“Fuck!” James Grant cried, straightening up after dragging aside the trailer in their neighbour’s ramshackle barn. “Fuck! Goddam it!” he repeated.

“What? What is it?” asked Ellie, his shocked wife.

James didn’t answer. Instead, he turned and walked to the barn’s open door and back again to calm himself. Then he held out his right arm for her to see, swollen like Popeye’s in its thick padded sleeve.

“Look,” he said. “I just ruined my jacket.”

Ellie Grant came closer.

“Oil,” she said, examining the trail of black smears running up the tan gabardine from the cuff almost to her husband’s shoulder.

“This is my best jacket,” James said, surprising himself by how angry he felt. “It’s been everywhere. I only put it on for a few minutes because tonight was cold out and we put away all the other stupid crappy clothes I wear here because we’re leaving tomorrow.” He turned his arm as he spoke, exposing the join where the fabric gathered at the wrist. “There’s a rip too!” he wailed.

His anguish was so great it seemed briefly to telescope time so that he recognised, as it were from the opposite end of life, the exact same feelings he’d felt as a child precipitated into a tantrum. He could see himself aged 4 or 5 holding up a broken toy or a cut finger for his mother to witness and, inevitably, fail to redress.

Sensible Ellie, second wife and substitute mother, took his arm. She stretched the spoiled sleeve between her fingers and squinted through the barn’s evening gloom.

“I can mend that,” she said. “I can probably clean it too.”

“Can one clean oil?”

“You should be able to.”

“Great,” said James, feeling only slightly mollified. He glared at the tilted trailer, a white box balanced on a single rubber tyre, that Bruno, their neighbour, had parked alongside his pickup truck swaddled in dust sheets, a rusted motorbike, stakes, buckets, bricks, bags of fertiliser and cement, rakes and other agricultural implements. The Grants had come to return a borrowed ladder, walking it between them up the dirt track from their cabin to the barn after a long day spent cleaning and packing up in readiness for their return to LA the next morning. But the trailer- a recent purchase by Bruno- was in their way. Though it looked as if it would roll aside at the touch of a finger, to James’ surprise the thing wouldn’t move (a hidden wedge, it later transpired). Since the trailer’s smooth surfaces offered no grip, he had reached underneath, grasped the undercarriage in both hands and hauled it bodily to one side. Now his right arm was imprinted with a trail of jagged black smears as if an abstract expressionist painter had cleaned his brush on James’ jacket.

“I wouldn’t mind but I’m extremely conscious of our need to save money and I don’t spend money. I don’t buy new things. I’ve kept this jacket going for years. I’m exhausted from trying to get the damn house in shape to begin with. I try and try to do what’s best for us and now this. It’s this place. It just kills- everything,” he complained bitterly as they pulled the barn door shut behind them and threaded on the heavy bronze padlock. The damage to his jacket seemed to have pitched him into an altered state, foolishly self-absorbed but he couldn’t get out of it. He felt crazily on the verge of tears, cut off from Ellie and from everything and everybody, a 60- year- old man somersaulted back into the mind of a desolate little boy.

Ellie stayed silent- suffering in silence, James secretly hoped. This whole thing was her fault in the first place. She was the one responsible for dragging him up here where her father, a manager for the Post Office, had discovered Mendocino in the 1930s when he was sent on secondment from San Francisco to reorganise rural deliveries. Old man Taylor bought, for a song, one of a small group of wood and stone summer cabins on the slopes between the coast and the forested hills behind. Ellie had spent childhood vacations at the cabin, in due time inherited the place, built on an extra guest room, come with her own children, and, after her divorce and remarriage, brought James with her. The cabin was her retreat, where she could spend most of the day outdoors, in her beloved garden rather than shut inside their city condo or round the crowded communal pool. But James hated everything about it from the 14-hour drive from Los Angeles to the isolation, the clannish locals, the self-sufficient lifestyle and the cabin itself with its low closets, low doors and low ceilings on which he regularly, and painfully, hit his head.

It was beautiful though. He had to give her that. As they walked back down the track, the evening sky poured rivers of pink and orange- the work of a different, more Romantic painter than James’ jacket. The lights of houses and small settlements pricked up in the hills. Headlights and red taillights of tiny moving vehicles traced invisible roads through dark trees. James trudged on, nursing a resentment he knew was overblown but nevertheless determined to remain impervious to a sight, however stunning, that he’d seen every night for the last three weeks. He yearned for freeways and the office towers of downtown LA- a single full-service supermarket would have filled him with gratitude. He felt furious with Ellie. The jacket was only the latest in a series of misadventures . Ellie knew how he felt about Mendocino, yet in her quiet passive-aggressive way she still forced him to come here over and over again.

Back at their cabin, he shed the jacket like a skin and laid it on the dining table. Ellie got a sponge and soap and scrubbed tentatively at one of the stains.

“No,” she said after a few moments. “I can’t get it out.”


“I’m sorry. It’s not working. We can try the dry cleaners when we get back to LA”

James looked at her bleakly. Yet one more thing she promised and couldn’t deliver. This place killed everything and if she wasn’t careful it would kill their marriage too. She said she was sorry- well, let her have something to be sorry about.

He shivered, whether at the thought or at the cold air in the cabin. This far north the nights were still chilly in May. Ordinarily, the Grants would have lit the fire. But the hearth was swept and wood stacked neatly next to it, ready for the first of the summer season’s tenants. A fire was out of the question as was cooking a proper meal or even sleeping in their own bed. They would sleep on the sofa bed in the living room in a set of old sheets they would take away with them. Their personal things- the Tom Waits CDs, the pair of frog candlesticks, an expensive pepper mill, the spare computer, some good wine, their country wardrobes- were already stowed and locked away.

The cabin seemed cheerless and empty, as if nobody lived there. The wooden walls and ceiling gave it the dark, masculine atmosphere shown in old photographs from Ellie’s father’s day. Ellie had worked hard to lighten the place by getting rid of the old hunting trophies, putting in additional windows and decorating with pale rugs and sky-blue upholstery. But every time they got ready to leave, the cabin seemed to reassert itself, to revert to its essential nature.

“Can you tell me what we think we’re doing?” James demanded following Ellie around the tiny kitchen while she boiled some pasta then laced it with the last of the sauce from a bottle she rinsed and added to the recycling they would drop off in Ukiah. “We get here, we open the place up, there are always a million problems. We work like crazy and we just get it back in shape when it’s time for us to leave again.”

“You are out of sorts,” Ellie said, pushing her long, greying hair back over her scalp with a weary hand.

“Not at all,” James said. “I’m thrilled to be returning to civilisation. I can wash without pumping my own water. I can eat without shooting my own dinner. And instead of all this silence there’ll be sirens- thank god for sirens!”

Ellie laughed despite herself.

“You’re exaggerating terribly,” she said. “You’ve never shot anything in your life.”

“Not yet. But I’m thinking about it.”

“As opposed to whining, you mean.”

“I thought living in the country was supposed to make us more relaxed and nicer.”

“It makes me nicer,” Ellie said calmly. “It doesn’t make me stupid though. If it was up to you, we’d never leave LA.”

“If it was up to me, we’d never leave the apartment.”

After dinner, Ellie settled down to read. Her ability to read anywhere and everywhere, like her ability to fall asleep five minutes after taking off on an airplane and not wake up again until five minutes before landing had been a matter of wonder and admiration to James when they first got together: now it was more likely to irritate him. Restless and ignored by his wife, who was adding to her other sins by refusing to be upset by his upset, he wandered out into the blacked-out garden. The sky above was a dense, stellar field. A plane winked its way across, the angle making it look as if aircraft and stars were at the same distance and the pilot was threading his way through the Milky Way rather than shuttling up and down the Oregon-Bay Area corridor. Here was another kind of beauty, but tonight it seemed no more than frozen, alien space.

He went back indoors and into bed in his tee-shirt and underpants for warmth. Ellie, transporting her book with her, fell asleep at once, exhausted by the day’s physical work. James lay awake on the thin mattress with its awkward ridges, with his eyes wide open, too tired to sleep. He stared at the filigreed shadow of a peach tree filling the window they’d left unshuttered so that the morning light would wake them. His anger seemed to have evaporated without making things any better. The emotional seizure or spasm he’d suffered in the barn had pitched him into a strange, paralysed state like one of those Edgar Allen Poe characters to whom terrible things like being buried alive or strapped down beneath a scything blade are happening or about to happen. He felt torn out of the web of the present and its distractions, forced apart from his self and from the woman whose face was burrowed in the pillow beside him, as if his childhood and old age had collapsed together back in the barn revealing his prime to be a black hole that amounted to nothing and was in any event already past. We’ll leave him lying there, struggling with his fear of death, because that’s what this is about- the black stains on the perfect sleeve, the tear in the fabric, the ruin of a jacket vis a vis the ruin of hope, the impossibility of reclamation or restitution, the moment when the person selected to be your comfort and bulwark turns out to be the very same person who is propelling you, hurrying you towards the end. And what is left to you then? Not love, not resistance, not philosophy, not books, not art, not courage, and not consolation. Only beauty, perhaps, the beauty that endures though we don’t. The rest is just your life that you’re going to lose anywa All contents mike bygrave 2014