The soil crunches against Nell’s teeth as she grinds them together. Clumps of earth and small shards of stone cake her gums. Her tongue feels around for pebbles too big to ingest and brings them out from the very back of her mouth. They have no place here. Once identified, she spits them back onto the grass. Congealed brown droplets hang from her chin. She does not bother to wipe them away; she’ll tidy herself up once it is over. A light, a bathroom light, a few houses away, illuminates, momentarily catching her attention. An orange rectangle of life in an otherwise indigo sky. Frosted glass. She feels certain that her shape cannot be seen crouching behind the garden fence and even if it could, she doesn’t care anymore. Knees aching, she shifts her weight from left to right, unable to accept that it is over. Unable to get up and go back inside. Not yet. A noise comes out of her that could be mistaken for a laugh. Unsure why, the situation amuses her. Ever since she decided that tonight would be the night, the thought of it has amused her greatly. She is both in the moment and outside of it. The self which looks down on the scene, does so with calm resolution. It was always going to happen.
In the weeks before tonight, Nell could think of little else. She had barely slept since he’d gone. She’d quit her job and the hours of the day were of little importance. Each day rolled into the next, punctuated by an hour or two of sleep here and there. Sleep continually interrupted by the sound of his voice, jolting her back to reality. Her sister was worried about her, she knew that. Nell had promised her it would only be a week. She’d already been here for four.
The idea had come to her after the funeral and she hadn’t been able to shake it. Couldn’t leave before it was done.
– God, you’re always at that bloody sink. You know we have a dishwasher?
Hours spent in the kitchen, soap suds climbing her arms, staring through the window at it. It was the best view Nell could get without seeming suspicious.
A few days ago, Alice had come round for a cup of tea. Nell was sure that her sister had called Alice, asked her to come and check in. There was something about the awkward way they greeted each other that raised the alarm.
Katharine, conveniently, had to ‘pop to the shops’, leaving ‘you girls to catch up’. As the front door slammed, Nell felt exposed. It was one thing allowing your sister to see you like this, but a friend? She couldn’t remember the last time she had showered – three, maybe four, days ago. Seeing herself through Alice’s eyes wasn’t pleasant but there was nothing she could do about it now. Katharine’s abandonment was the biggest betrayal of all – leaving Nell here to entertain her unwanted guest.
Alice poured the boiling water into the mugs and carried them over to the table. The guest catering to the host; it was all wrong, but Nell let the wave of shame ride over her.
– It’s been so busy at work. You know what it’s like. What with the marking and the new system – do you remember what a nightmare it was to learn the old one?
Alice’s question was met with silence, but she persisted.
– I remember we were tearing our hair out trying to work out where to enter the results. Well, we just about got the hang of it, and they’ve gone and updated it.
Nell looked at Alice and then back out to the garden.
– Did you ever try it, or was it after… Well, did you miss it? I’ve lost track.
Five crows lined the shed roof. Nell looked from one to the next. They were back again. She was sure they were the same five that had been there the day before. They hardly acknowledged each other, the five beaks pointing down towards the rose bush. How did they know?
– Nick was asking after you. He told me to tell you that when you feel ready you can—
– Hey, do you remember when that celebrity couple carried a vial of each other’s blood around their necks instead of wearing wedding rings?
– Uh. Um, yeah. Kinda creepy. So, Um, yeah, Nick said—
– Is it? I don’t think it is. Having a physical piece of someone you love. Don’t you remember The Tresses? We studied it. That French decadent story where that guy is besotted with a lock of hair?
Alice nodded and sipped at her tea. Nell knew that she was making her uncomfortable, but she couldn’t stop.
– I saw something the other day about a woman who made her mum’s ashes into a diamond. She wears it on a pendant around her neck.
– Ok, well I guess that’s not so bad. I would be terrified I would lose it though.
– There was someone else who mixed their wife’s ashes into the ink before they were tattooed with it.
– That’s disgusting.
– Is it? Now his wife’s body is mixed into his blood. With him forever.
– It’s gross.
Nell realised the conversation could go no further. She really looked at Alice, for the first time since she arrived, and was met with the same look of concern that she saw on her sister’s face each day. This irritated her. She wanted Alice gone.
Nell stood and walked to the sink with a mug in each hand. Alice’s mug was still half full. Nell knew that she was being rude, but she didn’t care, it washed over her just as everything else did.
Alice looked apologetic and shifted in her seat.
– Where did you see that anyway?
– It doesn’t matter.
When Alice was in the doorway, she told Nell to call Nick. Nell smiled knowing that there was no chance she was going to call anyone.
Free of the unwanted guest, Nell stepped into the shower. The water fell down on her as she stood, motionless. Through the mottled blind, she could see the outline of a crow walking up and down along the windowsill. What was it he used to say about the crows? His first friends? Growing up it had been one of her favourite stories. Nell had heard it again and again but trying to recall details was getting harder. His earliest memory. The family had their theories – it must have been a dream he’d had later in life; no one could possibly remember that far back.
I’d been laying in my pram, out in the garden while mum was cleaning the house.
Nell could hear the story in his voice as she reached behind her to turn off the tap.
She had the radio on and was singing along. Dad was at work. I was on my back in one of those big old prams, you know? Looking up, all I could see was the sky.
Nell’s wet feet left footprints all the way up the carpeted stairs. Completely fixated on the story, she didn’t notice. She sat on corner of the bed in the spare room, so close to the edge she had to steady herself.
The sky. And then the crows. They were circling above me, but then one broke away. It swooped down, as the others kept circling, and landed right on the side of my pram. I wasn’t frightened though, even as a tiny baby, I knew that I was safe. We were connected, somehow.
It was at this point that other members of the family would roll their eyes and change the subject, but Nell would always listen until the end.
They were all gone before mum came out to get me. I can’t imagine what she would have done if she had seen this thing, giant thing it was, heading straight for the pram. It was there for a while though. I can still see it, clear as day. One sitting on the side of my pram, looking at me, and the rest circling overhead in the clear blue sky. Nothing else in sight.
As a child, she’d press him for more details but nothing more was ever said. Still perched on the edge of the bed, gripping on to the mattress, Nell squeezed her eyes closed, trying to remember if there was anything she had forgotten, any detail missing. Nothing came to mind except that she did not feel clean. Did she even use soap? She couldn’t remember. As she opened her eyes, she realised she had been sitting there for so long that her body was completely dry, save her hair, which still dripped down her back, leaving a puddle which slowly seeped across the sheet.
The room was bright and smelled fresh. The minimal furniture, pushed into the corners of the room, was clean and neutral. Everything was exactly where it should be and though the room was stark – white walls, white blinds, white bedding – there was a certain serenity that made this ordeal one percent more bearable. Nell hung up her coat on one of three white hooks that protruded from the back of the white wooden door and took her position on the mint green leather armchair. There were holes in the arm. Leather gouged from where it was once stretched, leaving dirty yellow foam exposed. She poked her finger deep inside the biggest hole. Something in there was sticky and made her instantly regret allowing her hand to explore the unknown territory. The chair sat on the left-hand side of him.
Each day that she arrived, the first time she looked at him, she was taken off guard. What was once a round, jolly and slightly ruddy full face had become gaunt. Pristine, salt and pepper short back and sides, brushed back with a side parting and sprayed with firm hold hairspray, had become a grey bob, which fanned itself across the pillow. His hair was still so thick. It tumbled around his face, curling at the ends the way she remembered it. Did she remember it? She couldn’t be sure. She’d seen photographs, old family albums; his hair long, meeting his beard and merging together until one was indistinguishable from the other.
She took his hand and began to talk. There was absolutely no grip, but she placed his fingers around her own, resting the back of his hand on the bed so it did not fall away. When she was little, her whole hand fit inside his palm. Sometimes, in the car, he’d reach back behind the passenger seat and she’d squeeze his hand, as if to say, ‘hello, I’m still here!’ She wondered what had happened to the black and gold signet ring he wore for as long as she could remember. If she closed her eyes and pictured his hand, there it sat pride of place, but pinpointing the last time she physically saw it was impossible.
She talked about her day, her friends, the television programmes she knew he liked. Liked. She wondered if he was aware of his surroundings, of what was happening. She asked him, knowing full well there would be no response.
That day she untangled the wire of her earphones with her free hand and pushed one into his ear, the other into her own. She played him music and rested her head on his shoulder. Very occasionally, she thought he made the faintest of noises, but by the time she whipped the earphone from her ear, she heard nothing more.
She sat with him in silence.
That was her routine. She sat and watched whilst that brilliant man took his very last breaths.
Shifting her weight no longer relieves the ache in her knees. Nell knows it’s time to go inside. The week after the funeral, when they had been scattered here, she already knew. There was no planning, it just was. A dream in which she saw her hand pulling up a lump of soil had started it. As she brought the soil to her lips, she had awoken. Then, right then, she knew.
Now crouching, Nell takes one more, smaller, handful and pushes it into her mouth before patting the remaining soil back into place. Though she barely tastes anything, this last handful is the hardest to swallow. It’s done. The light from the bathroom a few doors down has long gone out and Nell hears nothing as she walks across the patio and into the kitchen.
Upstairs, the water in the sink turns brown as it runs over her hands. She scrubs her nails over and over until all traces are gone. She wipes around her mouth too, careful to hide the evidence, but chooses not to brush her teeth.
She creeps past Katharine’s door, making it into the spare room without disturbing any of the creaking floorboards on the landing. Shedding her clothes, Nell climbs back into the bed. She pulls the crisp sheets over her head and for the first time in what felt like forever, she sleeps.
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