She moved furtively towards a rack – looking was alright. The laces and silks glimmered with delights to come: shared bathroom shelves, children. Lately, children seemed to be everywhere – through the windows of buses, on park benches. At least she and Peter had had the shelves. Silly not to have married a few years ago: she hadn’t spoilt anything then. Reaching for a satin sleeve, she felt it tug sharply away, and a voice leapt through her.
‘Touching’s going too far.’
‘You ought to wear a bell!’ Evelyn said. ‘I’m sorry, it didn’t say not to touch…’
The stranger was blonde, slightly younger than Evelyn – early thirties, maybe – and the whites of her eyes had a blinding vitality, the blue irises jabbed into them like needles.
Evelyn drew herself up: ‘I had it first.’
‘It makes no difference.’
‘You let go.’ The stranger seemed to look straight through her. Then her mouth exploded with sudden laughter. ‘It’s not really my taste,’ she said.
The dress slackened and Evelyn gathered it against her as though catching a breath until she was sure the woman had gone.
She placed it on the sales desk. ‘I’ll take it.’
The assistant frowned. ‘Don’t you want to try it on?’
‘No. I thought that lady was going to fight me for it.’
The assistant put it in a suit carrier. ‘Because we don’t do refunds.’ She pointed to a sign. ‘See?’
Outside Evelyn made sure that she had her purse. She liked to double check things, like locking the front door. She had forty weary minutes before she needed to get on the tube at Goodge Street so she sat in Costa with coffee and a slice of walnut cake.
‘You shouldn’t have done it.’
Evelyn’s cup clattered onto the saucer and she looked up into blue, puncturing eyes. ‘Are you following me?’
The stranger sat down and toyed with a flower on the table. ‘So pretty,’ she said, and snapped off a petal.
Evelyn pressed her fingers white. ‘All the same, I’d like to eat alone.’
‘When’s the wedding?’
The stranger dealt the brunt of her eyes, forcing Evelyn to say, ‘We planned for spring.’
‘The thing is though – do you mind?’ She spooned Evelyn’s cake.
‘You’re trying to cheat. You know something he doesn’t.’
Evelyn’s appetite slipped down her throat. ‘How do you know about us?’
The woman gave her hideously bright laugh. ‘It won’t do: secret meetings yet still letting him hang onto the wedding…’
‘You want to hurt us.’
‘Let’s not reach after fantasies. I’d say you didn’t like me.’ She scooped up the cake with jolly menace.
The room sweated around Evelyn, and she dabbed a napkin against her forehead. She was not well. She wanted water, assistance. Surely someone could see what this woman was doing to her? But what would they see? Where was the harm in having coffee?
She said, ‘I need time.’
The stranger flattened crumbs with her finger. The cake was all gone. ‘You have to go,’ she said. ‘Your appointment.’
When Evelyn arrived home she put the dress and the Meadowvale information pack on the kitchen table. It wasn’t a bad place, she supposed, for that type of place. It would only be six months, that was a way to think about it. She opened a cupboard and pushed Meadowvale under a packet of shortbread.
Those little nuances of the dark that transform coats into night terrors told her someone was in the living room. She went in and fumbled for the lamp switch.
The stranger sat cross-legged in an armchair. A cigarette wisped from her hand.
‘How did you get in here?’
‘You let me in.’
‘I…?’ Evelyn looked over her shoulder in the vague direction of the front door. She remembered closing it.
Ash fell from the cigarette onto a side table. Evelyn noticed burn marks on the wood.
‘We don’t smoke,’ she said. ‘Peter won’t like it.’
‘I’ll have to quit.’
The room was altered. A photograph was missing. The T.V. was not where it used to be.
Evelyn said, ‘He has me. Why would he want you?’
‘I might wonder that too.’ The stranger stubbed the cigarette onto the table and came towards her. ‘Look, you’ll never see me again – that’s my end of the bargain. And yours…’ Her eyes danced over Evelyn’s necklace. ‘I like that.’
‘It was a present from Peter.’
‘Give it to me.’
The woman snatched at her, and Evelyn drew her arms over her face.
She was screaming when Peter came in.
‘Evelyn, good Lord!’ He shook her into focus.
She pointed. ‘Her! Get her away from me!’
‘Who, Evelyn? Get who away?’
The cigarette was no longer there and the burns had disappeared. The photograph was back.
Peter chuckled. ‘What’s rattled you, eh?’ Loosening his tie he went into the kitchen and laid the table. ‘New dress?’
‘It’s nothing.’ A maximum of six months was what the oncologist had said. She’d only known for a few weeks. They couldn’t even give her next spring.
‘Water?’ Peter called. ‘The new lawyer arrived today. She’s a filthy habit of smoking though. I can’t imagine dating a smoker.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Gillian. You alright?’ He smiled, and it made her think of long walks on the beach…all the moments she didn’t want to give up. Peter was perfect, too good for her, really. And she was always the one ruining it. They’d gone on a picnic once. He’d prepared the wine, the food…all she’d had to make was the potato salad and she hadn’t boiled the potatoes properly. Yet Peter stood in their kitchen. She followed him in, feeling again as though it all belonged to her: her dishcloths with the embroidered pumpkins, their shared meals. Her hand reached up to the knob of the biscuit cupboard: enduring this would cement their life together.
‘Peter, can we talk for a minute. I…’ Her collarbone prickled with the sudden realisation of bareness. Her fingers clutched at where her necklace had been. ‘She has blue eyes,’ she blurted.
Peter sliced a tomato. ‘Who?’
‘I have no –’
‘I suppose she might have, yes. Darling, what’s the matter?’
And the living room crept up on her. ‘I’ll just move the armchair,’ she said, her voice sifting away. ‘It’s out of place.’