Charlotte watches the sky over a frosted field as she thinks again of how desperately she wants her husband never to touch her. The thought rose in her three days ago, like a bird from the rushes, and ever since she’s held it close. There’s a lightness to it, a vulnerability, and as the pale sun burns through the last of the mist she tests the thought again, making certain of it.
She wants to say it aloud.
Instead, she runs her hand over the old wood of the fence, remembering standing here as a young girl. She loved looking at cloud formations, loved the names: cumulus; nimbostratus; cirrus. There was a book she found in the library with illustrations and the occasional photograph showing how to tell them apart, how cumulus were the most common, how stratus were darker and brought rain, how wispy, ephemeral cirrus might seem like a fair-weather formation but could easily be the outrider of storms.
The frost is already melting; the hems of her jeans are soaked from the grass. She’s wrapped in her warmest jacket and a scarf she’s had for years. She picks at the fence, splinters coming away under her fingernails to reveal the white wood beneath.
She won’t have to tell him. There’ll be no need for words. Inertia will be her weapon. A stillness. She won’t respond to his touch, and eventually there’ll be a retreat.
Against the flat blue of the sky she sees the thin strips of white, the breath of angels caught in the cold. Cirrus. Ice crystals, not water droplets, held at high altitude, unreachable. Her favourite, then and now.
She turns away from the field to begin her brisk walk back to her husband and her daughter, carrying her resolution.
She’s watching Rachel press her hands against the inside of the window. The sun is bright, but the pane is cold; each time Rachel pulls her hands away, marks are left behind which soon fade. Rachel laughs, turns to her to show her palms, and Charlotte leans forward to press her own palms to her daughter’s.
‘Why’s the window cold, Mummy?’
‘It’s January, Baby. Warm in here, cold out there.’
Rachel turns back to the window, standing on tiptoes, giggling. Her pressed hands are illuminated as the strength of the sun penetrates them, lending them a redness. The tips of her fingers seem translucent; something catches in Charlotte’s throat, making her turn away.
‘What are the marks, Mummy?’
‘When you touch the window, some of your warmth is left there.’
Rachel pulls her hands away; in their place is a brief outline. The fingertips are the last to fade.
The front door opens, and William is stamping his feet and clapping his gloved hands together.
‘Where are my girls?’ he says.
Rachel runs out of the room, shouting for him, and Charlotte goes to the window, presses her own hands to the pane for a second. Outside, there’s the driveway, the gate, the tree with its bare branches. The sky’s blue is unending.
William is laughing as they come into the room. ‘And what have you two been up to?’
‘Watch! Watch!’ says Rachel, and she runs to the window, reaches up high, presses her hands. ‘They leave marks. Mummy says it’s because of warm and cold.’
‘Well, Mummy is usually right,’ he says. He leans across, kisses Charlotte on one cheek and rests his hand against the other.
She doesn’t move.
He reaches down to Rachel, ruffling her hair. ‘Come on, Baby. Daddy bought something special for you at the shop.’
‘Something to eat?’
‘Kitchen!’ he says, and they’re gone.
Charlotte presses both of her hands against her cheeks and closes her eyes, reaching inside for the place where she is untouched.
That night, she feels him against her thigh. Her dream was of a river, and it’s still there as she tenses, holding herself inert. His arm is across her stomach and he pulls himself close.
His lips are on her neck. ‘Charlotte?’ he says. ‘Char?’
Her eyes are closed. She thinks of the water. She’s swimming with the rush of it, the river enclosing her, and she’s twisting, spinning. She can’t breathe, doesn’t need to. There’s nothing other than the sound of the current, nothing other than its pull. Her arms are pressed against her sides and she straightens up, holds herself tight through her core to stay afloat, and she is dartlike, a creature at home in these depths, flowing with the river. She knows its destination; all rivers flow to the sea.
When she opens her eyes, he has his back to her. His breathing is steady, as if he were never awake. There’s a space between them. She lies on her back in the heavy darkness.
He’s a good man.
This is what she thinks as she drifts back into the waters.
It takes a week, and during this time she becomes so sensitive to physical contact with William that the air hums. Handing her a mug of coffee in the morning, his hand rests on her shoulder. Whenever he leaves the house, whenever he arrives home, there’s a kiss on her cheek, an arm around her waist. There are the evenings watching television, she from her chair, he from the couch, and his pats on her knee as he goes to make a drink.
And then there are the nights. Twice more she feels him press against her as she lies in the dark with her eyes closed. She’s underwater as he whispers to see if she’s awake, caresses her, pulls her close, holds her a moment, and then — with a sigh — turns away in the dark. Not once does she touch him; not once does she respond.
On the Saturday, they drive to the coast. Rachel loves the dunes, loves the rush of the waves, and she paddles in her wellies, kicking up the freezing waters while they watch her from a distance, laughing.
Charlotte feels him take her hand. ‘She’s fearless,’ he says.
She lets her fingers lie limp between his, and it seems he’s about to say something, but there’s a shout from Rachel — a starfish, just here, look! — and their hands come apart as their daughter runs back towards them, cradling her prize.
On the drive home, Rachel is asleep in the back, a quarter-full bucket resting between her feet with the starfish lying on the bottom. They’ve brought the smell of the coast with them, the sea, the salt air, the chips they bought from the weather-beaten kiosk. Charlotte can feel the sand between her toes where it got inside her shoes.
‘So, what the hell are we going to do with the starfish?’ says William.
‘Let her keep it in the bucket. We’ll put in the back garden. When it dies, we can explain to her about heaven.’
William laughs, his eyes still on the road. ‘You can have that conversation,’ he says.
‘I’m sure she’ll take it pretty well. She’s so grown up now.’
‘She certainly knows what she wants,’ he says.
And she can feel it coming. The question. She’s thought about it every day, about how she’ll respond, and she’s found no answers.
“These last few days…” he says, and because there don’t seem to be any more words, he turns to her, says her name the way he used to say it, the way he still does sometimes, the way that makes her remember how she used to want him. ‘Char, what’s wrong?’
‘I’m just tired,’ she says. It’s the one thing she didn’t want to say, the one catch-all excuse that he doesn’t deserve, and so she turns away from him, watches the darkening sky, repeating silently the names of all the clouds she can’t see against the uniform grey.
‘Every time I touch you…’ he says,
‘Don’t touch me,’ she says, and she’s looking at him now, trying to smile, saying it not as an admonishment but a suggestion, an idea he might go along with. Earlier, on the sand, when Rachel had asked them if she could keep the starfish, there’d been a simplicity to the request, an innocence which made any other response an impossibility. It’s the tone Charlotte takes now, as she says again, ‘Please, William, don’t touch me anymore.’
She goes to the field most mornings. Rachel is at pre-school, William at work, and so she steals an hour. The winter skies take on incredible colours: purples like verbena, reds like orchids. She stands at the fence and watches, rarely seeing another soul. Sometimes there are starlings flying in patterns so quick and fluid they become living geometry. They do it for protection, she knows, but she likes to imagine they do it simply because they are able, an affectation, a display.
One morning she sees a dog — black and powerful, a Doberman, perhaps — let off its leash. The owner is a long way distant, and as the dog runs here and there it draws closer until it stops no more than twenty yards away. It lies down, rolls on its back and twists in an ecstasy of movement, suddenly ignorant of its surroundings and caught up entirely in itself. The dog spins onto its side, then it’s up and running in circles, wider and wider, until it stops and — with its hackles raised — stares straight at her.
A coldness comes upon her, not from the weather but borne of ancient fears. It’s way down inside her gut, and she can’t take her eyes from the animal. Its mouth sets itself into a grimace, teeth bared. Its growl is something she can feel on the air as well as hear.
It takes a slow step towards her, and then another.
A shout from the man. Immediately, the dog turns and runs.
She leans against the fence, holding tight to the wood. The man bends down, fastens the leash around the dog’s neck. They set off towards the road.
She waits, holding herself steady against the fence. Her heart is beating, and there’s something new about her skin, a hypersensitivity. The wind against her face is cold, incredible. She closes her eyes, sees the dog again, spinning, spinning.
She turns from the fence and sets off for home. There’s a hard knot in her throat. Her hands are clenched. She can sense the blood in her veins, the rush of it, and everything is brighter, the sun’s rays visible in arrowed lines stretching down from heaven.
When she reaches the village, there’s no one around and she’s quickly at her door and inside. She takes the stairs two at a time, pulls off her clothes, throws the covers from the bed. Lying down, she grabs the pillow, holds it close, clamps it between her thighs. She’s rubbing against it, clenching and unclenching, turning over onto her front, pressing down hard, harder, and she’s growling, the sound of a dog. Her sky — a brilliant blue brushed with white cirrus — is filled with birds.
The fever lasts a week, and in the years to come she remembers little of it. Damp sheets. The shivering heat. The feel of her own trembling fingertips on her burning cheek. Opening and closing her eyes and there being no difference at all. A pulsing blue triangle. A fiery red circle. Bright, intense light. Her gut retching against an emptiness so deep she might disappear into it. Her daughter, weeping. A bearded man — and then William — at her bedside. Her own thin voice begging for the curtains to be opened, please, just a little. The urge to urinate, to defecate, and the crawling refusal of a hand, an arm, the screaming no, no, no!
Dreams of starlings. Dogs. A cold, dead starfish.
One moment stands above all others: the morning light through the window casting diagonals across the white walls as William sits in the chair by the wardrobe, watching. He stands, takes two steps towards the bed. His arms are stiff by his sides, his hands clenched into fists. He’s looking straight at her.
The mantra inside her seems to seep into the room: please don’t touch me anymore please don’t touch me anymore please don’t touch me anymore, the words coalescing into meaninglessness.
He presses a hand flat to his mouth, a stop to his sobbing. He doesn’t reach out. A decision made, he nods, turns away, closes the door behind him.
Left alone now, she feels full of a sudden light, a magnesium flare. He’ll take this not-touching and they’ll share it. He will become a martyr, his compliance blossoming into acceptance. He’ll never touch her again, and he’ll stay. Her resolution will become their resolution, and it’ll be a lighter burden for being held between them. She pushes herself to the edge of the bed, forces herself upright. Her vision blurs. Bile in her throat. She breathes, slowly. Counts to ten. Opens her eyes. In a moment, she’ll stand, she’ll open the curtains. She can already imagine the sky.
Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online, most recently at Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the charity anthology You Are Not Alone. Jason’s story Mess of Love was placed 3rd in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his flash In my dream I see my son features in Best Microfictions 2020. His prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction
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