Shine, Alone After The Setting Of The Sun
by Neil Williamson
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 two am moonlight, dropping mugs and plates
and breakfast bowls one at a time onto the concrete. From the living room
jungle noises and David Attenborough's voice provided a sonorous counterpoint.
Eventually I found my voice, shouted, "Annie!"
She turned and said cheerfully, "Hi, Lorna. You're back. How was
I was astonished. When I left that morning, she hadn't even seemed aware
that I was going, let alone where, but I ignored this for the moment.
"What are you doing?"
Annie had the grace to look a little abashed, "Oh, right. Bit messy,
yeah?" Then she actually beamed, "I'm getting back to work."
I watched her, speechless, as she crouched and began to sort through
the mess of fragments. Such transformation. Up to that morning she had
been so withdrawn, so tightly, bitterly wound, living in her dark, curtains-drawn
world, doing nothing except sleep and watch her nature videos; and now
everything about her seemed to deny it. The brightness of her expression,
almost overt excitement; the renewed lightness in her step and posture;
the long since familiar 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 so hard
every night of these long weeks.
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 was tired and my head was too full of the jingles we had been recording
to take all this in. Already I had so many questions, but then was not
the time to start asking them. 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 up to stand behind her, feeling soft
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 almost felt powerless
to break until the weight of questions 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 terrible world and go to sleep hating myself
double for not being able to do anything to make it better."
Straight to the point; and nothing 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
"It's not all so terrible, you know."
I said it lightly but Annie twisted round fast, fixing me with a hot
stare, and everything that I was going to say withered 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 minute 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."
Don't we all?
My reply, "People like you make the world better, Annie,"
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. 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 second 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 on to an idea, was driven
to completion by some inner force; usually at the neglect of those around
her. That was her way. She scratched 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 observe; often perilous
if you got too close, and lonely for the watcher.
At the end of it though, without fail, 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
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 a stream of standards and Corn Puff jingles,
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. They moved me, and I found them attractive and repellent in
equal measure. I couldn't wait until a new one was completed.
But Annie had done nothing recently. No paintings, no sketches. Since
she discovered 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. Nada. Nothing. 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 plastic
tubs, each containing a pile of pieces; clay, porcelain, metal or 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 traditional cubes, 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.
The next morning 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 selection 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
"Oh Jesus, Annie. This is too much," I said, mostly 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 then did this. What was going on with her? "Annie,..."
But I didn't know what to say. 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 out 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 the 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. It seemed to fascinate
her. She held it in her palm, traced its still wet surface with a careful,
deliberate finger. Then she took it inside.
"What's all this?"
Annie looked up from attending to the steaming array of ironware on
the cooker. She smiled. 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. 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 nevertheless.
"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
"No, Annie. Money's not that tight. I need to be here with you."
Annie came over, taking 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." She appeared unaware that her left hand
had 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 don't think I really expected 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 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
"I can feel every note you play. Vibrating. Your music is so beautiful,
but it lasts so short a time. That's so sad."
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 back.
"You will bring your music back to me, Lorna, won't you."
"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. Entering, 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
The tv was first to draw my attention. It had been on in the background
constantly showing Annie's videos of nature programmes, and was now conspicuous
by its silence. Its screen had been caved in, spilling grey-dead chunks
of glass onto the carpet. Upstairs, the bedroom mirror had suffered similar
damage; 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 the mosaic. Now, at last, I could
see the pattern. Why only now? I was dimly aware that I was crying as
I began to understand the sense of it.
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 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. Puffy, dewy eyes betrayed my sorrow, but there was no-one there
to see it. 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
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 new ones. And, wishing Annie well, wherever she
was, I remembered how to take pleasure in myself.
Top of page