Staring at the wall. It was so close he could have touched it. Plasterboard painted light orange, brush marks, streaks, although you wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t looking closely, if you weren’t examining it. Then the angle where it met the other wall, the corner. He could have touched that, too. Was this why he came here, to stare at walls and the corners they form? The sheet of paper on the desk. He had decided to do it the old way, longhand, but all he had managed was half a page. It wasn’t good. He knew the importance of making a start, and the flow of words that would inevitably follow – he wasn’t a beginner – but he couldn’t get his head into it. He couldn’t get his head into it because his head was somewhere else. His head was miles away, hundreds of them, where his body should have been.
It had been fine for the first few days, but the non-existence of a phone signal was getting to him. No internet, either. He was worried. He hadn’t been at first, but he was now. He was thinking about home, about bad things that might happen or might already have happened. Bad things that might be going on at this very moment. The nearest telephone was in the pub at the bottom of the hill. What if they tried to reach him during the night, when the pub was shut? In his absence...
In his absence.
He was absent. He wasn’t where he should have been, although he had an excuse, a poor one: he had asked to be here. The Panel had been suitably impressed by his portfolio and he was now their guest, free board and lodging for a month in the back of beyond so he could concentrate, interruption-free, on his writing. Except he hadn’t done any since he arrived, forget the half page of garbage he had scrawled, it was offensive just to look at the shape of the words, never mind read them.
The other Fellows were in the kitchen, he could hear them through the wall laughing and talking as they prepared breakfast. Gus prised the pencil out of his fingers and went to the toilet.
Duncan Margolyes, celebrated epigrammatist and Writer-in-Residence, was holding forth, yet again, on Circular Narrative. ‘It has to keep coming back to itself,’ he said as he looped salt illustratively onto his porridge. ‘Focus,’ he said. ‘That’s the key word. Focus.’
Gus’s knife clattered as he stabbed his kipper.
‘Although there are other ways of going about it,’ said Duncan. He let the sentence hang. So did everyone else.
Gus chewed his food. When he had worked it enough, he swallowed. ‘This is lovely,’ he said. ‘Is it a kipper?’
‘Oh, good one!’ said Duncan. ‘Humour over breakfast. We’re talking about Circular Narrative, Gus, Circular Narrative!’
‘Indeed you are,’ said Gus. ‘I thought this conversation finished three days ago. I thought the same two days ago, then yesterday. Seems like the talk keeps coming back to itself. To be expected, I suppose.’ He tapped the kipper with the edge of his fork. ‘Sorry for stating the obvious.’
The other Fellows made their excuses and left. Gus looked at their plates. Steam was rising from fish that hadn’t had time to be stripped.
Duncan lifted a spoonful of porridge. He blew on it. He blew on it for a long time. He was in no hurry, a dangerous man to be sure. Perhaps he was in the creative midst of another of those ditties for which he was so roundly feted. ‘I’m glad we’ve got this chance to talk alone, Gus,’ he said.
‘As long as it’s not about you-know-what, I’m up for it,’ said Gus.
‘Oh, god,’ said Duncan. ‘Don’t pay any attention to me, especially at this time of the morning. What would I know about narrative, circular or otherwise, I’m a poet for crying out loud. And not a very good one at that.’
For courtesy’s sake, Gus could have said something. Instead, he teased out another mouthful of food.
‘I’m not being modest, Gus. Whatever we do as writers, it’s never enough, is it? It’s never good enough, that’s what I’m trying to say. It’s a struggle. People come to this retreat for many reasons, not just to write. The Panel like to see a sample of work before they offer a Fellowship, but, as you know, promising to write while you’re here isn’t a condition of acceptance. How’s it going, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Gus buttered a slice of toast, a displacement activity if ever there was one, and he knew all about those. He used two sachets, slowly, trying to enjoy the scrape of metal on charred bread.
Duncan placed his spoon in the bowl. ‘I’m sorry to be so intrusive,’ he said. ‘I’ll let you get on with your breakfast in peace.’
The door clicked shut. Gus looked around the kitchen. The emptiness gave him yet another reason to hate himself. He had managed to alienate everyone in the house just by being there. No, he had managed to alienate himself, that was more precise, wasn’t it, that was more focused. It was a talent, of that there was no doubt.
He lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Walls and ceilings. Christ this was a waste of time. But it was his choice. He’d had to get away, and nobody had tried to talk him out of it. They were glad to see the back of him. He missed them. He doubted they felt the same. His children had started doing vanishing tricks whenever he came home, even the youngest, little Susie, who was just learning to talk, she was picking up the signals from the other three. And their mother – she hadn’t even phoned to see if he arrived safely. She knew the number of the pub, he’d written it down for her, but no messages had been brought to the retreat by bicycle, that was the way he’d been told it worked.
Gus hadn’t phoned, either.
The further away from home the better. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. No one had been there to see him off, certainly not his wife. He remembered the sound as he pulled the front door closed, an empty thud. He should have dumped the keys in the mailbox.
And here he was.
Walls and ceilings.
It was like a prison. He’d put himself in it.
It wasn’t a prison. He could walk out the door any time he wanted. He could take off across the fields and never come back, no one was stopping him.
When he started counting the flowers on the curtains he knew it was time to get out.
The pub was open, a single car in the car park. He could have gone inside, but kept walking. He didn’t know where he was headed. He didn’t even know where he was, not exactly, if you’d given him a map he wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint anything.
The track joined the main road. He crossed over and found a gap in the drystone wall. Rugged moorland as far as the eye could see. Never had he stood in grass so thick. He squatted and put his hands into it – it had the consistency of wire, springy and wet. And the silence, not even the chirp of a bird. Not a tree to be seen. It was the first time he’d been outside since he got here. Perhaps this was all he needed, to be out in the fresh air, to clear his head. He stood tall and filled his lungs, once, twice, three times. It didn’t help. He knew better than to try and kid himself. Clear his head? How could he do that, his head was crammed full of ideas, images, voices, they weren’t going anywhere. And his left shoe had sprung a leak, the sock was mulching against his foot. Luckily, he had another pair of shoes with him. And countless pairs of socks, of course, it wasn’t the first time he’d tried to live out of a suitcase, the trick was to unpack as soon as you arrived. Back in the room, the wardrobe was a sight to behold, shirts and trousers hanging stiffly and the drawers replete with rows of freshly laundered hosiery. And there was an iron in the kitchen if he needed it, maintaining a dapper appearance wasn’t a problem. Okay, he was vain. He acknowledged it. Everything came down to his reflection and how good it looked. How else could he have abandoned his family to concentrate on his inner self, his Art? He knew he was good, he was good at making up little stories, he wasn’t the only one who thought so. But it didn’t pay. In other words he was selfish, irresponsible. A dreamer.
It hurt like hell when his wife reminded him, which she did more often than was necessary.
He reached another wall. The grass was even thicker here, he had to be careful where he was putting his feet, he didn’t want to break an ankle. The stones were sharp against his palms as he climbed over. His intention, if it really was an intention, had been to keep walking away from the retreat, a straight line, but the way forward was blocked by a river. The water was completely still. It was a canal, the towpath looked as if it had been relaid quite recently. Why would they do that? Maybe in the summer months this was a tourist spot full of barges taking holidaymakers from A to B, although where A and B were he had no idea. His eyes were playing tricks. The water seemed to be higher than the towpath. He threw in a handful of cinders. They scattered across the surface sooner than they should have. He found a large stone, almost a boulder, in the shrubbery and hoisted it as far as he could. It splashed down...it was as if the water was at least a foot higher than the path. The laws of physics, he tried to dredge something up from his boyhood, what was it called, optics, refraction? His boyhood was a long time ago. Sometimes it seemed like yesterday. He’d been good at science. Formulas. Formulae. He’d binned it after two years, though, when the arithmetic turned into maths. He was more interested in the concepts than the analysis, although the difference between accuracy and precision was something he would always respect. It was words he’d fallen in love with, not numbers.
* * *
The hissing sound was growing louder. A waterfall? What did Newton have to say about man-made rivers and waterfalls? Probably not much. The land on both sides of the canal was falling away, grass and shrubs being replaced by trees. Soon only the tops were showing.
About a hundred yards away the canal swept to the right, crossing a deep gorge over a series of arches.
Gus immediately thought of the pub, and the phone in it. He had said goodbye to no one. He could see the river now, it was in spate, its hiss was insistent. His eyes were on his feet as cinders turned into irregular slabs, crazy paving. Then his hands were clutching the bars, as thick as clothes poles, along the side of the aqueduct. And the slabs, they seemed to be moving, even though he knew they weren’t, it was impossible. He forced himself to let go and fell to his knees, his fingers splayed on the stones.
Fear. Simple and pure, so pure, because of the gap at his shoulder, he could see the angles where something had been used to prise the railings apart. This gap was large. It was more than large enough for a human body. He was being drawn towards it, his knees were inching. He should have been thankful, whoever had done this had saved him the trouble. He gripped metal and felt the wind in his face, he had to close his eyes against it, but he wanted to look, he wanted to see, he needed to. Hundreds of feet below, the river was coursing white over invisible rocks, the roar undulating, an angry siren. How easy would it be? He would leave it all to philosophy of a natural kind. Focus. This was why he had come. No longer an encumbrance. They wouldn’t even have to clean up the mess. Strangers would take care of that downstream.
His left foot moved through the space. The sole of his shoe found the ledge on the other side. The sock inside was slippery, but he was careful. Carefully does it.
Her voice. Behind him. As clear as life.
* * *
He had to ring the bell on the counter. He rang it again. Eventually, a man appeared at the side of the gantry.
‘Hello,’ said Gus. He didn’t sound like himself.
‘Hello,’ said the man, all smiles. ‘Don’t tell me. You’re one of the writers up at the retreat...’
‘...I didn’t hear a car stopping. I was wondering when you’d be putting in an appearance. Not just you, you understand. All of you. What would you like?’
‘I need to use your phone,’ said Gus.
‘Ah,’ said the man. ‘I see. No problem. Just round the corner behind you, next to the Gents.’
‘Thanks,’ said Gus.
It was a payphone.
He rang the bell.
The man appeared.
‘Could I break a tenner?’ said Gus.
The man exhaled, his cheeks puffing. Eventually, he moved to the till. ‘Folk usually ask for change for the phone when they’re paying for their drinks,’ he said.
‘Maybe next time,’ said Gus.
‘You’re welcome,’ said the man, even though he didn’t mean it.
Gus took a moment to remember the country code then hit the buttons. He checked his watch. Everyone would be home.
‘Daddy! Mummy, it’s daddy!’
‘Hey, how are you?’
‘Are you for real? I’ve been worried sick. That number you gave me doesn’t work, you idiot.’
It was starting again. In truth, it had never stopped. He scanned the front of the phone, but there was no information on it. ‘That was the number they gave me,’ he said.
‘You should have phoned when you got there. The kids have been up the walls. Nathan...’
‘How is everyone?’
‘How the hell do you think they are?!’
The heap of coins in his hand. He closed his fingers till hardness dug into bone.
‘I had to take Nathan to the clinic this morning, his throat’s getting worse. He’ll be on antibiotics for the next fortnight. If you were here, you’d...’
‘I have to go.’
‘What do you mean you have to go? You’ve just...’
‘Tell the kids I love them.’
‘Daddy!’ It was Susie again. ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’
The receiver was warm against his ear. The tiny voice coming out of it. He watched his fist push down on the cradle.
* * *
Leaving. Nothing is easier. All you do is put one foot in front of the other. It sounded like something Margolyes would have written. Then again, who was Gus to know – Gus was no poet. He would phone for a taxi from the pub. The flight was another matter. He’d worry about that when he got to the airport. His good shoes, where were they? And socks, a dry pair, they were in the wardrobe, the bottom drawer. He was trying not to look at the desk. The piece of paper was where he’d left it. So was the packet of A4, the top ripped open.
He dragged himself to the chair. The room was quiet. Silent. Not a sound from the kitchen. His pencil. A clean sheet of paper slid in front of his eyes. He tried to stop himself, but it was beyond his control.
Staring at the wall. It was so close he could have touched it.
It was a start.
The words were soon flowing.