Illustration by Andres Garzon
Tom has been waking up the last few days with a sense of dread. Always very anxious, but recently experiencing severe bouts of panic, Tom’s heartburn has been almost unbearable. Today is no exception—Tom feels that this impending feeling of dread will manifest itself in some shape or form, and it’s making him even more anxious than ever.
He leaves the bed and pulls the covers back over his wife, telling her he is going to make a drink. He leans over, turns off the alarm clock and heads down to the kitchen to grind some coffee beans. He grabs the pestle and mortar from the cupboard, deciding that he needs to alleviate some stress, and starts grinding the coffee with an unnecessary ferocity. Most of the coffee spills over onto the floor, so he gives up, unable to cope with the prospect of picking it out from the already dirty tiles. He sighs, grabs the teabags and shouts, “I’ve made a small mess, but don’t worry! I’ll clean it up.”
The pots are piled high, so he rinses two dirty cups and fills them with water once the kettle boils. He begins to dip the bag into the first one, but it bursts, so he empties both cups in the kitchen sink and then bends down to spoon the powdered coffee into the filter.
He starts to sob.
Eventually, he gathers himself, pours the coffee and takes the cups with him through to the hallway and up the dimly lit stairs, towards the bedroom. He stops halfway up to look at the picture of him and Judith on the wall, their wedding day, and a snapshot of history when everything was okay—before the accident. He studied the photo as he had done many times—her skin like porcelain and a smile that just drew him in from the moment he saw her. She had Chrysanthemums in her hair. On the day itself, he thought they were daisies until Judith had laughed and corrected him. His own face too was one of genuine happiness; after all, he had just landed the love of his life, and nothing could stop him.
Christ, I love you, Judith.
As he reaches the top of the stairs, he tries to elbow away an annoying bluebottle fly that is buzzing around his head, causing him to spill some of the coffee as he trips over the damned vacuum once again. Tom rushes to the bathroom, puts the coffee on the edge of the tub and grabs a towel from the rack to wipe himself down. He sighs, leans over and turns both taps, watching her as the water rushes in, filling the tub. When it’s half full, Tom turns off the water and heads into the bedroom to help his wife out of bed. She’s heavier than usual, but Tom doesn’t comment. He knows it will only get him in trouble.
Tom carries Judith into the bathroom and helps lower her in the bath. He asks if the temperature is okay, not bothering to wait for a response as he lights some scented candles and pours in some bubble bath—the lavender one she likes. The colour contrasts nicely against her pale skin.
His mobile phone begins to ring, and immediately his pulse quickens. He knows it’s his boss—he didn’t go in last week and ignored the e-mails. Questions were being asked, and it would only be a matter of time before they found out. It had started small, a little bit at a time from a couple of clients, but a few bad bets and he started to get careless. Once a gambler!
He lets it go to voicemail.
Tom checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror and even through the steam, he can make out his sallow skin that frames the large dark circles under his eyes. He has seen better days. His mostly grey hair is matted and unwashed, and he hasn’t shaved for nearly a week. He contemplates showering, but the thought of the required effort distresses him, and so he splashes some water on his face instead and swallows some toothpaste straight from the tube. His wife recently told him that toothpaste causes cancer. He had laughed at this, pinched his nose and asked for a kiss. Tom enjoyed the times they fooled around like that.
He walks through to their bedroom, lifts up his dressing gown and, for the next few minutes, masturbates furiously—a habit he has picked up over the last few days. Once he’s done, he goes back downstairs with his coffee, being careful not to trip over the vacuum. He puts some bread in the toaster and opens the fridge to find he has no margarine left. In fact, there is nothing spreadable at all. He sits and waits for the toast to pop up. Eventually, it does, and even though he prepared himself for the pop, it still startles him, and he estimates his heart rate increases by at least ten beats per minute. He takes the toast and places it on the cleanest plate he can find from the dirty stack of pots, but when he reaches for his coffee, the toast slides from his plate onto the kitchen floor.
He wants to cry again but refrains as he bends over and collects it from the dirty floor and gives it a quick shake. He takes a bite and chews solemnly, washing it down with a swig of his coffee. He stops to pull some hair from his teeth, no doubt gathered from the floor and then pours the remainder of the coffee down the sink.
Tom looks down at his overhanging belly and suddenly feels the impulse to go for a run. He considers it very seriously for a few seconds before deciding it would be quite an upheaval, so he switches on the television instead. He flicks through the various channels until he finds a nature documentary. Settling into his chair, he begins to pick at his immature beard and pulls out a huge dark hair with the follicle still attached. Tom chews off the follicle and begins to think he is losing his mind.
On TV, the deer is running for its life, closely followed by the jaguar that is hungry for its dinner. Tom changes the channel quickly, suddenly contemplating how savage existence is. He convinces himself that if reincarnation is real, he would no doubt come back as a deer. Or worse, he’d come back as himself.
In his melancholy state, he finds himself wandering back to the early years, before marriage and back when he and his wife told each other everything. Judith said she once ate a worm when she was nine, and that was pretty much the worst thing she had done. He confessed to her about a few things from his not so clean past, including his previous gambling problem and how he had kicked it well before they met. It was true, at least in the way you can ever really kick an addiction.
Tom snaps out if it just in time to see the jaguar bring the deer down.
He shouts upstairs, “I’m just going for a lie-down love. Let me know if the water gets cold.”
No reply, but that’s standard when Judith bathes. She hates to ruin the experience with chatter and normally scolds him if he tries to talk to her before she’s out the bath. He lies down on the couch—eyes closed but his mind is wide open, and the bad thoughts come. He pulls more hair out and realizes there is zero chance he will be able to get any sleep, so he gets off the couch, does one press up, and walks back to the kitchen to put the kettle back on.
Someone knocks at the door.
Tom runs back into the living room and ducks behind the couch, as though the knocker has x-ray vision.
His breathing increases rapidly, he is very conscious of it, and he is sure they will hear it.
“Tom! It’s Irene from the apartment next door. Are you okay?”
She knocks again, and Tom tries to squeeze into an even smaller shape. Irene shouts through the door, “Tom, I’m coming back with a key. I haven’t seen you or Judith for a few days. I’m worried.”
There is some relief that it’s only Irene, but he doesn’t want the nosy old bag coming back. He curses Judith for giving her a key and estimates that it’s been nearly a year since they went away and left it with her. They still hadn’t got it back.
He straightens up and shouts from behind the couch “Irene, it’s all good. I’m not decent though, and Judith has gone to stay at her sister’s for a while.”
“Oh… okay. Did you take your garbage out by the way?”
When he hears her footsteps moving away, he gets up, moves back in the kitchen and makes two teas with unwashed cups: one for his wife and one for himself. He takes them up to the bathroom and places them on the edge of the bath, next to the cup he made earlier.
“Have some tea darling. You look cold—this will warm you up,” he says.
He smiles at her before disrobing and stepping into the water, “Room for one more?”
As Tom squeezes in on the opposite side of Judith, being careful not to disturb her, there is a loud knock on the door—one with a sense of urgency.
“Tom, are you in there?” a male voice shouts.
He takes a gulp of tea and swills it around his mouth.
He had considered calling it in as an accident when it happened. That’s why he put a dead bulb in the landing area and moved the vacuum to the top of the stairs — tripping over it three times since. In a way, it was an accident. He tried to convince himself of that anyway.
“I think we are going to need more scented candles,” Tom says as he leans over and kisses his wife on the forehead.
The thought of living without her, though, was too much to bear. Not to mention the additional lies and deceit that would be required.
She died for nothing.
Work are onto him now anyway—the emails from his boss and the voicemails asking to see him urgently. He feels like the deer from the nature documentary.
It was a dead cert!
There’s another loud knock at the door, “Tom!”
Tom stands up and reaches across to the cabinet to retrieve the small brown packet and then sits back down on the edge of the bathtub.
He didn’t mean for her to fall down the stairs—he was only trying to stop her from calling the police. He had grabbed the arm of her nightgown, and when she yanked it away, she lost her balance and tumbled all the way down. She moaned for a while—an awful wail that has stayed with him over the last few days. He won’t miss that.
He just wanted to unload, share the burden—work through it before it got out of control. If they came up with a plan, they could probably find a way to put the money back before anyone noticed and then he could get help again. Going to prison wasn’t an option—he wasn’t cut out for that.
He should have known. Judith was always so black and white.
She is now, he thought.
“I love you, Judith,” he says as he empties the packet into his cup before taking a large gulp of tea.
MARK TOWSE has only been writing short stories for two months now, but his passion and enthusiasm are unparalleled, and this has recently resulted in his first paid piece in the publication Books N Pieces along with imminent publication in four other prestigious magazines. Mark currently works in sales and is ready to sell his soul to the devil for a full-time career as an author. He resides in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two children.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Towse. All rights reserved.