BRIDE IN THE BATH

Marie disliked her brother-in-law George Smith. It was a disturbing aversion which she couldn’t understand, for she deemed him to be, like Mary Poppins, “Practically perfect in every way.” Perhaps it was this very perfection, which triggered her dislike, or perhaps, deep down, her dislike was the result of an innate sibling jealousy. When she watched him objectively, she found his good looks and healthy physique pleasing and couldn’t help but wonder how much her sister, Anne, must enjoy her intimacy with such an ideal masculine specimen. 

Before the wedding, she tried to explain her sixth sense reservation to her parents. They suggested that her sense of foreboding was ill-founded. They pointed out his solicitous kindness, and the way that he appeared to adore his wife. She told them that she wondered whether his interest in her sister was triggered by her status as a wealthy woman. They told her not to be jealous. They informed her that her fears were unfounded because George, himself, had suggested an elaborate pre-nuptial agreement.

****

A few days after Anne’s ecstatic telephone call to tell Marie that she was pregnant Anne received a call from George. He was weeping and stammered his appalling news. Anne drowned in her bath. He requested that Marie call their parents as he asserted that he was too distraught to make any further calls. No-one could understand how Anne could have drowned until investigators postulated that she must have accidentally knocked her hair dryer into the water. Her autopsy confirmed that she had died from the combination of heart attack and drowning. This diagnosis had some appeal to Marie’s family as a few years earlier one of Marie and Anne’s school friends had died in a swimming pool accident due to a heart attack and subsequent drowning induced by a short in a faulty under-water pool light.

When Anne’s affairs were wrapped up, it transpired that she and George hadn’t signed their pre-nuptial agreement. Anne’s grieving family decided not to contest the inevitable and did not challenge the transfer of her assets to her unhappy widower. Marie even faced her dislike for George and joined her mother in helping pack up his possessions in support of his proposed relocation to “get away from it all” as he put it by taking up a new position in London. They used a hoard of old newspapers which Marie’s mother had saved for such an occasion.

It is a strange phenomenon that old newspaper stories frequently catch our attention as we use them to wrap-up fragile items. In Marie’s case, it was the photograph of a widowed husband standing outside his house, which caught her attention. He was clean-shaven while George was bearded, but something about the eyes got her attention. She took a pencil and added a beard and moustache rather as she had adorned pictures in her youth. She pointed the picture out to her mother. “George doesn’t have a twin brother, does he?” she asked.

“No dear, don’t you remember he had no family at the wedding.” Her mother reached for her reading glasses to better scrutinize the newspaper photograph. “Didn’t he say that they were all killed in a car wreck when he was a teenager.”

Marie stopped her packing and read the headline “Wife drowned.” This was accompanied by the photograph which caught Anne’s attention and instructions to turn to ‘Drowned’ on page A6. She sat down and read on. The names were different, but the circumstances were remarkably similar. Marie was so disturbed by her find that she contacted the police. They reviewed her evidence and although they agreed that there were similarities, they told her that they didn’t think it  sufficient to open the case for further investigation and certainly didn’t want to change their report of accidental death to murder.

****

George disappeared from their lives. Marie’s grandfather died and left her a fortune. Even though much of the family deemed her slightly insane as a result of her ongoing obsession about her sister’s death no-one contested her inheritance. Now that she didn’t need to work, she spent most of her time searching newspapers and obituaries. Her dedication was rewarded and she found him living in Hollywood under a different name. By now, she was so embroiled in her murder theory that she determined to catch him, and elicit revenge herself. She changed her name, died her hair, lost weight and moved to Los Angeles. Here she mixed with the rich and famous constantly manipulating until she managed to meet him, the George Smith, who married her sister, now going under the name Francis Brown. He invited her on a date, and she found herself attracted to him. Could it be. She wondered, that her original dislike really was a manifestation of jealousy?

****

She accepted his marriage proposal. They had a quiet chambers exchange of vows and purchased an enormous house with a lap pool. Francis told her that he liked to swim in the morning as part of his fitness regime. Before she did what she knew that she had to do Marie picked the lock to his desk and searched his papers. At the very bottom, she found his scrap book containing a jumble of images of not two but three wives all of whom had died in their baths. At this moment, Marie knew him to be a ruthless murderer. She ought to have gone to the police, but she didn’t. Instead, she researched electricity on-line and when she was confident that she knew what she was doing she switched one of the pool lights from a GFI circuit to a regular one. Then she wiggled the light and adjusted the worn wires so that a short would occur. Meanwhile, she managed to avoid marital intimacy by claiming a yeast infection sincerely hoping that the pool light would do its job before she ‘recovered.’

They were married less than a month when she saw her chance, while he changed into his trunks, she turned on the lights. They sparkled seductively in the morning light. She took her coffee and sat in a beach chair next to the pool. She blew him a kiss as he dove in. He came up spluttering clearly in the onset of cardiac arrest. He shouted to her but she smiled, and waved. She shouted “Remember them, remember Anne.” and slowly ambled inside to call 911.

Marie skillfully acted the bereaved wife and waited until he was interred before she ‘found’ his secret journal and alerted the police so that he could be named the ruthless serial killer that he was. She thought it poetic justice that she should inherit his vast assets but after the police dubbed him a murderer, she magnanimously contacted each of the bereaved families and restored to them the equivalent of their daughter’s assets. Then she emigrated to New Zealand to distance herself from the terrible memories which haunted her, and away from her fear that someone might question the strange way in which he had died.

Underground Initiation

The Northern Line has become my line. Every day I board in Earls’ Court, where I live, and ride its cranky elevators deep into the earth. Then I follow the black Northern Line signs and take my train. I stand swaying with the masses of other commuters until the train whirls into Russel Square where I emerge for a brisk, I think cleansing, walk to our office in Bedford Square. Sometimes the crowds throw me back five years to the time when I was a nineteen-year-old student riding this same line. Only then things were very different. On that occasion, it was night. I rode from Earl’s Court where I had been at a late-night get-together to Russel Square the closest station to my student digs on Bedford Way. As I doze off in my wedged upright stance, I relive every moment of that ride………

It is late, there are no standing room only crowds, indeed, my coach is empty except for me and a noisy threesome of young men. I select a seat a reasonable distance away from them and am pleased that they exit at South Kensington. I am now alone rattling through space. He boards at Hyde Park, the next stop. I am surprised when he selects to sit in the seat beside me even though he has the choice of the whole empty coach. I am penned in with a seat in front and this man on my right.

I pretend that he isn’t there. I can feel the warmth of his body as his presence rubs my right shoulder. I smell his body odors, smoke mixed with unwashed human, sweat. He grunts, and I quiver. Green Park passes we are still alone as we run through Piccadilly. His body odor becomes more oppressive. I consider trying to get off. At each station I hope that someone, anyone will board. No-one does, we continue to be alone. He is fidgeting with something in his lap, I turn and see what I have never seen before. I react with a quiver and start shaking; Leicester Square, Covent Gard, Holborn, the stations take an eternity to pass. I stare and try to turn away. I make a futile attempt to ignore what he is doing. As we roll into Russel Square, I stand and say,

“Excuse me, this is my stop.”

“Mine too” he gives a toothy grin.

He lets me pass, my body rubs against his. He touches me with his hands but I wriggle and am free. I run down the platform and vault up the escalator. I think that I can hear him behind me, but I’m not sure. I am too terrified to turn and look as this might slow me down. At the top, I am thankful to see that the ticket booth is still manned. I rush up and whisper,

“Help! A man! He exposed himself to me,” I turn “he’s…….” but he wasn’t – he had disappeared.

The ticket clerk jumps up and opens his door. He invites me inside. He tells me to sit down while he calls his station manager. The manager arrives. He is an elderly, old enough to be my father. He puts a kindly hand on my right shoulder I try to make it erase the memory of the touch during my ride, but it doesn’t. He and another man usher me into a very warm inner office. They offer me tea. It arrives hot and strong. I warm my trembling hands on the surface of the mug. Although I never add sugar, I do so now as the brew is strong. They want me to make a police report. I am calmer now. I let the glow of the tea permeate my body. Once we have got past the easy questions, name, age, residence et cetera we get down to specifics. I am so flustered that I can’t describe him. His smell maybe and his noises but these men are not interested in this information, they want specifics.

“Circumcised or not?”

“I don’t know”

“Did he ejaculate?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” they shrug,” describe the size. Describe what you did see.”

I look at their anxious faces, and notice their leaning-in body language. I realize that they are deriving as much pleasure in this debrief as he took in sitting next to me. I stand and thank them. I say that I must go now; maybe another time. Yes, I’ll complete the report tomorrow. I rush out and, with a renewed spate of energy, run home to my apartment. I lock the door.

The incident still haunts, even though I am beyond that fear. I handle things differently. Recently I rode a late tube home and found myself in an empty car with a man wearing an expensive Burberry raincoat. Like the other, he sits next to me. I know the routine, he starts fiddling and opens his coat to reveal his goods. I turn to him and remark, in a bored, matter-of-fact voice of irony,

“Put that thing away. I am not interested.”

He does just that. He gets off at the next station.

Uninvited

This piece, at almost 500 words doesn’t classify as a 300 word ‘flash’ fiction but I don’t want to cut 40% so I’m calling it a short, short story.

The front door bell rang when Silvia was in the bathroom. She ignored it. She was alone while her husband was out buying groceries, and they were not expecting visitors. She rationalized that it was probably a delivery which she could retrieve on her own time. When the bell rang a second time accompanied by knocking Silvia was annoyed. She told herself that there was no way that she was going to answer the summons for she now deduced that the person or persons on her porch were sales-people or worse Jehovah Witnesses. The radio in the den was playing Mozart. She listened to the music and hummed along with the Clarinet Concerto letting the familiarity of the music help to soothe her annoyance. How she loved the Clarinet! She smiled as she thought of her husband’s reference to his high-school band playing days when the brass derogatorily referred to the clarinet as a “liquorish stick”. She moussed her hair and began to blow it dry

She was about to go into the den when she thought that she heard hushed voices inside the house, Mozart was still playing so she knew that it wasn’t a radio announcer. She shivered. Hadn’t she just read the neighborhood newsletter in which they reported a spate of daylight robberies with instructions to residents to call 911 to report any suspicious activities. The article had gone on to warn residents not to approach the thieves who were described as “armed and dangerous”. Silvia’s earlier annoyance morphed into fear.

She thought that she might be able to hide in the closet to mask her voice so that she could make a 911 call, or better silently text her alarm, but then she realized that her mobile phone was in the den. She strained and heard the voices coming closer. In no time they would be in her bedroom and she had nowhere to hide.

On the spur of the moment Silvia decided that the only weapon she had was an element of surprise. She walked slowly to her bedroom door, took a deep breath, and opened it. She saw her two uninvited intruders standing in front of the television. They both carried bags. The morning sun streamed in through the den windows casting bright patches of light across the room. Silvia stood with the sun behind her. She hoped that the shadow would disguise the fear on her face. She waved her arms dismissively,

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you found the key, that’s good; but we weren’t expecting you today. You’ve got the wrong day! We agreed on Wednesday, that’s tomorrow. You have to leave now, and come back tomorrow!”

Murder Mistake

On the Sunday of Sally’s sixtieth birthday she awoke to find herself in an empty bed. Since her husband, Will, had retired she was always the first to rise to go to work; now the vacant spot next to her struck her as odd. A number of explanations flitted through her mind. She glanced toward their bathroom; the dawn sun streamed in through its east window but she heard no movement, no Will. Could he have already gone downstairs, or perhaps taken their dog, Opie, for a walk. How he loved that dog! You would think that after forty-two years of marriage and four children that he wouldn’t need a dog to shower with affection. Sally, with a tinge of jealousy, often speculated that he loved the dog more than he loved her, perhaps because, they had been together for so long. 

She got up and walked to the head of the stairs. From that vantage point she could see Opie’s leash hanging on its hook beside the front door, she concluded that Will had not taken Opie for a morning stroll. Silence reigned. She wondered if Will had chosen this occasion to leave her. After last night’s fight, when so much had been said in anger it could be possible. But, if he had, surely, he would have taken Opie and his leash with him, or no, perhaps, in his haste, he had forgotten the leash or intended to use the one that they kept in the car. 

She had had her suspicions for some time. The coffee cup with orange lipstick on it, a color that she never wore, his frequent walks with their dog Opie, his growing remoteness. Once or twice she had made a point of going home early to see what he was doing. He was usually in front of his enhanced view computer, the characters so big on the screen that it made her eyes dance.  Once their neighbor, Janet, was in the living room with him. She looked at Will sheepishly as though they shared a secret. Will explained that Janet had helpfully driven him to his ophthalmologist appointment. To Sally’s eyes Janet seemed nervous as she made a quick exit. After Janet’s’ departure Sally gathered up their coffee mugs; recognizing the lipstick color and vowing that one day she would take Janet aside and demand what she thought she was doing with some-one else’s husband. 

When Sally heard Will stumble out of the kitchen she hurried back to bed. She listened to his slow footsteps as he navigated the stairs. The sound reminded her how he could once glide upstairs as noiselessly as a cat burglar. Now every footstep was audible; old age does that to you she thought. She heard him walk slowly across the landing and come into their bedroom

“Happy birthday, dear!” he said and placed a breakfast tray on the dresser. Sally stared in wonder. After all her suspicions, here he was, giving her breakfast in bed. She reached out her hand to draw him in for a kiss. He didn’t seem to notice. He stood awkwardly beside the bed. 

“I made you toast and scrambled eggs.

Sally sat up and allowed the tray to be placed on her knees. She was especially touched to see a pink Mal Maison rose in a bud vase on the tray. She paused to smell the rose, inhaling its sweet perfume.  

“This is simply wonderful,’ she murmured, “thank-you, my darling husband!

The eggs were good, she ate fast. She looked at Will with love in her eyes, their quarrel of the previous night forgotten. There was more scrambled egg than she could eat. Will took the plate and gave the leftovers to Opie who wagged his skimpy tail and wolfed it down as only a dog can do. 

Half an hour later Sally was in agony. She vomited as though her whole intestine was disgorging. She called Will upstairs,

“I need a doctor. Call 911. I am very sick. What did you put into those eggs?  I know it, you are trying to kill me so that you and Janet can cohabit.” 

Will, shook his head and was about to respond to her accusation when Opie began to retch. Sally was still in pain and dry heaving but the sight of the poor dog disgorging his breakfast gave her comfort. Will might poison her to get rid of her, and after last night’s words he might desire to do so; but Opie? No, she knew that Will loved Opie. She knew that he would never do anything to hurt that dog

Sally looked at Will and asked, “What did you put in those eggs?” 

“Just eggs, seasoning and some fried onion.

“Fried onion, but we don’t have any onions.” 

“Yes, we do, I found them in the bottom drawer. They were smaller than usual: must be gourmet onions.

“Oh no,” Sally gasped as she clutched her stomach, “those weren’t onions, those were the tulip bulbs which I as saving for re-planting next spring.” Then it hit Sally, Will’s deteriorating eyesight was more advanced than he had let on. Perhaps he was merely associating with Janet to hitch rides to his doctor appointments. 

When the ER doctor called back he assured Sally that her symptoms, though painful, didn’t appear to be life threatening and that she should let nature take its course, going to the emergency room only if her condition worsened.

 

Father’s Love – a short story

The father was a wiry slender man who was frugal, hard-working, and asked for few comforts in life. He was a staunch South Dakota Mennonite and, during World War II, resolutely supported their belief that the fifth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill”, means exactly what it says. He could not join a war effort whose goal was to defeat an enemy though violence and the destruction of human life. He had quietly suffered for this belief. During the long war years after Pearl Harbor he never complained but accepted menial home front tasks to which he was assigned. When the war was over he took a position teaching elementary school. Over the period of a few years he managed to save up enough to purchase a car and drove to town to date his sweetheart. After they were married they took a mortgage and set up to farm a quarter (one hundred sixty acres). Their tiny homestead consisted of two rooms on the main level topped by two small attic bedrooms accessed by ship’s ladder. There was a lean to add-on kitchen. They had a two hole outside toilet and no bathroom.

Over the years their union was blessed with three sons who arrived into the world in regular three year intervals. The boys ran the farmyard in bare feet and made dens in the hay bales in the barn. The South Dakota weather kept the little family one step away from destitution as each year the winds, lack of rain, or too much rain, tested the father’s farming skills and jeopardized his crops. He was constantly worrying and scribbling sums on scraps of paper as he attempted to allocate their meager funds and keep the little family solvent and fed. His wife, a motherly sort, prayed constantly and did all she could to help make her husband’s life easier.

One day their oldest son was sent home from school for fighting. The boy was generally obedient and well behaved, but, on this occasion, he came home pouting and belligerent. He appeared hurt and angry. Both his parents attempted to get him to tell them what worried him, but he remained taciturn. How could he explain the teasing at school when it related to his own father’s role in the war before he was even born? How could he justify fighting about the very thing for which his father had so bravely suffered? He was not a violent child, but there came a moment when he had to defend his father, and so he had lashed out. His punch had been unexpected and effective, and astonished the bullying boys. They had responded with equal violence, which might have resulted in more than a few bruises had not a teacher heard the commotion, and intervened by separating the boys. She sent them all home in disgrace.

Both parents could see that their son was distressed and did their best to try to coax the boy into telling them what prompted the fight. But, he remained uncommunicative. Eventually the quiet father sat down and drew his son towards him to stand him between his knees.

“Son, what was the problem? The note which the teacher sent says that you were fighting. Son, haven’t you learned anything. You know that we don’t fight? Isn’t there something which you need to tell us, something we could pray about?” He was gentle, calm, and loving.

The boy looked into his father’s kind grey eyes, felt his father’s strong thin fingers on his waist and experienced a surge of anger. There was something to talk about but he couldn’t explain his pain. He couldn’t explain the constant teasing which was a direct result of who his father was. At that moment he blamed his father for his passivism, he blamed his father for his quiet love, and he blamed him for the bullies at school. He drew back his arm, formed a fist and punched his father’s nose. The impact made a thud and blood began to flow. The father let go of the boy’s waist and cupped his hands. He quietly held them up to his face to catch the blood. The son drew back; his eyes were wide with terror. Had he done this? Had he killed his father? He ran to his mother in the lean-to kitchen.

“Mama, Mama, come quickly Daddy is bleeding.”

She came into the room, but the father did not speak he continued to sit, immobile, quietly letting the blood drip from his nose into his cupped hands. The son urged his mother.

“Do something Mama, do something.”

But the father was gently shaking his head. His wife understood him and did nothing. The dripping continued and gradually a small reservoir of blood accumulated in the father’s cupped hands. It seemed an eternity before the bleeding stopped, and the father got up. The mother drew water and poured it into a basin. The son silently watched him wash away the blood. He hoped that the cleansing washed away his guilt. A little blood goes a long way and, in this case, the watching boy saw more than he believed possible. Some of it had browned where it had begun to dry on the edges of the father’s hands but most of it was still bright red. The father scrubbed his hands clean and wiped the blood stains off his face. Then he took the basin and tossed the reddened water onto the plants outside their kitchen door. He didn’t say a word. His watching son never forgot that image of his father’s blood flowing, drip by painful drip, into his cupped hands.

© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, April 2014