(MIR Online, July 2016)
(Calamities Press, April 2015)
(Writers’ Hub, Birkbeck University of London, November 2014)
(Plots With Guns, September 2014)
Man in The Ivory Tower
(The Wells Street Journal, April 2014)
Nothing at Camden Town
(The WiFiles, January 2014)
The Warren Street Kid
(Bewildering Stories, July 2013)
When Grandma Came to Tea
(Aurora Wolf, January 2013)
A Little More Time
(Liquid Imagination, November 2012)
(First published in Scriptor-3.)
(This story was first published in Crossing the Border, an Open College of the Arts anthology of creative writing, edited by Graham Mort.)
Annie washed her hands under the cool running tap and reached for her battered wooden chopping board. She thumped it down on the work surface with a satisfying clunk. The onion felt crisp and fresh as she sliced off both ends and peeled back its crunchy brown skin. The raw aroma stifled her sense of smell and she turned her head away from the vapour, which rose as she chopped into the white flesh. Despite this, she felt the sting of tears behind her eyes and they began to water. At least if Don came home early, she could blame the onions for her tearful state. The garlic segment released its pungent odour as she crushed it with the tip of her knife. The scent would cling ferociously to her fingertips for days, but she didn’t care. If Don wanted Spaghetti Bolognaise, then that is what he’d… damn…well… get… ouch! A spot of blood oozed from her fingertip and she held it under the tap until her finger went numb. If he didn’t bother to come home for it this time, it would end up in the dog’s dish. She looked down at the white Alsatian watching her with unstudied devotion.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you girl?” The dog’s eyes lit up in anticipation and Annie chuckled nervously to herself. Olive oil sizzled and spat in the casserole pan. The sensuous smell reminded Annie of her mother’s kitchen which brought fresh tears to her eyes along with a deep sense of longing. Longing for a life without the doubts that filled her mind every time Don walked out of the door. It had been, what, six months since the last affair had ended? And Annie was sure he was at it again, the signs were all there, as if staying out half the night wasn’t enough to confirm her suspicions. She lifted the board and scraped it clean of onions and garlic, rewarded by a crescendo of sizzles. Stirring briskly, she added the mince and stabbed at it angrily with a fork. It looked grotesquely like brains frying in fat and she smiled to herself, imagining Don’s face as she sets his plate on the table.
“Brains in Bolognaise tonight, Dear.”
A spurt of tomato juice caught her face and she wiped it with the back of her hand, emptying the tin into the pan with a triumphant splosh. The stock cube crumbled, like gritty sand between her fingers. She added some water, a generous squirt of tomato puree and her stomach began to grumble in response. The scent of Thyme, Rosemary and Oregano reeked of nostalgia, re-awakening childhood memories of herb picking in her grandmother’s garden. She took a pinch and quickly replaced the jar before the yearning for days long gone overcame her sense of reason. A shake of salt, a grind of pepper and she was nearly done. Annie put the casserole on to simmer and looked at the dog, a mischievous glint in her eye.
“Right then,” she said. “Now where did I put the arsenic?” The dog whuffed playfully and she bent down to ruffle its ears, then went to prepare the table.
It was a quarter to midnight. The candles had almost burnt out and the dinner had slowly simmered into a pock-marked bog. Annie had long since lost her appetite and was sitting at the table watching the diminishing light of flame as the candles spluttered and fizzed into nothing. A Modesty Blaise novel slipped from her hand as she surrendered to emotional exhaustion. She had cried for a while when Don had failed to appear then decided he wasn’t worth it and had taken up an escape route in fiction.
Modesty sat perfectly still in the dark, silent night. The lights were out, the table cleared, only the faint aroma of extinguished candle remained as evidence of his cruel betrayal. She listened carefully for the tell-tale signs; the slow crunch of tyres on gravel; the slam of the car door; the jangle of keys… Clothed from head to foot in a black cat-suit, she moved swiftly and surely in the shadows of the hall, down towards the front door. She took the MAB automatic from her black shoulder bag and waited behind the door, her senses and instinct probing for signs of his return. The silhouette of a figure appeared from behind the door and seconds later someone stepped into the hall. It was Don. Don Delicata, the man with a taste for death. Modesty lifted both hands, pressed the small automatic to his temple and hesitated…
“No!” Annie lowered her hands. “Damn… that’s not it. Modesty would never hesitate, she would have shot him.” She shut the front door and looked at the dog who was watching her with soulful eyes. Two thirty am and he was still not home. She only wished she were strong enough to deal with her errant husband, only wished she knew what to do.
The remains of dinner was scooped into the dog’s bowl and vanished within seconds. The dog sat licking its lips, watching hopefully as its mistress cleared the table. Annie sat at the table and smoothed her hand across the tablecloth. She fingered the leaves of her pot plant which sat in the centre, mocking her attempts to create a soothing atmosphere. Bursting with anger and betrayal, she lifted the plant and chucked it into the corner of the room. It landed upside down, clumps of dirt and tendrils of leaves peppering the carpet.
She returned to the dinner table and lifted the gilt-edged tablecloth, intending to fold and put it away. Instead, she wrapped it around her body, hugging it like a long forgotten treasure. She buried her face in it and took a deep breath. No matter how much she washed it, it still smelled of Grandma and happy days of childhood irrationality. She draped the cloth around her body and the magnificence of it gave her an air of eminence. It was fit for a queen. And she was fit to be a queen.
Lady Macbeth swept down the great hall to meet her husband. Reflected light shimmered from the blade that she held tight to her side. As she strode, it was hidden amongst the folds of her gown and she hoped he would not see it until it was too late. As the man stepped in to greet his wife, she plunged the knife deep into his chest and thrust up under his ribcage, puncturing his heart. A strangled cry escaped his lips and blood bubbled in droplets from his mouth. He stared down, unbelieving, at the knife in his chest then looked up in horror at Lady Macbeth.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,” he reached down and clutched the hilt. “The handle toward my hand?” But he no longer had the strength to withdraw the fateful weapon. He dropped to his knees and slumped headfirst to the floor, then was silent. Lady Macbeth reeled back.
“Here’s the smell of blood still: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” A pool of blood encircled her husband growing larger and larger. She staggered and stumbled her way out of the hall muttering to herself. “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
“No, no, no,” said Annie. “That’s not it either.” She let the tablecloth drop and the dog trotted over. She sat on the floor with the Alsatian’s head resting in her lap and caressed its ears. “Can’t kill him like that,” she said. “Too much mess.”
Four o’clock in the morning and he was still not home. Reluctantly, Annie rose and went into the kitchen, trailing the tablecloth behind her. She looked down at the crumpled gold-leaf pattern swirling around her feet.
“Sorry Grandma.” She picked it up and draped it toga style around her shoulders. The dog followed her with the hope of yet more scraps lighting up its eyes. Annie looked glumly at the pan of cold spaghetti, then shrugged at the dog. “Not much left to excite your taste buds, I’m afraid.” She put her hand into the pan and swirled it around. It was cold and wormy and clung to her skin in sticky tendrils. In a sudden burst of anger she scooped it out and launched it at the nearest wall. “Bastard!” she shrieked. The spaghetti slithered slowly to the floor. She sat cross-legged at the spot where it began to pool and picked it up strand by strand inspecting it with a child-like curiosity. After a while, she began to drape it over her head, curling and weaving it into the strands of her own hair. As she did this, she sang softly to herself, a lullaby that her mother used to sing to her at bedtime. She began to giggle. Her giggles turned into chuckles then she whooped with laughter until her voice became almost hysterical.
Suddenly the dog whuffed loudly and Annie looked up. There was movement behind the front door and the click of a key in the lock. She shuffled on all fours into the hall just as Don walked through the door. His look of shock turned to disgust as he stared down at his wife.
“Hello dear,” she said. “Nice lay, er… I mean day?” A look of anger and deceit etched itself into his face, criss-crossing his features in a web of misogyny. Annie rose shakily to her feet. She had a queer sensation inside, which made her feel quite cold. Her bare arms and legs tingled as she hugged the toga closer to her body. Her head felt suddenly alive as if the cold spaghetti had decided to get up and do a jig. A strange hissing emanated from above as something smooth coiled its sinister presence around her head. The flicker of a forked tongue caught her eye and she gasped before she fully realised the import of her sudden transmutation. She lowered her head and passively studied the sickly grey pallor of her skin. Her eyes shone emerald green.
“What the…?” Don’s words were cut short as the gorgon, Medusa lifted her head and stared into his eyes. The snakes writhed about her with an air of fait accompli. A look of desperation solidified on Don’s face; he was going nowhere. The dog sidled up to him and without a hint of regret, sat down on his feet and peed.
Annie washed the last remnants of gungy pasta out of her hair and wrapped a towel around her head. Despite her lack of sleep, she wondered at the sense of peace that had settled in the house overnight. The peace of mind she had so long craved for was no longer distilled by the guilty pad pad of Don’s footsteps. Or creak of the door and quiet ruffle of bedcovers as he tried in vain to pretend that he had really been there for hours while she slept, oblivious to his deceit.
The birds were up and had already begun their dawn chorus. She, however, had spent the rest of the night trying to find a suitable place to ‘park’ her husband. In the end, she had plumped for a nice spot in the hall, not too far from the door, so that she didn’t have too far to push him. He could stand there and greet their friends and neighbours. Annie dressed him up in a coat and hat, trying to disguise the stony expression on his face. She perched a cap on his finger which pointed accusingly at the ceiling and balanced an umbrella on the hook made by his arm as he stood, hand on hip. She stepped back to admire her work and the dog whuffed its encouragement.
“Then again,” she said. “He does make a perfectly handsome hat stand.”