Summer passed. It was a staccato year of hot weeks cut up by heavy rain and there was flooding on the news. Nothing much was done about anything, either nationally or around the house. The crisis widened, and the hedge at the end of the field grew to such an extent that it swallowed the bathtub filled with mint, almost overnight. Marianne walked down to look for it and found a dying starling twitching on the grass by the big tree. She insisted it was a starling. Bert thought it might be a sparrow. They spent an hour trying to figure it out on the internet, the now dead bird lying between their laptops and both of them pretending they didn’t mind this at all—a little death on their kitchen table. They each left it to the other to get rid of, and later realised that neither had. Pinecone dozed contentedly in his corner amongst a scattering of feathers and debris, and they were horrified. They didn’t speak to him for days. In early August another dog turned up at the door after a downpour, his wet smell filling the hall when Marianne let him in. Bert was annoyed, Pinecone furious. But Marianne towelled him dry, fed and watered him, declared that the presence of a collar but the absence of a tag meant that she could keep him and call him Elephant—because of his grey pelt and his lumbering gait. He was some sort of mess of boxer and greyhound and… mule? This was their working theory. When a woman from the village came looking for him the next morning, Marianne lied twice and then gave up. Elephant was taken away, his gait a lot more sprightly on the way out of their lives than it had been on the way in.
It was six hours to London and Bert suspected they had made a mistake. It was not that it was unpleasant. The house was old and draughty and they had spent the first several nights terrified of noises and silence, shadows and doors. But that had settled, and it was comfortable—in a new way of thinking about comfort—and resolutely quiet. No airplanes. No traffic. No people. Marianne was, as she put it, writing her head off. They had set up separate work rooms, and were diligent in keeping out of each other’s way, meeting in the kitchen for lunch and dinner, sometimes going for walks together, usually ending up in front of the television in the large front room by eight or nine to argue over what to watch and to share a couple of glasses of wine. All of it was pretty much what they had hoped for. Which left Bert wondering if perhaps their hopes had been a little small, a little sad. And he missed being able to slip out to have casual sex with men. He missed it much more than he had expected. In the city it had become routine. The apps made it easy. Three or four times a week he would go and have sex in a flat somewhere. An hour, maybe two. He had four or five regulars and they messaged him all summer. Where are you? You’re gone for good? Well, let me know if you’re in town. Don’t be a stranger. Missing… you know what! The messages were not helpful. But he couldn’t block these men, or forget them. He would, after all, be going back to the city. As often as once a month. As soon as he got things sorted work-wise. Meanwhile he was stuck with Marianne in the middle of nowhere, and they were resisting a car. Bert had never learned to drive and while Marianne had, her license had long since lapsed. The apps put him about eight miles from a teenage-looking bare chest and an ageless, mustachioed man who declared more than once that he was NOT into time wasters or hook-ups, which, it occurred to Bert, ruled out everything. He had walked all over the village and environs in the hope of stumbling into a cruising area. But there had been nothing, except an elderly man who had hailed Bert while ostentatiously pissing in the bushes beside the graveyard. Pinecone had gone for a look, or a sniff, but Bert stuck to his examination of the headstones. All the dead are loved, and all the loved are dead.
He did not confide in Marianne, though he could have, he supposed. They had never had a physical relationship. She was, as Bert understood it, asexual. And he was, as she seemed to understand it, an insatiable idiot. He likes cocks, she would tell their friends. Can you imagine? She plainly couldn’t. Her lack of empathy for really any sort of sexuality struck him as suspicious sometimes, but they’d been through it often and to no avail. She was simply baffled. And baffled that he was baffled. It was as baffling to her, she said, as a love of football or model aeroplanes might be. She did not judge. She just thought it was stupid.
The house sat on eight acres, marked out by walls and fences that needed fixing, and with what used to be—they had been told—a stable, though it seemed to them that it had much more likely been some sort of equipment shed, there being no signs of anything horsey anywhere, while there were piles of wood and metal that seemed like they might have fallen off things. 1910 was the date the estate agents put on the house. Though their cattle-farmer neighbour, Mr Busby, said it was much older—it had just been built on top of, like a church, getting uglier over the years. Marianne liked gruff Mr Busby, a widower, and his three healthy grown-up sons—young men whose photos you might expect to find, she said, on the back of your pack of bacon in Waitrose. Cattle, Bert reminded her. Not pigs. His attitude to them though was just as peculiar: they were friendly and immensely handsome and made Bert feel terribly sad.
Their other neighbour was a mega-farm, hated by the Busbys and the source of much talk in the village. The number of chickens it held was at least 800,000 at any one time, they were told, and would often nudge one million. Marianne and Bert stopped buying chicken for a few weeks but it was such good value, and well, it was local. In July, almost exactly one month after they’d moved in, a man from the mega-farm called with a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers and apologised for a smell that they hadn’t smelled. He was very chatty and polite, and told them that Pinecone was adorable and their (completely overgrown) flower beds a slice of paradise. The next day, in the afternoon, a sudden stench enveloped the house and Bert and Marianne staggered out of their rooms and watched each other sweat and turn pale. It was as if all the piss in the world had soaked into their eight little acres. Ammonia, basically, the Busbys told them, give or take. Better get used to it. The middle son came over in the evening and explained how the wind worked around here—where it went and what it tended to carry, and when to open windows in the east and close them in the west and where it might be good to put out bowls of bicarbonate of soda. Marianne was very grateful. She had a lot of intelligent questions. Bert, on the other hand, followed proceedings as if he might be interrogated later about every movement, every gesture, every glance. The Busby boy, in his T-shirt and shorts and with a chain around his tanned neck, moved like a courteous animal—a stag in a clearing, a horse on a hill. Bert couldn’t think of any other animals and stayed as silent as possible and watched. Marianne at one stage had to nudge him out of her way. After the young man had left, Bert drew the curtains in his studio and spent twenty minutes thinking about hills and clearings. He put it out of his mind as soon as he’d finished, but the smell was part of it too. The smell embraced him.
Summer passed. It had gone completely by the second week of September when the bathtub of mint reappeared and two days of cold rain put Pinecone into a depression. A leak developed, from the roof to the landing to what Marianne was calling the library but which was nothing more than a store room for boxes they had yet to unpack. Added to that was the broken window in Bert’s studio, the missing step on the wooden stairs to the cellar, a patch of persistent damp in the hall by the front door, the tiles falling off the main bathroom wall, the lack of electricity in the spare bedroom, the warped and unopenable second door to the living room, the broken downstairs toilet, and the overgrown front garden—which neither of them mentioned though they both stared at it in silent despair from separate windows at least a couple of times a day. Marianne eventually, tentatively, suggested that they simply pull everything up. No plants. No bushes. No flowers. Leave the grass and the empty beds and the hedge at the front. Rake the gravel driveway. Make it minimal. They could, she said, find some interesting bits of wood or metal in the stables and paint them. A sculpture garden. Bert declared it a fantastic idea. He was so enthusiastic that Marianne had second thoughts. They were, she said, too lazy. They had no practical skills. They should do some courses. Bert gave a semi-serious little speech about them being workers in song, something which came as much of a surprise to him as it did to Marianne, who was nevertheless moved. They agreed on the plan. Then they kept putting it off.
There was a new prime minister. Marianne shouted at him on the television and spent an evening trying to decide whether to join the Labour Party or the Lib Dems. Bert refused to have an opinion one way or the other, and Marianne shouted at him about Nazis for some reason, and then apologised, saying that the crisis was distorting the national psyche and turning all of them into buckets of unmanageable emotion who sloshed around and leaked. She revealed that she was working on a very political novel. It would shock him, she said. It would shock him and all of her readers. Bert felt that he was close to being all of her readers lately, and also felt that he was unshockable as far as her books went, but said nothing. She joined the Lib Dems and calmed down. Bert quite liked the new prime minister, but could never admit to it.
He was managing his appetites a little better, he thought. Masturbation bookended his day and seemed to keep him relatively sane, if slightly embarrassed. He dreamed of London. He dreamed of all its men. But he had no real reason to go, and was afraid that if he made one up the deceit would become a habit. They did not deceive one another. For eighteen years they had lived honestly and in love, and he thought sometimes that it was the greatest achievement of their lives—better than any of Marianne’s odd books, and certainly better than any of his distinctly pedestrian music. They had wanted to write operas together, and they had not. But they had written some quite nice songs, and they were happy. Weren’t they? He stopped working one morning and sat up and then stood, and went urgently to Marianne’s study and knocked at the door. She opened it only because she thought something must be wrong. Why on earth else would he disturb her? He told her he loved her. He said it had seemed suddenly very important that he tell her that. She opened her mouth, and then closed it. Frowned and then smiled. To watch her was a joy, and all that he felt reassured him that this was not an act, and he realised that it had in fact been a test—telling her this, in the middle of the morning—it had been a test of whether it was still true. And it was. She hugged him and they kissed and went for a long walk around their domain, hand in hand. On the way back Marianne found another dead bird.
There were further bad smelling days. Not many. But they disturbed Bert in ways that he could not properly identify. The man from the mega-farm called again, and a third time, delivering more wine, and chocolates, but no more flowers. He said the smell was an ancient one, associated with chicken farms since chickens were first farmed, and that it was in The Canterbury Tales. And, he said, just they wait until the Busbys did some muck-spreading, which they would as winter eased up, and then they would have the whole rich aroma of the land around them, in stereo, he laughed. They asked him not to come back. He left his card and two bottles of champagne. Bert researched muck-spreading on the internet and made himself anxious again. He would go to London. He would go for a weekend and to hell with it. He told Marianne his agent wanted to see him, and that he had a meeting at the BBC about a couple of possible commissions, and that he needed to go shopping for various pieces of equipment and a new mandolin. All of this had some basis in fact. His agent was always happy to see him. The BBC were commissioning. He needed a mandolin. But it was cobbled together in such a stupid way that he felt depressed about it and may even have changed his mind had Marianne not expressed immediate enthusiasm for the opportunity to invite her niece for a few days. Lisa was twenty-two and a poet and insufferable to Bert.
He booked a room in a terrible place in London Bridge that overlooked nothing. He had earplugs but it was silent as a tomb. He had made contact with his regulars and lined up three dates, two at their places, one at the hotel. He had a quick and dispiriting lunch with his agent in a Pret A Manger in Holborn and walked back, sweating across the river in an unseasonable heat. He called Marianne to make sure that Lisa had arrived and that they were both okay. Of course they were. Lisa was exploring the house and finding it spooky and cute, but was quiet, a little distant and strange, Marianne said. She suspected some nonsense to do with a man.
Bert showered and felt awkward. He had friends he could call. But they would want to see him and he wanted to have sex. He found himself watching the news in a sort of liminal soup of anticipation and impatience. Then his date for the evening cancelled on him. Furious, he spent an hour on the apps but he was too agitated to be able to bear any sort of human company now, and he gave up. He ate a pub burger and had to have another shower, and thought that maybe it was just the city he missed, not the sex at all, and that he should go on a big long walk. He lay down to think about it and fell asleep. He woke briefly at 4am to a terrifying disorientation that spun him into panic until he remembered that he was a human being in the age of human beings, and that he was known and loved, though he was temporarily alone in a city that no longer seemed to care that he existed.
He had sex twice the next day. Once by arrangement, in his hotel room, which was all very friendly and civilised and bore no relation at all to what he had thought he wanted. And then again later with a new man from one of the apps who invited him to a riverside flat that had a baby grand piano in it that the man couldn’t play. He said it just came with the apartment, like all the furniture. He was French, and seemed amused at Bert’s stricken expression. He was in London just for a while, overseeing crisis preparation for a small chain of coffee shops and a large chain of fast-food outlets, for his clients who owned both. His clients were a private equity group behind a very big chain of coffee shops in France, as well as a chain of airport restaurants, a chain of bars in South Africa and a chain of fast-food outlets in India. He stripped as he listed them. Bert, exasperated, sucked him off as quick as he could and left, breaking free—he found himself thinking—of the chains. He ate in a crowded pizza place and tried to get drunk on their wine but couldn’t. Back at the hotel he was looking up train times to see if it was possible to check out early and just go… home, he supposed. But then something stupid happened.
There had been another arrangement, to visit a man in Bermondsey who he had met before, and who sometimes had a friend with him. While he hadn’t exactly forgotten about this arrangement, Bert had been refusing to recall it. It was for 8pm. Just after, the man sent him a text. *Hey sexy, are you on your way? *Bert had to decide and he could not decide. There was a knock at his door. He rose to answer it, and at the same moment the phone in his hand began to vibrate. His date was calling him. He opened the door and simultaneously, without quite being in control of or understanding his actions, he answered the phone.
In front of him was a middle-aged woman who seemed to sway. She regarded him with astonishment.
—Who are you?
—Albert! Where are you?
—Are you coming?
—Who the crap are you I said.
—I think you have the wrong room.
—Do I? Do I? The wrong room is it?
—Jesus. Are you all right?
—This isn’t my
—Yes I’m fine.
—Oh do I? Oh crap.
—What’s going on?
—I’m sorry mate. What an idiot. I’m… is this the fifth floor?
—Should I ring…
—You’re not on your way then.
—I was just about
—Sorry. I was
—No no, I want
—No no what?
—You want what?
—Is it too late?
—No not you
He took the phone away from his ear.
—I’m sorry. You have the wrong room. Crossed wires… purposes. Goodnight.
He closed the door. There was a hooted ha from the other side, and what sounded like a kick. He raised the phone.
—Christ. I’m sorry. Listen it’ll take me twenty minutes to get to you. That okay?
There was silence. He’d hung up. Bert sat on the bed. There was another kick at the door. He bounded over and jerked it open ready to say something he would regret, but there was no one there. He scowled, furious, and went back inside and tried to slam the door but there was something in it that resisted slamming and it jammed and he found that it could only be closed with minimal force so that it would not slam, and he wondered if it was broken, but then realised that it was by design, and thought that this was actually quite clever, and a good feature to have in a hotel, and also worried briefly if it was not somehow a fire risk though he couldn’t, just at the moment, think how, and at the same time he hated it and hated every thought and tendency and person that had been involved in coming up with and creating something which so deviously frustrated the absolutely boiling, hideous rage with which he was now suddenly and completely overcome. The door closed gently with a supercilious thwunk, and Bert burst into tears. They had sold their house. Their home. They had sold their home in Peckham and bought an eight-acre mess in the middle of nowhere and he was homesick for God’s sake, homesick for a home they had thrown away for some barely articulated idea that involved better air, less noise, fewer people, cost of living, peace and quiet, love, safety, England. Bert lay on his side and let it all out. Was it a test? Was that what it was? Let’s cut ourselves off and see if we are enough for each other? My God they could have just rented a place in the highlands for a few months. They could have done a summer swap with a couple in Stockholm, the Ardennes, Guatemala. He was muddled now, his face wet, forlorn and lonely and stupid. Why had he not stayed with friends instead of sneaking into the city like an idiot thief? Why had he not been honest with Marianne? Why was he filled with guilt and shame and fury? He hated his entire self, and a fire raged through him for fifteen minutes, leaving him thoughtless and exhausted and as bitter as a baby. As he fell into a wounded sleep he dimly realised that he had forgotten completely about the mandolin.
Summer had not passed. He rose early and checked out of the hotel and walked through the hot morning to a Sunday timetable of slow, sweaty trains that brought him eventually, in late afternoon, to the village, where he took a taxi. He had sent a couple of texts to Marianne but she had not replied, which meant either that she was working, or that Lisa was still there. He’d also texted the man he’d stood up the night before, apologising. He got a confusing reply saying it was good to hear from Albert after so long, and he didn’t know what he meant about last night, and that it would be nice to see him again. The man had either mixed him up with someone else or was being sarcastic in a way Bert didn’t understand. In any case, it eased his sense of shame. The taxi driver complained that the smell was back. That it had been in the air all day. Bert didn’t get it until he was walking up the drive. He didn’t think it was as bad as before but it also seemed slightly different—a little less pissy, a little more mouldy. He had done a lot of thinking. He had made decisions.
Marianne was in the kitchen staring at a tea towel. It was an ordinary white tea towel with squares of red hatching, hanging from a hook beside the window above the sink. Usually a little bell on a yellow ribbon hung there. But now there was a tea towel, and Marianne was staring at it, her head slightly cocked. She had not responded to his calls nor had she turned to face him as he’d come in. Her arms were by her side. The smell was worse inside the house than outside and Bert’s resolve faltered a little. He asked her whether she was all right. No answer. He walked over to her. Her shoulders were slumped, and there was a tremor in her hair. He thought for an awful moment that she’d had a stroke. But when he walked in front of her her eyes snapped onto his and she straightened up.
—Oh. I didn’t hear you come in. I was looking at this. It moved. It’s been moving. I’m absolutely certain. The towel, I mean. Can you see it moving? Well I think it’s stopped now but my God, Bert, it moved like a sort of terrible puppet, like those awful things on the television in the cold war, do you remember those terrifying children’s shows that there used to be from behind the Iron Curtain? Well that’s the first thing I thought of, though I really don’t know why, because I can’t really pin it down, it just moved, danced almost, like a glove puppet—that’s it, as if there was, as if underneath it there was…
—Darling, darling. Come here. You’re rattled. Come here, love. That’s it. It’s okay. It’s just a tea towel. I’m home now. It’s all right.
—You forgot the mandolin, she said.
He was hugging her, his eyes looking for Pinecone and not finding him, and it took half a second for him to realise what she’d said.
—How did you know?
—I don’t know. So you did?
—Were you having sex?
—Yes, a little. But it made me very depressed and I missed you very badly and I want to do everything properly from now on. I want to be here properly, not just half here. Not just hovering. Properly be here. I love you very much. Where is Pinecone?
—Lisa took him.
—Took him where?
—To see the chickens.
He detached himself from her embrace and moved back to see her face, his hands on her shoulders. She wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes were fixed on the tea towel.
—You’re not making much sense.
—No. I know.
—Are you all right?
—I am very frightened.
She nodded at the tea towel.
He turned and looked at it. It was still. And then it moved. Almost imperceptibly at first, it moved upwards, still holding its coned shape—as if the hook that held it was moving too. But then the two bottom corners travelled upwards as well, at a faster pace, making the whole thing wider, and then the towel seemed to flatten out horizontally for an instant and behind it there seemed to be… it fell again, and swayed back and forth a few times. Bert thought: How is she doing that? But she was behind him now, holding his arms, and he could feel her body against his and she was doing nothing other than shivering as if cold.
—There’s a draught.
She was right. The day was completely still. The windows closed. The doors. It had stopped. It hung there, still, a little damp and dirty looking. Was it theirs? He didn’t know. He found that Marianne was gripping his arms far too tightly and he hadn’t noticed, and now that he had it seemed risky to tell her to stop. He touched her hands. She let go. He took a step towards it. Immediately it flew from the wall towards him as if thrown. Marianne screamed. Bert ducked or dodged low and it landed on his shoulder and he hit his head on the side of the kitchen counter, and he shook and brushed the thing off him, flailed it off him, got it somehow off him. It fell to the floor and lay there. His head was sore and a ringing filled his ears. They looked at each other, and at the towel. Then Bert followed Marianne’s gaze to the wall. On the hook by the window was a furiously shaking bell on a trembling yellow ribbon. Bert and Marianne screamed together and moved as one to the door, their arms trying to gather all the parts of each other and ensure nothing was dropped, each travelling the same way and looking backwards at the impossible little bell dancing and ringing in the air as if shaken by a hand, but of course there was no hand. In the hall Bert tripped over his own bag and banged his head again. Marianne sat on the floor beside him and they clung to each other as if atop a burning tree.
Eventually the ringing stopped. They stayed on the floor, and after a while the silence was as disconcerting as the noise had been, and they scuttled backwards towards the front door. Bert’s head was bleeding, and Marianne spent a minute asking him in whispers to count backwards from ten and who the prime minister was, and he counted forwards from ten and said Tony Blair but she didn’t notice. He said he was fine, but he felt sick and dizzy. He couldn’t get the tea towel out of his mind. It had touched him. It was disgusting. The sense of disgust was very powerful, though the thing had not felt like anything other than a tea towel thrown over his shoulder. It had not seemed to move while on him, and it had not left anything behind when he got it off. He glanced to check. Marianne was still trembling. There was silence. The smell seemed to have gone, or changed, or perhaps they were used to it now. He suggested that they call a taxi and go find a hotel somewhere and come back first thing in the morning, perhaps with a Busby or two, and investigate in daylight, when they were less…
There was a knock at the door.
Well. Look at them, sitting on the floor dishevelled and scared, like two children frightened of the dark, of shadows, of tea towels and little bells. Bert felt ridiculous. He stood up gingerly, telling Marianne they were being silly, and he held a hand out to her and she grasped it and he pulled and they stood clinging gently to each other and looked at the big black door. Silence. Bert called out:
… and Marianne jumped, and the silence resumed.
He stepped up to the door and laid his ear against it and could hear nothing at all.
He looked at Marianne.
—Where is Lisa?
—She went for a walk, to see the chicken farm. She was furious about it. She was furious all the time. She isn’t back. It’s her. It must be her.
Another knock and they both jumped, a little backwards, a little down, but Bert felt braver now and he took a boxing stance and grabbed the latch and turned it and pulled the door open. There was no one there. No one. Nothing. Nothing there. The steps. The gravel. The driveway. An empty English evening, timid against the heavens. Nothing.
—You should call her. Call Lisa.
Marianne had left her phone in the kitchen. Bert’s was in his pocket, but he didn’t have Lisa’s number. So they stood in the hall inside the open doorway of their own home and Marianne used Bert’s phone to call her sister—not the one who was Lisa’s mother, but another one whose number Bert did have—and asked her for Lisa’s number, and then of course they couldn’t find anything to write with, and did not feel up to memorising, and Marianne asked her sister just to text it, text it for God’s sake, to Bert’s phone, which she did, and Marianne hung up on her and her questions.
Look at them there. In the open doorway of their home in the country in the evening. Standing together as if about to welcome guests.
Lisa answered almost immediately. Bert listened in.
—Hi M, how are you?
—Lisa, where are you, darling?
—Uh, I’m at a friend’s?
—But where? You’re in London?
—Yes. What’s wrong?
—Lisa, love, why didn’t you tell me you were leaving? I didn’t know what had happened to you. Did you come back to the house at all?
There was a pause.
—Marianne, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m in London. I’ve been here all… I haven’t been anywhere. Do you mean your house?
—Marianne, I’ve never been to your house.
They stood for a moment holding on to each other and then let go. Lisa’s voice continued briefly, but Marianne dropped her arm to her side and then either hung up or was cut off. They looked at each other in silence. Bert had never experienced such silence.
—I am me, he said. But he could not hear himself.
Marianne turned as if to leave the house, but the door was closed in her face, in silence. She moved away from Bert and he watched her as she went past him and stopped. She was looking at the door to the kitchen, which had opened. Bert slapped his ear. Nothing. The smell rushed back—an overwhelming stench—and he clasped his nose and mouth and coughed but made no sound. Then, as if to mark some happy, small event or the passing of a certain time, the little bell began again to ring—clear and loud and joyful.
All the dead are loved. And all the loved are dead.