This Road We're On (flax021)

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New Fiction from North West England

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This edition published in Great Britain in 2010 by Flax, The Storey, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, LA1 1TH. Tel: 01524 62166. All works © their respective authors This Road We’re On © Flax All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and the individual creators. Flax is the publishing imprint of Litfest Lancaster and District Festival Ltd. trading as Litfest. Registered in England Company Number: 1494221 Charity Number: 510670 Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and Layout: Anat Caspi Kaivanto at Litfest Photography: Jonathan Bean at Litfest



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By Carys Davies

Chris Witter

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Biography More and More Elaborate Performances

Annie Clarkson

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Biography Out Dancing Behind the Apollo Everything

Amy Prodromou

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Biography Sixteen Seconds

Naomi Kruger

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Biography Ivory

Emma Bragg Biography Sleeping Dogs 3

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The difficulty and fragility of our relationships with those we love – this is the theme that preoccupies the five writers collected here. Between them they explore, in their very different ways, the precarious tension inherent in the intimate connections with others which, as humans, we all crave. It’s no surprise, of course, that this fascination with personal relationships recurs so often in the realm of the short story – of all literary forms it’s perhaps the most perfectly suited to capturing the turning points, the moments of illumination and of blindness, that determine whether a relationship will live or die. Both Naomi Kruger’s ‘Ivory’ and Emma Bragg’s cleverly titled ‘Sleeping Dogs’ portray marriages in crisis, with ordinary domestic situations – the barking of a pet dog, the choosing of a paint colour – unlocking much deeper problems. In both, we see tenderness, patience, bad temper, stubbornness, disappointment, grief and self-absorption all battling and co-existing in such an uneasy balance that the future cannot be certain. Amy Prodromou’s ‘Sixteen Seconds’ and Chris Witter’s ‘More and More Elaborate Performances’ are concerned, in their different ways, with the aftermath of relationships. In ‘Sixteen Seconds’ a girl, during the course of her train journey, recalls in intense physical detail her former lover’s body. In Chris Witter’s fractured narrative much is left to the reader to piece together an unexplained loss and other possible sources of the central character’s profound and disquieting malaise. Annie Clarkson, meanwhile, gives us two short vignettes, ‘Out Dancing’ and ‘Behind the Apollo’, the first capturing the recklessness of youth, the second pondering a missed moment of intimacy and its possible consequences. In a third, longer piece – the quietly heartbreaking ‘Everything’ – Clarkson provides an aching reminder of how much we want to persuade ourselves of the reality of our dreams.


There is nothing glib in these stories, no neatly tied ends; their reality is rooted in their recognition of just how hard our closest relationships can be, and of the vast, seemingly uncrossable distances that so often exist within them. Carys Davies


Chris was born in Watford, in 1987, and raised on brown bread in the flatlands of Peterborough. He first came to Lancaster as an undergraduate, to study English Literature. He’s currently writing a PhD thesis on “innovative” American short story writers of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Read more of Chris’s biography

Listen to Chris read an extract from ‘More and More Elaborate Performances’


He smoked a cig with friends, sat on the school wall. Smoke signals and Lou Reed poses. The chat flowing aimlessly – Drum or Samson? Turkish men in the harbour, their dark tobaccos. Young Grecian, in the bathtub. Walking down tree-lined avenues, hand in hand, I still fret: the sun is so glorious, your white hand so soft, your smile ironic. I look up into soft green leaves. Summer’s hot work conducted in small cafés. Sweating cake parcels for old women who know our names, forget our stories, demand each time more and more elaborate performances. Patrick and I love eating fish. He drinks double espressos to combat despair. They’re mixed up from a child’s watercolour palette: Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber. The child sleeps in a corner, not minding. He makes speeches: … two thirds must work so that the other third may glut on beer and ice cream. … the regulations relating to pronunciation have recently been significantly relaxed. My heart, I adore you – I spend my days sighing at memories of last time we met; my nights I spend dreaming of lovemaking …


He goes to see an old friend. He travels on the train [Midland, Lime Street to Norwich. Departing 10:04. Arriving 11:36]. He seems excited by the views of the countryside. He takes photos. He takes photos of his reflection – one large eye, focusing. He put his hands on her breasts. The nipples made him curious. It’s about creating situations – where – people – it’s hard sometimes to speak – like, take, for example, last week … A woman is selling her wares between London and Newcastle. She says: I’m just enjoying myself – I love my job. We heckle. How was your week? My week? My week was interesting. The customer had everything we had asked for in place, which makes a nice change. I took photographs on the promenade. The sun was at the end of the pier, just slipping down, easing itself into the waters. Comedians, actors and minor celebrities spilled out of the fire exits, smoking. I’m just a little bit sick. He sits on the wall and smokes a cigarette. How was my week? I went to the cinema with my friends. Je suis allé au cinema avec mes amis. On the train I fell over backwards – all of a sudden. Arms reached down to me, lifted me up. Afterwards I wrote it down in my journal: Religious Experience On the train, I was lifted up by strangers. Afterwards I crossed over to the other side. It was a Sabbath. I’m sick. A+ I used to wander around, lovestruck pup that I was. 8

I used to stand in the rain. Still do [Tuesdays and Thursdays]. Used to stand before mirrors – carefully. Used to paint pictures. I tell you, honestly, I’m very sincere with women, girls … Oh, you poor poor man, you must have been traumatised! What? You’re sick? Her skin, scented. Sometimes I despair of it, I really do. [I make a speech]. Fucking bullshit. I just, I tell you, one day, I’m just going to light out for the territories. You know, like Huck Finn? I could sure be happy just with some time and space and a bit of raft and maybe, nah, well maybe a beer or three thrown in. I sat there listening, getting it all down. And where was the pain, did you say? I made notes, as the light returned. I wrote as fast as I could. But it was a Bic, the nib rusted, or it broke in two – I forget. Ma cher. Please. Perhaps, if you could just repeat that last bit, one more time. He sat on a wall doing what? He sat on the wall, for a while. But then he left. He saw her. She was washing her hair in the river – the green river – in the river where we once used to swim – naked and beautiful. He turned and he fled.


Annie Clarkson is a poet, social worker and fiction writer who was born in Kendal in 1973, grew up in an East Lancashire mill town, and now lives in Manchester with her cat.

Out Dancing Behind the Apollo Everything

Read more of Annie’s biography

Listen to Annie read ‘Out Dancing’


We didn’t care. “It’s a cheap ride,” I said, and Tereza smiled that big-blotched-lipstick smile and pulled her bra strap back onto her shoulder because it had slipped, like a lot of things that night. He was, like, forty or something, as old as our dads, and he was banging his hand against the steering wheel in time with that song on the radio and we sang along to Ain’t No Sunshine like we knew it. There were always girls like us jumping into taxis or cars that might have been taxis. There were always nights like this, fuzzed orange with streetlamps and drizzle, and our purses empty because, you know, “just one more drink”. It was like that, when we were out. Me and Tereza, even when we had no money, we still went out and let men pay for our drinks until we slid away laughing about our made-up names. Like I was ever a hairdresser called Natasha. We were still at school! But on this night, we felt good from the Martinis and music still danced in our heads, and this bloke in his car said he would charge us half. Tereza was cutting out, she was so stone-gone; I gave the bloke her address and said, “See you tomorrow babe, right?” and gave him the money before I got out. We were out late and I slept as if I was dead; I was way past where I should have been. Tereza got home alright, but when she rang me the next day, she said, “I had my knickers in my pocket, Lea, why were my knickers in my pocket?”


This is the place where you met me behind the concert hall, the place where you first called me Alice by mistake, then forgot my name a third time, so I wrote it on your arm in biro so you would remember. This is the place where I almost kissed you, but then your girlfriend came round the corner. I wonder what she said when she saw my name written on your arm or if maybe you hid it from her and later, in the bath, tried to pumice me from your skin.


So, you find a man on the Internet. You think, he’s cute. And not just cute, he’s interesting in a way that most men aren’t. Like, as if there are all kinds of weather inside him and a city library with a domed roof and the biggest flock of starlings forming all the words and shapes in the sky you can imagine. He is that kind of man, a man you want to walk with along a beach, and share a tub of your favourite ice-cream and talk total nonsense. You’re shy with him at first, send messages and emails. Sometimes you talk for hours on the phone and he makes you laugh so your belly hurts. Before you know it, the sky is dark, and everyone else is in bed, and you’ve talked entire countries of conversation, but you still have more things to say, and you don’t want to put the phone down, even though it’s the early hours, because you’re talking to a man who makes you feel as if you might be everything. On your first date, you sit and sip orange juice, while he sits opposite you across the table, and the table is wider than the road distance you travelled to get here. You fidget a little and feel as if your face is pink, worrying that he might not like your eyes, or your hair, or the clothes you’re wearing, and maybe you might say something that he laughs at or doesn’t laugh at, and you wonder which might be worse being laughed at or the itchy silence of someone not knowing what to say. But he feels like this too, and it works out because you talk about books, and books are everything to both of you, books are like love, so possibly you might be right for each other, or at least friends, and if not friends then maybe lovers for a while. Who knows. You take a walk in the snow, walking side by side but not touching, and maybe you might touch later, but for now walking together is enough. He tells you what he wants from life, really wants, deep inside. You listen and say frivolous things amid his conversation about the depth of life, but he seems to like you anyway. 13

He smiles when you smile, looks down at you from under his dark fringe and glances away when you glance at him, then later when he walks you to your car, he says what a lovely time he had, which is just what you wanted to say, so you give him a hug, his big-coat-arms wrapping around you so you are gathered up into his chest. It’s as if you don’t want to let go, but of course you have to at some point, because it’s getting late, and you’ve already said you’re leaving, but you wonder how long can you hold another person for the first time? He kisses you, the burn of his lips against yours, and his hands in your hair. Oh ... On the drive home, you decide you know. This man, that kiss, those hands, and you in the car park and everything, the talking, the way he seemed nervous same as you, those starlings inside him, the way if felt as if old worries and past hurts might disappear. But, he keeps you waiting. It’s as though wars happen while you wait for a second date. He’s unsure and that makes you unsure and you worry that maybe you were wrong, that those starlings were giving you the wrong messages. Or that you were mistaken. It was only a kiss in a car park, so perhaps a kiss means something different to a man like him, or maybe you were the wrong kind of kiss in the wrong car park, and he wants a different woman, one who also has starlings and a library, because even though you have every kind of weather, just like him, weather might not be enough, and maybe he’s looking for a girl who lives closer to him, or who can write poems about starlings or talk about life in a way that makes him say, “Yes. That’s it, yes.” You lie in bed at night, wondering if he will say yes, if he will call you one day when you’re not even thinking about him and say, “Come with me to the beach. There’s something I want to show you.” It will be warm outside and you will be wearing a vest and long beads that dangle down to your waist, and he will put his hands on your hips and say, “When I walked home after our first date, I knew. I knew you were everything.” 14

Amy was born in California and migrated to Cyprus when she was nine. She has spent the last 17 years moving between Cyprus, Connecticut, Sydney, and Lancaster.

Read more of Amy’s biography Listen to Amy read from ‘Sixteen Seconds’


First you miss the body parts. Very specific parts: the inward dent of his chest; the hollow in his lower back; the flat clarity of his fingernails. Then you miss the person. The companionable push of thigh against thigh as the bus rounds the corner. The lolling pull of the mattress as it sinks beneath his weight. This presence is a welcoming. It has about it the weight of gravity. Its sound is as constant as street traffic. A continuous dull hum. Without it, you are left to spin away, suddenly made deaf in all the stillness. After that, you miss the theory. You recognize its loss in the reflection of your face in the train’s glass window. The signs of it are everywhere – in the particular way that a woman has gathered her hair. You can see it in the careful placing of food onto a check-out counter, in the nervous creases of an envelope at a post office, buckled with spit.

On the train to Bondi Junction, you study the back of people’s heads. Odd shapes. Strange how flat they could be. Strange how curves will straighten out into definite lines across the back and sides of skulls. Bald spots like yawning mouths. The man in front of you has a beauty mark on the back of his ear. You look at it for a while, studying the intricacies of cartilage. Suddenly, he shifts and edges closer to the window, burying his ear in the tucks of his backpack. You snap back in your seat, and look outside the window where a snail sucks at the glass. Relative to each other, you are both absolutely still, though the train is moving. Another train rushes by you, and you count the sound of eight whomps in two seconds. Stillness pulses around you, perhaps all the more so for all the wind you know is rushing outside.


For a time, all your life was bodies. You noticed him – the twist of his groin, arrow-eyebrows, the dent in his knee, catch in his chin. He noticed you – whale-fin collarbone, cheekbone sway, the frets across your elbow, your tipping breast. He – tracing the passage of time across your body – your thinning eyebrows, the Jesus scar across your abdomen. You – tracing the line of his hips with your tongue. Individual pores. One swollen with pus. You knew how the texture of his skin changed from the top of his shoulder to the blade beneath. His hand moved over your hips and down to your inner thigh before working its way up to the thin patch of hair.

He traced one finger along it to the smoother skin alongside. Strange how he always wanted you to face him, wanted to cradle your head, as though it might break. Your skull was small and light and you could feel how it fit exactly into the cup of his hand. He’d hold it there and push downwards, his breath at your ear. Eggshell touch.

Was there more? At a beach party, next to Lordos, on the stretch outside of Larnaca, you watched his back slope towards the sand. Grooves collected moonlight. He was hunched over himself, cradling the sounds rising from the toumberleki in his lap. Long curls tightened to its rhythm. Later, he was propped up. You tapped your fingers against his arm so that he would lie down. It was easy then to fit into the space alongside him. The beer on his breath was sweet as tomatoes. The towel you were lying on was heavy with damp. It absorbed the moisture from the air and from your clothes. His knees bent again, and you felt the absence of their warmth against your calves. You fumbled with his zipper. His shorts were soaked, the boxers beneath 17

wet and clinging; you pulled at them and tried to find your way through thick, saturated layers to skin beneath. A noise caught in the back of his throat. You were watching as a fine mist formed out of the wet brilliance around you, watched his gaze loosen and unfocus itself against the stars.

When you looked at his face you saw only lines. You could almost see beneath the skin to not quite the skeleton, but instead the bare bones of what could be an artist’s sketch of his face, preliminary etchings on a beige pad. The paper, thick, easily caught pencil strokes outlining the acute angle of his jaw, the gradient of his nose. Brows – rigged high above the contours of his cheeks. All lines and angles, even as he laughed; as though the curve of his lip would upset some predetermined symmetry; as though waiting for flesh-coloured acrylic to fill him in. In the complete darkness there were only temperatures. He was lying in the bed. You undressed quickly – pulling your top over your head – and crawled over him. In bed there were no lines. Only the curvature of his skull, the slight roughness of his now-shaved head like a cat’s tongue on your palms. The smooth outline of his cheek softened into them. He had become liquid, as things will at warmer temperatures. Bending to you, not lingering too long on any one part, but flowing, moving, his hands spilling over you on all sides at once.

You hear a voice break into the silence. It announces Bondi Junction over the loudspeaker. Ten whomps in ten seconds. Outside the window, the snail is gone – leaving only blue smears that track across the glass, splintering sunlight. 18

Naomi Kruger was born in Preston and still lives there with her husband and daughter. She works part time in a library and is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Read more of Naomi’s biography

Listen to Naomi read from ‘Ivory’


My fingers smell of turps. There’s a headache building up, pulsating behind my right eye. And she’s still standing there staring at the wall, not saying anything. “You don’t like it, do you?” I say finally. “It’s not quite what I expected, that’s all.” “What you’re trying to say is that I’ve just spent the best part of a weekend painting our living room a delightful shade of mustard.” “I wouldn’t go that far …” I give her a look. “But it did seem greener on the tin.” “Which is exactly why I said we should get a sample pot.” “Give me a break, Paul.” She lets out a breath and looks up to the invisible gods for strength. But I’m right. And she never listens. “I told you we should’ve gone for something more neutral.” “Oh yes. Let’s just get some industrial magnolia and have done with it.” “It doesn’t have to be magnolia. A nice shade of ivory or white with a hint of something.” We stand with our arms folded. The shade selector calls it ‘Tarragon Delight’. Dijon Glory more like. American bloody hotdog. “I’m going to clean Jamie’s room,” she says. “Yeah,” I shout after her, “heaven forbid he should ever have to pick his own socks up.” I hear her pause on the stairs, then move on. I shut the back door on the sharp chemical smell and sit on the bench. It’s not raining but the air is heavy with it. I can smell the sea. I massage the bridge of my nose, the hard space above my eyebrow. The lawn is full of moss. The slugs have been at the hostas again. It’s the waste that gets me. One more impulse-buy to add to the list. 20

Like the infamous sofa. We’d almost made it. I’d managed to steer us right through IKEA, the whole terrible domesticated labyrinth, and all we had was a cushion and a couple of ice cube trays. The end was in sight. Then Jamie spotted it in the discount section, this huge beige expanse, like a prop from an American sitcom. He sat there stretching his long legs out on the movable footrest. Marie claimed she’d always wanted a corner sofa. It was the first I’d heard of it. I pointed out the scuffmarks. I told them it was risky without measuring the space. But it was all look at the price Dad, sit down and give it a try. And before I knew it I had my credit card out. They delivered it in three sections. It looked a lot bigger wedged in our hallway. We shoved it right against the window but it still crossed the doorway by a couple of inches. Wasted energy. Heat seeping out into the hall. Jamie packed himself off to a mate’s house and Marie disappeared into the kitchen. I was left standing there as though the whole thing had been my idea in the first place. I sat on it, put my feet up, closed my eyes and breathed slowly.

She opens the door and sticks her head out. “What you sulking out here for?” “Headache.” “Have you taken anything?” “No.” “You should take something.” “OK, Marie.” She shuts the door.


It’s that simple isn’t it? Go out and do whatever you want. Be reckless and impulsive. Because it’ll all be fine. Just take a pill and make it better. Repaint the room. It’s not a big deal. Don’t think about it. Don’t plan. Don’t buy the sample pot. Take a chance on a ridiculous hulk of a sofa or the paint that resembles a condiment. Mistakes can always be rectified.

There’s a spot of rain on the bench. The air smells close and sweet and threatening. It reminds me of that thunderstorm in Spain, the way the light shuts down like the whole sky is concentrated above your head. There was forked lighting like I’d only ever seen in bad horror films. I was on my own that day. Exploring the town. I had to get away from the pool and the tourists. I told them it would be too crowded in August. Too hot, too expensive. But Jamie’s friend’s Mum had a timeshare and we could have it cheap. Marie booked it without even telling me. We couldn’t go back on the promise. Then I had to get the flights, except the cheap ones aren’t so easy to come by in peak season. So it wasn’t any cheaper in the end. And we got stuck at the airport for hours and Jamie sat there with his iPod as if everything was fine and Marie kept telling me to calm down. These things happen. These things do not happen if you go to Wales. I got back to the complex after waiting out the rain. I walked. The roads turned from yellow cobble back to concrete. And there they were, sat by the pool laughing, like conspirators. They stopped when they saw me coming. Jamie went into the apartment.

She opens the door again. “Come in Paul, you’ll catch your death.” She pours hot water over the tea bags. She hands me some Paracetamol. 22

“It’s different now it’s drying,” she says. “Not mustardy at all really.” I peer around the kitchen door. I look at it. I just drink it in. “Maybe if you do a second coat …” “You want me to paint a second coat so you can decide you still don’t like it?” “Come on, it’s just paint, the world’s not going to end.” All the times she has told me not to worry. Things will work out. The feel of her fingers, pulling me forward. Creeping up the stairs to her room when her parents were asleep. My lips on her neck. And her voice in my ear. It’ll be fine, it’ll be ok. I believed her. And then there was Jamie on the way. “It’s mustard,” I say. “Don’t exaggerate.” I put down my mug. The chair screeches on the kitchen tiles. “Paul?” I open the fridge door, root around behind the ketchup bottles, the salad dressing and mayonnaise. The jar is half empty, four months out of date. I unscrew the lid. The grooved glass is congealed with thick mustard, dark yellow and grainy. I hold it in one hand and grab her arm with the other. “Come on.” “Paul?” “Here, stand just here.” I position her there. Front row view. I hold the jar with its base against the wall, not quite touching. I look at her. She doesn’t say anything.


Emma was born in Salford but moved to West Cumbria when she was two years old. She grew up in the small town of Workington and now lives in Whitehaven.

Read more of Emma’s biography

Listen to Emma read from ‘Sleeping Dogs’


Zoe jolted awake. It was the sound of a dog barking. She sat up and squinted to see by the light filtering through the curtains. The barking persisted, now in desperate yaps. After a moment she realised it was coming from inside the house. It was Lola. Next to her Mike was flat out and snoring. She moved a hand onto her husband’s shoulder and wondered if he was pretending but he seemed oblivious to the noise. “Mike?” She pushed at the top of his arm rocking his body forward until he roused. “What is it?” His voice came muffled from the depths of the pillow. “It’s Lola again.” He opened one eye, listening until he recognised the sound of yapping and groaned. Pushing himself up, he glanced at the clock: 02:36. “For heaven’s sake, can she not go before we go to sleep?” He threw back the duvet and grabbed his trousers from the bottom of the bed, pulling them on as Zoe rolled onto her side towards him. “Do you want me to go?” “No. I’m sorry, she’s my dog.” He leaned in and kissed the top of her head as he fastened his zip. “Go back to sleep, I won’t be a minute.”

At the top of the stairwell Mike flicked the switch and sauntered downstairs with his arms hugging his bare chest. The light was of the dull headache-inducing kind as the energy efficient bulb came to life; chances are he would be back in bed before it was emitting something other than a pathetic glow.

Downstairs Lola’s barks were accompanied by the sound of scratching as 25

she tried to dig her way under the door. As Mike approached the scratching became more insistent making the door shudder in its frame. When he opened the door paws scuttled back on kitchen laminate. Lola was standing to attention in the middle of the floor, her shape just visible in the dimness. She lowered her head whining and then rounded to the back door tapping her feet. “You’re a pain in the arse.” Lola wined, impatient, and swished her tail. As Mike walked across the kitchen he jumped feeling a sudden wetness beneath one foot. “For God’s sake.” He looked down shaking off the drops and hopping backwards. Thankfully it wasn’t piss; Lola’s water bowl lay on one side near the puddle. Continuing to the back door he tried to limit his footsteps on the cold laminate. The key could not turn quick enough. When the door was barely open Lola pushed past him and sprinted into the garden, leaving a scattering of blonde hairs clinging to Mike’s jeans. Standing in the doorway, Mike felt his arms goosebump as cold air blew into the house. He closed the door to until there was only a small gap of some inches as he peered into the night and tried to warm his arms, rubbing his hands over his skin. He stood for a further few minutes, jogging a little on the spot. How long did it take? “Lola!” The shout came as a hiss, conscious of the neighbours. Behind the garden a house had a bathroom light on and he saw the silhouette of someone moving. It was a blur and he tried to work out whether it was a man or a large woman. Lola remained at the bottom of the garden, refusing to come back in. “Lola!” There was no response. Mike put a foot out onto the doorstep and realised the ground was wet. He sighed and headed back in the house to pull on his shoes, pushing his feet into the still-tied trainers before hobbling back outside. 26

Outside he closed the door behind him and walked down the path towards the sound of Lola digging up the soil. “Come on Lola, please!” She ignored him and kept digging. The longer he stood waiting the more he seemed to grow used to the chill. He noticed the bedroom light was on which meant Zoe was waiting up for him. He imagined her in bed reading, curls of blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. He would walk back in and cuddle into her, his hands moving round her belly and she, with a soft kiss on his hand, would pull away.

In the window of the spare room a small teddy sat on the windowsill looking as if it might be waving to him. Not a wave of greeting but more of help, trapped in a room where the door was never opened and the air grew stale with the smell of soap. Mike was in that room last Sunday while Zoe was at her mum’s. He had not noticed the teddy then. He had walked over to the cot and moved his hands across the wood. It was then he knew, she had not been in the room since it happened. He started when Lola’s head nuzzled his hand. When he looked down at her she sat and wagged her tail along the dirt of the floor. Mike rubbed his hand roughly on the top of her head and then over the soft felt of one her ears. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

Upstairs Zoe was reading. Mike pulled his jeans off and climbed back into bed huddling deep into the covers to regain warmth. He pushed his legs against the heat of his wife’s and she winced. “Mike, don’t, you’re freezing!” As he rolled away he heard Lola pad into the room. “Mike, why isn’t she in the kitchen?” 27

“Come on,” he said, sitting up. “She won’t be any trouble.” Lola circled the bed panting. She moved round to Mike’s side and he put a hand out to pat her. Her tail wagged and after a minute she jumped on the bed “For God’s sake, Mike, she’s getting mud all over the bed!” Mike bit his lip and took a deep breath in, his fists clenching in Lola’s fur. “Come on Lola,” he said climbing out of the covers. “Time for bed.”

He led the dog back down to the kitchen, not bothering with the hall light. As he opened the kitchen door Lola walked in with her head lowered and threw herself onto the dog bed. She rested her head on her paws and through the gloom Mike could see her brown eyes. “Good girl.”

Back in the bedroom he pulled the covers up to his chin and waited while Zoe turned off her bedside light and settled next to him. He moved his body closer to hers and breathed in the floral smell of shampoo. As he kissed the top of her shoulder through the cotton of her nightgown he wrapped an arm around her stomach and hitched his knees into the back of hers. He felt her hand rub his, the softness of her palm and the metal of her wedding ring, then she pulled it up and kissed it, before pulling away to her side of the bed.



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