Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in Confingo, Crossways, Fictive Dream, Into the Void, The Nottingham Review, Prole, Structo and a variety of other journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story ‘Breath’, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, ‘The Violet Eye’, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: www.polyscribe.co.uk
Somewhere on the Spectrum
Stone is cold, silence is cold, and I’ve never found much warmth in religion. Still, I had hoped for more. I spent the first couple of days looking round, wondering if my reaction was very different to the others who had taken time out of their life to be there. It was hard to tell, and I felt unable to ask. No-one had actually banned talking, but it clearly wasn’t the done thing.
‘You can’t make someone love you.’
It was strange to hear this from an abbot. Why should he know about that sort of love? But it wasn’t the first time it had been said to me.
Everyone arriving had an interview, probably to check that they wouldn’t crack up in the sparseness and aridity of those ancient, unworldly surroundings. I was surprised by how much I’d told him. But then he was almost as silent as the abbey itself. Silence of that sort is a vortex that draws you in. I hadn’t encountered it in day-to-day life. Except, if you saw it that way, in one instance.
I suppose it’s fair to say I soon realised Addie was disturbed. And she quickly recognised something in me. Why else would she nickname me ‘the wounded healer’? She had a way of finding the things inside that I preferred not to acknowledge, even if I knew about them well enough.
I first saw her at the Calthorpe Gardens: I the volunteer, she the ‘client’, although it became clear fairly soon that your role did not define your reason for being there. She worked on a plot adjacent to mine, but barely seemed strong enough to sustain the effort of digging and weeding for more than a few minutes.
A therapeutic space. What does that mean? You grow things to be healed. Growth is healing, because it’s life’s way of asserting itself. You cherish the earth as a giver of life. But there was something about the way she stabbed the fork into the ground. Not much cherishing there, I thought.
And yet I kept looking at her. I noticed I wasn’t the only one. Others fussed around when she struggled. She seemed indifferent to them: a passive magnet for their needy attention.
‘Could I show you another way of doing that?’
Those had been my first words – I was pulled in like everyone else. She had shrugged and I’d taken the fork from her to demonstrate how she might use her weight, what there was of it, to drive the tines into the ground.
‘Okay,’ she’d said.
I pressed my foot hard onto the shoulder of the fork, pulled the handle back to prise a clod of moist earth, then passed the fork back to her.
She took it and made a similar movement. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a parody of my demonstration, or if she genuinely lacked all physical aptitude. For both reasons I wanted to show her again, but managed to stop myself. Instead I just stood there, while she ceased even pretending to dig.
‘Are you mad too?’ She had an unusual voice, too young for her appearance, with a collusive note in it.
‘Everyone’s somewhere on the spectrum,’ I said. It was an idea I’d had a lot since I started coming there once a week.
‘On any medication?’
She nodded and reverted to stabbing with the fork, while suddenly, somehow, I felt excluded from a whole realm of existence.
I did all the running after that, suggesting coffee or lunch, never knowing whether, even if she agreed, she’d actually be there. Then, eventually, she came to my place.
‘You’d like me to stay over, wouldn’t you?’ It was the end of a desultory evening. She’d eaten very little of the meal I’d prepared.
She did stay over, but I knew we wouldn’t have sex. It was obvious by then that everything had to be gradual and on her terms, though I could only ever guess what they were.
When the manager of the gardens discovered we were in a relationship he sacked me, if you can sack someone without a contract who earns nothing. And he told Addie it would be better if she attended another scheme. But it had been a mistake on his part to call us into his office together. Addie said nothing, but never stopped looking at him. Although we were probably there less than five minutes, by the time she and I left he had reddened right down to his open collar, and the armpits of his shirt were sodden.
I remembered this now as I lay on the steel-framed bed in my room, or should I call it a cell? You don’t have to stay long in a monastery to realise it’s a place of confinement and absences, of things lost, things abandoned, things grown distant. Studying the faces I saw in the corridors or refectory, I began to think I could see two types of people who had come for this thing called ‘retreat’: those who were searching, and those who were hiding. I began to ask myself the obvious question.
I had failed to take so many warnings. In the short time we spent in that office it was clear enough what she could do. The manager was right, we knew the rules, and yet by opposing him I took her side.
‘You like your laundry,’ she said one morning, looking me up and down after I’d showered and got ready for a work appointment. We were spending more time together now, and immediately the fact that my clothes were washed and pressed left me wrong-footed. She could wear the same things for a week or more, and somehow made that seem like freedom – a feral scent, her own way of meeting the world.
She took up painting a couple months after leaving the gardens. Another therapeutic space, every Tuesday. I wasn’t eligible – you needed a doctor’s letter to attend. I watched the paint stains accumulate on her sleeves and shirt-front. I became fascinated by them. I wondered who else was there, painting alongside her.
I had plenty of time to wonder – most of my work I could do at home. I’d always been meticulous about keeping regular hours. Now, when she chose to be there, I’d be aware of her lying on the sofa, reading.
‘Just take no notice of me,’ she’d say. It might as well have been a challenge.
For some reason that was when I wanted her most. Was it because it allowed me to imagine us being together in something like normality – making love, in the living room I used as an office, on an ordinary day? But all I could do was lose myself in her body while she locked herself away in some internal world. Perhaps, ultimately, sex is always a private experience.
I remembered this, walking in the flagstoned cloister on my fourth afternoon at the abbey, the passageway without shadows under a grey, overcast sky. I tried to visualise her face, then realised, to my shock, that I could conjure paleness in a dark tangle of hair – nothing more than that. I took the option of booking another meeting with the abbot.
‘Why does that disturb you?’ He was a big man, shapeless in his cassock.
‘I’m not sure disturb is the right word,’ I said.
He remained silent. It was the right word.
‘If I can’t remember her face now, it means she’ll be lost to me completely. It’s less than eight weeks since I last saw her, and she’d never let me take a photo.’
He sat looking at me. He was very still. I’d noticed he used few mannerisms to accompany his speech: he rarely smiled, frowned or gesticulated.
‘The imagery we carry inside us has its own laws,’ he said, after a while. ‘You would realise that if you spent more time here. Just as you can’t possess a person, neither can you choose to possess any image you might wish to have of them. Memory can be surprisingly arbitrary. In that way it reflects all human experience.’
I thought about this later. I could see that, to anyone else, pretty much every choice I’d made in relation to Addie would have seemed arbitrary, at best. Were my actions even led by such a thing as choice? And why should I have her image, now, if, in reality, I never really had her?
‘She’s damaged goods, and she’s not a nice person. And you think you can change her but you can’t.’
It must have been hard for Janine. She’d been careful to guide whatever we originally had together into friendship, which, as there’d been little spark, suited us both. But she was caring, and loyal. She couldn’t fail to see what was happening between me and Addie.
‘Show me someone who isn’t damaged goods,’ I’d said. Immediately Janine looked at me as if I’d made a personal accusation. I can see now that Addie’s power was like a centrifugal force, scattering pain everywhere.
‘What is it that makes you want someone like that?’ There was tautness in her face. ‘She’ll never give you anything, let alone love.’
‘It’s about how I feel,’ And in that, at least, I’d said something anyone could recognize as truth.
It could have gone on for a long time, that’s what I was left to think. Addie wasn’t going to change, and neither was I. So the change came from somewhere else. Or did it?
I was returning from a meeting about work late on a Thursday afternoon. The temperature was up in the nineties and my clothes were still sticking to me from the crowded train journey. Even from outside my flat I could hear a lot of noise. Naturally, a couple of months in, I’d given Addie a key.
Before I’d fully opened the door I was hit by a thick stench of cigarette smoke. I would have hated that even without my annual hay fever. Inside the hall, music I didn’t know was being played was so loud I could feel the bass through my feet. As I reached the kitchen a lank character with greasy black hair and a broken tooth grinned at me and gestured to the living room. There was spilled food and coffee on both the work surfaces and the floor.
‘If you’re looking for Addie she’s in there.’
I went in. Addie was lying on the sofa in what had become her usual pose, looking disinterested. A skeletally thin young woman was sitting at my desk using the computer. I could see that her hands were covered in flecks of paint and were otherwise filthy. Through the open French windows I saw an older man in overalls urinating against the garden fence. Three younger people sat around on the floor smoking and eating. Addie gave me a mildly amused look.
‘My art friends,’ she said.
‘Get the fuck out of here, all of you.’ There was no containing the rage I felt, I didn’t even try.
The others looked up at me, startled.
‘But this is Addie’s place,’ the girl at the computer said.
‘No it fucking isn’t, if she told you that she’s lying.’
I walked over to the girl, took the mouse out of her hand and banged it down on the desk. Then I went out into the garden where the older man was buttoning his flies.
‘This is my flat and I didn’t invite you,’ I said. ‘Get out.’
I grabbed the collar of his overalls, but hesitated as I felt the fragility of the body beneath. Instead I released him and gestured towards the French windows. He shuffled away quickly, and immediately I could see he was frightened.
I followed him back into the flat, where the others were trailing out into the hall. One had already opened the front door. They looked confused, even alarmed. It was then that it occurred to me that they were much like the people I’d volunteered to help at the Calthorpe Gardens. They were gone very quickly.
I turned and looked at Addie. She was still lying on the sofa. She raised her eyebrows.
‘Not very centred, are we?’
In that moment I hated her.
‘You set this up, didn’t you?’
‘I used to think you were so patient with us maddies.’
‘Give me your keys, get out, and don’t come back.’ I put my hand out.
Just for a moment I saw an expression that might have been dismay or even sadness enter her eyes, before her features settled back into their default controlled disdain. She got up lazily, reached into her pocket, then holding the keys between her thumb and forefinger, dropped them onto the sofa. I watched her narrow back curve as she crouched in the hall to flick the straps on her sandals, and then she was gone. I went over to the chair by my desk and sat down, suddenly without energy. I looked at the chaos strewn around me, while the realisation sank in that its perpetrator had departed my life for good.
This moment came back to me as I sat in my room at the abbey. Beside me burned the still flame of a single narrow candle. The contrast was obvious – I’d come to a place where there was nothing on show but order. And silence – it was the hour of personal reflection and there were not even footsteps in the corridor outside.
‘No-one can be completely unconditional.’ I heard Janine’s voice as if she was sitting next to me. ‘If you’d just admit that to yourself these things wouldn’t keep happening to you.’ I’d phoned her in the aftermath and she’d come round to help me clear up. Later I was very grateful for the chaste night we spent together.
Now, as her words faded, I became very conscious of the candle, wax pooling gradually into a simple brass holder. I closed my eyes, and realised I was breathing very slowly. Gradually, breathing the scent of burning wax began to feel like breathing silence. The silence came in through my pores, filled, then emptied me, until I could think of nothing, not even regret.
© 2019 Mike Fox