here’s short story about a woman and her man…roles can be reversed to suit…
She woke earlier than usual, suddenly alert, like she’d parachuted into the dawn from a dreamless sleep. It was 6.51 on the digital radio clock, and grey slivers of light crept through the sides of the curtains. She’d snooze for another hour, until Jack brought her morning cup of tea. And then it struck her that she’d talk to him today. She’d break the ice and say,
Maybe she’d ask, “What kind of a day is it?” The freeze had gone on too long— two months, maybe more. She’d relent and speak to him today.
Mona turned towards the wall and pulled the duvet over her head and shoulders like a hood. The bedroom was cold, and she made a mental note to ask Jack to reset the boiler for quickening winter. She’d say it in a soft voice, maybe at teatime. They should be cautiously talking by then. She’d prepare something nice for him — one of his favourite dishes, something from their early years. Toad in the Hole, Cornish Pasties, Welsh rarebit.
And lunch too. When he’d come at 1pm from his job in Carney’s Medical Hall, she’d have a hearty plate on the table instead of a sliced loaf and a hard lump of orange cheddar. Of course, if right was right, he should be having his lunch in Carney’s. If right was right, Carney’s should be theirs: she was Carney, it had been her father’s business. The thought made her restless and she turned on her back and felt colder. It was Jack’s fault. Her father didn’t like him, thought him a wimp. And rather than pass on the business to them, he sold it instead. She didn’t even get the money, her father left it all to the Vincent de Paul. That caused the first major row between her and Jack. That row lasted nearly a year and finished when she fell down the stairs and broke her ankle.
As she recovered, Jack began talking about starting a family. She’d postponed having a child while her father was alive, because the old man was adamant he’d prefer the line to be extinct than have it tainted with Jack’s blood. She didn’t tell this to Jack, but filed it away as ammunition for a vicious row, when she really wanted to stab him in the heart. Now talk of starting a family was unnerving. She wasn’t ready. The thought of coupling with Jack paled and lined her face. It slowed her recovery. One evening at tea, as he served up spicy chicken wings and French fries, he said,
“I can’t wait until we’re setting this table for three.”
“Who’s moving in?” she asked wearily.
“Well…our child…I mean not immediately…but you know what I mean…in the future.”
“Oh,” she sighed, paused to push away her untouched plate and said, “If you don’t mind Jack, I’d prefer not to think of that right now. I need all my energy to get on my feet again, so I don’t have to depend on you.”
“It’s no bother to me.”
“Well it bothers me Jack. And for the last month at least, it’s nothing from you but having a baby, preferring a girl if it made me happier. What the hell is all this about? It’s all your decision. What about me? What about me, Jack? Hmm? You lost the Medical Hall on me and now you want a baby. You’re pathetic Jack.”
He took his meal into the sitting room and they didn’t speak again until she had to go to the hospital to have the cast removed from her leg. But he never stopped bringing her a cup of tea in the morning. That was the one constant in their marriage, Jack always brought her a cuppa in bed, and he was always waving the flag of truce. And though she despised the gesture, she always welcomed the tea.
She turned on the left shoulder and glanced at the clock: 7.40. Times goes slowly when you wake early. She’d often stayed awake right through the night, only dropping off when she heard children going to school. Many movies had run in her head in the darkness, reels of film were scattered on the floor of her mind. In some films, she was married to other men— Gabriel Byrne and Bill Clinton were husbands in a few dramas. In another feature, Jack dies, gets killed or just disappears, and she marries Robert de Niro, who’s the local doctor.
The floor upstairs creaked and she perked her ears like a hound. Jack was up. More rummaging than usual. The wardrobe door creaks open, clothes hangers rattle, the rumble of shoes. A sneeze. Then solid footsteps across the landing and down the stairs to her floor. Right turn into the bathroom, bolts the door and water fills the hand-basin. Washing. Gurgle of wastewater. Toilet flush. Door unbolts and Jack exits the bathroom, turns left and goes down the stairs.
She waited for the snapping sound of kindling wood, waited for the scent of burning pine to weave upstairs through the thin morning air. Hearing no fire making, she wondered what he was at. That bloody kitchen will be freezing when I get up, she thought, if he doesn’t put down a fire soon. From below came the shrill whistle of the kettle on the gas burner as it boiled. At least he’s making the tea, she sighed and relaxed.
Footsteps came up the stairs and she pretended to be asleep, heart pacing as she waited for Jack to twist the brass doorknob. But Jack turned right instead, and climbed the steps to the next floor. Mona opens her eyes. What’s he at? Rummaging. Footsteps on the landing and down the stairs again, slowly, like he’s taking one step at a time. He passes her room and descends to the kitchen. That’s odd, she thought and turned on her back and looked at the ceiling.
They never had a family. After she broke the ankle, they weren’t intimate again. They slept together for the warmth and security of the company, but there was no talk of babies coming into the house. She was the boss, it was her house, inherited from her grandmother. He’d made a good catch and he should be happy to have such a sturdy roof over his head. In fairness, he wasn’t demanding and was always there when she needed him. When they went out to dine with friends or to functions at the golf club or the hotel, he was the perfect partner and great company. He blossomed when they socialized with Doctor Logan and his wife, the Carters, the Faheys, or other town gentry. After Jack had a few gins, she could almost love him. It was then she saw the man she married. The vision never lasted long and the more she drank, the more he morphed into a toad. If it wasn’t her house, she’d have left him years ago. She tried to throw him out several times, but he refused to go. Ignored her and went about his life as normal.
A few years after her father died, they attended a marriage counselor in Limerick. It was expensive and they went twice a month on Thursday afternoons, when the Medical Hall closed for the half-day. She remembered the journeys were long and grey, she drove her father’s old Morris Oxford, because Jack never learned to drive. But he paid for the session and bought the petrol. On the way home, they stopped at the West County Grill and he was always chatty and ordered the best courses on the menu. He always said they were making progress and urged her to do the communication exercises that the counselor suggested. She promised to do them the following day, but that day never came. And then, as they were about to attend their first session of the New Year, something snapped and Mona said,
“This is going nowhere, Jack. I’m not wasting anymore time. This therapy thing isn’t working for me.”
“Just give it a few more tries, we’re making progress Mona, we really are. We had the best Christmas we’ve ever had.”
She shook her head and said, “If you want, go by yourself, you can have my car.”
He called the counselor and apologized that they wouldn’t be making the appointment. Then wrote a check for the fees and put it in the mail.
She heard the toaster pop and then got the whiff of charred bread. Soon he’ll bring the tea, she thought, maybe he was making toast for her. Maybe he’d go the extra mile and bring a glass of orange juice as well, like he used do when they were first married. Sometimes he brought her grapefruit, sprinkled with brown sugar and caramelized under the grill.
The sun came over the houses and weakly lit the room with a slice of light through the window drapes. A magpie chattered somewhere outside, and a few cars passed on their way to Ennis. The garbage truck trundled down Main Street, and a school bus pulled up in the square and unloaded students. She glanced at the clock: 8.50. Christ! Where was her tea? Here he comes — the solid footstep climbing steadily, balancing the cup. A rush of thoughts scrambled through her head. What would she say to him? Thanks? Eyes open, she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling as the doorknob turned and he entered.
“You’re awake,” he said softly as he bent down to leave the cup and saucer on the bedside locker, “here’s your tea.”
She got a whiff of cologne, but said nothing, thinking he never wears cologne going to work. She decided to ignore him.
“No word today either,” he said.
Jack stood beside the bed and Mona stared blankly at the ceiling. He turned away after a short while, left the room and quietly closed the door. His cologne hung in the room and she sat up in annoyance. She heard him sob quietly as he descended to the kitchen. The old softy, she spat, what a bloody weeping willow. It’s me who has cause to weep, not him. She sipped the tea: it was too strong and she angrily left it back on the locker. He couldn’t even make a proper cup of tea anymore.
The cathedral bells pealed for morning Mass, as a car pulled up outside and someone got out. Gentle knock on the door. That’s odd, she thought and wondered who it was. She felt tempted to peep out the window. The door opened and she heard the mumble of voices. A woman talking to Jack? She heard the front door close with a firm bang, car doors shut and the vehicle moved away. What was that about? Who was that woman? Did Jack go off in the car with her? Was she giving him a ride to work? Why?
Peeved, she bounded from the bed, donned dressing gown and slippers and hurried downstairs. A growing sense of emptiness met her step by step, and by the time she reached the ground floor, her heart was alarmed. She flashed her eyes around the kitchen, trying to understand what was different, what was wrong. Nothing was out of place, except the bunch of keys on the bare table. Jack’s keys. The key of her house, the keys of Carney’s Medical Hall, the key of his bicycle lock. She picked them up and hurried back upstairs, wondering where to hide them.
“What a fool,” she mulled, “to leave the house without his keys.”
She put them at the bottom of her underwear drawer and got back into bed to wait for his knock on the door or his call on the phone. Of course she wouldn’t answer either. Rain pattered against the window and cold crept around her. Mona wondered why he hadn’t put down the fire.
“What about me, Jack?” She asked the empty house, “What about me?”