“What do you see?” he asked me again, his arms tight around my body, his chin on my shoulder, his breath warm against my ear.
“Mud,” I said rather doubtfully.
“To be expected in mudflats,” he agreed, amused. “What else?”
“Mm. The grey thing which stands like it’s disapproving of the neighbours is a heron, isn’t it? And the black things with their wings outstretched, the ones which look like a row of Dracula’s wet washing, are those cormorants?”
“Good girl. You’re not as wholly ignorant as you make out, are you?”
I snorted. “Actually I am. All the other ones are just birds. Well, except for the seagulls, I know those.”
“What sort of seagulls?”
“Do they come in sorts?”
“Oh. Well, I’m afraid that to me a seagull is a seagull is actually a pest. Other than that, I can see that the black and white thing isn’t the same as the little brown one, but I have no idea what they’re called.”
But Ray did. He could tell snipe from teal and Brent from Canada geese and he cared. And he wanted me to care too. He wanted me to know a greenshank from a redshank. He was so enthusiastic, and his warmth was infectious, and I was infected.
City girl, I am, and a journalist. Not a big-time, broadsheet, photo-and-my-own-by-line journalist, I’m afraid. Occasional pieces for the local free paper, regular human-interest articles for women’s magazines, and of course like all journalists of this type, I’m writing a book. I scrape a living. The local Advertiser (I think it was the Advertiser, it might have been the Gazette, or the Standard or the Recorder, all these little local papers are the same) wanted a piece about the reedbeds at Falham and the eco-ranger who was being funded by the Council to manage the wetland and coastline. I went out to interview him, and Colin came and took a picture or two, and something hit a nerve with the public. They wanted more, so I went out several more times and Ray talked to me about the wildlife, about the landscape, about the natural history, and in the end I got paid for seven syndicated articles and by the time the last one was published I had stopped taking my toothbrush home from Ray’s cottage.
He was desperate for me to see what he saw. He took me everywhere he went, for a year. He hauled me out of bed in the middle of the night to see the otter in the storm drain, or the vixen in the brambles. We walked along the shore, and he showed me twelve different types of seaweed over a distance of about half a mile. There were seals in the bay, grey seals and common seals both, although I never managed to sort out in my head which is which. One has a profile like a cat and the other has a profile like a horse, Ray says, but the damn things are always too far away and looking in the wrong direction when I spot them.
I never saw the porpoise, although he claimed to have seen it several times, and he became quite exasperated by my inability to remember the names of grasses and wildflowers. His friends, eco-warriors to a man, and half inclined to think he had sold out in taking paid employment, no matter how hard he tried to convince them of the need to challenge the system from within, were suspicious of me. I made gallons of tea for their meetings, learned to cook carrot soup and wholemeal pastry, fighting the disloyal thought that it tasted of wet cement, and occasionally woke in the night lusting after the notion of a bacon sandwich. My health improved, and in general I slept better, ate less junk food – well, Ray wouldn’t allow it over the threshold, nor meat – drank less.
Ray was perhaps a little smug. “You’ve got to reconnect with nature, Val. You’ve been far too long eating rubbish and not making time for yourself. Just sit and enjoy the world. Be part of it. Integrate with it rather than skating over the top.”
He was deeply disapproving when I went to London for three days. “There’s nothing there for the likes of us, Val.” He claimed to see a difference in me when I came back, and to dislike it: “You’ve got shrill again. You need to root yourself. We’ll go up over the headland today, see what’s come into the bay on the tides.”
“Not today. I’ve got some work I need to sort out while it’s fresh in my mind. You go, Ray. I’ll get on with this and I’ll have the tea started by the time you come back.”
“No. You’re coming with me. I hate it when you go away, Val, you come back different. Harder. Aggressive. Put your coat on and we’ll chase the blues away.”
“Ray, I need to get this done. It’s work. My work. And I. . .”
“Don’t be such a damn nag! I don’t have time to go over the headland today. I don’t want to. I’m not going. I have other things to do. . .”
But apparently I didn’t. He picked up my coat with one hand, and heaved me over his shoulder, caveman style, with the other. We were out of the house and halfway down the track to the shore before he put me down, and the wind cut me. I snatched my coat, huddling into it, and turned back towards the house. I managed five steps before he swept me off my feet again.
“I said no, Val. No. You are not going back to that damn computer. You are going for a walk and that’s final.”
“It’s nothing of the sort. I’m not going with you.”
I’m a slight nine stone and not tall – he is close on six feet and broad in keeping. I’m fast, though, and when I broke away I was almost back to the house before he caught me. He swooped on me and pinned my arms down, searching my pockets and confiscating my keys.
This time he pinned my wrists and pulled – dragged – me up the track. He lifted me over the stile, effortlessly keeping clear of my struggles and kicks.
“Let go of me, you fucking animal! I’m not going up the headland!”
He sighed. Then he sat down on the stile and swept me off my feet again, but this time I landed with a thump across his lap.
“No! Ray! Get off me, you bastard!”
It did me no good. His hand came down hard on my backside and even through denim the sting made me jump. Two minutes later I was wriggling and yelling, and three minutes after that I was crying hard, limp and helpless over his knee.
It hurt to walk but I walked. He reached to hold my hand and I pulled it away, but his grip was too tight, and he pulled me close to wrap an arm around my shoulder.
“Don’t sulk, Val, you had that coming and you know it. You’ve been a right bitch since you got out of the car. You can’t complain when I give you what you deserve.”
I hunted through my pockets for a tissue and blew my nose defiantly, stepping out of the circle of his arm. He pulled me back and kissed me, trying to ease my mouth open. I wouldn’t oblige, standing angularly against him, too many elbows and ribs. I wouldn’t yield to his warmth.
“Do you want some more?”
I shook my head.
“Then don’t come the ice-queen with me. If I have to have those jeans down I will, and I’ll warm your bottom until you can’t sit down.”
I swung away and stamped sullenly ahead of him. It took about twenty minutes to the top of the headland and the wind was in our faces all the way. My eyes watered: it couldn’t still be tears. Must be the wind. I heard him start to run behind me and took off myself, flinging myself sideways so that his grab at my hand missed. Many a time we had run down the grassy slope to the shore hand in hand like children; this time I dodged him and three strides committed him on the incline so that he couldn’t easily come back for me. He raced to the bottom and I followed more soberly, staying at the top of the final drop so that he couldn’t reach me. This beach was white sand, not the muddy sludge of our own bay, and the wire grass poked up and bent under my feet. Ray had gone to the edge of the water and was inspecting the tidal offerings, dragging plastic and rope above the high water mark. He would bring the trailer round later, I knew, collect all the rubbish and dispose of it properly. I slid down the dune into a hollow which offered some protection from the wind, and sat down, bouncing up with a yelp and settling again more circumspectly. Then I watched him, while he scavenged along the metallic line of the water. The silver afternoon light shifted to copper and eventually he came back towards me.
“Ready to go home?”
I opened my mouth to say snidely that I had been ready for an hour; that I hadn’t wanted to be out in the first place, but my bottom twinged and I satisfied myself with a nod. He hooked an arm round my waist, but the track was too narrow to walk that way, and I twisted free and set off briskly up the slope. Being in front, it was easy to choose the paths which edged the grassy rise, no more than rabbit tracks many of them, and all uneven. No good for two walking together.
At the cottage, he unlocked the door and let me in. “I’ll make some tea, and a couple of sandwiches. There’s some of the sage derby left. Your hands are cold, sweetheart, light the fire and get properly warm.”
I ignored that, turned towards the bedroom, and only came back when I heard him safely in the kitchen. It took only a moment to search his pockets for my keys. Then I started work.
“Val? Your tea’s here.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Listen, missy, I’ve had just about enough of your sulking and tantrums today, and I. . . What the hell are you doing?”
“To leave. That’s all my clothes. Some of the books are mine, but I haven’t got room for them and I don’t care much about them, so you can keep them. I’ve stripped the bed, though, because the duvet is mine and I shall need it.”
“What in hell’s name are you talking about?”
I stopped work. I was very tired and for a moment I simply braced myself on the bed. Then I straightened and turned to look at him.
“I didn’t think it was that difficult. I am leaving you. I am packing my belongings to take with me. If you will get out of my way, I will put them in the car and then I will go.”
“Jesus, Val, what’s all this? Is this because I spanked you out there?”
“Come on, girl, we’ve done that dozens of times.”
And we had, of course. I couldn’t deny it.
“That was different.”
“It wasn’t! I’ve paddled you or caned you much harder than that, so what was so dreadful this time?”
I exploded with rage. I was so angry when I went into his face that he actually took a step backwards. “What was different was that I didn’t consent! What was different was that you took what had been a game, what had been part of our sex life, and tried to use it to control me! What was different was that you decided that you had the right to judge my behaviour wanting and punish me, and I have never, never granted you that right. What was different was that you didn’t listen to what I was saying, or to why I was saying it! I needed to do a piece of work and you didn’t ask anything about it. You just said no. I might have had a deadline, and missed it because you thought I needed a fucking walk in the cold. You thought you knew better than me how to organise my life, and when I didn’t agree with you, you assaulted me. And that was an assault, make no mistake about it! When you tried to kiss me, that was an assault too because I made it quite plain that I didn’t want you to. You used the fact that you’re bigger than me, stronger than me, to force me to do what you wanted, and I don’t trust you any more. Next time you don’t get your own way, what are you going to do? Punch me? Rape me? You let me see that we aren’t equals here – your ‘no’ means something and mine doesn’t. Now get the fuck out of my way. I’m going.”
He fell back a little. “Love, it wasn’t like that. . .”
“It was exactly like that. When I say what I want and go for it, I’m aggressive and when you do, that’s all right.”
“You were being a brat!”
“By whose standards? I said, perfectly politely, that I had work to do, and you overruled me. I wasn’t the one who insisted on having my own way at all costs.”
“But you needed. . .”
“I needed to do a piece of work. I didn’t need you telling me what I needed.”
“Val, you were stressed. . .”
“I was not stressed. I was excited. Something wonderful had happened and you spoiled it for me. You have this conviction that nothing that happens anywhere but here has any value, and you’re wrong, you’re wrong. You believe that anything wrong can be fixed by looking at the birds or watching the tides, and that if you can just get through to me I’ll think the same way as you do about everything, and you’re wrong about that too. I thought it didn’t matter if I didn’t see everything that you see, because you don’t see half the things I do either, but you think my things don’t matter. I can’t do it any more. I can’t pretend to think that your excitements excite me. I could have lived with just enjoying the way you enjoy them, but you devalue all the things that matter to me, and I won’t be subsumed into your life when there’s nothing coming back for me.”
His mouth was open, and he started to speak twice and choked and tried again.
“I don’t understand.”
I opened my own mouth, enraged again, and caught his eye. He looked utterly bewildered; he genuinely didn’t understand. There was no point in being angry about it. I sat down on the bed and tried to explain.
“Look, I can’t get excited about your damn birds. I’ve tried. You have to admit I’ve tried. I’ve frozen my tits off in the hide and on the headland and in the end, I don’t care. When we saw the buzzard at the lake, you were excited about it for days; I wasn’t. I know it’s rare, and intellectually I think that’s a shame and I wouldn’t do anything to harm it, and I probably would do whatever I could to protect it. But I watched it for two minutes and then I thought: well, nice, what next? Every time the geese go over, you want to go outside and look, and now I just think: will you shut the bloody door when you do that, you’re letting all the heat out. I’ve seen the geese go over half a dozen times, and now every time looks like one of the others. It doesn’t thrill me. I know it does to you: I know it’s almost a physical excitement to you to see a new bird or the fox cubs, or the otter. But it’s no more than mildly interesting to me.
“Now, I don’t think that matters particularly. I don’t need to go out because the swans have arrived from Siberia, but you do, and I understand that. These things are important to you. What’s important to me, Ray?”
He looked blank, and I gave him a twisted smile. “You don’t know, do you? All those days you’ve wanted me to sit out there watching the mud flats and the estuary and testing me: what’s that bird, what makes that noise, what are those the signs of. And I got quite good, you said so yourself. Right, put your coat on. Now it’s my turn. Val’s Viva Voce. Come on.”
He followed me up the track, not towards the shore this time, but towards the road. I climbed over the gate and ploughed along the verge to the place where the wall had broken low enough to sit. He sat beside me, tentatively.
“Tell me what you see here, Ray.”
He looked for three or four minutes, frowning. My anger was ebbing, leaving only the sandy flats of despair.
“The fox crosses here, look, there’s the track. And badger too, I would think. There’s a kestrel up there, looking for roadkill, most like. I’ve seen lizards in this wall when it gets hot enough. Something’s nested in that tree, but it’s too late in the season to tell what. Crows over there. Cow parsley all along this verge, and the oil seed rape from the top field has self-seeded into the ditch. That looks like ragwort and it’ll have to come out if it is, that’s vetch and you don’t see much of it around here. . .”
He ground to a halt. I waited. He broke before I did.
“All right, what am I missing?”
“The three biggest things in the landscape. The houses. Who lives up there?”
“Ahhh. . . the. . . Hennikers? Hannasydes? Some name like that.”
“Honeyfordes. And they are?”
“Well, Mr and Mrs, and a couple of teenage-ish girls, I think.”
“I don’t know them, other than by sight. The girls have ponies.”
“Steven Honeyforde. Works in the bank. Nice man, always looks worried, pleasant manner. His wife’s name is Georgia. She’s a nurse at the hospice. There are two daughters, Fiona and Amanda. There’s a son, as well, but he’s not here very much. He’s older and got a music scholarship to Cambridge, and this summer he didn’t come home because he went to America with a friend. The ponies are called Karloff and Rowan, and Amanda is beginning to worry that she’s growing too tall for Rowan. Fiona’s got a boyfriend from St Xaviers and is as helplessly in love as one only is at fourteen. His name’s Michael. These are your nearest neighbours, Ray. Who lives in the one up there?”
“That’s Johnson, the farmer. Bloody awful farmer he is too. We’ve had him twice for polluting the stream, and his cattle are out on the road about once a month. He’s a pain in the arse.”
“He’s also a single father. His wife and his mother were killed in a car crash when his youngest was still a baby. He’s got three children under six. He can’t get any help with childcare and he’s trying to run a farm full time with one child at primary school, one at the playgroup and one still in nappies. There’s no spare money up there, and he had to pay off one of his men because he can’t afford to keep him. That was Dan who used to deal with the cattle, but it was his wife who kept all the milk records, and he’s struggling with the paperwork. Who lives in the bungalow?”
“Rickards. They’re retired.”
He shrugged. “No idea.”
“He was something very senior in the Diplomatic for thirty years. I don’t think there’s anywhere politically interesting in the world that they haven’t lived. She’s a most fascinating woman and she kept diaries all the time they were travelling. They’ve got two children and five grandchildren and last year they hired one of those huge camper vans and drove from Mexico to Canada just because they wanted to. This is what I do when you’re looking at birds, Ray. I look at people. I don’t care that you’ve got finches in the shrubs – I’ve got an Embassy wife in the bungalow over the road. How long have you lived here? And you know all about the badger and the otter, but you don’t know the names of your neighbours. Maybe you don’t care – but I do. I thought we could manage that way, holding onto each other and looking in opposite directions. But we can’t, can we? You don’t see the value in what I’m looking at. I’ve known that for months and I’ve been denying it to myself. And if you don’t see that, then you don’t see the value of my work.”
“Your work? Where does that come into this?”
I stared at him. “My book.”
“What. . . oh, that book you’ve been writing with your friend Sarah? But that’s. . .” He bit something back.
“What? That’s not serious? Is that what you were going to say? That’s just a bit of fun? That’s just got a publisher, Ray. That’s just got a contract. Sarah Rickard and I are. . .”
I looked blank. “Sarah Rickard.”
“From over there?”
“Yes, of course from over there! Wake up, Ray! I go there twice a week, you know that.”
“I – yes. Of course I do.”
Comprehension leaked into my head. “You don’t. You actually don’t. You haven’t connected them, have you? You haven’t connected ‘my friend Sarah’ with the fact that I take the laptop and walk up the lane two days a week.”
He looked at his clasped hands. I could see him thinking about denying it. “So. . . what’s this book?”
“I thought you knew: I’ve talked about it enough. I didn’t know you had been not listening to that extent. Sarah Rickard and I have been putting together a novel based on her diaries. We sent off a couple of chapters to some agents and a couple of publishers and we’ve sold it. That was why we went to London: it’s all signed up and they want some changes made, and I need to get them down on paper for both Sarah and me while I remember what we agreed, and before the publisher comes up with some totally different things and says we agreed to them. That’s what you stopped me doing: you stopped me working on my first ever book to be published, and you did it because you couldn’t believe that I might be excited about something other than nature and the things that interest you. You didn’t even ask.”
He was still sitting on the wall when I drove past twenty minutes later.
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