Waking is like rising from the dead. The slow climb out of
sleep, shapes appearing out of blackness, the alarm clock
ringing like the last trump. Ruth flings out an arm and
sends the alarm crashing to the floor, where it carries on
ringing reproachfully. Groaning, she levers herself upright
and pulls up the blind. Still dark. It's just not right, she tells
herself, wincing as her feet touch the cold floorboards.
Neolithic man would have gone to sleep when the sun set
and woken when it rose. What makes us think this is the
right way round? Falling asleep on the sofa during
Newsnight, then dragging herself upstairs to lie sleepless
over a Rebus book, listen to the World Service on the
radio, count Iron Age burial sites to make herself sleep and
now this; waking in the darkness feeling like death. It just
wasn't right somehow.
In the shower, the water unglues her eyes and sends her
hair streaming down her back. This is baptism, if you like.
Ruth's parents are Born Again Christians and are fans of
Full Immersion For Adults (capitals obligatory). Ruth can
quite see the attraction, apart from the slight problem of not
believing in God. Still, her parents are Praying For Her (capitals
again), which should be a comfort but somehow isn't.
Ruth rubs herself vigorously with a towel and stares
unseeingly into the steamy mirror. She knows what she
will see and the knowledge is no more comforting than
her parents' prayers. Shoulder-length brown hair, blue
eyes, pale skin - and however she stands on the scales,
which are at present banished to the broom cupboard -
she weighs twelve and a half stone. She sighs (I am not
defined by my weight, fat is a state of mind) and squeezes
toothpaste onto her brush. She has a very beautiful smile,
but she isn't smiling now and so this too is low on the list
Clean, damp-footed, she pads back into the bedroom.
She has lectures today so will have to dress slightly more
formally than usual. Black trousers, black shapeless top.
She hardly looks as she selects the clothes. She likes
colour and fabric; in fact she has quite a weakness for
sequins, bugle beads and diamanté. You wouldn't know
this from her wardrobe though. A dour row of dark
trousers and loose, dark jackets. The drawers in her pine
dressing table are full of black jumpers, long cardigans
and opaque tights. She used to wear jeans until she hit
size sixteen and now favours cords, black, of course.
Jeans are too young for her anyhow. She will be forty
Dressed, she negotiates the stairs. The tiny cottage has
very steep stairs, more like a ladder than anything else. 'I'll
never be able to manage those' her mother had said on her
one and only visit. Who's asking you to, Ruth had replied
silently. Her parents had stayed at the local B and B as
Ruth has only one bedroom; going upstairs was strictly
unnecessary (there is a downstairs loo but it is by the
kitchen, which her mother considers unsanitary). The
stairs lead directly into the sitting room: sanded wooden
floor, comfortable faded sofa, large flat-screen TV, books
covering every available surface. Archaeology books
mostly but also murder mysteries, cookery books, travel
guides, doctor-nurse romances. Ruth is nothing if not
eclectic in her tastes. She has a particular fondness for children's
books about ballet or horse-riding, neither of which
she has ever tried.
The kitchen barely has room for a fridge and a cooker
but Ruth, despite the books, rarely cooks. Now she
switches on the kettle and puts bread into the toaster,
clicking on Radio 4 with a practised hand. Then she
collects her lecture notes and sits at the table by the front
window. Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden
with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is
nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted
with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small,
treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you
see great flocks of wild geese wheeling across the sky,
their feathers turning pink in the rays of the rising sun.
But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a
living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is
pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white
as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of
darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly
desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves
it so much.
She eats her toast and drinks her tea (she prefers coffee
but is saving herself for a proper espresso at the university).
As she does so, she leafs through her lecture notes, originally
typewritten but now scribbled over with a palimpsest
of additional notes in different coloured pens. 'Gender and
Prehistoric Technology', 'Excavating Artefacts', 'Life and
Death in the Mesolithic', 'The Role of Animal Bone in
Excavations'. Although it is only early November, the
Christmas term will soon be over and this will be her last
week of lectures. Briefly, she conjures up the faces of her
students: earnest, hard-working, slightly dull. She only
teaches postgraduates these days and rather misses the
casual, hungover good humour of the undergraduates. Her
students are so keen, waylaying her after lectures to talk
about Lindow Man and Boxgrove Man and whether
women really would have played a significant role in
prehistoric society. Look around you, she wants to shout,
we don't always play a significant role in this society. Why
do you think a gang of grunting hunter-gatherers would
have been any more enlightened than we?
Thought for the Day seeps into her unconscious,
reminding her that it is time to leave. 'In some ways, God
is like an iPod …' She puts her plate and cup in the sink
and leaves down food for her cats, Sparky and Flint. As
she does so, she answers the ever-present sardonic interviewer
in her head. 'OK, I'm a single, overweight woman
on my own and I have cats. What's the big deal? And,
OK, sometimes I do speak to them but I don't imagine
that they answer back and I don't pretend that I'm any
more to them than a convenient food dispenser.' Right
on cue, Flint, a large ginger Tom, squeezes himself
through the cat flap and fixes her with an unblinking,
'Does God feature on our Recently Played list or do we
sometimes have to press Shuffle?'
Ruth strokes Flint and goes back into the sitting room to
put her papers into her rucksack. She winds a red scarf (her
only concession to colour: even fat people can buy scarves)
round her neck and puts on her anorak. Then she turns out
the lights and leaves the cottage.
Ruth's cottage is one in a line of three on the edge of
the Saltmarsh. One is occupied by the warden of the bird
sanctuary, the other by weekenders who come down in
summer, have lots of toxic barbecues and park their 4 °-
4 in front of Ruth's view. The road is frequently flooded
in spring and autumn and often impassable by midwinter.
'Why don't you live somewhere more convenient?' her
colleagues ask. 'There are some lovely properties in
King's Lynn, or even Blakeney if you want to be near to
nature.' Ruth can't explain, even to herself, how a girl
born and brought up in South London can feel such a pull
to these inhospitable marshlands, these desolate
mudflats, this lonely, unrelenting view. It was research
that first brought her to the Saltmarsh but she doesn't
know herself what it is that makes her stay, in the face of
so much opposition. 'I'm used to it,' is all she says.
'Anyway the cats would hate to move.' And they laugh.