Blurred Edges by Mike Fox
My first impression of the house I inherited was of a stolid, square building, uncompromisingly part of its surroundings and pretty much set in its ways. It stood alone on a stretch of sparsely populated and terminally flat scrubland, just to the south of the estuary. A quarter mile east, the mouth of the river twisted almost ninety degrees, the promise of the sea beyond lifting the plainness of the landscape just a tad. My daily walk to the coastal path was circumscribed by salt marshes and curiously sepulchral, even in the summer dawn. It wasn’t long before I realised my new surroundings were not so much a place as an existential condition.
The house and I soon came to an arrangement: I would not knock it about or build incongruous extensions, it would not object to me spreading myself throughout its two plain, low-ceilinged storeys, nineteen-twenties scullery, and priest hole of a loft room. It seemed to realise I saw it as a gift from the gods, the gods in this case being a great uncle I had never met and barely even heard of.
Death, though, has a way of revealing things. I could just about remember the strangely archaic vocabulary of the elderly couple who once came to visit my parents.
‘Why do they talk like that?’ I asked. ‘Retrieve, purloin, endeavour – it’s weird.’
‘That’s because they were in service,’ my mother said. ‘They would have left school by the time they were fourteen, so they’d have picked up those words from the people they worked for. Probably their parents were the same, and their parents before that.’
Now it made more sense. My great uncle Frank, apparently the son of said elderly couple, had broken the chain of servitude. Despite, as the solicitor put it, inheriting a certain oddity of manner, he had been the first in his line to buy his own house and, wishing to distance himself in every way possible from those who preceded him, had ‘gone off somewhere remote’ to do it.
Three decades later it had taken several days for anyone to realise he hadn’t paid his weekly visit to the village store for provisions. Eventually he was discovered sitting bolt upright in a greasy Windsor armchair, his expression of profound irritation probably reflecting the thought he’d taken with him to other realms. Above his head a line of eels, or what remained of them, hung like withered exclamation marks from a cord that traversed his kitchen. This sort of thing can happen, I suppose, if you lack any inclination to seek human company.
As I walked each morning past the Saxon fish traps, bits of which even now protruded through the mudflats, I began to ponder the fate that had brought me here. Perhaps solitariness was the part of his nature I most shared. I wasn’t anti-social, but I’d never been averse to spending time alone. By providence the totality of great uncle Frank’s worldly goods had found their way to someone not entirely dissimilar. There had been no will, so as his closest living relative here I was, walking towards the sea on a path probably worn by his footsteps.
The place had a sense of abandonment. Each day I passed a couple of decaying boats bobbing aimlessly, or lying marooned by the ebbing tide. As hard as it was to imagine anyone sailing in them, I soon I found myself viewing their scuffed hulls in a companionable sort of way. Hermits, I understand, are apt to see fellowship in objects.
The house reeled in shock when I got in a team of decorators. Perhaps it thought it was being exorcised. Before their arrival I’d cleared all its rooms, filling two skips with detritus, much of it still smeared with hardened silt. Great uncle Frank, it would seem, was a mudlark. But soon the walls were white and the floorboards stripped and polished. The house sighed and acquiesced. I could begin to work.
I had always wanted to write, which might seem strange considering the family I was born into. Although maybe not that strange – perhaps eccentricity is just creative intent in the raw. My mother the white witch, my father the druid, out on the back lawn at sunrise in all weathers, overseen by everyone in the street, worshipping mother earth. Then my father would go off to sell insurance, and my mother to work at the local nursery. It was only when I went through their papers once they’d died that I realised there was more: tiny, exquisitely sketched divinities, captioned by whimsical aphorisms and signed with my mother’s initials – free verse, written in my father’s distinctive italic, describing his erotic attachment to my mother. This, I realised, must be where I got it from.
So I developed a theory that the creative urge can spend generations lurking in your ancestry until it finally gets the chance to spew out in public form. I already had a title for my thesis: ‘The Fruition of Latent Talent – when creativity breaks the family shackles’.
I adopted the time-honoured tradition of thinking as I walked, although it was a good idea to watch where I put my feet too. In the evening twilight, curlews, redshanks and dunlins flicked across the salt marches, their flight a wordless parable. In those moments, with my mind full of images, I could believe I was entering a time of grace.
I started my research: novelists, artists, musicians. As I hoped, there was no need to look far: one or two branches up the family tree and evidence was there to be plucked. Show me talent that ‘came from nowhere’ and I’ll show you its silent genesis in previous generations. The mother whose finely crafted stanzas went no further than her underwear drawer – the father whose love of calligraphy remained a guilty secret. The grandma who weaved, the granddad who played the whistle. All of it primed to explode in the form of offspring who could no longer hide an artistic vocation. I soon had happy visions of seven or eight carefully argued case studies, each supporting my contention.
‘I used to look in on Frank – I could look in on you too if you want.’
It was the first time I’d answered an unexpected knock at the door. The woman who stood there when I opened it carried an old-fashioned satchel. She had a humorous face and a thick bush of hair that looked as if it did pretty much as it pleased. Late thirties or early forties, I guessed.
‘If you’re a district nurse shouldn’t you be wearing a uniform?’
It seemed a reasonable question to ask. We were drinking tea in the kitchen. She’d seemed to expect to be offered, and I was rather surprised when she insisted on making it herself. That was before I knew how much she needed to be in control of her food.
‘I have a roving brief – call it assertive outreach if you want. And anyway, if Frank thought I was someone official I’d never have got past the front door.’
‘Do I look like someone who needs to be called on?’
‘You never know round here.’ She considered me for a moment. ‘Perhaps not now, but this place can do strange things to people who don’t know it. And anyway you live on your own. Wouldn’t do you any harm to have someone popping in occasionally.’
‘I suppose not.’ I seemed to have morphed into a new category of person – I just wasn’t sure what it was.
She, Bryony, told me she’d become a nurse because that’s what her mother had done. And it was one way of staying in work around here. She was interested in what I was up to.
‘I like that sort of thing too,’ she said. ‘I paint a bit, and so did my nan now I think of it. The light’s always changing round the marshes.’
After a while I realised she was showing no inclination to leave. We woke together, lightly tangled, the following morning. By chance it would seem that, despite my fantasies of splendid isolation, I’d hooked up with the one eligible woman in the district.
The house, I felt, approved. Perhaps all along it had needed a bit more human contact than great uncle Frank felt inclined or even able to provide.
‘He was a funny old bloke,’ Bryony said. It was a few weeks later and, as she’d proposed, every now and then she dropped in. ‘I know he was glad to see me, but he’d never admit it.’
‘Maybe if he admitted that it would be like saying he’d chosen the wrong life,’ I suggested.
Bryony thought about this.
‘To be honest by the time I met him I don’t think choice came into it. And he always let me know when he’d had enough of me.’
‘What about you?’ I said. ‘Calling on strange people for a living.’
‘I’m out and about and to me that’s freedom. And I’d never want to leave this area. I wasn’t born round here but after a while it really seeps into you.’
I was beginning to feel the same. There was a beauty in my new surroundings I’d missed at first. It hadn’t been the landscape, it had been the way I was looking at it. Sometimes, when the moon hung silently over the midnight estuary, or the scrubland bleached to sage in the July sun, or the inlets glinted like gashes in the scrub, I felt an unexpected peace. It was a place where water became land and land became water. It was like living on the blurred edges of the earth.
In some ways the village, two miles down a slight gradient, was not entirely different. Once a week I drove to the utility store to buy whatever I needed. I soon understood that great uncle Frank, the outsider’s outsider, could easily have been forced to remain that way even if he hadn’t wanted to. The focal point of the community seemed to be the pub, deserted as unprofitable by the brewery and taken over by a rota of locals. I made a point of dropping in for a pint, but instead of the hotbed of parochial intrigue I’d imagined it seemed more like a curiosity vacuum. Perhaps Frank hadn’t interested the incumbents, and it seemed I didn’t either.
On my first visit I’d noticed a strange absence of conformity in the layout of the place. From a mile away I could see roofs of slate, pantile, and something corrugated and probably illegal, all mixed together. It was as if a straggle of settlers had happened upon that particular spot and built with whatever came to hand. The one unifying feature was the seemingly obligatory boat masts, sunk in the ground of every garden, protruding over the rooftops and apparently doing nothing. I resisted an urge to get one myself. My house, after all, needed to maintain its distinct identity. It was, in itself, a form of exile.
‘Is there still tea in that pot?’ The October frost took me by surprise, with an early chill blowing in off the sea. Bryony, wearing a scarf, had called in before her morning round.
I had made the tea. I poured and said nothing. She cupped her hands around the mug and sipped. It seemed like another small breakthrough, like the way she drip-fed personal information. I knew by now that she lived alone, though not in the village. I knew she’d done her training, then travelled, I knew she liked coming to see me, because she said so, and I knew something bad had once happened in her life, because she hinted, and because despite her cheerfulness it was obvious. I always looked forward to her visits. Being alone so much made me understand why people invest in one another through the simple fact of proximity.
A week or so later I offered her toast, made exactly as I’d seen her make it, and she accepted.
‘I’ve got some stuff I want to show you.’ She was licking the crumbs from her fingers. ‘I’ll be back in a minute – I left it in the car. I’ll leave the door on the latch.’ It wasn’t possible to park very near and I waited several minutes before I heard the door swing open.
‘Just stay where you are – I’ll call you when I’m ready.’
The front room, once I was allowed to enter, had become a small gallery.
‘Just to support your thesis, these are mine,’ she pointed to three landscapes in pastel. ‘And these were done by my nan.’ Two more landscapes, this time in oil, and an unmistakeable depiction of my house. Bryony watched me as I stood staring at it.
‘She used to live here,’ she said. ‘Before Frank.’
‘It’s taken you a while to tell me that.’
She turned her gaze back to the paintings.
‘She’d have me to stay sometimes,’ she said. ‘As a kid I always felt safe in this place.’
There was a silence as we stood looking at the paintings. I glanced at her and saw she was waiting for me to speak.
‘You can come here whenever you want,’ I said.
Research proves what it proves, which is not necessarily what you want it to prove. After a marathon of annotated reading and months bent over my laptop, I was beginning to admit, to the house at least, that my thesis was flawed. Not actually wrong, just flawed. If it’s true that the highest manifestations of talent, by their nature, are rare, it’s also true that the seeds of such talent are overwhelmingly commonplace. That, I was forced to accept, should astonish no-one.
‘Don’t be so hard on yourself.’ Bryony had taken my arm as we walked towards the sea. Flat ridges of sand protruded above the incoming tide and the evening sky spread out over the estuary, an unvaried duck-egg blue. ‘It’s still a really interesting idea. And anyway, something had to bring you here.’
Something had to bring me here. Did life really work like that? But perhaps there was no need to ask.
When we reached the coastal path the incoming sea was very gentle, lapping into the hollows, beginning to wash the mudflats with spume. We looked on as it shaped itself into the landscape, its parameters never constant, encroaching with each roll of the tide. I felt Bryony press her hand into my pocket as the evening began to chill.
‘It’s never the same,’ she said. ‘You could never get tired of it.’
Existence is just a succession of moments, I thought.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.