the autogeography of a no/body

Dec 30

Untitled #2

Nigel appeared in the doorway, his hair still wet from showering, and Paul followed him in, the tail end of their conversation snaking behind them as they sat down.

“Blueberry and cream or maple syryp?” chirruped Jessica.

Nigel answered first, taking command of the situation, suggesting the toppings be placed on the table so everyone could serve themselves. Yes, that was a better idea. A smile stole onto his face, like a cat, bright eyed, confident, settled and comfortable. He licked his lips in anticipation, knowing his plate would arrive first, at which point he'd lean back, just enough, not breaking his flow, his elbows remaining on the table as he delivered yet another witty anecdote to his laughing audience.

Mark fiddled with his cutlery.

The kitchen was warm and pleasant. The usual prizes were scattered about the place. A large wood-burning stove stood squarely under a hefty chimney breast, smugly enamelled in neutral beige, or was it pale yellow? Two butler's sinks squatted side by side, fitted into an oak frame, attended by hand carved and hand oiled draining boards. A huge pine dresser decorated the whole of one wall, laden with a dinner service, inherited from Jessica's grandmother.

Paul rose. Bucks Fizz. How perfect. Quite Christmassy, New Yearsy. He opened the double doored refrigerator. Sophie offered to help, blinking, pushing her chair back from the table. Nigel slapped her bottom as she walked past him, her well heeled boots striking the quarry tiled floor with small, dull blows. She let out a little whoop, softened by the exposed beams and sheer weight of cashmere in the room.

“So how long have you two been married?” asked Mark, his smile twisted, forced, stretched across his face as if pulled.

“Two years,” beamed Nigel.

“Three,” said Sophie.

“Yes, of course, three. Bloody hell, I'll be writing last year's date on my cheques for at least the next month,” said Nigel, swivelling to smile at his wife, lip curled.

“Right.” Mark arranged his napkin on his lap, shaking it out, smoothing it down. “And how are you finding it?”

“Finding it?” said Nigel.

“Married life?”

“Well, you know,” said Nigel diffidently.

“Not really, I'm still a bachelor.”

“It has its ups and downs.” Nigel winked.

“In what way?”

“The usual ways.”

“And what are those?”

“Good God, is this twenty questions or something?” said Nigel, getting up stiffly, the back of his knees hitting his chair.

“Just making conversation,” said Mark.

The other occupants of the table turned their attention to a pot containing three hyacinth. All agreed they smelled simply divine, marvellous, quite seasonal. Christmas isn't Christmas without a hyacinth, at a push you can manage with a poinsettia, but really you can't beat the good old fashioned holly wreath. Jessica didn't have one of those. She flipped a pancake smartly and cursed when the fat spattered onto her apron.

“All right Jessie darling,” said Nigel, sidling over to her side. “Need a hand?”

“Oh you are a sweetie. If you could just pass me the plates. They're keeping warm in the top of the Aga.”

“Mark, shake a leg man,” said Nigel, his smile becoming a smirk, “Jessie wants the plates”.

Mark flicked the napkin off his lap and strode over to the Aga. He didn't realise the crockery would be so hot. One plate clattered to the floor. The sound of his mismanagement echoed 'round the kitchen. As he bent down, to retrieve and inspect it, Nigel threw an oven glove, hitting him on the head. “Oi!” said Mark angrily, bristles rising, cheeks transfused with embarrassment.

The Bucks Fizz was being handed out. Angostura bitters did make all the difference. Yummy. Mark's glass was plonked in his place. Someone wanted a maraschino cherry; they were kept drinks' cabinet in the sitting room. Mark obliged. He didn't hear her feet, because of the wool carpet. Consequently, when she said “Sorry,” he was taken aback, dropping the cocktail sticks all over the floor.

“Sorry for what?” he said, turning to look at her.

“For Nigel, he can be such a prat.” When Sophie spoke her eyes blinked a lot, as if they were connected to her lips and an invisible thread was making her whole face mobile. When she was quiet, unspeaking, her face fell silent. Sometimes Mark caught sight of her, in these silent phases, and he found himself studying her, looking for small secrets, tucked away in her eyes or the curve of her mouth. Curiously, all he found was a mask, discrete, uncluttered, but a mask nevertheless, perfectly preserved, blank, impenetrable. It wasn't that Sophie deliberately constructed a wall, more that she dissipated, became hazy, withdrew from the world around her, leaving only a smudge. Mark wondered what would happen if she took flight, spread her wings, escaped from the insufferable Nigel and found her own fresh air, somewhere up high, where it was crisp and clean and clear.

“We better pick these up,” she said, bending. As her head passed his face, Mark smelled the perfume of her hair. Lilies? No. Jasmine? No. Just fresh, she smelled fresh. Delicately, she plucked the cocktail sticks out of the carpet, using her long nails. He watched her fingers extend and contract, long, thin, with little knuckles; and then he noticed the withered mark, the banded pinch. “You don't wear your wedding ring?” he asked.

She snatched her hand up. “No, I …”

“Oh there you are,” boomed Nigel, “we were just about to send out a search party”.

Sophie's head jerked 'round. “I was helping Mark,” she said half apologetically.

“He's a big boy, I'm sure he can manage,” snorted Nigel, curling his top lip, exposing his teeth. “Anyway, we're all waiting, the pancakes are getting cold. He stretched his arm out into the hall, indicating they should proceed in an orderly manner. As his wife passed in front of him, he caught Mark's eye. The gaze was quite unswerving, unblinking, nothing was hidden or secreted away.

In the kitchen, Jessica was flushed. Nigel resumed his seat, after gallantly, and ostentatiously, pulling out Sophie's. He insisted on a small peck before she sat down. Mark trailed in behind them, because he'd forgotten the cherries and so had to go back. By the time he arrived, Nigel was in full flight. “ … 'A blonde with big tits? Why kill a blonde with big tits?' Bush turns to Powell and says 'See, I told you no one would worry about the hundred and forty million Iraqis'”. Laughter tinkled round the table. Nigel leant back as Jessica placed a plate of steaming pancakes in front of him.

Dec 30

Untitled #1

first draft of a rough idea …


The grass had been shorn short in the autumn, right back to its stubbled roots. He'd seen it then, at Stephen's christening, when he'd stood as Godfather. It surprised him, that Jessica even asked. He wasn't the most religious man, or guardian material, but their friendship stretched back a long way, so far that he could barely remember the point of origin. They'd never been 'friends' friends in any event. The sexual frisson between them was always conspicuous by its absence. There hadn't been any college relationship followed by a slow, painful breakup and months of recovery, culminating in a solid, life-long commitment. They were just friends, glued together by the inertia of approaching middle age. Old friends. Best friends. Always there for each other, like their own kneecaps.

He stared out across the new growth, looking over his shoulder back at the house. It was a nice place. Jessica had done well for herself, good job, great husband, cute baby. Some part of him envied her success, but he'd decided on a different life plan, or at least that's what told himself. He enjoyed being single and childless, living in London, going out and partying. His circumstances had nothing to do with the fact that he worked a sixty hour week. He was well respected, at the head of his field, he didn't need to be the head of a household as well.

The bank at the edge of the field fell away steeply into a small area of coppicing. Lucky Jessica, she'd married a rich man. Following the path, Mark found himself surrounded by rough winter trees, their bare branches sticking out at obscenely naked angles. He preferred the summer, when everything was hidden, nude secrets covered up by fertile imaginations. Old lady trees disgusted him, with their skeletons and undisguised gashes; and the branches reached out, snagging his clothes, snatching at his hair. He pushed on, refusing to think about the dead, fat spiders that might be falling all over him.

When it appeared, the lake was magnificent. Under the winter sun it shone with shy indifference, the water apparently oblivious to his presence. At the far end, near the gates of the weir, a single bird stepped carefully along the water's edge on its thin stick-like legs. Mark paused for a moment and squinted myopically into the distance. He was used to fat city birds, pigeons, ducks waddling in the park, peculiar starlings with their fat, brown bodies hurtling about and crying, screaming, but what he saw in the lake was different, long, regal, perfectly angled and completely silent.

Instinctively he crouched down, secreting himself behind a clump of holly. He waited, listening to the sound of his own breath, one hand in the dirt propping him up. As a boy he had holidayed in the countryside. His father, a bank manager, took his work with him, and spent most of his time at whatever dining room table, in whatever sitting room, writing in blue ink on yellow lined paper. His mother preferred to relax in the garden, drinking gin and tonic from lunchtime until she started on the brandy after dinner. This left Mark, who was an only child, free to do as he wanted. He roamed through fields, forests, walked along country lanes, finding things in nature that he could never find in nurture. “Wash your hands!” his mother scolded when he returned, because she was positively convinced that anything and everything needed soaking in alcohol to be perfectly cleansed. “And set the table for your mother,” his father said gruffly, looking up from his papers, positively convinced that some help, any help, would shut his wife up.

Mark stood and wiped his dirty fingers on his trousers, and then tutted because he remembered they'd cost him one hundred and seventy pounds. The bird was still there, craning its long neck, dipping its regal beak in the water. Mark crept forward a few yards on the balls of his feet, putting his heels down gently. The bird raised its head and turned. Perfect black eyes scanned the horizon, swivelled and blinked. Mark edged forward, lips tight, stretched over his teeth in determination. Twigs snapped and cracked under his feet. Swivel, swivel. Black beady eyes, run around with black feathers, like a 1950s diva. Mark held his breath. Forward, forward, each step carefully measured, heel to toe, heel to toe, a straight line, forward, exhaling through thin lips, slowly, a quiet intake, moving, feeling his way along rough tree bark, always with his eyes fixed firmly on the visual prize.

The spider's web took him by surprise. His hand punctured the silk netting a millisecond before his disgusted screech obliterated the silence. He shook himself vigorously, danced on the spot, virtually dislocating his fingers and wrists in his attempt to shake off the vile mesh. The bird's head jerked 'round, its crown arched forward. A single, shrill call left its beak, perfectly controlled, entirely unpanicked. It spread its wings and left the water, swooping low over the trees, its giant wings sucking up the air, sucking the air out of Mark, the disgusted scream out of his throat. He watched it, the bird, the invisible disgust, and then he set off back to the house.

“A heron,” Jessica said, “why else do you think this place's called Heron's Ghyll?”

Mark laughed. It was important that he laughed first, then people would laugh with him, not at him. Sophie smiled. He knew Sophie would smile. She smiled at everything he did and said. Such a pretty face, such pretty, black eyes, just like a 1950s diva.

“Pancakes?” Jessica said, turning to the assembled group, triumphant, waving a spatula. A general murmur of appreciation went up from those around the long, oak kitchen table. Mark sat down next to Sophie, smiling Sophie. He felt better. When Sophie smiled at him he forgot about the spider's web and the dirt on his new trousers.