It is badly shriveled. The skin has shrunk and hardened around a hollowed out core. Slit in two it produces a pair of fairy dug outs that I might leave back out in the woods where I woke at dawn. I might wait and watch them sail away across the dew from circle to circle piloted by the little creatures that dance and sprinkle dust on those they favour and spit mild curses on those who tread too heavily through their world. Of course, by the time I have cleared up and breakfasted, the dew will have been burnt off by the strengthening sun and the fairies will have taken shelter from the light of the day. For now, I moor the potato canoes half under a hedge and lay some torn grass stems from them to the dirt track as natural pointers for any tiny friends who may pass and want to steal away in them.
I wonder would the oven ever have caught fire and destroyed this little cottage? The air is burnt bitter and the last wisps of black smoke are only just clearing from the ceiling through the open French windows, but there were no flames. Perhaps it is the burnt cinders of charcoal that would eventually have flickered into destructive life, and who knows how long they would take to catch?
I catch a glimpse of decrepitude in the half-length mirror that holds on to the kitchen wall and realise that the broken hat stand of rags is all that is left of me. I’m tired and damp from the dew. I’ll bathe, change my clothes, breakfast and prepare a list for my departure tomorrow. I will be a new man or at least a dry one. Then I will be able to make some progress on what I came here to do. If not the first line then why not start at the end and allow what passed before to be suggested?
The bath takes forever to fill but is piping hot when it does. I step in and let my aching muscles sink and dissolve below the water line. Steam envelops the room like a warm autumn mist. It draws from the walls the remnants of long used fragrances, bath oils, foams and sprays and produces a soporific haze that carries me back to the shadowlands. They are clear again, racing about in the sunlight and dancing from behind trees, spinning cartwheels, shouting and laughing at the joy of life itself. She has lost her seriousness and chases one of the dogs. It yelps as it hurtles through the undergrowth before turning sharply, front paws flat against the ground, wagging tail held high. They come together in a joyous tumble of barking laughter. And now the two girls run, the elder with an encouraging hand on the shoulder of the younger, chased by the second dog, and dive into the family melee kicking up dry dust from the forest floor.
Seven years and still not departed. Distant, out of reach, too far gone to touch but still there when I close my eyes, empty my thoughts, dawdle or waste my time reflecting on what this life now is without them. Keep busy, plan, order, re-order, have a project, concentrate, don’t dawdle, don’t brood, don’t think, don’t not think. Shut them out. Deny their memories and set me free. It’s the reality of their absence, the depth and breadth of our infinite parting, which makes them present. I keep them with me because without me they are gone from the world forever and without them, I have nothing. I reach out to these shadows because I am too frightened to let go and choose nothing. Bright sunlight filters through the glade and they are gone. Silence flows into the void snuffing out joy and laughter.
The steam has cleared from the air and I am lying in water cold enough to send tiny shivers through my veins. My face is wet with droplets of salty water that must have condensed under my eyes from the moist air around me. I must rise, dry myself and draw up my packing list for tomorrow. Order cures all.
I eat the last of the bread with the remaining strawberry jam and wash out the empty jar, placing it on the draining board. I set aside one the fruit muesli packets to eat before I depart tomorrow morning and take two more into the back garden and shake them loose for the birds and mice to fight over when my back is turned. Tonight I’ll eat beans straight from the tin like a latter-day urban cowboy or down at heel student and contemplate the journey before me.
Upstairs, I take out the roll bag from the bottom drawer, empty out the week’s crumpled dirty washing on to the bed, fold it, and place it neatly back in the bag. I open the wardrobe and put aside the last remaining clean shirt that I will wear tomorrow and then check the drawers where I discover a sock is missing. I have used a pair a day, and two pairs when I have needed to change my socks after a long walk, and I am wearing a pair now. There should be one pair left for tomorrow. I empty the packed bag and check that the dirty socks are paired up correctly, shake out the worn tops and shirts and search the drawers again. That is the price of introducing nature’s disorder into a well-ordered house in the vain hope of releasing wild creativity – a lost sock, and the prospect of wearing a dirty pair tomorrow. I make the best of the chaos and wash out my favourite pair as best I can using washing up liquid, making sure to give them an extra rinse to reduce the risk of any residue irritating my feet in the morning. I lay them out to dry on the back of the kitchen chair closest to the French windows. I tick off ‘pack’ from my list.
I push down the laptop lid and walk out of the cottage, passing the wilting roses and resplendent weeds, through the garden gate and into fields of poppies for another day of avoidance. I lose myself in the twisting curving paths and close my eyes whenever I come to a waymaker. A church steeple rises over a hill toward me and I turn away from it and head back into the valley. I spend the burning lightness of the day trying to lose myself but as dusk presses on my shoulders I find myself back amongst the wildflowers and poppies.
There is no running away. Of course there’s not. The nightmare weighs heavy, however many times we try to remake our histories. We endlessly return because we never leave. We carry ourselves wherever we go, and whenever we pause for breath or to take stock, we find ourselves still here. A decisive break is required.
I take myself to bed exhausted.