Liversedge Farm tried hard to bury itself into the landscape, at the end of a muddy, unsurfaced lane, hard-packed gravel and stones the only support for the few vehicles brave enough to voyage down it.
Fog faded the landscape to a dreary grey, Droplets of condensation on every surface, hanging from the branches and the twigs, glistening on the spiders’ webs.
It seemed that even the world had forgotten the farm, with its overgrown orchard, the rusting tractor in the ivy-strangled, crumbling barn. Weeds gave the yard an unshaven, wild look, and the cracked panes in the mildewed wooden window panes seemed to suggest a history long since written and concluded.
But there was still life there. The old man wandered round the cold kitchen, poking from time to time at the coal in the stove, making sure that it was burning well. His gnarled hands slowly assembled the ingredients of breakfast, knocking dust off the knick-knacks that littered the shelves as he took something from them that he needed.
He glanced out of the window at the yard and barn, nodding to himself at the roke that seemed to have smeared the landscape into a featureless haze beyond the lane. He was glad that it was not raining. The house’s roof was missing some more tiles these days and he was running out of pots and pans to catch the leaks that had turned the attic into a fungus-riddled, dank triangular nightmare.
He filled the dented copper kettle at the sink, waiting until the spluttering taps had finished coughing up brown-tinted water. While it started the slow process of boiling on the stove, he checked the toast, found it done and with what he thought was a hasty movement, he withdrew it, noticing only after he had put the slices on the plate, the red mark on his finger and thumb that would later throb with hot pain.
As he made his way along the hall to the bottom of the stairs, he did not even notice the peeling wallpaper, marked with dark spots as if it had caught some unpleasant disease. The paint on the skirting board had worn away to reveal the wood in several places. The rattle of the crockery on the tray was the only sound apart from the slow ticking of the grandfather clock, all day, every day punching holes in the silence.
He started up the stairs, both hands holding the tray, not using the rickety banister that creaked and swayed if anyone was so foolish as to place their trust in it. The third and seventh stairs, covered by fraying carpet, groaned like slumbering donkeys as his steady tread fell upon them. She would know he was coming.
And still the grandfather clock intoned the passing of the seconds, its pendulum shaving fragments off time.
He backed in, pushing the door with his bony shoulders, and so he smelt the room before he saw it, that familiar fug of must, of damp, the faint tinge of spilled urine, long since dried. The pungent undertone, like a cello being played downstairs, of stale tobacco.
The room had its dusty curtains drawn, but this made little difference to the half-lit scene. The bed was spread with two blankets, a quilt and a counterpane but the woman in it still felt as cold as ice. He put the tray down on the bedside table and sat himself down beside her, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the long oval mirror fitted into the door of the mahogany wardrobe. He noticed just how unkempt the decision not to shave that morning had made his chin and jowls. What was left of his hair waved wildly back at itself. His turkey neck hid in the shadows of his shirt collar.
He turned back to the woman in the bed, brushed what was left of her hair back from her lined and hollow-cheeked face. He half-started for the ebony hairbrush tangled with silver threads on the dressing table but then sat down again. Her dark eyes, the only things that moved, turned to watch him.
“It’s today,” he said quietly, and she tried a smile that got no further than her eyes. He started to feed her, piece by piece, her toast and marmalade, her scrambled egg, her porridge. It was probably only warm now, he thought, as he watched her try to chew and swallow each mouthful.
Once she had finished as much as she was going to eat, he stroked her cold cheek, then got up and walked to the window, glancing out to where a hedgerow ran straight as an arrow into the fog and disappeared like a ghost. He picked the hairbrush, knocking over two of the many bottles of tablets as he did, setting them aright with a shaking hand. He looked for quite some time at the glistening silver hairs, remembering when they had been chestnut red, and then he put it down again because his breathing and swallowing had become rapid and he was shaking.
He let his glance move around the room as he walked to the bed, picked up the tray, met her eyes again, then left. He went into the spare room where he now slept, and laid the tray on the bed. His pipe and packet of tobacco sat by the dusty glass on the bedside table, next to an equally dusty Bible.
He rarely went to church now. Even the hymns were different now, and the vicar’s sermons were dominated by terrible goings-on in faraway countries with unpronounceable names, for which he asked his dwindling number of parishioners to donate. And it was such a long way to walk, when no buses ran on Sunday - and only once every other day during the week - and taxi drivers didn’t even know where the farm was. The one who had brought them home the last time from the hospital with more bottles and more pills given to them by a sad-eyed young Indian doctor, had dropped them off at the end of the lane to walk the last half-mile back.
And he didn’t want to leave her alone, not even for a couple of hours.
He went into the chilly bathroom, the wooden sash window jammed a half-inch open. He turned on the taps and put the plug in. It would take time to fill, but he was happy to wait. From the cupboard, he took the heaviest towel he could find and laid it into the warming water, pushing it down until the wet had darkened it so that it looked the deepest burgundy, rather than a faded red. Only once it was fully soaked did he turn off the taps. He felt the water. Good. It was warm. He wanted it to be warm. It was for the best.
He came down the stairs, carrying the tray. He was breathing shallowly and swallowing as he came. The seventh and third stairs groaned sadly. The grandfather clock ticked on, steadily, mercilessly. He walked along the hallway and into the kitchen, put the tray on the draining board, the cutlery into the sink, stained and scratched through years of use.
He pulled on his tweed jacket that had been too big for him, then just right, then too tight across the shoulders and now too loose again. He walked out into the yard and headed for the barn. The damp, cold air got into his lungs and he started to cough. Somewhere out in the greyness, a dog started barking, then stopped just as suddenly. He pushed open the door of the barn, sidled through the gap, pulled it shut again. What he was looking for, he found under an old table on which rusty and unoiled tools lay discarded since their last job had been finished.
Across the farm, across the damp and dripping landscape, silence held on. Then there was a sound like thunder and the sudden flight of birds.