It had never been a house, this little building on the edge of the moor. It had only ever offered the most basic of comforts to the shepherds living out there in the bleakness. Four walls, a moss roof, a fireplace in the corner under a small hole. In its day, it must have been hot and smoky.
She might have preferred to stay outside in the fresh air back then.
Her eyes glint slightly - the first sign of life in hours - as she calculates how much of this building had made it to the present.
Approximately fifty-nine per cent. None of the roof has survived, and the wall opposite where she sits has been reduced to a scattering of stones, starting in a heap where the wall once proudly stood, growing sparser as the distance from the hut increases.
Her brain whirls through another calculation: the amount of roughly hewn stones across the bottom of the one complete wall, by the amount of rows reaching the six feet of its height. She compares this to the approximate amount of stones left in the pile at the foot of the non-wall. Someone has been stealing the stones.
This knowledge soothes her.
She huddles by the eastern wall where there is still some small protection from the cruel wind that cuts across the moor.
She licks her dry and broken lips and peeps out of the space left by two missing bricks in the wall beside her. She can see an orange cagoule a long way off, and the sight startles her. She cringes and cowers but makes herself check again. One walker. No. Two. Two people with their dog. From this distance, she decides they are a happy couple, sharing and respectful of one another. They dote on their dog as if it were a child, and she has a moment of jealousy.
Her heart settles back into its proper place, and she shuffles two tender buttocks closer to her corner.
The walls are made of sandstone; rough bricks of uneven sizes cut into basic blocks and stacked together. In places ancient and crumbling cement holds them together, but mostly the builder relied on the old dry-stone method. Her right temple is resting against one brick, and her right eye is so close that it can see the individual specks of sand that gather to form it.
Before – a long time ago, when she was still a child – she used to lick stones like this.
She would feel a million granules against the roughness of her tongue, things so small, too tiny for her fingers to make out, but solid and dense together. Strong.
She licks the wall now.
It tastes like childhood, and she is ashamed.
A gust of wind rushes in through the lost wall, swirls once around the building, grabbing, greedily searching through every nook, molesting her, rudely taking advantage of her stillness and fear.
She calculates its speed and force, and her pale fingers wrap her sweater more closely to her.
She looks out through the little gap. She thinks she can see him, perhaps, a long way from here. She thinks there is movement. She stiffens and then relaxes. It’s just a rabbit, perhaps, a long way away.
The wind whips her tangled, dirty hair across her face.
A long time ago, back when she was a child, her hair had been so golden it could fill the world with light. The sun shone through it and in it as she bounced on the little trampoline in the back garden. Splaying upwards and outwards as she filled the sky with love, laughing through red lips and white teeth, her hair following her body down, flopping over her chest, curling around her shoulders, down, down, then up, up and all the while laughing. Her brother had aimed a water pistol at her and soaked her, and she’d held her hands up to cover her face and laughed through them, and as she drew her hands away, she saw the man through the window.
They’d known each other for years, that man and her, but as she slowly lowered her dripping hands it was they were meeting now in this little, terraced, new-build house for the very first time. He didn’t call to her. He didn’t wave. There was a slight nod of his head, and a small move of his muscles in his face, pulling his lips upwards. Then he turned away.
She’d frowned with the ludicrous humour of the summer day and started bouncing again. Bare feet hitting thick black canvass.
Her bare feet poke out beyond the hems of her tight jeans now. Her bony ankles are cold from where she stamped right through the brook and they got wet, and one aches from where she twisted it as she ran. In the corner opposite her, by the untidy pile of sandstone blocks, her wet trainers are neatly placed, side by side with the laces tucked inside. There are no socks. There wasn’t time.
In the new-build terrace there was a higgledy piggledy pile of shoes all jumbled together in the hallway. She remembers the feel of her father’s hand against the back of her legs on the day that he tripped over them. The pile had been there for a thousand years, but one day, that day, in that moment, they were her responsibility. In retrospect, the slap hadn’t hurt her much. There hadn’t even been a red mark when she’d checked in the bathroom after her shower.
She used to do things like that once; check for marks that were never there. These days, she wonders why she bothered checking.
She is dirty today. All of her is, of course, but her feet have a clean, dry dirt. The soil sticking to her soles smells the way it always has; rich and earthy. Bits of bracken cling to her clothes. The soil, the bracken, the sandstone walls; all these things belong to the time before, and she feels the grim weight of shame.
She looks out again across the cold, barren moor.
The knowledge that he is on his way drips into her consciousness and becomes part of her world.
Her stomach twists in hunger. She moves her head stiffly to look around. There’s been no food in this building for decades now. Not even rats for the foxes or rubbish for the rats. The smoky fireplace might have been used once for heating soup or stew to keep the shepherd going through the cold of the winter.
Mother will start making soups next week. Always a slow cooker on the go, ready to ladle out something hot as first her brother, then she, then her father got home. Mother was very good at keeping her family warm. When the sun quickly dropped on the day of the barbeque, she reached to touch her daughter’s ankles and told her to find some socks. She’d laughed and not moved. The man had brashly stated that she could look after herself well enough now. She didn’t need to cover her pretty white ankles if she’d rather not.
Winter had come quickly this year. Almost overnight. Sometimes it seems like yesterday that they were laughing in the garden, cooking meat outside, bouncing into the air, shooting off water pistols. White smiles and flowing hair.
She realises now that she should have predicted the change. If she had dutifully taken readings of the wind speed and direction, and the temperature at various times of day, she could have plotted them on a chart with mean and meridian points, and a trend line striking through.
It might have made her more aware.
But it’s too late now. Now it’s darker, colder, the air is more present; something to feel and fight through. Coats should be thicker, food more plentiful and dished out regularly. But that is all for the time before. Now she is not a child she is alone, hungry and underdressed, setting all her hopes on the last fifty-nine per cent of this stony place.
She makes her fingers remember the warmth of her brown mug that she held to her chest, letting it thaw the freeze that she’d picked up on the bus trip across town. Her fingers fail her, and the coldness and the hunger stay. She estimates it will be about half an hour until she starts shaking uncontrollably.
She thinks she sees a movement outside, and she moves towards the tiny gap again, her eyes peering through.
It’s cloudy now, and the afternoon light has taken on a murky, thick quality. She can’t see as far away any more. She knows that there’s a brook, some half mile away, beyond which the dog-walkers were taking their stroll. She knows it’s there, but she can’t see it.
It feels as though the world is shrinking to a small circle with this little building and the beating, frightened heart in the centre of it.
There’s nobody out there that she can see now. Her eyes keep looking.
Sharp, blue eyes, clear as crystal. Eyes that will pick up the individual grains of sand in the walls, or the accident with the shoes before it happens, or the half smile of the man from forever through the kitchen window. Now there’s nothing but the moor.
She closes the sharp little eyes.
Odd thoughts come to her now. The smell of the polish on the piano as she practises.
Hiding in the cupboard during hide and seek, and finding a spider but not screaming.
The feel of the man’s body pressed up against hers, and the taste of his rough hands in her mouth.
Her eyes snap open again.
She moves now, sitting up and feeling the fight coming back from a long way down in her stomach, far beyond where the pain starts. She peers out of her tower again, looking off into the distance. She can see the path that she can take home. She will choose a better, more solid path on the homeward journey, which leads to the good stepping-stones over the brook.
Twelve minutes to the path. Seven minute to the brook.
At the other side the path forks, and along the left hand fork, if she walks quickly for twenty minutes, she will reach the outskirts of her village. She’ll be at the older side, with the hills and the cobbles and the pub, but she can walk under the lamplight to the street with the new build terrace. It’s a slightly longer route, but nobody will be expecting her that way.
She looks again to check that there is nobody there. She can’t even see a rabbit or a crow.
Alone in the small section of this world, she stands and prepares herself to leave. She pats the stone wall by her shoulder, and on impulse, she kisses it.
She takes one long breath and reaches for her shoes.
There is a rustling and she looks up. Her second shoe drops back to the ground and she presses her small body to the wall.
A savage half-smile gleams at her in the half-light.