The Chaos Of Silence
January 27, 2014 § 22 Comments
Opening chapter of a novella…
Twice a day the cows swayed down the lane like tethered boats in a sea swell. They sauntered, their stretched udders bouncing between their legs. An hour later they’d be back, jostling to be first to the fresh green of the field: dung-covered tails swishing at horseflies, bags dangling empty like burst balloons.
Jessica rounded the bend, jammed on the brakes and skidded up the bank. The cows took no notice. A few stragglers foraged under the hedge, their tongues curling around the long grass. The early mist rolled along the hollow of the lane, cleared over the cows in a dense, breathy mound; then, as the animals passed, settled back into its blind silence. A collie slid silently from deep within the herd and goaded the dawdlers: crouching, panting, nipping at heels as the cows joined the queue to pass through the five-bar gate into the milking yard. Jessica yawned, switched off the engine, and began to scratch at the raised, silver scar on her wrist.
She drove carefully after that, her chin brushing the steering wheel so she could see through the mist and dodge the cowpats splattered along the single-track road. Tufts of spindly couch grass and yellow sow thistles forced their way through the thin layer of tarmac. ‘How apt,’ Jessica remarked sourly. ‘Nature always takes back what is hers.’
She reached a line of pale lime trees, their tops hovering as if suspended above the swirling mist, and looked for the sign. Tied to the rickety fence with a length of pink baler twine, it read, Bloomsbury Cottage. It was painted carelessly in black and red in the flamboyant style of someone keen to appear both original and eccentric. She recognised Bonnie’s handwriting. Lying on the ground beside it lay a much older sign – it read Rose Haven, in neat, dark green lettering.
Jessica pulled up by the sign, turned off the engine, and inspected her face in the rear view mirror. The entrance to the cottage was across a plank of scaffolding timber that spanned the ditch into what once had been a garden. A small, black sheep, with unkind yellow eyes and four horns growing out of its head at rakish angles, stopped nibbling the tips of a stand of stinging nettles, and stared as she crossed the bridge. She liked sheep, but this one made her nervous, until she saw it was attached to a metal picket by a leather collar and a short length of chain.
She pushed her way through the overgrowth that spilled onto the brick path, feeling the cold dew on her legs. The rose that had once graced the porch was now stained grey with mildew and threatened to creep through the cracks between the doorframe and the crumbling wall. Chunks of rotten render had peeled off the walls and lay in pieces amongst the weeds either side of the doorway. This house is being swallowed up by nature too, she thought. Jessica felt the unexpected warmth of the sun as the final wisps of mist burned away. One part of her wanted it to stay misty all day.
Bonnie held a large mug of coffee in one hand and an untidy rollup in the other. Thomas had made space for himself on the cluttered table, and was spooning cornflakes idly into his mouth as he leafed through a copy of Gertrud Franck’s Companion Planting. Bonnie slouched in the worn leather armchair next to the unlit Aga blowing smoke rings at the rafters. Neither spoke.
Bonnie and Thomas had lived together for ten years: first oscillating between their own flats in London, now living in the cottage Bonnie had bought from the proceeds of her apartment in Fulham. Thomas had kept his own flat in the city, which they used often, albeit separately. Bonnie had discovered she needed a bolthole where she could spend some time away from Thomas, and for her regular fix of the city life she was beginning to miss.
She was in her early thirties and childless. Thomas, twenty years older, had a teenage son with whom he had never lived for longer than a week. They were estranged for a reason that he could no longer remember. The boy was the result of a brief and unsuitable coupling at a spiritual commune in Scotland. Gabriel, as far as Thomas was aware, still lived with his mother growing vegetables and, in Thomas’s opinion, pointlessly meditating. They described themselves – rather smugly Jessica thought – as writers, although she had seen no evidence of literary productivity since they had moved to Bloomsbury Cottage. In short, Jessica concluded, they had gone to seed. Their minds, she decided, had taken on the characteristics of the garden they had inherited: unproductive and disordered.
The cottage, partly 16th century with Victorian additions, was, historically and architecturally, unimportant; but nevertheless had been a well-kept and pretty farm labourer’s home. It was now, quite simply, neglected. An elderly man had lived there before them. A retired cowman, he had let his beloved garden go after his wife died. House maintenance had been far from his mind, and he had left clutter and chaos in his wake. As the old man’s mind had slipped painlessly into dementia, so had the cottage. After he had been persuaded rather forcefully by Social Services to move to the council-run care home in town, the cottage had lain empty over the winter. It had been duly colonised by a particularly fecund strain of field mouse, and a ginger cat that would climb in and out through a small pantry window that would no longer close.
Bonnie and Thomas had arrived the following spring full of plans and enthusiasm. At that stage, the cottage had been ripe for restoration, and crying out for someone to lavish time and money on it. What it got was two rather idealistic city dwellers who had no idea how to make up a render mix of sand, cement and lime, or the correct way to lay a damp proof course.
Six months had passed, and they had picked away tentatively at the fabric of the building. It was as if they were afraid of it. Thomas, in particular, seemed increasingly incapable of finishing any job he started, and the reality of the relentless, physical grind, and the absence of necessary skills, steadily dulled their initial ardour. Not that they were short of money – they could easily have afforded the services of a builder – but they had never considered this option. This was their project, and no one else was allowed to touch it.
This, coupled with the rapid deceleration of the pace of life that had drawn them to the idea of rural living, was steadily binding them both to a state of gloominess. They increasingly sat in silence. Not the comfortable stillness that comes from years of concord and a sure knowledge of what the other was thinking, but more a sense of disquiet and helplessness that sprang from knowing all was not well between them, and they didn’t have a clue what to do about it.
Jessica took a deep breath and knocked at the door.