The sky was grey, pregnant with promise of rain. Alice pushed a stray strand of brown hair behind her ear and did up her jacket. Always a little nervous, she tentatively moved down the three steps, through the open gate and onto the road. On the road she noticed the leaves, ripe with colour, yellow, maroon, purple, squashed in tufts against the curb.
She turned to look at the house. The lights were off upstairs. Bill had gone out already. Milk, she remembered as she stood looking at the blank, unyielding darkness of their bedroom window, was what she wanted.
She breathed in. Her lungs felt claustrophobic. They pushed against her rib cage. She turned and began to walk. Water had gathered in the grooves of the pavement, in the waning light of the afternoon the street looked menacing, an unforgiving river.
It had been a bad November in all. Mostly wet, mostly cold. Alice pushed her hands further into her pockets, fingers clasping around the metal keyring of her house keys. She walked unevenly. The threat of slippery leaves and puddles undermining her usually steady rhythm as she side stepped them haphazardly.
The road was empty. On their first viewing of the house they had been caught up in a children’s game. Rogue skateboards and tennis rackets coming at them in all directions. High pitched laughter, coupled with cries of injustice, a strange welcoming party. From the crowd a small girl, blonde, fairy wings, tiara, had asked Bill to help her to fix the bell on her bike, which had jammed.
He hadn’t said much about the house when they left. Only “this will be a great place for our kids”. A summer’s night, the light had been gentle, forgiving. A balmy hue of yellow that coasted upon the green of the leaves. She didn’t remember what she had said, only the confident feel of his arm, enveloping her body in warmth.
There had been no children. Alice stepped into the corner shop. The fluorescent lights inside were blinding, unkind. She felt damp, uncomfortable, too hot in her clothes and sticky from the air. The shop was empty now, though the beige linoleum, stamped with mud, told of other customers. Alice took in the array of bright kids magazines, carefully displayed next to the newspapers. It was all so bright, so messy: sweets and chocolate bars; plastic toys and bottles of bubbles. Alice searched for the thick, pure white. She wanted to drown in it.
Perhaps Bill would be in the kitchen, as he used to always be, thick sandy hair crooked and unkempt. Perhaps the kettle would be boiled, he’d take the milk from her, wrapping his large palms around her bird like paws, ‘never mind about all that’ he’d say, the last fifteen years forgotten.
She paid for the milk and left without saying goodbye, a usual courtesy, she didn’t feel like it today. Alice felt out of synch, like her mind sent messages down a cave, her limbs only got the echo.
Fifteen years ago they’d been in a pub, sitting on two stools either side of a small brown table, switching sides to be closer to the open fire. The chaos of an unpacked life forgotten, they had shared a warm cider, his hands wrapped around hers, hers on the glass. Blood throbbing through both as if they were one. He’d gone to buy another. “Don’t fall in love with anybody else” he’d said. She’d blushed. He could still do that to her. Alice had watched him, his panther-like grace, come back to her with that cup, caressing it as he placed it down in front of her, as though it were their whole future.
And she hadn’t, Alice thought, swinging the blue plastic bag with her wrist, she hadn’t fallen in love with anyone else, only him. Only Bill. It began to rain. Alice wished it were hail, something hard, something to knock her, something to make the pain manifest.
She dug her hands into her pocket. Pressed her finger against the key, held it there for a while. She closed her eyes, wanting to disappear. Up the steps again, willing her body to respond. Key in the lock, she turned it and opened the front door.
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