I wake up abruptly. I’ve been asleep just an hour or so. My bed, consisting of a pile of sacks, has already lost most of its bulk and seemingly compacted down to a few millimetres. And it’s becoming increasingly itchy the longer I lie on it. But it’s all I’ve got. And the night noises are unnerving, to say the least, and would keep me awake even the continual scratching and shifting of position didn’t: twigs cracking, undergrowth rustling, the occasional piercing shriek, things running around on the shed roof. The dawn chorus will start up at an unseemly hour now that it’s mid-summer, sweeping away any possibility of further rest. But for the time being, it’s still dark.
The man’s silhouette fills the open door as he comes through; the moon over the lake behind him provides the back light. I feel sure he’s going to tell me to get out and move on. Or maybe he’ll try and do something to me. I lie still, hoping he’ll think I’m still asleep. But:
“I know you’re awake,” he says. “I saw your eyes open in the light from outside.”
I shut my eyes more tightly and don’t move.
“What are you doing here? I mean, what are you doing?” Half a minute passes in silence; then I hear rustling. It might be him sitting down.
“Look, whoever you are. This is just so strange. Are you homeless?” He pauses again. “Are you en route somewhere, on a walking holiday perhaps, and stopping off here for a short rest? If so, there’s a campsite a few miles away.” He sighs. “Look, this must be deadly uncomfortable. And why have you pulled up a load of grass and left it spread about outside? You weren’t going to use it to fill those grubby old sacks you’re lying on, were you? To make some sort of mattress?”
This is precisely what I was going to do, when the grass had dried out into hay.
“You’ll be bitten to shreds by insects. If you’re determined to stay here, at least let me bring you some bin bags to put the hay in first. To keep the insects from crawling all over you. And a sheet to lay on those sacks. I don’t know how you can stand it.”
He doesn’t sound like a mad rapist, and I think about sitting up and talking to him. I’m not going to be able to go to sleep anyway.
“All right, then. If you won’t be sensible, I’ll come back tomorrow with a few things.” I hear him start to get up. “But it’s not safe to drink water from the reservoir. Various ditches drain into it from the fields. The water’ll be full of nitrates, and probably herbicides and pesticides. And God knows what else. And the reservoir’s deep, with long thick weeds. You could easily get caught up in them. It’s not safe to bathe in it. I saw you doing that. Don’t do it again.”
I gasp involuntarily. It means he must have seen me in the buff.
He obviously sees or hears me gasp, as he says, “I knew you were awake. You can stay here for a short time if you absolutely must, but I have to forbid you from going in the reservoir or drinking the water.”
I sit up. “Who are you to tell me what to do?”
“The owner of this land, the reservoir, these sheds, the belt of trees behind you, and, if you cared to look beyond the wood over the hill, the house further away.” His accent, I note, is quite refined. “I don’t want some silly woman killing herself on my land and having a heap of trouble as a result.”
“There’re no signs up,” I say.
“There’s a ‘Keep Out’ sign on the main gate. And funnily enough, this place was thought to be remote enough not to attract many visitors. Especially not ones wanting to drink the water and engage in nude bathing.”
“You didn’t have to watch.”
“Don’t worry, my dear, I have no interest whatever in your naked escapades. But as this is my land, I do visit it from time to time. At one time it was used by the Piscatorial Society. They kept their stuff in these huts”—That would explain the faint smell of fish I’ve detected about the place—“but their licence has run out and they wouldn’t—anyway, they don’t fish here anymore, and I have to keep an eye on the place.”
“Right,” I say. “Well, I’m not sure why you had to visit me in the middle of the night to tell me all this. But I’ll have to find another water source. And probably somewhere else to stay in fact.”
“Well, I can run a pipe from the cow trough—”
“Hang on, let me finish. The field the other side of the wood has a mains water supply that feeds a trough, but there are no cows just now. I can run a drinking-water-quality pipe down here from that.”
“Oh, dear. No fishermen. No cows. What’s gone wrong?” I say lightly.
“None of your business. And nothing’s gone wrong. Neither thing is financially worthwhile any more.” Do I detect a hint of defensiveness? “Okay, I’d better go. Er, I’ll bring a bolt for this shed door tomorrow too. By the way, I’m Francis. And you are…?”
None of your business, I’m tempted to say, but instead I utter the first name that enters my head. “Greta.”
He proceeds out into the night, still without disclosing his reason for coming here in the early hours of the morning rather than during the day.
I realise that it isn’t as dark any longer, despite the sinking moon retreating behind a bank of clouds. The birds are already noisily tuning up to greet the emerging dawn, so there’s no hope of any further rest. I pick a book from my rucksack and go outside into the soupy hot air. There’s just enough watery light to read by. I plonk myself down on the tree stump that has become my seat these last few days and stare out over the lake.
Though the man, Francis, had described it as a reservoir, it looks like a lake to me. It’s rather beautiful. Not so large. You could walk around it in, I would say, fifteen or twenty minutes. There are rough railway-sleeper steps embedded in the undergrowth at regular intervals, leading down to flat grassed areas where no doubt the fishermen sat for hours, waiting for a bite. The plants around it aren’t tall, just blackthorn and pussy willows, with some skinny alders.
I find it disappointing that it isn’t a lake. “Reservoir” sounds so functional. The body of water—that’s what I decide to call it in my head—sits in a depression. Perhaps at one time it was a quarry. I have a vague idea that there’s quarrying in this area, or has been. I noticed when lowering myself into the water that my feet touched nothing solid. As the man Francis said, it was probably very deep.
The whole thing—the water, the steps down to it, the fringe of vegetation, and the path around the outside—lies lower than the surrounding land, which might account for the air being thick and unmoving. There’s no discernible breeze to blow through and create a welcome drop in temperature.
I sit on, trying to focus on my book. I should, of course, have filled my bag exclusively with food and other vitals and eschewed reading material when packing. An ebook reader would have been better too, but I had no time before I left to download a sufficient amount of fiction and nonfiction. Once I disappeared, I didn’t want to connect to the airwaves and possibly attract unwanted attention or signal my whereabouts. But I knew I’d go mad without something to concentrate on, so a fair proportion of my baggage consists of physical books. Who knows how much longer this will go on, or how long I’ll have to stay away. Basically I have no idea at all if I can actually return. Ever.
I jump, hearing his voice. It’s been a day and a half since his nocturnal visit, and I started to assume that he would leave me alone. Yesterday I found, a few feet from the edge of the clearing, a ten-litre container of water and this morning a bulging bin bag. On further investigation I found not only sheets, as promised, but also a camping stove, gas canisters, and an inflatable mattress.
Pity in a way. I’ve been sort of looking forward to living rough. After all, I chose to leave civilisation and strike out into the countryside. I should embrace the discomforts, face the hardships, live off the land. Catch my own food, light my own fires, fashion my own shelter. If necessary, distil my own contaminated reservoir water. Escape from modern society and, in particular, its communication systems and the problems they bring.
Trouble is, England isn’t Montana or the Amazon rainforest or the Australian outback. It’s so over-populated. Every inch is owned by someone. Someone, for example, who invades your afternoon peace as you’re reclining on the lilo in your bra and panties enjoying the midday sunshine, sipping some water, and slowly eating a survival bar. (Slowly because there aren’t many left, and having to catch my dinner has started to become a real possibility.)
Francis is unreeling some blue plastic pipe. I watch as he walks back to a pile of things he’s dumped on the ground. He returns with a stake and a sledge hammer and proceeds to hammer the stake into the ground. He fixes a tap to the pipe and staples the pipe to the stake. And, hey presto, I have a rudimentary standpipe.
“I’ll go and connect the water pipe to the mains in a minute. Of course, it’ll only do for the summer. If you’re planning to stay on for the winter months, the pipe might freeze. But I expect you’ve thought of that, as you seem so well-prepared for living out of doors.”
I yawn, stretch and carry on nibbling at the bar and reading.
“Good. Well, you get some decent R and R. I’ve got work to do. By the way, if you want to come up to the house for a proper meal and a wash, et cetera, you’re very welcome.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Okay. I’ve got a little surprise for you. I’ll be back later.”
This worries me more profoundly that he can have realised. I’ve had more surprises than I care to remember. “But—”
He’s gone, and I’m left with crumbs from the cereal bar on my bra, the paperback limp on my stomach, and the sun beating down on my darkening skin. Despite my blonde hair, I tan easily.
“Later” turns out to be six o’clock by my old wristwatch.
While I wait nervously for this “surprise,” I give a little thought to Francis. He’s younger than I imagined in the shed a couple nights ago. From his voice, I guessed he was maybe sixty or so—a fit sixty, but nonetheless a good twenty-five years older than me. This afternoon I could see that he isn’t much older than I am, say about forty.
His attitude towards me is a little irritating. Not exactly patronising, not mocking, but as though he’s humouring me. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I thought he was older to begin with.
As I’m trying to think up suitable retorts, the bushes part and Francis steps into the clearing. I must have been frowning, for he smiles and says, “Don’t look like that. I’ve brought you the surprise.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
“Well, I thought you might be lonely here. And bored. I’ve brought you a companion. I’ll go and call him. His dog kept wanting to stop and sniff at tree trunks and things.”
I stand up quickly from the tree stump. “What! Who? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry. He’s quite harmless. Billy!” he shouts, walking towards the copse behind my shed.
At length a young man emerges. He wears Doc Martens, cut-off jeans, and little else. His long light-brown hair is matted and plaited into dreadlocks, he sports a wispy beard, he’s smoking a rollie and carrying a very tatty canvas rucksack. Fast on his heels lopes a large short-haired dog of indeterminate breed.
“There,” Francis pronounces, holding out a hand towards Billy as though he’s just conjured him up out of thin air. “Billy, Greta. Greta, Billy.”
“Pleased to meet you,” says Billy cheerfully, walking over and treating me to a brown toothy grin. A wave of stale tobacco catches in my throat. “This here’s Eric,” he adds, introducing the dog. He puts down his bag and sits cross-legged on the ground. His shorts ride up, and it looks as though he has nothing on underneath. Quickly I turn away.
“Hello.” I cough. “Francis, do you think we could have a word?”
“I mean, alone.”
I walk to the other side of the clearing. Ten seconds pass before Francis strolls after me.
“Why have you brought him here? What’s this all about? Where does he come from?”
“I should have thought it was obvious.”
“Not to me it isn’t.”
“He lives rough in the town. He’s homeless. You’re homeless. I’ve—tried to help you out. I thought: why not extend it to someone similar to you?”
“Well, thank you so much. Similar to me?”
“I probably didn’t put it very well. I meant similar circumstances to you.”
“But—how do you know he’s safe to be with? How do you know he’s not on drugs?”
“I’ve seen him around begging for some time. He’s never seemed to be in the least violent. And he’s promised no drugs.”
“Oh, well. I’m sure he’ll stick to that, then.”
“He’s not the only one in the town. There are quite a lot of them. As you’re here, it seemed to be only common decency to offer someone else a roof over their head.”
“You mean you might invite others to live here too?”
“So I’m to take part in your little social experiment?”
“You could show some human kindness to someone at least as badly off as yourself.”
I search for the right thing to say, something that won’t sound too judgmental. “I’m sure you’re aware that in many cases people live rough and are homeless for a reason.”
“What, like you, you mean?” Francis’s voice is level. The emphasis and insinuating inflexions he might have put into the words are absent. If they weren’t, I’d probably start ranting at him.
Instead I say, “No. I didn’t mean that, as I’m sure you realise. What I meant was that they have something wrong with them that prevents them fitting into society properly. Whether the drugs make them like that or they take drugs because of some inherent personality problem I don’t know. But I’ve spoken to such people, and you just get the feeling that whatever you do for them, they’ll never be able to hold down a job or pay their bills on time, or—well, anything. They’ll never get better.”
“Hmm. You may be right. But for the time being the weather is pleasant, and there are five other sheds here that could be offered to people who’d otherwise be sleeping in cardboard boxes under railway arches and putting themselves at risk—”
I examine Francis’s expression, trying to see if he’s being disingenuous. If he is, he hides it well.
He continues, “—and whose only crime is to be hooked on various substances—”
“Which they probably pay for by stealing from people.”
“Again, you may be right. If you think that, you’d better keep an eye on your stuff, hadn’t you?”
Remembering all of a sudden whom we’re discussing, we both look at Billy. He’s leaning into my hut. As we walk quickly towards him, I ask Francis, “I think you said something about a bolt for the door. A padlock wouldn’t go amiss either.”
“Okay. I’ll go and get them. And Billy’s things. I won’t be long.”
He veers off in the direction of the woodland, and I carry on towards Billy. Eric greets me by thrusting his nose at my crotch. Luckily I added shorts and a T-shirt to my attire earlier on.
“You okay, Billy?”
“Yeah, all right.” His upper body emerges from my shed. “You ain’t got no weed, ‘ave you?”
“Sorry, I can’t help you there. Just the bare essentials for outdoor living.”
“Seen any rabbits? I was thinking of sending Eric to catch one. Skin the little bugger and roast it over a fire. Be nice, yeah?”
“Hmm. Maybe Francis will bring us back some dinner. Have you chosen your hut yet?”
“I might just sleep out in the open. Under the stars, you know? At one with nature. Bottle o’ beer, nice spliff. ‘Cept I ain’t got no weed. Or beer.”
I find Billy’s accent difficult to put my finger on. Estuary, with something else thrown in. A West Country burr perhaps? Certainly not the now common MYE, the multicultural youth English. All I can say is that it sounds familiar and goes perfectly with the dreadlocks, the homelessness, the dog, the unemployment, and the drugs.
“Bloody hot i’n’ it? I think I’ll take a dip.”
“Francis won’t like it. He says it’s too deep and contaminated.”
So saying, he kicks off his Doc Martens, rolls down and steps out of his cut-offs, and wades in a couple of yards. Then he disappears. Ten seconds later his head bobs up, followed by his upper body, arms flailing. This happens two more times, and each time he’s further from the shore. It belatedly dawns on me that he isn’t just mucking about; he can’t swim.
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
I undress down to my bra and panties again and wade in after him. Striking out in my strongest breast stroke, I grab him as he comes up for the fourth time. He struggles, of course, so I catch him round the neck in an arm lock and somehow get him the ten yards or so to the edge as Eric watches us, frisking and barking. The hopeless bastard doesn’t even help himself by clambering up the bank. I have to drag him out and across the grass, where he lies on his back, swearing gently, as indeed do I.
“Actually, I said not to go into the reservoir.” Francis’s cut-glass tones come from behind us.
Billy lies there stark naked and starts to cackle and waggle his willy at Francis.
I give Francis the filthiest look I can muster as I stand up. “Well, thanks a bundle,” I say as I stalk to my shed and slam the door.
It is, of course, viciously hot in the shed, but I’m damned if I’m going to go back outside again. Just yet. I sit there fuming and listening to the two of them muttering together.
I really will have to leave soon. Here I am getting angry with a man who has no duty or responsibility towards me. I arrived on his property without invitation, and yet I just effectively told him off for inviting an indigent onto his land to share my solitude. It was rude of me, totally unacceptable.
I must leave tomorrow. Billy, while entertaining after a fashion, is a loose cannon. Who knows what he’ll do next, or what rubbish indeed he is manufacturing now for Francis’s consumption? I don’t want to spend time with him, helping him dodge the consequences of his irresponsible actions and guarding my pitifully feeble worldly goods—or at least those I have with me—against his probable instincts to nick the lot. No, I don’t think he’d be violent, but I feel sure he’s one of the types I outlined to Francis who won’t ever be trustworthy or benefit from help.
Eventually I lie down on my itchy pile of sacks and, using my rucksack as a pillow, more for its safety than my comfort, drift off to sleep despite the heat.
It isn’t quite dark when the door to the shed opens. Francis walks in and sits on the floor, as he did the first time.
“He’s gone,” he says.
Groggily I raise myself onto one elbow. “What?”
“Billy’s gone. He told me you saved his life.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t brought him here.”
Suddenly I remember that I’m supposed to be humble about coming uninvited onto Francis’s estate; I’m not supposed to be castigating him. But he’s going on:
“Very effusive he was, wanting to come in here and kiss you all over. You’ll be glad to know I dissuaded him.”
The thought of it makes me feel faint.
“It was a bad idea of mine. Sorry,” says Francis.
“Look, don’t make me feel worse than I already do. This is your property. I have no right at all to dictate who comes onto it.”
“Whatever. Billy was the wrong person, in any circumstances.”
“Is he okay?”
“Oh, yes. He wanted to leave. He said this wasn’t his scene, man. I gave him some money, some food, and some dog food I’d already bought, and he went off quite happily when I dropped him in the middle of town.”
“I think I should leave too. Perhaps I’ll go to that campsite you mentioned. I only came here because I thought it was deserted and no one would mind. I didn’t think…”
“Well, I don’t mind. Though I’m a little worried about you being here all on your own. That’s partly why I asked Billy here. Bad choice, as it turned out. You’re quite welcome to come up to the house.”
“Look. It’s hard to explain, but I’m trying not to get too involved with anyone, anywhere. If I could disappear into the middle of the Sahara desert and survive, I would.”
“All right. If I say I won’t come anywhere near here from now on, apart from bringing you things you might need and checking that you’re okay, would you stay?”
“I suppose I could. But why? Why would you want me to stay?”
“If you’re looking for some sort of sanctuary for the moment, then I understand. I’ve felt the same before myself. For possibly the same sorts of reasons.”
“I very much doubt it,” I say before I can stop myself.
He doesn’t take me up on it. “You’ve got the camping stove. I’ve brought some tins of food and a couple of saucepans. I hope that’ll be okay.”
“That’s more than enough. You’re too kind. I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier.”
“No problem. I’ll put the bolt and padlock on before I go.”
He stands up and goes out. I follow and sit on my stump. I open my book and try to read as he drills and inserts screws. Half way through, he asks if I’d like a beer and could I get one out for him. He points to a coolbag next to his toolbox. A beer sounds wonderful.
When he’s finished, we have another beer each and sit without speaking as the moon comes up behind us and shines on the reservoir. There are a lot of questions I want to ask him about himself. But he’s being considerate and giving me space. The least I can do is reciprocate.
The Sheds is a stand-alone novel written from the separate perspectives of a woman and a man, the chapters interlacing with one another throughout the book. There is, of course, a connection between the two characters. What it is becomes clear after a time from the woman’s point of view, though not from the man’s until later. In the meantime, the woman, who calls herself “Greta” at the beginning, has a difficult situation to contend with; it doesn’t emerge until some way through the book that she also has an unpleasant secret, an incident in her earlier life which she’s buried and tried to forget about. The man has his own problems, both in his private life and professionally. (The man, incidentally, is neither Francis nor Billy, though Francis too has a past he’s trying to come to terms with.) The novel deals with dark, some may say distressing subjects. However, the man and the woman are able to help each other in the end to arrive at the best solution.
I write mainly mysteries and crime, with a lot about relationships thrown in. But whatever I write, I strive to produce stories which are different from one another. This may sound obvious, but many a time I’ve discovered an author whose style I like, only to find that his or her subsequent novels are virtual reruns with similar themes. Very disappointing. My other aim is, if possible, to explore a specific topic in each novel or novella, so that my readers may learn something they didn’t know before. I hope that The Sheds fulfils at least the first of these aims, i.e. to be different from my other work. I’ve certainly never written before about either of Greta’s problems, nor those of the man featured.
The Sheds starts off in fairly light-hearted, possibly comical fashion. But the novel isn’t intended to be especially humorous. Eventually Greta’s complications start to catch up with her, and hiding away ceases to be an option. There is more than one shed, as the title implies, and it is in the second shed that the horrible, traumatic, ultimately life-changing event occurs.
Gill Mather is a solicitor living and working in Colchester on the Essex/Suffolk border in the UK. She has written seven novels available on Kindle, five of which form a series, and a series of six novellas which are self-printed and distributed largely free. She draws to some extent on her experiences as a solicitor. She has two grown-up sons.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018