Our good friend Dan sent in this short story that he wrote…
‘Til Death us do Part.
Sally caught her reflection in the rear-view mirror. The grey at her temples was becoming more prominent. She looked tired all the time. She touched up her makeup and checked her bag. Owen would only lie there but she still felt that she should look good when she visited. It was nice to look good. A year and a half he’d been in now and he still hadn’t improved.
She pulled the keys halfway out of the ignition and paused. Still an hour left before she could see Owen. Why had she left home so early? The lights in the waiting room were too bright and the smell of disinfectant clung to her clothes for hours afterwards. All the nurses knew her by name. By his name, Whitaker. She slid the keys back in, turned the engine on and pulled out of the hospital car park. There was a lot that she’d added to her ipod recently. Songs Owen hated and she would never have been allowed to play. On long car journey’s he’d always subjected her to his music, Kiss and rubbish like that. Phil Collins. Owen couldn’t stand him, especially this song. She turned it up.
This was the long way round, not past the spot where it had happened, past bits of windscreen still glinting out of the grass at the side of the road. She eased her foot off the accelerator.
Sally parked the car and checked her makeup. In her glove compartment was the copy of Self Actualisation through Creative Visualisation her brother had given her when he came back from his gap year in Manali. Owen would have laughed in her face for reading that kind of ‘shit’. She slipped it into her bag and got out of the car. Fine rain was falling. It stuck to the tight knot of her hair. Only a few yards to the riverfront. A light wind was blowing over the river carrying a faint smell of petrol. She ducked into the first bar she came to. A modern-looking place with metallic surfaces and sparse decoration. A quiet drink and a read and then she’d go back to the hospital. It was too early for the bar to be busy, just a few couples talking over cocktails and noodles. No one to bother her.
The barman was a dark boy with the sides of his head shaven who barely looked old enough to drink.
‘Could I have a gin and tonic, please?’ She fumbled in her bag for her purse.
He winked at her as she took her drink. The surprise stopped her for a second. The table overlooked the river. The orange of the street lights rippling over the water like broken glass.
Sally took out her book and tried to read but couldn’t take any of it in, reading over the same passage two or three times. Something about your life being your work of art so make each creation count. Through the window the light stone pavements of the waterfront were turning a dark grey from the rain. People in long coats ran past holding briefcases and bags over their heads. Nobody looked up.
A group of five or six men bustled past the window. She glanced over to the door as they came in. Dark suits and smart haircuts. Office workers. Clearly they’d already been drinking, their wives at home waiting. Would they notice her?
She sipped her drink and got out her phone. Still half an hour before she could go to the hospital – if she wanted to be on time. It made her feel ridiculous, reading out loud to someone who never moved, in the hope that he’d respond. He’d never listened to her before. Why would it be different now?
Sally finished her drink, the single slice of lemon floated in the melting ice. She didn’t want to go to the hospital. She didn’t want to see Owen, have to sit there and moisten his lips with a cotton bud. Dampen all the cracked skin and wipe away the thick bits of cottony spit. She went to the bar and ordered an orange juice.
It was fully dark now and people where milling about the waterfront. There was already a small queue forming outside the floating party boat opposite. Owen had taken her there one of the first times they’d met. They’d had a row that night. Not one of the bad ones. It seemed so long ago but it couldn’t have been more than three or four years. There was a smudged thumb print on the window.
The bar was starting to fill up with the after-work crowd. Two men were sitting at the other end of the table to her right. One caught her eye and smiled shyly. Heat rose up her neck. It had been so long since she’d been around people other than nurses and doctors. She pretended to read her book again, stared at the page, trying hard not to let her eyes flick over to the right. He was still looking. She stared back at the page. Her face felt hot. Every movement she made felt emphasized. She reached for her drink and moved it slowly. A shape loomed out of the corner of her eye.
‘Do you mind if I sit here?’
‘No, please.’ She shifted her chair slightly away from him.
She shook his hand, it was too tanned for the time of year.
‘I hope I’m not intruding.’
‘Not at all.’
‘Are you from round here?’
‘I live a bit out. Don’t really come into town very much anymore.’
‘Just to sit and drink your own?’ He flashed his perfect white teeth at her. His cheeks dimpled.
She laughed. ‘Something like that.’
He shifted his weight closer to her. ‘Can I buy you a drink?’
What about Owen? What if someone saw her?
‘Okay. Gin and tonic, please.’
He walked to the bar. Something white was floating on the river, a seagull maybe, or a Tesco’s bag. A couple were holding hands, waiting to get on board the boat. Christ, the only physical contact she’d had in the last year was a sympathetic hug from her sister. And that was only for show.
‘There you are.’ He put her drink down in front of her and moved his stool closer.
It tasted stronger than a single. She had another sip. ‘Thanks.’
‘Why are you here all by yourself?’
‘I’m waiting to go… to the hospital.’
‘Nothing serious I hope.’ He smiled at her
‘Actually it’s my husband.’ She looked down at her hands. The nails were bitten. She never used to do that. She tried to hide them.
‘Is it serious?’
‘No,’ she lied, not knowing why. ‘We’ve been separated for a while now anyway.’
‘He had an accident. Had to be kept in for a few nights.’
‘Oh God. It must have scared you, hearing about it.’ He put his hand on her knee. A shiver passed through her.
‘Well it did a bit.’ Her eyes darted up to his face. He nodded. He looked genuinely concerned.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve only just met you. You don’t want to know all of this,’ she said.
‘It’s alright,’ he said, holding her gaze. ‘It’s good to get it off your chest.’ His eyes darted downwards. He moved his mouth closer to her ear and half whispered, ‘I just wish there was something I could do to make you feel better.’
His face touched her cheek. His warm breath on her ear made her hairs stand on end. His after-shave smelt warm. His short stubble rubbed against her face as his mouth came closer to hers. She didn’t move. He kissed her bottom lip gently. What about Owen?
‘No I can’t,’ she nudged him back.
He nibbled her earlobe, ‘Course you can – seems like you need some fun.’
Maybe she did.
His tongue slid into her mouth. He put an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. He pulled her off her stool and onto his knee. She put her arm around his shoulders. His hand slid up her inner thigh, slowly. She pushed it back down half-heartedly. He pulled her closer. He shifted her weight from one leg to the other. His hand went back onto her thigh, gliding over her tights. Her breathing seemed too loud. She concentrated on breathing shallowly. It didn’t feel right. She opened her eyes. His were closed. His eyelids were wrinkled and pale purple. The pores below his eyebrow were like pin pricks. His skin glistened. She pushed him away.
‘I’m sorry. I have to go.’ She snatched her bag and her book and tried to stuff it in as she staggered towards the door. Paul mouthed something across the room to his friend who laughed.
Sally ran along the road towards her car. It seemed like a time when she should cry. She didn’t feel like it though, didn’t feel like anything. She went through what she’d done in her head, trying to stir up some emotion. She never did things like that. Not even when she knew Owen was probably doing far worse. Why do it now? When he’s in a coma. She got into her car, sat down and breathed deeply. No guilt. She was the victim. Her knuckles were white gripping the steering wheel trying to calm herself down. Always the victim. Her life was meant to be her work of art.
She drove back to the hospital in a trance. If only she’d had the guts to leave him earlier. She’d even planned what to say. Gone over it time after time. She could barely see the road through her tears. She was shaking badly. She could never do it now. His mother already hated her.
There were blue lights flashing in the distance. She drove closer. A car had veered off the road and hit a tree. There was an ambulance and two police cars. A man was sitting in a foil blanket talking to a policeman. He looked shaken up but no one paid him much attention.
Sally drove on towards the hospital. She pulled into the nearest space in the car park and took her ipod out of the glove compartment. She half ran towards the main entrance. Only an hour late. She marched into the foyer and left for the lift. An old man in a dressing gown and blue, striped pyjamas, supporting his weight on a frame stared at her.
The walls in the lift were mirrored, her face was a mess. Mascara was running down her face. Her hair was out of place, soaked and starting to curl. Her lipstick was smudged. A grotesque Halloween mask of herself. Owen had done this to her. This is what he’d turned her into.
‘Evening, Mrs. Whitaker,’ the duty nurse said. Sally kept walking without turning around.
‘Don’t forget your hands.’
Sally paused at the door and squeezed the alcohol rub on the wall onto her palms. It stung the raw bitten skin at the sides of her nails. Owen was lying there hooked up to beeping machines. Tubes sticking out of his nose and throat. Unable to control his own fucking bowels.
‘Til death us do part.
He looked at peace, lying there with his eyes closed. An air of serenity about him and a smug look on his withered face. It was almost a grin, mocking her. Even in a coma he knew he was winning. Controlling her and having everyone side with him. She wasn’t going to let him win this easily. She took out her ipod and selected Hits: Phil Collins, scrolled down to Against all Odds and put it on repeat. She stuck one headphone in each ear, turned it up and put a little piece of Sellotape over each to stop them falling out. Calmly she adjusted her makeup in the mirror and brushed her hair.
‘I can’t stay long tonight,’ she called to the duty nurse, ‘so I’ve just left him with some of his favourite music playing. Is that alright?’