Zoe Mitchell is a twenty-year-old writer from near St Andrews in Scotland. She currently studies English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In her spare time, she runs a baking business, watches rom cons and takes long baths (with plenty of books to read)
A Marriage of Equals
A perfect marriage, they say – though Alice isn’t sure exactly who “they” are – begins with equality. If that’s true, it bodes well for her relationship. She and Bartholomew couldn’t be more equal: they have the same job, the same salary, the same money banked in their retirement funds. They graduated from the same university with matching 2:1s. Both passed their driving tests the following summer. When they got engaged – the summer after that – Bartholomew proposed with no ring. Alice remembers it well: the way he knelt on the grass, the way the dew made stains like green bruises on his jeans. He was covered in stains that day – coffee from the morning, wine from the evening, pasta sauce from the night before. She was so caught up in staring at them that Bartholomew got impatient. “What are you gawping at that’s so important?” he asked. “Nothing,” she told him. He frowned at that. “Well, look me in the face then,” he said. “I’m asking you to marry me, Al. Least you can do is let me see your eyes. I want to see them when you say yes.” For a moment, Alice thought of saying “no”, just as a joke. But Bartholomew had her by the wrist before she could get a word out. “Marry me,” he said again, and held out empty hands. They were dry, Alice remembers – dried-out and gummy, like old, congealed glue. And that was what she was thinking when she said “yes”. Bartholomew nodded. “Good,” he said. And that was that. Alice is at work now, so there really shouldn’t be time to reflect so much on her marriage. But that’s the way of this job. Palliative care is a strange sort of business: there’s a regularity to it, a cycle of sickness, degeneration and death. But the job’s unpredictable too. Some days, she’s on her feet for hours, making milky drinks and feeding old men with warm spoons. Other days, she spends the shift fitting saggy, liver-coloured arms to drips. And sometimes – on days like today – she gossips about Bartholomew with the patients. “It really is perfect,” Alice tells Mrs Cooper. “He’s perfect.” Mrs Cooper raises her brows. She’s a pretty woman, Alice thinks. Of course, it’s a weird thing to say about someone old – as old as all that – but it’s true. Mrs Cooper has thick hair, always combed, and one of those rare smiles that actually looks real. Alice sometimes jokes about how ironic it is: after all, Mrs Cooper has a full set of false teeth. Her smile has no business being so genuine. Right now, though, the grin she’s wearing isn’t quite the same as usual. There’s something, Alice thinks, more than a little incredulous about it. “Your Bartholomew’s perfect?” she asks. She shakes her head, chuckling behind her false teeth. The sound clicks at them. “Not with that hair he’s not. All gelled silly, like those schoolboys have it. He looks like a man-child.” Alice shrugs. “He’s always worn it that way,” she says. “It’s sweet.” Mrs Cooper doesn’t say a word for a moment. Then she cocks her head. “Tell me more about him,” she says. “What do you want to know?” “Oh, whatever. I’m bored, dear. Anything’ll do.” Then she winks. At least, Alice assumes it was a wink – it’s hard to tell for sure through the wrinkles. “Juicier the better, mind. I like to know what’s what with all the staff here.” Alice tries to think of something Bartholomew wouldn’t mind her sharing. “He plays golf,” she says. “What else does he like to do?” “Go to the pub. Watch Netflix.” Mrs Cooper tilts her head some more. “I see,” she says. “He sounds like a right catch.” Alice frowns. She’s not doing him justice, she knows that. Even so, she can’t think what would do him justice. There must be something about Bartholomew that would impress an old lady, something inarguably fascinating. She just can’t put her finger on what. Still, it doesn’t matter: Mrs Cooper’s opened her mouth before she can hash out a reply. “What about religion stuff?” she asks. “Does he go to church?” For a moment, Alice laughs outright. Then she checks herself. “He’s not really a church sort of guy,” she says. That’s an understatement. Alice remembers the first time she talked religion with Bartholomew. They were at dinner, and he asked for her best childhood memory. “I went to London,” she said, without really thinking about it. “I saw this tube train.” Bartholomew lifted his brow and his wineglass, sipping before he replied. “What’s so special about that?” It wasn’t his kind of story – she knew it wasn’t – but she went on and told it all the same. “We were on the platform,” she said, and all at once she could feel the tiles underfoot. Of course, she couldn’t remember which station it was, not after all those years. But she remembered everything else. She remembered the fast-moving crowd, the tight heat of the air, the low ceiling that sloped like a chapel’s. Most of all, she remembered the moment she first saw the train. It had appeared from the tunnel, slotting just so against the roof, speeding past a breath from her nose. She’d stood there and cowered from it, but she hadn’t looked away. She couldn’t. That train was a solid mass of blur, heavy and swift, close and noisy and perfect. Even as she’d stepped back, she’d longed to touch it, just for a moment. She’d been sure, somehow – though, obviously she’d never have done it – that a brush with such power would change her forever. Then the train was gone. The whole thing had lasted just a second. But in that second, Alice knew she’d seen God. When she told Bartholomew about it, he just laughed. “Good one, Al,” he said. And with that, the conversation was closed. But now Alice is dreamy-eyed and Mrs Cooper’s tugging on her arm. “What about you, then? Do you go to church?” “I’ve never really been.” “You should try it once,” Mrs Cooper says. Pushy, Alice thinks. “You want to see if it’s your kind of thing. Would Bartholomew let you?” “He wouldn’t have to ‘let’ me do anything. I don’t go about asking my husband’s permission,” Alice says. She throws in a quick chuckle at the end, just in case she came off too harsh. But Mrs Cooper doesn’t look offended. She’s nodding. “That’s exactly what I mean. It doesn’t matter if Bartholomew’s not a church person: he should support you if you want to try it out.” Alice raises a brow. “What makes you think I want to try it out?” “I’m not just talking about church. The same principle holds for anything, really. A man should encourage his wife’s interests.” “Oh, he definitely does that,” Alice says – though, now she thinks of it, she can’t come up with an example. “But it’s alright, really it is. I’m not a church person either.” And – once she’s banished the roar of the train from her mind – it’s true as well. The moment they’re home from work, Alice heads to the kitchen to start on dinner. That’s the usual way of things. As far as division of labour goes, it makes sense, because Bartholomew’s as far from a cook as you get. Alice couldn’t eat the way he used to in their uni days – a ready meal here, some bad takeout there. She remembers one time she came over, and he’d put five chicken breasts in the oven. Nothing else: just a five-pack of breaded chicken. He plated up two for her, and nodded to himself. “They’re 240 calories each,” he said. “So that’s 480 for you. How much did you eat at lunch? I have wine if you need something else.” It was considerate of him to think of that, Alice had thought at the time. Still: there’s only so much unseasoned meat a girl can eat. So these days Alice cooks and Bartholomew does the laundry. He doesn’t like the way she pegs the clothes on the line, so it’s better this way all round. Equal. They’re nothing if not equal. Over dinner, Bartholomew tells Alice about his day. She knows most of it already, since she was working in the room next to him half the time, but she doesn’t mind. It’s nice to hear his perspective. Near the end of the meal – Bartholomew’s got three forkfuls left, at a guess – he points to the plate. “You know, Al,” he says, voice choked with half-chewed noodles. “You always use the same spices when you cook this.” She does know, but that seems a little pointless to say. So she just puts on her inquisitive face. “It gets dull,” Bartholomew goes on, jabbing at his stir fry with a knife. “You should try something different.” “Like what?” Bartholomew shrugs. “Cardamom. Cloves. Cinnamon. Dill.” Alice knows he’s just naming things he’s seen on jars, but she nods all the same. “Perhaps I’ll pick up something new next time.” “I read this article about MSG,” Bartholomew says. “You should try that.” “I think MSG’s meant to be bad for you,” Alice says. “No, I read good things. It’s not true, all that about it. I read that somewhere.” “Okay.” Bartholomew sips his wine. That was his contribution to the meal. He likes red stuff, but only very particular brands, and Alice isn’t trusted to know which is which. As far as she can tell they all taste the same: sort of like vinegar and sort of like hand sanitiser, but less appetising than either. She prefers cider. “How was work for you?” Bartholomew asks. Alice spools a noodle around her fork. She prefers eating stir fry with chopsticks, but Bartholomew says that’s pretentious, and quite possibly cultural appropriation. Alice doesn’t know enough to argue, so she doesn’t. The noodle makes figure-of-eights around the prongs. “It was okay,” Alice says. “Such a shame about Mr Benson, though. He was a lovely old guy, a real charmer. I feel for his family. He’s got the sweetest wife.” Bartholomew sniffs. “You say that every time one of them dies,” he says. “I feel like we’ve had this conversation a thousand times.” “I don’t know what you mean.” “We talk about this every other day. Someone dies and you get sad, then you go on like they were the greatest being to ever grace the earth.” “I was talking about his wife. And I didn’t say anyone was the greatest.” “You said she was the sweetest.” Bartholomew frowns. “Why are we arguing about this?” “We’re not. Let’s not.” Bartholomew goes on like she hasn’t spoken. “And why are we always talking about death?” “We do both work in palliative care,” Alice says. “It’s pretty par for the course.” “Exactly. That’s what I don’t understand about you, Alice. You see death every day, and somehow you still find something to say about it. Something to be sad about.” Alice doesn’t know how to reply to that, so she doesn’t, for a while. She just smiles and sips at the wine, holding it behind her teeth till she’s sure they’ll stain. She wants to talk more about death. She wants to ask Bartholomew what he thinks about it – what he really thinks about it. “Tell me,” she wants to say. “Do you believe in heaven?” Of course, she doesn’t do any of that. When she swallows at last, she has the perfect response prepared. “I’m so glad you understand,” she says. “It’s such a comfort having a husband who gets the job. I couldn’t do it without you.” And the two of them finish their meal in silence. “You get used to it,” Alice tells Mrs Cooper the next day. Mrs Cooper shakes her head. “I couldn’t. I absolutely couldn’t.” She shudders. “Watching us all drop like flies day after day – it must do things to you.” Alice smiles and checks Mrs Cooper’s blood pressure. It’s normal, today. All’s well. “It’s what I signed up for,” she says. “It’s why you signed up for it I don’t understand,” Mrs Cooper says. “Face it, Alice: none of us want to be here. We want our old lives, our independence. This is a depressing place to spend your days if you don’t have to.” “It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted,” Alice says. And it’s true, mostly. When she started her nursing degree, she didn’t know what her life would look like beyond that. Palliative care wasn’t her idea, it’s true – Bartholomew was the one who picked that field first. But she didn’t take much convincing. In this, like in everything, the two were agreed. “It’d get me worried about the future,” Mrs Cooper says. “I mean, really: could you ever go to a place like this, now you know what it’s like? What if your children put you in a home? How could you stand it?” Alice’s smile strains at the corners. “I don’t worry about all that,” she says. “I live in the moment. Besides, Bartholomew and I don’t want children.” Mrs Cooper makes a movement with her face that might or might not be a raised brow. Alice decides to interpret it as constipation. “Is that your decision?” “Of course,” Alice says. “Not all women want kids.” “It’s not your Bartholomew choosing?” “Couples have to agree about children,” Alice says. It’s the exact phrasing Bartholomew used, on the first date they had after their engagement. “There are four dealbreakers in marriage,” he explained. “Children, money, sex and religion. We have to be on the same page about all of them.” Then he told her what page he was on. Alice nodded her agreement. “Good,” he said. “I’m glad you feel the same. We’re so in sync, Al. It’s crazy.” Her stomach fluttered then, in a way that felt a little like love and a little like doubt. She’d forgotten that feeling till now. “It was a mutual decision,” Alice says now. “We’re focusing on our careers.” “You call this a career, eh?” Mrs Cooper says. When Alice leaves the room, she has to remind herself that Mrs Cooper is a judgmental old bat. Bartholomew’s said it, she’s said it. But when she thinks about the other things Bartholomew’s said, she’s not so sure anymore. So she doesn’t think. She just works, and makes sure to leave the break room when his lunch hour starts. She’s too busy for a mid-shift conversation with her husband today. Tonight, Bartholomew’s out with friends. He and Alice have two evenings of separation each week – it’s healthy, Bartholomew says. Normally, he goes to the pub with friends Alice has never met, or golfs. She doesn’t know where he found these friends, but she doesn’t worry about it. Bartholomew’s always had his own social life detached from Alice’s, ever since university. Besides, it’s not like he insists on vetting her friends. He encourages her to spend time with them. Tonight, for example, she’s supposed to be hosting a whole to-do with wine and cheese. “It’ll be nice,” Bartholomew said when he brought it up. “You can invite the girls over, whatever it is women do on a night in.” Alice nodded, but she was just as clueless as him. “Right,” she said. “The girls.” She almost wanted to ask who he thought “the girls” were, but she didn’t dare. Bartholomew’s never asked about her friends, see. He just assumes she has an entourage of gal pals on speed dial, and Alice has never bothered putting him right. After all, she’s nearly thirty. She can hardly declare utter friendlessness and keep her dignity. Still, Alice doesn’t know how Bartholomew juggles it all. They’ve spent the past decade together, at uni, at work. How he’s found time to acquire an independent circle of friends, Alice has no clue. She’s not sure where she’d summon her own from – old acquaintances from their course? Ex-flatmates? There’s hardly a single person Alice knows who Bartholomew doesn’t. But she doesn’t talk about that. It’s an area of inequality and those, Alice knows, mark the death throes of a marriage. She can live with it just fine. While Bartholomew’s out, Alice stays home and reads. She prefers the company of books anyway, and that’s perfectly acceptable. It’s potential fodder for a Bartholomew-argument, yes – but that’s why she doesn’t bring up her loner tendencies. It isn’t like she’s a proper loner anyway. Between work and Bartholomew, Alice has a very satisfactory social life. Definitely within the bounds of normality. When Bartholomew gets in, late, Alice is in bed with a book. “How was cheese and wine?” he asks. “Lovely,” she says. “How was the pub?” “Golf.” He side-eyes her. “I told you this morning I was going to play golf. What are you implying?” “I’m not implying anything. I thought you mentioned the pub earlier, is all.” “Well, I didn’t. I said golf. And that’s where I was.” He says it sort of like he’s daring her to argue, but Alice supposes she’s adding that subtext herself. She does that. She tries to rationalise the things he says as though they’re things she’s said, which doesn’t work. Bartholomew explained this to her years ago: “You can’t expect my brain to behave like yours. You can’t expect to understand everything about me, Al. There are parts of me that are private. I don’t have to explain myself to you.” “That’s great,” Alice says. “I hope you had fun.” And then she switches out the light. They don’t continue the conversation in the dark. “How’s the sex?” Mrs Cooper asks. Alice stops short mid-blood pressure check. “I’m sorry?” she asks. “Humour me,” says Mrs Cooper. “I haven’t talked about sex for years. Go on, Alice. How is it? I promise, I’m not easily shocked.” Alice isn’t worried about that: there’s nothing remotely shocking about her sex life. “It’s fine,” she says. Mrs Cooper scoffs. “It’s not supposed to be fine.” “That’s not what I meant. He’s a good lover.” This is true. Bartholomew always makes sure things are equal in bed. They do what he wants for five minutes, then what she wants. At first, she remembers, she really had no clue what she did want. But Bartholomew trained her in the basics. “Do you like this?” he’d ask. “This?” After a few minutes of prodding, Alice found the odd thing she could call enjoyable. Bartholomew’s been doing them ever since. “Girls tend to like it when men are rough,” Bartholomew explained, the first time he got her in his room. He pawed at her over her bra, tough grabby motions that made him smirk. She just lay there. “That’s good, right?” “Great,” she said. The thing is, Bartholomew’s only happy in bed when she’s happy. It’s sweet, she thinks: how he watches her so intently, scrutinising her face till she smiles just the way he likes. She’s practiced that smile long and hard for him. That way, everything’s balanced. They click in the bedroom, just as they do in every other area of life. “Go on, tell me the dirty stuff,” Mrs Cooper says. “I want details.” “It’s all just great,” Alice says. “Bartholomew’s great.” “You don’t really call him Bartholomew?” Mrs Cooper asks. Alice looks away, checking Mrs Cooper’s blood pressure readings even though she’s done that twice already. When she first met Bartholomew, he’d insisted she used his full name. Back then, she’d thought it was sweet, a cute foible that marked him out from every Dave and Steve she’d known. She didn’t want to date a Bart, he’d told her. If now – just sometimes – she thinks the “Bartholomew” thing is pretentious, she doesn’t tell him. Such an unnecessary fight. You’ve got to pick your battles in marriage. “Sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable, love,” Mrs Cooper says. “I’m just teasing. And I want to make sure you’re happy.” “I’m so happy,” Alice says. “He makes you happy?” Alice nods. “Bartholomew’s really into female pleasure. He read a book about it. He’s all about feminism, you see.” “I see,” Mrs Cooper says. But she looks almost pitying. She must be confused, that’s all. Men weren’t feminists in Mrs Cooper’s day, she probably doesn’t know what it means. That’s what Alice tells herself as she makes her way to the break room. And when she sees Bartholomew in there – when she turns back to dust the visitors’ lounge – she doesn’t let her smile slip for a second. The visitors’ lounge really doesn’t take that long to clean, so Alice can only procrastinate ten minutes in there. By her third go-over of the counters, Bartholomew’s still nursing his coffee. He’s taking a longer break than usual. He must, Alice supposes, be tired after his late-night golfing. Before she met Bartholomew, she didn’t know the greens stayed open that late – but it’s been his excuse for years now, so she doesn’t question it. Sometimes, she amuses herself imagining him in one of those arcades, playing crazy golf with windmills and helter-skelters. She imagines other possibilities too, of course. But those aren’t so amusing. Anyway, she’s finished the visitors’ lounge now, so there’s nothing to do but start on some other room. Mr Edwards is in the conservatory playing cards, so Alice decides to make his bed. She might get some cleaning done too. Yes, that’s right. She’ll work while Bartholomew muses over his damned coffee. Alice has always been amazed at how long he can make one mug last. He drinks with the tiniest sips, tender, suckling motions that pull coffee in by the drop. There’s something so fascinating about it. If she’d met him for the first time while he was drinking coffee, Alice reckons she’d have assumed he was a great kisser. Such dexterity of the lips, she’d have thought, must be a transferable skill. She finishes making the bed and starts dusting the counter. Bartholomew really is being ridiculous about that coffee today. This is a record even for him. He’s milking it – just because no one’s strict about breaks on the afternoon shift, doesn’t mean he should exploit that. Alice scrubs harder at the counter. She dusts and she thinks, and her head’s filled with coffee and windmills and the memory of their last toothy kiss. She doesn’t notice she’s knocked the vase till it smashes at her feet. As chance would have it, Bartholomew’s the first one to get there. Alice is already on her hands and knees picking up the shards, but he pushes her aside. His touch is rough. “Don’t do that. You’ll hurt yourself.” He collects the pieces in his bare hands and curses when they cut his fingers. Alice just stares. “Bloody hell, Al, are you going to let me bleed out?” he asks. “Give me a hand.” “I’m sorry. I’ll fetch a plaster.” “You can get me a dustpan and brush. Actually, you can sweep it yourself, it’s your mess. I need more than a plaster.” “You don’t think it’s that deep?” Alice asks. “You don’t need stitches?” “Of course I damn well don’t need stitches.” Bartholomew curls his hand into a fist, wincing as the shards bite his tensed skin. “Now see what I’ve done.” He waves at her, and his palm cries redly from the cracks. It seems odd, somehow, that he has so much blood so close to the surface of his skin. Bleeding like that, his dry-glue palm looks less real than ever. Alice stares. “Where’s that plaster?” Bartholomew barks. “Hurry up.” She leaves the room without complaint. On the car ride home, Bartholomew’s still talking about his hand. “You’ll have to drive,” he says, even though Alice has already strapped herself into the driver’s seat. “This palm’s bleeding again.” “Are you sure about the stitches?” “Stop being so dramatic. You’re blowing everything out of proportion,” Bartholomew says. “You made a right scene earlier.” “I think it was you who made the scene,” Alice says. “Don’t you start.” “I don’t want to start.” “Well, you have.” Bartholomew folds his arms. “Don’t act so innocent, Al. You didn’t even try to help me clear up.” “You told me not to. You pushed me out the way.” Bartholomew throws his hands in the air, so hard that blood spatters on the dashboard. “And you say you aren’t trying to start an argument.” “I’m sorry,” Alice says. She’s not, but it’s an easy, familiar lie. It’s so easy, she barely even notices it is a lie at all. “You’re forgiven,” Bartholomew says. He sniffs. “Just have to hope Mr Edwards forgives you. That was an old vase, you know. Sentimental value.” Alice tries to think of a reply – something Bartholomew couldn’t interpret as argumentative. She can’t. “I think we should stop talking about work on our down time,” Bartholomew says. “It only starts fights.” “Right.” “I read about that, somewhere,” Bartholomew goes on. “It’s good to separate home life from work life. No one wants to clock off and do a whole post-mortem of their shift. The only couples who talk about work are the ones who have nothing else in common.” “Right,” Alice says again. She wonders what, other than work, she and Bartholomew do have in common. But she doesn’t ask, of course. Bartholomew would probably go on about her starting arguments again. Besides – even if he were to answer properly, she’s not sure she’d like what he’d have to say. “I’ve ordered you a present,” Bartholomew says, over breakfast the next morning. “To apologise for that argument last night.” Alice is intrigued, but not altogether surprised. Bartholomew’s been prone to bouts of excessive guilt for a couple of years now. “That’s lovely,” she says. “Thank you so much.” “Aren’t you going to ask what it is?” he asks. “I’m sure I’ll soon find out.” And, two days later, she does. At first, Alice isn’t sure what to make of the contraption in her hallway. After staring at it for a good five minutes – and returning all of Bartholomew’s smug smiles – she gives up. “What is it?” Bartholomew’s grin widens. “It’s a wine fridge,” he says. “Do you like it?” If she’s honest, Alice didn’t even know a ‘wine fridge’ existed until just now. But now she does, she’s not sure what to make of the information. All she knows – and this she can say without doubt – is that she’ll never, ever need one. “Where will we put it?” she asks. “In the kitchen, of course. Not like we have a wine cellar.” “But where in the kitchen?” Bartholomew waves her concerns away with the flat of his hand. A couple of plasters flap loose from the skin. “There’s space,” he says. “I thought you’d be happy.” “I am. It was a very thoughtful gift,” Alice says, though it wasn’t and she knows it. “I suppose it works for cider just as well as wine.” “It’s meant for wine,” Bartholomew says. “I guessed. Clue’s in the name.” “Then what are you talking about cider for?” Bartholomew runs his hand back through his gelled hair. As he does, he breaks grooves into his fringe, and the quiff – like a great balding oil spill – collapses. Alice tries to remember when she last found that hair gel attractive. “Set this all up, would you?” Bartholomew says. “I’m going to get takeout.” “I have a casserole defrosting,” Alice says, but Bartholomew just wrinkles his nose. “Don’t fancy it. We’ll get Indian, yeah? Korma and chicken pakoras for you. I know they’re your favourites.” Objectively speaking, Alice hasn’t tried enough of the menu to determine a favourite. But it was what she picked the first time they tried this Indian place, and she had no complaints. It’s sweet that Bartholomew’s remembered her order all these years. He’s always sweet to her, she thinks, as she wrangles the wine fridge into the kitchen. And there’s nothing wrong with buying a present they’ll both use. After all, they’re married. They’re supposed to share everything. Alice can’t find the damned plug for this fridge. She gets to her hands and knees and scrambles about, pulling at wires and sockets and who-the-hell knows what else. Eventually, the wine fridge is plugged in. Alice sets about loading it up, stocking the bottle-shaped cavities with all Bartholomew’s favourites. In a few minutes, he’ll step through the door with bags of Indian food, and they’ll sit at the table together, cracking open a chilled bottle of wine. It’ll be the sort of cosy night that marriages are made of. A few minutes later, Bartholomew steps through the door, bags swinging loopily about his wrists. “Shall we have some wine?” Alice asks. “What sort would you like?” Bartholomew chews over his lip. “The Syrah, I think. That pairs well with lamb.” “You’re having lamb?” Alice asks. “Rogan josh. Thought I’d try something new. And Syrah wines really do go with lamb. There’s a bottle somewhere, I’m sure. We should have that tonight.” Bartholomew dumps chicken korma over Alice’s plate, so it sludges in with the rice. Alice heads to the wine fridge. “It won’t be in there,” Bartholomew scoffs. “I said Syrah, Al. It’s a red wine.” Alice stops with her hand on the fridge door. “What do you mean?” “It’s a red wine,” Bartholomew says, drawing out his words and sighing through his nose. “You don’t put red wine in the fridge.” “Don’t you?” Alice asks. Bartholomew jerks his head up, hard enough to snap it clean off. “Of course you don’t,” he says. “Alice – you’re not telling me you put my reds in the wine fridge?” “They’ve only been in a minute,” Alice says, but Bartholomew’s not listening. He’s on his feet, pushing her aside, raking through the fridge and retrieving fistfuls of bottles. “Are you actually stupid or what?” Bartholomew says. He raises his hands, and the bottles – lodged between his fingers – clink warningly. They look like clumsy, glassy claws. “You imbecile. You total bloody imbecile.” Bartholomew stomps off to the living room and eats his Rogan josh from the box. He takes that bottle of Syrah with him too, and glugs his way through the whole thing. Clearly it wasn’t ruined by its ten-minute stint in the fridge after all. Lucky that. He’ll calm down soon, Alice thinks, once the wine’s had its effect. By the time they go to bed, she’s sure Bartholomew will be sorry for overreacting. He might even cry over it. As she forks through her korma, Alice wonders what apology-gift she’ll get for the “total bloody imbecile” comment. A coffee machine, most likely. They plod along just fine for a few days, both cutting a wide berth around the wine fridge and related conversations. It all goes to hell on Alice’s Thursday morning shift. Bartholomew’s already been at the care home for hours when she gets there – he had to work the night shift, which he hates. Alice knows full well he’ll be in a bad mood, but that’s not her problem. He’ll get home soon. Hopefully he’ll have the sense to nap through the afternoon. With any luck, he’ll be all smiles by teatime. After she’s clocked in, the first person Alice sees – in the visitors’ lounge, of all places – is Mr Edwards. “Morning,” she calls. She smiles, even though she knows Mr Edwards won’t see it from this distance, what with his cataracts and all. “Sleep well?” Mr Edwards doesn’t respond. For a moment, Alice wonders whether he’s still bitter about the vase incident. It seems unlikely – he was properly chipper with her yesterday, chatting on and on about politics and the past. Still, you can never be sure with some of these old folks. They’re temperamental. Even if one day they love you, you might wake the next to find they’ve remembered some grudge. But Alice knows this is more than that. Mr Edwards is sitting alone in the visitors’ lounge, on a hard-backed chair she’s never seen him in before. There’s something careful about the way he eyes her. “Have you heard?” he asks. “Heard what?” “About last night.” Alice shakes her head. “I’ve not seen anyone else yet this morning. Why? Did something happen?” She keeps her voice light, but it’s all an act. When she swallows, she can already taste her heart riding too high in her throat. Of course, working in palliative care, bereavement is a daily concern. It ought to desensitise her. That’s not how it is, though, not for Alice. It just means that when she gets like this – when she expects the worst – she can’t tell herself she’s being irrational. “I’m sorry,” Mr Edwards says. He runs his tongue – alarmingly pink, far younger than the rest of his face – across his lips. When he looks at her now, Alice realises his eyes are the exact yellow of his teeth. And she realises he’s been crying. “It’s old Mrs Cooper.” For a good few seconds, Alice doesn’t understand. All she can think about is that Mr Edwards has a cheek calling Mrs Cooper old – he can’t be five years younger himself. But then she gets it. And she shakes her head. “I really am sorry,” Mr Edwards goes on. “I know you two were thick as thieves.” “But she wasn’t sick. She was just fine yesterday.” Alice knows as well as anyone that it doesn’t work that way. She’s been present at enough deathbeds to see the patterns and the lack of patterns, the randomness of it all. In a palliative care unit, everyone really might be a day from the end. Just like the rest of the world, really. But that doesn’t make it any easier to understand. The facts are pointless when confronted with the enormity of this – the truth that this woman is gone. Alice will never again see Mrs Cooper comb her hair, tugging tight shape into the frizz. She’ll never see her try, and fail, to wink. Already, Alice wonders if she remembers that genuine, false-toothed smile quite as it really was. And now Alice is crying. She’s still in the visitors’ lounge, and it’s not empty anymore. Someone – a daughter, a wife, who the hell cares – is in here too, and there are a couple of kids and one of them’s asking if she’s okay and none of it matters because Mrs Cooper is dead. It’s like this that Bartholomew finds her. “What’s happened?” he asks. He stands above her, arms and brows folded. His expression might be concerned – or might, equally, be annoyed. To be frank, Alice doesn’t care much. She can hardly see him properly when she’s crying. With her eyes streaming, the world falls apart in a series of streaks and shimmers, and most everything’s the shape of a teardrop. “Mrs Cooper,” Alice says. And that’s all she can manage. She has an idea that Bartholomew’s supposed to comfort her now. He’s meant to offer her a tissue, hold her close, crouch down and whisper sweet nothings into her hair. That’s what she does for him when he cries. But then, Bartholomew’s not given to public displays of despair. He only cries in bed. “Go wipe your eyes,” Bartholomew says. “Get to the bathroom, go on. I’ll pass on your apologies.” “Apologies?” Alice asks. “Yes, apologies.” Bartholomew bats her from her seat and, with much prodding, follows her to the staff toilet. “You upset that kid with your wailing.” “She didn’t look upset.” “I don’t think you’re in any fit state to judge. You’re a mess.” Alice thinks, as she wipes her eyes with one-ply toilet roll, that those words could have been comforting. They could, she supposes, have been said with affection. Perhaps they were meant that way. Perhaps it’s not Bartholomew’s fault he always comes across so cold. “Don’t police my expressions,” Bartholomew told her once, when she brought up the issue. “If I can’t even let my face rest in my own home, what the hell sort of a life is that?” “It’s not your expressions,” Alice had said. “Not just that. It’s the way you talk. Your tone.” Bartholomew scoffed. “I shouldn’t need to put on a show for my wife,” he said. And that was that. That evening, Bartholomew’s waiting for Alice as she comes through the door. “You’re later than usual,” he says. “I know. The bus didn’t show for ages. You took the car when you clocked off, so I had to wait.” Bartholomew’s jaw – which is surely, Alice thinks, too flabby to go hard – tightens. It hardly seems fair it can do a thing like that. “What are you saying? It’s my car too. Did you want me to leave it there? Did you want me to get the bus?” “No.” “Then why say it?” “I was just explaining why I was late. I didn’t mean to imply anything.” Even as she says it, Alice isn’t quite sure whether it’s true. Bartholomew certainly doesn’t look as though he believes her. “Surely I deserve to use that car just as much as you do.” “I know.” “You’re not being fair, Al.” Alice sighs and shimmies out of her coat. She started this argument, so it’s really on her to stop it. She should have learned by now – she can’t take little shots at Bartholomew and expect him not to lash back. They’re equals. He isn’t going to pander to her, act all soft. He won’t go easy in a row just because she’s a woman. She knows how he is. She knows he always fights on the offensive. If she can’t utilise her experience in all things Bartholomew – enough to diffuse an argument – then she really is failing. Know your enemy, she thinks. Then she tries to unthink it. “Sorry,” she says. “I’m on edge. It’s been a hard day.” Bartholomew could back down now, she thinks, she’s given him an out. Instead, he sneers. “So I saw this morning. That was a really bad show, Al. You’ve got to keep control of yourself when you’re on shift. I thought you were better than that.” “You said we weren’t going to talk about work anymore.” “This isn’t about work – it’s about your professionalism.” There are so many ways Alice could defend herself, so many explanations she could give. She uses none of them. She’s sure Bartholomew has counterarguments galore, already stored behind his teeth. He smirks them at her silently. This man knows her too well, she thinks. He’s well-versed in Alice-rhetoric. However much she understands him, Bartholomew always seems to be one move ahead, able to pick apart her logic before she’s so much as spoken. He wins, or she gives in. So it is and so it’s always been, ever since their first months together. This is ritual to them. It’s the closest thing, perhaps, that Bartholomew will ever have to religion. “Sorry,” she says. “It won’t happen again.” Bartholomew grins. Another win under his belt, Alice thinks. “What’s for tea? Did you get any of that MSG I put on the list?” Make that two wins. “Sorry. I’ll go to the supermarket tomorrow.” Bartholomew groans, grinning all the while. “Honestly, what are you like? Seasoning’s not that scary, Al. Just spice things up a little, yeah? I don’t think I can stomach that same old stir fry again.” Alice makes no comment. The next day, Alice and Bartholomew arrive at work together. By the time they do, the place is already packed. That’s not exaggeration – Alice really doesn’t think she’s ever seen the visitors’ lounge so full. It’s good, that. With all these people, the room hardly looks like itself at all. Alice can’t even see the chair she sobbed in yesterday. “What’s all this?” Bartholomew mutters. Then he takes one of the young, newly qualified nurses aside to get the intel. He rests his fingers on her skinny forearm the whole conversation. She’s smiling – fixing her hair with her free hand – but Bartholomew looks furious. Alice is almost relieved. “Alright?” she asks, when he returns to her side at last. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I don’t see what they’re all doing hanging around. They’ve got the place packed out – there’s no room for all this.” “Who are they?” Alice asks. Bartholomew wrinkles his nose before answering. “Apparently they’re from Mrs Cooper’s church. They’re deluded, clearly. That woman’s not set foot in church for five years at least.” “Because she’s been bedridden.” Bartholomew just swats at the air till she shuts up. He’s still wearing a plaster, though Alice didn’t see the slightest mark on his palm when he changed it this morning. “Lucy says they brought cookies for us all. To say thank you for taking such good care of her.” “That’s kind.” Bartholomew snorts and swats the air harder. “It’s not kind. It’s obviously a ploy to convert the lot of us. Typical: they ply the heathens with food and guilt them into church.” A few church ladies shoot concerned smiles his way. Now, Alice thinks, would be a good time to talk to Bartholomew about his professionalism. Instead, she turns towards the door. “Let’s get on,” she says. “There’s enough staff sorting all this, we wouldn’t want to neglect the residents.” “Exactly,” Bartholomew says. “They’re wasting all our time with this nonsense. Cookies. Imagine.” He’s still talking, but Alice isn’t listening anymore. “I’ve got to sort something,” she says. She almost puts her foot in her mouth and says: “I need to check Mrs Cooper’s blood pressure.” But she catches herself in time. She needs, she supposes, a new default excuse. Alice’s shift is shorter than Bartholomew’s today, so she makes the most of the extra time. She takes the bus home, leaving the car for him. Half an hour later, when the bus arrives at the supermarket, she hops off and picks up some MSG. She starts cooking as soon as she gets home. Ten minutes before Bartholomew’s due back, she looks up “what wine goes with steak?” and pulls a Cabarnet from the cupboard. “Something smells good,” Bartholomew says, when he steps through the door. “I cooked steak. Used some of that MSG stuff you told me about.” Bartholomew follows her to the kitchen, brows raised. When he sees the wine on the table, he nods. “It looks great,” he says. “You’ve done a fantastic job.” And, right then, Alice couldn’t be happier. Her happiness stretches out all evening. For that one night, everything – absolutely everything – is perfect. After dinner, the two settle down on the sofa together. There’s this new thing on Netflix that Bartholomew wants to watch: and, he says, he wants to hold Alice’s head in his lap as he does it. She’s more than willing to oblige. When she’s like this – silent with him, letting him stroke her hair – nothing about their relationship is less than ideal. This they’ve got sussed. Right here, she could believe she’s made it. Later, in bed, she’s still believing it. She feels all the right things when Bartholomew kisses her. There’s something tender in his lips tonight – something so deliberate about the pressure, the movement, the give and take of it all. Alice has never, she thinks, been kissed so expertly. Bartholomew’s hitting all the right spots in her mouth, doing things with his tongue that she’s sure must be new. She’d have remembered this if it had happened before. Somehow, Bartholomew’s kissing her in a way that reminds her of passion. All at once, Alice can’t imagine why she’d want to keep her distance at work – right now, she wants nothing more than to have Bartholomew close. She wants his tongue to tease hers out the way, his breath to fill her up till she forgets she has lungs of her own. When he touches her, she feels it with more than just her body. She’s so enraptured, she doesn’t worry about what this means for him. He touches her, and she’s not wondering whether it means love or desire or sex. She doesn’t need to know if this is as special for him as it is for her – if it feels transcendent. He’s distracting her quite well enough. They kiss and kiss, and it feels so great that Alice beams. It’s hard to kiss when you’re smiling like that, but Bartholomew manages all the same. This man sure is good with his lips. Coffee-drinking must be a transferable skill after all. “You kiss like you’re drinking me,” she says. “Like I’m coffee.” For a moment, Bartholomew just watches her. Then he kisses her again. “You’re a weird one, Al,” he says. There’s nothing remotely wrong about his tone right now. Alice couldn’t police that expression if she tried. In the morning, the wine fridge breaks. “Who used it last?” Bartholomew asks, as though that makes a difference. “It’s just switched itself off. Must be something with the connection.” “Did you shut it last night?” “I didn’t open it last night. We had red wine. Red wine doesn’t go in the fridge.” If Alice expected him to applaud her expertise, she’s disappointed. “Something must have happened. We’ll have to call in someone to fix it. Where’s that plumber’s number?” Alice snorts and Bartholomew’s eyes snap towards her. He’s still wearing that frustrated glare he’d had pinned on the fridge. Alice looks away. “What?” Bartholomew asks. “What’s the joke?” “It’s just that you said ‘plumber’,” Alice says. “So?” “I don’t think plumbers fix wine fridges. They do – well. Plumbing. Toilets and sinks and things.” “If you’re such an expert you can fix it yourself.” “I’m not an expert.” “You’re talking like you think you are. Don’t speak down to me, Al. That patronising thing doesn’t suit you.” Alice tries very hard not to laugh again. It really isn’t that funny. “Sorry,” she says. “We’ll have to call someone in. Plumber or not, I don’t care. Can you sort that later?” Alice frowns. “I’m working all day. My shift starts at 9, I’ll not be back till 7.” “Same here. You’re not getting any sympathy from me.” “I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m just saying: I won’t have time.” “You can find ten minutes, I’m sure,” Bartholomew says. “And you have to do it today, it’s Sunday tomorrow. Everything’ll be shut up.” “I don’t know when we’ll be able to have someone round to do it.” Alice chews at her lip. “I’ve a lot of shifts next week, all daytime.” “Don’t you dare complain about daytime shifts.” “I’m not complaining.” Alice tries to keep the note of frustration from her voice. She can’t very well fuss about Bartholomew’s tone if she’s not regulating her own. She’s many things, but she’s not a hypocrite. “All I’m saying is there won’t be a good time next week for us to have someone in. You’re working full days too.” “I know I am.” “Then we’ll have to wait.” “You could explain to whoever makes the rotas,” Bartholomew says. “I forget his name. Just say you’ve got to stay home one morning.” “It’s not exactly an emergency.” “I never told you to say it was an emergency. Don’t put words in my mouth.” Bartholomew’s lips go thin. “Whatever way you want to spin it, do it. So long as you can stay home, there’s no issue.” “Why should I stay home?” Alice asks. She didn’t mean to ask it – not so bluntly as that – but, once it’s out, she can’t say she regrets it. Bartholomew’s frown looks just a tad shocked. It’s gratifying. In fact, she’s so gratified, she goes in for the kicker: “My job’s just as important as yours. We are equals, after all.” Bartholomew doesn’t reply. It seems Alice has, finally, got a win under her belt. Perhaps even the most sacred of rituals can be broken after all. Bartholomew leaves the kitchen, and keeps going right out the front door. By the time Alice follows, the car’s gone from the drive. She takes the bus to work. For five days, the wine fridge stays broken. They don’t talk about calling someone in. They don’t talk about work. To be honest, they don’t really talk about much at all, but Alice is okay with that. She can live on the memories of their perfect night for a good week yet. It’s not fair for her to expect those evenings from Bartholomew all the time – she doesn’t need constant confirmation of his feelings. She isn’t needy like that. Besides, things really aren’t bad at home. Alice adds MSG to all their food, till she can taste it even in her sleep. She looks up meals to match with red wine – there’s no need to touch the white, which is still lukewarm in the broken fridge. Everything she cooks is reverse engineered to go with that night’s wine. Bartholomew’s found absolutely nothing to complain about, which makes Alice smug, in the privacy of her own head. She’s practically a sommelier these days and Bartholomew knows it. It all still tastes of hand sanitiser, mind. On the sixth night, Alice sets out a bottle of merlot with grilled garlic chicken on the side. Bartholomew’s shift finishes at 7, so she has tea ready for 8, to give him time. That’s considerate, she thinks. She wouldn’t want to make him feel rushed. Still – perhaps her consideration isn’t enough. In any case, by the time 8 ticks around, there’s no sign of Bartholomew. She keeps the chicken hot on the grill. White flesh turns brown, then black. She turns off the grill and lets the meat cool. What’s worse: cold or burnt? No point thinking on it too much, she supposes. This chicken’s both, and then some. At 9, Bartholomew texts: Gone to play golf. See you later. It’s not one of their separate-social-life nights, but it’s still a reasonable excuse, Alice thinks. Of course it is. She puts away the wine and digs out some cider. Halfway through her first bottle, she opens her second. Four bottles in, she makes herself pasta. The MSG stays in the cupboard. She’s almost asleep by the time Bartholomew gets home. He plonks himself down on the bed, so hard that Alice is launched half a foot into the air. “How was your night?” she asks. Bartholomew grunts before replying. “It was fine. Met a few guys at the pub.” “Was that after golf?” she asks. “What are you talking about golf?” Bartholomew asks. “I thought you said it was golf tonight.” “You’ve gotten yourself confused,” Bartholomew says. She hasn’t – she knows she hasn’t, and she’s got the text to prove it. But suddenly she doesn’t care. It’s weird, that. She always thought she’d feel something when it got to this point, make a big deal of catching him in a lie. But she only feels tired. She rolls towards the wall and falls asleep almost at once. Alice spends the next morning without feeling much beyond “tired”. She’s numb over breakfast, and during the car ride to work. As she goes about the morning’s routines, she doesn’t think. Autopilot is her friend – it keeps her busy and out of Bartholomew’s way. At 2, she remembers that she’s hungry. At 3, she decides to take her lunch break. As usual – without even really thinking about it – she peers through the break room door first, just to check that the coast is clear. Bartholomew’s holding court by the coffee machine. He’s chatting to that young nurse again, fingers tapping all up and down her arm. And he’s got one of the church cookies in his hand. He drops stale crumbs – at least, Alice assumes they must be stale, those cookies arrived last Friday – all over the nurse’s uniform. And when he talks, chocolate slimes over his teeth. The man’s disgusting. Utterly, utterly disgusting. There he is, chowing down on the cookies he scoffed at so ruthlessly. “They ply the heathens with food and guilt them into church,” he said. Well, he’s been plied with food, alright. But if Alice knows Bartholomew – and she damn well does – he’s no closer to church. All at once, Alice can’t stand to look at him. She leaves the break room, but that’s not enough. She has to keep going. Even when she’s right out the front door, past the car park, onto the high street, she doesn’t feel far enough. He’s still there, sharing a job and a house and a life with her. Bartholomew knows things about her that nobody else does, Alice thinks. He understands her in this way that’s uniquely theirs. And he doesn’t care. The man has no interest in her whatsoever. She keeps walking. On she goes, feeling everything and nothing all at once. Her life with Bartholomew seems so fake now. Of course, she can tell herself the thought’ll be fleeting – that she felt the opposite a week ago – but she has more self-respect than that. There’s no point pretending. She’s looking Bartholomew full in the face for the first time in years, and she never wants to do it again. She hates his MSG and the way he drinks his coffee, his selfishness, his hypocrisy. She hates everything about him, hair gel and wine obsession and all. Hate’s a strong word. She relishes it. Alice is so caught up in his flaws – manipulation, she adds to the list, pretention, laziness – that she stops seeing. There’s no space left in her head for the real world. Behind her eyes are a thousand infuriating moments and conversations. She hate-watches them and counts Bartholomew’s deficiencies. He’s a pseudo-feminist. A control-freak. He lies and lies, and doesn’t even bother to do it properly. When was the last time he made a real effort with his excuses? When did he go out of his way to convince her? She made it all so easy for him. Why? Why did she ever – A car horn blares, and Alice looks up. She notices, with some surprise, that she’s walking in the middle of the road. A moment later, she notices the bus. She’s never looked at a bus from so close up before. Well, she has – of course she has, she’s boarded thousands – but not like this. She sees it head on, screaming nearer and nearer, a rush of rubber and metal and colour. It howls. The sound of brakes is different to how Alice has ever heard it before. It’s loud and desperate, all up in her ears, wrapping her tight from skull to toes. And – though she knows, even now, that it’s ridiculous – Alice is sure the sound cares. More than that: everyone cares. Right now, standing in the middle of the road, Alice is all anyone’s thinking about. They’re absorbed in her, pausing their lives to pray the bus won’t run her down. In this instant, she matters more to them than anyone else in the world. Of course, the bus is going to hit her. She knows it will. And it doesn’t seem unfair in the slightest. Alice braces herself and remembers that train she saw as a child, the noise of it, the heat of it, its closeness. That, she thinks, was power. That was intimacy. Bartholomew, for all his clever, meticulous kisses, will never get as intimate as all that. Alice has to laugh. Her husband matters less to her than a bloody tube train. Maybe she’s making more of the memory than it deserves. Or maybe she’s not. Either way, the image of the train feels profound, and that’s more than enough. After all – Alice doesn’t have time to psychoanalyse herself. She doesn’t have time to do much of anything, except think of the train and watch the bus run right through her. So she does. And, for the second time in her life, she sees God. Bartholomew’s already there when Alice wakes up. She’s in hospital – leg braced, arm in plaster, body aching and covered with thin white sheets. The light’s too harsh in here, and it makes Bartholomew look old. Perhaps the shock has aged him. Alice only humours herself with the thought for a second. The man would never care enough to age for her, but that’s okay. Little things like Bartholomew’s apathy hardly seem to matter anymore. “Al,” Bartholomew says. “You’re awake.” “I know.” Bartholomew brushes the hair back from his face. Gel gums at his fingers. “Hell,” he says. “What happened, Al? What were you doing on the main road? Why weren’t you at work?” None of those are questions Alice has any interest in answering. Instead, she looks Bartholomew in the eye. She doesn’t hate him now, she thinks. After what she saw – what she felt, as the power of that bus rammed her to her knees – she doesn’t have capacity for hate. Bartholomew’s still bloody insufferable, though. “What would you have done if I’d died?” Alice asks. Bartholomew blinks at her. Hell. Even the way he blinks is irritating. Alice wonders how she went so many years without noticing. “What do you mean?” he asks. “Exactly what I say. What would you have done? With my body, I mean.” “You’re talking crazy,” Bartholomew says. “You’re concussed. Confused.” “I’m not confused,” Alice says. And it’s true. She’s never been so clear-headed in all her life. “I want to know. Would you have buried me? Cremated me? Would you have given me a church funeral?” Bartholomew seems to redden and pale all at once. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the done thing, I suppose. I’ve not really thought about it. What does it matter? I don’t understand.” But Alice understands. It’s normal, she supposes, to become aware of your mortality in a near-death experience. Still, she never dreamed it would give her such perspective. That moment – when the bus touched her at last, when she thought she saw God – is the most important thing she has. And she can’t tell Bartholomew a word about it. She looks at him again. “I’ve been thinking,” she says. “I want to go to church.” Bartholomew frowns. “You what?” “I want to start going to church. I’ve never even considered religion and all that, see. Not for myself.” Alice smiles. “And it’s probably good for finding friends.” “You’ve got plenty of friends.” “I want to see if it’s all real.” Bartholomew opens his mouth, but Alice isn’t done. “I don’t know if I believe all the church stuff. But you’ve got to work it out, don’t you?” She doesn’t pause to let him to answer the question. Whatever he might have to say doesn’t matter anymore. “I’m going to try. Soon as I’m out of here, I mean. And I’m not going to ask your permission.” Bartholomew twists his face into such an ugly shape that it hardly looks like a face at all. “Where’s this coming from?” He doesn’t wait for an explanation. “You know what I think about church.” “I know,” she says. Bartholomew throws his hands in the air, so hard his plaster flies right off. The skin underneath is fresh and shiny. “You can’t make a decision like that,” he says. “That’s not something you can just choose without thinking it’ll affect me. Couples have to be on the same page about religion, Al. If they’re not, a marriage can never work out.” Alice looks him hard in the eyes. “Yes,” she says. “I know.” Bartholomew stares right back at her. And for the first time in years, Alice is sure they understand each other perfectly.