Giving up my life began when Isaac peered over the fence one morning. At that time I knew little else about him, other than his name. That feeling of eyes set upon me drew my attention. Beneath the sallow eyes, set in a complex lattice of deep furrows, fingers were draped over the dry, weathered beading on the top of the fence. I did not make the decision to give up my life lightly.
‘Ross,’ he said.
I was sitting on the back steps of my house, elbows on knees, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. My head was hurting at my right temple. ‘It’s Joe,’ I replied. ‘Ross is my surname.’
‘I know,’ he said, running fingers along the wood. ‘You got a while, Ross?’ One of his droopy eyelids twitched.
Time was all that I had, on top of various aches and pains – of the heart and temple. I wasn’t really in the mood for sociability, mostly because of the self-inflicted pain of the night before. The nights before. The weeks of nights. But it wasn’t as if I had to even leave the house, something that I was doing less and less.
‘Come round here,’ Isaac said. He disappeared behind the fence, his long nails clipping frail threads of wood from the top of the fence.
It seemed that I did have to leave the house.
It was a warm day. My recent lack of appetite for anything solid had ground away at my constitution. It made the hangovers worse and my energy wane. I could feel it by the way that my hoodie felt more like a shroud over my bones. Even when I stepped out into the sun I felt the coolness of the shade. I rubbed my forehead, duty-bound to go. For where is there to hide when a neighbour comes calling over the fence? Giving up my life at least gave me something to live for.
Along the side of the house, Isaac’s gate was open. I got the impression that it was permanently open – the rusty, flaky hinges didn’t look like they could hold up for much longer, merely fused to the wood. I eased the gate over the mossy slabs, scraping bits of moss and parts of the mulched bottom of the gate. Just as I was passing the rickety lean-to attached to the side of the house, the gate crashed down behind me.
‘Ne’er mind that, Ross,’ I heard as I was propping the gate back up. A dog, a hybrid of some kind, not a fashionable kind, was wiggling towards me. Its head was half-cocked to one side, as if it was also struggling with some rusty hinges. Catlike, the dog rubbed against me, leaning its weight into my leg.
‘Hey, boy.’ Stroking it, a nasty pong arose from the matted, salt and pepper fur. I scratched him behind the ears. He leaned harder into me, pushing.
Isaac was standing at the edge of the house. He was wearing brown slacks, the belt tightened above his stomach. His white shirt was open; beneath, a grey-white vest tucked into his slacks; silver twigs of hairs sprouting over the low-cut neck. He was wearing sandals, off-white socks within them. He seemed not to have a neck, his head leaning forward of the hunch in his shoulders. Owners and their dogs.
The house was just like mine: a bungalow, built in the ‘fifties. The difference was that, by the lack of any care at all, Isaac’s house looked as though it had been standing for half a century longer, or built from leftover parts of other properties on the street. The wooden facias were peeling to the point of the crumbling; the gutters were warped out of shape; the roof tiles were matted with lichen; the window frames rotted halfway through; the panes smeared with green and brown mould. As I walked through, I saw that the garden was of a different matter entirely.
Unlike living in a house, from bungalows you never see into a neighbour’s garden. Right next door to me was the greenest, most immaculate lawn that I had ever seen. The flowerbeds prim sculptures of strategic colours; roses the size of pudding bowls; alliums, crocuses, dahlias and gladioli standing on thick stems above neat topiary shrubs blazing with tiny flowers. Scents of lavender, of honeysuckle, of exotic herb wafted around me, carried from plant to plant by more bees than I had ever seen in one place. Looking at the house you’d think that you were in a warzone; looking upon the garden was to be within palace walls. Albeit crumbly ones.
I looked at Isaac, already looking at me.
‘Yarp, it’s my passion,’ he said, lowering down into a deck chair. The deck chairs faced the garden. ‘Pull one up.’ Isaac indicated the other chair. Carefully, with a creak and a groan – the creak from the chair – I sat myself down. Something clinked against the wooden frame. I pulled the three-quarters full bottle of vodka from my pocket. I must have picked it up when I left my house. Habit. A bad one. The sun was slipping towards its midday peak.
Tilting his tin mug, Isaac smiled. ‘Cheers,’ he said, taking a sip. He was smiling to himself now; his head swivelled on his neck as his glance passed over his garden.
‘So you, er . . . You wanted to show me your garden? S’nice.’ I thought of him looking over my fence. I looked at his house, to restore parity. The dog attempted to nuzzle his nose under my arm. But he wasn’t persistent. And I wasn’t keen.
‘Yarp, my pride and joy, it is.’ He raised his mug to the garden. I noticed the shed in the corner, recently painted. Unlike the house, it looked fit to live in.
The sun was upon us. I sipped from the bottle. I actually felt quite settled, sitting there in a near-stranger’s garden, having a morning drink. Isaac seemed just as content. I noticed a scar on his face, near to his eye, in about the same area that my head was hurting. It was ugly, ragged. It suited him.
‘I’ve been watching you,’ he said, just as I was watching him. He turned to face me, kind of threateningly. My comfort fled and hopped back over the fence, to home. ‘Not in a sin’ster way,’ he added. ‘Just . . . observing.’ He smiled. His teeth, although off-white like his clothing, and dappled with stains, like each part of his bungalow, were all there – straight and strong.
I didn’t really know how to respond to his revelation. I bit off a fingernail, spat it out. I chewed a bit more off. Spat that out too. It stuck behind the tip lip. I picked it out. ‘How’d you mean?’ I asked while gnawing my thumb.
‘Since she left.’ He said it to the garden. ‘Your wife.’
‘She never was my wife,’ I said. I scratched my head. I couldn’t recall if I had any more alcohol left in the house. I took a sip of vodka, to smother the alcohol taste. ‘How do you know about that?’
Isaac looked up at the sky, his head against the dirty fabric of the chair. He lolled his head towards me. With the sun on his face, I noticed that he’d missed numerous places with the razor. Further to his silvery chest, grey and black tufts sprouted out of his ears and his nose. He reminded me of a teacher that I’d once had. This was exactly how I thought that he would have aged: his once impressive chest hair turning something untameable. ‘Because I see you around the place all day, every day. Just you.’
I scratched in my ear – perhaps a reaction to witnessing his ear wig – ;found dried dirt. I rubbed my chin: stubbly but uniform. I wanted to leave, but staying to hear what wanton presumptions Isaac had deigned from my moping kept me. I wanted to have a go at him for prying, but felt that pupil / teacher respect stayed my tongue.
‘Tell me, Ross. You ever want to kill her?’ he asked. ‘After she was gone?’
‘What?’ I leaned towards him. ‘Why would you ask something like that? Jesus.’ Even though he looked like an extra from a Bible story, I couldn’t have predicted such ancient absurdity. ‘Listen, you don’t know anything about me. If you say –’
‘You want to kill him?’
‘Him?’ I shook my vodka. “Him” who?’
‘The him she left you for.’ By the look on his face, I expected him to offer to kill “him” for me.
‘That isn’t what happened,’ I said. Feeling cold in the heat of the sun, my bones aching from my hangover, I looked about the garden. I could feel the beat at my temple. ‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘She tell you that?’ A thin smile passed over his bristly lips. ‘Listen,’ he nearly whispered – he knew well enough that these fences have ears. ‘I’m around this place all day. Right next door to your place, where right now you’re around all day. But you weren’t always around all day. That didn’t mean that someone wasn’t around.’ He raised a tangled eyebrow. ‘Or that someone wasn’t coming around.’
‘Are you ex-military?’ I asked, leaning towards him. ‘You hear about people like you, back from whatever hole of the world. Struggling to readjust to everyday life. Life is more like a soap opera than a Hollywood film, you know.’ I slumped back in the chair. Part of the stitching in the fabric tore, lowering me a little further. I stamped a foot weakly. My head wobbled like a drunken sailor. I remembered the sunglasses on top of my head. Pulled them down.
I eyed a fingerprint on the lens of my sunglasses.
Kelly was perfect. Had been perfect. Or at least was perfect to me. But that was just how I saw her. While some other guy was eyeing her as a potential mistress. And then took the potential away. So who had she really been for all that time? Really? I am only left with questions. No, that’s not true. I’m also left with memories that can only be viewed through a sickening mirage.
‘So you’re not working now?’ Isaac asked. A normal question on an aberrant morning. ‘Round the house all day? Drinkin’.’
I snorted a laugh. ‘You know my movements as well as I do, old man.’ I tilted the bottle. Looked at it, as a stranger. ‘Better, probably,’ I half-whispered.
‘Yarp,’ he said, smiling. In the sunlight, coming from up to his right, interesting contours appeared around his face. None more than the deepening of the scar. ‘So you quit?’
‘What is this?’ I replied, not angered, more bemused. As far as the weirdest of weird mornings can be for a lonely alcoholic, this was tops. And also it was opening up my own scars. ‘First the watching, then the interrogation. If you’re not military, are you government?’
‘Steady son.’ Isaac spat on the ground. Looking at me, he frowned. ‘You ever fall out of love with her yet?’
‘Jesus!’ Now I really did want to leave. My legs were tingling, ready to get up and go. Comfortable as I was in the worn out deck chair, I fancied following my comfort back over the fence. With the bottle in my hand. ‘If you think that I need life coaching, maybe I do. But I’ll ask for it, if I do. Probably from a professional.’
Isaac found one of the scraggy tufts missed by the razor, stroked at it. ‘My daughter wanted me to fight back for my old girl after she left. Thirty-seven years together, and she just upped and walked. I fell into the drink, just like you are.’ He eyed me through glassy eyes, chewing on his top lip. ‘Now I don’t have neither of them.’ His chair creaked as he shifted his weight. His mug clinked as he picked it up from the floor.
‘What’ve you got in that mug?’ I asked. ‘Tea?’
He felt for more loose tufts around his face, moving from one to the next, ignoring my question. Settling on a patch of darker, softer hairs high up on his cheekbone, he said, ‘I never lifted a finger when she was in my life: no interest in the garden; no interest in her. And life just passed on by. So one day she upped and left, without a word.’ He shrugged. ‘Least now I don’t have to answer endless, pointless questions on the hour anymore. I’ve kept my life and my ways, and I realised that’s all I wanted.’
I followed Isaac’s gaze towards a multi-coloured buddleia in the far corner of the garden, floating with bees. ‘Funny, it’s all that I care about now, this garden. All that I’m living for.’ The dog lifted its head, looked at Isaac, then at me, before resettling on to its paws. Isaac sipped, and then settled the mug on his stomach
We sat there in silence for a moment. I thought about asking him more, as if that was what he wanted me to do. Instead, leaning forward, I slapped my hands on my thighs. The dog looked up at me. I cocked my head at it, mimicking him. ‘Isaac, it’s been . . . depressing.’ I stood up, nearly toppling with the chair as the frame wobbled. ‘Thanks for inviting me round, and for all of your, erm . . . inspiration. But I really must be getting back now.’
Isaac stared at me over the top of his mug as he sipped. A dribble of liquid ran over his chin. He wiped the sleeve of his shirt over it. I could hear the scratch of his stubble. ‘Back to that? What are you living for now, boy?’ he asked. We stayed just looking at each other for a moment. Floods of thoughts, of responses, trickled through my mind. I was very nearly nasty in reply. I very nearly walked away.
A smile crept across his unkempt face. His eyes twinkled, as did the watery mark on his chin. ‘What if I could offer you more wealth than you could ever know? And you’d barely have to lift a finger.’ I looked at his fingernails: long, filthy-yellow, and, well, repulsive. ‘What if I could show you how to find treasure?’
It turned out that I had run out of booze. I’d visited the local shop the night before, buying extra provisions for our trip – booze and nuts. They were all gone by the next morning. So I went again to replenish supplies. I couldn’t recall the last time that I had left the house two days in a row. The pulse in my head that I’d awoken with was just as bad.
When we arrived at the harbour, I was surprised by how modern and stylish Isaac’s boat was. The Sunseeker was as sleek as it was expensive-looking. And it had clearly been kept well. Unlike Isaac’s shirt and vest – presumably the same attire as the day before, complete with sandals and socks – the white of the hull and the deck was bright in the morning light. The white leather sun loungers looked more comfortable than any chair that I had ever sat in. The wooden steering wheel could have come from a classic Bentley. I could see not a speck of dirt.
‘On you skip,’ Isaac told Penny – the name, I had learned, of his dog, whom I’d assumed to be male. Penny gave Isaac a look that said, Sure, right after you, old man. They struggled on together.
‘The fridge is over there,’ Isaac told me with a wink and a glance at my rucksack, indicating a place behind the skipper’s chair.
‘This really yours?’ I asked, loading the fridge with bottles of ale. I had figured that ale would be safer at sea than vodka. I opened a packet of nuts and set to munching. Penny jumped up on to the front seat.
‘Yarp. And it can be yours,’ Isaac said, turning on the ignition. The growl of the engine was a sound of beauty, the roll of thunder after a drought. He said something but the noise from the engine drowned out his words. I think that it was, And I’m going to tell you how.
We cruised around the cliffs, past secluded bays. The draught of the passing breeze of the still air was perfection beneath the heat of the sun. In spite of the beauty of the scenery, from my seat within reaching distance of the fridge my eyes kept wandering to Isaac, sitting in his skipper’s chair; a curious juxtaposition: the finery of the boat against the elderly man driving it, trousers up to his armpits. Perched on the very front of his seat, his head was tilted upwards, so as to see over the front of the boat, the way that a granny does driving a car at thirty miles an hour, never getting out of second gear. The boat eased over the flat surface of the sea. Before long, Isaac turned off the engine. We drifted.
‘Give me one them ales,’ he said, swivelling his chair. I passed him one; got myself another – my third. He popped the cap off his bottle with a church key clipped to his belt. The sun was lighting upon the tall cliffs behind Isaac. Behind me the sea stretched to nowhere. ‘What do you want from life, boy?’
‘Straight in with the questions again.’ For the first time the thought occurred to me that I can’t just pop back next door if his line of questioning began to irritate me again. But yesterday I’d stayed because of his proposition.
‘Just answer the question.’ Isaac’s bottle was more than empty by half.
I breathed in until I had to exhale. I knew what I wanted from life. ‘I want my old life back,’ I answered. My stomach hitched and lurched. I tasted bile.
‘Now that you can’t have your old life back, what do you want? No man can ever go back.’
I watched gulls around the cliffs, some leaving and others returning to nests dotted along the surface. I remember reading, after Kelly left, that human’s aren’t built for love. The way that couples survive is by nest-building and being happy to return to the place that we call home, living as best we can by being there for our mate and their needs. I’d take that. Like the gulls, I thought that was what I’d had. I had.
‘Have you brought me all the way out here just to ask me more questions about my life?’ I replied. ‘I’d really much rather not do that. Why don’t you just cut to the chase now? What about that treasure that you told me about yesterday?’
‘It’s not treasure that makes fortune,’ Isaac began, crossing one leg over the other, with much readjustment of his trousers. ‘It’s wealth.’ He picked up a bottle of water and poured some into a bowl next Penny’s chair. She eased herself down and began to lap it up, in that slightly guilty way that dogs do. Isaac scratched behind her ears. ‘Besides, it’s not treasure,’ he said, sitting back up and crossing his legs again with the same routine. ‘So to speak,’ he added.
Without realising, I had finished my beer. And I thought that Isaac had been drinking quickly. I reached over and plucked another one out of the fridge. I offered it to Isaac. He shook his head. ‘Well if it’s not treasure,’ I asked, ‘then what is it? Why so cryptic? Why not just tell me what the heck it is that you’ve been banging on about?’
‘What if I told you that it’s the fountain of youth?’ He glanced over his shoulder to where the gulls were coming and going like bees to his buddleia.
‘I say that you’re bullshitting.’
‘You’d be right, Ross,’ he said. ‘So what difference does it make? All that you have to agree to do is to sign your life over to it.’ He laughed.
‘Ha! Yeah, okay. To what?’ I asked, hearing the drunkenness creeping into my voice, a little louder than intended. ‘Have you ever signed yourself up to anything that you didn’t know what you were signing up for? I mean, giving my life over to something is a pretty big deal, you know. Even more if I don’t know what it is.’
I saw the scar on the side of his face kind of wince, like I’d stuck a dagger in. But he was smiling. ‘I was given the exact same choice that I’m now giving you,’ he said. ‘It was soon after Ellen had left, and after Zoe wasn’t talking to me any more.’
‘The offer of treasure?’ I asked. ‘Of this . . . immeasurable wealth?’
Isaac smiled. He placed his empty bottle on the floor. ‘Give me another beer,’ he said. He popped the cap. ‘I already had wealth,’ he told me, indicating the boat. ‘It wasn’t that for me. But it was the offer of being the guardian of the treasure that gave me something to live for.’
‘So what is it?’ I tried my luck.
‘I will tell you,’ Isaac replied. ‘In time. First I need you to know what your responsibilities will be.’
‘And . . . ?’ I asked, after Isaac again drifted away from the conversation, staring across the sea dreamily.
He turned to look at me. ‘It’s the boozing,’ he said. ‘All that you need to know for now is that you can’t carry on the way you are. This offer is the greatest responsibility that a man can accept. After that, you just have to guard it. Which you can do from your bungalow, if you choose. Me, I’ve done it from my garden. But you don’t seem to have pride in anything.’
‘How do I know that there is a treasure?’ I asked, ignoring his latest – probably fair – assassination of my character. ‘How do I know that you’re not just a crazy old man?’ Penny looked up at Isaac, saying: This guy!
‘I guess you can’t,’ Isaac said, sharing a humoured glace with Penny. I rolled my eyes. ‘But what do you have to lose, Ross? Really?’
I was going to reply. But I couldn’t think how.
Returning to the mainland, me still with more questions than answers, Isaac said to think about his proposition for a couple of days. When I had questioned him again about the treasure, he had told me that it does exist, that it is an actual thing, still without divulging what it actually was. I had tried guessing: Pirate’s bullion? A smuggler’s stash? A landowner’s hidden fortune? With amusement, he had shrugged; he had shaken his head. And then he had pointed at the cliffs and told me that it was hidden somewhere in there. He’d said to have a drink, if it helps the thinking. Instead I had drunk less than I had been drinking in a long while.
Standing in front of his bungalow, I noticed that our gardens were the only two on the street without blooms; without neat lawns; no trees bursting with blossom. Our front gardens showed only dry, brittle bushes. Leaves of dull colour. Withered flowers hanging like bodies from barbed wire. They were the only two that looked as if they were lived in by single men. If only our neighbours knew that Isaac’s garden could be entered for competition.
He answered his door just a few moments after I knocked, as if he knew that I would be coming. Instead of inviting me in, we went out again for the day. Again Penny came along too.
This time our transport was a train: a single carriage with a wooden floor and only fifty-six seats. The jolting journey ran along a one-way track adjacent to the cliff. At times the view of the sea would disappear behind high chalky banks covered with buttercups, daisies and poppies. The smell of nature filled the carriage, mingling with diesel fumes. We spoke little on the way there.
Either side of the station platform – if a rippled strip of tarmac bubbling in the sun could be called such – the chalky banks dropped away. Isaac indicated that we should continue by foot along a path that led towards the cliff. Penny was struggling along the path, as was Isaac. I felt sorry for him then, the man with so many questions and few answers to mine. We didn’t walk far. Isaac showed me to the spot where we should stop: a stone bench overlooking the sea. I was glad for the solid bench to sit upon as I have always found cliffs dizzying places to be. And he’d said that the treasure was hidden in the cliffs.
‘How did you know that I’d agree to any of this?’ I asked when we were sitting. I’d removed a beer from my rucksack. Isaac had bought his own today: a hipflask of brandy. ‘How do you know?’
‘Because I know a man like me when I see one,’ he replied.
‘Hmm, a little presumptuous there, old man.’ Looking at the side of his face, I noticed that he’d been more careful about shaving that morning.
‘Oh,’ he said, reaching deep into the long pockets of his slacks. ‘The keys to the boat.’
‘You’re not going to need them?’ I asked.
‘Narp. I promised you.’
‘You also promised to tell me what the treasure was and how to find it,’ I said.
He began to sway from side to side, smiling at me. He swayed a little further and nudged my shoulder. He took a sip from his flask. In the still air, the lenticular clouds were like smooth discs of futuristic spacecraft painted on to the pale blue sky. The sun’s reflection across the water led a dappled path directly to the edge of the cliff in front of us.
‘You know when you agreed to this?’ he asked, nudging my shoulder again with his.
‘I’m not sure that I did,’ I replied. ‘That I have. I told you that I’m not signing up for anything until I know what it is.’
‘Then I’ll tell you.’ He sipped from his hipflask. I noticed how his hand was shaking. I could see his veins, blue; his skin almost translucent in the sun. Looking me in the eyes, I saw how far the bags stretched beneath them, how dark the skin. How pained the life of their existence seemed. ‘The treasure is life,’ he said, ‘and the wealth is youth.’
It took me a moment to process what he had said. I was dreaming of something a little more romantic, a little more rewarding. As the realisation hit, anger grew inside me. This man, a stranger, who had led me through a tumult of anticipation, of the weirdest few days of my life, had been lying to me all along. I threw the bottle down into the grass, where it hit something and shattered.
‘How dare you!’ I said. ‘How dare you. You’ve been lying to me to lead me up here, just to tell me that? Jesus!’ Looking at the vacant expression on his worn-out face, his slight curl of a smile, my anger dissipated. ‘Jesus,’ I added, just to show that I really wasn’t that happy about it.
Isaac waited until he knew that I was finished. ‘I wasn’t lying, Ross,’ he said, very calmly. ‘I mean, I did lie, sure.’ He chuckled. ‘But I’m not lying to you now. When I asked you what you were living for now, you couldn’t answer me. You didn’t know. You still don’t.
‘This scar,’ he said, placing a finger on the ugly wound, ‘I did this to myself when I had nothing to live for. I was drinking too much; I was drunk. I wanted to cut that feeling out. And I did. When I woke up to have that wound to look at each morning it reminded me to get up and do something with my life. Even something as simple as having a pretty garden to sit in. My mistake was that by doing that I was hanging on to a part of my life that had gone and wasn’t coming back. Or the effort I wasn’t putting in when I did have a life. But it did make me realise that it’s all about being happy at the end of your life. That’s what you take with you, af’er all.’
By that same synchronised understanding, Penny and Isaac looked at each other at the same moment. She shifted in the long grass in front of us, stretching her hind legs with some effort. The walk had clearly drained the energy of her. I had noticed how painful it had been to move her hips by the end of the walk here. The way that Isaac had slowed even after the slopes had levelled.
‘So are you happy?’ I asked, somehow intruding on their moment.
‘Oh yarp,’ Isaac said nodding to the sea, nodding at me. ‘Oh yarp. More’n ten years alone. I could have sold all that I had and travelled the world for the rest of my days. But I’d only think of this place. Can’t keep the garden so good now, though.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Okay.’ I leaned my shoulder into him. To nudge him. ‘But I still wish that you’d just told me all this on that first day. I’ve been stirring at night thinking that I might be inheriting treasure. Some real treasure,’ I added, before he could remind me of the treasure of his intent.
‘You would have just walked away on that first morning – you were about to, Ross – and not listened to a word that I said.’
I was about to open a beer, but decided that I’d leave it for a few minutes. I felt bad about the broken bottle. I began to pick up the pieces, putting the broken bits in one of the empty nut packets that I hadn’t yet cleared out of my rucksack.
‘I always wondered what it would look like,’ Isaac said. From my crouching position, I looked up at him, the sunshine in his face. Soaking in the sun seemed to have made him grow. To straighten, a little. To give energy to his skin. He was looking out over the sea.
‘What?’ I asked. ‘What’s that?’
‘The end of the road,’ he said. ‘It seems that I’ve found it.’ I watched as he stood up and stretched his back. He hadn’t looked down at me once. ‘Come on, girl.’ Penny got to her feet with a little lurch. ‘Come on, Pen,’ Isaac said again. They began, towards the path that led towards the sun.