Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, is about love, loss, and the art of running. Late Air (...
Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, is about love, loss, and the art of running. Late Air (...
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On the day after Hazel died – it was a Tuesday afternoon in early March – George stood at his woodworking bench, whittling a bowl. He pressed the piece of yew down, and used a bowl gouge to scoop a smooth sliver of the pinkish-white wood so that it curled upwards and away, falling to the bench. He did this repeatedly – he tried not to think of anything else, not Hazel, not the empty house – and then, tired of that singular motion, he reached for sandpaper and ran it over the burrs and birds-eyes until the wood was warm and smooth to the touch.
George looked through the window, out on to the loch, where the water was as flat and as grey as slate. On the loch’s far shore, lying low across the hills Beinn Bheàrnach, Beinn a’ Bhainne, and Beinn Taladh, was a bank of cloud that made the hills seem like stubs that ended only a few hundred feet up. These were the hills that George and Hazel had looked at every day of the 43 years that they had been married. Peat and granite and died-back bracken were George and Hazel’s winter-time palate; these were the hues that stayed with them through the darkest months of the year, until April when the first of the dog violets reared their purple nodding heads.
Hazel hadn’t been well, but despite the pains that tore at her bones, and then the operation just before Christmas, she had been out in her garden every day. A few weeks after the operation, even, she had pulled on her wellies, got her gardening gloves down from the hall shelf and wrapped her purple rain jacket about her. Concerned, George had watched her through the long window at the back of the house climb carefully up the steps, clutching at the wooden rail, and enter her labyrinthine vegetable garden. He had watched as she had become smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind the poly-tunnel, just a purple speck on the hillside, a trowel in her hand.
Now white wood shavings curled on George’s fleece jacket, and flecks of wood dust sprinkled his arms and shoulders. He didn’t bother to brush himself off. When the light grew dim, he switched on the overhead strips, which flickered and growled to life. He would stay out here until he saw his tools in double; only then would he go inside the empty house.
The next afternoon, the minister called in to visit. George watched him drive up the road in his faded Ford Cortina, and then they sat in the living room where the stove glowed with coals. George served him tea and some Ginger Nut biscuits which Hazel had bought at the Spar Shop just Saturday. The minister had mild Parkinson’s disease, and his hands shook, the tea cup rattling on the saucer. He spilled a little of the milky tea on the beige carpet, both of them pretending not to notice. George didn’t mind; he just wanted the minister to leave. He wasn’t ready to talk about Hazel.
The minister offered his condolences. “Thank you,” George said, and then looked at the spot on the carpet where the tea stained brown. He asked if Hazel had left any wishes for her funeral, any specific requests – cremation, burial, that kind of thing. “We hadn’t expected her to die,” George said, thinking how cruel to be taken, after everything they had been through, by a stroke. He got up to stand at the window.
From there he looked out onto the edge of Hazel’s vegetable garden, which staggered in wild, overgrown terraces up the hillside behind the house. Neither George nor Hazel knew exactly how many acres the garden covered, because as demand for Hazel’s produce across the island had increased, so the garden had stretched out into their land at the back of the house. From the outside, the garden looked nothing more than untamed gorse bushes and rowan trees, trees that Hazel had planted when they had first moved to the house because in local lore they were thought to ward off witches. But on entering, and following the muddy path up the hill, the garden stretched out into large areas planted with every kind of vegetable that could grow in the island’s short season.
Raised beds were planted with leeks, spinach, kale, squash and kohlrabi, beds that sat alongside fruit cages, potting sheds, and a poly-tunnel which in late spring brimmed with sweet peas and, in summer, with strawberries, runner beans, trailing tomatoes. Up higher were whole sections reserved for root vegetables – crops that in summer burst their green tops through the rich loamy earth, and in autumn delivered creamy white offerings of parsnip, potato, turnip, Jerusalem artichoke, roots that kept them going through the cold dark months of winter.
From up here, Hazel had often told George at the end of a long day of work, she could look out across the house, the fields that surrounded them, and beyond to the loch, the hills, and the islands beyond theirs. From here she could be reminded that they lived on an island, because it was so easy to forget, an island that they had chosen randomly off the map all those years ago, its very virtue being that it was disconnected from the rest of Britain. She said that she felt reassured, when she was looking out on the sea that kept them apart from the mainland, that this would stop the rest of the world from encroaching upon theirs.
George now stared out at the rowan trees that bordered the garden, clasping his hands behind his back, his fingers picking at an old woodworking cut on his thumb. Behind him, the minister fidgeted and shook. George wondered what he was going to do about the garden. Keeping it up had been Hazel’s job, not his.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes,” the minister said kindly, and George turned to find him still sitting there.
“The garden,” George said, then trailed off. The settee springs creaked as the minister prepared to get up. “If it’s cremation you choose, it will have to be a mainland service,” the minister said. “Or there’s burial in the village, of course. It’s a lot to think about, and so soon. Perhaps you will call me when you’ve had time to consider?”
George nodded heavily, his mind darting to when he had seen Hazel in the hospital, just two days ago, after the doctors had said she was gone. He blinked the image away, and right then, through the window, he thought he saw a movement through the trees. He looked closer, squinting his eyes, straining to see through the silvery branches if what he thought he had seen was real. A pair of eyes looked back at him, white and wide, and then another pair, and then another. He saw a flash of tawny hide, a glimpse of cream, the sharp points of antlers. Deer, George started, and the Minister looked at him quizzically.
“Never mind,” George said, and then rushed the Minister to the door, hoping he hadn’t been rude.
“You’ll be in touch about things?” the minister said, “and of course, if there’s anything.”
When the minister had set off in his car, down the steep driveway towards the sea, George went upwards, towards the garden. There, he saw how the deer had got in: a fallen strut had left a gaping entrance to Hazel’s garden, and the fence had been trampled. The deer might come out on their own, but it was unlikely. He would need to fix the fence, and he would need help to get the deer out. He couldn’t do it alone.
Early the next morning, frost glinted on the tufts of shoreline grass, and herons stood still and long-legged at the water’s edge. George looked out from the window in the living room, and then picked up the phone to call his neighbour, Karl the farmer, and ask if he had time to come over.
The deer were still in the garden. George had watched them from the living room window as they destroyed an elderflower bush, the bush shaking in great waves as it succumbed to the violent nibbling of teeth. Now George felt a kind of weariness that two cups of coffee hadn’t shaken, a deep tiredness that had lain with him all throughout the sleepless, cold night and had risen with him at the blue hued dawn. It was a tiredness that loomed over him so that he felt if he didn’t keep working, it would crush him.
He was finishing up a slice of Hazel’s sourdough bread when Karl’s truck pulled up outside the house, his two sheepdogs, Ailsa and Aidan, turning circles in the truck bed.
“Hello, mate,” said Karl, eyeing him cautiously. He held out his hand, across the pile of condolence letters that littered the doorstep.
“Karl,” said George, shaking his hand, looking down at the letters. “I’m okay.”
“Whatever you need,” said Karl, and George nodded.
Karl was younger and taller than George, broad-backed, big-boned, carrying a head of bright blond hair. His face glowed red above the neck of the Guernsey sweater he always wore. George and Karl had been neighbors for going on 25 years, when Karl had taken over managing the farm on the Ashworth estate, and had moved to the cottage four miles along the road. The Ashworth estate stretched as far as George and Hazel’s house, and continued on the other side, so George had seen Karl come down on his quad bike, or in the truck if it was blowing a hoolie, twice a day, every day for the last two and a half decades.
George stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. The cold air stung his nostrils. Hazel loved this kind of weather, the ground still hard but spring somewhere nearby. She loved the white stillness of frost and the long evenings when a stew simmered on the stove, when she and George would play Scrabble together, which Hazel usually won. Hazel had always been good with words, ever since school where she had won the spelling competition. That was when George had first noticed her; they had both been thirteen.
George led Karl around the side of the house to the garden.
“Part of the fence fell,” said George, pointing to the gap. “This was her department. I haven’t been round here since,” he paused, “the operation. Before Christmas.”
“I see,” said Karl. “Can you get a new section of fence up?”
“I can get some posts,” he said. “And some new wire fencing.”
“When do you think you’ll have it ready?”
“Tomorrow, maybe. By the weekend for sure. I’ll have to go to the town for supplies.”
“Okay,” said Karl.
“But the deer,” said George. “There must be five of them at least. They’ve been watching me.”
Karl nodded. Over the years, Karl had become a feature in George’s life, if not quite a friend then someone George could count on. Hazel had sold her produce every week at the market, sixteen miles away in town, so she knew nearly everyone. But George rarely went away from the house, unless to fit a door he had made or sell his turned wooden objects. He was fine without friends; he had Hazel, and he had his work.
But when Hazel had got sick at the start of the winter, Karl had begun dropping in every now and again after he’d fed the sheep, offering Hazel and George lifts to the ferry for hospital appointments in Glasgow, picking up medicine for them from the town. Karl’s wife, Mandy, might send along a cake or some bread, and recently Karl had shown up on his quad bike with a fallen branch of rowan wood from the estate. He had asked Mr Ashworth’s permission to take it to George to turn bowls with, and Mr Ashworth had said, given the circumstances, that this would be fine.
These were little things, but where they lived, they made all the difference. During Hazel’s sickness, George realized, he had come to rely on Karl and Mandy in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Karl and George stood now, looking into the garden, until they saw movement, a swaying of branches, the snap of twigs and the flash of red between the shades of greens and greys.
“I see them,” said Karl. “Little pests.”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in there,” said George. “Hazel, she hasn’t been out here since, well – ” His shoulders hunched and his chest caved, as if he were folding in on himself.
“It’s okay, mate,” said Karl, reaching out a hand and placing it gingerly on George’s shoulder. George raised his forehead, pulled back his neck, sucked in a little air.
“Since Saturday. She was fine on Saturday. She was out here on Saturday.”
“Well, it sounds like they’ve had enough of a feed,” said Karl. “What say we get these rascals out of there? I’ll get Ailsa and Aidan from the truck and see what we can do. How does that sound?”
While George and Karl were out in the garden trying to get the deer out, the minister left a message on George’s answering machine.
“It’s Reverend Paul,” said the message, which George listened to later on that night. “From the church.” He asked if George might call him, or if he might come round again, to discuss the arrangements. George had listened to the beeps that followed the message and then had pressed the delete button.
George and Karl were unsuccessful with the deer. The sheepdogs did their best to round them up but every time one of the dogs cornered one, the deer leapt away into some further reach of the garden. Karl and George stayed with it until around lunch time, when Karl said he had to go and see about the cows.
“Of course,” George said. “You be getting along.” He tried to say it in a way that didn’t make Karl feel bad. Even so, Karl shifted awkwardly from one rubber-booted foot to the other and offered to come back another day if the deer still hadn’t left.
“If it’s no bother,” George replied, trying not to sound relieved.
“It’s nae bother to me at all, I want to help,” Karl said. “You’d do the same for me, right, mate?” George dipped his head, a heavy nod of agreement.
As darkness fell that Thursday afternoon, George went out to his workshop. He pressed the light switch on the wall, and the caged strips flickered to life. The bowl he was working on lay on the bench, its corners cut, its insides gouged, its surface rough with the scoops and turns of his tools.
George had been woodturning for as long as he had been married to Hazel, 43 happy years as a husband and a woodturner. You couldn’t rush either one if you wanted to do them right. George had learned about wood from his father, growing up in the New Forest, where his father had taken George on his wood-seeking trips around their house. By the time George had left school, at fifteen, he had learned to love wood with the same passion that his own father had.
George earned his money from making doors and gates for people, kitchen cabinets, those sorts of useful things. But what he rose for every day, was to turn discarded, forgotten pieces of wood into beautiful bowls, platters, vases, objects that would live in people’s houses for years, maybe even be passed on to the next generation. He wasn’t good with books, or words, or spelling, like Hazel had been, but he was good with his hands and he had the love of wood buried deep within him.
George looked out of the dark window at his own reflection staring back, and then at the row of tools clipped in hooks along the wall. There was the red handled chisel his uncle had bought him when he had turned his first bowl, the saw, 40 years old, a new blade bought on Amazon just one month ago. A bradawl, the rubber grip long since turned sticky but the blade still up to the job, which he had bought in an old man’s yard sale on their first holiday together in 1976. A jack plane that Hazel had bought him for his twenty-second birthday, the same year she briefly went to work at the Clydesdale before deciding an office life wasn’t for her and took to gardening full-time. A sliding bevel square, one of many tools left to him by Jack, who used to farm next door. The froe that George had bought himself, the gimlet he had found. The rasp, the spokeshave, the twybil; a brace, a broadaxe, a bucksaw.
George ran his hand over the blades and handles now, ending with the set of Sheffield steel bowl gouges his father had left him when he’d died. George had spent nearly his whole life with these tools, each one so precise, existing for one single purpose only. He looked once again up at the window out of which he could see nothing, only his own ghostly reflection. What would his purpose be, now that she was gone? What would he be?
Lying on one end of the bench was the piece of rowan that Karl had brought to him from the estate. It had been sitting there, gnarled and knobbled, waiting for him to do something with it, but with everything that had happened – the operation, the slow recovery, and then, this, Hazel’s death – George hadn’t got around to even splitting it open. He had no idea, and could not tell from looking at it, what was inside, what colours and patterns he would find when he eventually laid it out and cut it through with the saw.
But he had the urge to touch it now, to rub his fingers over the bark, and then he wanted to take the branch in his hands, and he did, feeling the weight of it pull on his arms. Then, it were as if his body were acting on its own, and the deer, Karl, the minister’s visits, even the fact that Hazel wasn’t inside cooking dinner, all of that became a kind of haze to which George was now numb. He took the branch over to the saw table and laid it down in front of the circular blade. He pulled on his safety glasses, stretched his fingers into some gloves, and flicked the switch on the side of the saw. The jagged mouth of the blade roared, a blast of sawdust-speckled air gushed upwards onto his face. The teeth began to pierce the rough skin of the wood and the noise drowned out the darkness that had permeated George’s mind. Just the rowan, the blade, and the devastating cut of metal on wood.
George shut off the saw and laid the two pieces of wood down on the workbench, blinking the dust from his eyes and taking in the colours before him. Cream and copper, tan and taupe, specks of auburn and swirls of russet, freckles of chestnut and honey and peach. He swept off the dust, and then licked the tip of one of his fingers and rubbed a little saliva into the wood. Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.
George ran his hand over the wood once more, taking in the brightness of the colors, and then he watched as they began to fade, as the air in the workshop oxidized the wood. It was as if their lights were going out. The colors lost their brightness, the wood lost its shine. It would never be the same piece of wood again.
The week lumbered on, bringing with it an entourage of lady-callers, women who lived on the island, many of whom people George had never even met. He had made the mistake of letting one of them through the door, early on in the week, and then they had talked on Facebook, probably, or at the post-office, and before he knew it, they all wanted to come in.
They brought cakes, mostly, but also soups, stews, trays of flapjacks, an apple strudel, a multi-coloured chilli plant from the village shop, all of which lay abandoned on the shelf inside the porch where in April, Hazel would have been laying out trays planted with seeds, ready for outside sowing in June. When the women knocked at the house, he didn’t answer, and so they cupped their hands to the window and then pressed their faces into the aperture their hands created. Then they would decide he wasn’t there and back away, leaving their offerings inside the porch.
Eventually, someone brought George a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, even though he hadn’t had a drink in God knows how many years. The bearer was new to the island – a blow-in, locals called these people – and had no idea that George had promised Hazel a long time ago that he would never touch another drop. George snaffled the whisky into the pocket of his woodworking jacket and took it out to the workshop. He didn’t bother with a glass.
There was an old leather armchair in his workshop, and he sank back into it, rested the bottle on his knee, and looked up at the rafters. He let out a sigh. Then George twisted the top off the bottle, put it to his lips, and glugged at the amber liquid, wincing and enjoying the pain as it slipped down his throat. The whisky burned the back of his tongue, and gouged tears of surprise from his eyes because he had not tasted whisky in so many years and now he remembered how disgusting and how delicious it was.
He thought of Hazel, and of her garden, and of her windowsill which should be covered in trays of seeds but instead was covered in trays of brownies and other things he would never eat. He tugged at the neck of that bottle and forced himself to swallow the whisky, and after a few minutes of drinking his arms felt light, as if they might lift of their own accord, and his head was woozy, and then he couldn’t remember why he was sitting in his workshop at all. With the confusion came a momentary, welcome relief.
But the feeling that had been plaguing him since Hazel had died, the weight that hung around his shoulders, that dogged him in the house and followed him when he went to bed and when he got up in the night to go to the toilet and when he finally rose to deal with the day, the immense and stupefying weight of her absence still clung to him, and even though he was drunk and he felt like throwing up everything that was inside him, still it was there. And the thought that it would never leave, that Hazel’s absence might for ever hang around his neck, was, even in his drunken discomfort, also a strange kind of relief, because at least that meant that he would always feel her close by.
When George woke up to a hand on his shoulder nudging him awake and Karl looming over him, he didn’t know where he was. But by the light coming through the windows, he could see that it was morning. His head was raging.
“You okay, George?” said Karl.
“Just give me a second,” said George, who felt sick and mortified by what Karl had seen. “I was just…”
“Yes,” said Karl, who ran his finger along a knotted branch of ash that lay drying on the racks, looking away so that George could gather himself, straighten his jacket and kick the bottle underneath the chair. “I came about the deer,” said Karl.
George had forgotten about not getting the deer out yesterday, and felt immense gratitude for Karl having come round. They went outside to Karl’s truck, where the sheep dogs snapped and twisted in the back.
“You okay, mate?” Karl said, eyeing him closely.
“I’m getting there,” said George, who had now been without Hazel for four whole days, the longest they had been apart for twenty or more years. “I’m not really sleeping,” he ventured. His head felt as if it were bursting.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Karl “Mandy says do you want to come over for tea?”
“Aye, maybe one of these days,” said George, who would have loved to eat a meal at a table with someone else. He had been surviving off sourdough bread and cheese, which he nibbled at while standing up at the kitchen counter, too afraid to sit down alone. “Maybe later,” he said, worried that too much warmth would crack him. “I’ll let you know,” he said, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
The sheep dogs, Ailsa and Aidan, pressed their muzzles against the grill at the back of Karl’s truck.
“How about them deer?” said Karl, “are they still up there in your garden?”
“They’ve taken out the rowans,” said George.
“Oh dear,” said Karl, knowing Hazel had planted them. He twisted the handle on the tail gate and the dogs piled out of the truck, panting and dangling their long pink tongues around the rims of George’s boots. “Come,” Karl snapped at the dogs. To George he said, “let’s see what we can do, shall we?”
The deer took fright when the dogs appeared, and scattered to every corner of the garden. “You stay by the gate,” Karl shouted, following the dogs with his whistles and clicks up through the paths that wound from each part of the garden to the other. “They might come out,” he shouted, his voice fading as he went further away. Then Karl was gone, only his red jacket visible in flashes.
In actual fact, Hazel had told George when she had gone for her operation before Christmas that, should anything happen to her, she wished to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the garden, Hazel had said, underneath the rowan trees. George hadn’t wanted to talk about it but Hazel had insisted. “Just in case,” she had said, holding his hand in bed the night before she was due at the hospital. “I just want to know that we talked about it.”
George’s head was still thick with the whisky that he wished to God he hadn’t touched. The feeling of having broken his promise to Hazel was enough to make him realize that it was the last time he would ever drink again. He heard a shout from the top part of the garden, somewhere up near the brassicas, then he heard the dogs barking, and then a scuffle of hooves around the perimeter fence as two white-faced stags came trampling down the hill towards him.
“Look out!” shouted Karl, whose head was just visible above a clump of gorse bushes. George was momentarily fixated by the way the animals leapt towards him. One of the stags had just a small pair of antlers but the other was an eight-pointer, maybe a ten. Its haunches undulated as it ran. A fine drizzle had begun to fall on George’s face and it seemed as if the drops were falling on someone else’s skin entirely. The two stags were nearly upon him, undeterred by his presence.
“Let them through, George,” Karl shouted, “stand back.” The stags made directly for the opening in the fence. All George had to do was to let them pass. They streaked by in a flurry of fur and bone and hoof.
“Well done, mate,” said Karl, who had come down the hill towards him. “I’m afraid we’ve got trouble with that young fallow, though,” he said. “She’s tried to get through the deer fence, and I think her leg may be broken.” A fine layer of mist had settled on Karl’s face too, and the two of them, bedraggled and damp, look out at one another beneath rain-soaked hair.
Karl came back that afternoon after milking and shot the injured deer. It had been a young one, its leg mangled by trying to jump over the fence, its antlers small but perfectly formed. They laid the deer on plastic sheeting in the garage, split it open from end to end and removed the gralloch which Karl plopped into a bucket, the kidneys and intestines trying their best to slip through his fingers. He left the head on a tarpaulin, and took the feet for his sheep dogs to chew on. Together they hoisted the body up onto a hook in the roof beam, put there for such a purpose. George would skin it for its meat once it had bled dry.
Afterwards, they sat in the house and George lit the wood-burning stove, resisting the urge to ask Karl if he wanted to play Scrabble. George produced the apple strudel, and together they ate it and drank a pot of tea. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about the – ” Karl paused, “about Hazel. About the funeral?”
George sipped at his tea, and said, finally, “Yes.” He knew what had to be done, and tomorrow he would call the minister. “Hazel wanted to be cremated,” said George. “She wanted her ashes scattered underneath the rowans. They’ll grow back, won’t they?” he asked.
When they had gone up to free the deer from the fence, and found its leg broken and the deer weak having wrangled all night, they had found the garden in a state of destruction. The beech trees’ lower branches had been bitten to the core, the purple sprouting, kale and other winter greens were flattened and snapped, stems bleeding white, open to the sky. The potato patch was churned with cloven-hoofed prints, and the rowans were naked, stripped of their bark, the sapwood within shredded and torn as if an angry clawed animal had been trying to get its guts out.
George had run his hand along the trunk of one of the trees, once smooth and silvery, now rough against his palm, like strands of old rope. George didn’t know if the rowans would survive another year, but Karl had suggested he call James the farrier, who was good with trees, to see if he had any advice. When Karl finished his tea, George didn’t offer him any more. They said goodnight at the door, and George heard the truck bounce down the lane to the road, the dogs whining from their cage in the back.
In the garage, the deer hung from the hook. In the stark glow of the strip lights, the deer’s hide shone bright, tawny with patches of cream, specks of brown, hazy spots of auburn faintly visible. The head lay on the tarp still, and the deer’s eyes were closed now, its lids pressed shut against its face. But when Karl had taken a rifle and nuzzled it up against its struggling head, its eyes had been wide open, bright with fear and pain, the eyeballs engorged, straining through its own scull. George had hardly been able to bear it, though he knew that this was the kindest thing to do.
“Best to put it out of its misery,” Karl had said, and then he had pulled the trigger. The fawn was killed immediately, its body slumping against the fence where its leg had been caught, but for a few seconds, its muscles had twitched and its eyes had gone on blinking, the nervous system firing impulses even though its heart had stopped. George wasn’t religious, or even spiritual, but he thought, for a moment, that he might have been able to see something pass from its eyes, something fade, before the eyes stopped blinking and the muscles ceased to shiver.
George closed the door to the garage, turning his back on the deer. It would still be there in the morning, and a few days later when George would skin it and carve up the meat for the freezer, taking a parcel along to Karl and Mandy. George went back inside the house, past the trays of cakes, to the table where the phone lived. Holding the receiver, he dialed the minister’s number, and waited for him to pick up on the other end.
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