They married the day he died. The white roses in her bridal bouquet were painted red when he coughed his lungs up. While she stared, unveiled, at the corpse on the marble floor, the guests disappeared, the ambulance came and went and in the end, it was Lisa whom she had gone to primary school with who drove her home. She still thought: ‘our home’ when she saw the red brick building squeezed in between its white neighbours.
She did not know what to do at home. She went from the bed room to the living room and back. She drew all the blinds and in the dull light, saw his pale face with flecks of red around his mouth. When she lay down to sleep, she saw him coughing his heart out, heard it splatter on the slabs.
Eating did not seem important, but she did get something in her on the third day. The fruit salad had gone bad, but all the other wedding food was fine. She stuffed herself then knelt in front of the toilet for half an hour while her stomach tried to make sense of everything. The harsh smell of toilet cleaner sent her head pounding. From the bathroom floor, she stared at the vines he had painted on the wall and saw, within their blue star shaped flowers, a blotch. It had stuck on the wall after one of his coughing fits and had refused to be wiped away. It would have been perfect, the wall, she thought, if only that blotch was a flower too.
The next morning, her mobile rang. A while after it stopped, her home telephone rang. Then her mobile rang again. She registered the noise and somewhere in the back of her head wondered whether it might be someone from work, or the funeral (they would fetch her when it was time) but most of her brain kept returning to a different question. Why was she still alive? Why had she eaten? Would it not be easier to lie down, doze off and just stop?
Over the following days, she asked herself this again and again, especially whenever she opened the fridge for more food, which was usually boiled pasta. Other times she was not sure whether she had any thoughts at all.
There came a time when all the food was gone. She opened the fridge again to make sure, and whimpered. Shopping seemed an insurmountable task until she approached it in bits. First, she wrote a list of what she would need. Then she found her wallet and checked that her credit card was still there. She took a bag to place her shopping in, then after some consideration, took another. She put her keys in her pocket, checked again that she had her credit card, and went out to the car, patting her pocket to make sure the keys were still there. She slammed the door behind her and fished up her keys again – clutching them in front of the lock, she sighed.
She thought she might go to Tesco, but Waitrose was closer. Once she got there, she picked up two shopping baskets and focused mainly on the ground, shifting her focus only to check the next item off her list. She bought a bag of rice and several boxes of spaghetti – they would keep forever – then walked up and down the empty isles for tins of kidney beans, maize, mackerel. Where was the seasoning? While looking for an employee, she saw the aisle, chose some spices, and was relieved she did not have to speak to a human being.
At the self-service tills, she began to doubt whether she would be able to carry it all. She put one of her bags in the bagging area.
‘Unexpected item in bagging area,’ said the machine and a button with ‘I’m using my own bag,’ appeared on the screen. She pressed it.
‘Please wait for assistance,’ the machine said flashing its red light. She sighed and waited, keeping her eyes on the screen. Just avoid eye contact, she thought, you’ll be fine. Five minutes passed before she risked looking up. All the other self-service tills were empty. What was keeping them? Was there something special about today? She looked back into the shop. There were rows and rows of wares, brightly lit. A packet of cornflakes had fallen onto the floor but there were no people. She frowned and looked at the ordinary tills. There was no one there either.
Leaving her items at the till, she went up to the customer service desk. A receiver lay on its side next to one of the phones. The computer screens were on standby. There was a door ajar in the back wall. As she passed the phones, she replaced the receiver, then went to knock on the door.
‘Hello?’ she said. The door shifted slightly on its hinges, opening wider. She pushed it fully open. Inside sat a large mahogany desk with a laptop on it, and behind the lemony cleaning agent smell there was a faint, sweet something. The architect lamp was on. As she turned it off, she looked behind the desk and she saw a crumpled, dark-haired woman. There was dried blood up and down her arms, on the floor, on the kitchen knife beside her and all over the packaging the knife had come in.
There was only a single car in the parking lot. Wandering around, she thought she should have known something was wrong as soon as she stepped into the shop. She should have read the newspapers or, turned on the television, or looked up news on the internet. But she had done none of those things. Just the idea of doing those things had drained her energy, and the thought of them now was not much better. She walked down a deserted street until she found a newspaper stand.
‘MILLIONS KILLED BY THE PLAGUE,’ a front page shouted at her. The beginnings of headache drove her away, the stand untouched.
She went to the nearest park, where most of the grass was torn up. A smudged cardboard sign rested against a bench: ‘Action NOW!’, it read. A single pigeon walked in circles in front of it, bobbing its head. Breathing in the smell of rain, she sat down on a bench opposite the pigeon and felt the cold creep into the seat of her trousers. What now? She watched the circling pigeon.
She counted her heartbeats and got to a few hundred, then lost track, and time went funny until a flash of movement on the edge of her vision caused her to look up. A brown dog with long ears limped towards the pigeon, which still circled the sign. It didn’t seem to notice the other animal until the dog’s jaws were closed firmly around it. There was a brief flapping of wings, a crack, and then the dog hobbled a few metres away before it lay the dead bird between its paws and began gnawing at its head. She stood up. The dog growled as she strode up to it, but something in her knew she had to stop him and let the pigeon keep its head, no matter whether it ever flew again. She reached out for the bird and the dog bit her hand. The pain made her eyes water.