Anna Jean Hughes
She picked up her knife and unzipped a cucumber. The seeds smelt plump and fresh. Mayflies daisied in front of the open kitchen window, strawberries bled out in a colander and upstairs he was entertaining himself.
She heard a roll of noise, castors against wood, and then a crash.
‘What are you doing?’
The silence questioned itself, followed by another bang. She should go get him, but she wanted time to herself. Two more minutes.
‘Seriously, what are you up to?’
This was said lightly and with two syllables, as if No had fallen in love with Yes. She looked up at the ceiling, tracking the thumps of his feet. They walked out of his room and across the hall into hers.
‘I’m going to count to five.’
A hopeless threat. He didn’t know five. She tried to remember if she’d locked everything away that morning, but a heavy smash answered that question.
She slapped greenwet frowns into a salad bowl, ran the knife through a cloth and shut it away in a drawer. When she got to the bannister the silence barked at her.
She took on complaining stairs until she saw him framed in her door, squatting over the gutted remains of her only wedding photo. When he turned to look at her his face was blank, fat fingers still worrying at the shattered glass on the floor. Afternoon sun streaked in through the open window and all of it glittered. She felt anger bloom, fingers full of grip. For a split second she wondered if he might ever step up onto the low sill and fall out into the sky. Then she saw the ribbons of blood that curled over his hand and onto the rough wooden floorboards. That would stain. The cut was on his thumb, deep and sickle-shaped. He flinched as she put it into her mouth. When she sucked at it she could taste the thick, red brass of him.
He heaved in a breath, plonked himself onto his bottom and said, ‘That was silly.’
She smiled at the phrase. He used it a lot. Sometimes in apology––after he whacked her in the face, or when he filled his trousers in the supermarket. At others it could almost have been used as a joke, though she couldn’t be sure. Everything he did was silly.
Downstairs she sat him at the table and plated up chopped sausages, salad and a crosshatched potato bristling with salt. Once the food was down he separated everything, until there was a centimetre of space around everything. She could tell that the dribble of dressing from the salad was bothering him and she watched him trouble it out while she squirted hotdog mustard all over the scalding sausage in her fingers.
It was forty minutes until bed.
She clicked the kettle on boil and saw a blue butterfly prance through the window. It landed in the clean sink. Without thinking she picked up the rumbling kettle and poured scalding water over it, watching pigment flow from its wings.
While he was busy she closed the house against the dark.
She was awake and remembering. She’d dreamt of the Amalfi Coast again. They’d rented a red car without a roof and started in Naples. She’d worn a silk scarf tucked over her copper curls and felt like somebody else. Jude’s job as a travel journalist had meant an open door to the old palaces of princes and the seats of long-lost families. Everything was gilded and petalled and drenched with a heavy papal smell. By the night of their first day she had been sunblasted by freckles and he’d counted each one with his lips. Later he made her cry out into a chintz sodden bolster.
Back on the road the next morning the lanes were dripping with oranges and lemons, their blooms both tart and sticky. Sweet enough to make her mouth water. They had stopped in a layby to buy figs from a burnished old man in an apron, then raced on to a 13th century church that had been carved out of cliff-faced caves by monks. Progress had turned it into a hotel. In the candle-lit gloom of their room she had mashed fig after fig into herself and watched Jude’s eyes dance as he ate them hungrily from between her legs. When she came the cavern walls caught her cries and flung them back to her, causing her entire body to blush pink.
That had been nine years ago. And then her life had left her. She was a middle-aged mother and she had never wanted any of it. She knew what children were––to never do nothing again. It was one of the reasons she had picked a man who’d had so many before her. He was the first man she’d been with that hadn’t wanted to fill her with babies. And here she was in the stone hours of the morning, waiting for noises from his room.
She preferred to be awake than awoken.
She risked turning on to her side, feeling the springs of their marital bed crackle. She held her breath. These rubbed nights were worn thin and she wondered where he was now, how much of him was left. She had stopped trying to talk to him months ago and instead spoke only to this child.
Outside in the garden something died with a tiny shriek and she scrunched herself hard into the covers. Her heart racketed and to trick herself calm she started to squeeze each muscle, one after the other, toes first, then thighs to thumbs, clenching, relaxing, until she reached her mouth. There she found the pillowsoft puff of a blister against the inside of her top gum. She explored it with her tongue. Her head said hot sausage and she barked a laugh, then tensed, waiting.
There was a thunk from his room. Turning her head she clocked the minute and hour; 3:34 was no time to start the routine, but now that he was awake he wouldn’t sleep again.
She watched from her bed as he shuffled past the door, head down and shoulders hugging his ears.
He had managed to get his nappy off again.
The house had been her father’s, though she had never lived in it with him. It was a biscuit box––all thatch with shy heads of wisteria weeping down its face. When her dad had died it seemed only right that she move them somewhere bigger, somewhere remote, where there was little chance of him wandering into the street and disappearing in a flood of strangers.
It seemed remarkable to her that she worried about such things, when all she wanted was to be rid of this.
Motherhood for her had started with the term ‘mild cognitive impairment’. The moment she knew was with the wet wipes. He kept some in the car to wash petrol off his hands. He’d no doubt used them on one of the four children he’d had with his first wife. He thought them magic, would use them to rub at biro marks on the couch, or coffee on his jacket, convinced that it would work out the stain. She’d watched him at the pump in the oval of the wing mirror as he wrenched open the end of the wet wipes with a squelch, only to turn them over and look at the resealable window.
‘That was silly.’
And it was.
So was the time that he indicated left and turned right on the A road near Chichester, pushing a motorcyclist into the verge.
It was a more than bit silly when he kept forgetting the death of his first wife, or the name of his second child. But worse was when he forgot hers. It was the last name to go, so that was something. The first word was toothpick. Teeth had become keys, the bath was a claw, and her hair was grey now.
In the kitchen she contemplated his death while stripping the string skirts off husks of corn. Progress was slow; the doctor said he was sorry. How could she play the grieving widow when what she will have lost was a child?
She was losing a lodestone.
He was losing at death.
She turned to look at him hunched over on his chair as he worried at mad bogbrush eyebrows that ruined his beautiful face.
She smelt fig leaves.
‘Jude, who am I?’
He didn’t look up, only tapped the toes of his brogues together and said, ‘I don’t know, but I love you.’
Anna Jean Hughes is a freelance editor. She had a brief fling with the Erotic Review, a minor assignation with Peters Fraser & Dunlop and a long and complicated relationship with Penguin Random House.
In 2014, she set up The Pigeonhole —an acclaimed social reading app that has been nominated for the London Book Fair's Digital Innovation Award. In 2015, Anna was named The Bookseller's Rising Star.