Desolate

A short story, written for the <em>New Statesman</em> by Rachel Cusk

''This must be it," said Tristan. "This is Desolate." Ahead, the mud track converged with the trees into a depthless cone of blue shadow. The day was hot, but where they were standing it felt as though night were falling.

"It can't be. This isn't how your mother described it at all."

"There's nothing else up this track. This must be it," he repeated.

When Tristan's mother had mentioned the house the day before, Susannah had felt that she might not like to live in a place named Desolate. Everyone else, however, had claimed to find the name magical: if only all houses had names so brutal and so romantic! The conversation had caused Susannah to experience a surge of what she believed at the time to be her native spirit. It seemed, briefly, that her brutality and romanticism had been released from their dungeons at the bottom of her soul and allowed to walk free. The Penworths often had this effect on her. They penetrated her with a force of pure iteration, like a blast of helium entering the vacant cavity of a balloon.

"I don't remember her saying it was right in the wood."

"Listen, who cares?" said Tristan. He showed her his sinewy back as he rattled the catch on the gate. "It's fantastic. Anyway, look - here's the estate agent's sign. It fell over." He bent over and picked up the sign, which was attached to a long wooden stake, and startled Susannah by heaving it over his shoulder and throwing it with some violence, like a spear, into the undergrowth, where it warped and shuddered dysfunctionally. "I don't think they'll be needing that any more."

"But we haven't even seen it yet!"

"I can tell," said Tristan.

He opened the gate and, letting it bang shut behind him, walked ahead of her into the gloom. Each day, Tristan presented Susannah with several instances of his obliviousness to the fact that she was seven months pregnant. He interspersed these with acts of great attentiveness and care. When she was a child her sister had an imaginary friend with whom she had, as Tristan now appeared to have, a whole world of invisible correspondence. On both occasions Susannah's feelings of mystification, at least, were palpable. The lane was just a mud track, and the earth was churned with tyre-marks around the gate, like the evidence of a stampede. On either side the wood rose steeply uphill and the canopy was so thick and dark that the sunlight was held as though in a net overhead. Susannah could hear the sound of water rushing nearby. The deep, unresting noise seemed to beckon or invite her and so she unlatched the gate and followed her husband.

The path descended a short distance through a thicket of trees and bushes so overgrown that walking through them was like walking through a crowd, except that instead of heat and noise they gave off cold and silence. Tristan's mother had described the place as "really wild": as the words came from Ali's lips, Susannah had understood them to mean carefree rather than unkempt. It was often the case that Ali left the practical side of things unmentioned, so that when it came along it was like an unwanted guest.

"Don't let that little shit tire you out," she said into Susannah's ear when they were leaving for their walk. She rested her brown, slender fingers on Susannah's shoulder and looked at her son.

"What?" said Tristan.

"You know what," said Ali and she laughed. Her voice rose with the laughter that Susannah could feel shaking her small frame from within. She gave off a smell of cleanness and perfume. In such moments Susannah knew that Ali was partaking of their intimacy; indeed, that she was feeding off it, as a new source of nourishment from her son. It was the sort of thing that Susannah's own parents would disapprove of, and so Susannah herself did not disapprove. She stopped short of taking a position.

"Come back with Desolate!" Ali called after them, waving, as they walked hand in hand down the drive.

The sound of water got louder and before long the path reached the river, which ran darkly through the overgrown grass. The water was sleek and nearly black, and it ran so fast that the weeds waved flatly beneath the surface like tresses of long hair. A small ornamental wooden bridge, draped in fronds of fern and willow, stood over it in an arch. Susannah leaned over the rail so that her face was in the pocket of cold air that hung above the river, unbodied, like a soul.

"Look at this," Tristan shouted ahead of her, and his voice, already distant, seemed to travel in diminishing rings up the hill and vanish into the wood. He shouted something else that she didn't hear.

Susannah was a tall woman, and big-boned, and in this final phase of pregnancy she increasingly felt herself lapsing into the condition of a giantess. It was an effort, standing there in the heat, to remember that her growth was not infinite: that it was not her destiny to burgeon and spread, like the garden in which she stood, until her original lines were all but indecipherable. She felt that she might eventually diffuse, into the atmosphere; but of course, she would not. A shock was shortly to be administered, a sharp rebuke that would send her back to her body. She crossed the bridge and began to climb the path on the other side. It was flanked with great hairy conifers, monstrous with neglect. Ahead of her the house was coming into view. She could see a chimney and the corner of the roof and a single window, like a malevolent eye. It had been empty for three or four years, apparently. Susannah asked who had lived there, but although for the past twenty years the Penworths had lived two miles away on the other side of the hill, they didn't know. Then Ali said she thought it might have been an old woman.

"But I might have made that up," she added, looking stricken, "so that Susannah wouldn't think we were such bastards."

"She's far more likely to think that if you tell her some little old lady lived there and we never even looked in to check she was still alive," said Marcus, Tristan's father, garrulously. "Anyway, it wasn't an old lady. I know who it was. It was that Jew-killer, what's his name -"

"Mr Schmidt," said Ali, meaningfully. She placed a hand over her husband's and looked imploringly at Susannah. "Mr Schmidt lives in Doniford, darling, and has done since he was about fifteen."

"Not Schmidt," said Marcus, who was on his third gin and tonic, loudly. "I know where he lives. The other one. The Jew-killer, the retired Nazi. What's his bloody name."

"We'll talk about it later," said Ali, again meaningfully.

The first time Susannah had met the Penworths, Marcus had referred to someone, over dinner in the great panelled dining room, as a bloody Jew; and Susannah had experienced a surge of rebelliousness, against Marcus and the Penworths and even Tristan himself - a quick, unambivalent reaction to her first exposure, like an allergy - and to her own surprise had objected aloud to the father's manner of speaking.

"Are you a Jew?" he had asked her, eyes squinting, head drunkenly cocked.

"No," she said stiffly.

"Shame," he said. "I like Jew women. My wife's a Jew and I've never found a better lay." He sat back in his chair and surveyed the room before waving his hand towards Susannah. "Tristan, where on earth did you find this bloody communist or vegetarian or whatever she is?"

Susannah had left the table immediately. It was Ali who followed her and found her in her room, packing her bag to go back to London. Through the window, in the blue light of dusk, she could see a perspective of the Penworths' lawns, perfectly but discreetly symmetrical. The great Devon manor house pretended to a certain bohemian squalor, an impression it required an army of dependants, or so it seemed to Susannah, to maintain. Ali sat on the bed and spoke to her, gazing at her with pale green eyes that were like the unblinking eyes of a cat. Looking back, Susannah could see that it was that conversation with Ali that had fixed her place among the Penworths. Susannah had grown up in a red-brick house in a suburb of Norwich, in an atmosphere of quiet disapproval: here her distaste was like a wound, a sore, the mark of her childhood and of an adult life spent burdened with her parents' morality. Ali had tended this wound, and for a moment even seemed to offer the possibility of healing it altogether.

"Don't worry about Dad," Tristan said later. "He just likes winding people up. It's sort of a mating ritual."

They were so sure of their own importance, the Penworths, but somewhere Susannah had decided that this was preferable, at least, to the belief she was brought up on, that one is insignificant. Lately, though, she had caught sight of something else; she had glimpsed a desperateness, in Ali and Marcus and in their children too, which arose, she supposed, from their enormous need for attention. Like people drilling for oil, they were always out prospecting for new acquaintances who might ensure their future supply, of love or hate, it didn't matter, so long as it wasn't indifference.

Something streaked silently across the path in front of her and disappeared. It was a dog, large and light-coloured with brown markings. She stopped and listened. There was no sound from the undergrowth, just the noise of the rushing river. She stayed where she was for a few minutes, half waiting to see the dog again but entertaining, too, a growing conviction that the soundless image that had flashed before her had been that of a ghost. There was something spectral in the way it had leaped, and yet had appeared to make no contact with the ground. She continued up the path towards the house, where she saw her husband peering through the windows with his hands to either side of his face, shielding the glass from the glare. In spite of the dankness of its setting, on its rise at the top of the garden the house itself stood in full sunlight. It was smaller than she'd expected, and simpler: in fact it looked untouched, as though it were locked in an imprisoning slumber.

"What do you think?" said Tristan.

Susannah went and joined him at the window. The glass was patterned crazily with the fingermarks of other people. Looking through it she saw a cramped white room empty of furniture. The ashes of a long-extinguished fire remained in the grate.

"Did you see that dog?" she said.

"You'd want to cut the garden right back," said Tristan. "Open the whole thing out."

The garden, Susannah saw, would engulf the house in time. It was rising steadily up the hill, like a veil over a lifeless face.

"It would take a lot of work."

"Everyone would help," said Tristan. "You should see Mum when she gets going. She once dug that whole field behind the house on her own. She only stopped when she put the fork through her foot. Actually, I was right there. I saw her do it. She went completely white, but she just pulled it out and carried on, with blood pouring everywhere, until I ran and got Dad to come and stop her."

The Penworth children had an abundance of such stories about their parents. The most repulsive, and to Susannah the most personally threatening, was that of an early girlfriend of Tristan's, who was allergic to animal hair and had asked that they put the family dog outside while she was staying. Marcus had immediately taken the dog into the yard and shot it, before returning to finish his glass of wine with the remark that he hoped the girlfriend would be more comfortable now.

"That's horrible," said Susannah.

"Mum's as tough as old boots," said Tristan, moving around the corner of the house to peer in at the next window. "She's had to be."

This was another component of the family mythology, that some great but unspecified difficulty adhered to the privilege of being a Penworth. It was a form of high office; there were duties, like the Queen's to her people.

"Well," said Susannah, "we wouldn't necessarily want to rely on your family."

"Oh, they wouldn't mind," said Tristan. "They're desperate to have us down here. They're bored rigid with each other. Ali can't wait to get her hands on the baby, that's the other thing. She's even threatening to be there at the birth."

Susannah got an unaccustomed glimpse of her husband's round, bright blue eyes as he said this. She wondered if he was frightened, and if so, of whom.

"Shall we walk around the boundaries?" he said. "There's quite a lot of land - three acres, I think Mum said."

"I need to sit down for a bit," said Susannah. "You go."

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine. I'll just sit here in the sun."

"I won't be long," he said.

He turned and crashed off into the trees. He had told her, that morning, that his parents had offered to put up half the money for the cottage. Susannah had held this information in her grasp without turning it over, as though afraid of what she might see. It was a bribe, of course; she wondered whether it wasn't also a threat. If they turned it down, how naked would be the inference, how great the difficulty of carrying on as before . . .

Just then she saw the dog again, standing in the middle of the path below her. He looked at her, barely panting, in spite of the heat.

"Hello boy," she said.

"Hello?" called a woman's voice from farther away.

"Hello," Susannah shouted back.

A figure appeared labouring up the path with a walking stick. It was a woman in her sixties, with brown, gnarled legs protruding from her khaki shorts. Curlicues of grey frizzy hair protruded around the rim of the blue baseball cap she wore on her head.

"They've been over this place like ants," she called, making the pronouncement slowly as she ascended the last few steps to the old bench where Susannah sat. She removed the cap from her head and fanned her face with it, puffing. "Robbie, c'mere," she said to the dog.

"Are you local?" said Susannah.

"I used to be. I've known about this place for years." She surveyed the garden, wrinkling the pockets of her eyes against the sun. Her mouth hung slightly open. Susannah noticed that she was missing a front tooth. "I used to play here when I was just a little girl. The people who owned it, they liked to have me here."

Susannah felt a jolt in her stomach, as though the baby had jumped. The dog padded up the steps, its tongue drooping out, and lay down on the overgrown paving stones.

"Did they live here long?" she said.

"Oh yes." The woman nodded. "Then the farmer bought it, for tuppence halfpenny I should think, and he's sat on it a while and now he's got them coming down from London with mortgages. Laughing all the way to the bank, I should think he is."

"I heard that an old lady lived here," said Susannah.

"That was Louisa," said the woman. "She was the lady I knew as a child. She lived here until she died at eighty-three. I never saw her, though. She never let anyone come up here in the end. The garden just got higher and higher, like a wall." She paused and gazed up at the overgrown trees, shielding her eyes with her hand. "She was hiding, you see."

"From what?"

"From her sadness," said the woman. "But it kept finding her."

"What do you mean?"

"I used to come up sometimes," said the woman. She laid down her stick and sat down beside Susannah, folding her skinny legs. "And look at her through the bushes. She was always out here walking round and round, round and round exactly the same way. And calling. Over and over again calling. 'An-nabelle! An-nabelle!'" The woman's high-pitched cry broke unexpectedly from her and Susannah was startled. "It was terrible sad really. But I don't suppose they need to know that from London."

"Who was Annabelle?"

"Her daughter. Her little girl. Drowned right down there when she was one year old." The woman pointed directly below them at the river.

"How awful," said Susannah faintly.

"The worst thing was," the woman added, "she blamed it on her husband. He was the one let it happen, you see. No one knows where he got to in the end. I've got my theories, though. If they ever cut back this garden -"

Susannah got quickly to her feet.

"I'd better be going," she said. "My husband will be wondering where I am."

"Of course, dear," said the woman, gazing up at her with one hand still shielding her eyes against the sun. "I didn't mean to upset you, not in your condition. But it's as well to know these things, isn't it, before spending your hard-earned money?"

Susannah lumbered along the path in the direction Tristan had taken and eventually met him back out on the track. He was trying the door of an old wooden shed that had been built into a right angle of the fence.

"Look at this," he said when he saw her. "It's pretty ancient, but you could do some work on it -"

"Let's go," said Susannah.

She hurried him back down the gloomy track and out into the waiting sunshine, where as they walked along the path to the Penworths' she told him of her encounter with the woman and the dog. Tristan listened to her story in silence.

"I bet you anything she made it up," he said finally.

"What?"

"I bet she made it up."

"That's just the sort of thing your mother would say," said Susannah furiously. "Nothing's serious, is it? Nothing ever matters! Especially not other people's pain - it's all just part of the myth!"

"Well it is pretty far-fetched," said Tristan, apparently unoffended. His mouth was twisting with a smile.

"Why on earth would she make up a story like that?" Susannah snapped.

"Think about it. She wants to buy the house herself, but it's too expensive, and there are all these weekenders coming down who can price her out. So she lies in wait, and every time someone comes to see the house she follows them up there and tells them that story." In spite of herself, Susannah started laughing. "And they run back to London and are never seen again."

On the way home, they found a sheep lying on its side that had got tangled up in brambles. It was still alive, but from the way it lay it seemed as if it had given up hope. Tristan tried to free it but the thorns had dug into its fleece and he was wary of pulling too hard. I'll do it, Susannah said. She pulled at some of the branches and immediately saw the difficulty. Tristan said there was nothing they could do, except telephone the farmer when they got home. It'll be dead by then, said Susannah. Everything suddenly seemed to pivot on this animal, in its impossible bondage of thorns. She felt that if only she could free it something necessary would take root in her, or be given her, something beyond doubt. It was amazing, Tristan told them all later, when they were sitting in the panelled dining room. He had never even heard Susannah swear - she'd certainly made up for it now. Her hands were running with blood from the thorns but she didn't seem to feel it. She tore and tore at the branches until with a great twist of its squat, heavy body the sheep righted itself and charged away off up the hill. And she was seven months pregnant, he added proudly.

Copyright: Rachel Cusk, 2003