In the sticks, well into the sticks, fifteen miles from town off a single-track
road and then off a farm road and up a track that had done nothing for the toy
car’s suspension. The place was isolated. She was isolated. What was it that
had made her make this crazy trip? The unexpected, gaping time hole that was
her afternoon off? Unexpected because she’d forgotten she had booked the time.
She’d done it three months ago when Elliot had been promising to take her away
for the weekend (an away game in Portsmouth
no less). Back then time off was synchronised with his ludicrous shift
patterns. Back then she would have considered this expedition a waste of time.
Back then she’d had a bed to sleep in, one that had not been tainted with
someone else’s perfume. That was why she was here; it was the bed.
She got out of the car, February drizzle grizzled at her as she headed for the
door. Inside the barn was just as it looked from the outside, a single skin of
corrugated iron propped upon a wooden framework. The room was open to the high
ceiling and she could hear the pelter of the rain as it fell harder.
Blue-orange strip lights hung from cross beams and the smell of farm and dry
dust mingled with that stronger, meatier, scent of wood. It smelled of raw sap,
and polish, and oil, and wood dust, and scorched wood and savoury, wholesome
like something that would nourish both
flesh and soul.
By the doorway, in the cold, stood a thick round table,
half complete, unstained or polished, in its wide centre was a knot that looked
like an eye. Lizzie felt watched.
through a partition, some kind of machinery started up, which at least
indicated someone was here. Lizzie walked past the seeing table and ran her
hand over a walnut chest of drawers that looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The
closer she got to it, the further away it seemed. She pulled out the top drawer
and it slid smoothly and felt heavy and real and meaningful. For a moment she
felt a flutter of panic at the bizarre thought of opening the bottom drawer and
climbing inside where she might be forgotten, like some pauper’s baby with no
crib for a bed. Only, she soothed herself, she would be safe in there, and it
would smell so good. She imagined keeping clothes in such drawers, they would
all come out smelling of that wholesome, decades matured goodness; it would be
like keeping your clothes in a fine sherry cask.
thought made her want a drink, even at this time on a winter afternoon. That
was something she had to fight lately. Misery, and surviving Christmas, the
season of goodwill to all men, in the turmoil of a betrayal had inspired an
over-reliance on the anaesthetic qualities of a few drinks in the evening.
might take me a while,’ he said, ‘I make pieces for the love of it, the art of
it. I’ve got a piece of wood in mind, for the head. I’d have to source some
more and I’ve got a few big orders on at the moment.’ He roughly sketched
something on a scrap of paper, a sketch that probably meant more to his eyes
that hers. His hot breath fogged in the cold room, the thick wool of the neck
of his sweater clung around his throat. The stubble that started under the
neckline and ran up his chin and cheeks and over his upper lip was the shade of
grey that had once been dark. There was a shaving of sawdust clinging to the spikes
of hair near his ear. Lizzie found herself watching the undulation of the
shaving as he spoke and thinking of the hair and skin and sinew and bone
beneath. She was thinking of the art and carnivorous construction of the man.
His hands were big and dry, raw almost, and the fingertips were stained almost
yellow, like a smoker, but she could smell nothing but the butchered wood he
plume of vapour about his mouth when he spoke made her imagine positioning her
mouth close to his and inhaling the heat of his exhalation, like blowing back
dope as a kid. It would be more intimate than kissing him, consuming that which
he had rejected, reclaiming his last heat and moisture. Intoxicating.
‘I like a high bed,’ he was saying, ‘do you like a high bed, Lizzie?’
don’t know what you mean,’ Lizzie said, stupidly thinking of the high bed, like
high tea or high table, something distant and exclusive.
like a bed you get on to not in to. I don’t
like to feel the floor too close to my spine, except when I’m camping, but then
the earth is the spine.’
the moment I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor.’
shouldn’t put a mattress directly on the floor, it’ll spoil it; a good mattress
needs to breathe.’
not a good mattress; it was the cheapest one I found on the Internet.’
good mattress is an investment. If you order a bed from me you’ll have to
promise to put a good mattress on it.’
smiled, nodded, his eyes were the faded grey of November skies, they made
Lizzie feel desolate. He looked away and stroked a paper-dry hand over the wood
of the foot of the bed; it was a loving caress. Lizzie put her cold fingers to
the inset heart shape, a dark cherry wood in the light oak, there wasn’t even a
‘This is a wedding present for my daughter,”’ he explained.
a lovely idea.’ And it was, heart-breakingly lovely. She could not imagine
being able to make something so beautiful and being able to give something so
solidly meaningful to someone else. It made her want to cry.
God! What was wrong with her lately? At first there had been indignant rage at
the betrayal but now there was only a chasm where her heart ought to be, and
occasionally the void filled unexpectedly with bitter tears that vented
themselves at the most inappropriate moments. He averted his eyes as if he
sensed her unseemly sorrow and she felt guilty at the idea of tainting his
beautiful thing with her ugly emotion.
have some other pictures in the house.’
followed him across the concrete in the drizzle that had thickened, like gravy,
to sleet. In his chaotic, dog-scented kitchen he cleared a corner of the
bleached pine table of junk mail and bank statements and she dutifully leafed
through snapshots of furniture. They were like magazine models without the
tropical backdrops, the carefully sculpted pieces stood in bad light inside his
workshop or in the bald sunshine of the yard. She flicked through the
photographs, like an album of his children and grandchildren, beautiful things
he had created, invested himself in. She supposed he would call this his
portfolio, so different from her work portfolio: a dry cross-section of case
histories and certificates from tick-box courses in the square rooms of chain
hotels. The photographs did not do justice to the almost live things she had
seen in the cold warehouse.
He made her tea without asking her and she drank silently, staring at the dozen
photos of beds that somehow looked ominously dark, as if they might eat you in
leaned his washed-out jeans against the edge of the table and watched her, it
was like being watched by that eye in the table, like being seen by something
more solid and permanent and wise than herself.
sorry,’ she said, at last looking up at his grey eyes, ‘I feel incapable of making
a decision, any decision.’
the house was crooked; it was the crooked man’s house, of course. Up a crooked
mile of track and she was something like the crooked sixpence. Was she on a
crooked stile? Maybe, maybe it was a matter of using the rude planks to climb
over into the next field, but would the next mile be any less crooked?
bedroom of the crooked house had a floor that rolled away from the doorway
where she stood, if she had put an orange on the floor it would have sought and
found the wall by the low window without a shove. The wide planks of
floorboards were polished smooth by the feet of three hundred years.
made the descent toward the bed, barely noticing the snow that was now falling
against the window. It was cold up here. The head of the bed was an asymmetric
curve with the black bubbles of an enormous burr at the core of its curve, some
of the wood was polished to a high, deep shine and some was the burr’s naturally
hideous, beautiful roughness. There was even a wedge-shape split in the wood
and Lizzie ran her cold fingers over it.
‘It is the imperfections that make it so perfect,’ he said, a
possessive palm clasped over the burr as if it were a breast. Lizzie glanced
shyly at him as if he had made a judgement on her soul. ‘I can do whatever you
want. This bed has no two legs the same,’ he stooped and bundled blankets and
duvets onto the mattress and revealed the wide square stilts. Lizzie felt
slightly embarrassed for the lady, skirts hoisted so unceremoniously. ‘This bed
was made for this room, it belongs to the house now.’ He ran a sandpaper hand
over his stubbled chin and they sounded at odds, like crunching gravel. He
laughed at himself, ‘I couldn’t part with the house because of the bed.’
feels like it grew here.’
should never make love in a bed that hasn’t been made with love.’
wasn’t the cheesy line that seduced her, he could have merely offered she try
it out, it was the idea that something imperfect could still become something
useful and loveable and permanent and beautiful.
on the bed with him, his dry artisan hands on her goose-pimpled flesh, the sand
paper of his stubble on her breasts and cheeks and temples, Lizzie felt as if
she were being exfoliated, shedding the stains of past grubby hands from her
skin. And when she had been planed smooth and waxed and polished to so high a
shine, so startling bright and real again she threw up her arms and crunched
her knuckle against the perfect burr so hard it drew blood and he kissed the
And later she drove home in the new-white world and her knuckle stung in the
cold. And there remained a scab for days and still later a whisper-white scar
that would never heal, where he had kissed her.
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