I get home from work early. It’s around two and the street is decluttered of cars. It’s cloudy, of course, but still warm enough for open windows and short sleeves. The newspaper is on the mat so I pick it up and carry it through to the kitchen. The kettle is warm against the back of my hand. Good. She’s up.
I take two mugs from the tree. More ginger tea for her. Green for me. The taste was a little bitter at first, but she was right. It got better.
The house is cool. I imagine she’ll be curled up in the window seat of our bedroom with a book and a blanket.
I imagine wrong.
As I reach the top of the stairs, I hear noises coming from the study. ‘Michelle?’
No answer. The norm these days, so it tells me nothing.
Pausing in the doorway, I set her mug down on the desk loudly enough to announce my presence. Again.
She doesn’t look up.
Boxes occupy most of the floor space. When did she get them?
‘I thought you were supposed to be taking it easy, love?’
‘Yes, because these are so heavy.’ She’s tossing items into what is no doubt organised chaos.
I bite back a sigh. I’m not supposed to get annoyed. I promised myself.
She carries on, ignoring the subtle implications of my silence. I take the opportunity to observe. The boxes are labelled. Charity is scrawled on all of them but one: Keep.
It’s too soon for her to be doing this. I voice the concern.
‘What are we supposed to do? Keep this stuff forever?’
I don’t have an answer. I haven’t thought about it. It’s too soon for me.
Michelle huffs. And stops. I pass her her tea, half-expecting to end up wearing it. She takes it and holds it in both hands, bending to inhale the spicy scent. The ritual soothes her.
She wanders out of the study and down the stairs, and after collecting the four mugs decorating the windowsill, I follow.
The dishwasher is full, but I’m determined to fit them in there before turning it on. It takes me a couple of minutes to figure out where Michelle’s gone. The patio door’s open. I find her at the bottom of the garden, staring at the ground. It isn’t until I’m right beside her that I see it.
Laid out with one of our hexagonal stones as a backdrop, tiny drops of blood leading off to one side. It’s a blackbird, I think. Or it was.
‘That ginger cat, I’d wager. Two doors down.’ Michelle’s voice doesn’t waver.
Feathers border the fence. The poor thing made good feline entertainment. There’s a nasty tear along its chest. I feel the urge to press it shut.
Michelle shrugs in my peripheral vision. ‘We’ll have to bury it. God knows what that cat’ll do if it comes back.’
I’ll have to get a shoebox from her wardrobe. My eyes sting and I blink the unexpected tears back. Michelle rubs my back.
I don’t want her to watch this. I ask her to fetch me a box, then send her inside. The cardboard coffin is far too large for the deceased. You could fit half a dozen blackbirds inside. I shake that thought away and seal the lid with masking tape. I don’t want to have to do this twice.
When all’s secure I set about the grim burial, but I can feel Michelle watching me from the window seat upstairs. I keep my back to her, sheltering her from the worst of it. Hiding the tears that accompany the task.
‘It’s keen-wah.’ She’s laughing at me.
I snatch the package out of her hands. ‘No! That can’t be how you pronounce it because that’s… no.’
Michelle gently prises my fingers off the plastic and takes the keen-wah over to the sink. To my wide eyes, she explains, ‘You have to rinse it first.’
This seems like an abnormal amount of effort for a dinner party. She opens a cupboard and pulls out—the tea strainer?
‘Don’t you want the sieve?’ It’s not supposed to sound condescending.
A hand finds one of her hips. ‘It’s too small for that. I’ll do it in batches.’
Bonkers. The world has gone bonkers.
I ask her if I can help.
Michelle puts the tea strainer down and walks over to me. Her lips are warm on my cheek. ‘Stay out of the way.’
At her suggestion, I sit on the sofa with the book I’m reading. It’s set in the Elizabethan court and political tensions are running high. There’s this Duke, of Anjou, and he’s trying to woo Elizabeth, but… well, it’s obvious how that will turn out. I found the novel on one of Michelle’s shelves. I just wish Elizabeth would get her happy ending. They seem all too rare these days.
I can’t focus on the book today. I walk through to the dining room, thinking I’ll set the table. But it’s already done. Our wedding china adorns the linen-covered table. Freshly cut peonies form the centrepiece. I didn’t know it was a centrepiece kind of dinner.
The wood is cool under my feet as I pad back to the kitchen. It’s somehow immaculate, but Michelle isn’t here. She never cooks in the same clothes she eats in—something about the smells. She’s more sensitive lately. I’m under strict orders to avoid aftershave.
She descends the stairs in what looks suspiciously like an oversized t-shirt. I’m hit with flashes from this morning’s shower. Soap suds trickling down her still-flat stomach. She’s tiny. But I understand why she wants to be careful this time.
She stops two steps up from me and plants a hand on my chest. ‘We’re not saying anything.’
We’re not. We won’t. Not after last time. The never-ending chain of lasagnes and apple crumbles was bad enough, but coupled with the early morning phone calls and unannounced visits?
I tuck her hair behind her ear. She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world. But there are blue-grey circles under both eyes. She used to fall asleep the minute her head hit the pillow, dead to the world. Now she lies there, rigid, until she thinks I’m asleep. Sometimes I am. I wake up at three and find her sitting in the rocking chair in the study, knees up, an oversized teddy bear tucked under her chin.
The doorbell rings and I step back so she can jump the final two steps. They want to see her, not me. Old Jill and Greg. They cross the threshold, bringing wine and smiles.
Once we’re seated I discover keen-wah is a dish best served cold. The four of us push it around on the wedding plates until Michelle decides to have mercy and whisk them away. She catches my eye and gives a wry grin. I follow her to fetch the stoneware baking dish. When I set it down on the table, her parents sit back in their chairs, relieved to see pasta, not polenta.
Their smiles are tight today, and after everyone has a plateful of puttanesca we find out why. Michelle’s sister has a German Shepherd, Sophie. She’s just had a litter.
Greg tries first. ‘They’re trying to find homes for all of them. Should have spayed her when they first brought her home.’
Jill takes over. ‘We thought maybe the two of you would like to take one.’
They know I’m terrified of dogs.
Michelle puts her fork down. ‘Why?’
‘Well they’re lovely dogs, don’t you think? Sophie’s so playful.’ Jill’s skating on thin ice.
Michelle sighs. ‘But we don’t want a dog. And Chris doesn’t feel comfortable around them, remember?’
Greg’s focused on his dinner, but Jill persists. ‘It would suit your lifestyle very well. You could take it with you when you go on your walks. Would give you a good reason to get out and about.’
Michelle is frosty for the rest of the meal. She presents a Tupperware box of tiramisu for dessert.
That night, for the first time, she doesn’t come to bed with me.
I first meet Michelle at an adult education class. We’re learning French—or trying to. The teacher is outragé that not one of us can list all of the ingredients in a traditional onion soup and I’ve changed my place of birth because I can remember how to say east but not west. Michelle comes off as haughty. I later find out that I exude arrogance. We don’t chat in the coffee break and I quit French class shortly after because it’s a waste of argent. I’ll keep meaning to pick it back up for the next thirty years.
The next time I meet Michelle, we’re both more than a little drunk. I can’t believe how giggly and smiley she is. She can’t believe she doesn’t hate me. We make plans to meet at a book launch the following afternoon and both turn up. By the time I realise how deep her love of fitness and health foods runs, it’s too late.
One morning that June she calls me at eight to invite me on a hike. She picks me up in her battered blue Polo and drives for a good half an hour. We’re the only car parked on the ring of gravel she pulls into. Stepping out, I shudder despite the warm air. We’re on the edge of woodland, shadowy oaks towering overhead. Michelle’s practically bouncing.
The path is on an incline and after we’ve walked for an hour, my t-shirt is stuck to my back. Michelle isn’t even out of breath, but she leads me to a stone bench.
If we just walk for another twenty minutes, she promises it’ll be worth it.
The pay-off is an abandoned house at the head of a clearing. Michelle heads for the front door with purpose. She’s done this before.
It’s more shell than house; the inside is devoid of furniture. We enter what was probably once the living room. The window is smashed and a fox has left an unwelcome present on the floor. Michelle grabs my hand and tugs me onwards to the back of the house.
The garden fence is intact, but the outside is as run down as the interior. Weeds climb to knee-height and overgrown trees cast us in shadow. I follow her to the bottom of the garden and stop abruptly.
She stands right on the edge of a sheer drop. The land has simply disappeared. Michelle laughs. She’s looking at my face. Slowly, ever so slowly, I inch forward until my feet are level with hers.
Together, we stand in near-silence, broken only by the occasional invisible bird. Heart in my stomach, we stare down that drop together.
It could be seconds or minutes, then Michelle is eager to get moving again, pausing to retie her shoelaces before our next adventure.
When we get back to civilisation, I ask her if she has time for a coffee. She doesn’t drink coffee. But she always has time for tea.
In the café, I watch her add two sugars to her tea. Sweet tea always makes me think of car accidents and long waits in hospitals, but it makes Michelle think of--
—‘My mum. When I was seven she took me to Hannover to visit my aunt and we sat in the train station drinking apple tea and honey. I don’t know, it’s just comforting.’
Her lips are a pale pink. They stand out against her milk-coloured skin. Her features are slight. Precise. She’d make a rather convincing porcelain doll. I’m admiring her nose when she coughs.
‘Are you okay?’ She’s frowning. I laugh, caught out. The salt shaker on the table suddenly becomes interesting.
I ask her if we should go. She looks out of the window and smiles. There’s somewhere she wants to take me.
I squint as we exit the building. The sun is lower in the sky, though it’s still warm enough for us with our bare legs. I climb into her car, ready to see where she’ll take me next.