The opening chapter to the novel, What We See in the Dark.
But Kat didn’t want to talk to Charlie. She leaned forward, flicking through the radio stations. It was either the Spice Girls or Tony Blair’s speech on every channel, and Kat switched it off. A deer lay dead ahead of them, guts spilling onto the road. Its eyes shone glassy in the headlights. Its legs were tangled together, as if it had tried to get up, then collapsed underneath its own weight. Kat couldn’t look away. Crows flapped from the carcass as Charlie swerved to avoid it. Kat gripped the door handle.
‘Sorry,’ Charlie said, glancing at her. ‘I just want to get home before it gets dark.’
‘It’s a long drive,’ Kat said, flatly.
A muscle moved in Charlie’s jaw.
‘Not so long,’ he said.
Kat didn’t reply. In her side mirror, she watched the crows fly back to the deer, dipping their beaks into its open wounds. More crows descended and began fighting over the scraps they’d pulled off. She thought she heard their squawks, rising over the engine, but she couldn’t have. That was why she hated these country roads. It could happen to them, if it was late at night, when only cats’ eyes lit up the dark. You could barely see anything beyond your own headlights. She could almost feel the thud of the deer’s body against their bumper, see its blood smearing the windshield, and she grimaced, bracing herself. Kat forced her eyes away. They drove deeper and deeper into the countryside, into the middle of fucking nowhere. Charlie usually knew how to snap her out of these moods. To distract herself, she imagined there was someone in the backseat she was pointing things out to.
‘This is a beech, that’s a willow,’ she explained, in her head. ‘You can see horses if you look left,’ she said, lifting her hand for emphasis.
The person in the backseat nodded thoughtfully, then became a baby. It had a dummy in its mouth the size of a button. She heard its soft sucking, the heavy breathing through its nose. She pictured Charlie cradling their child, the three of them cocooned on the sofa. A buggy crammed in their hallway. They would curse when they banged their shins against it, squeezing past. There would be muslins and milk bottles on the coffee table, which Charlie would complain about, whilst cheerfully tidying up. She willed down a rush of excitement. A tiny heart beating inside hers, her baby on her chest, her breast, giving it heat, giving it life. She had an ache in her stomach so strong, she had to stop herself from putting her hands to it.
‘You act like a two-hour journey is the end of the world,’ Charlie said.
‘I’m allowed to miss my mum,’ Kat said. ‘Especially now.’
‘My head is still pounding from all that noise.’
Kat sighed. ‘Don’t come next time, then,’ she said.
He took a sharp bend fast and Kat lurched against her seatbelt. She held onto the strap, the other hand on her stomach, and bit down her words. Behind them, a car approached, red, dented, and in response Charlie pressed on the accelerator.
‘He’ll overtake you,’ Kat said. She had meant to say it calmly but she hissed it.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ Charlie said.
His shoulders hunched over the steering wheel. His eyes were on the rear-view mirror.
‘Thinks he can intimidate me in a Corsa.’
‘Charlie,’ Kat said.
Behind them, the red car stayed close to their bumpers. He must be from around here, used to navigating the country roads.
‘It’s fifty here,’ she said.
They rounded another bend, and a van sped past them in the other direction, its underbelly spattered with mud. It was one of those days where it never truly got light. Leaves scudded the ground. Their headlights made watery beams in front of them. The occasional drop of rain hit their windscreen, but none more came, as if the weather couldn’t make up its mind. Even the weather was annoying her. She felt like she had a mosquito buzzing round her head, that kept settling next to her ear. With effort, Kat closed her eyes, thinking about the reflexology massages she had given on Friday. She tried to recreate that feeling of complete absorption. When she probed for sensitive points in a client’s body through their feet, shielding herself from any harmful energy, it was like detangling a knotted necklace. The ticking clock and the gongs from the CD player and even the sound of the client’s breathing, completely melted away.
‘You sulk every time we come back,’ Charlie said.
Kat opened her eyes. The red Corsa was still close to their bumper, and now, two other cars trailed behind it. Charlie sped up as they came off a bend. Kat flinched.
‘What did you expect?’ she asked, and Charlie shook his head, but didn’t reply.
The trees blurred into a green mass. She was sick of these winding lanes. It made her nausea worse. Rain spattered the windshield. The roads were sloppy with mud. The Corsa veered to the right, then overtook them, pulling into their path again as another car approached so Charlie had to brake suddenly. The plastic boxes full of food, packed up by her mother, skidded across the floor by Kat’s feet. The lights from the oncoming car flashed in her eyes as it sped towards them.
‘Idiot,’ Charlie said.
Kat bent to rearrange the boxes, clenching them steady between her legs. When she straightened up, she felt a painful tug, low in her stomach.
‘What do you want for dinner?’ he asked.
She knew it was his way of trying to help. What else could he do but make her dinner? Even that, her mother had taken care of. They had enough food to last a month. He just had to tip it into a saucepan. How useless he must feel, warming it up.
‘I don’t care,’ she said.
‘You have to eat.’
The roar of the demister filled the car. The trees made canopies above them, joining skeleton fingers. In the reflection, she was half-formed and nearly colourless. Her cheeks were sunken and there were new lines around her eyes. Was this what being pregnant looked like? What was that old superstition; that girls steal their mother’s beauty? Girl or boy, she didn’t care. Another shot of excitement. She wouldn’t complain, wouldn’t jinx it by moaning about her savage cramps and swollen breasts, how she was so tired, she read the same paragraph in her book every night, over and over, until the lines bled together.
She would give anything not to go back to the clinic. Yesterday morning, Doctor Moore had tapped on the computer as Kat lay with her legs in stirrups, her blue gown hitched up to her hips. Charlie sat next to her, thumbing her stiff fingers. The nurse squirted cold gel onto her and, on the monitor, her womb appeared, blurry and black. Doctor Moore picked up the catheter and Kat focussed on Charlie, bent towards her, in his chair. If she could keep her eyes on him, it would be all right. If she could push away the panic, wriggling like something alive, fighting to get out, if she counted to ten and didn’t wince, this time, it would work.
Charlie never let go of her hand. Afterwards, he chatted with Doctor Moore about the football whilst the embryologist and the nurse packed up. She wished he would just ignore them, but once they’d left, he sat with her in silence as she tilted her head on the hospital bed, staring at the fluorescent lights. Now, Kat reached over and patted Charlie’s thigh. He dropped one hand from the steering wheel and they stayed like that, their hands in his lap.
‘I have a good feeling about this round,’ Charlie said.
‘Me too,’ she said.
It wasn’t true, but she was sick of being miserable. She squeezed his fingers in hers. What good would it do to imagine the worst? It had to happen eventually, didn’t it?
‘I just don’t want to get our hopes up.’
‘Don’t worry, Kat. The worst that can happen is we’re disappointed.’
Something hot and black spiked in her brain. It was so strong that for a moment, she couldn’t see. Her mind crowded with different, biting replies.
‘I suppose so,’ she said.
‘Maybe we should go away next weekend,’ Charlie said. ‘After the result.’
‘To celebrate, I hope. Either way, it will do you good.’
She thought about replying that it wouldn’t do their bank balance good, that it wouldn’t do either of them good if she cried all weekend, like she had after the last round, that he knew that the best thing for her was to go into the salon, where her clients didn’t know much about her personal life and wouldn’t ask questions she didn’t want to answer. But Charlie was turning away, hiding a smile and Kat realised he had already booked somewhere. He had probably made phone calls when she was at work, scrawling down ideas in his cramped writing that sloped off the lines like a child’s. After the last round, he had chewed his nails bloody, rolling cigarette after cigarette. Spent an hour brooding over his cup of coffee. He had gone to the cinema alone twice, to see The Sixth Sense, but when she had asked him if he’d liked it, he’d shrugged. More than once, Kat called his name and he turned but looked through her, his eyes completely blank, in a way that made her take a step back.
‘Well?’ Charlie said. ‘Do you think you can book it off work?’
‘Saturday’s good money,’ Kat said.
She took her hand off Charlie’s leg.
‘I’ve already taken a lot of holiday.’
‘I’m sure Ella will understand.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘I can ask her, if you want,’ he said.
Kat leaned an elbow on the windowsill.
‘Don’t do that. I’ll see what she says.’
She tried the radio again, but a man was being interviewed about his preparation for the end of the world. He had stocked up on food and batteries, was even storing his milk in the freezer. She switched it off. It reminded her she hadn’t booked anywhere for New Year’s Eve. It would be their first year celebrating outside of London. They might as well stay in, share a bottle of wine, if she wasn’t pregnant. Where was there to go out around here, anyway?
A lorry appeared behind them, its exhaust fogging the air. It must have been there a while but she felt it had materialised out of nowhere. Its headlights looked like white eyes, the front bumper a grim, straight mouth. She shuddered, though she didn’t know why. The car picked up speed.
‘We’re nearly home,’ Kat said. ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’
‘I won’t,’ Charlie said, but he kept his foot on the accelerator.
They passed a sign advertising eggs and firewood, pinned to a post by its four corners. The paper was soggy with rain, the writing bleeding into it. The blotchy writing billowed in the wind, bloating the paper. The lorry flashed its lights at them, once, twice.
‘What does he want?’ Charlie muttered.
The lorry loomed above them. She felt as if in a moment, it would gobble them up. Kat had a wave of dizziness, felt pinned, suddenly, against her seat. The hairs on her arms prickled, then stood up. She was in their lounge, her children on their bellies on a playmat, next to the sliding doors. She always stepped on their rattles in her bare feet. There were two of them, in identical pink babygros, cow prints splodged across them. She needed to feed them; her breasts tingled, swelling with milk. She stroked one of their heads, felt fine black hair in her fingers. One of them laughed and the sound vibrated in her chest. Crouched on the mat, she swept the rattle in front of their darting eyes. She was outside, her head twisting right, left. Searching for something. The cold blasting under her sleeves. Wind wrenching the tops of the birches. A dead deer on the grass, sprawled on its side. Her daughters lifted their heads in unison and stared at her. Their mouths hung open. She scrambled to pull the doors aside and knew there was someone inside the house.
‘Are you all right?’ Charlie said.
Her knees were trembling. Something thick clogged her throat. She nodded. Charlie turned into their drive and the lorry clanked past. Their house was a good three miles from the next village. Kat’s eyes flickered over the empty windows.
‘What’s wrong?’ he said, turning off the ignition.
There was sweat on her forehead, behind her knees.
‘I think I must have fallen asleep.’
‘You’ve gone completely white,’ he said.
‘I don’t feel good.’
‘It’s my fault. We shouldn’t have gone to London. Doctor Moore said to take it easy for a week.’
He came around the side of the car and helped her out. The door clipped shut. Her legs felt slow and heavy. She’d been told to expect that, from all the hormones. She couldn’t walk as quickly as she was used to. She stumbled on weeds, snaking around her shoes. She hoped it wouldn’t dislodge the embryo. The grass brushed her calves. Something rustled in the lavender bush, but when she turned there was nothing there. One of the things Charlie liked about Firwood was that you could hear the birds in the morning, see the stars at night. The silence of the house sometimes unnerved her. But she agreed with Charlie – you got more for your money in Norfolk. She couldn’t argue with that.
Charlie unlocked the door and Kat peered into the lounge. Of course, the house was empty. He helped her up the stairs, into their bed. His hospital scrubs were on the dressing table chair. She remembered he had a shift and her heart beat in a strange jerky way. Charlie wouldn’t get home until seven the next morning, blood smeared on his clothes, reeking of disinfectant. If she called the hospital, it took them forever to find out where he was, for him to come to the phone, ask distractedly what she wanted. But why should she need him? It had been less than two days since the transfer – she just needed to take it easy. She wondered, in a moment of panic, whether that strange feeling of being pinned against the car seat meant something. That she was miscarrying the embryo? It was too early for that. That she was pregnant, then? How was she supposed to know what it all felt like? It was exhausting, these pinging emotions – excited one moment, tearful the next, furious at Charlie for no reason at all.
Charlie showered and she watched him dress. He was all arms and legs, his hair falling into his face so she couldn’t see his eyes. She forced away the lurid pinks of her daughters’ babygros, the sounds of their gurgling. She had felt the sound in her chest. What was wrong with her, imagining these things? If she kept thinking like this, she wouldn’t get pregnant.
Charlie placed her Nokia on the bedside table next to her. He played with the settings, turned up the volume of the ringer.
‘I’ll call you as soon as I get a break,’ he said.
He had tried to switch with one of the other nurses but no one was free. If he took time off, he wouldn’t get paid.
‘I spoke to your mum. She said she’d give you a call, too.’
‘I’m not an invalid,’ she said, but when he kissed her goodbye, she leaned her head against his chest. His hair was still damp. She could have stayed like that, eyes closed, but he took hold of her shoulders and straightened up.
‘Think positive,’ he said. ‘This round is going to be the one.’
He watched her. When his eyes widened in that earnest way of his, he reminded her of a rabbit, or a deer. When she didn’t say anything, he bent to tie his shoes. He could have taken a sick day. She stared at the cupboards. She wished she could go into work. If they were still living in London, her mum would have come over. A slice of light narrowed as the door eased shut and Charlie thudded down the stairs.
She lay in bed, listening to their car start up. She let her eyes close, feeling her muscles stretch out, her body sinking into the mattress. The low throb in her stomach eased, until she barely felt it. Maybe Charlie was right, that this time was it. That returning fizz of excitement, her helplessly fighting a smile. She remembered her two daughters, their mouths gaping open, eyeing her, and she jerked upright, her heart skittering. She clenched the blankets. She concentrated on the bedroom; the beige carpet, the wardrobe casting long shadows on the floor, the curtains that Charlie had found, beautiful blue swirls woven into them though they failed to properly block out the light. Carpet, wardrobe, curtains. A slip of fear, sliding up her throat. The house felt too silent. She forced herself to lie down. It was the hormones making her jumpy, that was all.