Contains strong language and references to 20th century telephone equipment
She’d simply put it down to the way of things; ad thought that it was what happened if you were married, that the passion turned into something more mundane, like habit, and routine could be relied on to carry a couple through.
When they were engaged Carol had taken a delight in cooking dinner for Dave once or twice a week, he was always so appreciative; afterward they would leave the dishes and retire to bed with the remains of the wine. On most of the other evenings Dave would go out with his friends, usually to the pub.
After their marriage things changed. Dave began asking for specific meals that had a familiar ring to Carol’s ears – the meals his mother made. When they shopped together on Saturdays, alien items crept into the trolley: ketchup, pickles, frozen pies, chips, sausages, burgers. Like cuckoos they edged out the lean chicken breasts, salad, garlic, peppers and pasta. If she cooked something special from her repertoire, the subtle flavours would drown in ketchup. Dave suggested asking his mother for some of her recipes.
He went out with his friends more often. Occasionally they would go out as a foursome with another couple, but on the whole he clearly felt no need to spend evenings with Carol now they shared the same bed.
He was as keen on sex as ever, only now he was there every night. Often she was too tired even to fake ecstasy, no matter how much he prodded and kneaded the appropriate bits. His concern was touching, until she realised that it was the sense of achievement he was after, not her pleasure. Lately he had been getting rougher, more impatient. Pretending to be asleep didn’t work. She felt helpless – until tonight.
‘Open your fucking legs, you frigid cow.’
She jolted awake with a shock of recognition. This was the end. She knew it, with a coolness that surprised her. Routine had simply been a downward spiral, a joyless helter skelter to this. The time had come to pick up her mat and leave. Gone, but not to be forgotten. She lay under the sweating body, calmly plotting.
Long after he had given his final grunt and rolled stickily off her, Carol lay awake, staring into the dark, thinking, thinking, tick, tick, tick. Finally she set the alarm, placed it under her pillow, and settled into a serene, dreamless sleep.
It was still dark when the muffled bleep woke her. She silenced it swiftly, then lay still, listening. Dave’s breathing was heavy and regular, with the usual gargling sounds as he lay on his back, mouth open. He’d be out of it for a good while yet. It had been well after midnight when he came home from Smiley’s birthday rites.
Sliding carefully out of bed, Carol went quietly into the bathroom. The gush of water sounded deafening, so she had a shallower bath than usual. It was cooler too; she didn’t want to use all the hot water yet. She dried quickly, smoothed on moisturiser, then returned to the bedroom to slip into her favourite weekend jeans and sweater and her newest trainers. Her short, thick hair only needed a flick with a comb and she was ready to face the world. Now to get down to business. Dave had changed gear to a sputtering snore, but there was no movement.
In the small sitting room she drew the curtains. Parked cars glistened with frost under the streetlights, dimming now in the early morning grey; the newsagent opposite was already open. She dialled Jenny’s number. She would be awake by now; the twins showed no mercy, even at weekends – Carol had seen that when she and Dave stayed over the weekend before Christmas. Jenny absorbed her sister’s message with her usual quick efficiency. Carol imagined her mentally reshuffling the day to take in meeting the London coach, making up the spare room, putting aside a little time for a quiet chat over coffee while Alan entertained the kids. As she replaced the receiver her own quiet urgency began to spark and crackle with new energy.
She unplugged the phone and lowered it gently into the tropical aquarium, lead trailing out under the lid. On an impulse she switched on the aquarium light to see the fish nosing round the new arrival. A lump rose into her throat as the little catfish scuttled forward. She would miss his solemn, whiskery face. She sprinkled a few grains of food on the water before going back into the bedroom.
There, she busied herself with opening drawers, taking out sweaters, socks, underpants, pyjamas, vests, and carrying them through to lay them carefully in the bath. She picked up her husband’s clothes from where he had dropped them last night, and added these. The laundry basket was almost empty after Thursday’s trip to the launderette, but she fished out a small bundle of Dave’s things – he always changed before going out for the evening. She ran a little hot water onto the clothes, then went to the kitchen for an armful of jars, cans and bottles: tomato ketchup, Branston pickle, brown sauce, Worcester sauce, baked beans, oxtail soup, pickled gherkins like fossilised slugs. She opened these and shook the contents over the clothes, using the lavatory brush to stir the mixture. Then she took shirts, jackets, trousers from the wardrobe and placed them smoothly on top, pressing them down so that they blotted up the liquid.
Returning to the kitchen, she took the shopping bag from the hook behind the door and emptied the contents of the freezer into it – not much at this end of the month, but it yielded a few burgers, three steak pies, raspberry ripple ice cream, chips and peas. In the bathroom she opened packets and bags, arranging burgers and pies in a row down the middle, sprinkling chips on each side, and pouring the peas in an attractive swirl over the whole design. She prised out dollops of ice cream with the handle of the brush, scattering them at random. As she added hot water the ice cream began to melt and mingle with the brownish seepage from below, the pies softened slightly and she was able to break them up with the brush.
The fridge was almost empty: three eggs were broken into the bath, and a can of Heineken poured over the top. The remains of a sliced loaf soaked up some of this, and a thin layer of cornflakes finished the job. Carol lined up the containers by the wall, admiring her work briefly before shutting the door. Back in the kitchen, she opened the fridge again, took out an unopened carton of orange juice, pulled back the plastic tab, and poured in a generous measure of salt before pressing it closed. She poured more salt into the half-full milk bottle, then replaced both in the door rack and shut the fridge.
Her rucksack was in a corner of the wardrobe where it had lain since the trip to Bristol to see Jenny, Alan and the kids. She managed to haul it out without rattling the vacant hangers, unzipped it, and quickly crammed in underwear, leggings, tee-shirts and her two favourite sweaters. Jenny was seven months pregnant; there would be plenty of spare clothes to tide her over for a few weeks, and January’s salary had gone into her account yesterday. No need to transfer any of it into the joint household account this time, it was all hers. She still had some holiday in hand; they could take that instead of notice. Briefly, she thanked Dave for his timing. Then she put her comb, make-up and perfume into a side compartment and fastened the zips. Purse, plastic cards and cheque book were already in her light shoulder bag, which could stay on her lap in the coach.
She slipped on her winter jacket, wrapped a scarf loosely round her neck, and pushed gloves into her pockets. The she took a last look round the bedroom. Dave’s black leather jacket hung on the back of the door, along with the blue woollen hat and scarf his mother had knitted for him a couple of years ago. A variety of footwear stood on the floor of the wardrobe. All his other clothes were in the bath. Carol gave a little nod of satisfaction, hitched the rucksack onto her shoulders, picked up her bag, and went out into the hall. As she closed the door softly, her husband emitted a long, quavering beer and biriyani fart. He would wake soon.