In the middle of the night – the real night – Anne flung open the door. she was the kind of mother who refused to knock. A fan of borders but not boundaries.
They’ve dug up all the courgettes, she said.
Much worse. Forget the moles.
Neither of us moved.
Come on – she flipped the lights – we’re being besieged. Get a shovel. Anya you can hold a torch.
Michael refused to be routed. I heard him insist Anne respect his sleep – she was more than intimidating enough to handle marauding boar.
Outside, we took in the destruction. Mounds of earth uprooted, shredded plants, craters, gougings and tracks disfiguring the lawn.
Monsters, she spat.
It’s not their fault, Luke said.
Whose is it then?
They were hunted to extinction then reintroduced. deliberately. By us.
I never introduced pigs to my garden.
They were here first, then we killed them off and got nostalgic for it.
Luke. I’m an animal person so spare me the sermon, please. But this – she gestured around. This is ridiculous. They go after dogs. They laid waste to Pem’s farm. Last time I heard one run along the decking I leant out the window and shot it. It was like a bomb going off. All the mud and dust. Took four of us to put it in Pem’s truck. Very good meat, so it was probably worth the carnage, in the end.
Luke stopped digging, closed his eyes and exhaled.
Your mum’s – she seems manic, I whispered. Do you think we – you – should make her lie down?
He mumbled something about going to get a glass of water but never came back. I finished our end of the trench alone.
After several hours digging, erecting fortifications using upturned chairs, I realised I was enjoying myself. I felt useful working alongside Anne, and it reminded me of my childhood, when anything could be reimagined into something new. shoes became firewood, sheets became windows, my brother’s skateboard became a water cart.
But the objects I gravitated toward aesthetically now, I realised as I positioned two dining chairs like coping stones, all had an underlying stability. The sculptural things I collected maybe did have emotional resonance then, in that I couldn’t imagine them transmuting into anything else.
Finally Anne surveyed the barricades. Seagulls called overhead and I followed her gaze to where the perimeter disappeared into the dawn mist and then the creek.
That should do it, she said. For now at least.
I crept back into bed beside Luke and admired the crescents of black dirt under my nails. I kissed the warm skin at the back of his neck. Then I remembered the poisoned trees.
Luke drank several cups of coffee at breakfast, rubbing his face and the back of his head. I was used to surviving on no sleep, but he needed at least eight hours to make any conversation. I loaded the dishwasher and pretended not to notice as Anne restacked everything.
I thought, she said slowly as she closed the machine, we’d take a walk to the church.
We put boots on and followed her and Michael along the road past the spar. Another new house had been built, its glass front loomed behind a row of white saplings, spectral as a mushroom. Like the others in their vicinity, it appeared to be empty.
Can’t understand why anyone would want to live under glass, she hissed. The few times I’ve actually seen someone in there, well, you can see everything. At night especially, I can see all its insides, like a jellyfish. There are more and more, they attract each other, these planning notices – she pointed to one pinned to the gate – like a swarm.
I imagined Anne standing outside the house in the dark. I agreed it was out of place.
We passed the disused garage, overgrown by weeds. Here Luke, an only child, had founded his own clubhouse after reading Lord of the Flies. Still his favourite book. And of course, as Anne was fond of pointing out, another Cornish author. There was still genitalia-themed graffiti in the basement and a shrivelled buoy hung from a steel joist to make a swing. On the upper level, where cars were repaired, there were stepped walls on three sides like a theatre, which must have lent gravity to meetings. Luke confessed they used to defecate in the long grass behind rather than return to the cottage where his mother remained in charge.
I followed Luke’s gaze toward it, it was clear he wanted to go inside.
Go on ahead, we’ll catch you up, he told his parents. I didn’t like going in there, but I liked it that Luke wanted to go in. It suggested a continued wish to escape his mother’s influence.
There was no glass in the window frames and it smelt of decay. Sometimes I seek that basement smell out precisely because I don’t like it. It’s still familiar. Cold concrete and earth.
In the graveyard, Anne took me through her thoughts on floral arrangements. I looked in Luke’s direction, wondering if he would mention the idea we’d come to the night his friends had interrogated us, of having a non-religious ceremony with Christopher as our celebrant. I knew the only gay men Anne had ever knowingly met were two Canadians. Rather than say the word she now referred to all gay people as being like the Canadian men.
Michael pointed out the usual headstone belonging to their family. I spotted a magpie dart away beyond it and looked for a second. On a similar walk, long ago, Anne had stopped abruptly before one and saluted him in the middle of the road. Not understanding, I’d reacted with nervous laughter. That Christmas she gave me A Pocket Guide to the Superstitions of the British Isles. They’re othering you, Christopher had said. Give her one for the Balkans next year.
The church was dismal. Michael disappeared and a few electric lights came on. I sensed Luke waiting for me to say something before he would. Then into the resonant silence, Michael’s voice:
Not much trade except funerals these days.
Luke appeared to be avoiding eye contact with me now and I panicked.
I love it here, I lied.
Wonderful, Anne said, that settles it then.
Going back, we took a longer route off-road. Gradually the path narrowed so that we walked in single file. I felt myself detaching, following Luke’s calves, letting them get further ahead until finally they were gone.
When I arrived back at the cottage, they were seated in a ring on the lawn which still bore the scars of the previous night. Luke was describing our holiday and the town of Sanary where many artists and writers had exiled themselves as Hitler rose to power.
Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig, he trailed off.
Sybille Bedford, I continued.
Don’t know her, Anne said.
I said I would give her one of Bedford’s books. maybe Quicksands. I realised I did not want to share with them her impressions of Yugoslavia from Pleasures and Landscapes. Though much of it was admiring – the mountains, Venetian architecture, translucent water – I’d experienced the familiar contraction around my chest as I read her descriptions of the terrifying roads and wild children on the ferry crossing:
What one wonders about is the future. Will it be a graceless, stark new world?
And finally of her time in Sarajevo,
Nothing ever, perhaps, quite safe, quite clean, quite straight . . .
Bedford, I told them, lived out the Holocaust in Sanary, later California. I heard my words echo what I’d read about her, sounding fluent. I understood her ambivalence at having spent so much time reading in comfortable places.
Anne and Michael wanted to see my photos. Luke had told them I’d taken several hundred. This was true. he rarely recorded anything on his phone except runs and photographs of plants.
They admired my pictures of the villa, the pink oleander, the view of the bay, Luke’s kitesurfing technique, the harmonious blue of the water, tasteful market stalls, a fish we ate at the Hôtel de la Tour that had baked inside a white salt crust and was then exhumed for us at the table.
Doesn’t look as flashy as you’d expect, Anne said, approving.
If their family went to restaurants, she would instruct everyone to order the same thing, since that way it was more like being at home. It was one of the things I felt I offered Luke, permission to indulge his yuppie side – to go out and order whatever he wanted.
Luke said there were no gin palaces in the harbour, a section of which was occupied by traditional fishing boats. He said there were few tourists, other than French from the north, and it was, compared to the surrounding destinations British holidaymakers had heard of, unspoiled.
Then he told the Bedford anecdote I’d relayed to him, concerning the Huxleys’ arrival. Looking forward to the anonymity of a foreign place, maria and Aldous had pulled up at their new Belle Époque home to find VILLA HUXLEY painted in bold lettering by the well-meaning decorator on the front gate. I knew why this resonated for Luke, who was horrified by the idea of public spectacle. It was something we’d discussed with regard to the wedding, He wanted the minimum possible number of guests. I was fine with that. Relieved, actually. It was easier to describe a wedding as intimate than find the words to explain why no one from my family would be there.
Anne held out my phone. I felt her gaze linger on the ring as I took it back and felt hot as if I’d stolen it.
She offered around segments from a clementine which I declined, though not before Luke could remind her of my hang-up.
The excuse I usually gave was not a lie, exactly. I had been eating plums gathered from the base of my grand- mother’s tree as a child. I had accidentally picked up part of a bird, ripped open, the greasy remains now heaving with life. I had been horrified by the sticky mess, its texture in my hand, the apprehension of anarchy.
The sight of some fruit can affect me like an animal whose fur is rubbed against its growth. Perhaps reasonably, given the nature of his work, Luke found this fact exasperating. Even seedless grapes? he would ask in perplexity as I declined to follow him down certain supermarket aisles.
As a child I dreamt about exotic fruit I knew only from cartoons. Sometimes we got parcels with exciting things and we’d make them last for weeks. Other times we got biscuits from WW2 and we’d feel resentful of the kids on other streets. I wanted Coca-Cola so badly that I hate it now. The same thing happened when I finally tried tinned pineapple and choked on the wet, syrupy chunks. In my mind, the longed-for fruit had the texture of human flesh.
The smell is fine. Maybe I’ve been desensitised by synthetic fruit-scented things. I can even enjoy fruit flavours, as long as there is no remnant of the original texture there. But the thought of biting directly into a tomato or unmediated slice of orange makes me gag. The various sensations that combine in the average piece of fruit! Seed, liquid, flesh, skin . . .
In the afternoon Luke caught up on sleep, forgetting to take the meat for dinner out of the freezer as he’d promised Anne to do. I remembered too late, and had to massage it beside the fire while he slept and his mother was busy somewhere in the garden. I was still attempting to defrost it when she came in and saw me there, crouching. When he came down I was silently angry that he’d left me open to his mother’s suspicion of being a barbarian, and as we finally sat down to eat, much later than planned, we seemed to be engaged in another psychic war. I did not know why he was angry at me. I had saved the day. I remember hoping those vicissitudes in personality were chemical. A lighthouse whose beam disappeared only to come back.
Normal people argue, I said once, and then we had a very quiet argument in the garden centre, beside an LED Buddha fountain and a sign that read TRANQUIL OASIS. I felt such relief despite the humidity, the claustrophobia, the smell of rabbit hutch. His moods would shift abruptly, and at times I would find myself having crossed an obscure boundary into a strange place, a territory which only minutes ago had not been there.
The change could be even subtler. A shadow over the sun, a cold spot in water. swimming as a child, I remembered turning onto my back, putting trust in the sky, imagining I swam in that element instead.
Luke could be two people as distinct as these elements, just as he had two names in my phone. Real name to indicate company mobile and pet name for personal. Depending on which he called from, our conversation would be altered.
At first I hadn’t noticed the second person. I began to, soon after I moved in. Around the time things started to go wrong in the flat. The bath plug lost its suction. I couldn’t fill the bath with water unless I kept it running, and even then, it would only reach my hips. A shelf came off the wall. A chair back marked another with a groove. The tap – which Luke had never had a problem with before – now leaked, heavy and staccato through the night. A gas ring refused to ignite. Clicking over and over without producing a flame. These went on a list of things to be fixed, and everything else on a list to break.
After dinner we watched the news and the mood lifted. They liked working out the BBC’s more obscure visual puns. A story about pressure on primary school places was accompanied by seemingly unrelated footage of rowers, then canoes, and then the Queen’s barge moving down the Thames. The connection between these images and the news story remained a mystery until the reporter ended with the words: The race is on.
Ho ho, Michael said.
Luke held my foot under a cushion then took one of my hands. They were covered in soot after poking the fire to thaw the meat, my fingers stained purple from chopping red cabbage. I’d removed the ring to prepare the food – an absence he mutely noted as he examined them. I tipped my head back to indicate where I’d put it. Then the news came to Brexit and I felt the room contract.
His parents knew which way I’d voted, but we hadn’t directly talked about it since. They didn’t know I’d exchanged insults with strangers on the internet late into the night. The ‘real’ people, with whom I’d argue until confronted with my own unreality, my own irrelevance. it was not the specifics of opposing arguments that upset me, but that the things I held on to, which kept me from being sucked back into the past, were coming loose.
Because my aunt was not my mother, when I’d had disputes with her children, they felt she was biased toward me and I felt she was biased toward them. Her son Nikolaj was a compulsive liar who had a problem with authority, except where it gave him power. He hated me not only for being clever, despite the language disadvantage, but because I’d experienced things he had not. I didn’t understand then that he felt threatened. Not just by having to share his family with strangers, though that didn’t help, but because in comparison to mine his life story was a domestic drama. He’d take great pleasure in warping events with unnecessary lies so that our referee, his mother, would eventually wave us away: carry on for all I care, just stay out of my kitchen. My sister Daria left for university a few months after we arrived, and then I had no one to confirm what I’d seen or heard versus what he then said had happened.
Why did I want things to stay the same? Christopher, who’d spoiled his ballot, asked me. He has an anarchist streak but somehow ended up a lawyer. A human rights barrister, more accurately. Law was what his parents had wanted him to do, and perhaps because of his ability to stand outside or above any such man-made edifice, he was very good.
I didn’t have an answer for him. It was an emotion I couldn’t put into adequate words. I remember right before the referendum, another wedding, this time Luke’s non-Cornish cousin’s, on Michael’s side, I’d been seated next to a man I didn’t know. One of the groom’s parents’ friends. He didn’t know anyone, he claimed, which initially seemed the reason for our pairing. Then he said he was a poet, as well as a writer of thrillers for which he used a pseudonym. He pointed knowingly at my surname on the place card. He asked me about my parents, their ethnicity, and I said I was the child of a mixed marriage. in his capacity as a poet, he had travelled to the Balkans, and so for most of the reception, wanted to talk about the war.
I detected that tone I so often encountered then. As though such chaos could never occur within his island, whereas in the Balkans it was inevitable. Luke had later sympathised when I complained about my table, saying he understood how maddening it was – in the context of anthropogenic climate change. He called it the blind spot of any culture – the inability to conceive of its own destruction.
Occasionally I’d made attempts to engage the neighbour on my other side, an elderly relative of the bride’s. She’d blinked at me kindly and said it must be sad when your country no longer exists, then returned to pulverising her asparagus. The need for discretion removed, the poet began to list his top ten most harrowing sights. His lips were wet. He topped up my glass and said that history must not repeat itself. That though the EU was imperfect, like Yugoslavia, like any marriage in fact, British people valued what it represented. Membership, he mused as a server took our plates away, was probably my homeland’s only hope. We had better get a move on with integration.
A year on, if someone raised the subject in my presence I felt myself shut down. I couldn’t bear to meet people’s outrage or smirking faces, even their shock and grief. If it was mentioned at a party, whether or not I’d had anything to drink, I would simply walk away. Now I felt myself sliding into apathy.
On Sunday morning Luke kissed my shoulder tenderly then got up, pulled on his shorts and went running. I stayed in bed, the windows open, listening to the gentle call of a wood pigeon. The room flooded with light and a breeze came in off the creek. I’d had my first unbroken sleep in weeks and the combination of breeze, sunlight and memory foam gave me the sensation of gliding. Suddenly I heard the strains of what I took to be a recording of a piece of classical music. it began with tuning, but then, from its occasional repetitions, stops and starts, I understood that it was live.
I guessed a group of students were rehearsing, but I’d never seen any young people when I’d stayed before. My only explanation was that one of the elderly neighbours, or maybe the very rich one who poisoned trees, had convened a small orchestra, not for any reason other than enjoyment. something about this idea seemed incredible. Though I did very little in the way of making money – did very little generally – I found it hard to think in any other terms than productivity.
As the communal effort of several brass instruments sailed into the room, a feeling of contentment and security verging on euphoria coursed through me. I stretched my limbs toward the four corners of the bed and felt a desire that I’d forgotten. I wanted to have sex with Luke.
I remained in that position for several more minutes with my eyes closed, listening to what I guessed was a cello, letting it merge with the wind, the heat of my skin. I sensed this was a moment I could have only once. When it stopped I’d never know what the piece I’d been listening to was. I thought of its transience, of using it up, like precious water running.
The solo ended and the silence which followed sounded entirely different from the silence that had preceded it, as if it was now part of something else.
I didn’t know much about classical music and wondered if I should admit to this in order to ask Michael if he’d heard and could identify the piece for me. To risk being told it was something obvious.
He had extensive knowledge of all genres. The search function on iTunes had proved endlessly absorbing. He spent hours on these voyages of discovery, back and forth in time, through world music, thrash and electronica. he’d made Luke four CDs composed of songs with American cities in the title for no reason other than the search function made it possible. They had been good for long car journeys before we discovered true crime. Some were classics, others by obscure heavy metal groups we knew to skip past.
He had unofficially taken charge of wedding music and given us a list that included a Cornish folksong arranged by Holst. The lyrics describe a woman released from bedlam by her lover who has returned from being at sea. I wondered if Michael had recalled the part about it being the man’s parents who’d tried to keep her institutionalised.
I rolled over on the bed to the window, pulled myself onto my knees and crouched forward with my elbows on the sill to wait for him, watching the optimists sail past the mouth of the creek, remembering the time Luke had insisted on taking me sailing. They could not believe I’d never been before, until I got into the boat.
Now I heard Michael’s voice. He and Anne were standing below the window. I shot back, covering my chest. Thinking they must’ve heard me, I prepared to call out a greeting, but a prickling heat rose across my skin and I closed my mouth again.
I’ve looked. Nothing comes up. Nothing I can make sense of anyway. I really think it’s odd Luke’s never met them. I know he says they’re just not close but I’m beginning to think it’s more really.
more than she’s let on you mean?
For a few moments I was paralysed.
. . . contribution . . .
. . . never . . .
. . . marquee . . .
If that’s what he wants.
. . . clever seating plan . . .
Sometimes I could hear whole sentences very clearly, other times only random words as they moved with secateurs along the trellis against the wall. They must’ve assumed we’d gone together – but would see when Luke came back he was alone. Given the open window, it would look like I’d been listening, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pretend I hadn’t heard.
I put my hands over my ears, then pulled the covers over my head but could still detect certain words. I longed to close the window but forced myself to be still.
If they come,
I told you,
Stuck with it darling.
I pressed harder into the pillow. Trapped there, with my eyes closed, I could almost see the words as illuminated streaks firing through the window.
When Luke got back I said I had a headache and needed to stay in bed. I gave the kind of vague explanation – fine, tired – he always gave that drove me mad when I knew something else was wrong. I didn’t come down for lunch and saw Anne and Michael only to murmur bye and thanks as we put our bags into the car.
On the motorway I was silent, listening to the murder Luke put on – a woman who’d stabbed her fiancé in the heart with a steak knife – until we stopped for fuel. Luke bought food from Marks and Spencer which we ate across the dashboard. When we’d finished, I slotted the oily containers one inside the other, and asked if he still wanted to meet my family.
The above is an extract from Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road.