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EA30798: porphyry bowl containing 49 marbles. Egypt, 1st Dynasty (3100-2890BC)

And so they came to Happisburgh.

They arrived one queer evening as a sunny day gave way to a stormy night. The light was very rich and the shadows very dense: the sky bulged like a plum over the yellow wedge of a wheatfield. It was so beautiful that Paul stopped the car in the middle of the lane and sat with his hands on the wheel, silent, looking.

In the passenger seat, Margo stirred.

‘Are we there?’ she whispered.

‘Nearly.’ He slid his hand between her hair and her shirtcollar, feeling the sleepy warmth at the nape of her neck. ‘Look.’

She blinked, smiling as if she were still dreaming. ‘There’s the lighthouse,’ she said.

It was bright as a child’s tin toy, crisp as a cut-out against the wadded sky.

‘Oh,’ she said as the first raindrops fell fatly on the windscreen, ‘this is exactly what we wanted.’

*

They had a little cottage with deep-set windows. A great scarred oak table for Paul, and a narrow desk where Margo hunched over her woodblocks. ‘I’ll be no good as a homemaker,’ she’d said before they were married, but for the sort of home Paul wanted she was perfect. She lined up rust-coloured stoneware bottles on the windowsill where they could sing against the blue sky. He thought, nobody ever did anything so nice for me. She was giving him things to think about: brown and blue; heavy bottles and gauzy air; cylinders and rectangles floating in boundless space. Who else would have known those things were gifts?

In the morning they picked their way down the cliff path to the beach. Happisburgh was the price Norfolk paid for having no hills: with no more space to sprawl it could only topple into the sea. They passed the shattered gable of a house, but Paul and Margo were more interested in the dunes with their scratchy grass, the torn-paper crests of waves, the lichenous and luxurious seals. Margo collected speckled stones and gulls’ eggs, seaweed and driftwood, for the whitewashed shelves of their new home. She was a spare and elegant person, smooth-skinned and rough-haired, stalking the beach in a man’s serge jacket. She was not the wife he had imagined for himself. She was far too strange and far too grand.

*

Back at the house, she made pen-and-ink drawings without hesitation. Just few slender and knotted lines, that was all, the rest of the paper left quite alone. Paul rolled up his sleeves at the big table and wrestled with collages, watercolours, endless prints. He thought of textures and colours until the breath caught in his throat: he sought endlessly to pin them down.

His wife arranged sardines on a pewter dish, marbles in a bowl, feathers and pebbles and mussel shells. She put them in front of the rain-lashed window because that was yet another way to think about grey.

It was a strange sort of homemaking.

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