It was the first time they’d made love: the first time for both of them. It would be the last. She hadn’t told him; he’d find out soon enough. But it had been perfect; Daniel had said so; ‘perfect’, he’d said, circling her nipple with his fingertips and kissing her throat, ‘you’re perfect.’ The rush of warmth spreads slowly from her stomach down between her thighs. Taking a deep breath she closes her eyes, leans back on the wrought iron garden seat and savours the memory. She can feel the weight of him, the feel of him inside her.
The breeze ruffles her hair, presses her long cotton skirt to her legs and her skin puckers against the rapidly cooling September evening. She winds her mother’s nylon scarf once more around her neck, breathing in the familiar perfume and lies along the bench, pulling up her knees and wrapping her clothes around her. She twirls a length of hair between her fingers and then chews the end of it for a moment, a habit from childhood. Tucking her hands up the sleeves of her cardigan she looks through the branches of the apple tree at the sky, a blend of gold and red streaks against a backdrop of deepening blue. This is her favourite place.
The tree, planted the day after she was born, had grown with her. ‘In celebration of their first child,’ her dad used to say but she hadn’t heard that phrase for years. It had stopped after her mother had the last miscarriage. So the tree had just become ‘a celebration of Lisa’. There was no more talk about having further children: there’d been no brothers or sisters. But she’d never minded; she’d always felt special. Until lately: lately she’d wished she had a sister, someone to confide in, someone to talk to about what was going to happen to her; about the threat that had crouched, patiently waiting, since the moment she was born: since before then.
She strokes the trunk of the tree. It used to be smooth, slippery, under her fingertips but now there are sharp raised bumps and tiny cracks in the bark. And as far as she knows, there’s never been any fruit.
The sun slides slowly downwards. She turns her head to one side and watches it, the bright radiance hurting her eyes. She blinks rapidly, clearing the tears that blur the changing patterns overhead: each second strands of yellowing cloud dissolve, transform and race across the sky: lines of fiery colours merge and flow. The musty smell of burning wood fills her nostrils: a spiral of smoke twists and turns in the wind, rising from a garden somewhere down the lane.
The leaves on the apple tree are tossed around in the rise and fall of the breeze. One flutters down and lands on her stomach. She picks it up, strokes it. Not yet brittle and dry, the surface is still a dull green but is pitted with small holes, each flaw edged with rusted orange. Rubbing it between her palms she holds it to her face and inhales but the fragrance of summer has vanished. She brushes the remnants of the leaf off her hands and sits up, swinging her feet to the ground and looking across the lawn. The grass is long; Dad will have to do another cut before winter sets in and everything slows into a long sleep. It’s almost dark. She stands, pulls at the hem of her cardigan, smoothes down her skirt.
The hedge at the far end of the garden, a line of blackness, cuts off the last streaks of red fanning upwards. Anxious to catch the last glimpse of the sun as it dips out of sight she kicks off her sandals, climbs onto the bench and raises up on her toes. Now there is only a blood-gash in the blackness.
She pulls her long hair over her shoulder so it lies, dark and silky across her chest. She remembers Daniel’s words again when he stroked her hair, as he kissed her mouth, licked the flatness of her stomach, the inside of her thighs. ‘Perfect, you’re so perfect.’ She waits for the heat to rise within her again but it’s not there; the cold is deep inside her now.
Barely able to see the tree above her she works the scarf around her neck, the material, infused with her mother’s perfume, smooth between her fingers. Jerking the knot taut she yanks on it, tests it. The branch bends, creaks loudly, holds. For a moment she stares into the darkness. Her heart is beating so fiercely it fills her whole being with a loud insistent throb. Drawing in a long breath she waits, smells the acrid smoke still in the air, feels the sharpness of the cold night in her lungs.
Then she steps off the bench.
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