Charles and Katherine Simpson are finishing their breakfast when the telephone rings. He starts to rise from the kitchen table but then stops and looks quizzical, as if he’s forgotten something, and returns to his scrambled egg.
Katherine places her hand on his shoulder as she leaves the table. In the hallway, she picks up the phone, black and heavy in her palm. Rebecca wants to know if they’re free for lunch.
‘That’ll be lovely, dear.’ She rearranges her hair in the mirror, sighs, and then peers in closer; her eyes look dark and puffy. ‘No later than 12pm, mind. Your father gets restless and over-tired.’
‘Katherine,’ he calls from the kitchen. She detects a sprinkle of worry in his voice. It’s there more and more nowadays.
‘I’m on the phone,’ she says, holding her hand over the mouthpiece, and then releasing it. ‘I’d better go. See you later.’
She pauses before returning to the kitchen, and then carries on through. He nods to his plate.
‘Very nice that, my love.’
‘Rebecca’s coming for lunch,’ she says.
‘Lovely,’ says Charles. ‘What’s on the goggle-box?’
He calls her to join him as he makes his way to the living room. He’ll sit down in his cream leather chair opposite the TV. She’ll sit on the sofa next to him soon and they’ll hold hands across the arm, as usual.
She slowly chews her rasher of bacon in the quiet before the TV volume in the living room increases and she can hear every word of the news. She closes her eyes and breathes in slowly and deeply, and then reaches for her cup of tea. It’s barely warm but she knows he’ll ask for another in a minute. Her breakfast cup is white with pink blossoms. There was another but he broke it; she can’t remember how. It’ll come to her later.
Rebecca smiles broadly at the doorway, her arms outstretched, and she kisses her mother, and then her father.
‘You should have told us you were coming,’ he says. ‘We’re going out for lunch.’
‘She can always join us,’ says Katherine.
‘Excellent,’ he says.
The leaves have turned orange and yellow, and are gathering on the lawn and the pavement. There was a young lad who used to clear them for £2 but she’s not seen him for some time.
As Charles goes to open the garage door, Rebecca takes his arm and guides him to her car. She and Katherine sold his Mercedes some time ago, and they take taxis now. ‘I want to chauffeur you today, Daddy.’
He raises his eyebrows and a slight smirk spreads across his face.
‘If you insist.’ He raises a finger in the air. ‘As it’s you.’
Katherine winks at Rebecca as he slowly climbs into the passenger seat, and then sits in the back.
‘Seat belt, Dad.’
He waves his hand dismissively. ‘Drive on,’ he says.
Katherine catches Rebecca’s eye in the rear view mirror and nods to carry on.
At The Angel, the waiter shows them to their usual table by the open fire. Charles orders Whitebait and a bottle of Chablis.
‘I haven’t decided what I’m having yet, Dad,’ says Rebecca, but Katherine places her hand on her arm to quieten her. She orders the plaice.
‘I need the toilet,’ he says, and looks to Katherine.
‘You remember where it is.’ She gestures to the far end of the bar.
For a second his eyebrows raise, as if in surprise, and she wonders if he remembers coming here before. ‘Of course,’ he says.
On their own, Rebecca asks how they are.
Katherine’s eyes fall. ‘Fine,’ she says.
‘Really? He seems worse than last time.’
She tells her of their days, how after all these years they still get up together in the morning and sit in the kitchen with their tea, how they watch TV together, read the paper together.
She doesn’t tell Rebecca that he follows her around the house and calls her name if left alone for a minute, how he clears away unfinished plates from the table and piles them in the dishwasher, or sometimes turns it on with nothing inside. He cleans the kitchen surfaces over and over again and constantly tidies the house, often putting things in the wrong place. He gets angry if she questions him and so she keeps quiet. She stays longer in the bathroom than she needs, until he calls her, when she knows she has to return.
‘He’s a bit tired today,’ she says, repeatedly glancing over to the Gents. ‘He’ll have a sleep later I’m sure.’
‘You make him sound like a baby.’ Rebecca’s smile shrinks as Katherine holds her eye. ‘Sorry.’ She pauses. ‘You look tired.’
‘I’m fine. We’re both fine.’
Rebecca reaches for her arm, and squeezes it through Katherine’s pink jacket. Her grip is tighter than she expects and Katherine snatches her arm away, at once conscious of her clothes hanging loosely from her. She turns towards the toilets.
‘Ah, here he is.’
Charles is making his way back to their table, steadying himself on the bar as he hums Unforgettable. On rainy Sunday afternoons, he used to put the record player on in the living room and they would dance to Nat King Cole.
She notices a dark patch the size of a Satsuma on his beige trousers by his crotch, and hopes that Rebecca hasn’t seen it. She dips her head and stares at the knot of wood in the table.
Later, when the waiter is clearing away their plates, he asks if everything was alright.
‘Lovely,’ says Katherine, looking down at her half-eaten fishcake. ‘Just couldn’t manage it all.’ She hasn’t felt hungry for a while now.
Charles asks for a brandy.
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ says Katherine.
‘Let’s get a cuppa at home, Dad,’ adds Rebecca.
When the brandy arrives, he raises his eyebrows and smiles cheekily. He swirls it around the glass and sniffs at it before taking a sip. Putting the glass down, he reaches into his jacket pocket for a packet of Dunhill and takes one out.
‘It’s no smoking, Dad.’
‘Nonsense. Where’s my lighter?’ He pats his pockets, finds it and lights the cigarette. Swirls of smoke drift wispily around his head.
‘You can’t smoke in here,’ says Katherine.
He drags on the cigarette and exhales. He never takes in any of the smoke and sits in a plume of grey mist. Flecks of ash land on his chest.
The waiter comes over to the table. ‘There’s no smoking I’m afraid, sir.’
‘No smoking? Whoever heard of such a thing?’
The waiter glances to Katherine and then returns to Charles. ‘I’m sorry, but you will need to put it out.’
‘Put it out?’
‘Please Charles. You don’t really want it anyway.’ She puts her hand on his knee.
The waiter waits, Charles takes another drag and reaches forward to the table.
‘There’s no ashtray,’ he says.
‘The waiter will take it for you,’ says Katherine, looking up at him.
She watches him take the cigarette away and thinks of their visit here the previous week when he tried to smoke then too. At the restaurant door, Katherine stops and lets the others carry on to the car as she turns to look back at their table. It’s clear except for the brandy glass, barely touched. The waiter returns to clear it away.
At home, Rebecca helps her mother make the tea. Charles is in the living room, the TV on loud.
‘Can you turn it down, Dad?’ she says, carrying in the tray. She puts it on the coffee table, and passes him a cup. ‘Can’t hear ourselves think.’
He points the remote at the TV and presses down quickly. A green bar appears on the screen but only moves slightly.
They sit on the sofa.
‘That’s not much quieter,’ says Rebecca.
‘He won’t wear his aid,’ says Katherine.
‘It’s so loud. It can’t do your ears any good.’
‘What?’ she says, and they laugh. Katherine feels a lightness in her stomach and can’t stop giggling.
‘I’m trying to watch this,’ says Charles.
They both toss their heads back, tears trickling down their cheeks. He shakes his head and turns the volume up higher.
After a while, their laughter subsides and soon Katherine notices him snoring.
‘Can’t believe he can sleep in this noise,’ says Rebecca. Katherine reaches over to prise the remote from his fingers and turns it down.
Upstairs, Rebecca helps her mother make the beds.
‘You should get a cleaner,’ she says, flicking the duvet on his bed.
‘I can manage. Besides, it would just confuse him to have someone else here.’
In the bathroom, they separate the whites and colours from the washing basket and put them into two piles.
‘Hark!’ Katherine says, her finger in the air.
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘I’ll check on him and put the kettle on,’ she says.
His mouth is open and his head is on one side. She often watches him when he’s asleep and doesn’t mind his snoring. He’s the same as always then.
His sleep becomes more erratic, and increasingly he gets up in the middle of the night and dresses, shaking her awake too. In the kitchen at 4am with his coat on, he asks when they’re going out. Then he looks lost, as if wondering what he’s doing up at this time. Sometimes, he goes back to bed. Other times, she battles to occupy him until lunchtime. They eat out most days, at the same few familiar restaurants. He sleeps when they get home, if she’s lucky.
A month after their lunch with Rebecca, Katherine is hoovering upstairs in the afternoon while he sleeps in his chair. It’s an effort to push and pull it along the landing and it doesn’t pick up all the bits from the carpet. At the top of the stairs, she hears his voice above its drone and turns it off.
She finds him in his study.
‘Where is it?’ His voice is as hard as steel.
‘What’re you looking for? I thought you were asleep.’
‘Gladstone,’ he says, as he gestures to the bookshelf in his study. ‘Who’s taken my bloody book?’
His anger makes her start, like tasting sour milk. She traces a line across the books in front of her but isn’t really looking. She likes it best when she’s alone in here, amongst the smell of wood and the faint trace of his aftershave. There’s a small residue of it left in a bottle in the bathroom that she keeps meaning to throw away.
She shakes her head and says she can’t see the book. The phone rings and she hurries to the hallway. Rebecca wants to chat, but Katherine suspects she’s just bored. She offers for her to stay with them.
‘Could go for lunch,’ she says. ‘Or just have a natter on the sofa.’
Rebecca says she’ll come over soon.
‘Your father’s calling,’ Katherine says. ‘I’ll have to go.’
‘Oh,’ says Rebecca. ‘So soon? I wanted to talk.’
‘We will,’ says Katherine.
Charles is quiet now.
‘I’ll ring you later.’
The shelves are empty in the study, the books now on the floor around the desk in the centre, and Charles isn’t there. She finds him sitting in his chair in the living room, a cigarette in between his fingers and smoke drifting from his mouth.
‘Did you find it?’ she asks.
‘What book? What are you talking about, woman?’
Ash drops from his cigarette onto the carpet.
‘Charles,’ she says. ‘Be careful.’ On her knees at his feet, she tries to cup the ash into her palm without smudging the carpet.
As she stands up, he leans over to the small table next to him and stubs the cigarette out in the ashtray. He picks up the Telegraph and then reaches for another cigarette.
‘You’ve just had one, darling,’ she says.
He looks up at her, the packet in his hand. ‘Who are you?’
She feels aware of her arms, how they dangle stupidly by her sides. ‘It’s me,’ she whispers.
‘How did you get in here? Where’s Katherine?’ His eyes are narrow and darker than normal. They can’t seem to focus on her properly. ‘Well?’ he shouts. ‘What’ve you done with my wife?’
As he pulls himself up from the chair, she turns and walks towards the door. She looks behind her and he shoos her on with his hand, like cattle. ‘Go on, away, away.’
In the hallway, she hurries into the study, closing the door behind her, and crawls under the desk. She listens to his feet shuffle slowly along the parquet floor outside the room and then stop. ‘Katherine,’ he shouts, but she keeps quiet. The sound of his footfall recedes as he climbs the stairs and he calls out to her again.
It’s quiet now under the desk and she breathes easier.
Then she hears Charles cry out, and there are bangs and thumps down the stairs, over and over, getting louder and louder. She shoves her fingers in her ears and scrunches up her eyes, lowering her back until she’s in a small ball.
She’s not sure how long she stays like this but it feels like hours. Slowly, she removes her fingers and it’s silent. The smell of wood and floor polish rise up. The telephone rings, echoing round the hallway, spreading throughout the house, calling to her, but she makes no move to answer it. In her mind, she sees the bathroom, her toothbrush in the glass by the mirror, the bedroom with her bed neatly made. Her breakfast cup and saucer are on the kitchen table, and the clock ticks on the wall above it. In the living room, a thin line of smoke is rising from the last of the cigarette as the phone continues to ring. And then it stops.
About the author: James Wall has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010. His work has previously been published in Matter Magazine and is soon to be published in Tears in the Fence. Find him on Twitter @jameswall67