A Shaft of Sunlight

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
Vincent's life and marriage are in turmoil, until she comes into his life.

Submitted: July 18, 2015

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Submitted: July 18, 2015

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~~Only after the day’s work, when he arrived at his front door, did Vincent remember the row; Edith, her soprano screams, the airborne crockery.  He’d done his old matador routine, one of those twirling distractions with his shabby working jacket.  It had worked.  She’d missed his head with the vacuum cleaner and demolished the bathroom mirror.  She was always saying it was fate’s malicious hand that had brought them together.  But he being a scientist by nature, knew it was not fate which put him outside his door with no means of entry but centrifugal force that had flung his keys from his pocket that morning. 
Smashing a pane in the door was a seductive solution.  Beyond beckoned a pot of tea, his stamp album and the nightly foray against the greenhouse aphids with his spray gun.  But then on his text-phone bleeped Edith’s Declaration of Independence; “Gone to mother’s.” and pins and needles stirred in his stomach.  There was something exciting in the cooling evening air. 
The sun had gone but the sky was luminous and pricked with stars.  He set off up the street.  A café on the corner threw out light and raised voices.  He’d hardly noticed it during his twenty odd years in Brom Street and pushed through the door as if he were a regular. 
A pot of tea?  No, a mug as thick as armour plate with sausage and bacon.  He sat in a corner by the counter thinking of Edith’s return in twenty four hours.  She always came back in a day, back to the squirrel-cage revolution; he brought home the bread, such as it was, she cooked and little else.  She was bored at home, he was bored at work.  Perhaps you just had to put up with it to live, but suddenly this “putting up with” seemed as odious as the café.  The sausage squirmed away from his knife and jumped on to the floor, a front-loaded Amazon manned the coffee-machine which hissed volcanically above the racket of voices. 
As he emptied his mug a woman passed his table, fast and horizontal.  Two men, one in a neat suit, the other an aproned waiter, jerked her to her feet and swung her through the door on to the pavement. 
Vincent didn’t like women being thrown around.  Even if it had been Edith he would have raised an eyebrow but the occasion had him outside railing at the waiter who lingered at the door and he pulled the woman up and steadied her against the wall.  He had come out with a quickly-scraped-together sandwich and this she seized and made off up the street like a greyhound. 
Vincent was in his early thirties but seldom ran.  He caught up with her though, a foot catching the heel of her shoe which spun off into the road.  He saw then that she was about twenty five with wild black hair.  Her skin was copper-coloured, her eyes were huge and darkly underlined.  She wore a ragged skirt pulled up high by a twist of cord and a tattered tunic.  Seeing she couldn’t reach her shoe, she pulled a face, bellowed one short obscenity and darted up a side street past the railway arches. 
Vincent was spent and walked slowly past the arches and a line of shops.  He lingered glancing in the windows.  Even the kettles looked like space ships and iPods, what the hell were they?
He still needed a pot of tea and a quiet place but the Exploding Star threw out blinding light and thumping drum beats and a place called the Gangsta-Rap Roost reminded him of cruelty to animals.  In any case the street lead to a dead-end and he was about to turn back when he saw the name on a neat sign, “Fogey’s”.  He didn’t like to think of himself as one of those but he imagined armchairs, a cocktail bar and serene violins.
He walked into blackness after the glare of the street.  Then a wide dark-suited man with glossy hair waved him on to a desk, a smile and a hand into which he placed the requested notes.  The sum seemed steep.  But he shrank from the thought of asking for his money back and passed between curtains that parted as if to his will into pink light, perfume and soft carpet. 
A metal rod rose to an unseen ceiling, and another beyond.  Was the place falling down?  A woman didn’t seem to know whether to stop it falling or to make love to it; but when the pink beam slewed round he saw her naked body.  It was then he missed the bar stool. 
They were very good about it, the two smart giants with shiny skulls who pulled him to his feet and sat him at the bar.  He ordered a drink.The barman had a hungry face, hair in cornrows and a swishy pigtail, black and plaited.  He set down the glass, nipped the note in yellow fingers and smiled like a real friend.  But the muscles bunched in his neck, suggesting strength that made Vincent nervous.  Yet he felt a tingle of freedom in what Edith called the nether regions.  He’d certainly walked up the road with the intention of enjoying himself.  But how that should be done, well… no answer ever came from his worktime reveries.  Maybe this venue would give him some ideas.  A stiff drink might open doors, if only to imagination.  Yes.  That’s how it had been, now and again in the past, the first stirrings of an adventure, but what then?  Damn it, he couldn’t remember. 
At first he thought she had company – a crabby man with a crooked smile but then she moved up the bar and with a twist of a high-heel slid on to the stool beside him, just like a dance routine.  A request for a light.  Her smile was a lip-job all right.  Vincent didn’t smoke but the barman was there in a flash with a flame. 
How this curly angel took in his words about stamp collecting and hot-house plants and the champagne cocktails!  He hadn’t meant to drink.  Whenever he took his breaks off he passed into oblivion.  But this was different.  She was telling him she truly had a penny black and liked pansies for a little variation, at which the barman smirked, plainly impassive to the world of flowers. 
The wine was changing the world.  A trumpet had plenty to say and the piano punctuated it.  The chemicals were on the move and with them his feet, over the lush pile and on to the dance floor under the ultra violet lights with the fluorescent smile, her cool-skin touch, guiding, gliding up a stairway to silver sheets and ten second’s desperate rapture. 
And then he found himself in the street.  He propped himself up against a wall.  He couldn’t remember how long he’d been there, but he did know he had a fat head and a thin wallet.
It was a bald street.  A crescent moon hung ready to slip into the sea.  He walked, rather shuffled, touching the wall.  He was frightened of falling.  Then with sudden fear he thrust his hand into his pocket.  It wasn’t only his money that was missing but his credit cards too, every one.  He looked in all his pockets, on the ground, all the way he’d come, back to the unlit shut-up door of Fogey’s.  The place was empty, his head empty too, pounding with pain.  Only slowly, minute by minute, as he walked along the street did the weight of it become clear, the only clear part of his mind.  What would they do with his cards?
As soon as the doors of his bank opened he hurried in.  At the worst he could have lost £200 from his account if the thieves had acted…maybe £400. 
But it was worse than that, far worse.  He was left with his clothes, a mortgaged house and Edith.  How in hell had they done it?  Organized crime that’s how – an international contact. 
When he reached his house he smashed in a pane and entered.  She’d be back today.  He found a few pounds in his bedroom and in the pockets of his gardening jacket.  The plants in the greenhouse drooped, the furniture lacked luster and the mustiness once homely now smelt like a threat.  He went out again, had to get out, anywhere, just walking with the few pounds in his pocket, away from the house and hating the morning’s chill, with no purpose, shocked in mind, shocked into deadness apart from his aching limbs.
He passed the railway arches, skirted a row of bins overflowing, rank-smelling, ready for collection.  He almost tripped over it, a bundle of rags.  But the rags moved, showed a head.  The face looked and a jolt went through him: the woman who’d stolen his sandwich, still minus a shoe, the sunken eyes, the coppery skin. 
She stood up.  Her voice cut sharp, clear and steady, like a young woman’s, almost a girl’s.  “You fuck off.  I’ll cut your bloody throat if you come near me.”  She plucked a spike of glass from the rags that hung from her.  It was curved like a rhino horn.  He started back, scared at her cry, afraid someone would hear, come running thinking he was trying to rape her.  Her legs shone in the sun, pitifully wasted and blood reddened her bare foot.  The sky seemed to lose its brilliance and the wind blew colder.  His gloom weighed more heavily and he found it harder to drive his aching legs up the street away from the woman’s hate-filled eyes and her lingering cries. 
He found the shoe in the gutter where it had fallen, a thing of dirty rubber, worn down and stained.  This was his doing.  And he’d done it to someone who needed help, not his brutishness.  He’d been OK hadn’t he?  Had his wine, food, a woman.  What did she have?  He picked up the shoe, spat on his handkerchief and cleaned the edge of the sole, the upper of criss-crossed plastic, the little gilt rosette. 
When he got back she was sitting on the wall by the bins.  She jumped up when she saw him coming.  Her spittle spotted his shoes.  They too were dirty and her tongue just as filthy.  She saw her shoe and snatched it from him but did not put it on, turning it over then turning on him. 
Her huge dark eyes fired and her mouth took on an ugly shape.  “So you have a conscience you fat, interfering cunt.  The café guard.  You fucking suit.  If you really wanted to put things right you’d buy me my lost meal, you dressed-up turd.”  He was worried that someone would come running at her outburst, but the street remained silent with just the wind scratching the litter round the bins.
A wave of sickness passed over him and he dug his hand into a pocket and counted his only money with a trembling hand.  “Ha.  A few coppers for the beggar.  Makes you feel better does it?  Not too much though if you want to pass this way again.  You don’t want to be pestered.”
“It might interest you to know that this is all I have.”  Her disgust was louder, angrier this time.
“Don’t give me your boardroom lies you wanker.  I don’t want your pity.  Condescending charity, that’s what it is.”  The words pleased her.  She grinned, her thin tongue snaking out pink and impish.  And he felt strange, felt something on his body entirely new.  But he couldn’t let the abuse go by. 
“Long words for a bag-lady.”  His words were cruel.  Why had he said them?  She came at him this time with her glass dagger.  It shone bottle green.  He dodged.  But she clipped his cheek and the blood ran down his face.
“I hope it scars.  Remember how you got it busybody, fucking up a fucked up life.  What’ve I ever done to you eh?”  She slid her foot into her shoe, one drab, one shiny, and looked at them side by side.  “Now you can clean the other one pig.”
How absurd.  Did she expect him to bend down and do that?  He could see from her face she didn’t.  Her lips parted, wet, and large as if to swallow him.  He knew it was a futile demand, she knew it too and looked away from him.
But immediately such a preposterous action attracted him; the idea of shocking her by doing something she never expected.  He found himself walking towards her, stepping within reach of the glass knife.  He bent down and began to polish the dirty shoe with his handkerchief, dipping it into a clear puddle, wiping away the filth, restoring a shine and making the little rose bloom again.  A tightness drew about his belly.  He could smell her feet and feel the warmth of her legs although they were an inch away from his hands.  When he straightened up ready to dodge the dagger he was close to her, felt her breath.  Across her copper-coloured face ran dismay, anger, disgust.  Her eyes burned, so black and sunken with a line under each like a smudge of charcoal.  The sun glistened on her hair, a great wild mop, greasy and of the deepest black.  He could smell it, and the bitter sweetness of her body. 
The dagger she lowered and put in her rags.  Her lips were thick, red as a wound against her drawn in face.  But her eyes seemed too young against the unknown pains that marked her.  And under those marks, just for a moment, he saw something that quickened his pulse, something that had once been, and it brought the tightness back to his stomach.  But she shouted, “A whimp with no spirit.  Why didn’t you tell me to fuck off instead of…you’re frightened of this aren’t you?”  She thrust at him with the knife.  But he stood his ground.  He’d been right – fortunately – she hadn’t intended harm this time.  But then he found out why.  “Well?  Have you enough petty cash to buy the meal you stole off me yesterday?”
“The meal you stole.”
“I have need.  You haven’t.”  Her fat wet lips opened, waiting.  Her mad eyes glared as if it was him she was going to devour not a steak and kidney pie.  A tremor shot through him, jangling the coins in his hand.  Even Edith hadn’t made him feel like this. 
Something indigestible filled his chest and he swallowed hard.
“I…there’s….”
“On the right…Dino’s.”  She thrust her stick of an arm up the road.  He looked at his change again.  She laughed, deep-throated this time and he felt as if he were cleaning her shoe again, and something more, like gooseflesh, spreading lower, so that the thought of the steak and kidney pie sickened him. 
He stepped away, quickly up the street, not looking back.  She’d anticipated his cowardice with loud insults, “Mean, useless shit.  Run away off to your mews and Mercedes.”  Someone must hear that.  He started to run, the street echoing to his sharp, unequal steps.  They’ll think I tried to rape her.  He came in sight of Dino’s, a whiff of bacon, neon and dirty windows.  If he went past there was no turning back.  She would laugh even more at that.  It would be too late then.  Too late for what?  The sick feeling came over him again and he turned into Dino’s.
He told himself, eating a snack in the open air, even with a mad ragamuffin was better than being in the morgue of a house, no money and the thought of Edith coming home, work tomorrow, thinking of ways to get money without shame until next month’s salary.  He thought of Reginald’s turned-up nose as he asked for a lone; they’d tear him to bits those office tongues. 
His last coins rattled on to the counter.
He held the bag carefully and walked back to the bins.  He thought for a moment she had gone.  But a board set between two long-abandoned and disintegrating shops grated aside and she stepped out, rummaging in her rags.  He thought she was going to pull her glass dagger again but she came forward.  “What you got there?  A choc bar for the tramp?”  She seized the bag before he could open it.  “Well well.  It makes up for yesterday…just.”  She took the pie and bit into it.  Gravy ran off her chin.  A square of pastry fell on the filthy pavement.  She snatched it up, smacking her big lips.  He lifted his own pie but could not stop his hands trembling, bit and tasted nothing, swallowed and had to watch her eyes, glazed and fixed, as if in ecstasy. 
He finished the pie.  But still his stomach felt empty.  The sides of his mouth watered like a man starving.  It seemed to bathe his tongue as he watched her throw the empty bag down at her feet and kick it away.  She wiped the grease from her hands on the filthy rags that had once been a dress.  “Now we’re quits.  You’re free to go with a clear conscience.  Go to your mansion, I’ll go to mine.”  She coughed.  It sounded like an animal’s cry, dry and harsh. 
She pulled at the board again.  The buildings on each side formed a passage, just a few yards long and roofed over.  A hole in the slates let in a shaft of sunlight.  “When the sun gets higher it warms my bed.”  She pointed to a barrel-stand heaped with filthy rags.  As he stepped in he could smell her body again and the sharpness of ammonia.  The pie he’d just swallowed was restless.  Through a rent in her rags he caught the shine of her coppery thigh as she moved into the shaft of sunlight and the wave of sickness came again.  His heart hammered as if trying to break out of his chest.  She saw him swallow and her big lips gave him a crooked smirk. 
He should have said something, not just walked away.  The sweat under his arms pulled as he hurried up the street.  At least he could have a cup of tea, lie down on a clean bed with the window open and the air fresh.  Why was he worrying?  Monday he could somehow borrow money.  No better, he had access to the petty cash.  He could use some of that, put it back when his monthly salary came in.  And Edith?  What of it?  He’d put up with her for ten years.  Sentences harden, trials strengthen.  He wouldn’t let her pecking wear him down.
He fitted a square of wood over the broken pane in the front door, made his cup of tea and sat down by the window in the lounge.  The stickiness under his arms told him it would not be long.  She was no surprise.  But he still jumped when the front door slammed.  She threw a look at him through the doorway and tossed bags and wrappings on the settee.  Turning without a word she went into the kitchen shouting over her shoulder, “You can get that front door fixed now.  Forgot your key did you with your hands in your pockets and you head in the clouds?”  His stomach clenched, his heart began to sprint.  Hot tea spotted his cardigan and when she came into the room he jumped again.  But she said nothing, pulling aside wrappings, opening a box.  Spending her money again.  She had two wardrobes full of clothes, an arsenal of perfumes and a mountain of shoes. 
He raised his paper but secretly studied her face.  She was still pretty.  The ugliness lay inside her.  She was thirty, one year younger than him.  They had been married for ten years. A fringe of red hair, thin well-shaped lips and her eyes, her eyes had once reminded him of pearls, so silvery, pale blue.  It had been all right, the marriage, for the first year.  But then…well it reminded him of one of those modern art exhibitions he’d been to, a stand supporting a cake, a masterpiece really of piped fresh cream, crowned with fruit, anointed with liqueur syrup.  It had made his mouth water – just as Edith once had.  But the cake was ringed with razor-wire.  Craftily he’d waited until the attendant’s back was turned.  It was all real, the steel bloodied his finger and the cake was soft and sweet, just as Edith had been.  But she had her own ring of steel about her and his mouth no longer watered.  And he thought of Brighton, their honeymoon, the fever for each others flesh, missed dinners and neglected shopping.  He smiled grimly remembering.  Now, their relationship was well and truly dry.  If she ever found the copies of Playboy he kept locked in his desk lest he forget what real beauty is, well, her sparks and his dryness coming together would cause a conflagration.  Perhaps that would be better, would change this celebate, cold hell to something worth living for.  He took his cup into the kitchen, holding it apart from the saucer lest it rattle.
She followed him in.  “Put the rubbish out for the bin men.  I don’t suppose you’ve realized it’s Monday tomorrow.  And sweep the path, look at it…why I ever married you, you useless deadbeat weed.  What have you been doing while I’ve been away?  You look dirty, your usual droopy, silent self.”  He turned and went back into the lounge.  If he said anything it would only make things worse.  “Don’t you walk away like that you….”  Was she finally out of words he wondered.  He heard her throw out a long breath and go up the stairs.  Her bedroom door slammed shut.  It would be better to take out the rubbish now and sweep the path.  At least he was away from her out there.  But the gloom that went with her like an undertaker’s parlour reached out even to his refuge in the greenhouse.  The plants looked woebegone.  He filled the watering-can and went along the neatly-planted rows.  Soon the geraniums would be out, and the begonias.  Taking up the flit gun he shot down a few flies watching their death throws.  If only it was her.  But then her mother would get all her money, money she kept to herself.  At least he didn’t have to pay for her shopping sprees.  That way it would be better she lived, even though his way of life was dead.  He thought of the poor girl by the bins and the dim spark inside him grew a little brighter for a moment and he put down the flit gun.
Monday had been a trial.  He hadn’t dared borrow any money and had dreaded all day coming back to sit with her, by the window with his cup of tea, his heart racing, feeling he was drowning because she was there.  But he’d managed to take a few pounds from the petty cash.  He’d soon put it back… yes… when this month’s salary came in.  He had bills to pay, plenty of them this month.  He’d asked for a rise last week.  The memory of it turned him cold inside.  How he’d been dismissed by a shaking head and the secretary opening the door.
She was back in the kitchen.  “Come and do the drying up.  There are clothes to be put upstairs, and do the surrounds, and the cistern cupboard needs attention, the door hinge.  What do you do when you’re here?  Nothing.  And little more at work.  All you earn at Fosters is tiddly-winks and smirks.  I picked a loser with you all right.”  I wonder what she does with her time during the day?  He spoke the words in his mind.  It wouldn’t be wise to put voice to them.  He imagined her thunderclap and went out to look at the cistern but she stopped him.  “The front door.  You haven’t done that yet.  How many more times?”  At least it would get him out of the house.  He had the petty cash money in his pocket.  He could get a piece of small-arctic glass and some putty.
Closing the door quietly, he went down the street.  There was a shop a hundred yards away, and one near Dino’s.  He’d go on a little way past the railway arches, just to see if the rag-girl was still there.  He imagined her tattered dress, the glint of her leg in a tear, brown and shiny as if lacquered.  His pace quickened.  He’d just see if she was still there, wouldn’t stop of course. 
Damned expensive.  He pocketed the putty in a twist of paper and the square of glass, carefully wrapped and went down the road past Dino’s.  When he caught sight of the railway arches he suddenly felt as if he were back in the lounge with Edith, drowning, heart fluttering.
He’d take the road on the left.  He could see the wood she used as a door.  But he kept on straight for just a little further.  The wood was drawn aside.  Curiosity was too much.  He felt like a thief, more than that - unsavoury – perverted.  But he only wanted to see if she was all right and dipped his head to look inside.  Her shelter was empty and suddenly he felt angry that he would have to go back to the house, fingering in the putty round the glass, screwing tight the hinge, with updates from Edith on how useless he was.  His gloom came down as if the sun had gone behind a cloud and he jumped when he was struck from behind.  She tossed back her great shock of black hair, like a wild woman, “What have you come back here for…spying on me?  Going to tell the council I’m still here…tramps should be moved on.  I know what you toffs think.”  She wrinkled her nose as if his suit had a fishy smell.
“I was passing, shopping, just wondered how…”
“If I was stealing from a café.  Why don’t you put up a poster with my photo?  Wanted a burger thief, reward offered.”
“Why would I offer money for your arrest?”
“I can’t imagine.  The council would expect to be paid by someone to take old rubbish away.”
“You’re not that old are you?”  She laughed, almost a growl this time and he felt his fingers squeeze the putty in his pocket.
“You don’t question that I’m rubbish then?”
“Don’t talk like that.”  He was annoyed at speaking the words, even before he’d finished.  His voice quivered.  He was surprised at his sudden anger and burning face.  For a moment she froze, staring at him as if she wanted him to walk down the road and into the sea.
“Well I’m not worth much am I?  She lifted her rags and the sun gleamed on her copper-coloured legs and the circle of her belly, huge against her thin body.
“And you’re pregnant, living like this?”  He moved his arm around the scattered garbage, bins and her smelly shelter.
“Don’t you know the less you eat the bigger gets your belly?  You stupid man.”  She bared her stomach again as if proud of it, passing her hands over its shiny roundness, letting a finger linger in her belly-button.  “If you had any pity you’d get me something to eat.”
“Did you never think of getting work…in the beginning?”  He only just dodged the glass dagger in time.  It took a crescent of plastic out of the side of a bin and he felt the wind of her wiry arm.
“Why don’t you fuck off.  What you come back for?  You weren’t asked.”
“You could find a better place than this.  I could get…”
“You could get?  Ha!”  She stood looking at him with her great shock of black hair, gaunt and mad-eyed.  “You’re a strange one, a bit crazy I’d say.”  His face burned.  He felt ashamed, furtive, talking in a dirty alley to a…he could be seen talking to her.  What’s he doing (?) they’d say.  He knew what he was doing all right.  He didn’t dare think about it, couldn’t believe that he could be so…oh god.  Sparing her not another word or glance he turned away.  He could hear her cough, short barks and curses as he hurried up the road. 
The house, the jobs, Edith waited.  But when he got level with Dino’s he went in and bought two portions of steak and kidney pie chips and peas.  A thrill of independence bore him down the street, that and the swarm of ants that seemed to be crawling inside his stomach.  He wasn’t hungry, not for the steak pie.  The thought of the thick gravy worsened the feeling of a sickness he could not throw off.  The jobs could go to hell, Edith could go to hell…the whole bloody world could fuck off.  The girl’s need was greater than…  He almost banged into her as she came forward, her huge brass earrings flashing and he noticed that her ears were curled and elfin.  “Conscience is it?”
She took the food-tray he held out to her and began to wolf the pie with little grunts like an animal in ecstasy.  She finished before him and rain began to spatter on the ruins of his pie.  “Come under cover.  Your chips will get soggy.”  She pulled aside the board and they went inside.  Although it was raining the sun threw a beam down on to her bed of soiled rags.  She turned and looked at him. Were you thinking of someone besides your own well-heeled self when you brought back the pie?  A ripple passed over her big wet lips, pulled a line at the corner of her mouth and he forgot about the bins and the peeling walls and trembled inside.
He had no stomach for the pie and set it down, sitting on a pipe that arched out of the wall.  She began to cough again, a croaking that went on deep and dry until he bent her forward and slapped her back. 
“You need something for that.”  She looked at him with watering eyes.
“Are you a doctor?”
“I often wish I was.”  She laughed, the deep hoarse sound again.
“It makes me feel…oh…I didn’t want to get up this morning….”  She threw herself back on her bed of rags, stretched out yawning. The tears in her dress parted again, showing the swollen curve of her stomach and bony legs.  Her skin shone as if polished and she said, looking up at him with her ringed eyes.  “I hope you don’t mind me showing my breasts.  I never liked to wear a bra, like to be free.  She wriggled and cast off her rags.  The soles of her feet were wrinkled white, her knickers holed and dirty in the crotch.  She reminded him of a monkey with her great mop of hair and spidery limbs.  Her breasts were small, with large areolae, almost black against her duskyness, rough and swollen.  They reminded him of little pine cones and scratched his palms when he cupped his hands around them.  She jumped up then, twining her arms and legs around him so that he overbalanced forward and carried her backwards into the rags.  He smelt her body and the ammonia sharpness of urine which became sweet and inflaming and he sought her big wet mouth that seized on his, sliding sucking like a remora.  She arched her body and he entered her, crazy with her smell, her slippery body, her savage animal moans.
It was a long time before he thought to get dressed and pulled on his trousers in silence.  “You’ve lost a button!”  She held it up, pinched in her spidery fingers.  He went to take it from her but she jerked it away.  “I’ll keep it.  It’s the only part of you I have, except what lies inside me.”  She looked at him archly.  The line showed at the corner of her large mouth and he thought about taking his trousers off again but the jobs…and Edith…were waiting.  He’d been gone for hours. She would smell him…his clothes.  What had he done?  The details of it welled up in his mind and he felt the sickly feeling closing round his heart again.  If anyone found out…he’d finish it, take some pills, walk into the sea.  But in place of his fears he said; “I’ll bring you some cough medicine.”  She reached up for him to kiss her.  Her eyes looked at him as if just freed of blindness.  He couldn’t have taken that despair away could he?  Not him.  But then she said, as if in answer to his disbelief.  “See I’ll put it on my bracket.”
“Bracket?”  His voice sounded faint, not like his own.  She stretched out and put the button on a bracket that jutted from the wall, placed it carefully alongside a tiny crucifix.  “Perhaps if you bring a needle and thread I’ll sew it back on for you, but I’d rather keep it.  Have you someone to do it for you, someone to go back to?”
“I’ll tell you about that next time, my name is Vincent.”
“Can I call you Vince?  They called me Troc.  Because I was swopped for goods they said.  I was born in a travelling circus and don’t sleep indoors…I always slept in boxes in the stores tent… after what happened….”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can get away.”
“You’re going now?  You have someone to sew on your buttons then?”
“I’ll tell you about that as soon as I come back.”  She turned aside and he stepped out of the shelter and hurried away.
He entered the house red-faced, replaced the broken pane, fixed the cistern, swilled the yard, wiped the surrounds and peeled the vegetables for the evening meal.
They sat in the lounge in the evening, she beetle-browed with a romance and dark chocolates, he longing to be out.  Just to be free, to go down to…no not again…yes just to be free, breathing cool air and the friendly smell of beer.
His salary came in, then the bills.  The gap was widening.  He had to borrow more from the petty-cash account.  He could cover it up though.  Accounting could be a clever art; he was proud of how he handled it.  It gave him confidence.  He felt aggression stir in his breast.  To hell with her moods and mouth.
Another month gone by; his new bank account would soon fill up.  Anyway, he told himself, everything worth having took time to acquire.  He had a bit of change in his pocket and an idea in his mind.  The lock on the outhouse door was faulty.  He couldn’t keep his tools safe.  Edith came out to check he was telling the truth.  “Then you’d better get it fixed and pick up a new mop-head from Mason’s.  And no beer and clock-dodging.”
He closed the front door with great care, her words going with him, “Don’t you dare break any panes again.”
He felt like an alley cat, creeping down to the railway arches again.  Under his jacket he carried the trays of food, a  bottle of cough medicine and a bottle of whisky.  It was raining, the board firmly in place.  He rapped with his knuckles until they hurt and heard stirrings inside, her cough and a hoarse run of curses.  She pulled him in by a sleeve, squinting up at the drizzle.
She ate her pie, eating him with her eyes.  And they set down the trays half-eaten and he had her again on the rags, she twisting and arching her wasted body, her groans and shivers passing into him.  His body burned, was electrified by this dirty, lovely, smelly little gutter urchin and he revelled in her, drank in her filthiness until their throes were spent and a peacefulness like opium came over him in the breathing half-light.
After a long time he reached for the whisky.  He handed her the bottle and she drank from the neck and coughed again, a long grating rattle until the tears came.  He soothed her, stroking her smooth back, running his fingers down the run of bones in her spine and waiting for her to take a couple more pulls from the bottle.  Finally she smiled up at him, her first smile it seemed that was not darkened by all her miseries unknown to him.  Perhaps it was just his imagination but then the sun broke through, bright and joyous from between the slates just as it had done last time they did it.
That couldn’t be the time - three o’clock. He looked again at his watch, hurrying up the street.  When he went into the hall he stopped dead.  Why the hell should he do what she wanted all the time?  He turned and slammed the door. The pane he had replaced popped out and smashed on the driveway.  Edith’s voice came from the kitchen like a hysterical soprano.  “Have you taken leave of your senses?  Have you been drinking.  Where’s the mop-head?”  The mop-head.  He’d forgotten about that.  Not surprising really.  The bloody mop-head. 
“No I haven’t.  Tomorrow will have to do.”  She came out of the kitchen, right up to him and looked him up and down as if he was someone who’d knocked on the wrong door. 
“What did you say!”  It was an open challenge not a question.  She seized him by the lapels.  He could smell her expensive perfume and she his expensive whisky.  “I thought so.  You did this once before.”  She released his lapels as if he were a leper.  “At your age and you behave like a juvenile delinquent.  No mop.  No lock.  And the day’s gone.”  He put his hand to his head.  He couldn’t find the boldness he’d had at the door.  In fact his stomach was shivering and his legs were no better.  But he didn’t want to go out again.  He felt drained, not surprising really, and a feeling of joy and triumph outshone his gloom, but it was only for a second.
He didn’t feel like going out on a bloody errand for her again or helping in the house so he said, “I don’t feel well.  I’m going to lie down, take it easy.”
“Ha!  Your usual behaviour then.”  He really didn’t feel well right now for at her words the top of his head seemed to lift several inches.
“Why don’t you change yours, like keeping your mouth shut?”  There was a moment of freezing silence.  Then she said in a voice like a pan-scraper,
“Who have you been consorting with?”  He should have been ready for it, but was too slow again.  She swung her arm and it struck him on the side of his head.  He almost fell, surprised by her strength – surprised after nine years of it.  Yes.  It still seemed as bizarre as it had in earlier days, with her Dior perfume and cat-walk make-up and that grimace of hate.  He side-stepped another blow and rushed into the kitchen, ready to escape to the garden.  But he heard her run up the stairs, the bedroom door slam.
Perhaps she’d be packing again to go to mother’s.  If only.  He thought of the shelter and it started the sinking pins and needles again and he had to force his attention on the kettle.  He made his tea and went into the lounge.  Twenty to four Saturday afternoon, then Sunday with Edith and the bloody geraniums, the lamb in the fridge waiting for him to cook it, then the television, sitting with her silent, turning her pages of romance, watching the infantile commercials with their adoration of cars and leather sofas, the repeats, the kindergarten quizzes.  With angry eyes he looked through the window at the greenhouse.  The flies could breed, the weeds turn to jungle, the house fall down.  He would get out of this and leave her to mother and her money.
Next month’s salary came and went, and the next.  He’d had to borrow more petty cash.  The bills weren’t going down as he’d hoped and he almost got caught.  One of his colleagues was an ex-policeman who still had his bloodhound nose.  He watched Vincent closely, as if he knew something but could not prove it..  If only he could get into Edith’s account.  He’d do to her what the bastards at Fogey’s had done to him.  He’d be right to make her squirm, she’d done it to him, and it seemed life long.  She’d denied him his conjugal rights – vicious, selfish bitch.  He realized then he’d sprung out of his chair was pacing up and down with exaggerated steps, his face burning, breathing hard.  He’d think of something to make her suffer and profit himself.  She’d never had it hard.  It was always him who had to shovel the grain and turn the mill.  She lived easy and kept all her money to herself.
On Fiday he told her he had made an appointment to see the doctor. He heard her ring later, pretending her husband was unsure of the time, just to check that he was telling the truth and not planning a day on the whisky.  When the time was right he left the house and phoned to cancel the appointment.  The rest was easy, the afternoon, paradise in semi-darkness, each now knowing the others special wants.
He was late again.  She met him at the door and dashed his head against the wall.  Why didn’t he strike her back?  He hated himself, his doorstep courage melting in an instant.  Why didn’t he make her cook dinner, he was the worker, make her submit on the bed…no he didn’t fancy that any more, a hotter flame had burned all that away.  He admitted to himself that he scuttled into the kitchen because he feared her words more than her blows.  He could have raised his hand, struck her hard, but it was her words that fell on the tenderest places, about his weasel walk, his droopy looks; he was slant-eyed and dopey.  He heard the words so often he would look in the mirror, only half believing that he couldn’t be as bad as that.
He ate the dinner silently, painfully.  The meat stuck in his teeth.  He didn’t want all this.  He smiled to himself behind his hand lest she see.  His lovely urchin, his filthy little animal was just a short walk away.  He felt privileged, excited, restless, restless because such a treasure could never last.  He pushed his plate away.
“Off your food?  In love are you?”  He gave a cold shudder.  He was beginning to think she was psychic.  Or had someone seen him talking to her by the bins?  His face grew hot.  Too often she threw her words straight on the truth.  He went into the kitchen, silent, hang-dog, encouraging his thoughts of murder. He would sell the house.  But then he didn’t know if she’d made a will and left it to her mother, just to spite him.  She would never discuss her money, or speculate like most couples on who was likely to die first.  With her out of the way…his ardour began to stir again as he passed his hand over the soapy smoothnes of the pan he was washing.
Salary day again.  He’d put a bit back in the petty cash if the bloodhound was not sniffing round the ledgers.  Then he would find a reason to go out tonight.  This month he could make things different.  Sell the car.  Pay back all the petty cash, settle all the bills.  He’d go to work on a motorbike and Edith could go to hell.  He’d find some place for his sexy, smelly little treasure.  Edith didn’t think he had it in him to leave her.  He’d prove her wrong and rub her turned-up nose in his triumph.
But when he got back home, Edith had him over the kitchen sink to clean the lime-scale off the taps with a wire brush.  Then she wanted furniture moving – spring cleaning.  She did it, or rather got him to do it once a month.  By seven he’d had enough.  She wanted him to peel potatoes for the morrow, then find the cat.  And he had some pills to pick up from the late-night dispensary.  There was his excuse.  He’d go out to find the wretched creature then make off.  Bugger the pills.  He didn’t care what would be waiting for him when he got back, he knew it would be worth it…god it would be worth it.
When he called that he was going out to find the cat and get his pills, she came back into the kitchen.  Her red hair was cinched high up with a comb.  He thought grudgingly how attractive she looked with her flush of anger and her penetrating blue eyes.  He thought of those days in Brighton, the honeymoon, a life and many blows away.  “You look filthy to go out.  Do something about yourself.” 
Obediently he went up the stairs.  He’d do something all right; he had a shower, a shave and a change of underwear, put on a fresh shirt, a splash of after-shave.  He’d show her he could still shine. 
He went into his bedroom and she followed him in from the landing.  Her flush had paled.  She eyed him suspiciously.  Amante isn’t it? (and she wrinkled her nose).  And a Le Foure shirt?  She laughed, grinding a high heel into the carpet.  He thought she was going to give him one of her swinging kicks.  But instead she bent down and took up his waiting shoes.  “You’re not going anywhere.  The cat can stay out.  Pick up your pills tomorrow.”
“Give me those Edith, for goodness sake be…”  She stopped his tongue.  His shoes sailed out through the window into the darkness.  “For god’s sake.”
“For god’s sake,” she mimicked, tossing her head from side to side.
“Oh Edith don’t.  I’ve got to go out.  I need those pills.”
“Become a junky have you?  In any case it’s raining.”  The obstacles were piling up against him.  He had to get out.  He was a junky all right but not for the pills.  He had the withdrawal symptoms.  His stomach trembled and he swallowed down the sickness.  It must be tonight.  He took a step towards his bedroom door but she rushed in front of him and swept up his remaining shoes and hurled those too through the window.  He wanted to rush forward and lift her up, over the sill and throw her down onto the path below.  It was concrete.  He could imagine her blood mingling with the colour of her hair, all that blood swirling in streaks with the rainwater.  In horror he turned and ran down the stairs. He could hear her shouts.  “Do you think I don’t know, mooning about glassy eyed?  You will…” Her voice cut off as he slammed the front door.
He gasped at the rainwater soaking through his socks.  She couldn’t stop him now the bitch.  It was quite dark, the rain slanting round the streetlights like golden darts.  And he kept on running, not feeling the cold asphalt now, his face and hair streaming water until he reached the waiting shelter.
He rapped on the wood, bending his head from the rain channeled from the gutter.  He knocked again, his heart in his throat like a drum.  What if she was not there?  Oh god.  What if she had gone…gone away?  He pushed the board, gently at first, called out.  There was no reply and he pushed hard until the board gave way and fell on to the pavement.  The street lamp threw a yellow light inside, fell on the rags.  Thank god.  She was sleeping.  He moved the rags from her face and bent, gently kissed her forehead, knowing she would jump from her sleep and smile up at him – then a growing tide like rising water in his head, a rushing in the ears.  He put his hand against the bricks to steady his sense of falling.  Her mouth hung open.  She was still warm but the spark in her eyes was gone, gone for ever. 
He went outside into the freezing rain yet felt nothing, nor the tugging wind.  The houses belonged to a strange town, the street corner seemed far away and hostile.  He stood leaning on the bins, the rainwater streaming off his head, sticking his clothes to his body, dark and loathsome like dead and sodden leaves. 
He had to go back into her shelter, to look down on to her small body.  Like a famine child she lay with her swollen stomach and drawn up limbs.  If Edith hadn’t held him back he might have saved her.  He snatched up the medicine bottle and dashed it against the wall.  The tinkling glass left a black star on the bricks.  He bent.  The street lamp made him look again.  Her hands were clenched and he wondered if she had suffered long, or just in the final moments.  He prised open her fingers and found the button she was going to sew on for him, its imprint pressed into her palm.  He had to go out again, tried to clear the blurr in his eyes with the back of his hand.  He didn’t want to use the call-box on the corner.  They might think he’d had something to do with…but there’d be rats, other living things coming up among the rags as her body cooled.  It was no place to rest.  He went back inside, drew the straw-light body up and into his arms.  It had to be the last time.  For a long time he held her until his arms ached like the pain inside him and he let her down gently with trembling hands.  He drew the rags over her, set the plank against the bricks and wedged it with a blow of his fist, went to the phone and listened to the voice telling him to stay right there.  He’d done his part.  He owed them nothing.
He hurried away feeling nothing but quivers in his legs and black horror in his soul.  She would be taken away, dropped into a hole, moving no one but him.  And he would go home to the lounge, washing the pots, cooking the dinner, sweeping the yard.  Like hell he would.  This was partly her fault.  The shoes…if only…oh what the hell, thinking was hell, had it been the cough, T.B., cancer?  There would only be memories of those afternoons, and of the whisky bottle adding opium to their peace.  He hoped she’d enjoyed it as much.  He knew she had, and a spark of pleasure for a moment lit the darkness. 
Edith had contributed to this.  He would make her pay.  Edith the loud, arm-winging shrew.  Ha, some shrew, a tiger more like, with a well-groomed coat and a mean nature.  He’d make her pay all right.  She’d taken away his sun from the dark world she’d made for him.
He flung open the door, slammed it behind him.  He was sorry the pane stayed in place, but no matter, she shouted as he had hoped.  He could tell her what he thought of her.  This time there was no need to summon up his anger, it was already fired up and burning right down to his hands that doubled up into fists as he went into the kitchen.  “The return of the prodigal weasel!”  His heart beat a warning in his chest and he saw the rags and the clenched body and felt his own, exultant with rage. 
He was ready for it this time and caught her swinging arm, pinioning her wrist against the door.  For a moment she hung there breathing hot contempt into his face.  “How dare you.  Let me go.  Mother will hear about this.”  He released her and she moved again to strike him, but this time she was the recipient and she staggered back from the stinging blow that reddened instantly, even under her careful makeup.  “You brute.  Whisky in the weasel is it?  Even a worm will….”  She swung up her stiletto heel like a fighting cock’s spur but he side stepped, seized both wrists this time and flung her backwards on to the settee.  For a moment she lay back rigid and still but for the thrust and fall of her breasts.  “You’ll suffer for this.  You’ll get not a penny from me, I’ll do nothing.  You deserve nothing with your scrappy bringings, shabby pale-faced junior clerk; feckless that’s what you are.  And I thought you were a good catch – minnow.”  He stooped over her, heat raging in his head.  But he kept his hands at his side and went into the kitchen.
He could hear her, ranting like a mad woman to herself.  But he made his cup of tea, ignoring the tray, a cup just for himself, and cut a sandwich, just for himself, and went into the lounge.
He heard the bedroom door slam, her flouncing footsteps.  She’d go to mother’s again.  That would have brought happiness but the shelter was empty.  The tea burnt his mouth, but that kind of pain was nothing compared to…he couldn’t help going back to…how long would it take?  How long does a loss take to be forgotten, pain to melt away - a month, surely not more than a year?  But if the pain is bad enough, a day becomes a year - a second a minute for that matter.  A bottle of whisky and a handful of pills would be a shortcut.  But then her death too would have been for nothing and he wanted it to have been for something, for a worthwhile, proud purpose.
He was up early Saturday morning, brewed his tea, ate his breakfast, forced down the cereal, the bacon and eggs, from habit not want.  He hoped she’d smell it and be sorry that he hadn’t come up with hers as he always did.  Let her mouth water and her stomach suffer, more, let it peck away at her conscience as she had pecked at him.  But she had no conscience, he knew that from the long years they’d existed together.  Just let her suffer from his withdrawal of all his “duties.”  In the past he hadn’t slept through thinking of his lovely little treasure down by the bins but now he wasn’t sleeping because she was no longer there.  By now they would have taken her out, dropped her into the hole with all that priestly shit and a shovel of dirt.
The anger for her upstairs had become hate.  He slammed out of the house, went up the road to kill time in the café, then walked along the promenade and found a bar.  He sat down in the window with a pint of bitter when the text bleeped, “Am going to mother’s.  You’ll hear more about this.”  He thought of replying, but it would take too long, nine years of bitterness to tap in.  A girl looked across at him and smiled but he felt nothing and looked away.  He had nothing in his mind to say, only emptiness and the reverberating “Why,” and the image of Troc’s eyes bright with the hope he had put into them.
Two pints left his feet still firmly on the ground and he went back round the block so that it would take him past the bins: yellow tape, men in forensic whites filling clear bags, two police cars and a van.  He kept to the far side of the road.  Edith.  He’d make her pay for this.  He was glad she’d gone away, no struggle now to keep his hands off her.  He wished it was for all time, but the bitch would be cooking up heat for him with the in-laws.  Hell to them.  He’d sort out the money, get a proper job, fingers to them in the office, to the bloodhound and the pumped-up boss and then he’d leave Edith.  He could see her in a few weeks; pinched, showing a decline on the bathroom scales and gave a cold smile.  He could see himself before then, in the house with his beer and sandwiches, the greenhouse jungle, weeds on the path, dirt on the floors.
He nearly slammed the door. It could become a habit.  But she was not in.  No fun in that.  He went into the kitchen.  The silence soothed like a narcotic.  It was his private den but an empty den and he brewed his tea and pushed open the lounge door with his free hand. 
He winced at the light.  She was sitting at the far end of the room behind a fully-set table.  The cutlery chattered as he walked into the room, glittering on the white tablecloth.  Her hair was highlighted, streaking red with gold.  Her top of frilly poplin plunged boldly.  He couldn’t resist a smirk of disgust: the display to win back his favours with the broom, can-opener and shopping list, blatant, naïve, laughable.
“I wanted it to be a surprise, a change from the usual weekend munch.”  She grinned as if they’d just signed an armistice.  “There was no point in going to mother’s.  She always seems to be so down on you.  Everyone has spats, I told her that.”
For a moment he only had a breath, long and hot with anger, in place of words.  But finally they formed in his mind, “No, of course not, far nicer for you to be here,” That’s what he would have said once, but not any more.
“Does mother get you acting out of character, doing jobs, being pleasant to supplement your income?  Her fingers went to her necklace fussily.
“You know that’s not true.”  She looked as if the whole world was against her and everything outside it too.  “How could you be so cruel.”
“Very easily.”  She looked out of the window as if defeated by those few words.  He wanted to hurt her more as she had hurt him…and his little treasure.  He thought of her.  His stomach clenched, the pins and needles again.  But this time it was fear, fear of being alone, a chill cold and desperate.
He sat down, skewered the cold meat with his fork, stuffed the lettuce, crackling in his mouth and tasted nothing.  How he hated this morgue.  He looked out at the pigmy greenhouse, next door overlooking, casting a shadow over privacy, and her at the end of the table, false and fulsome.  For a moment triumph blew its trumpets in his ear.  He was actually subduing her.  She wouldn’t make him a slave again, call him a whimp, treat him like a bloody eunuch, though he could never suffer going to bed with her again.  Yes, he’d make her suffer more, and the bloodhound, all of them for that matter; the false prigs in the office, the boss behind his fortress of a desk and the secretary with her going smile.
Fruit salad for desert, peeled and cut by her own hand, surely not.  She must have gone out to get the fresh grapes, oranges, peaches and culinary capers - pineapple as well!  She was really turning to bribes on an indecent scale.  How long would it be before she ditched the carrot and took up the stick again?  He’d be ready for it this time.
And he didn’t have long to wait.
While he was in the kitchen, he heard her go upstairs.  A cup of tea, the


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