I drive. You said you were tired, hadn’t slept all night. The journey to the Lakes takes longer than I remembered. There are more cars on the road, the lorries are bigger; they conspire to keep me in the slow lanes, and new underpasses baffle me.
Between the shrug of a shoulder and a sigh, you dig me out, snipe about my driving skills, but I take it. I make a show of forbearance even though inside I’m churning. I want this to work so badly that I allow myself to appear foolish and your criticisms go unchallenged. You think this trip is a bad idea.
I suggest a CD but you can’t be bothered to select one and tune the radio to a news channel. Perfect. It’s as if we’ve picked up hitch-hikers and they’re busy melting the glacier between us using blasts of hot air. My breath evens out for the first time since leaving town and I recall every detail of the day you told me.
I had spent the afternoon tidying the garden. A robin had perched on the severed limb of the rose bush, pruned for winter sleep. The wind blew unruly leaves around my feet as I raked them. Later, I watched as you prepared the supper; your back hunched over the chopping board, steam curling from a saucepan at your elbow. Jess phoned to give me her holiday dates. She’s spending Christmas with us and she asked me if Finn could come too. I flicked three pages and wrote their names on the calendar.
‘Do you think he’s Irish or maybe Scandinavian?’ I asked.
‘Can’t tell these days. It’s all about what’s fashionable.’ You sprinkled cheddar on the shepherd’s pie and put it in the oven to bake.
Jess & Finn. Looking at the names together in the little square on the December page, I’m transported to a bullet-train, fast-forward fantasy world of weddings and grandchildren: a long table with Finn and his speculative brothers in Irish clan tartan, Jess glowing; bridal in lace and silk, her eyes wide at the wonder of the future she is stepping into so gracefully. And you, handsome in a suit. Then Finn and you are bonding over Harlequins, Jess is pregnant, and there are family holidays that once again involve buckets and spades and trips to the zoo. Within the time it takes for you to open the wine, I have mapped out the future us in my head.
‘Surely, it’s about time,’ I said, but you didn’t ask me to explain.
You’d held your cards so close, that I never knew what was coming. No letters kept sealed to open later, no phone calls hastily concluded. No smashed mirrors or lone magpies on a churchyard wall. Just life going on as it did the day before and the day before that. It was only after we sat opposite each other at dinner I felt your unease, and stupidly, I thought you were unhappy with the meal. ‘It’s lovely,’ I said.
All your movements became measured and precise: the way you laid the fork at a right angle on your plate, the way you placed the wine glass dead centre on the coaster.
‘I’m leaving, Kitty.’
At first, I pretended I’d misheard. ‘What? What did you say?’
‘I’m leaving you. I’ve been thinking about it and I believe it’s the right time to go.’
You seemed to shrink; your head bowed, your shoulders sloping downwards and your chest disappearing inwards, as if the words had been made of air that kept you inflated. Having released them to hang in the silence above the table, you were reduced. Concave. At least you had the decency to lose your appetite.
‘What do you mean it’s the right time?’
‘I’ve found a little basement flat, it’s very cheap.’
‘Stop messing about, Frank. What’s wrong with you?’
‘Nothing is wrong. It’s just that it’s been thirty-five years. Living here, with you. And I want to try something new. Start over.’
‘Have you found someone else?’
‘No. Absolutely not. I just feel like my life is slipping away.’
‘Don’t be such an old fool, you can’t just up and leave.’ It begins to sink in that you might be serious.
‘I have to go. I have to see what’s out there for me.’
I rose from the table and stood in the middle of the hallway, staring at the frosted glass in the front door. As if outside, there was an explanation. It was a joke and on the path, there stood a whole party of family and friends hiding, giggling, waiting to shout. ‘Fooled you! He’s not really leaving, he’s only winding you up!’ But there was just the sound of the street: a car passed by, neighbours greeted each other and the same wind that made the leaves whorl and spin around the garden rattled the front gate. Bewildered by the pointless hovering in the hall, I turned back and sat down with a hand placed over my stomach.
‘Why can’t you do the things you want to do and still be here?’ I regretted it immediately as I already knew the answer.
‘I don’t love you anymore.’
When I first suggested the trip to the old cottage you laughed.
‘What’s the point? Why prolong the agony?’ you said.
‘Do it for me, just so that I know you’re sure. Then that’s it,’ I reply. Thinking as I’ve done for the past week that you’ll fall in love again when you see the lake, the fire in the black grate, and the bed that used to creak and sway when we were younger.
The car jerks as it mounts the kerb, you unbuckle your seatbelt and get out before I have time to gather my things. First, I try to turn the key in the lock, then you take it and, as always, the lock yields. No internet-friendly, holiday-let, I found the cottage pinned to a cork notice board in a staffroom long ago. The blue biro description spoke of a rustic, lakeside retreat. The postcard with its yellowing picture and its creases is still kept in an old address book.
The door hinges squeal just the way they did back then and in the air you can smell the lake, dog hair and air diffuser. The same armchairs and sofa sag by the fireplace, and through the brown, beaded curtain is the kitchen. It has been modernised, and the backdoor is aluminium-framed and as wide as the back wall. You once said if the cottage had been ours you would have put in a sliding door to take advantage of the view. And you have been proved right. The backyard slopes down to the lakeside, the branches of trees make an elegant arch to frame the water and we can see the sky. I stand and inhale memories.
Of when we lay upstairs in the freezing bed, noses dripping and fingers gripping the raw weave of blankets, until our bodies glowed hot like stones placed on spent embers. Of toasting thin white bread held on forks over the fire you lit. Of kindling we spent the whole day collecting in winter woods. Of curlews skimming like ghosts in the morning mist rising off the lake. Of swimming in the glistening path made by moonlight on water, our laughter scattering birds; raucous in their preternatural flight.
The curlews are still here. They wade in the muddy pools amidst a backdrop of reeds, their needle-thin beaks sifting the water. We stand watching them. The fibres of our wool jumpers are charged and seem to reach out to connect; we’re so close in the little kitchen. I want to touch you. Lay my head on your shoulder and sneak my arms under yours so that you cannot help but hold me. I want you to catch my scent and breathe deeply. I want the air to be warmed between us. You turn to fill the kettle and I fold my arms, feeling the hard fists dig into my breasts.
‘This is a bad idea,’ you sigh. It’s a final, heavy exhalation.
We open tinned soup, bought at the local shop and dip bread, sitting at the table in the living room.
‘We could go to the pub later and have fish and chips,’ I say.
‘This isn’t right, Kitty. I’m sorry.’ You wipe your hands on your jeans and lean back. ‘I should just go. This is too painful.’
‘If it’s too painful maybe you don’t really want to go.’
‘I’m going. I’ve made up my mind and you need to get used to it.’ You leave the table and take your bowl to the sink. The beads of the curtain swing and clatter.
‘You haven’t given me an explanation yet. You owe me that at least,’ I call.
You return. ‘It’s not you, Kit. You are wonderful.’
‘When I said I didn’t love you, I meant, I don’t love you enough to want to spend the rest of my life with you. I feel sometimes that I can’t breathe anymore.’
It’s my turn to get up, use the distance from table to sink to prepare my response. I want to say, let’s just go upstairs. If we can’t get it back, get the feeling back, then I’ll give you up. But instead, something in the sky outside the big new door catches my eye and the words fragment as they hurtle up into space.
‘Frank, come and look. There’s an osprey.’
The bird is magnificent. It wheels above the trees and over the lake, forming a perfect, sweeping circle. It catches the sun and turns silver, then turns silhouette, all the time circling over the green-grey water. You stand behind me. A small wow escapes from your lips.
‘It must be migrating. It’s late though,’ I say.
‘It’s been a mild autumn. I wish I’d brought my binoculars,’ you said as if you still loved me and you hadn’t just told me you didn’t.
The bird spins and the fan tail seems to trail a ring of argent against the blue as I follow it. Then, as if we had paid to see it perform, it dives, feet first, disappearing beyond the tree canopy before reappearing; its wing tips thrashing water. The sun, low in the autumn sky, turns the lake to gold and the bird quivers throwing molten droplets into the air. The osprey rises again and a twisting, writhing fish is held captive in its talons. The wings arc and spread and arc and spread to find a thermal. It turns south, gliding away from us and I wonder where it’s heading.
You whistle, long and slow.
I turn to face you, I’m so near I can see every line, all the crow’s feet canyons that reflect my own.
Your voice quivers. ‘Kitty. Maybe…’
‘If you hurry you can catch the next train,’ I say.
‘Call a taxi, it’ll get you to the station for half past. You’re right. This is a bad idea, you should go.’ I’m nodding at my own sagacity.
You wait in the old armchair, small and forlorn; descending into its cushions. We haven’t lit the fire and it will soon be dark. I think I should ask you to see to it before you leave, but we
sit in the cold half-light and talk about practical things.
‘Will you tell Jess, or will I?’ I ask.
‘I’ll ring her tomorrow morning. When will you be home?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘I can take my stuff. Be gone by the time you get back.’
I have to remove myself from the pain so I stand by the sink looking out. The osprey is a welcome memory. I should have used my phone and got a picture, I think. His departure reminds me that winter is on the doorstep, knocking with icy knuckles, its pale eyes in a dead white face.
A water bird glides across the lake and disappears, leaving ripples that catch the last remaining light. A hard light. A defining light. There is a stillness outside the window as if the world is holding its breath. If I opened the thickly glazed backdoor, I would hear roosting birds but I choose the silence.
The taxi arrives out front, it scrapes its wheels on the kerbstone.
The sky is the colour of cheap blue paint. Set against it fire-coloured clouds turn into dragons. Their backs are covered in grey scales but their underbellies are dappled pink and gold; up-lit by the sinking sun. I try to see the image of the osprey in amongst them and find it, golden wings spread, ready to descend.
‘Well, I’ll be off,’ you say.
Just outside the window, midges rise to roll and tumble like crazed acrobats in a minute circus. The dragon clouds vanish and the sun dips further into the lake and is held captive as it sets.
‘Ring me when you’ve spoken to Jess,’ I say and I’m baffled by my flat far-away voice.
The door slams and the brown beads on the kitchen curtain rustle. The trees outside lose their definition and as the taxi’s engine turns over, the surface of the lake becomes polished stone.
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