He was 40, and an oddity - a farmer's son who'd taught for years at the conservatoire. He had been married once before. His new bride, Rosa, was 23. She'd been his music pupil and was - they all admitted it - too timid for her age. The flute was just the instrument for her.
They'd hired a cottage on the coast. It was September. Warm enough to swim by day, but cold at night. The village was an hour's walk away and awkward to reach by car. They realised at once that they had not brought enough provisions for the week. No matter, he said. His idea was that they could hunt for food, and only - well, mostly - eat what they had found. He had his father's sporting rifle in the car, and in the cottage there were some fishing nets, a book on fungi, and a herbal, Mrs Caraway's Medicinal, Culinary & Cosmetic Guide to Plants. They wouldn't use the cooker in the cottage. They'd hunt for wood and make a fire in the open grate. Firelight was romantic. And flame-cooked food was wonderful. He'd been a Scout.
It would be amusing to find the free food of the countryside, he promised Rosa, while she was letting down and brushing out her hair on their first night alone. But more than that. They would be bonded by their efforts. Her hair was lifting with the static off her brush. Her music teacher's face was in the mirror at her shoulder. He put his arms around her waist. He took her ear entirely in his mouth. He pushed himself against her back. It will be fun, he said.
She was nervous in the night - the sea, the darkness and the wind - and so was glad to have his arm across her waist and resting on her chest. His penis was enlarged, but that was only natural, he said. She should ignore it. He would too. Marriage was for life and so there was no need for haste. She was delighted to be woken by the breakfast tray, though there was only tea, a slice of wedding cake, and some blackberries that he had "hunted" in the cottage grounds.
They spent their first morning looking for fuel. There were two seams of driftwood running along the beach. The lower seam had been dropped by the last tide. It was damp and dark and wrapped with weed. It would smoke not burn, he said. He took her hand and led her to the upper seam of driftwood, among the backbeach weeds and clumps of samphire. Would she collect the wood while he went looking for some meat or fish? His hand was on her bottom, bunching up her skirt. He kissed the corner of her mouth. She felt the hard end of his tongue. Was she excited by his kiss, or terrified? Her heart was drumming on her chest.
Rosa was quite happy on the beach, alone. It was not long before she had their basket filled. The wood was dry and silvery and, somehow, less heavy than it ought to be, as if its sinew had been hollowed out by worms. Every piece seemed worked and sculpted. The sea and sand had taken off the splinters and sharp edges. She held some to her lips and nose. It was warm and scentless. Here was a goose head with knot-hole eyes. Here was a lizard with five legs. Here was a boomerang.
That night they dined on bread and samphire and the pigeons which he'd shot. He plucked and gutted them while she attended to the fire. The driftwood burned a salty green and blue at first but soon the light was golden from the flames. They wrapped the birds in foil and cooked them on an oven tray in the embers of the driftwood. They boiled the samphire in a camping pot. And then, cross-legged, their plates held in their laps and cuts of bread draped over their knees like peasant serviettes, they ate their first meal as a married couple. Their entertainment was the food, and then the flames. The evening was not spoilt when he lay down and put his head - and nose - into her lap, a doting spaniel, and whispered to the folds and pleats of her skirt. Nor was it spoiled in bed and in the middle of the night when he pushed up her night-dress, pulled down his own pyjamas and wrapped himself around her.
She should ignore him, he had said. And that is what she did. He hardly cost her any sleep.
Next day, he left her with the basket on the dunes while he went off with nets. He did not kiss her on the lips before he walked away. His mood had changed.
That evening they sat a foot apart in front of the fire and dined on mackerel, grilled with mustard sauce. The enamelled fish skins pulled off like paper. The flesh was oily white. She'd never tasted fish as good. Then there were stewed blackberries and crab apples for dessert, with tinned cream, and the last slice of their wedding cake. They did not speak. Again their entertainment was the flames.
He was the first in bed that night and he pretended to be sleeping when Rosa came upstairs into the attic room. But he was watching her, she knew. One eye was shut. He watched her at the mirror combing out her hair. He watched her rubbing aloe cream into her face and throat. She went to urinate and clean her teeth and every sound she made was shared by him. He hardly breathed when she switched out the lamp, took off her clothes by moonlight, and hung them with her underclothes on top across the wooden footboard of the bed. The bedroom smelled of mackerel, she thought. He'd turned his back to her. She said Goodnight. She patted him on his shoulder. She did not know how long he lay awake because the sea-air made her tired and she was soon asleep. She did not wake to breakfast on a tray. This was day three. "You'd try the patience of a saint," he said when she was still in bed at ten o'clock. She found this judgement pleasing in some way.
He did not leave her on the beach alone. His bad temper needed company, and witnesses. Instead he helped her with the wood and - as he'd done when he was teaching flute - took too many opportunities to touch her arm, her waist, her hair. He was much noisier than her. He stamped on the larger pieces until they splintered. He kicked the broken driftwood into piles, then threw it up the beach into the open basket.
"Come on," he said. They had agreed to take the kitchen bucket and some nets a little way along the coast where there were pools - and shrimps, they hoped. Rosa followed him, carrying her shoes and stepping in the puddled footsteps where he'd walked. The sun came out when they were halfway down the beach. Her shadow jogged ahead of her and clipped her husband's heels. He took his shirt off and hung it over his shoulder.
They did not have much luck with shrimps. The tide was going out. He pulled his trousers up above his knees. She tucked her skirt into her knickers and waded into the sea. They needed to go deeper for the shrimps, her husband said. He went back to the beach and took his trousers off and then his underpants. She watched him from the shallows as he ran into the water. She had not seen him quite so naked before. He did not stop until he was waist deep, among the furthest rocks, and then he concentrated on the shrimping.
"There's hundreds here," he said. "Come over, Rosa. Bring the bucket."
"It's deep," she said.
"Take off your clothes like me. Come on, I need the bucket now. I've got our dinner here."
She didn't take her clothes off, though. She waded in fully clothed. Her skirt spread out around her like a picnic rug. She hid behind the bucket while he shook the shrimps out of the net.
He let her peel and wash the shrimps. They ate them at the table with bread and mayonnaise. They didn't bother with a fire that night. And he did not bother to join her in the bed. "It's all impossible," he'd said.
It was raining in the morning. Rosa kissed his forehead when she found him curled up in the kitchen chair. She made him breakfast. She made it clear that they should start their honeymoon again. They walked into the woods, their arms around each other's waists. He took the gun. She carried the herbal and the book on fungi in a plastic bag. He shot a pheasant, though he could have caught it with his hands. "Poaching is not theft," he said. Rosa filled her plastic bag with hazelnuts and blackberries (again). She checked the herbal for which plants were edible. There were some brown cap mushrooms growing in a stand of birch trees. And there were dragon pulses growing in abundance in the lane and rock lavender for stuffing the pheasant. The seashore wormwood was not edible. The autumn squill was far too small. The seablite was described by Mrs Caraway as poisonous.
There was what Rosa took to be a kind of thistle growing in the dunes. She broke a piece off. Its stem was glaucous. Its leaves were leathery. She searched for it in Mrs Caraway but it was he - his chin upon her shoulder - who spotted the tiny illustration. Not thistle then. But sea holly or eringo.
"You can eat the roots," she said.
He took the book and read the entry, "It's good for flatulence. It's diaphoretic, aromatic and it's expectorant." And then, "an aphrodisiac. 'The roots should be first candied or infused with fruits and then consumed. It will be witnessed how quickly Venus is provoked'."
They pulled a few handfuls of the root. They couldn't tell from smelling it how it would taste. At least they wouldn't suffer from flatulence, he said, and flatulence was always a risk with unhung pheasant.
He grated the eringo and boiled it with a little water; then he added blackberries and sugar. "Let's see," he said. He dipped his little finger in the bowl. He could hardly taste the root. It was too bland for him. Besides, he hadn't made it for himself. He gave the bowl to Rosa. She used a spoon. "It isn't very nice," she said. "A bit too sharp." Her tongue was sweet. He added some more sugar and offered her another spoonful, like a parent doling out medicine. "It doesn't taste of anything," she said. No thanks, she didn't want it as a sauce to eat with the roasted pheasant and the mushrooms.
He said it would be pleasant to sit naked by the fire. He coaxed her to remove her clothes. The semi-darkness and the lisping firelight made it easier for her to do as she was asked. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders. I know you'll need to take your time, he said, I do not want to hurry you. But it is only natural that I should want to love you fully, on our honeymoon. Her back was cold. Her knees and breasts were burning hot. The cushions were not comfortable. She was relieved when he suggested that they went to bed. She let him cup her breasts in his hands, although his fingers smelt of pheasant feathers. She let him curl round her with her night-dress bunched up underneath her arms. He was exasperated - and murderous - when, almost at once, she fell asleep.
It was midnight when Rosa woke. She'd dreamt that she was drowning. And, indeed, her pillow and her hair were soaking wet, and hot. Her body too. Her mouth seemed gummed with phlegm. She had to swallow. Her breasts were hard. She knew that it was something that she'd eaten. The mushrooms, perhaps. Or the pheasant had been off. But she could taste the blackberries. It was eringo that had woken her. She pushed the bedclothes onto her husband's side and lay on the bed with nothing but her nightdress for warmth. Her breathing was becoming thin and papery. She thought that she would either tear or be dissolved.
And then, quite suddenly, her fever cleared. The air expanded round her. There was space. She swung one leg over the side of the bed. She pushed the other deep into the blankets. Her body was the temperature of blood. Her breathing thickened. Her back arched. She seemed to swell and lift. She had to press her hands onto her abdomen to keep herself from floating. She had to brace her arms and thighs to stop herself from sinking through the bed. She felt like the driftwood she had gathered on the beach: compact and dry and silvery, and - somehow - not as heavy as she ought to be, as if her insides had been tunnelled out by worms. And one by one - with her fingers pressed into her flesh, and with her knees spread out to make a rhombus of her legs - her splinters and her corners were removed and she became a lizard with five limbs, and she became a boomerang, and she became a root.
Rosa was up before her husband woke. She could not bear to interrupt his sleep or look at him. She wanted privacy. She made herself some tea and took it, with a spoon and the half-empty bowl of grated eringo, blackberries and sugar, into the living room. There was a little warmth left in the fire. She wrapped a table cloth around her shoulders, and pulled a stool up to the ashes. She finished off the eringo. She licked the bowl. During the night the root had marinated with the berries. She could detect a taste like chestnuts and the pungency of quicklime.
In the early afternoon, she walked down to the beach for firewood. Her husband had gone off to get some eggs and milk from the farm. He said the free food of the countryside had been a disappointment. They'd been naive. He could not wait to have her back home where things between him and his bride could settle down, could grow. This time she recognised the symptoms when they came. Her hair and skin were soaking wet, exactly as before. Her mouth was full of spit, and then was dry and papery. She lay down on the dunes and waited, while her breathing thinned and thickened.
Rosa pulled some roots again that day for supper. She woke at two o'clock - a little later than the night before, but no less memorably. She took an early breakfast by the fire.
She pulled more roots to take back from their honeymoon, and hid them in the car. She'd try what Mrs Caraway had recommended and candy them in baked syrup. She'd have to share them with her husband, she supposed. She'd have to share with him what she had found out on her own, but not just yet. Marriage was for life, she reminded herself. There was no need for haste. It would be a joy to make him wait. She'd not be caught as easily as pigeons, pheasants, shrimps.Reuse content