A Short Story
“I just want a year when nothing happens,” Karen said to me. “A whole year when all we do is eat and sleep, fix the house, and see no one. No disasters. No funerals, no weddings, nothing whatsoever. Just the two of us.”
To her list I might have added “no more false expectations” but I kept it to myself.
What had we seen? When we first visited, the door was barred with three pieces of plywood sloshed with graffiti. With the help of the agent we prised open the boards and scraped ourselves inside. Using a torch he flashed out the Victorian tiled floor, with its blue lilies and green intertwining stems, lying an inch deep in the dust and insects of twenty years dereliction. In a moment of stupidity or nostalgia, we’d seen in the warped walls and bug-gnawed timbres a project.
“Do you remember when we first visited?” Karen said later. “It had magic. We fell in love with it, didn’t we?”
“There was a spark,” I said, thinking of what people say when they talk about falling in love. So far we’d achieved too little, a mere half-home, surrounded by a snarl of wet brambles and flanked by two yellow skips sunken with debris. Just a few days before I’d been up to the loft and happened to put my hand against one of the beams. A fungus, like cotton wool, came off in strands on my fingers. When I aimed the torch I saw a family of mushroom stalks and sheets of fungus. I applied some force and the wood crumbled like biscuit. The whole roof was rotten.
I decided not to tell Karen. If we could just get our belief back, that spark, I thought, we could tackle anything. The truth was, I put off telling her because I thought the news would destroy us.
It was hard to say exactly how much the toil with the house had contributed to Karen’s loss of hope, and how much of it was for other reasons. I could never understand her feelings. As a way of escaping she had became scientific. She turned to books about physics and chemistry. She said she wanted to learn all the things she’d forgotten from school. She read every night in silence.
One day she came to me with a page from a newspaper. The picture showed a night sky, excessively milky with stars and comets. “I want to see this,” she said, spreading the page out flat on the kitchen table. “Can we see it? It would mean so much to me.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a meteor shower. We need to go somewhere dark. This town is lit up like a Christmas tree.”
“Let’s go and see it then.”
“But where?” Her voice brayed as if the evil of light pollution confounded her utterly.
So we decided to go camping, out where the streetlamps were few and the nights remote. I did some research to let her know I was on her side. I found out where the best places to view the shower were judged to be, and I asked some friends if they knew any places where we could camp.
Karen sat at the kitchen table hunched over the camping list whilst I made coffee and grilled some toast on the old, rocking cooker. The uncurtained window of our kitchen faced a back alley that nobody ever used, and above the wall I could see the feint misty glow of the moon. It was drizzling again, and I wondered how many shooting stars we would see if the weather stayed like this.
Karen said, “It’s cold tonight. Can you feel a draft?”
“I’ll leave the cooker on for a bit. That’ll warm the room.”
Then looking up at me she said desperately, “I can’t stand this house any longer!”
I had no answer. I couldn’t stand it either. I just knew we had to keep going with it. We had no money and no other choices.
“I pictured us living here,” she said. “I saw us happy. Not like this. It’s like we’ve been cursed.”
“We’re not cursed. We just need to find that spark again.”
I fished about under the grill to turn the toast over. Then I thought about our rotten roof. I didn’t know what to do about it. I should have told Karen but she would have said the house was unsound and insanitary, and that would be the very end of it.
“Tell me about the meteors,” I said to change the subject.
Karen sat up. “You want to know? Ok. Well, once a year the Earth passes through the tail of a comet called Swift-Tuttle. This comet has left a whole trail of debris, like a cloud of rubble. Earth crosses this cloud and bits of debris enter the atmosphere and burn up. That’s the Perseid meteor shower.”
I nodded my approval. “I’ll get some binoculars. We’ve got to make sure we get the very best view.”
Karen seemed delighted with my enthusiasm. I looked up again out of the uncurtained window and could hear the sound of rain hammering down like the shuffling movements of a tired washing machine. I began to fear for our chances of seeing the meteor shower; I said nothing however and brought the toast and coffee to the table.
The day before we were due to go camping I went looking for a present as an insurance against the weather, in case the weekend needed saving. I ended up in gemstone shop. Inside, the man behind the counter stood with his arms crossed, watching my every move and thereby marking me out as a petty thief. Not that the gems were valuable at all. Little smooth pebbles of malachite, moonstone and dozens of other crystal elements that came at a price of fifty pence each. Still, I could see the potential for pilfering, so I did him a favour and stayed well in view.
On the rack beside the counter was a tray labelled Meteorites: Genuine Extra-Terrestrial Visitors. I picked up the largest misshapen rock, which was about the size and shape of a tangerine. Given its dimensions it was extraordinarily heavy. So leaden and dense it felt like I was picking it up against the pull of a magnet. The shopkeeper smiled as I snapped it out of its invisible anchor.
“Heavy ain’t it?” he said in what I judged to be a South African accent. “It’s made of iron.”
I smiled generously, then asked how much for the portly lump.
“Thirty pounds,” he said forcibly, pointing to a sign above his head, which read No Haggling.
“How do I know it’s a real meteorite?”
“I only sell the genuine article,” he replied glumly.
“I’ll take it,” I said, handing it back to the man so he could wrap it in a several squares of pink tissue paper.
Deep Forest Park was the most northern campsite in the national park before the terrain became either too dense with pine trees or too rugged with sharply rising peaks to make pitching a tent possible.
We unloaded our stuff. Apart from a rucksack of clothes, we had only a couple of shabby beach chairs and a torch with low batteries. When the tent was up we drank coffee and waited for the evening to darken. Every few minutes we analysed the cloud cover. At midnight in the temperature fell sharply, and for the first time I sensed what a remote place we had come to. We covered ourselves in rugs and positioned cushions beneath our heads to save our necks from gazing-ache. For thirty minutes we enjoyed a separation of the clouds, and with the trembling stars above us there was little else to do but stay quiet and attempt to accustom ourselves to the brilliantly lambent patterns of a million far-off suns. Then the clouds gathered again. We stayed up until quarter-to-three waiting for the black mist to decongest, and even at that time Karen’s eyes were still roaming the sky whilst the rest of the campsite slept. The air between the tents was cold and silent and dampening. Despite our hopes, we didn’t see a single shooting star. When we finally clambered into the tent, wriggling through the icy orifices of our sleeping bags, I said “I enjoyed sitting with you tonight. We haven’t stayed up this late in ages.” Under the cloak of the pitch blackness I found her mouth with my lips and kissed her goodnight. Karen didn’t say word.
Come morning, unzipping the tent flaps to the moist grass field, the campsite was already stirring. I’d slept remarkably well on the bumpy turf, but Karen managed only three hours. I watched her eat her breakfast cereal, chewing aggressively, glancing with tired eyes across the field. I waited beside her, in a mood close to remorse, finding a little salvation in watching her lips lighten with a ring of milk.
The journey home was quiet and tense. I felt sad. The camping trip had been a failure. I felt my eyes slacken with misery. The vision that came to me was of the shabby existence I would return to if Karen kept pulling away from me. That old broken geometry, of too much drink and evenings without a bedtime and a sense that if I was going to repair myself I’d need another woman to help me — and what an ordeal that seemed.
Then as we pulled into our road I heard Karen make a fearful groaning sound, as if someone had just woken her from a bad dream. “Oh no,” she said.
When I looked out I saw our shabby old house ahead of us. It was the same house but it looked different in some way. It seemed sunken in, sagging in some way. Then I saw it. There was no roof. Or what was left of the roof had no middle to it. A great grimy hole had broken the sagging spine and mosaic of slipped tiles, sucking the whole building in on itself.
We drew up and parked. Karen groaned again, like a sick cat.
I knew what had happened. The damned roof had finally rotted away. Thank God we weren’t inside.
“What’s wrong with our house?” Karen said to me. She was in a trance, totally baffled. We got out the car and she clutched my arm. We walked up closer, our heads pitched back and looking up. I began to wish I hadn’t stayed quiet about the roof. I just didn’t expect this.
“Something’s gone through it,” she announced.
I knew she was wrong. She looked at me, her eyes wide with questions. Why had our roof collapsed? How do you explain something like that?
“I don’t know what’s happened,” I said lying.
“Something’s gone through it,” she said again.
“A meteorite?” She looked at me, still holding onto my arm. Her eyes were like two flickering lanterns, her gaze twitching past me. The roof had crushed inwards in the manner of a ruined thing, like an old pier at the seaside or a forgotten cinema.
“We have to go inside,” Karen said. “Something has gone through the roof.” Her voice was alive. She wanted to believe in something extraordinary. “It’s a meteorite, I know it.”
Then I remembered the present I’d bought. It was still inside my coat pocket, wrapped in pink tissue. If I could just get it inside the house without her seeing, maybe there was a chance.
“Could be dangerous,” I said. “I better go in first.”
“Be careful,” she said. There was a touch of elation in her voice. She let go of my arm and gently pushed me towards the house. I turned around and saw her face teetering on a smile.
I reached into my pocket. Yes, maybe there was a chance.