In my suitcase there were six pairs of knickers. Six was the number I’d need for a week of work, assuming that one night I’d swim or go to the gym and it wouldn’t be outrageous to wash a couple of pairs in the hotel shower.
I’d packed four tops, all of them black. Jackie in Rentals had told me that if you wear all black nobody notices. Once, she’d worn the same black shirt every day for a month and no one raised an eyebrow. Then she wore a yellow shirt twice in a week and four people said don’t you have another top?
There was a pair of trousers, black jeans, a knee-length black skirt. A blazer and a denim jacket. Add a blazer to any outfit and it’s appropriate for work. Add a denim jacket and it’s right for the pub. Jackie had told me that, too.
I’d thrown some toothpaste, eyeliner and wet wipes in a little bag, one of the ones they give you when you spend too much money at Aesop. Want the little bag? they’d ask sometimes when you lingered after taking your receipt, just to make you say yes. To make you beg for it.
That left just one little corner devoid of an item; one more leaving thing. I’d walked around the living room. Taking a framed photo seemed a puerile thing to do, something that would happen in a movie and not in someone’s real life, especially if that someone was me. The picture I would have taken, if I’d let myself, was the one of Jeff and Gordon in Rye, taken just before Gordon died. The frame was copper. Both McKenzie men were in tweed but his father looked better and I’d told Jeff that and my God, the row.
I went to the cutlery drawer. The good stuff from the wedding was up the back, the stuff we actually used up front. Takeaway chopsticks, still in their white paper, off to the side, enough of them to build a little house for the rat had Jeff not finally trapped it on Monday. It died slowly and he seemed to like that.
Our favourite forks were on top of the heap. Jeff’s was heavy, an antique he’d bought on that weekend in Aldeburgh when we’d had the fight about whether we’d seen gulls or eagles on the walk to the wetland. Birds of prey have different feet, Sinead.
My fork had a bone handle. Not ivory. He loved pointing that out. It had belonged to my mother. I picked up Jeff’s one and pressed the tines into my hand. Four little red dots appeared and then faded. I put it on top of the black clothes.
I zipped the suitcase up, lifted it, put it down, unzipped it, placed the antique utensil back in the drawer and took my favourite one instead. The whole suitcase felt lighter when I dumped it into the back of the Opel and soon I was at the end of the street. I wasn’t sure whether to use Google maps. The phone was probably linked to our laptop. (It had been my laptop first but Jeff’s was from the company and well we don’t need to have secrets, do we darling). I felt around the back of the seat for a street directory even though I’d not seen it in about seven years. I found the programme for the school play. Abi had been Rosalind. Jeff thought that As you like it was a worn out choice for such an exclusive college and asked where our fees were going when we had to pay to get in.
I watched people walk past the car. I didn’t know them. It was likely that they didn’t know me. I thought about where I’d go first. I liked the idea of staying in a hotel. Clean sheets with ironing lines and little round soaps and good evening madames and a door that let me out and in with a white card that I got to keep in my own purse. A bed with enough space for two of me. Maybe I’d order room service. Something I didn’t normally have, like pizza, or a burger, with meat. Lots of meat.
On the passenger seat was our new sales booklet. The houses, homes we called them, photographed to look brighter than they were. ‘Ideal for first home-buyer,’ said the top one. Abi would be one of them, soon. At sixteen she still had the curls she had at six but much bigger hats and anxiety that she spoke about more than anything else. She’d be okay. She’d understand.
My passport was on top of the booklet. Just in case. I reached over for it and there was a knock on my window. Not hard. It didn’t startle me. It wasn’t violent.
‘What are you doing, Sinead?’
I saw nothing for a moment but my fork. I pushed the button that made the window go down.
‘Oh. I thought I’d get some takeaway.’ There was a little lightening bolt on the steering wheel. I’d never noticed it before. ‘Noodles.’
I turned my head. Jeff was smiling. His eyes were on the passport.
‘Great idea. Singapore for me, veggie, extra tofu, no onion, no chilli. Make sure they use rice noodles. Not too much oil.’ He laughed. ‘Why am I telling you? You know. I’ll see you at home.’
He backed away. I watched him through the side mirror as he climbed into the Audi. He didn’t turn it on. He’d not turned it off when he got out.
I pulled the gearstick across and down. The R lit up.
At Chen’s I ordered the food. I sat next to the big fish tank against the wall, watching the goldfish swimming about each other because they didn’t have another plan. The tank was square. A little kid had cut himself once on its edges and had to have a tetanus injection, so they’d put a poster on the wall that said CAREFUL SHARP NO TOUCH. But it didn’t look too sharp unless you were really close.
I felt a tug on my sleeve. A man in a suit next to me was pointing and nodding toward the counter.
Gracie at the cash register was waving and laughing.
‘Welcome back to earth, Sinead, wakey wakey! Noodles are ready, lady!’
I sat in the car outside the shop and the plastic bag was burning my knee. Inside were two boxes and two new sets of chopsticks enveloped neatly in white paper. Heat particles were crawling out through the bag, scratching at my skin. When the two knots were undone, the hot air would escape. It would linger in the house for a moment. Then it would be gone.
The car was fogging up. I reached for the seatbelt. I wasn’t watching the road. I was watching myself walk up the path, our path, through the door that always jammed on the jutted tile, past the dining room that we never used, the one with the stack of bills on it. Into the kitchen. I saw myself place the chopsticks in the drawer with the others, next to the fork that I’d taken out of the suitcase at the car after I’d ordered the noodles and had now casually dropped back atop the pile and I felt a dull ache in my head as I observed myself sit down next to him and felt a hand rubbed slowly along my black stocking. Slowly and softly. The things that bring the tears. I saw him stand up. I saw him walk to the kitchen. I saw him getting them out, his fork and then mine, wiping them on this shirt as though they’d just both been there, as though they’d never left.
For the second time that afternoon, there was a knock at the glass.
‘Hi, so sorry, are you going to be sitting here long? This street’s just a nightmare for parking, isn’t it? I’m just behind you in the Loading Zone.’
The woman was wearing gym clothes and her smile took up half her face. She pointed behind her to a Volkswagon.
I smiled back.
‘Of course, sorry. I’m just pulling out.’
‘Oh thank God. My kid can’t wait too much longer for his dinner.’
I looked in the rear-view mirror. There was a sullen teenager in the passenger seat of the woman’s car. He had a piercing in his eyebrow. Or maybe it was acne.
‘You know what? Take these ones,’ I said, and handed her the plastic bag.
The woman looked confused. ‘Sorry?’
‘Honestly. I ordered them without thinking. We didn’t need them.’
She still didn’t take the bag.
‘That’s so kind of you. We’re vegetarian, though.’
The teenager beeped the horn and the woman swore under her breath.
‘Well it’s your lucky day, then,’ I insisted. ‘Please – be my guest.’
The woman took the handles with trepidation, reading the notes in red marker on the boxes through the plastic. Veg + rice + tofu++ NO onion NO chilli.
‘Thank you so much, wow. You know, I will take them. Single mums should never say no, hey?’
‘They should never. Enjoy your evening.’
She backed away from the door. I watched her climb back into the car and say something to her son. She said it with her hands. I waved to her as she flicked on the blinker, turning her front wheels toward the road and the night ahead. It was a busy road and U-turns were not possible at this hour.