I can say we had no idea what we were doing here, but that wouldn’t be fair on Bill, who is always trying, who understands things in a way I suppose I could never. Bill with the sticky note diagrams pinned to our bed, torn down in the morning. He says my lack of understanding grants me a brand of immortality.
“I could never think about the future, babe,” he assures me, “because I know too much already.” The yellow notes curl in his fist.
Everything we do we do in present-tense; he makes sure of it. I wish he would elaborate on what he means by ‘brand’.
Every day he refuses to stare at horizons or watch the white scream of webpages buffering. He is never without some tool in his hand, whether it be a toothbrush, hacksaw or knife; he does not build, he will only fix. Never without a drink either, whether it be a mug of instant or a cup sloshing over with supermarket wine. We only need to take the car out five miles to the nearest store. We make our own convenience.
My favourite times of day at the cottage are dawn, noon and dusk. I like edges and centres. The caramel hour bitten into crisp wafer, wakefulness. Times right after the light changes and the clouds sweep into general elemental drama. I shiver in the damp air and go outside to catch a breeze, wrapped in the scratchiest blanket. I watch Bill take the boat out and kick shingle back into the sea, wishing I was smoking. Something I gave up when we moved south, along with everything else. The Topshop habit, the fibre-optic broadband, the Netflix subscription. In tattered clothes I walk the shore, losing my sequins. A lot of what remains from that time is stuffed in boxes beneath our bed. There isn’t space to pull it out, but on special occasions I’ll riffle through for a pair of shoes or a dress. Once, I salvaged my patent blue heels and a pale gold backless number and paraded down the creaking stairs, as though I were a prom queen, morning after, my hair unbrushed for days. Bill saw me at the door in the light and laughed.
“You look nice babe,” he offered. He was fixing something on the hinge, or the lock, wielding his drill. He gave me a look that only a father gives, a kind of bemusement and tolerance towards his daughter’s minor rebellions. As if I’d bothered smudging lipstick on as well, as if this were some extravagant transgression. I felt shame.
I sat at the makeshift desk we’d set up by the window, flipped open the laptop and looked for work. I did things freelance, intermittently. When I got a good job, I’d sometimes beat Bill in the takings, but such jobs were few and far between. Plus, they’d leave me ragged for nights, up late with the slowest WiFi, endlessly emailing and making notes. Times like these I missed smoking most. Smoking would fill a delay. I could never get my sentences right, and facts seemed increasingly blurry, always positioned ahead of me. It was like the sea licked the edge of my prose and wouldn’t let things settle. I hated every draft I ever completed. I needed that nicotine clarity, the stark voice of an editor at my back, the buzz and warmth of an office.
But then again I have space now. I let myself think.
We moved south to get away from something, sure. I’m not sure what we were looking for, was it solace in the water? Bill says it’s contaminated, the shoreline. He’s seen folk in high-vis doing tests, collecting samples. I’ve seen them too but never tell him. There used to be some kind of plant nearby, perhaps a rig; you can see its skeletal remains jutting out to sea on clear days, if you walk far enough west. The ghosts of a former infrastructure. I took loads of photos when I first saw it, I wanted to write a blog for this environmental organisation. I wanted to get paid for ranting about the surprising petro-landscapes of the south. I loved the way the sea stars and lush, cola-coloured kelp just clung to the rusted bars. Politically, things went sour that month and it wasn’t a good time for complaining about oil; I ended up writing on the specific variety of pink thrift that springs up hardily around our cottage. It was some cutesy piece for a gardening website where everything was written for ‘Mums’ specifically. They wanted you to send them an ‘everyday headshot’. You had to mention ‘your kids’ and make offhand remarks about a ‘work-life balance’.
I took my coil out months ago. I wanted to leave things to chance. Something he doesn’t know.
Bill and I have been painting the living room, a stark shade of yellow. He was so sceptical, humming and hawing in the B&Q we’d driven two hours to get to. I had printed off all these articles about how yellow increased happiness, how it set off your serotonin receptors, how it had served in this or that film set, how it could soften your lighting, your heart. The first thing Bill did when we left B&Q with the heavy pots of paint was spit, groggily, onto the concrete. He’d had a particularly bad cold but wouldn’t admit it. A woman was passing into the store with her daughter in arm, and looked at both of us in disdain. Not that Bill noticed. He was distracted by the task at hand. His spit swirled with luminous green, on the surface of the car park. It had landed perfectly, ridiculously, on a blue bottle cap. It looked like the fucking Earth.
Sometimes I wish I could really look into what’s happening, what’s to come. I’d be a much better freelancer, I’d predict and inform and connect. The old woman in the cafe says there used to be whooper swans, smews and teal. She has this whole list of beautiful birds she reels from. I see her once a week, sipping her Earl Grey tea on Friday afternoons — the only day I allow myself the luxury of hiding out here instead of the damp cottage, reading. I read whatever’s on the shelf of the cafe, trashy romances and natural history; I never finish the book I pick up, never ask to take it away with me. Borrowing seems too committal. The old woman says the land is dying; sometimes she is more specific. She remarks on my tardiness, remembers the days when girls dressed smart. I find it remarkable she still refers to me as ‘girl’, hasn’t noticed the streaks of silver in my hair, increasing day by day. Of course she is immaculate, a figure lifted straight from a 1950s knitwear catalogue.
My blood still comes, out of the blue in the night like a miracle. I lay awake listening to gushing rain.
The living room is finished, smelling fresh. I have drafted my piece about losing the birds, quoting Ms Earl Grey for good measure. Bill says I’ll struggle to find anywhere to send it. Nobody wants to hear about extinction, he says. Especially from someone so obviously immortal. He winks and I try to comprehend. Everyone is willing me into the present, but I can see the longview now and it is not bright, it is not yellow. The yellow won’t hide the cracks from the damp; the alkaline, unpleasant smell leaking out from the soil beneath us. The men in high-vis taking samples wear yellow. When I stand on the edge of the shore with hail in my eyes, their yellow mixes up with the yellow of boats and lights of distant harbours. When I look out to sea I don’t know what I’m seeing. The tide gets closer to the cottage each day. Soon there’ll be water at the door.
Bill might find a solution, build a wall. I am not so sure he can solve this. He asks why my eyes are stung red and raw each night and I blame the weather. He runs his fingers along my spine and tastes the future inside me, bruises me like a fruit he can’t quite eat. In the morning I wake up and stare at the yellow, remembering.