He walks into the living room and June is dead.
No soft movement across her chest, no quivering eyelid. The sunlight from the window catches her lashes and greying blonde hair. Her painted red nails rest on the arm of the faded chair.
He centres her, checking the light. Focusing, he clicks the shutter.
He’ll ask himself later, if he knew. Now, it’s easier for him to think that he is acting without thinking, out of instinct.
Rook had been out that morning, as usual. Across the fields, through the woodland, despite the rain. He lay for a long time on the damp ground, pointing his camera up through the bark towards the white sky until his bones ached. When a branch snapped, he jumped, despite himself.
He returns to find the house quiet, no gentle movements in the kitchen: a knife on a board, the scrape of china as she pulls a plate out of the cupboard.
She’ll be at a WI meeting, a community forum. She’ll be back before one to prepare his lunch. But when he walks into the front room, he sees her straight away, in her old armchair, the Radio Times across her lap.
After he takes the photograph, he sits down in the other chair, watching her. Eventually, he steps across the sun-marked carpet to the whisky decanter and pours himself a drink. When he’s finished his glass, he rests his shaking fingers on her inner wrist, smooth like a polished pebble. Nothing.
What do you do when your wife dies?
He calls an ambulance.
‘What’s your emergency?’ crackles the voice on the line.
‘It’s a little late for that,’ he says.
They come to take her away.
When they’ve gone, leaving him instructions, he pours another whisky. He carries the glass and bottle through the house, across the patch of grass, towards the studio. The clouds have cleared now and it is a bright day: the first after the long winter. Birds are singing and there is the sound of farm machinery far away. The green hills stretch around the house, towards the village.
Once inside, he stops, catching himself in the mirror through the door of the makeshift darkroom. Thinning silver curls, deep lines across his forehead and cheeks. He’s almost surprised not to see the outline of a young man, with bushy brown hair and sloped shoulders.
There’s a clutter about this room: the miscellany of objects collected. Battered boots, army issue: never cleaned. The World Press Award, framed and hanging on the wall.
He moves away, towards his photo board. His favourite images, pinned up over the years. There are many more in the filing cabinets that line the room. The negatives, of things he doesn’t want to see again, and sees anyway.
June’s face smiles out at him. She is gone, he tells himself, but the words seem to hold no meaning. He keeps expecting to look up and see her there, a cup of coffee in one hand. The feeling arrives then: a bulge in his throat, a tightness around his eyes. Sadness, at his loss. Regret, that he can never put things right. He always thought there would be more time.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. If the situation were reversed, June would know what to do. She’d call the right people and organize a fitting funeral. He’s never been the one in charge of the practicalities of life. There was always a plane to catch, a story to follow. Always something more important.
When he looks ahead, he sees blackness, stretching forward. He can’t imagine her not being here. He can’t bear the thought of this house, with only the past to placate him. All that is left, waiting.
He knows he should call his son and tell him his mother is dead. He imagines picking up the receiver, waiting for Ralph’s voice on the line.
He walks back across the garden. The air is fresh and it has grown dark. In the kitchen window, he thinks he sees June’s silhouette in the dimness, and feels a searing relief. But when he reaches the kitchen, no one is there.
In the hallway, he stands in front of the telephone. He lifts the receiver to his ear, dials the number. The phone rings. Rook waits until the ringing turns to a dial tone before he replaces the phone.
He goes to the old computer on June’s desk, surrounded by her things. An electricity bill sits on top of the keyboard, and he moves it aside, powering the thing up. The screen opens onto their email inbox: the one they use for everything. There are ten new emails: invitations to events in London, to exhibit, questions from his agent. He ignores them, opening a new message, typing the words before he can stop himself. His nerve is holding out, but he isn’t sure when it might fail him.
Dear Ralph, he types, Sorry to tell you like this, but your mother is dead. I tried to call. I have to go away for a while. I’ll write when I get there. Don’t be angry. Dad.
He hits send. His hands shake as he climbs the stairs towards the attic. He finds his kitbag, dusty underneath an old lampshade. Opening it on June’s bed, everything is just as he left it. His combat trousers, his flak jacket. A mosquito net. A smell swims towards him, of his old hotel room, of the past. He knows what he will do. It is time, at last, to return.
He doesn’t wait until the morning. He packs anything he can think of into his bag, swinging it into the boot of the car.
The roads open out before him, quiet tunnels of darkness, glowing white lines. The motorway is deserted. He knows his euphoria is not appropriate. But he can’t deny it: this feeling of being unbound at last.
When was the last time he travelled this far from the village? His retirement party at Tate Modern, ten years ago. Organized by the newspaper: a parting gift, an apology. The lights across the river had trembled on the black water, expanding across the surface like stars. The Millennium Bridge, newly built then, had hung suspended – a glowing line leading towards the dome of St Paul’s.
It was a nice party: sparkling wine with all the appearance of champagne, black-bow-tied waiters with trays of tiny, perfect canapés that all tasted the same. Not afraid to spend money now I see, Rook had wanted to say to the new editor, who’d told him they couldn’t afford him any more.
‘Your work is art,’ he’d said, his smile making Rook’s muscles tighten. ‘And we’ve been lucky to have you. But times have changed. We can get a freelance shot for a tenth of one of your images.’ He’d put his hand out to shake Rook’s. ‘We wish you all the best.’
What could he say? I’ll take less, too. Just let me keep on working. He’d been stalemated by his own experience. As if all the stripes he’d earned through the years were shackles. As if a World Press Award was a bad thing. So he’d nodded, shaken the man’s hand, and attended the party, where they talked about his career as if he was dead.
And he’d felt it, hadn’t he? The days when he could follow the story, taking off on a whim, were over, his world contracting around the house and the village. He’d walked the fields and woodland, trying to carve out a routine. But staying still was as alien to him as walking on the moon. It made him irritable, turning him into the sort of man he didn’t want to be. A man like his father, prowling their terraced house like a caged tiger.
At the airport, the desks sit under a midnight hush. He still remembers the words to use, to get onto a flight and into the best seat. The woman he speaks to is calm, listening to his destination, finding him a reserve spot on a flight leaving soon. He glances at the swell of cleavage under her blouse and wishes, again, that he was still a young man.
He finds the bar and orders a whisky. The old ritual – a stiff drink, a newspaper, an equipment check – is comforting in its nostalgia. He smiles as he looks out over the waiting planes, glowing in the spreading blue of dawn.
As they ascend, Rook looks down at the shrinking airport, at the cars crawling along grey roads, cutting through the patchwork fields of England. Like a toy town. Sitting in his wide, business-class seat, he wishes the hostess hadn’t made him stow his cameras. He wants to take a photograph, of the world he is leaving behind.
Rook must have fallen asleep. A woman’s face swings across his vision: the air hostess, her hair pulled back into a bun, her eyebrows too high.
‘Are you all right, sir?’ she asks. ‘You were shouting out, in your sleep.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. The passenger across the aisle looks away.
‘It’s fine. Let me know if you need anything at all.’
When she is gone, he tries to draw his dream towards him. June, trapped in frozen glass. He was trying to break through to her, but she couldn’t hear him.
After the war, when he would wake up from a nightmare, June would always be waiting. She’d draw him towards her, and feeling her slow, calm heartbeat through her chest, his muscles would loosen, his dream dispersing.
In the dark cocoon of the aeroplane, surrounded by sleeping people, Rook feels his loss keenly. Every version of June is gone. The woman who’d stood with arms folded in the kitchen window, her resentment like a language only he could understand. But also the one who’d still loved him: who’d tried so hard to fix what couldn’t be fixed.
He pushes the thoughts from his mind. He cannot think about her now, about all the things he will never be able to say. He longs to close his eyes and meet nothing, only darkness, only silence. But he sees June there, standing at a train window, turning and stepping towards him, and he knows he can never escape.