When they retired, James and Dee moved house. It wasn’t any sort of statement, it wasn’t a late-life crisis. They didn’t want to be any closer, or any further away, from the family. But they wanted a change, they wanted some space, and those things were hard to find in the city. So they moved out.
It wasn’t as easy as either of them had thought, but there was some solace to be found in the wonderful quiet of the countryside. They looked at many properties - dozens of them; after all, they had the time - and settled on a former smallholding, a mile from the nearest village. It sat on a hilltop. Six acres of land surrounded the main house, and there were two outbuildings.
The smallest of these was a garage and workshop, but not quite large enough for either function to be done properly. James told Dee that he’d like to have a proper workshop; somewhere he could install a lathe, a carpenter’s bench. Somewhere he could make a bit of a mess. The second outbuilding would be perfect. An old barn, quite some distance from the house itself. It was in a terrible state of disrepair, but as they stood in front of it James tipped his cap back on his head, rolled his sleeves up slightly, and rested both hands on his hips.
Dee recognised this pose at once; it was his “Now let’s get started” look. He had plans for this old barn from the first moment he’d set eyes on it, and it would be hard to dissuade him. Dee turned in a tiny circle on the spot, looking around the rest of the place. It was nice enough. She could grow vegetables here, she could paint. She could enjoy the big skies. She looked at James again, saw him making calculations in his head. He was lost in his plans already.
They moved in three months later, and work began.
James wanted to start with the barn. He was desperate to get it usable, and start using it. But even as they lugged boxes from room to room on moving day, Dee reminded him that his priority would have to be the house. It needed some updating and some repairs. James smiled and pointed out that he’d have time to deal with both, now he was retired.
But even he was amazed at how much time and energy was required to put the house in proper order. The electrics were in dreadful condition and needed complete replacement. They spent a fortune on new insulation, more efficient heating, and endless hours of redecorating. James said that with luck, it would be the last house redecoration he’d ever have to do; and Dee replied that he should consider it the first of a new era. He said nothing to that.
Their first winter there was uncomfortably cold. It turned out that the first wave of improvements hadn’t been enough to stop the drafts from whisking heat away. They sat and shivered in bed at night, yearning for springtime.
When spring came, suddenly one week when they realised they needed their short sleeved shirts for the first time in months, they immediately set about working on the garden. It seemed odd calling it “the garden”, given how huge it was; but there was no better word they could think of. A lot of the ground needed serious work. James spent weeks digging, and his back didn’t thank him for it. Dee seemed to be enjoying herself, but she forgot to sow a second batch of salad leaves and when the first plants bolted, there were no fresh ones to replace them.
James didn’t get far with the barn that spring, but come the summer - when the garden had been largely knocked into proper shape - he was finally able to devote some time to it. The structure of the building was very simple, very basic. Four brick walls supporting a timber frame roof. The whole thing was dilapidated after years of neglect. Pieces of timber could be seen hanging off, swinging in the breeze. Standing inside one evening, James became aware of bats flying around him. He could see the dim sky showing through dozens of cracks in the walls. With a sigh, he realised that the place needed to be completely rebuilt before he could enjoy the workshop he’d dreamed of.
And already, two years had passed by.
Dee forgot his birthday, for the first time in their marriage, and James merely smiled to himself. She was so taken with her painting now, as the autumn light played through the trees and made wonderful images in her mind. James noticed her paintings changing these days. Before, she’d done matter-of-fact landscapes and vases of flowers. Technically proficient but never very inspiring. Now her paintings were turning more abstract, the colours brighter and the subject matter more - he wasn’t sure how to describe it - more unaware of itself. He watched her one afternoon, and noticed a long spell when she simply held the brush up in front of the canvas. A light breeze lifted curls of her hair - fabulously dark in their younger days, now a hazy grey-blond - and made them jump over her forehead. She sat motionless for long minutes before making sharp, stabbing movements with the brush. It fell forward to the paper. Her head turned to one side, as if to take in the view she was painting, but her hand kept jabbing forwards. The colours merged into a darkened mess. Afterwards, she didn’t ask his opinion of the painting. A few days later he found it discarded. Neither of them mentioned it. James assumed she’d been angry about something, and left it at that.
After engaging professionals to pull down the bits of the barn that were most dangerous, James felt dispirited. The task had been unexpectedly costly and left him with a simple stone foundation, stumps of brick walls, and a vast job ahead of him. Some neighbours had offered help, and members of the family had said they might be free some weekends, but even so. It was daunting.
Still, he set about it one timber at a time. Measure; measure again, cut. Fix. The lower structure wasn’t hard to build, and he had the templates in his mind from the outset. It was the higher stuff, the roof, that caused him most concern. He tried to build it alone but found it necessary to call in more pairs of hands.
One weekend, he and Dee hosted a barn building party. James bought crates of beer, Dee cooked dozens of pizzas and made enormous bowls of salad. The neighbours and the family were invited, and everyone brought tools. James had worked out a plan, and the Saturday morning was spent building a simple scaffold. After lunch, they started on the roof itself; by Sunday evening, it was almost done. James was overwhelmed with everyone’s kindness. Dee chattered too long as people packed their cars and said farewell. She was a free spirit, the centre of his world and of their home. Her smile made him smile. As he sat in their kitchen, nursing his sore back muscles and sipping on a well-deserved cold beer, he watched her being the hostess. She glided between people, joking and encouraging and flirting. James remembered their youth and closed his eyes for a few moments.
About 30 minutes after the last car had left, James walked into the kitchen and found her sitting on the floor next to a broken wine glass which she’d apparently dropped. She was leaning on one arm, and her hand must have landed on a piece of the smashed glass, because blood was seeping out between her fingers and mixing with the wine across the shiny floor. She didn’t seem to be in any pain, and didn’t acknowledge James when he called out to her from the doorway, his voice alarmed.
With her free arm, she was dabbing a fingertip in the watery mess of wine and blood, and trying to paint with it on a cupboard door.
Dee fell into her disease like a skydiver, and James was left panicked and grief-stricken. Her memory began to collapse, as if it were the ash of burnt papers; they still look solid enough and sometimes you can still read words on them, but the smallest touch and they disintegrate. In the dust of what was left, all she could reliably remember was James and her paintbrushes.
The doctors suggested it was hereditary, although neither of Dee’s own parents had shown any similar symptoms in their old age. It can skip generations, they said. We can give her drugs to stabilise her, but there’s not much else we can do. Call us if you have any problems.
The neighbours and the family were supportive, of course. If they could rebuild a barn, they could rebuild Dee. They came and cared for her when James needed to have a break. They took her on day trips. They helped to keep the house clean, and the garden tidy. The lawn remained short and neat, but Dee’s vegetable beds ended up overgrown.
On the days when the home help couldn’t come, James would set her up in the garden with an easel and some paints. He could leave her there safely for two hours or more, because she’d forget there was any other way of being. She’d sit and paint - or sometimes just sit, leaving the brushes untouched - and he’d catch up on sleep if he could. Or watch her from an upstairs window, tears dripping on the sill.
On the sixth anniversary of their move to the country, James awoke one morning to find that Dee wasn’t next to him. He struggled up and out of bed. He felt cold, and his bones felt stiff. He found himself slipping and falling frequently these days, so he deliberately took things slower. He called Dee’s name.
He found her outside, face down in mud, mewing like a kitten. She complained that she couldn’t open the door - he didn’t know which door she meant - and screwed up her eyes and cried even more when he spoke to her. He tried to pick her up, but he was unable to. She wouldn’t help. She didn’t trust him. She shouted at him to go away, then mewed some more.
That evening, after long hours in a hospital, James returned home without Dee. They’d told him they’d keep her in for observation. He took the phone down to the barn with him, and made some calls in the darkness. He spoke in a soft monotone. The bats flew around his head, still hunting. After the barn-building party, he’d never got round to finishing off those last few sections of the roof. He looked up. He could see moonlight through the cracks.
Filed under: fiction
(20 January 2009)