Note: The first chapter of a novel
Noah wishes he could pick Lucy up, carry her away from the sink and the dishes into the other room and tie her to the armchair, just one hand free to use the remote control.
‘I can do it,’ he says for the second time. ‘It goes with doing the cooking, you said so yourself.’
Lucy has the sleeves of her shell suit rolled up above her elbows as she rubs grease off the frying pan. Noah stands next to her by the sink, his shirt sleeves rolled up too. From over her shoulder, he looks at her hands: the scruffy scouring sponge and strong washing-up liquid are making them more red and wrinkly than they already were. Lucy turns on the tap and rotates the pan methodically beneath it so water splashes onto her apron. She gives Noah a look; he steps quietly to the side; she reaches past him and lays the pan on the dish rack.
‘Fine,’ Noah says eventually and leaves the kitchen, rolling down his sleeves.
He moves a magazine from a dining chair and sits down. He kicks off his slippers, jerks his foot as one slipper remains dangling on his toes. Using his feet, he sweeps his shoes towards him and bends down. His fingertips are a sickly white, thick and callused from assembling a million plastic components and coiling a million metal springs on the conveyor belts. On each shoe he ties a neat double bow.
‘I’m going out,’ he bellows in his factory hall voice.
Lucy appears in the doorway.
‘Where on earth are you going?’ She wipes her hands on a dishcloth, takes Noah in from the bows on his shoes to the buttons on the cuffs of his denim jacket. Her back is regally straight, her face soft, silky lines and her sky eyes sharp like little spikes.
‘Might as well go and do the numbers.’
Noah licks the corner of his mouth, suppresses his smile – he remembered lottery day before Lucy did. Now she can have the dishes while he goes out. Her annoyance appears as a minimal rearrangement of the silken lines around her mouth. She gives almost nothing away.
‘In that?’ she says finally and nods at his unbuttoned jacket. He looks down at it. ‘It’s no warmer than the Arctic out there. You better put on your overcoat unless you fancy being a snowman.’ He keeps suppressing his smile, she keeps wiping her red hands on the dishcloth, although they must be dry by now.
Noah hesitates before he wriggles out of the denim jacket and replaces it on its hook beside the door. He slides his big arms into the duffel coat and buttons it up. His smile spreads out, creasing the skin around his eyes. Lucy purses her lips, then she gently slaps him on the stomach with the dishcloth.
‘Bye then,’ Noah says. He waves a hand in the air as he leaves but Lucy has already turned on the tap again, water splattering testily against the metal sink.
After the dusky stairwell, the brightness outside is always blinding, regardless of the weather. Today there is a pale milky glow behind the clouds, the first trace of sun this year, its sheen making the metal doorframe glint like ice. In summer the door’s steel handle is too hot to touch.
By the next door, a boy is balancing on a bicycle. Another boy watches, holding a piece of wood. Both waver silently there, like saplings. They stare at Noah, who says nothing to them; he squints up at the sky and walks along the path to the shops.
It’s not that he wanted to wash the dishes. He just doesn’t like the feeling of sitting, idling by, while Lucy busies herself. After he’d retired, he discovered that the running of their home was a secret, one Lucy intended to keep.
Today he cooked lunch – she let him do as much – but she kept appearing, remarking what a mess he was making, moving things. He tried to make her go and sit in the other room, said he’d clean everything up when he was done. She enjoyed the omelette he made; she likes his omelettes, she said. But she’s running out of patience with him. She’s running out of patience with a lot of things: the cold weather, the reruns, the neighbours moving out, the neighbours moving in, and the rest. Maybe there’s nothing he can do about it. Maybe there’s something.
A row of modern lampposts stand on Noah’s right, beyond them a row of houses, some hospitable, some not. He passes slowly. On his left, football fields stretch out, brown, almost grassless. At the end of the fields some trees poke the sky.
The air feels soft and sharp at the same time, like feathers and twigs on his cheeks. Aside from the wind, it is as if Noah is the only thing moving, the only thing visibly alive. Everything else is still or absent: no birds, no traffic, no people. He looks back, but the two boys have also disappeared. Only the fields tear up the low sky. Noah walks with his hands in his pockets, happy about the warm coat.
He stands by the counter at the far end of the shop, behind the broad backs of two other men who are filling in their tickets, filling up the space.
The shelves beside him are filled with sweets and chocolates and mints in colours that make him dizzy if he looks directly at them. But on the corner of the top shelf stands two perfectly straight, untouched rows of shiny chocolate rabbits. They are wrapped in gold-coloured foil that sort of crumbles when you peel it off. Noah picks one up and turns it over in his hand. A little bell jingles dully around its neck. He watches the rabbit sit on his palm with its outlined eyes wide open at the sides of its head. He folds his hand around it, careful not to break it, feeling the air inside the hollow inside the rabbit: air about the size of a heart.
One of the broad backs moves over to the queue at the counter and Noah takes his place at the lottery stand. The rabbit sits on the stand, watching as Noah draws black lines across the pink slip. The numbers are always the same: 1-5, Andrew’s birthday; 17-7, Julia’s birthday; 13-11, Ashleigh’s birthday; and 26, meaning June second, Noah and Lucy’s wedding day. A television screen above the stand gently pulsates big blue digits: seven million pounds, seven million pounds.
The boy behind the till takes the pink slip with his long fingers and hands Noah the ticket without looking at him, without saying a word. Afterwards Noah stands outside the newsagent, next to the woman who was before him in the queue. The woman stands holding a bag of doughnuts, turning her head this way then that, looking confused, as if she’d been readily assembled and spewed out from a factory without advice or warning.
A girl walks out of the chemist’s next door to the newsagent’s. She brushes Noah’s arm. For half a second their eyes meet. Noah stares at her silently and she says sorry. He blinks and then he’s sure: the girl is Little Abby, Little Abby who used to live next door, who Julia used to babysit. Her little round face and little uppity nose sitting right in the middle of it are just the same, but she is all grown up now, all glossy hair, high boots, and some sort of fluffy animal hanging around her neck. Abby shows no recognition as she turns and walks away beside the low grey wall to where a couple of cars are parked. By a shiny blue car, Abby meets a man in a suit. Their heads connect briefly in a kiss. The man looks older than Abby; he looks puffed up and doesn’t move as quickly as she does. The man looks faintly familiar too but Noah can’t be sure, his vision doesn’t stretch that far any more. Puffed-up men in suits all look the same, always have. They get in the car, Abby on the passenger side, the man in the suit on the driver’s side, and then they pull away.
Air dances around his face again, soft, sharp, as he leans into the wind. The houses and the lampposts are on his left now, the trees and brown fields on his right. Noah rubs the ticket between his thumb and middle finger, its shiny paper dry against his dryer fingertips. He is halfway home when he remembers: the rabbit, still sitting on the lottery counter.
He stops. He stands in the middle of the wind, gazing in one direction, gazing in the other. The distance to the shops is the same as the distance home. Not that it would have mattered. He starts walking back towards the shops.
Once more the landscape reverses: lampposts to his right, open ground to his left. Suddenly the wind is against him again. He breaks into a sweat. Maybe the denim jacket would have been enough after all, snowman or not. He doesn’t notice when his pace starts to slow down, not until his feet and then his legs get heavier. Soon his feet barely leave the ground. Overwhelmed by fatigue, Noah stops and stretches his back, tilting his head up at the sky. His breath isn’t quite there. He tries to suck down a big gulp of frosty air, but the air won’t stay still long enough for his mouth to catch it. Gaping at the sky, eyes widening at its whiteness, he gasps for breath. He looks down at his body to see what is going on. Although he can feel it, he can’t see the huge vice that is clamping his chest shut, crushing his ribcage and pressing the bones through his lungs and heart. His knees hit the ground. His body slumps forward and his forehead scrapes against the icy asphalt, tearing at the skin. Above him, a sparse powdery snow starts to fall.