She put her weight behind the door as she eased the key. One short bang was best. With a bit of luck he’d just turn over and go on sleeping. She fumbled with her anorak zip. God, she was cold, so cold she hoped he had been spread across the bed - as long as he’d rolled back to his own half. But what the heck, she could sleep on the fridge floor, she was so tired. And was, she admitted to the twenty-seven aspects of Jane in the wall mirror, feeling decidedly smug. The nailed gate problem had solved itself. She sparkled at the crazed glass. Behind her smile, fifty-four blue-steel eyes sparkled back. He spun her round.
‘Where the hell have you been?’
Followed by a sub-zero unbreathing hour-crawling nanosecond long enough for her bones to fossilise as her life ground to ashes before her. So, this was it. His vice grip would snap collarbone and shoulder blades, go on to shatter tibia, fibula, femur, sacrum, sternum, take out the lumbar vertebrae one by one until she crumpled into the carpet, her amoeba-existence seeping through the floorboards, drip-feeding the culture spots of algae under Heather’s reindeer skin rug. So what? Let him. Let him smash her skull against the wall, swing her neck until it snapped, shake her till her eardrums burst – she heard the geese cry out as, one by one, their necks were pulled. With open eyes she saw them hanging, wide-beaked and silent. No longer could she feel fingers piercing bone. His hands were not on her flesh but theirs. She felt nothing except the death-screw of twisted skin and feathers...
‘Dear God, Jane!’ as she gagged and rasped.
‘Dear God, Jane!’ as his arms slid round her, keeping her from buckling, getting her to the bedroom. He laid her down, tucking her legs under the covers.
‘Ssh,’ stroking her hair, ‘it’s all right, I’ve got you safe,’ kissing her brow, ‘everything’s going to be all right,’ sliding his arms round stiffened shoulders, ‘I’ve been neglecting you lately,’ rocking the rigid body. ‘So busy at work, this CPF deal – which, I now dare say it, is as good as in the bag. I know you’ll be as thrilled about it as I am. I’ve done it, Jane, made Harry realise once and for all he can’t do without me.’ He wrapped her cold-cast torso in a mine-forever hug. ‘He’s asked us over, Friday night, special invite, you know - Elaine and Harry request the company.’
Of Oliver and corpse.
‘Just the pair of us, like we’re always going to be, from now on.’
Except she wasn’t. A corpse had that sure and certain hope there was a chance, however slight, of something better to come.
I’m no angel ... he took her hand and kissed the fingers in turn.
Was she hearing right? Was he finally going to come clean, ask forgiveness? Was this to be a Fresh Start?
He cleared his throat and said it over, so she was sure. ‘I know, angel,’ rubbing the back of her hand against his cheek, ‘things have been – difficult, these past few weeks.’
He lowered the hand and gave her the Intent Look, full face. One of his eyes, the right one, only to her it was his left – the usual problem: people saw things differently – was bloodshot in one corner. She was trying to decide which corner, give it a corresponding compass direction from their opposing viewpoints, while he was - stutteringly for Oliver - going on about her misconstrued perception of reality – well, anyone would stutter over that - since her unfortunate breakdown (did she realise, by the way, her recovery was down to him?) making her wonder, not only whether SSW was opposite to NNE, but was the annual direct debit to the AA value for money. Maybe it was SWW?
‘From now on, things are going to be different. Let’s call it a fresh start, shall we?’ The bloodshot eye winked. ‘I think we should both take a few days off over Christmas, have some quality time together. We could drive over to your parents -’ he gave the finger-kissing another shot ‘- and show off your ring.’
His tongue circled her left-hand third-along, like it had done once before, an aeon ago.
‘It’s about time we got round to getting one. It’d be a daily reminder of our commitment, if nothing else.’
He squeezed hard, crushing her fingers together.
‘Your choice entirely, angel, though a solitaire’s obviously the best investment. Platinum’s the only metal worth looking at, of course. Over a lifetime it won’t pick up as many marks and any surface scratches can easily be polished over so they don’t show.’
Released from his grip, her fingers remained fused, encircled by a band of drained flesh.
‘Apparently they use a ninety-five percent alloy in jewellery, because of its inertness.’
The hand lay on the sheet, disconnected from any part of her.
‘See, I’ve been looking into it, even though I’ve had so much on. Some people mistake it for silver, but it’s obvious to anyone with any nous that it’s whiter. In fact, I bet there’s nothing you can tell me about it I don’t already know.’
Platinum? Pt to its friends. Probably not. Jane watched the colour return to her fingers. Group 10 on the curling periodic table, pinned behind the shelf of test-tube racks and round-bottomed flasks, their round bottoms firmly wedged in ring-necked tripods. Corrosion resistant. Dense and ductile. Atomic number – what was it? She frowned. She used to know.
Oliver smoothed her brow. ‘Don’t fret, angel.’
Precious and malleable.
‘We’re going to be fine, trust me.’
So much she’d once been sure of.
‘The two of us together, always.’
Now she wasn’t certain of anything. Except that, just by the by, she should leave that litre bottle of Martini, if she happened to come across it behind the bread bin. That at least had been made perfectly clear.
* * * * *
‘So that’s definite, is it? I don’t want to drag us all on a thirty mile detour if you’re going to be out clubbing,’ or whatever someone who had a life did with it. Diane pulled the door shut at the sound of movement from the lounge. ‘You still there, Jane?’
Jane opened one eye to check. ‘Yes.’ Still there.
‘And you’ll be in?’
‘Yes.’ Still in bed, the way she was feeling. ‘That is - well, it’s not going to be that late, is it?’ She checked the time. God, she should be on her way to work by now. ‘Won’t Stephie be -’ even more of a crabby, demanding little sod than usual?
‘Oh, she can sleep in tomorrow. She’s had so many late nights lately, another’s not going to matter. Besides, she’s dying to see her Auntie Jane – did I tell you she’s got a pressie list as long as your arm? Not exactly sure what time it’ll be, depends on how long it takes him. I couldn’t believe it when he said he had a job in your area today. He’s just on a call-out then we’re setting off.’
‘It’s still a long way out of your way - surely Rob’ll just want to get home after he’s finished work?’
‘Oh, Rob won’t mind.’ Diane reached across to grab hold of the door handle. ‘And I can’t wait to see your little love nest.’ The telephone flex stretched out its curls along the radiator shelf, past the vase of two dozen guaranteed seven days with their lingering aroma of 24-hour petrol and lads-night-out, and across the door frame.
‘There’s not much to see. It’s very ordinary.’
‘Novelty wearing off a bit, is it? Wait till you’re married, then you’ll see – yes, Stephie, I know you can’t open the door - talking of which, when are you actually getting engaged? Mum didn’t know, said she hadn’t heard from you. I think you might ring her every once in a while now you’ve stopped pretending to be a dropout – me too, for that matter. Anyway, I told her, it’s bound to be Christmas – don’t do that, Stephie, you’ll mark the paintwork - so we’ll see it when you come over.’ Diane pressed a hand over her left ear and the receiver closer to her right. ‘Speak up a bit.’ She was damned if she was going to pay whatever it was a minute to phone a mobile just for silence. ‘Have you got one yet? I wish I’d bought mine together, you know engagement and wedding as a matching pair.’ Instead of ending up with two that were somehow never quite right together. ‘It’s best to choose one in good time, it’s bound to need altering. And even if you don’t go in for a companion set, get nine carat, same as wedding rings. Otherwise – for goodness sake, Stephie, will you stop scratching the door - they’ll rub up against each other and the harder one’ll wear the other one out - oh, you’re a little mouse, are you? - you’ve got to know what you want, men never have a clue, do they?’
‘Oliver was saying something about platinum,’ though she couldn’t remember exactly what, or when - had it just been this morning? Less than three hours’ sleep ago. Jane stretched a leg into his half, but it was already cold.
‘Platinum? God, you might as well get stainless steel. Don’t let him talk you into something you don’t want – eek, eek, who’s a good little mouse? - it’s so dull, so - spiritless. Did I tell you about this taster day I went on last Saturday – I might do the class next term – all about achieving inner watzit through these seven windows to the soul – Stephie, stop kicking the frigging door - ’ Diane flung it open, yanking the flex to breaking point, and twenty-four nameless blooms hit the dust on the parquet floor.
Jane clicked end call and pulled the duvet over her head.