She threaded a line of string around a square of wooden pegs, staking them out roughly, then driving them into the soil at the sunny end of the small garden. She felt the heat of the evening sun on her back and pictured the completed patio. Granite setts bordered by shrubs. A gazebo nearby draped with roses. Jasmine in winter. A pool, to reflect sunlight, star shine.
She heard him through the open windows, downstairs first, then higher as he climbed the stairs.
‘Where are you? Jackie? Jackie? Where are you?’
She continued working, driving pegs in around herself.Through the open bathroom window she heard streaming water as it hit the shower basin. She pictured him blowing his nose under the flow. She wondered why she pictured this. There was a time when the sounds of his showering might reach her somewhere in the house and she would picture his body: tall, rangy, soapy. She wound the left-over string around the pegs, making a double row. The water stopped and she heard the creak of the bathroom floorboards. Now he would brush his teeth. Four minutes exactly. Toothpaste. Polish. Floss.
‘Where do you want these?’ Nick approached, wheelbarrowing a stack of paving slabs across the uneven ground. She turned to see him in his red boxer shorts, towel draped around his neck. He set the barrow down and stood looking at her, hands on his hips.
‘They’re no use yet,’ she said, glancing up at him as she pulled out a couple of pegs. ‘I haven’t decided on this.’ ‘You should expand it. It’ll be like sunbathing on a stamp.’
He pressed his arms tight against his sides and stuck his face up to the sun. She replaced the pegs where they had been and stood up in the centre of the square.
‘I want something to do,’ he said. ‘I’m bored inside.’
He stepped over the string and stood in front of her, tapped his hands against his thighs, then playfully dug her in the ribs between little bursts of shadow boxing. She moved out of his reach. He sighed, then stretched over to the wheelbarrow for the shovel.
‘I’ll start digging so.’
He drove the shovel in a few times, slicing it into the ground, then he lifted a few grass sods and dumped them on her shoes. She cursed him silently.
‘Rocks,’ he said, leaning forward on the shovel. ‘We’ll never shift these. And nothing but stones and rubble under this patch here.’
She leaned over and saw the rubble, buried deep in the ancient soil of their new address. He drove the shovel in again. It rang on the stones. She watched him standingon the blade with both feet, bending the steel with his weight.
‘Look, maybe we should just abandon the whole thing.’ She straightened and cracked her head against his chin. His head jerked upwards, then he steadied himself again.
‘Jesus. Am I cut?’
He rubbed his chin with his fingers, pressing his towel to his face. She opened her eyes and lifted her head from her hands.
‘Can you not give me some room! And will you look at my bloody shoes!’
‘Who asked you to wear those yokes in the garden?’
He turned away to pick up the shovel and glanced his elbow against her arm. She shoved him out of her way. He loaded the blade with soil but she dodged it, stepped out over the string and walked off towards the house. She paused to pick up some cut grass to wipe the dirt from her stained shoes and rubbed at the soft leather now mottled with cloying, dark soil. When he spoke there was a smile in his voice.
‘They want you an hour earlier today. Someone called Sue rang.’
‘What?’ She twisted around to see him digging. ‘My boss rang me and you’re only telling me now?’
‘I called you but I got no answer, so I told her you were busy out here.’
‘Fine. Don’t wait up, then. I’ll be later than usual now.’
She walked down the garden looking at her feet to avoid possible eye contact with May, their talkative neighbour, hovering now by the clothes line beside the low wooden fence. She made a mental note to have a wall built there. Six feet should do it, she thought.
‘Hello, pet, are you rushing off as usual?’ May approached setting her basket of washing down beside the fence. Jackie kept moving.
‘That’s right, May, have to get to work.’
May gave an admonitory tut-tut.
‘Tell me, will he make his own dinner tonight? He’s lovely isn’t he? I often hear him calling after you. Isn’t it great to have a possessive man?’
Jackie glanced back at Nick to check if he had heard. He was standing still with his head cocked, facing away from them.
She approached the house watching them both reflected in the French windows, the distance between them lengthening on the mirrored stretch of lawn. She felt like a spectator sometimes, unwilling to return to herself, unwilling to reach for him, observing as they drove each other on, needling each other, becoming caricatures of themselves in their repeating scenes. She waited for his parting shot, Don’t forget to doll yourself up. He was dancing in the centre of the square now, towel on his head, hands held high as he turned this way and that with exaggerated bows. She ignored his display of exuberance, knowing it was meant for her. She was watching still in the glass when she saw his sideways lurch, heard his cry of surprise. When she spun around he was lying face down, feet caught in the square’s string, trying to raise himself up.
When she reached him, he was lying down again. She prised his hands from his face. Blood streamed from his split upper lip and across his chin and and neck. She thought she might faint but she knelt where she was, aware of nothing but the smell of the earth and the spreading stain on the towel. She tried to close the wound with her fingers, then he spat and his eye-tooth fell into the palm of her hand. She caught his expression of panic as he turned his face away.
‘Don’t worry.’ She helped him up. ‘I’ll put it in some milk. It preserves it and they can stick it back in.’
The route to the hospital was a familiar one. She passed it every day. At the entrance to the dual carriageway, she slowed to let a bus pull out. She hated passing alongside buses, felt crowded by their mass.
‘What are you crawling for?’ She glanced at him. The bloodstained towel was drying now, the flow easing off.
‘I should have taken my own car,’ she said, awkwardly shifting gear. He waved the towel at her.
‘Move it, Jackie. I’m bleeding to death here.’ He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Move it Jackie, she mimicked his voice in her head, What are you crawling for? She followed the line of traffic past the fields on either side, the green spaces shrinking daily as the developers moved in. She passed a billboard for a new estate declaring itself, ‘Close to the mountains. Close to the city. Close to the sea.’ Too close for comfort, she said to herself, picturing May’s face across the fence each time she stepped outside, Nick’s voice permeating the rooms inside. Jackie? Jackie? Where are you? Jackie? ‘Jackie! For Christ’s sake! My head!’
She had missed the sign, forgotten to slow down. The car juddered across the raised strips on the road’s surface. ‘Rumble strips,’ she said. ‘It’s not my fault.’ She shuddered. She hated rumble strips, their unavoidable disruption on an otherwise smooth road making her feel like a kid again, rattling over cattle grids in the back of her father’s car. Her parents in front of her, jolted in their seats, as if an angry force had grabbed them and they were no longer in control. The same feeling later when their shouting kept her awake. She glanced sideways at Nick. He was staring at the towel again, checking the size of the stain. She slowed to stop at the traffic lights.
Her fingers reaching to touch his cheek felt the towel’s thick fabric instead.
Nick sat on a plastic bench resting his head against the lime-green wall of the casualty department. He placed the milk carton containing his tooth beside him. Jackie registered his details, communicating with the nurse through six small holes in a perspex sheet. Nick’s name blinked at her from the computer screen behind it. She found a space on the bench opposite him beside a grey-haired woman in a flower-patterned skirt who was craning her neck over the people in front to spot the latest stretcher wheeled in.
Jackie laid her hand on Nick’s knee. His eyes flashed open.
‘We’ll be hours here because of you and your boundaries.’
‘If you weren’t such a clumsy dope…’
She looked at him but his eyes were closed again. She sat back, silent, fingers poking at a rift in the bench’s cover. The woman beside her leaned in close. She gave Jackie a conspiratorial wink, nodding in the direction of Nick’s bloody face.
‘Did you give him a box, love?’
A stretcher clattered past on the uneven lino, its chalkf-aced occupant jerking from side to side. A large man entered through the swing doors supported by two others. He was swollen about the face, dejection etched into his bruised features. His heavy frame reminded her of her father arriving home from the gym. Picking her up from the bottom stair, swinging her round the small hall, setting her down in front of him, leading with mock left jabs. Ducking and laughing when Jackie blocked and playfully counter punched. Jackie would begin a tattoo of punches, slightly harder with each one, surprised that her Dad could take them without backing off. She would finish off with a hard dig and her Dad making a small ‘uuh!’ sound as he spun away laughing. She would see her mother shaking her head, as if she was tired of the game.
‘She’d make a great little fighter,’ her Dad would say. ‘Never lets anyone in.’
Jackie looked at Nick, staring at her now with a blank expression. She wondered what was going through his mind. She shifted in her seat. His eyes, as startling as when they first met, sometimes seemed to look through her.
She sighed to herself, May’s words coming back to her. ‘Fierce attractive that fella of yours. Those eyes of his make me weak.’ It amused her to think of May, frazzled and fiftyish, fantasising about her Nick. Last night she had tried seeing him as May might. Pretending he was a stranger in the light of the bedside lamp. His eyes locking hers when he was inside her as if trying to prevent her escape.
‘Are you pretending I’m somebody else?’ his voice only half-joking.
‘No,’ she had answered. ‘I was pretending I was somebody else.’
He put his full weight on her afterwards until she gave him a sharp nudge, then he gave her a look of mock surprise as if he had been asleep. In the morning he opened her post.
Just two bills in manilla envelopes, but she felt him watching her face to see signs of annoyance there. She returned his deadlock stare. A man wiping spills from the benches stood between them for a moment, as he came to the end of his round, then he collected coins into bags from the coffee and chocolate machines. One of the doors was stuck and he stood for what seemed like ages searching through a huge bunch of keys. They continued to stare at each other, then, bored, Jackie read the wall charts to herself. ‘Eat more fibre rich foods’ ‘Speech and language therapy – Let’s communicate!’
‘Will you?’ Nick was saying. ‘Will you stay with me, then?’
She gave him a wary look.
‘For the stitches,’ he said.
Jackie’s eyes were drawn to a woman in a faded pink dressing-gown.
Haggard and pale she paced the floor in a cordoned off area nearby. Her sleeve trailed bits of pink thread as she followed the rope looped between shiny chrome rods, her familiar posture tapping a memory Jackie’s mind had tried to seal. Her mother’s hand motionless on the banisters. Silent and trapped in her universe of rooms.
‘Mind you don’t slip on that floor.’
A nurse led the woman away. Slip, Jackie said to herself. Slip, feint, slam, slash. She recalled her father’s words and him pointing to two fighters on the telly, monotonously parrying, then stopping for a break. In one comer a black man jogging on the spot, fists darting in bursts. Another, in the opposite comer, facing the ring post, a thick blue towel on his shoulders, gloves shiny and dark. She remembered thinking how alone he looked.
‘That’s me,’ Nick said, answering the call from a nurse. Jackie watched him walking away from her, the blood streaked towel around his neck. She got up and went after him, her clattering heels making him pause and look round. He continued on his way. She stopped where she was.
‘Wait,’ she said.
He paused and turned to face her, then he waved her away with his hand. She went back to keep their places. When she reached the bench she saw the milk carton where Nick had left it behind. The coffee-machine man squeezed past her with a rubbish bag for another round. He picked up the carton and gestured at it with the sack. Jackie looked at him where he stood in front of her waiting for her to decide. She gave him a nod, then she walked away from the bench and out through the Exit door.