This is a version of “Animals” (You Should Come With Me Now, Comma Press 2017) cut down from six thousand words to three thousand for a reading in Manchester in 2014—
In late June, Susan rented a cottage for a fortnight. It was tucked away at the seaward end of a lane; beyond it there was only flat light on the sand dunes and open beach.
The paperwork required her to collect the keys from a Mrs Lago, who lived at the other end of the lane where it joined the road. Mrs Lago turned out to be sixtyish, frail-looking but active, with watery blue eyes, bright red lipstick and a selection of cotton print dresses two generations too young for her. During the summer her grassy front garden, across which had been scattered some round white plastic tables, did duty as a cafe. She was in and out all day, carrying trays of cakes, fitting umbrellas into the sockets in the centre of the tables to keep the rain off. In the evening the onshore wind blew everything about, and it lay in the rain looking shabby.
Susan called as instructed and found the garden full of sparrows. They gathered round her while she waited for the keys, cocking their heads right and left. They ate cake crumbs, first from the ground, then the chairs, then the very edge of the table. Then they took off all at once and one of them flew through the open door into the house, where it fluttered inside the window just above the sill among the china ornaments and little vases. Mrs Lago went inside and after some reckless stumbling about appeared with it in her hands at the door. It was squawking and cheeping miserably. As soon as she let it go it shot off across the garden.
“I thought it was going to break my lucky horseshoe,” she said, looking at Susan in a vague but excited way. “It’s been broken once before.”
“Has it ?” Susan said.
You were often the junior partner in a conversation with Mrs Lago, your responses limited to, “Yes. No. Isn’t it ?” and, “I did!” She had a curious lurching walk. She owned two or three dogs that sometimes got out and ran up and down the lane, surprised by a freedom they couldn’t seriously exploit.
Susan got up early and walked by the bay. She enjoyed the light on the waves. Every morning at six, rain showers rustled in off the sea, tapping on the windows like old women in a cheap seafront hotel. Susan, who ate her breakfast standing up in the kitchen where it was warm, stared out at the small ill-kept lawn. It filled her with nostalgia on behalf of the previous occupants of the cottage, whom she imagined as an active, kindly, but not very successful middle-aged couple a little surprised to find themselves still happy with their life after so many years.
“Do you remember,” she imagined them saying to one another, “the year we planted the daffodils and nothing came up ? What a laugh we had over that!”
In the same spirit she lived with their shopping lists, and the cardboard boxes full of Sunday newspapers stowed under the stairs. They had left behind a shelf or two of paperback books, dusty and stained with cigarette smoke–Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson. Though she never managed to reconcile this library with the wallpaper in the kitchen, she felt as if she was looking after these things for them; as if, when she picked the cottage from the bewildering number offered by the internet, she had taken them on for a fortnight too.
After a few days Susan began to find this idea less friendly.
The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard noises, half drowned by the radio she kept on in the kitchen. “It must be the central heating,” she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds she heard were voices. Whatever room Susan was in, they were somewhere else, the voices of a man and woman who, chafed by circumstances, had became as fractious as children. At night in bed, for instance, discussing the house they would buy when the money came through–a really good lump sum rather than these stupid little dribs and drabs they kept getting–Alex would say:
“And no curtains in the study!” I want all the light I can get now, pouring in over the books.”
She would laugh offhandedly at this, and so would he.
“Anyway,” he’d say, “curtains are vulgar. Or they were in Virginia’s day–it’s in her diary. Only the lower middle classes had to have curtains in every window.”
He always called Katherine Mansfield “Katherine” and Virginia Woolf “Virginia”. It often irritated her, but now she was amused.
“Alex, what snobs you three are!” she said.
“You will have some plants, though ?” she asked anxiously after a moment. “Just one or two of my best ?”
“I don’t want–“
“Oh, I won’t fill up your precious window sills,” she said. She smiled. “I won’t need to, with the garden I’m going to have! It’ll be fantastic just to have some room. Vegetables. A greenhouse. Everything!”
“A conservatory,” he said, “with an old grey deal table to work on when it’s too cold outside.” He was silent for a moment. “A walled garden, where I can get away and sunbathe and not hear anything or think about anything. With the light pouring down like a post-Impressionist painting–“
“It will have to face south,” she said.
He writhed away from her suddenly and jumped out of bed.
Susan jumped up too and went for a walk along the coastal path. She stood on one headland looking across at the next. They aren’t the people I expected, she thought. Clouds blew in from the sea, and by ten o’ clock the whole peninsula was drizzle and mist.
On a wet day you could visit either the cathedral with its decaying stone stairs, or the aquarium. The aquarium was the more interesting of the two because at least its occupants were alive. In the main tanks, dogfish and small sharks circled endlessly in the hard light which seemed, as much as water, to be their proper domain. Visitors shuffled round and round too, stopping to nose at a side tank, shoaling briefly around the interactive display. The children were excited, but their parents looked exhausted, and as if they weren’t quite sure how they found themselves there.
Walking back to the cottage after lunch, she considered the aquarium sharks again. They were less like the sisters of Jaws than of a whippet–small, quick, unassuagable. What distinguished them was a quality of patience, a Devonian strength of character no mammal could ever possess. When she got in she stood for a minute or two in the hallway, listening.
“It’s a cranefly!” Alex said. “Christ! How did that get in ? I asked you to close the windows!”
It was clattering round the small untidy room dragging its legs and bumping against the wall. He missed it several times with a sheaf of rolled-up papers. It staggered into his books, fell, flew towards him suddenly so that he dodged back in spite of himself. “Christ!” He hated them so much he could hardly get close enough kill them. It had got down behind the desk among the box files and piles of old newspapers.
“It’s dead now,” she said. She wanted to laugh.
She pulled the sheet over her mouth.
“I can still hear it buzzing,” he said. “I shan’t sleep if I know it’s in here.”
He stood there in his pyjamas, breathing heavily, his eyes quite vacant. After a moment the poor cranefly lurched out into the air again and he hit it against the wall until it was a smear.
“You have to get their rhythm,” he said, throwing down the papers.
The wind turned southwesterly and blew onshore; several wet days followed in a row. Despite the weather, Susan felt like spending less time in the cottage. One afternoon, as she was letting herself back in, she heard, very distinctly, the word, “Don’t.”
She heard the words, “I’m warning you, Alex.”
She heard the words, spoken in a quiet almost conversational tone, “I’ll kill you if you do that.”
There was such depth of promise in those words, such a certainty of purpose. Susan tried to read a book. She slept badly.
A little before ten o’ clock next morning, one of Mrs Lago’s dogs broke into the cottage. It was a collie, quite well-behaved although a little overpowering, and it ate most of Susan’s breakfast. When it saw itself in the mirror. it wagged its tail furiously. It snuffled in the boxes of newspaper under the stairs, peed up the chairs and played with a mouldy tennis ball it teased out from under the cooker. Susan phoned Mrs Lago, who said, “Oh dear, I didn’t even know he was gone. He must have jumped out of the window,” and offered to come and fetch it. Susan, obscurely pleased by the whole incident, perhaps because it had been like having a real visitor, said she would return the dog herself.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Mrs Lago said.
The sea was out a long way; persistent, misty rain had been varnishing everything since before dawn. The dog ran about in the lane, lifting its leg amiably to the brambles. Almost anything made it happy. Later, Susan sat in Mrs Lago’s small front room, looking round at the old china ornaments.
“Are you lonely here ?” she asked suddenly.
Mrs Lago laughed. “Not since I got my laptop,” she said. “I follow the horses.” The laptop enabled her to follow the horses realtime, night and day, all around the world. “I’d never survive the winter without a couple of bets!” The collie whined suddenly and pushed its nose into her hand.
“I’m always rather bad with numbers,” said Susan, who, in more ordinary circumstances, was not.
“It’s changed the face of betting, the internet.”
“Has it ?” Susan said.
She decided to have another cup of tea.
“While I’m here,” she said, “what’s the history of the cottage ?”
“I don’t think it’s got one,” Mrs Lago told her. “It’s only ever been a holiday let.”
“Come back to bed. You look so funny when you get het up like that.”
“I’m having the bedroom empty,” Alex said, staring viciously at the desk and the files, the bookcases and dining chairs they had no room for downstairs. “Completely bloody empty. I hope you’ve understood that. White walls and black woodwork, exactly as they’d have had it then. They knew how to get space round them. White walls and plain varnished floorboards. Maybe a chest of drawers. Christ!” He was shuddering. “Christ!”
Sometimes it seemed to her, as they lay in bed like this, that they already lived in the new house. It would be, ideally, between the hills and the sea. They both loved the hills but neither of them wanted to give up the sea. They’d lived near the sea since they left college. He needed so much space. He could walk twenty miles a day when he needed to. He was actually physically better if he could do that. And he had to admit that she needed plants–really needed them–for the same reason. She needed something to grow.
“Of course salt’s not very good for most plants,” she said as he put the light out.
“That wasn’t another of the bloody things was it ?” Alex said.
A few days after the dog came in, Susan returned from her morning walk to find the cottage door stuck shut. She pushed at it until she was out of breath. Looking through the window into the front room, she thought she saw a movement, a white face struggling with a strong emotion. “Hello ?” she called. Nothing. She stood there a long time. She couldn’t see the face anymore. She wondered if she had ever seen it. When she went back to the door, it opened easily. As she stood in the hallway she heard a calm woman’s voice say:
“Don’t you dare come in here. I’ll kill you if you come in here.”
She heard that voice say that three times:
“I’ll kill you if you come in here.”
She went straight out again, down into the town, and walked about until she found herself in a little triangle of concrete at the corner of two lanes, chained off from the traffic and with a white parapet fronting the sea. Susan decided she would sit down there on a bench until she felt better. Across the bay the speedboats went in and out. Closer, the Lamplighter Gallery advertised a clifftop outing, “binoculars provided”. Susan coaxed a local cat on to her knee, where it sat amiably at first, thick-furred, tabby and self-involved.
“Well,” she thought, “I am honoured.”
The gallery closed for lunch and then opened again. The inshore lifeboat went quickly across the bay, returning about twenty minutes later. Tourists passed down the street behind her, saying, “We’ll have to see if there are enough towels,” and, “Here’s a lady with a cat.” All of this was quite calming. At first she had assumed the cat was a stray, independent in a town of discarded fish and chip wrappers but still on occasion lonely for human company. She felt pleased at how quickly they had taken to one another. But then an oldish man , carrying a packet of frozen beefburgers in a thin plastic bag, came and told her its name. “She’s called Trixie,” he said. “And she likes corned beef.”
After that everyone who came past, even some people who were only visitors like herself, seemed to know the cat.
“Soft thing!” they said, addressing it more than her. “Anything for a warm lap, that one. Go on home, Trixie!”
Somehow this made Susan feel left out as well as cheated. The cat not only had a home, it was part of a community from which she was excluded. She felt a fool. When the first drops of rain fell, and she wanted to shelter, the cat was reluctant to move off her lap. “Off you go,” she said. She tried to pick it up and it bit her, as she had known it would. She watched it run off and thought: I must go back. I must go back and pack my things.
By then it was late afternoon, and raining again. The way the clouds toiled in over the sea, it could have been October. Susan packed her wheeled suitcase and tugged it along to Mrs Lago’s house. She had called the local taxi on her mobile; the keys to the cottage, she kept in her hand all the way down the lane. “I want to give you these,” she said, holding them out to Mrs Lago. “I can’t stay here another night.”
She would prefer to be back in London, she said.
“Something happened here,” she said.
Mrs Lago seemed slow to understand. She had been sitting in the gloom when Susan banged on the door, her face lit up in a faint chaotic procession of colours by the screen of her laptop. A bruised look had settled around her eyes; her vagueness only served to increase Susan’s sense of urgency.
“Those two arrived here as nice a couple as you’d want to meet. But in the end–”
“Which couple ?” Mrs Lago said.
“In the end,” Susan carried on, exasperated, “they fought each other all over the place. She picked up the hammer and he picked up the axe. They fought each other all over the house, in the garden, and up and down the lane there. They stalked one another in the dark.”
“I saw them,“ she said. “Hit and chop, all afternoon and evening, waiting for each other, slipping behind the trees.”
The woman stared at Susan. She tapped the keys of the laptop, the screen of which darkened suddenly. It was clear she didn’t know how to respond.
“Goodbye then,” said Susan.
She dragged her luggage to the end of the lane to wait for the taxi. She jumped at every sound. Every noise sounded like an axe or a hammer, and the sunset was like blood over the grey headland. I don’t know what I might see, she kept saying to herself, I don’t know what I might see. “They were like animals,” she had said to Mrs Lago. “Just like animals.” But she saw nothing and nothing happened to her, and soon enough she was on the train.
Back in London, she took to locking herself out of the house. She dreamed that her urine was corrosive, woke confused in her own bed. Her children were puzzled. It seemed to them that she had gone downhill quite suddenly; it was a pity, at her age, to be already forgetting your keys or phoning people late at night to talk. Things came to a head a month or two later, when a man in an unlabelled delivery van charged her five hundred and fifty pounds for bringing the roof of her bungalow up to European safety standards. It was evident he’d done nothing, but Susan allowed him to drive her down to the bank and wait outside to make sure he got his cash. She was upset when she thought about the incident later; but in a distant way, as if she was observing someone else’s humiliation.
That night, unable to sleep, she went round and round the bungalow in the dark, touching a teacup here or a cushion there, boiling the kettle but letting it lay, listening to the distant thread of traffic on the M25, until she ended up at the sitting room window, staring into the dark.
“Of course I knew really that I shouldn’t pay him,” she thought.