The room is quiet. It usually is. The furniture we bought when we married has survived this far but is fading with age. The polished dining room table has weathered scratches, the colour scheme belongs to another century, the clock above the mantelpiece, the round face surrounded by golden points, is back in fashion. It ticks away, pin pricks in the stillness.
We didn’t used to eat in silence. Roy and I chatted about work and funny things that had happened during our day. Like when Wayne Drysdale had backed into the boss’s Saab. Roy could hardly tell me for laughing. He works at Manning’s as a car detailer. Making sure the cars that leave the yard are in the best condition. Funny work really, a small part in the selling of cars but he likes to be part of a team. Our friends have always found it funnier that I’m a florist what with Roy’s hay fever.
There is little laughter in the house these days and we have become taciturn. Did we draw less joy from each day or from each other? Had we become lazy, the effort to communicate insurmountable? I try to make an effort.
“Gill came into work today. With the baby.”
Roy looked up wiping the gravy from his chin. He looked tired. “Oh. She happy?”
“Yeah. She was grinning the whole time. Showing off the bub, Barnaby. What a name!”
He drew back, surprised at my outburst, looking down at his newspaper folded neatly beside his dinner place, waiting. Was he ready for my latest news?
“Are you done?” I looked at his empty plate.
An expression of guilt strolled across Roy’s face, like shadow on a sundial. He cleared his throat. “Shall I wash?”
I waited only a moment. “No, I’ll do it.”
He went back to his paper, unable to see the fight that was going on before his eyes. He didn’t even look at me. If he had would he see fear in my eyes, the new lines drawn on my face? Were there more grey hairs than yesterday?
Yesterday I had moved about my day with the gait of a disappointed wife. One who rarely felt the hands of another on her body. I had stayed home for the dishwasher man. It had been filling up with black slime which coated its insides. The man, Richard, was tall, the sort of man who improved with age. I leant over him, lightly brushing his arm with mine, as I placed a cup of coffee on the work bench. He didn’t notice, I didn’t want him to. My skin tingled with neglect.
After he left I took a shower. That is where I found it, as I carefully soaped my breasts, not daring to feel the fear that gathered in my veins.
In bed with Roy, both of us in our own space, I clench my fists and risk my voice in the darkness. “Do you still love me, Roy?”
“What’s got into you, Carol?”
“Can’t you just answer?” My throat betrays me, it wobbles and sways. It has lost its beat, its rhythm. It implores and beseeches.
“We’ve been together for 15 years. I spend everyday with you. Is this about children again?”
A small voice in the dark. Mine. “No, not children. We agreed.”
I lay there immobile as the sound of Roy’s breathing develops into snores that surge and crash. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t bloody say it.
I had been prettier when younger, never a looker but I had possessed a wholesome beauty some men liked. Men who liked to be safe, men who didn’t like surprises.
As I walk home from the florists where I work, holding two carrier bags, one with steaks for dinner, the other with vegetables, I stop outside a shop freshly painted royal blue and white. Sailing colours. I check out the posters in the window: Athens, Morocco, Naples. It used to be a solicitors office. The sign now reads ‘The Happy Traveler’. The name makes me smile.
I am frying the steaks when Roy walks in. He takes off his shoes and grunts hello. Tenderly he places his newspaper next to his dinner plate and goes through to wash his hands.
We sit down, at least I do. Roy notices something amiss. “Where’s my paper? What’s this?” He waves a shiny brochure in his right hand.
“I thought we would look at it together.”
He flicks through it furiously, scarcely seeing the brightly coloured photographs. “Flowers? I don’t hold much with flowers.”
“No, you don’t.” His constant sneezing and red eyes a let down for a woman who loves flowers. Misery and disappointment, with an unhealthy dose of regret, boiled inside me. I need to stay calm. It won’t help if I’m stressed all the time. All that anger, perhaps it got together and became something else. A mass, a poisonous mass.
I bang the plates down on the draining board and head for the upstairs bathroom. I sit on the toilet seat, my hands shaking with a mix of emotions I can’t separate, all coiling into a blackness so strong. Like a baby of anti-matter, this may be the only thing I give birth to. I steady my breath and look at the poster hung on the back of the bathroom door; a market stall with buckets overflowing with flowers. Poppies, peonies, sunflowers. Cyclamen and roses of every shade. Throbbing reds through to peaceful white. A seed already planted unknowingly in my brain begins to push a green shoot through the darkness.
I telephone Donna at the shop the next morning, after Roy leaves for work. He’d kissed me goodbye. I was startled.
“We’re still going to the Isle of Wight for our holidays, aren’t we Carol?”
I nod. Not daring to speak. I have a timetable to work to and if I feel a little guilt it is nothing to the thrill that thrives inside me. I will deal with the rot later, all of it. It will be there whether I get on that boat or not.
As the ferry leaves Harwich several hours later, I cling to the railing on the upper deck. The North Sea, a murky soup of slate grey, looks beautiful to me. I hold onto my woolen hat against the breeze, my small suitcase at my feet and a bubble of delight turning over in my belly.
It’s a big world, but I think there is as much going on inside our bodies as outside, a crude Disney battle of good fighting evil. It’s just a matter of time, always time. There would be no one to remember me when I was gone and why should there be? I’m just a suburban wife who’ll be particular about the flowers on her casket.
Marion, the lady in the travel agents had booked me into the Hotel Acro, in the centre of Amsterdam. I carry my own case from the front desk after checking in. The room is neat and spartan, there are no flowers or baskets of fruit. Perhaps that only happens in films. A small double bed with sheets and blankets faces a television set. From the window I can see a hundred roof tops under an overcast sky. It looks so different from home, foreign. What are the people like in Holland, in a big city like Amsterdam? Is there someone like me here, someone small and busy who works in a shop? Someone called Greta or the Dutch equivalent of Carol. Married to a man who had given up too young. A man who didn’t like surprises, let alone shocks.
Later I wander the streets, taking in the architecture, the houses built so close to each other. Some are not much wider than a door, especially those that ran along the canal. I pass inviting cafes where serious looking men drink coffee and pretty girls with backpacks eat their lunches. Bicycles are everywhere and there are flowers at the café tables and in buckets outside the shops.
The Isle of Wight indeed! We’d been there on our holidays for the last ten years. I let it happen, too lazy or weak to argue. Roy needed a good kick up the backside to change, but me. I had no excuse.
I find a café I like the look of, set back from the canal. I order a coffee and a sandwich of gouda and ham with pickles. I hadn’t left a note for Roy, I didn’t know what to write. Would he even care beyond the inconvenience of not having his dinner ready? Left to his own devices he could read the newspaper without interruption.
But I know this isn’t fair. Roy isn’t a bad man. He’s a man who fears life, who finds change difficult. The more he resists it the bigger the fear becomes and I am as guilty as him. We had sidestepped the fears that children would bring by not having them. Now we were flying headlong towards old age and there was no turning back, from life or death and everything in between.
We had met in the queue for the cinema, both delighted to find someone else who loved to disappear during the day. We both came from large families and loved privacy. These were not natural bedfellows but it turned out that we were. Happy in our quiet world just the two of us, but you can have too much quiet.
I choose a big bunch of red tulips from a flower shop near the hotel, to brighten up my room. I find a white vase when I get back, arrange them and place them on the glass coffee table. They look sensual and bold. The tulip is a passionate flower, it reminds me of a young woman, her sex unfurling. It seems inappropriate, here in a city of liberal values, and me alone.
I am booked onto the coach trip to the tulip fields in the morning. The coach will leave at 9.00am from the front of the hotel. I order dinner in my room and have an early night.
For once I am comfortable with silence, I don’t try to engage the strangers on the bus in meaningless conversation. I find I like the space it gives me, as if my mind has stretched.
The flower fields are magnificent. Creamy white tulips run from my feet to the windmill on the horizon, like snow but waving in a light breeze. The red tulips, vibrant crimson across the flat, a blush across the land, as if a child had drawn the rows with a scarlet crayon. They stand to attention, thrusting their faces to the sun. There are other flowers: daffodils, hyacinths and narcissus, but tulips have long been my favourite. They possess a beauty that is almost human.
I could stay here, get a job in a florists in Amsterdam. Rent a room in one of those narrow houses, the attic room. Change my name, devour chocolate and drink Amstell beer. Eat off paper plates and never do the washing up again. I can see myself finding a notice in a shop window, asking for a mature lady tenant to rent a room. Snow gently falling like in one of those souvenir snow domes. Roy losing weight as he waits for me to return and cook his dinner.
What is he doing now? Has he taken the day off work or carried on as if everything was normal. Does he know whether I’m coming back because I’m not sure I do.
I take a cab to the Hook of Holland. I have bought no souvenirs, taken no photographs. The ferry back to Harwich is calm. A blue sky overhead and butterflies in my stomach. I keep the ticket from the ferry trip and place it in my purse. The only proof I have that I’d ever left.
Roy sits at the dining room table, his fingers steepled, frowning. He doesn’t say anything at first but he holds me in his arms in silent thanks. “I didn’t know if you were coming back, love.”
I take his hand and hold it to my breast. “Neither of us likes change, Roy, but nothing will ever be the same now.” I guide his hand under my blouse, to the lump I had found in the shower two days before and we cling to each other in preparation for an uncertain future.