Both set out with the best of intentions, but by the time their car drew up the sandy track they had stopped talking altogether. Throughout the journey the temperature had dropped and the cottage windows sparkled in the headlights. Spring was late that year and Easter had come early, but the freeze was unexpected. They unpacked the car in silence and she went straight to bed while he stayed up, trying to light the fire in the living room.
In the morning she lay in the high bed, watching her breath rise above her in pale little puffs. At first all she could hear was the wind and a slow wash of waves from the beach, but then the living-room door creaked and his heavy tramp came down the hallway. He passed by and went into the bathroom. The water tank rumbled and the pipes, which seemed to run under every floorboard and through every wall, began to wrap the building in their familiar whine. She pulled the quilt over her head, thinking how typical it was of him to sneak into the shower first.
The noise of the pipes didn’t let her lie long and she sat up and reached for the radio on the cabinet by the bed. It was Good Friday and there was a programme of pieces for the St Matthew Passion; the next was to be an aria, Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. Bach was not one of her specialities, but the announcer provided a translation. At this she gave a slight snort and turned the volume up. Then she slid off the bed and shuffled to the window with the quilt gathered around he shoulders.
It was so cold that a thin layer of frost had formed on the glass on the inside. She scraped at it with her fingernails, but her breath misted over the gap so she rubbed at it again. The beach was very close, but she found she could see nothing because of the ice on the outside. Meanwhile, the music began: a reserved introductory passage, followed by a bass voice delivering the title line. The orchestra was unhurried and it was soon clear that the tempo would not increase. The singing was also restrained, but occasionally there was a hint of urgency, especially when the title phrase was repeated. The music pulsed slowly and the voice quietly pleaded. She contemplated the opaque white in front of her nose and after a few minutes a small hole cleared on the other side.
Later, she moved into the kitchen and shivered near the stove. Throughout the process of washing and dressing they had managed to avoid each other and now he was back in the living room, methodically ripping a newspaper into strips for the fire. She sat at the kitchen table with an open jotter in front of her. The cream pages were printed with musical staves and, sitting on one hand to keep it warm, she carefully marked red symbols over the lines with a pen she held in the other.
Next door the ripping came to an end and she heard him groan as he got to his feet. The living-room door creaked and once more he thudded into the hallway. It was not clear where he was heading, but she prepared herself by furrowing her brow and staring determinedly down at the page.
The kitchen door opened and his footsteps halted at the entrance. Obviously he hadn’t expected her to be there and she could feel him hovering behind her, trying to decide whether to come in or not. She continued writing and eventually he stepped in and walked over to the wall cupboard above the sink. There was the clink of a mug on the draining board and he coughed. ‘Would you like a coffee?’
She scored out a symbol and placed a new one on a lower line. ‘No.’
He sighed and took the kettle from the stove; water poured into the mug. From the extremity of her vision she was aware of him shuffling at the sink, but then he stepped to the table and sat down on the chair opposite her. The pen moved across the page and he sipped slowly form his mug. Finally he said, ‘Is that new?’
She could feel him bend forward to try and see what she was writing so she pulled the book away with her fingertips. He leaned back and put his mug down on the table.
‘I thought we came here to talk,’ he said.
She kept her eyes down. The water in the kettle bubbled and outside the waves lapped on the beach. Her pen scraped across the page. He bent forward again, but this time grunted in surprise. The mug tumbled into view and coffee slopped out, swimming over the page.
She dropped the pen and jerked back, her chair falling over as she jumped to her feet. She grabbed the book by its edges and poured the fluid onto the table. Now she looked at him. ‘You did that deliberately.’
‘No. It was an accident.’ But he was still sitting, watching the coffee flood over the table.
The open book dripped from her hands. The bottom halves of the pages were untouched, but the red ink at the top was smudged and running. The pool spread over two-thirds of the tabletop and the mug lay on its side.
‘No. You did it deliberately.’
Their eyes met and he sighed once more. Then he reached over and righted the mug. ‘I’ll get a cloth,’ he said.
The following day she stayed in the bedroom while he slumped in an armchair, listening to the wind brushing over the windows. The cold had lessened overnight, but the panes were still white and layered with frost.
When the morning passed he rose from the chair and moved to the upright piano. He sat down on the worn cushion of the stool and tapped a couple of keys. The piano was old and not used often. It needed tuning, but he thought it could bear something delicate so he picked out a tune, hoping to lure her back through. His fingers trickled through the piece but she did not appear. He rubbed his chin. Evidently the choice had been unimaginative, too obviously romantic. He could see her lying back on the bed, sniggering, and the image made his cheeks burn.
So he thought of another tune, an aria with which he was not too familiar. In fact he had only heard it the other morning, coming from the bedroom as he dried himself after his shower. It had been performed by orchestra and solo singer, but it was a slow piece and he thought he could summarise it by chords. He was sure she had heard part of it, but she would never expect him to be plodding through such a thing on the piano.
He began with a low hum, trying to translate the meldoy through to his fingers. From a frame on top of the piano her face bestowed a half-smile and he repeated the initial phrase over and over. His hum became louder. The treble keys were going off pitch, but he thumped on, tryng to find a way in. His voice rose tunelessly, struggling for the words. Mache dich . . . Mache dich . . . Mache dich . . . but that was all he could manage before lapsing back to a drone.
The door of the room swung open and knocked into a chair. There was no half-smile on her face, just a grimace. She was wearing her cagoule and held his in her hands. His fingers stopped and he looked up at her, offering a coy smile. But her expression remained stern and she threw the cagoule so that he had to stretch back to catch it.
The wind blew into their faces and the sand cracked underfoot. By this time the tide was out and the waves were far away. They still hadn’t spoken, but as they moved their arms sometimes touched. He could hear the papery rub of their cagoules’ material and as she didn’t move away he assumed détente was setting in.
Eventually they reached a favourite spot, a dune which jutted out in a dog-leg from the main barrier of sand between the beach and the frostbitten grass behind. The dune formed a small cove, a snug from the winds which harried the sands. Without hesitation both moved into the cove and crouched to collect the sticks and bits of board which gathered at its edge when the tide was in. This was what they always did and wordlessly a pile of wood was created. Then he dug in his pocket for matches and she reached up to pull at some of the long grass which sprouted like white hair from the top of the dune. The longer strands were frosted, but underneath these the short ones were dry. He thrust the grass under the pile, he lit it, and the fire was made.
They sat on the same side of the flames, but he was careful not to get too close. Time passed and the shadows began to gather, but when the flames started to die down she got up to collect more sticks. Later, he took his turn, and this way the fire was kept going until one of them was ready to speak.
In the end it was she who broke the silence. ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.‘
He turned his head a way so that she wouldn’t see that he was pleased. ‘So, what does it mean?’ he asked.
She looked into the flames unsmiling. ‘It means, “Purify thyself, my heart.”’
Moments passed before she spoke again. ‘Why did you think of that?’
He tried to sound nonchalant. ‘Well, I thought it was appropriate.’
New she looked at him, eyes narrowing. He thought he could see the corners of her mouth turn upwards, but perhaps it was just the flickering light because then she stood up. She kicked sand on the fire.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s get back.’
On Easter morning the wind pushed at the front door. With each gust the handle rattled and finally she opened her eyes. She sat upright and listened, but apart from the rattle there was no other sound, just the wind and the waves. The curtains were half open and she noticed that her breath was invisible. She looked to the window. The frost had started to recede and the upper panes were clear. Backlit by the sun, thick, grey clouds rolled through the sky.
She reached for the robe heaped at the bottom of the bed and pulled it around her shoulders. Then she stretched over the side and picked the jotter up from the floor. The previous day she had dried it in front of the stove and the pages were rippled and stiff. Some of the red markings were smeared and where the coffee had spilled the paper had turned an ancient brown. But the sequence was still legible and taking the pen from the bedside cabinet, she started to write.
Without hesitation, notes continued uncoiling over the staves. When she heard the living-room door and his footfalls in the hallway she did not even pause. Predictably, he went into the bathroom and the water tank rumbled. She shook her head when the pipes began to whine, but she continued to write, working on as the sun appeared through the window and spread over the page.
When she entered the living room he was taking his bedding from the sofa. He kept his back to her and she did not speak as she moved to the armchair. Resting the jotter on his lap, she looked out of the window on the opposite side of the room. On this one patches of frost still reached up the lower panes, but they had a heavy, crystallised look and their grasp was beginning to slip. From her position she could see that the grass had become green, but not enough of the ice had cleared for a view of the beach. Only the waves could be heard, foaming on the shore.
He pulled off the last sheet and held it before him as he moved to the clear area in front of the window. He had to face her as he stretched his arms sideways to open the sheet, but he avoided her eyes and then raised his arms slightly so that his face was obscured. Outside the clouds swept by and for a moment the sun broke through, illuminating his body and his outstretched arms behind the sheet. Then he shook it and wound it up in his arms. The sun disappeared and he moved away to the piano, dropping the sheet on the sofa as he passed.
For some time he leafed through a pile of music books which sat on a hard chair next to the piano. Then he opened the lid and dragged his fingers firmly along the keyboard. He started to do this again, but broke off when she put her hand on his shoulder.
His body flinched and he looked round sharply. She pushed a strand of hair from her eye and smiled at him, but he turned his face down and tapped the keyboard with his forefinger. She opened the jotter and set it on the ledge above the keyboard. ‘Try this,’ she said, and pushing the music books off, she sat on the hard chair.
Before him he saw the cream pages of two days before. The coffee stains were heavy, but the red notes were clear. At the top of the piece were the scribbled words ‘Purify thyself, my heart’ and for a minute or so he scanned the music, but made no reaction. He stretched his fingers and began to play.
When he finished he put down the lid and placed his hands on top of it. Neither of them spoke and slowly she reached out and put her hand on top of his. She resisted squeezing and he did not pull away. Sunlight burst into the room once more and he turned to look at the window. Finally, she spoke. ‘Do you like my transcription?’
He kept his eyes on the window. ‘Well, perhaps the piece is a little slow.’
She looked at the back of his head. Beyond him, the glass shone.
‘But my interpretation . . . is it ok?’
The room darkened as the sunlight moved on. He turned back to face her. Hi lips carried a half-smile and rain tapped on the window. She looked past him. The last crystals of frost had slipped down and now the view was clear. On the beach the waves washed over the sand.
Copyright © David Pettigrew, 2014.
Originally published in Shorts 5: The Macallan and Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition, Polygon.
Please do not reproduce this story elsewhere or print out without David’s permission.