She feels sick as she wipes the counter. Nausea took up residence within days of him being home, and however much she sprays, wipes, polishes, she can’t get rid of the smell in the kitchen.
“Slow down,” he says, “take deep breaths, relax.” They’d taught him all that, in there. She still can’t name the place where he’d been and a tsunami of shame overcomes her and washes her away from the friends they had, before. She is adrift and he is no lifeline.
He’s taken to walking round the grounds since he came home, makes her come too, and almost every day they spend an hour or two, making a new path as they tread the perimeter. Tall pines overshadow the north side of the property, and she shivers as they walk there. He knows that now, notices like he never would have done, and he makes sure to take her arm. Further on, they turn a corner and the view opens up in front of them, smooth green lawns with a covering of frost to the right, chilled brown fields to the left.
“It looks bigger now the fields are bare,” he says, “but I like it better in the spring. Won’t be long now before we start to see green again.”
She pokes at the frozen autumn leaves with her Hunters. At first she’d insisted on washing them after every walk until any trace of leaf and earth was gone and the boots were shop-fresh again, but he puts his hand on hers, warm flesh, stopping her turning the cold metal tap. “Come inside,” he says. “We can make hot chocolate. They’ll only get dirty again tomorrow.” So now, the boots are mud-caked in layers. She shudders as she put them on, but he is right, and his smile as she steps out in them makes it worthwhile.
It doesn’t stop her cleaning, though. Somehow she has to get rid of the stale smell in the kitchen. Something is rotting, she’s sure. She empties the fridge, wipes inside, uses bicarbonate of soda, and still the stench grabs at her throat. He pulls her away in the end. “It’s fine, there’s no smell,” he says, but that only makes her wonder if she is insane, or him. And she remembers clearing away the blood, the broken glass, and knows that back then it was him.
The house looks better now, she thinks as she carried the drinks tray through to the living room, places it on the table, adjusts it so the edges are parallel, each glass of G&T centred, each lemon slice the same. No scars visible here, and when he is dressed he looks fine too, as he sips his drink. She takes one mouthful, then, nauseated, leaves the rest.
In bed, each night, she steals glances as he strips his shirt off. He keeps his back to her, but there are mirrors all down the wall. Livid red lines down his stomach, his arms, reflect, stark against the white of his skin, the walls, the sheets, the curtains. No amount of cleaning will erase those lines, and he always turns off the light before climbing into bed and pulling her close.
She starts to decorate the Christmas tree, means to do it by herself, but he comes in as she is half way through. He picks up a bauble, sticks it on a branch, then grabs a strand of tinsel and wraps it round her. He pulls her to him, steals a kiss, and she finds a smile fighting its way out.
“Not there,” she says as she moves that first bauble, but he keeps putting them on, wrong on purpose, she thinks, and it looks so higgledy-piggledy that she giggles, and the giggle becomes a laugh and they both fall onto the sofa, surrounded by tinsel.
She leaves the tree like that: it isn’t magazine-feature perfect, like it had been in previous years, but perfect didn’t work, and she is ready to try something new.
She sips her Earl Grey, one thin slice of lemon, the only thing she wants to drink now. The early-morning smell of coffee leaves her nauseated, toast turns her stomach, and she reluctantly has to hand over cooking to him.
“I’ll clean the kitchen afterwards,” she says, drawn to the splashes on the chrome.
He frowns. “We should get you checked out. You can’t eat less, you’ll fade away.”
“I’m fine,” she says, and she focusses all her efforts on clearing her plate at dinner that night.
“It’s delicious,” she says, but the venison battles inside her stomach and she has to leave the room before dessert.
He still has to see the therapist every morning, and their days find some sort of routine. She sits and waits in on a bench, not far from the car park while he talks. When he’s done, he suggests coffee. Her stomach churns. “I can’t,” she says. He frowns, and she swallows down bile.
The second week, he asks again if she is okay. She turns away and says, “I’m fine.” She can’t tell him that the months in the hospital have changed nothing, not who he is, nor who she is, nor what cannot be. She can’t explain that every moment he isn’t alongside her she wonders whether she will find him again, guts exposed and veins spilt open. It is months since it happened.
“You don’t need to fret,” he says too often, while for her the spine of every day is worry.
They take the decorations down. She cleans. “It’s spring cleaning,” she says when he suggests she takes a break.
“It’s a bit early for spring,” he says and persuades her out into the grounds to hunt for green shoots. They find one clump of snowdrops, tiny spikes forcing their way through chilled earth.
“See! It is spring,” she says, taking his hand. “I can spring clean.”
His face is serious as he asks, “Are you still feeling sick? Is there still a smell in the kitchen?”
She shudders, and nods.
“Will you see a doctor?”
Out there, where green shoots are growing, his hand warm in hers, she isn’t so afraid for him, but the nausea still roils in her belly.
“I don’t need to. He’ll only say I’m anxious.”
She is sick the next morning, and the one after that.
He doesn’t suggest coffee when he comes out from seeing the therapist that day. “I’ve made an appointment,” he says, phone in his hand, “Three o’clock today. Harley Street.”
She is silent, wanting to argue as she always does that waiting in a room full of sick people will make anyone sick, but in Harley Street there won’t be a room full of people, they won’t have to wait. He is serious about this appointment, and because he wants it like he hasn’t wanted anything since he came home, she goes.
The carpet is soft under her feet, her leather soled silver pumps let feel every undulation in the deep pile. It is so long since they have been to an appointment that is about her, not him, she doesn’t know what to do, to say, so she lets him say her name for her, lets him lead her to a chair.
“You look exhausted,” he says, then he is silent too.
There is a taste in her mouth, like something has died, and it has been like that for weeks now. She cleans her teeth as much as she cleans the house, but he hasn’t picked up on that. Silence fills the room, broken by the tap of long manicured nails on a keyboard. She can feel her eyelashes brush her cheeks as she blinks, feel the silk camisole against her back, the straps of her bra against her skin, her breasts soft, tender, somehow fuller, while her skirt feels a little low, too loose now.
“She’s been feeling sick for weeks,” he says when they see the doctor. “She’s hardly eating.”
“I’m fine,” comes out, but so quietly that even she struggles to hear it.
“I’ve put her through a lot this year,” he says.
The doctor probes her, takes blood, asks her to pee in a cup. She takes her time in the shiny stark white bathroom, doesn’t want to return to be examined, exposed. But in the toilet, hovering over the toilet as her thighs shake, hand between her legs, waiting to catch the urine, she wonders if he worries about her too when she leaves the room, so she pulls up her tights, screws the lid on the pot and returns.
“It won’t take a moment,” the doctor says. “I’ll have some tea brought through.”
“Earl Grey,” he says, “she drinks it with lemon.”
She wants to say I’m fine, I can speak for myself, but when the tray comes in she wants to check the cups are clean, doesn’t want to drink from a cup that has touched someone else’s lips, and maybe she isn’t fine.
“Have you been trying for a baby?” the doctor asks when the nurse returns with a sheaf of forms.
He is silent, this time, and she grips his hand.
“We can’t,” she says. “I can’t. That’s why …” She falters. Everything was perfect, they’d had money, time, a beautiful home, but he’d wanted the one thing she couldn’t give him.
“It’s fine,” he says, face turned to her, wrinkles round his eyes, grey hairs at his temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. “It can’t be helped. I’ve talked to the therapist about it. I’m fine. ” He turns to the doctor. “We’re fine.”
“You’re pregnant,” the doctor says.
Bile rises in her mouth. She swallows. “I can’t. They said … I can’t.”
The doctor holds out the form. “We can arrange a scan and see how far along you are.”
He’s looking at her again, the wrinkles round his eyes have changed shape. There’s an upturn to his his mouth and tears spark as he says, “A baby. Our baby”
She tries to smile back, but hairs rise on the nape of her neck. Discussion about antenatal vitamins passes over her as she thinks about the thing growing inside her.
When they return home she goes through to the gardens, and the snowdrops have come into bud.