Our garden, which was not wide or extensive, could be reached via either of two doors at the rear of my parents’ house. It is only now, thinking back, that it occurs to me the garden was several feet lower than the house itself. I realise this because in remembering it I visualise the succession of broad, fraying concrete steps that separated the garden from the house. These steps were set on either side of a brick protrusion that might once have been a scullery or kitchenette, although as far as I can recall it never achieved any obvious purpose. Tacked onto this were the remnants of a shed-like object, which I believe had originally been built to store coal. The actual garden, when you reached it, consisted of an uneven and weed-ridden lawn, with what might in other circumstances have been flower beds on either side, and a concrete path to the left beyond which, and margined by a high, plain fence, lay a small, muddy wilderness whereon my father might once have attempted to build a rockery.
Throughout the eighteen years I lived in my parents’ home none of this changed – somehow it would have been unthinkable to change it. Things were as they were, immune to aesthetic uplift or any other form of improvement. I have only to close my eyes to see everything I have described clearly.
The result of this, I realise, is a tendency to leave things as they are, benign inertia that leads me to accept my physical environment, with all its attendant factors, as they first manifest.
So it follows that the house in which I now live, low-roofed, single storey, just back from a plain beach looking out at the north sea, is much as I found it when I moved in, still subject to the various neglects of the previous owner, almost a remnant of someone else’s life.
My only neighbour is Annie. She lives two-hundred metres up the steep climb that leads to a small, unamiable village, from which neither of us have managed to gain acceptance. She knocked on my door shortly after I’d moved in to explain that she’d been in the habit of foraging the herbs that grew wild in my garden. She was holding some well-used pruning shears and a bucket.
‘Take whatever you want,’ I said. ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea if you fancy some.’
We sat in my small living room, with its rotting sash window and view down to the sea. Annie cast a severe glance along the row of paintings I’d just unpacked and which I’d leant against one of the unevenly plastered walls.
‘Did you do these?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Over time.’
‘Why so many self-portraits?’
‘Because they remind me who I am when I’m in danger of forgetting.’ It was something I’d said before – a joke with a certain amount of truth in it. Annie continued to frown at them then turned her scrutiny to me.
‘It’s so introspective. Wouldn’t it be more freeing to look beyond yourself?’
‘I paint other things too.’ I pointed to a stack of cardboard boxes. ‘I just haven’t got them out yet.’
She nodded in a way that suggested she was willing to suspend judgement.
‘I’m an artist too. Come up and have a look once you’ve sorted yourself out.’
Thus things began.
If I visit Annie in the morning I will find her in her shed, which is a miracle of tidiness and functionality. Inside it, she fashions organically shaped mirrors decorated with pieces of recycled glass, carves slender figurines from planks of driftwood, and writes the odd poem inspired by the seascape. She advertises her mirrors and carvings online and people buy them. Her poems get published in small, tastefully crafted journals.
‘You can’t live here and be passive,’ she explained, early on.
It would be clear to anyone that Annie is a creative person, orderly in her habits, and pro-active rather than passive. If I visit her in the afternoon I will find her in her strictly regulated garden, which somehow manages to both blend in and stand out from the coarse, encroaching vegetation that grows on the hill around her cottage.
‘People in big cities drift along – there’s no way that will work here,’ she felt the need to point out when I’d failed to complete my unpacking, perhaps six weeks after I’d moved in.
In fact, I have rarely lived in a big city. And the default habit of accepting any new circumstance in which I find myself has made me, in my opinion, a good adapter. Annie, I soon understood, is inclined to view this as a moral failing.
‘I worked in San Francisco for five years. I practised as a canine psychological interventionist. That was how I managed to buy this place outright.’ Annie says this matter-of-factly, although her fingers dance as she indicates the singular, bijou home she has conjured around her. ‘I specialised in anger management for terriers. There was quite a market at the time.’
‘Christ, Annie,’ I’m aware of the admiration in my voice. ‘However, do you go about doing something like that?’ To set oneself up as a Californian dog guru must require a staggering degree of personal organisation, I think.
‘Everywhere you go has a niche, you just have to work out what it is.’ Annie explains this kindly as if she has realised that even the most commonly accepted truism has somehow eluded me.
Our conversation makes me think, and when I go home I start a self-portrait. The version of me that begins to appear is my thirty-year-old self, a heavily-Fairisled warden in a llama sanctuary, holed up, not unhappily, in a croft on the far north coast of Scotland. I am bearded and my eyes seem wider apart than usual, either from exposure to the hypnotic gaze of the creatures I care for, or from hours spent mesmerised by the vastness of the North Atlantic.
‘You’re like a piece of human litmus.’
It’s a few days later and Annie is looking at the painting from behind my shoulder.
‘You’re someone who becomes your surroundings.’
Before Annie applied herself to the canine psyche she worked as a therapist with humans. She still seems keen to share her insights. I’m beginning to realise this is also her way of building friendship.
‘I could paint you,’ I suggest.
The following week Annie sits before me. I ask her to focus on the ukulele that hangs on the wall behind and above me. I look at her intently. She has pulled her tapering auburn pigtail forward across her left shoulder. There’s something about its thickness and rope-like quality that in itself speaks of vitality. It doesn’t surprise me that we can only work in fifteen-minute episodes because that’s as long as she can remain still.
‘It must be strange having had just the one childhood home.’ she says, maintaining her pose but lifting her eyebrows.
‘Not really.’ There’s a quality of zeal I’m trying to capture in her eyes. ‘Back then and round our way it was normal.’
She purses her lips and nods to the ukulele.
‘My mum and dad were always shunting us about. I’d been to five different schools by the time I was sixteen.’
It’s my turn to nod.
‘Lots of change,’ I say. ‘What about now?’
‘I went out looking for things when I was younger, but these days I prefer to be in one place. I’m settled here for the duration.’
‘For the rest of your life?’ Annie is one of those people who could be any age within a twenty-year span, but from the things she’s told me I guess she’s about forty, in which case, as I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere either, it looks like we’ll be around each other for a significant chunk of time.
‘Show me somewhere better,’ she says. ‘Can we stop for a cup of tea?’
I make tea but still observe her. Once I’ve started a portrait my subject continues to occupy my mind until it’s completed. This also goes for self-portraits.
Annie’s appearance, I think, is self-descriptive. Her sweater is evidently hand-knitted, her espadrilles home-made. Her physique is slender, and for a practical person, her hands are surprisingly delicate. But even in repose, she radiates energy and a conviction which seems to imply that, with the right effort, the immediate world can always be put in order.
‘How long have you been single?’ she asks. The question doesn’t surprise me: curiosity is an inevitable by-product of portrait painting.
‘Technically never.’ For some reason, at this moment, it occurs to me that Annie might be teasable. ‘I’ve always been several people in a single body.’
‘Very clever. When did you last have a partner then?’
‘Pretty much until I came here. We were together for nearly ten years.’
Annie considers this.
‘I would have thought you’d be someone to settle down for life.’
‘Part of me would have liked to.’
To my surprise, she ceases to probe. Instead, she puts down her mug and stretches.
‘I’m ready to start again.’
Annie resumes her seat. I peer and dab. I become increasingly aware of the candour that inhabits her features. With Annie, what you see is what you get, though there’s a lot to see and hence a lot to get.
‘You won’t need to sit any more after this,’ I tell her at the end of the session. ‘I’ll do some bits of finishing during the week and then it’s yours.’
‘What will I owe you?’ Her expression suggests she’s ready to haggle.
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I offered to do it.’
Annie stands, grips my shoulders and presses a kiss on my cheek. She looks at me, very intently.
‘I’m going to become your agent,’ she says.
Each morning Annie bathes in the sea. She continues to do this even when October mists lie thick across the shoreline. At a certain point, I start looking out for her return and begin a ritual of taking her a hot drink which I hold for her to sip as she towels herself. As I watch her I sometimes imagine a future in which things happen just as they do now.
‘You’ll notice the difference straight away.’
A still morning and Annie has come with a singing bowl and a cluster of sage. As she warned me, she is going to clear the energy in my house. She lights the sage with a match and sets it down on the stone hearth, then forms three fingers of her left hand into a tripod on which she balances the bowl. Next, she moves purposefully round each room striking the bowl with a turned hardwood mallet. She continues to do this for several minutes then opens the front and rear doors and all the windows. At this point, I feel as if something is flying out through the top of my head. Annie looks at me knowingly.
‘This is your house now,’ she explains. ‘You’ll find it shapes itself around you and you can begin to let things go.’
For the next several weeks I feel a disconcerting sense of absence in the simple domestic space I was beginning to call home.
Autumn shortens the days. One afternoon, when the sea is quiet and the weather overcast, something moves me to paint the garden of my childhood. It seems strange that I’ve never done this before. As I visualise it, it is as large as it would be to a ten-year-old, and still full of casual neglect. My parents’ dachshund runs down the path as if he is still alive. I am sitting on one of the broken steps trying to read a book I’m too young for. I look up from its pages and notice that to my right, against the fence and halfway down the lawn is a lilac tree, in full blossom. It sways in the light breeze. I clench my brow and scrutinise my memory. I could swear I have never seen a lilac tree there before.
I explain this to Annie.
‘It’s because you’re creative,’ she says. ‘Creative people are less likely to see what’s actually in front of them. Creativity is like a lens that distorts things.’
‘Perhaps I just took the tree for granted,’ I suggest, ‘like I never really registered that the garden was lower than the house, even when it was completely obvious.’
‘Memory can add things as well as take them away.’ Annie says this gently, and for a moment her face is transformed by kindness.
One moonless evening as I sit reading I notice an amber light flickering somewhere beyond the window of my living room. I get up and, looking down to the beach, see what might be a small pyre floating out on the tide. I go to my front door, open it, and stand just outside, silently. As my eyes grow accustomed to the mix of glare and darkness I realise the object is a figure, perhaps an effigy, ablaze upon a raft of branches. Then, in the nimbus of light it casts, I pick out Annie, standing upright and trancelike as it washes slowly away from the shore. For a moment I wonder if the figure has been formed from the reeds I have seen drying in her shed, then that thought melts as both figure and raft merge into a single conflagration, smouldering, hissing and crackling as it gradually dissolves into the sea. When eventually the last flames die, the night reverts to blackness, with the ebb and flow of the tide the only sound, and I tiptoe back indoors, leaving Annie to the cooling air, and whatever private moments she has chosen to set adrift, then extinguish.
About the Author:
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. http://www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2