of Their Wings
day we moved into the cottage was magical.
a few hours I forgot about the maxed out credit cards, the still bubbling
disappointment from my parents, the career break that would grow into a chasm
with each week that passed.
had thought about little else since we had decided to leave our jobs and flat
in the city to follow our dream and move out here. And for a while on this
clear, cold autumn day the feeling we had done the right thing outshone all my
let ourselves in with one of the dozen keys we had picked up from the estate
agent that morning, walked in a kind of daze from room to room, seeing
possibilities: Jane's studio, my office, the nursery.
aspirations we had spoken about long into the night for years now were within
reach. We would spin them into being, from the dust and spiders' webs, cracked
wood and stone that greeted us at every turn in our progress through the
night we built a fire outside from wood scavenged from our new back garden. It
sputtered and spat, then caught. I went inside to get the bottle of champagne
we had been saving for this moment.
I returned Jane was staring at the fire. I stood next to her, my fingers
stinging with the coldness of the bottle and two flutes I cradled.
you see them?” she asked.
did not at first, but then saw the small, pale wings fluttering among the
sparks rising from the fire, dancing in so close they were in danger of being
turned to Jane, about to make a throw-away comment, when I saw that she was
utterly entranced by the spectacle. I said nothing.
next days were physically hard. Cleaning and clearing, carrying and building
furniture. I am thirty-four, Jane a couple of years younger and, though we both
had gym memberships back in the city, we were investment bankers. Heavy lifting
had been measured in transactions completed, not lifting bloody heavy things.
slept deeply and woke aching in new and multiplying places. Internet access was
patchy at best and we agreed that being offline was one of the joys of our new
lifestyle. Our nearest neighbours were over two miles away according to the
plans of the cottage we had pored over back when so much of our time have been
lived online. So, it was just the two of us. Man and wife. I almost grew a
beard but it was scratchy as hell. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of
swearing. A month passed. I would wake up every morning and look at Jane asleep
next to me and think: I have found happiness and I never want it to end.
thought Jane felt the same way.
was late October. We were sitting around the wooden table that dominated the kitchen
after a no-grease-spared fry-up. Jane had been subdued for a couple of days,
and wanting to help I blurted out, “How about we throw a party for Halloween?”
did not look up from her coffee. I ploughed on regardless about my spur of the
moment idea. “We could make decorations and costumes, go wild with the designs,
make cocktails and snacks and invite—”
I dried up. We had met no-one since we
moved here. Our neighbours were still faceless marks on a digital map. Phone
and video conversations were so broken up with interference they were
frustrating and pointless, and after an initial flurry of messages, everyone we
knew was busy getting on with their lives. My parents continued to drift
held onto her mug, clearly not wishing to look at me. But I wanted to talk.
“Look,” I began.
don't Tony. Okay?” She rose sharply, put her coat on and left.
I washed up and began to work my way through the never- ending list of things
the cottage needed doing. I had accidentally hit the nail on the head, I
realised. She had cabin fever. Needed other people, not just to be with me twenty-four-seven.
would chat about it when she got back. We would work it out.
felt a little better then and cracked on with clearing out the guttering.
as red streaks began to appear in the late afternoon sky, and there was still
no sign of Jane, I began to worry. A thing as simple as tumbling and straining
your ankle was magnified out here, with no one around, no way to get help.
was dark when she finally returned. There are no street lights or security
lights so I did not see her until the door opened. She took off her coat, dug a
bottle of wine out of the fridge and was on the hunt for clean glass as if
nothing was wrong when I snapped, “Where the hell have you been!”
regretted the words the moment they were out of my mouth. It was too late to
add that I had been worried sick.
was breathing deeply. When she spoke, I could hear the anger she was swallowing
down. “I have been meeting our neighbours. A very nice gentleman who lives with
his wife. They are both elderly. He is a full-time carer for his wife. I was
made to feel very welcome and we chatted and drank tea and I lost track of
time. Is that good enough for you?”
did not wait for an answer and headed upstairs. I heard the bedroom door being
closed. That was that then. It was a night on the sofa for me.
next morning, I decided it was best to tread gently. I would not even make a
coffee as a peace offering, just get on with things and hope we could talk
things through as soon as possible. Upstairs the bath was being run. Pipes
clanging announced this. I was in the shell that was planned as my office
trying to get the courage up to look at some bills that had no sympathy for
'living the dream', when I heard Jane coming downstairs. I tensed. The door was
unlocked, closed. I listened as she walked away.
talking this morning then.
pattern began. Jane would leave early and return late, and there was a silence
between us which I tried to break without success. Halloween had come and gone,
unmarked in our household, and I was three-quarters of the way through a bottle
drinking is getting out of control.” Jane just threw this out there. Sat,
sipping her own glass of white.
helps,” I said. “Gets me through another bloody endless night in this place.
With you.” I felt a flush of regret then was glad in a way that only happens
when you are drunk.
Christ, Tony.” Jane stood up.
to visit lover-boy, are you?” It was all spilling out now.
was primed for a no-holds barred row. Jane began to laugh. Threw me completely.
Oh, Jesus.” She held her sides. “Tony.”
which is his name by the way, not that you have ever asked, is seventy-five. He
hobbles around his little cottage with a stick in slow motion, which is how he
does everything, actually. Slow and wobbly. We talk. I help him make the fire
up. I help him look after his wife, Hilary, and then we talk some more.”
topped up her glass, then finished off the bottle by giving me the rest. My
face was burning and my hand was none too steady as I took a drink. “Talk about
what?” I asked, sounding to my own ears like a sullen teenager now.
anything and everything. He tells me about his life here, how it was fifty
years ago, how little it has changed. He has told me about the sadness at the
heart of his and his wife's life, that they were never able to have children.
He tells me how his wife used to be before the illness began to steal her away.
She is bedridden now. And we talk about me. My hopes, my fears, my interests.”
talk,” I began to say but Jane stopped me.
don't, Tony. We stopped talking when we came here.”
went to get another bottle of wine from the fridge. I wanted a moment to think.
I was confused, angry. A part of me still wanted a blazing row. I also wanted
to tell Jane how much I loved her and how much this was hurting me.
settled myself back down at the kitchen table. “Can we try then?” I asked. “Talking.
Like we used to.”
looked at me, deciding something, I think. Maybe. I ploughed on.
about your interests. My interests including hammering, dry rot and muscle
brought a small smile at least. Encouraged, I tried. “I would like to hear
about your interests. Out here.” I swept a circle in the air. “Beyond this
room. This building. Out there among the old trees and the leaves turning to
dust. Out there, what have you discovered that has taken you away from me. Is
it really just an old man with a lifetime of good stories and a kindly
glass was empty. I was suddenly exhausted. “Speech over,” I said.
should go to bed,” Jane told me.
if you tuck me in.” I tried to say this like a flirtatious adult.
are a hopeless case,” Jane said. After a moment's pause, she added, “But since
you asked, I will tell you what interests me. Faeries.”
I did not have a mouth-full of wine otherwise I would have snorted with
laughter. I tried to get a bit of composure before saying, “I am trying to be
serious here Jane.”
am serious. There is a wealth of history about faeries in this part of the
country. Where they live, their behaviour, how we should act when see them. It
is a world lost to people who live in the city. Out here, our eyes can be
had to say it. “You do know faeries are not real.”
hugged herself. “I need to dream.”
that is one of the things I love about you.” I leaned over clumsily to try and
kiss her, but she shook her head.
I will sleep on the couch in the front room.”
don't have to,” I tried.
crossed a line that night. I listened as Jane left a few hours after we spoke,
and she did not return until two days later.
she ignored me I followed her upstairs. She would not turn round and face me.
“I have made a decision,” I said anyway. Still, nothing from her. I went on,
“We will put the cottage on the market, go back to London. I have spoken to my
old line manager. They are happy for me to come back.
finally looked at me. Anger burnt in her eyes. Made her voice shake. “How dare
you. What makes you think you are in charge of my life.”
makes you think I will let you tear me away from here.”
the sake of our marriage—”
ground to a halt as she stepped closer. I noticed for the first time that she
smelt as if she had not washed in days. “Our marriage is over,” she said and
with a look of utter contempt stormed out of the cottage.
felt, sick, dizzy. Poured a drink, then hurled the full glass at the wall.
Drank from the bottle. Paced around the cottage. I needed to think. Needed to
find a way to change her mind.
am, was, always will be obsessed with Jane. She is my addiction. I could not
breathe properly without her. The night passed in a blur. God knows how much I
drank. Dawn brought a decision. I would do what I should have done weeks ago.
Go to our neighbour's cottage. Find out what the hell was going on.
someone had poisoned my wife against me.
was convinced of this as I wiped snot and tears from my face. Wrapped a scarf
around my neck and buried my hands in the pockets of my thickest coat. The new
day was bright and bitterly cold. Frost cracked underfoot as I wiped away a
spider's web that had tangled itself across my face.
what I remembered seeing online, the cottage should have been no more than an
hour walk away. I began, convinced I was making a beeline straight for it.
Around noon, from the position of the winter sun, I sank down on to my haunches
in the middle of yet another bloody field. My head ached, my mouth was parched.
A stitch flared in my chest.
decided that when I was safely back in the city I would never so much as watch
a programme about the damned countryside.
lifted myself slowly to my feet. Where the hell was the other cottage?
an hour later I saw a trail of smoke rising lazily into the sky. Keeping my
eyes fixed on it I trudged on and soon found myself clambering over a hedge – I
was too tired to even look for a gate – and falling into a garden. I picked
myself up and brushed dirt off my trousers. This cottage was smaller than our
own. Ivy grew up its facade, framing a wooden door. Its small windows were
shuttered. The smoke which had led me here drifted from a squat chimney.
postcard, I thought and laughed bitterly. I walked up to the door. Hesitated. I
was going to knock, and say what when it was answered? I have come to claim
back my wife?
pushed the door. It was not locked. A countryside tradition I had yet to –
would never, I reminded myself – succumb to.
stepped inside, stood listening. But I could hear nothing. I turned into a
kitchen, which was sparse and clean, a front room with a scattering of
ornaments and books. The house appeared to be empty. A door to my left was
ajar. I could see the corner of a bed. “Hello,” I said quietly and entered.
first, I thought I was looking at a grotesque mannequin. It was laid out on a
filthy, unmade bed. It was dressed in a stained grey smock. Its skin where it
was exposed was bleached of colour and its flesh was sunken, clinging to the
sharp outline of bone beneath. Its stomach, in sickening contrast to the rest
of its body, was massively distended. Then I saw the shallow rise and fall of
its emaciated chest, realised this was a living person.
my mouth and tried to catch my breath.
opened her eyes, her mouth, and I saw something emerging. Pale wings beating, a
dark head on slender neck. With sudden speed it flew at me, and into my mouth.
could feel its wings striking my tongue, then it was still. I tried to spit it
out, reached in to find it.
began to gag as I realised I must have swallowed it.
woman's face twisted in pain.
am sorry,” I said pathetically and fled. I ran blindly through the house until
I found a door and pulled.
opened out onto a swathe of land at the back of the cottage. An old man stood
with his arms raised, as if in praise. He was watching Jane. Hundreds of winged
bodies swarmed around her. Some settled on her arms, her face, her hair, then
rose back into the air. Her eyes were closed, her head titled back, and even
through the mass of creatures I could clearly see the look of ecstasy on her
was more than I could bear.
have vague recollections of running back through the fields, snagging my
clothes and skin on branches; of rain, biting cold; of falling and dragging
myself back to my feet even though all I wanted was to close my eyes and be
I found my way back to our cottage. I wrapped a blanket from the laundry basket
around myself. I remember clearly how it smelt of Jane and that made me cry.
Then I lay down on the sofa and there is nothing else.
my eyes opened. The light stung my eyes and my head pounded.
long had I been passed out? I wondered, and had no idea.
I saw that Jane was there. She was walking towards me and looking down on me,
and I was so relived and happy that I began to sob.
is wrong?” she asked.
could not speak. Could not ask her. What had I seen? What had she done? Only
felt Jane's hand on my forehead.
fever,” she told me. Her hand drifted to my stomach, rested there. A smile
flickered in her eyes.
are a little bloated. That is all,” she said. “Now try and get some sleep.”