Alicia sat opposite her husband at the dining table, the meaning of this single word taking a few seconds to register.
“How can they… why would… this doesn’t make any sense, Quinn. Are you sure you’ve got it right?”
“It’s kind of hard to misunderstand being fired, Liss. There’s no room in the show for our act, apparently. I guess people just aren’t as impressed by trained monkeys as they are by the clowns and the acrobats.” He avoided her gaze and rubbed his left wrist absent-mindedly, along the strip of pale skin between his tanned hand and forearm.
“But we’re the best trainers, darling, there’s no-one in our league! Surely they’ll reconsider, I’ll talk to them tomorrow, I’ll go over there first thing and we’ll come to a new arrangement, you’ll see, I think they just need -”
“Shut up!” Slamming his fist onto the table, the normally well-tempered Quinn was panting now as he stared right at his wife and wiped the spit from his mouth. “You know as well as I do why they’re letting us go, you know full well.”
Alicia, fragile and elegant, remained in the same position at the dining table with her hands folded in her lap and her back straight from years of posture correction at her grandmother’s finishing school. It had been a shock to the entire Fennaheim family when their eldest daughter, a promising young ballerina, had announced that she was leaving the comfort of their mansion and wealth to join the circus; they just couldn’t understand what she had with Quinn Twit, celebrated animal trainer and travelling heartbreaker. Their courtship had been unorthodox for Quinn, who was used to finding women wherever the circus went and spending a few intense, passionate days before leaving them sleeping while he stole away to move on with his colleagues. Alicia spurned his initial advances, and made him chase her where other women had thrown themselves at him; he was the definition of ‘ruggedly handsome’, with his broad shoulders, dark curly mess of hair and strong, stubbled jaw. He fell hard in love with the first woman who seemed to resist his charms, and spent a long weekend trying to win her round - he even shaved off his beard when she told him that he hated it. When the three days were up, she finally gave in and agreed to leave her wealthy family to travel around Europe with him, learning to train the animals with him to make her living.
As they stared across at one another they were quiet for a moment, with only the noise from birds in the garden disrupting their silence. Finally Quinn spoke, having composed himself from his outburst.
“I’m not saying it’s your fault, Liss. I’m just saying that, well, you haven’t been the same since all that. I haven’t been the same, either. ”
His soft voice was at odds with his appearance; at 6’5”, Quinn cut an intimidating figure, but he had always been known as a gentle giant amongst his peers, and this was largely the reason that women were so easily attracted to him.
“It’s not our work that suffered, Quinn. I don’t know about you, but I’m still hurting, and if those bastards can’t appreciate that then it’s their loss,” Alicia was crying now but her voice barely trembled. “Maybe we’re better off without them anyway, they’re no better than gypsies, scoundrels, crooks-”
“You be careful, Alicia,” Quinn said, quietly, “those ‘gypsies’ are my family, my friends. They accepted you when you were an outsider.”
“And now they’re casting us out in our hour of need! Quinn, how can you sit there as if this was inevitable? Like we deserve this? Like we brought this on ourselves?”
“Don’t you think,” he said, lowering his eyes, “that maybe we did?”
They fell into silence again, but this time the birds no longer sang. Alicia pushed her chair back gently, and walked out into the garden without her cane while Quinn sat with his head in his hands. She went over to the large tree at the back of the garden, whose leaves had once been lush and full but had now withered and failed to grow back. Running her hands across the wizened, twisted bark, she finally allowed herself to cry properly, letting out mournful sobs as she leant her body closer to the trunk. She felt a hand at her back.
“I miss him too, Liss.” He wrapped his arms around his slight waist and drew her body closer to his. She did not turn to face him.
“It’ll get better, I promise. So the circus say they don’t need us, big deal.” He stroked her hair, which fell in loose dark curls around her shoulders. “We’ll travel with our act by ourselves, get back on the road, live the way we used to live.”
“We’re not leaving this house.”
Her stern tone took Quinn by surprise. “Well, no we don’t have to leave right away. We’ve got money saved up to get us through a few months, and in that time we can update and improve our act. There’s a few ideas I’ve had knocking around for a while, and now’s as good a time as any to start working on them.” Alicia wriggled free from his embrace and turned to face him.
“No, Quinn. We’re not leaving this house. Not now, not in a few months, not ever.”
“Sweetheart, maybe it’ll do us good to -”
“What do you expect me to do, Quinn? Dig him up and bring him with us?”
Quinn stared at his wife. Her delicate features were twisted in a look of pure hatred, such as he had never seen before. When did her thoughts turn so ugly, he wondered, though he knew the answer to that question. As much as he loved her, Quinn had grown tired of Alicia’s seemingly permanent state of mourning, and recently it had been a common occurrence for him to sleep on the sofa instead of in their marital bed. He wanted so much to be able to comfort her, but he wondered whether she was dragging out her pain for some twisted reason. It had been a year since the accident; they had known the dangers of working with such boisterous, energetic animals, but they had underestimated the potential cost of those dangers, and had ultimately paid the price.
“That’s not what I meant, Liss. I just meant we need to move on from this episode. Our act doesn’t bring in the punters like it used to, and the circus relies on its audience. It will do us good, I know it.” Quinn instinctively moved his hand to touch her stomach, but she moved away, like she always did following the accident.
“Don’t, please. My pain, your pain, they're not the same, and you know it.” She turned back around to look at the tree, and the patch of barren dirt around its roots. “What have I got left? I can’t dance anymore, not with my foot the way it is,” she lifted her foot, with some pain, which had been badly broken during the accident, and despite the doctor’s best efforts in setting it, it had never fully healed. “I’ll never be a mother, but it’s okay for you, isn’t it, Quinn? Nothing to stop you from siring an heir.” Her words were designed to sting him as much as they stung her. “Sometimes I wish…”
“You wish what, Alicia?” Quinn was as angry as she was now. “Why are you angry with me?”
“Because this is all your fault!” she shrieked. He stepped back from her, shocked at this outburst from his normally composed wife. “If I’d never met you, I’d never have joined that stupid circus, I could have made it as a dancer, and I never would have...”
“Go on,” Quinn sneered, “say it.”
“Whatever, Quinn. I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Alicia said, starting towards the house. Quinn grabbed her arm and yanked her back.
“Well I do. If you truly believe that this was my fault, then you can leave right now. I don’t want to share a home with someone who thinks I’ve ruined their life.” He was blinking back tears; not because he didn’t want her to see him cry but because he feared that, having bottled up his grief for so long, once he started he might not be able to stop.
“I’m not leaving,” she said. She was staring dead into his eyes, and her voice had an edge to it that Quinn had never heard before. “Even if I have to go completely mad in this house with you in it, then that’s fine. And if I have to make your life hell until you leave, then that’s fine too, but I’m not going to leave. Not while he’s out there, and not until I’m out there too.”
She scratched her tummy, and Quinn watched her as she hobbled back into the house. As much as he loved her, he knew that he could not be the one to give in, not this time. He stared down at the roots of the tree, then closed his eyes and sighed. Above him, a blackbird landed on a branch of the tree, and the last remaining leaf fell to the ground.