It had not been a terrible argument.
That was what irritated her. She mulled her hands in the bowl of hot water as if mimicking the movements of her thoughts – disturbed and aimless. The cigarette clenched between her teeth scattered occasional ash which fluttered vaguely on the surface before being immersed itself. She was washing the dishes, heavy in their crafted stone, from which they had eaten, ceremonially, almost unfeelingly. She fondled the fork from which he had eaten only moments before with a kind of triumph – as if smearing any significance of his into the metal. Bright little shards shone tellingly.
Her husband was poised upon the chair in the corner, engaged in an evident display of watching her. He too was irritated. The cigarette seemed thin and insubstantial in his hand – somehow summative of all that was happening to him. He inhaled and exhaled at strange intervals as if purposefully avoiding his breath mingling with hers – instead ejecting the occasional trail of smoke which he allowed to flow from almost reluctant lips. He tried to think about what he had done wrong. He noticed that the angle of her sharp little head, even the way she stood in her bare feet with the insteps slightly raised and her back to him over the sink, seemed accusative.
She turned suddenly in a way that made the hair bristle on the back of his neck.
“Will you be wanting desert?”
He struggled to contain himself – her voice was obnoxious to him, its mocking impersonality, the sing-song of the stripped-down artificial timbre of a shop worker. ‘Will you be wanting it in a gift bag?’ ‘Will you be wanting it to take home?’ – Yes, her speech was so painfully reflective of the external world. For she could go around, amass experiences, objects, noises, whatever she wanted – and then return to him, indifferent. The very life in her voice seemed to score incision after incision in his creased brow, his black eyes which burned in the shadow beneath –
‘Quit staring at me, Hugh. I’m asking you a question!’
That voice again.
It angered him and all he managed was a non-committal, mechanical nod of the head. Why? Why not? Whether he ate or not at present meant little to him – for it was just a momentary occupation, as everything else. Or nearly everything else. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the fire was burning low and hissing a dull orange in the grate. It was customary for him to get up and restore it, but tonight he allowed the dull assemblage of his body to remain passive, thinking that it might irritate her enough in order for them to have a real argument. There was something in her silence, the half-fondness of her movements, which disturbed him.
‘It’s in a tin I’m afraid – all we have is tinned. Will that do for you? Will that do?’
He clocked onto an almost hysterical note in her tone, the words arriving at his ears somehow broken and dissembled. What was tinned and why did he care if it was? Images of cold, damp metal seeped into his thoughts, and he moved his hand onto his knee as if manoeuvring a great weight. It sure was cold with that fire dying out.
He nodded again.
Slap, slap, slap. Her bare feet on the stone crossed pugnaciously to the pantry, past the mantelpiece and its emphatic array of cosmetics, past the stopped clock which still hung on the wall regardless of its stunted face. Slap, slap, slap. She returned with a dark circular tin of currant cake and a blunt knife – a knife they both used often, peeling and slicing overripe and swollen vegetables in the kitchen customarily on a Sunday afternoon. But it was the evening now and it was cake. Hugh attempted to remember what he had just eaten, but could not. All he could remember was a chilled congealing quality to mouthful after superfluous mouthful, his eyes fixed as if caught in the suspended strands of her hair, watching that triumphant little smile.
She was still smiling as she opened the tin. Deft circular movements with the tin opener – quick and determined from the wrist. She paused half-way through her manoeuvring, as if to gauge his attention. There was something sensual in the way she held her hands, a certain practice to her particular movements. She seemed to breathe a little louder than usual. The tin slid slightly against the marble surface and prevented him from drawing any kind of clear conclusion.
‘Unable to get out..?’ the radio drawled in a fusty monotone. An advert for stair lifts. It must be awful, bent and clawed in one’s own home, Hugh thought absently. The sensation of shuffling under the suffocating weight of one’s own mortality – the prospect sickened him slightly. A sickness which swayed to his stomach as his eyes still remained fixed on her movements – watching her prise away the lid of tin with a mechanical kind of precision. She drew a curved nail down the inside of the lid and tasted the scraping of cake.
She did not say anything.
When people became too sick, physically, metaphorically, whatever, they might be in need of a stair lift. The concept seemed suddenly highly logical to Hugh. Their house didn’t have stairs. But then again it was a thought, just as everything nowadays was a thought – even those wild wandering thoughts of his as he recalled her hands, the hands that had once held his, becoming leering, clenched almost cat-like, clawing away from him. He saw it happen when he slept sometimes. The chair he sat on had that half-baked smell of sleep. Then again, its cover probably hadn’t been washed since he last fell asleep on it, the time when she had locked herself in the bedroom and raised up a cold-blooded cry every time had approached the door. But what had terrified him about the cry was not that it was a cry of sadness – it was a cry of anger.
Over time, the anger had seemed to seep through her skin, erupting seemingly when it encountered resistance – whether in screaming, or shouting, slamming doors, even in that horrible little sick smile of hers which shimmered like a wound – or even now, in cutting the cake. The cake was out of the tin now, stripped of that perverse metal armouring and somehow naked on the work-surface. She did not even use a board. He envisaged that it was in order to irritate him. Perhaps they might have a real argument.
On the radio voices discussed topics of no particular interest in clear, almost cutting voices. That irritated him too. He would have risen to turn it off with a single jab of the thumb, but his every limb felt weighted as if strung-up by that cord of hostility which shimmered terse between them. He looked slowly, languorously over his right palm, turning it like a slowly cooking piece of meat. The dead stench of mortality. The chiselled grooves undercutting his knuckles stretched with every experimental contraction of his fingers. These hands that had gathered her hair in its sweet weight, these hands that had felt her skin and traced symbols which he once believed to have great meaning against her spine. His hands felt alien to him.
Smack. The knife struck the marble with painful bluntness. The deliberate weight of her palm guiding the motion thrilled Rachel somewhat, and she smiled with a smile that was intended for herself with a secret excitement which smouldered on the surface of the skin. The first piece of cake. She pinched it between her thumb and index finger like one pinches flesh and transferred the piece to a porcelain bowl. The dark cake, almost black at the edges looked like a hammered piano key set on a cool expanse of white. Such an inference of musicality set a stream of low humming under her breath – a personal private sound she knew made Hugh wary. It was evident in his eyes as she handed him the cake.
‘ Thank you.’ He managed, the two words feeling monumental and somehow gross against his tongue, as if still stuck in the gullet. It was like some great admission, or confession had occurred.
Not that she would have cared, he thought. His eyes never left her as she resumed her place stubbornly behind the work surface, scissoring herself a corner of cake so the knife never touched the stone, feeding herself with her free hand. She seemed to relish the opportunity to become an exhibit, yet an exhibit lacking any kind of accessibility to him. It was the same hand sticky with cake which she allowed to tease slowly, tremulously through her long brown hair, bringing it away from her eyes – her eyes which looked not at him, but over his shoulder into some unexplainable distance. Something else, someone else. The very premise of possibility sickened him, and he scooped the cake up to his mouth with an intended aggression.
A cake that seemed to silt to powder at his touch. It collapsed and crumbled against his lips – an initial sweetness followed by the ominous acidity of almonds or long-steeped fruit – black and bodiless.
Some of the crumbs caught in his sweater, others fell to the floor with a sound that was still perceptible, despite the radio. The cake in his mouth seemed steeped with holes, as if unstable from the inside, and yet almost torturous, such air siphoned from his nose and mouth as if the very act of eating suffocated him. He gagged a little, a hot pulse of perspiration across his forehead, silent and desperate and somehow ridiculous. Perhaps that was what Rachel thought of him – that he was ridiculous – an onlooker choking over the essence of her life. The currants bled their heavy fragrance into his mouth, and he gagged again over the cake – cold and swollen inside, and yet parched through, like funeral-baked meats.
He watched her cut another corner and eat it with a cat-quite quality, with tight almost imperceptible movements of her mouth. Perhaps she was laughing at him, perhaps with the unhinged stare which she held apart from him, aside him, she was laughing at him. Laughing laughing laughing. He made an attempt to get to his feet.
‘Just sweet enough,” She said suddenly, her voice doused with reflection, her eyes glittering with pronunciation. Her pupils pulsed on emphasis, her hot palms flat on the marble surface.
‘It’s just sweet enough. The cake. I’m glad they didn’t ice it, I hate the stuff.’
He remembered, though he couldn’t remember the actual event in question, how her nails had unhooked the icing and almond paste from the top of a piece of fruit cake, the dark lacquer of her nails staining that brilliant white. Those long lacquered nails, he remembered them, how they unnerved him. They were lacquered now too, reflecting the little stains of halogen light which seemed to pepper everything, her hair, her skin, her teeth. He felt suddenly incredibly, insanely jealous, a jealousy ceasing him with a slight through the stomach. The semi-recognition of the feeling which had stunted him for so long drew speech in a kind of catharsis.
‘I think you..’ He began.
His speech was severed, causing his breath to bubble in the back of his throat, by the shrill wail of the telephone.
Ring after ring.
A sick single tone which seemed simultaneously mocking and ridiculous, intimate in a domestic kind of way and yet also mysterious in a way he had never noticed it before – squealing from its dark alcove through the lounge door and under the stairs.
“That’ll be for me,” Rachel announced with a decisiveness which bit him, yet the unintentional rhyme and sweet tone which accompanied it made Hugh feel that it was the most affectionate thing she had uttered all day.
Affection that was not for him – but for another perhaps. The remaining cake felt moist and unhealthy in his hand, like damp skin, residue clotted on his tongue. He rose to his feet swiftly as if attempting to escape a kind of physical entrapment, the chair clattering his shed skeleton against the floor. Shaking, his eyes burned through the opposite wall, seeing her there now, cradling the receiver – the receiver suddenly grotesque in its physical significance, the hand of another, cold and purposeful, rising up to her face, brushing the hair behind her ears…
She stood still with a jolt on seeing him standing when she entered the room. His ugly attempt to manifest power unnerved her –
‘That was just dad calling about… you know, well… having a stair lift fitted.’
The words once again evaded him – striking against his ears painfully, yet nonsensically, spinning with his vision to an expression which made him feel anger, an anger thumping in his breast. He advanced in her direction like a blind animal, words, the very damned things, foaming in his jaw like a rising, swilling sickness .
His hand struck out, towards the mantelpiece and there his body became suspended in a gesture, caught almost like a puppet. Despite having closed the door behind her, Rachel felt more comfortably in power now, surveying with a kind of relief the shattered frame of the man in front of her, always the same. She readied herself for the volley of faltering accusations, which would collapse to apologies and run to remonstrations –
And yet it was his voice, identifiably his in a way it had not been so before, somehow, which suddenly announced:
‘I have found love.’
Declarative rather than accusative. It swilled his mouth with surprise. It seemed to emerge from him almost unconsciously.
Such an odd conclusion to all that had been felt, somehow appropriate. In speech he realised – his hand extended to the mantelpiece, that warped altar to love, piled with cosmetic pots and powders, tall bottles of fragrance which leered pale and translucent like a grotesque parody of naked bodies. Love had become a construct – boxed and bottled and stored, slimed on the tongue and crumbled on the floor – and he had found it, felt it, flushed and finally triumphant –
“And I hate it for –“ He spat in the sudden grip of announcement, looking over the black cake bloody and awful on the cream carpet. ‘- that…’
She cut him short.
“Well then, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know – I’ve found love too.’
Her eyes still looked way beyond Hugh, beyond all he had envisaged.
Behind him, the door opened.