This is a work of fiction.
It happens around that time of the year when morning mist clears to make way for crisp yellow light and the leaves began to ripen.
We are in London for the weekend. Things are tense. I pretend not to understand his jokes and catch him looking at me with a mixture of irritation and pity when he thinks I don’t notice.
It’s the third anniversary of our wedding.
That morning I am sitting outside a cafe, shivering lightly in the cool September air as I sip a cappuccino and smoke a cigarette. He is still in the hotel room half a block away. He hates me smoking. I am wearing a shift dress which he said he hates, opaque tights, brown ankle boots and a black wool coat that he bought for me on our first anniversary. The first and last thing he ever bought me for an anniversary.
Our eyes meet when she presses the traffic light button, panting slightly. She is in head-to-toe black Lycra, with terry wristbands and a red beanie. Her face is flushed, her dark hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. She is big – tall, solid but not fat, with a runner’s lean physique. She has a dog on a lead, a big German Shepherd who seems to be enjoying the run as much as she is. I learned early on that runners don’t like to be called joggers. Joggers are amateurs. No one wants to be an amateur.
She crosses the road, maintaining eye contact, and stops at my table. ‘His name is Lord,’ she says with a nod at the dog.
I say, ‘Oh.’
‘Not in a religious way,’ she smiles. ‘He just looks like the lord of the manor. And his mother was called Lady.’
‘Was his father called Tramp?’
Her smile fades. ‘His father was called Finn.’
I break eye contact and pick up my lighter. When I was little, I had what seemed to me an excessive amount of arm hair. I often wondered if I could remove it by burning it off, like a mini bushfire running up to my shoulders. Then my sister leaned too close to the bonfire on Guy Fawkes Night and the smell put me off the idea for life. I got IPL instead.
She says, ‘I’m just trying to help you, there’s no need to make fun of my dog. I’m not crazy.’
Crazy people always insist they are completely sane.
‘I know all the crazy people say they’re not crazy.’ I look up and meet her narrowed eyes. ‘I just wanted to tell you something.’
She glances over at the empty chair next to me.
I say, ‘I would invite you to sit but I have to be somewhere shortly.’ Back at my hotel room, trying to drag him out of bed for another miserable day of sightseeing.
‘He’s not worth it,’ she says.
‘You might as well be carrying a placard that says “Unhappy Wife”’, she says. ‘You have no reason to stick around if you’re unhappy.’
I open my mouth to tell her she knows nothing about my life and to mind her own business, but instead, ‘I know, but it’s hard to let go,’ comes out.
She frowns and points her finger at me. ‘Nothing is hard to let go. You need to think about the future. The bigger picture.’
‘The bigger picture is complicated.’
‘Nonsense. Nothing is complicated unless you make it so.’
I light another cigarette. Two in a row are going to make me smell of smoke and he is going to complain but I didn’t care.
She says, ‘The main thing he needs to do is to support you.’
‘Why is that the main thing?’
‘Humans are pack animals,’ she says. ‘Without love and support, we wither like wildflowers.’
I say, ‘Wildflowers don’t need support. They grow in the wild.’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Roses, then.’
‘I’m sorry, you’re right. How do you know all this? About me, I mean.’
‘I know these things. I’ve seen enough women like you sit around and mope over men who don’t deserve being moped over and it’s the same sad story every time. I’m not trying to interfere – you don’t even know me. I just wish people would see that they don’t need to hold on to the same person for ever if they stop being right for each other. That’s like putting weedkiller on a plant and hoping it will grow.’
‘Hi,’ a voice says behind us. He manages to drag himself out of bed independently today. He is wearing navy jeans with Timberlands and a black peacoat I bought him for our first anniversary.
She doesn’t bother acknowledging him. ‘Think about what I said.’
He sits down as she moves down the road at a brisk pace, Lord bounding alongside. ‘Who was that?’ he asks. ‘You smell like an ashtray.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What were you talking about?’
A year ago I would have thought he was just taking an interest in my life. Today it sounds like an interrogation. ‘Her dog.’
‘You don’t like dogs.’
‘She likes her dog.’ I look at the pair, disappearing from view. ‘Some people like to talk about their pets to strangers.’
‘She sounds like an idiot,’ he says.
I shrug. ‘She seemed nice.’
He rolls his eyes and goes into the cafe, emerging ten minutes later with an espresso. I know he spent five of those minutes wondering if he should sit inside just to make me go looking for him; it wouldn’t have been the first time. If I went to find him, he would protest that it was cold out and it was my problem if I wanted to get lung cancer, and if I left then I was being moody and unreasonable. But this is our anniversary trip and we are going to spend it bickering rather than waging outright war.
‘I was watching the news this morning,’ he says. ‘There’s going to be an earthquake apparently.’
‘Was this Sky News? They like sensationalist shit like that.’
‘Actually it was the Beeb.’ I hate it when he called BBC that.
‘Where is the earthquake going to happen?’
‘Here,’ he says, staring at me. ‘In London.’
I say, ‘Are you worried?’
His jaw tightens. ‘Of course I’m not worried!’
He isn’t worried, he is petrified. His ancestors were from Santorini, where stories of the Minoan eruption and 1956 earthquake are passed down through generations with increasingly hysterical details. Fear of earthquakes was instilled in him with his mother’s milk.
Despite how little I love him, I feel sorry for him. I say, ‘I’m sure it won’t be a big one. We’re not on a fault line or anything.’
He gives me a look.
‘Where do you want to go today?’
‘What?’ His voice rises. ‘Where do I want to go? Didn’t you hear me, there’s going to be an earthquake!’
I sigh. The pack of Marlboro red on the table looks so inviting. As I reach out for it, he snatches it out of my hand and throws it onto the road. People avert their eyes; this is a nice district of London; public displays of emotion just aren’t done.
‘You don’t get it, do you? An earthquake, a proper earthquake.’ His hands shake. ‘I always knew it. My mother’s astrologer told her it’s my destiny to die in an earthquake.’
I make an effort to keep my voice level. ‘It’s impossible to die in an earthquake in London.’ When he scowls, I say, ‘Look. If there was that much danger, we would be getting evacuated right now.’
‘I’m sure the rich already are.’ He gets up and retrieves the cigarette packet from the gutter grate, pulls one out and lights it. ‘We’re doomed.’
A laugh escapes before I can stop it. ‘You’re getting hysterical,’ I say. ‘Stop.’
‘You really are.’
‘I’m really not. You didn’t see the news. The newsreader had no idea what she was talking about but I knew. I’ve been taught about these things.’
‘You haven’t been taught anything,’ I say. I can feel my voice getting mean and I can’t stop it. ‘Your relatives passed on some borderline insane folklore about an eruption that happened in BCE times and you all sit there and worry about something that is never going to happen. Just get over it! It’s typical, typical of you and typical of your whole family.’
Then the ground shakes.
It’s light at first, just a vibration underneath our feet like the feeling you get on a train when you go over a rough bit of track. Then the metal table legs begin clanking against the pavement.
We make eye contact, probably for the first time in months. His eyes are wide, empty of all thought and filled instead with primal terror.
Then behind him, two blocks down the road, I see it. The brick house, built as a residence for a rich occupant and now divided up into flats going for a couple of million each, is collapsing. It sways and a crack appears down the side, snaking up from the foundation and splitting the wall in a cloud of dust.
At that moment I don’t want to be alone. I don’t care that we spent the last year quietly hating each other or that he spent this trip – our anniversary – checking out other women. I just want him to grab my hand and to start running, doesn’t matter where, somewhere we would be safe and realise that our existence is small and powerless against the crushing force of nature.
I jump up. He doesn’t move.
‘Why?’ he says. He is pale, his curly dark hair damp with sweat.
‘We need to get out of here!’
‘What’s the point?’ but he gets up and follows, just far enough to avoid any accidental body contact. We stumble down the road along with the rest of the panicked people. I hear glass smash behind me.
Someone screams and even though I know I shouldn’t, I turn around and stop. He runs past me, unwilling to stop just because I did, but then I hear him whisper, ‘Oh my god’ behind me.
People pass us, stop, follow our line of sight and start running again, but we are rooted to the spot. The road is splitting down the middle in an almost straight line. From where we’re standing, we can see that the chasm is so deep it looks bottomless.
As it gets closer to us, he laughs and starts running towards it. I hear someone cry out – it might be me – and race after him but I’m not quick enough. He leaps over the gap, which widens, and spins around to face me. Then he laughs.
I realise that I’ve never heard him laugh like that. He has always been restrained, even when we stopped pretending we still love each other. He sounds like a hyena.
‘Don’t you see?’ he shouts, waving his hands to steady himself as the city collapses around us. ‘It’s you and me! It’s symbolical!’
I look at him. I don’t know what to do.
‘Don’t you want to heal the rift?’
‘What are you talking about?’
He comes closer to the crack. I can barely see him through the dust. ‘You’ve never trusted me, admit it. You’ve always thought you were better than me.’
‘That’s not true!’ but it is and we both know it. His parents are farmers. His dad killed himself when business started going south and his mum married another farmer within a year.
‘Jump over,’ he says.
‘Are you insane?!’
He shakes his head. There’s a light in his eyes. ‘It’s a test. To prove that you trust me.’
He says, ‘You want to make this work, don’t you?’
I think, do I? My thoughts are coming out in short bursts. The woman from earlier, with Lord the German Shepherd, pops into my head. What did she say? You have no reason to stick around?
He’s covered in dust and dirt, but he still looks beautiful. For the first time in years I look at him and realise how beautiful he is, with tanned skin and perfect cheekbones. Those women that he checked out? They all looked back. Then they looked at me and wondered what he was doing with a pale mousy blonde who doesn’t wear make-up.
I look down. He says, ‘Don’t!’
‘You’ll get scared and not do it.’
‘I could die!’
‘You won’t. It’s a tiny gap. If you trust me, you’ll do it.’
I don’t know if I want to make it work. The woman’s words are burning into my mind. She said, ‘Nothing is hard to let go.’ And, ‘You need to think about the bigger picture’.
I think about the future, the bigger picture. It takes seconds. It’s easy. We don’t have a future. We never had a future, we were just two people who met at a party and drank too much and had a pregnancy scare and he did the decent thing.
What’s decent about being attached to someone for life when you don’t want to be?
I think about all the hurtful things he said, all the times I hated him, curled up in a ball of anger in the passenger seat on the way home from a party. All the times I found it hard to cope with stress at work and he would roll his eyes at me crying in the bedroom all night. All the times I wanted to slap him across the face for being a heartless bastard at work, all the times he ‘worked late’ and came home smelling of a perfume that I don’t own. It dawns on me that I don’t want a fourth anniversary with him. But I look to my right and a building is collapsing, I think it’s an embassy, and people are running out screaming, and it’s easier to do something than just stand there, so I jump. And he hits me in the stomach, which winds me, and as I start falling into the chasm he crouches down and grabs me by the wrists.
‘I can never divorce you,’ he says. The light in his eyes, the one I thought was madness, is actually that of relief. ‘My mother… she wouldn’t let me. We don’t get divorced in our family.’
‘So you… die?’ I scream.
‘So we die,’ he says. His breathing is slow, even.
‘Why would you do that? Your mum was devastated when your dad died.’
‘My dad shot himself,’ he says. ‘Or so the story goes.’ His hands are getting slippery with sweat. ‘I’ve always wondered if it was a coincidence that the man she married next was the Commissioner of the local police force.’
‘You said he was a farmer!’
‘He was. Eventually.’
‘Don’t do this. Please.’ I say, as I feel his hands slipping. A few more seconds and I’ll be able to grab on to him. ‘I’ll leave. I’ll disappear.’
‘Yes, you will.’ To his left, I see a man stop and look at us. A witness! But the earth rumbles and he starts running again.
I say, ‘But I’m not supposed to die. You are!’
I think, if I’d listened to that woman earlier, I wouldn’t even be here right now.
‘I am dying. The man that I am when I’m with you is no longer going to exist. This all makes perfect sense. I’m sorry things didn’t work out,’ he says. And then he lets go.