16 November 2014

the man in the shed

It is early and Peter has tiptoed out of the house unnoticed. The enormous sky with high clouds, the warm breeze, the glittery dew, all foretell a glorious day but he turns his back on the hot sun and steals into his shed. A tail of string has hung grey and stiff forever from a nail in the door. He grips the frayed end and yanks the door shut behind him. One quick jerk or it sticks, his old dad had insisted.
The dark is immediate and total. Like the end of time. Not menacing, but a comforting embrace. Sanctuary. When Peter was a boy his father reassured him there was nothing to fear from the dark. It's all dark Pete-boy. Seeing, is only light bouncing back. He eases his haunches onto a high stool. The creaking boards and the sweet aroma of old fertilizer are a safe familiar world.
Mid morning the back door to the house scuffs open and music spills out, some guy crooning earnestly to his lost lover. She loves that stuff, Hope. He can hear her humming along now, and her slippers slapping on the garden path. The laundry hamper will be tucked under her arm. A big fat sigh as she reaches up for the bag of clothespins dangling from the line. He had hung that line and pulleys two decades ago, greased the wheels every year but she has never once mentioned it. It just works, always.
He listens to the swish as she drags a wet cloth along the line, walking arm aloft, from pole to pole, intent on her task, unaware of the wallflowers he had sown in the spring, or the bees busy among them or the woodpecker's distant drill.
Hope laps the garden. Peter sits motionless in the dark, his presence hidden.
She is hanging the laundry, kicking the hamper forward every few seconds, and by this he charts her progress to the far fence. Val will show up there next, her predictable, round face looming like a stupid, full moon, eager to gossip.
His pupils are wide and grey shapes have materialized. A rake and a spade, a broom and a hoe, a big old ho' his dad would joke; the shovel whose shaft he has gripped a thousand times and shouldered like a rifle, on his way to dig trenches; potting shelves lined with old newspaper, thin like brown skin; shrivelled cabbage seeds, in packets brittle with age; trowels and trays.
Braying donkey laughter from the yard, then, "No idea, Val. He's probably up the creek fishing or out riding that bike of his somewhere."
God, that voice; whining like a rusty gate hinge. Once it had been birdsong, enthusiastic chatter he could have listened to all day. Now it sets his teeth on edge. When had that started? He wants to barricade his eyes and ears permanently and a vivid thought occurs to him.
He visualizes the barrel behind the shed, a large one he had salvaged and converted to a water butt ten years ago; two hundred gallons of rainwater restrained by twenty four oak planks and four steel bands. A man could fit in there, submerged. He imagines hoisting his leg over the rim, slipping slowly into the chilly embrace until the water covers his head, those dark depths an effective hiding place. A casual glance and the surface tension might not betray his presence. Depending on vantage point, a hint of head may hover a few inches below, or the sky might reflect its own towering, azure brilliance and so conceal a man's body, isolated from his life, from his love, fighting for his very breath.
He shivers, and the idea sinks like a Leviathan, receding into the murk but not gone. Perhaps if they had had children it would be different. Precious new life to care for and nurture, a distraction from the humdrum and new reasons for happiness. From the dark of his shed it's hard to recall young Hope, the nubile siren who had gyrated on the Empire dance floor, who had caught his eye, then grabbed his guts.
She's droning on now about the latest American celebrities and the new Danielle Steel and the price of gas and the state of her joints, all the joy drained out of her. And while Val's going uh-huh, mmm, yep, Hope will be working through the clothespins, two in her mouth, two in her left hand, like her mother and grandmother before her; ducking to the pink hamper, and grunting as she straightens to shake out sheets.
He sweeps his palm across his father's old writing desk, now doing service as a workbench. Sawdust and bent screws, where once love letters had lain. To my sweetheart... Peter tries to imagine his father writing those words, fountain pen clasped crudely between lumpy, sausage fingers, tongue peeping from the corner of his mouth. He had, undeniably, and the proof lay stowed in an ancient shoebox in the attic. All those notes, dripping with love and bundled with elastic bands long perished and hard, letters which Peter had read once only and wept over, shaking with the sadness of all humankind.
That clumsy, beautiful man had built this shed and a happy life around it; had handed down his selfless genes to a dear, sweet son.
Val has spotted the wallflowers and now marigolds and pansies. Viola Tricolor, the Latin name marches into his head unbidden. There is a resonance and a beautiful order to floral classification.
"Sensitive? My Peter? You're kidding, right!" Hope dismisses this notion with a sharp exhale through her nose. Somehow she has learned to mistake his gentle traits for blandness. She stoops to grab a handful of knickers from the heap and through jaws clamped around fresh clothespins she grunts, "Senseless, more like."
Peter stares ahead, unseen and unknown. He rehearses a line of verse he has been working on in his mind. In her youth my Hope was my heart's desire. He wants to sink into the water butt right now and displace his own volume in iambic pentameter, pour out a poignant anthem for young lovers.
Val coughs. She sounds embarrassed.
When Hope bends, her skirt will be rising to show off the stubble on her chubby calves and the nasty red spot behind her knee which won't heal.
If she were to notice his head bobbing under the water would she jump to ram the lid on? Or would she turn into young Hope, swoop in and haul him out by the armpits, let him slither eel-like to the ground, then clamp her mouth on his and pump his chest frantically until waves of watery melancholy came belching from his lungs? But young Hope is gone, lost to the drudgery of middle-age. Life and her view of it has sucked all the loveliness from her.
The pulley wheel rattles as the laundry is winched aloft to catch the breeze.
The fence creaks and takes the strain of chatting friends, elbow to elbow. The topics are varied and fleeting. Peter hears the banter and the chuckling, gusting off in the wind.
Yet, he still believes he can somehow turn this all around. If only her banal exterior would crumble, fall away to reveal the wonderful woman inside. His real Hope. Someone must soften first, eat a generous slice of humble pie and say let's try. In books they go on vacation where sun, sea and sand revitalize drooping spirits and launch lives anew. He doesn't have a book.
"Acapulco," he whispers softly in the darkness. "Let me take you to Acapulco!"
"Beach, Val?" Hope sounds incredulous. "He wouldn't choose a beach holiday. Me, I always wanted to fly to Acapulco, lie on the sand and soak up the sun, drink piƱa coladas, but how would he have the first clue about that?"
Peter smiles but a tear wells in the corner of his eye, trickles and falls unseen in the shed.
"See, it's like this Val. Peter doesn't talk to me now. I never know what he's thinking. He disappears for hours on end. We've lost, you know, the spark..." Hope trails off and the laundry flaps.
Val is quiet too but Peter can sense her nodding gravely, waiting for more, hungry for morsels of detail, which don't come. He sits statue stiff in his shed listening as Hope's slippers clap the path back to the house.
The back door scuffs again then shrieks as she tugs it violently closed. He has deliberately avoided shaving the edge, ill-fitting since the heave of last thaw. He has made her tug it, taught her a tugging lesson.
As sheets and shirts and pants whip and crack in the wind, a reverie takes hold of him. Seven days ago, in a private moment of surrender, Peter conceded to himself that he had long ago slingshot himself into a distant elliptical orbit, his personal wilderness like the great void of interplanetary space. He had scorched a linear trail, a pioneer's route to the outer reaches of sustainable life, and far beyond the scope of two-way communication. The universe had rushed by his cocoon in a never ending stream of black velvet.
Without company, devoid of stimulus, he had turned inwards, padded softly along the deep corridors of his mind, not touching the walls, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, feeling nothing. Not dead but barely alive.
Yet the profundity of space and time saw good in his heart. Gravitational coils looping into the vastness took gentle hold of his path and a strong, insistent, earthly pull reeled in his pitiful, atomic speck. Demanding to be nourished, the wizened remnant of his soul streaked home. His surrender had begun.
He looks about him, his "shed vision" quite complete now. Even as a kid, he had never told his dad that, after a while, he could see a little in the dark. To say so might have seemed disrespectful. His father had maintained that everything was essentially dark and Peter had wanted to show he believed him.
But a little light is filtering in; chinks in the wall boards, a hairline crack in the roof. If you stay in the dark long enough, some light simply must penetrate. It is the way of things. He watches a spider, suddenly alerted by a quiver in its signal line, scuttle to the centre of its web and seize a tiny fly. The ebb and flow of life in microcosm.
He has sown flower seeds, carved garden ornaments with his father's woodworking tools; he knows the names of the plants, the animals and the birds but somehow he has failed to grasp life itself. Hope's fault, if it is one at all, has been to take life less seriously, while he has fussed and analyzed and thought every possibility to its logical conclusion, his brow furrowed like a chess Grand Master. Now, is it perhaps too late to make amends?
He fishes in his pants pocket and withdraws an envelope. He smoothes the crumples and places it on his father's old writing desk. A message to the present from the past. He stands up.
In the kitchen, Hope re-tunes the radio. She's heard enough crooning for one day and settles the dial on a talk show where the panel is in mid flow, debating the possibility of life on Mars. A scientist who speaks too fast persistently interrupts the host and keeps trying to steer the discussion to interstellar travel. Preposterous he declares, and something about light speed. She knows Peter would understand this, but he stopped listened to the radio long ago. She potters about, darns a pair of Peter's socks, peels potatoes ready for his supper. It's noon and he was gone before she got up this morning. Where the hell is he today?
"Hope... Hope... Hope!" She startles wildly, like someone has touched her with a cattle prod. Peter, bawling out her name. She hasn't heard him use her name in so long and now he's yelling it at the top of his voice. Abruptly the commotion ceases. She runs into the yard, calling him, revolving on the spot and scanning the corners of their lot. Nothing but silence now.
Val's head appears suddenly above the fence. "What's going on Hope? Is Peter OK?"
Hope ignores her and dashes a complete lap of the house. She is chasing past the shed when something catches her eye. The lid is off the water butt. She skids to a halt and her heart is hammering. Something dark with matted hair is floating just below the surface. She can't force herself to look away. It can't be, surely not. Her agony winds up to a crescendo, "Oh my God, no, no, no!"
She leans over the barrel and touches the thing. It bobs and rolls and an eye appears. Hope shrieks and faints.
Val is fanning her, wafting something bitter under her nose. "It's alright, Hope, calm down." Val the gossip is gone. This is Val the neighbour. As Hope gets shakily to her feet, Val backs away, deferential and calm.
The shed door is standing open. Hope peers inside. She is shocked to see Peter standing in the dim light within. She steps in too, almost falling, but Peter catches her. He sits on the stool and draws her down onto his lap.
"Oh, Peter... I thought..." She breaks into sobs, great wracking sobs that shake her shoulders and mess her hair.
Peter is making strange soothing sounds, odd little clucking noises as if he were calling chickens. She has never heard him make a sound like this before. It is utterly confusing. His hands are stroking her back, her neck, her arms, tenderly as if she might shatter at any moment.
"The cat," he murmurs. "The cat must have slipped off the shed roof. I'm so sorry Hope." His voice cracks and right there is more emotion than he has ever shared.
And now she knows he is not sorry about the cat, nor sorry about her fright. He is sorry for the past twenty years of a loveless marriage. They have ignored each other, like zoo animals who are forced to share a cage and choose opposite ends. She knows him but she doesn't know him. He of course knows her though. He always did have the edge in that and she likes it.
"I went away, Hope." His beautiful tears are as rare as desert rain. "I was lost but I found my way back." Now he is making grunting sounds, shaking like he has some terrible nervous disease.
"Look," he says and taps his envelope. "Look what I did. Did I do right?"
Hope lifts the flap and pulls out the contents. Through bleary, bloodshot eyes she can see plane tickets. Squinting she can just make out one word - Acapulco.

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