As he opens the gate he notices that she has replaced the broken tiles on the path, and the tree, usually erected in the hallway, stands in the window. He rings the doorbell and glances at his reflection, spangled in lights.
The living room is a chaos of gifts opened the day before. Scraps of wrapping paper still strewn about the floor and tangling the sofa legs, but the children are excited at the bright packages he has brought; a remote-controlled car for Tommy, and a silver necklace for Elise. Rose frowns when he passes her the beribboned box, but she smiles as she withdraws the red cashmere sweater from its folds of tissue paper. ‘It’s nice, Joe,’ she says. ‘Really nice.’
‘Why don’t you try it on?’ he suggests.
‘Maybe later,’ she says, placing it carefully back in the box before excusing herself to finish preparing dinner in the kitchen.
It’s late afternoon but the sky is already darkening as Joe takes Tommy outside to race the toy car up and down the pavement. A neighbour raises his hand in greeting, but doesn’t stop to chat, at which Joe feels a jarring blend of disappointment and gratitude. Tommy jams the car’s controls and sends it flipping off the kerb to land on its roof, wheels helplessly whirring.
Dinner is left-over turkey with green salad and rice. The children chatter about the day before, about school, and ask if they can leave the table to play with their new treasures. Rose makes coffee, and he tells her about his new apartment, the wallpaper he has chosen, work.
‘Is it okay if I read the bedtime stories before I leave?’ he asks.
‘Elise is too old for them now,’ she tells him, ‘she reads on her own, but Tommy will like that, and it’ll give me time for a shower.’
As he sits in the big armchair in his son’s room, he hears her over the sound of his own slow voice. Her quiet humming beneath the drum of the water, her rustling movements as she walks to their bedroom – her bedroom – to dry herself.
Once he’s kissed the children goodnight, he comes downstairs to see her sitting at the kitchen table in a blue bathrobe, a floppy knot holding it closed as she leafs through a magazine, a glass of wine beside her. ‘Thanks,’ he says, ‘for inviting me over.’
‘The kids have loved having you here,’ she says, ‘and it’s okay for you to spend time with them here now and again. It really is.’
He nods. He doesn’t recognise the bathrobe and wants to ask if it’s new, but her phone rings.
‘I’ll answer it in the living room,’ she says. As she brushes past him, he catches her familiar scent of sandalwood soap, the damp fragrance of her hair, and is left staring at an empty glass vase on the windowsill. He remembers buying it for her from a car-boot sale when they first moved into this house together. Elegant, pale green glass, just large enough for a single stem.
He hears her light laughter from the other room. ‘No, Joe’s been fine,’ she says. ‘I know, but we’ve got tomorrow,’ she says. ‘Yes, I miss you too,’ she says.
He lifts his overcoat from the back of a kitchen chair and puts it on. He can smell the wine from Rose’s glass, and feels nauseous. She’s still talking on the phone. He glances at his watch. He should be going.
He lifts the empty vase from the windowsill and slips it into his pocket before leaving. On the long walk back to his apartment, it gently bumps against his thigh. He can feel the weight of it.
Author: Mairead Robinson writes and teaches in the South West, UK. Her work has been published on Ellipsis Zine, Full House Literary, Crow and Cross Keys and some other places. She can be found on Twitter @Judasspoon
Mairead’s advent calendar prize is a ticket to the Online Flash Fest in March 2024.