They were supposed to take turns driving, but Elaine fell asleep before they’d even left the M25. Mark glanced at his wife and then back to the road. He reached down for the button that reclined her seat; Elaine moved a little as the seat went back and then settled. Her hands rested in her lap. The odours of sweat and stale food drifted from her blue Staff Nurse’s uniform.
They had planned to leave early and make for the cottage before rush hour started, but a late shift handover had trapped Elaine. They would still have Friday, one full day and night, in the cottage before the new owners came to collect the keys. Most of the furniture had already gone and there wasn’t much they needed to do, but he wanted to spend a little time there, take a final look around.
As they headed north in darkness, most of the traffic died down. Secure in the warm cocoon, Mark watched the red tail lights’ blur and felt the comforting drone of the engine. They crossed into Wales after midnight and wound through hills and mountains, their headlights picking out jagged dry-stone walls, stunted trees. As they passed Llanberis and turned towards the village, Elaine yawned, stretched, rubbed her eyes. She pulled the taut seatbelt from between her breasts and raised the seat.
‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’
‘I felt fine, and you looked out of it.’
Elaine stared into the early morning darkness. ‘I was; that was a bad one.’
Outside the village, the road became a steep switchback. Even after all these years, Mark almost missed the turning into the cottage; he reversed up to the driveway and stopped the car in front of the gate.
‘You want me to get it?’ Elaine asked, undoing her seatbelt and reaching back for her jacket.
‘It’s okay.’ Mark left the engine running and climbed out. The rusting metal gate felt rough and cold and wet as he pushed it open. He parked on the grass in front of the cottage and went back to close the gate.
Elaine stood in the short grass in front of the cottage, shivering in her NHS fleece jacket and thin cotton uniform. Mark stood beside her for a moment before slipping his arms around her. They could see the sharp lights of Anglesey Island across the strait, and the cold stars above. The cottage lay behind them, dark and squat, merging into the hard ground.
‘I can smell the sea,’ Elaine said.
‘The wind’s from the west. We always got the worst of the weather. Made me wonder why anyone would build a house up here.’
‘A home. Not just a house.’
He nodded. ‘I’ll get the fire going.’
Inside the porch, his key scraped along the door until it found the lock. As usual, the main room of the cottage felt cold and faintly damp. Mark found the electricity meter on the wall above the doorway and slid the prepay card through the slot. A single bare bulb flickered on as the meter came to life.
Mark ignored the coal-fired cast-iron room heater and reached for a small electric fire, a sad thing of fake wood veneer and plastic coals. As the nichrome bars began to glow red they filled the air with burning dust.
‘Cozy,’ Elaine said, looking around the bare room. Most of the furniture had been sold off weeks before, and only a small oak chair, a scratched melamine table, and a pile of books and magazines remained. A frayed carpet, once red and gold, covered most of the original stone flags.
Mark brought in folding camp beds, sleeping bags and pillows from the car and set them up in front of the fire. ‘Will you be comfortable enough?’
Elaine smiled. ‘I could sleep on my feet.’
When he switched the fire off and slid into his sleeping bag beside Elaine, Mark looked through the window and saw the first faint streaks of dawn against bunched cloud banks. He lay back for a moment, with one arm behind his head, and stared into the darkness. He had lost count of how many nights he’d spent in the cottage, as a boy and then a married man. The memories drifted in like flotsam on the tide, each one turning and twisting in the flow.
Mark woke to the smell of coffee. Still in his sleeping bag, he swung his feet to the floor. He looked at the glowing bar of the fire and blinked, unsure for a moment who or where he was.
Elaine kissed him and held out a mug of fresh coffee. Her other hand still held the old Bialetti percolator, the hexagonal steel and chrome machine Mark’s mother had brought back from France.
‘What time is it?’
‘Ten; you overslept.’
‘So should you.’
‘Force of habit,’ she said. ‘The shifts screwed up my body clock years ago.’
Mark gulped his drink. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘Getting washed in cold water and making breakfast.’ Elaine had drawn her long blonde hair back into a ponytail and changed into jeans, sweatshirt and boots. She still wore her jacket, despite the fire.
‘I didn’t think there’d be enough gas left in the bottle.’ The new stove in the kitchen ran off squat bottles of liquid petroleum gas.
‘Just enough for this,’ Elaine said, holding the Bialetti. ‘But we’ll have to eat out later.’
After sharing stale supermarket croissants with Elaine, Mark washed and shaved in lukewarm water. The tiny bathroom had once been a storeroom for coal, firewood and barrels, and still opened out into the back yard of the cottage. Mark pulled the stiff door open and stepped outside.
The cottage had been built into the side of the steep hill, so that the ground at the back was level with Mark’s eyes. In the small space between the rear of the cottage and the retaining wall, basically a wide trench, Mark’s parents had created a stone garden. That’s what Mark had called it, never expecting to see any living plants flourish. The neat flowerbeds, edged with local blue slate, had been filled with pale gravel. Gravel of a different colour, almost honey in shade, filled the pathway running down the centre of the long, narrow space.
Mark was surprised to see plants surviving among the weeds and couch grass: California poppy, ceanothus, astilbes and campanulas all erupted from the sea of gravel. Clematis clung to the irregular, stepped surface of the walls, while ferns huddled in the shade of the far corner. A few autumn-flowering bulbs had pushed their white and lilac heads up through the gravel; their delicate, top-heavy stalks swayed gently.
An empty bird feeder—a long transparent plastic tube suspended from a cable slung between the cottage and the wall—moved in the wind. As Mark watched, a sparrow flew to the feeder and pecked at one of the oval openings, then flew away, disappointed. Another bird, with a wedge-shaped head, sleek brown feathers and bright eyes ringed with scarlet, landed on the feeder, but saw Mark and flew off.
Mark remembered laying the skeleton of that garden with his father, pushing the slabs of slate into the hard earth and carrying the bags of compost and gravel from the car. The garden had been created for his parent’s retirement, a private, enclosed space they could work in when they moved out to the cottage for good. Now the shrubs were overgrown and untidy, and fighting for space with the weeds.
Mark found Elaine in the main room, loading books into cardboard boxes. She asked, ‘Are we keeping all these?’
‘Let’s see.’ Mark took a handful of books at random and leafed through them. Most were paperback mysteries and Westerns, with a few romantic novels thrown in, all good diversions for winter nights when the storms tore at the cottage and the coals glowed in the grate.
‘They’re not much good,’ Elaine said, holding up a hardback book whose spine had peeled away like flayed skin.
‘I know, but I’d like to keep them.’
Elaine stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
In the bedroom, Mark found the old iron bedstead stripped of its mattress and standing alone. At the foot of the bed, the small window, set deep in the two-foot thick walls of the cottage, looked out towards the village below and the sea beyond. He said, ‘I think I’ll drop in to Llanberis. Want to come?’
Elaine appeared at the door. ‘No, I’ll hang on here. But you could bring something back for lunch. And a bottle of wine.’
He kissed her on the cheek. ‘See you later.’
He drove into the town and found a supermarket in place of the grocery and bakery he remembered. He bought bread and cheese, salad, and two bottles of Shiraz. As he carried the food in his arms to the checkout, he noticed bird food on a revolving stand, and added two packets to his pile.
When he got back to the cottage, he found Elaine talking to a man by the front door. She had her arms crossed and her head tilted to one side.
Mark climbed out of the car. ‘Everything okay?’
The man, unsmiling and sallow-faced, stood with his hands in his pockets. He wore a torn waxed jacket and brown trousers. Small wisps of grey curled from under his cap.
‘You must be Gwen’s boy.’ The man’s voice had a soft lilt.
‘That’s right. Mark.’
The man nodded, but kept his hands in his pockets. ‘I knew your mother’s family. I been keeping an eye on the place, these past few months.’
‘We appreciate it,’ Elaine said, glancing at Mark.
The man turned away for a moment. ‘It was a bad usiness, I heard. These roads can take you by surprise, even in the spring.’
Mark said nothing.
‘I know Gwen wanted to spend her last few years out here,’ the man continued.
‘So did my dad,’ Mark said.
Elaine looked from Mark to the visitor and asked, ‘Do you know the family who are moving in?’
‘I do,’ the man told her. ‘It’s my friend’s son and his wife. They been looking for a place round here for two years now, but couldn’t afford the prices. They’re fed up renting.’
He turned to Mark and said, ‘You know, you could’ve got a lot more money if you’d sold it to a tourist. They’re loaded with cash, and always on the lookout.’
Mark looked at the cottage. ‘Maybe so.’
The man nodded again. ‘Well, I’ll be leaving you, then. I got work to do.’
Elaine and Mark watched the man walk to the gate; he paused and turned back to them. ‘You got a decent place, here. Gwen had a good eye.’
Mark carried the groceries inside before helping Elaine clean the cottage. They wiped down the thick whitewashed walls and brushed the stone flagged floors. The kitchen, little more than a deep Belfast sink set beside the stove, filled with sunlight as the day wore on. Mark brought coal and kindling in from the small stone shed. He opened the charred fire glass door of the cast iron room heater and laid twists of newspaper, kindling, and then coal inside, ready for a fire.
Elaine cut bread and cheese while Mark opened the wine. She said, ‘Let’s have a picnic.’
They sat on the stone bench outside the front window, with the food laid out between them. Mark poured wine into two mugs, since all the glasses had been packed away. As he ate, he looked out over the land below, at the empty fields, and the distant waves catching sunlight. The wine, hot and peppery, warmed him.
‘He was right,’ Elaine said.
‘Our talkative visitor.’ She broke off a piece of bread. ‘This is a nice place.’
‘You think I shouldn’t have sold it?’
Elaine said nothing.
‘The money will come in useful,’ Mark said.
She smiled at him. ‘Nothing. I was just wondering what it was like, living up here.’
‘Cold,’ Mark told her. ‘Very cold, wet and isolated.’
‘But there’s a village a couple of miles away, and then Llanberis.’
‘It feels alone.’ He searched for words. ‘Even when you see the lights at night they seem a million miles away. Especially when the snows come. But it is beautiful—a great place for children.’
Elaine laid her hand over his, without looking at him.
‘I remember Christmases up here,’ Mark continued, the food and wine forgotten. ‘Real trees with fir cones and candles. Sometimes, I’d bring one of my friends and we’d take our sleds up that hill. Later, when the snow was right, we could ski not far from here; not much of a run, but still good. And then you’d come back to the fire and thaw out. Sends you to sleep, a real fire.’
Elaine squeezed his hand.
Mark patted the rendered wall beside him. ‘It needs a family, this place. It needs people running through it, happy. It needs life. I didn’t want to think of it lying empty and forgotten, deserted. Maybe only visited a few times a year.’
‘They seem like a good couple,’ Elaine said. ‘I’m glad we sold it to them.’
Mark stood up and stretched. He walked over to the spot where the old caravan had stood; he thought he could detect the shallow depressions that the tires had left in the ground. His eyes travelled along the low wall that defined their property; the wall had crumbled in places, allowing the outside world in.
No matter how many times he had visited the cottage, Mark still felt like an interloper, an intruder. Like his father, an outsider who had married a local girl, Mark had never felt accepted, but instead had been caught in the middle, neither one thing nor the other. And the cottage, grounded in the landscape, part of the hill itself, belonged to someone else.
‘Let’s leave,’ Mark said. ‘We can find a hotel or a bed and breakfast tonight. I’ll buy you dinner at that Italian restaurant in Llanberis.’
‘I thought you wanted to spend another night here?’
‘So did I,’ Mark said, ‘but I think it’s time to go.’
Elaine stared at him a moment, nodded, then smiled. ‘Come on.’
After they had packed their belongings into the car and turned off the electric fire, Mark carried the bags of bird food through to the hidden garden. He took the feeder down and poured the seeds and pellets inside, then hung it back on the line. He heard a flurry of wings and turned from the doorway to see a handful of small birds attacking the food through the oval openings. The supporting line bobbed under their movements.
He watched them for a few minutes: they concentrated on the food, oblivious to Mark. He closed the back door and bolted it, then walked through the still, waiting cottage to Elaine.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
TOM BRENNAN is a British writer based in Liverpool but his work has appeared in the US, UK and Canada. He enjoys reading and producing a variety of fiction, from genre to literary.