by Mike Allen

So will things be different, do you think, for us now? She asked this from the bathtub. Her voice was surprising because it was so light.

I suppose they must, he said. He was in the kitchen preparing lentils. The skins of these lentils were a mottled grey with green and brownish flecks. Whatever they expressed they expressed through some arcane, subliminal code.

She said, It’s funny, isn’t it? A funny feeling, I couldn’t say why. He heard the bathwater stir. Strange and sort of amazing, she said, the things that come back to you.

Like what?

Hearing, I don’t know, birdsong.

He waited for her to say something more. She had a way of holding several things in her mind. He finished his wine and rinsed the glass and set it aside on the draining board.

It was late spring. A reddish sun blushed down upon the rain-soaked garden. Smells of cooking and disinfectant drifted through the house.

It all feels somehow so distant, she said. Like in a dream or something. Things simply happen and we must learn to live with them. Do you think we change?

I don’t know. I’m not sure. Maybe.

Or just, you know, readjust.

He lifted the colander into the sink. Washed under cold water the lentils took on the dark gloss of caviar.

It’s just funny, she went on. I mean, it’s curious. That we can do that. That we have that capacity. It must be something very deep and primal. A reflex, almost. What’s the word. Subterranean, sort of. What am I trying to say?

He tipped the lentils into a pot of steaming water and set them to simmer. He washed his hands. He wiped the surfaces. Then he changed his mind and poured himself another glass.

And how, at the same time, our immediate instinct is to reject what happens, look the other way. Until we learn to live with it. Or ignore it. Or just forget.

He appeared in the open doorway with the glass in his hand. She lay in the tub with her knees raised, a damp flannel draped between her breasts. He looked at her in the late-afternoon light. Her face was shiny and flushed at the cheeks. Her hair was dark with water.

Like it never really happened, she said. Because we do. We forget in order to survive, that’s what’s so strange. Maybe not consciously but we do.

He shrugged. It’s only natural.

Is it natural? She trickled water from her cupped palm onto the flannel. I don’t know if it’s natural.

Is the water warm enough?

It’s close to cruelty. And even cruelty isn’t natural.

Don’t let it get cold, he said.

She twisted her mouth. He took a slow sip of his wine. The light reflecting off the bathwater made her legs appear to waver slightly.

It’s just so sad. One thing unravels, then another. It shapes everything, doesn’t it?

What does?

What does. This. Just this. You and me, right now, together in this house. What we are about. The world outside and everything that means.

The world outside, he said. Do you want a glass?

All that's out there.

He raised his glass and jiggled it.

No thanks, she said, and sank further into the water. He went back to the kitchen. The lentils were dancing in the pot. He lifted the lid and turned down the heat.

The kitchen after the rain was cool and bright. The rain had brought its own smells, he couldn’t say quite what. He moved to the partially open window and resumed looking out. The world was quiet and glassy and unreally clean. The soaked bed sheets left hanging on the line moved in the stillness like a curtain.

She said something. It was possible she hadn’t meant for him to hear it, but only to hear that something had been said and that it wasn’t for him to hear.

He touched his stomach under his shirt. The simple clarity of a cup, a chair, a shallow bowl holding onions. He thought of his heart, its subtle pulse, the familiar succession of small events, ordinary, loosely threaded, and far off a car alarm sounding, washing folded into shapeless heaps, the imperceptible merging of the days.

It’s more fragile than we know, she said.

He stood again in the bathroom doorway. He wanted ease, was all. He wanted to comfort her, to talk the way they had in the first years of their relationship, openly, at length, in a mood of gentle enquiry. But another voice within him spoke.

You’ve been in there how long?

The dark tint in her eyes, the hand holding the chin. She was looking not exactly at him, into his eyes, but around him, at his hairline or his ears. She said, Can we just be real, please, for one moment?

He walked to the mirror above the sink. Her eyes followed him across the room and she watched as he leaned over the sink before the mirror and tugged at the skin under one eye.

She soaked and squeezed and ran the flannel along her freckled arm. She said, I was awake for a long time last night just listening, just listening to the night. I took my pillow and the big blanket and I opened the back window a touch and I lay on the sofa all night just listening. Do you know why?

Yes. No. Tell me why.

Smoothing the faint wrinkles at the edge of his eye with his thumb. Baring his teeth. He turned away from the mirror and drank the last of his wine.

Mike Allen is a writer from the UK. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and a BA from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. In 2018, he was awarded an Escalator Prize by the UK National Centre for Writing. In 2019, he won the Seán O’Faoláin International Short Story Prize (judged by Billy O’Callaghan).


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