She was everything to me. Perhaps not quite everything, but most things. There had been days, I remember, during which I could think of little else, such was her effect on me. She obsessed my thoughts so intensely that it was as if she were the thoughts themselves, and perhaps she was. But I knew that I could never be sure about her, and neither could she. It was a delicate relationship at the best of times, and at the worst of times – well, that’s why she’s no longer my everything. It had always been as if we were crossing rock pools together, holding each other in the spray and the slips, but otherwise only caring about our own footing. We’d never made it anywhere near the beach during our time together. But you know what I mean, don’t you? If only I could flesh these bones; maybe then you’d understand what I mean. My times there, with her, were deeper than an iris, but they were as thin as an embrace. Had her irises been only fading fires, her embraces only whispers on the wind? I could not know. She was all I had known, but all I knew had not been enough to know her. Yes! To know her was to know myself, wasn’t it? Or to know her was to know more than myself, and that‘s why I can never know her. But we don’t need knowledge, do we? Knowledge makes us sad because it involves truth, and truth is something that everyone hates at one time or another. She helped me to hate truth, but now the truth is all I have left.
Grey was the window, and grey was the rain. The windowsill extended just far enough that I could sit up on it, hugging my knees and leaning my head on the cold pane. It was comfortable enough, provided you didn’t touch the dirt on the frame and the mould on the sill. I’d claimed that spot when I’d first arrived at the house, and – even though it didn’t seem to have been designed as a chair – they never minded me sitting there. Most importantly, it was the only truly private place in the house. The window, for a reason I never guessed nor was told, jutted out further than the rest of the house and would be entirely secluded by opening the door to the kitchen. This left the rest of the room in a perpetual twilight, even during the height of the day, but they didn’t seem to mind.
So I would lean against the window, even with its dirt and its dampness, and I’d stare out into the rain across the fields. It rained a lot where I lived then, the sky a blanket of grey draped across a quilt of farmland. But I didn’t mind and neither did they – the fields became swamps of mud, but the trees that saluted us in the distance grew to an ever more vivid green. I used to sit on the sill and try to capture that ‘blank everything’ for years, though I’m not sure I ever succeeded. My mind flowed with colours – colours like the emerald trees, not the sewage brown earth. And it was for this reason that I embraced any opportunity to walk down to the forest and leap between the trees, running my fingers through pine needles and listening to the gentle, wooden percussion of the drizzle. At first I was never allowed to go alone – Mister had been entrusted me on the grounds that he would look after me at all times. In the beginning, being young, I was frustrated that I wasn’t thought of as Big and wasn’t allowed to enjoy the forest by myself. As the years passed, though, I grew to enjoy his company more and more. Even by the age of sixteen, when surely no one could argue I wasn’t Big, I still humoured the old man. I don’t think I could have enjoyed the forest without him.
You might be thinking that Mister was my valet, or something like that, but he wasn’t – at least not in the literal sense. Mister was my great-uncle, a relation so far off and so unknown that it had been perfect for my situation. After my parents had done what they did, and in such a way, it was decided. I later learned that it had already been decided for a long time, and the rest of the family was only waiting for a discreet opportunity. I did miss my parents then, and I think I miss them more now that I can think more clearly and calmly. But I missed them like I might have missed a teddy bear, even a teddy bear with teeth and an insatiable appetite. But I had never enjoyed thinking of them or of that. Let that be the end of it.
Grey was the window, and grey was the rain, as I remember it. I leaned my head against the window of the van, taking a strange enjoyment in the juddering of my head every time we hit a bump. We hit a lot of bumps on roads like these; they were long and long-forgotten roads, cracked all over. I was a silly child. I suppose I still am.
For hours, I’d been playing games with the raindrops, seeing which one would reach the bottom first, though I wouldn’t glory in victory. As soon as the one I was following joined the little pool of droplets in the dip of the frame, I’d move to another and watch that slide down. I always used to wonder why they didn’t just push themselves off and fall; falling would be a lot quicker. You’d get to the bottom a lot quicker. I don’t know if they even wanted to be at the bottom, but that’s the way they were all going. But I suddenly got bored of that game, so I did that weird thing you can do with your eyes to make things blurry and not blurry. Focussing. I could make the raindrops as sharp as anything if I looked at them in the right way, but then if I concentrated I could make it seem like they weren’t there at all. I could make the rain go away with my head. Maybe that was my talent.
Beyond the rain there wasn’t much to see, except maybe more rain. The same fence had been running alongside us for miles and miles, and I wondered who would have the patience to put something like that up. You know – trudging along in wellingtons with posts and a hammer. Every few metres you’d have to stop and push a post into the ground, and you’d be doing all day just to make sure nothing got out. But it seemed like the post-pusher had gotten a bit lazy, since there were bits of the fence that were all wonky, and some had fallen over entirely. They were all covered in the strange yellowy-green colour that happens to everything when you put it near a tree; that was the only thing that made them all the same. Even then, the animals inside didn’t seem like they wanted to escape. Most of the sheep were either eating grass or staring at me as we drove by. I like to think that they were jealous, because it was raining and they were probably cold and damp, but I was dry and warm. But I think I’d quite like to be a sheep – you’d just sit around saying ‘baa’ all day, and nobody cared who your parents were. All of the cows we passed were lying down, because cows lie down whenever it’s going to rain – all so that they can be lying down on a dry bit of grass. I don’t think I’d like to be a cow. I don’t really know why.
The man lit another cigarette, and I curled my nose up as the air turned into a stale fog; I made sure he didn’t see me frown because that would be rude. I can’t remember how long it’d been since he’d finished his last one, dropping it out of the window with a poetic look on the back of his head, and he probably knew I was watching him as he was doing it. I was that sort of child. I wasn’t surprised that he smoked; most people did, after all. I’d even caught Mother sitting at the top of the stairs with a cigarette, which was strange because she’d told me that I should never do it because it was unhealthy. She’d looked a bit surprised that I’d caught her, but she didn’t seem too ashamed about it; she just muttered that the smoke was getting into her eyes, and that’s why she was crying, and I should go to bed now. I’m never going to smoke because I don’t want to cry any more than I have to. But other people smoking doesn’t bother me too much aside from the smell; it sticks to your clothes like a hug that goes on for too long, though I don’t mind hugs that go on for a long time.
Anyway, I wasn’t surprised that he smoked; it fit with the rest of the van. Everything about it was meticulously half-clean, as if he’d set aside a particular day of the week for it, and he’d said that he would clean it really thoroughly on that day, and that day came around, and he cleaned it. But then he got bored. There were crumbs of something or other in the seams of the seats, and torn pages of gardening magazines on the floor. A Christmas tree air freshener spun and waltzed on its string, even though it was the end of January. The parts of the windscreen that the wipers couldn’t reach were almost opaque, so I had to look out of the side window. I was fairly short back then; I’m too tall now. But there wasn’t anything interesting to see out of the front, anyway: just the road and the grey.
The man cleared his throat, the sound a rumble over earthy phlegm. It was the first noise he’d made in hours, other than the soft click of his lighter and his deep breathing. It felt like he was going to say something important, so I looked at him, because it’s polite to look at the person speaking to you. He didn’t look at me, though I knew he knew I was looking at him. He didn’t say anything either, though he seemed to be silently telling me to stop looking at him. He took another wheeze of his cigarette. But it was strangely comforting that he didn’t seem to care about me; we both knew that I was here and that I had to be here, and as far as he was concerned that was enough to think about for now.
My trunk bumped about in the back of the van, thudding as the man sped up and slowed down, trying not to break the axels on the bigger cracks in the road. It would have been quieter if it were fuller. Suddenly the trunk sounded like it was louder than anything, and our silence grew awkward. He cleared his throat again.
“You have a big trunk, given that you don’t have much to put in it.”
“I used to hide in it,” I said absentmindedly.
The man nodded. We considered this a lengthy enough conversation for now.
I don’t remember how much time passed after that; the only way I measured it was by sneaking glances at the man’s cigarette to see how burned down it was, but I don’t know how long cigarettes take to burn. To make it even worse, I’m sure I got distracted occasionally and he’d start another one without me realising. He certainly smoked a lot – if I ever wanted to go home, all I’d have to do would be to follow the ash he’d been tapping out of the window, like Hansel and Gretel but with fewer colours. I’m not sure why I even thought I might want to go home; it was the first time I’d thought of it all day, which is especially strange considering there’d been so little else to think about. I suppose I’d just been blocking it out by pulling silly faces at sheep and seeing if they’d say hello to me.
But then we swerved around to the left and home appeared. Or what became home. Well, more accurately it was everything near home – the town. I’m still not sure what I should call the place; we’re not on first-name terms. Back then the entire place looked like an old dog, especially in the January rain. You could tell it’d once been fearsome, with red-brick towers rising up like bloodied cigars and echoes of industry littering the place. Like any old dog, it seemed fairly sweet and quaint now, but I was sure it would bite if you got on its bad side. But don’t think it was a ruin of a place – there were still factories and mines and shops and houses. Houses and houses. The place throbbed with life like an artery but a clogged one – the blood wasn’t going anywhere, that was for sure. It struck me as odd that I hadn’t noticed the town until we were upon it, and that I’d never heard of the place even though it seemed like it had been important only a decade ago.
The best place to live peacefully is in a dying place, carrying on like those crawlies you find underneath rotting logs. But here nobody would take a look under the log. I liked the thought of that.
We were driving along cobbled roads now, the bumps making the crumbs jump out of the seams. The van was exciting because it didn’t have seatbelts, so the bumps were making me jump too, though after a little while I began to wish it was safer. Or at least that the seats were softer. But then we were out of the town and on to an earthier road, which I imagined would get quite dusty when it was dry. It didn’t seem like it ever got dry. I’d thought that the man lived somewhere in the mess of cobbled streets and factories, and so I looked to him again.
“We live outside of town,” he said, without turning to me, “because it’s safer.”
“You mean there could be an accident at one of the factories, or something?”
I gave him another quizzical look, more intensely this time, but he didn’t speak any more. He didn’t have to tell me; adults always have their reasons. They might be really bad reasons, but that’s better than having no reasons. I think it’s better than having no reasons, anyway. Maybe he felt guilty for being so blunt, but he became a lot more talkative after that. We drove past a few more fields, and the man told me that they were his fields. I asked what the name of that sheep was, and he said Betsy. And that one? Betsy. That one? Betsy, but that one always got called Betsy Blue. He didn’t tell me why. He really wasn’t such a bad man when you got to talking with him, at least when you were talking on his terms, but I felt he was playing games with me. I mean, it was obvious that all of those sheep weren’t called Betsy – he didn’t know which one I was pointing at because he was driving – but it seemed like something wasn’t quite right on a deeper level than that. I couldn’t tell if what he was saying was real or not. It was like making the raindrops blurry, so that you couldn’t tell where one finished and another one began. I don’t know how to explain it. I just felt odd.
“Welcome,” the man had said when we arrived, gently moving me forward with one rugged hand and hauling the trunk with the other.
“Thank you, mister.”
“There’s no need for that. You should call me by real name, I think. I’m—”
As I remember it, Mister had never been a man for introspection, philosophical thinking, or any such poison I’d hoarded in my head for the months before and the years since. He was a man who would have called a spade a spade had he wished to talk to it; usually, though, he used it to dig. But for all his ruggedness – and he was as rugged as Hemingway – he was a good man and an honest man. He would have been a salt-of-the-earth sort of man, except he was probably closer to the earth itself. Looking up at the house for the first time, it was similar to the person who inhabited it – the stone was a thundercloud grey, and in some places as intimidating as a thunderclap; in others, it was as weak as a thin mist. Breathing arcane air, I shivered. Despite apparently being Georgian – though, I admit, I can only call it that in reflection – the house threw up uneasy towers and had a door more befitting a castle. But, for all its mismatched structures, it was away, and I certainly needed to be away. Let that be the end of that.
We shuffled into the hallway and out of the spitting rain, Mister placing down the trunk and instinctively wiping his hands on his trousers. It seemed a little dim inside, but everything is darker under weighty clouds. It all seemed to be grey, too, but at least it was a warm grey. As I waded through the fresh sights, a pair of yellow eyes peeped out from behind a stair spindle. The eyes stared for a little while, before sweeping back into hiding as if they’d never been there at all. It had either been the cat – or, more accurately, the kitten – or a very large insect. For the sake of being able to sleep later, I decided that it was a kitten and let Mister’s firm hand guide me along the hallway. I clacked a little in my formal shoes, but the noise was pounded out of the air by the lumbering thud of Mister’s galoshes. His cigarette had disappeared from his mouth, and you mightn’t have guessed that he smoked at all were it not for the lingering hiss of stench from his clothes.
“Do you not smoke in the house?”
“I’d like to, but it’d upset her.”
Mister reached over to his left, his hand closing around a small brass handle I hadn’t noticed before; it looked like he expected it to open more easily, but with only a fraction of effort the little door opened, revealing a cupboard underneath the stairs. With about as much care as you might expect from a farmer, he thrust the trunk into the dusty crevice and pointed at it, as if I’d been daydreaming and hadn’t noticed.
“This is where I’m putting your things, for now. It’s a little cupboard under the stairs, opened by a handle, seven strides from the door.”
I let out a nervous smile at the odd level of precision, wondering if this was a rare strain of sarcasm in his personality. You couldn’t lose a trunk like this one, even though its sheen had been dulled and its surfaces covered in notches and dents, the biggest being fist-sized and directly in the centre of the lid. It would always come back to me. Mister saw me smiling and his brow furrowed, so I quickly went back to my permanent grimace. He was a very strange man – stranger still to agree to look after me, though I don’t know if he had much choice.
I very carefully asked why he was being so precise, and he asked me in return that wasn’t everybody so precise? When I said no, he blinked and his eyes seemed to disappear into his mind for a moment. Then he shrugged. He closed the door as nonchalantly as he could. I remember feeling, at that point, that he had a dancing, waltzing collection of skeletons in his closet. Not that particular closet, of course, because it couldn’t possibly fit both a trunk and a gaggle of skeletons, especially if they were dancing, but a closet somewhere. And it seemed to me that he was trying so hard to keep his secrets that the rest of the house suffered: the wallpaper, which I presumed had been green before the dust, was peeling in places. The lights flickered at best. Even Mister himself appeared to be fraying, but whenever I looked at him he’d stand as straight as a tree in a breezeless forest. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
“Do you like it here?” he said, lifting me out of my mind. Maybe he’d guessed what I’d been thinking.
“I like the hallway.”
I hesitated, hoping that I wouldn’t come off as sardonic or ungrateful. I did like the hallway; that much was true. It was very hallway-ish. It had a beginning and an end and doors leading into other rooms. But the hallway was all I’d seen. Mister shrugged again, uncomfortable without smoke in the air. He wasn’t much of a man, even if he was more than twice my height and looked like he could win an arm wrestle against a bear. We stood there for a little while, neither of us feeling particularly awkward. But then he lowered himself on to one knee so he could speak at my level, even though I hate that. It didn’t feel like he was doing it for my benefit. After all, he was probably quite deaf.
“Would you like to explore the rest of the house? Then we can look around the town. You’ll get used to the place quick enough, I’m sure.”
He wasn’t speaking to me like I was a child, but you could tell he thought I was a child. I mean, I was a child, but I didn’t like people noticing it. I sighed, and shrugged just as Mister liked to do. It must have looked a bit strange on the nail-head shoulders of a seven-year-old, because he smiled a little, though I didn’t mind. I was never one for worrying about what others thought of me, nor for getting worked up about it. But Mister apparently didn’t think shrugging was a good enough answer when I did it, so I had to murmur my agreement before he creaked back on to his feet. Then he did something really odd – he slipped his calloused hand around mine, and began to lead me through the house, clack after thud; thud, double clack. It was as if he knew exactly how many steps he needed in order to get around the house. He pushed open the first door on our right, reaching out with his spare hand to catch it before it hit the wall. Maybe that was another little game he played to amuse himself.
“This is the living room – where we live. We shuffle around like zombies in all of the other rooms.”
“Is that a joke?”
I’d expected the living room to be better-kept than the hallway, since it had been difficult to imagine Mister trudging across carpet in muddy boots, but what I hadn’t dared to imagine burst into reality without me quite realising. The carpet was scraggy and mud-clagged in all of the places Mister must have often walked, and there was a distinct pair of boot-shaped stains just by the fire. The hearth was now only a flickering wisp in grey coals, but that was to be expected – if Mister usually didn’t bother to take off his boots, then he certainly wouldn’t take off his coat.
I shuddered at the memories dripping through the air, pouring out of all the room’s pictures. Naturally, there was an enormous portrait above the fireplace, like you find in all of these old houses. It was of an old man and his dog, but it wasn’t Mister, even though he was the only old man in the world I knew. The picture was a little faded, and the colours were a bit haphazard, so I assumed it was put up a while ago; maybe it was Mister’s dad, though I don’t know why you’d have a picture of your dad above a fireplace, unless you were hoping really hard that it’d catch fire from a little ember below. I don’t even have any pictures of my dad, so that was a bit of a silly thing to say. I’m sorry.
But it wasn’t just that photograph. Every available space in the room was taken up by a photo frame; the ones on the wall had edges that desperately needed polishing, but were probably forever locked into their fog. Looking more closely, I felt a little knot in my mind beginning to twist. In every photograph – every one – there was the same woman. It was the same woman at twenty and forty and sixty and older; she was sitting with friends or she was with Mister, or she was walking along some old street somewhere, laughing. But strangest thing of all was that each appearance had been marred by a grubby fingerprint, almost blotting out her face entirely. I let go of Mister’s hand and walked around the room before settling on a tiny image, almost smothered by the collection of photographs around it. It was the woman, of course, but she was gently leaning back against the railing of a bridge, a river stretching out behind her. I’m not sure how to describe it, because I can’t remember it very well. All I remember is beginning to lose myself to her, not because she was attractive – though she was; she was – but because of the way she looked at the camera. You could tell that she was thinking. There was a fountain of thought behind that wry smile. Maybe I didn’t feel like that. Maybe I’m confusing what I knew then with what I know now.
But I couldn’t look at it for long. A bristly hand slowly reached past my shoulder and took the frame from my hands, placing it back on the dresser where it had been. Face-down. Of all of the photographs, that was the grubbiest one.
“Shall we move on?” said Mister levelly.
I let his hand take mine again, feeling lightheaded and a little off-balance. I’m not sure why. It was like walking through a shrine, or maybe a gallery, or maybe a memory. A mind of memories. Mister’s hand seemed slightly tenser than it had been moments ago, if only moments had passed. I don’t know what he’d been doing while I had sifted listlessly through the room. I wondered if he’d been watching me. I hoped I hadn’t done anything wrong. For the first time I truly felt that I’d been a guest in someone else’s reality, though I was more an unwelcome trespasser than a pleasant visitor. That’s how I felt, anyway. I was probably overthinking it.
He led me over to a window, just by another door. It was a view that looked out over the fields, the far-off horizon lined with trees. I walked up to the sill and gently placed my hand on the pane, enjoying the cool on my palm. I heard Mister open the adjacent door, and the way it was hinged made it so that I was blocked off from the rest of the room. Now I was contained in my own realm of nature and light, alone from the world. I felt the pulse of my thoughts and the thinness of the air in the bright alcove. But then Mister pulled the door back a little, and suddenly I was in a house with muddied carpet and the lilting smell of oldness. I tried to forget that little sanctum and bring myself back to what I could touch and feel. No. Only what I could touch.
“Shall we move on?” he said again, and it was almost as if he had never let go of my hand.
We went upstairs next, though there wasn’t a lot to see. Unlike downstairs, where every room seemed to have been lazily nailed on to another, this floor was laid out neatly, but at the expense of hallway space. If Mister had been any broader across his shoulders then I doubt he could have walked along it properly. I didn’t have that problem, and I still don’t. I tried the handle on one of the doors and gave it a thorough rattling. I thought it was like the cupboard door downstairs, a little stuck in its frame.
“Stop that,” said Mister, firmly but without malice. “The door’s locked.”
I opened my mouth to ask why it was locked, but I quickly remembered the living room and all of the mysteries that it held. I wasn’t sure I wanted even more questions, especially since I’d only just arrived here. But I became fixated by the smallest of details. Amber light spilled through under the door, casting upwards as if it were trying to wrap itself around our legs and hold us there forever. And in the glow I could see the dust floating. For all I knew it could have happened elsewhere in the house, but that was the first place I’d ever noticed it. I found myself wondering if the dust knew we could see it now, and if it’d prefer to be invisible. Well! It must have been a boring house if I was thinking about dust.
“Is it locked from the outside?” I attempted, content that I could bear a minor mystery.
Mister didn’t look at me and he didn’t answer. At first it seemed like he was staring straight through the door at whatever was beyond, but then his eyes turned downward to the amber light and the dust. Maybe this was a rarely acknowledged reminder that he should clean a little, if only for his health. I’m fairly sure he heard my question, but he didn’t show any inclination to answer. I wasn’t upset or surprised; I had enough to think about. He then showed me my room. It had a bed in it. Mister made me go down the stairs first, and I felt a small pause before he began to descend, too, but I might be making that up. Waiting at the bottom of the stairs, I gave Mister a chance to put on his coat and boots, but of course he hadn’t taken them off in the first place. The old man certainly didn’t wait for me to realise this: he was out of the door and about to close it before I’d even left the house.
We didn’t take the van into town; it wasn’t too much of a walk, and we didn’t have to carry the trunk with us. The January rain had lightened into a barely perceptible drizzle, the air cold and sharp – it had been so dry in the tepid house that I’d almost forgotten rain existed. Nobody was driving along the road, though it continued past the house and into the woodland, so we ended up walking right down the middle of it with Mister’s first question ringing in my head. Do I like it here? I suppose I do. Trees are always at their greenest in the rain, or at least it always seems that way, and the house was quaint enough.
“How long have you lived here?”
“How long have you lived?”
“Longer than that.”
“But how long?”
“I’m not sure; not exactly. My memory isn’t what it was.”
“What was it?”
“I can’t remember.”
He spoke without mirth. Aside from the little smile at my shrugging, I hadn’t really seen Mister express any happiness since I’d been with him. It wasn’t that he was sad – he just didn’t show anything. Maybe there was a curse on the house that sucked out all of your emotions. Well, it wouldn’t get mine. I wouldn’t let it! But it did seem that conversation had been cursed when it came to Mister; it felt like every question led to that door upstairs, locked, but with just enough light to make you keep trying the handle. He would keep using vague or mono-syllabic sentences until you gave in and accepted that you weren’t getting anywhere. It didn’t really annoy me. It’d be silly to think he’d share everything on the first day of knowing me; it takes time for people to lower their guards and reveal who they really are.
After a few minutes, the crimson chimneys of the town appeared in the distance. I almost expected Mister to hurry up, now that we could see the end of the journey, but he just continued in his lumbering thud. Thud, clack clack. Thud, clack clack. We were a strange pair, that was for sure. Even if Mister had been the sociable type, he never would have talked to someone like me were we not in this situation. It was another awkward family gathering. And why would I ever talk to him? An old man out in the fields, built like a castle, with a fondness for galoshes. It made me wonder, just as an idle thought, if I were imagining the whole thing. If Mister was just some sort of creature I’d found in the forest, and I was imagining it to be my guardian, and imagining there’d be a new life ahead of me. I had to blink very hard after that, so hard that my eyes had flashes of light in them for a while.
There weren’t many people wandering about the town. Perhaps it was a Sunday; I’d lost track of the days a long time ago. More likely was that they were all sheltering inside. Even though the rain had almost stopped, there was enough to splatter down the windows of the shops and houses, and people would be forgiven for thinking the downpour fiercer than it was. But I suppose I was glad there weren’t many people about; if there were, I might be spotted trudging along with a ragged old man, and that could be slightly embarrassing.
I should probably say that I liked him. I mean, as much as I’ve said that Mister was old and boring and whatever else, I was still thankful that he’d chosen to take care of me. There was a good chance that my life would be boring now, but boring would be good, for a while, at least.