Horla Fiction (June 2021)

 

EMPTY NEST

by S.J. TOWNEND

FOLDED neatly, that’s how she left the pile of freshly laundered and pressed towels in each room. Every nook and cranny and each bare shelf and untouched toy in the children’s rooms were dusted every day, despite the cribs now resting, unused. The made-up beds lay as cold and as quiet as the expectant, refrigerated body lockers down at the dead house. One day they would return. She was certain that one day they’d need her again.

A fortnight ago, she’d lost her eldest son, Freddie. He hadn’t so much as looked back, merely cornered his head for a final goodbye as she’d waved him off in the death trap he’d toiled all summer to buy. Music had blasted out from his car—a most unwanted farewell gift to her ears—and he’d fled the nest for university some hundred and fifty miles south. Jennifer, the daughter with the red hair, had departed five months earlier again, with her first love, a factory worker of some kind, to the coast. Never called her mother.

Her husband, rest his soul, had been gone for six years to the day now too. The children, which they were until ever so recently, had encouraged her to try to pack away his belongings. She had of course ignored them, her opinion on the matter being the only one of any value. His books on chess, billiards and all the other sports he had been so absorbed by screamed at her from the shelf. Yet untouched they rested, gathering dust like a grey settling of snow, like the frosting that had appeared at her temples.

The children had taken no interest in these games, but she couldn’t take them down—she couldn’t remove them because even though he was long dead, deep in the ground, a luncheon for snaking worms, his belongings dotted around the house made her feel like someone other than her own sagging figure was still present; the lifeless items of paper, wood, metal and glass made her feel a little less alone. In defiance of her spiralling solitude, she had brought in his fishing rods and clutter and other ghosts from the garage, displaying them on the sideboard in the living room, perhaps hopeful that his possessions would encourage him up and back from the plot at the bone yard. She’d settle for anyone’s company in her prison-cage life, even the husband with whom her words had run dry with decades ago.

Her husband had been a support for the family home, paid the bills, ate her food with gratitude. He had loved her deeply despite knowing his love was travelling aboard a one way ticket. He’d propped them all up, especially her, when she’d had her low moments, when nothing could quell the heat from the angry furnace that burnt inside of her, or plug up the tears that would rain from her eyes each month, each cycle. She had liked the man in her own way, although love was a word of higher value, a one-off payment that he knew she had already spent elsewhere.

No-one had been there to mop up her tears since he had departed; her children were heartless at best. The Change that followed the loss had triggered a cacophony of emotions that even half quart of gin could not suffocate of an evening. No amount of fanning or air conditioning could counter the flushes either. She’d taken to stripping off naked in the night, around two or three, feeling lost, shipwrecked on the surface of the sun, dripping with cling-wrapped limbs coated in her own perspiration and gliding about the house, sticky, searching for something to cool her down and something more than gin to bring  her sleep.

Whilst cleaning, a hobby she partook in on her better days to fill her hours, a hobby that played out quite synergistically alongside the hoarding of Robert’s old belongings, she found an old photograph album. It poured out faded, dull memories—images of another time—from way before she had met her husband.

As she leafed through the black and white photographs mounted on fragile sheets, each picture triggered little within. Perhaps time and the loss of the hormones that once made her shine had dulled her senses, numbed her essence. Her well of emotion had perhaps dried like every other part of her papery, parched shell; until she reached the end of the album.

And there it was, popping out at her, jumping out and off the page, striking her heart—a cue ball potting a red on a break—bringing a flurry of warmth to her core. The hag felt a flush to her joints more so than any of the moments the Change had delivered so far. There it was, exhumed from wherever her subconscious had chosen to bury it, smothered by the tiredness of early motherhood and the demands of running the family home and sustaining a mundane marriage… there it was: her happy memory.

Michael Baker had been her high school sweet heart, her one true love. He had been the sun to her moon, the steak knife to her fork, and they had been together, although only for a turn of a season. With him, she had felt invincible. Never since had she felt a passion so strong or the obsessive need to be touched, felt and held—not even the gift she’d been informed each of her children would bring had matched the sensation. In the snapshot that felt her fingertips brushing a-top, Michael Baker and her stood, embraced like knotted vines, her eyes only on him and his eyes only on her.

Her palm travelled to her chest and rested against her heart, guarding it, uncertain whether the chest-plummet she was feeling could be caught as joy or pain.  He had sold her the world, given her the moon on a stick, but of course as her parents had hinted, it had all been puppy love.

Over the summer before they had all parted to go to college, to carve their own paths through life, she had caught him kissing another in the spot where they too had taken their first kiss. The sight of his lips, his hands on another had cracked her heart in two that day, it had split like a dropped melon on a stone floor, a mirror shattered yielding a lifetime of bad luck. She had slowly tried to patch the pieces back together and to make some kind of mosaic from the thousand shards scattered by his deed, but everything had felt surreal since, distorted, fractured and untrue.

She peeled out the single photograph and held it tightly to her heart and carried it and her face now full of tears into her bedroom. Here, she propped the cherished photo up in front of the long-ignored bedside filigree frame, back-seating a snap from her wedding day—her and her late husband, both holding a knife, cutting the cake.

Bitter tears rolled hellward, down her cheek as she threw herself back onto her bed at three in the afternoon and there she remained a full half-spin, until three in the morning, falling down a shaft of misery and nostalgia, drowning in tears merged with the sweat the night brought her, with no soul there to pull her out.  

It was pitch black when she woke, all stars were asleep and even the crescent-sliver of moon must have been taking a timely blink from its eternal stretch of velvet sky. The cherished photo of her and her high school lover had slipped down, dragged perhaps into her well of misery, lost at sea, somewhere in the bed amongst the drenching waves of sheets. Her framed wedding photo stood proud, erect, glaring at her victoriously from within its filigree frame.

If you were to look closely enough at her face captured within the wedding snap, on her Special Day, you’d see she was indeed smiling despite the matrimony being rather a facade. You’d see a red slash of lips across her pale, smooth face—quite a vision before time reaped her beauty—and the corners of her lips were pinned up, nailed almost to her apple cheeks, but her eyes were flat, as if she wasn’t fully there.

She fumbled in the bed, in search of the other photo, of her and Michael Baker that she’d balled at and stared at until she’d eventually capsized and dropped off into a hurricane of horizontal insensibility, but it was to no avail; gone. Emptiness smacked her and lifted her like a hand from the heavens, depositing her back into sweet hell. At least she could still see her young lover’s face when she closed her eyes. Her heart bled out, pain flooded her arteries, her eyes ran dry—she had no tears left to cry.

But she still had the knife from her wedding.

***

Under the devilish slice of a honeydew crescent moon now open and staring again, she slumped out of bed, crouched on the floor amongst many an old thing and pulled out the suitcase in which her wedding dress was stored. Flipping open the metal clasps of the trunk, she carefully drew out the over-engineered garment.

Thirty years and the fabric itself had not perished even slightly, and it was still as cream as the day she had worn it all those years ago, as milky-white as the parts of her body untouched by the sun, and also now, due to its storage, as crumpled and as folded as her own badly-aged skin-suit. But it was not the dress that she was after.

Several more photographs rested underneath the gown and a blue garter made of silk, not borrowed but new and now also old, and a wooden spoon a great aunt had gifted her for one superstitious reason or another. But it was none of these things that she was after. In a zipped compartment at the bottom of the case was an item shrouded in newspaper from the sixties—tatty, yellowed and pressed tightly around the wedding piece it was.

A smile slit across her face, breaking through the dried rivulets set where tears had fallen before sleep had come. She unwrapped the baroque-handled blade from its old home and held it in her older hands. It was the same blade she had used to cut up her wedding cake into a hundred or so small slices, and it had cut through the first piece as sharply and as keenly as the last all those years ago. Large and long and still as sharp as a throat-razor, she held it up in the air. She noted that it had tarnished slightly as she peered into it—drunk on tiredness, drunk on the Change, inquisitive as to what she might see, searching perhaps for a vision, a prophetic mirage—but it was still bright enough to return only her disappointing reflection.  Who was this careworn witch looking back? Was this why Michael Baker, her first love, her only true love, the one she had loved perhaps more than life itself, had left her for another?

***

He’d married her friend—her enemy. They were still together as far as she knew, back down in the backwaters, the boondocks of Claretville. Although the old school gossip was thin on the ground, lapsing and fading like her once glossy head of hair as people moved away by Ford or by hearse, she most likely would have heard if they had of parted.

Her sadness swung to rage, a weathercock on a windy day, as she tried to block out the face of the friend who had stolen her Love all those years ago. Pulling on clothes and shoes with no thought of appearance and wrapping the blade back up in its newspaper casing, she placed the bundle into her handbag. Grabbing her car keys she stormed out to her car, something strong whipped up within.

Out in the car, hands on wheel ten-to-two, on a night cold enough to see her own breath, she thought of his. She could still remember how Michael’s breath had smelt of coffee and caramel, sweet, distinctive. She remembered how she loved to kiss him in the evening, or after he’d come off the rugby pitch when his scent, the tang of his lips, would taste like a concentrated version of himself. She reached into the glove box and pulled out a red lipstick, Ruby Kiss, that, like herself, hadn’t been handled for years.

Smearing it over her dry lips without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror, she circled her mouth thrice to be sure; her face, her lips akin now to a bleeding womb, primed with or for determination fuelled by loss. She had never enjoyed kissing her husband and was thankful once the children arrived thus qualifying exhaustion as an excuse to avoid his intimacy. After a while, her husband had simply stopped trying.

But Michael, oh. She momentarily closed her eyes, returning her hands to the wheel.

He will be mine again.

She needed to fight for her man—the man she wanted. She needed to claim the prize she deserved for all the sufferance she had ensued, night after night in her family home with two children who ignored her and a husband she had grown through slow time only to like.

How dare that bitch steal her lover. That is not what friends do. She had not spoken to the thief, Carmine Bridewell, since the day she caught them kissing, although she had screamed the trollop’s name into the wind on many a full moon. And now, just thinking her wretched name, mouthing the godforsaken name in angry silence to the space inside of the car felt abrasive to her lips.

Off she drove into the night, one hand on the wheel and the other in and out of her bag, restless hands, checking that the blade was still there whilst the stars turned in the sky and the moon judged down.

Pulling up and flicking off her lights, she sat in the car outside the house of her former lover, where he lived with Carmine, the piece of work he had left her for. The sun broke the horizon shouting out soundless vermillion and rust all the way and she watched as curtains were drawn open in the house of her Love.

Carmine Bridewell, now Baker, was there, at each window, moving from room to room with haste, spreading open each set of floral drapes, wiping away condensation with a cloth, frowning at the break of day and all that lay ahead.

She watched from her car, concealed by a bush as she contemplated where she’d strike the whore first when she answered the front door. Where would the silvery blade last used to cleave slices of sponge from a three-tier cake enter this stupid, life-robbing slut’s body? She bit her lip thinking about the crimson fluid that would leak from her, spurt out from her chest and her thigh and her stomach. She would then scarper, lay low for weeks, a month maybe tops, time enough for a funeral, a wake to come and go before claiming back the man she loved. She would get her happy-ever-after.

Closing the door behind her gently so as not to awaken neighbours, she crept closer to the house; up the path marked out by well-pruned rose bushes, thorn-sharp, blood-red, to the front door of Love’s cottage. Her blade lay cold and hard, concealed by a flap of cardigan as she knocked three times on the door.

Through the door she heard a man’s voice, it was his voice for sure—her Love—but it boomed and yelled and did not bring joy to her ears like the sweet whispers of nothing she remembered from all those years ago. This voice made her quiver in her boots, it made her heart shudder, beat double pace.

“Who the fucking heck is that, knocking on our door at six o’clock in the morning, woman?” He paused only for breath, to add more venom to his spit. “You answer it, you fucking whore of a woman. You cunt. Then fetch me my fucking breakfast. And if you dare burn my bacon again, you’ll speak to my fists.”

A thump followed, audible enough to shake birds from the tree-top, then silence, then footsteps.

The lady ran with a capricious, sudden change of heart, back up the path, back up to and around the bush that shielded partially her car, back into her driving seat. There she sat; a thousand bats of dusk or dawn crashing into her rib cage as her heart pumped them out from the bell tower she had become. In a cold state of dread, hunched low with one eye squinted open and the other firmly closed, she sat as still as rigor mortis, afraid of seeing the state of a beast of a man he’d become and, despite her tool, fearful for her own safety. There she sat, watching, paralysed by fear, her thought clouded with shock.

Carmine opened the door. The same Carmine from her school days, the very same friend who stole her man, but this Carmine had not travelled well with time. Her hair, mostly grey, was swept up into a tangled bun and her eyes were both bruised black. On the top of her bare, sagged arms were more bruises, yellowing but large, the shape of a man’s thumb print and once open wounds too from where a ring or belt or both may have struck. A scar ran down her left cheek that looked like it had received stitches, a strip of train track from eye to jaw, and as Carmine looked around, searching for whoever had knocked, the lady in the car could see that Carmine’s eyes were already dead.

On realising no-one was there, she shut the door and scuttled off to fetch her husband breakfast, like the dutiful wife she was; the enslaved, downtrodden wench she had become.

The lady watching from the car masked by bushes sobbed and waited for minutes in which a life time of pain and misery, not her own, flashed through her mind. She clutched her handbag and its contents up to her chest. Then, when she could hear no more shouting or thumping or dishes emptied of crisp bacon becoming smashed, she took her chance and ran back up the garden path. She left a gift wrapped in newspaper by a flower pot with ‘For Carmine’ scribbled in marker pen on its top, before rushing back to her car and driving away, top speed, like she had some place else she needed to be.

And she did. And she didn’t.

She drove home.

For now, her home felt like a place of freedom, a place of no responsibility. It may have been an empty nest but it was her nest and it was a nest from which she could now leave, either as a dropped egg or a winged bird. It was a nest from which she was now free.

After a lengthy bath to cleanse her skin of panic, she’d have blue steak for breakfast. Why not? Who could tell her otherwise—

Middle-age was a dish best served alone.

 

***

SJ Townend has been writing creatively for just under two years, spurred, she says, by her dying mother’s instructions for SJ to follow her dreams, even the nightmares. Since the passing of her mother, SJ has written two novels, won a short story contest (Secret Attic – June 2020) and has been long listed for a non-fiction contest (Women on Writing – WOW!). SJ’s likes: silence, writing, dislikes: liquorice,  rejection.

Title photo credit –  Jesse K. on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction