Describe How You Feel in One Word

Short Story by Ali Wilding

Describe How You Feel in One Word

I

Left with no alternative, Kate had decided to believe in God. She prayed to him each morning on her knees.

And then this, sudden as rain.

She stood alone in their bedroom, reflected in the long mirror that had once belonged to her mother. It was an antique, bought at a village jumble-sale. Patrick had never liked it, but when her mother moved into the nursing home, Kate had decided to keep it. It reminded her of her childhood, when in the long hours after school she had tiptoed up to her parents’ room to whisper stories to her reflection. Had anybody cared to listen, they would have observed that in these narratives anything was possible for Kate.

It seemed so unlikely. Patrick had always been fit – he’d spent a weekend skiing with Alasdair not long before. Kate reached for the handle of the wardrobe. Her giddiness did not alarm her; rather, she observed it with a curious detachment, the way one watches an unknown couple rowing over dinner, or a father in the playground struggling with the mundaneness of the school-run. Her own father had been away for much of her childhood. He was fighting a war in Northern Ireland – a place where it mattered how you spelled your name, said her mother. This had confused her. She knew she was Katherine with a ‘K’, not a ‘C’. Sometimes she had to remind the teachers at school, but it hardly seemed worth fighting over. Her mother made them say a prayer for her father every night he was away – every night until Kate turned thirteen, and he had come home in just enough pieces to make a coffin worthwhile. Yes, she knew what grief looked like.

Kate brought her blurred reflection into focus. The dark silk of the dress hung loosely from her narrow shoulders. She remembered Patrick buying it for her, years before, for one of his dinners. She’d worn it with the pearls he’d given her the year after they married. Kate had thought the gift for the first anniversary was supposed to be something made of paper. It was only after she had seen Patrick’s face, as he unwrapped the edition of The Taming of the Shrew which she’d spend so long trying to find, that she realised how silly she’d been.

II

At the door of the church, the vicar took Kate’s hands. She began to feel that creeping annoyance which she knew to be unfair. People wanted to clutch at her lately. Even Andrew gripped her arm, but that she didn’t mind so much.

The pews were almost completely full. Kate felt empathetic smiles in her direction, but she kept her head down until they reached the front. She kissed her daughter, who was calmly feeding the baby, and smiled at a tired-looking Matthew.

Kate tried to focus on what the vicar was saying, but her gaze kept sliding to the coffin. She imagined Patrick lying inside, immaculate as ever. She supposed he was paler now – purpling, even – but she struggled to think of him except as he’d been. He’d always looked like he’d just been lying on a beach somewhere. That’s what people said when they saw him. You look so well! It’s great to see you.

What did they say to Kate? She tried to remember. People had always found her unremarkable. On the night that she and Patrick had met, Kate was sure he’d been looking at someone else. She had been standing alone at the bar, an awkward nineteen-year-old in a sensible dress and borrowed shoes, trying to get the server’s attention.

“Hello, Kate,” Patrick had said, suddenly next to her. She felt the colour rise to her cheeks as his eyes lingered on her pale arms, her dress, the unmanageable curls of her hair. “That is your name, isn’t it?”

“Yes – well, it’s Katherine, but – ”

“Kate suits you better.” Patrick leaned over the bar and ordered a bottle of champagne with two glasses. The lapels of his dinner jacket gleamed in the candlelight.

“How did you know my name?”

“I asked your friend.”

“Oh.”

He held out a hand for her to take. “I’m Patrick, by the way.”

“Do you live in college?” she asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

“Me? Oh goodness, no. They’d never let me back in. A few of us climbed over the wall.” He grinned at her expression. “Aren’t you having a nice time, Kate?”

“Where’s Suzanna?”

“Your friend? Outside, I expect.” He nodded at the champagne in its bucket on the bar. Patrick slowly drew his finger along the curve to wipe off the condensation. “How would you like to join me, Kate? Do you like champagne?”

“I do.” She blushed. “I mean, yes. Thank you.”

He’d led her through the hot crowd. Kate no longer felt so embarrassed by her dress or her unruly hair.

Patrick took her to the dark chapel. A few candles flickered in the draught and the Virgin Mary gazed patiently from the orb of her halogen spotlight. The smell (hymnbooks and damp) reminded Kate of school. She followed Patrick into the vestry, through a small door and up some narrow winding steps.

Yes, Kate remembered, the spires of Oxford had looked quite idyllic that night. Music from the ball drifted upwards, punctuated by the odd scream or peal of laughter. Kate liked the way Patrick held onto her as they peered over the side. She wanted to spot Suzanna in the crowd, but Patrick suggested they look at the stars instead. He took off his jacket and laid it down for her. He poured the champagne and they drank a toast, Kate couldn’t remember what to. They lay back on the pitch of the roof and Patrick pointed up at the sky, inventing silly names for the constellations above them. Kate couldn’t discern anything through the haze of pollution, but she laughed and pretended she could see them too.

Patrick refilled her glass and they talked about the poems and novels and plays she should read next. She remembered the chapel bell startling her as it struck the hour – she didn’t remember which – and Patrick’s smooth fingers parting the slit in her dress as the roof beneath them throbbed with each colossal chime. She thought of her mother’s outrage and laughed, feeling the warmth of the alcohol inside her.

Afterwards, she rested her head on Patrick’s shoulder. He smelled delicious: expensive and warm. Before she’d gone up to Oxford, her mother had warned her about what happened to girls who lost their virginity before marriage. It had hurt a bit, but Kate didn’t feel as though she had lost anything. Patrick put his arm around her and caressed her neck and her hair, entangling his fingers in the dark curls as he told her about his work. He had a job which took him all over Europe. Paris was beautiful, he said. She’d love it.

He poured the last of the champagne into her glass and watched her drink it. Then he made them walk the length of roof, a pair of swaying tightrope walkers, so they could balance the empty bottle like a finial at the end: a college tradition, he said. She took Patrick’s hand and followed him, daring herself to look down. She’d always chickened out of pranks with the girls at school and even now, in spite of the breeze, her palms were clammy. Patrick grinned over his shoulder. “Are you scared, Kate?”

“No.”

“Describe how you feel in one word.”

Drunk, she thought. Alive. Guilty. Terrified.

“Happy.” It seemed the right thing to say.

When they reached the edge of the roof, he placed the bottle on the parapet with a triumphant flourish and pulled her towards him. His arms were tight around her as they kissed.

“I think you and I should get married, Kate,” he murmured.

And so they did – just like that. Kate’s mother was easily wooed. It didn’t matter that Patrick had no family to speak of; things were easier that way. He was handsome, charming and rich – everybody said so. What more could a mother want for her daughter?

Five months after her Finals, Kate gave birth to her daughter: Sophie. It was a difficult labour for such a small baby. The pain had been extraordinary. Screams; a monstrous tearing. Sweat in her eyes. The lights bright above her bed. Blood on her legs and the sheets. They took Sophie away.

“Patrick?” She couldn’t see him. “Patrick?”

“What a fuss.” Her mother’s voice. “Your poor husband, seeing all that!”

A needle in Kate’s arm. The hasty noise of swing doors. Oblivion.

After they’d stitched her up, she had to stay in hospital for ten days. She and her mother took turns feeding Sophie. Together they marvelled at the baby’s furrowed face and her tiny fingers. Kate had thought herself already in love, but this was something else.

When she returned home, with strict instructions for bed rest, Patrick slipped a silver band studded with diamonds onto his wife’s finger. “My precious Kate,” he said, kissing her.

III

The ring looked improperly brilliant against the dark wood of the pew. Kate forced herself back into the present. People would be watching, so it was important to behave in the right way. That’s what Patrick always said.

Alasdair stood at the pulpit, recalling his long friendship with Patrick – their schooldays, and their time together at university. Kate remembered the speeches on her wedding day. “You told me you’d been at Oxford,” she’d whispered to her new husband as the room applauded Alasdair’s smooth words.

Patrick didn’t know what she was talking about.

“But that’s what you implied,” she said.

“Implied?” he repeated, turning to look her in the eye. She needed to calm down, he said, placing a hand on her thigh under the table. She was starting to embarrass herself.

Had she known, then? Kate couldn’t remember. It seemed a lifetime ago. She looked beyond the coffin to the skinny Christ strung up on his cross. God so loved the world, she thought. She did believe. Her faith was stronger now than it had ever been. But was that really what love looked like – a ribcage collapsed, a face contorted in pain?

IV

When the woman walked in, the heavy bolt of the church door clattering behind her, Alasdair’s voice faltered. The congregation turned to look. Kate didn’t turn, at first, but she gripped the edge of the pew to mute the panic that swelled in her chest. The woman walked down the aisle and helped her little girl out of her coat.

Kate focused on her breath. The pews in the church faced one another and she tried to calm herself by looking at the familiar faces opposite. Jamie was there, with his wife, listening to Alasdair in that inscrutable way of his. He’d been so good as Sophie’s English teacher, and then as Andrew’s housemaster, but the job had aged him. Kate wondered what Jamie had thought of Patrick, the only time they’d met. She remembered it so clearly – an awful February afternoon with freezing fog that hung in low, treacherous patches over the snaking country lanes. She begged her husband to slow down. Patrick pressed the brakes until they came to a standstill.

Twenty minutes later, they stood on the doorstep of the boarding house and Patrick rang the bell. You’ve made us late, he said. A dog’s barking came from within. Kate counted the panels of wood on the vast double doors, her cheekbone throbbing. When they swung open, Patrick stood aside for her to pass, slowly pinching the leather glove from his hand.

Warm lights in the hallway. A formal handshake. A luminous smile. “Patrick Fitzgerald. And this is my wife, Kate.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. McPherson,” she said.

“A pleasure to meet you too.” They shook hands. “Please, call me Jamie.” Neither Kate nor Jamie gave any sign that they had met before – at a parent-teacher meeting for Sophie. Patrick had been away for work, or that’s what Kate had told the teachers. Sophie’s severe dyslexia made English lessons a struggle, but Jamie had been kind. The meeting lasted no longer than five minutes. “Call me any time,” he’d said.

It took Kate a month to summon up the courage. The first few conversations were, at least superficially, about Sophie. But Kate never mentioned any of them to her husband. She kept her phone in the airing cupboard, under the towels.

She didn’t hear from Jamie for the entire Easter holiday. She made herself turn off her phone, even though Patrick was away. She busied herself with her children, driving them to ballet and horse-riding and football. She told them to invite their friends over (although Sophie only ever asked Matthew, and Andrew didn’t seem to have any). She took the three of them paintballing and go-karting and to the cinema.

Two weeks later, she drove them back, dropping Andrew at his prep school first. Sophie’s school was chockfull of cars by the time they arrived, but Kate knew where she could park. After she’d said goodbye, she stayed in the driveway for a long time, looking up Jamie’s windows.

Then she drove home. The rooms were silent. There were no unread messages.

Kate went through the motions of her old life. She visited her mother, wheeling her round the gardens if the weather was fine; or listening to stories about her father – smiling and nodding, while she held her mother’s hand, as though she was hearing them for the first time.

With Patrick gone, Kate read. She listened to the radio. She took the dogs for long walks in the wood.

And then, one day, a letter.

V

Jamie was looking back at her across the aisle. Kate realised she must have been staring and lowered her eyes, feeling her cheeks redden. Alasdair was still talking, but Kate couldn’t focus on the words. Instead, she studied Patrick’s photo on the Order of Service: his impeccable clothes, his suave face. Could others see the cruelty lurking in the corner of that smile? Had Jamie seen it when they’d met on that grim February afternoon? She’d been careful, when she and Patrick sat down in Jamie’s study, to turn her burning cheek towards the fire. Her husband stretched out his arms across the back of the sofa. He’d flown over from Berlin specially; Jamie appreciated his making the time, he said. He thanked Kate, too, for making the meeting possible. Neither of them mentioned letters or the walks or the phone calls which had preceded it. He thought about the mole on the pale skin beneath her ribcage, and the sound of her laugh. She thought about the anchor tattoo on his back, a relic of his time in the Navy, and how his letters always started with her full name. Her real name.

They looked anywhere but at each other. Jamie offered his guests coffee – or tea, if they preferred.

“No, thank you,” said Patrick.

“And your wife?”

Kate could see a child’s toy beneath Jamie’s chair.

“Darling?”

“Sorry,” she said, feeling panic rise in her throat.

“She’ll have coffee,” said Patrick. He knew, of course, that she couldn’t drink it. The doctor had said it caused her migraines.

“Coffee. Lovely. Thank you.” Such routine degradation.

A Labrador wandered in and out again. The fire crackled in an imitation of home. “I was at Eton myself,” Patrick was saying, “but Kate wanted co-ed for the kids. You know what they say: happy wife, happy life!” He squeezed her shoulder.

There was a knock at the open door and a woman in cashmere entered, her jewelled fingers glittering on the handles of a tray. On seeing Kate’s cheek, her eyes widened momentarily and Kate felt her heart pick up pace, but then the woman asked whether she should put up the fireguard – was the blaze perhaps a little too hot? Kate insisted it was fine. She took the proffered coffee and thanked her. The mug read Keep Calm and Carry On. She pressed its scalding sides between her palms with a smile.

Jamie was stirring his coffee into a dark vortex. They were looking forward to having Andrew in the boarding house, he began. He’d done extremely well in the scholarship – that Maths paper! But they did have some concern regarding the recent phone call from Andrew’s prep school. They couldn’t have that kind of behaviour in the house – it was, as he was sure they understood, completely incompatible with the ethos they were trying to instil amongst the boys. Jamie reached up as though to loosen his collar and looked, finally, at Kate.

Patrick was nodding in that slow, arrogant way he had. “We completely understand,” he said, moving his hand to Kate’s knee. “My wife and I are so pleased that you’ve agreed to have Andrew in the house. And we’re grateful for the opportunity to meet with you today. This incident was extremely shocking, and very upsetting for us – as you can imagine. Kate and I want you to know that we’ve taken it very seriously indeed.”

Kate stared into the fire. The logs shifted in the grate and the embers sparked briefly as they fell against the hearth. She could hear Patrick talking in his smooth way. He was lying, of course. The latest incident hadn’t even been the worst. Andrew knew nothing of the circumstances of his conception, yet he seemed somehow filled with its violence. How could that be? Perhaps he had imbibed it as he swam mutely in the fluids of her womb. Or perhaps he had, one dark night, driven to his parents’ bedroom by childish nightmares, mere dreams, caught sight of something real.

VI

Kate glanced at the son sitting beside her in the pew. Andrew was staring at his hands, the muscles of his jaw tense beneath his carefully curated stubble. He’d been doing so much better lately – been sober for months, or so he said, and still had his job at the accountancy firm – but she knew his father’s death would hit him hard. Kate could tell he was hanging on Alasdair’s every word. Sophie, too, was listening closely, Lily sleeping in her arms. If she had ever guessed the truth about her father, about any of it, she showed no sign.

Kate was glad that Sophie and Matthew had waited a while before having their first child. She’d been twenty-one when she gave birth to Sophie – much too young. She hadn’t known the first thing about life.

“It’s called a ‘husband-stitch’,” the doctor had said when Kate, sheet-white and nauseous, sat trembling in the surgery a few months after Sophie’s birth. There wasn’t much they could do about it now. The doctor prescribed some strong painkillers. She also gave Kate a leaflet, and pointed out the numbers to call.

In the car park outside the pharmacy, Kate slid the painkillers from their box and swallowed two. She hid the packet in the inside-pocket of her wallet. Then she put the leaflet and the box in a bin and drove home.

Kate did what little she could to avoid her husband. She took Sophie to her mother’s for days on end. She made herself vomit so much that Patrick, who considered any form of illness not only revolting but also a sign of personal weakness, slept in a spare room. She locked the bathroom door when she showered.

It did no good. Patrick missed his wife. His breath was hot on her neck in the kitchen. Sophie howled from her high chair.

For her twenty-second birthday, Patrick surprised Kate with tickets for a weekend in Paris. Just the two of them, he said.

“But what about Sophie?” Kate had replied. It wasn’t the correct reaction, but Patrick stayed calm. Her mother was happy to babysit, he said. (He liked to be the one who conversed with Kate’s mother, as though to prove it wasn’t actually that difficult.) His white smile was tinged with a cool triumph.

“Paris!” said her mother. “How romantic.” She winked conspiratorially.

Patrick laughed and kissed his mother-in-law goodbye. Kate tried to breathe. To quiet the beating of her heart she counted the panes of the windows behind her mother’s head, although she knew already how many there were. She kissed Sophie and lingered in the warm, milky smell of her hair until Patrick wound down the car window.

On the plane, Kate made herself think rationally. She loved Patrick – of course she did. He was handsome, clever, amusing. Good at his job. Successful, admired. They had a big house in the Cotswolds and a beautiful daughter. She knew how lucky she was, how privileged. Patrick even went out of his way to see the best in her mother. Yes: she had every reason to love him.

On the Friday night in Paris, Patrick went out. He said it was a work thing. Kate lay on the bed in the huge, high-ceilinged room, with its swathes of silvery curtains and its expensive view, and tried to read. The words wouldn’t line up on the page. She gazed at the photo of Sophie in her wallet, and wished she could call. She closed her eyes and waited.

It was dawn before Patrick came in. He was not drunk. She kept her eyes closed while he showered and slipped carefully between the spotless sheets.

Kate was too tired to feel relieved. She knew that good luck didn’t really come in threes. Luck didn’t have anything to do with it.

The next day was her birthday. Patrick took her to a restaurant with beautiful views of the Seine. He took the menu the waiter had given her and ordered oysters and steak and champagne. He took her hand across the white tablecloth and gazed at her through the heat of the candles as the sweet, wet flesh of the oysters slid down his throat. Then he took her back to their hotel.

Kate remembered pleading with him as he tore her nightie, trying vainly to push him away. She remembered hearing herself whimper like a kicked dog until the pain made her cry out and Patrick held a pillow over her face so that the guests in neighbouring rooms wouldn’t be disturbed.

Afterwards, he had kissed her. She stared through the open curtains at the lights flashing up and down the Eiffel Tower. Describe how you feel in one word.

Kate knew to wait until her husband was asleep before going to the bathroom. She turned the lock so slowly that it didn’t make a sound. She rolled up one of the soft white towels and laid it on the floor to contain the light spilling under the door. She wanted to sit in the bath until she felt numb, but she was afraid the running water would wake him. She looked at herself in the mirror. She thought about her daughter, and about killing herself. She wondered what you were supposed to do.

Blood was marbling the tiles of the floor. She stared at it, horrified, wondering whose it was until she realised she urgently needed the loo.

She must have sat there for an hour. The bowl was bright with great globular clots. How could she get rid of them without flushing it and waking him? She realised there would be blood on the bed sheets, too – he couldn’t bear that, she knew.

She desperately wanted her mother.

She made herself breathe: in through the nose, out through the mouth, just like the doctor had told her. In, out. In, out. Count the breaths.

In the sink she ran slow water onto mounds of tissue and wiped herself clean. Then she wiped the floor. She took yesterday’s knickers from the laundry bag and wound toilet paper around the crotch. She opened the bin and took out the plastic liner, being careful not to rustle it, and found the pile of spare bags underneath. She covered her hand with one of them and reached into the sink and then the toilet to fish out the wads of paper. She sealed the bag and hid it at the bottom of the bin under some clean tissues.

The loo was still red – lumps lay heavily in the U-bend, their trailing fronds staining the water. She would have to make sure she was up first in the morning.

She splashed her face with water and brushed her hair. She rinsed the toothbrush-holder and filled it slowly so that she could swallow the painkillers which she’d rolled in a face-cloth in her spongebag. She waited in the bathroom, fingers gripping the sink, until she was sure they’d stayed down.

Kate prayed and prayed for a miscarriage, but God must have known she didn’t really believe. The baby kept growing inside her like a tumour.

He was sorry if he’d hurt her, Patrick said one night when they were home. Sophie was asleep upstairs and her little animal snuffles over the baby monitor made Kate feel almost fearless. Patrick held his wife’s face between his hands. “My Kate,” he said. She was the love of his life. He was so happy they were having another child. He hoped it would be a boy. Didn’t she want a son? His fingers were entwined in the hair at the back of her head.

“Yes,” she said. “I want a son.”

He held her tightly and kissed her forehead. Kate realised she had never seen him cry before.

Patrick started bringing his wife breakfast in bed. He placed his hands on her swollen belly to feel the baby kick. When Kate was sick, he stayed home to hold her hair back from her face as she gasped and wretched into the toilet. He rubbed her back and held her as she sobbed into his shoulder.

Kate never told Jamie about any of this. She’d wanted to tell Suzanna, but they never saw each other anymore; she hadn’t even been able to make the funeral. Kate had, however, told her mother – one afternoon when, delirious with fatigue, she’d thought she had nothing to lose.

“You’re married to him, Katherine,” her mother had said, her knuckles white on the edge of the sink. “What exactly did you think that would entail?”

Kate had gazed down at Andrew’s crumpled face and gently wiped the sleepy-dust from his eyes. She thought of Einstein’s famous definition. Insane, she nodded to herself. That’s what I am. Of course.

VII

The service reached its grim conclusion. Outside, the temperature seemed to have dropped still further. Wind lashed between the headstones like a whip. Sophie’s mascara had run, and Andrew was wiping sore-looking eyes with one of his father’s handkerchiefs. Kate had said that he didn’t have to carry the coffin, but he’d insisted. She pulled her scarf higher and wondered how they’d dug the grave. A line of Rossetti’s poem came to mind: Earth stood hard as iron. They’d sung it as a carol in school, she remembered. It had two different tunes. One of them always made her feel melancholy. And there was that tricky line in the last verse – what was it? She always got it wrong in hymn-practice. Wait – that was it: What I can I give him: give my heart.

Back at the house, Patrick’s colleagues shook each other’s hands. Their wives touched Kate’s arm and told her how much they missed him.

Alasdair crossed the room. “Kate,” he said, in that showy way of his. “I’m so sorry.” He made as if to hug her, but she moved away. “Don’t touch me,” she heard herself hiss, barely louder than a whisper. “And don’t call me that. My name is Katherine.”

Alasdair glanced at the guests nearby. Then he took her hands between his own, for all the world a consoling friend, and looked her in the eye. “Oh, Kate,” he smiled. His voice was soft and low now. She tried to free her hands but the grip on her wrists was fierce. “I always thought Patrick was exaggerating, but you really are a frigid bitch.”

Kate felt like she’d been punched. Alasdair was with his new wife, his hand on the small of her back. The colours in the room were intensely vivid. “Are you okay, Mum?” Sophie was saying, the baby gurgling in her arms. “You’re shaking. Can I get you some tea, maybe?”

“I’m fine, darling. Thank you.” She stroked Lily’s dimpled cheek and smiled. “I just need to pop upstairs for a moment.”

VIII

Kate pulled off her shoes, undid her hair and lay back on the bed. The muted chatter from downstairs made her drowsy. She felt her eyelids grow heavy.

She dreamed that Patrick was alive and coming home. She heard herself shouting, screaming in a ghastly high-pitched way, and then she woke with a gasp. No Patrick. But the screams were real. Then she heard the sudden percussion of breaking china and Sophie was in the bedroom, Lily howling on her hip, telling her mother not to worry, that everything was okay.

Kate hurried past her into the corridor. Everything was not okay. The scene from the staircase was carnage. It never takes much for civility to unravel, she thought.

The young woman from the church spotted her and started screaming again, screaming and pointing up at her, just like that woman in Berlin. Such an affront, that sudden noise on the street, the spittle in her face. Patrick had rescued her that time, but who was here to help her now? Kate couldn’t hear what the woman was saying. She couldn’t hear anything at all except what must’ve been her own blood thrashing in her ears and the dogs barking behind the study door. She looked down at the shocked faces below her and saw Alasdair moving through the crowd, taking the woman by the arm and pulling her out of the house, talking urgently in her ear. At the front door the child turned and looked up at Kate. Her nose was a little red but she wasn’t crying. She had those big, sweet eyes beneath a wispy fringe. Her mittens dangled from her coat on a string. She looked exactly like – yes, she looked just like –

“Sophie?”

“I’m here, Mum. I’m here.” Sophie was stroking the hair away from her forehead. The curtains were closed and Kate was surprised to find herself under the covers. She recognised her bedroom, but she couldn’t work out why she was there, or who the man next to Sophie was. “It’s the shock,” he was saying. “She needs plenty of rest.”

IX

It was not the shock, exactly. Kate had known about Hanna for some time. The day after Patrick’s death, their lawyer had called to offer his condolences – had called very late, and asked her if she was sitting down.

How was she supposed to feel? Bigamy was such a strange word – the answer to a question on University Challenge, a crossword clue, something from other times or cultures.

The lawyer explained that Hanna was a student in Berlin. There had been no mention of a child – that had been a shock. But what Kate couldn’t understand was why anyone would want to get married twice. Whenever Jamie had asked her to divorce Patrick and marry him, she’d pretended not to hear.

Had it been a church wedding? she wondered. Had Alasdair given a speech?

The lawyer didn’t seem to know. “But please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any further questions,” he said. “Day or night.”

Kate did have other questions. Had Hanna worn a white dress? Something blue? Something old and something new? And had Hanna, just minutes before the ceremony, wept like a frightened little girl into her mother’s shoulder? Perhaps Hanna’s mother, too, had smoothed her hair – hugged her, even. Picked that as the moment, the only moment, to tell her daughter that her father would’ve been proud. However fiercely she wanted answers to these questions, and more, Kate knew not to ask. She’d been married long enough to understand that such curiosity was unreasonable.

X

After the incident at the wake, Kate stayed in bed for two days. She exhibited in all ways the symptoms of grief. On the third day, she asked Sophie to take the dogs for a while and keep an eye on Andrew. She said she needed to be alone.

Once the house was quiet, Kate slipped out of bed and opened the curtains. A cold slice of moon was rising over the garden. Everything looked so beautiful. She touched the silver crucifix at her throat and felt, again, that she’d been blessed. From the moment that Kate had first held her granddaughter, a tiny, perfect bundle, she had known what needed to be done. Yes, she’d tried her best, before; but she swore that this time would be different. This time she would ensure that nothing could go wrong. So, she’d prayed and prayed, and God had finally answered. First the promotion, and Patrick’s long absences. Then the stress, as things turned bad at work. And finally, like a miracle, the stroke.

Kate started to make up the bed. As she plumped the pillows, she recalled how pitiful Patrick had looked propped against them during that last week, one side of his face drooping and spastic, words and saliva dribbling from his spavined mouth. Kate held her husband’s hand, its fingers curled and useless, and told the doctor what Patrick wanted to say. And in the quiet of those long evenings, knowing he could no longer shut his left eye, she’d slide her mother’s mirror across the carpet so that he could see himself. “Describe how you feel in one word,” she’d say.

But nothing was ever just one thing, was it?

They can’t have bothered with a post-mortem. In the stories the pathologist always found miniscule fragments of fabric in the nose or mouth, or the lightest feather nestled in the meaty cushion of a lung.

Either way, it didn’t matter. God had sent her a sign, and she had done his will.

Kate went into the bathroom and began to fill the tub with steaming water. She undressed and looked at herself in the mirror. The colour had come back into her cheeks, and she felt rested and well. There was so much of life to live, Kate thought. And Eternity thereafter. He had died that she might be saved.

She was looking forward to the next few weeks. She’d signed up to help decorate the church, and had already placed her order with the butcher. Sophie and Matthew were coming to stay, with Lily, of course. Her first Christmas! Nothing could possibly spoil it. Andrew was coming, too, with his new girlfriend. Kate wondered if Hanna and her daughter would like to join them – all the Fitzgeralds together. It was a time for family, after all.

Tomorrow she’d gather holly for the wreath. In spite of the frost, it still had its berries. They shone against the dark leaves, bright and plump with poison.

About the Author

Ali Wilding

Ali Wilding is an English teacher, originally from the UK, but now living in New York City. She is new to creative writing, and has recently been selected as a finalist in The Iowa Review’s 2019 Short Fiction contest and semi-finalist in American Short Fiction’s 2019 flash fiction competition. She received an Honourable Mention (top 8%) in New Millennium Writings’ 47th literary award and has been short- and long-listed in competitions in both the UK and USA. She has a short story forthcoming in Quip Literary Review and flash fiction forthcoming in The Fiction Pool (both Fall 2019).