Adrian reaches the end of the letter and stops, his fingers wriggling in mid-air above the keyboard. How do you end a letter to your ex-wife, he wonders. It needs to be something formal, surely. ‘Yours faithfully’ might not do, given that Emma divorced you for adultery. ‘Yours sincerely’ might be better, for a perfectly reasonable request for her to sort out some boxes of junk she forgot to take to the Outer Hebrides. And surely she must have an email address? All the Fair Isle sweater knitting co-operative, eco-friendly wind-powered craft workshop stuff seems a little contrived. Why couldn’t she have stayed in London? She can get organic food in the supermarkets.
The flat in Goldstone Avenue’s cramped and untidy. There’s still a lot of Viv’s stuff that he doesn’t know what to do with. Her children are in Japan with her ex. Sorting out the probate’s a nightmare, she hadn’t made a will, they weren’t married; her decree absolute had only just come through. Whenever a letter arrives with the solicitors’ frank on it, his stomach heaves.
Outside, the sky’s the yellowish-grey of a gloomy December day. Melted sleet, from the balcony of the flat above, trickles down the French doors. Emma’s wind generator must be powering half the National Grid by now, he thinks, watching a flock of pigeons whirling high above the swaying trees. Out of the cloud blanket, a plane sinks down towards Heathrow, and Adrian looks across the solar-panelled roofs of terraced houses, and the airport-blighted dual carriageways of bankrupt shops and minicab firms and self-storage units, and the pink-orange streetlights on at the wrong time of day, towards the airport, and dreams of flying.
Flying, dying, like in the Robin Williams film. If I flew, he thinks, could I reach Vivienne again? He notices her desk tidy beside the computer, full of her pens and paperclips, and thinks of her long auburn hair, and the pain throbs in his chest and arms like angina.
It’s a week before there’s a response to his letter. But it’s from Jonathan. ‘Dad…’ His voice fragmented by the mobile signal. These days, Jonathan’s his confidant, his adviser, but he seems to be in a crowded pub, shouting, phone clamped to his face. ‘Mum’s rung me… your letter. I’ve…’
‘Sorry, you’re breaking up.’ Adrian looks at his own phone, good signal. ‘Where are you ringing from?’
‘I’m out…Mum’s landed at Gatwick…staying in a hotel.’
The signal goes. Adrian stares at the ‘Call ended’ words on the black screen of his phone, reflecting his face. Don’t look so scared, he thinks.Emma, arriving the next morning, doesn’t look scared. Droplets of melting snow-drizzle cling to her, and he catches a hint of woodsmoke, of log fires. She pulls a small wheelie case over the threshold.
‘I’m frozen,’ she shivers, although she’s swaddled in sweaters under the Barbour coat that she gives him to hang up. She has some wrinkles that he doesn’t remember, and a streak of white in the crown of her dark, moist hair.
She leaves her walking boots by the front door. ‘Still sandy from the airport – our runway’s on the beach,’ she smiles, wiggles her toes in their thick socks to warm them, and walks straight into the kitchen. Her face falls. ‘Look at this place, it’s awful. The hob, the worktops. It stinks. Ugh! My God. My socks are getting sticky. Did neither of you clean the place?’
She’s lost weight. Perhaps living on Barra’s harder than she lets on.
‘Viv was too ill,’ he says. ‘And I – well, I’ve had a lot to do. I suppose it lacks a woman’s touch.’ He air-quotes the cliché with his fingers. ‘Can I get you a coffee?’
White, instant, no sugar, he knows. She grimaces, though, as he puts a stained mug on the worktop and switches on the kettle. She takes the mug to the sink and starts scouring it. Tutting, she empties the washing-up bowl, and starts to fill it with clean water.
He stops her, ushering her away from the sink.
‘Look, you don’t have to do that. I’ll do it. Just do what you’ve come here to do, just sort through your stuff, okay? Do it and go. You don’t have to help me.’ He grabs a musty, brownish tea towel, and dries the mug. ‘The boxes are in the living room. I’ll bring this through in a minute.’
The boxes are from the attic of their old house, and have been stacked in the corner of the living room. He hasn’t got an attic any more.
‘So, why didn’t you just throw this stuff out?’ she asks, as he puts her coffee down beside her.
‘I could see there were documents. Might have been something important.’
‘You could have sorted through them.’
‘Well, it’s your stuff,’ he says. ‘I just haven’t got the time.’
‘Or you could have just sent them up to Scotland.’
‘How much? I’d have refunded you.’
He doesn’t answer, and sits in the armchair, watching her lift a flap of dusty cardboard, and finding envelopes, old folders, photographs in brown paper bags from Woolworth’s. Herself as a child. There are the divorce papers of her parents. A bunch of dark, silky hair held together by a rubber band, perhaps her first haircut. Jonathan’s primary school reports. Obsolete car insurance papers, electricity bills, bank statements, payslips from twenty years ago. He lends her a crosscut shredder, and she fills bin bags with musty confetti.
While she sorts through, it starts to snow. She finds Jonathan’s birth certificate.
‘He should keep this himself,’ she says.
‘You know what he’s like, he’d keep it on the floor.’
‘Yeah, I know, that way he always knows where things are. It’s on the floor. Great. Hey, look at this.’ She holds up the estate agents’ details of their first house. ’72K,’ she says. ‘I suppose it would be five times that by now. We were happy there.’
‘Were we? I suppose so.’
‘It was a long time ago,’ she says, and adds, quite deliberately, ‘I’ve started seeing someone, you know.’
He smiles politely as she tells him that Hamish is a builder.
‘You needn’t look like that,’ she says. ‘You can’t expect me to curl up in front of a log fire on my own.’
Then her gaze drifts through the French doors. ‘That looks Christmassy.’ The tiny steel balcony’s coated in snow. The sky’s darkening and the snow’s falling in thick flakes like particles of paper, coming diagonally down the wind. It’s muted the sounds of the city.
Emma turns her attention back to the boxes. ‘My life insurance policy, I haven’t seen it in years. I wondered where it was.’ Adrian gives her more coffee, heats a frozen pizza, cleans the kitchen. He scrubs the floor with Vim, wondering if it’s the right thing to use. Finally, she crams what she wants into her case. She checks her watch. ‘Where’s Jonathan got to? He’s supposed to be picking me up.’ She phones him.
‘I’m stuck on the Westway,’ Jonathan says. ‘Nothing’s moving. Been here half an hour. Heard on the radio the planes have been diverted, can you check with Gatwick? Look on the website or something.’
Her flight’s been cancelled. She calls Jonathan back, to tell him not to bother, maybe she’ll see him at Christmas, maybe in the New Year. Warmth mingles with regret in her face; she knows he wants to spend Christmas with his girlfriend, and the bump. Then she looks out at the balcony, where a white bar of snow lies on the railing.
‘I’ll see if I can get down to Gatwick on the train, see what’s going on,’ she sighs.
‘No, don’t,’ Adrian says. ‘It’ll be chaos. Imagine how many flights have been cancelled by now.’
‘Well I can’t really stay here. I’ll probably be able to check back in to my hotel.’
‘They’ll be full. Look – I can change the sheets – you can have the bed, I’ll sleep here on the sofa.’
‘I stayed at the Ibis last night, they’re pretty good. I’ll see if they’ve got a room. I’ll probably be able to get a flight tomorrow.’
‘Please, Emma, just stay. Save the money. It’ll be fine.’
She stays. They eat fish fingers and mushy peas in front of the TV.
‘Sorry it’s not organic,’ he says.
They’re watching Top Gear, the cars hurtling around somewhere in South East Asia. As the studio guest is interviewed, Adrian stabs a fish finger with his fork and smears it in red ketchup.
‘I still can’t understand why you had to be so bloody vindictive about everything,’ he says suddenly.
Emma bristles. ‘When was I ever vindictive?’
‘All that acrimony about the bloody curtains.’ He’s talking with his mouth full. ‘You just wouldn’t give it a break.’
‘I needed the curtains for the cottage. I couldn’t afford to get new ones. And, you didn’t even need them to move in here.’
‘Why did you have to be so vile about it?’
‘I was vile? What about you? You betrayed me. You lied to me. I can’t understand how I ever trusted you all those years. You never even said you were sorry.’
‘I’ll never be sorry.’
‘Oh, thanks, then!’ Emma plonks her plate on the coffee table.
Adrian meets her glare with weary eyes. ‘Viv once meant everything to me, long before I met you. I couldn’t let her go a second time. So, okay, it’s a shame you got hurt. I’m sorry about that part. But I’ll never be sorry I loved her. In the end, we had two precious years, and I’d make the same choice again, if I could.’
He’s surprised to see a tear in her eye, and he gets up to draw the curtains across the French doors. Outside, the world’s freezing, and the snow’s whitening the dark air.So they drink cheap red wine, to pass the time. She’s in the armchair, he’s on the sofa, half watching the TV. It’s just like before, he thinks. Cosy and dull.
Her mobile rings. It’s on speaker – he can hear the female Scottish gabble. ‘Whose is this number? I want to know why this number’s on my husband’s phone bill… Hamish Robertson?’
‘It’s OK, he’s just my builder.’
‘Ok, so 30 minutes? 45 minutes on the phone? His phone bill’s nearly fifty pounds. Who are you anyway?’
‘There’s been a lot to discuss.’
‘Who is this? Are you Emma?’
‘I’m not saying.’ Emma ends the call, and switches off the phone.
She’s had an affair with a married man. Two kids. ‘Hamish came to fit the shower’, she says, ‘next thing I knew we were kissing in it.’
Adrian remembers a time he’d been with her in the Grand Hotel at Enghien-les-Bains, standing under a luxurious shower, hair and clothes stuck to wet skin, kissing, with the water running over their faces and tongues. His eyes are drawn to her plump, red lips, and the thought of her doing it to someone else makes him furious.
‘So who are you to bloody judge me?’ he snaps. ‘You selfish bitch!’
‘I was lonely.’ She’s wide eyed, the hurt visible on her face. ‘Sometimes, Adrian, what looks like selfishness, is just someone trying to survive.’
‘I’ll go and make up your bed,’ he says, wrenching himself away awkwardly.
Emma follows him into the bedroom. He briefly sees her reflected in the mirrored sliding door, then as he pulls sheets down from the wardrobe shelf, he remembers Vivienne’s clothes are still hanging from the rail below, and that on the dressing table, a hairbrush still holds a tangle of auburn hair. The hair that fell out while she was having chemo. He strips the old sheets and checks Emma’s expression. It’s neutral. If she’s noticed anything, she hides it.
‘I remember that duvet cover,’ she says, taking a corner to help him. ‘Hideous.’ It’s got a pink and black zig-zag pattern; they bought it for their first house.
‘We used to sleep under this,’ he says, straightening it across the bed, and patting it down.
‘Yeah,’ she shrugs, ‘if only we’d known.’
‘I hope you’ll have everything you need in here, then.’ He pauses at the doorway. ‘The bathroom’s just there, across the corridor.’
‘Sure, thanks, Adrian.’He finishes the wine, switches everything off,and stretches out on the sofa in his clothes. When he opens his eyes, it’s 5 am, he’s sweating, and he knows there’s no more sleep. This is the dark abyss of despair that gapes between him and the day. He gets up, and skirting the coffee table with its dirty plates, he opens the French doors. He stands on the balcony to feel his sweat freezing on his skin. Three inches of snow has frozen on the handrail, and he sinks his fingers into it, feeling the pain of the cold searing his hands as he grips. The curtains sway back into the room and a lamp falls over. He hears the living room door open. Then Emma’s shivering at the French doors in her nightie, craning her head.
‘It’s bloody freezing,’ she says. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ And then, ‘Wow, look at that, tasteless, or what?’
The residents of Goldstone Avenue below have been enthusiastic with their Christmas trimmings. Inflatable Santas, illuminated reindeer, gutters hung with blue flashing icicles, and looping strands of multicoloured lights. The trees are glittering and twinkling with LEDs, and some sort of tinny music drifts faintly up from a loudspeaker.
‘I’m going insane,’ Adrian says. ‘It’s the worst part of the night, when my mind’s gone hollow, collapsing in on itself, into a vacuum where my soul used to be.’
‘Adrian,’ says Emma, ‘come back in. You’re making the whole flat cold. Honestly.’
‘There’s nothing left for me.’
‘For heaven’s sake!’
‘I wish I’d got the guts to jump,’ he says. He spreads his arms wide, like the Angel of the North, and leans forward, pressing his waist into the snowy railing. ‘Or fly.’ He’s slowly tipping over, toes leaving the balcony surface.
She’s beside him now, bare feet squishing into the soft snow on the balcony, her hand yanking at his collar. She looks down. ‘We’re only on the third floor. You’d probably just break a leg or something. Shall I call the ambulance first? It’ll take them ages to get here.’ The road’s mostly white, a single set of black tyre tracks wavering down the middle.
‘I can’t do it with you watching me, anyway,’ he says, wishing she’d show more concern.
‘Shall I just go away, then?’
He shakes his head in defeat.
‘So, come back in,’ she says, teeth chattering.
He sighs and they go in, wiping frozen feet on the carpet. She switches the light on. They sit down and there’s a long silence. He buries his head in his hands, propping his elbows on his knees, thinking how thin and stale he’s become.
‘So, what are you going to do?’ Emma’s in the armchair, leaning on her elbow, resting her cheek on her hand, pushing the skin into furrows under her eye. ‘Get some treatment? Antidepressants? Bereavement counselling?’
‘It won’t stop me being lonely.’
‘Well, you can’t just be like this. Why don’t you take up a hobby or something? You used to enjoy golf.’
He just looks at her, pleadingly. She frowns back, her mouth compressing into a defeated expression.
‘OK, look. Come to Barra,’ she says. ‘Today. Ring work, tell them you’re sick. It’s true, in a way.’
His heart lifts with hope, but he shakes his head.
‘Look, I don’t want you back, or anything pathetic like that. But you really need to get away from here. You can’t jump off my cottage, it’d be more stupid than your bloody balcony.’
‘What about Hamish?’ He raises his eyebrows. ‘I can’t be sat around staring at you while you’re curled up in front of the fire.’
‘Sounds like he needs to spend Christmas with his wife. Well, I’m not sorry.’ She throws his own words back at him, sweeping the lock of dark hair with the white strands back from her forehead. ‘I’ll never be sorry. Anyway, what are you doing for Christmas? It’s only two weeks away.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe go to Jonathan and Sarah.’
Her expression’s unreadable. ‘You can stay until the New Year. I need some help with the decorating.’
‘In the Outer Hebrides? It’ll be cold and dark.’
‘The days are half as long, but twice as beautiful. You fly up there, and as soon as you land, you’ll see miles of white sand, and the sun on the sea. ‘Reflecting, in a watery mirror, a glare that is blindness in the early afternoon’.
‘It’ll be full of midges.’
‘No midges in the winter,’ she says firmly.
‘I’ll be in the way.’
‘I’ll fire up the computer and try and book a flight, then,’ he says, getting up. ‘And thank you, Emma, thank you. I know it’s not easy. I’m sorry I’m like this.’
‘And, Adrian,’ she says, in a tone that makes him sit down again. ‘Do not, for one moment, imagine that I can’t see through you. You could have sent me those boxes for far less than it’s cost me to fly. You knew I’d have paid, if that was an issue. You wanted me to feel sentimental looking at all that old stuff. Pretending you didn’t care about Hamish, when in fact you’re so insecure. And your pathetic self-pity. So, do not start to think I still love you, or that I want you back, or that we have some sort of future together. I’m doing this because you’re in a bad way, and because once, you were my best friend.’
‘Shall I bring some organic food?’ he asks. ‘I can stock up down the road.’