by Sarah Evans
The air seems cooler inside than out. The cottage smells of mildew, cinders and disuse. ‘Storage heaters haven’t been left on,’ I say, my fingers resting on the cold metal, trying to persuade myself otherwise. I wonder when the place was last occupied.
You keep your scarf, jacket and woolly hat on, as you ferry stuff indoors and redistribute it. Well-worn maps, books and aged whisky for the living room. Food supplies in the kitchen. Stuffed tight rucksacks to the bedroom.
I plug in the fan heater and linger a moment in the warm current, before following you up the narrow, steep stairs. ‘Like a freezer in here,’ I say. ‘Can’t see us being able to take our clothes off.’ I falter; certain things I have not yet asked.
But you grin, raising eyebrows turned gray. ‘Never too cold.’ And both of us are cantering back over the decades, skinny dipping in icy lakes, camping in the wilds.
I’ve brought linen and we smooth a sheet across the stained mattress. We raid the cupboard for bedding, then stuff pillows and duvet into the covers I’ve brought, floral patterns that belong to a different bedroom, a separate life. We pile every scratchy blanket we can find on top.
I go to draw the curtains. Already it is dark out and the line of mountains is reduced to profile. You come close behind, resting your thumbs on my waist. ‘Think you’re up to it?’ you ask and point to the peak we’ve climbed so many times, with its far-flung views.
‘We’ll have to see.’ I play along with the idea that it might be me who weakens. I think of your email from two weeks ago, one last time, you said. I didn’t hesitate; I assured you that I would make arrangements. PayPal disguises the occasional joint-bank account sin.
Further up the village, wood smoke coils skyward and I catch the acrid scent. We look at each other, minds working in unison: a real fire?
Instructions are provided in the guest book and they are more complicated than I’d have imagined. ‘Not just a case of chucking a match in on top of the logs?’ I say. Your eyes crease together as you study the list of what to do.
Opening the stove doors requires use of a metal contraption. Should be straightforward; isn’t. The thing reminds me of one of those brain-teaser puzzles in which a single – non-intuitive – configuration allows the pieces to snap into place. We crouch alongside one another, shoulders touching, thigh muscles beginning to ache, breath misting. I go first, then give up, easily frustrated. I watch the quiet concentration on your face as you systematically try out all possible orientations. A small smile of satisfaction – ‘there’ – springs up as you win through. We need kindling sticks and logs, both of which are stored in the shed, rather than piled in the large baskets on either side of the fireplace. I wonder whether this isn’t too much hassle. ‘We could decamp to the pub.’
But you’ve come prepared with a pocket-torch and you disappear. A blast of night-time frost rustles the curtains. I shiver. My eyes scan round. The wooden beams and slate floor. The worn furnishings. It’s quaint or shabby depending on your view. Until now it would have seemed indulgent; before, we would bring a tent and sleep out in the hills and forests.
You return, bringing an aura of energy with you and it is hard to accept that what you told me is true; you seem so vital, so alive. I will not ask who will look after you to the end. And you will not ask about my growing children, or the man who fathered them, the husband with whom I’ve arrived at a don’t ask, don’t tell compromise, because honesty is not the lofty ideal it’s made out to be. Day to day living together, long-term partnership: these need smoothing with pain-saver lies and omissions.
I sit back and allow you to methodically follow the step by step rules. I was never good at this kind of stuff; we are unlike in so many ways. You build up layers of small sticks and scrunched up newspaper then chuck in a firelighter. You add two rounds of tree-trunk. Satisfied, you light a match. The flames flare strong and vivid from the paper and solid fuel; they lick round the wood.
‘Success,’ I say.
‘Need to see if the logs catch,’ you reply, cautious still. You close the stove doors and fiddle with the levers, adjusting the flow of oxygen.
I make coffee. You pour whisky. We draw the battered, sagging armchair up to the fire and squeeze in together. I feel the sharp angle of your hip, abruptly aware how the bagginess of multiple layers disguises your diminished frame. There is so much that we could say, dissecting our long history, its joys and the things that went so catastrophically wrong. We could struggle once again with the contradiction, how we learned that it is possible to love someone but be unable to stay with them. We could talk about the illness that will remove you as an observer, leaving the world a poorer, chillier place. Or we can sit peaceably within our individual thoughts and tangled memories, your hand caressing my leg, the heat from the fire gradually building, the whisky burning our throats and the bed that we will make warm waiting upstairs; the bed where we will rediscover the meeting of tongues which do not lie, unlike words which never mean quite what they appear to. Time disappears and we become those people we’ve always been, people who love too honestly to possess.