It's the Not Knowing
I thought I'd share a new short story with you...
It's the Not Knowing
I rub my eyes, sticky with sleep. Catherine is standing at the bay window gazing out at the grey December sky. She does this every morning of late, shoulders hunched, arms crossed defensively across her chest. She looks so cold, but can’t possibly be, the central heating has been on since six. I turn over. In the early morning gloom I make out the mahogany furniture, white lace curtains that match the duvet cover, the thick pile pink carpet. She always looks sad in the mornings. By evening time she is cross, dissatisfied. I try, I really try to give her everything and still she’s not satisfied. I understand, but I’m hurting too.
The bathroom mirror is honest and unforgiving. I need to tidy myself up; a haircut, a beard trim. I need some energy. Catherine is difficult to live with and the work situation is stressful, I don’t think I can take much more. It’s always... George I need this, or George we must have that, like that blasted coffee maker.
Downstairs, in the kitchen I glare at the coffee machine with anger and a tinge of sadness, knowing it can never compensate. Continuing my recent bad habit I skip breakfast, pull on my heavy wool coat and leave the house. Crossing the tree lined avenue of smart 1950’s semis, I look back, up at the bedroom window. She is still there, Catherine, with her shoulders hunched and arms crossed.
I turn left at the end of the street, not my usual route towards work, but across the bridge away from the busy town. With head down and purposeful strides, destination unknown, I think of Alex, see his cheeky grin, hear his voice giggling at the corny jokes in his well-thumbed comic book, feel the emptiness of his bedroom, untouched, still waiting for him to come home. It’s the icy morning air making my eyes water I tell myself. Keeping up with Catherine’s constant spending that she hides her grief behind is destroying us both.
A little tiger-striped kitten meows, crouching low in the grass at the side of the road. ‘What are you doing out here all alone?’ I ask, my voice raspy from infrequent use. I pick it up holding the trembling warm body close to my chest.
Looking up and down the Old Dock Road I see no sign of the mother cat. The narrow alleyway I turn down is littered with rubbish and smells of urine and dog crap. The trickle of a stream beneath the low footbridge isn’t any better. Rusting shopping trolleys, empty beer cans and bottles float past. Just along stream, half in half out of the water there’s a black sack. I head down to the banks of the stream, long strides cutting through the rough grass, trousers catching on thistles and the thorny tangle of rampant bramble bushes hindering the journey, my feet rustling the discarded crisps packets, crushing the empty beer cans. One of the cans isn’t empty. The smell of stale beer fills the air as it squashes underfoot, spraying the dark pungent liquid onto my suit trousers. I’m aware of the cold dampness of wet socks and my good black shoes caked in mud, grass and the odd sweet wrapper I’d picked up on my quest to reach the bank, and the black sack, half in half out of the water.
The kitten, now tucked inside my jacket for warmth, purrs contentedly. I feel the tightness in my chest, hear the pounding of my heart in my ears. I see Alex’s empty blue eyes staring up at me and I struggle to breath. Crouching down at the water’s edge I rip open the sack, the soggy plastic parting easily. Alex’s face fades. He’s not here. The anger that bubbles beneath a calm exterior threatens to boil over, cracking the mask I wear to face each day.
There were seven of them, black, grey and white, small bodies no bigger than my hand. I prod the bag gently with a length of rotten wood I find lying on the bank. There is no movement, no sound. All dead; their bodies stiff, their once soft coats of fur matted and wet. Turning from the murderous scene, I made my way back to the path, treading more carefully to avoid further scratches from the tangled bramble bushes. I feel bad leaving the dead kittens to the mercy of the wild; foxes who might tear at the bodies or birds who would peck at them taking their fill.
Back on the Old Dock Road I sit on the cracked and broken steps of a disused warehouse. Cracked and broken, just like me, just like my marriage. The wind whips my unruly hair, I try to smooth it. Angry I pull harder, lifting the scalp, feeling the pain, wanting to drown in the pain. Tears sting the back of my eyes. I want to cry, sob like a baby. My dad’s gruff voice rings in my ears. ‘Pull yourself together lad, dry those eyes. I told you boys don’t cry,’ he told me when Jojo our Labrador died. I was only nine and tears were spilling down my cheeks. He was a tough man. You’re wrong, so wrong dad I’d whispered, yet still I scrubbed at my face with my hands wiping the tears, erasing the sadness from my eyes.
It starts to rain. I push myself further back into the doorway; turn up my collar, wrapping my coat around me and the kitten, trying to protect us both from the now torrential downpour. Watching the large droplets bouncing off the pavement, seeing the puddle begin to develop over the drain blocked with decaying leaves and rubbish, I think of Alex. Is he huddled in a doorway right now, lying on the river bed, or in a shallow grave in the woods? It’s the not knowing.
The kitten’s tiny, razor sharp, claws catch my neck as it tries to escape my tightened grip. I’m so cold; hair and clothes soaked with rain. I can’t get much wetter. I can’t feel any worse. The Old Dock Road is deserted still, the kitten settles again, happy to stay inside my jacket out of the rain, giving a morsel of warmth to my shivering body.
Across the bridge people are crowding the footpaths, rushing home from work or shopping, anxious to get out of the rain, umbrellas jostling for space above their heads. I trudge through them all, turning towards home. Passing other houses along the road, stealing glances into their lit up homes where children play and families sit around the dinner table. Mrs Wilson from next door, ironing in front of the television, Mr Wilson salutes as he draws the curtains, trapping their warmth inside.
Our house is in darkness, unusually so as Catherine always has dinner ready, fish pie on Friday’s, every Friday since we married. Relieve at not having to watch mindless television, pretending that Alex is out with friends, I open a tin of tuna and persuades the kitten to try it. Not bothering to take off my wet clothes I sink into the leather sofa. Sitting in the dark listening to the rain tapping relentlessly at the window, like the pounding in my head, saying, ‘do something, do something now!’
The tapping grew louder, insistent. It was the door, someone is at the door. The policeman steps into the hall. ‘It’s Alex,’ he says.