Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story ‘Breath’, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story ‘The Arrangement’, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, ‘The Violet Eye’, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2
The thing I remember most, the thing I suppose I’m stuck with, is her smell. There was something feral about it. It would keep any relationship alive, provided she wanted the relationship to live.
Somewhere on the Kerry ring. We are both in our early twenties. I’m standing on a rock. She has stripped naked and is paddling like a dog out into the cold Atlantic, black hair streaming behind, growing smaller and smaller. My fear builds until she eventually turns and allows the tide to wash her shoreward. She leaves the water laughing and shaking her hair. We make love, she exultant, on the tiny strip of beach, before she has thought to dry herself.
A couple of years later we busk and hitch our way through northern England and on towards the Western Isles. As the towns fall away, we pass on foot a small loch, and she sees a swan in distress, close by in the reeds. In a moment her shoes are off and she’s wading in. The swan allows her to free it from a tangle of sharp wire, as if she is a kindred creature. She wades back out, smiling in triumph, her hands bleeding.
Dangerous people are attractive, aren’t they? After all, you can only be what you dare to be. But perhaps part of you hopes they won’t be too dangerous, just dangerous enough. Some relationships might have been designed to unearth things you didn’t know about yourself.
A crowded London tube train. The evening rush hour. Stuck in a tunnel, no news of when we’ll be moving. All you can see is heads and shoulders crammed together. All you can smell is bodies that have spent the day working. And all you can hear is something very close to silence – the train is no longer idling, tiredness keeps everyone still. I feel the nails of both her hands biting into my arm through my shirt, and the animal fear of her body pressed tightly against me. When we finally leave the train and the station she takes great gulps of air, more than you would think her lungs could hold, and runs off leaving me to follow.
I still wonder how she came to be like that. Perhaps at some point another self sprung out of her. She told me she was born near the centre of a city. Her first job, unimaginably, was in a library. But the person I came to know craved space, needed soon to be on the move. ‘Only people make life difficult,’ she said, pretty much every time her restlessness took us somewhere else.
I’m booked to play at a strange little folk club in the Culperth Arms in North London. It’s new to me. Entry is through a battered door in the saloon bar that looks as though it should belong to a cupboard. Instead it opens abruptly on to a narrow staircase with a threadbare carpet. The stairs lead me up to some alternative world of the past. I glance over at the stage and see her for the first time. She is palpably nervous, singing acapella, stopping and starting. It sounds disjointed and looks ramshackle. Then, without any explanation she enters a Child ballad and is lost to us, channelling ancient voices. When the song ends there’s silence, then a rush of applause.
You are, to some degree, the person you are with. I was changed by her. I think anyone would be. In her company things rarely settled into anything like stability. But then who said the only stable state is death?
We got drunk that night and she took me back to a damp, decrepit, over-inhabited squat in Camden Town. The next morning we went out to a working men’s cafe for breakfast. She was quiet. I felt she was taking me in.
‘Do you fancy travelling?’ she said eventually. She was smiling but there was challenge in her eyes.
‘Where exactly?’ I held her stare and could see she was enjoying herself.
‘Ireland’s good in the summer,’ she said. ‘People will look after you if you can sing.’
I could smell the scent of her body as she sat across from me. I paid up my rent and we set off. It turned out she was right.
Crossing fields in Leitrim we come upon a Romany camp. Within seconds we are surrounded by a dozen men and women. They are suspicious and look hostile. I fear for our safety. As they begin to close in she starts to sing a slow, timeless air, as if she’s alone with it. They cease to move forward and look at each other. ‘She’s one of us,’ an older woman says. They feed us meat and beer and send us on our way with a blessing.
‘Are you Romany?’ I asked, as we found a road and followed it.
‘Somewhere back on my mother’s side.’ She sounded disinterested. ‘My dad wasn’t around much, so I don’t know about him.’
‘Neither was mine,’ I said, and we left it at that.
We played on the streets in towns for small change, and in smoky bars for drinks and food. Thick-set men with beef and dairy complexions would go quiet when she sang, and women would pass her things I wasn’t meant to see. It was a rich time. I learned about sleeping in barns, or on a field or shore under coarse, blistered stars. Some mornings, when the dawn woke me, I would find her sitting crossed-legged and silent, looking to where the distant sky grew light.
‘You’re a pagan,’ I said to her once, as shadows retreated around us.
‘We’re all pagans,’ she gave me that look where only her eyes were laughing, ‘but some of us don’t realise it.’
It was, I think now, an explanation. There was something she connected to in people, especially when she sang, that seemed to take them to a deeper, less defended part of their nature.
We find ourselves somewhere outside Nottingham. It’s nearing midwinter and for a while now we’ve found shelter where we can. We spend the evening in the cellar of a pub, bare brick and gentle clouds of cannabis hanging in the low vaulted ceilings. Unusually I sense something before her. ‘We need to get out,’ I say, but too late. Suddenly everyone is fighting, and someone’s shouting that they’re police. We’re subsumed by the moment, and she is hitting out at anyone near her. We end up in a police cell. In the morning a sergeant enters and stares at us both. She looks tiny and harmless. He preaches to us, then lets us go.
‘You’ve got power over people,’ I said as we walked away.
‘It’s not power,’ she said, ‘I just know things about them. It’s something I was born with.’
‘What do you know about me?’ I thought I could tease her.
She smiled and made me wait for her answer. ‘You’re Mr Far but no further,’ she said eventually.
I wished I hadn’t asked.
The winter bit, with deep frosts. I’d got a job packing metallic coils for export in an engineering factory. It meant we could afford to rent a room above a doctor’s surgery. It was plain and clean, with the use of a downstairs kitchen. We had to keep quiet when he saw patients. We’d heard he was very careful about accepting tenants, and turned down far more than he accepted. When we met he looked at me suspiciously then turned to her. She stared back at him with that challenging half smile that made you notice the flecks in her dark eyes, and soon he was showing us round.
It was the quietest spell we’d known together. I remember being cold most of the time because she always kept the windows open, dressing as if she was outdoors. We stayed there until the spring came, then on until early summer. She read, took long baths, and sang songs to herself that I’d never previously heard. Sometimes she went foraging for herbs by the paths near the river. At night, as we lay together, I stayed awake breathing the subtle musk that clung to her like an intoxicant. It had the power to change how I felt. It was hers and hers alone.
She has become restless. The evenings are long and light now. I realise she’ll leave soon, with or without me. ‘Let’s go to Paris,’ I say, as a strategy. ‘We can play the cinema queues and the café tables.’
She looks up, but through and beyond where I’m standing. ‘Not Paris,’ she says, and I know not to say more, but by the end of the week she has packed her few things and we are travelling again.
Waves broke over the beach at Sennen. Some days we would walk along the rocks to Land’s End. She had begun to sketch. She made a small book of seascapes in pencil, all stretching out to some ethereal horizon, all taking the eye somewhere else. We slept in a rusting caravan in a field just back from the cliffs. ‘You can use it if you want,’ the landlord had said, one evening soon after we arrived. We’d sat down and just started playing in the garden of his pub. People lingered after hours, still drinking, the local constable among them. We were good for trade.
We find we can write music together. There are two folk clubs within a couple of miles, and we play in both. There are moments on stage when I can see a spell come over her. When that happens I stand back to let her sing alone. In the silences between each phrase, I can hear the audience breathing. They gaze at her as if they are each experiencing something deep and private, the openness of childhood in their faces. Afterwards a very elderly woman approaches her and clasps her hand. ‘Awen,’ she says. ‘You have the bardic voice. May it never leave you.’
She drew upon things beyond my reach or understanding, but I knew by now she feared a life grown static: every situation would turn into a cage her spirit must escape.
Our existence gave us little to draw on but each other. The caravan was damp under rain and a stifling shell of tin under sun. Next to the local people, settled in their habits for generations, I could see no direction in my life and no security. I began to want something else. She spent more and more time away on her own in the fields and by the sea. Bits of manual work were advertised in the windows of local shops and I took whatever I could get. Sometimes it left my hands too sore to play an instrument.
The days drifted, and the patterns of her absence stretched, but by then I needed space too. There was no gloss any more, just the drudgery of an unstructured existence. But it was still a shock when she stayed away for an entire week.
‘Had a nice break?’ I said, trying to sound casual when she eventually returned.
‘We both needed some time apart,’ she said. She settled down on the mattress one of the village families was going to throw out, her hand resting on her abdomen.
‘Unannounced?’ I could hear my own irritation.
‘You don’t own me.’ She looked at me then out through the filthy window.
The landlord passed the letter to me only a few days later. It bore the postmark of South Uist. I puzzled as to how, with no money, she could travel so far so quickly.
‘Hello my love,
I’m sorry I left without saying goodbye, but I think it wouldn’t have been the sort of goodbye either of us would want. I’m pregnant – you might have guessed – and both of us know it couldn’t be yours. You were always careful, weren’t you? In many ways I liked that about you. Good to have shared some time together. Don’t try to find me – we have different paths now. I promise you’ll do better without me – better than you might be thinking as you read this. Yours, in memory at least, A’
I made my way up the country as fast as I could, but by the time I got to the tiny, sparse island she had gone. I asked questions: a local woman had taken her in.
‘I couldn’t let her sleep outside,’ she said when I called on her. ‘I don’t know what she was thinking of.’
‘Who was she with?’ I asked.
‘Just herself – and the child she was carrying, unless I’m mistaken. The poor wee girl was sick every morning.’
‘Are you sure she isn’t still on the island?’ I found myself looking around as if to answer my question.
‘No. She took the ferry a couple of days ago.’ She looked at me, and I could see she was considering whether to say more. ‘The pastor spoke to her before she went. He said he would find her free board for her term, but she still wanted to go.’
‘Where might she have gone?’ I said. ‘She’s my partner.’
‘Then you should know better than me.’ She paused again. ‘But it’s my guess if you go looking for that one you might as well search for a piece of the wind.’
That night I slept alone in a bothy. It was warm enough, and dry. As I curled in my sleeping bag I clutched to my face a t-shirt she had left behind and breathed the memories it held. When finally I slept I dreamt I was a hunter chasing a scent that took me nowhere. I woke knowing it was no longer mine to follow.
© 2020 Mike Fox
Previously published in Literati Magazine