The Lake, Two Septembers Ago By Amanda Marples
‘Do you remember the lake?’
Of course. It’s where we always went, where you always wanted to go.
His voice is warm, not accusing. The lake felt like ours, but it was I who first took him there, trying to be romantic. He had grown to love it too.
‘You used to give me your socks when my feet were cold.’
He laughs, low and easy and I feel his hand against my cheek. I lean into it, remembering his quiet demonstrations. No expensive flowers or teddies holding red satin I luv you hearts. Telling his funny stories at dinner parties to distract from my accident prone hands, clumsy and knotted; chores he knew I hated silently and unexpectedly done. Beds stripped. Skirtings wiped. Heatpacks tucked inside my gloves.
‘I knew you had me in mind’, I tell him, massaging the joint of my thumb, a bright coal of tangled pain.
His socks, my gloves, his hands.
I close my eyes against the low afternoon sun, her light a pale yellow haze in my kitchen and think of the lake. I asked him to meet me there the day I discovered – astonished in our little bathroom – that Neil was on his way, curled up inside me like a rosebud.
‘I wish I could be there now, watching the sunset.’
There’s nothing stopping you.
‘How can you say that? You know I can’t manage alone.’ I feel him draw back a little, giving space. It is not a rejection. He always knew when I needed to see the panaroma of my emotions, not the detail of my reactions.
I know that, he whispers in my ear. You’ve no need to be alone.
I laugh, and it sounds like a noise someone else would make.
‘I’m not asking Minette to take me. She does enough.’
His scent envelopes me. Wood shavings, furniture wax. His favourite soap.
That’s not who I meant.
He had asked me to meet him at the lake, two Septembers ago. It was beautiful, but I was afraid of what he was going to say. I was wearing my winter coat, even though the conkers were still high up and green in the mature warmth of late summer. He had been in short sleeves.
‘I remember what you said. You said I’m in my hot blood today, when you saw me in my big coat. You made the strangeness about you and not about me.’
He smiles, crow’s feet crinkling the sides of his eyes. I want to reach up and kiss him there at his temple and be folded into his arms.
Instead I say, ‘I love you.’
So what about it?
‘What about what?’
What about seeing if the man with the cherry cravat wants to go to the lake with you?
My hands are already covering my face ready to catch my tears. I am well practiced at this. The terrible heat of my tears.
Hey, come on. It’s what I would have wanted, he says while I cry, and my heart is an echo chamber where his voice multiplies infinitely.
We’d hired a boat that day. She bobbed as we untied her, disturbed from her rest. Dancing girl. Pretty gold script on powder blue wood, her paint peeling away in places. He had lifted me down from the jetty. I felt his certainty despite the pain he must have been in by then.
‘Light as a feather’ he said. We laughed and wobbled around, clutching each other for balance, the pair of us. He hadn’t let go until I was seated.
How could I have let go of you? he says. I push tears over the upward slopes of my cheeks.
‘But you did!’ and there is my anger, fresh as the day it was born, still a ragged hole. The kitchen is silent.
There were oars of course and a rope in the bottom. He’d fiddled with things, trying to look busy while he said things like I’m just too tired and I’ve given it a lot of thought and I don’t want Neil to see this. I’d wanted to cry not for his words but for the beauty of him and his ways, the movement of his fingers on the curled up rope, the muscle of his forearm as he pulled the oars back. But crying would have spoiled it, would have stopped me from filling myself up with the sight of him, the smell of him, the sound of him. So I had held my breath instead and let it out shuddering-slow and looked away for a moment over the still water.
I had watched the green of the bank. A jogger. Dogs and walkers. The flurries of waterfowl in the reeds. When I looked back, he had been looking at me. No laughter creases for now. Just his eyes, deeply grey, feeling their way like they always had.
He had made up his mind.
Clouds scud past my kitchen window and my tea is cold. He sighs and I feel his breath along the nape of my neck.
‘You were so brave,’ I say.
Neil worries about you.
‘Neil’s fine. Do you remember the cup he painted for your birthday? He must have been what, four?’
Yes, Neil’s fine. We did a good job. But he needs to live.
I am silent. I swirl the tea in my cup and try to think of something to say. His hand settles over my knuckles like a drift of snow. The pain has receded but I know it is only waiting.
Last week at your class, he pinned your paper to the easel for you, without a word, did you see that? He understands how hard those things can be for you. He is strong enough to lift you into a little boat without making you feel helpless. Don’t you think?
Grief balloons in my chest again, but this time I don’t catch it in the flats of my palms.
‘I hate this.’ I say in a voice cracked on every vowel.
You said that down at the lake, two Septembers ago. You are allowed to hate it.
He quietens, but in the air of my kitchen I can still feel him.
This is how it is.
He had taken Dancing Girl to the middle of the lake.
‘I hate this,’ I’d said, after he told me he had decided against treatment. I’d pushed those words out through a jaw clenched tight, trying to punish something. The reality, maybe. He rested the oars in their crutches and looked at his thighs, already wasting. The boat stilled to a soothing bob.
‘It’s going to be tough at the end,’ I said.
‘Tough either way,’ he said and reached for my ankle. ‘Tough either way. But I want it done with. For us all.’
‘I can’t live without you,’ I’d said and regretted it instantly, seeing the look on his face. My heart had fallen in my chest as the sun kissed the horizon. He had nodded and looked away from me over the water’s calm surface, ripples from Dancing Girl the only sign that we were there. How light our impact on the world is sometimes. I had seen the tremble of his lower lip but the effort he made to control it was what hurt me the most. A tear slipped out and betrayed him. He cleared his throat.
‘Yes you can. You will. I want you to go for walks. Get a dog. You’ll have time. There will be money. Go on holidays, somewhere hot. You know your joints are better in the sun. I want you to buy some care, just for the heavy things and I don’t want you to be proud and stupid about it. I mean it. And take that class you always talk about. Scribble badly with charcoal for me. Splash paint around. And don’t you dare wait too long.’
The afternoon had sneaked past us into evening and I thought I saw a bat flit in the distant trees. That drive home was the last time he felt well enough to have the wheel. After that, without treatment he went quickly. Disappeared to nothing in my hands.
Dust to dust.
I shake my head, open my eyes, drain my tea. I reach out for him with all that I have and I know with an animal panic that his smell does not linger in my hair like it did and the low notes of his voice are fading in the spaces between days, in the gaps in my memory. Like trying to hold on to smoke.
It’s okay he says, deep in the grain of the kitchen table where we ate. It’s okay he says, shimmering in the steam from my morning shower.
It’s ok he says, it’s ok.
‘But I’m afraid!’ I cry out like a child.
Don’t be. There is so much more. I would have been so proud of you.
I push myself up from the kitchen table, my swollen knees setting on fire and stealing my breath. I wait for the wave to pass and go to my little telephone table in the hall.
The man with the cherry cravat had given me his number last week. Asked if I might care for a pot of tea with him one day. He had blushed beneath his short peppered beard and that had made me smile.
I pick up the phone, ready to push the oversized buttons.
‘Maybe I will call him then,’ I say. ‘For the company.’
The home we shared for so long answers me with affectionate silence. I tell myself not to worry.
He is at the lake, two Septembers ago.
Loving me still.