He came up the road a little after six, a big man with a soft, lumbering gait, thick shoulders hunched from a day that had begun with the dawn milking. A brief but violent late-morning downpour had caught him in the fields and soaked him through, and even after several hours spent perched behind the tractor's wheel his shirt and jeans remained damp to the touch, and warm-smelling with the mineral tang of sweat and mud. But because the sun had come out, hot enough for a while to scald, and settled the whole island with the burnished glow of a perfect August evening, his mood, having given way to torpor, was light and calm. Dragging at the air in long, smiling breaths, he followed the road up between the head-high briar ditches bright on both sides with blooming fuchsia and honeysuckle and alive to the bother of wasps, bees and the occasional flitting greenfinch or babbler. He made the same traipse at roughly this time every day, even though his own home lay in a different direction.
At home, if she'd already finished her day's chores, his wife would be sitting at the table beside the open window, her broad, dowdy head bent over the crossword puzzles that she never seemed to finish. She'd fill in the short words with slow, fat capital letters, then spend several minutes glaring at the rest of the clues, tapping the butt of the pen against her upper front teeth. When it eventually became clear to her that she'd reached an impasse, her way was to seek a six-letter space, preferably Down, because that for some reason appealed to her, though Across would suffice in a pinch, and with her usual slow care she'd spell out her own name, M-A-R-T-H-A. Were he to enter at such a moment, he'd invariably meet a look that seemed equal parts wonder and confusion, as if his appearance, even after some thirty-one years of marriage, still held for her a stranger's surprise. She'd stare, eyes big and pale behind the thick round lenses of her bifocals, and then return her attention to the page, to set about colouring in the remaining blank squares so that, from a distance, if you happened to be colour-blind, you might assume the puzzle had been completed.
The evening had fallen mostly still and the dead smut of earlier rain-cloud lingered now only as a memory in the east. Weather for sitting out, he thought, not bothering to make words of the sense but pausing once just where the ditch broke for a four-rung gate, its iron rusted down to the maroon marrow of old blood. Weather for sipping a glass of cold beer and savouring the end part of another day well spent. He leaned his weight on the gate's top rung, stopping not because he was out of breath, though he was, but so that he could gaze out over the spill of the land, the misshapen fields empty except for swathes of the same measly yellow grass that grew everywhere on the island at this time of year, off to where the ocean stretched in a dappled blue fringe clean to the edge of the sky. As a young man he'd thought often about the things that must lay beyond the horizon, but having fished that water almost from the time he could stand up in a boat without needing to be held, the lesson time and tide had taught him was that the sea went on without end, with neither bottom nor sides. Beyond the horizon, there could only ever be more of the same. That saddened him, especially when he saw others go, friends, neighbours, neighbours' children, because their leaving caused him to remember again how he'd had his own heart taken that one time and drowned, and because he'd come to understand that there was nothing to be said, no words of warning that they'd heed. The whispering promises of the surf and the gold and silver that flecked the water's surface were a lure, tempting the wild-hearted away from solid footing, but those who took the bait would have to learn for themselves, the hard way, the way everybody did.
He continued to smile, forcing it now, until the sadness receded and the day was again sweet. Time had its own tide. On impulse, in turning away from the gate, he stooped and plucked some strands of goldenrod and red campion and, as an afterthought, a few wild roses, their white petals blushing a touch pink in places. Then, flowers in fist, he continued up the road, whistling the first airy strains of a tune he knew as The Minstrel Boy, to the little cottage set so neatly into a hard sweep of ground that it lay entirely hidden from view until you came within barely five paces of its front door.
“Hello?” he called, pushing his way inside without bothering to knock. The door, as always in hot weather, was ajar. After the sunshine of the hill road, the hallway, which led in from the side of the house and divided the tiny building fairly neatly in half, had a cool darkness that encouraged sighs. To his left, just inside the door, was an immaculately white late-edition bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower, that had been converted only in the early Nineteen-Eighties from a small box bedroom; and further along, another slightly larger bedroom, a shadowy room that across the span of some five generations had known seventeen births and probably a dozen final breaths.
“Hello?” he called again, raising his voice a little and feeling its heft out of place in the hallway. “Are you here, at all?”
“I'm here,” an old woman's voice answered, after a couple of heartbeats, from ahead and to his right. A small bird's chirp of a voice, pitching without effort, though tinged with impatience. “I'm still here.”
She was sitting in the armchair beside the living room's blackened fireplace, and he knew at a glance that he'd woken her from sleep. He lingered within the frame of the room's doorway and felt his eyes drawn to the two small windows opposite. The light in here was soft and dull, diffused and made shadowy by the think fleece of pale net curtain. “There's a nice bit of sun out now,” he said. “That drop of rain from earlier is after making the air grand and clean. You should bring a chair outside for an hour. It'd do you a power of good.”
“Was it weeding, you were?”
“What? Oh, these.” He smiled at the posy of wildflowers still in his fist. “I saw them on the way up and thought they'd brighten the place a bit for you. The ditches at the moment are ripe with colour.” A chipped brown vase sat in the centre of the old mahogany folding table, full still with the last bunch of flowers he'd picked, some ten days or so ago. Late crocuses, violet and butter yellow, sprigs of bluebell, cerise and lilywhite foxglove. The bluebells were beginning to wilt, but the bouquet as a whole had yet to lose its vibrancy, and instead of replacing or thinning the older blooms he simply added the new cuts to the mix.
“Lazy man's load,” she mumbled, watching him from the fireplace.
He looked at her, then considered the new display. “I don't know. I think they look good. Wild. The way they were born to look. You haven't a drop of beer going, I suppose?”
She flapped a dismissive hand. “If you didn't finish what you brought up last week then there ought to be. You'd know better than I would.”
He continued to stand there, awkward with his size, in the middle of the floor, shoulders still slumped, the knuckles of one hand set in a frozen knocking gesture against the table's polished top. His expression looked to have fallen between thoughts.
“Is it waiting for me to pour it, you are? It'll be in the pantry if it's anywhere. And sure I'll take a drop too, so, if you're having it. Half a glass. Just for the taste. I've had the flavour of copper in my mouth all day. It's like I've been sucking pennies.”
He went through into the pantry, opened a cupboard in the corner and took out two of the small brown bottles from among the five that he'd tucked away the previous Sunday. He twisted off the caps, poured half of one bottle slowly into a long glass and stood watching creamy froth rise from the cloudy golden-red liquid. While the ale settled, he drained the remainder of the bottle in a couple of deep, thirsty swallows, then picked up the glass and the second uncapped bottle and returned to the living room.
The old woman had closed her eyes again. He stood a moment, then settled across from her in the second armchair. The only sound in the room – in the world, even – was the thin stutter of the mantle-clock shucking seconds. There was something rare about the stillness, combined with the thick, cool seep of the light, and because he could consider her without needing to break down the defence of her own returning stare, he saw her more clearly than he had in the longest time.
“I'm not asleep,” she whispered, after a minute or two, her voice soft as a sigh, barely achieving sound.
“Don't worry,” he said. “I have my beer.”
The faintest hint of a smile tipped the corners of her mouth. “I wasn't worried in the least about that.”
Her face this past couple of years had begun caving in around the prod of bone, so that everything was becoming juts and hollows, her cheeks beneath their pointed ridges, her mouth between her chin and long slender ridge of nose. As long as he'd known her, she'd been thin. Hawkish, he supposed, in the eyes of those who didn't know her softness. But now it seemed as if her bones were shrinking, leaving her skin, baked to hide and cobwebbed with creases, to hang thick and laden from her edges.
“Don't stay long. Martha will be wondering where you are.”
“Sure she knows. If I'm not home I'm either in the fields or up here. She'll not worry.”
The old woman watched him pull a mouthful of ale from his bottle. Except for the life in her eyes, the focus, she was little more than husk. The glass of beer, still to be tasted, rested on one knee, gripped in her left hand, dark-coloured because of the shadows, the burnt, glassy brown of amber or old wood.
“How is she?”
“Ah, she's grand. The same, you know. It hurts her a bit to swallow, and some nights she keeps me awake with the whistling. It's the goitre, she says. Her grandmother had it.”
“Plenty of milk, then. And periwinkles, if she'll eat them. Tell her don't look beyond the old cures.”
He and Martha had grown easy with one another. Love wasn't a word that generally entered their equation, though only because there'd been someone else, a long time ago, and he found it hard to give away again what had already been given once and broken. But then he hadn't been Martha's first choice either, and in time they'd both come to understand that love wasn't everything. During the first few years, when so much still seemed possible, they made the best of their situation. Having no illusions simplified matters. They were partners, sharing the workload, surviving together. And it was good to have someone. Over the years, they'd learned one another's ways, and had each grown comfortable with how the other filled space and effected the silence. Now, more than half a lifetime on, they rarely argued any more, and routine gave them not only balance but an identity. Sometimes, much more so during the early years of their marriage but occasionally even still, lying awake in the dark, each of them listening to the hushed draw of the other's breathing, it was easy to give in to the thoughts that kept them lit, and lovely in such moments to take her into his arms and to let himself be guided in a way that met both their needs. The heart wants what it wants, but will often learn to settle for what it can get.
He hit the bottom of his bottle unexpectedly, and his thirst remained unquenched. There was beer left in the pantry but the room around him had fallen so still that it didn't feel quite right to move, and so he remained in his armchair, gripping the bottle and trying to enjoy the coolness of the dark glass against his callused palm. Across from him, the old woman's eyes were slipping relentlessly shut. For a minute or two at a time she'd indulge the sense of calm, then struggle to revive herself only to be soon or quickly dragged back down under another wave of drowsiness.
“I'm sorry.” She cleared her throat, and stirred a little. “It's this weather. It has me exhausted. I can't seem to keep awake.”
“You're lucky,” he said. “I haven't slept properly in weeks. There's too much light out. And with Martha whistling alongside me – like a bird, she is, some nights – I can only lie there, watching the window for the dawn. And I get to thinking. You know. That's the worst of it. About all kinds of things. I tell you, it makes the short nights very long.”
A fresh wave of sleep broke, and this time threatened to drown her. She went under and remained there, down at the bottom. In the armchair, she looked very small. Her feet, he noticed, tucked into square-toed shoes the leather colour of bog turf and with steel buckles that had years' since lost their sheen, barely reached the linoleum. Nothing moved, and he found himself leaning forward in search of the rise and fall, however slight, that would signal the continuance of life. The way he and Martha had, taking turns, with the infant, Michael, all those years earlier, back when they were still young enough to believe in dreams. Not that it had made any difference in the end, because nights always kept a part of themselves hidden, and even if you succeeded in remaining awake there were still oceans worth of things that would never be seen. Placid surfaces, he'd come to learn the hard way, were more often than not just another kind of lie. He stared at the old woman, and for a while there was nothing to see but skin like tree-bark and long, silky wisps of hair whitened to translucence by the spill of light from the nearest window. But then her mouth clenched and a tongue flashed across her thin lower lip.
“I dreamed of your father,” she said. “All night long. I closed my eyes and there he was, the way he always was of a morning after getting the fire lit; in his shirtsleeves and braces, his cheeks and chin black with a night's stubble. He turned on the wireless and we danced around the room, just like when we were first married. Slowly, hardly moving, I feeling small and safe in his arms, his body strong as a reef inside his clothes. I knew the whole time that it was a dream but it was so vivid I could smell the oily tang of his skin, and didn't want it to ever end. When I finally woke, I wept, because my mind had carried his voice in whispers back through into the world with me.”
“It's just a dream. We all have them. Even ones like that.”
“I suppose. But they can leave such a mark. And some wounds are beyond healing. Honestly, I haven't been right all day.” She shook her head and, noticing the glass of beer, lifted it to her mouth and sipped. Froth clung to her lip and the tip of her nose. “Can't you go, boy? Martha will have a crust on your dinner trying to keep it warm.”
He sighed. “All right. I suppose I better. But sure I'll be up along tomorrow. And Martha will give a call in the morning. Is there anything you need, at all?”
“Nothing for you to be fretting about.”
He hesitated, then stood, stepped close to her and kissed her cheek. He skin was cool and rough, not as he'd remembered it. “Bye, Mam,” he whispered, against her ear.
She closed her eyes again and the smile deepened on her mouth. “Bye love. And don't forget to tell Martha what I said about the periwinkles. Tell her I said my boy is lucky to have the likes of her. Even if he doesn't always know it.”
Outside, the evening seemed brighter than before, golden and lazily alive, clotted with birdsong. The sky now was clear of cloud from edge to edge in all directions, and the warm, mottled turquoise of a blackbird's eggs. He started back down the road slowly. The slope made walking easy at first, but the gradual accumulation of gravity soon began to feel like a hand against his back, and wherever the stretch turned particularly steep he had to fight to keep from quickening into a run.
To his right, wherever the ditches broke or fell to below eye-level, he caught sight of the sea. Still as a stone from this distance, glittering in the sunlight. The blueness made him think again of Hannah. She'd lived on the other side of the island, the land side, and at fifteen, and for the couple of years that followed before the boat to the mainland, then to England and from there to who knew where, she'd never missed an opportunity to hold his hand. She had long tangled mud-black hair, always shining as if from rain, and heavy-lidded eyes the Spanish colour of a burnt dirt that clenched shut in laughter and in the higher moments of love, and for the better part of their teenage years they'd walked together, danced in fields, kissed whenever they thought no one was looking, traded secrets and dreams and made the best and most of any hidden places they could find.
She left, the way so many did, and once all hope of a return was lost, gone was the same as dead. But the ghosts lingered. The sight of the sea on a good day always made him recall her with a mixture of wonder and the old sadness, and if the bad days tended to heavily outweigh the good then there was still usually an hour, or five minutes, or a single heartbeat, during which the sun would seep into view to light up the air and keep memories alive, and there was the constancy of the water, the waves pulling like drawn breaths towards the land, to smash against the rocks and shore.
Without thinking, he dropped to his haunches and began to pluck more wildflowers. Bees scurried among the foxgloves, so he gathered whatever came to hand, harebell, columbine, cowslip, spools of honeysuckle, sweet violet. At home, there'd be a dinner waiting on a plate, potatoes, cabbage, maybe a bit of mutton, and a bottle of something sweet to drink cooling in a water bucket in the shade. And Martha. On days like this, he had no appetite, though it would be nice to sit outside with a beer and wait for darkness. She'd wonder about the flowers, but wouldn't remark on them, except to smile, and if he kissed her she'd kiss him back, probably laughing as they came together. In another month, he'd turn fifty, and when he closed his eyes it was as if the years had meant nothing in their passing. He could tell himself, and believe, that he was who he'd always been, in one breath an old man, in the next still very much a boy, and he kept his losses close because time's barriers were soft.