Counting Hands

Picture Credits: jakob-owens

The marquee shone white and gold in the fading winter sunlight. In one hand, Katherine clasped the wedding programme. It was bent out of shape from being used as a fan in the stuffy church. Against a backdrop of grey clouds, the newly married couple were having their photo taken. An ancient tree extended its arms over them, like it could protect them from the future they had just signed up for.

‘Mum,’ Martha pulled on Katherine’s dress as they walked towards the marquee. ‘Why is a clock’s littlest hand called the second hand? Shouldn’t it be the third hand because hours and minutes are more important?’

Riley was walking ahead with their son Oliver who, at sixteen, was almost taller than his father. They walked at the same pace, with the same stride, and Katherine wondered if the matching strides was a sign that Oliver would be as good a man as his father. 

A cousin yelled Oliver’s name and he loped off across the damp lawn without a backwards glance to his family. 


‘It counts seconds, Martha. That’s why it’s called the second hand.’

‘But having first, second, and second hands is dumb.’

Riley was waiting at the entrance to the marquee. The air greeted them like the inside of a hot-air balloon. Martha, clocks forgotten, tore through the crowd to a group of cousins in front of the jazz band. A tower of champagne bottles was perched by the stage and Katherine wondered if Sissy was lurking somewhere behind it.  

Riley was craning his neck every which way.

‘You okay?’ Katherine asked.

‘Just looking for the bar.’ 

Katherine’s hands rubbed her bare arms which were still slick with rain.

‘Yeah, me too.’ Their eyes met, and there was a second of indecision that would have led to a fight ten years earlier, when they didn’t know each other so well.

‘Of course, I’ll just have one,’ he said. There was a slight inflection, like it could be a question. She had driven them home on the last four occasions, though. It was his turn. 

The moment Riley left to get them each a whiskey, Martha reappeared and attached herself to Katherine’s leg. ‘They’re all saying I don’t need to tell the time,’ she stammered, her cold fingers grasping at the flesh of Katherine’s thigh. ‘They said it’s all digital now but I like watching the hands going around and around, Mum.’

Before Katherine had to answer, Riley was there, clasping tumblers, ‘I’ve got this,’ he said, as Katherine tried to manoeuvre away from her daughter’s sprawling fingers. ‘You go talk to people.’

He knelt down, and Martha tried to climb into his non-existent lap, muttering about hands and seconds. He held his whiskey out of harm’s way and wrapped his other arm around her, kissing the side of her head. 

Katherine wasn’t sure who she was supposed to talk to. The only person on her radar was Sissy, but her cousin’s bird-like frame had yet to materialise in the crowd. She had been in the church, up the back so she could dash out for fags. She had wiggled her fingers at Katherine when they made eye contact, but made no move to speak to her. Katherine, not wanting to seem desperate, had kept her distance. 

Katherine’s shoes, the foul white ones she’d worn because of her foul bunion, pinched at her feet. Sissy had probably never had bunions. Katherine reached for a glass of champagne as the band swung into an Ella Fitzgerald classic. ‘Dance with me?’ Katherine said, holding out her free hand to Riley, who had sent Martha off to run figures-of-eight around the loose balloons. 

He held her close though she kept twisting to sip from her glass. There were only kids on the dancefloor, and Martha came belting up to them, attached herself to Riley for a second, then ran off again. Katherine laughed with a sense of bubbles and light. Riley’s arms were warm. Her children were safe. Sissy had yet to appear. 

‘It’s nice to see you having fun,’ Riley said. What she wanted him to say was: you look beautiful. What she wanted was to take his hand and leave and pretend it was just them, like it used to be, endless hours stretched ahead of them. They could take a bottle of champagne, and run through the rain, and shelter under that tree designed to protect happy couples. The young people would see them, and think that growing old wasn’t that bad after all. 

It was then that she saw Sissy, her wispy frame hovering by the bar, a hand wrapped around a glass, and a smile pointed at a long-haired barman. Katherine took her empty glass and glided towards her cousin, her heart hammering. Sissy’s tan spoke of hours in the Balinese sunshine. Her dress was cheap, but full of character, as though knowing the women who slave-labour over your clothing makes it meaningful rather than exploitative.



Their hug was precise, so as not to spill Sissy’s drink or smudge Katherine’s makeup. ‘I can’t believe you came all this way!’

Sissy rolled her eyes, as if Katherine was naive to think spending hundreds of pounds was generous. 

‘Since when do I miss weddings, huh, Katty? I even made it to yours, didn’t I?’

It was true. And she had never let Katherine forget the extra night with the hot Argentinian that she sacrificed to fly home for a big white wedding.

‘How long are you here for?’ They shuffled away from the bar as Katherine’s brothers formed a queue. 

‘Just a couple of days. This city air is getting to me already, I don’t know how you do it. I’m sick with the dirt and I only arrived last night. How you can raise your children in this!’ They both laughed, as though toxic air pollution killing Katherine’s children was funny. 

‘You must sit next to me at dinner,’ Sissy said. ‘I’ve already arranged it. You can skip sitting next to Riley, gorgeous Riley, for one night, can’t you?’

It would be petty to say no, Katherine knew. It would be cruel to say but he is part of my armour against you

‘Of course, it’ll be great to catch up.’

A screech from the dancefloor, and Katherine looked around.

‘One of yours?’ Sissy asked. She would not recognise Katherine’s children in the crowd.

‘No. Not this time!’ Katherine forced a laugh.

‘I’ll toast to that!’ They clinked glasses, and the champagne disappeared.


The wait staff were moving the tables back to expand the dance floor, as wedding guests rubbed their over-fed stomachs and reached for more drink. Sissy had talked for hours over dinner about the man who had set up a freelance architecture firm on her street in Bali. He spent his days designing new kitchens for wealthy Londoners, and his nights with Sissy. Sissy described her life as a paradise open to anyone brave enough to take the plunge and quit the monotony of their lives. She said monotony, Katherine heard monogamy. To Sissy, it was one and the same. 

A new band started and the happy couple danced. The singer wore a sparkly pink flapper dress, all tassels that teased more than they showed. She was crooning, her shoulders glinting under the lights. Katherine remembered the thrill of barely showing skin, knowing that what was hidden was tantalising, not concealed.

Martha was watching the stage, her mouth slightly open, in awe. With a lurch, she began to twirl, then stumbled and fell to the floor, legs splayed and one shoe twisted half-off. Katherine sat up straighter, wondering if she was needed. 

‘So tell me,’ Sissy said, learning forward so the little cleavage she had was on display for the barmen. ‘What do you do with yourself these days?’ It was the first question she had asked about Katherine’s life in the two-hour conversation.

A series of images rushed through Katherine’s mind. Sitting in traffic on the way to the school, sitting in the rain watching Oliver play rugby, watching her credit card beep and beep and beep with groceries. The smell of bleach in her hair. Curling into Riley on the couch when Martha was in bed, and Oliver was locked in his room. 

‘I’m still writing a bit of poetry,’ she said. ‘I think I’ll try to put a collection together soon.’

‘And get it published?’

‘Sure, why not?’ She hadn’t submitted any poetry in years, not since a particularly brisk rejection had made it all seem futile, but Sissy didn’t need to know that. 

‘What would be the theme of this collection?’ Sissy asked, topping up their glasses. ‘From what I remember, your poetry was always about the last boy you had a crush on. All talk and no action, isn’t that right?’ She laughed loudly. Her eyes were on the shifting crowd around the bar. There was a particular barman with a bun of dark hair and his top shirt button undone who her eyes kept drifting back to. ‘Would it be all soppy love poems about Riley? All – I’ve found the love of my life, look at me now?’ 

Katherine knew her well enough to spot the sarcasm sliding through her voice.

‘No, I don’t write about Riley.’

‘Don’t tell me it’s about the kids. Oh Katty, I love you, but we don’t need another woman writing earnestly about how being a mother is just so demanding but the rewards are worth it.’

Katherine forced herself to laugh, and drained her glass.

‘I just write – about me,’ she said. Her voice was much quieter than Sissy’s, she wasn’t even sure if her cousin was listening. ‘About my world.’

To her surprise, Sissy’s attention focussed on her, the top-knotted barman forgotten briefly. Katherine wanted to hold this moment, this singular moment where her cousin found her interesting, and then,

‘But Katty, why would anyone want to read that?’ 

Katherine gripped the stem of her empty glass. Her red nail polish was already chipped. 

‘Honestly, Katty, you need to get out of here. You need a change. Come out and visit me for a while! Riley can look after the kids, right? That’s what modern men do!’ Sissy’s hand was cold as it grasped hers. ‘Then you’d actually have something to write about!’

‘I don’t need to change anything,’ Katherine said, and was embarrassed to hear the whimper in her voice. ‘My life is interesting enough the way it is.’

‘Oh please,’ Sissy sat back with a humph, and drained her glass, her gaze floating over to the barman again. ‘You’re miserable, Katty, I can see it, even if no one else can.’ 

‘Don’t say that.  I have everything I always wanted – ’ But Katherine’s voice cracked apart.

‘Yeah, as if that ever made anyone happy.’ Sissy poured herself more from the green bottle then shook it, checking to see if it was really empty. She put it on the table and drank until most of the bubbling gold disappeared from her glass. Katherine splayed her fingers on the table, willing herself to stand up. It felt like hours since she had seen her children. She should check on them. Colours swirled around her like a giant funfair lollipop, with none of the sweetness, and she couldn’t move. 

A warmth beside her, a welcome arm around her shoulders.

‘How’s my favourite wife?’

The words made her stomach ache, and the bubbles threatened to reappear. She wiped furiously at her eyes.

‘Aren’t you two adorable?’ Sissy said; her eyes had shifted from the barman to the bass player who had started to sing.

‘Maybe you’ve had too much to drink, Sissy,’ Riley said. He pressed a hand against Katherine’s wet cheek, transferring the tears from her skin to his. ‘You should get some air.’ 

‘She’s the one crying. Again!’ Sissy’s glass was already empty. Her voice was loud, the sound settling heavily over the table like a net encasing them.  ‘I can’t believe you guys just watch her collapse at every function, as though it’s perfectly normal. Business as usual!’

‘It’s not every function, Sissy, just the ones you fly in for.’ Riley’s hand clenched around Katherine’s shoulder.

Sissy eyed Riley, but he held her gaze. 

‘Of course it’s when I’m here, you think I don’t know that? I remind her that she had choices once, and she settled for you. For this.’ She waved a hand around as though her meaning were obvious.

A spark of panic ran through Katherine and she lurched to her feet. 

‘No,’ she said. Her voice was slurred but she didn’t know if it was emotion or champagne. ‘Riley, that’s not true.’ His hands were steady and warm around her.

‘Ssh, babe, I know.’

‘Geezus Riley, you know nothing!’ Sissy stood abruptly, swaying against the table. The band was limping through its song but Sissy’s voice had expanded and no one was dancing. Resigned eyes were on the pair of cousins. The song finished and in the silence, Riley found Katherine’s hand and held it close to his soft stomach. Her tears started again, or maybe they had never stopped. ‘It’s not your fault she’s miserable,’ Sissy said. ‘She told you this is what she wanted, how would you know any better?’

‘You need to stop now.’ Riley stepped closer to Sissy, leaving Katherine alone. ‘You can say whatever you like about us, but only we know the truth.’ 

Goosebumps sprung up along Katherine’s arms and she wanted him back. She closed her eyes and the salt burnt under her eyelids. Did he know the truth?

‘Oh fine. Just take her home, then. Home to the perfect life that neither of you actually wants. You’ve ticked all the boxes, you should be so proud of yourselves.’ Sissy picked up the empty bottle and made her way through the staring crowd to the bar. 

‘Love, let’s go home.’ Riley’s face was warm by hers and Katherine nodded. ‘I’ll get the kids.’

No, she wanted to say. Let’s just be us, but everything was cold in his absence. At a subtle sign from the happy couple, the band started playing again. Someone started a forced conversation about the bride’s wedding dress. 

The marquee stretched endlessly around the crowd of family, and Katherine watched the familiar faces with their repeating features. Everyone was plodding along to the music, or folded over in chairs. No one else’s misery was on show, that was a Katherine special. Or perhaps, a special delivery from Sissy. 

‘C’mon Kat,’ Riley’s voice was quiet. He draped her coat around her shoulders, and with a single gesture their children joined them at the open door of the marquee. Katherine took her daughter’s hand. It was sticky from wedding cake. Oliver put his arm around Katherine’s shoulders. Her eyes were on her white shoes. There was a hole in the sleeve of her dress, and her fingers pulled at it. A golden thread floated to the floor.

Outside, the rain had stopped. Katherine’s shoes sunk and slurped in the soft ground. ‘Why is Mum crying?’ Even though Martha said it quietly, Riley shushed her. Katherine wanted her daughter to speak, but she didn’t know how to answer. Everyone is crying, she could say, you just can’t usually see it. That was too melodramatic for a six-year-old, though.

The car was cold, and Katherine’s shoes left muddy streaks on the floor. She would have to clean it tomorrow. Sissy would never have to clean the floor of a car. She’d never owned a car to clean. 

Katherine leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Riley cranked the heater. Sissy had no one to drive her home.

‘What’s the time?’ Martha asked. No one answered. The heater whined with stress. Katherine ran her hands over her arms, trying to get warm, distracted by the wobbling of flesh. Sissy was all bone. Sissy needed to be what others might want, or she’d always be alone. 

‘What’s the time?’ Martha asked again.

‘Eleven fifteen,’ Oliver said, his voice husky like it was coming through smoke. 

‘What about the seconds? You should count all the hands. How many seconds?’ Too many seconds, Katherine wanted to say. Life is full of too many seconds, and each second carries a choice, and each choice chases you forever. 

‘Here, have this.’ Oliver slipped his watch off his wrist. It was black and silver. ‘You can count all the hands you want.’ 

Martha studied it under the blinking streetlights. ‘It moves too fast,’ she held the watch tighter.

‘That’s for damn sure,’ Riley said. He drove with one hand on the wheel, the other gripping Katherine’s hand where it rested in her lap. Her red nails were chipped, but her family wouldn’t care. Tomorrow, they would all wake up and continue sliding with all the hands through their world, together. 

About Alison Theresa Gibson

Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Birmingham, UK. She has words in a number of publications, including Spelk, Litro, Crack the Spine, Meanjin, Sunlight Press, and Every Day Fiction. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions in 2021 and Best of the Net in 2019. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham.

Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Birmingham, UK. She has words in a number of publications, including Spelk, Litro, Crack the Spine, Meanjin, Sunlight Press, and Every Day Fiction. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions in 2021 and Best of the Net in 2019. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham.

Leave a Comment