The day Connie tries to leave her husband, her knife slips and she slices off the tip of her thumb. For maybe a minute afterwards, she considers the sliver of skin clinging damply to the flat of the knife, like garlic chopped for sauce. How smoothly the blade had slipped through her flesh, the light work it had made of the nail.
Better had it been the ring-finger, Connie thinks. More symbolic. But the ring-finger’s not one of the major players in the process of trimming fat from muscle; it’s the thumb that got in the way. She taps the blunter edge of the knife on the rim of the waste bin and the skin slice drops in, suddenly indistinguishable from what lies at the bottom; silvery tendons, thick globs of fat, bone.
Connie was nineteen when Felix took the seat to her left in a Seneca seminar. The tutor asked a question and she’d only levered her hand up halfway when Felix started speaking, palms to the table, as though enjoying a private conversation with a friend. Connie turned to the girl on her right and rolled her eyes.
The next time she saw him, they were both wincing down shots at a student night. Felix was easy to pick out, taller than the other teens crowding the bar. Connie looked away, pretending she hadn’t noticed him pushing towards her.
‘You’re in my tragedy class,’ he said when he reached her, examining her over the rim of his glass.
Connie tried out an impression of the girls she’d met over those first few weeks of term, the ones who’d grown up in the city where they’d learned the trick of men early.
‘You’re in mine.’
He smiled his approval, baring all of his teeth, and Connie let him drag her over to dance.
For months, it went the same way.
‘I’ve been looking for you,’ Felix would say just before the house lights went up, gripping Connie’s elbow tight and grinning widely. ‘One last drink.’
‘That’s okay.’ She’d twist her arm out his grasp, trying to blink away the image of whoever she’d just seen him kissing against the back-lit wall of the dance-floor. In silhouette they always looked so small, those girls, and he so big, towering over them so that they seemed not so much like they were being kissed as swallowed whole. The way he frowned at Connie when she resisted, as if incredulous that she couldn’t see he’d just been passing the hours until he found her, worked every time. He’d bare his teeth again, pulling her close to his side to steer her home, teasing her that she knew she was his favourite.
Connie didn’t feel as if she knew that at all until, walking out of her lecture hall one morning, she caught sight of him crossing the road towards her with a coffee in each hand. She rationed herself out a little pride at having won whatever game it was they were playing; too late to think about who she’d been playing against and who, exactly, had made up the rules.
Getting to know Felix was like holding a delicate object up to the light and rotating it slowly, careful not to crack it. He was always ravenous, and Connie learned to curb his dark moods by keeping him fed. Every night she’d offer him wishbones to snap, shells to crack, crispy skin to save until last. They’d wake late in his single bed the next morning, legs intertwined, hiding their garlicky breath beneath the duvet.
Smoking on the library steps one evening after eating dinner together, Connie was rubbing her neck, staring at her essay, trying to figure out how it should end. Felix tried to pull the paper out of her grip, but she clamped her fingers tight. He raised an eyebrow and smiled and she let go, rolled two more tight cigarettes to keep busy while he read.
Holding the essay in one hand and blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth to keep the other free, he scrabbled around in his pocket for a pen. Connie ground her cigarette into the concrete step as he wrote, stiffening with every sharp exhale he let out through his nose.
Back in the library, she read his notes through, confused. He’d written with the confidence of someone who’d at least read some Aristotle before, but these made no sense. Still, Connie made use of them, translating each one, like the second coffee in his hand, into a meaningful demonstration of all the things he didn’t seem to be able to say. In the golden lamplight of the library, she whispered to him that she was making his changes. The next day she handed her work in without them.
By the time they finished their final exams, Connie’s shelves were lined with folders full of love letters. Felix had taken to emailing her essays to himself while she cooked or showered and then sent them back to her edited, more often than not for the worse. When the time came to open their results, Connie was nervous. Felix had assured her that it didn’t matter what she got, that she shouldn’t worry about it, but that wasn’t what was turning her stomach.
Felix read his results, then turned Connie’s laptop round sharply to read hers. Without a word, he snatched up his keys and stalked out of her parents’ house. Connie watched from the window as he folded himself into his car and reversed away.
‘Just getting you these,’ he said when he returned hours later, flowers in hand, his teeth bared in that old smile.
That was the first night he bit her.
‘He was disappointed, Ro,’ Connie explained as firmly as she could after her older sister heard what had happened and was too quiet. ‘I get it.’
‘Okay,’ Rosie said flatly, staring into her tea.
‘Don’t be like that,’ Connie said, pulling the scarf she had wrapped around her neck tighter. ‘Whatever it is you’re thinking right now, he’d hate it.’
‘Okay,’ Rosie said again.
Still, she agreed to bake the cake for the wedding, double-tiered and bursting with fruit, covered in marzipan orange blossoms that must have taken her hours to shape one by one. Felix helped Rosie hand out fat slices on china plates and they smiled as the drunken guests rolled their eyes with pleasure. Connie watched them together, relieved they’d turned a corner, but when she clicked through the photos afterwards, she couldn’t find one in which Rosie didn’t seem to be gritting her teeth.
* * *
Connie pats pistachio mixture onto the fat side of a rack of lamb while Felix lies asleep on their sofa, the script he is writing on his chest. Two years after they were married, Connie finished her first play. Not really a play, she always finds herself saying. More like a series of monologues and, anyway, Felix is the one to watch. He’s writing something much longer, a kind of staged epic, you should ask him about it.
After they’ve eaten, Connie scrapes the lamb bones into the bin, pours two more glasses of wine and hands one to Felix before going upstairs to run a bath. It’s too hot, makes her feel like a lobster boiling, and so she wraps herself into a dressing gown and pads back downstairs to tempt Felix to bed. He’s sitting in the half-dark, his face hollowed out by the light of her laptop screen.
‘What are you reading?’ she asks as casually as she can manage, though she knows the answer by the way his mouth is set.
‘Is this your play?’ Felix asks without lifting his eyes.
‘It’s not really finished,’ she says quietly.
Felix snaps the laptop closed harder than it looks like he means to.
‘Yeah,’ he says, his voice cool. ‘I mean, it’s a start.’
Connie is washing her face in the morning when she notices the rosy bloom of a bruise on her neck. She covers it with the same scarf she’d used years before and hopes that the chatty barista at the coffee shop she writes in won’t notice.
The next night he draws blood. In the dark, Connie presses her fingers to where his teeth met her skin, holds them up to see if they catch the light from the streetlamp outside. When he’s back from the bathroom, she’ll tell him that she doesn’t like it, that it hurts. Fine, he says when she gets the words out, he won’t do it if she’s going to be like that, if she can’t handle a little kink. Still, by the end of the month, she’s livid with little punctures.
One evening, Connie finds herself watching Felix as he eats. He talks a little, his mouth full, and she sees his teeth at work. She imagines her own flesh tearing and feels, suddenly, like something dead. After that, she can’t stomach much at all. Breakfast turns to soil in her mouth. She roasts a chicken for dinner, trying to coax out her appetite, but it tastes like ash and she spits what she can into her napkin.
Felix paints concern onto his face, asks her what’s wrong.
‘Just not very hungry today,’ Connie says, trying to sound bright.
‘Hmm,’ Felix says, and carries on eating.
Rosie misses nothing. She brings over buttery pastries and cakes thick with cream on Saturday mornings while Felix is at the gym. Connie makes up something about probably having a thyroid issue but Rosie still makes sure to wrap her thumb and forefinger around her sister’s wrist in Felix’s view, as if showing him that someone has noticed the meat that had fallen from Connie’s bones; he prickles like a man forced to watch a suspicious police officer walk over the patch of disturbed earth in his garden.
‘Do you think your sister should come over if she’s going to upset you?’ Felix says casually when he sees Connie’s hand shaking as she puts a pan of water on to boil.
Almost a year later, Connie and Rosie are in the back of a cab. Wordlessly, Rosie watches her sister wrap the glass brick of a trophy she’s just won in her scarf and bury it in her bag. The play had grown into a fringe hit. The dress Connie is wearing is ridiculous, long and tent-like, but Rosie had told her she looked beautiful when she zipped her into it earlier. Before they left, Rosie painted Connie’s make-up on softly, asked her if she wanted to stay over after the party for a sleepover. Connie had shaken her head and so now Rosie is walking her to her door where Felix is waiting.
Downstairs, trying to stem the bleeding from her new wound after Felix has begun to snore, Connie notices her award, no longer swaddled in her scarf but on the counter. She orders another cab and arrives outside Rosie’s house in her pyjamas.
His car isn’t there the next day when they come back to collect Connie’s things. While Rosie gathers up papers from the kitchen drawers, Connie stands in the kitchen, unsure where to start. She catches her reflection in the window above the sink, turns her head to see the sinews in her neck, each piece of cartilage, the excavated space beneath her collarbone. She’s pushing down an overwhelming urge to open her jaw wide and dislocate it like a snake, all the better for screaming, when she hears keys scrape into the front door.
Felix is in the room in seconds. He’d recognised the car.
‘What are you doing?’
Rosie is behind him, standing in the doorway.
He turns back slowly to face her. ‘What’s she doing here, Connie?’
‘Nothing,’ Connie says too quickly, ‘she’s just here to pick something up.’
‘What are you picking up, Rosie?’ He walks towards her as if taking care not to make any sudden movements. Connie can’t see Felix’s face, but she knows by the way Rosie is holding his gaze that he’s seconds away from understanding what’s happening.
Almost imperceptibly, Rosie’s lip twitches, a smile suppressed. Connie didn’t know that Felix was capable of wrapping his hands around a neck that wasn’t hers until she sees his thumbs crossed, fingers butterfly wings folding beneath her sister’s jaw. For a moment, he looks just like he did when he kissed those girls against that back-lit wall, his shoulders hunched, his hands raised to their necks. Only for a moment though, because now he’s on the floor, his blood pooling onto the flagstone, the glass award heavy in Connie’s hands.
She imagines she hears ambulances wailing their arrival over and over but, in the end, none come. They kneel in Felix’s blood, the two sisters, their jeans soaking him in at the knees. Rosie holds Connie in a vice grip, letting her scream into the soft hollow of her neck, then holding her hair as she vomits into the sink.
‘He’ll be alright.’ Connie says it over and over, her head to Felix’s chest.
Whether minutes or hours pass Connie can’t tell. She becomes aware of her throbbing thumb as she watches Rosie slide knives back into their wooden block.
‘Those need sharpening,’ she says, and Connie starts to cry again.
‘Maybe he woke up and realised what he was doing to you,’ Rosie says, unrolling a bandage. ‘Maybe he took his passport and his keys and left.’
‘Yes,’ Connie says. ‘Yes, maybe he did.’
When the blood has been scrubbed from the flagstone, they fill Rosie’s boot with bin bags and drive away.
For a week after they leave the house, Connie lies in bed, still unable to eat, too weak to move. Rosie makes special meals just for one, pies and stews thick with nostalgia for those their parents made for them when they were small, letting the smells from her oven drift up the stairs and into the spare room. Connie tastes the dishes late at night, trying small mouthfuls of flaking pastry, vegetables still earthy from the garden, taking her time over the meat made tender by hours of slow cooking; savouring, swallowing.
Anna Richmond is a writer from Oxford living in London. Alongside working for a charity which improves literacy in London state schools, she is working on her first collection of short stories.