, so that the water was weakly coloured with reddish furls of tannin, and then plenty of milk and sugar.
She walked on a little, then stopped and raised her arms out wide. She imagined herself as a ghost of the moors, a thin figure in a white nightdress and boots. She had stopped crying, she realised, and the tears had dried stiffly on her cheeks, giving her face a tight, mask-like feel. Was this how old people’s skin felt? Was she herself old? Too old to begin again, she thought sourly, although that was just gloomy, middle-of-the-night thinking.
Still, it was tiring to think about it. She imagined how exhausting it would be – going to parties again, where she would know almost no one, and standing for hours, drinking too much out of boredom, her face sore with smiling, until she could at last go home in the dark, her hair smelling of cigarette smoke and her mouth stained red with wine. She should have hung onto the relationship for dear life, and instead she had destroyed it.
It was her own fault; if she had just left it, ignored his tight, abstracted expression, put it down to the long drive, to the stressful traffic – if she had shrugged, poured another glass of wine, gone over to him and put both hands on either side of his face, kissed his neck, led him by the hand upstairs – well, then she could right this moment be lying curled around him in the little bed, listening to the wind outside and thinking about the next day, the strong hot coffee she would make, the brown toast and scrambled eggs, the long walk across the moors. They could have had a perfectly lovely weekend and returned happier, stronger than before. A real couple.
Relationships were treacherous. She remembered the time last month, when he had driven her out of London for a friend’s wedding. Her hand had sat confidently on his thigh and, as they had finally broken from the London traffic and headed out on the motorway, he had taken her hand and brought it to his lips in a warm, absent-minded kiss. The radio had been playing and it had seemed as though she could do no wrong.
On the way home the next day, tired and hung-over, she’d insisted they stop at a service station to eat something, and when she came out with a bucket of fried chicken he’d pulled a disgusted face. She hadn’t cared. She’d made him wait and sit with her outside the service station, at a little wooden table, the sun shining, eating the chicken, pulling bits off with her fingers and stuffing them in her mouth, and eventually he’d tried a piece, and then another, and then bought a whole bucket for himself. All right, you tyke, you’ve converted me, he’d said on the way home, and she’d felt warm inside, and thought, this will be a thing we always do. We’ll drive to weddings or christenings, as our friends get older, and we’ll stop off on the way back for greasy takeaway, and the radio will be playing and the sun shining, just like now.
Now, over the course of an evening, they had become little more than strangers. It had been so full of promise, and he had seemed to like her so much. Her phone had been always lighting up with text messages – what a nice weekend that was, thank you. When can I see you? I’ve found your striped top and its smells like you. He had helped her move house and it had crossed her mind that the next time he helped her move it would be into his flat.
Certainly he seemed to want her there; or perhaps he just didn’t want to abandon his home comforts. He would leave for work before her, leave her half-sleeping, a speck in his vast bed, a kiss on her bare shoulder and a cup of coffee – black, how she liked it – on the bedside table along with her spray of hair pins and makeup. She liked to try not to gather them all up but to slyly leave him a memento of her, a pair of dirty tights stuffed into his laundry basket under his shirts, a hair band. Some kind of voodoo on her part. She sprayed her perfume on all the shirts hanging in his cupboard, so that he would smell her when she wasn’t there and, without knowing why, miss her. She would scuttle into the shower, use his expensive shampoo, dress hurriedly and damply in last night’s clothes, and tiptoe, hair wet and dripping down her back, out of the flat, hoping desperately not to meet any of his coolly clever flatmates, who looked her up and down and seemed not to hear her when she tried to join in the conversation.
The wind blew her hair across her face. She lifted her face up to the sky; it was too cloudy to see many stars, but she could find one or two. She had been a fanatical wisher on of stars as a child, delighted to spot the first one.
She had been sickly, too, long nights spent in pain with earache.
Crying out because she couldn’t believe something could hurt so much, something that couldn’t be stopped. Sometime her eardrum would become perforated, and there would be a release from the pain, fluid leaking from her ear onto the pillow, and then for days her hearing would be muffled. Her grandfather would sit up with her long after the doctor had left, and tell her stories. She tried to remember them now; they were stories to frighten her out of her pain.
Sarkless Kitty, that lewd hussy who had drowned in the Lowna Ford, guilty only of being seduced by a married man. Her spirit now lured innocent men to their deaths. There was the brave white Arab mare who leapt into the bog in escape from Old Nick, whose quick-rushing breath could still be heard coming up fast behind travellers on the roads at night, and a phantom black dog, the menace of Kettleness, who could only be destroyed with holy water. The giant serpent of Scaw Wood, that dragged young maidens into the knotted trees and devoured them.
The smell of the heather, and the wind, and the tough springiness under her feet, gave her a particular, long-forgotten warmth in her groin that she thought was probably happiness.
Would he be worrying about her, she wondered – would he come after her? She turned and squinted into the pulsing darkness. Her nightgown was pale and he would surely see her, leading him on over the gorse like a pixie. But he was sensible; if he noticed that she was gone at all he would not follow her out into the darkness without a torch. More likely, he would be lying in bed, cursing her for a fool. Perhaps, eventually, as the hours passed, he would throw off the sheets and go to the window; could he see her from the cottage, a wild white shape on the moor? She could still see the cottage, or at least she thought she could, and she imagined cursing him, and what the curse would consist of. She would damn him to loneliness, to always being afraid.
She imagined him finally pushing back the sheets with a groan of exasperation, pulling on his pristine walking boots and a fleece for warmth, refusing to hurry; imagined him looking futilely for a torch in the kitchen, the torch that was heavy in her own pocket and setting out up the track. She saw him picking his way over the rocks, stumbling in the dark. He would think that he could see her, but then as he reached her, she would be gone, a sprite melting into the landscape. He would call and call and there would be no reply, just a little trill of mocking laughter.
If he did come, though, it would be in anger, his shoulders stiff with irritation, his face set. He did not love her any more, and so now she was just a nuisance. Her leaving the cottage like this was just more evidence why she was too troublesome, too odd.
He would be walking quickly in his rage, and maybe that would be his undoing; she saw his foot going under him; she heard him gasp in pain, and then saw him drawn into a thick, peaty swamp, his fingers scrabbling and grasping at the hard, springy turf that would slice and cut at your hands but not give you any hold. She saw him drawn down, slowly, choking in fear, eyes rolling like the wild pony’s. She saw his pale face turned towards her, dazed and uncomprehending. He would beg and plead for help, but she would hold out her hands in despair – “I can’t help you,” she would say. “I wish I could but I can’t. There’s nothing I can do.”
She realised that the darkness was no longer pitch black; now it was buzzing, fizzing with colours and shapes, turning at once from pale grey to a kind of mauve. It was the kind of darkness into which she could read anything, make any shape real. Perhaps after all, he was sorry now; perhaps if he did reach her then he would draw her against his chest, tell her things were going to be OK, that he’d in fact made a terrible mistake, that she was special and different in a good way. And then what? She laughed suddenly, loudly in the darkness.
“Were you unhappy?” he would ask, and she would answer, “Oh yes, so unhappy – almost out of my mind, I wanted you dead.”
She smiled; she felt better, stronger. She came from good, proud stock, after all. She imagined her grandfather meeting him, seeing at a glance that this was not a good man, not a man to make her happy, but a fool, and that she was a fool for being taken in.
She could go back to the cottage now, and pack her bag, and ring a taxi to come and collect her. It would be expensive, the taxi would have to come a long way, but she would not drive back to town with him, would not endure another journey beside him. Let him pack away the cheese and the baguette, and scrape the leftover lasagne into the bin. Let him go back to his cold, sleek flat and his clever flatmates and his well-paid job. He was welcome to it.
And yet, she thought she would wait a little longer out here; there was no hurry, and it was as though she was gathering strength from the moor, from the air and the darkness. She would wait and see what happened, as the hours went by. Back in the city, in parks and restaurants and bars, he was the stronger. Out here, though, she was invincible. He should never have followed her to this part of the country. And if he followed her out onto these treacherous moors, which smelled so sweet, then he was the bigger fool.