Isla sits down at the table, watches the blade of Sam’s knife glitter beneath the spotlights. Curved and sharp, it slices through the translucent flesh of pale green shallots, the velvety skin of forest mushrooms, three creamy cloves of garlic. She wishes he’d sit down for a moment, tell her about his business trip, yet she knows he’s busying himself in the kitchen so he doesn’t have to talk to her, even though he must be tired.
Isla reaches for her phone and scrolls through the local newspaper for headlines, frowns as she reads about a serious assault in Primrose Park. She flicks back and forth until her eye is caught by this week’s advice column.
Dear Debbie, should I tell my husband about my affair with his best friend?
She looks up, guilt burning her cheeks as though she’d spoken aloud, but Sam has turned away from the counter to reach for the sauté pan.
It’s almost a year since Ged ended their relationship. They were infatuated with each other for a while, but he couldn’t bear to carry on deceiving his childhood friend. Isla has buried the details of their unpleasant break-up, blanked out the shameful memories of her desperate pleading, yet she can’t let go of those summer afternoons at his apartment in town; the slip and glide of his sweat-licked skin against hers, the heat and noise from the tapas bar below. Those stolen hours still breathe inside her, they dance to their own flamenco beat, flutter their wings against her ribcage.
She glances back down at the advice column, reads the response, relieved to discover that Debbie advises against owning up. Isla can’t comprehend why anyone would want to tell their partner about an affair – particularly if it was long since over. Unless they were seeking forgiveness? I was drunk, it didn’t mean anything. But Isla knew that was of little comfort to the wronged, even if it were true. No, she saw confession as a purely selfish act, to relieve the wrongdoer of their guilt, to set it free, to remove the weight of it pressing on their heart each day.
Yet on the odd occasion, when Isla and Sam argue, or when he flirts with one of her friends for a little too long, there’s a reckless part of her that wants to tell him.
She watches him now as he prepares the vegetable stock, adds a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, and wonders if Ged ever thinks of telling him too.
Sam turns round for a moment, his expression a question, then he turns away again, stirs the stock with slow precision, the tablespoon chiming against the glass jug. Isla stares at his broad back, T-shirt bunched up by the ties of his apron, feels the weight of the silence he carries within him.
“Shall I read you your horoscope?”
He grimaces. “You know I don’t believe all that stuff – but go on, if you must.”
She scrolls up and down the column until she finds Leo.
“It says, Try to open up to a loved one, discuss past wrongs and let old wounds finally heal. This week is an auspicious time for a new start.”
Is she imagining it or does he flinch?
Isla clears her throat, opens her mouth to speak, has a sudden impulse to tell him about Ged right now. But the words stick to the roof of her mouth like dry communion wafers and she knows she will never confess.
Instead, she jabs at her phone again, the pan sizzling as Sam browns the shallots and garlic. She reads him a story about a pro-lifer who upset a group of students by handing out leaflets at the local school.
“The leaflet described the unborn baby at different stages of development.”
She presses her hand to her stomach, imagines a heart the size of a poppy seed, tiny indentations where ears would grow, the nubs of arms and legs.
Sam doesn’t respond. Isla knows he has never wanted children, and she realises she has read this particular news story aloud to test his reaction. Rightly or wrongly she takes his silence as confirmation that his position hasn’t altered, that having a baby wouldn’t feature on his list of ways to save a failing marriage. Perhaps they could pick something else from the list instead – adopt a rescue dog or take a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
The pan hisses a little as he adds the rice, stirs it until the grains are coated with oil, pours in a generous glug of wine. He tips the sliced mushrooms into a small omelette pan on the back ring.
Isla types quickly with her middle finger, finds the local job vacancies, sees the advertisement for a development manager at a prominent engineering firm.
“Isn’t this the post you were hoping would come up?” She reads the details to him and he nods.
“It would be a great opportunity, but it’s a hundred miles away.”
“Well, maybe it’s time for a fresh start, just like it says in your horoscope?”
She looks up, waiting for an answer, catches a glimpse of his unease as he turns away. A stone drops to the pit of her stomach, but she stays quiet, browses the property pages, reads the details of the featured houses to herself: Charming two-bed detached cottage with inglenook fireplace and a wealth of other original features. A great bolthole for those with a romantic soul.
She watches Sam add a little more stock, tip the cooked mushrooms into the pan, stir the rice gently with the wooden spoon that was once her grandma’s. Isla notices a glint of silver at the back of his neck; a thin curb chain she’s never seen before. Something tightens in her chest.
She taps her screen again, finds today’s quick crossword and starts to fill in the clues. When she’s typed in all the easy answers she puts her phone down on the table and thinks more carefully about the final few. She reads a couple of them aloud.
“Seven across is ‘longing’, six letters, and the third letter is ‘s’.”
She nods and types it in. Sam places the wooden spoon on the counter and pours in the last drop of stock, adds grated parmesan.
“What’s the next clue?”
“Avoid something undesirable by luck or skill. Five letters, begins with ‘c’.”
Isla glances up and their eyes meet. Sam blushes, then looks away, lifts down two dinner plates from the rack.
She clicks back on the headline news stories, clears her throat, starts to read aloud again; a story about a man recently released from prison after accidentally killing his child. The girl was chasing a ball down their driveway and her father reversed out without seeing her – she was too small to be visible at the side of his car or in his rearview mirror.
In her grief his wife wanted him punished, hired lawyers, pressed the police to find him in some way culpable. In court they said he should have seen the girl in his wing mirror. Angles were considered, sketches produced.
“But when Mr Freeman was in prison his wife said she regretted her part in ensuring his prosecution, and even though she couldn’t bring herself to forgive him she spoke to him several times on the telephone.”
“Would you have forgiven me?” Sam asks.
Isla looks up. “Of course,” she says, automatically. But they both know it’s a lie.
She carries on reading. “Mr Freeman said he understood why his wife had acted the way she did. He said he would never forgive himself, let alone expect his wife to, yet while in prison he had come to hope she would give their marriage another chance. The prison was a day’s travel from Freeman’s house, and he knew it would already be dark when he arrived home after his release. He asked his wife to do one simple thing – to leave the porch light on if she was prepared to take him back. When he arrived, the lawn was filled with hurricane lamps and torches, every light in the house was switched on, strings of fairy lights were wrapped around the fence.”
“You wouldn’t need to make a special effort here. We always have the lights on. This house is as bright as an operating theatre.”
Isla knows he’s right. She blinds herself to her fears in a dazzle of bulbs, hates the nights she can’t sleep, dreads lying awake in the dark. The darkness makes everything clearer.
When he hands her the wine she acts on an unexpected impulse, reaches across to switch on the small table lamp, then gets up and flicks off the main spotlights.
Sam pauses for a moment before he picks up the risotto, but neither of them speak. Isla fills their glasses as he carries the plates over. As she pushes her phone aside, a photograph catches her eye. A man and a woman with their arms around each other’s waists, posing for the camera by a backwater canal in Venice. A glimpse of denim sky above the narrow buildings, the water below as dark as moss, a string of sun-bleached washing strung between two balconies. The figures are standing in shadow, some distance from the photographer, yet Isla recognises her friend’s gap-toothed grin, the cloud of strawberry hair tied up with a blue scarf.
“Edie’s on the local news website. Why is she in Venice?” She peers more closely to see if she knows the man. “Who on earth is she with?”
Sam drops his plate of risotto onto the table a little too quickly and it clangs against his wine glass. Isla looks up, then back down at the photograph, taking in the short-sleeved shirt patterned with red hibiscus flowers. She reads the paragraph underneath, her hand shaking. She waits until Sam places the second plate of risotto down in front of her, then holds out her phone.
He takes it from her, eyes narrowed; puzzled at first. Then his jaw slackens and he blinks in slow motion as though to clear his vision. Isla watches his mouth half-forming the words as he reads, as he tries to work out exactly how this could have happened, as he realises that everything can change irrevocably in the time it takes to make a risotto.
One of our readers found a camera on Lumb Lane in East Cromley last weekend. The camera itself has suffered serious damage, but Mr Harris thought the owner may wish to be reunited with their photographs and suggested we might share one of them here. We checked the memory card and found this romantic snap of a couple in Venice. We’d like to thank Mr Harris, and hope the owner of the camera will see themselves and give us a call.
Sam places the phone down carefully at the side of Isla’s plate, picks up his fork as though he plans to eat the risotto, clasps it tightly until the skin over his knuckles is as white as the bone beneath. Then he shrugs, loosens his grip, makes the decision not to fight it.
“I remember now. Edie put her camera down on the roof of the car. We must have forgotten and driven off…”
“Yes, you must have.”
Isla reaches across the table, turns off the lamp with a sharp click. The sound hangs there for a few moments in the darkness as their eyes adjust.