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Shine, Alone After The Setting Of The Sun

When I got home from the studio Annie was smashing crockery on the back step. I laid my guitar case down and watched my lover standing at the kitchen door, silvered by the 2am moonlight, dropping mugs and plates and breakfast bowls one at a time onto the concrete. From the living room, drifting jungle noises and David Attenborough's sonorous murmur counterpointed the explosive shattering.

"Annie!" I yelled.

She turned and grinned breezily. "Hi, Lorna. You're back. How was the session?"

I was amazed. When I left that morning, she hadn't even seemed aware that I was going out.

"What are you doing?"

At least she had the grace to look abashed. "Oh, right. Bit of a guddle, yeah?" Then she actually beamed. "I'm getting back to work."

I watched her as she crouched and began to sort through the mess of fragments. Such a transformation. Right up to that morning she had been so withdrawn, so tightly, bitterly wound, self-exiled to her own dark, curtains-drawn world, doing nothing except sleep and watch her nature videos; and now everything about her seemed to deny the last few months had happened. The brightness of her expression; the renewed energy in her step; the almost forgotten spark of drive in her eyes, replacing that smudged, haunted cast. All this spoke of some remarkable, but so welcome, return of normalcy, of the Annie I knew and loved and had wanted back for so long.

But... however much I wanted to believe this, however much I found myself grinning too, infected by whatever inspiration had sparked this shift of mood, I was equally fearful that it signified some darker, internalising twist of Annie's psyche. I knew her too well.

Right at that moment, though, I was tired and my head was too full of the day's jingles to tackle the problem. I mumbled something like okay then, and went to run myself a bath.


Annie was sitting on the step, carefully breaking up the larger pieces with pliers. I came to stand behind her, feeling soft and renewed. Without turning, she said, "You smell of apples."

I ran my fingers through thick strands of damp hair. "I borrowed your shampoo. Sorry."

She gave me no sign, and I could read nothing in the curve of her spine under her thin, stretched Greenpeace t-shirt as she bent over her work, so I took a chance. Slowly, braced for rejection, I lowered myself to the floor behind her, wrapping my arms and legs around, resting my head on a shoulder, breathing in warm body scent, relishing the proximity. And Annie responded, laying down her pliers, leaning back and relaxing into my embrace. We sat like that in a silence I was powerless to break until the weight of questions finally forced words from my lips.

"How are you?" Weak, insipid, open to as non-committal a reply as you could get. At first it seemed that Annie was not going to give even that, but then she spoke.

"I'm all right I suppose. I wake up every morning hating myself for bringing a child into this world and go to sleep hating myself double for not being able to do anything to make it better."

Straight to the point; and it told me that not everything had changed. Annie had been running this conviction around since she discovered she was pregnant, digging it deeper, etching out the grooves of it in her mind. How many times had I tried to reason her out of this and met with violent rejection, or with that blank silence, so intense, which I found even scarier? That was before. Maybe now she would listen. My fingers described light, calming circles on her brow as I searched for some new combination of words that would convince her.

"The world's not all so terrible, you know." I said it lightly, but Annie twisted round fast, fixing me with a hot stare that dried everything I was going to say to dust in my mouth. Her stare softened, her eyes brimming and spilling twin tracks down her cheeks as she reached up to shush me with one finger, one shake of the head. I felt the tension drain from her, and her body sagged against me, head resting this time on my shoulder. My fingers resumed their tiny movements at her brow and in her thick hair. Quietly, into my chest, she said,

"All I wish is that we could have our own little corner where everything is good and safe and just right for us."

"People like you make the world better, Annie." It was feeble but Annie seemed to take a measure of comfort from it, cuddled in a little closer, squeezed my arm lightly. I was grateful for that at least. I didn't even mind the heavy press of her belly against my leg. Presently a growing coolness in the air set us both shivering and I coaxed her to stand and come inside, asking, "What are you doing out here anyway?" For the third time that night, she smiled, and that one was genuine, one hundred per cent Annie.

"I have to make a mosaic. For the baby."


When it came to her work, everything was must, or need, or have to with Annie. Each of her paintings, once she latched onto an idea, was driven to completion by some inner force; usually at the neglect of those around her. That was just her way. She might scratch around for ages for a concept, but once she had it she became fixated and worked hard at it until it was done. It was a fascinating, entertaining process to watch; perilous if you got too close, and often lonely for the observer.

At the end of it though, without fail, something special. A lurid scene, a slant-wise look at the world centred around one or more of Annie's characteristic elongated figures, stylised people simplified to bright ribbons. She said they were human beings reduced to spiritual essence. String people, was how I thought of them.

Annie's String People pictures just about sold, eventually. Sometimes for more, usually for less, but at least they sold. And she had managed to produce them at more or less regular intervals over a couple of years. Money came in, but her contribution to our finances was small compared to mine. Certainly I envied her. I'd have loved to sit and write songs all day instead of tossing off standards and carpet warehouse jingles for take after incomplete take as some idiot drummer slowly got his act together, but any resentment I felt was swept aside by my regard for her talent. I loved each one of those pictures, marvelled at the fierce intensity of colour she favoured. They moved me, and I found them attractive and repellent in equal measure. I couldn't wait until a new one was completed.

Of course, Annie had done nothing recently. No paintings, no sketches. Since discovering her pregnancy she had been unable to work. For weeks she had fidgeted around at her board. Then in her frustration she turned to other forms, other media. Still nothing. Nada. Zilch. Now, suddenly, this mosaic.


Annie made herself a rectangular frame which covered most of the kitchen floor. She sat before it cross-legged, surrounded by a semicircle of Tupperware tubs, each containing a pile of pieces; clay, porcelain, metal, glass. I stepped around her to get to the kettle for coffee, watching as she carefully chose a piece, shaped it with a file, cemented it and found a place for it. Rather than the geometric elements traditional in mosaic design, Annie's pieces were shaped irregularly, their edges smoothed and curved to fit with their neighbours. Each had their chosen place in a pattern which was building inwards from the edges of the frame. Perhaps, though, pattern was the wrong word. Certainly, I could not yet identify any form emerging from this pebbled pixel-array. That was the impression it gave, a blankness, like the static on an untuned TV.


Annie went out in the car. She left before I woke, and was gone maybe a couple of hours. Just enough time for me to start worrying; and get pissed at her for making me worry. She had not set foot outside the house in over three weeks. I had just decided to start ringing round when she walked into the house, her arms laden with plants in clay pots. Even more filled the boot of the car. An eclectic collection of flowers, shrubs and vegetable plants, one or two of each, even a couple of bonsais. I sighed, mystified. Annie had never been a gardener.

I helped her to unload the car. Neither of us spoke but I caught Annie's eye, asking wordlessly, Why? The reply was that cheeky, knowing look that she was so good at. Because. And I smiled, just a little.

Over lunch our conversation was light, inconsequential. I found that I was beginning to believe this return to as normal a life as you could expect with Annie, however suddenly it might have come about. It was seductive. I wanted it badly, but was afraid to surrender to it completely.


The plant pots all found their way into the mosaic. Fragments of them anyway. When I came home that evening there was a broad band of terracotta across the picture, and a heap of dark earth and discarded plants outside the door.

"Oh Jesus, Annie. This is too much," I said to myself, because at that moment there was no sign of her. Then footsteps sounded behind me and I turned, too fast, propelled by anger. Annie shrieked, jumped back, losing her grip on the glass of water in her hand. The tumbler shattered on the concrete. Water, icy, clear, splashed my feet, dribbling in amongst the earth, pooling muddily around my shoes.

"Ah shit," I cursed, stepping away. She went and spent all that money on plants and now this. "Annie,..." I began, but I ran out of words.

Annie's face had gone tight, shrunk inwards, an expression somewhere between hurt and defiance. She spoke quietly, but with venom, "Okay. I was just coming out to clean this stuff up. I thought we could plant them in the garden. It is summer after all."

My anger melted away into... what? Pity, sympathy, confusion? "Yeah, look, I'll give you a hand."

"Thanks," Annie's face cracked weakly, an attempt at a smile.

Little things like shared tasks, working away without the need for conversation, are what I loved about our relationship. Just being there with her, breathing her air, sharing her with no-one. Occasionally I sneaked glances at her, admired her single minded attention to trowel and earth, to stem and woody roots. The same as when I watched her in her studio; just standing, looking on as she went about her work. Never once did I catch her glancing back at me, but I didn't mind.

Later she picked up the pieces of broken tumbler, delicately disposing of the shards. The thick round base she kept though. Something about it fascinated her. She held it in her palm, traced its still wet surface with a careful, deliberate finger. Then, with a secret little smile, she took it inside.


"Hey! What's all this?"

Annie looked up from attending to the steaming array of ironware on the hob. Big smile, warm and generous.

"Hi. Sit down, it's nearly ready."

I stepped nimbly around the mosaic to reach the table, used to it being there now, a part of the kitchen; even if it still refused to offer me anything resembling a recognisable picture.

The table was set with plates that did not match, and a bottle of red wine had been opened and placed in the centre of the table beside a pair of candles which were slender and white as bone.

I sat, poured myself a glass. The wine was thin, but I savoured it.

"So candles, wine. You cooking dinner. What's the big occasion?"

"Celebration," Annie said, placing a bowl of potatoes before me. "I'm nearly finished the mosaic and you're going to have a weekend at the seaside."

I took another swallow of wine to disguise my surprise, and disappointment. As far as I could see, the mosaic was a mess. Still, Annie seemed to be bursting with pride over it. Maybe this was a practice piece. Perhaps it would take her a while to regain, or redefine, her style.

"What are you talking about? I'm not going anywhere."

"Yes you are. Bob rang today. They need a guitarist for a week down at the Pavilion. Starting tomorrow night. I said you'd do it. We need the money."

"No, Annie. Money's not that tight. I need to be here with you."

Annie came over, took my hand. "It's okay. I'm okay, honest."

Her expression was so open. In it I read understanding and gratitude and love. "Listen, I've not been that easy to live with recently. I know that. I'm sorry and I'm so grateful that you stayed around. I was so worried that Sam would, you know ... come between us." Her left hand drifted absently to the pronounced swell of her belly.

Sam? Had she named her child already? That would be just like her. Shaping it before it was even born. Or was she referring for the first time to the father. We had never talked about that. By rights I suppose I should have been the one throwing tantrums, sick with jealousy that she had been with someone else, a man; that I wasn't enough for her. But I knew that anyway. I accepted long ago that Annie's life did not revolve around me as mine did around her. When she came home one day, mad as hell and told me she was pregnant, I hurt, sure, but Annie's need was greater than mine. The state she was in, I knew I would have to be there for her. She offered no apology, no explanation. I told myself that I didn't really expect any.

I said, "Annie, no..." meaning to stop her. If she was going to explain now I didn't want to hear the details of who and where and why. She ignored the interruption.

"I'm glad he hasn't. I think you do need a bit of time away though, away from this house anyway."

I suddenly liked the idea, but not just for myself. "We could both go. The seaside would do you good. The fresh air..."

"No." Annie cut me off sharply. "I need to finish the mosaic." She shrugged. "You know how I am. When you come back, we'll go somewhere."

It was there in those big, beautiful, too idealistic eyes. I should have seen it, but I didn't. Not then.

"Somewhere really nice. Together. I promise."

I allowed myself to be persuaded. "Okay, I'll go. Thanks, love."


Later, Annie was staring at me through the green glass of the empty wine bottle. Slow wax dribbled down the side from the candle wedged into the neck. I leaned back in my chair, strumming loose chords, warm sixths and sevenths, on my old acoustic. Dreamily Annie reached out, her fingers resting lightly on the glass. She spoke softly, her voice muted by the wine.

"I can feel every note you play. Vibrating. Your music is so beautiful, but it lasts so short a time."

I put the guitar down and went over to her, touching her hair.

"Come on," I said. "Let's go to bed."

Lying together, relishing every warm point of contact between us. So good to return to this at last. So good to have the old Annie back. As I drifted into sleep Annie whispered into my spine.

"You will bring your music back to me, Lorna, won't you?"

"Of course."

"I couldn't live without your music."

"I love you too, Annie."


As soon as I opened the door I knew Annie was gone. The house sighed its emptiness. Crossing the threshold, I stepped into a calmness, as if a great tension, invisible until now, had been released. It was the relief of looking up at the inky-black, star-pocked sky after a long day under a fierce, unrelenting sun.

The TV drew my attention first. For weeks it had been on constantly in the background, showing Annie's videos of nature programmes, and now it was conspicuous by its silence. Easy to see why. Its screen had been caved in, spilling dead-grey chunks of glass onto the carpet. There was more. The bedroom mirror had suffered similar vandalism; and around the house various other items had been smashed or broken.

In the kitchen, the late evening sun illuminated a wedge of floor; a hot knife blade of light slicing across Annie's mosaic. Now, at last, I could see the picture. Why only now? Tears blurred my vision as I began to understand the sense of it, as if my body was trying to blind me even at this late stage.

A scene; so real, so clever. I could almost feel the warmth of the clay road beneath the naked soles of my feet, baked by the polished copper disc of the sun. To the sides of the road, smudged greenery was beginning to sprout from the dark earth, and in the distance a smoky grey forest, restless with quick shadows that echoed with the calls of exotic birds and animals. Off to one side, a cold lake, still and clear as glass, invited me to drink.

In the centre, at the focus of the piece, two of Annie's string people, one long and one short. Two thin strands composed from slices of silvered glass, shining with the sun's white-yellow brilliance. I let my fingers trace the strips of warm glass thoughtfully, then the aperture beside the figures, a dark hole similar to them in shape. The only piece of the mosaic that remained to be completed.

Annie had left a note. It lay on the table weighed down by the empty wine bottle from that last meal and a hand-sized rectangular mirror which reflected my face. Not pretty. Puffy, dewy eyes betrayed my feelings, but there was no-one there to see them. The handwriting was neat, almost childlike. As was her way, it said very little, and it spoke volumes.

Sorry Lorna. So beautiful, couldn't wait. A

First I swept up the broken things around the house, and then tidied up in general, washing and scrubbing, brushing, polishing. Erasing. Then, when the house was a place I felt I could live in normally again, I went to the step and broke the glass, selecting appropriate pieces and tidying the rest into the bin. In the kitchen I cemented the pieces into the place reserved for them. They glowed in the sunlight as if lit from the inside; a soulful, bottle green, so deep I could almost hear captured chords strummed softly on an old guitar, remembered music rising with the heat in the shimmering air, echoing far across the lake. And yes, I thought, it was beautiful.

I took pride in that thought. With night falling I grabbed my guitar and went to sit on the step. Sitting under the stars, my seat still surrounded by splinters of glass and china and clay, I rediscovered chords and melodies. I sat and sang all my old songs until they were exhausted, and then, remembering how, I started to make a new one. In it, I wished Annie and the baby well, wherever they were, and then, after that, I just played for the pleasure of playing for myself.


The seed for this story—rarely for me—was the title. The phrase just appeared in my brain one day, and the story was written to find out what it meant. Later, I recognised that the title was cumbersome, but by then it was the heart of the story and I couldn't have changed it if I'd wanted to.

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