The cabin was wonderful - all heavy beams and pine wood with ceiling-to-floor windows on three of its four sides. Simon had liked the look of it from the moment he’d seen pictures in the holiday brochure. He liked the real thing even more.
'What do you think?' he asked Mary as their car crunched up the gravel drive.
She turned to him and sighed. 'Give me a chance,' she said.
‘Sorry,’ said Simon.
He parked and Mary got out. She walked over to a painted fence that separated the cabin's frontage from a field - a white picket fence, like the one he knew she'd dreamed about as a girl. Her dream had figured in Simon's final decision. It was one of the reasons he'd picked this particular cabin, this particular location.
He watched her for a moment, thinking my wife, my Mary. He saw how she settled her fingertips one-by-one along the fence's top rail, and remembered how she used to do the same thing along his bare arm. A while ago now. A long while.
He got out of the car and joined her. It was a relief to stretch his legs. A good stiff drink would have been even more of a relief, but he'd promised, and he could wait. He stood at Mary's fence, kneading knots of tension out of his spine, sucking in country air laced with the scents of earth and warm wood and growing things.
The green sweep of rough meadow grass before them sloped away from the cabin that was theirs for the next two weeks - or however long they could stand each other's company - and tumbled down to a stream that glittered in the shallow valley below. Beyond the water, perhaps fifty metres away, was a wood. The tree trunks and shifting leaves were gorgeous in the slanting light.
Mary looked at it all but stayed silent, and Simon saw how this could be - both of them locked inside their own separate worlds, him walking alone through the calling wood, dust and broken roots at his feet. He didn't want that.
'Well?' he said. There was a note of irritation in his voice. He instantly regretted it.
Mary squinted at him in the dying sunlight, but didn't lift a hand to shade her eyes. Her fingertips were bonded to the fence rail.
'It's good,' she said.
She turned her head and looked back down the field. He tried to see the water and the wood through her eyes.
'No,'' she said, 'not just good. Better than good. Probably perfect.'
'Good,' he said. 'That's all right, then.'
After a while they went back to the car and began to unload luggage.
The cabin had twin beds. He asked if she wanted him to push them together. She looked at him, and he couldn't quite read the expression on her face.
'Do you mind if we don't?' she said. 'Not tonight, anyway. Maybe later.'
He sat in one of the cabin's armchairs, a bottle of scotch on the table beside him, and watched Mary moving about outside. After a while she found her way back to her place by the fence and planted herself there, looking up at the moon.
It was a warm night. The weather forecast was promising. So far so good.
There had been few words, but they'd unpacked, cooked a meal together, sat down, eaten it together. He'd cracked a joke, and Mary had smiled. She hadn't mentioned the booze, and he hadn't fussed about the beds.
'This is a good place,' he said to the empty room. He lifted his glass, toasting the cabin, the wood, the stream - toasting his decision. He looked through his glass, and Mary, standing in moonlight, turned to gold.
He'd booked the holiday without telling her - sprung it on her yesterday, a fait accompli. She'd flared up, almost hadn't come. Driving down they'd had uncomfortable moments. But they were here now and he was glad. He hoped she was, too.
'A good place,' he said again. His voice came back to him, warm and woody in the pine cabin.
Mary turned, paused, then turned away again.
Once upon a time she'd enjoyed his voice. 'OK, so you look like a dog,' she used to say, 'but at least you've got a nice voice.' She'd grin and squirm with pleasure when he offered to read to her in bed. He loved having her fall asleep to the sound of him reading. He could still feel her fingertips resting upon his thigh, still remember the sense of peace he got as she drifted away to the stories of H.E.Bates or Thomas Hardy. Even after she was sleeping he'd carry on, loving her with his voice, sending it into her dreams.
At some point they'd stopped doing it. He couldn't remember why, or when.
He sipped his drink and thought about the time he’d carried her up the stairs of their first home - a cramped flat over a shop that sold double-glazing. He'd done his back in, had to lie on a board for three days. She'd brought him soup, come home with a puppy. Often, in those first years together, the three of them would sit together at the window watching people, watching traffic, watching whatever came crawling down the high street.
'You like to watch life, don't you?' she'd once said.
He'd studied her pale reflection in the glass, watched her watching him.
'Yes. Watching life isn't as scary as living it.'
She'd stroked his hair and touched her nose to the window. 'Watching life through glass,' she'd said. It had stayed with him.
They'd laughed back then. Even their puppy had grinned. Of course they hadn't realised, hadn't appreciated the time, the place.
He was half asleep in his chair when Mary came running into the cabin. 'Come outside,' she said. 'I can hear something.'
He put down his glass and followed her. The night welcomed him, stars everywhere. Some dark shape cut the air above their heads, calling.
'Is it an owl?' she whispered.
'I don't know,' he whispered back. 'Could be.'
The call came again, this time from beyond the stream, over by the wood. A sad sound, Simon thought. A mournful sound. It cut through his defences and he remembered their child - their almost-child. They'd called her Kate, bought baby clothes, made plans. Pointless. Mary didn't talk about her any more. He hadn't been the father, but that no longer mattered. Even at the time it hadn't really mattered very much. Things had been wrong, and Kate had been a chance. She'd been taken from them. This cabin was another chance, maybe their last chance. He didn't want that taken from them, too.
'I think it was an owl,' said Mary.
He looked at her, her eyes glittering in the moonlight. He wanted to kiss her. He wished he hadn't left his drink in the cabin.
'I think so, too,' he said.
He touched her hand. She smiled again.
At three a.m. he gave up trying to sleep. He crept out of the bedroom, poured himself another scotch, and went back to his chair by the window. Mary had closed the curtains. He got up, opened them, and looked out over the moonlit field. The fence was so white it seemed to float in the darkness.
'Is it over?' she'd asked a fortnight ago. He remembered their TV squatting in its corner, droning out the six-o-clock news.
'What?' he'd replied, stalling. Another earthquake somewhere in South America. He'd pretended to be listening.
'Is it over?'
He hadn't been able to meet her eyes. He'd sipped his scotch, like he was sipping it now.
'I don't know,' he'd said eventually.
She hadn't spoken for a while. Then she'd said, 'I think it might be.'
Beyond the white picket fence he saw something approaching, a dark shape flying through the air. There was a sudden impact, hard enough to make the cabin shudder, loud enough to jerk him backwards. He spilled his drink on the carpet.
The window cracked from top to bottom. He heard Mary yell from the bedroom.
'Simon? What is it? Jesus, what have you done?'
'Nothing,' he called back. 'Something hit the window. I'm going to see.'
The moonlight was pale but bright. It only took him a few seconds to locate the injured bird. It was over by the fence, lying on its side, twitching violently. He ran over the crunching gravel and squatted down beside it.
Mary called from the cabin door, her dressing gown held tight shut against the night air. Her hair was sticking up.
'What is it?' she said.
He gathered the bird into his hands and rose to his feet. It jerked as he held it. It didn't seem to be conscious.
'It's an owl,' he said. 'I think it's an owl of some kind.'
One wing flopped at an awkward angle, the bones clearly snapped. The head wasn't lying right.
'What can we do?' said Mary, joining him at the fence.
Simon shook his head. 'I don't think we can do anything. I think it's already dead.'
'But it's moving. Look at it. Oh the poor thing! Just look at it.'
The owl vibrated in Simon's hands. Then it opened its beak and with a final judder the twitching stopped. He probed the body for a pulse, uncertain where to put his fingers, but there was nothing.
'It's dead,' he said.
He looked at Mary and saw tears in her eyes.
'I really don't think it suffered,' he said. 'It just smacked into the window, nearly came straight through the damn thing. I think it just hit the window and died.'
Mary put out her hand and stroked the owl's feathers. There was no blood. Not a single drop. It had been the same with Kate. Exactly the same.
'It's so beautiful,' Mary said. 'Do you think it was what we heard calling? I think it was. Oh, what a shame!'
There was something in the tone of her voice that sent a great weight shifting inside his chest. He had to swallow before he could speak.
'We'll bury it in the morning,' he said. 'We'll take it to that wood down there and we'll find a good spot and we'll bury it together.'
Mary looked up at him. 'Yes,' she said. 'Yes, that sounds right. Let's do that.'
She glanced back at the cabin. 'And maybe someone should come out and fix that window. If we get a storm, it could just blow in.'
Simon nodded. She was right, but something in him didn't want the window repaired. He'd had enough of watching the world through glass.
'I don't think we'll get a storm,' he said.
They stood for a moment beside the fence, looking in moonlight at the dead bird in Simon's hands. Mary rocked a little from side-to-side, the way she sometimes did when she was considering things. Then she touched his arm with her fingertips, leaned forward, and planted a sudden kiss on his cheek.
'I'm going to push the beds together,' she said. 'I'm tired, my love. Are you coming?'
He moved a strand of hair from her cheek. 'In a minute,' he said.
'Don't be long.'
He watched her go back to the cabin, lifted his hand to the spot where she'd kissed him. Then he took the owl over to the car and laid it carefully on the back seat. 'Thanks,' he said, carefully folding the broken wing and smoothing the long, trailing flight feathers. 'Thank you.'
From the glove compartment he took his favourite book. A collection of short stories. H.E.Bates. He put it in his dressing-gown pocket and closed up the car.
On the cabin's porch he stood in the cool air for a minute or two, looking up at the moon. An owl flew across it, calling sad and low.
He turned, went inside, and closed the door.