Perfect: Frost to Thaw (First Draft)

Part 1 is here

She feels sick as she wipes the counter. Nausea took up residence within days of him being home, and however much she sprays, wipes, polishes, she can’t get rid of the smell in the kitchen.
“Slow down,” he says, “take deep breaths, relax.” They’d taught him all that, in there. She still can’t name the place where he’d been and a tsunami of shame overcomes her and washes her away from the friends they had, before. She is adrift and he is no lifeline.
He’s taken to walking round the grounds since he came home, makes her come too, and almost every day they spend an hour or two, making a new path as they tread the perimeter. Tall pines overshadow the north side of the property, and she shivers as they walk there. He knows that now, notices like he never would have done, and he makes sure to take her arm. Further on, they turn a corner and the view opens up in front of them, smooth green lawns with a covering of frost to the right, chilled brown fields to the left.
“It looks bigger now the fields are bare,” he says, “but I like it better in the spring. Won’t be long now before we start to see green again.”
She pokes at the frozen autumn leaves with her Hunters. At first she’d insisted on washing them after every walk until any trace of leaf and earth was gone and the boots were shop-fresh again, but he puts his hand on hers, warm flesh, stopping her turning the cold metal tap. “Come inside,” he says. “We can make hot chocolate. They’ll only get dirty again tomorrow.” So now, the boots are mud-caked in layers. She shudders as she put them on, but he is right, and his smile as she steps out in them makes it worthwhile.
It doesn’t stop her cleaning, though. Somehow she has to get rid of the stale smell in the kitchen. Something is rotting, she’s sure. She empties the fridge, wipes inside, uses bicarbonate of soda, and still the stench grabs at her throat. He pulls her away in the end. “It’s fine, there’s no smell,” he says, but that only makes her wonder if she is insane, or him. And she remembers clearing away the blood, the broken glass, and knows that back then it was him.
The house looks better now, she thinks as she carried the drinks tray through to the living room, places it on the table, adjusts it so the edges are parallel, each glass of G&T centred, each lemon slice the same. No scars visible here, and when he is dressed he looks fine too, as he sips his drink. She takes one mouthful, then, nauseated, leaves the rest.
In bed, each night, she steals glances as he strips his shirt off. He keeps his back to her, but there are mirrors all down the wall. Livid red lines down his stomach, his arms, reflect, stark against the white of his skin, the walls, the sheets, the curtains. No amount of cleaning will erase those lines, and he always turns off the light before climbing into bed and pulling her close.
She starts to decorate the Christmas tree, means to do it by herself, but he comes in as she is half way through. He picks up a bauble, sticks it on a branch, then grabs a strand of tinsel and wraps it round her. He pulls her to him, steals a kiss, and she finds a smile fighting its way out.
“Not there,” she says as she moves that first bauble, but he keeps putting them on, wrong on purpose, she thinks, and it looks so higgledy-piggledy that she giggles, and the giggle becomes a laugh and they both fall onto the sofa, surrounded by tinsel.
She leaves the tree like that: it isn’t magazine-feature perfect, like it had been in previous years, but perfect didn’t work, and she is ready to try something new.
She sips her Earl Grey, one thin slice of lemon, the only thing she wants to drink now. The early-morning smell of coffee leaves her nauseated, toast turns her stomach, and she reluctantly has to hand over cooking to him.
“I’ll clean the kitchen afterwards,” she says, drawn to the splashes on the chrome.
He frowns. “We should get you checked out. You can’t eat less, you’ll fade away.”
“I’m fine,” she says, and she focusses all her efforts on clearing her plate at dinner that night.
“It’s delicious,” she says, but the venison battles inside her stomach and she has to leave the room before dessert.

He still has to see the therapist every morning, and their days find some sort of routine. She sits and waits in on a bench, not far from the car park while he talks. When he’s done, he suggests coffee. Her stomach churns. “I can’t,” she says. He frowns, and she swallows down bile.
The second week, he asks again if she is okay. She turns away and says, “I’m fine.” She can’t tell him that the months in the hospital have changed nothing, not who he is, nor who she is, nor what cannot be. She can’t explain that every moment he isn’t alongside her she wonders whether she will find him again, guts exposed and veins spilt open. It is months since it happened.
“You don’t need to fret,” he says too often, while for her the spine of every day is worry.

They take the decorations down. She cleans. “It’s spring cleaning,” she says when he suggests she takes a break.
“It’s a bit early for spring,” he says and persuades her out into the grounds to hunt for green shoots. They find one clump of snowdrops, tiny spikes forcing their way through chilled earth.
“See! It is spring,” she says, taking his hand. “I can spring clean.”
His face is serious as he asks, “Are you still feeling sick? Is there still a smell in the kitchen?”
She shudders, and nods.
“Will you see a doctor?”
Out there, where green shoots are growing, his hand warm in hers, she isn’t so afraid for him, but the nausea still roils in her belly.
“I don’t need to. He’ll only say I’m anxious.”
She is sick the next morning, and the one after that.
He doesn’t suggest coffee when he comes out from seeing the therapist that day. “I’ve made an appointment,” he says, phone in his hand, “Three o’clock today. Harley Street.”
She is silent, wanting to argue as she always does that waiting in a room full of sick people will make anyone sick, but in Harley Street there won’t be a room full of people, they won’t have to wait. He is serious about this appointment, and because he wants it like he hasn’t wanted anything since he came home, she goes.
The carpet is soft under her feet, her leather soled silver pumps let feel every undulation in the deep pile. It is so long since they have been to an appointment that is about her, not him, she doesn’t know what to do, to say, so she lets him say her name for her, lets him lead her to a chair.
“You look exhausted,” he says, then he is silent too.
There is a taste in her mouth, like something has died, and it has been like that for weeks now. She cleans her teeth as much as she cleans the house, but he hasn’t picked up on that. Silence fills the room, broken by the tap of long manicured nails on a keyboard. She can feel her eyelashes brush her cheeks as she blinks, feel the silk camisole against her back, the straps of her bra against her skin, her breasts soft, tender, somehow fuller, while her skirt feels a little low, too loose now.
“She’s been feeling sick for weeks,” he says when they see the doctor. “She’s hardly eating.”
“I’m fine,” comes out, but so quietly that even she struggles to hear it.
“I’ve put her through a lot this year,” he says.
The doctor probes her, takes blood, asks her to pee in a cup. She takes her time in the shiny stark white bathroom, doesn’t want to return to be examined, exposed. But in the toilet, hovering over the toilet as her thighs shake, hand between her legs, waiting to catch the urine, she wonders if he worries about her too when she leaves the room, so she pulls up her tights, screws the lid on the pot and returns.
“It won’t take a moment,” the doctor says. “I’ll have some tea brought through.”
“Earl Grey,” he says, “she drinks it with lemon.”
She wants to say I’m fine, I can speak for myself, but when the tray comes in she wants to check the cups are clean, doesn’t want to drink from a cup that has touched someone else’s lips, and maybe she isn’t fine.
“Have you been trying for a baby?” the doctor asks when the nurse returns with a sheaf of forms.
He is silent, this time, and she grips his hand.
“We can’t,” she says. “I can’t. That’s why …” She falters. Everything was perfect, they’d had money, time, a beautiful home, but he’d wanted the one thing she couldn’t give him.
“It’s fine,” he says, face turned to her, wrinkles round his eyes, grey hairs at his temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. “It can’t be helped. I’ve talked to the therapist about it. I’m fine. ” He turns to the doctor. “We’re fine.”
“You’re pregnant,” the doctor says.
Bile rises in her mouth. She swallows. “I can’t. They said … I can’t.”
The doctor holds out the form. “We can arrange a scan and see how far along you are.”
He’s looking at her again, the wrinkles round his eyes have changed shape. There’s an upturn to his his mouth and tears spark as he says, “A baby. Our baby”
She tries to smile back, but hairs rise on the nape of her neck. Discussion about antenatal vitamins passes over her as she thinks about the thing growing inside her.
When they return home she goes through to the gardens, and the snowdrops have come into bud.


(Part 1 is here)

Perfect (FIRST EDIT)

It’s perfect, she says, as she stands outside, keys in hand. The house has classic proportions, a pillar either side of the front door, well groomed box trees, a semi-circular drive. It is perfect, or very nearly perfect, she thinks as she notices the leaves on the lawn, swirling in the first autumn winds. She walks closer, raises her hand to insert the key. The door is perfect, anyway, a matt grey finish, framed in white, exactly as she’d specified. No chips. No scratches. She looks at the edge of the brushed chrome lock more closely.  She can see a scratch where someone else has put their key in, a clumsy, hurried builder perhaps. That can go on the snagging list that extends to three pages. Inside the rectangular hall, the smell of new paint reassures her. She is careful to wipe her feet, it would be a shame to get dirt on the ethically sourced coir mat, but more of a shame to damage the perfect lines of the oak floor. She slips off her shoes and pushes one French-manicured finger against the shoe rack door. That fits perfectly, works perfectly, as the soft touch open and close mechanism glides, offering her a pair of soft cream leather pumps. Indoor shoes. Everyone should have indoor shoes and she wonders for a moment whether she should get a set in every size, in case of visitors. Because there will be people coming inside, and she shivers. Perfect. This house is perfect, with large reception rooms, plenty of spare bedrooms, perfect for visitors yet still she doesn’t want anyone else here.  Perhaps another few days and she can think about … She shivers again. She should slip her coat off now, coming into the house that’s what you do, but the house is cold, she’s cold, so she goes to the kitchen. It is easy to turn the heating on, harder to fill the kettle because that makes splashes, and she has to wipe them up, and the counters show where she’s wiped so she polishes them again while the kettle boiled, soft pink microfiber cloth, only for polishing the counters. And it’s easy to get into the rhythm of polishing, following the long lines of the black marble counters, and she startles when the kettle clicks off. Earl grey, lemon, no milk. She wipes the cup before she pours, wipes the square chrome tea caddy, wipes the teapot, wipes the kettle. Perfect again. The aroma is nothing like the stink of the tea from that machine, at that place, or the cup the nurses brewed for you, it’s from the staff room, love, they mean to be kind. She sits at the glass table, and runs a nail along the scratch. She should have replaced it really, nothing to remind her of … She doesn’t know why she kept it, everything else is new. She puts her cup on the place where the scratch is deepest. It’s a good thing it’s glass, so easy to clean. Really hot water, some bleach, and you can’t tell that there was blood. Maybe she needs one of those ultraviolet lights, like on the crime show, so she could see if the blood really is gone. She looks at the walls. Matt White. They’d stripped everything out. She stayed in a hotel near the hospital while the builders were in, making choices, visiting every day, without getting too close. Even in hard hat and overalls she had to shower when she left, shower before she made her other daily visit. She felt dirty after that too, but in a different way.  Wash your hands, it says on the way in, and she wonders whether the visitors would object if she offered hand sanitiser in her own hall. Stop the spread of infection. A shudder. Thousands, no millions of tiny germs spread on her skin, his skin, on the kind-meaning hand of the nurse, of the doctor, and did gloves really act as a barrier, how did you know if the gloves were clean too? She sips the tea. This mug is clean. Bone china. She always soaks the dishes, and when it is just her it is easy.  It will be better now she can sleep at the house again. It will be better as long as there are no visitors. It will be better until he comes home. Bile rises in her mouth and she tried to settle herself with another sip. He will come home and she wants him to, and she can’t bear to imagine him here again. They talk about it, with him, without him. First, a visit. They will see how he reacts. Then maybe a weekend. Then every weekend, and she digs her nails in as she thinks about his presence. Perhaps if she takes him clean clothes, ones that haven’t been in the hospital for months, ones that haven’t gone through some communal laundry with everyone else’s, ones that she has washed herself. She thinks of the soft grey joggers and cream cashmere jumper still hanging in his wardrobe. She didn’t ask them to redecorate the bedroom, but she had cleaned it, cleaned it until she was sore, and the mirrors shone, and every item had been dry cleaned, and it was all in bags. He won’t find anything amiss when he comes back, when he goes upstairs, their room is just the same, because it happened down here, and she thinks again of the ultraviolet light. Were there any traces of blood still, even after the walls have been re-plastered, the floors re-laid? Will he be able to tell? She had explained to him about the new kitchen, but she doesn’t know if he took it in. He just sat there, but that was at the start.  He is better now, he responds when she speaks, but she hadn’t mentioned the kitchen again, nor the lounge. She stood up and put her cup in the sink, ran the tap until the water was scalding, added bleach. It could soak. She thinks about sitting in the lounge, reading a magazine, until it is time to visit.  The new Elle thumped through the door this morning and it is sitting on the new wooden coffee table, perfectly aligned to the table edge, which is perfectly aligned to the rug that sits square in the centre of the big, light room. She stands at the door to the lounge, grips the white door frame, but she can’t go in, can’t sit there, hasn’t sat there since, since he … He’d started in the kitchen, taken a knife to his arms, sat at the table, stabbing, slashing, but that wasn’t enough and he’d walked, run, stumbled into the lounge, and at some point he’d fallen onto the coffee table, knife still in hand, and she couldn’t get rid of the image, blood crimson on the cream carpet. Redecorating should have solved that, the new carpet is beige, not cream, the table wood not glass, but she can still see the giant shard of glass penetrating his gut, as blood streams from his arms, and she turns away. Standing at the hall window she looks out on the lawn, stretching out until it reaches their woodland, trees thinning until they become farmed fields. The gardener would be coming later, restoring perfection to the soft green lawn. It’s everything, this house, she has everything that money can buy now. And he’ll grow to appreciate that again, won’t he? The clock chimes in the hall. In another hour she can climb into the BMW, set the satnav for the hospital, and visit him.  She doesn’t want to go, knows she should. He’s not allowed out, not yet, and she should bring in something from outside. But she stays at the window because she can’t face the florist, because she’d have to speak to them, and if they ask, ‘Is it a gift?’, she’ll feel like they know, and what does she bring him anyway, when he’s shown that he thinks the life they had together, however perfect, is worth nothing, when he says it’s not how he thought life would be, that no amount of luxury and leisure can replace the tiredness that comes from graft, and that no amount of money, no possessions can replace, for him, a messy family home, bursting with the children she can’t have. She breathes in deeply, and runs her fingers down the hand woven damask curtains, dyed to match the rugs on the beautiful oak floor. She keeps on looking out at the fields, and for a moment she wonders why she’s still wearing the coral cashmere angora mix coat, and she isn’t crying, because how can you cry when everything is perfect?