This is what this woman was telling her.
This had also been a dark place. Then this woman’s husband had cut back the ivy, pulled out the old shrubs, the years of dying back, to reveal a wall in the English September sunshine. A dark place no more. A wall separating the garden from the old deer park that used to be beyond, back in the old days. A wall so high that leaping deer could not escape.
But you can help us, she was saying, how great it is that you’ve come to help us. And the woman touched her lightly on the sleeve and smiled. Perfect teeth. Her white shirt shone in the sun and her legs and behind were slender and alive.
It’s so good you have come. We are so sorry, you know, but you’ll be safe here in our house. Don’t mind me, or anything really. Really. So, you can take care of us and we can take care of you. Don’t mind us, we are a bit potty, just tell us to shut up. Well, you know. Wave a hand or something. Don’t worry. Just give me some help about the place, you seem to like the garden. Then James says we can take it from there. See how you feel.
The sun was low. She could see small nipples through the shirt. The woman’s legs were slim and the evening insects were beginning to rise behind her. The garden cooled but the wall seemed warm. The wall continued the length of the garden, down towards a stream with a wooden bridge and then up another field with recently cut paths through long grass. Away to the right was a small copse and another house. The cottage. Beyond, more fields and a darkening horizon.
Come on, let’s get inside. You go up to your room for a wash and I’ll come up when it’s time for supper. Or you can come down if you’re ready.
They turned away from the place where it had been dark before and where the shadows were now falling. They walked past raised beds, between runner beans and tall cardoons to the white kitchen door that was never locked, its big polished handle never turned. Inside the door a pile of wellington boots, tennis rackets and balls, waxed coats on hooks. There was a dresser on which she rested her hands and on the dresser an old cap filled with banknotes and coins. She took off her borrowed boots and left them tidily. She walked into a hallway, thick with green carpets that ran throughout the house. A back staircase took her up two flights to an old attic away from the rest of the family. Four bedrooms for extra guests and two bathrooms. She went into one bathroom, sat on the toilet seat and put her head in her hands.
Beyond the perfect paint on the sash windows the garden continued to settle. She looked out. She looked at the trees. She might go out later. She watched the crows. Far away she could hear an owl. She had run a bath and lowered herself in. The last of the sun reflected off the ceiling and she closed her eyes.
One flight down she stopped and turned through a doorway out onto a broad landing. There was a sweeping staircase at the far end with a long window, stained glass round its edges with flowers and fruits. The window looked out onto more gardens. Two ponds with giant lily pads fading into the dark.
There were four doors on each side of the landing. Between each door was a picture in a frame. The nearest to her was this house. A man in a top hat holding an enormous bull on a rope. She walked on. The next painting was also old. A man walking between two women who were holding on to his arm. The women were looking at him and the man was looking out of the painting, smiling. The next picture seemed to be from Japan. There was a naked woman embracing a large black octopus.
A boy and a girl came through the same doorway that she had used. They saw her and stopped.
Hello. Hi. Sorry, a bit noisy. Harry, pleased to meet you. This is Lizzie. Sorry, just dicking about. Heard you were coming to stay. Excellent stuff. Ma says supper’s nearly ready. She’s downstairs. See you in a bit.
A short silence.
God. Shit. Yes. Sorry about that. Don’t look at those bloody prints Dad’s just bought. Something about, well, yes. I asked him to take them down. Go downstairs and stop my mother drinking all the wine with her sister would you. See you in a bit.
He moved towards her and she backed against the wall and closed her eyes. Sometimes in the morning the sky could be grey with dirty clouds but in one small part there might be a break and a patch of turquoise. You could walk towards it, thinking stupidly that if you walked towards it you would find warmth and sunshine. But you walked anyway. Then an hour later the whole sky in front of you was blue, the sun was out and you were warm. The grass would be fresh and clean, and you could go home.
The boy and the girl ran past her and opened the door opposite. She could see clothes on the floor, the end of the sun through the window, a dressing table with bottles. The door swung shut. She heard them laugh and jump up onto the bed.
In the kitchen the woman was standing at the end of a long wooden table. She was wearing the same clothes. But now had a blue cashmere cardigan over the white shirt. She smiled and waved.
Come in, come in, meet my sister Becks.
Hello dear. Hope you ok? Treating you well. Bloody hopeless hosts really.
Becks waved an empty glass at her sister, who picked up an empty bottle which she waved back, raising her eyebrows. They sat for a moment and then leaped towards the fridge. They pretended to wrestle with the wine. Then they settled down. The woman got her a glass and poured her some.
The “life can be bearable space juice” has arrived.
She drank it slowly.
A man walked in.
Evening all. Sundowners is it? Give us a go.
He walked to the white sink and rinsed a glass. Poured himself some wine. Raised it to the three of them and then drank it in one.
He poured himself another.
Jesus Becks, have you seen the state of your shirt, covered in blood, old thing, you ok? Or have you been having some fun with your new stable boy?
Hah, bloody hah. I cut myself on some trees.
Sorry. Want me to have a look.
It’s been looked at, thanks.
Great. Good. Supper?
Better get another bottle open then.
Beyond the turquoise skies in the far distance are high mountains, on the mountain slopes are rosemary and marjoram, and small purple flowers hold the leeward side of rocks. Buzzards rise and the sun is warm, there is a wind, just a little more than a breeze that is loud in your ears and you can hear nothing but the wind if you turn your head towards it.
She could smell the chicken that was being roasted for their supper. She could smell the juices. The wine tasted sour. She tried to stand up. The woman held her under one arm and steered her towards the door. They walked up the backstairs together, they didn’t talk. The carpet was thick. The wood of the banister was smooth. The mountains were far away and the sun had set and it was dark again. She heard the owl. They reached her room. She smiled at the woman and touched her fingers to her forehead. She sat on the bed. She could hear the thickness of the cotton sheets as they sat down. The woman sat by her and held her hand.
I’ll bring you up some supper. Eat it here. You will feel better.
Her cashmere cardigan had come off her shoulder and her linen shirt was open far down showing her flesh. It was shocking. She left and closed the door.
The dark sky and the purple trees were split at the horizon by a warm yellow and pink strip of sun. Sun beneath clouds in the morning as it rises. There was woodsmoke to the west. Elsewhere no movement. Dull fields recently cropped. The house was quiet. Old doors and thick carpets. The long white wall was high and cold.
On her dressing table was a plate of cold food. She looked at her wrists and at the sky, so much richer and more golden.
But the sun was now up and came to her like a sound, like a roar into her room, and she was the only one who at this instant was welcoming the sun. It was for her and she closed her eyes. She saw words, words that said that her mind was full of the sun and as soon as the words were formed the clouds came down. The sun was gone. The roar left. She wished she had a cigarette.
She was hungry. The chicken was good. Sweet. The potatoes were crisp. At least these people could cook. She carried her plate to the window seat and ate whilst blackbirds pecked across the lawn. The birds were too busy to sing.
At the bottom of the garden ran the stream with its little wooden bridge, wide enough for one. A woman wearing a thick dressing gown was sitting by the side of the stream. She looked into it. Away to her right was the cottage. Its back door was open. A man was standing there, holding a glass and leaning against the doorframe. He appeared to have blood on his penis. He called out to the woman who was now lying on her side and then she rolled into the stream. The man threw his glass towards her, turned and walked back into the cottage shutting the door.
In the kitchen the stove was warm. The table was clear. There were some pans soaking in the sink. In the distance of the house a heating system was beginning to function. The kitchen clock said half past six. She found a glass and drank some water. She looked out the kitchen window, beyond the begonias and cardoons, across the lawn to the side of some gigantic ferns where a woman was lying in the stream.
There was a toilet to the side of the kitchen near the back door. In the toilet was a pile of towels for use at the swimming pool and a couple of bathing robes. She took two of the darkest towels and a robe. She put on a pair of wellingtons and walked out of the back door. There were two fat labradors outside. She held the door open and they sloped back in.
Spiders’ webs shone as she walked down the lawn. At the horizon the clouds parted and a warm dawn broke for a second time. Spiders’ webs draped in dew sparkled. The dark green tops of the trees caught fire whilst down by the stream the sun had yet to come.
The woman was lying on her side in the stream. She was breathing. A little blood had gathered in the pool below her. The rocks were smooth and the water above her was clear. It was cold and the woman was now soaked. Her head was turned away. She moved to the touch and came up from the water, still turned away as she sat on the grass hugging her knees.
She rubbed the young woman’s hair quickly. Working together they pulled off her wet gown and she rubbed her small breasts and back. She lifted the woman up and she stood naked. The sun caught the top of her hair and it blazed. The woman turned. She was young, less than 20. There was blood on her lips. They used both towels to dry her torso and the blood from inside her legs. She put the dry robe around her and smiled. She stood behind the young woman and held her, forcing her head up into the sun. A flock of geese streamed across the sky above them.
There was music playing in the cottage. It was warm. They couldn’t see anyone. The carpet was deep and red. There was the smell of coffee. Across from the door in a small hallway was a low table, a sofa and another table with various visual references to the work that was done there.
A counter to their left had a computer screen behind it and a coffee percolator. She poured two cups and passed one to the young woman. The young woman accepted it and went to sit down on the sofa. She sat on the edge of the sofa and did not lean back on the bright cushions behind her. A picture of a large Japanese bath house hung above her on the wall.
Behind the counter through a door there was a small office. She went in. A chart of women’s names was across one wall. They each had national insurance numbers and start dates next to them and a schedule of further dates, and targets. A number of gold stars had been placed after each name. Next to the chart was a Health and Safety at Work poster, and below that pinned to the wall an Accident book.
Ahead were a row of wire mesh cages. Each was stuffed with condoms, lubricants and paper towels. On the third wall was a bank of CCTV monitors showing for the most part empty rooms. In one room there were two naked men and one naked woman. There was another clothed woman holding a small camera.
Below the screen was a work table. There were piles of printed contracts. She had seen these before. Various boxes that were to be ticked in relation to the various entrances to a woman’s body, what and how many things may be inserted, how often and for how long. The understanding of the necessity to smile, cry in joy or pain as requested. The understanding of what constitutes satisfaction in the work environment, how to provide it and how to have it filmed, authentically.
Smile. Eye contact. Enthusiasm. Tick. Tick. Tick.
A number had only been half completed. One contract that had been put to the side had a black star on its cover sheet. She looked back up at the screens. A cleaner had entered one room wheeling a little trolley with a number of different sprays. She pulled in a vacuum cleaner and plugged it in. In the occupied room the men were getting down to business.
In the afternoon she was free to do as she pleased. She had helped in the vegetable garden in the morning. She used a large wheelbarrow to move yellow and green marrows. From the orchard they picked as many of the early ripening apples as had been left by the wasps. They washed the marrows in the big white sink with sun coming in through the windows and then left them in long rows on the kitchen table to dry. Tomorrow they would make chutney, she was told.
Good morning’s work though. Don’t know how I could’ve done it without you. Let’s call it a day and have a bash at the chutney first thing tomorrow. You might like to go down to the village. It’s a bit quiet but everyone’s so friendly. Have a look in the community shop. They ought to sell our chutney when it’s done in a month or two. Take some of the money from by the back door, you’ve certainly earned it today, haven’t you?
She wished she had known how high the hedges were and how fast the cars drove down the lanes. It was a fifteen minute walk and very dangerous. At night you would be killed. She got to the village having been in the hedge three times. She would find a way back across the fields.
The village was empty. The houses were freshly painted. Some were thatched. They had driveways covered with newly strewn yellow and brown pebbles. The pebbles shone. There were neat beds of high flowers with many bees and butterflies. There was a small pond in the centre of the village, a bench and a church. No one apart from the server was in the shop. The shop didn’t sell cigarettes. She bought some expensive matches.
She came back across the fields heading for the long white wall. She was wearing good boots and thick jeans. The fields of stubble were hard to walk across. There were crows chasing the few buzzards small mammals.
The wall had a small gate on it’s top at one point with old stone steps leading up. She climbed the steps and looked down at the gardens below her, neatly arranged lawns, beds, vegetable patch, ponds, house, far fields, copse and cottage. Near the wall was a hard surface tennis court with wire fencing around it. The boy from the house and his girlfriend were playing. The girlfriend was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a bra. He wore shorts. They waved and she waved back. She walked towards the house and sat down on the edge of one of the raised beds listening to the hum of the bees moving in and out of the flowers. Beyond them she could hear a conversation in the kitchen.
I bloody can. I told her not to go there. Fuck knows what she said.
She can’t bloody talk, you cretin.
Thanks for the cretin, sorry I’m not as clever and bright as you darling, but she still has vocal chords.
Just leave her a fucking lone, she’s supposed to be fucking resting, bright boy.
Bollocks, Bol-Locks to that. She’ll have to go.
She stood up and walked over towards the court. They were kissing over the net. The boy had his hand down the front of the girl’s tracksuit bottoms. He saw her and slowly stopped. The boy and the girl both looked at her.
Sorry. Seriously. Would you like to play?
She walked onto the court.
Here, borrow these.
The girl ran over with a pair of trainers. Then handed her a racket. The boy gently lobbed a couple of balls over the net which she stroked back. He began to take it in turns to hit to her and then to his girlfriend. They continued for a little while until she struck the ball back hard. It landed just inside the base line and then hit the wire fence behind him. She continued to do this every time the ball came to her. Hard, fast, in court and out of his reach. A winner each time.
This isn’t much fun.
He’s gone out to meet some of his friends down at the cottage. He won’t be home till late. Thank god, eh? Bit of female time. Cin cin old thing.
They ate thick slices of orange melon with some cured ham. Then they ate smoked salmon with cucumber and watercress, warm new potatoes, lots of butter and salt. They drank the same wine they had drunk the night before. By the time they had finished their food there were two empty bottles on the table.
She opened another.
In for a penny.
They walked outside and sat on a wall looking away from the stream. They sat in silence. After a while the woman sighed.
It is odd. He’s never been good at making money. Now he’s found something that he is good at. It’s in his blood, he says. Has a ring to it. A captain of industry. Well it is, isn’t it. It is. An industry. A business? Well, yes. But oh fucking hell No. No, no, no. It’s just bollocks.
The woman stood up and walked away from the house up the path. She had a glass in one hand and a bottle in the other. She raised the one hand with the bottle and waved it but did not turn around.
More wine. Shower. Bad dreams.
She had forgotten to shut the curtains. Sun filled her room. It was not as early as when she woke the day before. She moved slowly to the bathroom. Drank cold water from the tap. Then she went back to bed. She fell asleep. No dreams.
She woke up again and went to the window. The sun was up and the grass was nearly dry. She could see large spiders hanging in mid air but she could not see their webs. The stream gently flowed. One of the fat labs walked down to the stream, drank a little and then lay in the water. When it got out it tried to shake itself dry.
She had a shower. It was powerful. The shampoo smelled of confected rosemary. The towels were two days old but smelled fine. Should she change them? She wouldn’t ask so she would wait to be told. She stared into the mirror. Her head hurt but she looked fine. She closed her eyes and walked back to the bed. She lay naked on the bed and fell asleep.
She woke abruptly to see her door being closed. She breathed deeply but did not get up. The sun was high now through the window. She rolled off the bed and got dressed.
In the kitchen the wife was standing by the stove.
Good effort, especially on a school night. Feel a little fuzzy myself so maybe we chutney tomorrow my love. Thought you’d be gutted. Well, all good things, all good things. Anyway, nearly hair of the dog time but not quite yet.
She was wearing her tight jeans again. A blue silk shirt and no bra. She ran her hands through her hair and moaned.
Dear God, will I ever learn?
Learn what honey? Her husband walked in.
Come here. Let me help.
She stood in front of him. He sat down and pressed his head into her chest.
He looked up.
Right. I have a solution. OK. First, a coffee. Second, a chat with my other favourite lady in this room. Fat head as well I suspect. Fine. Nothing wrong with that from time to time. Never mind. Have a day of schlepping around by all means. Then we’ve got to get you to work somehow. Bit of help around here is good, but maybe not quite enough to keep you occupied. Well, there’s plenty of other stuff you could do. Lot’s to be getting on with. I was wondering if perhaps a bit of a promotion might help. A little more responsibility. Important to have ambitions, a few personal goals. Have a think about how you could use that experience you now have. Perhaps a bit of mentoring. Support the staff. Help them stay focussed, see the big picture and not get bogged down in the day to day nitty gritty. Have a think. Maybe when your head is a wee bit clearer. Coffee. Great. Thanks.
They walked out of the kitchen leaving her alone. She walked to the stove where there was a pot of coffee. She put her arm down on the hot plate till it burnt. She poured some coffee and went outside into the sun. Three dragonflies passed, their wings loud. The swallows appeared to have left. Swans would be arriving soon. She walked to the lawn and lay on the grass. It was dry. She slept and the coffee went cold.
The house was quiet apart from old wood settling. She went into the spacious sitting room. There was a TV, two large oak tables and three settees covered in bright fabrics. She sat in one. She looked out of the window. Sky, trees, clouds. Her head hurt.
Next to her was a pile of magazines on a low side table. She pushed them with her feet from the table onto the floor. They made a glossy puddle and she slid across them as she walked out of the room to go back to bed.
In the night she woke. The house was quiet. There was distant noise outside. Cars coming. She heard car doors opening and shutting. Men’s voices.
Thick cotton duvet covers, deep duvet, carpet, muted paint tones, matching towels, old prints. All in place again. A pair of magpies sat on her window sill and looked at her and then at each other. They flew off and she walked to the window.
Below her the wall. Above her, the trees. In front of the trees, the stream and the fields and a clear turquoise sky. The sun just up. Down in the stream there was no daylight. A young woman was lying there.
Picking up a bag from under the bed she walked downstairs. Again she selected towels and a robe from the toilet by the kitchen door. The same spiders’ webs, the same birds’ songs, the same woman. One eye shut, one open. Lips bloody. She was looking up at the sky turning blue. She lifted herself up and they took all her clothes off. They dried her again. They walked up to the cottage. To the right of the cottage there were four black cars parked.
The back door of the cottage was open. They stepped in and it seemed very warm. The smell of coffee, the screens in the office. Three bottles of wine and some empty glasses on the counter. She put the bag she had carried from her bedroom onto the countertop next to the glasses and unzipped it. She pulled out a jumper and a pair of jeans. These she offered to the girl who shook her head and motioned to a room to their right. The room contained a row of lockers with some old church pews as benches in front of them. The woman opened a locker and began to change.
The office was silent, tidy and organised. Three of the six monitors showed empty rooms. In each of the other three were two naked men and one naked woman.
The young woman from the stream was now fully clothed and they stood together. She was smart. English country style. Like the wife. She hadn’t put any make-up on. The young woman showed her a bag containing other women’s clothes and handbags.
She took the young woman’s elbow and walked her to the back door. There was a green plastic container by the door. She opened it and made the young woman smell. The young woman smiled. They walked back inside. She took the expensive matches from her pocket. They were handmade by a family firm recently re-established. They were real matches.
She poured the petrol over the office, up the wall charts and development plans, into the shelves and over the CCTV monitors. She struck a match. It flared red and yellow like an explosion. Quite a match. The fire started.
The young woman ran along the corridors shouting. Fire, fire, everyone out, fire. By the time she got back she was laughing. Her open eye was watering and they hugged. She picked up her bag. The office was ablaze and the fire was spreading up the walls of the hall.
They walked out the back door and went round to the front of the cottage. The breeze blew the smoke away towards the white wall. It got to the wall and then swept up over it and beyond. They watched the men come out carrying their clothes and then try to dress hurriedly before they climbed into the cars, hopping as they did and then sitting on the seats of the cars to put on their socks and shoes. They did not speak or look at the women.
There was no fire alarm. Three women wrapped in towels and sheets came out into the daylight from the cottage. The other two women handed them their clothes. They dressed looking at the cars.
A small car pulled up and the cleaner got out. She stood watching the men in their cars and then lit a cigarette. Two of the cars pulled away. Two waited. One man got out and leant against the thick door of his car. The windows of the other car rolled down. The faces inside were hidden in darkness. There was a smell of vanilla and smoke.
Need a lift? Reckon I can squeeze most of you in. I’ve got the day off. Can take you anywhere you like?
The women looked at each other. One went over to the cleaner and asked for a light.
We’ve got plenty of cash. Could have a great day. Come on. It’s cold and I bet the cops will be here soon.
The woman with one eye shut shook her head.
No. Thanks ever so for asking. Perhaps we ought to make our own way now. I think we’ve seen enough of you already. Ladies?
All the other women stood together in silence. The engines of the cars started up and they pulled away into the dawn. The cottage was burning now. It wouldn’t take long. The darkness was going. Another line of geese flew overhead. Things in the earth were bedding down for winter. The women turned and looked away from the cottage up the long white wall towards the house.
Nick Telfer is a writer and artist. He was born in London and lives in Manchester. Photo by Des D. Mona (Flickr).