A cloud of dust descended from the top of the wardrobe along with the suitcase. The frame landed with a thud and Martin’s heart thudded too. He listened to the silence of the house. Then he started opening drawers, seeking out the essentials. Underwear; folded shirts; pyjamas. From the bathroom, he retrieved toothbrush and shaving things, his brand of shampoo.
The case quickly filled. He’d be back of course to claim the stuff that was unquestionably his. Then later they’d negotiate over items that they shared. He just needed enough to see him through the next few days.
He pressed down on the case, forcing it shut. A car door slammed outside. Chelsea back? Already?
The case was too bulky to slide under the bed. She’d find out soon enough, but better for them to talk before she spotted the evidence. He lifted the case up high. Back in its usual place it seemed obvious that its shape was swollen.
He listened for the front door. Time passed and he wondered if he’d been mistaken. Click! Anticipating it didn’t stop him startling. He clenched his hands, released them and walked steadily to the door and along the hall, mentally bringing up the opening lines he’d practised. They sounded clumsy now. Was there a way to say this softly? Like police officers trained in delivering bad news, might the form of the first words matter?
Tension rose with every slow step downwards. Chelsea had her back to him as she removed her coat. Adrenaline pulsed into sweaty palms and raised heartbeat, his body readied for performance. For fight or flight. Would they fight? Would fighting be better than the mute politeness in which months and months had passed?
She turned as he reached the final step. Her proffered cheek was cold. “You’re home early,” she said. He caught the tang of something sweet on her breath.
“Just back.” Already he was lying; a lie that would shortly be discovered.
“God, it’s good to be home.” She hung up her doorkeys and started chatting about her day.
She seemed to be in a good mood and he remembered how keenly the two of them had once looked forward to weekends. It was hard to think that person had been him, thinking easy thoughts, feeling easy things.
“Someone’s leaving do,” she said. “Cakes in the afternoon. How was your day?”
“Fine.” He felt the need to delay, counterbalanced by the need to press ahead. It was hard to strike out with the initial words that would signal something wrong. He felt paralysed in this moment of mismatch: to her this was just a normal Friday and to him it signified the point of change.
“What d’you want to do for dinner?”
He wanted to avoid dinner. He wanted to say, ‘can we talk,’ and for the two of them to sit down. He was unable to picture her response, whether she would cry, or shout, or throw stuff; whether she would remain unnaturally calm. She could do or be any of those without a trigger.
“Well?” she said and smiled. If he didn’t do this now, when would he?
Dust motes danced so optimistically in the ray of light through the door. Words refused to form.
Her smile faded. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Can we sit down?”
“Oh. That bad.”
“We need to talk.”
Her face sagged and then her body and she crumpled down to sit on the bottom step.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
“I… Can we talk?”
“Yes.” Only with the intake of breath did he realise he’d been holding it.
“I don’t see what’s to talk about.”
Calmness. That was how it was going to go. Indifference. It should have brought relief, the fact she wasn’t giving him a hard time; instead his guts wrenched in dismay and guilt.
“We just don’t seem able…”
“To talk, no. It would be better if you just left.”
“It’s not that I don’t care.”
“Is that supposed to help?” Her eyes flashed up at him, her tone more sarcastic than angry.
“I expect you’ve got it planned. Somewhere to stay.”
He nodded. She knew him so well.
“Probably even got a suitcase packed.”
He wished now that he hadn’t, if only so he could prove her wrong.
She stood up. “Well I’m hungry. Why don’t you sort yourself out and go.”
Upstairs, he pulled the suitcase down and his back twinged under its weight. His eyes rested on the photo by the bed, the elfish four-year-old grinning back. He walked over to the window and looked down into their tangle of a garden, in which once there had been a swing. Chelsea had stepped out onto the weed-strewn paving, her head bowed.
He wished that he could go to her and press his palms around her waist and feel her lean back into his body. He wished that the two of them could offer each other comfort. He had waited for grief to bring them together; instead they had lost each other too. He waited and he willed her to turn and look up and he might see it as a sign that would reverse his decision. But she did not turn and he could not see what choice he had as he headed for the stairs.
Chelsea hugged her arms across her chest, breathing in the fresh air. Earlier today, she had thought she felt the signs of something, like the first nudging bulbs of Spring. Not a coming to terms with, but a sense that living might grow more bearable, that she might be able to push through the dense ash-cloud of anguish, to try and reach Martin. She turned to look up at their bedroom window, wondering if she would see him there.
But the window was empty and she turned back inside. She heard the click of the front door as it closed.
Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press, Tonto Press, Writers’ Forum and here on Every Day Fiction. Most recently, her story “Stuck” was published in Unthology no. 2, “The Tipping Point” won the 2011 Rubery short story competition, and “Loving someone else” won the Glass Woman Prize, and can be read here: http://www.sigriddaughter.com/GlassWomanPrize.htm.