By Ellie Broughton
It started small, at first. The bed was a bit crunchier than before. There was sometimes wet sawdust, like a porridge, in the shower tray. She had a few splinters in a row. I thought nothing of it. You know how it is: even the most paranoid people struggle to see what’s going on in their own back garden. She used to cry sometimes. She kept these wood shavings the size of ringlets in her bag, and I thought they were just rubbish.
She was out a lot. She’d done this BTEC, you see, to give herself something practical to make some money on the side. At first it was useful. She straightened bits of furniture. She’d fashion supports for the back of a bookcase to sober up its drunken lean. She stabilised a desk that shook when you sat down to it, varnished chairs and hushed whinging hinges.
But after a while, it was hard for her to hide how much the carpentry course was taking over her life. She used to sing ‘Knock On Wood’ so often I had to ask her to stop. And the wood shavings were everywhere now – and I mean everywhere. I would wake up in the night with a dry mouth, coughing, and on sunny afternoons the air between us was so thick with dust motes I could hardly bring myself to reach across it, or speak. We never slept together any more. She’d stay up late doing her coursework. What is it, I’d ask sometimes. Nothing, she’d reply, in varying degrees of nonchalance, grief, defiance, insecurity and fury.
I wouldn’t have said anything, but it was getting in the food. She’s a smashing cook, my girlfriend, but dinners were coming coated in wood dust. Eat something like a lasagne and a bit of dust in the bechamel doesn’t bother you, but it wasn’t just that. Cups of tea had particles floating in them like old biscuit crumbs. There were woodchips in the pesto. I found offcuts in sandwiches. In a matter of weeks I was raking through curries, checking for rawlplugs.
I started to date a girl from work with big pale blue eyes. She had a sand timer on her desk. I walked over most days, and one day I began to play with it. She fixed me for a minute with those eyes of her, then giggled. After work she took me to the pub.
Everything alright at home, she asked.
Fine, I said. She took me back to hers and made me toast. She burned it but handed it to me anyway, thinking I was too drunk to notice. Oh, I noticed. I felt sorry for myself, then, tucking into that toast: one in a series of ruined meals in my life.
With a friend, I texted my girlfriend.
I thought maybe my girlfriend would let it slide. No. It all came to a head when I found a nail in my birthday cake.
When my teeth hit metal I immediately opened my mouth. I heard the spit-wet sponge clatter onto the plate. My head hung there for a moment and her eyes swivelled to the glistening mouthful.
Was that a nail? she asked.
I think so, I replied.
We sat there in silence for a while as she felt for something to say.
I’m sorry, she whispered.
There shouldn’t be a nail in the cake, I pointed out.
I know that, she replied.
I could have impaled myself on that, I shouted.
I know, she said, I’m mortified.
After a moment, she said: You know I never wanted to hurt you?
Then there were tears welling in her eyes. Rivulets ran new tracks down her cheeks and her skin shone through a layer of dust.
I’ve been building, she gulped, a cabin.
It was a shock. She let the words sink in.
Ah, I replied. That’s where all the sawdust came from.
I think I should move in.
Out? I asked.
Yes, she replied, out. Into the house.
Cabin, I corrected.
She looked at me like she was waiting for something, then got up and went to the back door, and looked at me again. I got up and went over to her.
It’s in the garden, I realised.
It’s in the garden, she explained, and opened the back door. I could smell, faintly, the musk of cut timber.
I could see it already, out of focus, its warmth flooding my gaze.
But actually I heard it before I saw it. Before it came into focus I heard a deep, towering creaking, and I could hear a picture of it clearer than an image.
It’s not a cabin, I realised, sinking.
She walked over to the house, and put her hand on its flank like it was a wild animal she’d tamed.
Still touching it, she turned back to me.
I’m sorry, she said, in a voice like an exhalation.
It’s OK, I replied.
Behind her, the house sighed and settled, creaked and cracked, and stood.
o o o
Ellie Broughtonis a writer and journalist from London. Short stories that she has written have been published by The Cadaverine, The Learned Pig, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and she has also had non-fiction published in Elsewhere Journal.