“The Scent of Roses”
Debbie’s cup sat on the counter untouched. Henry had tip-toed out of the bedroom in the milky gray light so he wouldn’t wake her. Put the kettle on and warmed her precious blue tea pot, leaning too close to the radiator to warm his bones. He liked his tea scalding hot; she let it sit around for too long. Some days this bothered him. She’d smile and flit past him like a cloud.
“To each his own, Henry. Live and let live, love.”
He finished his tea, shed his grubby track pants like a moulting snake, and hopped into the shower. Getting dressed took him longer than it should. His hands shook when he was buttoning up his shirt. A slight tremor; nothing alarming, nothing he couldn’t control. Afterwards, he stood in front of the hallway mirror for a full five minutes to put on his work face, his ‘I’m ready for the world’ face.
Debbie’s tea had gone cold, a thin brown film stretched on top like wrinkled skin. He was tempted to shout out her name, to point at the cup, to say a few well-chosen words to his wife. He took a breath and let the urge pass. Snow fell softly on the roof. The radiator sighed.
To each his own, Henry. Live and let live, love.
He zipped up his jacket, stepped into a crunchy bed of snow, and shut the door gently behind him.
At the staff meeting, people spoke to him in hushed tones, handling him as if he was a fragile Ming vase or Edo tea set in the museum’s collection. Lily brought him coffee at his desk. Julian hovered around his seat at lunch time, making awkward attempts to find the right words and string together complete sentences. Everyone starting from Mrs Pearce, the snooty director who talked down to him in meetings, to Pete, the boy in the mailroom who wore earplugs all day, every person he worked with or walked past in the carpeted corridors asked him how he was doing.
To anybody who asked, he said he was fine. He felt fine. He couldn’t wait to get back home and tell Debbie about how they’d all fussed over him, lowered their voices, bowed their heads, and tiptoed around him as if he was the god of grief.
Dinner was when he would tell her about his day. She always had a story to share about her piano lessons—her students cracked her up, made her tear up, made her heart swell with pride. He knew their names. Knew who played Chopin best and who found Mozart a pain. She swore she had no favorites in the bunch. He knew this was not true.
They wouldn’t stay up too late. Neither of them were night owls. By 11, Debbie would slip into her pale pink nightdress, curl up under the comforter, and wait for him to join her. The scent of her night cream, the scent of roses drifting in the quiet, waiting to greet him like a friendly ghost when he walked in.