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by Sarah Ann Watts

When she woke she didn’t remember where she was. Sleep rimed her eyes and she blinked in the pink glow cast by the blinds. She stretched under the eiderdown and yawned, one hand questing for the empty space beside her. No, he had not come home. Her heart stilled as she pushed the heavy coverlet away like fear. Only a nightmare, but for a moment she had felt the weight of his body on hers, his lips smothering her mouth so she could not breathe.

Beside her the clock was ticking — its blank face with the luminous hands doling out minutes like a warder reluctantly pushing her portion of joy and sorrow, her daily bread and water, through a grille.

Since girlhood she had disciplined herself to obey its shrill command — awake before seven, sleep before eleven — the tenor of her days. Raising herself she turned on the bedside lamp and opened the black, leather-bound Bible that rested like a sentinel on the bedside table. It had belonged to her mother and each day she turned to it for comfort, the faded silk marker seeming to exude a faint scent like roses that conjured an image of her face.

She pushed back her “ash blonde” hair and reached for the spectacles she had recently begun to wear, though never outside the house, turned to the appointed chapter for the day, and began to read. The passage was so familiar she knew it by heart: the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

But as had happened so many times before, her mind drifted and she found herself focusing on one of the many quasi-religious bookmarks stuffed between the thin, gilt-edged leaves. Her mother collected them as people of her age so often did. Thomas Keble — The watchful mother tarries nigh, though sleep has closed her infant’s eyes.

She shivered. There was something about that phrase that just wasn’t right, she thought. Then, with a qualm, she noticed how soiled that particular section of the book had become, showing its age as she feared she now did.

When she had finished she recited the Lord’s Prayer and then began her daily invocation to the ancestors and household gods. Her hand, the nails neatly painted in clear varnish, a discreet French manicure that made her feel more feminine, smoothed the starched and monogrammed pillowcase beside her. She had washed it carefully and rinsed in Reckitt’s blue to leave no trace of him behind. Now the purity of the linen gave her comfort. Her housewifely skills were not in dispute. The door knocker gleamed and, though the master of the house was absent, she watched and prayed and kept the lights burning against his return. She was no foolish virgin.

The ritual completed, she rose and put on her dressing gown before braving the chill of the bathroom. She turned on the electric heater and waited for the bar to glow orange while she ran her bath. The scent of Yardley’s lavender filled the steamy room as she smoothed cold cream upon her face and smiled through the mask at her reflection.

So she prepared for whatever the day might bring and hummed her mother’s favourite hymn. The trivial round, the common task should furnish all we ought to ask. How she envied that certainty even while her mouth twisted in wry deprecation of the old-fashioned sentiment.

The day passed as her days often did — she did not trouble to remember. She assumed she had washed up the breakfast things. It was not one of the days that Mrs Chadwick came to buff the shiny red tiles in the kitchen and wield the Hoover that was the envy of the street. She assumed that, as she usually did, she had put on her hat and, taking her shopping basket, gone into town to perform the errands that made up her daily round.

She had some dim memory of turning in to the church to light a candle and shook her head. She must be sleepy after her lunch and another bad night. Eric would never have approved of her wasting time on such Roman fripperies.

Lunch — she mused. Shepherd’s pie and rice pudding probably, prepared by the faithful Mrs C the day before. Mrs C was a treasure. She flattered herself she had always had a keen eye to pick out a Mrs Mop and knew how to treat them well — no cheap and nasty Camp ‘coffee’ in her kitchen. Whatever Sylvia might say at the WI, she knew it was a false economy.

Now she sat in her favourite chair by the gas fire and knitted a jumper for her son. Soon it would be October — William would need a new pullover to keep him warm when he waited for the school bus. Such a long way for a child to walk when the nights drew in, she thought — but her husband had insisted and in this, as in so much else, she had acquiesced.

She drew an impatient breath, glancing at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece — ten to three it said — then put up her hand to ease the stiffness in her neck. She replaced needles and wool in her work basket and feeling the need to stretch her legs, she wandered over to the French windows. She drew back the mustard-velvet curtain and looked out at the autumn garden.

Dear Chaddy — she smiled as she remembered her scooping up a much younger William for a hug. “Come and have five,” she would say and enfold the solemn, fair-haired child in her comfortable pastry-dusted arms.

“My little lump of gold” she called him, and William, who was thin and pale and trembled when his father entered the room, would squirm and giggle. She remembered the taste of the hot coffee and the biscuits they shared warm from the oven — Listen with Mother on the wireless after lunch and the cat purring around her ankles and occasionally snagging her nylons.

She drew out a wisp of lace from her sleeve and wiped her eyes. It seemed like only yesterday. Now that William was at school the house stood lonely and silent and the days were forever the same.

In the hallway the long case clock chimed three and she covered her ears as time shifted around her, and the present stretched out to reclaim her.

She stood at the window staring out beyond the curtain of rain, seeing Eric’s face mirrored in the water pooling on the crazy paving outside. The drainage couldn’t cope and neither could she. The deluge when it came was too much for both of them. Was it so wrong to dream of a happy ending like the pictures and seek comfort in her lover’s arms?

Overhead the water coursed down the roofs, splintering through the breaks in the guttering, pouring down the brickwork. Dissolution, weeds choking the cracks like an invasion — how had all this happened so soon?

The phone rang and she snatched it up, her hands trembling. She almost dropped it, felt a sensation like heat that was only in her mind. There was a pause; then a click on the line and someone, a strange voice strained with cheerfulness said, “Hello — Mr Smith? How are you today?” She stood shaking then gently she replaced the receiver on its cradle as if she were placing a flower on a grave.

The garden was a mess. She shook her head at the sometime flower bed, the vegetable patch where nothing grew except an overgrown patch of rhubarb and the uneven mound in the lawn. She remembered it as a freshly turned patch of earth. The spade and pitchfork stood abandoned, their blades slowly dissolving into rust. It felt like only yesterday she had left, promising to return.

She heard another voice, the echo of her conscience, poor little William, that was another lie you told him. She tried to sever the connection. It was not so easy this time. She stared at the photographs on the walls. Faces she ought to know that lingered beyond recognition.

Then she heard the key turning in the lock and moved out of the shadows of the hallway to greet him. In the moments it took for rain-chilled hands to fumble for a key and the lock in the swollen wood to shift, she noticed the spreading wet patch by the door. Insects floated, swept away by the weather breaking.

She realised then, it was true. She had been away longer than she thought. The shadow of the small figure beyond the door was heart-achingly familiar. Once she would have been waiting with the door open, looking up the street to watch for him coming home from school and she wondered how many nights the child had fumbled, seeking a way in to an empty house.

Now she waited, telling herself she was anxious only not to frighten him, but she knew she lied. She could feel the fear seeping through her veins giving an illusion of life. The door opened, and with a cry she moved towards him, her arms held wide, “Darling, I’m back!”

The old man shivered, shaking his umbrella so that the drops fell outside the door. A trail of drips followed him as he made his way along the hallway. Foolish to go out in the rain, but there were days when he felt the walls closing in around him and had to go outside, seek the solace of a friendly word. Contact with strangers was better than nothing.

Today some impulse prompted him to change his routine and open the door to the dust-shrouded sitting room. Her portrait was on the piano where it had always rested — a sepia print of a beautiful woman, hair bobbed like Louise Brooks, Hollywood mouth tinted with coral. The policemen told him she had “gone away,” and it was a long time before he realised she was dead.

With a sigh he reached out with his stick and turned her face to the wall. Today of all days, it was his birthday. Sixty years since she had walked out the door, promising she would “come back soon.”

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Ann Watts

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