James was making the Saturday omelettes as they called them. The late morning meal he made each week whilst Penny took her long Saturday bath. He cracked two white shell eggs into the glass bowl. He preferred the white shell to the browner shell ones. He tapped in some salt and pepper, picked up the whisk and mixed slowly with the bowl secured between his arm and torso. He admired the way they went from two yellow spheres to a marbled swirl of yolk and transparent albumen, through to a singular, opaque, autumnal sun colour. The girls were playing in the garden, chasing each other around, shrieking when one made a grab for the other. The day was warm enough to keep the kitchen door to the garden open. He put a frying pan on the hob, lit the gas, and knifed in the butter which bubbled immediately. After circling the melted butter around the pan, he tilted the mix into it at a slight angle allowing it to slowly slide in. He went into the hallway and called upstairs.
‘Penny, first omelette is in. Ten minutes max.’
He let it sit until less than the top half remained liquid and scattered some grated cheddar over it. He looked out the back. The girls were watching the thrush that had recently started building a nest in the larger bush at the back as it flew in with extra building supplies. He took the plastic spatula and started his favourite part of the Saturday omelette making, leaning the pan, and teasing one edge of the omelette to roll back on itself. He always took care to make sure the heat didn’t brown it. He wanted to keep a perfect mono yellow. When finished he had a fat cylinder shaped omelette which he slipped across the middle of the first white plate.
‘Penny, second one is going in. Five minutes!’
He repeated the same exact motions. The girls were now sitting on the grass content with the show the mother thrush was putting on. With their backs to him, crouched on the grass like that, they looked like twins, the same height. The two years difference between them vanished. He took the ketchup from the cupboard. Penny liked a blob of ketchup next to hers. He finished rolling the second one, Penny’s, so she always got the fresher, warmer one, and placed it on the next waiting plate.
‘Penny. It’s ready now. Come on.’
James and Penny had married young. No reason for the young marriage other than an immediate love. She’d been instantly charmed by his military garb, all green, with the slanted beret and gold clasp. Not that uniforms were a thing for her, but there was a dignity and soft strength to James that drew her in. He was taken with her from the start too. She laughed at his jokes, even though hers were better, and she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. They married within a year of meeting. He requested a posting to his hometown, where they were both from, and had plenty of family around. Their two girls, Sam and Georgie, were born within a few weeks of their first and third wedding anniversaries.
Penny didn’t come down for her Saturday omelette, so James went into the hallway again and started walking up the stairs.
‘Penny, come on. Omelettes are ready.’
No answer, so he went into the bathroom. The shower curtain pulled two thirds of the way across. He could see Penny from the knees down.
‘Come on love. Don’t let it go cold.’
He pulled back the curtain. Penny lay there. Eyes open and not moving. The water completely still so that her skin above the waterline reflected in its surface. James’s legs gave way. He reached over the rim of the tub, the dry bathmat lay beneath his shins, and picked up her left forearm.
‘Penny. Penny. Penny!’
He shook her arm. The water sloshed. She sagged back, eyes fixed open. James took her face between his palms to stop her from going under. The side of the bath dug into his ribs as he tried to lift her. The plastic bottle of shampoo fell into the water. Its splash gave him a start. Penny sagged in his arms. The back of her neck nestled on the inside of his right elbow. Her head lolled back. He looked at her long, slim neck, not moving. No air passing in or out. No blood pulsing. No heart beating in her chest.
The knowledge of it. The sheer, unrelenting, piercing knowledge that his wife was dead. The knowing she was suddenly dead. Out of nowhere. Knowing he had to take action. Call someone. Call his sister. Get an ambulance. Leave her body there whilst he did it. He pushed his forehead against the porcelain of the sink. He heard Sam and Georgie giggle outside. He pressed his head harder. He gripped the sink and tore himself from the floor. The mirror in front of him. He opened the door and looked back at Penny’s body. He said, ‘I love you’, and went to the phone.
Death mostly tells us at least something about its arrival. Announces its proximity through illness, old age, risk taking, through congenital illness, through stupidity. It’s there in its distant possibility when we get in a car, plane, or train. Its faint chance is there when we cross a road, even after looking both ways. Its potential presence when we work on a machine, an engine, even have a barbecue. When we walk into a bar, go for a jog, ask a stranger for help, when we have too much to drink, eat too much or not enough. When we get a taxi home, run up or down some stairs, when we walk in cold weather. Its mere possibility resides almost everywhere, but not in a bathtub on a Saturday morning, not when you’re twenty-nine years old and healthy, not when you’re in your own home, in a small town, and your daughters are playing outside. Not when your husband is cooking omelettes downstairs, and all you have to do is dry yourself off, put on a bathrobe, and go give him a kiss and say, ‘thank you, my love.’ Not there.
James made the call to his sister. He dealt with the panic and rush of family. They looked after Sam and Georgie whilst others stayed and assisted with the ambulance crew. When the girls were brought home by his brother, later that evening, he sat down with them and did his best to explain. To put it in the right words, or the rightest anyway. He cried, and they cried. They cuddled up on the sofa, clutching one another. The girls eventually, somehow, dozed into fitful sleep.
He stood up, making sure not to wake them from their fragile rest. He went into the kitchen. On the side, the two white plates with cold, hardened omelettes made him take a step back. The intensity of what life was up until the moment he’d finished these Saturday omlettes just meagre hours ago, and what it was now sent a jolt through him. He careered back, the wall stopping him from falling. He scrunched his eyelids with his index finger and thumb. Looked up, opened the far-right cupboard, and reached for the bottle of whiskey they’d had since last Christmas, still three-quarters full.
The next day the girls were in the garden. It couldn’t be called playing, but they were there. They walked around, holding hands, stopping to hug now and then, no smiles, but no tears either. James watched them from the kitchen table, through the window of the shut door, and drank from the new bottle he’d bought that morning. Sam came in and asked for something to eat and he managed a slurred ‘help yourself, love.’ The words felt sour in his mouth, like he might throw up. He topped up his glass and took a swig through his teeth. Georgie walked in about an hour later.
‘Dad, we think the thrush has finished her nest. Come and look.’
‘No, Georgie. You girls need to get to bed. Come on.’
This became the circle of things. James, after his compassionate leave ended, managed to do his work. At the weekends he used what remained of his ability to function at the kitchen table drinking from a new bottle. The girls stayed in the garden. He didn’t hear their giggles like before, and didn’t know how he’d cope to hear them anyway, to be the only parent hearing them. He had them constantly in his field of vision, but it was more like radar, them existing as green blips on a screen in his brain. Their main interest was the thrush that had taken residence in the garden with them.
‘Dad. Dad. Will you come and see the thrush now?’
‘No, Georgie, no. Sorry, I don’t want to look.’
‘You have to dad. She’s laid eggs now. Four eggs in her nest’
‘I don’t want to see her four fucking eggs Georgie! Get back outside!’
Georgie darted outside, roaring in tears, into Sam’s arms who glared back at her father. James poured into his glass and put his head down. The girls stayed away from him after that, increasingly helping themselves to food, sticking closer and closer together. Sam moved the mattress from her bedroom, which was next to her father’s, to Georgie’s floor, leaving her bedroom unused. These were their weekends now.
When the chicks were born Sam and Georgie didn’t tell their father. They went to peer into the nest each day, and watch their helpless baldness, bags of pink bones, sealed over eyelids, beaks jabbing the air, squeaking out for their mother to bring sustenance. So much life in them, pounding through their pathetic bodies, inhaling being alive. James stayed at his table, this now his spot, the whiskey bottle in his hold at one-clock to his body. Hours in this position, whilst he knew the girls were outside, occasionally looking at them if he heard something. Which is what happened, a small, tight scream from Georgie made him stand up and go to the kitchen door. He heard Georgie shout out:
‘No Sam! No!’
James opened the door and looked out. Something was on the grass in front of Sam, but he couldn’t make out what. She had a red brick, taken from the plant bed border, raised above her head. He walked towards her, taking him further into the garden than he’d been in a month. She flung her hands down in front of her, thrusting the brick at her feet. Georgie screamed. James ran to them. In front of her the upturned thrush nest was on the ground, the spindly bodies of the baby birds crushed, one of them still letting out a faint, final whimper. Tears were flooding down Sam’s cheeks. James sunk to his knees, and for the first time since the first day they’d had without their mother, he gathered them in his embrace. They walked from the garden together, straight through the kitchen, to the living room sofa, and held each other until sleep came.