I slide into the living room and close the door behind me. Like clockwork, I step into my slippers waiting on the floor, remove my tie and sink into the armchair. The television stares back at me from the other side of the room, gleaming as if recently polished. Most of the things in here are gleaming. The window-panes, the fireplace, the old piano. They all sparkle in a conspiratorial manner, attempting to distract me from the fact that actually, the telly is never on, the fireplace hasn’t been lit in months and the lid of the piano is always shut. I wish there was a bit of dust around here sometimes. Something to show the mark of time, the mark of life. It’s like a showroom – perfect but empty, and I’m just part of the display.
Carol sits in her usual seat, with a magazine spread across her lap. She barely acknowledges my entrance. After enquiring mechanically about my day, she returns to leafing through the pages. I watch her as she pushes back a strand of greying auburn hair from her eyes, and the fading light catches the skin of her pale hands. Her fingertips are so delicate and look so soft. I long to see them dancing over the keys of the piano again, instead of flicking carelessly through those pages. I long to hear those melodies, rising and falling and washing over me as I watch her, completely entranced in her work, aware of nothing but the sheer movement of the music.
I snap out of my reverie as Carol looks up at me, cold, questioning, with the magazine still in front of her. The piano is shut. The living room is silent. I quickly divert my gaze to the window behind her. Rain is lightly pattering against the panes, but I can see some final rays of the afternoon’s light breaking through the clouds on the horizon. Watching the distant, golden streams through the blurred glass makes me feel a little less nervous, and I turn to look at Carol again, clearing my throat awkwardly. It’s now or never.
She raises her eyes to mine.
“I think we should go out this afternoon.”
“Out?” She looks puzzled. “Out where?”
“Just for a bit of exercise, get a good breath of fresh air.” I try to sound casual. “Summer’s here and we’re wasting the long evenings.”
“It’s raining,” she says icily, returning to her magazine.
I don’t want to give up again.
“It’s just a shower, Carol.” She looks up again, as if surprised my abruptness, so I try and adopt a softer tone. “The rain will stop.”
She sighs, and agrees to go out. We climb into the car, anoraks in hand, but thankfully the rain has actually petered out and it feels like it’s going to be a warm evening. To my immense relief, Carol doesn’t ask where we’re going and spends the journey staring out of the window. I start to feel very nervous as we draw closer to our destination, and I wonder if she’ll notice where we are. The countryside is thickening around the car, blooming with the freshness of an early summer shower, and one by one the houses are disappearing into the skyline behind us. I can see a little brick building up ahead and my heart begins to thud painfully. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m scared of Carol’s reaction or my own. I pull into the car park and chance a side-glance at my wife’s face.
She sighs, and blinks, as if waking from a dream. She looks up, through the windscreen, and sees the car park, the gate and the little building. She instantly pales.
She turns on me; her lips are bloodless and trembling. For the first time in months her eyes are flashing with that green fire and I can’t help but feel excitement flood my chest as she spits at me in anger.
“David, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” she hisses. “Is his some sort of cruel joke?”
I try to take her hand but she pulls it away vehemently. “Take me home,” she orders.
“No, I won’t. This has gone on too far; it’s time we came back here.”
“To achieve what, exactly, David?” Her hands are shaking. “It won’t bring…it won’t bring anything back, will it?”
Frustration tears through me. “Why can’t you say her name?” I shout, slamming my fist on the steering wheel and making her jump. “Why can’t you use N-”
“Don’t you DARE!” Carol screams as her eyes finally begin to fill with tears. “Don’t you dare say her name!”
I want her to keep shrieking and crying. I want to keep shouting. It sounds perverse, but I feel like we’re coming alive again. My blood is on fire and every cell in my body is screaming for an outlet. I grab Carol’s wrists and wrench her round to face me.
“I have as much right to her as you,” I say, gripping her. “She’s ours, Carol, ours. You need to let this go.” Tears are running freely down her face now, and I reach over to brush one from her cheek. “I’m going to go and face this. I hope you’ll do it with me.”
I let go of her hands and climb out of the car without looking back. The afternoon is sweet and heavy with echoes of the rain as I slam the door behind me and walk towards the cycle shelter. It isn’t long before I hear a second car door and footsteps behind me.
We hold hands as I ask for two adult bicycles. I focus on keeping my voice steady and don’t release my breath until we’re pedalling along the track, side by side. The day is still light with the last of the sun’s rays, but they’re struggling in slants through the thick branches overhead, casting thin bars across our path. I shiver, wishing I hadn’t left my coat in the car. I want to feel the heat of the evening on my skin, but the trees have formed a dense tunnel, and it seems to stretch ahead of us eternally. Tightening my grip on the handlebars, I remember the same journey we made almost two years ago to this day. The shadow of the tunnel had seemed so refreshing then; I just want to escape it now.
Movement to the left distracts me from my thoughts. Carol is picking up speed. I glance over at her and can see that her face is set with determination, completely intent on the path ahead. She leans forward, her back arching gracefully over the handlebars as she begins to pedal furiously. I look and understand with a jolt of anticipation; we’re approaching the hill. Matching her speed, I hold my breath and push forward with everything I have.
We burst out of the tunnel, in unison, and golden light explodes around us. The air is thick with the smell of honeysuckle, and oak, and freshly cut grass, and all I can hear is the wind whipping past my ears as we hurtle down the slope together. I yell out, in fear, in excitement, and now I can hear Carol laughing. Carol’s laughing. Laughing like she hasn’t done in months while her hair comes loose and streams behind her like a banner. She looks incredible. I drag my eyes away from her and focus on the little girl riding ahead of us.
She has long, dark red hair, like her mother, and it’s flying haphazardly underneath a little pink helmet. She screams out in delight as she accelerates; there’s nothing in the world that she’s afraid of. She looks back over her shoulder at me, grinning.
“Come on, Dad!”
This time, there is no crash on the road running alongside the hedge. This time, there are no wheels screeching across tarmac. This time, there is no car hurtling across the field. She freewheels straight past the little pile of flowers left on the side of the road, untouchable, and we follow her, laughing, crying and letting her cycle alone into the distance. Coming slowly to a stop, I watch her as the twilight deepens around us. The evening sings out with crickets, and rustling grass, and life. The whole forest is alive with sunset’s song, totally oblivious to the two quiet figures standing together astride their bikes, holding hands.
“Naomi,” we whisper.