It was the line of those hills seen from a distance that started it. At first, purple-grey in the fading evening light. From their vantage point of the bench, dedicated to Thomas J Pyne, Who Loved this View, that Tuesday evening in late August, they watched them change, become almost as one with the sky as the sun sank effortlessly, inexorably. Imperceptible changes became sudden realisations of loss. As lights came on in the far town that the hills loured over, those orange-green flickers grew to a concatenation of twinkling. Like the circuits of a distant brain, in communication with itself alone.
‘We could live there,’ said Robert. ‘I’ve seen a place on the Internet.’
Theresa stroked his hair. ‘Living somewhere’s different to visiting it for the day.’ She was silent for a moment, then added: ‘The rents would be lower, I suppose. It could work.’ She looked at him.‘Could it?’
‘I’d commute. There’s a train to Oxford. Better than the bloody A40 from here. And it wouldn’t affect your studies, would it? That’s the beauty of the OU, it’s how they sell it. You take the university with you.’
She gave him a wry glance, which due to the failing light he did not register. ‘Are you sure you don’t work for them?’
‘You know very well I’m a spook at GCHQ, but I can’t talk about it or I’d have to…’ He drew a finger across his throat.
‘As long as you don’t end up stuffed into a holdall in some dodgy flat in London.’
‘Murder isn’t a laughing matter.’
‘With you they’d need a pretty big holdall.’ She prodded his midriff. ‘Perhaps a small marquee would be more fitting.’
‘Fattist! It’s the last prejudice standing. It’s officially sanctioned. People feel they can judge a human being solely on…’
She prodded him again. ‘Joke? Remember jokes?’
She unscrewed the silver flask, filled the cup with sweet lukewarm tea, bolstered by a splash of Teacher’s.‘Well, here’s to change, Slim.But not for change’s sake.’ She offered him the cup first.He returned the offer, but she persisted. It was a well- worn ritual. First he drank, then she did.
Robert yawned. ‘Last thing Buddha said: things change. The fat bastard.’
Theresa laughed. He loved her laughter most of all. Was addicted to producing it by any means necessary, self-deprecation being his default gambit. Secretly, he loved it more than her speaking voice, which sometimes bordered on the stern. When she laughed she was a girl again.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Car lights crept along a road in the valley. It seemed as if they were moving inordinately slow. He wondered if there was some profound truth to be located in the connection between distance and apparent speed. The moon was a plump yellow segment directly above them. Unusually, neither of them had looked nor wished upon it that night.
‘Cold now,’ she said, tugging at the pocket of his denim jacket.
‘There’s gold in them thar hills,’ he said, still straining for the barest outline of what he guessed was the Worcestershire Beacon, the highest point of the Malvern Hills. And beyond those were the Black Mountains, then the Welsh Beacons, then…hills forever, if you longed for there to be.
‘Come on, pardner,’ she said in a mock prospector voice (something akin to Walter Houston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a film they both enjoyed). She had stood and was stuffing their sandwich box and flask and her digital camera into the small blue rucksack they had always taken on their walks around Gloucestershire over the two years and four months they had lived together.
With some effort, he pulled his eyes away from the fibrillating lights. ‘About the house. I’ll email them in the morning.’
Pump Cottage, one of a row of former quarrymen’s cottages, sat in the shadow of North Hill. From their bedroom window they could see the higher reaches of the hill, the outcrops of blue-grey granite, the scrubby trees, wind bent, almost leafless. If you craned your neck around you caught a glimpse of the red-brick Victorian water tower which gave the cottage, and the side street it nestled in, its name. Local philanthropists had constructed the pump to ensure a ready supply of fresh mineral water for the villages of North and West Malvern.It was no longer active, but proved an ideal landmark to direct friends to when they came on weekend visits from towns and cities across the country.
When they had first seen it, Theresa had joked that it reminded her of the Tower card in the tarot. Such associations were quickly pushed aside. Although the booklet that had come with the pack had advised that the card might bode a necessary epiphany or escape from bondage rather than certain calamity. The doorway was opened during daylight hours, but covered by an ornate grill at night. You could inspect the dry font. The tap no longer dripped its pure cargo from deep within the hill. There were information posters, which few read in detail. Twice a year, those who had the authority opened the door to the inner staircase at the back of the tower, for the usual mixture of tourists and locals who might enjoy traipsing up a winding stone staircase in the near dark. For a small donation, you could reach, if you so desired, the little balcony at the very top, and from there gaze down all of eighty or ninety feet to the grass below.
Robert and Theresa no longer heeded the soft hourly chimes from the tower’s clock. It seemed to them both that they had never lived anywhere else, so quickly did they enmesh themselves into the activities and vagaries of community life. And people were actually friendly here, they appeared to want to know you. There was a monthly a cappella singing group who met in a local church, which they both attended. There was country and circle dancing. Theresa enrolled in regular yoga and Pilates classes at a centre not four-hundred yards away. Robert attempted a meditation service in something describing itself as pureland Buddhism, but the studied tranquility and strange attire of those running the meetings put him off, not to mention the full prostrations before a brass image of the spiritual manifestation known as Amida. The herbal tea and biscuits served afterwards did little to assuage Robert’s distaste. He began playing his banjo again, after allowing dust to gather beneath the strings for nearly two years.
Over the first four months in their new surroundings, the pace of both their inner and outer lives gradually slowed. They did without a television but kept an Internet connection for Theresa’s studies. The radio was used as aural wallpaper less and less. They began to talk more, and to listen to each other, to not regard pauses as dead air or the presage to an argument. They had actual conversations, rather than the pseudo-comforting yet limiting exchange of one-liners or comic voices that had long been their staple. Robert detected both a softening in Theresa’s voice as well as a greater languidness in her movement. She appeared happy, and this afforded him a deepening peace of mind.
The relative silence of the cottage’s thick-walled rooms, the absence of cars using their narrow lane as a cut-through, had at first the quality of portent, a stealing melancholy, which when not struggled with mutated into a genuine sense of calm. Robert soon tired of the daily commute to Oxford and found a similar, if far less remunerative, position in the town library. Theresa’s final modules for her Masters in Philosophy progressed happily for her. In the evenings, she would read Robert passages of an essay she had been working on, or a selection of Nietzsche’s musings on art and aesthetics, material she had guarded jealously before. She no longer wore a constant look of strain. She was present and unaggressively vital, and this delighted Robert no end. For his part, the daily walk Robert took across the lower slopes of the hills to reach the town library, not to mention the couple’s regular early evening and weekend rambles along portions of the eight-mile line of the Malverns, had caused him to shed three stone. Overlarge trousers and tops were despatched to the town’s rash of charity shops. They purchased a sprouter and set pots of basil and thyme along the kitchen windowsill. They dug over the back garden, removing stones, roots, and bits of old slate, in preparation for a spring planting.Their sex life grew both more adventurous and more tender. They even started experimenting with things like bulgar wheat, Aleppo pepper, and quinoa– in the kitchen that is.
And then, in mid-March, an odd thing happened.
‘Why did you do it? I don’t understand. You were so close to the end, Treeze. All that effort, time and money. Wasted. Am I wrong?’ Robert had his hand on Theresa’s upper arm. They were on the sofa in front of a dying fire. She was unresponsive to the point of catatonia.
She sighed, then sipped her wine, letting a trickle fall like blood over her chin. She spoke in a blank, unmodulated voice, staring straight ahead. ‘I realised that I just didn’t care. There was no longer any meaning…in any of it. I don’t need to prove anything anymore. To the world, to you, and most of all to myself. No more exams or marks or judgement or desire for anything outside of…’
‘Of what? Outside of what?’
‘Outside of the knowledge.’
‘The knowledge? Of what? What on earth are you going on about?’
She turned to Robert and he did not recognise the expression on her face. He had never seen it before. Indeed, he scarcely recognised her face at all. A shiver passed through him. Who was this person? She was suddenly a paler version of herself, like a sea creature that had drawn in its many feelers, to become something that did not wish to be seen or understood, becalmed in its own privacy.
‘But the idea, the plan,’ said Robert, putting down his glass on the carpet, then twisting side-on the better to understand her, to drum himself into her. ‘First the MA, then the PhD, then teaching. Warwick, you said, even Oxford. Sky’s the limit, you said. You’ve got the potential, the smarts, unlike me. You’ve got the tenacity, or so I thought. And you’ve wanted this for so long. If it’s me, if I’m not giving you enough peace, I’ll back off, go walking more. If it’s my banjo, God, I dunno, I’ll throw that on the fire. You put four months of work into the flames there. We’ve just watched it burn. To be honest, Treeze, I’d rather not have known. Are you sure there are no copies?’
‘I smashed the laptop.’
‘Well, I’m sorry,’ said Robert, pouring himself another full glass, the eighth that evening, and uncharacteristically failing to offer Theresa a refill. ‘I’m sorry, but part of the reason I took those extra hours on, as well as the Saturday mornings, was to support your studies, as I always have done, to support your dream, facilitate it, if you like, so you wouldn’t have to worry about silly little things like council tax, water rates, electric, rent, or, heaven for fend, W.O.R.K. All those boring little issues us mugs have to consider, that the great minds of philosophy are too elevated to even mention. And now you let it all burn. Literally.’
‘There is nothing to become. There is only a necessary unlearning.’
‘Are you joking, Theresa? Please say you are, because you’re losing me here. In fact, you’re scaring me, to tell the truth. Are you on some kind of drug? You’re not talking like yourself. Those are someone else’s lines, and they’re pretty second rate, at that. It’s not you.’ Robert slapped his forehead, ‘Ah! I get it. I get it now. It’s just a new character, right? A joke. Remember jokes? Course I do, love. You had me going, you little rascal.’ He shook her lightly. She allowed her head to flop back and forward. He took his hands away. She had lost weight, a lot of weight. Why had he not noticed it before? Her collar bones were more pronounced than usual through the gauzy material of her blouse. He could almost encircle her upper arm with his fingers. Her face had acquired that pinched, desiccated quality, often noticeable in the patrons and staff of health food shops.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ he shouted, leaning into her face, his spit, reddened by the wine, speckling her cheek. ‘Are you ill, or what?’ He gripped her arms again.
She closed her eyes, became utterly pliable, a ragdoll of indifference. He let her collapse back onto the cushion, her dark blonde hair falling across her eyes. He stood and looked down at her. ‘I’m going…I’m going to bed,’ he said, before snatching up his glass and the half-full bottle of wine, and stomping up the stairs.
The next morning, she was where he had left her, motionless, her skin a milky grey in the dull light. At first he thought she might be dead. He glanced around for an empty bottle of pills.
‘Theresa.’ No answer. Her eyes were closed. She lay folded into herself. Again the image of a rag doll came to mind. ‘Theresa.’
She stirred, slowly came to, looking at him as through a fog. ‘What d’you want?’
‘What do I want? What the…? I’m going to work, Theresa. That’s what some of us have to do.’ He pinched his eyes between his thumb and fingers.‘We need to talk about this, about you, about what happened last night. Shit, I’m going to be late.’ He moved to the door, then turned. ‘Everything was so perfect here. We were meeting new people. You like Adrian and Harriet, don’t you? And the Jaspers? It’s a proper community, somewhere we might even try for a family one day. We’re supposed to be building a future.’
Her eyes had misted. ‘Your voice,’ she said quietly. ‘Your voice is a hammer.’
A short involuntary laugh escaped him. He reached to take the keys from off the hook above the door. They were cold. ‘We’ll see someone, Treeze. We’ll make an appointment. I know what it is.’ Against the rising tide of his anger, he made a great effort to speak gently. ‘It’s overthinking, in that rarefied atmosphere for most of the day, on your own, and so normal life must seem a bit humdrum. It’s some kind of psychic collision, if that’s the right phrase. I get it. I do. But we’ll get some help for you. For us. You can pick up the studies after a good long rest. You’ll fly through them then.’
‘I’ve already flown,’ said Theresa, barely audible.
Part of him wanted to go to her, to carry her up the stairs, lay her on the bed, caress her into responsiveness. Another part wanted to slap her. She had never looked so much like a lost child, and this in turn made him feel lost, weightless. He thought for a moment about calling in sick, his hand trembling against the door handle. Then he pulled the door open and stepped into the early spring sunshine. Crocuses had come out in the front garden. It was a beautiful day.
Over the next six months, Robert transformed from Theresa’s partner into her unofficial nurse. She would not voluntarily change her clothes, and he had to constantly badger her. He washed her hair for her. After endless remonstrations, he would stand guard outside the door while she apparently showered. He would lean in to smell her, searching for the scent of soap or the lack of it. She would not make herself anything to eat or drink. Occasionally, she would eat a piece of dry bread of her own accord, or cup her hand under the tap for a drink. He pleaded with their GP, Doctor Ashad, to visit, but was told in no uncertain terms that it was Theresa’s right to decline any medical or psychiatric intervention as long as she was not a clear danger to herself or to others.
Robert booked a second consultation with Dr Ashad to discuss his now frantic level of concern.
‘But if I didn’t make her meals, she’d starve. Her organs would start to pack up. I’ve read about these things.’
‘There’s no need to raise your voice, Mr York. Please, keep calm.’
‘Why should I be calm? The woman I love is slowly killing herself. I don’t know what it is. Is it mental or physical, or both? That’s why we have the bloody NHS, isn’t it?’
‘You said her weight is fairly stable, sir.’
‘Only because I keep forcing food down her.’
‘Forcing?’ The doctor frowned, tapped at the keyboard.
‘What are you writing? Do you think I’m the problem? I’m not, I can tell you. I’m getting fed up with it. Look, her mother visited, and they’ve never got on. Despite that, her mother, Dawn, looked at me like I was responsible somehow. Then she just pissed off back to Birmingham. The brother’s in America. What friends we’d made here are too weirded out to drop by. Theresa used to be so…so normal. She had a brilliant mind, she was funny, witty. Now she doesn’t even speak to me anymore…except for the odd cryptic remark.’
‘Such as?’ Dr Ashad leaned back in his chair.
‘It’s embarrassing really. She keeps going on about the tower. The tower must be broken. We must leave the tower. All that kind of nonsense.’ Robert paused, unsure of whether to continue. ‘She used to do tarot readings for me, where we lived before. I’d bought her the pack for a laugh. It was just a game. She didn’t know how to do them properly, we took it all as a joke. She’d put this daft headscarf on. She even did them for the cat we used to have, Tibbles, before he got run over. When the Tower card would come up, we’d pretend it was some catastrophe looming. None of it was real, just messing. And now we happen to live near a tower, a one-time water tower, for God’s sake. She won’t leave the house, Doctor. She’ll go in the garden for a few minutes. Sometimes I see her out there at night, walking up and down by the fence, talking to herself. But she hasn’t left the house for nearly five months. I’m sorry I have to spell it out to you, but Theresa is clearly mentally ill.’
‘Do you think you are qualified to say that, Mr York?’
Robert’s hands formed fists. He bit down hard on his lip. ‘Doctor, what I’m saying here is that I’m near the end of my rope. I’m messing up at work, I’m angry all the time. If you don’t have her looked at, take her in, just for a week or two, do some tests, I don’t know, there’s a good chance I’m going to throw the towel in.’
‘Leave. What d’you think I meant?’
‘There’s no history of mental illness in her notes, although I really shouldn’t discuss that with you. Perhaps, and I only say perhaps, Mr York, it’s you who’s become, how shall we say, over-concerned. Miss Harvey is clearly an adult, well-educated. We cannot force our ministrations on a person merely because they don’t change their clothes as much as we’d like, or even if they decline to talk to us. Those days are, thankfully, gone.’
‘So you’re saying there’s nothing you’re prepared to do? You won’t even visit?’
‘As I’ve very clearly said to you, Mr York, if Miss Harvey wishes to make an appointment, I will be most happy to see her. Offer counselling, if appropriate, possibly some medication, also if deemed appropriate. But that is the extent to which I, or indeed any general practitioner, can go. If you require help, on the other hand, we can offer six weeks of CBT counselling. You know of this?’
Robert did not respond. His mouth was a rigid line.
‘It can be most effective, for things such as anger management, positive thinking, and so on.’ Dr Ashad attempted a smile. It was not returned.
Robert stood slowly, leaned on the back of the chair. He had regained all the weight he had previously lost, and then some, due to increased drinking and a daily diet of junk food. Eating badly and excessive alcohol had always been his habitual reaction to stress.
‘You think I’m the problem. Just like her mother did. Okay, Doctor. Well, you can’t say I haven’t tried. If something happens, if something bad occurs, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘Is that some sort of threat, Mr York?’
But Robert was already halfway out of the consulting room.He aimed to reach the hardware shop in Barnards Green before it shut.
Dr Ashad sighed. He took off his glasses and polished them with a small beige cloth. Then he called up Mr Robert York’s record on the computer. He sat for a moment, considering what he might write. Then, with two fingers, he began typing.
One night, Robert dreamed of the Tower. As the card in Theresa’s deck depicted, two people, clothes in tatters, were falling from a high tower that rose from out a boiling sea. A tempest raged and when lightning struck the tower, all was noise, mayhem, destruction. The two people, a man and a woman, were falling to the maelstrom below. Falling quickly, yet not reaching the waves. The people were Robert and Theresa. Their bodies turned in the storm, in the wrath of wind and water, as the bricks of the stricken tower flew past their heads and reaching hands. Who had set this tower in the middle of the sea? Was this then not an escape from a prison of sorts, albeit a violent break? Still they twisted and fell until their faces came level. Theresa’s eyes were soft with yearning. Her fingers weaved with his before their bodies slammed into the waves and, amid a mighty roar, were driven under.
Robert shot upright, breathing heavily. His heart thumped. Just after three. It must be tonight, then. He could hear Theresa lightly snoring in the other bedroom. They had not slept together since Theresa’s change, as Robert privately termed it. He folded back the bedclothes, dressed in the dark, then went and knocked softly at her door. No answer. He entered anyway.
In the amber light from the streetlamp that bled through the half-open curtains, he could make out the top of her head. He could end it now. For both of them. Half a minute’s struggle and it would be done.
He sat down on her bed. There was a mustiness in the room, a spicy sourness. She no longer smelled like the woman he had once known. None of the books on depression or schizophrenia he had pored over of late had given him a clue of how to reach her, how to see things from her perspective. ‘If I knew where you were, my love, I’d join you, and we’d find our way back home.’
Her breathing grew lighter, thinner. He stroked her cheek. ‘Wake up. Wake up.’
She moaned in her sleep.
‘Treeze. I know what we’ve got to do.’
‘You,’ she said, finally. ‘So tired. Please.’
‘Come on, let’s get you dressed. We need to go somewhere.’
‘Not hungry,’ she mumbled.
‘I know, I know.’ He hauled the drowsy woman up to sitting position, and with virtually no cooperation, began dressing her. Her clothes hung loose over her emaciated frame. Her near naked body had occasioned only pity in him during these efforts. Lust was a bitter memory. He guided her down the stairs, heaved a large rucksack onto his back, and let them both out into the night.
She stood shivering on the path. Her teeth chattered. ‘I’ll get your big coat,’ he said. He went back in and returned with the green parka with the fur-lined hood.
She looked at him from under her fringe. ‘Why are you?’
‘Just for a little walk, love. Not far.’
He held her around the shoulder. Once or twice her knees buckled, but he steadied her. Making slow progress, he part praised her efforts, part disparaged them. She said nothing in response.
‘Just cross here,’ he whispered. There were no cars, no lights in any of the windows. Safe as it could be. The night was clear and dark and cold. Fugitive stars spangled the sky. North Hill, jagged with the many deep scars of its longabandoned quarries, loomed above them. Hems of mist laced its ridge. A white cat sat on a low wall, watching them. It licked lazily at its paws.
‘Are you going to kill me, Robert?’ Theresa said, once they had reached the grass verge.
He did not answer. The rucksack was heavy, what with the tools, the rope, the rags and old dishcloths, and the bottle of paraffin. He urged her up the slope, between bushes and young trees. The ground was slippery. There was an odour of fox.
They came to the tower. The ornamental front gate was drawn across the portico as usual. Theresa stopped. ‘I can’t go nearer to it. I can’t. It threw me down, Robert.’
‘We’ve got to do this,’ he told her. He led her to the back of the building. There was the entrance to the stone staircase, a gate across it, secured with a heavy padlock.
‘It’s going to be all right.’ He cupped her chin, then unburdened himself of the rucksack and took out the bolt cutters. ‘Just wait here a minute.’
Robert approached the fence and cut through the padlock, surprised at how easy it was. He opened the gate, and hoisted the rucksack back on. ‘Come on.’ He motioned with his hand, and Theresa half-walked, half-stumbled towards him.
They could make out the first few steps, but after that it was fiercely black. Robert felt for a light switch but could find nothing.
‘We’ve got to go up, Treeze. You go first and I’ll be right behind you in case you fall.’
‘It’s so dark. Darkness has fallen on me. On us.’
‘I know, and we have to face it out. Challenge it.’
Her brow knitted and she slowly shook her head, yet she ambled past him and took the first step. Painstakingly, they moved up the staircase. It was far colder in the tower than it had been outside. It smelled of moss.The space was barely wider than their shoulders as they circled upwards. There was no sound bar their breathing and their feet on the smooth worn stairs. The turning of their bodies, the nearness of stone and brick around them, the closeness of the cold air, the impenetrable blackness, combined to undermine their senses until they did not know whether they were going up or down. Could there be this many steps to take? Might the tower grow higher the more they climbed? Or were they in fact descending to some lower depth, some lost place of silent screaming? Such thoughts passed through their minds, as their legs wearied, as either he or she stumbled, grabbed out for each other in the dark, and found a steadying hand, a willing heart.
Then, at once, Theresa was gone, and Robert was alone on the staircase. Panicked, he plunged forwards and found himself in fresh air. She was there. On the balcony, leaning against the metal rail. They looked down at the streetlights of the village, at the muted lights of the sleeping town beyond. They were level with the tops of trees. A gust of chill wind delighted their faces as they drank in the stars.
‘It wasn’t so bad,’ Theresa said, and Robert noticed a flavour of her old vitality, the teasing humour in her tone.
He shouted out then. A bellow of joy from a long withheld part of himself.
She looked shocked at first, as if some great stone had fallen from her heart, then she joined him in the shout. Her small frame quivered with the pure sound that rang around the hills. A few lights came on in nearby houses. They could see a head silhouetted in a window. Their calling became as one.
Quickly, as though he had long drilled for this event, Robert unpacked the rucksack. He scattered the rags and towels about the narrow balcony, doused them in paraffin. Theresa began to laugh.
He looked up. ‘You understand, don’t you?’
‘Yes, yes. Of course I do.’
Next, he uncoiled the two lengths of rope, threw the end of one to Theresa, and they each tied their ropes around the metal rail, throwing the loose ends over the side. They fell within ten feet or so from the ground.
‘Do you feel strong enough?’ Robert said.
‘I feel lighter than air,’ said Theresa.
‘We can always go back down the stairs, if it’s too…’
Robert kissed her forehead, then her cheek, then her mouth. She tasted new. He took out the matches from his jacket and began lighting the paraffin soaked rags. They lit with a wumph, and the small gold flamesformed a circle around the top of the tower.
The man and the woman stepped over the metal rail and stood on the narrow ledge, each gripped their rope with both hands. The fretful wind lifted their hair.
‘Can we do it?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Together, both of us?’
Mark’s début novel, The Gift Maker, is to be published by Urbane Publications on February 23rd 2017(http://urbanepublications.com/book_author/mark-mayes/). He has published stories and poems in numerous magazines and anthologies, including the celebrated Unthology series (#5, #9, and #10) from Unthank Books. His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, and he has been shortlisted for various literary prizes, including The Bridport Prize. Mark also writes songs, some of which may be found here: https://soundcloud.com/pumpstreetsongs
Photo by Tina White