My fiance couldn't make it to the house. Unavoidable work commitments. In the end only four of us could. We met at the small, cold ferry port and boarded the ship. I bought some chips for everyone - carried them over in the brown plastic bowl. Mark was leaning into the window, watching the spray against the ship's sides. The girls were sitting opposite. Mark was worried about what their reaction would be to the house. The last time we'd been it had been an intense, insular, masculine affair. It had gotten weird.
I sat down opposite Naomi. She said how sad she was that my fiance couldn't make it. Naomi had always made my fiance feel so welcome. Guiltily, this was not a favour we'd returned to her string of terrible boyfriends. Laura, who was sitting next to Naomi, also expressed her condolences. I'd been close with Laura as a child, and we'd dated in secondary school, but now I felt I didn't know her much. I wasn't even sure of her relationship status. She seemed to be just bouncing between partners, none of which she cared much for.
The house was Mark's. Or more precisely it was Mark's grandma's. It was the house in which Mark's mother and her siblings had grown up. It was a small - little more than a bungalow. Mark's mother and her many siblings had be raised, poor, and extremely protestant. Now two generations down it had mellowed. It was free of all that. It felt like something new, warmer, was just hatching.
There was quiet for a while as we ate the chips. Mark was thinking about the evening. Laura roused his attention asking about the logistics of the shopping. Naomi and I went on deck to catch up with each other. We chatted, and watched as the ferry slowly came into port.
Upon reaching the island we whipped around the local supermarket, pausing only for a brief debate over the quantity (and colors) of wine required, and what food was to dominate the snack selection. We boarded the bus, loaded up with shopping, and watched the landscape as we climbed slowly around the island ring road, smell of petrol and grass coming through the windows.
At the stop near Mark's house we begun the next slow ascent. The wind was dashing across the landscape, ruffling the heather and bending the shrubs. We eventually reached the house and threw down our shopping, quickly closing the doors. I put on the kettle and made tea. We rested for a few hours, glad to be home. Mark remained quiet.
* * *
There was no official entrance to the pine tree plantation near the house, so we crouched under the bordering trees. Inside, the trees stood in their thousands, planted in perfect, endless rows. I peered down the corridor in which I was standing. It was dark, damp, and still. Small pools of water reflected the darkness, creating a kind of optical illusion. The trees were stripped of needles all up the trunk. Only the tiny sunlit area at the peak had foliage. The trees were planted so close together that they'd been forced to grow high - and fast.
We walked together deeper into the forest until we reached an abnormally wide corridor, with a little brook running. We followed it up-stream as far as we could, but it narrowed, and the ground became too marshy to walk. I wondered how the trees could stand in this slimy mud. I imagined their roots hooked onto each other, securing the whole mass in place below ground.
Naomi crossed my view, walking down her own corridor. I half expected to see a pine martin, adder, or something cross by another way. Those nasty, tenacious little creatures always being the most capable of making a profit in an industry like this.
I wanted to get back to see the border pines. I was envious of their whole side of foliage, and views over the beautiful island. We were deep into Plato's cave. Here we could only see the shadows of things.
On the way back we chatted amongst ourselves, relieved to be on our way. Our spirits were high when we again crouched under the border trees and emerged into the gorse. Standing directly ahead, away from the plantation, was a large old oak tree, gnarled and twisted against the wind, battered and standing alone, proud. I wanted to climb it. I wanted to feel the salty air and the cutting wind and see what it was really like to live on this island. I smirked at Mark. I could tell he did too. We started to run over to it, stumbling over grass tufts, tree stumps, and marshy pools. The girls jogged after, laughing, encouraging us.
I reached it first and skipped around the base, looking for branches low enough to climb onto. Mark arrived soon after and pointed to a large one that might be reachable with a good jump. I positioned myself underneath and leapt as high as I could. My fingers wrapped around the rough old branch. But at the apex of my leap I didn't stop. I hit the ground with the branch crumbling over me. The tree was completely dead, and I'd just ripped another limb off. Mark laughed and helped me up. I brushed off the broken bark, blushing. It was my turn to remain quiet.
* * *
Naomi and I prepared the dinner. We didn't care what is was going to be like, just that there was plenty. Naomi decided she was cutting the mushrooms into as many different shapes as possible. I emptied all of the herbs and spices from the cupboards. It bubbled in the pot and steam filled the kitchen.
We opened the wine, and Laura laid the table in the large glass conservatory that was attached to the back of the house. Mark lit tea lights and laid them around the borders of the room. He switched the main lights off and the whole room begun to glow a beautiful muted yellow.
The meal went down fast, as did the wine. Mark was telling a funny story about his parent's neurotic dog, and Naomi was bashing her cutlery on the table demanding dessert, swinging her feet. I was by the CD player. There wasn't exactly the greatest selection of music; mostly free CDs from the observer. But I found a CD of African pop and loaded it into the CD player, turning the volume and bass as high as possible.
Everyone looked up. The room vibrated with bouncing drums and joyful bass guitar. The rhythms and melodies ran up and down, skipped and jumped, like water rolling off hot stones. Naomi and I started dancing like mad people, flailing our arms, stamping our feet and howling. Mark and Laura shouted and laughed, running around us. The room was shaking. It was full of energy - reverberating, glowing like a lighthouse, shining out across the whole island. There was no one else to disturb - we were the only house for miles around.
For hours we chatted and drunk, and danced, and shouted, and screamed. I marveled at the lightness induced from the wine and tea lights. We were in a hot air balloon, lit by the fabric, and warm, soaring into the sky.
Laura, looking for more candles, found an old pipe, accompanied by a glass jar of tobacco. We lit it, and Mark and I passed it between ourselves, puffing on the fumes, buzzing on the rich, strong, sharp nicotine. I looked over to Mark and laughed, rocking back in the chair. I crossed my legs and pretended to read the newspaper. My head was swimming. The smoke swirled around my face. It was so delicate and natural, like a slow grey flame. I couldn't stop staring. The girls rolled their eyes and laughed, pushing me off the chair onto the floor, ruffling Mark's hair, an absurd grin on his face.
I found another CD in the pile. It was a home-made CD, with a selection of Tom Waits. I put on Tom Traubert's Blues, and sat alongside Mark, arm over his shoulders, swaying. We put on our most gravelly broken Tom Waits voice and roared out Waltzing Matilda. The girls let us really waltz them, holding their hands, and dragging and tripping ourselves in circles under the glass ceiling.
Mark fell to the floor, unable to take any more. We opened another bottle and listened to the sad songs together. We reminded each other of tales from school. Past dates and embarrassments. Heart breaks, and stupid stories. One by one the tea-lights died. It was so still. Beyond the black conservatory windows there really was nothingness. Our hot air balloon had popped, and we were falling, but we'd breached the atmosphere. There were only four moving parts in the whole universe.
We passed out, and took ourselves to our beds. Then we were all quiet.
* * *
There were no curtains attached to my bedroom's windows, so the sun woke me early the next morning. I lifted myself from under the old crumpled duvet. The bed was barely slept in since the family move out so long ago. It smelt of dust and wheat. I quietly wandered back into the conservatory. I was the first one up.
I got some orange juice from the kitchen and started reading my book in the old rocking chair. Slowly the others rose and mulled around. The smell of fresh coffee drifted in from the kitchen. Somehow in this house barely equipt with an oven Mark had found a coffee grinder and was grinding beans. Mark made the coffee and I read everyone a short story from my book. It built slowly, but the ending settled everyone. Afterwards we just sat there and stared into space.
Mark and I went out for a smoke. We looked down to the shore. The view was incredible. The small waves splashed against the pale beaches. The clouds rolled above, and the wind shook the little hedges. The pine forests stood there, dark green geometric patchwork on the red gorse. Everything was so still. Everything was fresh, old. I was thinking about the night before, and the orange juice, and coffee this morning, when Mark spoke.
"What do you think would happen - if everyone else just died right now?"
I would be happy.
I knew the answer so quickly. Guilt and confusion welled. How could I be happy if everyone else died? As if lined up in rows and shot. Everyone I'd known. Everyone I hadn't. Dumped into a landfill away from the house. Never for me to see. One by one, falling.
If my family died. Those who had raised me, and shared those first moments; Christmases, holidays, graduations. Those who had unconditionally cared for me, and placed me beyond themselves, their friends, their own lives.
If my friends died. The ones whom I had shared my deepest moments with. My tears and laughs, and who had asked nothing of me but to me myself. Who I'd had so many drunken nights with. Those I'd studied with, became an adult with.
If my fiance died. The single person I cared most for in the world. The person I had intended to share my life with, raise kids with, grow old with, die with. The person I had shared the most with, been the most with, and would give my life for. How could I betray her like that? How could I be happy?
But I knew I would. Alone here, in this house, with these people, I would be happy.
The quietness that had seemed to perminant began to disappear. The silence around us began to rumble and shake. The thumping of petrol engines echoed off the mountain sides. Quiet at first, getting louder. Shouts of men followed. Machinery buzzed and whirred into life. And then finally the screams. The sounds of crushing, crunching, and crashing - destruction. I looked down to the pine plantation we'd been just days before. The logging had begun. The trees were being cut down. One by one, falling.