At the land’s end, on the other side of the craggy rock that juts gnarled and fingerlike into the sea, there is a village. Beneath slopes of pine, where granite meets the waves, a clutch of houses cling to the hillside, white as the sea spray that rushes up to meet them. There are a hundred such quiet, sun-baked villages, each with their own diamond dazzle of light on water, their own particular way in which the sharpness of pine cuts through the air.
Rock and salt and the smell of heat. The constant purr of cicadas, their busy legs thrumming. As if the whole air were a guitar string, taut and trembling. As if at any moment the whole air might snap.
The man arrived in the village as the summer sun began to bake the earth. As the last blades of grass turned dry and hollow, he appeared in the rough-hewn opening between houses that called itself the village square. A pack on his back, an easel under his arm. He was a painter, he said. Needed somewhere to stay.
As in any village, the grandmothers shook their heads. Planted their hands on their wide, floral-printed hips and tutted. Eyes were rolled; voices grew from tuts to shouts. And as in any village, this commotion eventually drew the grandfathers, who generally prefer to keep out of such women’s nonsense. They while their days away in string vests beneath the olive trees, newspapers in hand, belts pulled high around their midriffs. But now they stepped into the fray, smacking their toothless gums and rubbing their bald heads, for no one could decide where the visitor should stay. They do not have many visitors here.
Eventually a peace was brokered, and it was decided that the artist should lodge with the woman at the edge of the village. Alone with her boy, it was felt that she needed the money most, for the grandmothers had been fingering the man’s jacket as they bickered, running their hands along the smooth leather of his valise, and although both he and his belongings were old and paint-splattered, it was clear that he could pay.
They set off along the cobbled street, an unruly caravan of housecoats and the violet scent of talcum powder. The houses were small and uneven, slathered in centuries of white paint. Hot pink bougainvillea frothed across their facades. Old shutters clanged in the breeze and roofs sagged beneath the weight of vines and greenery. And beyond the clatter of shoes and the chatter of voices, there was the sea, turquoise and glittering beneath them, the hiss and suck of its coming and going.
The house at the edge of the village was even more dilapidated than the rest, its shutters hanging off their hinges, the front door so flaked as to be almost bare of paint. But by now sweat had stained the armpits of the man’s shirt, and he was glad to stand in the cool of its entryway. Cold stone beneath his feet, the lace curtains breathing in and out with the breeze, his eyes adjusting, slowly, to the darkness.
‘Where’s your mama?’ one of the old ladies barked into the gloom, for in the blindness of stepping from light to dark the man had not seen the boy sat at the kitchen table, spindly legs dangling from his chair. The boy did not reply, for he does not reply. ‘This man is staying a while. Paying.’ The woman rubbed her thick fingers together – the smell of fish and garlic. ‘Tell your mother.’
Still the boy was silent, his legs swinging through the afternoon heat. The grandmother threw up her hands in resignation and ambled back to the village.
The man and the boy stared uneasily at each other for a time. Eventually, the man knelt down, the crack of his knees sharp and despotic as he opened up his case and began to pull out tattered silver tubes of paint. In the halflight, the boy’s eyes glittered.
Later, when the day had escaped the sky, leaving a pale pink nothingness in its wake, the woman returned. She worked at the hotel in the big town, a drive away, where tourists complained about pebbles on the beaches and the lack of air conditioning. Summer was the season of damp foreheads, the smell of tea escaping from armpits. The hours were long, and as her car wound along the unlit road, she saw more stars before her eyes than those that began to prick the darkening heavens.
Outside the house at the edge of the village, she hesitated. There was something different in the air, though it smelled as always of brine and dust. The lights were on, spilling pools of gold onto the scrubby earth. Down in the bay, the sea kept its usual rhythms and she knew that if she dipped her feet in it the water would be warm to the touch. Instead, she entered the house.
Inside she found a stranger – tall, white-haired – at her table. Her boy on the floor, scribbling. And this man, this man, a notebook leant against his knee, was scribbling too. She stopped in the doorway, instinctively clutched her purse.
Her son looked up, a wide moonbeam of smile in his sunkissed face. He ran to her, wrapping himself around her side as he had when he was five and six, and she was glad, then, that he still did it at seven as well. The stranger stood up, bending his tall head to miss the low ceiling.
‘I’ve come to paint.’ He did not extend his gnarled hand. His voice was gruff and she imagined that it would not take much to make him bark. ‘The women –’ he gestured towards the village ‘– they said I might stay here. A paying guest.’
‘Of course.’ The woman moved stiffly, awkwardly through space. Her son returned to his drawing, and looking back from the threshold of the tiny kitchen space, she saw that it was a sketch of her son that filled the man’s paper. ‘Let me make some dinner.’
The moon rose and with it the moths, hammering around the bare lightbulbs like panicked heartbeats. They ate in silence: ruby bright tomatoes, a hard cheese and lettuce from the neighbour’s garden. For dessert, peaches. Sweet juice dripped down their chins and fingers, and the heady scent of the fruit clung to the air. Afterwards, the woman murmured that she would be able to prepare something better tomorrow, with a little more notice. She excused herself and disappeared upstairs, where the man could hear her moving things around. On her return she announced that his bed was ready. He would be in her son’s room, and her son would sleep with her.
It was late now, the boy drowsy, his silky head of hair lolling against his mother’s shoulder as she prepared to carry him up the tiny staircase.
‘Where’s his father?’
‘He works on the big boats. Trawlers. He comes back, sometimes.’
For a moment she paused, and beneath the electric light he saw that she was younger than she looked. Careworn too soon, with her deep brown eyes and her furrowed brow. So slight was her frame that she seemed, to him, scarcely bigger than the boy in her arms.
The man followed her up the stairs. His room was small, decorated with old cars and aeroplanes. In the next room he heard her whisper, ‘Goodnight, my heart.’ Squeezed into his single bed, he imagined the curve of the child’s body against hers. The syncopation of their breath against the pillow. He flung his window wide open, and as he slept he heard the sea, the sea, that had called him back to it.
The next morning, the woman watched as her visitor hauled his equipment out along the dirt track road, following the line of the bay to the next peninsula. She watched that evening, aching from her labours, as the man and her son dragged it back again.
‘He’s a quiet one,’ the man said, entering the house again. ‘Does he not speak?’
‘No, he does not.’
‘A good little draughtsman.’
‘You must say if he bothers you.’
Monday, her day off. Her boy slept late, gentle bubbles of spit inflating at the corner of his lips as they had when he was a baby. The artist had gone out at dawn. She had listened to the creak of the floorboards, the squeal of the stairs as he tried not to wake them.
She slipped out of the bed and down to the kitchen. Warmed milk for her son on the stove. Strips of sunlight streamed in through the window, dust motes whirled in the golden air and a smile danced over her lips.
Out the front window, she saw the man painting, not far from the house, out on the rocks looking down to the water. She would take him a bowl of coffee, two spoonfuls of sugar, as she had learned he likes it.
She stepped out onto the bare earth, already hot beneath her feet. But as she crossed the dirt road, the coffee sloshing precariously between her hands, she saw the artist’s mood change, sudden as a storm coming in from the sea. Dark clouds scudded across his brow, and she was almost upon him when he tore the canvas from the easel and flung it down onto the rocks.
‘Damn it!’ he roared, and the coffee jumped over the edge of the bowl, scalding her skin.
‘These damned hands!’ He slammed involuntary fists against his sides. Then, heavy with breath, he held the gnarled clutch of fingers up to her. ‘I am old, I am old.’
They stood for a moment, his quietening breath no different from the sea below them. It was on its way out, leaving behind a wet slick of sand and pebble, unknown treasures bubbling up as the water retreated. Quietly, the woman set down the bowl of coffee. Clambered down the rocks to retrieve the canvas, grazing her legs as she went.
Her boy was waiting in the doorway, looking out at his friend and the bare easel and the smeared canvas in his mother’s hand.
‘My heart,’ she murmured, ‘leave him be a while.’
But the boy went out to the man and sat on the rocks by his feet, and before long the man had joined him. Later, she would join also, and the three of them would swim through the clear water and sit on the beach as the salty Mediterranean dried to crystals on their skin.
Days passed into weeks, and the woman grew accustomed to the smell of turpentine in the house, to the growing pile of canvases propped against the wall in her son’s bedroom. Some nights she came home to find them hammering new bits of wood together, her son stretching the canvas tight as the artist tacked the nails in. Other times she would return to find them cooking, the kitchen as smeared as canvas now with spills and splotches, or the radio playing old time tunes and the artist teaching her boy to dance. Her boy laughed, his sleep was heavy, and in the morning she would find herself marvelling in the early light at the spots of blue and yellow paint still left on his fingers.
One day, a hot wind blew in from the southwest, bringing with it sand that stung their eyes and rubbed abrasive in their nostrils. The waves crested and whinnied like horses. On that day, a man walked into the house at the edge of the village. Red eyed, stubbled, he carried with him the smell of sweat and drink.
‘Who’s this?’ he asked the woman, pointing at the artist.
‘A guest. Paying.’
He turned from her. ‘Whore.’
Nobody slept that night, not the boy relegated to the sofa, nor the man in the boy’s bed, trying not to the hear the whispered fight in the next room, the woman’s quiet protestations. He crept out early, under an inky sky, though he knew the boy would wonder where he had gone. He walked further than he had before, worked all day, worked and worked. But the heat took on a purple quality, building between his temples, a storm in his head that would not break.
Only when the sea below him grew dark and oily did he return to the house. Night had come on quickly and he stumbled down the dirt road, his heart in his mouth.
The husband had gone. In his place, an olive green bruise beneath the woman’s eye. She sat at the table, a delicate hand to her mouth.
‘Where’s your boy?’
She shrugged. ‘Out.’
The man pulled up a chair. ‘Are you worried?’
‘Let me cook us something.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
Down in the bay, the wind whipped the water into peaks, hurling it against the rocks with unusual force. The pine trees creaked and shivered, the windows groaned, but inside all was still.
A sudden patter of feet announced the boy’s return. They both stood up, as if somehow caught by his arrival. But he was not staying. He ran to his mother, pulling her arm towards the door.
‘What is it, my heart?’
He was tugging now at the artist’s arm too, pointing at the satchel in which he carried his painter’s things.
Wordless, they followed him, out into the wind that whirled through his mother’s skirts, that lashed grit into the artist’s eyes. They ran, half-cowering from the weather, right along the coastal path, up into the trees. It was quieter here, but dark, and they tripped and fell, scraping palms and knees as they clambered up the hillside. Abruptly the boy stopped, his little chest heaving. Arm wavering, he pointed to a clearing in which danced hundreds of tiny balls of light.
‘Fireflies,’ his mother breathed, her voice full of wonder, and you could not see her bruise in the dark.
The bugs glowed green and yellow, weaving in and out of the trees, their arms, their hair. They squealed as the fireflies landed on their skin and they, too, grew luminous. The boy dug inside the artist’s satchel for the old jam jar, which it had been his responsibility to fill with water, and they ran like children to catch a couple, their heads touching as they bent in together to look at the magical, phosphorescent bodies.
Much later, when the boy was sleeping and dirty plates lay strewn across the table between them, the artist reached for the woman’s hand.
‘Let me paint you.’
And she did not say no.
This was the one canvas he would not let them see. He kept it beneath his bed, fiercely guarded. At night, they stuffed dozens of candles into old bottles, and he painted her by the dancing licks of flame. He wanted to capture the shadow of her eyelashes, the freckles caught like amber in her skin. They did not speak, though the air between them was thick and resonant. She watched the artist’s eyes as he worked.
Summer stretched out before them, full of heat and promise. The days were long and lavender-scented, and even the mosquitoes that bit their skin seemed sweet, in the ache and itch they left behind.
The village had its usual festivals, in the rough-hewn opening between houses that called itself the square. The grandfathers dug out rusted trumpets and squeaky fiddles. They strung bunting between the trees. The men who worked on the local boats came back to find great steaming vats of food, cooked by the grandmothers, and children running through the music, streaming ribbons in their wake. People sang and kerosene lamps swung in the breeze.
The woman’s husband did not return, and the grandmothers observed how happy she looked, as the artist danced with her son in the square. Later, he danced with her too. Spinning, first, so that her skirt ballooned around her. Then more slowly, her head resting against the worn shoulder of his linen shirt.
It did not seem that these pink-tinged days would end, nor the airless nights. Foolishly, they allowed themselves to think that their skin would always be this golden; that there would not come a time where new freckles did not bloom daily across their shoulders.
But eventually the sun began to sink more suddenly in the sky. The faintest chill crept in on the air and they no longer slept with the windows wide. When the boy went back to school, to sit silently in the back corner of his noisy classroom, the artist sat alone in the empty house. Even the cicadas were quieter. The portrait was finished.
‘I have to go back,’ the artist said one evening.
The woman felt her heart crack. Something tore, the way that the sea rocks occasionally broke in two.
It was her son who cried. His limbs that flailed, his tiny fists that banged pointlessly against the artist’s chest. He was too young to know that all things end. His mother held him tightly that night, and as he sobbed himself to sleep she could almost fool herself that it was only his tears that made the pillow wet.
The man left as suddenly as he had come. Picked up his pack and his easel and went back to wherever it was he came from. The woman had never asked. At first, she let herself wonder, but that only made things worse.
Autumn blew in on the wind, and the woman made up her son’s bed again, began bolting the windows shut at night. The hotel grew quiet, but she kept herself busy. The rooms were the cleanest they had ever been. She did not look at the portrait, which she kept hidden under her son’s bed, nor at the sketches of her son that the man had left behind.
They went back to their quiet ways. They would walk some evenings, wrapped in jumpers now, along the sea path. Picking up treasures in the driftwood or at the shoreline, the water cold against their toes. Occasionally they wandered up into the pine trees. Sometimes, they would think they saw a firefly’s glow between the branches, and just for a second their hearts would be light.
Fran Cooper spent three years living in Paris, where she wrote her first novel, These Dividing Walls. She now lives in London with her fiancé and their three-legged cat, and works in the curatorial department of a London museum.
These Dividing Walls is published by Hodder & Stoughton. © Fran Cooper 2017