Una Clarke had been a resident at Hilltop longer even than Joel had. She had been friends with Lucey. They'd played bridge as a team. A handsome woman, she hadn't yet surrendered to the malaise that seemed to grip everyone in Hilltop at some point, and dressed herself well. She had never been a wealthy woman, and some of the clothes she still wore had once been Lucey's. It set Joel's teeth on edge, but there was nothing he could do about it.
"I was absolutely not looking for Mrs. Ryan. I have no interest whatsoever in the comings and goings of that woman," Joel lied, while trying to surreptitiously check for her out of the corners of his eyes.
Una chuckled at him lightly.
"You're looking very well today, Joel. You scrub up quite well when you bother to get out of your pajamas. What's the big occasion?"
Joel bit back a retort.
Una was wearing a neat navy cardigan with large golden buttons that Lucey used to wear on Saturdays when they would go to the market.
Saturday morning was always the market. Lucey dragged him along once, and he had been surprised to find the vibrancy of the place charming. After that he had looked forward to it. A little early morning date with his wife. She in her cardigan and he in his. She'd usually pick up some strange fruit or vegetable and work it into their dinner. He didn't always love that, but complaining to Lucey had been pointless. She'd listened to enough of it over the years that she let it wash off her, smiling at his grumbling and cooking whatever she pleased anyway. That little smile was a beautiful thing.
The cardigan looked well on Una. He hated that it looked well on her. He wanted to tell her that it looked nice on her. He also wanted to tell her to stop wearing his wife's clothes.
"Felt like it," he mumbled instead. Una wasn't the enemy. Come to think of it, Joel was struggling to identify who the enemy was.
"Makes a lovely change. It's nice to see you motivated."
Motivated. He didn't feel motivated. He felt something else.
It was something darker, malevolent but intangible. Something he couldn't explain that seemed to be resting just beyond the edges of his senses, waiting. It wasn't the first time he'd felt it, but there was something more immediate about it now, something more imminent. A bleakness that spread like a cloud around him, thickly, invading his space, his mind. He hoped it would pass.
"Yes. Well. Thought I could do with a shave and all that," he said, trying to come up with a way to end the conversation.
"I remember that jacket. Wasn't that a special occasion jacket?" she asked.
She was clearly thinking back to a time when Lucey had selected his clothing for him. He couldn't remember which of his clothes qualified as special-wear. He didn't want to think about it, or about her adjusting the collars of his shirts as she buttoned them up with her soft hands. She had dressed him for Eva's baptism. He had squirmed under her ministrations, mostly for show, because he loved when she fussed over him, and the more he squirmed the more she fussed. Eva had cooed and gurgled at them from her bassinet.
What a glorious day that had been. Sun shining. Lucey looking as beautiful as ever. Their families and all the neighbors out for the big occasion. It felt so long ago, and the memory of it somehow felt like it belonged to someone else. Someone happier.
"Just a jacket," Joel mumbled as he felt his breath quickening.
"What's on the agenda today, then?" Una asked, noting his sullen
"What's on the agenda in this place on any day of the week?" he shot back bitterly. "TV in the common room until they shove us into the dining room like spent cattle? Read a book and listen to Mighty Jim babble incoherently?" He couldn't quite understand why his voice was getting so loud. "Find a corner of a room to doze off in and hope that when you wake up you've killed enough of the day so you don't have to be bored living through it?" The last was almost a shout.
His words took him by surprise. They took Una by surprise. Both surprised, they stood awkwardly staring at each other for a minute. He heard them coming from his mouth, so he knew that he had said them, but he didn't know that he had been thinking them.
"Eh... Sorry. Don't know where that came from," he tried to explain quietly.
"Anything you want to talk about?" she asked.
"No. Really, I must apologize. That came out unexpectedly."
She looked at him with genuine concern.
"Maybe there'll be something good on TV today, eh?" he suggested, trying to force some joviality into his tone, trying to sound normal. "And that show we were watching last week was all right, wasn't it?"
She continued to look at him with concern. "Maybe we should get Nurse Liam..." she started.
"No, no, no," he cut across her. "I'm fine. Perhaps I'll chance a game of chess with Mighty Jim."