On the first morning of the last holiday, T picks me up outside the gates of a park. The city is out of season. Gulls throw themselves through the sky above me. Though it is cold I have been standing outside for a long time waiting for him. I haven’t needed to roll my fake name over my tongue yet. When the hire car comes to rest in front of me T doesn’t say hello, just Get in. We are long past niceties. In the side-mirror I notice that nobody has seen us drive off, and in my chest joy starts to radiate out, tight.
It’s after the second dream that we hit upon the arrangement. In the first, I was slippery in T’s arms in the spare room of his house. Black trees outside, flat glass. I disliked that room, had only been in it once, under duress, a hidden thing. In my dream, with him there, it was not so bad.
T liked me to talk about the first dream, back when we were in regular contact. He said I talked about it like I was in a trance, or like I was reading a eulogy. I said, I am, and he said which,and I said both.
In the second dream, we died. It involved a perfect replica of a house I stayed in once, on the side of a mountain, and both our heads underneath the water filling a bathtub to the brim. Just before we both died, we opened our eyes to look into the others’ and I saw a great flash of light, as if we were exploding. I expected to be dead when I woke up too, but I was just there in a bed, darkness leaking in through the open window. And I felt cheated, as if everything I had been taught about dreams was untrue after all.
At a roadside cafe we stop to eat and we watch the news, which is as bad as usual. T registers the updates, moves bread around his mouth. Two sinister children watch us from a table away, blue hoods bundled around their head. I threaten to be struck by the feeling I get more and more since I had the baby, a deep sense that we are forever pulling our bodies painfully towards disaster. But I am taking a holiday from all that, I remind myself.
“Do you remember,” T says, turning his attention to me and brushing a strand of hair away from my temple, “the jellyfish.”
“Yes,” I say. Three years ago, a place where we had lain our bodies under the air conditioning every afternoon in a room with slate floors, and on the last day we had stood on our own balcony for the ceremony. When I closed my eyes, and waited to see what would happen, I’d felt vertiginously perfect for one second, the sun on my eyelids, my leg still humming with pain at the surface.
“We were lucky,” he said. He had been the one to coat my skin with bicarbonate of soda, to carry me from the sea, my arms dramatically around his neck. “We have always been very lucky.” He gestures at the television.
The children start to play some sort of game that involves pouring water onto the mashed-up crusts of their food. The adult in charge does not react, even when the water streams to the floor, when one child grows tired of the game and starts punching the other, rhythmically, with a terrible concentration, on the shoulder.
After a few hours we come to a beach with small cabins on the shore. The cabin nearest the sea is ours. We deposit sweet rolls, chocolate bars, vacuum-packed meats, decide to go for a walk. Comfort blanket of wholesomeness. In the bathroom I am almost moved to tears by the tiny, paper-wrapped soaps.
I stay behind for a few seconds when he steps out of the cabin, duck down to feel the soft heft of his overnight bag. There it is – metal-barrelled, cold through the fabric.I move the bag very carefully with my foot.
I run to catch him up, and T puts his arm around me. His smile is deceptively kind.
“Well, here we are again,” he says. “Welcome back.” And the rain breaks just as the tide reaches our feet, turns the sand around our ankles to slop.
When I am at home, I see T all the time, or men who look like him. I miss my train so I will not have to share it with him, or someone that could be him. I feel I would know his body anywhere. Slouching walk. The particular curve of his arm. To see him, to acknowledge each other, would be to unspool that universe’s rules. There would be no going back from it. There are no more phone calls by now, and only brief correspondence to arrange our holiday, yearly, a secret email address.
For example, a month ago I saw a man cycle past with a canvas under one arm. Green shorts, legs muscular as a heart. When I got home, I cried from the adrenaline. I cry a lot these days, the clause of the new mother, but actually I have cried a lot my whole life. I pushed the baby’s soft and sacklike body against my nose and apologised to the baby silently for making her my excuse for crying all the time, but she is too young to mind. The baby is reviving, like smelling salts or a slap to the face. The baby does not belong to me and T. The baby is where my heart is rooted, whatever remains of it, whatever was there to begin with.
In the small town two kilometres from the beach, we are eating hamburgers in a cafe when a red-headed woman comes up to us and starts to shout at T. Neither of us understand what she is saying. T leaps away. She bats the air with her hands.
“Who is she?” I say. A gentle waitress and a customer come towards us and start talking to her in the same language. They ignore us. T backs away.
“I don’t know,” he says. The red-haired woman points at us, gestures.
“Bad,” she says, in our own language.
“We’re sorry,” the waitress says.
“I’ve got that sort of face,” T tells her. He does, it’s true.
We put money on the table and we go out to the cliff on which the town is built. The red-haired woman falls silent and sits on a chair as we leave, facing away from us.
“What was that all about, you think?” I say and he replies, “We only have four days here,” and his voice is an imitation of a mournful person’s.
When I wake that night to the cold metal at the back of my neck, I sayDon’t.I’m calmer than I thought I would be.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” T says. His body is sweet with sleep, heat radiating off it. “Let’s do it now. Let’s not wait, have it hanging over us the whole time.”
“Not now,” I say, and the gun moves away.
“Sorry to wake you,” T says, tender, and I say “It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
Slowly, slowly. On a hillock I sit in the cold sun and eat a cereal bar, breaking it up into three pieces. T is elsewhere. I have let him out of my sight for two minutes. I am looking in his direction. This basal anxiety, body-level. I managed to phone home before my battery died, a weak bar of signal. The baby is happy. The baby gurgled in her joyous way down the phone and made my chest ache. The story is that I am at a conference, but the baby is ambivalent about this story, cares only that the other person who made her is around to watch her flop onto her stomach, to feed her, to watch her go through her days.
We get into the habit of long baths, because of the cold, because we do not often want to leave the cabin. I watch my stomach rise and fall under the cooling water, marbled with soap. Sometimes T sits with me or I sit with him. He holds my ankle under the water the way you would hold a hand.
After one particularly long bath, alone, I get out, and in the bedroom I find T going through my wallet. Before I can say What the fuck?he lifts up a photo of the baby.
“I was just looking at this,” he tells me. “She looks like you, doesn’t she?”
“She doesn’t look like anyone,” I say, which is what I say when we bear her up amongst our relatives and everyone wants to be seen in the baby, as if its some kind of absolution.
“I was seeing if I could see myself in her,” T continues. “Just in case. You know.” He raises his eyebrows. The timings don’t work out. There is absolutely no question. Yet I am unsettled at the intrusion, and disappointed too, because he’s just another baby-person after all, looking for himself in her like she’s a mirror.
I don’t know the language. I never know the language. I am drab and unsophisticated. T is the opposite. T acts like he knows everything in the world, and often I hate him for it. I was impressed by it when we first met. It took me a while to figure out that knowing more than someone does not make you more worthy. I revel sometimes in my lack of basic facts. I am too young to know that, I tell him. Remember? Remember? Though I am not so young now.
When I am back in my normal life I sometimes practice saying the word – adultery!- like it’s the title of a board game. Adultery, I say to the baby as I carry her around the room. The term doesn’t fit. I think about at what stage language skills crystallise. When I will have to stop telling her my darkest secrets. Maybe even now it’s too late. Maybe she will cough them all up for her father one day, guilelessly, like a parrot.
I wake in the night to the total darkness and though there is no gun at my neck this time, just T’s heavy body, I panic. I wash my hands in the bathroom. Too-hot water, sliver of soap rubbed between my palms. My body is shaking.
T awakes. He knocks on the door and says, “We don’t have to, if you’ve lost your nerve,” through the keyhole, softly.
I think about the detailed advert I posted a decade ago on the internet asking for someone who would take me to a hotel room and hit me in the face a non-specific number of times, and when T was the one who walked into the museum where I said we would meet I thought he did possibly have the aura of a murderer, but I wanted to feel like I was running very far and very fast and when he stood right behind me, without speaking, I did. Then he took my hand and we left, and the pavement was shimmering with water and everything outside smelled rotten.
So yes, now I am nerveless. Yes, I want to say to him, my body has been irrevocably changed. Someone has rewired me without my consent. Once it was you that did that, I want to say to him. In another time, once it was you.
Bracing walk. We stride together with gloves on. “It is fucking brilliant to be outside,” T announces in a show of enthusiasm that unnerves me. When we stop for a second I can see his new silver hairs in the unforgiving light and I pull out one. He closes his eyes, demand I do another, so I do. Sweet with it in the way that very terrifying men can be when they want to be. Learned helplessness. And yet you say women are manipulative, I want to tell him. Below us, the sea attacks the cliffs. A new rain needles our eyelids. We haven’t checked the news in a while, and anything could be happening to the other people we love.
The last night comes. We cook a meal together, as elaborate as the hot plate will allow, pasta squirming in thick sauce. I can’t eat any of it. The texture is repulsive to me, though it is my favourite meal, carbonara, I missed eating it when I was pregnant. The farm standards are different here. There is healthy fluff stuck to the brown eggshells but maybe we will die, anyway, from a super-strain of salmonella, listeria. Anything feels possible, once you have had a baby. The list of universal terrors does not leave you. Nobody tells you about that, the same way that nobody tells you that newborn girls menstruate, that they are full of hormones like a factory-farmed cow, your own hormones. I felt guilty when I found out. Sometime in the last forty-eight hours we have stopped using any protection and not talked about it yet. When I return home, if, I am going to be a good mother and a good person, I will keep an efficient and beautiful house, I will atone every day of my life. I tell T about these plans and drink three glasses of cheap red wine. When I go to the bathroom I start at the sight of my face in the mirror, my lips and teeth black with sediment in the gloom.
The third time we slept together, I’d spent the morning before T arrived clicking through photos of his wife, his young son. The photos were easy to discover, despite his fake name. He hadn’t yet figured out that young women could track down anything on the internet. The tenderness of that innocence, his assumption that he would not be found. I felt dark with my power.
There they were on holiday in a wholesome, anywhere corner of Europe, the sort of good and clean place I believed back then that I would never make it to, because I was heavily involved in the process of trying to die. They looked happy. I know now that they were and are happy.
As he lay there with me in my room that needed repainting, my housemates all at work, I wanted to ask whether that golden skin on his life was his life, or whether this was his real life. Does everything feel unbearable to you, I could have asked. And if so, is this absolution. Does this help you. Am I being helped. I could have wept. But I didn’t ask and I didn’t cry. I waited to see what would happen next, holding my breath.
When I return to the table, T has abandoned the food and is lounging on the sofa. He puts his arms out to me and I go to them, and we sit in silence for a small while.
“It’s time,” he tells me. “Let’s do it and then gets some sleep, and then tomorrow we’ll go home.”
I stand in the centre of the room with my hands tight to the sides. I think of the baby and I think of the person I made the baby with and I think penance, penance, penance, and I think of them knowing what I have done, what I have been doing every year, being one of those found-out and found people, discovered abandoned and bloated in hotel rooms, discovered everywhere, the other person long gone.
He is holding the gun now. He puts it to my head and says “Okay?” and I say Okay,and he pulls the trigger and before the bile can rise in my throat I hear the click, and I know I’ve survived another year. There’s only ever been one bullet in it.
“Your turn,” he tells me and I take the gun, hold its weight in my hand.
“There would be worse things than dying with you in a place like this,” he tells me contentedly, eyes fixed on mine. “Go on, then.”
And like sand or time, almost expecting it after so many years, our luck finally runs out.
At the end of the last holiday, when we had fired the gun and both of us had survived and drawn long juddering breaths into our lungs, laughing and crying in the same moment, he had said, “Whenever women go missing in the news, I think of you. I think I expected you to end up dead, all those years ago. I’ve thought about how I would react. How strange it would be to hide it.”
Andas if that possibility hadn’t been on my mind the whole first time I walked with the new body of him next to me, and my legs weak, and I thought it was desire but maybe it had just been fear all along.
“I thought I would end up dead too,” I told him. “But I didn’t.”
He swung down from the waist, stretching out arms and back. I breathed and breathed, laid the gun on the floor. He stepped forward, picked it up, flicked the safety on.
“Come on,” he told me, his hand moving to touch my pregnant stomach, so lightly I could hardly feel it, before taking my hand. Our suitcases were packed already. We were always expecting to survive. And why shouldn’t we have been. The baby kicked against his hand and the feeling, despite everything, brought me home.