Michael Thompson sat in his car and stared vacantly through the windscreen. Snow beat down on the roof, echoing loudly inside the small space. He could see his wife sitting at the kitchen table, framed by the large window. The room was lit up, while the rest of his home sat concealed in the evening’s shadows. She had already seen him waiting in the driveway; she saw him every night and had come to expect it. Just like he expected to haul himself inside to eat dinner in silence, to spend the evening in separate rooms, to work, to read, to watch different televisions.
This evening was unlike all the others. Michael pulled himself into the hallway, both shoulders hauled inwards and his head dipped down. She didn’t wait for him to go into the kitchen, to kick off his shoes or to ask how her day was.
“Michael?” She lingered in the doorway. He watched as her mouth stretched open and snapped shut. Her lips twitched with built-up strength. “There’s nothing keeping us here” she said.
His coat was too large for him now, the bulk made him resemble a fat brown cow. Michael unhooked the three oversized buttons and slid it from his shoulders without effort. He kept wearing it because it was expensive; his colleagues noticed the things that were valuable and the things that weren’t.
“America is a huge market. This is a brilliant opportunity for me.”
Michael hung the dripping material on the iron stand they had bought from an auction house last January. She had loved its ostentatious detail, so he had pretended to as well.
“We should call Pete. Cancel dinner tomorrow” he said.
“Michael, do you understand what I’m saying?”
He didn’t listen to her words, but felt the rot that crept beneath his coat and burrowed its way into his skin. It swam through his veins, causing hairs to stand up and muscles to tense.
“Do you understand what I’m asking?”
It was like a poison that dried his mouth and accelerated his heartbeat. The smell of overcooked lamb burnt his nostrils as he moved toward the kitchen.
“The radio said it’ll get worse over the weekend. Some homes further north are being evacuated.”
“Michael. I really need you to listen to me. I understand this must be hard.”
“Something about the El Nino cycle? I don’t know.”
Anna brought her hands up to her face, cupping her cheeks between her red fingernails.
“Michael, please” she said, the noise muffled in her palms.
He pushed past her in the doorway into the kitchen. She had already placed a bottle of golden single malt on the table, along with his favourite glass tumbler. A wedding gift. It had a natural slope and several large bubbles trying to escape the thick base. Michael picked it up and rolled it around in his grip. It wasn’t the decoration, but the faultless balance it possessed in the hand that he liked. He let each finger extend- pausing to feel the muscle stretch- until it was sat on his flat palm, which he twisted with a flick of the wrist. The glass split as it hit the new stone floor that had cost his whole bonus.
He heard her familiar gasp behind him and imagined how she might raise her right hand to her mouth, thin fingers bent. Michael carried on towards the red Rayburn stove and took the lid off the bright orange casserole pot perched on top. Lamb stew. Every Thursday. He picked out a lump of overcooked, floury potato and rolled it between his fingers.
“This is crap.”
“If you had come home when you said you would…”
“And I can control the bloody weather now can I?”
“I’m just saying, it’s not my fault.”
Michael switched on the kettle and picked up the salt cellar. He sprinkled flakes over the stew with his hand up at a height, so he could see the white mineral fall before it disappeared into the brown sticky sauce. He added black pepper, a stock cube and boiling water. Along the windowsill- carelessly tiled in blue and green- were pots of herbs. Some heads were bushy, some like bare trees growing up from the soil. Michael opened the drawer and observed the stack of stainless steel knives, recently sharpened with matching thick black handles. He thought of feeling the ungainly weight in his grip, and the keen edge of the blade. Instead he picked up a pair of scissors. Two cheap, blunt blades in blue plastic. Michael snipped the heads off several of the plants, catching a glance at the heavy snow outside, before sprinkling them into the pot.
“At least it might be edible now” he said.
“There’s no need to be nasty, Michael.”
“Is there not?”
Anna sat at the table. Her dark hair was tied back into a bun, framing her bare face. When they were young she had made the effort to curl and gloss the strands. She had used lipstick and had shaved her legs every day. They talked, not just about dinner or the weather but about the important things. They had sex. She whispered her secrets, he spoiled her.
Michael took two glasses from the cabinet above the stove, and was careful to avoid the shards as he padded across the floor. He sat in the chair opposite her and poured the ochre liquid into each tumbler. Half full. They both took short sips as they stared at the ground between them.
“I’m sorry” he said to split the silence.
“Ok” she said.
He lifted a cigarette from its white packet and held it between his lips before hovering the lighter’s flame in front of his eyes. His breath forced it to flitter briefly.
“You can’t always look at it like this, Michael.”
He lit the end of his cigarette and inhaled a gulp of smoke that enhanced the burning tip. He puffed his chest steadily, before it collapsed back.
“Look at what?” He said.
“At life. As unfair.”
“And you don’t think it’s unfair?”
“Well, yes. It can be, but at some point you have to move on. It’s been a year.” Her face widened, drawing attention to the lines that spread out from her eyes, the dark circles and the red puffiness. Her olive skin had lost its glow. “Or don’t. But you need to decide if you’re prepared to make this work” she continued, crossing her arms tightly, unaware of how it pushed her breasts skywards so that they appeared like half-moons above her pink scoop neckline. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t come, Michael.”
“Yes you would.” He felt her words more as a warning than a release.
“If you can’t forgive me I need to know. I’ve had enough, you have to start talking to me” she said, watching the snowfall hit the window. It made dense strikes against the glass.
“I don’t know, Anna. I don’t know what’s best.” Michael studied her face. Her once plump lips were now just a narrow, pale line across her face. His cigarette was smoking close to its tar stained stump. Anna reached for his packet across the table and removed two, handing another to Michael. She held hers in her svelte hand- turning it around- before she bothered to search for a lighter in amongst the glasses, flowers, whisky and yesterday’s empty wine bottle.
“What does that mean?” she asked as she watched him crumple his used cigarette into the glass ashtray with the base of his thumb. “Do you still love me Michael?”
He hesitated for a moment, then gave her a smile that was turned down at the sides. “Of course.”
They both knew he wasn’t sure anymore.
“Even after this?”
“Of course” he replied instantly, expecting the question this time.
Anna’s lips curled back into her mouth as she stubbed her half smoked cigarette into the glass ashtray. Her chipped and painted nails were too long; they dipped themselves into the spread of ash.
“Could you have ever loved two people, Michael? Like, really loved them? Had the right time for them?” she asked.
“Why are we doing this, Anna?”
“I tried. Tried to love two people. I love you Micky, that hasn’t changed.”
“This isn’t going to help anyone, Anna. It’s done now, it’s not going to change anything.”
He stood up from the table and looked around the room. Six years of marriage had created this. The pots, the pans, the cups and the food in the fridge. Every knife and fork and spoon. The tiger loaf in the bread bin. The cookery books, the diet magazines, the rioja wine, the cheese board and the unused pasta machine under the sink. Their lives had become messy and entangled and routine.
Michael spooned the stew into two bowls with an olive wood ladle. Soft purple onions and lumps of potato sat in the puddle of nut-brown liquid, which splattered up the sides of the sides of the blue Denby cereal bowls. He chose them because it was all he could remember owning before he had met Anna. Only two had survived from the set of six, and each breakage had been a crack into his memory.
“Can I have one of the bigger soup spoons?” she asked as he moved towards the cutlery drawer, balancing the two bowls. He took out two teaspoons. She looked at him with annoyance- he recognised the way her eyebrow raised slightly and her face tilted- but she said nothing.
The stew was too thin. He had added too much water, he decided. She had probably wanted it to be thick, so they could eat it with the French loaf she had already hacked into slices. He avoided the crusted end and dipped a soft wedge into the liquid anyway.
“You’re punishing me.”
“That’s ridiculous, Anna.”
They finished eating in silence. The strings of lamb were tough, and he had to keep drawing them out from between his teeth.