She’s still trying to do the same things she has always done, it’s just that she can’t do them anymore. I look on. I know all her habits. When you live in the same house you share the habits of others no less than you share the same air, the same atmospheres, the ambient realities of domestic life.
I understand now. We need to view each other in a certain way. It reduces chaos. We learn what to expect and then are shaped by those expectations. But I have left. Today I return only as a visitor. I observe the same habits but they are no longer mine to share: they are no longer part of me.
It has taken the sight of our dog, our joint custody dog, scratching confusedly at the rug she uses for sleep, to make me realise I’m in exile from my immediate memories, from my immediate history, from the small items of existence that have formed my recent, and not so recent, identity.
She scratches, and circles. This has always been her ritual before settling. But previously there was focus, intent. The scratching, the circling, invoked a sense of comfort and security. It gave her satisfaction. At a certain point she would know she had created her own inviolable space for rest. Now I can see she is denied that certainty. Both her own habits and the habits of others are deserting her. In that respect we are similar.
I still have the key. I still have access. But it is access to something that only resembles what once was: a sameness that conceals irrevocable change.
Joint custody of a scruffy, much-loved fox terrier. Mollie is now my conduit to a former life, and she is old and struggling with the simple, embedded behaviours she has repeated many times a day over the last twelve years. Her body remembers them but is hardly able to carry them out. I visit her at agreed times. I watch her. I blame myself.
Loss, evidently, is no-one’s sole legacy. The abandoner is also the abandoned, by the simple daily reference points of life, the default behaviours, the fallbacks. Marriage grows into an eco-system, it absorbs the quirks and fallibilities of its participants then proceeds on the basis they dictate. It was never designed to endure in an attenuated form. You don’t know what leaving is until you’ve left.
We all want to be part of something – isn’t that true? We are what we are part of. When you leave a relationship you also leave the parts of you that belonged to it. Mollie was a big part of our marriage. Now she is the only link remaining. But, of course, I have left her too.
She settles. There is something resigned about the way she subsides into a curled position. The old lambswool fleece is both her bed and her camouflage. Apart from the patch of black on her flank and of tan on her muzzle, her fur blends perfectly. I would like to stroke her, but I don’t. I can see her fragility. I’m afraid to disturb it.
I wish she could talk. I wonder how many people who’ve found themselves in these circumstances have wished their pet could talk? Or more importantly listen: to the apologies, the explanations. Pathetically, I crave my dog’s absolution.
I get up and go to the kitchen. Everything in it was once made or fitted by me – we find so many ways to invest in the future, don’t we? I see a cupboard door is working loose and my immediate instinct is to repair it. Until recently that would have typified my role, my response to household dysfunction. We each had our ways of keeping things going.
I return to the living room. Mollie is sleeping. There is something in the rise and fall of her ribs that reminds me of those rare moments of tenderness and peace that could break through, even towards the end. Tiny episodes of hope, beguiling, misleading. I remember how that hope felt. It felt like quietness, but not the quietness I witness now. This is the quietness of absence, of soul flown elsewhere, of the void when conflict ends.
I’m thinking this, feeling it in every part of my body, when I hear a key turn in the lock. Instantly I feel like an intruder, although I’m here within the agreed times. I hear the door close, the tread of carpet-muted feet, and our neighbour, my ex-neighbour, Sara comes into the room.
‘Hi John,’ she says. She doesn’t seem surprised to see me – she has always looked in on Mollie while my wife and I were at work. She knows what has happened. She has been through a break-up herself. She gives me one of those smiles in which the corners of the mouth turn down, that somehow acknowledge that confusion and ambiguity must play their part in everyone’s world. Then her attention turns to Mollie and she goes over and kneels, very quietly, by her rug.
For a moment we both watch her sleeping form intently, and then, without being conscious of the intention, I find myself kneeling beside Sara. We say nothing, just witness what is before us: how each breath is a measure of life, how life, its duration, its meaning, is defined by its simple continuance. After a short time, I feel sure, our breathing has synchronised. We breathe together, as if doing so allows us to maintain something, to hold on to what pieces of life are still ours.
About the Author:
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story Blurred Edges, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story The Homing Instinct, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2