I Saw a Man (9780385538572), page 1
ALSO BY OWEN SHEERS
The Gospel of Us
The Dust Diaries
The Blue Book
A Poet’s Guide to Britain (editor)
The Two Worlds of Charlie F.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Owen Sheers
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Simultaneously published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber Limited, London.
Doubleday is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook design adapted from book design by Maria Carella
Cover photograph © Mike Lambert
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sheers, Owen, [date]
I Saw a Man : a novel / Owen Sheers. — First United States Edition.
ISBN 978-0-385-52907-5 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-385-53857-2 (eBook)
eBook ISBN 9780385538572
Also by Owen Sheers
A Note About the Author
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I saw a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away
—from a version of “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns
THE EVENT THAT changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner—thinking the Nelsons’ house was empty—stepped through their back door. Although it was early in the month, London was blistered under a heat wave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun. A morning breeze had ebbed, leaving the sycamores lining the street motionless. The oaks and beeches on the surrounding Heath were also still. The heat wave was only a week old, but already the taller grass beyond the shade of these trees was bleaching blond.
Michael had found the Nelsons’ back door unlocked and ajar. Resting his forearm against its frame, he’d leant in to the gap and called out for his neighbours.
There was no reply. The house absorbed his voice without an echo. He looked down at his old pair of deck shoes, their soles thick with freshly watered soil. He’d been gardening since lunchtime and had come straight over to the Nelsons’ without washing. His knees, showing under his shorts, were also smudged with dirt.
Hooking the heel of his left shoe under the toe of his right, Michael pulled it off. As he did the same with the other, he listened for signs of life inside the house. Again, there was nothing. He looked at his watch—it was twenty past three. He had a fencing lesson on the other side of the Heath at four. It would take him at least half an hour to walk there. He went to push the door wider, but on seeing the soil on his hands, nudged it open with his elbow instead, then stepped inside.
The kitchen was cool and dark, and Michael had to pause for a moment to allow the sunlight to dissolve from his vision. Behind him his neighbours’ garden sloped away between a pear tree and a shrunken herbaceous border. The parched lawn tapered to a wooden fence shot through with reeds. Beyond this fence a weeping willow bowed to one of the ponds on the Heath. In the last month these ponds had grown a skin of green duckweed, surprising in its brightness. Just a few minutes earlier, while resting on his heels, Michael had watched a coot as she’d cut her way through it on the far side, her nun’s head pumping her forward, a cover of chicks crisscrossing over her wake.
Standing in the kitchen, Michael listened once more. He’d never known Josh and Samantha to leave their house unlocked and not be home. He knew Samantha was away with her sister, Martha, for the weekend. But Josh and the girls, he’d thought, had stayed. The house, though, was silent. The only sounds Michael could hear were from the Heath at his back: a dog barking, the chatter of distant picnics, the splash of a diver from the swimming pond beyond the walkway. Closer, in a nearby garden, he heard a sprinkler begin chopping at the afternoon. Such was the stillness of the house that from where he stood in the kitchen these sounds already had the texture of memory, as if he’d crossed a threshold in time, not of a home.
Perhaps Josh had left a note? Michael went to the fridge to look. It was a broad-shouldered American model in brushed steel, an icemaker embedded in its door. A desk’s worth of papers jostled for position across its surface, pinned under a collection of Rothko fridge magnets. Michael scanned the takeaway menus, shopping lists, school notes, but none of them gave any clue as to where Josh might be. He turned from the fridge and looked around the rest of the room, hoping to find something that might explain why the back door was open but no one at home.
Like the rest of their house, Samantha and Josh’s kitchen was solid and generous. At its centre the slatted shadow of a venetian blind fell across an island work surface. Around this were an oven, two hobs and a chef’s array of utensils. On the other side of a breakfast bar, potted plants fringed a sagging sofa and two armchairs in the conservatory, ochre blinds drawn over its glass. Back within the kitchen itself, an oval dining table occupied the far end of the room, and there, hanging above it, were the Nelsons.
The portrait was in black-and-white, a studio shot taken when Rachel was still a toddler and Lucy a baby. The two children, wearing matching white dresses, sat on their parents’ laps. Samantha laughed down at her daughters, her eyes averted from the camera. Josh, however, smiled directly into its lens, his jaw more angular than that of the man Michael knew now. His hair, too, was darker, cut in the same boyish style he still wore, but without the dustings of grey spreading at his temples.
Michael met the gaze of this younger Josh for a moment. He wondered if he should call him and let him know about the open back door. But his phone was in his flat, and Michael didn’t know either Josh or Samantha’s numbers. And perhaps he shouldn’t worry them, anyway? From what he could tell there were no signs of disturbance. The kitchen looked just as it always did.
Looking past the family portrait, Michael glanced over the chairs and sideboards in the conservatory. He should probably check the rest of the house, too. This is what he told himself as he went over to the phone and browsed the Post-it notes scattered around its handset. Samantha and Josh wouldn’t want him to leave without doing so. But he’d have to be quick. He’d come round only to retrieve a screwdriver he’d lent Josh a few nights before. He needed it to fix a blade for his lesson. Once he’d found it and had checked the other rooms, he’d be gone.
Michael looked at his watch again. It was already almost twenty-five past three. If anything looked amiss he could always call Josh as he walked to his lesson over the Heath. Wherever he was, Michael figured, he and the girls couldn’t be too far from the house. Turning from the phone and its scribbled notes, Michael walked towards the door leading into the hallway. As he crossed the kitchen, its terra-cotta tiles cool against his feet, his damp socks left a trail of moist footprints, slow-shrinking behind him as if a wind were covering his tracks.
IT WAS JOSH whom Michael had first met, on the same night he’d moved onto South Hill Drive seven months earlier. Michael had never thought he’d live in London again. But when his wife, Caroline, hadn’t returned from what should have been a two-week job in Pakistan, he’d eventually decided to sell their cottage in Wales and move back to the capital.
Coed y Bryn was an old Welsh longhouse, a low-ceilinged cottage and barn built into an isolated hillside outside Chepstow. The nearest other building was a rural chapel, used only for weddings and funerals. Woods and sky filled the views from its windows. It was not, Michael was told by his friends, a place to be alone. With Caroline gone, they’d said, he needed people, distraction. Eventually one of her work colleagues, Peter, had offered him a flat to rent in a fifties block overlooking Hampstead Heath. When Peter sent through the details, Michael didn’t open the email for days. But then one night, after another long day on his own, he’d uncorked a bottle of red and sat down with his laptop beside the fire. Opening his browser, he’d clicked on Peter’s message and looked through its attachments.
The first photograph was of a pair of wide windows, their frames filled with trees and the undulations of the Heath. As an autumn wind buffeted the back of the cottage, the fire crackling beside him, Michael scrolled through the other images—a broad street of Georgian town houses, occasionally interrupted by modern blocks; two sparsely furnished bedrooms; a living area, the carpet stained and worn; an outdated galley kitchen in magnolia and pine.
It was a flat of many lives. Many people had stood at those windows and lain on those beds. With Caroline gone, Michael needed to start again. But he also did not want to start again. So he’d replied to Peter and said yes. Partly because the flat looked more like a holding pattern than a new beginning. But also because he knew Peter was only doing what Caroline had asked of him. Trying to take care of her husband, to help. Michael hoped perhaps once he was settled back in London, Peter might feel less diligent about his duty; that, having housed Michael, he might feel able to leave him alone.
When Michael and Caroline had moved from London to Wales they’d hired the removal company’s largest lorry to bring their combined belongings to Coed y Bryn. They’d both led independent, largely single lives into their thirties and although neither had been rooted for long, both had been keepers rather than leavers. Michael’s books and belongings were scattered in storage lockers and friends’ spare rooms on both sides of the Atlantic, while the detritus of his teenage years was still in the attic of his late parents’ house in Cornwall. Caroline, despite her nomadic lifestyle, had fostered a magpie’s attraction for artefacts, shoes, and furniture. Between them, through a decade’s succession of apartments and flats, they’d accumulated enough belongings to fill a house twice the size of the cottage.
The addresses that had led Caroline to Coed y Bryn were a paper trail of the regions she’d covered as a foreign correspondent for a U.S. satellite station. Since leaving university she’d had homes on several continents. Often they were no more than places to pass through. A series of studios, company flats, rooms in shared houses in Cape Town, Nairobi, Sydney, Berlin, and Beirut. In 2001, still in her twenties, she’d been embedded with an Uzbek division of the Northern Alliance as they’d fought their way towards Kabul. In 2003 she’d celebrated her thirtieth birthday with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and an American marine in the back of an armoured car on the outskirts of Baghdad. Until she met Michael, her life had been a sequence of erratic excitements. Airports relaxed her, as if transit was her natural domain. Arrivals and departures were her strongest memories, bracketing, as they did, the chapters of her life. For Caroline, giving herself to the rhythm of events was a kind of freedom. Being sent on a story at short notice, having no say in where she went, or when. And it was familiar, too. Born in Cape Town, brought up in Melbourne, university in Boston. She’d always been the newcomer, the outsider, her belongings left in storage while she moved on again.
As Caroline grew into her job through her twenties she began to pride herself on her ability for assimilation, on her detachment from attachment. When she changed planes on a grey day in Amsterdam her tanned skin spoke of rocky deserts, souks, and bazaars. In clubs and bars men sensed her transience like a pheromone. She would soon be gone. This is what she tried to communicate in the directness of her stare, which somehow gave her petite frame presence. She rarely wore makeup and her blonde hair was seldom as sleekly groomed as that of the other women perched along a hotel bar. Sometimes, if she’d just landed, a hint of stale sweat lingered on her clothes.
But still they came to her. Men who worked in offices, whose bodies remained structured by suits, even when they no longer wore them. In cafés, crowded pubs, sometimes even on the street, they came to her, recognising her brevity, as if she were a comet they knew would trace their nights only once in a lifetime.
She witnessed the aftermath of horrors. She saw what humans could do to one another. She lost friends. In Bosnia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Iraq. One night in Kabul the body of her interpreter was found eyeless and tongueless on a sofa in his home. She grieved, and her family worried. But for Caroline these deaths, although felt, were another passing through. They and the grief in their wake were the price of life. She took them, like all the other leavings and lost friendships, in her stride.
She was not always happy. As she edged into her thirties she recognised she was becoming cursory; how depths—of time, connection—had a tendency to unnerve her. But she was comfortable. Life, she felt, was an instrument, and the trick was to find the tune you could play on it. In this respect she considered herself lucky. She’d found her tune early, and she was playing it well.
And then, one day, waking alone in a hotel room in Dubai, she’d felt differently. As if the same chain of experiences that had taught her the price of life had finally, on that morning, revealed its value, too. It was a lesson of omission
When she returned to Beirut from Dubai, Caroline applied for a transfer to the London office. London was on the other side of the world from her family in Melbourne, but she didn’t want home. And she didn’t want America, either. She wanted something older than both, so she opted for London. Her scattered acquaintances—cameramen, photojournalists, editors, reporters—all passed through the city at some point on their travels. And there, on London’s doorstep, was the rest of Europe too, as a fallback, a safety net for when the impulse rose in her, as she knew it would, and she needed to leave and arrive again.
In contrast to Caroline’s movements across the globe, all Michael’s previous addresses, except for his childhood home and one apartment in Manhattan, had been in London. Having left Cornwall to study in the capital, he’d stayed on after graduation, joining the Evening Standard as an intern. Over the next five years of jobbing journalism—diary pieces, reviews, news features, and comment—Michael had steadily increased his word length and salary until, in his late twenties, fearing the ossification he’d detected in some of his older colleagues, he’d left the Standard and moved to Manhattan. He’d arrived in the city holding a journalist’s visa and equipped with a list of British editors who’d agreed to use him as a stringer, feeding their publications’ appetites for all things New York. Which is exactly what Michael did. But he hadn’t moved to America to follow the same path he’d been cutting in Britain. The distance he’d flown from London to New York had been about attempting another journey, too: from being a journalist, which he’d called himself ever since university, towards becoming an author.