Molly stands in the doorway, portfolio clutched beneath one arm, and watches Jake clear the snow from the driveway. Head bowed in concentration, he hasn’t seen her come out of the house. The shovel scrapes on the tarmac and he tosses another pile of dirty snow onto the lawn. Molly wishes he wouldn’t do that. She loves the first snow, how its brilliance transforms the grey apathy of winter.
‘I’m going,’ she says. Jake looks up at the sound of her voice. In one red-gloved hand she raises the portfolio and waves it at him.
He lowers the shovel and looks at the sky. ‘Are you sure it’s going ahead?’
Molly nods. ‘I rang the centre this afternoon.’ She buttons up her coat, fingers clumsy in her gloves. On her head, a matching red beret he bought her at Christmas. Stray snowflakes drift from a laden sky; they catch and melt in her long brown hair. Jake crosses the now-clear driveway – shovel in hand.
‘What time will I pick you up?’ he says.
‘There’s no need – besides, it’s safer walking.’
He nods, looks at the car parked on the road. That afternoon he’d scraped the snow from the windscreen. Then he’d turned the engine on and left it running. He didn’t want the block to crack, he said. What she once saw as admirable precision now seems innate fussiness. It irritates her. He irritates her.
Molly arrives at the arts centre fifteen minutes before the class is to start. The windows have been blacked out and it looks as though it is closed, but when she tries the door, it gives. She steps into the heat. It’s a small room that can fit seven or eight artists at most. Already some of them have arrived. They clamber for a good position to set their easels up, big bulky frames from behind which they’ll peer at the model.
In the centre of the room is a mattress covered by a plain white sheet.
Molly stamps the snow from her boots and plucks off her red gloves. She’s examining the layout of the room when a man comes out a door marked ‘Staff Only.’
‘First night? Just grab an easel from the corner and set up. We’ll be starting…’
‘I’m the model,’ Molly interrupts.
‘Ah, of course. In that case, come this way. I’m Chris.’ His handshake is firm. He leads Molly through the door from which he entered. A curtained space in the corner of the room acts as a makeshift cubicle. He tells her she can change and come out when she’s done. Unlike the studio, the room is cold – Molly takes off her backpack and unpacks her slippers and robe. Carefully, she puts her portfolio into the bag, sketchpad, charcoals, things she has no use for other than to deceive her husband.
She shivers as she undresses – feet bare on the cold tiled floor. In the studio, noise of easels being set up, the hum of friendly banter among the artists. Suddenly she is nervous. She stands before the mirror and appraises herself in the glass. Long legs – model’s legs – he used to say, between them a nest of dark hair. Breasts, small and rounded. She slips on the dressing gown and enters the studio.
Chris beckons her to the centre of the room. She takes off the robe – awaits his instruction. The next ten minutes are filled with two-minute poses. She stands, arms outstretched like a ballerina, then sits, one leg bent under her, other knee drawn to her chest. She stares into the distance, hears the rub of charcoals on paper – rustle of new sheets mounted on easels. Finally, Chris instructs her to lie on the mattress, one arm beneath her head, other hand resting on her pelvis. The warmth from the heater fans her skin – makes her think of nights naked by an open fire. ‘I could draw you,’ he’d said as he ran his open palm along the contour of her body. And he had. A portrait that now lay discarded amongst a pile of canvases in the spare room.
She dresses hurriedly when the class has ended. When she re-emerges the studio is empty, the students gone. She pulls her backpack over her shoulders. The instructor thanks her, pays her fee and asks how she’s getting home. ‘Walking,’ she says. ‘I live close by.’ ‘Right you are. I’ll see you Thursday, Mary. Mind how you go.’ ‘Molly,’ she says. ‘What?’ ‘My name is Molly.’ A cold blast of air hits her as she opens the door. She steps out into the white glare of the snow and pulls on her red beret. Then she sees him, standing at the other side of the road, waiting.
‘I thought I’d missed you,’ he says.
She gives no explanation. She imagines him watching the students file out of the centre thinking that maybe she’d gone. Jake blows on his fingers, rubs them together before shoving them in the pockets of his coat. ‘They say it’s to worsen in the next few days.’ ‘It’s pretty,’ she says. They walk on in silence until they reach the house.
She lingers on the doorstep when he goes inside, stands with her back to the warmth from the hall. She hears him clatter round the kitchen. A few minutes later he puts his head out the door. ‘Are you coming in, Moll?’ he asks. ‘In a minute.’ He pulls the porch door closed behind her. She stands with her arms folded and looks at the sky. There’ll be a fresh fall tonight, she thinks, and all his hard work will be undone.
She passes the closed living room door. Inside, voices on the television. She climbs the stairs, opens the door to the spare room and switches on the ceiling light. The paintings are in a corner facing the wall. She looks through them – finds the one she wants and sits there staring at it. She wonders if that is how she looked to the artists tonight – or if this image was merely Jake’s vision of her. She remembers how she teased him about hanging it on the living room wall. He was scandalised, said he wouldn’t have the world look upon her naked. That was his privilege only. Now he recoils from her – his beautiful, flawed wife.
Molly takes the canvas and brings it into their bedroom. She goes downstairs, takes a hammer and rummages in the drawer for a picture hook. She hangs the picture in the centre of the wall – perfectly viewed from their bed. Then she stands back to look at it. She will make him remember. He can’t go on punishing her for something that is not her fault.
He comes to bed sometime after midnight. She’s been lying sleepless. Several times she got up to peer beneath the blind to see if the snow had started. In the back yard, the trampoline is covered with a coating of white. It hasn’t been used since the previous summer when Jake’s niece Isabelle came to stay. Three days of watching princess Sophia on DVD, of Jake jumping like a mad man on the trampoline – his exuberance a match for any four-year old. He’d attempted to draw the child, though she never sat still long enough. In the end he took a photo; Izzy sat on the back step in an orange pinafore and yellow Wellington boots. Despite it being summer, she couldn’t be coaxed out of them. Summer now seems a very long time ago.
Molly wakes to the vision of her naked self. On Jake’s side, the sheet is cold. She wonders if he saw her portrait when he woke, is relieved to at least find it still hanging. The fresh fall hasn’t come. Yesterday’s snow remains piled in soiled heaps on the front lawn. Molly goes into the kitchen and fills the kettle. She opens the back door and steps outside. The bird feeder is empty. She refills it, watched by a curious Robin that hops onto the table as soon as she’s done. The snow is unsullied in the garden. Her footsteps to the feeder, the only blemish on the perfect white mantle. She thinks of Izzy playing in the garden, blonde ringlets bouncing. ‘Imagine how tiring it’ll be when we have our own,’ Jake had said. She’d smiled and said nothing as he scooped Izzy up and swung her by the ankles, the child squealing in delight.
Molly crosses to the trampoline and scoops snow from its base. It makes a satisfyingly powdery scrunch as she compacts it between her palms. She gathers and packs snow until a white mound dominates the garden. Her hands are warm now, face flushed with exertion. Half an hour later the snowman has formed – complete with a blue plaid scarf of Jake’s and a beanie. She stands back and admires her work. The snowman looks at her, unblinking. She knows what Jake is going through, but it’s not easy for her either. He should know that.
She spends the afternoon cooking. At times she is surprised when she catches sight of the snowman through the window. When it gets dark, she switches on the outside light so that the garden is illuminated. Jake comes home at six o’clock. She’s lit candles and laid the table. A chicken casserole simmers in the oven, and she’s baked a chocolate cake. He ignores his place at the table, sits on the sofa and turns the television on. Molly dishes out the food. ‘Jake,’ she says.
‘I’ll eat here if that’s okay.’ He turns back to the news. Snowploughs are clearing a road somewhere in the midlands. She looks at the table, at the bottle of red wine, uncorked, next to the candle. She won’t make a fuss. Instead she takes both their plates, puts them on the coffee table and pulls it nearer the sofa. She pours the wine and sits next to him, recalling how they used to love nights like this – huddled by the fire, impervious to the cold outside.
Jake compliments her on the food. She pours more wine and moves closer to him on the sofa. He is more talkative tonight. She sees it as promising. He even asks her what the life drawing class was like. ‘Ah, you know,’ she says. ‘It’ll take time to get the hang of it. I won’t be anywhere near as good as you anyway.’ She steals a sly look at him, but he doesn’t comment on the addition to their bedroom wall. ‘Who’s teaching the class?’ he asks. ‘Some guy called Chris.’ She tightens her grip on the wine glass, suddenly afraid that Jake might know him – the art world is a small enough circle, but he makes no comment.
That night Jake is tired. He says he’ll put the bins out before going to bed. Lately, he’s been staying downstairs until she’s asleep. She puts their dishes in the sink, and then goes upstairs. She hears him out the back, the rattle of the bins as he wheels them round the side of the house, and his boots in the snow. Quickly, she lights candles – scatters them round the room and turns the lamp out. She undresses down to her underwear – sits on the edge of the bed and waits.
She hears the back door being shut – the sound of him turning the key in the lock. He’ll be checking that everything is switched off, that the guard has been placed safely in front of the fire. Her heart quickens when she hears his foot on the stairs. He appears in the doorway, takes in the candles but says nothing. Molly stands up, crosses the room and stands before him. She puts her hands on his chest and kisses him. She kisses his face; her hands find the buckle of his belt. He stills her fingers with his. ‘I can’t,’ he says. He avoids her eyes – pivots roughly away from her. She puts a hand on his arm. ‘You can’t keep doing this,’ she says. ‘Can’t you even look at me anymore? Jake!’
He exits the room without a word. She hears the door of the spare room close behind him. She blows the candles out and turns the lamp on. She takes her dressing gown from the hook on the back of the door, goes into the landing and considers following him into the room to have it out with him – but how many times have they been over it before? There is nothing she can say this time to make it any different.
No light shines from beneath the door of the spare room. Jake has got into bed in darkness. She returns to their room, slips off her dressing gown and gets beneath the covers. Her portrait taunts her and so she turns out the light and lies sleepless in the gloom.
In the morning he is gone before she wakes. She goes downstairs to make coffee. There has been a fresh fall of snow overnight – Jake’s car is still in the driveway. He must have taken the train. She is by the sink rinsing the cafetière when she notices the absence of the snowman. His remains; hard lumpy snow and a spot of orange in the glare of white, the carrot she’d given him for a nose. She recalls having heard Jake moving about during the night, and she wonders, sadly, if there is any getting past this. That afternoon she goes outside and rebuilds the snowman, adorns it with her red beret and fixes her red gloves to his stick arms.
She and Jake avoid each other all of that day and the next. He doesn’t arrive home until after she has gone to bed and she wonders where he has been. He sleeps in the spare room and is gone before she wakes. On the second day the snowman is still standing, but she doesn’t get any satisfaction from this small triumph. The only thing that will make her happy is their life back and he will not grant her that.
In the evening she leaves the house before Jake returns. The snow is more than ankle deep. It wets the ends of her jeans through. She’s trudged halfway to the art centre before she realises that she’s forgotten her rucksack, but she doesn’t want to turn back. Besides, the robe is not a necessity – she can enter the studio without.
‘If you could just turn a little to the right, Molly. And move your other hand like this.’ Chris touches her fingers lightly, moves her into position. She stares at a potted plant in the corner of the room, tries to recite a poem in her head, but she has difficulty getting beyond the first verse. She thinks of that day in the surgery when she’d been afraid to meet Jake’s gaze, eyes fixed instead on a chart on the wall – a map of the female anatomy.
‘Have you ever had any procedures, Molly?’ the doctor had asked. She’d hesitated, palm moving rhythmically over her abdomen, trying to ease the pain, which had worsened since Jake had bundled her into the car. She’d kept her eyes focused on the chart. ‘I had a termination, but it was almost twenty years ago.’ The sound of the doctor’s pen scratching across the page as the pain shot through her stomach. ‘And were there any complications?’ ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember, I was young.’ ‘Fifteen’ she wanted to add, but she knew it wouldn’t make a difference – to the doctor or to Jake.
She was sent to the hospital that afternoon for a pelvic ultrasound, which confirmed the doctor’s suspicions – ectopic pregnancy. ‘She’s pregnant?’ Jake had said, a guttering of hope, as soon extinguished by a shake of the doctor’s head. ‘The fertilized egg is in the fallopian tube. It must be terminated.’
‘We’re done, Molly.’ She looks up, startled. The students have begun to pack their materials away. Chris looks at her, questioningly. She dresses in the back room. When she emerges Chris is still there talking to one of the women from the class. She smiles and says goodnight. When she steps out into the glare of the snow, the street is empty. Jake has not come to walk her home tonight. She walks slowly. Snowflakes drift and catch in her hair. It has been snowing off and on all afternoon. As she approaches the house, she sees that Jake has returned. The lights are on and beneath the sitting room blind she can see the television flashing. She opens the door and steps into the warmth of the hall. She unwinds her scarf, takes her coat off and hangs both on the end of the banister. He looks up when she enters the room, picks up the remote control and mutes the television. ‘How was the class?’ he says.
‘It was okay. I couldn’t really concentrate.’ She stands by the door, searches his face. There’s something hard in his stare.
Jake leans over the edge of the sofa and produces her rucksack. The zip is open, her robe visible through the gap. She notices, then, her sketchpad lying on the coffee table. ‘Why Molly?’ He stands up and thrusts the rucksack into her hands. He picks up the sketchpad, flicks through its empty pages and slams it down on the table again. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t find out? Jesus, Molly. You must think I’m some kind of fool.’
She shrugs, blood rushing to her face. She should have returned for the stupid bag. Should have known he’d be curious enough to look. ‘I didn’t think it was a big deal,’ she says.
‘A big deal? You didn’t think…but that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t think. You don’t think, Molly. All you think about is yourself.’
She shakes her head. ‘That’s not fair. And you know it.’
He paces the room, stops before the fireplace. In silence, he stares into the embers.
‘You’re an artist, Jake. You know there’s nothing in it. It’s a life drawing class for God’s sake. Did you ever hear me complaining when you took a class – when you sat and stared at naked women? You’re being ridiculous – and you know it.’
‘But why? Why did you have to do it when you know how much it bothers me?’
He moves from the fire, stands with his back to the window – and looks at her properly for the first time in several months.
Molly takes off her coat, sits on the edge of the sofa – she is silent for a moment staring into the flames. ‘Lately, I haven’t been feeling good. Since that day at the hospital, when I think of the way you looked at me, the way you haven’t been able to touch me since. Have you any idea how ugly that makes me feel? Maybe this sounds stupid, but I needed someone to look at me – to make me feel – whole. Not like some faulty product cast aside – because that’s how I’ve been feeling Jake – ugly. I never thought you’d make me feel like that.’
‘I didn’t mean to.’ He kicks at the carpet, arms crossed.
‘You can’t keep punishing me, Jake.’
‘I’m not. I’m just afraid, Molly. Afraid. What if it happens again? You heard what the doctor said…a twenty per cent chance.’
‘And there’s an eighty per cent chance that it won’t. Now I’m willing to take that risk if you will. The question is do you love me enough to try?’
‘You know I do.’
‘Then stop pushing me away.’ She reaches out a hand. He takes it, raises it to his lips and kisses her fingers. She puts her arms around his neck and he relents, his head on her shoulder. ‘I should’ve told you about the abortion. It was wrong. But the doctor says it might not be to blame, that it can happen to anyone.’
She kisses his face, finds his lips and kisses them, too. He strokes her hair and pulls her to him. Eyes closed, she listens to the chaotic beating of his heart. She doesn’t ask the question she fears the most – it is enough for now that he is here. And that they are willing to try.
Tanya Farrelly is the author of two books: When Black Dogs Sing, a short story collection (Winner of the Kate O’ Brien Award 2017) and The Girl Behind the Lens, a literary thriller published by Harper Collins. Her stories have won prizes and been shortlisted in many competitions, among them the Hennessy Awards, the RTE Francis MacManus Awards, the Cuirt New Writing Prize and the William Trevor International Short Story Competition. Her stories have appeared in literary journals such as the Cuirt Annual, the Incubator Journal and Crannog magazine. She has also read her work on RTE’s Sunday Miscellany. In 2013, Tanya completed a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at Bangor University, Wales. She works as an EFL teacher and a creative writing facilitator.
© Tanya Farrelly, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.