Shortlisted for the Sunderland Short Story Award 2018
She lays in bed all day. She won’t move. It’s late afternoon. The sun’s bright in the cold, blue sky.
‘Jesus, the birds,’ she says.
‘What’s wrong with the birds?’
‘Shut them up.’
‘They sound so fucking annoying. Why can’t you do anything, Tom? Why are you so fucking useless?’
‘I’m not fucking useless.’ I walk out of the bedroom but I don’t want to leave her alone so I walk into the bathroom and sit down on the toilet. The bathroom always seems a sterile place, white and empty, a good place to think. It smells of shampoo, soap, and piss. I become aware of the smell of piss. I stand up and lift up the lid of the toilet and there’s yellow piss in there. Its strong ammonia smell makes me cough. I imagine it’s both her piss and mine. Like we’re somehow joined in matrimony here in the toilet. I flush the toilet and watch our piss swirl around the bowl then disappear. The water becomes clear.
After a while I go back into the bedroom and there she still is. Lying there as if a baby in a womb. Her hands between her legs as if she needs to piss. I say, ‘Do you need the toilet?’
‘No,’ she says. Her voice quivers as if she wants to cry. She won’t cry in front of me, though. Not like this. Not while she’s angry. She’ll cry later on. She’ll cry and cry and I’ll watch her cry. I’ll hold her. I’ll listen to her cry. But now. She won’t cry. Not while I’m here.
‘Are you okay?’ I say.
‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ she says.
I look at her not looking at me. Her name is Ashley. Her eyes flicker beneath her eyelids and the pretty eyelashes. I can tell she knows I’m looking. She takes some time before she looks at me. Then she looks at me. She looks away again. I look away.
I walk out again and this time I go outside, leaving her alone. There’s nothing I can do. I hate her and she hates me. Hate’s a form of love. I think. A bad form a love, the opposite to love. She’ll lay there holding herself for hours until she feels like talking.
I walk down the street past two pubs and a shop. In the shop, I buy a Coke and a packet of cigarettes. I’ve not smoked since I was a teenager. I used to buy them when I was fifteen and got away with it, smoking on my way home from school. I pay the man behind the counter and stuff them in my jeans pocket and leave. Walking again. I think about her. I hope she’s okay but she’s probably not even moved. She’s probably cried herself to sleep.
I walk and walk and it’s hot and I see Steve on the corner walking towards me. He stops in front of me and says, ‘Hi, Tom.’
‘Hi, Steve,’ I say.
‘What you up to?’
‘I’m just going for a walk,’ I say. ‘The missus isn’t feeling well so thought I’d leave her alone.’
‘Aah,’ he says.
He walks with me. Steve is a man of few words. They used to call him Steve the Grieve. They called him this because his wife and daughter died within a week of each other. This was five years ago. You can still see the bags under his eyes of the endless sleepless nights he goes through, and I bet he still doesn’t sleep. His wife, Stella, had breast cancer. She died first. She had cancer for six months. She withered away very quickly. I saw her once in the hospital. Ashley asked me to go. We went. The three of us: me, Ash and Steve. We saw Stella lying in bed and we just watched her. We didn’t know what else to do so we just stood there looking at her. She looked like a skeleton because she was so thin. She didn’t even look like Stella anymore. She looked dead. Steve looked like he was about to cry. Ash cried. I just watched Stella in bed and wondered when she was going to die. I imagined Ash had breast cancer and it scared me. When she died Steve was devastated and it was the first time I saw a grown man cry. Exactly seven days later his daughter, Stacy, who was nine, was hit by a car. It wasn’t far from his house. On the day it happened, I heard a thud and a scream. I ran down the road and saw Stacy lying in the road, a few feet from the car. There was blood in her hair. There was blood on the road, so you could see how far she’d travelled when she got hit. The car was going so fast her insides exploded and her head hit the ground so hard the skull shattered. I heard Steve wailing. He appeared out of nowhere. He sounded like a howling dog.
For a while, people called him Steve the Grieve but he never knew. I never called him Steve the Grieve.
There’s a disused warehouse. Graffiti covers it like scar tissue. Broken glass shattered to pieces like silver dust. Inside, we throw stones at the pigeons. Most of them can’t find a way out when they flap about and they land again and we throw stones again. Steve hits one and it yelps. An awful high-pitched sound like a scream. We look at each other. ‘I didn’t know pigeons made noises like that,’ he says.
‘You must’a hurt it.’
Over on the far side of the warehouse it’s damp and dark and smells of rust, the taste of metal in my mouth like blood. The pigeon is on the ground and I call out to Steve, ‘It’s here. I’ve found it.’ It’s just flapping one wing, slapping it over and over again. ‘I think you broke its wing,’ I say.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t even aiming.’
‘You idiot, you killed it.’
‘It’s not even dead.’
‘Well, you have to kill it, then,’ I say.
‘To put it out of its misery.’
‘I didn’t know pigeons experienced misery.’
We watch the pigeon for a while. Watch it dying. Soon it gets tired of flapping about on the ground and it lies there, breathing heavily. Its chest heaving out, in. Out, in. Its small, black eye on us. Watching us. ‘It’s weird how it’s watching us,’ I say.
‘You know what?’ he says. ‘I feel okay in the thought that one day I won’t be here.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘Like, there’s going to be a day, one day, when I won’t be here anymore. A lot of people would feel scared about that, but I’m not. I’m okay with it. It’s just waiting. Like waiting for a bus or something. I like the thought that there’ll be a morning the world will wake up without me.’
‘I don’t like that thought.’
‘I know what they used to call me, you know.’
‘Steve the Grieve.’
‘I never called you that.’
‘I know they called me it,’ he says. ‘It’s why I don’t bother hanging out with the guys anymore. They’re all pricks. I fucking hate them. I wish they were all dead instead of my wife. You know I spent five years grieving? Five years. Do you know what that’s like? It’s horrible. It’s like having your intestines pulled out of your belly. For no reason at all. It’s like being lost and then suddenly – Bam! You’re sliced in half and your guts fall to the floor. Try scooping your guts up, Tom. You can’t. It’s like spaghetti. You can’t do it. The damage is done. You’re already dead. You’re gone.’
‘I never called you it,’ I say.
‘I know you didn’t, Tom,’ he says. He looks at the dying pigeon. It’s making choked cooing noises. It starts making strange screaming sounds like a crying child. Steve stamps on its head, crushing its skull.
‘Look,’ he says as we’re walking back up the road. ‘It was an accident.’
‘The pigeon. Don’t tell anyone that or they’ll think I’m some sort of freak.’
‘I’m serious, Tom. You know what they’re like. They’ll start calling me names again. I can’t take any more of that.’
We say goodbye at the street corner. I watch him walk on the other side of the road, hands in his pockets, head down as if thinking a million thoughts. And then he disappears around a corner.
I smoke outside my house before I go in to see Ashley. It reminds me of being a teenager as if I’m now a child. The taste of it – just smoke. I cough and feel the blood rush to my head and a hotness through my body, as if I’m on fire, as if I’m burning, as if I’m being burnt at the stake.
I drop the cigarette and stamp on its head.
It’s quiet inside and I don’t go upstairs straight away. I go into the kitchen and make tea. I make her tea as well, knowing she won’t want it. But I make it anyway. Better to have something to give her. The tea tastes of honey.
I go upstairs carrying the tea and push open the bedroom door. Ashley is asleep on the bed. She has been bleeding but she doesn’t know. I put the cups of tea on the bedside table and try to wake her, rocking her from the shoulder. Her shoulder fits in the palm of my hand. She stirs slightly as I rock her and her eyes open.
She says, ‘What is it?’ she sounds rested now, forgetting her anger. She looks down and there’s a dark red patch on her pyjamas and on the bed. She looks at me. She stands up and holds a hand to her stomach. She walks into the bathroom and I hear the shower shushing from behind the door.
I sit on the bed and wait for her to finish in the bathroom. I drink my cup of tea.
The two cups of tea are now empty and I need to piss. I knock on the door and say, ‘Ash, are you nearly finished? I need to use the toilet.’ Not long after that I hear the sound of the shower go dead. Rustling noises of her drying herself and she walks out in a cloud of steam with a towel wrapped around her. She walks past me into the bedroom.
I go into the bathroom. I piss. I feel so much come out of me that my stomach seems to flatten. The sound of the flushing toilet is loud like laughing voices and I open the window to let out the warm steam and feel the cool air and I walk out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. She stands in clean clothes, looking at me.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Where did you go?’
‘I went for a walk,’ I say. ‘I saw Steve.’
‘How is he?’
‘I think he’s still grieving.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘I don’t know. Just the way he is.’
‘Am I what?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing to grieve.’ I look at her for what feels like a long time.
She picks up the two empty tea cups and says, ‘I still love you, you know.’
‘I know,’ I say.
‘Don’t you love me?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I still love you.’
‘I wonder what happens now.’
‘Nothing happens now,’ I say. A bird chirps outside in the late evening. I take the cups out of her hands. I say, ‘I’d do anything for you, you know.’
‘I know,’ she says.
Cover photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash