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Love & Accommodation

Leo had stopped the car and sat talking at the dash. He talked like he didn’t want to say any of it, but at the same time he seemed in a hurry to get it out, to reach the end of what he was telling her. He was wired with excitement and shame, perched at the brink of a new life now, Jolanta understood as much.

 

She sat in the back seat with her handbag. Leo wouldn’t look at her, he kept his eyes straight on the street, the skip outside the neighbours’ house. Jolanta looked at him in the rearview, looked hard at the black of his sunglasses.

 

‘I’ll help you,’ he said, finally.

 

Where the mirror cut off his jaw hung the prayer beads that he had kept after his father died, smooth and dry like his voice, like cockroaches in the sun.

 

Help her? she thought; a sock for the dismembered, and his help for her.

 

She keeps her job at the campsite, beats dawn without an alarm clock now. When the motion detector spots her, fluorescent lights suck the dark from the room. The white tiles are glossed like wet teeth. The floor is littered with paper towels and dragged in leaves. The stalls smell of urine. She opens the cupboard marked Private, plastic bottles rattling as she hoicks the cleaning cart over the threshold.

 

There are different kinds of shit stains. The darker the stain, the longer and harder she must rub with the toilet brush to get the porcelain shining like crockery again. A drop flies up in her face, a cold mouche on her lip. She wipes it off on the shoulder of her t-shirt and works her way down the stalls. Sweat tickles her spine.

 

She continues going into reception to sign off her shifts. At the check-in desk, Eva is sitting with her head in her hand. She is wearing a blouse with First Camp stitched on the back and a name tag pinned on the front. A round office lamp hangs like an unlit gloria above her head.

 

Behind Eva’s swivel chair is the shelf with the binders. Jolanta pulls out the one marked Cleaning, drops her handbag on the other swivel chair. Leaning on the desk, she takes her time turning the pages. Outside the reception’s glass front, fallen leaves drag along the driveway. The sun shines dimly, as if powered by a half dead battery. The lushness of the summer is spent.

 

Eva lifts her head and eyes Jolanta up and down. She starts as if to speak but changes her mind. She sinks back in the chair and sits looking at the computer.

 

Jolanta knows what she was going to say. She is not required to write in the cleaning binder any longer. There is no longer any need to put on record who has cleaned the toilets or showers. Her own signature, Jolanta Novakowsky, curls over every line of the page.

 

Some pages back, other names are written next to Jolanta’s: Danuta, Maria, and Blanca, staving off the monotony. That was back when there was reason to keep a record. Now that there is not, now that all of that is gone, keeping on signing the binder gives a semblance of formality to the day. Seeing her name written over and over like that is a reminder that days have passed and that at least she has been to work.

 

‘I’ve made coffee.’ Eva pushes back the chair.

 

‘Yes, I saw.’

 

‘Stay for a cup? It’s all gone so quiet here.’

 

Eva tilts her head, her eyes grey and dull like teaspoon bottoms. The phones sit silently on the desk. The bell on the front door hangs at the end of its string.

 

‘Milk, no sugar, right?’

 

‘No. I can’t stay.’

 

Eva looks away, shifty eyes and lashes like two black crescents, heavy with mascara caked on like she adds new layers without washing off the old.

 

‘Maybe tomorrow,’ Jolanta says, gives a not quite smile.

 

She stands up straight, rubs the pain at the small of her back. She takes in her name written next to today’s date, then folds the binder shut. The clock on the wall shows 9.35 a.m. She hoicks the handbag up to her shoulder and slides the binder back in the shelf.

 

‘Jolanta?’

 

‘I have to go.’

 

Eva is rubbing her neck, chalky thin wrist, both halves of a break pendant resting between her collar bones.

 

Finally she says, ‘Where is Vaktis?’

 

Jolanta smirks and slightly straightens her posture.

 

‘Are you that desperate for company?’

 

Eva’s hand drops to her lap, a V of skin bared between open blouse buttons, the head set cord stretched across her chest like a seat belt.

 

‘It’s not his company that I want.’

 

Jolanta raises a brow, teasing.

 

‘No, I’ve had enough of that toothless whiner coming in here,’ Eva says. ‘Pacing up and down and sucking his ice-creams and going on about whatever.’

 

Eva takes in the space before the desk with a look of abhorrence, as if Vaktis were there now, walking up and down the room. Jolanta looks too, imagining the janitor with his windbreaker and tattered baseball cap.

 

When Eva turns to Jolanta, her eyes look wetter, more like fish scales than teaspoons.

 

‘He has something for me.’

 

Vaktis likes to hang around the reception girls, Jolanta knows that much, and it has crossed her mind that perhaps he likes to hang around Eva in particular, find little ways to make his presence appear necessary. Change a light bulb. ‘And what, if I may ask, does Vaktis have for you?’

 

Eva looks at the gum machine in the corner, holds it in her gaze, as if the near-empty bulb might try to escape, barge through the front door and roll down the driveway. Outside the glass front, shadows flit like dark birds in the trees.

 

‘I have to go anyway,’ Jolanta says.

 

‘Wait, I’ll tell you something,’ Eva says.

 

Jolanta drops her handbag on the floor, leans her shoulder against the door jamb. ‘There was this evening, a little over a week ago.’

 

Eva looks her in the eye, as if to secure a line between them before she continues. ‘I was still sitting here, but I had turned out the lights, so nobody would come to the door thinking they could still get served,’ she says. ‘The till wasn’t adding up, so I had just started over when Vaktis came in through the back.’

 

‘Okay?’ Jolanta says.

 

‘He didn’t say anything, but I heard on the steps that it was him, so I didn’t bother getting up, and then when he got to where you are standing now, he sort of jumped. Like I had frightened him.’

 

Jolanta looks at the doorway where she is standing, as if Vaktis’ movements were still hung in the air, as if his shoulder were rubbing against hers.

 

‘First he seemed sort of angry that I was here, but then he sort of smiled a little. I had caught him by surprise he said. He thought I had gone home he said, because my bike wasn’t outside.’

 

Jolanta shifts her weight from one foot to the other.

 

‘When I told Vaktis that my bike had been stolen the day before, he got angry for real and went on about what a disgrace Malmö is. You know how he goes on.’

 

Outside the glass front, a BMW with dark toned windows rolls up to the exit barrier. The striped pole rises, and the car glides down the driveway toward the ring road.

 

‘I just wanted to finish the till and go home, but now I had to start over again anyway, so when he said he could sort me out I asked what he meant.’

 

‘Sort you out?’

 

‘Yeah, that junk he has at the caravan, you know those bits of stuff we keep asking him to clean out, he told me there’s a bike there, a black Monark with five gears. He had been fixing it up to sell, but he said I might as well have it instead.’

 

Jolanta swallows. ‘He would give you a bike?’

 

‘Yeah, that’s what he said, that he’d give me the bike, and then he left without doing whatever he had come in to do.’

 

On the other side of the glass, the barrier comes down with a clink. A wind makes leaves lift from the maple trees, then fall slowly down toward the driveway.

 

‘Normally I can’t get rid of him, but since that evening he hasn’t been in here, not even once.’

 

Jolanta shrugs. The pain at the small of her back blooms as she leans to pick up her handbag from the floor.

 

‘He’s been busy then,’ she says.

 

The faults in the electric hook ups, the grass grown tall, the leaves dragged around everywhere, the un-oiled hinges on doors: all of that could have occupied the janitor, kept him out of reception. She says he will show up, but the way Eva’s eyes cling to hers tells Jolanta that there is something else. She can sense the shape of something bigger bulging under the surface. One rabbit on the grass, nine in the ground. The girl has something on her mind, something more difficult than the broken promise of a bike, and now she wants Jolanta to nurse it out of her, as if she were her mother. She thinks for a moment of what to say next, if anything. She only came in to write her name in the binder, to seal off that part of her day before going home.

 

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Eva says, suddenly defensive, as if Jolanta had said something reprimanding, the sort of thing a mother might have said. ‘The bike did get stolen, and it wasn’t my fault.’

 

Jolanta knows Eva is having an affair with a man who is older than her by decades. Jolanta has seen him. Eva’s shift had ended, and the man had come to pick her up. The two of them were in the staff car park, and Jolanta stood watching through the glass door of the service house. Eva stood smiling as the man lifted her bike onto a bike rack on an old Volvo Amazon, not a typical car for a man like him, but Jolanta recognised his ilk: the pilot shades, the greasy wave of hair, the sweeping, inventorial glance around before getting into the car. She saw enough to know how Eva has it with him. As they backed out of the car park and drove away through the barrier, their affair hung clear as sun behind Jolanta’s eyes:

 

The two of them together in the man’s bed. The man playing with the girl’s hair, a perfect imitation of intimacy, saying I want us to go away together. The girl turning around in the sheets, rising to her elbow, asking Can we do that? Her smile rushing forwards. The man saying We can do what we want, then furnishing a weekend away with details of phones switched off and uninterrupted time together. The swelling of a promise and the streetlights falling through the blinds. The man pulling the girl back as she tries to get up, then allowing her to wriggle loose. Wet smiles exchanged across the bedroom. The girl slipping out in her naked skin and tousled hair.

 

The girl in the man’s bathroom. The sharp light and the stream of urine echoing. His stuff viscous and his toilet paper the hard cheap kind. The girl’s face aglow in the mirror, and behind the mirror, the contents of the man’s cupboard: hair wax, nail scissors, nose hair trimmer. The girl picking up a box from the top shelf, turning it over in her hand and reading the label: Crème Vulvaire Mycose. Yeast infection cream from France, a souvenir from a holiday that he had with the other; her lover in France in love with the other. The girl’s hand cold around the box, the man’s bathroom cold around the girl. Serviettes Ultra: a packet of French sanitary pads. The girl’s fingers running compulsively over the soft purple wrapping, twelve out of fourteen left. She’ll remember to count again the next time. Like a duty, she’ll go back and count so many times, her lover’s familiarity with the other woman’s sex now a wound to seek out after each love making. The girl bracing herself before going back. You took ages. Volvo man quickly putting away his phone, patting the sheet beside him. I missed you.

 

Some other day, the man and the girl together in the Volvo, waiting for the lights to go green. I’ll make it up to you, he’ll say, it’s a bit difficult at the moment. The girl turning to look out the side window, at the people walking on the pavement. The man turning to the stock phrases of men: I’m sorry, I’m stupid, I love you. I don’t know, If only, I wish. I’m so lucky, I don’t deserve you. If things were different. We shouldn’t do this, I can’t help myself. You knew how things were from the start.

 

The reduction of a life to opposite states: together and apart. The girl always on alert, ready to meet, checking her phone. A waiting that is gaping to be filled but unable to hold anything, like a sick stomach; Jolanta knows.

 

Outside, a sheet of cloud drags in, changing the light in reception. She takes in Eva sitting at the desk, the weight of mascara failing to compensate for the dark circles under her eyes. She imagines the girl in the dark of her kitchen, smoking by the window, the phone silent on the sill and the moon a blind eye in the night.

 

‘How do you get to work without a bike?’ she says. ‘Does your friend give you a lift?’

 

‘I take the bus.’ Something passes over the girl’s face. Whatever it is, she blinks it away, a bat of crusty lashes. ‘So do you know where he is or what?’

 

‘No.’

 

‘Forget it,’ Eva says and turns around on the swivel chair, a bun of unwashed hair tilted on top of her head, the headset hung like a collar around her neck.

 

Jolanta lingers in the doorway, all that she understands weighing her down, like a sponge soaked in human emotion. Being that much older and that much more knowledgeable, Jolanta could offer some observation about how people are that might lodge quietly now and resonate at some later time, but she stays out of it, because that is how she has decided to be now: somebody who stays out of things.

 

As Jolanta is about to leave, Eva moves the headset from her neck to the desk and stands up. She looks with feigned surprise at Jolanta, making her presence an intrusion. Jolanta stands free of the doorway and hoicks the handbag up to her shoulder. Unspeaking, she turns her back to the girl, lets her remain in her sulk, sealed in her conviction that her affair makes the black oily pulse of life, that fucking somebody else’s two-timing man is the core stuff of life experience, that pure and legitimate. She walks out through the back room, through the bitter smell of burnt coffee coming from the pot hissing on the hot plate, and the wet smell creeping up from some deeper place, where the building is rotting.

 

Clouds pile up, thickening and sealing off the sky. A crow is flapping its wings in the old rain water that weighs down the awning, wet wings glistening black. On the table below sits a dirty mug and an ashtray with an ice cream stick stuck among the butts. Traces of Vaktis from another day. Jolanta listens for the sound of the tractor mower, but there is only the slow wind over the sea and the trees, and a long river of traffic somewhere out if sight.

 

Out on the field, pitches are freeing up. The holiday makers have passed like a swarm of insects, left yellow rectangles in the grass where caravans have stood all summer. Rows of electric hook-ups poke up like periscopes from rabbit holes. Leaves fall from the maple trees, landing on the grass and the cars and the white roofs of caravans.

 

She cleans her face with wet wipes, skin leaving pale pissy yellow on the white cloth.

 

Daylight falls through the caravan’s windows and lays bare her face in the table mirror.

 

It looks different now. Her face has become something to get used to.

 

After she stopped telling lies, lines deepened and shadows darkened and solidified. Her face sunk back and settled closer to bone, as though during the last months her make-believe had been upholstery under her skin.

 

She never wished to draw attention to herself, rather the opposite. She wished to appear ordinary. Mostly she wished that nobody would notice the bad feeling that had come and then swelled in her stomach like a hole. So one day, when asked if she had children, she said she did. She found that talking about her made up children was comforting and filling, like bread and cheese. Soon she talked wildly, but her lies remained bland and harmless, snippets of an ordinary life, a life only slightly better than the one she had, one where she mattered only a little more to a few more people.

 

It was easy to talk with Leo’s girls, the eastern europeans he brought in to help with the cleaning. She was the boss, so they did as she said. When she said it was break time, they looked at her blankly. In the cupboard marked Private, she kept a kettle and a jar of Nescafé. The biscuits she kept in her handbag. Sitting on boxes of bleach and paper towels, Jolanta offered each new girl coffee and biscuits while she told them about her life. She talked about her family, her weekends, her children and plans. It was ordinary conversation, domestic and dull, only none of it was true. She had no children or plans. She only had that bad feeling, and the bigger the hollow grew, the more she talked. Leo wondered why the girls never stayed long, but he had no trouble finding new ones, so Jolanta could go on dunking chocolate digestives in cups of Nescafé and starting over. For each girl, she revised her make believe family, wove more detail into their lives.

 

After the day with Leo in the car, there were no more girls, and Jolanta fell into a quieter, more private way of being. The lies, the ones she had spoken in the cupboard and the silent ones she had told only herself, fell away like so much wet paper. And with that dissembling gone there remained the lines by her mouth, like brackets carved in wood.

 

Now she pats crème on her face, gentle not to tug the thin skin around the eyes. She draws two threads of eye liner, rubs glossed lips together. She looks at her face in the table mirror, closes her eyes and opens them again, half expecting something to have changed.

 

His knock is gentle, not more than a shy tap on the door. She lets out her hair before opening.

 

‘Busy?’ he says.

 

Jolanta makes way, and Vaktis steps up into the caravan.

 

‘I’ll make cocoa.’

 

A glass of water has gone stale on the bedside table. The fleece bedspread becomes electric. Vaktis’ hand sinks into her thigh, his oil stained fingers against her sunless flesh.

 

They have sex lying almost motionless on their sides. His mouth is a black hole, his chest the colour of the paper towels in the service house, loose with age but smooth like skin never uncovered in the sun. Beyond the hill of his shoulder, a sunset bleeds the colours of tropical fruit. The beaded curtain that separates the bedroom from the kitchen was there when she bought the caravan. Something is slightly wrong in the beads, as if the curtain was broken and repaired at some point. The sunset hangs slightly distorted, never quite still, always shuddering, like a VHS tape on pause.

 

Jolanta used to count the times she had sex with Vaktis and decide there would be no next time. She knows what happens between two people in the habit of being naked together. Intimacy and familiarity accumulate to a ridge to trip over, a trap set in the dark; fuck enough times and that is a promise, or the humiliating expectation of one. She has no room for that now, but the body betrays easily. It is not funny what the body will accommodate, hoping to be loved.

 

She comes soundlessly, turning her face away from him. Outside the caravan’s rear window, the clouds stack up dense and white like before rain. Condensation makes wet beads along the bottom of the glass. Inside and out, everything moves slowly.

 

Afterwards he says, ‘It’s all gone wrong here.’ They’re half-sitting against the pillows, sharing the fleece blanket.

 

When Vaktis is not in a hurry, Jolanta helps him look at apartments for sale. One time he had decided to move to Landskrona, another time Trelleborg. Today he says Ystad.

 

The second cheapest apartment is at the bottom of a three storey building. The windows are triple glazed with wooden crosses. There’s a back yard with bicycles and yellow roses.

 

Vaktis dismisses it, saying he can’t live on the ground floor; he can’t have people looking in at him eating his dinner. Another time, he couldn’t live tucked under the roof in case of a fire. He has had his pitch longer than anyone else. His caravan has been on pitch 175 since before First Camp, since when the city still owned the field.

 

‘Who rents Segways for five hundred Kronor an hour?’ he says.

 

She knows the conversation he wants to have.

 

‘It’s all gone wrong here,’ he says. ‘They’ve made it so its only for tourists.’ A car passes on the path outside the caravan, a slow sound of crunching gravel coming through the walls.

 

‘Or did they buy the Segways for you and me, an investment to improve our quality of life?’

 

She rubs a strand of hair between her lips, balancing the tablet against her knees.

 

‘They’ve made it so it’s not a place to live,’ he says.

 

She scrolls through pictures of a chrome kitchen fan, a stainless steel fridge, polished living room parquet, white skirting boards, a glossy bathroom sink with a minimalistic tap and a soap bottle made of glass, a bit of lace tied around the pump bit.

 

‘They know what they’re doing,’ he says.

 

A close up photo of un-moldy grout between tiles and the crisp white edge of a shower curtain.

 

‘And I know it too, I know exactly what the First Camp cunts are doing.’ He puts a finger at his temple, turns and looks Jolanta in the eye. ‘They think they see me, but I see them.’

 

She knows what he means by that, she has nursed him through this talk before. ‘You could put up some curtains,’ she says. ‘It’s a nice apartment for that price.’ When he tries to go on, his voice withers into a wheeze. A noise like the chug of an engine comes from his chest. He breaks into a dry, stabbing cough.

 

Afterwards, he sits up and reaches for the glass of stale water on the bedside table. The blanket is pulled away, exposing her hips. Pillow marks criss cross among the moles on his back.

 

Crows glide under the clouds, black slits in seamless movement, rising and sinking at the edge of the curtain blind. Her hand is resting in the pale concave on his chest, palm up and fingers curled. His heart beats under her knuckles. Under the blanket, a strip of his skin touches hers. Behind her eyes, a flicker of how it could be.

 

‘They want to catch us out, you know.’

 

Jolanta pulls her hand back, moves her pillow, and lies down on her side. With her knees folded up to her elbows and the fleece pulled up to her chin, she watches his chest rise and sink, the silver chain gleaming around his neck, the little fold of skin where his ribs meet.

 

‘First Cunt,’ Vaktis sniggers, but Jolanta doesn’t laugh.

 

She touches the bend of his arm.

 

‘She knows to show up when its peak busy, when things are most likely to go wrong.’

 

He is talking about the boss, not the regional manager, but the big boss. ‘When Lennie hears she’s on her way, he gets his whip out and starts chasing everyone.’

 

She takes in the slack skin on his square jaw, the dot left on his ear after an old piercing.

 

‘He has the reception girls rush around with mops and buckets, doesn’t matter if the phones are ringing and the check-in queue goes all the way down the driveway.’

 

Vaktis motions with his hands in the air, as if that bustle were happening inside the caravan.

 

‘Those girls sit like dollops at the desk when it’s empty too,’ Jolanta says.

 

She strokes the soft hairs on his arm.

 

‘And what does Lennie himself do?’ Vaktis says.

 

He doesn’t know that Jolanta knows Lennie well, that Lennie and Leo go back such a long way that Jolanta was there for Lennie’s wedding and for his restaurant opening, and for years before he came to be regional manager at First Camp. She knew Lennie before any of this; that is how she and Leo came to take over the cleaning, and later how she got a long term pitch, even though all-year residencies are being phased out.

 

‘Useful as a porcelain figure,’ Vaktis says.

 

‘He is under pressure.’

 

‘Do you know what we are to them?’

 

Jolanta turns over on her back and lies looking up at the ceiling, at the plastic boards and unlit spotlights, the bulbs such a hassle to change, and the pair of wood-panelled cupboards mounted at the top of the wall.

 

‘Do you know what we are, me and you?’ Vaktis says.

 

‘We’re residents.’

 

‘We’re vermin. Don’t believe anything else.’

 

In one of the cupboards she keeps towels and sheets, the other one she keeps empty, a clean cube of air, because that is how she is now. In times of change she scatters her dust. She values emotional hygiene and is proud to have that purity of will; a sentimental lover is as treacherous as a cheating lover. Despite everything else, she is proud to be neither, proud to have that one part of her that is inscrutable.

 

‘Do you know what her name is?’ Vaktis goes on.

 

Jolanta sits up and starts combing through her hair with her fingers.

 

‘Unni,’ he says, sneering like a bully. ‘The witch must have been unloved from the day she was born.’

 

She smoothes the hair at her temples, pulls the rubber band from her wrist and makes a tight pony tail at the back of her head. She takes in the slope of his nose, the dark dots of stubble on his chin, and the broken sunset in the background. It hasn’t occurred to her before, but now it seems somehow obvious what the caravan was used for before she bought it.

 

‘Anyway, I’m moving,’ he says.

 

She shoves the tablet a little too hard at his chest, making him flinch.

 

‘So look at the pictures.’

 

He turns the device this way and that in his hands, demonstrating its mystery. He likes to feign inaptitude when holding anything more fragile than a wheel brace. There are times when his ways can be charming, but now Jolanta jerks the tablet from his hands and turns the screen the right way.

 

Vaktis looks at the pictures for a moment, frowns and scoffs, making too much of it, then hands the tablet back to her.

 

‘It has to have a bath,’ he says. ‘For that money it has to have a bath.’

 

He reaches for the glass on the bedside table and brings it to his mouth as if to drink from it, as though he can’t see that the glass is empty.

 

She is in the kitchen bit, the linoleum floor pressing up against her bare soles, and steam rising from the sauce pan like a hot lick on her face. She stands in knickers and t-shirt, stirring the cocoa, the tiny bubbles rushing around on the surface. She adds more sugar. He likes sugar, he has the sweetest tooth she has known. She reaches to the cupboard and grabs two mint green mugs by the ears. The porcelain clinks, the beaded curtain rattles, and the sunset splits. He is dressed now: a collared t-shirt, navy tracksuit bottoms, and clean white socks. As he moves in the narrow space behind her, she closes her eyes, knowing all the ways he could touch her. He could let his nose gently nudge her neck, tickle the downy hairs under her pony tail. He could lay a warm hand on her hip. Then cool air wraps around her legs. She brings down the heat and moves the sauce pan. Vaktis is at the open door, pulling on his trainers, looking out at the next pitch.

 

They sit in plastic furniture behind the caravan. Behind the wire-net fence that separates First Camp from the beach, the grass turns to sand and slopes down to pebbles and seafroth and the creased mirror sea, a spread of tin foil cut off by the Danish coast.

 

Vaktis takes out a packet of John Silvers and lights a cigarette in the cup of his hand. As smoke flows from his nostrils and his eyes close in pleasure, Jolanta brings the mug to her mouth but flinches at the heat, feeling vaguely left out.

 

‘I heard you’re fixing a bike for Eva.’ A tilt in her voice reveals her non-neutral interest.

 

His mouth twitches: a smile pulled back, a memory kept private.

 

Her palms press against the hot porcelain.

 

‘Are you going to charge her for it?’

 

A ribbon of smoke rises and dissolves. His fingers are yellowed by nicotine, cuticles blackened by engines. His lips remain sealed with secret pleasure inside, some sweetness contained, like a mouthful of cream.

 

‘I see,’ she says, stirring the cocoa.

 

He glances at the sound of the spoon scraping against the porcelain, then brings the cigarette to his mouth in a movement worn smooth. His eyelids sink again and his long legs are elegantly crossed, his whole posture as easy-goingly confident as if he had had a mouth full of teeth. As he exhales, the dry chugging noise comes again, and he starts coughing, the involuntary gaping defusing his air of power.

 

‘You should quit.’ Her voice is darker now, coming from deeper in her gut. ‘Put the money toward that apartment.’

 

His reaction to her sourness is minimal: a jack in his movement, a narrowing of his eyes.

 

There is a barking down on the shore, out of sight but coming closer and closer. A black dog comes like a wave up the slope, a pink tongue hanging from its mouth. It trots along the other side of the fence, velvety fur catching the light through the clouds. It pays no notice to Jolanta and Vaktis sulking on the chairs.

 

A boy’s voice calls out for the dog, a name that sounds like Olive or Annie or Alice. The boy calls out again, pleadingly, not angrily, and the dog moves away from the fence, running back down to the beach, tail like a charcoal plume.

 

Triumph and regret mill in her chest: a bad feeling inside a good feeling, or the inverse. She sits rubbing the mark of the hair band fading on her wrist.

 

‘Did you hear what I said?’ Leo said, ‘I have put the house up for sale.’ They sat in the car parked outside the house. It was spring, but the street was drained of colour. Leo had been sleeping elsewhere. Jolanta had been humouring him. Leaving questions unasked, she had been letting him pick her up in the mornings and drive her home after work.

 

She had made a list for him and was trying to find it in her handbag. She felt the bottom of the lining, the grains of sand in the seams.

 

‘I’ll come and collect some things while you’re at work tomorrow.’ ‘Very good, Leo.’

 

She dropped a fistful of receipts and gum wrappers on the seat beside her.

 

‘I’m making it easy for you,’ Leo said.

 

A few days earlier, the latest girl had disappeared. Waiting for Leo to get another, Jolanta had been cleaning the whole service house alone. She hadn’t began cheating yet, she cleaned properly, and on the ride home, she ached to take off her shoes, to go to the toilet, to lie down with a pillow under her back.

 

‘You don’t have to do anything,’ he said. ‘An agent will take care of everything.’ She looked up from her handbag and took in his face in the rear view mirror. She looked him right in the sunglasses.

 

‘An agent?’

 

She pressed her lips closed, folding them around her teeth. Laughter filled her mouth, stretched her cheeks and pushed up through her nose. Jolanta gaped and laughed hoarsely at the car ceiling. Then she stopped and resumed rummaging her handbag.

 

‘Snap out of it, Leo,’ she said, unwrapping a piece of gum. ‘Whatever this is, this little song and dance of yours, snap out of it right now. Leo Novakowsky, do you understand?’

 

Leo let go of the steering wheel, ran his hands over his head, and grabbed the wheel again.

 

‘Latex gloves,’ she said, chewing. ‘I know I wrote latex gloves.’

 

‘You act as though you haven’t had a chance to prepare, he said. ‘You have become deranged with denial, your head is in la-la land.’

 

She locked her eyes on the rear view mirror again.

 

‘Who is in la-la land, Leo?’

 

Leo sat quietly.

 

‘An agent,’ she mocked. ‘Do you think this is real? You are having a crisis, and this is your confused little show of independence.’

 

‘You can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy any longer.’ He spoke softly and firmly at once, like a doctor giving a grave diagnosis. ‘Maybe you never could.’

 

She dropped an empty digestives packet on the seat.

 

‘You never say anything kind.’

 

She turned and looked out the side window, at their dust blue house.

 

‘Do you know how long it has been since you said anything kind?’

 

She looked at the unlit kitchen window, the rusty letter box and the magnolia tree in the garden, the branches offering their fat buds like hand grenades. The familiarity of it flung back in her face. She let go of what she had been holding, and the list of cleaning supplies fell from her hand. It had been crumpled up in her fist with the keys.

 

‘You have put the house up for sale?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

‘You’re not coming home?’

 

She looked at his knuckles on the wheel, kept her eyes on the wedding band on his finger as he spoke, as he told her he had an apartment elsewhere. He had made a new home without her. He was asking her to do the same.

 

‘You’ve had time,’ he said.

 

He looked straight ahead, at the wind shield or at the skip outside the neighbours’ house.

 

‘I’ll help you,’ he said. ‘I’ll help you find somewhere else.’

 

Leo was helping himself, that was all it was, this pretence of decency. His help was meant to ease his exit, dilute his betrayal. He could not ever help her, she knew that much; he would not know where to begin.

 

She clicked the seatbelt loose. It dragged slowly over her chest.

 

‘Go,’ she said.

 

She stepped out of the car and shut the door, a scattering of litter left on the seat. She stood by the rusty letter box, the morning paper poking the lid open. Robins fluttered in the shrubbery, picking at the buds. Leo started the car and pulled away. Jolanta hoicked her handbag up her arm, and the back of the white Mercedes disappeared behind the skip.

 

On the news that evening, they told about a family’s trauma after having their dinner ruined. A young man working in an ICA Supermarket had pushed shards of glass into some chicken fillets. He had wrapped cling film over them as usual, and laid them out on the shelves. People had bought the chicken fillets, brought them home, prepared their dinner and called their children to the table, then sat gaping with glass speckled gums and the taste of iron warm in their cheeks. It seemed to make little difference; Jolanta could as well had been married for eighteen years to that supermarket boy.

 

Out on the sound, a trawler is passing north under the Öresund bridge, its ashy silhouette coming through the gap between pillars.

 

‘Something wrong with your eyes?’ Vaktis says.

 

The wind is growing stronger, the water rippling darker. Over the shore, seagulls hang in the air. They move funnily in place, tilting this way and that. They look like cut out paper birds, hung by threads from their necks to the clouds. Vaktis pinches the ashy end off the cigarette and pockets the stub.

 

‘Anyway,’ he says.

 

He swirls the cocoa before he drinks, then puts down the mug and pushes it to the centre of the table.

 

‘Time to go,’ he says.

 

Down on the beach, the dog is still barking, thrusting out a steady rhythm. Jolanta stirs her cocoa, tears the grey-brown skin with the spoon. The chocolate is lukewarm and sickly sweet, the skin slithery on her tongue. She drinks fast, swallowing big mouthfuls and dribbling. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Out of sight, the boy laughs, shrieks of bubbling joy carried up the slope.

 

Vaktis takes out his baseball cap from his windbreaker pocket and adjusts it on his head. He squints out at the sea, then stands up and walks around the table. His legs are planted before her, two slim pillars in shiny fabric and his trainers dark in the grass. He slides his hands in his pockets: pale wrists, wrist watch with a worn leather bracelet, and a vein like a worm under the skin. Jolanta imagines him looking down at her not looking up at him. Until he walks on and the grass rises where his feet were.

 

Left before her are the grey-lined the clouds and the almost imperceptible movement of the trawler pulling its weight north. The touch of sea air on her face fresher than the wet wipes.

 

He cuts over the grass, a detour toward his corner of the field. He walks with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders in a slight stoop. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. He glances over the field, surveying the caravans and empty pitches and rabbit holes. He hasn’t got far when Jolanta catches up and stops before him, blocking his way over an empty pitch.

 

She puts her head against his chest, the metal of the zipper cool against her forehead. She pushes her arms through the hooks of his arms. She stands hugging his ribs and shifting her weight from one naked foot to the other like a slow dance.

 

He is turning his head, looking this way and that to see who might see them standing in the field, who might see him together like that with her. She can’t see his worry, but she knows that much. Yet she rubs her head against his chest with a movement as plain and artless as that of a dog wanting to be scratched. Her hunger right on the surface with no place to retreat, she locks herself to him, forcing their bodies to fit.

 

After some delay, his arm moves up to her shoulders and stops there, as loving as the caress of a metal pipe. She stands with her arms around his ribs and her feet in the grass. She waits for something to come loose, for closeness and warmth to be released. And she waits for his palm to spread on her neck, for something to smooth the edges off her crude occupation of the world. His windbreaker smells of cigarette stubs and her own breath keeps coming back dank and warm in her face. All that molten sugar, the sweetness of the cocoa coming back like a sickness at the back of her mouth.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a cleaner's daughter from a steel town in Swedish Lapland. She has mopped locker rooms at the steelworks and worked at factories in Leicester before going to university as an adult. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received a Malcolm Bradbury Memorial bursary, and is currently editing a short story collection.


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