©Mike Finn 2011
Even after all these years of marriage, Saul still had a moments anxiety that there would be no answer, that Gina would finally have had enough, that the house would be empty, and he would be alone.
“I’m in the kitchen. Careful where you step, there’s glass everywhere.”
He released the breath he did not realise he’d been holding, put down his suitcase and laptop bag in the hall and dropped his keys and his phone into the square leather tray that Gina had taught him to use. She had bought the tray out of frustration at his endless ability to mislay the things that were most important to him.
Saul had spent the past week adrift amongst strangers in unfamiliar places. He had reached that point where he barely felt connected to the world. He moved through it invisible, weightless, unnoticed. It pleased him to have a designated place to leave his keys and phone. He felt tethered to something strong and real. He was home. Well, almost home. Home waited for him in the kitchen.
Gina had a dustpan and a brush in her hands and was busily sweeping up fragments of what had once been a pyrex mixing bowl from the kitchen tiles. Saul stood for a moment, watching her, absorbing the easy grace with which she moved and the fierce concentration she brought to her task. Not one shard of glass would escape her, he was certain.
Gina looked up at him for a second, before continuing in her hunt for rogue pieces of glass.
“Take your coat off, Saul. You look as if you’re about to leave again.”
Saul, who had not realised that he was still wearing his coat, immediately slipped it off. He was aware that he left far too often and had no wish to appear keen to do so again. Unwilling to leave Gina for long enough to return to the hall, he folded his coat over the back of a kitchen chair.
As he did so, he saw the edge of the present he had brought for Gina glint in his pocket. Already he regretted the bright wrapping that the young woman who had sold him the gift had insisted on using. He did not want to make a fuss. He had bought the gift so that Gina would know that she had been in his thoughts while he was away. Now he wondered if it would look like some form of appeasement; a bribe to compensate for the weekly abandonments that he subjected her to.
Behind him, he heard glass sliding into a bin. By the time he turned around, Gina was washing her hands in the sink.
Saul took a step towards her, wanting to touch her, needing to be sure that he still could.
He imagined closing the distance between them, placing his arms around her waist, supporting her weight as she leaned back into him, bending his head to kiss her neck.
Gina shut off the tap and reached for a towel. The moment had passed him by. Saul saw no means of retrieving it. As usual, he sought refuge in words.
“So why did you kill the bowl? Had it been particularly recalcitrant?”
Gina smiled and moved towards him.
“It wasn’t murder but suicide. The thing jumped out of my hands without regard to its own safety.”
Gina looked up at him, searched his face for something that she appeared to find and then stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek.
“How was Munich?” she asked, already moving towards the fridge.
“It was Brussels. Munich was last week.”
Lifting vegetables from a drawer in the fridge, Gina said, “I can never keep track of what country you’re in. Anyway, how was Brussels?”
“It was very Belgian.”
“The way you say it, that doesn’t sound like a good thing.”
“I meant to make you a soup but I was interrupted by a suicidal bowl. It’s a little late for soup now, I’ll make a stir-fry instead.”
Saul knew that he was not expected to reply to any of this but it pleased him listen. Recently he’d noticed that he had become one of those men who are silent not because they are showing restraint but because they have nothing to say. Gina filled up his silences. Her words warmed him.
“So is there nothing good about Belgium?” Gina asked.
She held a very sharp knife in her hands and was confidently and speedily slicing peppers, carrots, onions and thin slivers of garlic and ginger.
“All the good bits of Belgium are imaginary: Poirot, Tin Tin, the Surrealists.”
“Will you be going back?”
Gina looked up from pouring peanut oil into the wok and said, “Are you all right?”
The concern on her face mad Saul uncomfortable. He forced a smile and said, “I’m fine, just a little tired.”
“Well, you’re not as young as you were,” Gina said as she scraped the vegetables from the chopping board into the smoking oil. “All this travel isn’t good for you.”
Saul lost her to cooking for a few moments as she added soy sauce and sesame seed oil and finally a little chilli, all the while shifting the vegetables in the pan so that they cooked rapidly and evenly.
Gina was two years younger than him but it seemed to Saul that the gap between them was widening at the same rate as his waistline. She was vital and energetic and he was… not.
“Set the table, will you? This tastes best when it’s still hot enough to hurt.”
Saul set the plates on the table, thinking about when Gina had been hot enough to hurt.
Back then he couldn’t keep his hands off her. Sex seemed a natural consequence of being in the same room. She was so much smaller than him that, at first he’d been worried he would hurt her. She soon proved that he was the one who had to take care; his under-exercised gut had ached for a week after their first night together.
It had been a long time since they’d had sex and even longer since the sex had been easy and joyous. It wasn’t that he was impotent. It was more that he couldn’t go the distance. At first, he had hesitated to start something he couldn’t finish. Now he no longer seemed to know how to start at all.
“Dig in,” Gina said, placing a large steaming bowl of food on the table.
She’d found the time to cut bread and add a simple green salad. Once more she’d created something out of nothing.
The food was too good to talk over. They both ate eagerly and quickly and soon there was nothing left.
“I brought you something.” Saul said, when the plates were empty.
“Would that be the shiny gold something in your coat pocket?”
“You saw that?”
“No, I’m just guessing. Of course I saw it. I can spot a present at twenty paces. Now go and get it for me.”
Saul tried not to watch Gina’s face too closely as she unwrapped the gift. He wanted her to be pleased but he didn’t want her to feel that she had to perform for him.
“So they do have something good in Belgium?” Gina said, holding the box in her hand. “Godiva chocolates.”
“I was told they were the best.”
“And I thought you chose them because you wanted to see me riding naked on a horse.”
Saul laughed, but he didn’t sound convincing.
“I bought them because…”
He didn’t know how to go on.
Gina got out of her seat, stood beside him and placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Because you love me.”
She stroked his face with the back of her hand and then kissed him on the forehead.
“You are allowed to say it, you know. You won’t wear the words out.”
Gina picked up Saul’s plate and her own and headed back towards the kitchen.
Saul sat in his chair for a moment, thinking about whether words would wear out. It seemed to him that they might.
Growing up Saul had often visited Wells Cathedral. While the beauty and the grandeur of the place were undeniable, what had captured his imagination were the stairways. Made from the same stone that, centuries later, still stood proudly in the Cathedral walls, the stairs that were most used had worn away in the centre, eroded by the feet of thousands of people over hundreds of years. The erosion of the stone stairs had taught Saul that truth could sometimes only be seen in retrospect; no one person moving up the staircase would believe that they had had any effect on the stone and yet, in reality, they had left a wake of destruction behind them.
When he looked back, the pattern that Saul saw was one in which he frequently passed down the “I love you” stairway but Gina did not follow him. She acknowledged his love happily and seemed glad to receive it but seldom said the words and never said them first. For a moment he had the image of Gina at the top of a pristine staircase which he could only reach by carefully negotiating the deep rut he had worn in his own love.
“These chocolates would taste much nicer with a cup of coffee,” Gina said from the kitchen. “Why don’t you get that fancy machine of yours to brew us some?”
“Excellent idea,” Saul said, rising from his chair.
While the coffee was brewing, Gina stacked the dishwasher. Saul was forbidden from performing this task as he had repeatedly demonstrated his lack of mastery of where plates should sit in relation to one another.
“Shall I take these through to the living room?” Saul said. “That Johnny Depp movie you wanted to watch will be on soon.”
“No,” Gina said. “I believe my boudoir is the only proper venue for the consumption of fine Belgian chocolates. Johnny will have to wait for another night. You, on the other hand, do not have to wait at all.”
It had been a long time since Gina had asked him to come to her bed so early in the evening. Saul placed the chocolates and the cups of coffee on a tray and followed his wife. She was nearly at the top of the stairs by the time he had reached the bottom.
Anxiety and excitement competed for Saul’s attention. Tonight he might confirm his own sense of failure or he might win back something that he thought he had lost forever.
When she got to the top of the stairs, Gina turned and waited for him.
Saul breathed deeply and took the next step in his marriage.