She runs her thumb across the back of my hand.
A few nights later, there is a party.
Michel chivvies us into the truck. It’s a two-seater, I’m riding in the flatbed. A motorcycle tyre makes a seat for me. It feels as though I’m sitting on a toilet. Hanna tucks me round with the fleecy throw she’s fetched from the sofa.
‘I’ll be warm enough.’
She tucks the blanket round me as though I were her dolly.
Michel hands me a can of beer then climbs behind the wheel. He takes the shingle road gently, then speeds off like a dog out of the gate as soon as he hits hardtop. The reclaimed land – old marsh, made into weedy fields – is flat and monotonous. It won’t admit its closeness to the sea at all – you have to search for clues. I glimpse the top of a red sail behind a hedge, and we shoot by the entrance with a sign, crudely done, for a water sports school. Hard as I look, I get no glimpse of water. We drive past an army artillery range – a long run of chainlink and nothing else to see. A grassy blank. I would like to drive this road some time. It weaves and rocks: an hypnotic rhythm, like something from a driving game. I remember my beer. I pull the ring and the can explodes. I lean forward, keeping the stuff off myself. The wind whips the foam welling out of the top of the can and trails it into the dark.
Michel drops a gear, and then another, and the truck tilts sharply. I brace myself. Brambles choke the narrow lane that leads, steep as a funicular, up through a tilted zone to the mainland proper, and the west.
The road bends back and forth, following the old shoreline. Solid land on one side of the road slides and slips away from the other in muddy, fertile gobs. This soft slippage suggests less the action of ancient tides than the recent melting of a candle.
We pass through old, landlocked harbour towns, one after another. Through the windows of old coaching inns I catch glimpses of red linoleum. The forecourts of the timber merchants are piled with shipping pallets. Teenage girls with bare legs are smoking together under the grey-orange lights of station car parks.
We pick up speed on a dual carriageway between hillsides cut up into cereal fields: enclosures as vast and arbitrary as strip-mines. Ragged hedges. Crows. By now I’m frozen to a popsicle, I’ve got my hands stuffed in my jacket and still I can barely feel my fingers. My head is a block of ice; even blinking is a struggle. Most of this is wind-chill. But something is happening to the weather, too. Gusts beat about the truck like starlings scrapping over a piece of bread. There’s a band of cloud moving in from the sea. It’s so low it looks more like a wall, and above it, catching the last of the light, are towers of brighter cloud, as smooth as porcelain – the prows of strange ships riding a dark tide into harbour.
Off the main road, Michel slows sharply for blind bends in the dusk, then brakes and turns. The truck rumbles and sways, finding its balance on an exhausted gravel driveway, all mud and hardcore and potholes. I lever myself up and round to lean on the roof of the cab. The drive is lined with trees. It curves steadily. On the left are fields, to the right a bank of rhododendrons – the truck’s headlights rummage through their gloss, leathery green.
The house comes into view. It’s a big, no-nonsense place, its white stucco luminous in the dusk. It’s a couple of hundred years old, from the look of it. It has not been long abandoned. There must be two, three hundred people gathered on the lawn, in vans parked up on the gravel turning circle, and in the house itself. The windows have no curtains, and you can see inside every room – they’re all lit up. The electricity is still connected, or it’s been jemmied on.
The garden is ornate and disorganised. Many shrubs are hidden under wet clothes and sheets of muddy canvas. Teepees make angular shadows under the trees. Cigarette ends tattoo the darkness.
William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone