“Have you ever heard of the word heimweh?” David says.
Eve enjoys the sound of her friend’s voice, its Estuary English softened by a faint lisp.
“I’m not sure,” she says.
“It’s German. I don’t believe there’s an English equivalent.”
“What’s it mean?”
“To long for home.”
Eve glances at his face: skin ruckled by eighty years of life, cheeks stout and chin bulbous, a wet sheen to his royal blue eyes.
“Homesick,” she says.
“Yes, but more than that,” he says. “It refers to a way of life, really, when it’s in one’s nature to long for home regardless of circumstance. As if you cannot ever find a place that feels like home.”
They walk further down the path from Fountain House, a sheltered housing scheme piled on the edge of Ballaneath. Though Eve is nine years older David is not as confident on his feet as she is – he dabs at the flagstones with a black cane and grips her elbow if he loses faith in his balance. Eve herself is small but sturdy, joints stronger than expected at her age, arthritis yet to sink its teeth into her back or knees. Recent decades have barely scratched her complexion, while bubbles of fresh white hair rest beneath her headscarf.
“You not happy here?” she says.
“Of course, of course. What I mean to say is that’s how I used to feel before I came here: heimweh. But now I feel at home.”
“Aye, well, whenever you happen to be here,” she says. “When you’re not off gallivanting. Are you not away again on Sunday?”
“Tomorrow,” he says. “I’m staying in Amiens for two nights before Vienna.”
“You’ll be back before the thirty-first though, will you not?”
“Yes, but I’m flying to Lisbon on the thirtieth. I’m sorry, Eve. I won’t make it to your party.”
“You just can’t sit at peace.”
In the far corner of the grounds a Japanese maple has shaken free of its leaves and a rush of wind birls some of them into the fountain’s dry basin. She and David pause by the garden wall to look over the promenade at the Firth of Lintyre, cold waters steeped in mid-afternoon shadows. This early in the year every day looks like an evening, the light retreating not long after sunrise and a smudge of moon ever-present in a lavender sky. To the west is the Santo António, an old cargo ship stranded on a sandbar, its hull plates cracking into crumbs of rust.
“I often wonder what happened to that ship,” David says.
“It was years ago,” Eve says. “There was a storm that wasn’t forecast. The boat got caught out there when the winds got up, there was no saving it. Dragged its anchor and that’s where it ended up.”
“Such a shame.”
“They managed to save the crew,” she says. “All they ended up losing was a boatload of sugar. Jim told me once that if you go down the shore and drink the water, it tastes sweet.” Laughter crackles in her throat. “He thinks he can tell me anything and I’ll believe him.”
Both return to the warmth of Fountain House, Eve seeing David to his door before making for her own. In the front room her husband has taken root in the armchair beside the window. Jim doesn’t acknowledge her asking how he’s doing, a scowl tightened across his countenance that the years have scored like scrimshaw. Barbs of snapped capillaries span his cheeks and a band of raw scarlet is daubed over the bridge of his nose. Osteoporosis has so contorted his spine that his body resembles the shape of a small r.
“You took your time,” he says.
“Good to be out,” she says. “Fresh air.”
“I saw you.”
“I saw you with him in the garden.”
“For God’s sake, Jim.”
“Why won’t you leave him be?”
“I’m not going over this again,” she says. “Give it a rest.”
“You need to act your age.”
“You’re one to talk.”
At the kitchen sink Eve blurts some washing-up liquid into her palms, rinsing them under the tap. She keeps her back to Jim, conscious of his glare through the open door.
“I don’t want you near him,” he calls out.
Eve wrings more suds between her fingers.
“I don’t know how many times I need to tell you,” he says.
“Just the once would be fine.”
“There’s something not right about him. You know there is.”
“You’ve not even said two words to him.”
“I wouldn’t waste my breath.”
“That’s your loss.”
Eve towels her hands and removes a knife from the top drawer to start cutting potatoes – the blade raps hard against the chopping board as she slices each one.
“Don’t you go thinking he’s all sweetness and light,” Jim says. “I guarantee you he’s nothing of the sort.”
Eve chucks dods of potato into a saucepan of water, the hob seething underneath.
“You can tell just by looking at him,” Jim says. “He’s got something to hide.”
Steam slinks out of the gap beneath the saucepan’s lid as Eve gouges open a packet of mince, lancing it with the tip of the knife.
“You listening to me or not? Am I not allowed to speak?”
“Do what you want,” she says.
“Can a man not voice an opinion anymore?”
“Say what you like. I’ve got nothing to talk about.”
“Is that right.”
“Sooner or later you run out of things to say.”
“Only when I’m around. That’s when you’ve got bugger all to say.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “When I’m dead you’ll be happy, and I’ll be dead soon.”
“If you say so.”
“Vindictive. That’s the word for it. You’re vindictive.”
“If you say so.”
“You always were. You’re lucky I’m still here.”
“Aye, everyone’s lucky to be graced by your presence.”
“I could’ve left you long before now. She wanted me to.”
Eve turns, frowning. Jim is grasping the armrests of his chair, knuckles pale.
“And who’s she?”
“You know fine well,” he says.
The saucepan’s lid clashes onto the hob as boiling water jumps out, froth bursting over the sides. Eve scrabbles to switch the gas off, her thoughts blurry, lost as to why her old friend’s name has dropped out of Jim’s mouth. She deems it an error, a failure of concentration or a hint of dementia, merging the wrong name and wrong person. She stares back at her husband, waiting for him to realise the same.
“Don’t pretend,” he says. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know.”
The kitchen’s strip light whines above her; foam spits on the cooker’s surface. Eve must be the one at fault, a lapse of hearing causing the confusion – she watches the colour fleeing Jim’s face and her stomach lurches.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Doesn’t make a difference.” His voice limp, he talks to his reflection in the window rather than Eve, who wants to shut the kitchen door right in the face of what’s happening.
“It’s forty-odd years ago,” he says. “It’s got nothing to do with anything.”
Eve manages to sit down at the table. She keeps her eyes trained on Jim, his expression like that of someone who’s set his house on fire.
“Don’t know what I’m on about,” he says.
“I’m getting mixed up.”
“Don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you dare try and sell that.”
“I just got worked up about you and that David,” he says. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Look at me.”
“I was out of order.”
“Look at me.”
Jim turns his head, though he seems unable to bear her scrutiny.
She stays rigid in her chair while he admits what he has to admit. When his words run dry, Jim nudges forwards on the armchair’s cushion.
“Shouldn’t have opened my gob,” he says. “I’m sorry.” Twice he fails to raise his body from the seat, agony seizing his face. “Eve, help me up. Come here to me.”
She doesn’t stir when Jim reaches a hand out to her.
“Please,” he says. “Come here to me.”
Eve pushes herself out of the chair, snatches her keys, and abandons the flat.
She paces the floors of Fountain House, inhaling the boiled smell of the radiators, the scents of dated carpets and stoor. Behind the doors of other flats televisions blare at full volume; outside storm-force winds skirl about the building. Eve falters at the bottom of the stairs and has to grab the bannister to keep herself upright – with her free hand she covers her eyes, sobbing as she would if a loved one had died.
On the ground floor the public lounge is lit by the soft yellows of table lamps – David is seated alone there, fingers clasped over his paunch and feet crossed at the ankles. When Eve enters the room he smiles in a manner that seems grateful, as though she’s the answer to his prayer for company.
“We meet again,” he says. “Good evening.”
Eve lowers into a chair beside him. Through the windows, rain whipping the glass, she can make out the garden’s bare trees thrashing in panic as a January gale charges through the dark.
“Quite the night, isn’t it,” David says.
She nods, her hands holding each other in her lap.
“Some rain must fall,” he says. “I can’t remember who first said that.”
Eve wipes both eyes with her wrists, wishing that her own mind could be so settled, her mood as serene. She’s envied David’s capacity for composure since they first met: on that day leaves fled the trees like sparks from a bonfire, and Eve wandered into the Fountain House conservatory to find a gentleman nested on one of the sofas surrounded by travel magazines, guidebooks and holiday supplements from Sunday broadsheets. She appreciated the ironed fabric of his blue shirt, his navy tie’s perfect Windsor knot and the peaceful droop of his eyes. Though Eve considered it best to let him be, anxious of spoiling his contentment, he spied her before she could slip away. He rose from his seat to shake her hand and introduced himself as David Primrose, explaining he’d just taken up residence. Resting in a chair opposite, Eve nodded at his heap of brochures.
“Is this you planning an escape already?” she said. “You’ve only just got here.”
“I’m not sure whether to go to Verona or Madeira,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Don’t ask me. I’ve never been anywhere.”
“I should go back to Italy. It can’t help but be beautiful.”
“Expensive,” she said.
“But worth it,” he said.
David described some of the many excursions he’d taken in the last decade, burning through the reserves of his private pensions to pay for city breaks in Berlin and Prague, a luxury cruise on the Norwegian fjords and a round trip of the Western Isles. He planned further trips to Monaco, Cairo and Land’s End, not to mention tours of Corsica and the monuments of Athens – Eve’s imagination sprinted to keep up with his, unsure which point of the compass would be his next focus. It became clear to her that David never refused an experience, nor did he differentiate between the quality of the pleasures each provided.
“You know you’re the first person I’ve met who lives here?” he said. “I’ve had a stroll around the place and not seen another soul until now.”
“Aye, you won’t often meet many others,” she said. “They’ll only show themselves if there’s free food or drink on the go. But I’m always about. We’re at number twenty-four.”
“Someone lives with you?”
“It’s me and my husband,” she said. “Jim.”
“That’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful. How long have you been married?”
“Seventy years come January,” she said. “Our platinum anniversary.”
David’s smile glimmered. “You’ve been blessed.”
“What about yourself?” she said. “Any family?”
David slapped the pages of his magazine closed. “No, just me,” he said. “Just myself and I.” He began to round up his books and leaflets, stacking them on his lap. “It gets very warm in here, doesn’t it? I should go for a walk. I may go into town and see if there’s anything happening.”
“Don’t hold out much hope.”
“No, we should do that,” he said. “We should always be hopeful, Mrs Colquhoun.”
Thereafter, when David ambled onto the promenade in the poor light of that October afternoon, Eve waved to him from the conservatory window and felt gladdened by his simple decency. Even his appearance pleased her, approving as she did of his blue serge blazer, black golf trousers and polished Italian loafers. He seemed a rare man at ease with his existence, mindful only of his own nature and what could be done to improve it. In all honesty, she reckons that if her life had spun to another heading in another time, she might have fallen in love with David Primrose.
Across the firth, sheet lightning stuns the western sky – she and David see its flash from their corner of the lounge. Using her left thumb, Eve rolls her wedding ring around the base of its finger. “I’ll miss you when you’re away,” she says.
From the garden comes a heavy crack of splintered wood, the noise jarring both of them in their seats – they watch the silhouette of the Japanese maple as blunt gusts of wind drag it to the ground, branches splitting as they plough into the grass.
“My goodness, did you see that?” David says. “Did you see it?”
“I saw it.”
She’s never gone so many days without talking to Jim. Morning after morning, hunched on the pillows of the bed, he pleads with Eve to let him explain what happened and tries to convince her of his remorse, yet she cannot stomach a response when her husband doesn’t merit even her contempt. Instead she dresses and marches from the room, leaving him to prise his own arse off the mattress and secure a grip of his Zimmer frame. By the time he lumbers out of the bedroom Eve will have quit the flat, and he has to wait for their home help’s visit to find anyone willing to bother about his welfare.
With David abroad, Eve goes for walks on the promenade alone every day, shunning Fountain House for as many hours as she can stand the cold. While the waves of the firth thresh along the coast she watches the promenade’s iron railings shed flecks of paint like dry skin and often scans the firth to pick out the Santo António, hard aground and listing, husks of superstructure sheared from the upper decks.
On the last Sunday of the month, though she doesn’t set out to do so, Eve climbs the steps off the shore road and opens the gate of the cemetery at Saint Mungo’s. She inhales the musk of the church grounds, traces of damp earth and dead tulips at the base of memorials. Following one of the footpaths she stops at a grave near the cemetery wall, marked by a headstone of grey granite with the name Moira Elizabeth Davies bored into its surface. She glowers at the wet grass, the weight of Moira’s bones sunk beneath.
“Hope you’re proud of yourself.”
She leaves Moira to the town’s soil, resolving never to give her another thought, no longer a friend but a regret. If there’s anything she can’t abide it’s that nothing of which she was certain will ever be certain again. The truth, and what it has cost her, pains every moment like a trapped nerve and she despises Jim not only for what he did but for telling her what he did. Leaves scutter over her shoes as the cemetery gate tolls into its latch behind her and Eve surveys the sky’s acres of blue cloud, taking solace that David’s flight will carry him home while she sleeps.
In the morning she unearths a suitcase at the rear of the boiler cupboard, dipped in a fine layer of stoor. Satisfied that Jim is out of her road Eve plants the case on the bed and inside it begins to arrange some nightdresses, a bag of toiletries, blouses and skirts. At first she ignores the phone when it starts meeping on the hall table, her attention pinned to the present task; but she’s forced to pick up the receiver a minute later before the noise drives her spare. Instead of saying hello, Joy scolds her mother that she was about to give up and lets her know she’s needing help with some things for Thursday’s shindig.
“No,” Eve says. “We don’t have any champagne glasses.”
“You must do.”
“We don’t have any in the house.”
“I hope to God we can bring enough ourselves then, or I’ll need to buy plastic ones.”
“Don’t you be spending anymore money.”
“And I need to phone the paper,” Joy says. “See if they’ll send the photographer.”
“It’s not news.”
“It’s an achievement. People like to hear about achievements.”
Eve exhales, head bowed, swallowing against an ache in her throat that might make her greet. “I don’t like getting my picture taken.”
“You smile and get on with it,” Joy says. “That goes for the two of you.”
Eve’s side of the conversation lapses as her daughter rhymes off the names of more party invitees and who will be giving whom a lift on Thursday. Joy doesn’t seem to think it feasible that she can talk too much; there’s no doubt she prefers saying something than doing nothing, her every second full of purpose, the one who books the table for family dinners, buys birthday presents a year in advance and shows people how to dance at ceilidhs. Joy keeps speaking, more than happy to be doing so, and Eve has to decide if that should stop, if she should come out with something her daughter doesn’t know.
“Right, I’m away,” Joy says. “Don’t worry about anything.”
Eve drops the phone as she sets it back in its cradle, hands agitated. She returns to the bedroom and fetches more clothes from the chest of drawers, committed to completing what’s necessary. She folds three cardigans and a woollen jumper at the bottom of the case.
“Who was that?”
Jim edges from the front room into the hall, the painful curvature of his torso propped up by the Zimmer frame.
“What you up to?”
She crosses the carpet to the wardrobe as he inches into the room.
She flicks the wardrobe door shut, taking a shawl to the dressing table where she winds it around a bottle of perfume, keen to prevent damage.
“I’m here,” he shouts.
Eve starts and turns – blood rushes Jim’s face, lower jaw braced against the upper and his brow taut.
“I’m here,” he says. “Stop treating me like thin air.”
Eve pauses to commandeer her self-control, cinching the shawl around the bottle. “Joy was asking about Thursday,” she says. “I won’t be there. You can tell everyone why.”
“Where you going?”
Eve lodges the perfume inside the suitcase and closes the lid.
“Christ, I don’t know why it happened,” he says. “I don’t have an excuse.”
“You reckon it’d help if you did?”
“I’ve hurt you. It’s the last thing I’d ever want to do.” His tone is softer than Eve believes he’s capable of. “I was angry when I told you,” he says. “I just wanted you here, not with that David.”
Leaving the suitcase on the bed Eve strides past him into the hall, swiping her arm out of reach when he presumes to touch her. She opens the front door, thoughts running ahead toward what she wants.
“I’m feart something’ll happen and you won’t be here.”
She looks back, noticing tremors on his lower lip as he shuffles to face her.
“I’ve not got long.”
“And you’re wanting me here to hold your hand?” She speaks louder than she anticipates, a sound too strong for the hall to contain. Jim presses the heel of his hand against one of his eyes.
“It can’t be us finished,” he says. “Not now.”
“You don’t deserve me,” she says. “You’ve never deserved me.”
He gives no reply as the front door swings shut.
Eve does push the button to call the lift but, in no mood for patience, she elects to take the stairs to the first floor. There’s a list of things that need doing but she’s trying to concentrate on the most pressing, rather than when she should retrieve the suitcase or which hotel to stay at until Wednesday. It’s difficult too, in spite of her best effort, to keep her mind off the Praça do Comércio or the view from São Jorge Castle – she’s done some reading on these places and branded them on her imagination.
She chaps the door of number eighteen and realises that she’s never entered David’s flat, nor has he visited hers. They have more to share with each other. After a second and third knock the door sidles open, the chain on the latch, David peering over its brass links.
“Welcome back,” she says. “Good to see you.”
“Hello, yes,” he says.
“Can I come in and see you a minute? I’m needing to ask you something.”
“Give me one moment and I’ll get my coat.”
“I’ll be in and out, David.”
“I’m very sorry but this place isn’t fit to be seen.”
“Away, don’t be daft.” Eve forces out a laugh. “I’m really needing to speak to you.”
David’s lips part, set to spout another excuse for reasons she can’t fathom, before he sighs and releases the chain. Eve follows him into the hall illuminated by the curt light of a naked bulb, stepping over fat-bellied plastic bags and avoiding cardboard boxes stacked three-high against the walls. In the living room David circumvents more tiers of boxes, their lids taped, amid a mustering of leather trunks and cases. The entire flat has a finish of stoor without a sign of human touch. Supported by his cane David assumes a position by the window, its natural light thinned out by shadows of paraphernalia on the sill.
“So what can I do for you?”
“How can you breathe in here?” Eve says. “What’s all this?”
David cranes over his shoulder at the window, eyeing mouldy stems in the rockery outside and the earth where the Japanese maple once had roots.
“How have you not unpacked yet? Has your home help not been in?”
“I don’t have one,” he says. “It’s not necessary.”
“But if you wanted a hand you should’ve said.”
“Nothing to worry about.”
“You can’t live like this,” she says. “You’ll have to get started sometime.”
“It’s not all mine,” he says. “Most of it’s Niamh’s.”
For an instant Eve’s chest seems to constrict. “You never said you were married.”
“She passed away.”
“You never said.”
Eve restudies the flat’s contents, the barricades of packing cases and personal effects built on top of spent pieces of furniture.
“Difficult to look at,” David says.
“But how long’s it been since you lost her?” she says. “Give yourself a chance.”
“Nine years and four months.”
Eve is afraid to speak further, as if she might incriminate herself. David prods the toe of his shoe with the cane.
“Nine years and four months,” he says. “I thought moving might help, get rid of the house and start again. But no such luck.” He sniffs and juts his shoulders back, posture straightened. “You know, wherever I end up, I keep a seat free for her. If I’m on a train or in a restaurant or café, I have to keep a seat free for her.”
The air in the flat smells of years. Eve begins to ply the wedding ring off her third finger – as it shifts she exposes the skin beneath, smoothed to an impression of what used to be there.
“Heimweh,” she says. “You said you were fine.”
“But you’re not, David.”
A silence draws out between them. She feels stripped of any right to talk.
“All anyone says is that they’re sorry,” David says. “I don’t want them to be sorry.”
Eve can’t tolerate asking what she’d hoped to ask – her throat hardens at the notion that she had a sense of the future and its potential. She slides the ring back to the base of her finger.
“That’s fair enough,” she says.
More voices fill the lounge at Fountain House than it was ever designed for. There must be thirty-odd people that have turned out and their conversations vibrate in the spaces around her. In an armchair by the fireplace Eve can be part of proceedings, visible and approachable, yet removed from the centre of things. She smiles at those who walk over to speak to her and offer congratulations; she thanks them for coming and hopes they enjoy themselves. To the walls and mantel Joy and the grandchildren have tacked banners of glossy plastic that read ‘Happy Anniversary’ and tied balloons to the light fixtures. At the buffet table Joy doles out paper cups and plastic flutes full of champagne and, every five minutes, breaks off to double-check her father is surviving. Earlier Jim was assisted into an armchair by the far wall and he remains there, a warped skeleton in a Pringle jumper and suit jacket, his demeanour the same as a man who’s skipped bail, looking at Eve and the goings-on in anticipation of some kind of threat. Joy must figure that he’s overwhelmed – she rubs his shoulder and helps him sup from a glass of barley water. Eve admires her daughter’s instinct to focus on anyone but herself, the readiness of her empathy.
The photographer from the Standard calls for some shots of the happy couple. Her grandsons steer Eve to a seat vacated beside Jim and she braves the camera lenses and phones pointed at the pair of them, trusting that she doesn’t appear to be any different than expected and neither does he. She’d rather this be the case, that for all intents and purposes they are together intact, still the halves of something permanent that people want to applaud. At Joy’s bidding all of the adults charge their glasses and raise a toast to Jim and Eve, spurring cries of “Speech” that volley through the lounge, growing louder and more insistent. By default everyone looks to Jim to say a few words worth hearing but he’s in no fit state, tremulous as if feeling the cold, dried blood on a sore beside his mouth, fingers peeling a thread from his jacket cuff. To Eve’s alarm he attempts to get to his feet unaided – Joy and one of their granddaughters hurry forward to convince him to stay put. Movement and noise ebb in the lounge when he steels himself to speak.
“It shouldn’t be me,” he says. “It shouldn’t be me sitting here –”
Eve lays a hand on top of his.
Jim contemplates her hand, then her face, aware of the slightest shake of her head – he loses the power of speech and looks away, stifling tears with the back of his sleeve. There’s a soft chorus of sympathy from those in attendance and fits of applause. With no prompting Eve pipes up to tell the room she noticed a fella named James Colquhoun at the Dennistoun Palais not long before the war; that she liked his teeth and his haircut; and she soon stopped giving other lads the time of day. She recalls phrases from letters that he wrote to her when off fighting in Greece and his smile when she told him she was expecting. She’s lost count of their disagreements, compromises, their laughs and dances, though she doesn’t mention that all of it still has meaning even if he once chose to forget what he had.
“We’ve been blessed, so we have,” she says.
Forgiveness isn’t possible, not in the time that either of them has left. She won’t leave nonetheless, not to spare him pain but because no-one should have to know why she did. Eve pauses, deciding on her next words, and spots a few of her great-grandchildren kneeling on the carpet, faces keen, palms apart as they wait for the cue to clap.
“Seventy years,” she says. “I think we’ve said enough.”
The celebrations subside later into the night. She trades goodbyes with relatives and friends as they kiss her cheek and shrug their coats on. The number of folk in the lounge has aggravated the temperature and she steps into the conservatory alone to feel cooler. Outdoors the streetlamps are alight on the promenade, melted frost on the tarmac a smear of sodium orange and the same colour oiling the shallows of the Lintyre. Try as she might, Eve can’t single out the Santo António further from shore, the entire wreck non-existent in the dark. For now, if she wants to, she can imagine that the ship grinded clear of its sandbar and steadied itself on the back of the current, easing down the channel to find the miles of open sea. Along the coast Ballaneath seems to be made of embers, warm to its core, the radiance of those houses where people are thinking about sleep, at peace with where they are – Eve prays that, sooner rather than later, David might feel the same as they do. She’s taken by the thought of him on Rua Augusta amidst the tourists and young locals, knowing that, of each person he sees, he must wish they were someone else. She won’t concede the rest of her days in that vein – if she has her way, after she’s gone, there’ll be nothing said of Eve Colquhoun that she wouldn’t be proud of. Her story will only be as strong as its last line.