Authors: Isabel Ashdown
After the first leg of their trip, they were lucky enough to get picked up by a minibus driver who was heading for Salisbury. Once she had settled in to the journey, it turned out Lisa was a chatterbox, filling every silence with stories of her work behind the counter in the student union bar, grasping Rob’s thigh every time she laughed or told a joke. Laura sat up front, making faces over the headrest and chatting to the driver, who eventually took pity on them and went out of his way to drop them close to Stonehenge, where they could walk the last stretch to the festival site. They took it in turns to wheel and drag the cumbersome tent trolley, although Rob wouldn’t let Lisa anywhere near it, instead taking her turns for her. The road was lined with slow-moving camper vans and flag-draped rusting buses, while hundreds of dusty ramblers took the same route on foot, entering what appeared to be an entire village dedicated to the celebration of midsummer. In the distance, the strangely unimposing stones stood to one side of the road, against a landscape of tents and tepees to the other. In the queue to the site, one woman reclined on the truck bed of an old Austin van, her long skirt pulled high as she sunned her legs in the bright Salisbury light. A dehydrated-looking greyhound lay panting at her feet. From her horizontal position she was reading poetry aloud, accepting the applause from the stationary vehicles
to either side. It was uncomfortable to be there alongside Lisa: she looked like an overprivileged child in her pastel outfit and scrubbed skin, gaping in alarm at the noisy hordes of unwashed explorers who hung from their van windows smoking roll-ups and laughing with fellow travellers.
‘Hashish?’ This was the first word uttered to Lisa as they passed into the tent field, spoken by a loose-eyed stranger, topless and nut-brown. His ribcage corseted his body in deep grooves as he lunged towards Lisa, flapping a sinewy arm after her. ‘Hey, angel? Brownies?’
A huge dog squatted to crap in the middle of the path, fixing his blood-strained eyes on Lisa as she approached. She shrieked. Laura and Wren, walking behind, clapped their hands over their mouths to control their laughter and Rob looked back and scowled. ‘You’re like a pair of bloody kids.’ He sighed, trying hard to deflect their idiocy. ‘So, where do you want to camp?’ When Laura shrugged and smirked in reply, Rob looked furious and he stomped ahead with a startled Lisa trailing from his hand like a pretty flutter of streamers. ‘We’re off to find the toilets,’ he called back to them. He pointed to a large striped music tent, from which the whine and screech of a sound-check filled the air. ‘Wait for us here. Don’t move!’
Twenty minutes later, Lisa and Rob returned to announce they were leaving. Lisa looked traumatised.
‘What?’ Wren looked at Laura, confused, wondering guiltily if perhaps they’d pushed them a bit far.
‘The loos are
!’ Lisa gasped. ‘They’re insanitary! There isn’t even a separate ladies’. It’s like a concentration camp!’
Laura covered her mouth again and Wren tried not to join in, instead focusing hard on the toes of her dusty boots.
‘Well?’ Rob asked impatiently, finally managing to look at Wren too. ‘Are you coming or staying?’
Wren and Laura silently consulted each other and nodded, resigned to the idea. ‘Alright,’ said Wren softly. ‘Come on, why don’t we look for somewhere else to camp nearby?’
‘Oh, yes – that way we can still visit the stones, but without having to use the death camp facilities.’ Laura threw Lisa a patronising smile. ‘Perhaps we’ll find a Caravan Club site along the way.’
Poor Rob; the relationship was doomed from the outset. When it fizzled out after just two or three weeks, Wren was relieved. ‘She’s not right for him,’ she told Laura after an evening dissecting the ins and outs of his brief love life.
‘Agreed,’ Laura replied. ‘He doesn’t know how lucky he is to have us looking out for him.’
Wren wakes early and returns to her task of clearing out the wooden trunk. She fills a large garden bag with the clothes and oddments she sorted through yesterday, and settles on the floor to tackle the rest of the box. She had another fitful sleep last night, dreaming of the journalist turning up on her doorstep in the black of night, bringing Robert with him. Robert had been young, the Robert she’d known in college, only he’d looked broken and pale.
, she’d said, not letting either man cross the threshold of Tegh Cottage. She recalls the rhythmic sigh of the waves clawing against the shore below, the chill of the midnight air as she stood in the doorway, barring their entry with her hostility.
I forgive you
, Robert had replied, his eyes growing darker, older.
, Wren had answered, closing the door on them.
you knew the truth of it
. Sweating and breathless, she’d forced herself up from the dream and left her bed, to check the locks were secure on the front and back doors before returning to sleep.
Now, in the back room, she lifts a shoe box from the trunk and places it on the stone floor in front of her. The box itself is pristine, containing a pair of gold Italian sandals, expensive and strappy with a kitten heel – a gift from Robert after the birth of Phoebe. A cold flush floods through Wren’s veins, as she allows herself to conjure up her child’s name, her daughter’s name for the first time in twenty years.
: bright and pure; god of light; a flycatcher in springtime. Phoebe was the name Wren had always had in mind for a girl, though they still spent hours poring over the baby name books. Try as they might, there was nothing that they could agree upon for a boy, and when their baby arrived and was a girl it was a relief to find the name suited her instantly. ‘God knows what we would’ve done if we’d had a boy,’ Robert joked. ‘We’d have had to call him Eric, after the anaesthetist.’
Wren lifts one of the shoes from its pink tissue paper, and turns it over in her hands. In her old life she would have regarded it as a thing of beauty, with its shimmering straps and dainty curves. But now the sight of it disgusts her; its frivolity reminds her of the Victorian butterfly display in the Natural History Museum – beautiful, selfish, cruel. Carefully, she places it back beneath the tissue and adds the box to the rubbish pile.
From their earliest days together, Wren suspected that Rob’s feelings towards her were more than those of simple friendship. His furtive glances, the way he became tongue-tied
whenever Laura left the room, how after a few drinks he lost all his inhibitions, allowing his glances to linger and smoulder. And she loved him too. She loved his gentle nature, his naïve charm – she loved his love for Laura and all her craziness.
Their first night together came as a surprise to both of them, following an evening tending to Laura after she’d arrived home in a distressed state after a doomed night out. Laura had a weakness for musicians – the more black-eyed and dysfunctional the better – and they went for her in a big way too. In the previous year alone she’d been out with all four members of a post-punk student band called Smack Jack; in quick succession she’d slept with all four – three had fallen into deep unrequited infatuation with her, and the fourth, Jack, had reversed the roles entirely. Jack was the lead singer, a nineteen-year-old Bristol boy who modelled himself on the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra. Laura was smitten, and over a three-month period she embarked on a stormy affair which was to leave her broken-hearted and filled with self-loathing. On this particular night, Laura had been at a Smack Jack gig in the college bar, and, knowing she was hoping for a romantic reconciliation with Jack, Wren and Robert had decided to give her some space and let her go alone. They rented a film from the video shop down the road, and stayed in watching
with the lights low, eating vegetable lasagne side by side on their scarf-draped futon. There was no romantic tension; they both understood the unspoken boundaries of their friendship, and so the evening progressed amiably as they passed Wren’s chocolate orange back and forth, bickering over who would eat the core nugget in the middle. When Laura fell through the door soon after midnight, she was barely coherent. Her usually flawless skin was
streaked with dark trails of mascara, and her breath reeked of Jack Daniels, Jack’s tipple of choice. She shrieked with laughter at the sight of Wren and Robert cross-legged on the sofa and she flopped into the armchair opposite, throwing her velvet rucksack on the coffee table between them. She appeared possessed, her inebriated eyes roaming the room, as her mouth moved silently in an attempt to form words.
‘FUCK HIM!’ she eventually managed, both hands flying up in rage, and she wailed, breaking down in groans of profound grief.
Wren and Robert moved towards her.
‘Are you hurt?’ Wren asked, as she came to one side of the armchair, taking Laura’s hand in hers.
Laura let her neck go soft, shaking her head like a child.
Robert was at the other arm, his hand on her shoulder. ‘What happened, Laur?’
She sobbed some more, retching and appalled. ‘He screwed me! Like he always does – after the first set, he came off stage and screwed me in the toilets and then, and then, when we were meant to be going home together at the end, I found him in there again – with
Wren helped her friend to the bathroom, holding her luscious hair back while she threw up all the hate and bile she’d absorbed, until there was nothing more to expel and she slumped against the sink like a rag doll. Steering Laura into her bedroom, she undressed her, rolled her on to her side and stroked her furrowed brow. In the half-light from the hallway she remained sitting on the edge of Laura’s bed for some time, watching closely for the motion of her breathing, marvelling at the beauty of her porcelain skin, remarkable even now in this undone state. Robert appeared beside her, a bucket in one hand, a pint of water in the
other. He placed them at Laura’s bedside, kissed her on the forehead and took Wren by the hand, leading her to the doorway, where they stood together like concerned parents, their fingers linked.
‘I can’t bear what she’s doing to herself,’ Wren whispered.
Robert inclined his head, so that his face rested on hers. Wren could feel the pressure of his fingertips on the back of her hand, the warmth of his skin against hers, and it felt honest and welcoming.
‘We’ll look after her,’ he breathed into her hair, and in a single natural movement he turned his body into hers, their lips finding one other’s like a reflex as he spun her into the next room – her bedroom. And that was the moment when the future shifted and changed shape altogether: the start of their new life as Robert-and-Wren.
Out on the beach car park Arthur is serving a group of surfers, five young men in wetsuits, their beach-blond hair stereotypically tousled and free. Wren enjoys seeing the youngsters who come and go. Over the years, she’s spent hours at a time following their hypnotic movements through the lenses of her binoculars, as they dive and glide across the water’s shimmering surface.
Willow and Badger barge in among the group, rounding them up, causing the lads to become small boys again.
‘Sausage dogs!’ one cries out, laughing at Willow’s waving tail. He takes his hot drink from Arthur and runs a hand along the dog’s long back. ‘I love these dogs,’ he says as the group moves away. ‘
His friends laugh, and they disappear from view as Wren reaches the kiosk.
‘Seem like nice lads.’ She smiles at Arthur.
‘Townies,’ he replies. ‘They liked these two.’ He holds out a treat in each hand; the dogs balance on rear legs to hoover them up. ‘So, any more bother from that journalist?’
Wren shrugs, doesn’t know how to talk to Arthur like this. Their relationship has always been based on small talk, on coffee, on dogs, on ‘looks-like-a-nice-day’. Now, he knows more about her than she knows about him, and she feels sick with the anxiety of it.
‘Tell me to butt out if I’m interfering, Wren. I’m not digging for dirt. I’m just worried about you.’
‘No need,’ she replies, pushing her hands into her pockets, turning impatiently towards the sea. She’s been busy all day and now she’s only got a good hour of daylight left to walk the dogs; she hates this time of year, resents the meanness of these short winter days.
Arthur holds up his palms. ‘OK, OK. But, just so you know, that fella was back looking for you this morning – asking for directions to the cottage – and I sent him packing.’
Wren spins round to face him, defensive. ‘Really? What did you say to him?’
‘I said I know people round here, people who could break his legs in a heartbeat.’
Wren stares at Arthur’s pleased face, dumbstruck.
‘I told him to – excuse my language – piss off back to wherever he came from and look for a real story instead of poking around in ordinary folk’s lives. And I showed him this.’ Arthur reaches under his counter and pulls out a large rusty blade.
‘You’re kidding me?’
Arthur smirks. ‘It’s only my old whelk knife – couldn’t cut butter. But he doesn’t know that, does he?’
Wren laughs, counts out her tea money and offers it to Arthur.
‘Not today, love. This one’s on me.’
With a small nod, Wren takes the tea and whistles for the dogs, to head off towards the shore.
‘Don’t go expecting a freebie every day!’ he calls after her. ‘I’m not made of money, you know!’
She raises a gloved hand and drops down on to the beach, with Willow and Badger in tow.
Up on the rock, Wren surveys the horizon through her bird glasses, picking out the various species as they come into view. The dogs are nuzzled into her lap as usual, their ears protected from the biting wind, their bodies soaking up the November sunlight. A swell is building further out at sea, and Wren zooms in on the distant surfers as they drop to their bellies and head out, chasing the waves, swimming against the tide. Further inland, a kestrel glides into view; she swiftly adjusts her focus, moving it back and forth until she brings the bird into full clarity, the image so sharp that she is able to make out the detail of its vibrant yellow bill and claws, the dappled plumage of its wingspan. It rests on the current, its black tail tips flexing and retracting as the wind pummels its resolute form. Overhead the sky is clear and blue, and Wren allows herself to wonder if this is the end of it, if life will return to normal now that the journalist has gone away. Just her, the sea, and the dogs.