There are some things you can’t say to the person you can say anything to. This was Thorn’s thought, and he couldn’t work out why he’d not thought it before. Maybe because of the wine, or because it was New Year’s Eve, or because he’d nothing else to say, he told Alison.
‘You can tell me anything,’ she said, pushing away her dish, finishing one last mouthful of food.
He took his time refilling the wine glasses. ‘There must be things you don’t tell me.’
‘Like what?’ she asked, taking the wine glass he offered her.
‘Anything.’ He shrugged, before taking a long drink from his own glass.
Alison, her eyes still on him, moved in her seat, then lifted her jumper over her head. ‘Like what?’ she asked again, arranging her hair. ‘Are there things you don’t tell me?’
He stared at the lit candle on the table between them.
‘I tell you everything,’ she said, sitting up straight, pulling at her collar, spinning the stem of her glass between her finger and thumb.
Thorn nodded, raised an eyebrow.
‘What?’ she said, ‘I do.’ She waited, before saying, ‘See, now this makes me think you have all kinds of secrets you’re not telling me.’
He looked into his wine glass, pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. He exhaled before taking another long drink.
‘I don’t keep secrets,’ she said, shaking her head, chin raised. ‘Not from you.’
‘Everyone has secrets.’
Her shoulders fell and she stared at his chest.
‘We should tell each other,’ he said, placing his wine glass on the table. He tore two pieces of paper from a pad sitting in the middle of the table. ‘You write on this. I’ll do the same.’
She stared at the paper, her eyebrows tipping inwards, her lips pursed. ‘This is silly.’
‘Three things,’ he said, stretching his arms, flexing his fingers. ‘Three things each. Things we’ve never told one another.’
‘This is a bad idea.’
‘It’ll be fun.’
‘Am I going to need more wine?’ She held the pen and leaned over her piece of paper.
He curled a hand around the top of his. ‘No peeking.’
‘I’m not peeking. I’m thinking.’
It took her a while to get started, but once she’d begun, she’d soon covered half a side.
‘Three?’ she asked.
Thorn looked up from his writing and nodded, ‘Three.’
She stroked her chin and looked into the corner of the room before returning to her paper. She crossed something out and then wrote something else. ‘And you’re not going to be cross with me?’
He didn’t look up from his scribbling. ‘No. Of course not.’
‘Promise,’ he said, glancing across the table. Her cheeks were red, her throat blotchy. Something in his own chest was contracting, or tightening for her. He watched as her hand stopped, the end of the pen trembling. Then, slowly, and with smaller lettering, she started writing again. She moved closer to the paper, leaning in, re-reading what she’d written over and over, crossing out and then rewriting. She looked up at him, and with a heavy, sad smile, nodded.
He covered his piece of paper with the palm of his hand and slid it across the table.
‘Sure about this?’ she said, tapping her lips.
‘No,’ she said, looking from her own hand to his. ‘Don’t think I want to…’
The ends of his fingers pressed down on the paper, his palm lifting so his hand looked like a huge spider.
‘No,’ she said, ‘can’t do it.’ She grabbed her piece of paper and ripped it several times. Dropping it into her empty dish, she held the lighter next to it, rolled the flint and waited for it to catch. When it finally did, she motioned for Thorn to follow. He folded his paper and dropped it into the fire. After a short while, she doused the fire with a glass of water.
She wafted a hand through the smoke. ‘Need more wine,’ she said.
In the living room, they waited to see the New Year’s fireworks on TV. Alison sat at her end of the settee, her legs curled beside her, a large pillow on her lap, her wine glass held loosely in her hand, resting on the pillow. Thorn sat in the corner of his side of the settee, his legs outstretched across the floor, crossed at the ankles. Because they’d not spoken for some time, he thought of saying something about the amount of people there must be in London, about how cold it looked, about how he’d never want to be there himself; but everything he thought sounded trivial, too much like obvious small talk.
She held the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger and closed her eyes tight.
More time passed without them talking. He saw her eyes weren’t on the TV, but were fixed on a point on the floor halfway across the living room. He saw in her stillness, in the narrowing and then widening of her eyes, the mechanics of memory. Staying very still, he watched her. Her lips parted, before rising at one end, flickering towards a smile that didn’t quite ignite. Then wrinkles covered her forehead and she sighed, before her trance was broken. She looked at him, surprised, and smiled.
‘Thirty minutes till Big Ben,’ he said.
She nodded, and looked at the TV, at a camera panning across hundreds of people, all huddled together, all facing the same way.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her eyes fixed on the TV.
He thought about asking what she was sorry for, about what she was thinking, about what she’d been remembering. He thought about the piece of paper and what she might have written. Before he could say anything, she was kissing him, and undressing him.
By the time Big Ben was ready to bring in the new year, Alison was lying next to him on the settee, naked beneath a blanket. She didn’t count down with the TV the way she did every other year they’d watched it. He moved, trying not to disturb her, so he could see her face; he thought she might be asleep. She wasn’t. She was crying without a sound. He held her shoulder in a way he thought wouldn’t let on he knew she was crying, and as he watched her, he listened to Big Ben bring in the new year.
His attention returned to the TV when the fireworks began: the neon pinks and greens and violets exploding above Big Ben and the London Eye. A warmth, a shiver of happiness worked its way through his stomach and chest. A part of him moved, hovered above himself and Alison. Seeing her wipe tears from her eyes, feel her move closer to his chest, fired in him a sensation of contentment. He was superior, had power over her, in some way had won. This euphoria faded, buckling towards guilt. But even this was pleasurable, in that it was his alone, was centred on victory, upon dominance.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said, making an effort to control her voice.
He watched the fireworks display build to its climax: more and more explosions igniting in rapid succession so that individual colours combined to create a luminous strobing silver in the room. The sound of individual explosions accelerated in frequency too, combining to form one continuous rumbling.
He imagined explaining to Alison how good it made him feel when she cried; he imagined telling her in the dark of their bedroom. But even now he couldn’t think of a way to explain that didn’t sound cruel.
The fireworks ended. The London Eye, Houses of Parliament, and Thames were shrouded in smoke. He recalled the paper in the bowl, burning, imagined how her secrets were there in the smoke rising from the flames.
Through the wall he heard people singing, ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ He’d declined the offer to join the neighbours’ party over a week ago. There were times he knew for sure he’d made the wrong decision. This was one of those times. He knew because of the way Alison had made love to him and in the way she pushed herself so close to him. In another world, or time, he’d accepted the neighbours’ invitation and was next door at the party with Alison, their arms crossed, their hands clasped in the grip of others, their voices singing about old acquaintances and the past. The world and the time he inhabited was the wrong one. They should have been next door, each with their own secrets intact.
‘I’m glad we didn’t go,’ she said, looking at the wall.
She kissed his cheek before running her toes along his leg, one of her toenails snagging his skin.
‘You read my mind,’ he said.
Adam Lock won the STORGY Flash Fiction Competition 2018, was placed third in the TSS Cambridge Short Story Prize 2017, and has been longlisted and shortlisted for numerous competitions including the Bath Flash Fiction Prize. Links to all of Adam’s stories can be found on his website here. He’s also active on Twitter here.