We’d been sleeping in separate rooms for two months. Denise said she needed to get her head straight. I’d moved into my son’s old room and she’d kept our bedroom. Denise said it was only temporary. I took my clothes from the wardrobe and my things out of the bedside table. It was easier, she said. I wouldn’t disturb her as I got ready for work.

I still brought her a cup of tea every morning and she still drank it. Denise left the mug beside the bed when she was finished. Brown overlapping rings marked the wooden floor.

One day I didn’t see it and as I came in to say goodbye, I kicked it against the wall. It smashed. The children had it made for Mother’s Day three years earlier. There was an old picture of them with Denise, taken on our holi- day in Cornwall ten years before, in a heart-shaped frame on the side. The picture was shattered. Limbs and faces scattered across the floor. Denise looked up at me. Her eyes were red. Rolling back under the covers, she turned to face the wall.

‘Come on, Denise,’ I said.

She said nothing.

‘Laura called. She was wondering if you’d meet her for lunch,’ I said.

‘I don’t feel up to it, Richard,’ she said. Her voice was muffled by the duvet. She hadn’t showered in three days.

‘What do you want me to tell her?’ I said.

‘Not today,’ she said.

I used to blame the affair. When people asked me what had happened, I said affair, and they nodded. The men patted my shoulders and the women held me. ‘You poor man,’ they said, and pulled my head toward their chest.

I knew it wasn’t the affair. I forgave her. I myself had had many throughout our marriage – some past girlfriends, a few of Denise’s now former friends, including her then seventeen-year-old cousin, Lindsay, in the back of my van after our wedding rehearsal dinner – and felt some of my guilt allevi- ated by it. No, it wasn’t the affair. Our youngest daughter, Harriet, had just left home, moving in with friends from university and her latest boyfriend, Danny. But it wasn’t that either. It all started when Bobby died.

Bobby was Denise’s childhood love. Her first love. They were together for three years, from the age of fifteen to eighteen, and had lost their virgin- ity to each other. Denise had taken many lovers since Bobby. I was her seventeenth. We told each other our numbers when we got together. I was on ten at the time. But Bobby stuck. He never amounted to much, a bus driver during the day and a cabby at weekends. Yet he was her first and for a woman like Denise that meant something. Bobby committed suicide. He hung himself from an old wooden beam. His parents were away for the weekend. He was meant to be looking after their dogs. When the police arrived at the house, they found an old Polaroid picture of a young woman inside his pocket. They never said who it was.

Two months after Bobby’s death, I called a priest. Denise found Christ in a haemorrhage. She was thirty-two. Harriet had just been born. There was blood. It spilt down the side of the bed and formed a red puddle on the floor. When Denise awoke after surgery, she told me that she had been saved, that Jesus had come down in a cloud of light and blessed her.

‘I can still feel his hand on my forehead,’ she’d said, as a nurse dabbed at her brow with a damp cloth. She had been religious ever since.

The priest came by after Sunday service and talked with her, nodding his head and wrapping his rosary around his fingers. I was sat in a chair in the corner. When Denise finished, the priest stood up and smiled. He told her that what she was mourning was not the death of Bobby, but rather, the death of her naivety toward mortality. The death of this man only made her realise that one day, she would die too. Denise was an orphan. She’d never met her parents. This was her first encounter with death. It didn’t make much sense to me. I never was a religious man.

I left Denise’s room and went downstairs to find a brush. As I passed the debris, her eyes stared up at me from a shard of porcelain. The wrinkles were less obvious in those days. I couldn’t see the rest of her face. Some pieces had slid under the bed. When I returned, Denise was still facing the wall. I swept up the shattered mug and tipped it into the bin in the corner.

‘I’ll see if we can get another one made,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t see it,’ I said. ‘You really should have put it on the side. But, like I said, it was an accident.’

‘It doesn’t matter, Richard,’ she said.

Denise sat up and ran a hand through her hair. It was turning grey. It used to be blonde but had faded in the last few years. A loose blue vest top covered her chest. The logo of the gym which she used to be a member of was in the centre of the fabric. I’d cancelled her membership a week earlier. She hadn’t been in months. Beneath the vest, I could see her collar bone. Denise looked at me.

‘I’m off. I’ll be in later,’ I said. ‘Make yourself something.’ ‘Goodbye, Richard,’ she said.
I shut the door behind me.

I went to the pub, walking in as Guy, the landlord, was setting up the bar. He looked up and smiled.

‘Morning, Rich. How you faring today?’ he said.

‘You know, so, so,’ I said.

The pub was called The Queen’s Head. It was an old building that dated back to the late nineteenth-century. The decor hadn’t been changed since the eighties. The air smelt of stale beer and felt old, not wise, as if a thou- sand other problems, much worse than mine, had been drunk or were wait- ing to be drunk away.

‘The usual?’ Guy asked.

‘Please,’ I said.

He handed me a pint of lager and I gave him the money. I walked over to a seat in the corner, put my drink down and picked up a newspaper from the table next to mine.

The headline was another scandal – a politician claiming expenses on a second or third home. A subheading in the corner grabbed my attention. TRAGEDY ON THE TUBE.

A young couple had been murdered. So much death, so close to home. Since Bobby’s suicide and Denise’s depression, it seemed to surround me. How did I become so haunted? When did we become so lost? Things be- tween us hadn’t been good for a while. And now three children and twenty- five years later, we were in too deep. So what did we do? We drank our tea, went about our days and returned to our separate beds.

Denise was once beautiful and I handsome. She’d wake up early every morning to make me breakfast before I went to work. After our second child was born, our son Alex, she started getting up after I had left. She was tired and I understood. But some part of me regretted the loss of what we had. We weren’t dead yet. Why should we sleep apart? Why should we be alone?

I finished my pint and left the pub. As I walked along the street, it started to rain. Water trickled down the sides of my cheeks. I reached the front door and stopped. It hadn’t changed in the twenty years since we moved in, still dark red with the gold coloured knocker and number nailed on at the side. Sixteen. At the bottom, the paint had peeled away revealing the pale wood underneath. Denise had asked me to paint it but I’d never found the time.

I put the key in the lock and turned. It opened. The house was quiet. I stepped inside and shut the door behind me. Slipping off my shoes, I climbed the stairs. Photographs of the family staggered up the wall alongside me. I stopped outside Denise’s door and listened. All was quiet. I went inside.

The room was dark. The curtains had been pulled, a lamp on top of the dressing table, the only source of light. Shadows stretched across the car- pet. I approached the bed. Denise sat up.

‘What’re you doing back?’ she said.

I ignored her. Sitting down on the side of the bed, I took off my shirt. Den- ise lay back down and turned away. I undressed, folding my clothes and placing them in a pile on the floor. Peeling back the covers, I slid into the bed. I was naked. It was warm. Denise said nothing.

Reaching out with the tips of my fingers, I touched her side. She flinched. Her skin felt dry. I edged closer. She didn’t pull away. I wrapped my arms around her waist.

‘You alright?’ I said. ‘I’m okay,’ she said.

‘Would you like to get up now?’

‘No,’ she said.

As I held her there, my mind drifted to Bobby and the old picture he died with. It was Denise, the police didn’t say as much, but it had to be. He was her first. He’d had her in her prime, when her skin was still smooth and moist. I wouldn’t have changed places with him. It wasn’t that. In my eyes, I had inherited a land savaged by conquest. In the early years peace brought us happiness, but as the decades went by and the stretch marks grew, un- healed scars resurfaced, their shadows forming in the folds between dress- ing gowns, in the shadows behind closed curtains. And there we were, two bodies lying in the darkness together. She’d conquered me in those first few years. I loved her wholly, with everything I had. But as her first encounter with death proved, she was conquered long before I met her. And so we slept and as I slept I dreamt of Bobby, hanging by his neck from the old beam in his parent’s house: his podium. He was laughing.

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