I slide the desk drawer out, in need of another quick fix. There it is – Penmaris, sitting four-square in the middle of fields, with nothing else in sight. Almost the air changes and I can breathe again. I gulp down the whisper of a summer breeze, peer closer at the photo. You can tell the front door’s open; I imagine to myself that Paula has just walked through it with her camera to take this very shot from the end of the drive, framing the cottage in the landscape so it appears to rise naturally from rough grass and ancient stone.
Since acquiring the snap a few days ago – “here, Rose, have this one, it’s recent. Nice sunny day in July. Be a bit nippy this time of year, though” – I have become obsessed with a tiny holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere. A place I’ve never visited, never seen, yet it haunts me like a melody I can’t quite catch. In the office I’m unable to focus on deadlines or art work and at home I cringe, suddenly overwhelmed by space. Our Clapham Common terrace has morphed into a cavernous sprawl I find intimidating. Instead, I pretend I’m living in this country cot, moving through its diminutive rooms, strolling the quiet garden to pick flowers, descending steep cliffs to the sea shore to sketch the view: rock formations, a perfect seagull, waves breaking over shingle.
And always I am alone. Completely alone. Which is fine, because that’s how it feels right now. After Peanut and the ghosts in his wake.
Dear God. Six months on, and I’m still assigning gender based on instinct. I bite my lip. Focus on staying calm. The fact is, we’ll never know.
Somewhere in the open-plan office a phone rings. I drink coffee and try to appear busy. One more peek at the photo and I promise myself I’ll shut the drawer and get on with the
Hansen contract. But this time when I glance at it, the picture seems different. A shadow lies over Penmaris and – how odd, I’ve not noticed that before – at the upstairs window, what looks like a face, someone’s head and shoulders …
“Hi, Rose. What’s up? Got your note.”
My arm jerks, coffee spills. “Shit. You made me jump.” I slam the mug down.
“Sorry. You OK?” Ellie drags a chair over to my desk and sits close. Her knees bump the drawer. “So, what can I do you for?”
The jokey manner disarms me, threatens my resolve. It’s embarrassing to let her down. No, worse than that. I hate it when people take advantage of friendship, and here I am about to exploit hers. Again.
“Well, actually, I’m thinking about … I know it’s going to be a nuisance, but …”
Words skitter like autumn leaves. Ellie places a hand over the tangle of my fingers. “Stop picking, Rose. You’ll make them bleed.” She rummages in the open drawer and throws me the tube of hand cream. Then she sees the photo. “Pretty house. Where’s this?”
I grab the snap from her, dismayed to find it splashed with coffee. What I had seen as a face at the window is now a blob of disintegrating celluloid. But the small disaster restores my voice. “I’m toying with the idea of going away, Els. Just for a while. Down to Cornwall. Next week, maybe, or the week after? Paula’s said I can …”
“Paula. And Chris. Our next-door neighbours?” Ellie nods. “They’ve said I can stay at their cottage. They don’t get many bookings in October, so they’re happy for me to … I need to be on my own, you see. I … I need to pull myself together, else I’ll fall apart again.”
People have hammered me with that phrase: pull yourself together – as if a broken puppet can repair its own strings. And I have tried – I’ve gone through the motions, knotting frayed ends with numb fingertips. But I feel like Pinocchio and I suspect my nose is getting longer.
Ellie is already tapping on her BlackBerry. “How does Oliver feel about this?”
“He can’t possibly take time off, he’s up to his eyebrows in work.” Someone else I’ll be dumping on, which is another reason why I’m hesitant. But Oliver’s a workaholic, so he’ll get by. I should be grateful he has a place to bury grief.
After punching a few more keys Ellie says, “All sorted. Viv can finish the Trueform job. Ah, what about Hansen?” A pause. More key punching. “OK. Also sorted. Just give me a bell when you’ve decided.”
I want to thank her but she cuts me short. “What are friends for, Rose? It’s all right. I understand. Send me a postcard.”