They are in the living room now. The wheelchair is beside the sofa, and the September sun creates liquid patterns on the carpet, like the water feature they have never added but often talked about.
‘You looked away,’ Finn says.
Finn is lying on the sofa. He covers his eyes with both palms. Selma focuses on the wall behind him.
‘I saw it.’
‘God knows what you saw.’
‘So did I,’ she snaps, ‘I saw the crowd. I hated it. The gawking. I was trying to protect you.’
‘You wanted to be part of it. You didn’t fucking speak to me.’
‘I didn’t know what to say. I felt I needed to do something.’
‘But it was the guy who acted, remember?’
‘The guy. Of course.’
‘You fancied him,’ he adds, and Selma shakes her head. She shakes it more than once.
‘You thought take me away from this, take me home, anywhere but here,’ he continues, his voice trembling, ‘I saw it all over your face, heard it in the way you talked to me when I was back in the chair. Anyone would have noticed.’
‘Is this another one of those times when you’re committed to destroying everything?’ she says and leaves the room.
Two hours earlier they were part of the Saturday shopping crowd in town. They bought a shirt for Finn and collected Selma’s new glasses. The sad displays in Foyleside Shopping Centre made them laugh, a massive silver jeep to be won in a raffle, a sweaty man in a suit promoting credit cards, a tiny woman in Smurf costume awkwardly shaping balloon sculptures. Had it not been for the cable running from one side of the mall’s main corridor to the other as part of some undefined repair works, it would have been a normal day. The cable was masked with a low, yellow ramp. Finn and Selma simply didn’t see it. They were talking. There was tension, something about dinner, aubergines.
‘I hate them.’
‘Never mind. I’ll fry myself a steak,’ Finn said.
A split second later he hit the ramp and slid straight out of the chair. He fell, and he fell, and Selma thought he was never going to land.
‘Oh,’ she heard him, as if a pin had dropped in a quiet room, the smallest of incidents, nothing, and then he just lay there, his eyes open like windows, and everyone looked. When she leapt to shield him from the crowd, she reminded herself of a vulture, the terror in her husband’s eyes fierce, shame spilling like heavy rain. He didn’t deserve this. He had suffered so much. He really didn’t deserve this. Reaching out to him, though, her hands went limp. Then the guy appeared out of nowhere. He lifted Finn back into the chair, a few simple movements, a small, wiry guy.
‘These ramps are lethal,’ he said, and Selma didn’t hear what else. She just stared at the man, amazed at how Finn was being helped by a stranger who did what she had done many times. Right then it looked like nothing she had seen before. And when the guy briefly met her eye she blushed and turned away.
In the kitchen Selma lifts the aubergine from the vegetable basket. Her bare feet cool on the stone tiles, she rinses it longer than necessary, watching the tap water cascade down the dark purple plant. She places it on a cutting board, hesitates, walks over to the fridge, takes out the steak, sets the table for two. The living room is quiet, so completely quiet that she goes and takes a look. Finn has fallen asleep. The sun paints luminous patterns across his body. His face is soft, as if they haven’t fought. Selma stands and watches, then returns to the kitchen, puts the steak back in the fridge, slices the aubergine, fries it.
As a child in Salzburg she never had aubergines. Finn, who had grown up in Derry, didn’t know them either. It was one of the first things they noticed they had in common despite hailing from wildly different places. When they met as students in Galway they used to go to the Saturday market. She can’t remember now who picked up the first aubergine, and why aubergines exactly. There are so many things she can’t remember.
She sits down at the table, tells herself to focus on eating, and eating alone, and by the time she mops her plate with a slice of bread, she is counting the trees outside the window. She has planted them since they bought the house seven years ago. Seventeen to date. Ash, beech, rowan, the list goes on, and the counting feels good. It eases things, just a little, the prospect of another week in the call centre job she hates, speaking her native language to assist with car rentals, while Finn designs websites from home, consulting with strangers on Skype, her husband waist-up, dashing, smiling, the frame carefully chosen, no wheelchair handle in sight.
She gets up, leaves the dishes in the sink. On her way through the hall she slowly walks past the living room. Finn’s breath is loud and regular. She disappears into the bedroom and crawls into the bed. Her head under the duvet, she listens to her own inhales. Hers is a quiet, struggling sort of breath, always has been.
‘Do you ever exhale?’ a paediatrician asked her once, more than thirty years ago while sounding her flat, bird-like chest back home. She didn’t get the joke. Her eyes filled with tears, and the doctor grimaced a smile.
Selma hauls the duvet to the floor. The small spider from before is in the corner beside the window. It has been in the room for over a week, and not once has she felt the urge to remove it. Finn hasn’t mentioned it. A spider isn’t something he would talk about. Right now, as it climbs toward a strip of dappled light near the ceiling, its slow, fitful movement pulls Selma in the direction her mind has wanted to go for the last half hour, the summer holiday on the west coast six years ago.
The sea appeared turquoise that afternoon. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. Finn hadn’t had his accident, and living in Ireland, a small country surrounded by water, was all Selma had hoped for. In their new garden in the northwest she had started planting trees, two or three maybe, not many, but in her mind their little plot of land was quickly turning into a forest.
‘The dolphin comes every day, reliable as clockwork,’ a local man had told them the night they arrived in a Doolin pub while people kept pointing at the photos on the wall behind them. At a closer look they featured various smiley people floating in the sea, a Bottlenose dolphin nearby.
The following afternoon Selma and Finn took up position on a narrow beach bordered by smooth, dark rocks. Legs crossed and mildly sunburnt, they sat on a tattered picnic rug, eyes gazing seaward. When the animal made its appearance they merged with a group of families. A small boy called out, his sand-crusted finger pointing across the water.
They entered the shallow water like a congregation awaiting baptism. The dolphin’s blowhole quivered as everyone cheered, and when Selma suddenly stood face to face with it, looking into its dark, glassy eyes, she started to cry.
‘It’s beautiful, so beautiful,’ she said.
Then she touched its skin. Other than being slippery, it felt different from what she had expected. She couldn’t make up her mind whether it seemed delicate or sturdy. Finn hesitated. Eventually he also touched the dolphin, and for a moment their hands lay side by side on its gleaming back.
‘Like an aubergine,’ he said.
A year later, not long after the accident, the same dolphin made headlines with its aggressive behaviour toward some of the small mobs that continued to stalk it. Finn chanced upon it in the paper while still in hospital. He read the article to her one evening when she was about to go home to get some sleep. She only half listened, didn’t like the matter-of-fact sound of his voice.
‘Welcome to the apocalypse. People act like morons. Nature gets blamed.’
Selma gave a quick nod and left the room. Heading down the corridor toward the car park she realized that it went against the grain of her mind to imagine an aggressive dolphin. The mammal in her head was angelic, a soft-skinned creature, provoked at the wrong time. The image didn’t sit well with Finn’s new lifeline, a brooding cynicism that had always been part of him. Up until the accident she had thought of it as manageable, something to keep the relationship going, add some grit. It hadn’t affected their shared wish for nature to endure. Something about nature was the very reason they lived in this country, its remote northwest, an unnamable web of needs and beliefs. But when it came to the question how nature might or might not sustain itself, it suddenly felt as if they weren’t on the same team anymore. Like two goalkeepers they stared at each other across an empty pitch, their differences stretching into space and time, the hills and fields of Inishowen, the rain and damp of the future, while the body of the young joyrider, whose family still send flowers once a year, lay in his grave on Cockhill.
She didn’t start crying that evening until she reached the dual carriageway, driving at speed. Inside her handbag was the order receipt for Finn’s first wheelchair, the delivery of which would take months as opposed to the fortnight they had been told. All this was years ago, and since then she has cried less and less.
Waking suddenly from deep sleep, Selma sits up. For a moment it feels as though she is all but a child at home. Then she remembers, her house, her life, the bed she shares. Here they lie, night after night, on this mattress, rain tapping the window, each of them dreaming up what’s yet to come. Finn walking again, out of the question. They were told many times. For the first year they refused to listen. They surfed the internet, indulged in other people’s healings. Emails were sent to strangers, until one evening, jaded and composed, they decided to go with the doctors’ predictions.
‘But it’s not just me,’ Finn said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s you as well.’
You have to accept it, too.’
Eventually she nodded.
Outside, the sun has disappeared. She checks the bedside alarm clock. What feels like hours has been less than twenty minutes. The sound of the living room TV seeps through the wall, canned laughter. She listens carefully, but Finn isn’t joining in as he often does. Instead, she hears him get into the chair and wheel through the hall into the kitchen. She recognizes the sounds that follow. He boils the kettle, makes a cup of coffee, takes a biscuit from the tin on the windowsill. He then returns to the living room, hoists himself back onto the sofa, and changes stations. Suddenly there’s music, an atmospheric track, probably a wildlife documentary. Finn is a sucker for those, and it is that time of day. The spider remains in the corner. It doesn’t move. Her body soft and relaxed from the nap, Selma lets herself sink deeper into the mattress and tries to remember the guy in the shopping centre. When the spider finally starts climbing again she gets up.
‘There’s still that steak, honey,’ she says, standing in the doorframe.
Why didn’t you wake me?
But Finn doesn’t say a word. She would like him to, yet all he does is glance at her briefly. The window is open, a cool breeze flows through the room. On the TV screen snowy mountains stretch into the distance under big skies. Black, moving shapes circle the horizon.
‘Soaring at great height, these eagles flap their wings as little as possible, surveying the land below for food,’ a male voiceover explains, and suddenly she remembers the glasses.
‘If you like them, I’ll pay for half of them. They might just brighten your winter,’ Finn said when she rang him a fortnight ago about the worrying cost of the designer frame she ended up liking best, having tried on endless pairs.
She had been dreaming about yellow frames for years. How could she forget after finally collecting them? Her handbag lies on the kitchen armchair like a lost cause. She pulls out the slim purple case, presses its small clasp and slides on the new specs. Looking at herself in the mirror beside the window, seventeen trees in the blurred distance, a soft wind rippling through them, she can’t help but smile. Something about these frames still feels right. She tilts her head, left, right, chin to chest. Back in the living room she parades in front of the fireplace. Finn shoots her another glance. The snow-covered peaks and the large forests below in the documentary remind her of the view from Hohensalzburg Fortress, overlooking her hometown and the Alps beyond. She used to sit up there with her family in the summer, fascinated by the contrast between the warm wind surrounding the castle and the snow in the distance. The sides of the glasses are cool and smooth. Her fingers glide back and forward, and, yes, she did fancy the man in the shopping centre. Finn never misses a thing. It was the guy’s eyes, a softness in them. Now she can’t even recall their colour, let alone the direction he walked off in. And still, just before she climbed out of bed, he popped into her head like a shiny new coin, making her hand reach between her legs, toing and froing a little, but not leading anywhere other than the impulse to rise once the spider started moving again.
Selma sinks into the sofa, not too close to Finn, but not too far from him either. What if the bedroom spider has followed her, only to lower itself beside her ear, egging her on, a tiny, dark coach with a mission to protect, Selma, Finn, everything. On screen one of the eagles returns to its nest to a dramatic orchestral score. It pulls in its wings in and stares into the precipitous distance. From the corner of her eye the scene is complemented by her husband’s profile, his TV-watching stillness, and beyond him, the wheelchair with its small sticker on shiny metal, Amnesty International. The knowledge they have gained since the accident is as vast as the landscapes Finn’s eyes follow the animals through. It isn’t the kind of knowledge people want to hear about. Even the guy in the shopping centre might struggle to listen for more than a minute or two.
The truth is that sometimes Selma and Finn still have great sex. It isn’t Ireland versus Austria either. Finn’s German is solid, his accent endearing, even if Selma’s family crouch in on him with their Austrian dialect, as if his failure to understand what they are saying is tied up with the wheelchair. Moments like this only remind her why she left home. She doesn’t want to leave another country. Here come the things she can’t and won’t talk about. They move and grow in the dark, or when no one is looking. There are other things, too. The things that hide in plain sight, vegetables in the kitchen, spiders in the bedroom. She won’t talk about those either.
‘Skin is never just tender,’ someone says.
She looks around the room, unsure where the voice came from. It sounded female, familiar. Selma knows she doesn’t talk enough. She doesn’t cry enough either. How could anyone make sense of her when all she really wants is peace, peace on an island famous for its tribal strife and the clear felling of its forests in colonial times? What the hell was she doing in this country in the first place? Was she really just standing and looking in awe, hoping to plant a few trees?
There is quiet piano music in the documentary now. Finn stirs gently in his seat. A faint smell of fried aubergine wafts in through the doorway. The new glasses rest gently on her nose. Her eyes suddenly wide open, she recognizes the creature to the eagle’s left, a spider. It crawls up the rockface of their freshly dusted TV screen, exhaling through the skin casing its underside, its dark, glassy eyes gazing inward.
Susanne Stich was born in Nürnberg, Germany, and is based in the Northwest of Ireland. Her short stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, Ambit, The Incubator and many other magazines. She is a finalist of the 2018 IWC Novel Fair with her first novel. She is also a curator and filmmaker. She can be found onTwitter @lilysimage