The fence had sagged for years under the weight of a neglected hedge. Petra could see right through into the adjoining garden, which in most ways mirrored her own – washing line, yellowing lawn, shed in the back corner, fruit trees dotted around. Figs, mulberries and pomegranates left a vinegary tang in the air as they rotted on spindly branches and fell to the ground, their owners disinterested in making jam at the tail end of summer.
White sheets were sun-drying, draped neatly over the washing line. Petra eyed the clean squares of cotton. She thought of the sheets on her own bed, grimy with sweat marks, flakes of skin and hair. Sleeping on them now she would be aware of the filth, but it was too late in the day to start washing them.
Behind the largest sheet, a shadow moved. The sheet blew backwards a little, clinging to the outline of a woman’s body. The rest of the scene fell away, and all Petra saw was that white figure, statuesque, now stolen by the swirling breeze as the sheet billowed out again. A tanned, slender hand reached up to unclip the wooden pegs that held the sheet in place. Petra stood quickly, plastic chair clattering to the concrete behind her as she ran inside.
‘Where’ve you been?’ Evan grunted.
Petra’s nose crinkled as she caught the smell of saltwater and fish on him. Evan was almost permanently at sea, his boat a fortress against whatever he was avoiding on terra firma. He only returned to eat, to fuck, to leave in his wake a residue of grey fish guts and a bloodied filleting knife in the sink. Satisfied, he’d take off again, leaving Petra with nothing but a freezer full of cod for company.
Petra ate her kedgeree in silence. Evan flicked through a newspaper, greasy fingers marking each page in the same corner. He repeated shrill headlines, startling Petra each time he spoke.
‘Tax increase? When they gonna give a bloke a fuckin’ break?’
Petra concentrated on a fish scale that was caught in Evan’s hair. It reflected the light, shimmering faintly in the greying strands at his temple.
Pressed against the sheets and their debris, Petra felt Evan’s weight on top of her. His skin was rough and salty, hands grasping at her like crab claws. They didn’t kiss anymore. Petra closed her eyes. She saw that woman’s shape again, faceless behind its smooth shroud of white. She felt herself drifting, her body reacting to thoughts rather than actions. When their eyes finally met, Evan’s were questioning.
It wasn’t the first time Petra had wondered about being with a woman. The idea had been there as long as she could remember. She’d mentioned it to Evan, years before.
‘We can get you a girl if you like,’ he’d said, with a smile that had turned her stomach.
What he was suggesting was not what Petra wanted. If she touched a woman, tasted a woman, it would not be in Evan’s presence. It would be pure, sacred. It would go beyond the physical and into the spiritual, which was why she had always feared doing it. Being with Evan had been easy. Petra was able to deflect his criticisms, to stave off resentment at his long absences. She understood that his capacity to love deeply was lacking. A woman would be able to read Petra’s thoughts, to know her secrets. A woman could both love and hurt without limits.
Evan was gone in the morning, leaving nothing but a slight indent on the sheets. Petra stripped the bed of its dirty linen, throwing it into the washing machine. She made a cup of coffee to take outside. Even with the sun not long up, the ground was warm underfoot. Petra righted the chair that she’d upended in her haste the day before.
Next door’s washing line was empty. A bucket and a weeding fork sat abandoned on the lawn. They had not been there the day before. Petra’s pulse quickened. When had the woman been gardening? Had she been out there at dusk, working quickly in defiance of the fading light? Had she risen with the sun to steal an hour before the heat set in?
She’d wear loose clothing, a shirt with half the buttons missing. Buffalo grass would crunch beneath the bare, hardened soles of her feet. Her hair would fall over her eyes as she leaned forward and she’d raise a forearm to push it back, leaving a little smear of dirt across her face. Maybe she would sing to herself, brave without an audience. Or was she silent, lost in her thoughts? Sweating, she’d push up her sleeves, squint at the sun and put her bucket aside, heading back into the house in search of a cool drink.
Petra shifted in her chair. A door slammed. She put her coffee mug in front of her face and sat still, not even daring to breathe. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a figure dart out onto the lawn, grab the bucket and the weeding fork and disappear, a flash of blue and white. A man. Had Petra imagined the woman? No. There had been no mistaking the curves behind that sheet.
The washing machine beeped and Petra went inside, wrestling the heavy tangle of wet linen into a basket and carrying it out to the line. With effort, she slung the sheets over the wire and stretched to peg the corners, standing on her toes in a distant imitation of her dancing days. She put her face to the damp fabric and breathed in the fresh, cottony scent. The only time the sheets didn’t smell like Evan was when they were hanging on the line.
On the other side of the sheets, Petra could hear voices, rising steadily. An argument. The breeze was blowing in the wrong direction though, carrying most of the words away. Only one phrase reached Petra clearly, shouted by the woman.
‘You don’t think of me!’
Petra took the words inside with her, drinking cold coffee as she repeated them to herself. You don’t think of me. Evan thought of many things. He thought of the weather, of the tides, of the movements of fish. He tried to think them into submission, to bend them to his will. Petra had never tried to bend him to hers. You don’t think of me. What would their marriage have been like if Petra hadn’t volunteered to give up her career? Maybe it would have been Evan who stayed at home, doing the washing and watching the neighbours, while Petra travelled the world en pointe. But they were living Evan’s dream, both of them.
Wild lavender grew in a dense row along the front of the house next door. Petra crouched behind the unruly bushes, cutting flowers at the bases of their delicate stems. She tied a bunch of twenty or so with garden string and attached the unsigned note she had written. I think of you. Standing up, she threw the bouquet over the hedge and onto the front porch where it landed mostly intact, just a few tiny petals straying onto the concrete. Petra giggled to herself and ran home, jumping the low wooden fence with the pointed toes and light step of her past.
The afternoon dragged. Petra lay on her back, staring at the dusty blades of the ceiling fan as she imagined that little bunch of flowers sitting on the doorstep. What ripples would spread from the gift she’d thrown like a stone into water? She dozed, dreaming of pure white sheets on a bed that was not her own. The soft caress of cotton, and of a woman’s hand, were real on her skin. Whispered words played at the edge of sleep. I think of you.
It was early evening when Evan came home. His blue and white checked shirt was clean and there was no smell of fish for a change.
‘Where did you go?’ Petra asked. She’d never seen that shirt before.
‘Out and about. Just talking to the bloke next door there. Reckons someone’s interested in his missus. I told him, don’t look at me. One woman’s enough bloody trouble.’
‘How does he know?’
‘How does he know someone’s interested in her?’
‘Flowers. Romantic, eh?’
Petra picked up her book and feigned reading. How long had Evan known the neighbours? Why had he never mentioned them?
Evan leaned over and took the book from Petra’s hands. She jumped and he laughed softly.
‘Thought we might go out tonight,’ he said. ‘Do you fancy a Chinese? Get dressed, let’s get out of here.’
Petra blinked a couple of times. It had been months since they’d been out together. She put on a green silk dress, too formal but crumpled enough to make up for it. Evan jangled his car keys to signal he was ready to go. He looked her up and down, half-smiling as she walked toward him. There was a light in his eyes she hadn’t seen for a while.
As he reversed the car slowly out of the driveway, Evan turned to Petra, his breath forming the beginning of a question. She didn’t want to answer any questions, or ask any. Eyes on the road, she felt herself jolted forward slightly as Evan put the car into gear.
Alicia Bakewell is a short fiction writer living in Western Australia. Her work has been published by Flash Frontier, Fictive Dream and Ellipsis Zine, and she was the winner of Reflex Fiction’s Spring 2017 competition. She is trying to give up writing poetry. She tweets nonsense @lissybakewell.