Empty farmland and the occasional rambler: that’s the usual view from my bedroom window of a weekend. That’s why I noticed her; even wrapped up in a thick winter coat and a daft purple bobble hat, the way she moved dragged me to the window to get a better look. She was patting her coat and repeatedly checking the pockets. I knew that dance. I grabbed my own coat and went out to be of assistance. She looked up. When she smiled I realised she was quite a bit younger than me. Hound-on-the-prowl to dirty-pervert in a heartbeat.
“Saw you from my window,” I said. “Over at the farmhouse. You lost something?” I kept my distance so not to worry her.
She was on her knees scrabbling about in the grass at the foot of the stile marking the start of the Meriden-Blythe footpath. “Yes,” she said. “I think I dropped some keys around here.” There was a trace of something local in her voice, it bubbled beneath a dominant Kent accent.
Her car was parked up on the opposite embankment, the driver’s door open into the road. “Shall I shut that for you?” I asked. “There’s not much traffic comes through here but what does comes hurtling through like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Thank you,” she said.
I went over and when it slammed shut I said: “Wouldn’t want you damaging your car and losing your keys now.”
I climbed over the stile and looked in the long grass clumped there, crouching so as not to get my knees dirty. “Am I looking in the right place?”
She looked up at me and shrugged with her eyebrows. “I opened the car with them when I got back from my walk so they can’t be far. They must have fallen. Honestly, I’m not normally like this. I’m usually the one shaking their head and tutting at other people losing—”
“Don’t blame yourself; things are always wandering off around here. I’ve seen people before doing just what you’re doing. Patting themselves down and all that.”
She laughed politely. She struck me as the sort that maybe did lots politely.
“I’m not even joking either,” I said. “The bloke that used to live in the house across from me–”
“The white cottage?” she asked.
“That’s it. He used to call round here the Birch Lane Triangle. His stuff was always going walkabout.”
“There’s a lot of space around to here to lose things in,” she said. And then added: “It’s so lovely.”
“Two miles either side of us and I’m the only one living here at the moment,” I said.
“No one’s in the white cottage?”
“Not at the moment. Not since Rog went.”
“Rog who loses things.”
“That’s the fella.” I shuffled along a bit to look in another bit of grass, moving like some sort of man-crab.
“Have you ever lost anything in the Birch Lane triangle,” she asked.
“Only my heart and soul,” I said. “But that’s divorce for you.”
Another laugh from her: polite.
“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t have enough stuff to lose. I’m only renting that place up there while I get on my feet. What I’ve got is all in a garage down in…” I shut myself up. “Don’t worry, we’ll find them. Rog used to say things always turned up eventually.”
“I hope he’s right,” she said, and we carried on the search in silence.
Felt like ten minutes had gone by when she said: “I wish I’d brought my gloves today.” She blew hot air into her cupped hands.
“You cold?” I asked. It was a stupid question. My hands were already numb. Not expecting a yes, I asked: “Do you want a cup of tea or something? My kitchen’s just there and maybe we can warm up and come back out in a bit.”
“Yeah, go on then.” I can’t say for certain, but it didn’t sound like she was just being polite.
We didn’t talk on the short walk to my place; I might’ve believed she wasn’t standing next to me at all.
She wasn’t as young as I’d thought. At my kitchen table, under the less flattering light of the kitchen strip, I saw the beginnings of lines and cracks that I’d long since gotten used to on my own face. Her dark hair, free of that hat, had a few traces of grey too. But the beauty of her at such close quarters made me nervous and I struggled for small talk once I’d talked her through how my way of making tea was superior to most. I tried to remember the last conversation I’d had with anyone.
“I used to live over the road,” she said. “In the white cottage.”
She nodded and sipped her tea. “When I was little. I haven’t been back before today, Mum and Dad moved to Kent when I was thirteen.”
I was standing against the sink with my tea. “What brings you back up this way then? Our wonderful west midland weather, no doubt, I think not.”
“It’s something I’ve been planning a while. My brother and I, he lived over the road too, we talked about coming up here to have a look at the place. We used to have a den in the field behind your house.” The way she cast her gaze downward, she barely needed to add: “He killed himself last year.”
“Oh god, I’m sorry. Were you close?”
“Yes. But what with life and everything, you don’t see as much of each other as you’d like do you? And, well…”
I didn’t want her to cry. “Yeah, well the place has probably changed a bit since you were here last. It’s sort of gone to ruin a bit, I imagine the landowner will sell both places at auction soon and be done with the lot. They won’t even pay for a carpet in the bedroom. I’ve asked, but they’re not interested.”
She thanked me for the tea and agreed that I had some talent for a brew. We went and looked for the keys again but night came quickly. There was no reception when she tried to call the rental company. Slightly embarrassed, I had to tell her I didn’t have a land line. To make myself feel better I walked her some of the way down Birch Lane until she found a signal.
The rental company told her they would send someone out the next day so she called a taxi.
“I’m Dave by the way,” I said while we waited. “Everyone calls me Griff though.”
“I’m Susan,” she said. “Everyone calls me Susan.”
“Come and say hello if you’re up here again any time,” I said.
She nodded. And just before I left her, she hugged me.
I hadn’t been entirely honest with Susan about losing things when he’d asked. I’ve lost things since living here, more than a sock in the tumble dryer or some coins down the sofa too. I bought a puppy after Jessica kicked me out, for company. I kept her in while she was little but the first time I let her out she never came back. I looked all over for her, in the old stables, the overgrown pig-pen, spent half a day taking down all the panels around the boiler in case she’d gotten stuck up there.
Rog wasn’t surprised when I told him. Birch Lane was the place that made things vanish, simple as. First time I’d ever met him he asked: “Who are you hiding from then?” Rog was on the run from the tax man, I was hiding from my failed marriage.
“I’ve been in lots of little den’s,” he said. “But out here is special. Middle of nowhere, beautiful scenery… a place for lost things. It’s like the place has holes, do you know what I mean? Little holes you can vanish down. Maybe your little pup’s gone down one of those?” He was alright though, Rog. He helped me look for the puppy. And once in a while he’d swear to having seen it running about in the fields, just to make me feel better.
Rog always said that one day I’d wake up and he’d be gone. That he had to keep moving to stay ahead of his debts. I didn’t think he’d go in the middle of the night though, without a cheerio or anything. The way he left all his stuff made it feel like he’d vanished down one of those holes himself.
It was Rog I first thought about when I saw the lights on over at the white cottage the night after I first met Susan. I saw the glow through the blurry bathroom window as I brushed my teeth and went to get a better look out the window of the spare room. By the time I got there though, the lights were off.
It’s hard to keep track of the days when your routine is more or less the same, but it must have been at least three of the nights in the following week that I saw lights on late at the white cottage. One time I went over the next morning and knocked on the door. When no one answered I went to the window and looked inside. All Rog’s stuff was still there in the same place it had been when he went.
Then one afternoon I saw her. Susan. Her rental car had been moved by then, now she had parked a different vehicle up at the side of the road. Again she was patting her coat and getting down to her knees to look in the grass.
I went out to see her again, thinking she’d come back to look for the lost keys. Only when I got outside she’d gone. I walked up the road to the place she’d been. The wind searched me as if it had lost something too. I looked back at my place until the cold got too much.
“She went down a hole,” I said to myself and watched my misty breath spread out on the breeze and vanish.
Often I wake up and the orange walls of the bedroom are bathed in early morning light. I’ll close my eyes and when I wake up again it’s the middle of the night, like I’ve slept through the whole day.
She came knocking one night like that. I hadn’t got a bloody clue what was going on.
Bang, bang, bang.
I jumped out of bed and tried to find a weapon. The best I could come up with was a plank of loose skirting board that I ripped away and carried like a baseball bat.
Bang, bang, bang.
The door was old and riddled with woodworm; the ancient farmhouse-style latch rattled with each knock, the sound amplified by the bare downstairs rooms.
I went to the window of the spare bedroom. I looked down and saw her, dripping wet from the rain beneath the temporary illumination of the security light. I watched her raise her hand to the door.
I ran down the stairs. “Hold on.”
I opened the door and the front garden was empty. Even the rain had disappeared.
I like to walk around the fields at the back of the farmhouse most days. I’ve shared plenty of epiphanies with that landscape but I’ve discovered that no matter how many times you try tethering your demons out there, they always get free and find their way back home.
The morning after I’d seen Susan at my door I didn’t have my marriage to mind for once. Having her to think about gave all my isolation a new context and I was filled with a sense of momentum and direction. I roamed the footpaths with my gut screaming that if I just kept at it I might run into her. With no address or phone number, my only hope was that she was out walking again trying to relive better times with her brother. It was dark when I climbed the stile back onto Birch Lane, my jeans were muddy and wet with stinking crop water.
Once inside I went to my bedroom to dry off. I looked out the window and saw a person-shaped shadow standing on the spot where I had first seen Susan.
I opened the window. “Susan.”
The shadow didn’t move.
I yelled again and this time the shadow shifted very slightly. Then it was moving quickly, running for the farmhouse.
Bang, Bang, Bang.
I was down the stairs in three quick bounds and when I pulled open the door Susan stood on the doorstep smiling at me.
“I found you again,” she said and stepped towards me. Instinctively I stepped back but she reached out and touched my cheek. Her hand was freezing. The lines on her face were trenches beneath the dim porch light. The streaks of grey in her now short hair were more abundant than the few dark ones that remained.
But it was Susan standing in front of me. It was Susan’s hand stroking my face and her voice that asked: “Do you know how often I’ve come back here to find you? Do you know?”
I didn’t like the feel of her hand on me. I took another step back but she took one forward.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “You look—” Ancient. I wanted to say she looked ancient.
“I’m fine. I’m just fine now.”
“Are you here to look for your keys again? It’s so dark out there—”
“I’m here for the same reasons you’re here, Griff. This is the place for lost things. Like me. Like you.” She reached out for my face again and this time I forcibly moved her hand away. Her smile looked like it had lost its bearings and latched itself to an emotion it had never been designed to convey. It made me want to step back even more but I was running out of room.
Instead I stepped forward and said: “I think you should go. It’s late.”
Her eyes widened. “You don’t know do you. You don’t know how long it’s been. I read about you, on the internet. They never knew what happened to you. That you’re here.”
I took another step forward and put my hand on her shoulder. “Please leave.”
“Don’t you care? Don’t you want to know?”
She was resisting so I shoved harder. Her foot lost its way on the porch step and she fell through the doorway, ending up face down on the paved walkway.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry, I just…” But I stopped myself because she was turning over. Turning over with that same strange smile that had made me push her in the first place.
“Your wife said you weren’t the best listener,” she said and laughed. “That you lived in your head.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I started to shut the door.
“No,” she shouted. “Please. I want to stay.” I saw her lunge for the shrinking gap and when the door clicked shut I braced for the sound of her impact on the other side. But the impact never came.
Later, I looked out the window of the spare room, the one no guest had ever stayed in. The front garden was empty.
Jessica was right of course, I don’t listen all the time. No one does if they are honest. But in my defence, I heard a lot of the things she thought I didn’t. But when you start hearing things that upset you, things that pick holes in who you are and what you are about you can do one of two things. You can rise to it or you can walk away. If I’d have let Jessica know I was listening to her, let her know that she was wearing me down bit by bit, the ending would have been much messier than it was.
Saying that, I can’t remember the last time I saw her which doesn’t say a whole lot for amicable.
Last night, while I was thinking about Jessica and Susan, I saw the light on over at the white cottage again. I watched for a while and saw a shape moving around in the lounge. I grabbed my coat and headed over. Through the window I saw Rog’s old gas fire was on. I knocked on the door. From inside I heard movement and then the chain coming off.
“Hello, hello,” Rog said when he saw me. “Where the hell have you been hiding?”
S.R. Mastrantone won The Fiction Desk Writer’s Award in 2013 for his story ‘Just Kids’. His other work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lamplight, Stupefying
Stories, Goldfish Grimm’s, Silver Blade and Dark Intent.