Fiction | 'The New Tent' by Kate North

Fiction | ‘The New Tent’ by Kate North

‘The New Tent’ is the seventh piece in our Story: Retold series, published in association with the Rhys Davies Trust. It is inspired by the Margiad Evans’ short story ‘The Lost Fisherman’.

 

Sarah and James had a little house,

Sarah and James had a little car,

Sarah and James both had jobs,

Sarah and James bought a little dog.

Julie and Jon lived in a flat,

Julie and Jon lived by the sea,

Julie and Jon had a baby girl,

Julie and Jon and baby makes three.

Amy and Lizzy had a great big house,

Amy and Lizzy had a great big car,

Amy and Lizzy filled their house with kittens,

Amy and Lizzy filled their house with children.

Zoe and Steve sold their very small house,

Zoe and Steve bought a very large house,

Zoe and Steve had big important jobs,

Zoe and Steve wanted something else.

 

Judith flicks on the TV but leaves it mute.  The sausages are sizzling in the pan and she has one of those mesh lids covering it so that the fat won’t spurt out.  These are proper sausages from the butcher’s in town.  They taste like sausages used to taste around her nana’s when she was little.  She is cooking them low and slow.

The news is showing footage of a man dressed in black with a knife in his hand.  A man dressed in orange kneels in front of the man in black who is pointing the knife to his throat. She can see the man in black’s eyes through a slit in the fabric around his face.  They are dark brown and really intense.

She goes to the fridge and takes out an onion.  She slices it very thinly then adds the slices to the pan with the sausages.  Then she takes the granary loaf from the bread bin and cuts thick doorsteps from it.  The bread is from the baker’s in town.  It’s a really good baker’s and they do lots of different loaves.  Sometimes on a Saturday morning she pops down for soda bread and they have it with bacon and eggs for brunch.

Judith loves her town.  She and Mike have lived here for almost three years.  She loves that, even though it is a very small town, it has everything one needs.  A butcher’s, a baker’s, a greengrocer’s, a co-op, a nice little pub, a nice little restaurant, a post office and a bank.  On top of all that there are three antiques shops, well, one is more of a bric-a-brac place but she has picked up the odd find there.  The coal scuttle in the lounge, for example.  She loves that her town has a festival each year.  Last year The Guardian covered it in their arts section.  She loves that when her friends from home come to visit they can’t even pronounce the name of the town.  She loves that they live just outside of the town where you get a lot of bang for your buck but they are also near enough to walk home from the pub of an evening if they like.  Not that they do that often.  Just two or three times since they’ve been here, but it’s nice to have the option.

She knocks on the window overlooking the drive where Mike is hunched over the bonnet of the camper van.  He looks around and gives her a thumbs up.  It is starting to drizzle and the grey of the sky hangs low over the fields behind him.  She won’t be surprised if it storms later.

She was driving back from the supermarket last week and she took the road past the reservoir.  The only station you can receive on that road is Radio Three and they were playing something contemporary.  It was awful, a lot of xylophones and a woman screeching.  She turned it off and was left with the rhythm of the windscreen wipers.  The rain was heavy and there was spray on the road.  She didn’t slow down.  She likes driving fast along that road.  It is long and straight and with the reservoir so near it feels like you are gliding across the water.  She sped up.  Looking out across the water she noticed a small, green tent pitched on a bank.  It was one of those domed tents and it was a browny green, a bit like camouflage, designed to blend in with the land.  It was hard to spot in the rain, but she had seen it before.  A fishing rod stuck out from the front of it and its line led straight into the reservoir.  She imagined the man in the tent.  It didn’t have to be a man but it almost certainly was.

When they lived in the city and she would see fishing tents pitched at the side of the canal she used to find it creepy.  Who would pitch a tent by a canal?  And how disgusting would fish from a city canal be to eat?  The fishers must throw them back in.  She presumed the men in the tents were all sex-offenders.  It felt like the sort of thing a sex-offender would do upon release, spend their time in a dome of fabric, alone, out of the way, but also still there, at large and waiting to pick off unsuspecting victims in the quiet of the afternoon.  She would always speed up when she walked past one.

The tent by the reservoir didn’t feel like a sex offender’s tent though.  In the rural setting she just envisaged a little man fishing.  Any old man.  Just a man.

Mike comes in and slips off his daps leaving them on the mat.  Judith hands him a plate with a sausage and onion sandwich.

‘Cheers, love,’ he says as he takes the plate and kisses her on the forehead.  He sits at the table and turns the sound up on the remote.  Then he opens the jar of mustard that Judith has set out and he begins to spread Dijon across the inside of the sandwich as he listens to the news.  Judith joins him and squirts ketchup on her sandwich.

‘It’s sick,’ he says, nodding at the TV.

‘A new level,’ says Judith

‘Bastards,’ says Mike, ‘sick bastards,’ then he takes a bite of his sandwich.

‘His eyes are really creepy,’ says Judith before biting into her sandwich.

They talk about the camper van and whether it is likely to be fixed any time soon.  They are in no rush.  The summer is long gone.  Mike says that he doesn’t mind if it takes a while to fix, he enjoys the tinkering.  Judith wonders what he will do when the van is fixed.

‘You should take up fishing,’ suggests Judith.

‘Fishing?’

‘Yeah,’

‘What for?’

‘Fish, divvy.  Down by the reservoir.  Relaxing.’

Mike raises an eyebrow and looks at her as if she is making a joke, which she isn’t.  Then he stands up and wipes the crumbs from his sandwich into the organic waste box under the kitchen sink.

‘Did you feed the girls yet?’ asks Mike.

‘When I got up,’ says Judith.

‘Are they out?’

‘Probably down by the brook, under the feeder,’

‘They love it there,’

Judith and Mike love it there too.  It’s the best place to watch the sun go down on the small-holding.  They discovered it on Judith’s birthday their first year at Hen Ffermdy.  They were having a bottle of fizz and lying on a blanket listening to the trickle of the brook at dusk.  It was really romantic and they lay in each other’s arms watching the sun pull down behind the cluster of rowan trees in front of the poly tunnel.  Judith remembers kissing Mike slowly, all over.  His neck tasted of Jungle Formula and his chest didn’t.  They made love and it felt significant.  They were open to the elements but there was no one else for miles around, so it also felt private.  They were just like the birds roosting in the trees or the dragonflies skimming across the long grass: at home.  After that they placed a bench there.  Mike painted it a colour called willow and they also placed a bird feeder there, a few feet from the bench.  Nuthatches and Blackcaps come to feed at it, sometimes the odd Wood Warbler too.  Where they flick seed to the ground, the girls come and guzzle it up beneath them.  It’s the first place they head in the morning when they are let out, except for Margot that is.

Mike goes back out to the camper van and Judith mutes the TV again.  She clears everything away and thinks about heading into town to get vegetables for dinner.  She hears a tap at the French doors and turns to see Margot peering in at her.  Then she tap-taps again with her beak against the glass.  Margot is their only black chicken and she is Judith’s favourite.   The others gaggle about in a gang but Margot does her own thing.  She can often be found trying to get into the shed or one of the out houses, and she loves hopping up the back steps and peering through the glass to Mike and Judith.  She looks a little sad sometimes, which Judith knows is a silly thing to think, but she can’t help it.

Judith doesn’t buy anything in town in the end.  She ends up having to go to the supermarket on the outskirts because the greengrocers doesn’t have Jerusalem artichokes and neither does the Co-op.  She wants to make a cheesy artichoke gratin to go with the steaks. She doesn’t even pick up a newspaper at the Co-op like she often does on a weekend.  She can’t bear it.  The racks all have the same picture on the front page.  The man in black with dark eyes holding the knife to the man in orange.  This time she notices the eyes of the man in orange, they are wide as saucers and you can tell he knows what is about to happen.  The sky behind them is clear and blue.  The ground is orange, but a deeper orange than the man’s jumpsuit.  The jumpsuit is Guantanamo and the earth is terracotta, Judith imagines the names on the sides of paint pots at B&Q. It is the same in the supermarket, rows and rows of the picture over by the tobacco kiosk.  Judith turns her head away from the newspapers as she walks past them. She feels the eyes follow her.

On the way back from the supermarket she drives by the reservoir and sees the tent again.  This time she pulls in at the layby opposite.  It is humid like just before a downpour and she opens the car door for some air. The tent reminds her of one of those Antony Gormley statues plonked in the middle of nowhere.  Except Gormley always does statues of people and this isn’t a person but a shape that promises a person within. Maybe it is more like Tracey Emin’s tent that was burnt in the Saatchi fire. You could look right inside that tent and see all of the names she had stitched on the canvas.  There is no looking inside the fisherman’s tent.  He would get quite a shock if Judith marched up and poked her head inside.  No, she can only look at this tent from afar, which suits her.  She wonders if the man with the knife and the man in orange have been living in tents.  Not domed tents like the fisherman’s or Emin’s.  She imagines a big billowy Bedouin tent, like from the Turkish Delight advert when she was younger, then she wonders if she is being racist.

Mike and Judith thought of putting tents up in a field one summer, to hire out, glamping they call it.  Posh canvas affairs with all mod cons, along with a couple of yurts, maybe some tipis.  They considered building a toilet block with showers as well.  That was just after they had come back from the Chillax Festival, the first time they had glamped themselves and they loved it.  It was back when they were hoping bee pollen, relaxation and lots of sex would help them grow a family.  Judith thinks about how they tried and tried.  She manages to smile about it, remembering the tipi they hired at the festival with the sheepskin rugs on the floor.

********

Today they are having a healthy breakfast because they fancy a big fat roast at the Postmaster’s this afternoon.  Judith has scooped yoghurt into two bowls and she is slicing banana on top.  Next come the pomegranate seeds.  She likes bashing the fruit with her wooden spoon and watching the little jewels fall.  With this healthy start and the three-mile walk there and back she will feel totally deserving of the bottle of wine they will order with lunch.

She looks up to the muted television and sees a field of poppies swaying in the breeze.  This cuts to grainy aerial footage of bombs being released over, where?  Germany?  Japan?  No, she had read that the Japanese bomb was only the size of a baseball.  These bombs were big, chunky things being dropped in wheeling batches.  The picture merges into a black and white view of the Acropolis over Athens.  What on earth for, thinks Judith, as the picture cuts to a man with a big moustache who looks like he is shouting.  Then the montage moves to somewhere really exotic looking, Judith knows it can’t be China but it’s definitely Asia from the look of the troops.  She sees the remote control on the work surface but her hands are covered in pomegranate juice so the picture remains mute.  The frame pans out to a still of a group of soldiers in shorts, probably khaki, standing guard over a line of African men without uniform.  The montage moves on before Judith has time to guess and it shows a desert scene, still  black and white.  Next is a jungle scene, there are huge plants and faces that emerge with rifles from the vegetation.  We go back to Africa again briefly, this time in colour before cutting to a sight Judith is more familiar with.  Convoys moving at speed through Belfast, crowds throwing bottles, two squaddies dragging a casualty towards the back of a vehicle, its doors open.  An explosion, dust, a woman crying over a small child still on the tarmac.  Then, aircraft carriers, helicopters, a line of troops with a Union flag making its way along a beach, a sinking ship.  The backdrop changes to a bombed city at the edge of a plain, then tanks in a desert, burning oil wells, a soaring jet.  Now a green field with a white tank, the letters UN on the side, a town of rubble and a burning office block.  Artillery troops on the top of a mountain looking down into the valley below, back to a desert, more jets soaring, bombs released onto the crosshairs above a building, a slim drone.

Judith rinses her hands under the tap and watches the prince step forward and place a wreath.  Then she watches the men in suits do the same.   She picks up the remote and turns the sound on.  Gunshot is followed by silence and Judith stands still.  Her breath is heavy and she continues to stare at the screen for at least a minute. Then she hears a tap-tap, at the French doors.  Margot is looking in.  Judith walks towards her and notices that one of her wings hangs lower than the other.  Judith opens the door and crouches down onto her haunches.  Margot clucks and then squawks as Judith reaches to touch the wing.  Margot backs out away from the house and Judith sees a bald patch with a crust of blood where feathers should be.  Judith raises her hand to her mouth and sniffs.

Later, after Mike has done it, they bury Margot next to the wildflower bed at the side of the house.  She liked to take dust-baths between the plants mid afternoon, when it was hot.  When the last shovel of earth is placed Mike digs the spade into the ground and puts his arm around Judith.

‘I know she was just a chicken,’ says Judith, ‘but she was my favourite,’

‘She was great,’ says Mike, ‘a character,’

They stand looking at the grave for a little while.  It still hasn’t rained but the wind is whipping up as though it may soon.

‘Can we get a tent?’ says Judith looking up to Mike.

‘What for?’

‘I want us to pitch it and go fishing,’ she says.

Mike smiles and kisses her on the nose.

‘If you like,’ he says.

‘Great,’ says Judith, unwrapping his arm from around her and pulling him by the hand.

‘What,’ says Mike, ‘now?’

Judith shrugs and smiles, ‘why not?’

‘It’s going to rain,’ he says.

‘So?’ says Judith, ‘It’ll be more romantic.’

Mike looks at her, ‘where are we going to pitch it?’ he asks.

Judith looks up to the clouds and tilts her head to one side.

‘Well, we don’t have to go fishing today, let’s just pitch it down by the brook for tonight, a practice run.’ she says.

And so they head to the outdoor shop.  The one in the next town.  They buy a huge domed tent, a green one that will blend in with the fields.  And they pitch it down by the brook that evening, that’s what they do.