[Last year, a friend of mine gave me a beautiful notebook with a jacket of clipped sealskin. Its mottled fur was mostly the colour of honey though here and there the biting, distant blue-grey of stars was perceptible through it. I took the notebook with me on my holiday to Berlin this Christmas. Over the festive week, usually in the chalet corners of bustling Christmas markets, beside a plastic flagon of mulled wine, I wrote the first draft of a novel.
One morning, I ventured out from my hotel without my notebook. At the restaurant that I chose for lunch, however, a waitress indifferently donated some sheets from her pad, and so I was able to write part of a chapter on these. I later marked an asterisk in my notebook to remind me of where this offshore passage should fit.
On my final night in Berlin, I stayed in my hotel to pack and then, afterwards, I resolved to try out my as-yet-unused Jacuzzi bath. It had been waiting for me throughout the week, pristine and tempting, within view of my king size bed. The bath sang with the joy of its voice as it filled. On undressing, I took my notebook along with me, to chase my characters through another chapter.
I lowered a body now as dry as wood into the expectant waters; I deliberated over the button and they sloshed into action. Great fleets of bubbles buffeted my sides and an unseen jet under the taps pounded the soles of my feet. Belatedly, I tried to turn my thoughts to writing but my mind was rising all around me like liberated helium balloons. They say that these machines do something to the blood sugars; that they send all of the blood galloping around inside of you until it is worn out. The heat pressed in like baking walls, my head lolled, and the notebook dropped without a sound from my hands into the shuffling waters.
Minutes later, I had wrenched myself out of the Jacuzzi bath and staggered to the bed, where I collapsed senselessly. It was not until over half an hour later that I could return to deactivate the bath and reclaim my notebook. The cover was oddly dry but the pages were a featureless pulp. The story had been washed clean out of them.
It had been an exciting story and so full of incident that I cannot begin to remember how it had started. Back in Edinburgh, I found the spare sheets from the waitress’s pad – this offshore half-chapter – in my overcoat pocket. It is better than nothing. I have typed it all up and it runs as follows…]
…Ronnie had materialised in their bedroom, stiff with histrionic anger, whilst Tori was still lying in bed and Toby was in the shower. He was wearing the same velvet purple cloak from dinner last night. His sunken figure stood erect in the doorway for a second, his eyes blazed, and then, with horrible speed, he slid unblinking like an attacking toad and he was clambering straight towards Tori. She drew her bedsheets up around her and Ronnie hit at them with his cane. He was ranting, incoherent; Tori sat cold with shock. She made actual eye contact but this did not seem to soften him or make him any less mad.
“You will be gone by nine,” Ronnie squealed, now out of breath. “Or Fernando will be sent to throw you out.”
Ronnie was as changeable as a summer’s day in April. Over dinner the previous night he had been chatty and conspiratorial, until at some point, at some remark which she or Toby had thoughtlessly uttered, he had fallen into silence and from thereon in sat with his eyes like red coals. Tori had remembered laughing, as an aside to Ronnie, that the designer handbag of the Princess Zoubaroff (who was out smoking on the terrace) was an obvious fake. Maybe that had been it.
Toby padded out of the shower, a bleary bear with two damp towels worn as a skirt and a turban. He heard the news of Ronnie’s visit without surprise or concern. “He might calm down after breakfast,” he supposed absently. His eyes were bloodshot and he was looking around for coffee or a cigarette or something to play with.
Tori shook her head. “There won’t be any breakfast Toby. He’s throwing us out.”
At nine, the aforementioned Fernando came. He had been originally hired as a chef; he had been since promoted to a likely husband for Ronnie and demoted to carry out every tiny odd job around the house. He was a scrawny, conscientiously-tanned man in his late twenties who seemed to always have brand new designer clothing scraped thickly over him like Nutella on a peanut. He was always swaggering in and out of the house and grounds, with that unflinching dignity which naturally becomes an expensive catamite.
He was displeased to find Tori and Toby still there and he grew secretarial. “You’re leaving!” he yelped.
He set to work removing their suitcases, looking very guilty. “Put that down!” Toby growled.
Tori located her coat. “Let’s just leave quietly.”
In the doorway, Fernando made the mistake of attempting to hurry Toby on by pushing his back. “You want to fight?” Toby offered, almost as mildly as if he was recruiting a tennis partner. Fernando thrust out his chest automatically and Toby stepped back, nodding with agreement. “So we’ll go outside and fight then.”
Tori was hastening after them. “Well, let’s go outside…”
Outside, Toby started to punch Fernando whilst Tori dithered over the men, clucking and flapping her hands. Fernando initially got a couple of good, quick punches in but he then darted back, trying to shield his luminous lime tracksuit from being dirtied.
Tori was the only one to notice the drone as it dipped down over the fighters and she followed its flight path back to the balcony, where Ronnie was watching them from the controls. “I am gathering evidence!” he warned darkly. “Footage of criminal assault, of a hate crime on my staff. After nine you are trespassing as well, remember! It will all go to the police! I will send it to your employer!”
Fernando had retreated until he was standing self-consciously in a herbaceous border. He looked strangely fresh, as if his magical clothing had absorbed all the force of the punches.
Toby’s lip was a fountain of blood and his tee-shirt was drenched in sweat. He was now taking leaps to slap at the drone which was encircling his head. Tori pinched his arm. “We are definitely leaving.”
The drone followed them, as did Ronnie’s screeches. “You will pay for the damage. People will see this! I will send everything to your employer!”
They had walked for over a mile, past the gatehouse and several shabby meadows. Toby was still wearing his house shorts, though this somehow never looked incongruous on him outside in midwinter. Over the low snarling of their suitcase wheels behind them, Tori could still hear the drone of the drone. Toby had been gazing fixedly ahead, his face flushed and gaunt. Eventually, he appeared to become conscious again and he turned to look up at the drone. They both stopped and he stared calmly at it until, as if a new tide had picked it up, the device bobbed off and pattered away back to Ronnie’s house.
They resumed their walking. After another three or so miles, Tori stopped.
“Toby, do you know where we’re going?”
“Uh no, I thought you did. I was following you.”
His voice sounded as genial as usual but it was rather faded; perhaps he had taken too many blows to the head. Tori wiped things around the screen of her phone. “Oh good, there’s a station about six miles away. There’s a village in between. Maybe we should get some lunch?”
The village was named Church Cheevles and it was little more than a brief thickening of spare cottages and farmhouses around a green and a pub. There was a one-room shop in the entrance to a very long and shrunken cottage. Tori ventured in to buy some cigarettes.
“Oh, this is an unusual village, you know” the lady at the till confided merrily as she began to bustle around the shelves. “The Earl, who lives up at the Hall, is the landlord. Every property in the village is rented from him.”
“My God, he must make a fortune!” Tori said.
The lady nodded wisely. “He’s a great character, the Earl. He and his wife are a beautiful couple. You won’t hear a word said against them all these miles around. Why, when he sent me my Christmas card this Christmas, there was a lovely long letter with it, all typed out beautifully, telling me all about his family and what they had done in the year.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Well, they breed the horses up in the Hall – do a lot of the fancy racing – the Queen even once laid a bet on one of their horses, on Boxing Day it was.”
At last Tori was allowed to bolt out of the oppression of the lady’s shop. Toby was waiting for her on the green. She told him about the horses and the fancy racing.
“Well, we should go and take a look – pick one for the Grand National.”
The pub was named The Ear of Robert. Toby was perturbed by the title. “It must be Earl?”
Tori studied it critically. “There isn’t the space for an L.”
Inside, they examined the beers and Toby was suddenly unable to contain himself. “Man, these are hipster beers!”
Tori shuddered – even today, she was unable to predict when he would become combative.
“These are local beers,” the barman maintained. “We’ve always drunk these beers – long before the John Smiths and the Guinness came along.”
“C’mon buddy, that’s a craft beer. You’re going to tell me it’s brewed in tiny batches. It’s going to have an eighteenth-century recipe and taste of, I dunno, watercress…”
“Men drank this beer when the pit was here…”
“You can never be too educated about these things,” Tori interrupted diplomatically. “We’ll take two, please.”
“Pints or half…”
Toby pounced. “A real traditional pub wouldn’t even have half pint glasses. You’ve been busted man! Hipster!”
There was a great deal of horse memorabilia in the Ear of Robert. Signed and lavishly framed photographed of jockeys; Victorian prints of frock-coated gentlemen riding with hounds. Later, when Toby went to the toilet, the two doors were labelled Colts and Fillies. He had to return to the barman to ascertain which was which. The barman’s eyes glittered at this.
After Toby had gone to the toilet again, scowling, Tori said to the barman, “we would like to see the horses. We’ve heard so much about them.”
“Oh yes, well you can walk past the Hall, as long as you stay on the paths. You go up the main road, over the cattle grid, and then through the big park. Some of the oak trees are older than the Civil War.”
“It sounds wonderful.”
“The Plantagenet one, mind.”
Barmen had probably recited this line when the pit was here. “You’re very lucky that it’s so unspoiled.”
The barman beamed. “I thank the stars every day! We’re lucky to have the Earl too.”
“You’ve no doubt received one of his Christmas letters.”
The barman marvelled at her knowledge. “I no doubt have. A lovely long letter, all full of news, all typed out individually.”
It was three by the time that they left. Toby was worried that there would not be the light to see the horses. On the menu, they had come across a pheasant casserole, and as soon as they had read this they had had to order it. The taste of pheasant was new to both of them and there had been a world of flavour in the casserole. It was like eating a newly discovered planet. Afterwards, they had sat drowsily in their seats beside the fire. Outside, the day was passing and its light was growing soupy. When Toby stood up to call for the bill, his whole body tried to pull him back.
There were not many crooks and bends to this village and the road to the Hall was soon straight and level. Tori and Toby walked over the cattle grid and on into the big park. Enough room for whole lines of Edinburgh tenements seemed to hang in the air over the perfect grass, between each ancient blackened oak. Each tree could have been hit by lightning seventy times over the centuries – the weathered branches were as glassy as bone.
“I can’t see any horses,” Toby pointed out gloomily.
This was true. Not a single horse was to be seen on this parkland, or any kind of accommodation for horses. They periodically passed stacks of wooden poles which had been clearly installed for horses to jump over. No hoof prints were visible, though, anywhere in the smoothness of the surrounding grass.
The road was generous with its view of the Hall. The building was Tudor and so old that it was virtually colourless. Its façade was dense with a portico and bays and cumbersome leaning window frames which were studded with beady glinting windows. The scene was almost prenaturally still, as if the wind was not allowed within a certain distance.
A little car was crawling towards them like a woodlouse from around the back of the Hall. Tori and Toby vacated the road to let it pass.
An aristocratic-looking lady sat upright at the wheel. She slowed her car and wound down the window to inspect them. “How do you do?”
Tori was very surprised. “Good, thank you… Er, do you own this estate?”
The lady was offended. “I’m just the cleaning-lady dear,” she huffed.
“Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“You are permitted to go anywhere you like, so long as you stay on the paths.” Her face turned back to the road and the car continued on its way. Tori imagined her fuming all the way back to the village about being mistaken for the Earl’s wife.
“You forgot to ask about the horses,” Toby observed.
“She’s just the cleaning-lady Toby. I didn’t want her to box my ears.”
“Oh she’s just the cleaning-lady, is she? Well, well.”
Such was Toby’s fury to see the horses that he went mad when he spotted a couple of goats. These animals stood stranded and bleating together in a little paddock away from the road. Their fur shone as brightly as their eyes – they were adorable!
Toby hurled himself at them, down a steep ditch which separated the paddock from the road. He should not, of course, have left the path. The mud was much deeper than it appeared from the surface and his first step plunged straight down.
The goats continued to bleat, as enticingly as the original Sirens.
Toby’s right boot had been swallowed up. He pulled at the boot and he pulled harder and then, after he had pulled with all his might, he found himself gazing with dismay at a stripily besocked foot. The foot looked as violated as a weasel hauled up from out of its burrow.
He was marooned on one leg. Tori would have normally laughed, but the situation looked faintly ominous. Toby was now trying to pull his boot out of the mud with both hands but it was stuck firmly, almost up to the top. There was mud on his sleeves and a huge spot of mud on his forehead.
The goats were still bleating alluringly, plainly unsatisfied with a mere boot. “Shuddup!” Toby yelled at them, with a fling of his hand. He turned back to Tori and eyed their suitcases without inspiration. “If only I could get something under this… a stick?”
But the parkland’s oak trees were hung with enormous black branches. They could be hardly expected to produce anything so piddling as a stick for them.
For fifteen minutes Tori and Toby puzzled over the stuck boot and molested it ineffectively. Finally, Tori prepared herself for the social embarrassment which this situation was evidently demanding of them. “I’ll go and ask at the Hall,” she surrendered. “For a spade. You stay here.”
“It’s not as if I’m going to hop on one leg up to such a majestic…”
Tori flickered with annoyance. “Just stay here.” It would be dark imminently and there were no streetlights. She might have to find him by calling on her way back.
The Tudor façade floated as still and silent as a mirage in the twilight. Tori walked right up to the front door of this vision. Her little knock seemed to trickle away like a drop of water in the door’s ponderousness.
The Hall watched and waited, biding its time. It was like a chess game in which Tori would have to make several moves before her opponent reacted. Inside, the king had no doubt shifted from one square to another.
Yet an orange glow had quickly caught Tori’s eye. She followed it, sidestepping a bush, moving a branch out of her face, and up to a window in one of the bays.
She was peering into a large sitting room with sofas and armchairs grouped around a log fire. This was the source of the orange glow. On a wide armchair with tiny dainty gold legs, a grey horse in a long coat and baggy trousers sprawled untidily. The horse’s head was half silhouetted against the flames but Tori could distinguish the watery gleam of its eyes as its face dipped fretfully from side to side. There was a typewriter perched on the horse’s belly and it gave occasional, apparently deeply considered jabs at the keys with its nearest hoof. After it had connected with a couple of the keys, the beast would turn a watery eye on its progress across the sheet of paper.
“…there was a lovely long letter… all typed out beautifully, telling me all about his family and what they had done in the year.”
Tori turned her back on the horse and ran. She ran all the way back in the twilight to Toby and the goats.
There was a little old man in tweeds with him, obviously a gardener. Toby looked very pleased with himself. “You know, my buddy here just put his hand in and pulled out my boot like that,” he told Tori. The gardener glanced cautiously at her and nodded.
Toby was proudly wearing the boot again. The entire thing was a brilliant creamy brown. “Man, before we leave we really want to meet these horses…”
“It’s getting too dark for that,” Tori asserted quickly. She appealed to the gardener without looking at Toby. “We’re actually looking to get to the station…”
The gardener put them on the right road. They would have an hour’s walk through the darkling countryside but the trains were always frequent.
Tori never told Toby about the horse in the sitting room, though she sensed that she might have done so even the day before. It was something about the pattern of that day. She might have predicted that he would have gotten into the fight with Fernando but not that he would have been so rude to the barman. His enthusiasm at the goats had been inexplicable. It unnerved her that such an uncomplicated man – with his outwardly plain habits and plodding conversation – could not settle down in her mind as a set of dependable formulas. Most people in Tori’s life, the dramatis personae of an office or flatshare, each came with their own system of regular sayings and actions. But Toby was always veering off on a tangent, always being pleasant when the established precedent was boorishness or boorish when the precedent was pleasantry. How would he have responded to the horse? Tori realised that she could not begin to imagine.
All of this was forgotten, however, when they turned a corner and a crow hopped up to them with an envelope in its beak… [Unfortunately, the narrative here terminates. Ed]