I stopped talking at the dining table on a Monday in 1985; it was our fifth wedding anniversary. I remember the rain lashed against the apartment windows. The windows were open and I could smell the petrichor that often accompanies summer rain. You asked me if I wanted coffee. I nodded in response. Sugar? I nodded. Milk? Another nod. You frowned. Cat got your tongue? I shrugged. Rather the cat than you, I thought. Then I felt guilty. I always got a little paranoid at that time of year – looked behind me a few more times than usual, tried to make eye contact with everyone who passed me on the street so I wouldn’t be caught out like my parents were – so perhaps the rage I felt towards you wasn’t completely you own doing.
You attempted conversation again that evening. The rain still lashed down. My shoes, tights, coat, were all soaked when I walked through the door. I had just dried off when I laid the table for dinner. You asked me about my day, about my colleagues, my best friend. I turned away and busied myself carving the meat, draining the potatoes. You watched me the entire meal, jabbing your fork at the plate rather than your food several times. I resisted the urge to laugh, to soften the atmosphere. Did you enjoy walking to work in the rain? I stood up, collected the plates, the cutlery, the glasses. I knew you knew I’d enjoyed walking to work in the rain. Umbrella up, brogues in puddles, a twirl here and there much to the consternation of the people I passed. I was mid-twirl when I first caught sight of you a few rainstorms ago. You, collar up, eyes down. A suitable distance away. I didn’t bother to stop, wait for you. You were at work, weren’t you? No one likes being disturbed when they’re working.
In other parts of the apartment, I would speak in monosyllables. Yes. No. If you asked me something I didn’t want to answer I’d pretend I was asleep or interested in the television, a book, my fingernails. But you knew what I was thinking: how to scale a wall, border guards with guns, a death strip, another wall. I made the mistake of confiding in you once, of thinking wedding bands meant shared goals – a car boot, a tunnel, a midnight swim across the Spree. It was your turn to not speak, to feign interest in the television, your fingernails. I sat, staring at you, at the lines about your eyes, the stubble on your cheeks, awaiting a response. I looked for answers in the tapping of your fingertips on your thighs, felt like I didn’t so much as blink, until you decided it was time to go to bed and I cried, alone, flannel balled in my mouth, in the bathroom.
When you left for work the morning after our fifth anniversary, slightly earlier than usual, a friend told me she’d seen you on her way to the office sitting on a park bench with a man she didn’t recognise. Were you telling this man about me, about my silence at the table, on the settee? Or were you simply having a chat with a colleague, a new friend? I convinced myself it was the latter but still held my tongue at home. I stopped looking back when walking to work. I only dreamt about going West and woke up to damp skin and sheets. I shrugged when I opened my parents’ Christmas parcels, sent from Bonn and filled with treats we would never find in the shops here, feigned apathy as I decanted the chocolate and biscuits into the cupboards. I let you hold me, love me, when the loneliness got too much.
You accepted the stilted nature of our marriage until the middle of November 1989 when we went our separate ways. I watched you leave the apartment, two suitcases, one in each hand, and a satchel slung across your torso, and wondered if my paranoia had ruined it all. I considered calling you back, but instead I uprooted the apartment searching for a hammer. I only had to hit the kitchen wall three times before the plaster cracked and revealed the wires I knew had been there all along.
Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in The Cabinet of Heed, MIR Online, Barren Magazine, The Nottingham Review and Mslexia. Her first novel, The Duties of Women, will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.