Clara is left alone for the first time in decades when her husband is hospitalised by a stroke, and she sees their relationship in a new light; by Ceinwen Haydon.
'You alright, missus? You look a bit peaky, if you don't mind me saying.'
'And you're too nosey for your own good, young man,' she said.
A bubble of spittle spun from her lips and landed on the phone screen of a texting teenager who stood in the bus shelter. The lad hopped back, then fished out a grimy hanky from his pocket and wiped the viscous blob away. He didn't so much as glance at Clara but continued with his message, his fingers absorbed in their tango taps on the tiny qwerty keyboard.
Clara shuffled off across the road towards her terraced house. She and Jack had lived there for forty years, never a night apart; this was not a sign of devotion, but merely force of habit. Never a night apart, until last week that is. On the last Sunday in November he'd left her. Her stomach cramped as she remembered the mewling noises he'd made as he lay on the bathroom floor, his eyes rolling back in his head and his trousers round his ankles. Two priapic brown lumps stood to attention in the toilet bowl, whilst wee trickled away from his willy and seeped into the beige shag pile that covered the floor. She flushed the lavatory before the paramedics arrived. Clara shivered as she remembered his indignity, and her own. Her small world had careered out of control.
Clara circled around the puddles and shallow stony craters in the un-adopted back lane, the quickest pathway to her home. She cursed the weight of the case and the graunch in her gut. She double checked to see if company was near; she was alone, thank the Lord. Clear of all onlookers she pumped a slow, fetid fart from her wobbly bottom and some of the pressure in her belly was relieved.
'Aye, yes,' she said. 'That's better.'
Three minutes later she reached her own door. She fished her keys from the deep pocket of her old tweed coat and noticed a hole. She'd have to stitch that up before she went out again. Another bloody job. She stabbed the key into the lock and her thumb snagged on her star shaped key ring. She flinched as her nail broke and exposed the quick. The key ring was impractical but pretty, bought on impulse from the hospice charity shop, a stupid idea.
'Bugger, bugger, bugger,' she said and started to sniffle.
Clara believed herself to be stoic in the face of adversity. When her neighbours had a moan she sympathised briskly but rounded off with, 'Me, I've never been a one to feel sorry for myself. Best just to get on with it.'
Jack knew different; when Clara was discomfited she expected to be attended to. He saw her as a creaky door, alright if she was oiled. To this end he'd spent decades catering to her requirements for hot cups of tea (strong and only a splash of milk), neck rubs (firm but rhythmic) and control of the TV remote (to avoid the rubbish). Since he'd finished work keeping her sweet had been his full time job, except when he retreated to his allotment. Yet, even as he'd tried to please her, he'd caused her grief as he trailed his presence through her house. She tried hard to get him to adapt.
'Jack, please, put a plate under that biscuit.'
'Take your shoes off at the door, Jack.'
'For the last time, Jack, don't leave your whiskers in the sink when you shave.'
So many things to remind him about, if only he'd learn to think for himself. She was tired of the script, but she couldn't break the cycle. Now, Clara was alone and exposed to her own irritability.
The house was cold and dark as Clara kicked the overfull bag into the passage ahead of her. To start the fire or go to the toilet, which first? Her innards churned again and made the decision for her. Later, when she tried to lay the fire, it failed to catch and smoke billowed out into the sitting room. The wood was damp and she was low on kindling. Eventually her attempts yielded limp, spluttering results but she ended up with ash all over her scarlet hearth rug. Many times she'd scolded Jack for leaving ash trails, even when his expertly laid fires blazed warmth and comfort into her old bones. A thought came to her in a guilty flash; the more he'd looked out for her the more she'd found fault with him. She batted it away, told herself she was getting soft. She knew her Jack only too well; he couldn't get anything past her, though he tried hard enough. Seemingly, he set out to torment her. And now this; how could Jack have been so careless as to have a stroke, and in the winter too when everything was hard enough anyway?
So, unusually, on this dank Thursday teatime Clara was alone with her thoughts. Those times when Jack was out running errands her habit was to switch on the wireless or the TV. She was only comfortable when she had distractions. She didn't want to be unsettled by uneasy thoughts. But somehow this evening switching on the radio or the television took more energy than she could muster.
Clara sank down into her armchair with her coat still on her back, its velvet collar stuck to her moist neck. Her mind started to wander; unbidden, she remembered the sunny day that she and Jack had wed. In the brief time before the mundane routines of daily life had settled in she'd felt fortunate and fanciful. She'd looked up at her gentle and obliging man: he was tall and well made, his torso a long narrow triangle with strong shoulders atop and a trim waist below, his curly red hair was untamed and his dreamy hazel eyes excited her in ways she knew to be unmaidenly. Her mother would have killed her. She'd had to pinch herself, could this man really be her husband?
Jack had had a quick, dry wit and energy for love and knowledge. He'd been determined to prise open the world and discover its secrets. From this distance, that man was a stranger. He was long dead and lost to her. He'd been replaced by man who'd accepted the limits of his life with quiet resignation, bereft of joy. Ever the pitman who kept resolutely to task, in the knowledge that his life depended upon disciplined submission. Underground and in the house Jack locked himself down, intent on getting through his duties in one piece. He had a foreman at work and Clara at home. All that and yet no bairns to fend for, for none had come along.
Clara thought on, who had she been, that young woman? She shut her eyes and saw a girl of twenty-two. Before Jack had courted her she'd been a bag of nerves, frightened of her own shadow, the younger sister of four bullish brothers. Jack, although a slow burner himself, had transformed her into a bold woman, brazen with yearning. Sex for love, then sex for conception, then no sex at all. Clara supposed that it was normal to cool off in a marriage as long-lasting as theirs. Even so, it had happened quite early on for them. In less than three years they'd gone from being playful partners who sparred and loved, fell out and made up, into housemates who knew each other's faults in intimate detail. She'd become a vigilant housekeeper: well, someone had to keep order. And Jack, who was in essence more flexible, toiled to keep her appeased and calm. Anything for a quiet life. For the first time, immersed in her own reflections, Clara wondered if she could, if she should, have done more to keep the flame alive. Overwhelmed by the enormity of that thought, Clara's eye lids grew heavy and she slept.
Through her dozy haze, Clara heard a knock at the front door. She thought she'd ignore it, but the bangs continued frantic and loud. She hauled herself up from her chair as resentment prickled her nerves. Her heavy, smudged features adopted an immobile mask that offered no welcome. As Clara turned the lock she noticed that her nail was bleeding and blood had smeared on her white blouse. She knew that it would be ruined now.
A lad stood on the threshold, his gaze steadfastly lowered.
'Well?' said Clara.
'Missus, can I come in, please?'
'What? Why?' she said.
'Please let me in, I'll tell you then,' said the boy.
Clara was too surprised, too sleepy to argue. She switched on the hall light and recognised her visitor as the teenager who'd been messaging at the bus stop earlier. A sweaty sheen smeared his brow and his bottom lip trembled.
'Close the door. Off with those mucky shoes off and come on into the kitchen,' said Clara over her shoulder. 'I'll put the kettle on. What's your name? And, what's all this about?'
'Tom, Tom McGlinty, missus. They were after me. Five of them. I didn't know where else to come. Is your husband home?'
'Stop calling me missus. I'm Mrs Charlton to you. Mr Charlton's in hospital. Who was chasing you, and why?'
'Missus, sorry, Mrs Charlton, it was this gang from Greenside. They followed me down. I was with me fella, Davie, me bonny lad like. Me and him, well you know, we're not into lasses. We was in the woods at Chopwell, thought no-one else was around. They sprang up on us and started throwing stones. We were off like the wind, they followed. Davie gave the bastards the slip so they went after me. I found me bike stashed at the edge of the path and made off. Five hundred metres on me front tyre busted, glass on the road. I dumped my bike. Me da'll kill me. There they were again coming round the corner. All of them bigger 'n me, but I'm faster. Built for sprinting me da says. We ran for must've been half an hour, more mebbes, then I turned down the hill. Thought I'd get home. I did, but everyone's out and I've no key. So that's it, really,' he said.
Clara pushed a mug of tea over to Tom.
'Sit down,' she said. 'I still don't see why you came here. Why not go to your neighbours?' she said.
'I came cause of your Jack, Mr Charlton, I mean. But he said to call him Jack,' said Tom. 'I help him on the allotment. Did he not say?'
'Jack never mentioned no Tom, nor no help. If you labour for him, why did he never bring you inside for some scran?'
'He said best not to. He said you'd not approve, me being like I am an' all.'
'He didn't mind then?' said Clara.
'No, he didn't. More than that he said it's natural for some. Once he said it could have been the road he'd have taken if times had been different.'
All of a sudden the lad realised the weight of what he'd said.
'That is, speculatively speaking,' he said, as he tried to make it sound better.
Stunned, Clara wanted to weep. She couldn't tell why; for Jack, for her? For their entwined life that had left them both wanting? Tom felt out of his depth.
'Can I ring home to see if me da's back, get him to pick me up? There's no signal for me mobile here,' said Tom.
'Go ahead,' said Clara, through a dizzy fog.
He dialled with the same rapid movements Clara had seen earlier at the bus shelter. A brisk conversation followed and arrangements were concluded with the person at the other end.
'That's sorted now, Mrs Charlton, thanks for me tea. Sorry to have been a bother. Please, tell Jack I'm right sorry he's poorly. Hope he gets better soon.'
Clara shut the door; perversely she was sad to see Tom go off into the night.
The phone rang-rattled on the small side table.
'Hello, is that Mrs Clara Charlton?'
'Mrs Charlton, I'm calling from Ward Nine at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Do you have someone with you?'
'Yes, all my family is here, why do you ask?'
'Well, I'm so sorry to have to tell you that your husband, Mr Jack Charlton, passed away at eight fifteen this evening. You are welcome to come with your family to see him on the ward before we move him to the mor... sorry, I mean to another part of the hospital.'
'No, it's alright. We will visit him at the Co-op Chapel of Rest when all is done.'
'If you're sure, Mrs Charlton.'
'Yes, I'm sure, goodbye.'
Clara howled animal screams, rent with a jagged velocity, primeval in their raw energy. She raged at Jack's carelessness, how could he leave her in this way? She was hacked open.
Clara's chest contracted and a searing pain travelled down her right arm and back up to her jawbone. Her knees buckled, lights flashed and blinded her as her chest crushed tight. The final spasm of her brutal, bruised and beleaguered heart knocked her into blackness.
In the void where others might have stood, in another life, the emptiness embraced her and held her still.