Arriving home, long office hours stretched out behind him, Akio sees light in the window of his flat and something clutches at his heart. Dread or excitement, it is hard to say.
He announces his arrival – konbanwa – and hears the shuffle of slippers. Abruptly she is there, this shock of another person, this unassuming middle-aged woman with her worn face, and neat but dowdy clothes. She inclines slightly as she greets him, then presses her lips against his cheek and the scent of perfume hits him in a way that simply sniffing the bottle does not. His lips form his wife’s name, Talia, remembering the shape to it and he watches as she runs her fingers over her hair, smoothing it down, the gesture almost – not quite – the same.
She takes his coat, her hand brushing his shoulder and behind her is the savoury smell of his favourite dish. ‘Food is nearly ready. I must see to it.’
Entering the living room, the younger woman is there. Padma. ‘How was your day?’ he asks, and she shrugs, dismissive, provides a nothing type reply. Her dress is modern and sharp. She is busy with her phone and though this is typical, it is not what he wants, leaving him unsure where the fault lies: his briefing; her execution of it; or in Padma herself.
Futility washes through. Everything falls short, nothing is entirely right. But to say anything would mean stepping outside this illusion, undermining the point.
Just get through the evening, he tells himself; he needn’t do this again.
Talia’s voice calls them to dinner. The table is orderly, china bowls presenting the food to best effect. On his own, he buys pre-prepared food to microwave and eats mechanically from plastic containers, his chomping efficiency opening up more empty hours.
Talia serves him first, picking out the choicest pieces of meat, and he knows this way to things is no longer in fashion and avoids the criticism in Padma’s eye.
Both women ask him questions, how is the food, what did he eat for lunch, would he like more of something, what has happened in the office today? He tells anecdotes of colleagues, the tales vivid in the retelling, making his life feel real. Padma brings up items from the news. Talia refills his cup of green tea when it is drained and from time to time she pats down her hair and perhaps she is getting better at the action, or he is acclimatising to her particular way to it, but it appears more natural. He feels himself easing into the evening, refining his expectations, his sense of what is accurate weakening so he accepts this compromised surface for what it is.
He eats his fill, does not comment that the meat is not quite as tender as it could be. Talia stands to clear the dishes. He could help and in this modern world maybe he should learn to do so, except he has not chosen this solution in order to change his ways, rather he seeks an indulgence, yearns for a few hours of not having to confront the fact that he is left alone, his wife passing away and his daughter declaring that she wishes never to see him again.
He retires to the living room, a few quiet moments to himself before the women join him. Perhaps he should enhance the value of his payment by engaging in further conversation, but what he wants is to turn the TV on and enjoy watching in the company of others. Like with eating, pleasure is absent on his own. He suggests a natural history show and the three of them settle on the sofa, him in the centre. Padma curls her feet up and the soles of her feet press lightly against his leg. Talia’s shoulder rubs against him. They focus on the screen, adding the odd comment, or collectively drawing in breath, or laughing. And it is these little things, these day to day trifles which make all the difference.
One of Talia’s hands reaches across to cover one of his. Her thumb stokes his palm, and this is not something that he asked for and he thinks about taking his hand away, then doesn’t. The show ends and she withdraws her hand and pats her fingers over her hair in that gesture which he demonstrated carefully during the set-up meeting a week ago, during which he answered question after question so that tonight might feel authentic.
There are still ten minutes to go. He wonders if the women are actively conscious of the passing time, looking forward to their evening’s work being over. It is better not to ask. Talia gets up to warm a cup of milk and Padma remains, eyes back on her phone. Both stay while he drinks and he ponders whether they might leave before he finishes if he is too slow. He drains the milk; the digits of his clock click to the hour.
The women rise. Talia takes his cup to the kitchen and he hears the running water.
She reappears with her coat. The two of them bid him good night and Talia graces him with a light, scented embrace.
The house is empty, yet their presence lingers. In bed, lying curled up and facing outwards on his usual side, he can picture the dual curves of his and Talia’s spines, the bi-fold symmetry, like a dragonfly. He can hear her breathing, along with muffled movement from the second room, Padma up late again. He should ring her, apologise for his harsh words from that day when she announced that she was moving in with a man not yet divorced, and there was nothing he could do to forbid it. He will ring. At some point. But for now he has this. And this clutching at the past is not real, he knows that. But it is helping him, helping him through.
Following a career first in theoretical physics and then economics, Sarah Evans unexpectedly found herself writing short stories. Over the past decade quite a few of these stories have been published in anthologies, journals and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and Glass Woman. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Shooter and Best New Writing. Along with writing, she enjoys reading, fell-walking and opera. Find her on Twitter and Amazon.
Author-in-hiding, Digital Artist-in-training, Student-in-perpetuum