“Let’s go for a walk,” Rob said.
Phoebe placed a letter face down on the sofa and looked across at him.
“Yes, I think that would be a good idea.”
She leaned forward in her chair and squeezed her fingers until her knuckles went white. She was 28, with a pale freckled face and bronze hair.
They never went for walks. At weekends Rob was out with his mates, watching or playing football. While he could work from home, he never did. Except for today.
He had WhatsApped her from work the evening before at 7pm. “I’ll work from home tomorrow.”
Rob went to the hall of the flat and put on a padded green jacket. He returned to the living room, took out a pair of brown leather gloves and, holding them in one hand, struck his knee and stared at her.
“What?” she said.
“Shall we go?”
Phoebe nodded and got up with a sigh. She suddenly seemed old and tired. Perhaps her job was getting her down. Rob couldn’t imagine working as a secretary. No lunches with contacts. No meetings where you listened to the client’s problem and then said: “My advice would be…” The hours were long - your colleagues became your best friends, sometimes more - but the law had its compensations.
She wasn’t moving, so he said: “I’ll see you in the hall,” even though it was a tiny flat and there was nothing to do in the hall except open the door and either face the world or hide from it.
Rob went to the hallway and took out his phone. Clients and colleagues had sent him emails. There was always something to read on his phone. Something to respond to. He didn’t bother with social media. He had all the notifications he needed right here. As well as the pleasure of someone messaging him, there was the knowledge that he was being paid for it.
He became aware of Phoebe behind him when she reached for her coat, a dove grey number that he had bought her from Selfridges when they had first met a couple or so years before. It seemed a long time ago now.
She looked scrawny and frail in the coat. He had found her slender frame so attractive then. Now she seemed to be wasting away.
They stepped over the threshold and Phoebe hovered. Looking at the lock had no effect, so Rob pulled on the doorknob until the door slammed. The noise made Phoebe jump.
“Right,” Rob said. “Let’s go.”
They trooped down the stairs into the downstairs hall, the walls of which had a scratchy white surface, and were out on the street.
“I was thinking we could go to Coldfall Woods,” he said.
“Coldfall it is, then.”
As they headed for the end of the road. she inserted his arm into his. This made it hard for Rob to walk, and his shoulder ached as a result, but he didn’t feel he could disengage yet.
At the end of the road, they turned left, went down a hill and down a passageway. Usually, Rob would have walked down the middle, but he couldn’t do that this time because they were two abreast. He found himself regularly stepping over dogshit.
“Lovely day today,” he said. The sky was blue and cloudless. It was easy to wish yourself somewhere else, with someone else. He pictured a brunette in a bikini with a big straw hat and bug-eyed sunglasses, her body slick and shiny with suntan lotion.
Phoebe didn’t respond. He looked over at her and she bowed her head, eyes scanning the ground. Miserable git. Perhaps she was worried about dogshit too.
They crossed a wide, fast road and the lamppost with the wilted flowers. Usually, that was a sign that someone had been run over. In this case, some teenage boys had tried to see how fast they could go in their Dad’s Audi, and found out.
Opening and then locking the black gate behind them, Rob and Phoebe swapped the pavement for a sloping path and made their way into the woods. It was November and the leaves were dry and yellow and on the ground. Rob loved the woods. He supposed he wouldn’t be able to come here anymore. There would be too much danger of an encounter.
They weaved their way through the trees towards the playing fields. Phoebe seemed to be sighing a lot. Perhaps she hadn’t slept well the night before. He hadn’t either. He hated this sort of thing. At work, you had HR to advise you. They even wrote you a script. At home, all you had to turn to was Google, and then you had to take your advice from every nutjob who happened to be posting on the web.
They were out of the woods and in the playing fields.There were a handful of them, then a fence beyond which were a playground and a skate park. It seemed a good moment to withdraw his hand.
“It was hurting my back.”
She gave a sad sort of nod - she’d been doing a lot of that lately - and slouched as she plunged her hands deep into her pockets.
They were almost half way on the round trip. The subject wasn’t going to raise itself. If he didn’t broach it soon, there was a risk that they would return home having only discussed the weather.
That wasn’t why he was working from home today. That wasn’t why he had substituted the office, with its free coffees and glamorous assistants, for a day at home in suburbia.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. If only there were a way to say it without saying it. A way for him to transfer his thoughts telepathically into her brain. Then again, Rob wasn’t sure that he wanted her to know exactly what he was thinking. He wasn’t sure that they would have lasted this long if she had.
She didn’t seem to care. Quite unbothered by what he was thinking.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve been together for what, two years?”
“Eighteen months,” she said. “And three days.”
“Oh,” Rob said. “Right. Well, a while, anyway. Long enough for us to get to know each other. To learn each other’s horrible habits. The honeymoon period is definitely over.”
“Yes,” she said. “We’ve settled into something much deeper. A proper long-term relationship.”
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
She stepped closer, until their elbows were almost touching, as they walked by the side line of one of the football pitch. A crow pecked at a puddle in the net.
“That’s how I look at it. We can depend on each other, can’t we?”
She looked over at him out of the corner of her eye, and there seemed to be some sharpness in her glance.
“I guess. As much as two people can ever depend on each other.”
He just wanted to get it over with now. Get it done. As they said in the office, JFDI. Just F**ing Do It.
“Good,” she said, without much pleasure showing up in her voice, “because I need your support more than ever now.”
“You do?” Rob didn’t much care for the word “support”. Was she pregnant? He’d make her take a DNA test if so, not that he could really imagine her fooling around. She wasn’t the type.
“Yeah. You know that health assessment I did for work? They give it to all new employees.”
“Yes.” Well, er, no actually. She couldn’t expect him to keep track of the minutiae of her life, could she?
“They did blood tests as part of it.”
“OK.” God, she was really dragging this out, like it was the best anecdote in the world.
“Rob, I had the results back today. They’ve referred me to an oncologist.”
“An oncologist? But that means-”
“Yes, yes it does.”
Tears were coursing down her face. Her eyes had turned red.
She put her arm in his, and this time he didn’t complain or pull away or sigh or otherwise resist.
“I’m sorry, Rob. It’s probably the last thing you want, a girlfriend with cancer.” She gave a fake laugh.
He pulled her close and kissed her on the top of the head. It seemed the right thing to do.
“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry.”
They continued walking, Phoebe gasping and her elbow trembling in the crook of his.
When they reached the fence, they turned and began their way back to the house.
“What was it you wanted to talk about?” Phoebe said.
“Nothing,” Rob said. “Nothng at all.”
They walked arm-in-arm all the way home. Rob went to the bathroom and locked the door.