"It's nothing to do with that," she replied. Her voice was calm and measured, but her hand slid across the table towards him, forefinger tapping at the wood with increasing force. "It's that you keep finding a way to fuck everything up."
K stiffened in his chair, clenched his fork, and pushed a lump of potato on an aimless tour round his plate. There was a silence.
"Why," he muttered, "are you being such a complete and utter bitch tonight?"
The forefinger stopped tapping. She leaned forward. "I'm not talking about this. I'm not talking about this... this, us, I'm fed up to fuck of talking about it. I've accepted it. Everyone else has accepted it. It's only you that won't seem to fucking accept it. You fucked it up, just like you fuck everything up."
"Don't say that to me," K whispered.
"You're a liar."
"Don't fucking say that to me."
"You're a liar."
"Don't say that to me!"
Her hand had crept towards the edge of his plate. K didn't mean to - he didn't think he'd meant to - but he brought his fork down as he shouted, and saw the prongs puncture her skin. He saw a trail of little red beads; saw her screaming and thrashing around by the sink, grabbed his jacket from the kitchen door peg, and left.
He loped down the garden path and crunched onto the long stretch of road outside his home. It trailed off into the distance, surrounded on either side by flat, black panels of field; disappearing at the skirt of the night sky.
The cold stung his cheeks, and he thrust his hands into his pockets and tried to hit a pacy stride. Pacy enough to push through the feverish angst bubbling behind his forehead. Slick night silence washed around him. Breath left his mouth as a thin vapour, and sharp repetitions of phrases sparked round his mind. The organisation and sense in her sentences collapsed, and he could only hear aggrieved sounds - peaks in pitch, resonating vowels hanging at the end of barked utterances. Her face was less and less fixed - increasingly a warped, irrelevant shroud, diluted through the dissonant sounds.
Through the clamouring, an angular shape gestated. It writhed at the fence to the left of the road. K paused. Crisp huffing and yelps sifted towards him, and with several more steps the struggling shape gained clarity. A man was tangled up in the fence.
K padded onto the grassy rise aside the road and gripped the cold fence to steady it. The man stopped and turned. Although the majority of his body was through the fence, his left leg was wedged between the two middle stretches of wire. Closer now, K could see his trousers were caught on two barbed twists.
"Got yourself in a bit of a fix," K muttered as he eased along the fence towards him.
"Yeah." The man stopped tugging, and slumped onto the grass. He rolled onto his back and wiggled his trapped leg. Looking down, K took in his thin face, reddened by the cold. His eyes were deep-set, larger than most, and notably far apart - giving space to a long nose that rose above a tiny, thin-lipped mouth. K had trouble focusing on his eyes. He felt, for the briefest of moments, that they might have been entirely white.
"It's my leg, my damned leg," the man sighed.
"I can see that. Here, you just need to - "
K slipped the folds of fabric from the tiny spikes, and the man jerked his leg free, sprang to his feet and exhaled. Rubbing his hands together, K glanced up and down the dark road. Several white lines in the centre offered the only colour around. They might have been the only two people in the world.
"What were you - what are you doing out here?" asked K, immediately struck by the feeling he might regret it.
"I think... just passing through," nodded the man. He flicked a spindly finger at the fence. "I keep doing that to myself." Then abruptly, he turned to K and proffered his hand.
"Thank you, thank you for that. You have a good night now."
It was said with such finality that K felt any further small talk sucked out of him. He took the man's hand and they engaged in a brief, solemn shake, whereafter the man turned away and looked up. K squinted at him for a moment, then slid his way down the wet grass back onto the road. He walked several paces, confused, and muddling the idea of throwing a 'good bye' or 'good luck' back. Yet, when he looked round, the man was staring at the sky with such intensity that he felt he would only be interrupting.
K strode on into the tunnel of shadows, and waited at a discreet distance before glancing back again. The grassy rises became black lumps, the fields around were endless oceans, and the crooked shape of the strange man, standing and staring, was silhouetted against the sick light of the stars and moon.
His memories of the argument - obliterated by the tangled trousers - swam back out of the murkiness, and temporarily he was lost again in broken words and gestures. The next time he thought to glance back, the man was gone. He was sure he could still make out the stretch of fence, but no skinny figure holding a vigil. No cars had been past. Perhaps he had moved on. Perhaps he had remembered which way he was going.
I keep doing that to myself.
When K returned home, she was gone. He found a couple of scrunched-up note attempts in the kitchen bin.
He returned to the house only once after moving out, some twenty years later. News of her passing had filtered through to him, and although he bypassed the funeral, he found himself giving way to an irresistible, melancholic pull that reeled him onto a train and back to their old country home.
The dying afternoon was still warm as he stepped up the garden path. Weeds snaked amongst the soil. His hand rested on the doorhandle, the wind played with wisps of his thinning hair, and he felt as if he should have remembered it differently. There were windows, set in the white walls to his left and right. Had there always been two windows above those? He had the warped sensation of viewing a hologram, or a much smaller house, or that he was in entirely the wrong place.
Inside, the hall felt damp and oppressive, and the patterns on the wallpaper had faded into abstract bursts. The kitchen was set out as he knew it; patches of light leaked over the table and far wall, and he shuffled between them. He leaned beside the sink and watched the wooden chair squared away at the centre of the table, where she had sat when he had last seen her. He studied the dusty curve of its back, the floral imprints. Everything in this house looked so small.
He squinted and tried to project her onto her chair. He had been projecting her everywhere since that last night, and he would continue doing so for what little time remained. Days, months and years had collapsed beneath him and, as he squeezed his eyes tighter, hopelessly willing some kind of final picture, droplets wet the deep lines under them.
K rubbed a shaking arm against his nose, clung to the sink, and reached down to tug open the utensil drawer. He pulled out several knives and hurled them onto the floor. Night was seeping in and the wind had picked up outside, rattling the window, as he took his place at the table with a single fork. He spread his right hand out on the wooden surface. His left hand was shaking so much now that he had trouble positioning the fork above it. Steeling himself, he raised his arm and motioned to thrust the fork down. By the time it landed his will had failed him. The prongs tapped at his wrinkled skin, leaving the tiniest of indentations.
K looked at the chair across from him again. The shadows seemed to bleed into thick shapes within the confines of its dusty curves. He pulled himself up and stumbled quickly out of the house, holding onto the walls for support.
The wind propelled him along the narrow road, and the moon suffused the fields on either side of him with a muddied glow. He stuck close to the scrappy grass at the edge, bouncing threads of history, and reimagined history, and ruined, obliterated history behind his eyes. Whilst he stumbled on into the familiar shadow tunnel that grew away from the house, he saw two convoluted shapes shifting in the rises to the side of the road. Black shapes separated from finer layers of black, and hoarse voices mingled with the wind.
K felt drawn to and comforted by all this as he clambered up onto the grassy hump. The ground had the consistency of fudge, and he reached for the metal support of the fence. Groping along it, he navigated his way towards the wriggling shapes. It was men. Two men, lying on the ground. Their legs were trapped in the fence. A bluster of wind flung K against the wires, and he slumped to his knees beside them.
"You're stuck?" he shouted above the rumble. "Your legs, are you stuck?"
Closer now, he could make out the two rigid, grey faces as they turned towards him. The mouths were tiny and thin-lipped. But it was the eyes, clear white eggs, that shook him.
"Yes, our legs," the man closest to him said, rubbing his hands into boggy folds of soil. His voice was thin and had an odd, metallic quality to it. The second man laughed abruptly - a sharp, ringing sound.
K reached towards the fence and unclipped the segments of trouser fabric twisted onto barbed spikes. The wind caressed his shaking hands and he felt safe in the familiarity of the task, in the vicinity of his old home. For the briefest of moments he indulged in the snowball of memories, snippets of interactions, and mental photographs.
When they were freed, the two men jumped up and wiped off the dirt on their clothes. K rose to join them. The wind had calmed, and a hush fell over the road.
"I think I remember you," he said, "or at least one of you. I think this happened before."
"It's possible," replied the man to his left. His white eyes gleamed in the moonlight. "There are times when we are passing through." He turned to the fence and patted it. "We keep doing this to ourselves, though."
The second man laughed again; a grating sound.
K opened his mouth to reply, but both men were rooted to the spot, staring at the sky. The time for talking appeared to be over, and they took no more notice of him. As K traipsed away, a fine rain wet his scalp, and when he looked around, the men were gone. He was unsurprised by this, and in truth he had been expecting it. It was absurd. Yet he found himself missing them, and their clumsiness, and the way they had stopped him thinking about awful times.
The dot of the house was still visible in the distance through the slanting rain. He wondered how it was possible that he could have found it within himself, so easily, to say and do things that hurt someone he loved so much... it was absurd.
The house would be there when he closed his eyes again, as everything would be.
We are passing through.
We keep doing this to ourselves.
Stephen Thom is a musician from Carrbridge in the Highlands of Scotland, and enjoys reading and writing fiction with an interpretive element. His pieces have appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Holdfast Magazine, Fur-Lined Ghettos, The Grind, High Flight, Don't Do It, Words Paint Pictures, Thought Collection, Thick Jam, and Puffin Review, amongst others.