When the engine rattled itself to a stop he opened the driver’s door letting the damp afternoon displace the snug of travel. He was home after a long day watching the half hours pass and his students come and go. And now they had gone until next year leaving cards and little gifts.
The cats appeared. The pigeons flapped woodenly. A dog barked down the lane. The post van passed.
The house from the yard was gaunt and cold in its terracotta red. Only the adjacent cottage with its backdoor, bottles filling the window ledges, and tiled roof, seemed to invite him in. It was not his house, but temporarily his home. He loved to wander into the garden and approach the house from the front, purposefully. He would then take in the disordered flowerbeds and the encroaching apple trees where his cats played tag falling in spectacular fashion through the branches. He liked to stand back from the house and see it entire, its fine chimneys, the 16C brickwork, the grey-shuttered living room, and his bedroom studio from whose window he could stretch out and touch the elderberries.
Inside, the storage heaters giving out a provisional warmth, he left the lights be and placed the kettle on the stove, laid out on the scrubbed table a tea ***, milk jug, a china mug, a cake tin, On the wall, above the vast fireplace, hung a painting of the fields beyond the house dusty in a harvest sunset, the stubble crackling under foot, under his sockless sandals, walking, walking as he so often felt compelled to do, criss-crossing the unploughed fields of the chalk escarpment.
Now a week before St Lucy’s Day he sat in Tim’s chair and watched the night unmask itself, the twilight owl glimmer past the window, a cat on his knee, a cat on the window ledge, porcelain-still.
He let his thoughts steal themselves across the table to an empty chair, imagining her holding a mug in both hands, her long graceful legs crossed under her flowing skirt. When she lay in bed she crossed her legs, lying on her back like the pre-Raphaelite model she had shown him once, Ruskin’s ****** wife, Effie. ‘I was in a pub with some friends and I looked out of the window and there he was, painting the church walls’, she said musingly, ‘I knew I would marry him’. He was older of course; with a warm voice that brought forth a childhood in the 1930s spent at a private schools, a wartime naval career (still in his teens), then Oxford and the Slade. He owned nothing except a bag of necessary clothes, his paints of course and an ever-present portfolio of sketches. Tim lived simply and could (and did) work anywhere. Then there was Alison, then a passion that nearly drowned him before her Quaker family took him to themselves, adoring his quiet grace, his love of music, his ability to cook, to make and mend, to garden like a God.
Sitting in her husband’s chair he constantly replayed his first meeting with her. Out in the yard, they had arrived together, it was Palm Sunday and returning from Mass he gave her his palm as a greeting. He loved her smile, her awkwardness, her passion for the violin, and her beautiful children. He felt he had always known her, known her in another life . . . then she had touched his hand as he ascended the kitchen stairs in her London home, and he was lost in guilt.
Tonight he would eat mackerel with vicious mustard and a colcannon of vegetables. He would imagine he was Tim alone after a day in his studio, take himself upstairs to his bedroom space where on his drawing board lay this work for solo violin, his Tapisserie, seven studies and Chaconne. For her of course; of the previous summer in Pembrokeshire; of a moment in the early morning sailing gently across Dale sound, the water glass-like and the reflections, the intense mirroring of light on water . . . so these studies became mirrors too, palindromes in fact.
The cats slept on his sagging quilted bed where he knew she had often slept, where he often felt her presence as he woke in the early hours to sit at his desk with tea to drag his music little by little into sense and reason.
When Jenny came she slept fitfully, in this bed, in his arms, always worried by her fear of rejection, always hoping he would never let her go, envelope her with love she had never had, leave his music be, be with her totally, rest with her, own her, take her outside into the night and make love to her under the apple trees. She had suggested it once and he had looked at her curiously, as though he couldn’t fathom why bed was not sufficient unto itself, why the gentleness he always felt with her had to become hurt and discomfort.
He had acquired a drawing board because Elizabeth Lutyens had one in her studio, a very large one, at which she stood to compose. He liked pushing sketches and manuscript paper around into different configurations. He would write the same passage in different rhythmical values, different transpositions, and compare and contrast. After a few hours his hearing became so acute that he rarely had to go downstairs to check a phrase at the piano.
Later, when he was too tired to stand he would go into the cold sitting room, light some candles, wrap himself in a blanket and read. He would make coffee and write to Jenny, telling her the minutiae of the place she loved to come to but didn’t understand. She loved the natural world of this remote corner of Essex. Even in winter he would find her walking the field paths in skirt and t-shirt insensible of the cold, in sandals, even bare feet, oblivious of the mud. He would guide her home and wash her with a gentleness that first would arouse her, then send her to sleep. He knew she was still repairing herself.
One evening, after a concert he had conducted, Jenny and Alison found themselves at the same table in the bar. Jenny had grasped his hand, drawing it onto her lap, suddenly knowing that in Alison’s presence he was not hers. And that night, after phoning her sister to say she would not be home, she had pulled herself to him, her mass of chestnut hair flowing across her shoulders and down his chest as she kissed his hands and his arms, those moving appendages she had watched as he had stood in front of this student orchestra playing the score she had played, once, before this passion had taken hold. At those first rehearsals she had blushed deeply whenever he spoke to her, always encouraging, gentle with her, wondering at her gauche but wondrous beauty, her pear-shaped green eyes, her small hands.
He threw the cats out into the chill December air. He closed the door, extinguished the lights and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. In bed, in the sheer darkness of this Ember night, the house creaked like an old sailing ship moored in a tide race. For a few moments he lay examining the soundscape, listening for anything new and different. With the nearest occupied house a good mile away there had been scares, heart-thumping moments when at three in the morning a knock at the door and people in the yard shouting. He carried Tim’s shotgun downstairs turning on every light he could find on the way, shouting bravely ‘Who’s there?’. Flinging open the door, there was nothing, no one. A disorientated blackbird sang from the lower garden . . .
He turned his head into the pillow and settled into mind-images of an afternoon in Dr Marling’s house in Booth Bay. In his little bedroom he had listened to the bell buoy clanging too and fro out in the sea mist, the steady swish, swash of the tide turning above the mussled beach.