The light was dim, the sun far away from its summer vigour as the birth of February brought new glistens of ice to the leafless branches. She sat beneath a canopy made of cracked plastic, her hair a mop of wet and dirty, her skin prickling blue under the cruel touch of the winter wind. But she was happy. Her smile proved that above all else. Above the cold, above the dark, she was happy – and the world envied her for it.
A man in a torn suit crossed the orchard as quietly as he could. She hadn’t seen him yet. Her eyes fixed on the Eastern gate which bled a dirt road all the way to the motorway. He’d come by bicycle, though he wasn’t a strong rider. Blood clotted on his hairy knee from where the tarmac had ripped his trousers and his skin in equal measure. He had blue eyes, as she did, though his hair was black and hers was brown, both of them were softer around the edges than they had been in their youth.
He crept like an alley cat, his body still strong and obedient. The bench she sat on was stone and immovable. He stopped, just a few inches behind her, and sniffed the air that emanated from her.
“You smell just as you always did,” he said. She jumped, her heart shaking at the fright but the recognition of his voice came so quickly after that she calmed at once.
“You scared me,” she smiled, standing now, her arms frozen by her side.
“I meant to,” his face lit up in a half smile that made her tummy rumble with fireworks. “But I was going to roar, but that smell…I just couldn’t think of anything else.”
“You’re all hurt,” she said, her hand outstretched but not daring to touch him.
“And you’re wet. What a pair we make.”
“You didn’t drive?”
“I thought I’d cycle, safer, you know?”
“But…” she grinned, tears pricking her eyes. She knew how he hated to cycle. “I missed you.”
“And I missed you, too,” he said as he hopped over the stone bench and took her, gently, in his arms. She shuddered at his warmth. It felt contagious. “You’re so, so cold. How can you be so cold?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she shrugged beneath the weight of his arms, against the hammering of his heart. “Have you heard from Saffron?”
“Saffie? No. Not in a long, long while. Sorry,” he mumbled into her broken hair.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, hating herself for letting her disappointment spoil the few precious moments she had with him. “I…” she paused. “I’m drinking again.”
His breath hitched in his throat, but his arms never loosened around her. She would have wept with the agony if he’d let her go, thrown her away from him like a hot stone pulled from the fire.
“I know,” he said back.
“The smell?” she asked.
He nodded, saying nothing, hating himself for letting that be the aroma he most closely associated with her. Stale cigarettes and cheap wine.
“You should have left me a long time ago,” she said.
“And gone where? Done what? I left only because…I couldn’t have left sooner. Not one second sooner,” he said while his hand played with the gold wedding band on his finger.
“Is she good to you?” she asked.
“Very. Oh, Patricia, she’s so very, very good to me. Kind. Supportive.”
The word sober hung between them both but neither had the desire to utter it.
“I can smell her on you. See her on you too. The way you stand, and talk. You’re more hers than mine now, I reckon.”
“Never. Not now, not ever. It’s always been us. You and me, Pat, you and me and Saffie. There could never be anyone else.”
“You’re married to her, her husband. That makes it you and her.”
“Don’t. Please. Don’t do this. Let’s just enjoy the sunset? Please, Pat. Please?”