The pub that evening had a young couple in occupancy at the corner table. I looked around in case he’d taken a different place, but he hadn’t. I didn’t stay. There was no sign by the river either. So he’d gone to take up his work then! I looked to my phone next. There was nothing of him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and although an internet search for him threw up some oddments, nothing there had contact details that I could find. That meant that the only sure way of contacting him again was at Becky’s funeral. I had no thoughts of attending it since I had no place there, but he did, he undeniably had a place there, and so if I wanted to see him that’s where I needed to start, and after that I needed to establish something more reliable than happening upon him accidentally, something that would give me enough of a chance to get to know him properly.
But this wasn’t a movie was it. I played over the scenario of seeking him out at his daughter’s funeral in my mind, and all I got was that shot of a group in black around a grave, distressed, with me standing somewhere off behind a headstone or a yew tree, perhaps in a trench coat, approaching Ed slyly to entice him away for another purpose. That avenue rejected I decided that I’d send a card to the funeral home: the obvious thing. It wouldn’t be in least bit hard to do that in all sincerity.
I wrote out and rejected several messages before settling on one as appropriate. I knew that he would see my ulterior interests, but I hoped that he’d also appreciate that I genuinely understood the tragedy in Becky’s death. I said that I knew he hadn’t wanted apologies for what had happened between Becky and Elly, and that his generosity had been an inspiration to me. As I wrote the card I was increasingly taken up by the degree of truth in my sentiment: from a weakly felt sense that I had witnessed exposing disclosures, ones that he wasn’t obliged to make, I began to feel more strongly the sense of privilege in being their recipient. With those feelings it was easy for me to simply ask whether I could spend more time with him, talk some more.
I had a reply from Ed on the date of the funeral. He would be returning that day, and then perhaps we could meet again in the Bull for dinner, 8pm. I guessed he was going to be there whatever I decided, since there was no return address nor number. I had qualms though. It wasn’t really going to be possible to talk was it on such a disturbing day? Or maybe he saw meeting me as a good way of avoiding the strains of family hostility and grief.
He was dressed in green, not black. Maybe he’d changed out of his funeral clothes. Grey was the obvious choice for me, and I was comfortable with that at least. I went to the bar after lifting my hand in greeting, relieved that he already had a pint; I wanted a few moments to adjust to the atmosphere before speaking. I should have known that it wouldn’t be that easy, since as usual his demeanour gave little away; if he was distressed it wasn’t obvious.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet me.” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m coping thank you”. He left a slight pause before following up with; “but this isn’t really about me is it?”
“Maybe not, but it does matter whether you’re alright”
He lowered his eyes and head in a slow, courteous, gesture of acceptance.
“I was thinking about when Elly and Becky were at junior school. They were inseparable. Becky used to come back to ours a lot.”
“Did she? I was away a lot even back then. That’s maybe why we never really grew close, Becky and myself.”
“What did your wife think about it, you being away?”
“She was ambivalent. I’m not sure she would ever have married someone who was a permanent presence, but Becky’s needs confused her own, so she often did want me there in spite of herself.”
“What about Becky? Did she miss you?”
“She built a version of the world that my times at home disrupted. It wasn’t long before what she missed was not anything I had the power to satisfy.”
“But when she was really young. Were you away that much?”
Since nothing I could say was going to change that fact, I had no version of events that was likely to offer a redeeming conclusion. He and Becky hadn’t had a good relationship. This led me to puzzle over his friendship with Elly though. Was it a substitution? Or maybe he thought he had some insights that would help her even if they were unavailable for Becky. But then, was she just a different kind of person? It’s obvious, I thought on reflection, that she wouldn’t need the same things from him that Becky would. But then, she seemed to need from me what Ed could provide and felt let down by me to say the least.
I looked directly at Ed and asked “Would you teach me to fish. No! To track. Yes, I’d like to learn how to track animals”
“Do you have any species in mind?”
I laughed, “don’t worry, not human. Just the animals that come and go by the riverbank.”
He laughed, “So that I can console myself, or reward myself, with a spot of fishing alongside? Is that your thinking?”
“Well yes, it does feel presumptuous to take up your time. You’ll forgive me for thinking the fishing would make it a bit easier, a bit more attractive. But I truly do want to learn y’ know. It actually feels quite exotic, quite exhilarating; the whole idea.”
“You’ll not be interested in nematodes though!”
I fought a flash of shame. “Probably not! Unless they’re pertinent to a morning stroll.”
He talked on the subject to me, but I wasn’t ready yet to turn my enthusiasm to the details, so I zoned in and out as he spoke.
Falling silent he picked up the menu, turned it over in his hands then twisted himself around so that he could see the Specials board. He then turned back to me: “You ready?”
“Fish and chips”. I wasn’t really hungry anyhow – not enough to make an informed choice.
He ate his sausage and mash and me my fish and chips, over the done deal.
I wanted to ask him about the accusations Becky had made, but it wasn’t the time nor place so we ate in silence.
That night I paused on the landing after leaving the bathroom for bed, turning instead towards Elly’s door. I resented being faced with this, this cliched dilemma. I had to live out some kind of responsible relationship with this unused, abandoned place, requiring me to sense or devise its meaning. Was it mine to appropriate, supposing I wanted to do that? But if I didn’t then it’s contents would become relics for me to dust and conserve, just as I had done with the Elly of her childhood diary. She’d abandoned this door with its plaque and stickers, the bed on the floor, the rail of clothes, the bookcase and the array of wooden, bronze and porcelain objects on its top. I Picked up the porcelain cigarette case, wiping the dust from the lid with my sleeve. It was so familiar to me; my grandmother’s purchase initially, a memento from her transatlantic sea crossing in the heady days of the Cunard line. It had never been mine, having passed directly to Elly. But she’d abandoned it along with turning away from the rest of us. I thought I would parcel it up, along with her clothes, jewellery, toiletries and everything else and keep it in the attic. It would feel all wrong of course, but there was nothing that would feel right. I resented that. I absolutely could not have a ghost room in the house. When I came to think about it many of my own things had started to reposition themselves, their symbolism ageing and accruing a status that might easily start to oppress me.
My mind wandered from these objects to a phrase that I’d caught from Ed, citing a Dr Manning, explaining that “a footprint is not an impression of a foot, it is an expression of the forces acting through a foot”, and a slightly contrary or supplementary instruction from a John Stokes of ‘The Tracking Project’, about which I knew nothing but had grasped hold of as some ground to revisit, that “a track is the earth’s reaction to your passing over it”. It brought Elly immediately to mind: how I’d always been a conduit; how my deformed hand, the imprint of her infancy, was an expression – and yet it was an expression of us both: the forces of flesh and will,that left reverberations. It was impossible for me to avoid the feeling of her putting the boot in, at me, the family, our substance, and all of our sedimentary, stratified, deposits. Was my new era of boho robing, tea drinking and the like destined to be just a new stratum of deposition?
A ghostly room was bound to elicit these darker thoughts, and so affirmative action was needed badly: I started the clear-out. The vixen makes a den for the purpose of bearing and rearing the cubs. When this is done there is no den. It is an issue of semantics, and by that I don’t mean to imply ‘trivial’, it goes to the meaning of the home, both for her and her cubs. Why do humans stay as babies then? Attached to the trappings of infancy. A trade-off for having society at all perhaps. But I felt I’d slipped through the societal gaps that Elly had hewn.
I thought of the fox in her den and it wasn’t long before I’d resolved that hers was my target species. I was going to follow the trail, not because I hadn’t seen foxes about, I had, quite a lot. I think I just felt some affinity. I could have looked for otters on the riverbank and be charmed beyond anything. Perhaps it was an apt modesty on my part to disallow that. It was presumptuous of me, though, to decide in advance on the animal to track. I wouldn’t be so insensitive in hindsight, but this was before I understood where tracking places a person in the order of things.
Ed was, I think, unimpressed by my assertion that foxes were my quarry, my subject. His attitude made no difference really, because as gross as my approach was, it was the only way I was going to get into it. The subtleties of Ichnology were all well and good in his world, I tartly said to myself, but far too esoteric for mine. Fortunately, information about foxes was ubiquitous, holding me up for a while from actually attempting the ‘field work’ so to speak. Unlike Jason, I’d always been timid about getting into things. I can see that my choice of the fox was unsurprising. The human affinity with the fox is historic, built into the biosocial fabric, I guess. We feel we have a right to know about them, and they us. It’s a canine attitude.
I knew there were foxes very nearby. There was road-kill of course, but more often the sickly ambiguous smell that used to be brought into the house by the dogs that slowly resolved itself into the revulsion of fox poo, or ‘scat’ as I now self-consciously called it. These were my closest experiences so far, both powerfully distancing. Then there was the fox hunting: something still in the veins of the village. We’d never been in it’s bloodline so remained ignorant about customs like hunting except to be swept aside by horses and hounds on the street. So, as archetypal as it is, and as strong the connections, there was quite a gulf between myself and the fox.