Short Fiction || Read a brief interview with the author here
She has started not to expect much from the near future. They have settled here in this town, they know, as much as you can ever know, that they will stay here for at least five years.
She goes to the hardware store and buys small things, nails, baskets, sellotape to put up coat hooks with, the walls are impossible to screw anything into. Little not great things, things to patch other things up with. Nothing will ever really get finished around the house.
It is still summer but the nights are colder now and, in the morning, the grass is wet from the night-dew. She walks out onto the grass in flip-flops, she keeps them by the garden door, and she gets her feet wet and cold, leaves and blades of grass stick to her toes.
Sometimes on the way to or from the hardware store, she stops for coffee. She sits for a long time and watches people walking by. She does not speak to anybody.
Sometimes somebody stops her on the street and asks her if she will participate in a survey. It can be young teenagers, school kids doing a school project, or somebody from a gas or electricity company. She says yes and afterwards thinks she should have said no. If it is a larger survey or questionnaire, they will take a seat on a bench, otherwise they will stand. They will ask her, her name and age, they will ask her what her life goal is or was, the best experience of her life or what once made her really sad. They will ask if she has considered changing electricity supplier. She doesn’t know which electricity supplier they have and answers no.
A slowness, a layer like parchment paper or filo pastry, crisp and fragile, has lowered itself in front of her face. It’s a calm, sad feeling.
When do you get old? she asks herself. She knows that she is old in the eyes of the schoolchildren, not really old but very grown up, very past youth, and to her husband she’s young.
A strange, not young, not at all old age.
Now something has settled in her that she feels shouldn’t have settled.
In the morning, she asks her husband how he is, if he slept well and she’s not used to using these words and he asks her how she is, and she’s not used to these kinds of conversations.
She would like to dress with ease, have the same coat ready on the hanger by the door, have it ready there always, together with one of her favourite scarfs, some radiant colour or pattern, hers. Pull on her boots and feel comfortable, then walk out the door.
She used to have favourite things, clothing items, a silver-grey cardigan, perfect fit, V-neck, big buttons with letters on them. She thinks she lost it in a museum, it’s many years ago, she was with another man then. They had been at the museum with her parents, modern art, autumn, late afternoon and night. All four of them had walked through the museum, stopped and looked at enormous photos of people in despair, always people in despair or something so beautiful that it seems unreal. It had been a good night. They had dinner in the museum restaurant, it overlooked the garden with sculptures and the sea, on the other side, too close by, another country. This other man could not converse and because she had fallen out of love with him, it was embarrassing. She pretended not to notice his lack of social skills. She doesn’t want to think of it now, what her life was like before, who she has been with.
That was, as she remembers it, the last night she saw the cardigan.
It must have slipped from her arm as they walked from the museum to the car, or fallen to the floor in the cloakroom without a sound, light as a feather.
A few days later, she went back to the museum in the daytime, by train. She walked along the path from the car park to the museum, searching the ground, leaves in orange and yellow colours stuck to the asphalt, but she did not find the cardigan. She asked at the museum if they had found it, her silver-grey cardigan with a V-neck and big buttons with letters, but it was gone.
And there was a hat, also grey and shaped like an acorn. It must have blown out of the basket on her bike one day she had taken it off while she was cycling, feeling too warm because spring was coming. At that time, she was alone and happy and had just moved into a very small, new flat on her own. And at night she folded her hands and thanked God for the flat and said that now she would always be happy. She had wanted so badly to move out and then she got this little flat and thanked God, but did she stay happy?
The happiest she has ever been, living anywhere, was in a little, old, red brick house in the middle of a town, surrounded by bigger houses. She only lived there for three weeks and she only rented it because of water damage where she really lived. Every morning she would wake up at six, fresh and ready. She would make herself a cup of coffee and drink it outside, even though it was a cold winter. And every morning she would see a planet in the sky and every morning it would have moved slightly further to the right. And then the day would start, and seagulls would fly and the sky would slowly brighten.
Her husband works as a real estate agent in town, every day he wears a suit and she feels so privileged knowing she’s the only one to ever see him in his dressing gown, fragile and not quite awake yet.
Sometimes on her way home from the hardware store, she pops in to see him at the office. If he’s there he looks up from some papers from behind his desk and smiles at her. He always seems surprised to see her. Sometimes he will show her pictures of the houses he is listing and tell her about them. Some of them have spires and gardens facing a river, some have conservatories and wooden floors in warm colours, swings hanging from tall, old oaks, flowering rhododendrons and magnolia, paths made up from stones found by the sea, paths through plantings like Cut-leaved stag’s horn sumach and long, slender perennials. Some pictures are taken in the summertime, some in the autumn, but never in the winter.
If he’s not there when she stops by, she tries to talk to the ladies working in the office. There’s an older woman who always goes on and on about her grandchildren, and a young woman, tall and skinny, who laughs and giggles and is always on the verge of marrying a pilot. And she herself always feels like she is standing at the edge of the room even though she, unthinkingly, has moved to the middle and the door is too far away.
They are both very interested in houses, homes, and buildings and met each other at an open viewing of a house in North Berwick. It was a thatched house and they were both just there out of interest. They got to talking in the bathroom, looking at a sink, which was just a groove in the stone worktop. And she opened a cupboard door and looked at the peoples’ things, medicine, pieces of cotton wool stained from a nosebleed and old cream against some kind of eczema.
Afterwards they went to the sea and had an ice cream while they looked at waves and birds and people like small dots in the distance, walking their dogs on the beach.
They arranged to meet at an open viewing the next weekend. It was a modern house on top of a cliff, one side all glass facing a fall of at least a hundred yards towards the sea. Afterwards he drove her home. They stopped on a gravel road on the way, and watched a flock of curlews take off from a newly harvested field. Then they kissed, knew each other for a while, and got married.
Now they themselves live by the sea and she misses the woods, but she knows that if they lived in the woods, she would miss the sea. She misses the big city, but she knows that if they lived in the big city, she would miss the countryside. She misses other countries too, even countries she has never seen.
One night after tea, he asks her if she wants to come and see one of his houses. Now, she asks. She turns and looks at him and he gets up without answering and pulls some papers out of his briefcase. He knocks on the papers with his knuckles. They leave the plates sitting out on the table, they close the door behind them.
In the car, they just sit for a while. It’s dusk and everything smells of grass. They sit there, as if they are preparing themselves for something. She can see their house in her mind’s eye, their kitchen, the plates still sitting out on the table, the glasses with imprints of their lips. The room looks as if somebody left in a hurry, everything just abandoned there in the dark. Orange light from the street lamps shining through the windows. She can see it the way somebody would find it, in case the two of them didn’t come back. How they would open the door, stall there for a moment before entering, then walk through the dark house, switch the light on in the kitchen and look startled at their dinnerware sitting out on the table.
He starts the car and everything always runs its course.
The house is not far from where they live, but it’s in a part of town they don’t normally go. You can’t see the house from the street, tall hedges and trees shield it from the road. He points towards it as they drive by and then park a little further down the street. They hold each other’s hands as they walk down the pavement, as he opens the iron gate and they walk up the driveway. The pebbles crackle under their feet.
He pulls out a big bunch of keys and opens the front door. They look in through the doorway, inside the house is dark, it’s breathing on them through the open door.
He closes the door behind them and tells her not to turn on the light. He starts walking her through the house, he whispers, explaining the different features of the house to her, there’s a skylight, double glazed and she looks up and she can only see it in the dark because a star shines through it. Here’s a built-in couch, she sits down on it, moving silently up and down to test its firmness. They walk very slowly through the house, he explains the floor plan, the layout of the rooms, how they are conveniently placed in relation to each other, kitchen and dining room next to each other, a pantry, upstairs ensuite master bedroom, a whole separate wing for guests, library, conservatory. And in her head, she sees all the rooms appear, like drawings, outlines, as he whispers, as they walk through the house.
They end up back at the front door and he asks her if she wants something from the house. Anything. She chooses a cardigan from the woman’s wardrobe, it’s grey, it’s got small buttons made of mother of pearl, it’s a looser fit. She chooses a very small silver spoon sitting on a very small stand, on the back of it she can read it’s a prize for a third place in a dance competition, and she turns over a picture of a couple so it’s facing down on a chest of drawers. The couple are standing on a bridge, side on to the photographer, he’s holding her from behind.
And what will the couple think, that the cat took the spoon and kicked it under a piece of furniture, that they won’t find it before they move-out. That one of them left a window open and the wind blew over the photo. And the cardigan, the woman will wonder where it has got to, where she can have lost it, if it slid from her arm walking from a museum to the car, if it fell from her arm in the cloakroom without a sound, light as a feather.
Now she goes to see him in the office more often. They smile secret smiles to each other when she walks in. Hey, she says and the sound of her voice stays in the room as a statement. The older woman looks up from her knitting but she does not speak of her grandchildren, and the young woman, tall and skinny, looks down at her papers and coughs a little nervous cough, again and again.
He brings home brochures and she sometimes picks the houses. They put the stuff in an empty room on the top floor. On the weekends, he puts up shelves on the walls in the room. The radio is on, tuned in on random stations, pop music and classical music, brief news and gardening advice. She brings up coffee, fruit and biscuits on a tray. She sits on the floor and watches him work and he compliments the brass screw and wooden planks she has bought in the hardware store.
Slowly the shelves fill up, a big piece of red coral on a wooden stand with the name Dubrovnik engraved on a silver plate. A mug, Mrs. Always Right written on it, a stapler with a company logo and the numbers and letters ‘25 goddamn years’ scratched in the plastic. Little, not great things, things of no particular value.
Ea Anderson is a serial expat, originally from Denmark, who has lived in Scotland and now lives in France. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in L’Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, The Westchester Review, The Woven Tale Press, and Trampset, as well as several Danish literary journals and anthologies. She’s the author of Hun Bryder sig Langsomt om Hunde (She Slowly Cares for Dogs). More information can be found on ea-anderson.com.
Photo credit: Maria Tenva, Unsplash
Read a conversation between Ea and L’Esprit about her creative process and the genesis of Things of No Particular Value here.