Returning never felt as long to Kate as the initial excursion out. Perhaps it was that the start of any voyage was stretched moment-to-moment in anticipation of arrival; perhaps it was that the journey back was crammed with familiar landmarks, and new memories, and the odd combination of reluctance and quiet relief that so often accompanied a homecoming. She couldn't count the number of times she and Geoff had driven off on some holiday or another, the sunshine streaming in through the windscreen, music of one genre or another playing on the car stereo, scrutinising each turnoff sign and consulting maps anxiously, until at long last they arrived at their destination—only for the drive back, despite its being the same distance, to pass in the blink of an eye.
Tonight, however, the ride home seemed interminable.
Geoff, oblivious, still carried with him the buoyancy of the dance floor, feet tapping on the floor of the taxi to some music only he could hear, cheeks flushed with excitement. Kate turned away, stared out the window at the murky pools of visibility cast by streetlights, until the taxi reached the outer limits of Norwich proper, and the surrounding countryside gave way to the shadowy darkness of a moonless night. Every so often, a dip in the road made the entire vehicle lurch an inch downwards and recover, like a boat on the swells of the ocean. The taxi murmured a low hum under the tinkle of pop music played low on the taxi driver's radio, and all else was a silence so profound it cut worse than a scream.
Finally they arrived, and Kate made for the house immediately as Geoff paid the taxi driver. She fumbled with the keys, pushed the door open, the interior of her own home greeting her with uncanny familiarity, everything exactly as she'd left it and yet irreparably alien. Dazed, Kate stepped out of her heels at the threshold, her calves finally acknowledging the strain they'd been under all evening. And then there was Geoff, footfalls trudging up the drive, filling the doorway behind her, trapping her inside their shared, shattered illusion.
"Smashing party, don't you think?" he asked, sitting down to untie his own shoes.
Kate stared at him, at a loss for words, as he glanced up at her expectantly with all the innocence and eagerness of a child.
Thankfully, Max had heard his parents' return, and he came tapping his way from the kitchen and shoved his nose into Kate's face as she knelt down to greet him, no longer caring if her dress ended up covered in dog hair.
"I'll let him out," she told Geoff.
She led Max through the kitchen, leaving Geoff behind at the front door, and stepped out into the yard, the grass cool on the soles of her feet through her hose. The moonless night sky was awash with stars, wisps of cloud drawn veil-like over their sheen. Kate turned her face upwards, dully considering the immensity of the universe, struck not so much by a sense of wonder as by a sense of inadequacy. Somewhere nearby, she knew, Max was lifting his leg against a tree, and Geoff was waiting impatiently for her to come back inside. She stayed where she was, even after Max had trotted back to her side, stood absent-mindedly rubbing his soft ears between her hands, wondering if her beloved pet (she refused to think of him as a German Shepherd, not now) was the only being who truly loved her unconditionally and forever for who she really was.
Geoff had retired to the bedroom by the time Kate finally came back inside, and he opened his arms for her as she entered, halfway out of his unbuttoned shirt. Kate brushed past him, retreated to the other side of the room. "I'm tired," she told him, her back turned as she stepped out of the dress and draped it over a chair, pulled on her pyjamas without meeting his flirtatious glances and crawled into bed facing the wall. Long after Geoff had fallen asleep, Kate lay awake, registering every shift of his weight on the mattress, waiting in dread for him to rise and return to the attic, too empty even for tears.
Geoff woke her again with tea the next morning, looming benevolently over her prone body, chipper and cheery as Kate groggily blinked sleep out of her eyes. She stared down at the milky surface of the mug, long after he'd pattered ponderously back downstairs to make sure the toast hadn't burnt, watching wisps of steam detach and dissipate into the chilled morning air. So this was to be the format of all the days to follow, was it: Geoff reminding her every morning that he was doing his best to forget that she'd never been enough. Kate gulped down a mouthful of tea, scalded her tongue, grimaced and was vaguely grateful for the pain.
In the manner of all old couples, she and her husband often spent entire mornings not saying a word to one another, comfortably aware of each other's presence even when absorbed in their own pastimes. Today, Geoff rubbed incessantly at the corners of Kate's consciousness, like a pebble lodged in a shoe, too small to merit any real complaint and yet irksome all the same. He hummed as he made his way through the house—tunelessly, as always, something she never mentioned to him because he took such joy in belting songs at the top of his lungs, and she could never bring herself to take that from him. But Kate's patience today had worn thin and crackled as tissue paper, and a single misplaced note would send it spiralling out of control. She lured Max to the door with the promising jingle of his lead and let him pull her across the fields of dun and muted gold, a landscape of seeming winter lying in wait to be awoken into a devastatingly fresh spring.
By the time Max had exhausted himself, the brisk slap of the air had tinged Kate's cheeks a delicate pink—lively, albeit still only a pale approximation of youth. Just inside the door, she unwound herself from her scarf, shrugged her mac off her shoulders, ruffled Max's ears once more. Geoff was nowhere to be seen. Kate stood at the foot of the stairs, imagined him sprawled out on their bed for an afternoon nap, snoring slightly with his mouth slightly agape; then imagined him huddled in a corner of the attic, surrounded by boxes stuffed with dross and images brimming with the irretrievable. A chill went up Kate's spine, and she turned away from the stairs, arms wrapped protectively around herself.
Her Bach prelude still sat on the piano stand. Kate slid slowly onto the bench and stared at the neatly printed staffs and systems and arpeggiated chords without truly seeing them. Absent-mindedly, she pressed one finger down onto a key, so slowly that, when the hammer gave way, it was with a silent click as its felt head gently met the string. More proof that, if one slipped slowly enough into even the roughest of collisions, it was possible to capture and muffle the resulting clamour so that nobody would ever know. Kate sat with that thought for a moment longer, then raised her finger and pressed down normally so that a resonant note asserted itself into the silence. So what if Geoff was asleep upstairs—or, worse, awake upstairs? He'd slept through worse than her piano-playing before. Kate owed it to herself to remember the things she loved.
As her hands pressed wandering chords down into the keyboard, Kate thought suddenly about her first piano teacher, back when she was a young girl and the world had seemed a place of infinite possibility. How she'd resented old Mrs Churchwell, with her veiny hands and her reedy voice, singing the melodies of Kate's assigned pieces with far less artistry than Kate's small hands played them! She'd resented too her mum's quiet insistence that she practise with strict diligence; twenty minutes a day, or no cake to go with her tea. But it had made her a better musician, all that repetition. Even if she couldn't have noticed it back then, even if her childish ambitions had yearned to leap straight from scales to Rachmaninov, the rote act of doing the same thing over and over again had worn the sensation into her knuckles, quietly brought her willfulness to heel. Mrs Churchwell had nodded in approval, something like a smile stretching across her wrinkled chin.
A false chord made Kate jump slightly, her hands lifting from the keyboard. She studied them for a moment; they were at least as wrinkled as Mrs Churchwell's had been, back when the old woman had trained Kate to be fastidious in her learned complacency. Unbidden, her mum's voice rang in her ears, gently chiding: It doesn't have to be perfect, Katie. As long as you hit all of the big chords well enough, most people will never know the difference. And make sure the last few notes especially are correct and confident, right? That's what they'll remember most of all. She'd asked Kate to play for her, soul cleansed by Schumann even as the cancer devoured her increasingly frail body. Kate could still remember letting the final chord of "Träumerei" reverberate through the living room, her foot pressed down on the sustaining pedal, turning her head to glance at her mum's fragile form swallowed up in the worn armchair by the window, spotting a single crystalline tear glinting in the sunlight as it meandered down one drawn cheek. The image lingered before Kate's eyes, preserved perfectly, as if time had skipped back half a century to that precise moment.
And somewhere, off in the Swiss Alps, a young girl disappeared suddenly into a fissure with a low, startled cry.
Kate closed the piano lid with an sharp clap of wood that returned her abruptly to the present. Mum had been right, too painfully right. She'd played all the big chords right, to great acclaim; all her friends had sat enraptured throughout, and if perhaps one of the big chords had been omitted entirely, who was to say it hadn't merely been for dramatic effect? But now Kate was nearing the end of her piece, the duet that she'd been playing these past forty-five years. And suddenly, it seemed as if she didn't know how the last few notes were supposed to go, at all.
About ten minutes after Geoff presented her with tea on Monday morning, Kate remembered that she'd signed up to take a volunteer shift that morning on a boat tour out on the Broads. Lena couldn't make it today—something understandable to do with looking after Charley while Sally worked—but Kate was glad nonetheless. Another day of prowling about her house restlessly would drive her mad; but she wasn't prepared to go wander broodingly about the fields for no particular reason, like some character from a Brontë novel, so this was the perfect respectable escape from her captivity. She called a brief farewell at Geoff on her way out the door, rebuffing his offer of a crumpet with something about picking up breakfast en route to the mooring.
The sky was curiously cloudless today. Kate resented it a bit, squinted up into its placid blue and wished for a thunderstorm to match her mood (none was forthcoming). Irrationally affronted, she retreated into the interior of the boat and passed round biscuits with just the right level of detached courtesy, trying and failing to ignore the far-too-familiar narration. The recording usually faded into the background of the voyage, unless Lena began mouthing it to her exaggeratedly from across the boat; and then Kate always had to stare fixedly out the window until she was no longer in danger of emitting choked guffaws of helpless laughter for seemingly no reason whatsoever. (An elderly man had offered her a cough sweet once, years ago, when Lena had provoked just this reaction, and Lena, being her cheeky self, had solemnly presented Kate with a pack of Fisherman's Friend lozenges on her birthday ever since.) But today, alone and without Lena threatening an onset of mirth from across the way, Kate's mind seized onto every other word of the story of the Romans and the peat and the formation of the Broads, the way the gramophone they'd bought shortly after moving to Clitheroe ultimately skipped over all the records they'd played too often, late into the nights.
Kate wandered to the top deck, pressed her forearms against the railing and watched the dull-gold landscape drift by, broken only by the fluttering wings of grebes and the ripples emanating from the slow, watery steps of herons. But the fragmented tale of the Broads echoed in her ears, and she stared down into the water, contemplating the peat and the layers of history over which the boat drifted. Kate knew full well that the lakes that formed the Broads were carved out during the Middle Ages to meet local peat demand, but a sense of unease unrelated to any rationality sent goosebumps shivering up her arms. Illogically, she imagined that faces lay sunk there below the water, perfectly preserved bog bodies from centuries past, young Iceni girls drowned in the ages before Boudica's revolt, whose petrified expressions were as lovely in death as they had been in life. She shuddered, knowing that the eyes of the Tollund Man and his mummified fellows were always closed, but imagining nonetheless that she was being watched by an impossible host of the dead.
The Broads, for all their forlorn beauty, had brought no more comfort than an afternoon spent at home would have. Kate drove home in a funk and closed the front door against the uncaringly clear sky.
"Everything all right?" she asked, frowning, as Geoff pushed himself from the living room floor to his feet with the aid of the sofa's arm.
"Oh, yes, quite." He gestured to the picked-apart poster boards spread on the carpet before him. "George brought round the photos this morning, when you were out. I've been trying to figure out where to put all of them."
Geoff had been over to town, it seemed. Empty picture frames were scattered across the sofa and chairs, spilling from plastic bags, some still sporting their prices. Kate sat down and diligently peeled all the stickers off the glass, then began looking slowly through the photos that Geoff had pulled from the poster boards. How happy they looked, in all of these photos, grinning over one another's shoulders at the camera, fingers entwined, the very image of a perfect couple.
This was how they'd looked to the world for the past half century. This was how they'd looked to Kate, until a week ago. Now, though, she peered closely at each of Geoff's smiles, wondering how genuine each was. Wondering if he only managed to look so joyful because he could almost, almost imagine that the brown hair of the woman over whose shoulder he glanced, belonged to someone long gone.
Kate's hands trembled, and she quickly flipped to a photo of Tessa as a puppy, her fluffy tail curled upwards in playful alert, oversized ears perked up and tongue dangling from her mouth. A safe, neutral subject.
"I think if we move some of the artwork in here, we should have room for most of them, don't you think?" Geoff opined, wandering back into the living room. "Or maybe a series up and down the stairs? Or would that make things feel too cluttered, going up and down?"
"Whatever you think," Kate replied, her eyes still on Tessa.
Geoff sat down on the sofa next to her with a deep exhale.
"Want to see my favourite?" he asked Kate, and without waiting for a response, he gently tugged the rest of the photos from between Kate's hands. "This one. From our honeymoon."
Kate finally pulled her attention away from the photo balanced between her fingers and dared a glance at the image that Geoff held. God, they were young. The colours of the photo were faded, as would only be expected from a photo from that decade. She was in a swimsuit on the beach, laughing, eyes squeezed shut and nose wrinkled with merriment, as Geoff grabbed her around the waist from behind, smiling mischievously, clearly successful at surprising her.
"Is that really us?" was all she could think to say, faintly.
"Don't you remember?" Geoff asked.
"Not really," replied Kate after a moment, and she rose to go put something together for dinner.
"I was thinking we might go on holiday," Geoff proposed as he handed Kate her tea the next morning.
"Red Len—I mentioned his grandson's a banker, didn't I? Has a house near the coast in Cornwall. Len said he thought his grandson would be fine with our using it, if we'd like. What do you think?"
Kate shrugged, unwilling to offer a full opinion. Geoff let her be and left her alone in bed.
But the notion of escaping the Broads, escaping East Anglia, had lodged itself in Kate's brain and lingered there, whispering urgently. Mid-morning, she got in the car and began driving aimlessly, swerving expertly round the familiar curves of roads nestled along the bends of the rivers and channels. Bird-watchers on day boats drifted across the surface of the water, their glossy blue-and-white watercraft sharply defined against the sedated neutrals of the banks, and Kate suddenly likewise felt too easily visible in her car against the rural backdrop. Determined to fade into thoughtless anonymity, she drove into Norwich, parked beneath the castle, and wandered down the hill, just one more forgettable face moving through the winding medieval streets of the old city centre. She stepped inside her favourite independent bookshop, determined to find herself some new fictitious distraction, but instead found herself before the travel-book display, her fingers skimming over the names of faraway lands, the air around her fairly humming with possibility. Was this how Geoff had felt when he had flirted with the prospect of once more scaling the Alps? An absurd idea, of course. And yet, Kate's hand hovered over spines advertising destinations oceans away, where she could disappear permanently into the sunshine and there be forgotten: Australia, California, even somewhere as close as the Mediterranean beaches and lavender fields of le Midi.
Outside, a nondescript blanket of cloud made the noon sky gleam a uniform pearly white, highlighting the square outlines of the medieval church towers scattered throughout the city centre, the spire of the Cathedral stabbing fruitlessly up towards the heavens. Kate emerged from the bookshop empty-handed, talked herself out of passing by the travel agency, and instead headed down London Street, stubbornly ignoring the window displays of watches that she would have bought for Geoff for their anniversary, if only they hadn't both been trying to forget the sway of time. She sat down on an empty bench just below the Guildhall and watched random people amble into and out of the Market's rows of stalls, vaguely wondering what secret avalanches were upending their lives, despite the façade of normalcy. What did passersby see when they spotted her there, alone on her bench, in the muted light of an ancient city whose cobbled streets—silent witnesses to religious massacre and enclosure rebellion and Baedeker Blitz bombardment—scarce remembered those whose blood had fastened their fates in the pages of history books? Did these everyday people recognise that they, too, would one day be forgotten—by Norwich, by history, by everything except this or that trace of genetic material passed on to some unimaginable descendant?
A shudder ran through Kate, and she rose and started back towards the car park, hands shoved into her pockets, pigeons fluttering off the pavement to clear her way.
Driving home through the dull afternoon, clamped in the narrow gap between the gray sky and the brown fields, Kate was suddenly overcome by a sense of dizziness. She pulled off to the side of the road and opened her car door, taking deep breaths of fresh air to steady herself. On a whim, she pulled out the tattered AA Road Atlas Britain that had lain dormant in the boot of the car since before Geoff's surgery, scanned the pages and pages between Norfolk and Cornwall, between Norfolk and Edinburgh, even between Norfolk and the insets for Orkney and Shetland. Even as her breathing slowed, Kate's stomach sank. Of course it didn't matter how far she travelled, how long she ran. Much as she yearned to veer off onto some random motorway and continue on to adventures unknown, escaping wouldn't erase the years wasted in a wash of self-deception. She was trapped, frozen, unable to blot out the dates and places of her small, ephemeral, personal history, no matter how much distance she might put between herself and it. She set the Road Atlas aside, shut her car door, and continued on back to her house.
Kate was turning off the tap of the sink when Geoff wandered into the kitchen.
"Drove into town," she explained before he could ask. "Was looking for a new book. Didn't find one."
She tipped back her glass of water without turning to face him, her husband who once had carried himself with the brash certainty that his name would be remembered forever for changing the world.
"Er, have you thought about Cornwall at all?" Geoff ventured. "Just, I feel it's only right to let Len know, sooner rather than later."
Kate set her glass in the sink, then gripped the counter with her hands.
"I don't think it would be wise," she said, staring out the window at the dim late afternoon. "I mean, it's a long journey for you."
"Kate, I..." Geoff let out a sigh of frustration. "Right, yeah. I'll let Len know."
Kate's back was still turned to the rest of the room, but she felt Geoff pause at the door.
"I don't like it, you know, when you just disappear for the day and don't answer your phone once," he said.
"Would you rather I stay cooped up in here all the time?" Kate replied caustically.
"No, of course not, just... just ring, at least once, will you? So I don't have to worry that you won't find your way back."
Kate waited until he had left to collapse with a deep sigh against the counter of a kitchen that felt, in that moment, as artificial as a film set designed to look precisely like her home.
Kate had just brought her mug downstairs from the bedroom, rinsed it, and deposited it in the kitchen sink, when she heard three brisk blasts of a car horn. It was the signal that she and Lena had developed, back before the era of mobile phones, when they'd arrived at each other's and were waiting. Puzzled, Kate opened her front door and wandered a few steps outside.
"How are you not even dressed, at this hour?" Lena called out her car window.
"I'm retired," Kate retorted, as if that was some sort of excuse.
"You've got five minutes," Lena told her. "Nothing fancy, just something more sturdy than your bedroom slippers, for pity's sake."
Kate, bemused, retreated inside and reappeared five minutes later, fully dressed and pulling on her mac one arm at a time.
"You could have warned me you were en route," she pointed out, slipping into the passenger seat.
"Nothing like a surprise to get you up and going in the mornings, though, is there." Lena backed the car out of the drive and started up the road. "I take it you haven't had breakfast yet?"
"No." Kate frowned pensively. "What's all this about?"
"Like you said, we're retired," Lena shrugged. "Got every right to drag unwilling friends out to spontaneous breakfasts in the mornings, haven't we."
But Kate wasn't at all surprised to find that Lena did, in fact, have an agenda. Once the two were settled comfortably at a table in the corner of a café in the village, Lena cleared her throat.
"All right, Kate," she announced, "what exactly is going on?"
"I don't know what you mean," replied Kate, staring resolutely down at the menu from which she had just ordered.
"Very convincing," Lena sniffed. "Well, I've got all day, and you can't get home without my driving you, so you might as well spit it out."
"Did you really just threaten to hold me hostage in a coffee shop all day?" Kate scoffed, incredulous.
"Kate." Lena's voice had gone completely serious. "You don't have to talk to me, if you don't want to. But I think you need to talk to someone about whatever's wrong. Can't you at least promise me that you'll do that much?"
Kate placed the menu down on the table and folded her hands on top of it, still not looking at Lena, willing herself to respond reasonably.
"Oh, god, Lena," she managed shakily, "I think my entire life has been one enormous mistake."
Lena's eyes widened in alarm as Kate bowed her head with a quiet sob. After a moment, she reached across the table and put a hand on Kate's forearm.
"All right, deep breaths," she reminded Kate. "Did something happen at the party? After the party?"
"Before," Kate replied, voice straining to press back a full onslaught of tears. She forced herself to inhale, then exhale. "I always assumed that he loved me as much as I thought he did, but now? I don't know—I don't know what to think anymore."
"You mean Geoff?" Lena confirmed, brow furrowed in confusion even after Kate nodded. "Maybe you should start from the beginning."
"He..." Kate took another deep breath. "He was in love with this woman. Years ago, before we even met. She died when they were in Switzerland, and they only just found her body in the Alps, nearly fifty years later. Frozen in the ice. Frozen in time. He got a letter about it last week, and since then he's been obsessing about glaciers, and—"
Kate's voice snagged on the thought of the attic, and she took a moment to collect herself. Lena waited patiently and, when their tea and scones arrived, quietly stirred milk into Kate's cup and pushed it across the table to her.
"I've never understood him less than at this moment," Kate concluded helplessly. "I feel like I don't know who he is, anymore. I feel like I don't know who we are, anymore."
"Have you talked to him about it?"
"Yes. Well, in a sense." Kate shrugged brusquely. "He kept talking about Switzerland, and their adventures together. Things I'd never heard him talk about, in all the years we've been married."
"Well, I suppose that's understandable. Sounds like an absolutely ghastly experience, I'm not surprised he spent years trying to forget about it, until something brought it all rushing back."
"Yes, but he wouldn't stop talking about her," Kate insisted, desperate to make Lena understand. "I finally had to tell him that I just couldn't hear anything more about her."
"And? Did he stop?"
Kate's argument trailed off. She hated how petty it all sounded, when she had to put it into words; how completely petulant her jealousy appeared on its face, when it cut so deeply and so absolutely in the nebulous recesses of her mind.
"Right, so." Lena's tone had become refreshingly objective. "Your husband received some news about something very disturbing that happened to him before you had even met each other, and he took a few days to grapple with his trauma. Crap timing, to be sure, but none of it was your fault; and by the sound of it, none of it was his, either."
"But he loved her." The words tore themselves from Kate's throat. "He still loves her. And the blinders are off now, and I can see how he must have spent every single moment of the past forty-five years, comparing whatever we had to what he could have had with her—"
"Kate," interrupted Lena patiently, "didn't you hear a word Geoff said on Saturday?"
"What's that got to do with anything?" Kate snapped.
"I mean, you know far better than I do that Geoff wears his heart on his sleeve," Lena shrugged. "He wouldn't have said what he did, if he didn't mean it. And every single sentence of his speech fairly shone with how much he adores you. So what if he was in love with this girl, years ago? She's dead. It's not like it'd do him any good to get mired in all of that, and I daresay he knows it. So—and I say this with all the care in the world—please, please stop making your life out to be a bloody du Maurier novel."
Kate bristled. Lena noticed, but continued on relentlessly.
"Besides, suppose Geoff somehow did love you less today than he did before he got this letter—which he doesn't, as you well know, but let's say he did. What exactly would you do? Leave him?"
"How can I stay when being near him makes me so miserable?" Kate asked in a small voice. "I used to trust him, unquestioningly. Now I can't stop wondering whether everything he does is all an act."
Lena, unimpressed, snorted.
"You'd be ten times more miserable if you left the man you've been madly in love with, for the better part of the past half century," she pointed out. "And we both know from experience what a truly dreadful actor Geoff is, he couldn't keep up an act for this long, especially with you as the audience." She spread some jam on her scone with an efficient sweep of her knife, then placed it on her plate and sighed. "I know I've joked in the past about coming close to divorcing George. But I really did think seriously about leaving him once, probably about twenty years ago."
"What?!" Kate truly was getting tired of receiving shocking old news about the people closest to her. "This is the first I'm hearing about it."
"I know, and I promise it wasn't because I didn't trust you." Lena smiled wryly. "You and Geoff always just seemed like such the perfect, happy couple. And I'm well aware that you've had your rough moments, too, but given that this is the most upset I've ever seen you to date about your marriage, I didn't think you'd quite understand, back then."
"All right, well." Kate folded her hands, still somewhat stung. "What was it about, and why did you stay?"
"Oh, you know," Lena laughed wearily. "Not even someone else who had crossed my path, funnily enough. Just that sense that you get in middle age, when you look around yourself and think, 'My god, is this really it? When I thought in my youth that there was infinitely more to life?' It might have happened to me with anyone, but since I was married to George, all of his little fixations and quirks started really grating on me. I spent about two months thinking every night about how much happier I'd be if I were somewhere else, doing something else. Trying to make my life more glamorous and exciting than what it had slowly become. But, after I'd had enough of those fantasies, I looked around and realised what I'd be giving up, if I left. And I decided it made far more sense to stay exactly where I was, and choose to find happiness in the life I had. Because I had a good life, and a good family, and a good marriage. And even if my life wasn't all that exciting, in the end, it was still mine, wasn't it?"
Kate said nothing, only rotated her scone slightly on its plate with no real intention of picking it up.
"They say time heals all wounds," Lena continued. "And Geoff's just had quite the wound torn back open. Give it a little time to heal, won't you? And try to think the best of him, in the meantime. You two have been so happy together, these past forty-five years, Kate. See if you can't meet him halfway in working things out, before giving up entirely."
"And what if he refuses to reciprocate?" Kate challenged.
"Then you reconsider things from there. But I think, if you bother looking for it, you'll see that he adores you just as much as ever. Who do you think rang me to ask if I'd take you out to breakfast and try to cheer you up?" Kate assumed she looked as startled as she felt, because Lena rolled her eyes slightly with a patient sigh. "Oh, Kate. You've just told me that, once upon a time, the woman Geoff loved got trapped inside ice and it nearly destroyed him. Don't let it happen to him again."
Kate had gone to bed still feeling mildly resentful about Lena's lecturing. But when Geoff woke her the next morning to give her a mug of tea, she sat there contemplating if perhaps she hadn't been reading the gesture entirely wrong for the past few days. By the time Kate finally talked herself into getting out of bed, Geoff had taken Max out for his walk, and Kate spent the morning wandering around the house, looking at where Geoff had suggested all the framed photos be hung, moving around the ones she thought would go best elsewhere. She heard them return halfway through the process, responded briefly to the greeting that Geoff called through the house, gave Max a treat when he barreled into the kitchen to greet her. By the time she was finished with her review, Geoff was asleep on the sofa with a dozing Max curled up protectively on the carpet alongside. Kate caught herself smiling at the pair, as she made her way out the door to make a run to the village.
Geoff was awake and reading when Kate arrived back home with a bag of groceries in each arm. He glanced up at Kate as she passed through the living room, brow furrowed and chin resting on one fist, a Rodin sculpture past its muscular prime. The image was so perfectly ordinary, so totally reminiscent of the life they had always shared, that Kate was tempted to flee into the kitchen and simmer in her bitterness alone as she hid the groceries behind cupboards. But Lena had challenged her to meet Geoff halfway and give his actions the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Kate hadn't been able and willing to support Geoff's interest in glaciers or Switzerland or anything else related to such a raw part of his past, but she could support him in other curiosities that stung less sharply when probed. And so Kate rallied herself with a deep breath and set down the bags.
"At it again?" she asked.
"Would you believe, I've made it to Chapter Three," Geoff announced with a small grin. "Well past it, actually. I'm all the way to Chapter Six."
"Well done," said Kate, since Geoff clearly wanted her to be impressed. "What have you learnt?"
"That I don't know nearly enough about Mozart operas to understand half of what he's bloody written," sighed Geoff tragically.
"Didn't we see that one, about Figaro? At the Royal Opera, that time we were on holiday in London."
"Did we?" The furrow between Geoff's brow deepened. "I don't remember."
"Well, you wouldn't," Kate replied, smiling in spite of herself, "you fell asleep halfway through the second act, and then again in the third."
"Why didn't you wake me?" Geoff demanded, indignation delayed by twenty years.
"You weren't snoring," Kate shrugged. "What does he say about it?"
"Kierkegaard," she clarified. "What does he say about Mozart's operas?"
"That was three chapters ago," grunted Geoff. "I'm on to something else, now."
Kate waited patiently.
"He's got a story in this chapter," Geoff said finally. "About seeing his lover at a play. And she tells him that one only ever falls in love once, and that that first love is the true love. And that means that, if she ever falls in love again, she can only love up to the amount that she loved, that first time she experienced it."
"And do you believe that?"
"Well," sighed Geoff impatiently, "I think I'll need to re-read the whole bloody book to understand what he's trying to..."
"I don't want to know what Kierkegaard thinks is true," Kate cut in. "What do you think?"
Geoff had always been an odd mixture of impulse and deliberateness, which was one of the things that had always drawn Kate to him. Quick to act, but often slow to speak, unless you got a pint in him. That night they'd met at the Leeds Mecca, he'd asked her to dance thrice but barely said a word to her otherwise the entire evening, before suddenly inquiring—politely, with halting decisiveness—if she wouldn't like to go outside and have a smoke with him. Kate had spent all night aflutter over the mysterious stranger with confident dance moves and melancholy eyes, and so she'd followed him outside for that smoke, not daring to hope that she'd get so much as a kiss out of the interaction. It would be an understatement to say that Kate was caught off-guard when she, nineteen and naïve, found herself moaning breathlessly beneath him in the backseat of his rickety car, not thirty minutes later, impressed at just how quickly the soft-spoken man could take action, once he decided to act in the first place. When he'd proposed to her, too, it wasn't with a bouquet of red roses or at the end of a fancy dinner—Geoff wasn't that kind of a romantic—but rather when they were on their way back from some rubbish film at the cinema. As if he hadn't been contemplating it at all; and then, at the end of a hesitant speech in which he told her just how happy she'd made him these past few years, when he hadn't thought he could ever be happy again, there was the ring (gleaming gold with promise, not an ambiguous oak). She'd been terribly startled, stammered out a laugh; and he'd thought it was that she knew her father didn't approve of him, wanted Kate to marry a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, not some Bolshevik-minded factory worker embedded too deep in his union. Don't you trust me? Geoff had asked Kate, affronted and somewhat wounded, and she'd said of course she did, of course, and put her hand in his. They'd had the top table at their wedding as a sign of respectability, to reassure Kate's father that Geoff, for all his radicalism, would take good care of Kate. Geoff had hated being put on display, naturally, said it was disgustingly bourgeois; but it was he who insisted on having the top table, and once he came to any long-reasoned decision, it was irrevocable like that.
"Well," Geoff exhaled, pensive. "I think he's wrong."
Even if he had said it because it was the answer she wanted to hear, Kate still appreciated the gesture. She smiled at him, then picked up the grocery bags and continued on through the room.
Geoff had left his favourite photo of them in the corner of the kitchen, on the side of the desk under a bit of blank wall. Kate placed the bags of groceries on the counter, then wandered over to the desk. The colours of the photograph seemed just a bit more defined today, illuminated by the warm glow of the kitchen light and brought out by the dark wood of the frame that Geoff had chosen for this image. For a fanciful moment, with the wind finally picking back up outside, Kate thought that perhaps she could recall the beach itself, waves crashing and sand between their toes.
Out the adjacent window, the light of the setting sun washed across the sky, tangling gold and fiery red in the edges of puffy indigo clouds. How unexpected, Kate mused, to think that a completely clear sky at the end of the day would have made the twilight infinitely less beautiful.
On Friday, when Geoff handed Kate her tea, she stopped him with a gentle hand on his wrist.
"I've been wondering, what's all this about?" she asked, gesturing with the mug.
"Oh, well." Geoff shrugged. "You've made me tea almost every morning, these past forty-five years. I was thinking about it, and I thought the least I could do was to return the favour, as often as possible, in the time we still have left."
"Is that it?" Kate wasn't quite sure what to think, but her lips had already curved into an involuntary smile. "Well, thank you."
And Geoff kissed Kate on the forehead—carefully, so she wouldn't spill and burn herself—before retreating back downstairs.
Today, like so many days before, was a lazy day of pottering about the house in their own respective circles. Kate remained hyperaware of Geoff's location throughout the house all day long, as he hung all of the photos where they had mutually agreed to place them. But today, his presence no longer buzzed irritatingly around the periphery of Kate's awareness; his tuneless humming over the intermittent taps of a hammer, imperfect as it was, grounded her sense of reality.
"Would you indulge me in a dance?" Kate asked after a typical, quiet dinner.
Geoff glanced up from his Kierkegaard at her, his mouth broadening into a grin. He had always loved dancing, even if his surgery had slowed him down a bit. Kate let him choose a song and granted him a smile when he bowed slightly upon returning to her, Marvin Gaye singing 'Forever' as if it were still 1965 at the Leeds Mecca.
"Lena said you rang her earlier this week," she said, not meeting Geoff's eyes as he took her hand and wrapped his other arm around her waist.
"Well, I was worried," Geoff explained. "You'd been retreating into yourself, and I couldn't reach you."
"Self-defence, I suppose," Kate shrugged. "I felt you'd been doing the same thing."
"Because of Katya, you mean?" Geoff sighed. "The attic's shut up now, Kate. I came back as soon as you told me to, and it's not like I could ever really go back anyway, could I."
"Yes, but, it's not just about that, is it?" Kate wanted to pull away, but a small part of her conscience that sounded obnoxiously like Lena scolded her not to. Instead, she pressed herself closer to Geoff so he couldn't see her face. "It's about what it's all done to us. What it's unearthed in the present, not just in the past."
"And?" Geoff sounded genuinely confused. "What has it done to us?"
It took Kate a moment to find her voice.
"I saw the slides, Geoff," she managed. "I know how much you lost. And I meant what I said. I know a part of you feels that, whatever we've had, it hasn't quite measured up. I haven't been enough for you."
Geoff didn't reply, only pressed his cheek against Kate's. She knew he could feel the dampness of her tears, and she bowed her head so that her forehead rested against his shoulder.
"But you have," Geoff promised softly. "You've been so much more than just enough, Kate. And I've been a bloody fool if I've made you think otherwise for a single second of the past week, or all the weeks before."
"Then you don't resent it?" Kate insisted, her voice choking on unspoken words. It. Our marriage. Our childlessness. These forty-five years we've spent orbiting one another, perfect strangers sharing a life. "How different things would have been, I mean."
Geoff's chuckle burbled up from deep within his chest; Kate could feel the sound reverberate through her own body before it escaped Geoff's lips and brushed against her ears.
"Oh, Kate," sighed Geoff. A tinge of melancholy still weighted his voice, but when Kate raised her face to his, she saw that Geoff's eyes crinkled with affection. "No, of course not. Even if I sometimes imagined how things might have been with her—"
"Yes," nodded Geoff, his gaze dropping for a second down to his shoes. "Yes, well, even then. Still. How I can regret something that was never a certainty, anyway? That's the thing about memories, you know. We can build them up however we like, make them into something too perfect to ever be lived. And who knows? It might have been awful. I'll never know."
"It might have been wonderful, though," Kate pressed.
"True," Geoff conceded. "But, well. Just because it would have been different from what we've had, doesn't mean it ever could have been better, you know. Just different. You see?"
Kate breathed out a long, shaky sigh, and she pressed her cheek once more to Geoff's shoulder, comforted by the solid presence of him.
"I said I wouldn't be cross, that you fell in love with her before we ever even knew each other. I meant it then, and I mean it now, even if she'll always hold a part of you."
"Ah," smiled Geoff, his voice gentle. "You really mustn't resent Katya for that, you know. She was my youth, and all that goes with being young and foolish. It all would have passed on, eventually. But you, Kate? You're my whole life. Then to here, and on to the very end. And we've made a damn good one, haven't we?"
A choked gasp of laughter escaped from Kate, and she pulled her hand from Geoff's so she could wrap both her arms around him and hold him tight, his heavier embrace secure around her delicate frame. Don't you trust me? Geoff had asked her once, and she had said yes and taken his hand and never looked back once, until last week. And despite her lack of faith, fate would not whisk Geoff away for any foolishness that either of them had committed, these past few days, not if Kate chose to commit to the happiness that her marriage had always provided. Geoff had made clear that, having reconciled with the ghosts of his past, he was willing to meet her halfway. And how then could Kate say no?
"Come on, you," she said, pulling away from him, taking his hand, smiling through her tears. They wandered from the living room to the bedroom not with the breathlessness of two excited teenagers, but with the slow deliberateness of a couple married for nearly half a century, nothing left to prove to one another except their solidarity. What happened after the door closed didn't really matter. What was important, in the end, was that even if Geoff had decided to clamber from bed in the middle of the night, Kate wouldn't have so much as stirred.
Max's barking woke Kate the next morning. After a moment of stubborn protest, eyes squeezed closed, she heaved a sigh and extracted herself from under Geoff's arm as smoothly as she could; pulled on the clothes she'd been wearing the previous day; slipped out of the bedroom to go feed the impatient dog his breakfast. Max had just ambled back in from the yard, tail wagging as Kate placed his water bowl back down on the ground next to his food, when Geoff appeared downstairs, eyes still heavy with sleepiness.
"Tea?" asked Kate.
And Geoff blinked and smiled and then eased himself into his chair at the table, rubbing Max's ears when the dog rushed over to say hello halfway through his breakfast, gaze following Kate as she filled the electric kettle with more water and opened the cupboard to pull down teabags and mugs. She caught him at it once, when she glanced over and her eyes met his and he immediately looked away, like some embarrassed schoolboy pretending he hadn't just been staring across the room at his crush. Perhaps the wisdom of age had made her Geoff young again, after all.
For an instant, as she looked at him and he peered coyly back, Kate could suddenly see once more the supple skin and the dark hair of the man she'd married some forty-five years earlier, the man who'd drawn her to him with his solid handsomeness and stubborn earnestness and a certain vulnerability that underlay the fierce joy with which he plunged at life. That softness, that unspoken acknowledgement that life was meant to be lived because it was too short—how it had made her want to take this strong, passionate, grieving man, and protect him forever from his pain with what love she could provide. Kate hadn't known to name Geoff's grief for what it was, back then, nor even until these past few days. But didn't she owe it to Katya, for having helped create the mystery that had kept her by his side all these years, even now when the reckless young man had mellowed into his current incarnation?
Maybe it didn't even matter how well they actually knew each other, she reflected, feeling her husband's attention from across the room as she stood by the window, absent-mindedly regarding the clouded sky as she poured some milk into a little pitcher and then put the carton back into the fridge. The kettle quietly rumbled next to the sink, a steady ostinato against the chirp of birds and the jingle of the tags on Max's collar when he shook his head. Who really ever knew anyone else? Was perfect knowledge necessary for happiness, if two people had decided to be happy with each other and the world they had built, warts and hidden doorways and all?
The electric kettle switched off, and Kate deftly poured a stream of hot water into both mugs and turned to set them on the table.
Returning never felt as long to Kate as the initial excursion out, because she could map how the road back might look: her husband waiting for her with his hands folded on the table, Max's fluffy tail waving in a jaunty metronome beat near his elbow, tea ready and nothing pressing in the diary to preclude a leisurely breakfast. Predictable. Comforting. Familiar in the manner of an old tune hummed on unextraordinary mornings, a conclusion whose notes she could play correctly and with absolute confidence. So this, then, was Kate's choice; not to veer off the road in search of what might have been, but to follow its steady contours home, moment by chosen moment. Tea in the morning at the table, as usual, before Max would want his walk. A snapshot of complete simplicity, capturing nothing of interest and yet somehow everything about their entire marriage, a landmark from which they could strike out again with new purpose in their waning years. And somehow, even though the landmark wasn't grandiose or monumental, it was enough.
"Thanks," Geoff said as Kate placed the mugs on the table and fetched the milk. The two sipped their tea in silence with Max stationed under the table at their feet, and together, they started again.