The cold water was refreshing, cathartic. His calluses glistened in the moisture, but no matter how long he let the tap run, his hands were never truly clean. Not as clean as he would like. Judd turned off the water and slapped his wet hands on the sinks edge, supporting himself as he lengthened his neck. He rolled his head across his shoulders, eyes closed, and listened for the clicks. A true testament to his daily hardships. Above the basin was a window, it framed a baking field, gilded in the midsummer sun.
Judd became a statue, with his eyes wide open he surveyed his land and felt a sudden melancholy. A man in his Autumn years, felt a certain kinship with the approaching season. Autumn was a reminder of his inevitable end, and Winter brought the greatest depression of all. How many more seasons could he have left? These feelings had been cyclical for a while now, and only Spring brought some serenity, a small vitalisation to propel him just that little bit longer.
Judd snapped himself out of his petrifaction and ran the tap over his hands once more. Joyce sat at a small table at the back of the room and watched him, scanning the checked shirt that clung to the dampness of his back. She held a tea cup and occasionally sipped while she waited for Judd to join her.
‘You have washed your hands six times, did you know that?’ Said Joyce.
Judd turned his head abruptly, startled by Joyce’s voice. He had forgotten she was there in the midst of his misery. He didn’t turn his body, instead he just gave his wife the same distant stare that he had been giving his field.
‘Six times.’ She shook her head ‘Is there something you want to tell me?’
Judd turned back to the window, and examined his fingernails against the metal side. Unsatisfied he held them under the tap once more.
‘Seven.’ Said Joyce, loud enough to be heard over the sound of running water.
Annoyed by her apparent non-existence, she poured herself another cup of earl grey from a teapot that sat on a table cloth not too dissimilar from Judd’s shirt. She shook her head in an all too rehearsed way as she added two sugar cubes and a dribble of milk.
The water ceased, and as Judd moved away from the basin, it seemed seven douses was enough. He dragged a wooden chair across the floor and let it screech across the lino. As he sat opposite Joyce, he made an effort to avoid her disapproving eyes.
‘Are you going to open that gob of yours today you miserable old sod?’
Pouring himself a cup of tea, he raised it to his lips and opened his mouth wide. It formed a comical ‘O’ and his eyes mirrored the shape as they met his wife’s. He held this for a few seconds before taking a gulp.
‘Funny man.’ Exclaimed Joyce.
Judd broke his gaze and smiled to himself, satisfied with his mockery. He examined his cracked knuckles as they clasped a teacup and fought the urge to return to the sink.
‘And take your hat off at the table.’
Judd complied with a loud exhale, swiping at his flat cap and slapping it onto the table. He revealed his balding head and the glare of his scalp through a few wisps of white hair.
The couple sat and slurped for minutes without a word. It hadn’t always been like this, just the last decade or so of their thirty-six years together. They were happy once, blissfully so. The idyllic, most attractive couple in their village; Judd with his long hair and motorcycle, and Joyce in her miniskirts and pointed brassieres. Time had taken its toll, and as Judd’s pride and joy rusted to dust in the barn, it seemed all pride and joy went with it. Age had crafted a bitter pair that now sat silently at a breakfast table most days, sipping tea. Each mouthful like a resentful hiss. There was a time when the couple loved their afternoons together, and the tea that they shared. Joyce would make the pot lovingly and Judd would sit and watch her as she did so, admiring her bottom as she flitted across the kitchen. He would greet her with a smile as she sat and she would mirror it unconsciously. Nowadays Judd wondered if he was offered a teapot, lined with his own wife’s spit.
‘Do you remember the bike?’ Asked Judd, his voice cracked, like he’d not spoken a word in years.
Joyce choked on her tea, surprised by her husbands question. The fact that he had said anything at all.
‘Of course I do.’ She said.
‘We were happy then.’ Judd sighed.
‘You were happy, I never liked that thing.’
‘Lies. I remember, you loved it just as much as I did.’
‘It was uncomfortable on the back, I feared for my life every time.’
‘You held on to me so tight I could barely breath.’
‘I didn’t want to fall off.’
Joyce got up from the table and carried the empty pot to the kitchen sink.
‘It was more than that and you know it!’
‘I don’t remember it like that’ She lied ‘why the sudden nostalgia?
Judd dropped his head.
‘I don’t know.’
Joyce turned to face him, her swollen rear perched against the kitchen side. She dried a teacup with a kitchen towel and examined Judd.
‘I know you better than you think Judd. You think I don’t know what’s going on, but I do.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about woman.’
‘You used to wash your hands like that, a long time ago. Washed them until your skin was raw.’
Judd looked up, so quickly that he felt a twinge in his neck.
‘Do you remember how happy we were, so young, and healthy and…’
‘Will you get to the point Judd!’ Exclaimed Joyce. ‘What are you blabbering about?’
Joyce moved some china around, slamming cupboards purposely to show her annoyance.
‘I just wonder sometimes, if it could have been different. That’s all.’
‘It is what it is, we are where we are, and nothing is going to change that now.’
The couple were silent again.
‘It could change, you remember the way we were. What’s stopping us?’
She sat back down and narrowed her eyes, trying to pierce through Judd’s façade.
‘If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, all I have to say to you is… Don’t be so bloody stupid.’
‘It’s not stupid, and deep down you know it. You just worry, you think you’re too old.’
Joyce moved forward and hissed.
‘We are too old!’
A sly smile appeared on Judd’s face as he moved his head closer.
‘You remember the back field, under the birch tree, the barn. You remember all that?’
Joyce backed up, her face startled.
‘I knew it, as soon as I caught you at that sink, I knew.’
‘By the pond, the stonewall, the vegetable patch…’
‘Stop it now. I don’t want to hear anymore.’
‘Of course I do. How could I forget.’
‘We were happy then, we were in love.’
Hurt by his comment Joyce forced herself to reach for her husbands hand, but Judd didn’t reciprocate.
‘I love you now.’ She whispered.
‘You love me like a pet, like one of your ornaments. It’s not like it was, it’s a chore now.’
Defensively she retrieved her hand and crossed her arms, her face screwed up as she looked away and across the field through the window.
The sun now retreating, rested on the horizon in line with their kitchen window. The sunlight created beams as it hit motes and dust in the air. The dead skin that had escaped Joyce and Judd’s bodies, fleeing in hoards now as they withered and dried. A beam struck Judd’s hand, illuminating new filth. He stood up abruptly and bounded towards the sink, washing his hands once more.
‘You used to wash your hands like that twenty years ago.’ Said Joyce.
‘Yes, back when we were happy, as you seem to recall.’
‘Maybe I did. I don’t remember.’
‘Yes you do, it became somewhat of a ritual. And this is why I want you too come clean.’
Turning off the tap, Judd dried his hands and dropped his head, defeated.
‘Twenty years ago we agreed to change, and since then we have become, well, what we are now. We can be happy again, and I can prove it too you.’
Joyce stood up and approached Judd, standing mere inches away, and probably the closest they’ve been to each other in a long time.
‘Now Judd, this is when I start to worry, because as far as I can tell, you are serious. I pray to God that you’re not!’
‘Come with me!’ Said Judd as he swiped his wife’s hand and pulled her out of the kitchen.
The action was so unexpected and in a strange way affectionate, that Joyce was lost for words. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since they last touched each other. As they both skipped down the hall and to the stairwell, she felt blood coursing. It seemed to inflate parts of her that have been barren for much too long, her capillaries breathed new life again as her heart pumped uncontrollably.
The basement. This is where Judd was taking her. She somehow knew that this was where they would end up before he’d even swung open the splintered door. This could mean only one thing, and with each step they descended, she felt her throat convulse and her ribcage tighten. She held her head forward, hoping to peer ahead of Judd, but it was dark, same as it used to be. A tide of memories came flooding back; the first was the smell. It was undeniable, and she was amazed at how fresh the scent was in her mind. The air seemed damp, warm, and as she opened her mouth she could taste a familiar taste. As her slippers hit cold chilled concrete she could feel a presence in the dark, other than her husband, and as he ignited a paraffin lamp all had become irrefutably real.
Judd stood in the flickering half light and caught his breath, his chest rising and falling heavily. He wore an open smile on his face as he stood proudly over his achievement.
‘My god Judd,’ Joyce clasped her mouth with her palm, ‘What have you done?’
The smile disappeared as he noticed his wife’s despair.
Ahead of them, splayed out on the hard floor was a person. A thin, young woman with matted golden hair. Caked in grime and sweat, it was clear that she had been in the room for a few days. Her wrists and ankles were fixed to the concrete by metal pegs, rusted with disuse. The young woman lay in such a way that if it were winter, you’d suspect she was making a snow angel.
‘What have you done Judd?’ Whispered Joyce.
‘What’s wrong? Please don’t be that way, I thought you knew?’
Joyce moved closer and examined the girls face.
‘That’s Jess.’ She moved back again. ‘The girl from the corner shop!’
‘I know, pretty little thing isn’t she.’
Judd leered and rubbed his hands together. He turned to his wife and noticed her fallen features. At first he couldn’t decipher her expression, it was either disappointment, or worse still, disgust.
‘You truly are an idiot. A total, total idiot.’
‘You didn’t think I had it in me did you? Well!’ Judd held his hands out towards the hostage. ‘Do Still think we’re too old?’
‘We agreed to end this. To change. You promised.’
‘I did change, twenty years ago I changed, but look at us now, look at how unhappy we have become. Tell me that something hasn’t been missing all these years. Look me in the eyes and tell me you haven’t missed it!’
Judd held Joyce’s hands once more and pulled her close. Their eyes met and suddenly they were young again. Each felt memories flooding back, emotions reigniting. They were in love again, and it felt stronger than ever before. Their mouths drew close enough to touch.
‘You know she’ll be missed. I always was the brains of the operation.’ Joyce whispered.
‘Yes you were my love.’
‘Never on your doorstep I always used to say. The village will be outside with flaming torches by the morning.’
‘Let them come. We will go out in a blaze of fire, the way we always talked about.’
‘You always had a way with words, husband of mine. Perhaps it is time. I love you Judd.’
‘I love you Joyce.’
The pair kissed like it was the first time. Their bodies broiled and their hearts thumped, thumped so hard that they could feel each others beat in their own throats. Lips locked, they dropped to the ground. Jess could do nothing but watch their one last act of untameable love.
© Copyright 2016 Daniel Mullaney. All rights reserved.