Short stories

STILL

There’s a moment, just as I’m waking, when I can imagine he’s still with me. If I keep my eyes shut, I can still smell him, still hear his even breathing and still feel the warmth of him lying in our bed, beside me. When the fuzziness of sleep clears, I open my eyes and see his empty pillow.

I still keep his T-shirt with me when I sleep. His old toothbrush huddles close to mine in the pot in the bathroom. His shoes are where he left them, by the sofa. His voice still on the answer phone. The radio still tuned to that awful station he loved so much. When I came back from the hospital I found his breakfast plate on the kitchen table, a mess of toast crumbs and jam. It was a week before I could wash it.

Yesterday, I went out for the first time. I must have looked terrible, my hair slathered to my head, wearing one of his baggy old jumpers. I wandered round the park for a bit then went to the supermarket and brought soup and a newspaper that I knew I’d never read. When I came back I thought I heard him in the kitchen, that familiar whistle as he banged pans around in the sink. I sat on the bottom stair and cried, then heated up my soup and ate it standing up, next to the cooker.

After that, I went into his office. His private place with books lined-up neatly on the shelves. Pictures of us on the walls grinning back at me. All those holidays, Christmases, birthdays. All gone.  I pulled open a drawer full of receipts and old cinema tickets. Another, stuffed with bits of old newspaper, adverts for hotel deals, cheap flight offers, luxury breaks that we’d never go on now. In the last draw there were letters. Still in envelopes, neatly stacked,  some secured with rubber bands. I pulled them out, pile by pile. The draw was nearly empty – when I saw it. Smaller than the rest, a pale blue envelope with smooth, italic handwriting spelling out his name. Something about it made my stomach tighten.

I opened it. Inside there was a piece of paper, the same pale blue, wrapped around a photograph. They were lying on grass, peering up as if one of them had taken the photo with an out-stretched arm. She was smiling, her face pressed gently against his cheek, his dark hair mixing with hers, shiny and chestnut red.  The photo was recent. That blue jumper, his favourite, had been a present from me on his last birthday. He looked happy, eyes squinting slightly against the sun.  The letter, if you could call it that, was just one simple sentence. “I still miss you”, then a kiss. Nothing more, no name.

I felt a burning, bitter taste come into my mouth. I struggled to get up, my legs numb from so long sitting. Afterwards in the bathroom, I rested my face against the cold porcelain of the sink stand. The floorboards were dusty. There were small dents and scratches. We’d laid them when we first moved in. I still remember the smell of the fresh wood.

THE FIRST TIME I SAW

The first time I saw Emily I didn’t recognise her. That shouldn’t be too surprising I suppose, since I’d never actually seen her before. But what I mean is that I didn’t even recognise her as being human.

The black and white didn’t help; all those speckles. Also the screen was at an awkward angle, so I had to hang half off the bed to get a proper view, but that said, surely I should have seen what everyone else seemed to see?

Simon gave my hand a squeeze; “Isn’t she beautiful?” he grinned, his eyes starting fixedly at the monitor. I mumbled my agreement but in reality I didn’t have a clue. The nurse seemed to sense my confusion and pulled a pen from her top pocket.

“Here…” she explained pointing the pen end at a pulsing black blob on the left, “is baby’s heart, a healthy heartbeat as well.” She turned and smiled at us, Simon gave me another squeeze. His hand was now uncomfortably clammy, but I knew that if I pulled mine away he’d know something was up.

“And here, are baby’s toes,” the nurse continued in what I think was meant to be a soothing tone, but it felt saccharine and fake. I turned my head away. And here, I thought to myself, is baby’s disinterested, terrified mother.

I was four months pregnant. It wasn’t planned. My periods had been all over the shop for years, and apparently my ovaries were as much use as an empty hot water bottle in the baby production department. So Simon and I had never really bothered about precautions.

Simon had never been into the idea of children. “They ruin your sex life,” he argued, “after kids it’s a proven fact that you never have sex again.” I didn’t know it this was true but it was a scary prospect. His rant would generally continue with the fact that it’s-a-shitty-world, full-of-paedophiles-and-nut-bags, and-that-if-you-asked-him, people-have-to-be-insane-to-want-a-kid-these-days. So I never had asked him, not seriously anyway. We’d had a few random, late-night conversations whilst snuggling under the duvet, arguing the merits of adopting a Peruvian orphan. But, in reality, I was as happy as he was to give the nippers a miss. I’d have settled for a rabbit.

I’d quickly come to terms with my barren state, never having been the particularly maternal type, I was relieved to be spared the fate of most of my female friends. Over the last two years it seemed that one or other of my social circle had successfully squeezed out a pup every five minutes. I’d done the rounds, laden with expensive and totally inappropriate gifts. (Who knew that trampolines aren’t suitable for pre-toddlers?) I’d made appropriate noises and even held a few of them, which is most definitely not my favourite activity.

It wasn’t even me who noticed that my period had been less that punctual. Simon commented over breakfast at our favourite greasy spoon. “You’ve haven’t been moody for ages, what happened to your permanent PMT?” I retorted that you had to be pre-menstrual to get the tension, and then it struck me. Whilst a few weeks late was odd, three months was frankly unnerving.

$20 later and a wee-induced blue line before me, the truth slapped me in the face.

And now here I was, inexcusably fat belly glistening with lube, as a complete stranger ran a strange contraption back and forth and pointed out features of an anonymous amoeba that was my future child. It was then that I decided to call her Emily.

THE LAST BAGEL

I suppose I started hating him after about a year. Before then he’d just inspired a mild, niggling dislike and in the early days, well I suppose then, I was in love with him.

From my experience that’s the way it always goes. In the beginning there’s this breathless, fizzy excitement. Pretty soon it goes flat. One day you can’t wait to see them, every word they say is fascinating and you can spend hours admiring the curve of their backside. The next day you’d happily push them in front of a moving car.

Maybe it’s impossible to maintain interest beyond those early months.  I think a lot depends on the sex haze. At first, you’re so desperate to get the other person into bed that you’ll happily ignore their bad manners, terrible dress sense and tedious conversation. Animal lust takes over. Then the haze clears, you see them for what they are and they annoy the shit out of you.

It’s usually hard to put your digit on the defining moment. That simple point when the irritation gauge shifts gently into the red and suddenly they make your skin crawl.  With Simon it was so obvious. Clear as the proverbial bell.

I’d had an excruciating day at work, the commute had been even more depressing than usual and I’d stood for 15 minutes in Coles watching some innumerate fool attempting to pay for their weekly shop in coppers.

I pushed through the door, picking up the junk mail and dumping my bags in the hall in the usual spot. The relief of being home was palpable, the desire for tea and something to munch on, strong. I kicked off my shoes and went into the kitchen.

I think I knew before I opened the fridge door it would be gone.  And it was. I felt a twisted knot of anger and loathing writhing in my stomach when I spotted the empty bagel bag on the middle shelf. Something snapped. It was the last bagel. My bagel. He didn’t even like fucking bagels. And at that point that seemed to sum up just how selfish and stupid he could be. I could hear the hum of the TV from the front room. A bitter bubble of hatred rose into my throat and I let out a small, strangled moan. I wanted to scream, to hit something.  Instead, I rushed up stairs and into the bathroom, slamming the door and slumping down heavily on the toilet.

My head in my hands, I sobbed.  Chocking, wrenching sobs that came from up from my feet, bringing snot and saliva with them.  And I enjoyed it. I loved every self – indulgent, over-emotional, melodramatic minute of it. Because I knew right then, in that moment, that I was done.

This was the last time I’d get angry, the last time I’d cry, the last time I’d lock myself in the bathroom for a moment of private anguish.  It was 7.14pm. I was leaving. For good.