When Jessica returned she had changed. Her bob had grown out and she wore it now locked. She dressed in arrangements of mismatched discard; thin slips and vest tops, secondhand summer dresses; straps striped her suntanned shoulders. Silk scarves gave chase, streamed all about her. Patchouli oiled the air around her. She had no need now, she explained, for footwear. “Never bothered with shoes abroad.” She eschewed make-up. She had this new way of speaking, too: a sort of loose haiku that required some lending of ear, some leaning into. It seemed, to Ffooks at least, that when she spoke, the world beyond the words faded a little. They nuzzled his ear, his heart, and life beyond the frame took on a quietude: honeyed and sunbleached like Kodak-print; polaroid beneath tissue.
She took the cheap flat in the attic above Rainbow Stores on Front Street. She made the rent from part-time work therein, Thursday and Friday, selling sun cream and ice tan. She tilled coins and paper notes in exchange for primary coloured buckets and spades, for flip-flops, the glossies and shades. Mass produced armadas of plastic passed before her on the black rubber stream: snorkel masks and flippers, swan-necked and frog-faced floating rings, body boards. UFO frisbees.
Saturdays, Carl drove her in his Fiesta, early, to the art and craft market in Axminster. And, while he strapped a tarp to the metal poles next to the wide fella who sold earthenware, Jessica laid down some blankets beneath and spread her bedouin treasure all about her. The stall holders chatted as they set up. Carl sat with her for a cigarette, corrected creases, tested bungees and adjusted the sign. “Leave everything,” she said. “Just as it is. ‘Hemptation’.” She spoke the name aloud, breaking it down to the syllabic. She spent some time, cross-legged, cushioned, sipping flask and penning white card with doodled pound signs, names for the things, and when she looked next upwards, the market was alive.
She sold coils of silver, bangles and rings, rolled cotton throws, incensed sticks and tiny pyramids, oiled boxes – the wood the colour of coffee -, handmade scented candles and holders, bowls crafted from the same dark wood. There were hag stones and palm shells and beach find. And there were the dresses that she made. She hung the hemp garments, these dresses that she treasured, from a rail made for just such a purpose and stood away from the stall, breathed with the crowd. The dresses brushed like pale dancers on the street breeze, enchanting, every so often, a passer-by, drawing their touch. Once in a while someone would buy one.
The walls that separated the box kitchen, the bedsitting room, the bright bathroom, she discovered, were painted ply boards. They bowed beneath her when she leaned against them. She set the bed near the window, which she draped with a colourful cheesecloth. Wood pigeons cooed in the eaves and grey weed grew in the cracked brickwork outside the window. It scratched at the glass when the wind blew in off the bay. She homed two domesticated rats. They supped at the dripping kitchen tap, haunched in the stained basin atop the crockery. She collected their tiny pellets as they appeared to her, into a tin dustpan, and shook them from the sash window down toward the street below. Whenever Jack Loveless, the landlord, and owner of Rainbow, arrived to take collection of the rent on a Sunday evening, she scooped up the rodents and, marvelling at their rapid heartbeats in her palms, applied quick kisses to their busy, bristled heads, calling out, breezily, over her shoulder, toward the door, “Just one minute”. She placed the busy animals in the cupboard that housed the rumbling old drum boiler, tendered the same words to them, but in a breath, closed the door and, barefooting the boards, opened the other.
He was from another age. His demeanour was grey. He was fading and within two years he would disappear completely, consumed beneath a phthisic cloak. He sensed this somehow, and sometimes wondered if the animals perceived it in him, too. They did. Cats slunk back into shadow, the hedgerow fell silent as he walked the lanes. Jackdaws in the oaks, cackled, unseen. Even Simon, his ever-smiling greyhound, cowed, on occasion, beneath his petting. He pocketed the money without seeming to count it (though surely he must do?). He asked after her wellbeing. He eyes shuffled softly this way and that around the flat, soaking up the unusual and easy-going nature of the way that she had furnished the place. He stood at the palette bookshelf with his hands in his pockets, and bent a little toward the many spines. The book titles blurred. He offered brief paragraphs of his own from another time, attaching them with the most tenuous of hooks to the few weekly words that passed between the two of them. Jessica listened. She tried to visualise. The rats sniffed behind the cupboard door, scratching communiqué unintelligible. They excreted beneath the warm tank.