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The Secret Wife
Author:Gill Paul

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul


Lake Akanabee, New York State, 19th July 2016

It was twenty-nine hours since Kitty Fisher had left her husband and in that time she had travelled 3,713 miles. The in-flight magazine had said there were 3,461 miles between London and New York, and the hire car’s Sat Nav told her she had driven 252 miles since leaving the airport. A whole ocean and half a state lay between her and Tom. She should have been upset but instead she felt numb.

Back in the UK it was four-thirty on a Sunday afternoon and she wondered what Tom was doing, then grimaced as she pictured him pottering around the house in his jogging bottoms and t-shirt. He would no doubt have called her closest friends, all innocence, asking if they knew where she was. How long would it take him to work out she had flown to America to look for the lakeside cabin she’d inherited from her great-grandfather?

She had been careful not to leave any paperwork behind so he didn’t have the address. Let him stew for a while. It served him right for his infidelity. She shuddered at the word, an involuntary image of the messages on his phone flashing into her brain. She was still in shock. Nothing felt real. Don’t think about it; stop thinking.

The woman on the Sat Nav was comfortingly sure of herself: ‘In two hundred yards take a left onto Big Brook Road.’ It felt nice to be told what to do; that’s what she needed when the rest of her life was falling apart. But a few minutes later the voice-lady seemed to get it wrong. ‘You have reached your destination’ she said, but all Kitty could see was dense forest lining the road on either side. She drove further but the voice urged her to ‘Turn around’.

Kitty got out of the car to explore on foot and, peering through the trees, discovered a track overgrown with waist-high grass and hanging branches. She consulted the map that had been sent with the cabin’s ownership documents and decided this must be it. The car’s paintwork would get scratched if she tried to drive down so she set off on foot, pushing her way through the thicket. There was a droning of insects and a strong smell of greenness, like lawn cuttings after rain. Before long she could see the steely glint of Lake Akanabee, with pinpricks of light dancing on the surface. When she reached the shore she looked around, squinting at her map. The cabin should have been right there.

And then she noticed a mound about twelve feet tall, camouflaged by creeping plants. It was thirty years since anyone had lived there and Kitty was prepared for the cabin to be reduced to a pile of rubble. Instead it was as if the forest had created a cocoon to protect it from the elements. Weeds wrapped themselves around the foundations, pushed in through broken windows and formed a carpet over the roof. The entrance was barely visible through a mass of twisted greenery. But the cabin’s location, nestled on a gentle slope just yards from the pebbly shore, was stunning.

She walked over to look more closely. A jetty sticking out into the lake had long since collapsed, leaving a few forlorn struts. A sapling had grown up through the four or five steps to the cabin’s porch, causing them to buckle and snap, and its roots tangled through the fractured wood like a nest of snakes. But the corrugated steel roof appeared to have stayed watertight, protecting the walls beneath. ‘Concrete foundations,’ she noted.

Treading with care, Kitty climbed onto the porch, where rusty chains hanging from the ceiling and some fractured planks on the floor indicated there had once been a swing seat. She imagined her great-grandfather sitting there, looking out at the view, perhaps with a beer in his hand. Pushing aside the foliage, she reached the cabin door and found it wasn’t locked. Inside it was dim and musty, with a smell of damp mushrooms and old wood. Dust motes danced in shafts of light pouring through gaps in the creepers. When her eyes adjusted, Kitty saw there was one large room with a rusty stove, an old iron bed topped by a mouldy mattress, a wooden desk, and heaps of rubbish everywhere: yellowed newspapers, ancient cans of food and a pair of perished rubber galoshes.

She stepped carefully across the room. Through a doorway there was a bathroom with a stained tub, basin and toilet; a cobweb-covered shaving brush nestled on a shelf. To her astonishment, the toilet flushed when she pulled the handle, and after a low creaking sound dark water came out of the tap. She guessed they must be hooked up to a water source on the hill behind and that there was a below-ground septic tank, but it must be at least thirty years since that tank was last emptied.

She turned back into the bed-cum-sitting room and walked around, checking the condition of the walls and ceiling. Thankfully the floor held firm underfoot. She reckoned she could even stay the night once she’d cleared the rubble and torn back the jungle to let in some air.

Out on the porch she took in the view. A couple of silver birch trees stood between her and the beach, which was lapped by tiny waves. No signs of human habitation were visible, and no traffic sound intruded; the opposite shore about a mile away was thick with forest. It was just her and the trees and the lake, and it was glorious.

Kitty walked back to the car to retrieve her bags and drag them down the track, flattening the grass in her wake. She ate a salt beef and gherkin sandwich from the selection she had bought at the airport, drank a can of Seven-Up, then donned some sturdy gloves to start tearing at the creepers that smothered her cabin. Already it felt like hers, she noted. Already she was falling in love with it.

One of the plants was what she and her school friends called ‘sticky willy’. They used to try and stick it on each other’s backs without being noticed. Another type of creeper filled the air with spores that tickled the back of her throat. She was careful not to let any leaves touch her skin because she knew they had poison ivy in America but she wasn’t sure what it looked like. A swarm of tiny black flies rose into the air and floated away in the breeze. She worked with grim determination, hoping that by totally exhausting her muscles she could quell the panicky thoughts that clamoured in her brain. Don’t think about Tom. Stop thinking. She had brought her mobile phone and laptop through force of twenty-first-century habit, but both were switched off. She couldn’t bear to listen to his excuses and self-justifications, simply didn’t want to deal with any of it.

When she had yanked back most of the overgrowth, she saw that the weathered wooden slats made the cabin look like an organic part of the wooded landscape. Despite having just one room it was big, perhaps twenty feet long, with windows all around, and the sloping roof had a little chimney sticking out. She went inside again and loaded debris into some heavy-duty bin bags she’d brought along, stopping to read a few yellowed news headlines: the accident at the Chernobyl power plant in Russia; the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The springs on the bed had long gone, so she hauled it outside to dispose of later then unrolled the sleeping bag she had brought and spread it in one corner.

By the time she finished, the sun was lowering over the lake and birds were squawking loudly, expending their final burst of energy for the day. She went to sit on the porch to listen. A whip-poor-will called, and it sounded for all the world like a wolf whistle. Shadowy bats zipped by, and frogs croaked in the distance.