They grieved her together, sharing an umbrella on the journey home from the funeral. At home, they sat on work surfaces at opposite ends of the kitchen as the kettle boiled for coffee. Neither broke the silence, and the angry sea below the cottage they had bought together on the cliff flung itself repeatedly against the rocks.
He let her pour, all the while watching as the steam curled up under her face, moistening her skin. He wanted to draw closer to her, to lay the back of his hand against the place where her neck met her cheek, to kiss the roots of her thick dark hair. But the room between them yawned dark and deep as the hole into which the coffin had been lowered.
They had eaten breakfast together at the table beside the window for the past six years. She had always liked to scrape away the burnt edges of her toast with a knife, leaving little heaps of black dust on her plate. He was taciturn before nine o’clock; she was chirpy. He could still remember her on the very first morning after they had moved in, naked save for a dressing gown which she hugged to herself, padding over the bare floor and smiling, smiling. Moving through the unpacked boxes like a queen among subjects.
All his senses seemed attenuated. His coffee, though she had brewed it strong, tasted of nothing. He blew on it, and in loosening his face found that he had no control over his features. His mouth trembled. His eyes leaked.
It was far too early for bed, but there was nothing they could bear to do, nothing they could bear to say to one another. She shut the bedroom door and drew the curtains, which glowed dull orange with the light outside. He felt dizzy as he watched her brush her teeth, taking unnecessary care over each and every one. When she had splashed water over her face she came close to the bed, and though he had watched her undress a thousand times, he looked away.
He lay facing the opposite wall, and felt a cold draught as she slipped into bed next to him. The trembling in his face spread to his other limbs, and he hugged his torso rigidly in an attempt to disguise this from her.
In the end, desperate fascination overcame fear. He rolled over to find her facing away from him, and stared at the curve of her back in the darkness. Her thin nightdress rose and fell with her breathing.
He did not dare reach out and touch her. He inclined his head towards her hair, but the smell of it was absent.
“How does it feel?” he whispered into the nape of her neck. “Carolyn?”
She shifted. Slowly her fingers moved around her back to caress the little ridges of her spine where they showed through her nightdress.
“I can touch…everything. But I feel nothing.” She shivered. He voice dropped in awe. “I feel nothing.”
They kept a subdued distance from one another. He found that he could fill hours simply sitting and staring at nothing, his mind churning over and over the same thoughts like the stomach of a cow. He woke each morning feeling as though his entire body were as brittle as glass.
She took up gardening, something which before she’d had little affection for, with positive ferocity. She sowed lines of bright begonias and sweet peas in the windy little garden above the sea. Kneeling on the earth, she shielded her eyes with one hand and held a trowel with the other. He watched her through the window, and his gut ached.
He could not settle to anything. He wandered through rooms as though a stranger’s dwelling had been built over his familiar home. Trying to prepare food, he nicked his fingers and burnt the simplest dishes. He left book after book lying on work-surfaces and tabletops, all open to halfway through the first or second chapter.
One morning about two weeks after the funeral, when he could bear it no longer, he steeled himself to intrude upon her as she was digging in her garden. She gave no sign of having noticed him, until he came to pick his way through the rows of seedlings and her head turned a little to follow his feet.
She didn’t say anything, but he knew she was annoyed that he had risked crushing her plants. He stopped awkwardly a few metres away from her, his eyes creasing as he looked out over the sea. It was a still day. Chill grey cloud lay low over the water.
After a while he asked “Is this how it’s going to be? We just…carry on?”
She looked at him blankly. But he saw a flicker of fear in her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Is it meant to be this way? We just go on like nothing’s changed?”
She turned back to her plants, and gave the soil a particularly forceful jab with the trowel. “I can go if you want me to,” she said.
“No,” he amended hurriedly, “no, I didn’t mean…it just feels…”
But he could not conjure a single word that fitted right. That was the whole awfulness of it - its elusiveness, its forbiddenness, like the nightmare whose impression is far too deep and imposing to convey in the morning light.
“Carolyn,” he whispered. “I can’t stop thinking of that day…on the boat…”
She brushed the earth from her skirt, and her fingertips hovered above the first bright delicate blooms of begonias and sweet peas. “Aren’t they brave, Albie?” she said. “My seedlings. To flower here right beside the sea. They’ll hang on here. They’ll cling on, you’ll see.”
The tiny blooms quivered in the salty air, clownish flecks of colour above the iron sea.
His tall friend Joe arrived on the doorstep that evening, clutching a bag and peering carefully into his face as though trying to diagnose a sickness. “I didn’t think you should be alone,” he said. “Not at this time.” He hesitated, then gripped Albie’s shoulder and drew him closer in an embrace. “So sorry,” he said mutedly. “Such an awful thing…”
Stiff and at a loss, Albie led him into the kitchen, where she was sat picking at her dinner. Joe looked at her, then looked again. He put his bag down on the work surface, and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead.
“It was good of you to come,” said Albie.
“We haven’t got a spare room,” she said. “You know that?”
“I’ll sleep on the sofa,” said Joe.
She got up and went to take his bag through to the living room. Joe paced from one end of the kitchen to the other, while Albie took mugs from the cupboard and filled the kettle.
“Should she still be here?” asked Joe.
“She isn’t,” said Albie, to whom it seemed clear that this was entirely the point.
“Oh.” There was a pause. Then Joe asked, in a strained voice, “How are you holding up?”
Albie met his eyes. He could not speak, and he found that he was trembling. Carolyn came back into the room and together they sat down around the table, stirring milk into their coffee.
“You weren’t at the funeral,” she said, after a while.
“No. I’m sorry. I’ve been out of the country.”
“Yes, yes please.”
“It was quite a beautiful service,” she said. “Down at the little church in the village. There were bunches of white flowers.” She smiled faintly, and tugged her cardigan more tightly around her shoulders, though the room was not cold.
The memory of the day, which had passed in a blind whirl of rain and solemn faces, surged back. Albie had to grip the edge of the table to remind himself where he was.
Joe looked between them. And then with sudden fearlessness said, “Can I ask how it happened?”
The air in the room changed at once. She rose from her seat and began to gather in the dirty crockery, her expression affronted. Albie squirmed, stirring the dregs of his coffee.
“She doesn’t like to talk about it,” he said.
“Maybe it’s not up to her,” said Joe, with an edge of impatience. But then, as Carolyn turned on her heel to stalk over to the sink, he added more gently “It’s up to you. Maybe you need to talk about it.”
Albie stared at him. He knew that Carolyn could still hear them, despite how loudly she was clattering the dishes. But Joe was right. The urge to regurgitate that which so horrified him, to wring the poison from it, was overwhelming.
“It was so pointless,” he began, his mouth dry. “It was so…mundane. The weather was fine. We sailed out past the rocks with a picnic and a bottle of wine on board. We got a little tipsy.”
He swallowed. These things had played themselves over in his mind all day, every day, over the last weeks. He laced his fingers over his eyes.
“She was just…standing, to fetch me something. A clean glass. A wave took her by surprise, rocked the boat, and she lost her balance.”
The clinking of plates paused behind them. It seemed that despite herself, Carolyn could not help but listen.
“She went over the side so fast, I didn’t even have time to get up. It would have been fine. It should have been fine, but there was this awful - this awful bump…”
With a crash, Carolyn dropped one of the plates she had been drying to the floor. Albie jumped from his seat just in time to see the way that she was looking at him - stood over the fragments on the floor, her hands still outstretched, mouth slightly agape. The look in her eyes was half-disbelieving, feral with desperation.
He rushed over to help her, but within seconds she had regained her composure and was shooing him back to the table. “I’ll do it. No, I’ll do it, I’ll be fine.” He had the feeling that she did not want to stand close to him.
“She hit her head?” prompted Joe quietly, as Albie sank back into his chair. He could barely bring himself to nod.
“I was all ready to laugh. For her to come up out of the water with her clothes wet through, a joke for years to come. But she didn’t. She didn’t.”
He could not bring himself to pinpoint the exact point when it had dawned that something was wrong - those lengthening moments in which mirth had slid into puzzlement and then, rapidly, panic. Hazy with wine, it had been precious seconds before he’d even made it to the side of the boat, let alone into the water after her.
Cold salt shock. Grasping for a grip on some limb beneath the surface in the blurred dappled darkness. And then, bobbing back to the light, his arms around her chest -
Absence. No blood, no visible injury. Just the place where she had been. Somehow he managed to haul her back onto the deck, water pooling all around them. There had been a moment of almost comical clarity, in which he had been tempted to put his hands on his hips and proclaim, “Well, that’s it, then!”
He had directed the boat back to shore in a mood of light-headed unreality. Somewhere in the back of his mind he felt a twinge of annoyance that nobody had ever thought to prepare him for such a moment. He did not know who he was supposed to call. An ambulance? It worried him that paramedics might think he was holding out hope in the face of the obvious.
He was sure that undertakers were not supposed to be involved until a little later. And there was nothing suspicious, nothing out of order for the police to investigate. Only a nothing where a something had been.
“Albie?” said Joe, who had reached across the table to touch his arm. “Albie. You’ve gone white as a sheet.”
He was painfully aware of her, suddenly, stood drying plates at the sink behind him. He clenched his fists over his stomach. He had an image of her walking through the shallows at dusk, bending to lift a starfish. Turning to bathe him in the secrecy of her smile. In his memory she was all wine-coloured. Her favourite dress, her lips, the curtains she had chosen for the window that looked out over the sea.
“What’s supposed to happen?” he managed to ask. Joe’s hand hesitated on his forearm.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s supposed to happen now? Please tell me. Please tell me.”
They went to bed with the door propped open a little, as though shy now to be entirely alone together. In the moonlight that peered through the living room curtains, Joe’s tousled head was visible on the arm of the couch.
“Albie,” said Carolyn softly in the middle of the night. They lay parallel like train tracks, inches apart on the white mattress. “Albie.”
He turned over, and to his alarm she inched up her nightdress over her belly. Confused possibilities collided in his head, but before he could decide how to react, he realised that she was showing him something.
“Albie, look. Is that a bruise?”
He frowned, and peered closer. About the size of a hand-span, spreading out from her navel, was a patch of darkish skin. It was more smoke-grey than bruise-coloured, its edges mottled. He stretched out his fingertips to touch it, but at the last moment drew back.
He lay watching the dark curls at the nape of her neck. When she had fallen asleep he rose silently and padded through to the living room. Joe’s eyes were open, staring at the ceiling.
“She has to move on,” said Joe. “She can’t keep on living here with you like nothing has changed. This is sick, Albie.”
“Not sick,” he said, devastated. “Not sick.”
Joe sat up.
“You asked me. You asked me what had to happen now, and I’m telling you. This is… the way it is. Trust me.”
He began it feverishly, knowing that if he faltered he would lose the strength. Joe had left his things folded and gone for a run on the beach. Before the sun had fully risen Albie had stripped almost all of her clothes from the wardrobe, laying them out on the kitchen table. He took her shoes from the hallway, unhooking each of her coats from its peg.
She did not wake until he came to rummage in her cabinet beside the mirror in the bedroom. He pulled out her make-up and bottles of perfume, lining each item up on the edge of the cabinet.
When she stirred, her eyes flickering open, he asked before she could protest, “Shall I throw this away? Or should it go to your mother?”
He saw the panic rise in her, and for a moment he thought she was about to leap from the bed and snatch it all from him. He saw her gaze travel from the pots and bottles on the cabinet to the black bin liner in his hand. But instead of stridently protesting, she seemed to crumple. Smaller than herself in the midst of the creased sheets, she looked on, pale and helpless. “Throw them,” she said hoarsely.
After a while she got up, but did not change out of her nightdress. She trailed him from room to room as he gathered up her possessions. The two of them moved around the cottage as though every step was choreographed, always with half the span of a room between them, Carolyn never joining in but watching, watching.
When Joe came back and got in the shower, Albie sat down in the kitchen to take stock. Carolyn perched on the work surface, not looking at him. On the table, now neatly folded, her clothes lay in disparate piles. Her shoes were lined up on the flagstones. Albie passed her hairbrush from one hand to the other. He saw her fingers tracing the line of her collarbone above her nightdress, and realised that the ash-coloured mark on her stomach had spread. It extended now almost to her neck, and he could see a little of it on her shoulder.
He opened his mouth to say her name, but found he could not make the shape of it. Still looking away from him, she said mutedly, “What about my dress?”
He laid her hairbrush down on the table.
“My red dress. My favourite. It’s not here.”
“I left it in the wardrobe,” he said.
Finally she looked round at him. He had a moment’s impression of her face, full of a light like the last embers of a bonfire, before Joe emerged from the bathroom, towel-drying his hair. Sensing immediately that he had intruded on something, he paused.
“I’m sorry, I’ll just…walk down to the village -”
“No,” said Albie, who felt a weight settle on his chest. “Stay. Please. Stay with me.”
Carolyn turned back towards the window again, and there was a sudden jerkiness about her, as though something in her body had come undone.
Her movements began to change. The first thing that Albie noticed was a lethargy, a shuffling, mechanical slowness in her walk and in the movements of her hands. In the garden she could barely kneel, let alone lift her trowel to dig. Her fingers seemed to have forgotten themselves. She could no longer help clear up after dinner. China mugs slipped through her flimsy grasp to shatter on the floor. Her neck ceased to support her head, which drooped as though part of a broken clockwork toy.
She fell quiet. In her nightdress now, always, she took to sitting the day out amongst her sweet peas and begonias. Albie and Joe propped her in a chair with a view of the sea, and watched her slow eyes lift themselves. Her skin was the colour of smoke.
One evening when the last of the light was on the water, Albie went to sit beside her. They watched the tide creep in, buoying up their boat where it was tethered to the rocks. After a while, Albie said, “So, will you be going?”
She didn’t answer. Her grey fingers fluttered.
“You do understand…” began Albie. “I’m trying to understand…that you’re not…here?”
Again she did not reply, and summoning what little strength he had, he went on. “You’re just - what’s here now that what was here has gone. You’re the pain I can still feel in the limb that I have lost. Carolyn - do you understand?”
He saw that tears were flowing silently down her ash-grey face. He could not touch her. But he stayed beside her in the falling of the night.