the autogeography of a no/body
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.


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