Mysterious Ways: A Short StoryShe can hear him screaming blue murder in the back bedroom but she turns up The Pet Shop Boys and makes herself a cup of instant.
Is God watching?
It is Wednesday. The dustbin men will be coming.
She has put out her rubbish; carefully bundled up in black bin liners at the bottom of the drive. The crows have already pecked a sizeable hole in one of them and they have littered the ground with kitchen towel and scraps of newspaper.
When the first track finishes she can still hear him screaming so she empties a tray of ice in to the sink and turns on the waste disposal. It says in the instruction booklet that ice sharpens the blades. The suggestion of ice against steel sets Wendy’s teeth on edge but it is better than this incessant yelling from upstairs.
It is still early. The sun has barely risen above the trees at the edge of the woods. In February the morning sky is a particular kind of blue. It is the blue of deep water. It is the blue of blood before it spurts out of the vein.
Wendy prefers not to think of that particular analogy and turns instead to thoughts of a less grotesque nature. The minced lamb that thaws on the draining board is slightly brown around the edges where she made a misguided attempt to hurry it along in the microwave.
There has been a frost and the garden is crystallised as though dusted by an over-zealous confectioner. The pond is frozen, despite the aerator that Peter installed last spring. The goldfish are probably dead; floating sideways beneath the surface of the ice like carrots waiting to be boiled.
A rich, saturated sunrise colours the morning with photogenic perfection. Through Wendy's kitchen window it could be a picture from National Geographic, or one of those poster-size murals that people used to buy in the seventies to paste up in their living rooms.
She turns off the waste disposal and the house falls silent for a few moments; the silence rings like a damp finger along the rim of a crystal glass. Then the next track of her CD begins and Wendy sips her coffee. You can't beat a cup of Nescafé, no matter what the women at The Guild say about their cafetieres and their espresso machines. Peter laughs at her and calls her plebeian, and Wendy sometimes wishes that she dare stick her tongue out at him, telling him to shut up. But, of course, she doesn't. Wendy has learnt when to keep her mouth shut.
Wendy’s husband, Peter, comes from a wealthy family. He went to public school and then disappointed everyone by going in to the navy at an early age. When he was twenty-one he inherited piles of money from his grandmother which he invested wisely. He was thirty-six when he met Wendy, and she was barely sixteen.
Peter and Wendy met at her father's house in Cornwall. Peter was great friends with her father and used to come to the house for parties when her mother was still alive. The parties were infamous in their day but Wendy knew nothing of that when she was a child. She remembers the beer and music and the young men in naval uniform littering the large house with their noise and their cigarette butts. And Peter was just another uniform; insignificant in his neatly pressed trousers.
He never understood her then and he understands her even less these days. Peter knows nothing of Wendy's demoralisation and loneliness; he is too busy dwelling on his own unhappy existence. Peter has Multiple Sclerosis. He had just been diagnosed when Wendy first met him and the doctors warned that it could progress rapidly and kill him before he reached his fortieth birthday. The doctors were wrong however, and now, at the age of fifty-seven, Peter is no worse than he was twenty-one years ago.
He goes through phases; times when he is especially clumsy; dropping things or twitching uncontrollably. He is a small man; a ferret-faced weed of a man with a wasted body and an angular jaw-line that juts forward when he smiles. But he rarely smiles these days and his teeth, when he does, are the same colour as the inside of Wendy's teapot.
Sometimes he wets the bed.
They keep a plastic sheet over the mattress, which makes an uncomfortable, cold sound whenever they turn over in the night. It is a sound that reminds Wendy every dreaded night that she must try and be a little more sympathetic to her husband and his disease. But twenty years is a long time to sympathise with a man who treats her like dirt.
Unfortunately, all these years later, Wendy has suffered more than enough for her initial misjudgement and pity. Oh yes, she pitied Peter when she learned of his illness and she was still young and naïve enough to believe that people develop for the better if watered and nurtured regularly. Wendy used to grow spider plants and she imagined her love like tiny drops of Baby Bio, reaching down to Peter’s tangled roots and forcing him to flourish.
These days she sometimes wonders if God is really on her side. Every week, at church, she listens carefully to the sermon, she sings the hymns, she drops money in to the collection box while everyone else rushes home to make sure the sprouts are on to boil. The vicar is next to useless when Wendy asks him impertinent questions about The Lord – he’s too busy considering the Tio Pepe that his wife has waiting for him on the sideboard, and Sunday’s are busy days for him.
“God works in mysterious ways, my dear. Of course one has to wonder if he’s on the side of everyone, despite his all-encompassing empathy. After all, one wonders how he would feel about drug dealers and paedophiles. Only last week on Panorama I saw the most atrocious things going on in a Liverpool housing estate and I said to my wife: ‘They should bring back The Birch for delinquents like that.’”
And Wendy couldn’t be bothered to ask him anything else; the vicar was already hitching up his cassock to get in to his Astra and Wendy was left to ponder the Meaning of Life in the church porchway with the leftover smell of religion drifting out from the open door behind her.
The screaming has stopped; momentarily at least.
She wonders how long she should leave it. If it's anything like the turkey she did at Christmas she should give it at least another forty minutes.
Peter and Wendy live in a house that was once a riding school. It is built around an open-ended courtyard and there is a clock tower and a weather vane shaped like a man with a scythe. On windy days he chops at the air like a serial killer.
It is a draughty old house; even with the central heating turned on full blast. The windows rattle and the doors all have home made sausages pushed up against them in the winter. Not many people use draught excluders these days; they are unfashionable and unnecessary; like flypaper and electric blankets.
Wendy rinses her mug, dries it, and puts it back in the cupboard. The sun has come up over the trees now and it is casting elongated shadows across the garden. The shadows, like tribal warriors, stand silently along the boxwood hedge, watching and waiting to spear their prey.
She glances at the kitchen clock. It is almost eight and Peter has been up there since six-thirty. He should be in the office by now. Will they ring to find out where he is? She closes her eyes for a moment and allows the thud of the music to drag her forward in to a breathless downward spiral, as though she’s plummeting headfirst down the track of a roller coaster. It is an exhilarating sensation and Wendy can feel a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she jettisons restraint and grasps on to a form of helpless wild abandon that makes her want to shout out loud.
Wendy is still in her dressing gown and she can feel the dull soreness of sex between her legs. Peter did it again last night. He knows how much she hates it but it turns him on so he does it anyway; usually after he's had a couple too many to drink before bed. He buys the so-called 'toys' from a mail order firm in London. They arrive in plain brown paper and they smell of latex rubber and hospitalisation.
Even with gobs of KY jelly Wendy has to grit her teeth and clench her brow, clutching on to the bed sheets, squeezing tears of pain and humiliation from the corners of her eyelids. She certainly never enjoys the experience and cannot believe that the ecstatic models on the colourful adverts have ever really inserted one of those things. Childbirth is one thing, but why subject ones self to such pain for the sake of a husband’s perversion?
Are you listening God?
The National Health social worker who sees Wendy every alternative Thursday afternoon has suggested that she might resent Peter for stripping her of personality and initiative. Wendy listens to the advice as she sips weak tea with her legs folded neatly beneath her, but it is a waste of time quite frankly. The social worker is called Tanya and she wears clogs. Tanya probably lived in a commune in the seventies and listens to Joni Mitchell in a cloud of incense. Tanya doesn't know what she's talking about. She's a nice enough woman, and she always has a tin of assorted biscuits on her coffee table, but she is used to dealing with the homeless and people with venereal diseases.
There has been no screaming now for at least twenty minutes. Wendy must go upstairs, even though she is scared. She wonders what she might find up there and the thought brings bile to the back of her throat.
Our Father who art in heaven…
The hallway is bitterly cold. Flagstone, worn and patinated with age, is chilled even in the middle of the summer. Smudges of stained glass colour the stair carpet with its brass rods and its pattern of heraldic shields. Every step creaks as Wendy climbs towards the landing, clinging to the banister rail for support. She always counts the steps even though she knows by heart that there are thirteen to the first landing and six to the second. Sometimes, if she loses count, she goes back down and starts again.
No noise from the back bedroom.
With scalding palms Wendy opens the door and peers inside. The light is on and the curtains are open. Condensation runs down the glass like the inside of a greenhouse and the room is stiflingly hot.
There is the sun bed.
Turbo-Tan. Like a sleek polished coffin of white steel it is locked from the outside.
It takes a lot of courage to flip up the chrome fastener, and as she does so Wendy is propelled backwards with terror as the lid of the sun bed jerks open, revealing her husband, totally naked and streaming with sweat.
“Peter!” she gasps, clutching at her throat and falling against the far wall.
“Bloody thing got jammed shut,” he rasps, levering himself painfully out of the contraption. “Didn't you hear me yelling? I was screaming my ******* head off! Good job it's got that safety cut-off thingummy otherwise I'd have been fried by now.”
He isn't a hefty man. Wendy wonders how she could be afraid of him, and yet there is something unnervingly menacing about the way he looks at her. Could he suspect that she had locked the sun bed herself?
“Well don't just stand there like an idiot, get me a glass of water. I could have been killed.”
And Wendy goes to the bathroom to fill a glass with tap water. The water is tinged slightly with sediment from the well. The sink needs cleaning. She bends over the toilet and almost vomits.
It brings tears to her eyes.
“What on earth makes you think I'm going to let you go gallivanting off to London for the week?” Peter demands of Wendy over the remains of the Shepherd’s Pie a few days later.
“I don't see why you're making such a fuss about it, darling, it’s not as though I do this kind of thing all the time. You don't hear me complaining when you go off down there for your meetings every month.”
“Hardly comparable is it Wendy, darling? Who's going to look after things here while you're gone? I'm not going to start getting my own bloody dinner you know and if you think you can fob me off with microwaved meals and take-away you've got another think coming. Anyway, where’s the money coming from for this little jaunt of yours?”
“I've got my savings, Peter; I don't need a penny from you.” Wendy begins clearing the table, she avoids eye contact with her husband because she is attempting to make light of this whole thing.
“Ha! Savings you call them! And where did the money come from in the first place I ask you?”
“I worked for that money. Just because it was your firm that paid me doesn't make it any less my own you know. Anyway, I’m hardly likely to go blowing my entire savings on a silly week in London when I could be doing something far more exciting with it. I just think it would be nice to see the shops, to meet up with some old friends, and it's not as though I've got anything else to do.”
“You've hit the nail on the head there, Wendy. What do you do all day while I'm slogging away at the office? Watching telly I expect, with your feet up and the kitchen floor still filthy. And while we're on the subject, when was the last time you did any ironing? I'm down to my last white shirt.”
And this is how they talk to each other.
It isn't really conversation; it is more like speech bubbles, expanding and bursting between them with little more substance than air.
Wendy talks and Peter swats her words away as though they are insects.
Peter talks and Wendy takes umbrage even before he has finished his sentence.
If they lived in America they'd be called dysfunctional and they'd probably be seeing a couple’s therapist.
Wendy makes a pantomime of wiping the draining board. “Why don't you stay at your mother's that week? She'd love to have you and then you wouldn't have to worry about this place.”
“You know Mother won't have the dogs. I'm not going to come over here twice a day just to let them in and out. What a nuisance.”
Peter has finished his wine. His tie is loose and his collar is unbuttoned. Wendy doesn't really see him any more; he’s just there, like a coffee table or a bowl of fruit. Sometimes she doesn't even listen to what he's saying, she just switches off as though she has a secret volume control and she thinks about other things. It used to bother her, this incompatibility, but these days she doesn't let it get to her.
“Is there any of that fruit cobbler left from yesterday?” he asks, and Wendy, without answering, automatically goes to the pantry to get the pie dish containing the last spoonful of dessert. She's like one of those Stepford wives. The only difference is that Wendy doesn't wear frilly blouses or blue eye-shadow. Peter would probably like it if she did. Like those trollops on his filthy videos; the ***** with the lip-gloss and dangly earrings, spread-eagled across a billiard table or the back of a sofa.
Wendy wonders if Peter's mistress is one of those.
Oh yes, her husband is screwing around and foolish enough to imagine that she knows nothing about it. All those business trips to London and the early morning phone calls; she's not totally stupid!
Wendy wonders if his mistress has to suffer the humiliation of Peter's perversions. She sincerely hopes so.
And just recently Peter has been dropping hints about divorce. Nothing definite, just little sprinkles of discontent like poison on the icing of a fairy cake. If Peter were to divorce her she would have nothing at all. She is damned if she is going to give up twenty-odd years of her life without some kind of fight. Not that he's worth fighting for – he’s a bastard - but his bank account is certainly a prize worth obtaining.
Twenty years is a huge chunk of life to sacrifice. You can’t blame Wendy for wanting something more; after all she has been a good wife to Peter despite all of his shortcomings. She looks at him now, blotting the x-ray of her life like a malignant tumour, and she curses her father for encouraging them to get married when she was too young to know any better.
Wendy leaves Peter to eat his dessert and she goes upstairs to the bedroom. The bed is still unmade from last night and the sheets hang in disarray on to the carpet. It is a massive four-poster with a heavy canopy of burgundy damask and Wendy hates it. She has always wanted one of those Sealy Posturepedic jobs with an upholstered headboard and a frilly valance. And a duvet would be nice instead of all these sheets and flannelette blankets. But Peter's heirlooms are very important to him and presumably very valuable. This bed is probably old enough to have had plague victims die in it.
Wendy wishes that Peter would die in it.
She touches wood just in case her thoughts come true. But touching wood is no protection against the reality behind her twisted contemplations. It isn't even as though she hates him, okay he's an irritating little weasel but that's no reason to wish somebody dead. Wendy is thinking of herself. She wants her freedom but she knows that she can't have it unless she is prepared to give up everything she has worked for. Her life depends on Peter. And unfortunately he knows it. He suffocates Wendy like a sheet of polythene, winding, winding until she can’t breathe.
“Wendy, what the hell are you doing up there?” shouts Peter from the bottom of the stairs.
“Just making the bed.”
“What's the point? We'll be messing it up again in another couple of hours.”
Wendy doesn't answer.
She has just found the key to Peter's handcuffs under one of the Ralph Lauren pillows.
The kitchen floor is made of quarry stone and it is at least one hundred and fifty years old, and what a bother it is too! It never looks clean. It never shines up nicely like the Cushionfloor Wendy has seen in other people's houses. It is freezing cold, it is hard on her feet, and she is forever picking up pieces of broken glass; for her enviable stone floor is totally unyielding to anything remotely breakable.
Wendy dreams of melamine and tufted shag.
A fireplace that burns at the touch of a button.
Self-cleaning ovens and low-flush toilets.
Peter has gone out in the Range Rover with the dogs. Something about an auction near York, he said.
The house is quiet. It is drizzly outside and Wendy has the lights on at half-past ten in the morning. She has things to do but she can’t bring herself to do them just yet, she feels lazy and she wishes that she could just curl up on the sofa and take a nap with the clocks ticking and the coals settling in the fireplace. But there are clothes to be ironed, beds to be made, and a quick trip to the grocery store if she is to have something tasty on the table by five-thirty. She ran out of milk this morning and she had to trick Peter with powdered stuff that she mixed up quickly in the butler's pantry. He couldn't tell the difference, but it was a gamble that Wendy could well have done without.
Oh God, here comes Peter's dreadful sister Jocasta! She raps on the kitchen window with her multi-faceted diamonds and holds up a bag of buns.
“Devon splits and Elephant's Feet,” she says, as she walks in to the kitchen, dropping the greaseproof bag on to the table, “pop the kettle on, darling, I’m gagging.”
Jocasta drapes her Barber over the back of a chair and messes with her straw blonde hair which is pulled back in a fat, swinging ponytail. She uses horse shampoo and swears that it gives her a healthy sheen.
“Ruddy weather!” she exclaims, “I was supposed to be a judge at the junior gymkhana this afternoon but they've postponed it. Poor Jess is sulking in the hay loft because she was up at five this morning preparing Sprinkle.”
And so Wendy's quiet morning is ruined with talk about horse shows and jumble sales and Jocasta doesn't leave until one-thirty.
“Peter tells me that you are thinking of going down to London for a week?” she says, as she hovers by the doorway, jangling her car keys.
“Lucky old you! I wish I could get away for a few days but Lance would be a disaster on his own; he couldn't cope with the little 'uns you see. Ralphie is a real handful since he started at the infant's. I must say I’m not surprised that Peter thinks it a bad idea.”
“I don't need Peter's permission to go away for a few days, Jocasta; I can make decisions of my own you know.” Wendy is fed-up with all this interference; does she not have a life of her own?
“It's not for me to say, darling, but Lance would never stand for it. Peter is obviously a soft-touch.”
“Drive carefully,” says Wendy, pushing her sister-in-law out of the door with a determined hand.
Visions of Jocasta careering off the road at forty-miles an hour fill Wendy with a delicious sense of wickedness. Not death of course, but maybe a nasty bump on the head or a couple of broken ribs.
Are you listening God?
It is raining now. The rattling against the windows can no longer be misconstrued as drizzle. Wendy's kitchen table sits in a pool of light as though about to be interrogated. She didn’t eat her Elephant's Foot and now it sits, half in and half out of the paper bag, and the size of it - the sheer inelegance of that chocolate covered choux pastry - reminds Wendy that indulgence is sometimes nothing more than flour and air.
Her life is nothing more than flour and air.
And as for indulgence, she no longer knows the meaning of the word.
She makes the bed. She irons Peter's shirts. She shops for groceries. It is already five o' clock before she gets the cauliflower on to the chopping board and her day is ended. She has forgotten what it must be like to look forward to the weekend.
The Range Rover pulls up in a sweep of headlights. The dogs come rattling through the kitchen, shaking their wetness across the stone floor, placing muddy paws on Wendy's jeans as she stands by the sink with the potato peeler in her hand.
“Oh God, it’s not chops again is it?” says Peter, dropping his wet coat across the table as he passes through to fetch himself a drink.
Failed again. She hasn't served chops for almost three weeks and yet somehow she feels guilty.
“I haven't put them under the grill yet!” she shouts, “I've got some mince in the fridge, I could make a meatloaf or spaghetti?”
“Suit yourself, I’m not hungry anyway. Did you get any more ginger ale?”
Damn, damn, damn. She knew there was something.
“Sorry, darling, it just slipped my mind. Jocasta came over and....”
Peter reappears with an empty glass in his hand.
“Why do you always do that, Wendy? Why do you always have to have an excuse, a person to blame, when in the end it is usually nothing more than your own negligence? What would you say if it just 'slipped my mind' to give you the housekeeping on Friday? How would you react if I blamed a missed mortgage payment on to momentary amnesia or a negligent postman? If you didn't buy any ginger ale just say so and stop beating around the ******* bush with your pathetic excuses, okay?” His face has the glittering malice of a gutter rat preparing to spring.
Wendy stands rigid at the sink. She doesn’t turn around; she merely stares at her own reflection in the window. She grips the potato peeler as though it is a dangerous weapon. She has learned to stay very still and very silent at moments like this.
“I’m going to have a bath. Make what you like for dinner, I couldn't care less whether it's chops, or spaghetti or ******* chicken vindaloo; they all taste the ******* same anyway. I've been eating the same crap for twenty ******* years and it makes no difference to me!” And Peter hurls his empty glass at the floor by Wendy's feet making her gasp involuntarily, stumbling to one side to avoid the shards of splintered glass.
She stands very still for a moment until she is sure that he is safely upstairs and then she takes a seat at the kitchen table and she waits. She listens to the sound of water running. She listens to the tick of the clock and the creaking of the antiquated plumbing. It is probably best to give him a few minutes before she goes upstairs.
The bathroom door is ajar and steam escapes on to the landing. The extension cord snakes across the carpet and up to the plug by the window. The watery scent of lavender Radox greets Wendy when she pushes open the door.
“I thought you might like a drink, darling.” And she hands him a fresh tumbler of whisky.
The two-bar electric fire is propped up on the window-sill where she positioned it, the coiled bars glowing orange against the curved reflective back-plate. There is no radiator in the out-moded bathroom and the wall-mounted fan heater conked-out months ago. Wendy re-arranges the towels on the rail and watches Peter in the streaky surface of the mirror. He is barely visible.
“So I’ve been looking in to train times for London,” she says.
“Don’t start all that again, Wendy. I thought we’d agreed that you’re not going to London and that’s an end to it.”
“No Peter, you decided. It had nothing to do with me.”
Peter throws back the contents of his glass and slams it down by the side of the bath next to the Radox and the pumice stone. “Are you trying to wind me up? You’re not going to ******* London and that’s an end to it.”
“Well it’s all arranged. I’ve booked a hotel room and made arrangements to meet a couple of my old school friends. It’s just a week, Peter. Surely even you can manage on your own for one week?” Wendy keeps her back turned to him, still fiddling with the towels and watching his smeary reflection through the condensation on the mirror.
Peter levers himself up and stands in the bathtub with ribbons of foam running down his emaciated body. His penis, unnaturally large for a man of his stature, hangs against his flaccid balls like a deflated balloon. “**** this for a game of soldiers,” he barks. “Pass me that towel!” But Wendy doesn’t move. She keeps her back towards him and grips the towel rail. From the corner of her eye the bars of the electric fire draw her attention.
“What’s the matter with you woman?” yells Peter, raising one skinny leg to step out of the bath. But he falters and then he slips, momentarily losing traction against the slippery porcelain beneath his foot. Falling backwards he hits his head against the rim of the bathtub, sending a wave of foamy water across the bathroom tile and Wendy turns to face him as he slips under the water in a gently blooming swirl of crimson.
One of the bars on the electric fire crackles and spits. A jar of freesia bath cubes lies broken on the floor by the sink, the paper wrappers soaking up the water that sneaks along the grout lines. Wendy doesn’t move.
Is God watching?
She hopes not.
It is Wednesday tomorrow and the dustbin men will be coming.
Perhaps now would be a good time to go downstairs, make herself a nice cup of coffee and put out the rubbish for collection.
She picks up the electric fire and carries it out on to the landing. Switching it off she removes the extension cord and wraps it deftly around her wrist and elbow until it is coiled neatly to be put away under the stairs.
It seems quite feasible that she might wait at least an hour before her suspicions would be aroused. Peter has had a hard day and deserves a little relaxation before dinner.
And like the good wife that she is, Wendy pulls the bathroom door behind her and goes downstairs to check on the temperature of the Aga.
Sighman 51-55, M 2 May 10, 2012