The cottage wasn’t quite located in one place or the other, east of the woods being deemed to belong to one local authority, west of the woods another. Nobody had ever quite managed to agree. Which appealed to Arthur when they first found the place: “We’ll be an authority unto ourselves,” he’d said to Lucy.
And they were. They had no neighbours and nothing but forest for a mile in every direction, not even a measly bar of phone signal. If it wasn’t for the single-track road that led out south from the cottage, one could easily have believed that human civilization itself was nothing more than a vicious rumour. Then there was the cottage itself. With its double-glazed windows and satellite dish and Range Rover parked newly outside, the cottage exhibited all the not-so-subtle hints of a world in orbit around it. The laptop computer, the Dictaphone, the Bluetooth enabled toaster, the Aga and its chrome-plated handles.
They bought the place because of Arthur. He wanted somewhere quiet, somewhere remote to work on his manuscript. Technically it was his agent Nick’s idea, a way to combat the demonic force that is writer’s block. “Everyone talks about second-album syndrome, but second-novel syndrome’s a thing too, you know,” he’d told Arthur. Not that it washed with Lucy, moving so far away from her parents, the on-demand childcare. “It’s only thanks to Mum and Dad that I get a minute to myself,” she said. You’ll have all the time in the world out there in the countryside, was Arthur’s position. “It’s not the same,” said Lucy.
Then there was Nina. Nina was nearly three years old, though to Arthur she looked much younger. She’d always been a whip of a thing, but in her father’s eyes she had the appearance of something in miniature, always lagging just behind where Arthur thought she ought to be. Not a single smile until eight months, no teeth until her first birthday, stepless at eighteen months, nothing resembling a word until close to two-and-a-half. He remembered those first days after Nina was born the way a survivor remembers a natural disaster. How was it possible for something so minuscule to be losing weight? Wasn’t she meant to be gainingweight? Start small, get big? Lucy kept telling him it was fine, it was meant to happen this way. But Arthur couldn’t help but worry. There she was, this tiny bundle, impossibly small but somehow getting smaller still. What if she continued on that trajectory, just getting tinier and tinier until she was snuffed out like a dwindling flame? He had wanted so desperately to help her, to take from himself whatever force it is that animates us and give it to his little girl. Was that what Lucy was doing when she took Nina to her breast, when she covered them both with that polka-dot shawl even though it was just the three of them there?
They spent a lot of time at Lucy’s parents’ after Nina was born. Mother and child, that is. “They said you were invited but you said you needed to work,” she told Arthur the first time. The phrasing had always bugged him, in the passive – you were invited– as though she was secretly hoping the answer would be no. He tried not to take it personally; her Mum and Dad had raised three kids, so they knew what they were doing.And besides, she told him, now that she wasn’t working it was important that Arthur focus on the new book.
When his debut novel hit the shelves, it had been to not inconsiderable fanfare. He received a low-ranking award, longlist nominations for a couple of more prestigious ones too. Lucy told Arthur she was proud of him – “All that time squirrelled away on your own, it’s finally paying off!” – and Arthur felt grateful to be with someone who understood the importance of such cultural trivia. She had harboured literary aspirations of her own, once upon a time. “You know, I still want to be a writer,” she’d tell him after Nina, as she rocked the cot gently with her foot, the next day’s milk being expressed out of view beneath the shawl.
But it had been several years and one advance cheque since his arrival on the literary scene, and since then Arthur had been in a rut. You see, Arthur was not your average author, which is to say he didn’t employ the usual methods. “It’s like I’m seeing them, the characters,” he’d said, trying to explain to Lucy all those years ago when they first met. “And not just in some dim, metaphorical way. I’m not just imagining them, or at least it doesn’t feel like that. I quite literally see them. They’re there in front of me. I’m not making up what they do and say, you know? They’re doing it, I’m just recording it.” He’d been nervous about telling her; he knew how it sounded. But she was flawless, didn’t bat an eyelid, just said: “I read somewhere Beatrix Potter did the same. Didn’t you just love Peter Rabbit when you were younger? The rebellious spirit of youth! My grandma used to have the whole collection in the most beautiful set.”
Arthur referred to it as “being in the zone”, this technique of his. He loathed the phrase really, but it saved him the bother of a lengthy explanation while also articulating his deep-seated desire for solitude. Because he didn’t want people thinking he was some oddball mystic, automatic writing in a trance-like state. He was wide awake the whole time, not drifting along through some higher plane of being. “I write thrillers, not holy books!” was how he put it. For Arthur, it was simply a condition of sustained concentration, a way of conveying the images out of his head and onto the page as immediately as possible. It gave his writing a real cinematic quality, according to Nick. Apparently, there were major studios sniffing around.
But he needed silence, long periods of it. And between the arrival of Nina, the noisome gentrification of the adjacent high street, and Nick’s relentless badgering, this had proved impossible. For months, he stared at the blank screen and, slowly, what had once seemed a tantalizing expanse of unwritten possibilities began to shrink into something restrictive, a high-res reminder of his linguistic shortcomings. He kept his Dictaphone close to hand, found himself chuntering into its crosshatched mouthpiece like a sinner through a confessional box’s window. Still, the weariness in his voice took him by surprise. He tried writing by hand instead. Maybe it would make a difference? Real tangible contact with the written word? But it had been so long it took only a few minutes for his hand to cramp up and the high-school anxiety flashbacks to kick-in. He listened to music (jazz and classical), wore noise-cancelling headphones, searched for “white noise” audio on YouTube, went for walks, did sit-ups, wrote poetry, swiftly remembered why he wasn’t a poet, he drank herbal teas and, when that didn’t work, wine. “You need a change of scenery,” said Nick. “Something drastic.”
That’s how they came to the cottage, the one that wasn’t quite in one place or the other.
It was a large enough place, and old too. “The sort of place where evacuees would’ve been stowed during the Second World War,” Arthur had said to Lucy at the initial viewing. The whole building had an overgrown feel to it, a vagrant in need of a good grooming. Arthur could tell his fiancée was unsure. Creeping ivy enveloped the uneven stone façade, every window forced to peek its way through, a thick fuzz of luminous green moss cascading down the steep roof and pooling somewhere in the ether. “The clay tiles date it to the late nineteenth century,” was Arthur’s judgement. “It just feels as though we’d be isolating ourselves,” was Lucy’s.
Inside looked better; high ceilings, dark wood flooring that could be polished to a sheen, tall windows generous enough to admit into the house whatever light remained after its descent through the thick surrounding canopy. It was unfurnished, which was fine. Old wallpaper, not without its charm. And most importantly, it had a space for Arthur to work; a capacious ground-floor room at the front of the house with walls made of bookshelves and cut-through with the musty, almost hallucinogenic aroma of the items they’d once held. A claw-footed desk stood in the centre of the room; the previous owners must have decided it was too large to take with them. Arthur dragged it over to beneath the room’s south-facing window. Once he’d found somewhere better to park the Range Rover he’d be able to sit writing and see all the way down the driveway to where the road forked east and west, back to civilization.
“It doesn’t even have Broadband,” said Lucy.
They moved in three weeks later.
That was six months ago and since then Arthur has been almost perpetually “in the zone”. Surrounded by the spines of a thousand books, leather covers and spore-covered pages perfuming the room afresh, he found he was able to slip ever more easily into the required state of mind. Characters that had seemed indistinct and featureless for months suddenly took shape, started saying and doing things he would never have expected of them. And there was Arthur at his antique writing station to record the lot. Of course, this meant seeing less of Lucy and Nina than was ideal, for Arthur insisted that as long as he was cloistered away in his study – the “scriptorium”, he called it – he was not to be disturbed. “Still, it would be nice to read a bit of it,” said Lucy. “Just a chapter now and again.” But Arthur would have none of it. Showing people unfinished work was anathema to him. Would you hang a half-finished painting? Consume a half-cooked meal?
Occasionally he would hear her wandering about the cottage, pottering in the kitchen and such, always chattering away to Nina (as Arthur had suggested she might – he was growing more and more concerned with his daughter’s language skills), or else talking sternly into the phone’s crackling landline to one or other of the local authorities about resolving the Broadband situation. What year are we living in!
“It’s like we’ve been disconnected from the rest of the world,” she’d say to Arthur over dinner, Nina beside them in her highchair.
“At least it keeps you busy,” he’d reply. “You’re the kind of person that needs a pet project, always have been.”
“It’s not a project, Arthur, I can barely contact Mum and Dad when I need to. Or anyone else for that matter. And what if Nick needs to contact you?”
“You know, I don’t like to put time limits on these things, but if I can keep up my current progress I reckon the manuscript should be just about there by Christmas.”
“Well that would be something. Have you–” She turned to Nina. “No, come on, don’t spit it out. What’s the matter? Is it too hot? Urgh.” She looked back at Arthur. “Have you confirmed anything with Nick?”
“You can’t rush these things. Sweetheart, I really don’t think she’s enjoying that. And maybe after everything settles down again we can think about making good on that rock your finger’s been sporting.”
It was the first thing Arthur had bought with his advance from the publisher: a diamond ring. He’d designed it himself, or at least picked out the individual components – stone, band, setting. A single diamond, eighteen carats and not too chunky – “Understated, just like her,” he’d tell people – with a band made of white gold, an open tip setting because he didn’t like the way the claw looked up close; it reminded him of that scene from Indiana Jones. Kali Ma!
She’d bounded about like a schoolgirl when he popped the question, said yes without a thought. She couldn’t stop looking at her hand for a week. Then, a fortnight later, they found out about Nina and wedding plans got punted into the long grass. They’d been trying to get pregnant for the better part of a year. “What are the odds?” everyone kept saying. So, betrothed is how they remained, not quite one thing and not quite another.
Arthur’s fingertips grazed the keyboard – an extraordinary transubstantiation was taking place – a flurry of activity and characters and sounds streaming through his consciousness as the scene played itself out upon the stage of his inner mental-theatre, starting in the cerebrum and the occipital lobe, down the spinal cord to the sound of a quickened heartbeat and into the shoulders, arms, and hands, dancing out of his fingers and onto the screen in nouns and verbs and excitable punctuation.
“Morning, Mr Pasquier!” a man in a high-vis jacket called through the scriptorium window.
A few weeks had passed and Arthur was not the only one who’d made progress with their project. Workmen had arrived – from which local authority Lucy couldn’t say for certain – and dug up virtually the entire driveway in order to lay the necessary cables. It all rather spoiled Arthur’s view, made locating “the zone” all the more difficult; it was precisely what he’d moved out here to avoid. “Try to think of it this way,” Lucy was inclined to point out, “all that orange plastic fencing rather goes with the foliage this time of year.”
“Morning, Mr Pasquier!” the man repeated.
Under normal circumstances the sound of someone using his pen-name like this made Arthur smile inwardly. Arthur Pasquier. Was it because it made him feel like a celebrity, knowing that they’d heard of him for the right reasons? Or was it just the lilt of it, the cadence of its syllables? Pass-key-ay. His real surname was so dour, so … British. Pasquier.Now that was a name. Assuming it was pronounced properly. Not pass-queeras he got from time to time at the signings. Nick had warned him when he chose it: “I know you think it sounds continental, but the fact is your average reader just ain’t that classy.” Still, under normal circumstances to hear it would have given Arthur a pang of immense satisfaction. On this occasion, however, Arthur merely gestured, shooed the workman away with a limp hand he was only dimly aware of having moved at all, such was his concentration.
He was so close, just a few more weeks and he could be finished. No more having to sequester himself away for hours, days, at a time. No more of Lucy’s incessant questioning. “Can’t you just give me a clue what it’s about?” “What’s the main character’s name?” “Where’s this one set? America, like last time?” “Not even a sneak peek?” “Even if you just came to bed at somesort of hour …”
Arthur sat and beheld the contents of his mind, one reel of internal cinema flowing seamlessly into the next as his fingers tapped away in front of him. But then, a jam in the mechanism, a cigarette butt burning a hole through the slide, and the picture began to slip away. There was someone else in the scriptorium with him. Arthur quickly grabbed his Dictaphone and unloaded whatever fraying images still clung to his mind’s eye’s peripheral vision. Anything to help him pick up the thread again later.
He turned to the room, only slowly coming back to reality, to find Nina stood a few feet away clutching a raggedy-looking blanket, baby blue and stained. She swung her shoulders as she stared at him. “Layurl,” she said, sucking on a corner of the rotten old rag.
“Hello there, sweetheart,” said Arthur.
Her speech really hadn’t come on the way he had hoped. She seemed to have become stranded in the verbal limbo of baby talk, not quite one thing or the other.
She grinned up at him. “Layurl.”
Suddenly there was a commotion outside the window. All the workmen were dashing around. A pipe had burst. Arthur rushed past his daughter and out the front door. The site manager told him to stay back, and Arthur hooked his t-shirt over his nose as a precaution. After the initial furore settled down, all the men began to look sheepishly at one another, at the ground. No one could explain to Arthur what had happened. Later that day an emergency engineer came out and applied a temporary fix and, with that, the whole fleet dissipated back in whichever direction they had arrived from. It was the last Arthur would see of them. The work would have to stop until the required health and safety assessments had taken place, and who knew how long that would be, not to mention which authority was responsible for commissioning the work.
It was the stench that bothered Arthur the most. The pipe they’d struck had been ferrying gas and now the whole area around the cottage had the faint whiff of it. Sulphurous. That rotten egg smell. Lucy said she wasn’t getting anything. “It’ll be like when we went to Marrakech,” she told him. “It gets into your sinuses. You were smelling those moped fumes for weeks.” But this was worse. She seriously wasn’t smelling that?
Later that evening Arthur was back in the scriptorium. He stared out into the dwindling light at the deep trench that now ran out from the cottage, leading nowhere. A dunnock landed on one of the iron fenceposts and chirruped softly, perhaps on the lookout for food squirming among the freshly churned earth. Arthur picked up the Dictaphone and hit rewind, held it down for a few seconds, then punched play.
The noise that followed alarmed him: the violent buzzing of a thousand swarming wasps, the whirling mass at the base of some giant waterfall. It was the terrible hiss and crackle of static, of an idea lost. He wound the Dictaphone further back. This time his voice came through clear as a bell: Think Russia, it’s a little old fashioned but they’re back in the news. The red is back under the bed!But that was months ago. He let the device run on in silence for a few more seconds, heard the barely audible clickbetween one recording stopping and another beginning, and then there it was – static, no signal, radio blackout. Arthur’s pulse quickened. What had he said? What ideas, what lines, what images had he conveyed in those dying seconds before Nina had interrupted him? He scrambled around the archive of his mind. He found it startlingly bare.
“Whatever you said, it’ll be on there somewhere,” said Lucy the following day. “Can’t you plug it into the laptop? Separate out the different sound levels or something? There’s bound to be a program for it.”
“Separate out the– What do you think this is? Spooks? You think we’re in MI-bloody-5? Separate out the levels … That Bluetooth toaster your parents bought us is about the most advanced piece of technology we’ve got in this place. Not that it’s worth a damn out here, anyway.”
“You’re the one that insisted on moving, Arthur. Nina and I were perfectly happy.” She placed a plate of freshly peeled and perfectly segmented tangerine in front of her daughter. “Weren’t we, little one.”
Nina grinned and looked at Arthur. “Buh layurl.”
Arthur sat in the scriptorium and listened to the recording over and over. His ears rang with it. How could he possibly proceed with his writing without knowing what would have happened next? What if he never found out and had to pick up the narrative afresh without it and then took a wrong turn and the whole story went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to? But then, after nearly an hour of it, of play—pause—rewind—repeat, Arthur noticed something new. Something like a voice, deep and rasping so that he hadn’t noticed it beneath the static up until that moment. Maybe Lucy was right! Maybe whatever gems had fallen from his mouth and into the microphone had been preserved there beneath the grating, unbearable fuzz of noise.
He tried turning the volume up full on the Dictaphone, but that only drowned out the voice even further, so instead he plugged it into the laptop. Turns out there was a way of adjusting the levels, after all. Nothing too technical, just enough to bring the voice nanometres closer to the surface. But then came the disappointment. It was nothing; just a spot of background noise perhaps, a growling spike in the static. Certainly not the catalyst he’d been hoping for, the sound of his own voice.
The weeks rolled by and the evenings drew in, and still Nina refused to pronounce her words. She would be seeing her third Christmas before too long and yet all Arthur could get out of his functional mute of a daughter was a series of syllables entirely devoid of sense or grammar. Even her eyes, once a radiant forget-me-not blue with spokes of grey and green, seemed to have regressed to the black orbs they had been during her first months. She would stare at him unblinking for minutes at a time the way a new-born might, only now grinning incessantly to the point of mania so that Arthur was the one that had to look away or else leave the dinner table altogether. And as if to make matters worse, Lucy had become accustomed to taking her on long afternoon walks through the woods around the cottage, exposing Nina to the winds that whipped and bit, chapped her lips and gave her grin a rough, squamous quality that one other than her father might have considered eerily reptilian.
“I’ve been thinking, maybe we should consider weaning her sooner rather than later,” Arthur said to Lucy one evening at the kitchen table after she and Nina had returned from their walk. They had slipped out and returned through the back door, through the overgrown bracken and past the musty aroma of the disused shed, the now redundant Range Rover that Arthur had dumped there. Not that Arthur had registered their comings and goings, his gaze pulsating hour after hour from the scriptorium window. He was so close, on a precipice from which he knew he must jump but was incapable of doing so.
“Absolutely not,” said Lucy, the polka-dot shawl straining to conceal the child beneath.
“She’ll be three in a few weeks. People will think it’s weird.”
“People? What people? I haven’t seen another soul in months. And besides, you don’t understand the bond, what you’d be taking away. Mothers give themselves to their children in a way you couldn’t possibly understand. It’s intimate and raw and visceral.”
Arthur peered over the shawl at his nursing daughter. A single dark, lupine eye shone back at him. Perhaps Lucy was right. Perhaps she was giving something of herself to Nina, the same way Arthur had wanted to when she was so tiny and helpless. He’d been thinking it for a while, how very tired his fiancée had started to look once the dutifully applied veneer of cosmetic youth and beauty was nightly removed. For increasingly in an evening, after Lucy was fast asleep, Arthur would come to bed and, in the half-light of the hallway, observe the deepening shadows of her sunken cheeks, the parched rivulets in the flesh around her eyes, the corners of her mouth. And it occurred to Arthur that whatever she was giving to their daughter – whatever energy their daughter was drawing from her mother’s breast – it seemed to be diminishing Lucy to a husk.
Arthur stole out of the kitchen and across the hall – “Blayurl. Buh layurl.” – the gurgled sounds of his daughter’s pseudo-speech echoing after him. In the scriptorium, he sat down at the desk and opened the laptop, grabbed up the Dictaphone and hit record, held it to his mouth. But nothing would come out. He slammed it down, buried his head in his hands. What was he doing? Why wouldn’t the way forward present itself? He was about ready to surrender his sanity altogether when, out of nowhere, that sound, that hideous, incessant sound, started up again. Arthur peered sidelong through his splayed fingers at the Dictaphone now hissing and buzzing and crackling, mocking him with the sound of his own absent voice.
Seconds passed. He’d listened to it so many times he knew precisely when the anomaly would arrive, that curious spike in the otherwise steady static. He counted in his head – three, two, one– and pointed sardonically at the machine like a producer giving a newsreader their cue: Beliar. Every sinew of him froze. He hit rewind, hit play. Beliar. The voice was deep, guttural, but clear. Beliar. He listened to it ten times, then ten more. Beliar. It was impossible. There was no way that sound, that strange sequence of tones, had come out of his mouth that morning the pipe had burst, that morning that was already so long ago. And yet, the word felt familiar. Why was that?
Later that evening, the word still buzzing around his head, Arthur climbed the stairs to where he knew Lucy would still be awake. He found her scribbling something into a notebook, which she swiftly snapped shut and deposited into a bedside drawer.
“Beliar,” he said, barely registering whatever activity she was busying herself with. “Does that word mean anything to you?” He had been racking his brains for hours without result.
She stared at him. “And what concord hath Christ with Beliar?” she said, flatly, the lapsed Protestantism of her childhood bubbling freely to the surface. Arthur screwed up his face. “It’s biblical, Arthur. Saint Paul, to be precise. Milton has a version of him too in Paradise Lost, only he calls him Belial, with an el on the end.” There was a pause, then she said, “He’s the devil, Arthur.”
Arthur retreated to the scriptorium and listened to the recording over and again, allowed the newly sinister sound to circle his ear and run down inside him like blood down a plughole. How could Lucy be so inert? Deposit such a revelation into his lap without so much as a flicker of emotion? Arthur sniffed and, for the first time in weeks, got the faintest whiff of that awful odour, the subtly sulphurous scent of the burst gas main. He looked out of the window, but it was pitch black, only his reflection staring back at him. He stayed this way for some minutes, scrutinising his shadow-self for signs of duplicity. This copy of himself, enveloped by the dark night beyond, a mere representation of the original, a species of lie. But as hard as he looked he could only perceive himself, every movement, every flicker and twitch of life perfectly imitated.
When he finally snapped to from his reverie, Arthur became dimly aware of something having changed. The door to the scriptorium, visible in his periphery, had previously been shut fast. Now it stood open. He spun slowly in his chair.
“Layurl,” said his daughter, grinning up at him out of her neonatally obsidian eyes.
“How did you get in here?” said Arthur. “How did you get down the stairs?”
Arthur’s voice was raised.
“Layurl,” she repeated. And again, in her babyish attempts at language. “Buh layurl.”
Arthur stood and gathered Nina up in his hands, held her out in front of him. “What are you trying to say?” But Nina’s cracked lips only grinned. “Why won’t you talk properly? Why won’t you talk properly!”
“Stop! Arthur, stop!” Suddenly Lucy was there with them. Arthur hadn’t even heard her come down the stairs. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She snatched Nina out of his grasp and the girl burst into a fit of uncontrollable wails.
“I was just– It’s just–”
“You were practically shaking her!”
“She won’t talk, Lucy! It’s just … noises. It’s infuriating!”
“Don’t be so cruel. Jesus Christ, Arthur!” she said, bouncing the screaming child up and down in her arms. “They’re more than just noises.”
Arthur felt dizzy. “She just stands there and goes blah, blah, blah,” he said, puffing his tongue up in his mouth for the sake of the mimicry. “Blah, blah–” He paused, catching himself mid-impression. That sound …
“I’m taking her back to bed – how did she even get down here? – then I’m doing the same myself. Feel free to take your time.”
Lucy turned and marched out of the scriptorium, the freshly placated child propped over her shoulder, peering at Arthur. He watched them go and, just before the door closed behind them, was dumbstruck at the slightest hint of a grin creeping up from his daughter’s lips. He waited for Lucy’s footsteps to fade, then darted back to the desk and found the Dictaphone, held rewind, released it at the precise moment – the acquired instinct of a thousand repetitions – hit play, listened. Beliar.The voice was entirely different, of course, sonorous and gravelled, quite unlike that belonging to his pleasantly trilling – albeit hideously unconversant – daughter. But the word itself. So irreducibly foreign, yet uncannily local. What was Nina doing in possession of such a diabolical name?
It was several days before Arthur resolved to stash the Dictaphone in Nina’s room. Was Lucy right? Had he judged her too harshly? What sounds might she be making without him even knowing? But niggling away at the back of his mind as he taped the device beneath the cherry-red slats of her miniature bed was the unreachable itch of a far more disturbing motive.
He had waited for Lucy to go for one of her walks, taking Nina with her as always, to do whatever it was that they did. His fiancée’s flesh had taken on a pallid, sickly quality of late and the fresh air would do her good. Meanwhile, outside the scriptorium window, a fresh dusting of snow had blanketed the driveway, the tarpaulin that covered the more treacherous sections of the workmen’s abandoned trench. If he squinted, Arthur could almost pretend none of it had ever happened at all, that this blanched scene was in fact a blank canvas on which he might paint his life anew. But he was no artist. He was a writer, and one terrified of the unfilled page at that. Remembering this, he leant over the desk and drew the curtains across, then took the Dictaphone upstairs along with a roll of sticky tape.
By the time Lucy and Nina returned it was dark. They ate dinner together, Arthur and Lucy at the kitchen table, Nina beneath her polka-dot shawl slurping gently on her mother. Arthur sat across from them warily eyeing his not-quite-wife, careful not to allow his scrutiny of her to sit too close to the surface. She looked exhausted, sapped, beholden to an elegiac sadness that prevented her meeting Arthur’s gaze.
“Early night for you tonight, I think,” he said.
“If that’s what you think’s best.”
That evening Arthur stayed in the scriptorium until gone midnight. He was wide awake, on edge, alert as a predator, or, just as easily, its prey. He wrote not a jot, but instead prowled the room’s book-lined walls, ran his fingers along the spines of a hundred authors, dead and alive, felt the weight of history tower over him, waited to be crushed beneath its glorious, indifferent rubble. He stopped, his hand hovering over one volume in particular stationed between Orwell and Pynchon, between greatness and obscurity. He pulled it out and examined the cover: The No 1 Bestseller. And beneath that: Arthur Pasquier. It felt alien in his hands, heavier than he remembered, like something that had died since the previous encounter. Without thinking, he began to tear the pages out one signature at a time. It was surprisingly easy, the glue holding everything together much weaker than he would have imagined, and before long the scriptorium floor was littered with pages the yellow of nicotine.
He cremated his pages in the living room’s fireplace, the dust jacket too. Only the hollowed-out carcass of the cover remained; this he returned to the scriptorium and placed back on the shelf.
Upstairs, he found Lucy fast asleep, clutching her notebook to her chest as though it possessed some talismanic power. What that power was, Arthur had no clue, but he noticed the object now as if almost for the first time, the way she held it. It had a dark, loose leather cover with ornate details worked into it; minute zig-zagging fleurs-de-lis and wheeling sequences of stylized diamonds and crosses. A single length of thread bound the entire artefact into something quite beautiful. Arthur wanted to reach out and touch it. He remembered when Lucy first acquired it, from a flea-market in Amsterdam shortly after they first got together. It had cost ten euros. Arthur had tried to talk her out of it – “Do you know how many notebooks you can buy at home for a tenner?” – but Lucy was steadfast. This was back when she wanted to be a writer herself, Arthur remembered now. She didn’t want her writing to go into any old notebook, she had said to him; she wanted her writing to be in a thing set apart, something that marked it off as special, unique. It all seemed such a long time ago.
Arthur woke late the following day. The previous night had been one of liberating clarity, as though something had been sacrificed that could now be resurrected. He felt his mind awash with ideas, ways forward, endings. The morning was fine and clear, the sunlight glistening against the snow-strewn ground around the cottage. Downstairs, he discovered Lucy and Nina in the kitchen, feeding, and so back-pedalled to the scriptorium. Out of the window he saw that a large section of tarpaulin had collapsed into the trench, perhaps under the weight of the snow, exposing the dark soil and sections of pipework beneath. He settled into his chair and flicked open his laptop computer, which whirred slowly to life, and was greeted with the usual message out of the wireless Internet icon: You are unable to connect.He clicked Ignoreand was about to open the document containing his novel when he noticed a car pulling up at the end of the driveway. It was Lucy’s parents. They gave two short sharp pips of the horn.
“What’re your Mum and Dad doing here?” he asked Lucy out in the hall. “What’s that?” He pointed at the travel bag poised at the front door.
“It’ll only be for a few days, Arthur. I just think you need some space right now,” said Lucy. She pulled a coat over Nina as she spoke, did the zip right up under her chin so that the little girl had to tilt her head back and look up at her father.
“Space? That’s why we came out here, to this place. I don’t understand. Lucy?”
“It’ll be okay. We just … can’t stay here anymore.”
“But I’m nearly finished,” he pleaded. “Any day now.”
“Layur,” said Nina. “Lyur.”
Lucy stooped and picked up the bag, the notebook’s dark leather tucked conspicuously into one of the end pockets. Arthur noticed it.
“Why do you need that?” he asked “If it’s just for a few days? What do you even put in there, anyway?”
Lucy furrowed her brow and clutched the bag tighter into her body. “I didn’t want to have this conversation now, Arthur. But fine, have it your way.” She paused, took a breath. “I spoke to Nick the other day and he told me everything. Don’t give me that look, he told me the publisher dropped you months ago when they found out you hadn’t written so much as a scrap of the new novel.”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur was incredulous. “It’s almost done!”
“Lyurl,” mewed Nina.
“Nick says you two haven’t spoken since. How could you have? You never leave this cottage. And I checked on your laptop; there’s nothing there, Arthur.”
Arthur felt as though someone were standing on his chest. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “What were you even doing talking to Nick?”
Lucy gave a furtive glance down towards the notebook. “I’ve always said I wanted to be a writer. You know that. So I sounded Nick out and he wants to have a conversation about getting my poetry published.”
“Poetry?” said Arthur through barely disguised disdain. “Is this what you’ve been doing during your little disappearing acts?”
“Please Arthur, just a few days,” she said, opening the door before hoisting Nina over her shoulder and setting out into the snow.
“But I’m close, sweetheart. I’m nearly finished, I swear!”
“Liar!” shouted Nina. “Liar! Liar! Liar!”
Arthur watched helplessly through a cloud of his own exasperated breaths as his almost-wife and newly verbose daughter circumnavigated the trench and its flank of orange mesh fencing and headed towards the vehicle that stood waiting to whisk them away. Lucy’s father came to meet them midway up the path and took the bag out of her hand, then together the three of them climbed into his car. Arthur told himself to think; he needed to do something. Something now. But he couldn’t. And after a moment had passed, he watched on as Lucy waved mournfully from the car window, then slid away from the cottage, to east or west.
Back inside, Arthur, feeling in the midst of some awful fever dream, floated out-of-body into the scriptorium where he pleaded with the blank screen to become full, to populate itself at once with his words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, his months and years of graft. He searched every folder on every drive, but there was nothing. Which was impossible! Not a chance had he simply imagined the whole thing, the entire experience of composing his novel, his magnum opus. He moved the cursor to the search bar and typed in the title. But … what was the title? Arthur rubbed his eyes. Dammit, this was giving him a headache! Never mind the title, titles change all the time. What about the main character, their name would bring up a result for sure. Kingsley Ryder. No, that wasn’t it. Danny Marks.Come on, he told himself. Think! Rachel Lanzini.Now he was just guessing.
He swore, nearly launched the stinking computer across the scriptorium. Somebody had to be messing with him. He needed to speak to Nick. Nick would clear this up in no time. He pulled out his phone. No signal. Goddammit, thought Arthur, glaring sidelong out of the window at the trench that ran up to the cottage, a still-fresh wound carved into the earth. He breathed deep, half expected the scent of gangrenous rot to fill his nostrils, but instead found his senses aroused all at once by the faintest whiff of something familiar and unpleasant, getting closer or more distant he couldn’t tell. Sulphur? He sniffed again, more deliberately, but whatever it was, it was gone.
Upstairs, he knelt beside Nina’s bed, reached beneath it and peeled the Dictaphone slowly away. He sat back on the thinning carpet and started to rewind the device, hit play periodically and listened to snippets of the previous night’s recording; the silence, the sound of Nina’s gentle mewling, more silence. Nothing out of the ordinary. Arthur kept this up for some minutes until he found himself back at the previous recording, surrounded once more by the familiar sound of static, that ominous, meaningless buzz, the half-minute’s white noise that now embodied all that Arthur Pasquier was. He waited for the sound, the awful word. But before it could arrive he heard the almost sub-audial click that marked the passing of one recording to the next. He must have missed it. He hit rewind, listened again. Where was it? Where was Beliar? He held the Dictaphone right up to his ear, closed his eyes, allowed the grating sound to seep into every corner of him, become him. But there was no word, no voice. It was gone, if it was ever there at all.
Without hitting pause Arthur let the Dictaphone slip out of his grasp and onto the floor, the fading sound of his daughter’s breathing following him out onto the landing and down the stairs to the scriptorium. He gazed out of the window at the failing light, the sun setting over the local authority to the west. Had it passed over the cottage, that place that was neither here nor there? Arthur supposed it must have, albeit for just the briefest of moments.
In the half-light, the sort of light that is by its very nature half-darkness also, Arthur stood and surveyed his bookshelves once more, the tomes he had read and those he had not, those that he had always meant to, those he’d no intention of doing. He’d always found on those shelves some approximation for all the things that we do to each other, or don’t do, or ought to do but do not have the courage, or the time, or the heart. And quite without realising it, he found his gaze becoming inexorably drawn to his own hollowed-out little volume, that singular mark he had made upon the world, to the spine whose granite grey lettering still bore his mask of a name – Arthur Pasquier– the title beside it now a concise, exhaustive epigraph. And Arthur wept.
And all the while up in his daughter’s room the Dictaphone played away unheard the previous night’s recording, the silence now replaced by the sound of a gently sobbing Lucy, cradling her little girl against her bosom and wondering if her not-quite-husband in the next room would ever care to hear.
Matthew Twigg asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.