The first time I saw him digging a grave in his garden, I was merely transfixed. By the sixth time I was beyond hysteria but verging on infatuation. Strange, I know, but let me explain myself. It was a difficult time in my life.
It had been another day of ordeals. A day of waking at dawn with a feeling of dread and a sense of doom, which had limped painfully through to the drugged induction of tortured sleep. The brief respite of oblivion counterbalanced by knowing I faced it all again the next day. The daily ministrations, which had once seemed so routine and effortless, were bound with effort and felt gargantuan. This was in the early days, the slow working chemicals taken faithfully each day caused little but faint nausea and a rise in my agitation. The harsh sunlight filtering through closed blinds magnified my slattern like state and illuminated the dust and smears. Mirrors showed a pink and sweaty face whose sight I could barely tolerate. My hair looked lank and the woman I thought I knew was absent, along with the man I'd stupidly thought I'd known too.
I'd heard the noises the day before. I'd been awake since four in the morning and was lying in bed thinking, trying to muster some superhuman strength to raise myself and wash, eat, exist. The thin duvet felt like a coarse blanket on my sweat soaked legs but I felt unable to move. The strange clattering of van doors and rough male voices intruded at around ten. Each noise jolted me. Shocks coursed through my arms and legs. I gripped my head in my hands and tried to be rational. It was a delivery or a removal, nothing to worry me. A part of me thought I was imagining this. Maybe depression had tipped to psychosis. I was reliving Gary's departure in my head as reality. I had feared this would happen. This gradual slippage from sadness to madness had always felt inevitable. It was a common mantra of my rumination that I would descend into this. The subtle onset of burnout from my job, the tensions my mood brought to bear on my family and friends and finally this: madness. Would this be my future, a lone and unkempt woman, with no job, no company and no sanity?
I finally peered out of the slat of the blind and saw it there: a blue removal van. Gary's van had been white. It was real. Someone was moving into the house next door. The house had lain empty for six months since the anonymous old lady had died. The absence of her daily carers arriving signalling her removal, more than any abeyance of noise or life had.
Move forward a week, an anonymous week, indistinguishable from the ones preceding it. I'd woken early and it was a jittery day, full of remorse and over thinking. Gary's abandonment was circling in my head. It wasn't a day for Siobhan, the psychiatric nurse, to come to see me. I could luxuriate, if you could describe it as this. Siobhan combined bossiness and affection and her harsh kindness was needed but tiresome. Her simple imploring and encouragement for me to wash or eat felt like having a man on a bike shouting through a megaphone as you ran like hell till you wanted to collapse on the ground. Today I was alone and could misbehave. I opened the drawer and held the bottle of beautiful blue pill in my hand. The emergency pills which should be kept for crisis, the pills which would ensure a few hours of peaceful thoughtlessness. Today was an emergency. I ignored the lumpy cereal; I failed to wash wearily and didn't add the unopened mail to the pile in the drawer. I felt incentivised. The oblivion was waiting and it did its job.
I woke at 11pm, sticky and disorientated and finally dared to open the bedroom blind. The blackness of the night shielded me from the eyes of the rest of the cul-de-sac and I had the anonymity I required. I looked out and saw him for the first time. His naked back was illuminated by the moon. It was a strong back, a black silhouette of strength. There was a slickness of the reflection on his muscles in the clammy heat. I realised very quickly that he was digging a grave.
At this point I expect you doubt me. I've already told you I thought I was going slowly mad. It was, however, a grave: a small square grave, perhaps four feet deep, large enough for a child. The sound of his spade hitting occasional stones had a certain beauty and rhythm. I watched him. He had a certain beauty too.
I don't know how long I watched. He didn't turn and see me. My breathing calmed and I was transfixed. I was merely interested. It was only as he laid the small body into the grave, wrapped so gently in a towel that I shuddered and withdrew. I flopped back onto the bed and sat dazed. I don't know how long it was before the gentle thud of his back door closing signalled he'd finished his task. I sat for a good while longer, unable to move or think. Eventually the next tablet sent me to sleep. I chewed it into a bitter powder, swilling it down with lemonade to make it work faster and still my brain.
I woke to see Siobhan standing over me.
"Grace! It's 10am. Shall we see about you getting up and washed and dressed? I don't know about you but I need a coffee and I'm damned if I'm making one when I'm a bloody visitor." She chuckled at this. It was a common joke of hers, an intended motivator.
"I'll be downstairs, Grace. Now don't be long!"
I went down and found her at the back door, finishing off a cigarette and she gave me a crooked smile revealing her uneven teeth. She nodded at the kettle and winked. It felt laborious but I made the drinks and dutifully fetched the green and white capsules and a yogurt.
"Siobhan...have any...have there been any people go missing?"
"People go missing? Why I expect so, Grace. London is a big city. It's the land of the missing. It's why I came over here to work and escape that God forsaken brood that were sucking my lifeblood. What are you asking about missing people for?"
"...a child maybe, perhaps a child...five or six years old..?"
"What's made you think of that? Is it work? Have you been dreaming of work? I bet you miss teaching something chronic. We can talk about it. Let's get this drink and we'll sit down and talk."
I changed the subject. I suddenly didn't want to think about it. This could go in the drawer with the unopened mail, in the file of unread emails and the on the shelf of unlooked at photo albums. I talked about my fabricated plan for the day to appease her.
Oddly enough, I didn't think about it. I had a few days where I felt a brief shifting, a marginal lightening of mood. This had happened before and I'd learnt to accept them as transient but to try to embrace the respite from my sadness. I managed to go through a few of the motions of life. I watched a television program and managed to follow the plot. I emptied a bin. Not a lot, I know, but to me it was massive at that time. I heard his occasional tread on the stairs and oddly the gravedigger's steps felt comforting. I wasn't the only living thing in this dead place. Maybe that should read "the only dead thing living in this place". It might surprise you to know that it was three more days before I looked down into his garden. The freshly dug plot was there. I checked daily thereafter and it remained: a solitary grave.
I'd been ruminating for so long. Thoughts of my dead relationship, my distant family and my chances of returning to the teaching job I'd always loved: all danced a relentless tango around my nervous system. Weeks cooped up in this airless cell of a house alone with my thoughts. I'd ignored the television and cancelled the papers. The mere sight of the outside world still existing nauseating me. My friends had stopped calling and the frequent jarring ring of the phone had stalled to a rare peal, easily ignored. I hated but loved my vacuum, punctuated only by Siobhan and her not quite hateful cheeriness and garrulous chatter. At the time, I had little idea how long I'd spent in that house but I now know it was close to six weeks. Not that there was anywhere to go. The house on the soulless estate had seemed reasonable and cheap, within driving distance of the city but far enough out for us to be able to afford it. Gary drove, I didn't and it wasn't a concern that we were stuck there, an isolated little island of 1980s starter homes, now cut off by relentless streams of traffic on the bypasses and carriageways. If I needed to go somewhere he drove me. Work was reachable by bus. Who needed to walk anywhere? The idea of public transport filled me with horror now and without Gary I felt stranded.
I feel embarrassed to say this but the appearance of the second grave excited me. It was there one morning. I'd woken a little later, the odd 4am jolting awake was receding a little and I'd slept till 7am. I decided to do something new. Siobhan had been nagging me. The plan, it was all about the "plan".
"Go through the motions, Grace. Achieve a little every day. You'll be surprised."
Irritatingly she was right. I was eating a little and my clothes were less limp on my frame. I was washing most days, had even moved a bit of dust around wearily and although the ball of dread still socked me hard frequently, the jolts of panic were fading. The bad days came and were bad and the better days came and weren't quite so bad. Today's aim was to open the blinds, a rather pathetic goal but one which felt huge. The stark patch of brown earth assaulted my eyes. Jelly legged I stared. I'm not sure how long I stared for but as I clung to the window frame he emerged from the house to take some rubbish out. I was frozen. My feelings were paradoxical, part attraction and part horror. He was like a giant. Large framed with cropped hair, there was both a coarse strength and a gentle vulnerability to him. My terror at him seeing me was mixed with an odd feeling of being soothed by him. He looked up, perhaps sensing my presence, and waved a big knuckled hand and I found myself smiling, a weak timid smile. Oddly my first thought was to recall the tenderness with which he'd laid the small parcel in the first grave and wonder again why this have appeared to be a ritual marked with care and gentleness?
I thought about him a lot. It became a new obsession. I logged on to the laptop and started a search. How many children go missing in London each year? How many are found? Were any local? How much had the house he bought sold for? I ordered newspapers. I didn't find much out but the activity was strangely invigorating.
Siobhan was pleased with my progress as was my G.P. when he visited. I'd gained weight. I was washing. I appeared to be active. I told Siobhan I was researching some stuff for work which she felt was a positive thing. The dreadful sensations when I thought about Gary's desertion and absence from my job were diminishing. Perhaps it was the pills kicking in; perhaps it was simply that there wasn't room in my addled brain to obsess about too many things. I was puzzled at the time as to why I wasn't scared or revolted. I know now, obviously. The appearance of graves three and four failed to horrify me. The freshly dug soil patches were lined neatly in a row.
A few days later Siobhan came to undertake the mission. I had to go shopping. I was medicated, of course. Numbly stumbling into her Corsa I remember feeling surprised at how clean it was and laughing to myself. My preconceptions were always that a straggly haired psychiatric nurse would have a car full of wrappers. This one was pristine. Siobhan chattered away, soothing me. I concentrated hard, trying to be "mindful". Live in the moment, focus on an object (an air freshener in this case) and listen to Siobhan. It kind of worked and only a part of me was wondering who was looking at me, what they thought and what the outcome of this expedition would be. I noticed things as we drove; studiously forcing myself to examine things which were normally just a background hum, a moving wallpaper. The cars passing by fascinated and horrified me, the road signs were interesting if mystifying, to a non-driver and the roadside shrubs were something I hadn't seen before. I felt a little shudder of success and thought "I can do this. I can get better. It's a car journey, Grace. You can do it."
The dead fox bought me back to reality with a jolt. It was lying by the side of the road, its fur dull and pale in the sunlight. It would have looked like it was sleeping, a fairy tale creature, resting. The crushed legs and protruding bone showed this to be a lie. I shuddered and bile oozed up into my mouth. I vomited onto my lap, conscious as ever of manners. I didn't want to soil the car. I always try to be polite.
Siobhan was reassuring, the trip continued and we did it. The corpse lay behind my eyes, like it was etched onto my retinas, my new obsession for the day, road kill. A new chant began in my head: "Typical Grace Portland. She can find the nastiest thing she can in the most innocuous scene and sully it all. Make it dirty, Grace. Make it nasty." I felt an absurd empathy for the fox. I imagined my corpse lying somewhere and in a flight into self pity, wondered would anyone care enough to even notice me gone?
If it wasn't battered corpses by the roadside in my thoughts, it was child murdering neighbours burying their spoils in a suburban garden, driven away husbands who were labelled as liars and cheats, in spite of no proof or indication. We got back home and I took a long breath in and told Siobhan about the graves. I'll give her some credit. She was calm, reasonable. There was a gentle coercion in her soft hand holding mine as she led me into the garden and we looked over the fence together.
"Would you look at that Grace? They look like flower beds to me. Now, I can see why you might have thought they were what you thought they were but they're beds. Your man is more Monty Don than Fred West, Grace. Now seeing as we're here why not let's go for the double. We managed to shop, how about we sit outside and eat a cake? Enjoy the spoils of our outing on a nice summer day."
We did and funnily enough I did enjoy it too. Siobhan was easy company and the cake was good. The sun on my face felt pleasant. The day passed and emboldened by this I sat outside a little each day. My internet searching was reduced and my horror at the thought of the "graves" was waning, even though another new one had appeared. I convinced myself I'd imagined that night, the shape of the corpse in his hands. Exhaustion and terror breed strange dreams and visions in an imagination like mine. "It was a flowerbed. It was a flowerbed. It was a flowerbed."
Days passed, time moving with less torpor in spite of the sticky heat and I was surprised to feel odd flashes of contentment. Long forgotten plants were flowering in spite of neglect and for the first time in a long time I felt better. I was looking better too. The newly cleaned mirror showed my skin had a healthier glow and my face looked fuller and less drawn. I smelt him before I saw him. I even ventured outside. I was reading, engrossed, which was a good sign. I love to read but the depression had robbed me of any pleasure in it for some time. The smell of suntan lotion alerted me to his presence. I took a breath in and enjoyed the smell, in spite of my terror at the remote possibility of having to make conversation. I lay still as I could and listened. I heard his chair creak and the settling of wood giving to flesh, the nearness of him invading my peace. The distant hum of traffic receded as I tuned into the noises of him. I was terrified of speaking to him but exhilarated at the idea of a real live human (who wasn't a mental health professional) sitting so close to me. I peered sideways around my sunglasses and squinted at him through the gaps in the fence. He was kneeling now, the chair abandoned for a cushion beneath his knees. His face was raised up towards the sun as if in prayer and the light reflected from the broad expanse of his bare chest. He was outside for a while and I sat perfectly still, a little afraid but a little bit content. The sound of him mumbling was soothing and didn't disturb me.
Ironically, that was the night I saw into the boot of his car. I woke from a dream about work, rebelling schoolchildren tearing at my flesh, eating me alive. Nothing new but thankfully less frequent now. It was as I leaned against the window, cooling myself off that I saw him emerge and open the boot. Rain was bouncing off the drive, hard torrents of water, the first in weeks. I looked idly, a gentle distraction from the night terror. I didn't expect what I saw. He was hurriedly spreading his tools out on the thick plastic lining: a box of rubber gloves, a sheet and a shovel. Shockwaves of horror pulsated through my limbs and I stood frozen for a long time after his car pulled away.
I rang the police. I must admit, I did sound rather deranged. The woman on the phone was reassuring but her boredom and mild disdain were not so well hidden. I expect the police get a lot of mad women calling late at night to tell them that they have a serial killer for a neighbour. She reassured me with platitudes and promised to send a car out as soon as they had the chance.
I don't know what I was thinking but as white terror passed quickly to white rage, for an instant I felt like the old Grace. A cool control came over me and rationality calmed me. I ran to the bottom of the garden and vaulted the lower part of the fence into his garden. My bare feet hardly felt the scratch of the bushes as I landed.
I headed up towards the house quickly, hoping I had time to get this thing resolved before he came back. I remember thinking how funny it was that after wanting to die for so long I now wanted to live and wanted to avoid him killing me too. I felt sure he would if he found me. There was light coming from his patio doors through a gap in the hastily pulled curtains.
The face staring back at me made me jump. It was a Buddha, fat bellied and staring. Its sleepy eyes meeting mine as a lamp reflected the statue's face. I didn't know much about karma then but I remember thinking that his had to be pretty twisted. I turned back and with grim determination surveyed the garden. There were five graves in total, each one the size of a small child. I went for the biggest one plunging my hands into the cold earth, dredging through the dirt like something deranged. My white cotton nightdress was soaked and filthy as I finally got my arms down to the elbows and felt the soft tug of the cloth bound parcel.
I pulled and scratched and scraped. I was intent on my purpose, knowing I'd now have an answer, some proof and seek a resolution. I wanted retribution. I'd taken my eye off the ball. The old me wouldn't have allowed this to go on. The old me cared, was passionate, even feisty at times. The parcel laid, on the grass, freed from its prison, I steeled myself.
I'm not sure which the greater shock was: the decomposing badger in front of me or his presence at the back door, the corpse of a cat in his hands, wrapped in a sheet. His expression was one I now remember with fondness and one which was all too familiar, pure terror. I can understand why. I must have looked a state, streaked with rain, bare foot and grimy. My head rose up in and our eyes met and we both began to laugh. I hadn't expected to be joining him in a burial. We dug the grave together.
We laugh about it now. He doesn't blame me. His habit of collecting road kill and giving it a decent burial was a little absurd and although well intentioned was a tad macabre. I wasn't the only one who thought it odd, hence his limiting the activity to night time hours. Mark is such a gentle soul. It pains me to think of him getting abused and shouted at. People assumed he was picking up the dead animals to eat, not realising he was a strict vegan. They judge so quickly but who am I to say that? I understand now why I felt his act of burial was one of love and tenderness. It was. He's a good man, hardly able to stand the thought of a poor dead creature lying dead and rotting on the mean roads. He has a lot of respect for life.
We meet regularly for tea now and although it's early days I feel something is growing between us. He's incredibly keen on me and so nurturing. The contrast to Gary's harshness is stark. He's teaching me to meditate too. I enjoy it. We sit, our respective cushions beneath our calves, and chant gently in the sun in my newly restored garden. My mantras are renewed: no longer the dragging self loathing and ruminating but one of calm and peace. I have a lot to ruminate about too. Starting back at work is going to be tough, I'm realistic about that and willing to rethink my plans. It turned out I was right about my husband too. Gary had been having an affair or affairs. I suspect it was maybe plural. This is just the one I now know about through his seedy confession. The divorce shouldn't be too hard. I should have trusted my instincts.
We've planted a lot of herbs in Mark's garden. He likes herbs and wild flowers. He's given up the road kill burials and we needed something to cover the patches of bare earth. We all have to compromise a little and harden our hearts sometimes. Change can be necessary.