From time to time I turn the ignition on so the car can warm up again. I look out at the shop window: crystals, homeopathic remedies, Become a Reiki master in six easy lessons. She’s been in there for over an hour. I glance upwards: a single window, two floors up, is illuminated. The empty streets glisten with February rain.
Ten minutes later the light goes out and shortly after that the shop door opens and she’s let out by a guy with a grey ponytail.
‘Well?’ I say as she gets in the car. She smells of sandalwood.
‘Well what?’ She pauses. ‘I’m tired.’
But she’s smiling. She hasn’t smiled like that for a long time.
‘Don’t you feel it?’ she said.
‘That chill inside. The emptiness.’
I flinched. ‘This isn’t about kids again, is it?’
She shook her head. ‘No. It’s . . . I don’t know where this is going. Any of it.’
I looked at her. She was exhausted. I knew she hadn’t been sleeping well, but I hadn’t the first idea why and she’d rebuffed every attempt to find out.
‘What’s so wrong with emptiness anyway?’ I said. ‘You can do stuff with emptiness. You can fill it with things.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘This isn’t some kind of religious thing, is it?’ I said. She’d mentioned that she’d wondered about exploring her spiritual roots, whatever that meant. The whole idea of it scared the shit out of me.
‘No, no. Don’t worry, I’m not about to force that on you again.’ She sounded more worn out than ever.
On the table there was a catalogue from the local new age centre. God knows how we’d got on their mailing list, but it had always been a source of amusement to us. We used to speculate on what colour each other’s aura might be. She reckoned mine was probably beige.
That was before she stopped making jokes.
She began to flip through the catalogue as if she was reading it for the first time ever.
She says nothing more on the way home, but as soon as we walk in the door she says she’s ready for bed. I raise an eyebrow, but she simply smiles, kisses me lightly on the lips and shakes her head. Then she goes upstairs.
An hour or so later, I join her. She’s already flat out, and she carries on sleeping right through the night. I know this because I hardly sleep a wink. All the problems in the world are taking turns to flit around in my brain, and the fact that she’s comatose next to me makes it worse.
The next day she gets up early. When I stagger downstairs I’m late for work and in a panic. She’s already gone. She hasn’t been to work for months. But for the whole of the rest of the week she gets up, goes in and comes back on time like clockwork.
I’m getting more and more irritable with each passing day.
When Monday evening comes round again I offer to drive her to the centre.
‘No it’s OK,’ she says. ‘I can drive myself.’
‘But you haven’t driven since last– ’
‘I haven’t forgotten how– ’
‘That wasn’t what I– ’
‘I’m fine. Don’t worry.’
I look at her.
‘What do they do in there?’
She shakes her head. ‘I’m going to be late,’ she says.
When she comes back, the same sandalwood smell follows her in. This time, she’s positively glowing. Her skin is almost phosphorescent.
‘Are you all right?’ I say.
She stretches. ‘Never felt better.’
But she still won’t tell me what happens there and it’s even more difficult to sleep when her body is lighting up the whole room.
Three weeks on, I’m at the end of my tether. When she comes home from the centre, we have a blazing row. Or rather, it’s blazing on my end of things but oddly calm and rational on hers.
‘You’ve changed,’ I say, ‘and I don’t like it.’
‘You’d rather I wasn’t happy?’
‘You’re not happy. You’re just . . . weird.’
She tilts her head on one side and smiles. ‘Maybe you need to go there yourself for a few sessions.’
This is calculated to wind me up. ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ I say. ‘There’s no way you’ll ever get me in that place.’
She shrugs. Then she goes off to bed. She’s still sleeping for nine, maybe ten hours a night. I manage three or four if I’m lucky.
Lying next to her, I stare at the glowing curve of her back. I place my hand on her shoulder and immediately I feel calmer. I begin to slowly stroke her. She gives out a tiny moan but she doesn’t wake up. The churning, acid tension within me starts to subside. Then in the middle of her back I find something.
Running down her spine there’s a kind of seam. It’s so fine you wouldn’t notice it unless you looked really close but now I’ve found it I can’t resist folding it over. Then, starting at the base of her neck, I unzip her. When I pull the two sides apart, I find that there’s nothing but empty space inside. I pull her apart even further so I can squeeze myself in.
And finally, curled up inside her, I feel the most perfect joy – and within seconds, I fall into the deepest, calmest sleep of my life.
JONATHAN PINNOCK is the author of the novel Mrs Darcy Versus the Aliens (Proxima, 2011), the Scott Prize-winning short story collection Dot Dash (Salt, 2012) and the bio-historico-musicological-memoir thing Take It Cool (Two Ravens Press, 2014). He also writes poetry from time to time. He blogs at www.jonathanpinnock.com and tweets @jonpinnock