Sleeping in the day
The bronze bells broke the air and underneath the bells talking women and coughing men walked out of the white church. Petite grannies in tight tweed and little shoes scrambled around the grey courtyard like birds, a hum always arose after the service. The sky lay grey above them and the morning air was stagnant as if waiting for the wind or the rain to come and spoil the fresh Sunday. Each Sunday the women and the men came to the church and sometimes children came too, especially if it was in the summer. The village was small and it was old, the stones that the houses were made of were perfectly cut and the doors were made of thick, dark wood. A single road divided the village in two, and down this road the women, the men and sometimes the children would walk and shuffle to church.
‘They were great. Hymns are great.’ The boy’s face creased as he forced a smile to an old woman. He knew by now that no matter what he said she wasn’t listening. No one listens after Church, he thought, people just speak. The boy looked at the old lady and his eyes travelled along every sharp wrinkle around her lips that curved and fell as she spoke. Her eyes were cold, he thought, but her smile seems real enough. He wanted to touch her white hair because it seemed too crafted. She held a small cup of coffee that nestled like an egg in her soft hands.
‘It will rain by lunchtime. It will just be a shower and the rain will stop before the evening.’ As she spoke the old lady was not looking at the boy, she stared at a flat stonewall to the side of the church but the boy still nodded and took this opportunity to follow the wrinkles of her lips down her throat to where her neck met her clothes. A white collared shirt could be seen underneath her tweed jacket. Thick, old tweed, the boy thought. It was brown, grey and dark all at the same time and the pattern was incomprehensible. She was now talking about the weather for each day of the coming week. Her tweed skirt came down to her shins and her small shoes were brown and leather and her tights were brown. In the mornings, when the old lady put on the black onyx brooch to the lapel of her tweed jacket it assured her that everything was as she wanted, everything was going to be ok that day because her brooch brought it all together, like a bolt on a swinging door.
The boy was only at the service that Sunday because it was June and his holidays had begun. His father had decided that he should work during the holidays because he wanted him to make some money of his own, and the boy didn’t mind this. There was a river close by to his house with wild brown trout and he was happy with the idea that he would be working and fishing this summer, casting and earning. Money and mind, thought the boy, nothing more progressive. He pulled back the curtains on a sunny morning and looked outside his bedroom window. The sun was calm and light in the sky and the grassy fields that rose and dipped for as far as he could see did not look beaten after the night. All the trees were unmoving in the day. The boy could not face the prospect of working in the near town, at a bar or restaurant for example. It’s the summer and the money is small and the people are nothing there, he thought, my job would be to sell and theirs would be to buy. Everything in town hides from the summer. He was pressing the window with his finger and letting it slide down it as he pretended to sketch the shape of a tree that was on the horizon. It was a wide, dark oak tree and it was the first thing he saw every time he looked out and each time it made him think of something different. It never changed but knew more each day. The boy decided, after contemplation with the window and what was behind it, to put himself up for some manual labour. This would allow him to be in the summer and the money would feel worth the day. Maybe a gardener, he thought. Someone will need a gardener.
It only took the breeze to gather a little and his hair came over his eye. A cap. I should have brought a cap. Thinking about his hair made him lose his balance so he reassured his feet by pressing his boots firmly to the unsure floor of the riverbed, he had waded in to almost a full meter and, from the riverbank, the thin branches of the silver birch trees that gazed his afternoon had begun to sway with this gathering breeze and the leaves were bright in the summer light. The birch trees stood tall yet didn’t cause a suffering of space; there was enough room for dark blue shadows to be amongst them. There was a sandy clearing that allowed for a cast behind, but the boy had decided to wade and he had been in the water for over an hour. He let his left hand drop into the smooth surface of the flowing river and he kept it there, sitting in the cool water. His rod rested on his right arm, nothing had risen and he had felt no bite, but it was perfect. But he should have brought a cap and now the breeze became a wind and his ears cold. He cautiously turned and strode across the soft current, allowing his feet to connect with the rocks below. He sat down on the bank to take off his waders that had covered his torn corduroy trousers and the bottom of his dirty checked shirt. He rolled himself a cigarette and felt that he was part of the day, with the trees and the golden brown river that was always passing through, and now the pale smoke that wildly wandered in the easy wind.
With the rod away and the little flies put back in his wooden box with D.W.R engraved on it, which his father had given him when he was just four years old, the boy went to sit down on a wooden chair in the kitchen. A gardener, he thought. It would be much easier to destroy a garden. There is something beautiful in that and a garden can always be nurtured again and a garden never dies. But I need to find a job. The image of destroying a garden to then seeing orange and blue flowers bursting through the grey ashes like salmon in a calm river elaborated itself in his head. Ivy slyly emerged from the dust and latched onto a high stonewall, it hastily climbed and the roots grew thicker and darker and it slowed until it became a statue of a naked woman. Yellow butterflies spun themselves from the broken soil and birds awoke from beneath the stone -
‘Any luck, any luck?’ Dougie’s father broke his trail of thought as he marched into the kitchen. His father’s dark, bushy eyebrows lifted as he saw his son and his broad shoulders seemed to hold up the room.
‘No bites. No fish, I don’t think. But it was sunny. I’ll go swimming next time.’ His father surveyed the kitchen with his big eyes as he tried to remember what he came inside to do.
‘Yes. Great idea. Bring the dog.’ He whistled to himself and walked out. The boy thought of swimming to the bottom of the river and watched for his father’s shadow as it followed him out of the kitchen.
When he saw the oak tree the next morning, through his bedroom window, it made him promise to himself that he would find a job by the evening. The boy took the dog, Friedo, to the river in the morning. Dougie took off his checked shirt and a pair of shorts, and he stood there in his boxer shorts and his odd socks. Friedo, a blonde dog, was panting and he gazed up at Dougie’s face feverishly waiting for him to do something. Dougie smiled and pointed to the water like a Captain to his soldier, and Friedo leapt in. The boy took off his socks and his boxer shorts and went to the edge of the low, sandy riverbank that slipped into the water. The cool air made him shiver. He closed his eyes and step-by-step he let the water come up to his belly until he plunged head first down through the surface. As the water grabbed his body, he imagined himself flying into the mouth of a silent storm, until he broke the surface to breathe and waited for that kind warmth that comes from the air as you leave the water. Friedo was swimming like a blonde seal in the sea, grinning and paddling.
They both trudged to the sandy bank, like two warriors, and the boy lay naked on the bank to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and he saw an orange glow shimmer in his sight, left over from the light of the sky. He opened his eyes and saw Friedo shaking his body like a warrior performing his dance and the water sprung from his hair,
‘Friedo! Go on. Go over there.’ The boy pointed away from his book, which was lying between Friedo’s wet paws.
‘Go on. Away.’ The boy got up and put on his pants and shorts and sat with the sun steady above him. It’s all steady today, he thought. Even the birch trees aren’t swaying, the shadows are all asleep and the green leaves look as still as a picture. He reached for his book and felt behind him in the hard sand for his leather fishing bag. Dougie produced a small silver tin of pastels and began to sketch what he saw. His drawing was rough, but it was as true to what he saw, and it did not care for appearance. He knew, as he reached for another pastel, that this picture would only matter if it reminded him of these few minutes. When he was done he gently put his book down, it did not have a cover page and was dirty with sand, dust and mud and each page had something drawn on it. Sometimes they were mistakes, sometimes Dougie would sketch something on top of a previous picture, but the book was full. Friedo came up to him and they both lay in the warmth of the sun as the day was resting too.
He saw the old lady standing at the open door, looking at it like a small grey boy at the edge of a pier. She was wearing a pale shirt but her skirt was tweed again. This tweed was patterned with black and brown.
‘Ah… hello.’ The old lady slowly turned her small body from the door when she heard his voice,
‘Hello… I think my father is out today. He will be back this evening before supper.’ Dougie looked kindly at the old lady with his wet hair and wide eyes. He presumed she was looking for his father.
‘Hello.’ Friedo stopped walking towards her and was still.
‘I’m from the cottage over the river. I saw you on Sunday, I remember.’ There was a pause in the atmosphere; someone was supposed to speak. Her voice was sharp and it cut through the air like a metal bird. It seemed untouchable, as if never to falter or quiver at any point and it had a rhythm that never changed. It was different to when he had heard it outside the church with everyone gathered.
‘What a lovely day it is for a swim.’ The old lady quietly spoke and Dougie remembered her wrinkles from Sunday but then he blushed as the swim was mentioned. The old lady’s head was slightly tilted to one side, perhaps to shield her small eyes from the afternoon sun, and her hair was white again and looked bright with the thick, wooden pane of the front door standing bold behind her, unsure of her presence. The boy saw the black brooch on her shirt lapel.
‘Yes. Cold though. Not as warm as I thought,’ he nervously smiled and stood and felt useless.
‘Do you want me to ask my Dad something for you, he’ll be back… before supper?’ The wrinkles rose and fell from the old lady’s small lips as she listened to the boy’s question.
‘Well, you could do that. But you don’t need to, I don’t think,’ she let her tight brown shoes take her down the small steps at the front door and she walked towards Dougie. Despite the distance between them, her face seemed to come closer and closer, and her presence seemed vaster than everything around. He could see her glassy eyes become darker as they approached.
‘I’m actually in need of an extra pair of hands. I have a few jobs that need doing. In my garden and around... would you be interested, Douglas?’ The boy looked at her lips then her nose then the door behind her. My name, he thought.
‘Well… that’s very kind,’ the words came quickly.
‘That’s very kind. I’ll come tomorrow morning. I’ll come to the cottage tomorrow morning and I’ll see if I can help.’
‘Over the river, dear. You’ll find it. It’s the cottage over the river.’
He made sure he woke up early because he didn’t want to be late, he didn’t even have time to look at the old oak that never changed but became greater each day. His mind was a rush with no thought except haste and he hopped around his room pulling his corduroy trousers on and making noises like a coughing chimpanzee. Dougie went to his mirror, examined his fair, curly hair which appeared unusually acceptable this morning, and nodded to himself. His olive skin looked fresh and smooth and his grey-blue eyes were tired. In his mirror he glanced at his brown wooden bedroom door that stood behind him, the blue wallpaper and then that picture that his mother had given him when he was younger which hung just next to the door. It was his favorite picture and the only picture that held meaning for him, and he always knew that the green window in the picture was open, just a little bit and just enough. So did his mother. Everyone always said that the window was closed and that Van Gogh was trying to trick you but Gogh’s window in Bedroom in Arles must be open because there is daylight. There is fierce daylight that will never be hid. The scarlet, the wood, the walls are restless. Dougie glanced at his window and noticed that it was open, just a little bit. He laughed to himself in relief and then thought of his dead mother and walked out of his bedroom.
A bridge over a river never ceases to be beautiful and it creates a different beauty every time you cross it. Today was a sunny day and the sunshine bounced off the trickling bronze water like silver silhouettes as it flowed under the small curved bridge. Dougie crossed onto the other side. There were no birch trees on this side, he thought, and he looked at the rocks that clambered up the steep bank fighting for space like mad wildebeest crossing the waters in migration, and, as the bank rose sharply, Dougie saw the lanky stooping hogweed with their wide white heads glaring over the water, as if waiting for naïve little fish to salute underneath them.
The old lady’s cottage was small, white and square and it stood in a green square lawn that was enclosed by the dark woodland surrounding it. Dougie emerged from the woodland path that had started at the bridge and began to walk across the lawn feeling happy in the heat of the morning sun, but, as he approached the cottage, a sense of shyness came over him. The shutters were closed on the two windows on the second floor and they stared at him like two blind eyes, the two windows underneath them were very clean and reflected the day. There was no ivy, there were no cracks on this cottage and it was very white. Dougie thought of his house, overgrown with plants by the door and thick dark ivy wildly reaching up all over the bricks. The boy approached the cottage closer and the firm black front door immediately controlled the scene. It was closed and Dougie’s heart sped a little, but then he quickly exhaled and knocked the door to the old lady’s cottage three times, and he stood back.
‘Dear, dear, how prompt… you came,’ the old lady had slowly appeared in the corner of the door. The cutting, untouchable rhythm of her voice hit the boy first and he awkwardly took a step back in his boots.
‘Yes. Not too hard to find. So beautiful here…. have you always lived here?’ The old lady began to reply and Dougie couldn’t listen. Her marble eyes looked straight through his and he felt that he should be standing at the other end of the lawn. He made his eyes casually blink and look down and quickly gazed over her small green boots, her brown tweed skirt and her pale blue shirt. Her black brooch was on her lapel.
‘…anyway dear, let me show you the garden.’ Dougie quickly raised his lips to form a smile, took another step back and followed the old lady around the side of her cottage after she had quickly shut the big door behind her. A sense of relief came over the boy as he followed her green boots; they reminded him what he was doing: working, gardening, and making money. The concept of work and earning for others, livelihoods, families and his father started to amalgamate his mind, but his thoughts were immediately stopped, as if they had reached a brick wall; his eyes became aware of her white hair that had irritated him at the church on Sunday. Too white, he thought. Her white hair held her head like two crushing hands.
The iron-gate was slowly pushed open and Dougie expected the hinges to cry but there was nothing. He was about to ask her how old the cottage was but he remembered that she had already mentioned something about its age when he had first arrived at the black door, and her small eyes had taken away his attention. The iron-gate opened to her walled garden. It was not a big walled garden, but the walls themselves that formed the square shape were much taller than Dougie. He surveyed the bricks in the wall; the bricks were small and were so precisely introduced to one another that it gave the overwhelming impression of a disorganized maze, despite the formidable accuracy. It was as if the wall was in fact in utter disarray and it was Dougie’s mind that wanted them to appear complete. The boy had to look away because his eyes were becoming sore from the detail.
The old lady closed the iron-gate and started leading Dougie around the outskirts of the square walled garden, walking anticlockwise. Gripping the square together, running inside the wall, was a bold green box hedge that had been made by a machine. Or so the boy wondered. The shape of the hedge was disturbingly sharp and it was all exactly half a metre, as if trying to copy the walls that stood high and dominant. Between the box hedging and the wall was a narrow flowerbed that ran all the way round the square. A fierce line of spear-thistles occupied this flowerbed like eyeless guards, and in front of them were dark, red poppies. There was no disorder to this flowerbed. The thistles and the poppies were held and restrained by the wall, the box hedging and the old lady, and the earth of the bed was almost black. In the middle of the garden were four small squares that were box-hedged with an equally fine appearance. Gaunt dark blue Delphiniums inhabited the far two of the squares and pale tall Foxgloves stood in the squares that were closer to the iron-gate. Everything was static as the old lady gently walked, everything appeared fastened by something else and it was the colours alone that seemed to insist their restraint. The flat grass underneath her boots seemed untouched by her steps.
‘I never knew what this was for. I think I bought it, or perhaps I was given it. I’m not sure.’ The old lady and the boy had paused at the far end of the garden. An enormous, empty brown vase stood between them. It had never been filled and the old lady had never moved it because it was too heavy.
‘It’s always empty.’ The old lady looked at Dougie, through him then to the side of him, and walked on. To fill it would ruin its purpose, he thought. Although he was not sure what the purpose of the enormous empty vase could be. But it shouldn’t be altered.
In the corners of the garden closest to the iron gate grew obedient lines of broad beans and sweet peas and this was the end of the garden. Nothing else grew here but what was here had its place, engrained in the air and the earth and the concept of adjusting the colours or the form of this square in any way would be like cracking a jar of marbles. The old lady and the boy stopped in the middle of the garden, between the four small squares.
‘They don’t come here. I have never seen them actually, and it might spoil the peace if they did. We shall see.’ A bronze empty bird table was at the heart of the garden and Dougie had inquired when the birds normally came, or if they had ever come. Dougie thought of the walls, the deep vase and this bronze bird table and, as his mind wondered in this restrained place, the tone of the old lady’s voice filled the spaces, the squares and poured into the bird table.
It was a rare occasion when Dougie was asked to go into the garden. Most of the jobs that the old lady asked him to do were outside the walled garden, in the surrounding woodland and on the lawn in front of the cottage. He was quite certain that she did not own the surrounding woodland because that belonged to the river and the fishermen, but those thoughts did not come into her head and all she wanted the boy to do was to cut things down and to cut things back.
‘This morning make sure that it’s all below the knee. Tomorrow you can finish it off so that you cannot see it, dear. Make sure you cannot see it.’ The old lady and the boy were standing in the middle of the lawn with the cottage standing watchful behind them and the woodland shaking in front with a silent breeze. The old lady tilted her head to the boy, smiled with her lips and her wrinkles that rose then fell and then she walked back to the cottage and closed the black door.
Dougie worked as a gardener for three days of the week and he spent the rest of his time being in the summer with the river, with his sketchbook that was torn and dirty and with Friedo. On the days that he didn’t work, the boy went fishing and he did not catch a thing but it was beautiful when he saw the fish in the copper water, racing through like birds and Friedo would paddle and swim, bathing in his gold coat. One evening, as the grilse came flowing through, faster than the water around the boy’s legs, he looked above to see the colour of the sky and let his eyes fall to find the point where the sky met the trees. The sky’s colour was deep and scarlet like a wild flower and the thin, stretching clouds were silver petals reaching out, flying away from each other and catching the last of the sinking sunlight before they couldn’t be seen in the dark. The boy closed his eyes and knew that everything was lucky underneath the sky and he was glad that he was standing in the water. He opened his eyes and glanced around and saw the wood that was on the old lady’s side of the river, behind the hogweed. It’s thin, he thought. The shadows were not dark and he could see through quite a distance despite the hour. He had not noticed it before but the old lady had made him cut back and cut down the tall grass, the sticky weeds and the wild flowers all through the wood to the river. The boy wondered about this because he had only been working for her for two weeks so that is only six days of gardening, and he was surprised to see how much he had done to the wood. She began in her garden and now it has gone far, he thought.
The next morning it was one of the rare occasions, in fact it was the third rare occasion, when the old lady asked the boy to work inside the walled garden with the iron-gate.
‘Just have a look, Douglas, and see. Make sure there is nothing there, and put it all in this bucket. Leave nothing on the grass. Thank you Doulgas.’ The old lady held the bucket in her hand but all the while she spoke she stared straight into the boy’s eyes and he kept on looking at the bucket. Her voice held the same pitch all the way through and the distant sound of the wood with the darting wind around the legs of the trees disappeared. They were outside her garden by the iron-gate and his task for the morning was to weed the flower bed that ran all the way round the inside of the wall, behind the box hedging, with the thistles and poppies that never moved. She walked away and he opened the gate and went inside.
The bed was black with earth and the weeds were almost nonexistent. It was just the thistles and the poppies. An easy morning for me, he thought. He managed to reach the empty vase at the far end of the garden in a short time and he told himself that he would rest here for a few minutes and lie on the grass because this was half way, but just as he was getting up from the flowerbed, he saw a still black tail behind the vase. Dougie approached the deep vase and peered over the other side. A cat, he thought. A black cat lying on its side. But it was not moving and perhaps it wasn’t breathing. The boy went round the vase with light, gentle steps on the flowerbed, to meet the static cat. He knelt down and stroked his head and an eye like a yellow diamond opened, noticed the boy, and then closed.
‘The gate.’ The boy jumped up as his heart thumped. He turned round in the flowerbed and the old lady was standing behind him. Her lips seemed smaller than ever. The cat remained still.
‘You didn’t close the gate Douglas.’ He glanced behind her head to notice the iron-gate slightly open. His throat swallowed air and he looked at her black brooch and then at her forehead.
‘When you don’t close the gate, things come into the garden. The garden will get ruined by other things if you don’t close the gate.’ She emphasized ‘ruined’ by saying it slower than the other words. She was speaking quietly.
‘Nothing can come in.’ The boy knew how much she meant these words because her wrinkles had barely risen, her eyes did not blink and her voice was faultless; it shot like a spear and nothing could touch it.
‘Ah… sorry. I’m sorry… I… I didn’t notice. I’ll shut it,’ the boy spoke quickly and he glanced at the walls, at the brooch, at the iron-gate and was even tempted to glance at the cat.
‘It’s shut, dear.’ The old lady’s eyebrows raised a little and Dougie felt the world rise a little too and he silently took a deep breath. She vacantly smiled and slowly walked towards the gate across the short grass that never seemed to grow. As she got to the gate she stopped and turned her body round to the boy who stood at the far end of the garden with one hand on the empty vase.
‘Don’t touch the cat, dear. And don’t let it out. Always shut the gate Douglas.’
There was a small wooden door at the end of the corridor and the blue walls, the hollow above, the cobbled floor and the darkness all were born from the inside of this door. But the boy knew that there was no way for anything to slide out of the wooden door that he was walking towards. It was always shut and he was going to open it. It was always shut and his eyes looked close to the round handle. He opened the door.
Green fire was the first thing he saw in the room. There was a little stone fireplace in the middle of his eyes and the flames dimly lit the room like green candles in a cave. The boy stepped further into the space that he knew was a square room with nothing inside it except this fire. The door gently clicked behind his back as it closed and this didn’t bother him because he had been looking for this room. The green fire crackled, like a normal fire in someone’s fireplace, and this was ok for the boy. But then it changed. Then his eyes caught sight of the dimly lit wall above the fireplace as the green firelight flickered. What he saw wasn’t good. Layers on layers, crushed onto each other and immovable on the wall. And all of the walls – they were on everything and now under his feet. His feet were bear now but he was wearing his boots in the corridor (he remembered hearing the cold hard steps of his boots as he strode along the cobbled floor like a slow hammer on stone.) His feet couldn’t feel anything but he knew the walls were the same as the floor. The boy stepped closer to the small fire, staring straight at the wall above and it seemed to be coated in shimmers, like the whole room. He raised his finger and he pointed straight at the wall as he stood in the middle of this room. His finger shook and he was crying but there were no tears from his wide eyes that stared and his face hadn’t changed. But he knew he was crying. Being pulled by the silver glimmers on the wall in front of him that went from black to silver when the firelight glimmered like a glow that was mad, green and blind, he followed his pointing finger that was shaking. The boy knew everything; he couldn’t be in this room but to leave would be to die so he moved closer to the wall above the small fireplace. The fire was hot; the heat reached for him and his legs burned. Everything was searing and agony and the heat was all over his body. All his tears didn’t fall but they burned his face like oil sliding down. He looked down at the small fire. The eyes of the cat. You have to look at them because they are still; in the middle of the fire, two yellow diamonds stared at him and didn’t move in the flames but were still; the boy saw the eyes of the cat. The pain was unstoppable. And then at once he was touching it. He was at last touching the wall. The flames stopped, the heat vanished and he touched the wall in front of him. The feeling ran over his shoulders, down his spine and through his toes. His chest tightened and his jaw clenched when he felt the wall. His bones felt like they were all metal. The boy pressed his finger into the soft, damp wall. They were fish. Dead and hung and pressed on the walls were fish. They were the walls and floors and they were all dead and shimmering in the firelight and were stuck. The boy closed his eyes. He knew that he must die. His finger slid down the wall and it sketched the oak tree.
Douglas reached up and closed his window. The wind had woken him up; it was cold outside and grey in his room. The boy got out of bed, got dressed and looked out of the window for the oak tree. A heavy mist was sinking all around in the dead morning air and the oak tree wasn’t there this morning. He walked out of his house and stopped outside the front door. The light seemed far away from the day, as if the sun had been tricked by the moon and had risen to the wrong world. The thought of the sun and the moon, silver and gold and then black and white fell in and out of the boy’s thoughts until he reached the bridge. The water was murky.
'Douglas dear, what a quiet day. You can go home after lunch Douglas, it’s a damp day and you have worked hard, dear. Finish off the weeding. In the garden. And mind out for the thistles!’ The boy was standing outside the front of her cottage when he had heard her voice. He looked up and noticed one of the shutters in the top windows had been opened; the glass of the window reflected the grey sky. The old lady appeared in front of her black door and the boy was surprised to see her like this. She was wearing a light blue dressing gown, wellington boots and no black brooch. She wore spectacles that enlarged her little dark eyes and her hair was certainly not perfect. She gently smiled at the boy before she closed the door and behind her Dougie noticed a warm glow in her cottage and began to feel cold outside. He went to the garden to see the flowerbed.
Finally he remembered. Sleepiness had suppressed his mind but at last, when he had closed the gate behind him and was walking towards the vase at the far end of the garden, he remembered the dream. Fish, he thought. Fish on those walls behind that door. He shook his head in confusion and began to weed the flowerbed next to the empty vase. He remembered the cat and realized that it was not here this morning. Yellow eyes in the fire. Dougie did not care much about the dream, of course it confused him but he didn’t think much about it. He was more concerned with getting the weeding done and going home, shutting the door and getting out of the colorless day. Even the poppies were grey. But then something orange and new caught his eye.
‘A robin.’ A handsome robin had landed on the rim of the big vase and Dougie began to watch it and smiled.
‘Good morning sir,’ the boy was glad to see a bird in the garden and the robin hopped cheerily on the vase, looking at Dougie. He imagined the robin was telling him about all the things it was going to do that day and this made the boy laugh. He tried to reach out with his finger to touch his puffed orange chest but the robin said goodbye and flew off. It flew to the bird table.
‘Friedo and me are going down by the river Doug. Let’s take him for a swim.’ The boy was cold and tired and now irritated because the dog had wiped its thick drooling saliva over the bottom of his shirt as soon as he had sat down on the chair in the kitchen.
‘I’m tired Dad.’ His father and Friedo went to the river and Dougie went to his room, shut the door and went to sleep.
Over the next fortnight he didn’t catch a fish and this frustrated the boy. But he reminded himself that the river was the river and it was beautiful. He always used to know it but now he had to think it. One afternoon when he wasn’t working, Friedo and Dougie trudged up the sloping riverbank, two warriors from the heart of the ocean with water clinging and falling from their bodies, and the boy sat in the sand and became warmed by the sun. The sun always wakes up after lunch, he thought. It kisses in the morning, watches after lunch and trembles in the evening. This light thought made the boy reach for his tattered sketchbook that he always used and used again. It was in front of him but as he reached out with his fingers to pick it up Friedo’s paw claimed it.
‘Come on Friedo. Off boy,’ the boy gestured for his dog to step off the book. The panting dog wagged his tail and looked at Dougie, oblivious to any worry any man could have.
‘Friedo. Off. Come on.’
‘Friedo, get off!’ The dog wagged his tail and then shook his wet golden body and the river water sprayed over the boy. The boy got up, kicked his dog and picked up the sketchpad that was now wet and stained with a paw. The boy didn’t sketch anything that day and he decided that he should buy a new sketchpad because it was too full and dirty and old. The sun came down in the evening and Dougie went to bed after supper.
‘It will get in the walls, over the house and it’s bad. It may look like it should be there but once it lives too long it will destroy the walls.’ This was the third time the boy was telling his father that ‘something needs to be done’ about the ivy that was ‘taking over’ the house.
‘Yes yes Doug. I’ll sort it.’ His father was walking around the kitchen looking for something; he spoke with a friendly tone and was always calm.
‘Dad. It needs to be done. It should be done sooner rather than later because it will just be bad.’
‘Doug. We’ll do it. Don’t worry.’ The boy’s father smiled at his son with his big eyes and patted him on the shoulder. He walked out of the kitchen and left muddy prints from his boots on the floor. When he had gone, Dougie sighed with sad tiredness and remembered how he had kicked Friedo the previous day and felt embarrassed and guilty. He looked down at the floor and closed his eyes. It was all black and he thought of Friedo and Friedo swimming like a golden seal; then the river, the old lady and the old lady swimming. She can’t swim, she told me she couldn’t swim and she doesn’t fish and I haven’t fished, there are no fish. She hates the water I think; the boy’s breathing became slow, heavy and regular and his thoughts saw the old lady smiling and swimming. She was naked like Dougie, and the birch trees were rustling gently like the slow sound of the sea and those silver silhouettes from the shine of the sun, sleeping on the bronze water. The water flowed fast but the sky was going dark and the old lady disappeared under the surface. He saw a small wooden door, he was walking slowly towards it and he heard his footsteps. They were fast, faster than he could ever walk. Dougie’s body lurched and he woke up in his chair and he saw Friedo excitedly wagging his tail against the kitchen door. He tied his bootlaces tight and went to work.
I can’t believe I didn’t see it, he thought to himself, standing in the middle of the lawn in front of the cottage. The lawn that had been cut so tersely had now become slightly overgrown. It was only a bit, but the boy was irritated because it had grown without him realizing. He went quickly to the shed and pulled out the lawn mower. He mowed in straight lines and looked back to make sure they were perfectly straight each time he got to the end of the lawn. The boy felt calm and concentrated as he cut the grass shorter and he hadn’t noticed that the shutters of the old lady’s top windows were now both open. Today they reflected the white sight of the morning sun.
Dougie walked across the lawn and his silent footsteps pressed against the short grass. He was satisfied as he observed his work. Then he noticed the cat. It was lying in the shadows of the woodland to the left side of the lawn. It was on its side and Dougie wondered why it wasn’t in the garden by the vase. He remembered the dream again and quickly tried to forget it. The cat’s eyes were closed. He kept on walking to find the old lady. She will be in the walled garden.
As Dougie approached the iron-gate he heard whistling, he was not sure from which direction. And as he approached it closer he saw that it was open. He began to worry; he didn’t want the old lady to think that he had left it open again. He glanced around, stepped quickly in and quietly shut the gate behind him.
‘Douglas dear, good morning. How was your evening?’ The old lady was standing by the bird table in the middle of the walled garden. The empty vase was hidden behind her.
‘Um… yes very good, thank you. How was yours?’ Douglas stuttered because her appearance was different to what he thought it would be. Or maybe it wasn’t. But something was different and she was smiling with the soft sunlight resting on her face. The garden looked alive. She wore her spectacles again and a salmon pink cardigan. The boy noticed that she wasn’t wearing a tweed skirt and she wasn’t wearing the black brooch.
‘Wonderful dear. Now Douglas, what can we do today?’ There was a pause after she spoke. It wasn’t clear whether he should answer her; he was sure that the question was rhetorical and she seemed to be speaking to herself or to her creations in the garden and not directly to him. The boy didn’t like the pause.
‘Anything really. I just mowed the lawn.’
‘Yes. Thank you dear. It’s such a beautiful day; we all ought to go to the sea. We should really be swimming!’ The old lady raised her face to the sun and closed her eyes. He took this opportunity to look at her. Her voice wasn’t cutting the air, he thought, and it just floats and changes like a leaf, or perhaps I am used to her voice now. She can’t swim. I know she can’t swim.
‘Or perhaps even a fish Douglas. You must catch a fish!’ The old lady’s eyes turned to his body and a little smile appeared across her face that was effortless. The boy quickly laughed then coughed and stood still. He didn’t want to be here; he didn’t want to be in the garden with the hot, insolent sun and the old lady and he wanted to do something, to cut something down and to be happy. This sky is too blue, he thought, I am a stranger. The old lady is happy. The boy was a mere shadow of a man burning under the sun, all the colours and events that appeared around him made him feel like some criminal chained to a lifeless island. It was then that he glanced at the bird table and saw his robin.
‘Ah. He’s back.’ He pointed to the robin that was hopping in the bird table.
‘Yes. He goes where he likes. He flutters when it’s pretty and he swims in the bird table. I like it when he comes into the garden because I’m sure he’s had many adventures already this morning. But he always likes to swim in the bird table. He flies over the wall and sometimes through the gate.’
‘The cat.’ The boy looked at the old lady and clenched his jaw and sought her eyes that he couldn’t see because the sun was on her face. He was irritated now because she told him to shut the gate and now she has left it open for anything to walk in and its bad for the thistles, the poppies, the box-hedging, the delphiniums, the fox-gloves and the lawn that needs to be always cut short to make it look cut.
‘It’s lucky… it’s lucky the cat isn’t here. Isn’t it?’ The boy checked himself to make sure he didn’t sound too hard when he asked this question. Of course it was a joke about birds and cats but in his own head the question was vicious.
‘Ah the cat. He’s just there Douglas... he sleeps away.’ The old lady waved a hand to the empty vase and the cat was lying on its side in front of it. He must have walked in while we were talking, the boy thought. Anything can walk in because the iron-gate is open.
‘Well, I’ll shut the gate then,’ his words were matter of fact.
‘Oh don’t worry, dear. Leave it to me. Go and enjoy the day Douglas, you’ve worked hard. It’s a lovely day.’
The trees made a sound that caused the boy to look around. An irregular breeze was whirling through the tall woodland and the leaves shook the shadows as the sun was hidden above. This sound wasn’t the sound of a ‘lovely day’ and the boy didn’t like it. Everything seemed to be blind and hushed by something that wasn’t there and all the wild blue flowers and the long green and gold grass had been cut to the ground. The boy walked faster through the wood so that he could get to the bridge and be in the light again.
Dougie stood on the old bridge and looked at the water underneath him. It was cold, and the flow of the river was loud and fast and Dougie imagined how cold the water would be if he were to touch it with his finger. How unbearable and painful it would be if he were to submerge his head in the river. It would choke him. The thought of swimming made him shudder and he quickly walked over the bridge to the sandbank where he used to sketch and sleep naked in the warmth of the day. Dougie sat with his arms crossed over his knees trying to spot any fish, any life at all in the drift of the river in front of him. It seemed perilous and unknown as if it were a new river that flowed from a wild place that he did not recognize or understand. He lay back for a while to look at the sky which was pale and it reminded him of the fog he sometimes saw that smothered the old oak which stood far from his bedroom window. He closed his eyes and imagined himself walking through the fog to reach the oak, but the fog wasn’t clearing and it was smothering him too and he couldn’t see, he felt it passing through his mind as it would over a fallen tree. Dougie fell asleep on the sandbank.
All the dead fish on the walls were there and he turned round in a circle to make sure they were still everywhere. The fire was hot in front of him and the room was dark but the boy knew that the ceiling went on forever. There was no celling. He was in the middle of the room and he stepped forward to the fire and knelt down onto his knees. He watched the flames move and flicker and he did not blink once, but he could not see the cat’s eyes this time. The shadows of the flames threw themselves onto the walls and moved like possessed shapes, jerking on the fish scales. But then he saw the black cat, it lay on its side in front of the fire, basking in the heat and its eyes were closed. And another cat. There was an identical cat lying opposite, on its side as well, but its golden eyes were open and were not blinking. One cat glared at the other and Dougie couldn’t move but wanted to fall down into another place, another world away from the cat that was glaring and not blinking. Fear was twitching in his body and his blood was hot in his chest and he couldn’t breath. Just at this moment, when his body was almost intolerable, something darted out from the fire. And then again. And another one came. And another, and more. They were bursting past Dougie as he knelt in front of the green flames and they were flying out from the bottom of the chimney, racing past him with wild speed. The boy then understood they were robins. The room had become a cage of robins as they raced in all directions, like bats, and the boy knew something had to change. The fire was going to burst, the robins were going to die - the room was going to smash like a vase. Something was going to happen.
The dream ended. The boy went home and he told his father that he didn’t want to work anymore, at least not as a gardener for the old lady. Dougie’s father couldn’t understand why he had changed his mind and the boy didn’t want to tell him.
‘But she has lots of work for you Douglas.’ The boy’s father was sitting at the kitchen table. Douglas was standing by the door. He looked at the dirty, cobbled floor.
‘There is nothing left,’ he muttered. ‘All I have to do is cut things down but now she doesn’t even want me to do it.’ Dougie glanced at his father and walked fast up to his bedroom. After closing the door he went to the window to see the oak tree as dusk was falling. He started wondering how many oak trees there must be in the world, all of them that suffer in the weather and that demand space. All of the oak trees live and die and then more come again. That night he slept and he dreamt that the bridge over the river collapsed and he made a new bridge with clean metal that reflected the sun forced in place with heavy, steel bolts that were untouched by rust. But when he finished making the bridge all the water had gone.
The boy knocked three times on the black door of the cottage and he knocked three times again because there was no answer from inside. He was annoyed; the old lady was expecting him. Taking a few steps backwards, he looked up at the windows to see any signs of life. The top windows were both slightly ajar and all of the shutters were open, absorbing the day and letting the fresh air float inside and down the stairs. There was darkness inside but he knew she was there. All Dougie wanted to do was to tell the old lady that he wasn’t going to work anymore, he wanted her to know it quickly and then he would leave. She will be in the garden, he thought.
The gate was open. He stepped over the threshold and he closed the iron-gate. It had been changed by the rain and had developed a noise that irritated him, and so he shut it fast. She was nowhere to be seen. The garden had been treated wildly by the night, as if the walls had decided to leave and then return when everything was clear and still again. Slowly he made his way towards the bird table. He thought of the walls and how satisfying it would be to build something so perfectly accurate. No faults, no deviations from the plan, impenetrable to any storm and unscarred by ivy. The boy reached the bird table and that is when he saw it. The brooch. The black onyx brooch was lying in the bird table staring up at him under the water from the rain.
Immediately he felt sick. His heart throttled his chest and his body shuddered. He couldn’t understand. He took a step back but he felt the walls take a step closer. The garden had caught him and he was alone. The black cat, how he now desperately needed to see it, to look upon something less powerful, lying on its side - breathing but motionless. He didn’t even care if it stared at him. Something else had to witness this before the old lady found it. The boy glanced around the garden trying to search for a reason, an undisputed reason for this obtuse, horrific sight.
The old lady was now at the gate. The boy jumped and looked down the garden to see her, as his eyes focused on her he felt the garden grow narrow and the sky loom higher and darker, like a corridor with no exit. She was smiling and he could see the whites of her eyes, somehow he felt them look all through him and all around him, simultaneously. Under the darkness of the entrance he could see her green shirt. And then of course, but he couldn’t bear to look, the lapel without the brooch.
‘It’s a beautiful day Doug - ’
‘The brooch.’ The words were thrown out of his body and seemed to tumble from his mouth onto the ground like two stones. The brooch now lay in front of the boy; black, dead and heavy in the water, and he felt so far from the old lady. He did not know how his legs would ever be able to tread another step forward, as she stood there in the gate.
‘Ah Douglas!’ The old lady clasped her soft hands together and with this movement the ends of her untidy white hair jumped. Her voice idly swayed.
‘Douglas, dear… the brooch. I lost it dear, I lost it weeks ago.’
‘It’s here.’ Douglas could only mutter the words.
‘It’s here. In the bird table.’ He pointed to the brooch with a straight arm. The air seemed to take a breath, the forming clouds in the sky gently got down on their knees to look closer and the old lady appeared as still as a wax statue.
‘The bird table! You are clever to find it Douglas. You can have it dear; make some money from it. I don’t care for it, not after it’s been outside.’ After the old lady spoke she smiled and turned to go.
‘I want to leave now!’ The boy shouted at her turned back. The old lady carried on walking, further and further from the gate and she didn’t look back.
‘Of course Douglas, of course. It looks like it might rain today. What a day it would be to go for a swim…’
That day the boy went home and began to cut the ivy that was climbing over his house. He never went back to the river.