We were married two years after we first kissed, Sarah and I. We’d known each other for years, but not noticed what was in front of us. When we finally sorted ourselves out, it was just natural. It was what such things should be, and everything fell into place from there.
The wedding was simple, not least because we didn’t have much money then. I was half way through my law degree, and Sarah was just starting out as a junior editor for a literary magazine. We’d have liked something bigger, but we thought we’d rather have our day soon than wait until we could do it with all the frills.
We were married in a small church near where Sarah grew up, by a friend of her mother’s. Our mothers both cried and our fathers both beamed, for all approved. We had enough for a short honeymoon. A small hotel in Germany, near where I grew up, was the setting for a week of escapism before going back to start our new life together.
Money was tight at first of course. Sarah was supporting us both on her meagre salary while I did the last year of my degree and found a job in a small firm of solicitors. We got through, and when I was earning too, things got a little easier. It wasn’t long before we were looking at buying our first home. Trawling round estate agents while we looked at the lowest end of the spectrum was exciting at first, but soon became soul destroying.
It was after a few months of this that we received the package. It was postmarked from a week before our wedding, which had been nearly two years previously. God knows why it had taken so long. That in itself wouldn’t be that odd, but we’d only been renting our current place for eight months. When it was sent, we'd lived somewhere else. The package contained one letter and a set of legal papers. The letter simply said “For the two of you, and any that may come. It has served me well, and I know it will be the perfect thing for you. In time.” The set of papers were the deeds to a house, called Lakeside.
God alone knew who’d sent us the package. I wasn’t aware of any distant relatives that were loaded and mental while fondly looking upon me from afar. Nor was Sarah. It’s not the sort of thing that comes up over dinner. Can you imagine it? Oh, by the way dear, my great uncle Gottfried, who’s mad as a box of badgers but owns half of Hertfordshire, thinks I’m the best thing since the invention of gin, and thinks you’re simply marvellous too. None of our relatives knew anyone like that either, and the note wasn’t signed, so we were none the wiser. The address of the house was about an hour’s drive away, so we decided to go and see it. It seemed like the thing to do. After all, what is the done thing when crazy anonymous people give you a house? Somehow a thank you note addressed to “Some generous nutter” doesn’t quite seem the appropriate thing.
It didn’t take us long to find the village the postcode belonged to, but no-one knew where Lakeside was. The local estate agent asked if we’d be interested in selling it if we found it, but it’s hard to accept such an offer when you’ve no idea if you’re selling a palace or a hovel. In the end, we just asked someone where the nearest lake was. That got us there.
Driving through the woods that led to the lake wasn’t promising. Most of the trees were wilting, sagging in the summer sun like an elderly drunk that knows all the pension is gone, but only half the week. Those that weren’t were dead, rotten husks falling away, tired of the company they were keeping. The road became a track, and the track became overgrown. I can’t say we held out much hope. After a while the track began to climb, only levelling out when the incline seemed about to kill the elderly car we could only just afford. And then we reached the crest of the hill.
Laid out before us was a small valley, a field on either side of what was once again a well kept track. To the left, the field was like a bowling green, if slightly at an angle. An ancient tree held an old rope swing, an idyllic image from some American movie that bemoaned the loss of the innocence. It stood by a stream, the branches reaching out over the water, the swing positioned just so for that clichéd image of leaping out into the blue yonder and hurtling into the crystal water below. The field on the right was unkempt, but only just enough to allow nature to get a foot back in the door, without being an unpleasant wilderness in which a running ingénue might fall and injure themselves.
The track led down to the edge of a beautiful lake, beset on all sides by trees and foliage, dark blue water suggesting that this was a body of water that did not contain dangerous currents, sheer drops, hidden weeds to entangle the unwary swimmer, or unfriendly wildlife. Two things struck me about the scene. The first was the house.
Rising out of the hedgerow that shielded it, the house had perfect white walls, wooden verandas that seemed to have fallen from an old house in the Deep South, intricate knotwork around the gables, and old slate tiles. It was set slightly at an angle from the track, allowing us to see the large balcony at the front, reaching out over the lake. Two large pillars at either side of the balcony reached down into the lake, disappearing under the water, supporting the balcony and some of the house itself, which sprawled over the water as well. If fairy tales had been set in Georgia, this would have been the house.
The second thing of note was the man standing next to it, on the track, waving at us as we approached. I stopped the car just short of him, and we got out. He was an elderly chap, and looked like he’d never been near a city in his life. A weatherbeaten face sat below a battered old cap and above a pullover which looked like it was less comfortable than some of the thick hedgerows we’d passed on the way. Corduroy trousers tucked into old brown boots, and an old jacket covered the whole.
“Hello there! I see you found the place alright. My name’s Adam. Well, I suppose I’d better show you around.”
We didn’t think to question why he knew who were, how he knew we were to arrive at that time when we didn’t, or even who he was. We just followed. We trailed behind him as he let us into the house, marvelled at the smell of home that was there already, paid little attention to what he was saying, and mentally decorated. We'd gone from scraping together enough rent for a roof over our heads to owning a beautiful house. We couldn't believe our luck. Well, would you? It was a while before we noticed that Adam had stopped talking. I asked him to repeat himself.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I said, obviously it's not your place right now. It's still the home of the person that lived here before. In time, it will change. It will become your home as you live in it and change it."
I thanked him for the introduction, and he gave us the keys and all the paperwork. I asked him who had left the house to us. He said he didn't know, he was just hired to give the tour, and left on an old bycicle. We never saw him again.
We looked through the house. Adam had been right about the house. It wasn't ours. Not yet. For a start, there was a nursery. It was a very nice nursery, but we'd already decided we didn't want children. It just wasn't something we wanted for ourselves. The place was decorated as for a cute couple that liked school runs, kids laughing, apple pie and wholesome stories. That, put bluntly, wasn't us. We were more likely to want a bar than a cradle. We liked old wood, bookcases and wingchairs better than well lit rooms and space for kids to run around.
The kitchen was perfect though. A great old table sat in the centre, covered in the scars and burns of use, and a large window let light streaming in onto the large range. We loved it. But were a little confused. Sat in the centre of the old table, covered in a thick layer of old, untroubled dust, was a large red apple. It looked like something from an old fairytale. It was a little creepy, to be honest. Sarah threw it in the bin as soon as we started cleaning up and decorating.
The next few years went well. Sarah was doing well as an editor, and gaining an excellent reputation. I turned out to be an adequate solicitor, but no more. I'd managed to get a book published, with Sarah putting a good word in for me with a few contacts, and that was taking off. It wasn't long before I quit the law. I don't think the law was very upset. The house looked and felt more like our home. In the evening we could sit on the balcony overlooking the lake, drink wine and talk about how we were.
Over time, we started to notice the house. Things had changed. We'd stripped out the nursery and put a little desk in there, on which sat a computer. That was fine. But we didn't remember repainting the walls. They were now a deep green, which went well with the rich mahogany colour of the desk. Lovely. Except we'd only put a cheap computer desk in there. Sarah and I argued over who had done it. No burglar creeps in and redecorates. Especially not with expensive (not to mention very heavy) mahogany desks.
Sarah stomped off to bed, and made it very clear that she didn't want me to follow. I wasn't really inclined to. One of the spare rooms had an old bed in it. We had meant to throw it out, but hadn't got round to it. It was old, and the mattress wasn't too fresh. The room itself wasn't great either, as we hadn't decorated it yet. In the middle of the night, I went down to the kitchen to get myself a drink. Sat in the middle of the table, as if it had been there the whole time, was the apple. The layer of dust was as thick as ever. I wasn't in the mood for this shit. I took it to the front of the house, and threw it as hard as I could into the water, then went back to bed.
When I woke up, the light was streaming through the open curtains. The white curtains made of light linen that had not been there the night before. Sitting bolt upright, I looked around. The walls looked freshly painted, but there was no smell of paint. The bed was a double, where it had been a single before. The iron bedframe was nice, but not fantastic. The white sheets were pretty inoffensive. The whole room looked like a guest room. One that you keep for the different types of people that come over. Relatively without character, but perfect for when friends visit. Or you have a screaming row with your wife, and have to sleep somewhere else.
Sarah was at work, but when she got back I showed her the room. At first she thought I was up to something, and had decorated when she was out. I had to point out that she'd been gone for ten hours at the most. Not long enough for me to do all this. And I couldn't paint a wall in a weekend, let alone a room in a day. My DIY skills were legendary in their inadequacy. I slept in the same bed as her that night.
In the next few years, things like that happened again. Normally in connection with our lives. When we had a pregnancy scare, one wall of my office became a mural of wildlife, as if preparing for a new arrival. When we found out that it was, after all, just a scare, it was back to the green. My friend lost his job, and had to leave his place. One of the other rooms in the house became blue, the colour of his favourite team's kit. A single bed appeared, made of light pine. Sarah and I hated pine. But his furniture all matched it. The only thing he didn't have himself was a bed.
When Sarah won an award for a book she'd edited, the mantelpiece became deeper. It had just been a surround, now it was thick enough for an award to sit on comfortably. She won more over the next few years as her star rose, and I added a few of my own. The mantelpiece became longer, sitting above a larger fireplace. When I bought a motorbike for weekends, the garage seemed larger, but the footprint of the house never changed. Only it now comfortably housed our car and bike.
Time went on, and we grew old. The house saw all of this, and was the venue for many things. The friend that stayed here for a while got married in a marquee in the field out the back, which became clear and flat enough for the assembled friends and family. There was a wake in the large lounge. Didn't take much changing, but the friend involved was an Irishman, and had made it clear during his illness that he wanted an old style Irish wake. So where there had been a small drinks cabinet for us, there was a large, well stocked bar. The list goes on.
I got better as a writer, and spent more time away on book tours. It was always a joy to come home to Sarah, and our beautiful house. It got tough at some points though. After one long tour to the US, Sarah and I had a blazing row. She was finding it harder and harder to come home to an empty house for so long, and I didn't know why she worked until 9 or 10 pm when I was there. We were in our fifties now, and were spending less and less time together. For a while, it looked like we might be at the end. At the end of one row, I was sat in the kitchen, brinking my way to the bottom of a bottle of whisky. I turned around, and the apple was back. Covered in dust, like it was a waxwork in an old wine cellar, not a fresh apple sat on our kitchen table. I was drunk and angry, and again, it ended up in the bottom of the lake.
Sarah and I patched up our differences. I did less tours, ignoring my agent's pleas to not let each new book suffer from lack of exposure. Sarah did less hours. We didn't need the money any more, and wanted to spend some more time travelling. Things got better, and our marriage survived, possibly a little stronger. I spoke to Sarah about the apple once. She'd seen it too. On nights where I'd been away, and we'd argued over the phone. Nights when it was tempting to pack some things and stay with friends. When dark thoughts of why she was still with a man who spent so much time away having a wild time went through her mind. It would be sat there, tempting her. Each time, she threw it in the lake.
We saw it a couple of times after that. Each time, we were having trouble. Each time, we survived, and it ended up in the lake.
Then, three weeks ago, after three decades of living here and being married, I got the call. I don't remember driving to the hospital, or much of what was said. Just the faces of pity for an old man, newly lost. Sarah had been found slumped over her desk, eyes still open. She'd had an aneurysm. I'm told she would barely have felt a thing. I don't know if I believe that. The funeral was this weekend. I've been wandering around this empty house on my own. Rattling around with ghosts and memories. I keep thinking I hear her. Every morning is a shock. I open my eyes, notice the lack of her body next to me, and I remember. Every morning I grieve anew.
Nothing is the same without her here. I do the cooking, but I spent half an hour yesterday looking at two different sausages in the butcher's. I couldn't decide, and I just wanted to know which she fancied that day. I liked both options. I wasn't some widower that found himself unable to function because his wife had done everything. I just wanted her opinion. I left without buying anything, and walked down the road crying. Over a pack of fucking sausages.
When I got home, the apple was back. I left it there, and took to our bed. It was still there when I got up. I got dressed in cords, boots, and the thick jumper she'd bought me for my birthday this year. She had often nagged me affectionately, reminded me I wasn't the young man I had been, and didn't have his circulation either, so I should wrap up. She didn't want to outlive me. I walked into the garage, looking for something. We'd never bought what I was looking for, but I knew it would be there. I found it behind the car.
A large trunk contained to thick coils of rope. I struggled down to the waterfront with them, and dumped them into our little rowboat. I had trouble getting into the old lifejacket that Sarah had always helped me with as she laughed at me in bright orange. When I finally got it on, I rowed out to one of the two pillars that supported our balcony and the rooms above, and tied the end of one rope to the base, before doing the same with the other. Then I rowed out to the the little island opposite our house, and looped the ropes around the large rock in the centre. I fed the two ropes back to the house, through the front door, and back into the kitchen.
This shouldn't work, but I know it will. It's just right. I picked the apple up, and rubbed off the dust. Running it under the tap, the waxy shine came through. I said before it looked like a waxwork, but the sheen on the skin was more than any ball of wax. When it was clean, I set it back on the table. Which brings me here.
I've looped both ropes round under my arms, tying them under my chest, as I face away from the waterfront. I push forward, taking up the slack of the ropes. My back clicks, underused muscles and vertebrae being called into action. I hear the house creak around me. I'm sweating profusely now, but I don't doubt that this will work. Don't ask me why, but I know it will. Soon, the creaks get louder, becoming a cracking sound. And then, with an almighty crack, the ropes fall slack again. The pillars have gone. I walk to the table, pick up the apple, and take a bite.
Please forgive me. I can't do this any more. It's not the same without her. I'm sorry. The apple is bitter, but welcome. I know it's the right time for it. The front facade of the house comes away as I move towards it, leaving me staring into the lake. I climb the stairs, and move into the only room remaining above what is left of the balcony. Our bedroom. It is hanging over the edge, one lean spur of a large house, hanging out over a lake as the rest of the house dives in. I feel drowsy. The end is coming, I know. As I slip into sleep, I feel the floor give way, and the room slips into the lake.
I regret nothing. We had our years, and I would swap none of them. I loved her as well on the last day in this house as on the first. But she is gone, and I cannot remain without her.