My name is George Ashford and late this afternoon I disposed of my daughter’s body. My wife, Marie, does not yet know what I have done and is not yet concerned. No, I’ll have to wait until this evening for her particular brand of amateur dramatics. By then it’s likely that her lover will have already been informed. He will know because at this very moment they are together, and he will be the very first person Marie will phone when our daughter hasn’t returned from school.
This morning I arranged with our daughter a little secret that she was not to tell anyone about. She was to meet me at the end of the road as soon as the bell went for home time. She would have to be quick because Daddy’s a very busy man and she really couldn’t afford to miss out on something as special as this.
Because Marie was with her lover she will hope that Sue, cheerful, dependable Sue, will have collected our daughter. Sue is ill today and Martin, her husband, collected their children in a rush between shifts. Martin works very hard for his family. He and Sue both work very hard for what they have. They have four children. Two boys and two girls. Marie and I have one child, our daughter, who we love very much.
I have lost the car. It’s dark now and I’ve been walking for quite a while, which makes me realise how late it is. I feel in my suit jacket pocket and shake a set of keys: front door, back door, garage and car. Leaves clutter the drain, so I clear them a bit and at arms length I drop the bundle into the gutter. A man and his young son walk briskly by, laughing together. For a moment I wish it was at me but it isn’t. They don’t notice me, don’t see a smile that barely suppresses my envy, and don’t notice what I finally now have.
Our front door is a deep red colour; which was not my choice. I would have chosen a yellow or an ochre. Marie decided on this colour. One day, I got back from work to discover that all the outside doors had been repainted on a whim. Marie’s spontaneity was one of the characteristics that shone out when I first saw her.
A party, a surprise party for a work colleague. She was the caterer’s assistant. I remember there was quite a fuss between the others. Who would like to do what and who would give it a go. They did try, but as they did, I knew, I had this feeling that she was cleverer than that. She had one of those looks that told you she wasn’t impressed with boys and their bravado. We spoke briefly but politely over the salmon and avocado sauce, and after an hour we left the party. She just walked out without permission, and I followed, enjoying the envious glances from my colleagues. I can’t really remember the exact details of what happened next but Marie is so impulsive, so in touch with herself and her sexuality. The doors used to be light blue with a white trim. I thought we had decided to paint them yellow or an ochre, something bright but easy on the eye, something more
The door opens and I’m slightly fazed by the hall light. As my eyes adjust I can see a large suitcase and a smaller checked one that we use for our daughter when we go on holiday. Marie is standing, just standing in the doorway. I’d like to get into my house but I’d have to push Marie out of the way. That thought crosses my mind but Marie turns and walks anxiously into the front room, talking in sounds that I can hardly hear; I pass the suitcases on my way to the kitchen. An ashtray falls onto the tiled floor as I lay my briefcase on the work surface. Marie has burst into the kitchen with furious eyes, spitting noise, but I can’t make out what the noise is. It isn’t a word or words, nor a language that I can recognise or understand or ever understood; so I put the kettle on and lean against the sink. It’s quiet now. I’m waiting for Marie to tell me what the problem is. She is looking at the floor, eyes scrunched up and breathing loudly through her nose.
Our daughter is missing. Marie tells me that she hasn’t come home yet. I say that I thought she always picked up our daughter from school. Marie pauses. Sue should have but she is ill so Martin picked up the children. I say I’m not really all that clued up on the pick-up arrangements and why was Sue picking up our daughter?
Marie begins to rub her nose and nervously picks up the ashtray. Sighing, she tells me that today was a Sue day and that she was going to go round and collect our daughter after doing the shopping. If it was a Sue day, I ask, then what happened when she went to the school? Marie curses under her breath and reminds me that Martin did it but that our daughter had gone by the time he had arrived. The kettle is whistling and as I reach for the tea bag jar my arm passes straight through the steam and I scald my wrist. It takes a second or two for me to react but Marie is already holding my hand and watching the bright red blotch appearing. She is still holding my hand as she runs cold water over it.
I look at her, all concerned and busy telling me off. I can’t remember the last time she held my hand, held me with any concern or affection. I feel like crying. I feel fragile and I can’t allow her to continue touching me. I pull my hand away at the exact moment she lets go to get some antiseptic cream.
I lick my wrist and I am in control again. I ask if the police have been notified. Marie shouts through from the conservatory confirming this and that she had to wait for me to get back from work. She’d tried to reach me there but couldn’t get through and the police told her to wait in case I’d picked her up. Suddenly it’s quiet, I can see Marie out of the corner of my eye but I keep looking at my wrist. She is looking at me. I glance at her quickly, and then again, but this time lingering.
My mind races as Marie asks why I am late. I smile and tell her I stopped off to buy some cakes for us to have after dinner. I left my wallet in the car and when I got back to the car it had gone and I had to walk home. She says to me that I’ve taken my time telling her this. I say to her, after nearly laughing out loud, that we’ve been a bit preoccupied.
Our daughter is missing. And the car being stolen is not important. It just doesn’t matter.
I shouted this so loudly that Marie flinched and held herself, tightly squeezing her arms. I take the cream from her and let out a deep breath. I tell her I’m sorry and her eyes start to wet and her lip begins to tremble uncontrollably, gradually stretching over her teeth in a bizarre contortion. A mewing sob breaks out and she stands, arms still clenched tightly looking at me. I can see her face start to redden and blotch as it always does when she’s upset. The usual bluey-green of her irises begin to bleach and dilute as the tears wash away the strain of our life together. I glare at her to show her I am still strong, that I at the very least can cope, but all the posturing dissolves the longer I see the hurt I am causing, the longer I watch her struggle to subdue the pain by chewing her lip.
The world has stopped for both of us and, as my own eyes begin to moisten, I pinch the bridge of my nose and turn away. I see the suitcases in the hall and I know that what was going to be an important day for Marie and our daughter has become a day when the inconceivable has happened: a change in the everyday routine of our life. Marie touches my arm, acknowledging that the suitcases represented a redirection in our marriage. She whispers to me two words, then repeats them, and I understand, I really understand. Strangely Marie looks beautiful, her eyes soft and needing. Our daughter is not coming home tonight, but in her absence it seems that something that had been missing has returned. Perhaps my beautiful wife was not with a lover. Perhaps she was busy preparing for a great task, one that was brave and inevitable.
I know I have not always been the best husband, and that I have pushed and have been pushed away, but this moment, this exact moment has clarified things for me. Whatever may be around the corner for us as a family, I am now aware of the one thing I think I had forgotten.
I look at Marie in those deep angelic eyes and pull her close towards me. She doesn’t resist, doesn’t pull away, and I start to cry. I hold her close, and, barely audible, I tell her I love her.
Marie and I are in bed. For the first time in months we made love. Through Marie’s tears I could hear her expel the long deep breath of her orgasm. We made love like this once before after the still birth of our first child, Oliver. The disappointment I felt after Marie returned from hospital now seems to be equalled by the passivity of my performance. In one respect I have my Marie back. We are united again and this means we can be happy again; all the distractions that have been in the way for the past few years have been eradicated. But there is still something that is not quite right.
I can’t sleep.
I lie on my back with my arms folded staring at the blue lit ceiling. I like the curtains completely drawn and to be totally engulfed by the darkness of the night. Marie prefers the light of the moon to illuminate the bedroom. If it is light I can’t sleep. If there is the slightest noise, I can hear it and can’t sleep. I spent two weeks trying to work out where a low buzzing sound was coming from. Every night I’d listen while Marie fell straight to sleep unaware of my nocturnal pressures. If I lay with my head on the pillow it seemed louder but if I moved to the centre of my side of the bed it was quieter. I listened at the walls to see if next door had a machine or something against the wall which was vibrating and therefore keeping me awake. I’d think to myself that it wasn’t always like this and as I got up and put my clothes on to go downstairs to make a cup of tea, I’d be completely flummoxed and at times despairing. One night after considering that it might be the lamp post outside, I decided to turn the bedside light on. As I clicked the trigger I noticed an alarm clock.
I say an alarm clock because it wasn’t my alarm clock. I never need one. I use my watch. I looked at the digital numbers telling me that it was four forty eight a.m. I had been awake in bed for over five hours. I listened carefully, very carefully to the low buzz it was making. I put my ear to the bedside cabinet and could hear the buzz vibrating through the wood. Smiling to myself, I turned to Marie and vaguely remembered her telling me that she’d bought the clock so that she didn’t have to rely on me waking her as I left for work. In truth it was a sensible choice, because a wind up alarm clock would have kept both her and me awake because the rhythm of the ticks. Not only that but perversely the red digital numbers would, she said, shock her if she woke during the night. And so that was why I had it on my side of the bed. As I looked at her sleeping head, I silently thanked her for her thoughtlessness.
Tonight we are sleeping with the alarm clock on top of three novels, which seems to insulate the vibration, and the curtain half drawn, letting the moonlight and the lamp post light project the silhouette of the window frame onto the bed and over me. Not Marie, the light doesn’t reach that far across the bed, she’s next to the bedroom door which is normally ajar so that our daughter can easily slip in if she has had a nightmare or needs anything.
I can’t sleep so I get up. It’s chilly downstairs and the kitchen has a lino floor which is cold for my bare feet. I look at the mug I had prepared earlier, still with the tea bag in it and the milk. There is a brown circle around the tea bag but it doesn’t put me off. Usually I like to pour the water in straight after I’ve prepared the cup of tea so that I can strain the tea bag straight away to be sure that I have a hot cup of tea. Marie likes to let it brew, and consequently I end up with a vaguely warm mug of tea that has to be drunk immediately. I like my tea hot.
The night is starting to break into day and, finally, I am feeling tired. The tea has left my mouth feeling tinny and bitter. I look at the hallway clock and step quietly upstairs back to bed. I can still get a few hours before I have to get up for work. When I get into bed I am freezing, and to make matters worse Marie is very warm. She turns to me and smiles sleepily, putting her arm around me, and gradually I drift off to sleep.
Marie is already up when I awake. I can hear her in the kitchen where she is making breakfast. The only noise is the familiar clink and clank of crockery and knives and forks, expensive ones from a popular high street retailer. I don’t particularly like them. The angle of the fork head is awkward, it’s too flat and I struggle to employ it properly, leaving me numb, like I have no feeling in my left hand. I sit on the edge of the bed and look out of the window, Marie having opened the curtains, knowing that the morning light will rouse me. It is raining outside and the sky is grey and quiet. I ruffle what’s left of my hair and get dressed for work. I don’t want to shower today, it doesn’t feel right. I pull the curtains closed and put my underwear on, then my socks and then my suit and tie. In this light I can barely see myself in the mirror. I blend in perfectly with the bedroom, dark and invisible against the sparsely decorated walls. There’s a call. Breakfast is ready.
I don’t really like to eat so much breakfast at 07:30 in the morning but I have a tendency to miss meals during the day due to the nature of my work, due to the fact I’m so busy all the time. I reach the bottom of the stairs where a large mirror hangs. It’s another day, I tell myself, just another day. I turn towards the kitchen. I can see Marie at the sink, her back to me, doing something up. It is a flask. I don’t need a flask for work. I don’t need a flask because we have vending machines. Marie turns as I reach the doorway. She smiles, then passes the flask to our daughter, who looks up at me and grins from ear to ear. She jumps off her stool, one she chose especially because it goes up and down. Our daughter hugs my legs and stands on her tip toes for a kiss.
A kiss for my favourite girl.
A kiss for my favourite Daddy.
I’m tired. I feel like I can’t remember the last time I had some sleep; my body is slow and unresponsive. The breakfast is nice. Natural yoghurt and muesli followed by poached egg on toast and a cup of mint tea. Marie says that too much caffeine can cause sleepless nights and that mint and green teas are better for hydration and digestion. I don’t mind really. With or without caffeine I haven’t been sleeping, so what does that mean? When I’ve made this point to Marie she tells me that I sleep like a baby. A baby? Am I not always awake at night then? Marie must be thinking of someone else.
Our daughter has jumped from her stool again and is clinging to my leg. She is squeezing it tight, as she does every morning, grinning at me and leaving kiss shaped saliva marks on the knee of my trousers.
Without looking at me, our daughter jumps back onto her stool and finishes her breakfast. I’m watching her concentrating on putting the spoon up to her mouth so as not to spill any milk onto the table top. She has the spoon in a contorted, twisted position, that is doubling her probable lack of success. Marie said that these things sort themselves out in time and we shouldn’t be concerned. I am concerned. I have every right to wonder why, at the age of six, our daughter finds it almost impossible to hold her fucking spoon properly. A cheeky giggle escapes from the gap toothed mouth that is eventually managing to eat cornflakes as Marie asks me, in a sing song manner, what I’m looking at. I say to her that can’t a father look at his daughter if he wants to, and I smile at both of them.
I am Daddy. I want to devour Little Red Riding Hood.
I finish the tea and pick up my keys and my briefcase. Today I am travelling to work by train. Twice this week I will use the trains so that Marie can drop our daughter off at school and attend to all her chores like shopping and meeting friends. On those other days some friends do the drop off and pick up. One week it’s two days, the next it’s three and then back to two. They alternate the drop off and pick up regime. I don’t always keep track of the timetable and a few weeks ago I had to travel on the train at very short notice. I can’t say I was happy about it, but it was my mistake, wearily accepted. I had a presentation and, well, it didn’t go very well because I thought I had the car and was going to drive to work, but I have to catch the train earlier than I usually leave the house to get to work and it arrives later than when I drive to work. I had to catch the next train, which I only just caught, and I arrived thirty three minutes after I was supposed to have started the presentation. I did my best but I knew it was frowned upon. I didn’t really have an interesting excuse or a convenient reason why I hadn’t phoned; why I was actually late. The bosses were sympathetic in that disappointed way people are when you know they will laugh at you later for your miserable incompetence. Of course I understand the importance of routine, it’s just that I can tend to lose track when my workload is heavy, and what with the sleep issue and the way my thoughts race at night, I find that I tend to lose track of the routine and timetable.
I don’t think I’ve always been like this. Some part of me tries to suggest that it used to be different, it used to be easier to exist. Not this, not this tired shell and mind that struggles to deal with the everyday things one has to contend with. Something else, something less tightly wound. No, that’s not quite right. Less tight. I feel like my skin is too tight and it is squeezing me. Ironic then, that the actual skin itself is not tight and elastic, but loose, certainly looser than last year, and this makes me think that perhaps the tightness is under my skin, like this loose skin is a suit. A suit of skin. I realise how ridiculous this sounds. Of course it’s absurd. What am I thinking?
I wonder if when I have this sort of … speculation, whether other people think these things as well. It’s that thought that justifies my continued, it’s not quite like this, but my continued indulgence in these thoughts. They’ve been steadily building over the last couple of years. I don’t know where they’re coming from, and I can’t particularly put my finger on the exact source, but the frequency is increasing, and if I am to be honest, I like it. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted it before.
Marie prods me. Our daughter laughs from her up-and-down stool. I kiss Marie on the forehead and jangle my keys as I head for the door. There’s a bye that hangs in the air as I close the door behind me, using the key to turn the lock quietly instead of slamming it shut. I stand on our doorstep looking at the rain pouring down. A hat. What if I bought myself a nice hat like my father used to wear when it was the regulation fashion accessory of the sincerely middle aged? It’s hardly worth the expense considering the thinning head of hair I now have.
I catch my reflection in the side window of a car. The rain is splashing and streaking down the glass. Distorted and caricatured, I wonder if this is how I really look. If this thing, this sad, sad creature I see before me, is my true image; a confession of some sort … I really ought to have brought an umbrella. The rain is coming down quite hard now, and I still have a fair way to walk to the train station.
The train is late. I am going to be late. I don’t mind. Really, I don’t mind in the slightest. As people fought to get on, their wet, damp bodies pushing closely together, the drips from their noses and chins falling onto the free newspaper everyone just has to pick up, I waited. I waited and still managed to get on without fuss or desperation. I’m quite relaxed in these circumstances. I have much more important things to think about than soggy newspapers and stuffy train carriages.
A young woman, with pretty eyes and a mouth you would let yourself be completely consumed by, unintentionally brushes her breast against me. She doesn’t even apologise. Did she not feel me? Am I invisible? If I brushed against her, what would she feel? What would she … Nothing. It would be nothing. No one feels anything anymore, contained as they are in their own shallow self-satisfied existence. I’d like to kiss that young woman, just to see what this new vacuousness tastes like, to feel that thick mouth on mine …
I really must stop right there.
She would feel something now if I brushed against her.
It’s nearly time. The final stop approaches and everyone is getting anxious, getting ready to run to work. This train terminates here. I’m tired. I’m not running anywhere. Not running to anything.
I’m late today because I didn’t have the car. And they’ll look at me and roll their eyes when I get to the office, and I’ll apologise and suffer the temporary condescension. Everyone has to catch a train to work, they will say. But mine was late and today I don’t have the car, I’ll reply. That’s no excuse, they will say. But it’s all right, I’ll tell them. I won’t be travelling by train tomorrow. I’ll be taking the car to work.
And perhaps tomorrow, I won’t be driving it back.
*This short story was first published by Unthank Books in Unthology 5, 2014.