Dawn, her mother whispered softly, as all the light changed in the room. She wasn't sure if her mother meant the morning or her, but she leaned over anyhow.
"I'm here, mum," she said, taking her mother's cool, soft hand, a feather weight now. "Shh. The night's over."
"Dawn," her mother exhaled, like the tide going out, and in a moment, she saw it had.
She'd always been afraid of violence, shrank from netball and rough games, and the man who held her against the brick wall with a knife could see it. It wasn't just the money now -- he already had her purse -- but something more. Tears streaked her face and he liked that, she could tell, wanted to make her breath hitch. Wanted to make her scream. His knife moved closer to her face, and in the madness of the moment Dawn saw the edge become clear, each nick, the bit of grime on the tip. She opened her mouth -- he could have her screams, he could have anything he wanted if only he wouldn't hurt her -- and he brought his hand up to cover it.
His hand never reached her face, though. Something taller and harder than him slammed into him from the side, knocking him to the ground. Dawn clenched her eyes shut reflexively, bringing her shaking hands up to cover her own mouth, swallow her own screams, and heard the sound of a fist beating against flesh, and the man's groans.
After a minute, it stopped. She heard feet scraping against the pavement, and then someone's presence coming nearer. She shrank back.
"Where's your mobile?" asked a vaguely familiar voice.
Dawn couldn't answer, biting her own hand and trembling against the wall.
"We've got to ring the police," the voice said, softer. "Where's your mobile?"
She managed to uncover her mouth long enough to say in my purse, and at the sound of her own small broken voice she burst into tears.
The presence approached again, hands on her shoulders. She buried her face against the stranger's neck and sobbed. He smelled like chalk and coffee and floor polish, familiar smells.
"Shh," he said, and she had a faint vision of his face now, the new teacher at the upper school. Handsome, reserved, a funny face with a little something more beneath the surface. Her mate Sylvia who taught the fifth form said he looked like a fox, and not the good kind. Dawn hadn't seen him often enough to make up her mind.
"It'll be all right, I'll take care of you," he said into her hair.
It was a small wedding, mostly friends. It hadn't been much of an engagement, and some of her friends from uni were meeting him for the first time. She saw them watching her, studying the waist of her dress when they thought she wasn't looking, exchanging glances with each other. He was lovely, though, dancing with her all evening, being warm and funny with her friends, and she was blissfully happy when she thought about the coming years together. They'd make their own family, their own life. The run-down cottage they'd just bought would overflow with children and laughter and fairy buns and wine and friends dropping round for tea. Their students would love them, and they'd grow old in the village, visited and remembered by generations of children.
David caught up with her in a quiet corner, spinning out her daydreams. He put his arms about her and kissed the top of her head, swaying gently.
"Happy?" he asked.
She nodded. "Only wish our parents could have been here."
He didn't say anything, just grew still, and she felt that stiffness he always got when she talked about his family, which was why she almost never did.
"David?" she asked, tilting her head up to him.
"I'm going for another glass of champagne, d'you want one?" he said, and turned away.
The second month was harder. There was no reason to think it would have taken right away, but she still cried the day she started her period, an entire week early, like her body couldn't wait to rub her failure in her face. David had found her curled up on the bed, weeping helplessly into the pillow, and hadn't understood.
"These things take time, love," he'd said from the foot of the bed, and she'd cried harder while he watched, rubbing her back. Finally, she'd sniffled and sat up, feeling drying mascara crack under her eyes.
"I just thought -- not for us," she'd said, her throat tight. "Everything's gone so fast -- it's been like a fairy tale. Meeting in an alley, you being my white knight" -- David had smiled at the old joke -- "falling in love, getting married, coming here. It's all been so perfect. I thought this would be too."
David had taken her in his arms then, and kissed her neck and her fingers and her eyes, and brought her downstairs for tea and sponge cake. But he hadn't understood, not really.
The second month was harder, because she'd started to read articles online and follow other people's advice, and the third month was harder still. David complained that she was taking it too seriously, as she lay there in the morning taking her temperature.
"People've been doing this for millions of years," he whispered against her temple. "It'll sort itself out without all this."
The pink and white thermometer beeped, and Dawn rolled over to write down the number on the chart at her bedside.
"What does it say?" he asked. "Does the chart say I can make love to my wife?"
Dawn ignored him, scratching the number deeply into the paper. Ovulation spike, just like she was supposed to have, just like last month. They'd done it three times that day and she'd still bled.
"I just want to give it the best chance possible," she said finally, putting down her pencil. "Otherwise we'll never know."
"Know what?" he asked, as she rolled back towards him.
Dawn kissed him, his lips soft and warm the way they always were in the morning, and stroked the stubble on his cheek.
"If there's a problem," she said against his mouth. "The doctors won't see you unless you've kept records of all the things you've tried."
David tensed up, and she could see she'd wandered onto private grounds again. She pulled back to look at him, his eyes half-lidded and at their most cat-like, dark and unreadable.
"Let's not bring in the cavalry yet," he said, and kissed her again.
She let him, running her fingers through his unruly hair, pressing her hips against his morning erection. Things were always easier like this, their hands and mouths sliding over each other's skin, bodies speaking a better language than words. She pulled him on top of her and inside her a moment later, catching her breath when he pushed in deep. She stared at his right shoulder as they moved together, the freckles and tiny hairs golden-red in the morning sunlight, his breath warm in her ear. When he came she imagined it like sprouting wheat, reaching up to stir life inside her.
Every day was about Nick, once it was clear he was staying. "Nick wants a lift into town tomorrow." "Nick's finished off the Weetabix." "Nick said the funniest thing." "Shh, Nick will hear." Nick Nick Nick.
Three was a terrible number, odd-legged and wobbly. Three people couldn't share one chicken breast for dinner. Three people did not fit comfortably in the Karmann Ghia. Three people couldn't agree on what television program to watch.
And yet, she liked having him in the house sometimes. If he did the washing-up he always used a lemon half to make the water smell nice. He brought new things into the house, ideas and experiences that kept her and David from falling into a dull couple-routine, sharing the same stories and making the same comments over and over. He tried to pick out tunes on the piano and pestered her to play, and was enthusiastically and genuinely impressed when she did. David only smiled that fond, reserved smile, hand resting warmly on her neck, but Nick sang along to the tunes he knew, and marvelled at the ones he didn't.
The noctural disturbances, she decided, were good practice. Your turn, she or David would mumble sleepily, and for a moment she could imagine that it was an infant crying so brokenly in the next room, instead of a lost, half-grown man.
And Nick knew things, crumbs of Johnson-lore she could pry out of him easily, if he was in a mood to talk, not smoke endless fags while watching telly. She could almost see David in his eyes sometimes, and now Nick in David's eyes too. She didn't look like her parents, of course, and she was always vaguely startled to find that people in other families did resemble each other. She followed the likeness hungrily, recognizing habits of David's in Nick, seeking the similarity like the source of a stream.
"Tell me about your mother," she said to David one night in bed, a week after she'd asked about his father. "Tell me a good memory."
David shook his head. "I don't really remember anything."
"Nothing before you left home?"
"It was a long time ago," he said, shrugging.
"Nick said your grandfather had horses."
David smiled then, a brief flash. "I remember those," he said, warmth creeping into the low tones of his voice. "Hooves big enough to bash your head in."
"They were gentle, Nick said."
"Nick never knew what was dangerous, did he?" David said, his voice going sharp now. "Always messing about with things he shouldn't."
Dawn reached out and touched his face. David shut his eyes.
"He's got a good heart," she said.
Gary wasn't at choir practice, the week after the picnic, and Dawn was grateful. Every time she saw Nick, now, she saw him holding Sharon up against the tree in the gardens, and her face got hot and her voice got rough. One moment she felt like phoning Gary to tell him everything; the next she wanted to forget she'd ever seen anything at all. Nick was broken, damaged, but what was going on in Sharon's head, she'd never know. A lot of things happened in a marriage no one ever knew about.
The old ladies behind to her at practice gossiped gently, easily, like water running downhill. Did she? and he never and you see what comes of all this, all the phrases they'd used for decades about nearly the same people. Dawn half-listened, half-ignored them as always, her eyes seeking the wooden heights of the church rafters, until her ear was caught by a word.
"Haven't been any horses since the Johnson horses were taken away," Barbara Douglas said.
Dawn turned around in her seat. "What happened to them?"
Barbara looked at Anna, her neighbor, and then back to Dawn. "Nobody had fed them in months," she said. "Not since David had gone up to London. His brother tried, but there wasn't any money for it."
"David always kept him in pocket money," Anna said.
Barbara nodded. "That's right, he was always mowing the lawns and doing odd jobs in the village."
"Nobody had fed those horses in a month," Anna said. "You could see the bones clear through. Someone called the RSPCA."
"I'll never forget little Nicky, chasing after them horses," Barbara said. "He cried as they were loaded up in the van. But it was better in the end."
"And then his father -- " Anna started to say, but the vicar was speaking, and Dawn had to turn round again.
Why did you leave him behind? she thought that night in bed, watching the rise and fall of David's chest. Alone with a father who beat him, and gentle starving horses no one could afford to feed? But she didn't ask, then or ever.
After Gary left, she tidied the room. She made the bed, and wiped the windows down, and swept and swept and swept the bare boards where they'd lain.
She did a shepherd's for dinner and left it on the table, then shut herself in the bedroom. When she finally heard voices below it was both of them, rough and sing-songy in the way that meant they'd walked home from the pub. She wondered about the car, then shook her head. That was David's affair.
Only one set of footsteps ascended the stairs an hour later, and they were Nick's. She knew from the quick, careless way he went, crashing into the wall once, his heavy breathing. David always took such measured steps, even when he'd been drinking. She waited, but David stayed downstairs.
Dawn turned her head to look out the window, moonlight making splotchy, dancing shadows on the floor and bed where it shone through the leaves outside. She placed one hand, very carefully, on her stomach. If she thought about it, she could almost feel a tiny warmth there, something like a glow, stretching itself out. She tried not to think about Gary's stupid slack face, his breath smelling of crisps, his hands awkward and nothing like David's loving caresses.
It was just a moment, a necessary thing, nothing more. A -- what had the doctor said? -- a blip. In the morning she'd forgive David. In a month, maybe, she'd have something good to tell him. They'd make love a dozen times before then, and no one, not even her, would ever really know the truth.
She played the piano for the baby every morning, until she couldn't reach to put her fingers on the keys. Old songs, sweet songs her mother had taught her, "Scarborough Fair" and "Froggy Went a-Courtin'" and "Danny Boy," and the Child ballads they'd used to sing after dinner. Half-remembered pieces from her lessons, banged out on these same keys as a child, Beethoven and Chopin and Debussy, clumsy and wrong-keyed, until David laughed at her and kissed her and told her to play something he knew. She'd play "Alouette," then, bright and simple, and he'd laugh and kiss her again.
After the baby came, the piano gathered dust for months, until they discovered one frustrated, colicky afternoon that Ben could be entertained if allowed to bang on it, his fat hands sprawled across the black keys. David, lying on the sofa, opened his red, sleepless eyes and groaned.
"You'll never keep him off it now," he said.
"He's musical," Dawn said, leaning in to kiss Ben's sweet, soft cheek.
"Like his mum," David said, and she felt her heart seize up for one wild moment. Ben was hers, the only real relation she'd ever had. His eyes were a bit like hers, and maybe when he grew up he'd play the piano or snort-laugh like she did when something was really funny, and maybe someday a girl would watch his hands and say you do that just like your mum, do you know that?
She turned to look back at David, feeling suddenly guilty. David was watching her, his hands tucked behind his head, and she could never read his face when his eyes were like that.
I love you, he mouthed, and Dawn smiled back.