The fourteenth instalment of our Story | Retold series, ‘Absences’ by John Lavin, takes its inspiration from ‘The Return’ by Brenda Chamberlain. It follows Anna, an artist in rural Wales.
Anna had stayed in Carmarthen far later than she had intended to and the autumn sun had long since vanished from the leaf-shorn skyline, leaving a black-and-blue-shiner of a night behind. She dreaded the lengthy drive home in the dark not only because she was a nervous driver and the road was marked by sudden stomach-lurching ascents and descents but also because she sporadically suffered from panic attacks. She had been diagnosed with high blood pressure after the first of these attacks a year previously, her GP concluding that the two things were interlinked, before prescribing statins in what she took to be a somewhat perfunctory manner. Anna, for her part, felt that her problems with anxiety were more to do with her partner, Nathan, and to the isolated location in which they both lived together.
In theory, she still loved the hilltop barn that they had moved to five years previously but its remoteness, combined with her practice of working from home, meant that she lived an excessively solitary existence. Anna could sense her shyness and anxiety get a little more pronounced every time that she left the hills, even if it was just to go into the small university town of Lampeter where Nathan worked. Therefore, she didn’t drive as far as Carmarthen at all if she could help it these days – and certainly never at such a time that would leave her needing to return in the dark when she found the road markedly more difficult. However, the gallery had insisted that she visit at least once in advance of what was to be her first exhibition for eight years.
The team were all new to her but the gallery’s founding owner, Max, was an old friend and it was he who had persuaded her to exhibit again. They had been lovers briefly, many years before, something that seemed barely conceivable now that they had been friends for such a great deal of time. And yet, over the course of the celebratory late lunch that Max insisted on taking Anna out for, she had begun to suspect that her friend might have the idea of re-igniting old passions. He had reminisced about events from their romantic past more than once, a topic that she had always assumed to be mutually out of bounds. And then there had been the way that he had clasped her hand and not let go, gently rubbing his thumb against her palm, while waxing lyrically about the brilliance of her new paintings. She had also been fairly certain that his boozy kiss at the end of lunch had only landed on her cheek rather than her lips because of a deft swivel at the last moment on her part.
Nevertheless, it really was an unpalatable perspective to contemplate and so she preferred to settle on the notion that Max had simply behaved in an effusive and supportive manner, perhaps getting carried away as a result of the wine. He had always been an earnest admirer of her work and it had to be said that her new work really was good. Maybe the best that she had done in twenty years.
Indeed, Anna, while not usually given to self-aggrandisement, had to admit that she was almost a little bit in love with her new paintings. The Absences series was made up of ten oils depicting the ruined cottages and outhouses that punctuated the hills above the small Ceredigion villages of Cellan and Llanfair Clydagou where she and Nathan lived. For her, the paintings captured a degree of the wildness and solitude that was to be experienced on these hills, while also conveying something of her own inner landscape.
Anna had considered herself to all intents and purposes retired from the art world but then these paintings had just seemed, as the cliché goes, to come. Max or no Max she wouldn’t have exhibited again if she hadn’t have been sure that she had created something that felt genuinely original. Something that was more than the sum of its parts. Something that she couldn’t quite believe she had made herself. She hadn’t felt that way about her work for a long time.
Nathan was an archeology lecturer in nearby Lampeter and once he had driven into university each morning, Anna would set off with her camera, through mist-foaming fields that looked not unlike banks of clouds viewed from an aeroplane. It was a sparsely populated range of hills and so it was possible to walk for hours besides the dew-glittering hedgerows and wind-misshapen trees without meeting anyone besides the local farmer, a very occasional neighbour, or possibly the postman – who would come hurtling along the curling, eye-of-a-needle roads in a way that made nervous driver Anna shudder. There was a large population of red kites and buzzards in the area and she became as used to seeing them swoop and circle as people in the home counties of England are used to seeing blackbirds and sparrows hop and peck on their lawns. The almost snake-charmer-like cry of the kites, in particular, defined the sensibility of her paintings, which were somehow simultaneously serene and troubled – perhaps even troubling. The kites seemed happiest when circling each other in pairs, taking it in turns to ominously swoop down into the bracken. At first she had never failed to shudder for the tiny creature whose brief existence had been snuffed out in a blur of beak and talons. Now she just kept on walking, pushing the thought to the back of her mind and, perhaps, further into the atmosphere of her paintings.
While the paintings were direct depictions of the ruined cottages and their immediate surroundings – with two kites occasionally seen hovering in the background – they were also deeply informed by the way that she was feeling during her lonesome walks and in their immediate aftermath (when she rushed in through the front door and, without pausing so much as to make a cup of tea, immediately began to put paint onto canvas). The hilltops were so empty of the usual human hubbub that time truly appeared to move more slowly and with that her focus and attention zoomed in on things in minute detail, something which had the knock on effect of making her think about aspects of her own life from new perspectives. She had come to realise that she was more melancholic than she had previously understood herself to be. She had spent too much time in her own headspace since they had moved to the barn. Besides this, on a more deep-rooted level, there was the simple fact that she felt lonely. Besides Nathan she had no one else in the world. She was an only child whose parents had long since died and she had been unable to have children herself.
It was this feeling of abandonment that led her to make the ruined cottages and outhouses the focus of the series. She tried to imagine the lives that had been lived out in them and on the surrounding hilltops that she now called home. They would have been sheep farmers mostly she supposed, eking out a hard won existence not unlike that led by her grandparents, who had been sheep farmers in the Mungrisdale Valley the same as their parents before them. The thought gave her a feeling of kinship with the former inhabitants of the landscape, which like the area around Mungrisdale was a dramatic one, the weather and the light seeming to alter at least every hour or two. It was a charismatic place, she felt, that must always feel deeply personal to whoever lived in it.
She also empathised with the ruined buildings themselves, in a manner that she fully recognised as being a clichéd and melodramatic one. Acknowledging her own ridiculousness didn’t prevent her from making the connection, however. She inhabited the same isolated location as they did and she, too, was undone by the march of time. The cottages were ruined, barren places after all.
Anna had consented to drink two glasses of wine with Max at lunch and concerned that she would be over the limit for a while yet, she had stayed in Carmarthen to pick up some items from the supermarket that she woudn’t have been able to find in Lampeter. She ran into Rhian, a poet friend of Nathan’s and stopped for a quick coffee. She was never too sure what to make of her and this was possibly because Rhian always wore sunglasses indoors owing to some sort of light sensitivity issue. She was given to making mildly sensational pronouncements about everyone from well known figures in the poetry world to shared acquaintances. Anna had used to find this entertaining but these days it only put her on guard. She knew that she was most likely being paranoid but, nevertheless, she couldn’t be sure whether Rhian was trustworthy or not.
After a cursory conversation about some of the ongoing wage issues the staff at Nathan’s university were experiencing, Rhian said:
‘I ran into Noreen the other day. She said she’s visiting you and Nath this weekend?’
If this was the case, then it was news to Anna and she pursed her lips and studied the Welsh Tapestry pattern on the tablecloth so that the poet might not notice the unedifying combination of horror and embarrassed surprise that had transformed her face into the colour of a Victoria plum. Nathan hadn’t mentioned anything about his former wife visiting them and she was mostly certain that he wouldn’t hide a thing like that. Was Noreen, then, who hadn’t visited their home in more than three years, planning on turning up unannounced? What possible motive could she have?
From the start Noreen had made it impossible for her to have a relationship with Nathan’s children. Anna knew what an unquantifiable source of pain it was for Nathan not to be able to live with his kids while they were growing up and she had been determined to make them feel welcome and to foster a strong relationship with them. Noreen, however, had made it abundantly clear that she wanted her to have as little to do with their upbringing as possible. She really could be hysterically vitriolic at times, so much so that Nathan would increasingly go to visit the children in Carmarthen for the day rather than have them stay at the barn for the weekend, simply because his ex-wife would make life unbearable otherwise.
‘How the hell am I meant to feel? How can I feel good about leaving our children with this slut?‘ Noreen had said to Nathan on one of the last times, gesticulating in Anna’s direction without even bothering to look her in the face.
‘She’s fucking venomous towards me and you don’t even defend me!‘ Anna had shouted at Nathan once his ex-wife had left.
He apologised profusely, saying he hadn’t wanted to make the situation any worse than it already was but it had long since become clear to Anna that pandering to Noreen only made her more uncompromising. By behaving in a consistently appalling manner she had achieved what she had set out to do: she had managed to keep an aspect of her ex-husband for herself. Because although he would always tell her about his trips to Carmarthen in detail, Anna was unable to really know or judge the situation for herself. Or have any meaningful relationship with her spouse’s children for that matter. And it played tricks on her mind. For all the animosity – for all Noreen’s sheer craziness – she couldn’t help worrying sometimes that there might still be the possibility of something between them. Some spark that could be rekindled through their offspring. Whether she was being a hypochondriac or not, she was entirely certain that this was what Noreen hoped for herself.
‘Oh… hmmm,’ she said non-committedly, trying to read the poet’s expression through her sunglasses without success. She had been friends with Nathan and Noreen when they were still married and while she had always been perfectly friendly to Anna, she couldn’t help but wonder if Rhian didn’t owe some kind of allegiance to her partner’s ex-wife. They both lived in Carmarthen and Noreen, who wrote historical fiction, was presumably still much involved with the local literary scene.
Resisting her probing and having promised that she would remind Nathan to keep in touch more, she took her leave. Pausing to look at her reflection through the soapy water smeared windows of the no-longer-very-new shopping centre that, nevertheless, still felt novel to her, she saw an older version of the nervous, sometimes suicidal teenager that she had once been squinting back at her. She felt a scourging sensation on her skin that was a sense memory of a cigarette she had put out on her arm when she was fifteen. It was one of many but she remembered that particular cigarette because she had held it down for so long she almost fainted. She sighed, wondering why success only ever changed her fleetingly. Why realising her dreams and being a somewhat admired, somewhat successful painter had never done what it was supposed to do. Had never made her confident about herself except with regard to her art. Had never given her the lazy feelings of self-worth that she was jealous of in others; a quality that must surely make day-to-day life unimaginably easier. After all, here she was about to unleash what were arguably the most important and accomplished paintings of her career onto an attentive audience and all that she could think about was how good it might feel to burn a hole in her skin with a cigarette again.
She slowly made her way back to the green Mini she and Nathan shared, which she had left parked on the other side of the river Tywi. Even bridges gave her a kind of vertigo these days and she clung on to the rail as she crossed over, keeping her eyes on her feet until she reached the other side, the icy late autumn breeze going right through her blouse, which had become damp with sweat in the short time it took to cross the river.
Anna supposed that she was a nervous driver not only because she was a nervous person but because she had left it until she was forty to learn. ‘You should learn before you’re forty because your eyes will change,’ her father had used to say to her when she lived in London and couldn’t see the point in having a car. Nothing about the process seemed to come naturally to her, and other drivers – perpetually over the speed limit, perpetually overtaking on blind corners – alarmed her even more than driving itself. The drive from Carmarthen to Cellan took just under an hour providing you didn’t get stuck behind a tractor but to her it felt arduous and never-ending and especially when undertaken in the dark.
She drove carefully through the outskirts of town, under a quarter-moon-lit sky. To keep calm, she tried to think of pleasurable thoughts – the brilliance of her new paintings, the drunken sex that she and Nathan had enjoyed the night before – but her mind kept coming back round to her twin meetings of the day. She wanted to linger over the thought of Nathan’s tongue circling her clitoris but all that she could think about was Max’s thumb palpating her inner hand in an approximation of the same motion. Max was a messy gourmand, and the way he had slurped the heads of his garlic crevettes in between taking deep draughts of Poilly Fume kept flashing across her mind and making her feel queasy. The way he had noisily sucked the meat out of the legs of his lobster main, in-between talking about the hard, Kyffin-like texture of the paint on her new works.
It had been the first time that she and Nathan had made love in months, and it was something that had surprised and even overwhelmed Anna. She hadn’t realised quite how starved of physical intimacy she had been feeling until she lay in bed the following morning while Nathan showered, feeling sensuous and no longer so rigidly fixed within her own body. Perhaps the success of her paintings meant that a corner had been turned and things would start to look up in other areas of her life. She tried to think how best to go about instigating a repeat sexual encounter once she got home. Perhaps she should just be direct and push Nathan against the wall and unbuckle his belt when he kissed her hello, like she would have done during the first flowerings of their romance. Or perhaps ply him with wine over dinner; a risky enterprise these days in that it could often result in a lengthy treatise on the subject of archaeoastronomy, on which he had been commissioned to write a book. She bit her lip in frustration, knowing in her heart that the sex had been a drunken one-off rather than a new dawn and that it was highly unlikely there would be a repeat encounter, no matter what she tried. Nathan was getting older and his sex drive seemed to be diminishing in direct proportion to the worrying increase in his marijuana intake.
Her mind returned to Noreen and her unlikely visit. Could it be something that Nathan knew about, after all? Why would he keep something like that from her? Were her worst fears in fact becoming reality? Did he want to get back with his ex-wife? Was that why he had been visiting her and the kids in Carmarthen more frequently of late? Was it not because Noreen was being difficult but in fact for quite another reason – because they wanted to see one another? Because they were sleeping together?
Outside it had grown a pitch darker while the moon passed behind cloud cover. The road was unlit and she urged herself to stop being so unreasonably paranoid and to ‘just fucking concentrate!’ She felt a hard pain appear above her eyes as she stared at the onrushing tarmac and the shadows that flitted across the beam of the headlights as the car sped along. The pain started to seep behind her eyes like an overfull bath just at the point when it starts to leak over the sides, and the panic that she had hoped to avoid announced its intentions by seemingly sealing off the capability of her lungs and sending needlestings and winter shivers along the length and breadth of her frame.
The panic attacks often announced themselves in this way before proceeding to play their trump card, which was a stabbing pain on the left side of her chest. It was this physical manifestation of her anxiety that made the panic so pronounced because the stabbing pain felt so profoundly real and potentially terminal that it became almost impossible not to panic. Anna’s GP had reassured her that it was her anxiety speaking through her body and not the beginning of a heart attack but as the blood began to pound in her head and as her left arm began to feel numb, she could in no way convince herself that this was the case. She slowed the car down to a dawdle and took some deep breaths, before taking her eyes off the road for a moment to rummage in the glove compartment for the pack of B&H she had bought on the way over that morning. She still hadn’t told Nathan that she had started smoking again.
She must have been swerving because just then a car came up quickly behind her and overtook with a long blare of the horn, it’s middle-aged male driver slowing briefly in order to give her the finger before he sped away. Another sharp pain stabbed Anna on the left hand side of her chest and she gripped the steering wheel tightly, her hands greasy with sweat.
Her head was pounding in her ears now, making it hard to concentrate but there was nowhere to pull over on the narrow section of road on which she currently found herself. Indeed the road was rising all the time and she knew that on her right hand side the dark trees hid a sharp drop to the valley below.
‘Remember to breathe! What happens is you stop breathing!’ Nathan had told her. ‘Anyone would panic if they stopped breathing!’
She met the top of the hill and seeing a layby pulled over. She lit the cigarette with jittery fingers, and dragged deeply, feeling her anxiety lift a little almost straight away, as though the cigarette had literally taken part of the burden on her behalf.
Now that she had stopped she didn’t know if she would be able to make the rest of the drive back in the dark. She took her mobile out to check on the off chance but, of course, there was never any reception on this stretch of the journey. Besides, even if she could have contacted Nathan he wouldn’t be able to collect her as they shared the one car between them. It sounded absurd but maybe the only thing to do was to find a quiet spot somewhere off the main road and try to sleep in the Mini until dawn.
‘For fuck’s sake Anna!’ she shouted at her reflection in the rear view mirror. Then, and almost without thinking, she pressed the glowing tip of her three-quarter-smoked cigarette down onto her upturned arm, letting out a scream as she did so. She could hardly believe the pain. How had she used to do this so frequently, and even to a certain extent, enjoy doing so? It was beyond comprehension. The pain was unbearable and excruciating but above all else it was simply a ridiculous thing to have done. She flung the cigarette out of the car door, but not before she had somehow managed to burn a hole in the expensive dress that she had bought for her meeting at the gallery.
She breathed in the lucid night air. It was almost December and there was a touch of ice to the rain that had begun to fall. She wondered if they would be snowed in this winter as they had been for almost two weeks the year before. She got out of the car and held her arm out so that the rain stung and cleaned it. The silence of the West Walian countryside was something that she had used to find almost healing such was the utter absence of noise and light pollution contained within it, but the deep silence of this particular evening unnerved her and amplified her loneliness until it roared in her ears with the epic intensity of a coastal storm just before it blows itself out.
It was simple, she told herself. She had poured all that she had into the Absences series and now she felt hollowed out as a result. She had poured all of her feelings about her inability to have children into the work, along with her feelings about Nathan and Noreen and her continuing grief for the loss of her parents. There were all sorts of other things in there too, including her love of the landscape, the kites and their prey, the glimmering streams and foaming clouds. Her love and hatred of nature and the way that it had overrun the buildings that she had painted, as well as the unknown people that had once inhabited them. Their absence could be felt in the ruined cottages and she hoped, above all else, that this was something that she had managed to convey in the paintings.
She really was late. Nathan would be worried now. She looked at the weeping wound she had made in her skin and felt more ashamed than ridiculous. What would he say? It wouldn’t be an easy thing to hide.
She got back into the car and drove through the steady rain, feeling curiously becalmed by the shock of the cigarette burn. She remembered the feeling from when she was a teenager and recalled that it was one of the major reasons that she had used to regularly burn and cut herself. The journey was difficult in the darkness and the steady rain but it didn’t seem to matter in the eerily serene mood she suddenly found herself in.
She pulled into the driveway and walked carefully down the slippery slate steps to the front door of the barn, which opened straight into the kitchen. Nathan was slumped over the table, the remains of a still smouldering spliff perched in the ashtray by his forehead. She went over to him and ruffled his white hair affectionately.
‘Oh there you are love,’ he said blearily. ‘I’d given up on you. Thought you didn’t want to drive back in the dark?’
She smiled weakly and fell into the opposite chair, filling up Nathan’s wine glass and gulping it back.
‘I ran into Rhian in town,’ she said. ‘She seemed to think Noreen was visiting us this weekend?’
Nathan tugged violently at a snowy lock of his hair. ‘What the fuck? Oh Christ, what is she planning now?’
His face creased into the customarily vivid depiction of worry and anguish that the mere mention of his ex-wife’s name always bestowed on it and she knew at once that it was not only unkind but paranoid beyond all reason for her to think that there could be any possibility of a rekindled romance between Nathan and Noreen.
‘I think she wants me to pay for a new kitchen for her,’ he said, his head in his hands. ‘Maybe it’s part of her latest invidious plot.’
Anna walked over to the window to get another bottle of wine from the rack by its side. She peered out into the raindrunk garden, and then cast her eyes across the indeterminable fields to the familiar looming mass of the hill the barn sat facing. She felt reassured to be home. The silence felt less oppressive now she was with Nathan.
She went back over to him and put her arms around his defeated shoulders.
‘What will we do?’
He shook his head and began to uncork the wine.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘As ever, I really don’t fucking know.’
Photo of Cellan by the author.
n.b. The author received no fee for this instalment of Story | Retold.
To find out more about John Lavin visit his Twitter page.
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