The Collection (Part 3)
Layla made the short drive into town after lunch. She parked in the market square and shuffled across the wet cobble-stones, head lowered to avoid pleasantries with passing acquaintances.
Her limbs felt drugged and her eyes heavy. Since the incident that morning she’d periodically imagined her mother’s voice purring in her ear, “This is what happens when you grasp, Layla. You should never grasp.” The sentiment was absurd. She doubted her mother had ever said such a thing to her, but it stalked her all the way from the car to the supermarket, nonetheless.
Pushing her trolley along the aisle, hardly paying attention to where she was going, Layla bumped into Jane Wendover next to the cereals. Unable to escape, she was forced to make small talk about the forthcoming cake sale and a date for the next church committee meeting. Six months earlier, the poor woman’s husband had been dragged into a threshing machine and torn to pieces.. The thought of his ruined limbs intruded on Layla’s thoughts with such insistence she could hardly follow what Mrs. Wendover was saying. Eventually, she dissembled to get away, saying she had to push along because of guests coming for dinner.
With the bags full of food, back in the car, Layla tried to calm herself. A meal, a glass of wine in front of the TV would set her back on track, she was sure of it. “Adjust, adjust”, she said the words out loud in the empty car, and blinked in the rear-view mirror, forcing a smile which did not reach her eyes.
Driving home, on the edge of town, a man and woman in hiking gear appeared at the edge of the road. The man limped slightly, favouring his left side. Layla pulled over and dropped the window.
“Hello there.” She said.
Jean Sheldon exhaled, seemingly relieved to see her. “We have walking wounded” she said, “Lawrence twisted an ankle. Nothing too serious.”
“Can I give you a lift?”
The pair looked to one another and laughed.
“Could we?” Jean said.
The husband, clearly in some discomfort, bundled into the back seat and his wife got in beside Layla.
“Is it bad?” Layla asked.
“Ah nothing serious,” he said, "Bit of ice on it tonight and I’ll be right as rain in the morning.”
Layla pulled back onto the road. “Apart from the obvious, good day walking?”
Jean Sheldon nodded. “Wonderful, stopped off for a nice pub lunch. Stayed longer than we should have.”
Layla glanced across. Once again Jean Sheldon’s smile was too broad, too luminescent.
“That might have had something to do with my little tumble.” He added.
The pair laughed again but to Layla’s ear, it sounded forced. She noted the feint whiff of beer filling the interior and wondered how much walking they’d really done.
“Any plans for tomorrow?” Layla asked.
“Anything but walking.” Lawrence replied.
Jean Sheldon turned in the seat and looked back at her husband. “I’m not sure hiking’s our thing.” She said.
Layla thought about all the trouble they’d taken to get here, the enthusiastic messages about fresh air and nature on Air BNB and all that straight-from-the-packet hiking gear. “Not much else to do round here.”
Jean Sheldon began to say something, “ I just-“ then trailed off.
“See how his ankle is. We can give you tips for some great routes. Geoff’s got loads of maps back at the house.”
“Thanks. Maybe . . .” Came the voice from behind.
Silence settled over them and Layla wondered why on earth they’d come here on holiday in the first place.
As the car pulled into the driveway, Jean Sheldon said, ”Joshua hasn’t been any trouble, has he?”
The question was asked in the brisk, casual manner of someone hoping for a brisk, casual response. Layla immediately regretted her delay in responding.
“Oh,” Jean Sheldon said.
“He’s been fine” Layla said quickly. She thought about how helpless she’d felt that morning, “it just got a little loud at one point and Geoff had to ask him to turn it down.”
Silence washed over them again, more awkward and uncomfortable now. Lawrence Sheldon shuffled noisily in the back seat. “When you say ‘it’ got loud . . . What was it he was playing?”
“An audio story thing. A man reading a book. Does he like to play it loud?”
Layla pulled up in front of the house and stopped the car. Neither Jean nor Paul Sheldon attempted to answer her question. They both got out of the car went off towards the guest house, without thanking her.
Inside the house, Geoff was not in his usual spot beside the kitchen table. Layla assumed he must be out back, using the remnants of the day to scope out of his vegetable garden. She poured a glass of wine and began chopping onions.
Half way down her glass, she unpacked the steaks and took the plastic to the recycling. In the top of the bin, twisted and ripped at the edges, were the designs Geoff had been sketching that morning. Without quite understanding why, she removed them from the bin and pressed the paper flat on the kitchen table.
The pan sizzled, the smell of burning onion filled the kitchen. Layla spoke her husband’s name, softly, in the hope that he was, at that very moment, coming in through the back door. No answer came.
She turned off the hob and went through to the living room. “Geoff?”
Layla paced through the house, into the utility room and out the back door. A restless summer dusk had drifted across the landscape. She could see the outline of trees and hedges, the fence and gate to the grazing field. With slow, deliberate steps, she moved over the patio and into the wilder, more rugged part of the garden.
Annoyed now, she assumed he was either oblivious to her or deliberately refusing to show himself. Frustration gave an edge to her voice. “Geoff, this isn’t funny.”
The sound which followed hardly broke the silence, but it was enough to turn her towards the orchard. It came again, still feint, soon lost in the expanse of trees and hills. She replayed it in her mind. A wet guttural sound, like a boot escaping sodden mud.
Layla followed it into the apple trees.
“Geoff? Where are you?”
The sound repeated to a rhythm, giving her direction. It came from the western flank of the orchard, where the old plough was dumped beneath the trees. The huge rusting contraption had been there since the day they moved in, lurking in the grass, too ugly to enjoy, too big to move. She passed through the trees at a run now, her bare feet cold against the grass. A stray branch grazed across her cheek. Layla slipped, steadied herself, then heard the sound again. Compressed, like a malfunctioning valve. It formed and reformed eventually taking the shape of a word.
“Lllllu. Lllllu. Luuuuuuayles.”
She gasped. Knowing it was him, she raced towards it.
His image emerged against the darkened navy sky, wriggling in the air, grabbing at his neck, feet flailing for the plough beneath him.
Layla broke into full-sprint, but the distance narrowed in nightmarish slow-motion. The horror of his twitching, swinging silhouette swallowed time and thought. Her knee clanged painfully into the plough. She hitched herself up on the metal frame, taking his weight, desperately trying to lift him up towards the branch, to loosen the unforgiving rope.
In her haste, she over-balanced, falling forwards, her arms still grasped around his waist. Instead of pushing him up, she was suddenly pulling him down, tightening the noose.
For one terror-filled moment Layla thought the crack and snap from above was her husband’s neck breaking under their weight. But the fall continued and they tumbled into a heap on the grass, broken branch and rope following, striking Layla on the back.
She pulled herself up, sitting astride him, forcing her fingers between the rope and his neck. The cord loosened and Geoff heaved in gulps of air.
Layla’s hands were slick with blood from where the rope had gouged his skin. She rolled off Geoff’s chest, lifted her head to night sky and howled.
The disinfected atmosphere and stripped lights of the hospital made Layla feel dizzy, disconnected. She’d been here before, with her ten year old son, Roland, concussed from playing Rugby. On that occasion, they’d taken her and Geoff to a side room and made them a cup of tea while they waited. This time, she was left out on the cheap seats.
Her back ached from struggling against the slippery plastic chair.
“You can come through now, Mrs. Chadwick.”
The nurse’s face was slack with sympathy; her eyes filled with suspicion. Layla knew what she was really thinking:
‘Come and see your husband who tried to kill himself. Please try to be calm. Don’t make him do it again.’
She stood and went with the nurse, who took her arm as they walked. Layla stiffened, then submitted.
“We can only give you ten minutes. He’s on a drip and some very strong painkillers. He may not follow conversation particularly well.”
They entered the ward and approached a curtained off area. The nurse pulled back the drapes revealing Geoff sat up in the high-backed bed, eyes peculiarly wide - golf balls of rapturous intensity. His neck was wrapped in a bandage, an IV drip trailed from his wrist.
“Love?” Layla said.
“Ugh.” Was all he managed; his voice croaky, weak.
“I’ll leave you be,” said the nurse, closing the curtain around them.
Alone now with her broken man, the weight of events settled across Layla’s shoulders. She sat down heavily in the chair beside him. Geoff followed her with his eyes, shifting his weight to one side, keeping her locked in his gaze. Layla caught herself wishing he would look away or whimper or bury his head in the pillow. She wanted shame, but Geoff was not playing that game.
She looked around, lost in the lines of the blue plastic curtain. She asked. “What happened?”
She turned to him. “Geoff?”
He smiled, “What happened when?”
“Last night. You hung yourself, from a tree.”
He nodded, grinning now, as if recalling an amusing joke told down the pub. “Yes, yes. I did, didn’t I.”
Layla fingered her temple. He had broken himself, broken their life together and here he was, smiling, joking. If she hadn’t suspected the nurse of loitering outside the curtain, Layla might have slapped him across the face.
“Geoff, it makes no sense. One minute you’re chuntering to yourself about the garden designs, about what you want for dinner. I go to the shops. When I get back, you’re trying to kill yourself. Tell me.” She moved closer to him, their foreheads almost touching, “Why?”
He nodded, as if finally hearing her question. “It makes you see the world in a whole new way.” This time the smile spilled over into a chuckle. He put his hand to his lips, like a guilty child.
Layla moved back into the chair, “What does?”
She heard it then, the faint warble on the edge of his words, a wavering in tone which told her his sanity was a delicate thing, no longer to be taken for granted.
“What do you mean, the stories?” She remained silent, hoping Geoff would pivot to some other subject.
“The stories that Joshua plays. There’s something wrong with those stories, or something right, depending on your point of view.”
“Stories don’t make people hang themselves.”
“Well that,” He held his finger in the air and raised an eyebrow, “depends on the story, doesn’t it!”
“You’re not making any sense.”
He seemed to consider this, then said, “And let’s not forget that you made me go round there. I wouldn’t have heard anything, if it weren’t for Layla needing her peace and quiet.”
Layla had been married to Geoff for 37 years. He was a mumbler, a man of few words and opinions. She loved him because he did not over-complicate life. He gave love and he received love and demanded little else. He did not cast aspersions or blame his misfortune on others. He had never spoken to her in this way before.
Geoff went on, “I heard enough to whet my appetite, after the first visit. Joshua was very accommodating. He sat me down on the sofa and let me listen to the whole thing. Lost in the stories, I was, lost in his voice.”
She leaned forward again and touched Geoff’s arm, “Joshua’s voice?”
“The narrator, Layls. Don’t you see? The voice and the story, they pull on you, like quicksand.”
In that moment, she knew he was telling the truth, or his truth. Behind the trauma, the bizarre twitching expression on his face, her husband was trying to tell her what he thought had really happened.
She leaned forward again and touched his arm, “You listened to it, and it made you feel . . .”
“Wonderful. Really quite wonderful.” He tilted his head to one side, “Joshua explained it to me. He said the stories are a gift, a message. They let you to see things.”