There is a note on the microwave door. ‘WIPE CLEAN AFTER EACH USE’
Your voice carries through walls, travels along pipes, pierces wallpaper, drips from taps. Your smell is a film that rubs off every surface I touch, no matter how much I scrub and clean.
I cannot find my key. I check every pocket, my bag, the top drawer. Retrace the familiar steps I take. Stand still and ask the universe to show them to me. Light spills through the lead glass door. I bend and peer through the lock. It is blocked by a key. My key. I did not leave it there.
Sun hits the dining table. I spread out the pieces, smooth creases with my palm. Nibbled edges, stains, fingertip traces. Everything a life could have been. There is a cup stain, neat and small, made by a hand painted porcelain cup with a handle just big enough for one finger. An ivory lace collar is moth eaten, frayed edges waiting to be gently brought back together. Muslins are in fine cotton, initials in red on each corner. When the light hits the bookcase, I will clear everything away.
I have put too much salt in the soup. You tell me three times as you spit it out, let it dribble down your chin and seep into your shirt. When you leave, I scan the cupboards. I have not bought salt for three years. Doctors’ orders.
There is a note on the bathroom mirror. ‘SQUEEZE FROM THE END OF THE TUBE’.
The bus has free Wi-Fi, no password needed. I buy an all-day ticket and sit upstairs, right at the front. Silver branches brush against the window, emerald leaves tickle and dapple light. I lay the work out on my knee. Thread heavy cotton onto the needle and follow the video tutorial. Needle the thread, do not thread the needle. Sturdy backstitch to join the edges, then a second row to make sure. I switch buses once, taking in the entire town, the edge lands shrouded in smoke, the glimpse of sea and heavy endless sky. I get off at the supermarket, collect food shopping and arrive before the sun hits the bookcase.
Our neighbour stops me as I fill the recycling bin. Each item wiped then washed out with boiling water. Puckered fingertips. You will check before your bedtime cigarette. She has not seen much of me lately. I look thin. Am I keeping well? Eating enough? Are we still trying for a baby? Such a shame about your loss.
There is a small case in the bottom of the wardrobe, one you would never open. Filled with things that never were. Shoes that sit in the palm of my hand. Soft ears and lemon wool. I move them aside to make space for my work. As the pieces come together, shifting into a new form, it gets harder to close.
There is a note on the inside of the front door. ‘BE HERE WHEN I GET BACK’.
I sit in the window of the café looking out across the park. My sister is always late. I wish I could stitch while I wait, but the work is voluminous now, spilling out of itself and difficult to manage. She arrives like a whirlwind, kisses, excuses, and a smear of foundation on my cheek. She orders for us. The coffee is too strong. Everyone uses two shots now. I stir in three sugars, tense, then remember she is not here to scold me. She holds her face very still as I talk. Nods only occasionally. Leaves a long silence before speaking. ‘Give it time. It’s been hard for him, you know?’
At home, I work despite the trickling darkness, unpicking stuffing from our pillows, the settee cushions, the padding in the window seat. Just a little, here and there. I read my notes and sandwich wadding between the patched layers. Check the measurements, then check them again. There will only be one opportunity. I must get it right.
You are smiling when you open the door. You forget to raise your hand to latch it behind you. You hand me a letter and wait. A soft expectance. I have long given up on having my opinion valued. ‘Promotion. Transfer to head office. With a relocation package’. Sweat pools under my arms. I clamp them to by body, turn my mouth into a shape that I hope is a smile. Offer a swift kiss on the cheek. You bound upstairs.
You think you are all I have. That my world revolves around you. But there is life here. Vegetables growing in the garden, birds returning year after year to nest, bulbs bursting through creating carpets of lemon and lilac, familiar nods and hellos in the street. Family a bus trip away, salt and crashing waves carried in on the breeze. If I let you take this, then you will have taken everything.
There is a note on the fridge door. ‘ESTATE AGENT COMING TOMORROW. WEAR YOUR BLUE DRESS’.
I let the knob of butter melt slowly, disappearing to a sizzle of foam. Lift my nose. You are still upstairs on the toilet, your stench a fog that chokes me. I crush the tablets with the heel of my hand, stir them into the sauce until they are rosemary and red wine. Red meat has not passed my lips for three years. Doctors’ orders. But I still make your favourite dinner every Friday. Just how you like it.
Tonight, you go to bed early with a headache, open your mouth to blame me, soften when I suggest it’s the excitement. You work so hard. I listen for your thump and rumble, then move upstairs.
The box is heavy now, stuffed with my work. When I unfold it, I realise for the first time how beautiful it is. Pieces of our life in a patchwork quilt, collected scraps, unused sleepsuits and repurposed linens. A keepsake. I slip it over your toes, lift your mottled calves and edge it around your waist and up until it sits around your shoulders. You stir, eyes sliding open. But you cannot move, crushed pills bubbling and settling in your veins, your arms and legs stones in a sack. I pull the thread tight, and the fabric ripples. There is a knot somewhere, fibres fighting against each other. The pale sun that had lit the room is setting, pink wisps and muted shadows. I cannot stitch in unnatural light, all flickers and brightness. I work faster. My index finger pulsing still, blood dried on the tip, pierced by the needle to the bone. I wet my fingertips with my tongue and work the thread between them until it relaxes and the knot comes free. One more row and it will be finished. Your muffled voice comes through, confused and frantic. Hot breath stinging the air. You head rests in my lap, heavy and unmoving, your shroud already soaked through with your tears. I knot the end three times. My signature. It’s for the best, I whisper.