He’s awoken at dawn by snuffling on the blankets at the end of the bed. The room is dark, embers in the wood burner glowing iron red. But there’s no use lying there, not now. He can’t get back to sleep once he’s awake. Besides, there are things to do.
He pulls back the sheets. The air is cool. The embers from the stove don’t reach far, it’s nearly out. The cottage is always biting cold in the morning, with its stone walls, tiny windows and draughty doors. Rising in the morning is like taking an ice shower. He doesn’t like ice showers, although sometimes he and his wife jump in the harbour, when she’s there. It’s good for the soul, she says. It’d be too cold to jump in the harbour on a day like this and for a moment he’s glad she’s away. But only for a moment.
Pulling on slippers and a terry-towelling gown (also cold but quickly warm) he opens the back door. The morning is dewy and still, the western sky gloomy. Jessie streaks past him, a blur of white and black, racing back and forth through overgrown grass like a ricocheting bullet, hot breath coming in clouds. She finds a spot, does her business. He looks the other way.
Afterwards, they return indoors. He gives the dog breakfast, puts the kettle on. Bread toasts. He checks the calendar. Wednesday. Three more sleeps until his wife comes home.
“She’s away too much,” his mother says when she calls, once a week on Tuesdays. “She should consider your needs more.”
“She’s not on holiday, Ma. She’s travelling for work.”
“So are you,” his mother replies.
Which is strictly true; although he’s not sure it counts. He travels between hotels, not continents. They travelled more together when they first met, when they were younger. Back then, their world was a stream of unfamiliar countries and shoe-string hostels, a blur of rickety train rides between music festivals and ayahuasca retreats. Now she travels alone. Her work takes her away.
After breakfast (Marmite on toast, a hardboiled egg and a little fruit—two plums today; there are no apples) he takes a shower, pulls on his overalls and throws some coal on the wood burner to keep it ticking over throughout the day. He departs into a chilly morning, flask of tea in one hand, bundle of keys and tobacco in the other.
Out front, the sun creeps above a hilly horizon. Liquid gold lights his face. The grass is still dark with night. Dew clings to the grass. He can’t see it, but he knows it’s there; it crackles against his work boots as he walks to the van, soaks into flecks of plaster on the soles, dampens Jessie’s fur as she strides alongside him. She paces ahead, sniffs a rabbit hole, returns faithfully to his side.
An amber sun offers the only light.
As usual, the neighbours’ cottages are still dark. Still asleep. Still.
It takes an hour of bouncing through narrow country lanes, winding between hedgerows, up and over hills before he arrives at his first hotel of the day. By now it’s a beautiful morning. He wishes his wife was there to see it.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” says the girl on reception. She has nice hair. It’s not as nice as his wife’s, but his wife isn’t there. “Somebody flushed a tampon again,” she rolls her eyes knowingly. “They never read the sign, do they?” she says, as though he’d written the sign himself. “Anyway, it’s all backed up and stinks of sewage. Can you fix it?”
That’s what I’m here for, he says.
He wonders why the girl thinks a sign will stop people flushing tampons. He knows from sore experience that people will flush whatever they like. But he doesn’t ask. People often laugh when he asks questions, they think he’s joking. Usually he’s not.
The girl with the nice hair points him in the right direction.
The toilet bowl is full of brown water and other unpleasant things. Semi-solid things. Returning to the van, he collects the proper tools, pausing to give Jessie a good scratch between the ears so she knows he won’t be long. She licks his face. He laughs a little in disgust, wipes his sleeve across his cheek.
When he’s done, he explains to the reception girl how he fixed the loo. It’s not important to tell her, but he wants someone to talk to, for a little while.
“Oh, thank you!” she keeps saying, keeping her distance, keeping her shiny hair away. He wants to talk more, but she interrupts. “Well, I guess we’ll see you next time someone blocks the loo.”
He takes his cue to leave.
Outside, the blue sky is patchy with fast-moving clouds that dapple the road as he drives, casting shadows on the cracked tarmac, leopard print grey.
He wonders what his wife is doing. It’s 9.33am here. Before she left, she said she’d be six hours ahead… in case he wanted to keep her in mind. He isn’t good at sums, but he always keeps her in mind.
He figures it must be around lunchtime wherever she is. Perhaps there’s a break in the conference. Perhaps she’s eating exotic cafeteria food in an exotic cafeteria, with other scientists. Good-looking men, probably. Scientists usually are. He wonders if any of them have wives who keep dog shit in the fridge.
“It’s for work,” she’d told him, when he’d asked what was in the Tupperware box. “I need a sample for the lab.”
She’d taken it fresh from the yard, explaining there was something special in Jessie’s shit. In all dog shit. If anyone could see beauty in a dog turd, he’d joked, it was her. She’d flashed a wry smile. It was a virus, she’d said—one she needed for work. He can’t recall the name and it’s bugging him. Toxo-something. He can remember that much because toxo sounds like toxic, and if dog shit in the fridge is anything, it’s toxic.
He tries to focus his thoughts, picturing a magnifying glass on a piece of paper, waiting for it to catch. What was the name? Something that made him think of Venice. Toxoplasma-something… Gondola! Yes, that was it. Toxoplasma gondola.
He’s never been to Venice.
His wife has.
He arrives at the next hotel at just after ten. The day is bright and brisk but it won’t stay that way. The weather changes here so fast. The hotel manager is gruff and tired. She doesn’t speak much, except to say there’s a problem with one of the taps in the staff room.
Most of the calls he gets are taps. Or toilets. Things that’re easy to fix. Sometimes he wonders why hotel staff can’t fix these things themselves. Of course, if they did, he’d be out of a job. It’s a quick task; the tap’s just dripping. Needs a new washer. It’s usually a new washer. Have you tried a new washer? He always asks first. It’s the plumbing equivalent of, Have you tried turning it off and on again? He probably replaces three or four washers a week. Even if he’s called for something entirely unrelated, if he’s near a tap, he’ll check if the washer needs replacing. Could save him another visit.
He informs the hotel manager when he’s done. She’s not as friendly as the reception girl with the nice hair. And she’s got a big nose.
“Just needed a replacement washer,” he says. “That’s usually all it is.”
“Thanks,” she replies, but she doesn’t sound very thankful. Maybe she’s having a bad day. Still, he tells her to call him if there are any more problems but that replacing a washer is easy if she wants to do it herself? Or she could get one of her staff to do it, if they have a wrench? Could save him a visit, he says. But she doesn’t seem interested in washers, or taps, or wrenches.
When he gets back out to the van, the clouds have completely blown away. The view from the car park is really nice. This particular hotel is on a clifftop between two towns, right alongside the coastal path. That’s what people come here for: to walk. But not so much at this time of year. Few hikers today. He decides to take a break, roll a cigarette, pour a cup of tea from the flask.
Even with the windows up, he can hear the ocean battering the beach below. Slightly east from here, there’s a quiet cove. He and his wife spent the day there once. In summer. They sat on the beach. She read a book. He listened to music. They tried a little surfing but weren’t very good. Then they went for a walk, found a dead dolphin. He’d buried it in the sand, using a big flat rock for a spade. She’d sat on a boulder nearby, watching him. He’d thought it might be cool to come back in a year or two, once the flesh was all rotted away, see if he could collect the skull. It might make an interesting curiosity, he’d thought.
That was a year or two ago. He thinks about going down to the beach, digging up the dolphin’s skull. But then he realises he can’t remember where he buried it. Besides, there’s a new blanket of cloud rolling in on the horizon. It might rain soon. He stubs out his cigarette, gulps down his tea and drives on.
The next hotel is in the centre of a nearby town. He’s got a bathroom tiling job that’s been in the calendar a while now. The assistant manager is a tall man, friendlier than the woman at the last place. The man reminds him of his brother, Stephen. The Stephen lookalike even remembers his name. Shakes his hand.
“Here you go, this is the one that needs tiling,” says the tall manager who reminds him of his brother.
“It should only take a few hours,” he tells the man.
He decides to tile the bathroom in an overlapping brick pattern, which always looks nicer.
Mid-afternoon, the bathroom’s almost done. He’s not had lunch, so he takes Jessie to run around a nearby park. Children play in the playground, with their parents. They squeal on swings, chase each other up and down a metal slide. He likes kids. He’d like to have one of his own, one day.
“We wouldn’t be able to travel,” his wife says. She has a point, he supposes. Still, he’d like a kid someday. He’s getting older. He wouldn’t want to be too old of a father.
“You know what you married,” says his kid brother, Stephen. “If you wanted kids, you should have talked about it beforehand. She’s career-driven—you can’t hold her success against her. Expecting her to drop everything because you want kids is a bit sexist, isn’t it?”
That’s what Stephen says.
Thing is, he’s proud of his wife’s success. He sometimes wishes she wasn’t away so much, that’s all. It gets lonely with just the dog. But he doesn’t tell his family this. Not his mother, who would use it against his wife if she could. And not Stephen, who takes offence so easily. Every time he says something, Stephen finds a reason to jump down his throat.
Stephen would never appreciate the reception girl with the nice hair. And not just because he prefers men. Judging people on looks isn’t right, he’d say. But that makes no sense. Doesn’t everyone judge people by how they look?
Once Jessie has run round some, clouds are rumbling in and the playground is empty. It’s starting to rain. He drinks the last of the tea and finishes the tiling. By five o’clock it’s all done.
“Well, it’s very neat,” the assistant manager says, arms crossed. “But the rest of the bathrooms are tiled straight, not with an overlapping pattern.”
Not again, he thinks.
“I’ll come back in the morning to redo it,” he tells the man.
“That’d be great,” the assistant manager says. He smiles, but his smile looks irritated.
When he gets outside, rain is coming down in sheets.
By the time he gets home, it’s dark again. He feeds the dog, stokes the fire, makes some dinner. Just beans on toast. He hasn’t the energy to cook. He’ll save that for when his wife gets back.
He checks the calendar again. Tomorrow it’ll be two more sleeps before she’s home. She’ll only be back a few days, but he reminds himself how lucky he is to have her. Still, the thought makes him so tired that by eight o’clock, he’s in bed. By nine, he’s out.