His first attempt at lighting the stove was pitiful; the firelighters and the kindling blazed well enough but even though he added the coal piece by piece as she had shown him, the flames died down as soon as he closed the iron door. Behind the darkened glass there was dense smoke, and he was afraid to open the door and release fumes into the room. What to do? Would he get carbon monoxide poisoning? It would be a mercy.
But Emma, dismissing his apologies, swung open the stove ignoring the puffs of soot, and pushed more kindling in amongst the coals.
‘I use this when that happens.’
She reached to the back of the stone hearth to retrieve a blue cylinder: a blowtorch. There was a hiss and a pop and a roar as she lit the gas and pointed a pale cone of flame at the reluctant coals. The kindling thundered into a blaze.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again, looking down at his blackened fingernails. ‘I’m not doing anything to help.’ He wiped his hands on his jeans.
‘Don’t worry. You’re a guest.’ Her voice was kindly but he felt the shame of being there on sufferance; the ex with mental health problems.
‘I shouldn’t still be here. I should go back to London. I’ve surely outstayed my welcome.’
‘Look, Adrian,’ she said. ‘It’s fine. It’s better for us both. It’s good for me to have someone around. I’ve plenty of space. And you’re not in a state to manage on your own. You nearly jumped off your balcony, remember?’
She closed the door of the stove and fiddled with a lever beside the ash pan, controlling the height of the flames.
‘I know.’ He remembered the cold crunch of the snow amongst his bare toes, and the whirling sensation as he saw the whitened street three storeys below, with its garish Christmas lights. The feeling of instability, his world ebbing away, the voices that occupied his mind with their chorus of self-destruction. She had pulled him back from the edge with her careless cynicism, predicting a broken leg at worst. She had brought him to Barra and sheltered him, got her doctor to prescribe him antidepressants. But now it was the spring, and he was still here. Perhaps he was better; he wasn’t sure. If she regretted his presence, she would never admit it.
He felt he owed her something. But what?
‘Why do you let me stay me here, Emma? You were fine here on your own. You’ve got this place all sorted out, the building works all done, plenty of money left, great work-life balance, no stress…’
She knelt staring at the flames. He hesitated.
‘I mean… our marriage, the divorce … that’s all in the past, isn’t it?’
‘I know.’ She looked up, smiled and shrugged. ‘The cottage feels a bit isolated at times. All this …’ She gestured vaguely at the windows. It was dusk outside and the lights down by the harbour were obscured. Six months of mist, and six months of midges, she had said. It was the misty part of the year.
‘You came to Barra to get away from everything,’ he said. ‘So you can’t complain about being isolated.’
There was something in her eyes.
‘Maybe I’m just a bit paranoid.’
A sudden burst of polyphonic ring tone. Her phone. She glanced at it and took it into the hall, looking away from him.
‘How did you get my number?’ Her voice had a hard edge.
A scam caller, presumably; a charity; a political party. You couldn’t cook a meal these days in your own kitchen without someone wanting money off you.
Adrian lowered himself on to the battered sofa. It was from their old house; the worn out chenille felt like an old friend under his hand. He tried not to remember that they had once made love on it. A pale flame, like the blowtorch, flickered across his heart.
So much had been lost. When she least suspected it, he had exploded their lives. He had left her for Vivienne, and Vivienne had died. Vivienne’s final year, stricken by cancer, had been the most intense, beautiful tragedy he would ever experience; he would always be grateful for their time together. After that, his existence had become defined by an apartment block where he didn’t speak to his neighbours, a daily commute squeezed amongst strangers from whom he recoiled, and a teaching job that had become ten hours a day and five days a week of pointless administrative chores.
Now from within the thick walls of the cottage, he saw a different life: Emma’s life. He had not destroyed it at all. Vast spaces of heather and golden gorse, a wide sky, silver crags and the silver sheen of the sea. The motorhome parked outside. The cottage had been bought cheaply, needing work, and her share of their assets had enabled her to renovate and extend it. Its oak floors, bright walls and steel and granite kitchen were much more her style than the magnolia interior of their mock-Tudor semi in Ealing. He presumed that her job in the sweater shop was poorly paid, but then she still had a lot of capital left. And she knew people in the village: a ‘good friend’ had helped to build the extension; someone called Ewan was going to service the motorhome; her bramble jelly was from the lady across the road.
Her voice had faded into her bedroom. Why was she taking so long on the phone?
He rose quietly and crept along the passage. The bathroom was next to her bedroom; he rested a hand on the doorknob in case she discovered him.
He could hear the irritation in her voice. Why did she not end the call?
‘You’ve got no right to ask me that. It’s my business who I invite to stay…No, I’m not! No…Because, because, oh I don’t know. Will you stop doing this?’
Her feet on the floorboards; she was pacing.
‘How did you know, anyway?’
In the pause he heard a bluebottle that had woken too early from the cold, buzzing at a window frame.
‘What do you mean, you’re here? What do you mean?… No, I don’t want to see you. It’s not convenient. I don’t care how far you’ve come, I didn’t ask you to come here. No. No. No. I’m hanging up now. Please go home. Go back. Please, just go.’
He heard an exhalation, the creak of bedsprings as she sat down, the phone whacked down on the bedside table. The bluebottle kept buzzing.
He crept back to the lounge. The window looked out along the concrete path that ran between two oblongs of rough grass to the road. After that the land sloped down until it met a ridge that partly blocked the view of the sea. Dusk and mist hid the rest. There was no one there. Perhaps, whoever it was – the ‘good friend’, perchance? – had gone. He determined not to question her. It was no longer his business.
As usual they ate together; she cooked and he washed up. She was on edge, giving brief replies to his attempts at conversation, glancing up whenever a car passed the house. Her new double glazing blocked out road noise, but from time to time a set of lights would glide past. She was slow drying up, and he stacked the dishes and pans in the drainer.
Now she was staring out of the kitchen window. A point of bluish LED light came slowly past on the darkening road. It seemed to take an eternity to pass the garden gate and then they saw the red glow of the tail light departing. It was only a bicycle.
She didn’t move, her shoulders rigid.
‘Are you OK, Emma?’ he asked.
She nodded, wide eyes locked on the road. Whoever was there might have seen them both in the kitchen window.
‘I’ll close the blind,’ he offered.
‘No – no, there’s no need, really,’ she said in a low voice. ‘No-one comes past here. It’s quite private.’
‘There’s someone bothering you out there?’ he asked.
‘I’m fine, really, I’m fine.’ Her shoulders slowly softened and she turned away and left the kitchen. She turned back.
‘Would you mind putting the wheelie bin out? They’re collecting it early tomorrow.’
He trundled the bin from the side of the house along the rough concrete path to the road. The air was cold and damp; the kitchen window projected a lump of light into the swirling mist. He pulled the bin on to the tarmac and turned it around for the bin men. The wheels rumbled and scratched.
Down the road was the faint bluish glow of a bike light, unmoving. It was hard to tell the distance in the mist. Then the light wobbled and started to come closer.
‘Hey…’ A man’s gruff voice deadened by fog. ‘Emma?’
‘No.’ Adrian cleared his throat; his own voice sounded reedy. ‘Who’s that?’
The bike light went out and there was silence. All around was dark, only the glow from the kitchen lighting him back. He retreated down the path.
Back inside, he bolted the kitchen door, top and bottom. Then he switched off the light and went to the window, half afraid to look out in case anyone was staring back. Nothing could be seen in the darkness. He went to the front door and applied the chain.
In the lounge the curtains were drawn and Emma sat in an armchair under a lamp, with a shawl around her shoulders. It was chilly; the stove was burning low.
‘Shall I get some more coal?’ The coal bunker was just outside the kitchen door.
‘No, it’s fine.’ She had a book open on her lap, but her palms rested on the pages. ‘It’s too wet and cold to go outside.’
‘You sent me out a minute ago with the rubbish.’ He smiled, but was unable to connect with her gaze.
‘He was there,’ she said. ‘Did he see you?’
‘Yes.’ There was no point in denial. ‘Was it, um, someone you know? Loan shark? Overdue library book? Or was it the phantom cyclist of Barra?’
It wasn’t funny.
‘Oh God.’ Her head sagged and her hands came up; she pressed her palms to her brows. ‘Oh God.’
‘Who was it, Emma?’ Some jilted lover, no doubt.
‘Adrian, I just need you to stay here with me, please.’
His hand went to his pocket and he checked his phone. Two blobs of signal. At least he could call the police if there was trouble. He sat down on the old chenille sofa. It was going to be a long night.