Sunday, November 14, 2004

The A-Z of Love

Arnold was approaching the dreaded age of 40 when it happened. He had to admit that it hadn’t come out of the blue, but it still hit him like a train, as it would anyone finding out that your wife of 23 years was leaving you for another woman. A man, well Arnold could handle that, but this new twist took him completely by surprise. She said that, finally, she was being satisfied in bed. That was like a knife to Arnold’s heart. She’d said this to him as she laboured with the suitcases, the front door slamming behind her.

Beatrice has done it. She breathed out in relief at finally making a decision on her own. She stood on the porch and took in the view of the garden. She wouldn’t be back, that much she knew. The other thing was she hadn’t regretted the lie that she had told Arnold, her husband. Soon to be her late husband if only in word. As far as she was concerned, her husband was dead. Some might think that this was harsh, but to Beatrice it was the only way it made it all bearable. The only way she could leave.

Considering what had happened to him, it was no surprise that Arnold couldn’t stand at the door once it had slammed shut. He turned his back on the glass, missing the opportunity to make amends for whatever it was he was supposed to have done. Instead of pleading on his knees, Arnold simply turned around and walked into the kitchen. He took a cup and made himself a strong coffee. Two sugars and plenty of creamy milk was how he preferred it. As he stirred his cup, he realised that he was stuck in his ways. Could he ever change?

Dancing on the spot was something that sprung to Beatrice’s mind as she stood outside the door. Instead, she moved away at a brisk pace, not really knowing where she was going, but not wanting to attract the attention of the group of young people who had congregated in front of the local shop. Head down, her eyes succumbing to the tears that had dammed up against her eyelids, she thought about what Arnold would tell people, how he would make a story of her having left. Would he lie to family and friends, or would he tell the truth?

Everyone would know that she had walked away from the marriage, but Arnold wracked his brains for a plausible excuse he could tell the kids. They were still young enough to be protected, but old enough to make their own decision about their mother and how she had treated them, how she hadn’t bothered to say goodbye. Tessa and Charlotte would have to live with the knowledge that their mother had left while they were still at school. In fact, she had left just after they had and Arnold had all day to consider this timing. What did it mean?

Further along the road, Beatrice stopped again, trying to get a purchase on the suitcases that were digging grooves into her hands. She had tried to drag them across the cold, damp pavement, but that had aggravated her bad back and she had taken to carrying them again. Why hadn’t she called a taxi, she wondered. People offered to help her, but she shunned all contact with other people. They seemed to sense her emotions and didn’t offer twice. Beatrice thought she might have marriage-breaker written on her forehead. Perhaps word had already got out and they were judging her.

Getting up from the chair, Arnold had taken his cup to the sink. Instead of rinsing it through warm water as he might normally have done, Arnold chose this moment to change the habit of a lifetime; well half his lifetime, he supposed. He wanted to live longer than 40. After all, he had the kids to consider more than ever now. He didn’t want to let them down in the same way their mother had. Suddenly, the anger caught him like a forest fire, flaring up in his chest. Arnold threw the cup to the floor. It didn’t break.

Having lugged her suitcases over three miles, Beatrice was worn out. She was feeling hungry and all she could think about was the food stacked on the shelves in her kitchen cupboards. Well, it wasn’t her kitchen anymore, she had to concede that, but she sat in the warming spring sun contemplating her new one. The image faded as Beatrice realised that she was not only a long way from home, she had no home and was further away from getting a new one the longer she stood still. She had an appointment to keep; she had to get going.

Initially, the thought of taking his own life had passed across the mind of Arnold, but he had dismissed it almost instantly. What the world didn’t need was another man committing suicide over a woman. Having changed his routine by throwing (but failing to break) the coffee cup, Arnold felt empowered to do more. He was now in overalls, paint can in hand. He whistled through his teeth as he applied a new colour on the walls. This would change things more than Beatrice leaving ever could, he thought. He wasn’t sure he believed his own thoughts. He kept painting.

Just as Beatrice was giving up hope of getting into town with her load, a bus rounded the corner. Glancing up, Beatrice saw she was near a stop and so she held out her hand, requesting the bus to pull over. It carried on past her and pulled in at the stop. Everyone on the bus turned around and watched her as she pulled her suitcases along the pavement, hurrying towards the open doors. Once she was on the bus and safely in her seat the chatter began again, but no one spoke to Beatrice. They all ignored her, completely.

Keeping himself steady, with a second cup of coffee in his hand, Arnold stood back to admire his handiwork. He smiled to himself, pleased that he had eradicated one of the many memories. He glanced at his watch – there was still time to do more. Grabbing the car keys from his pocket, he rushed to the car. His urge to get to the DIY store was so great that Arnold almost forgot to write a note, just in case the kids came home early. He began the note with Dear Beatrice. He scrawled over it and wrote Dear Kids, instead.

Laughter interrupted Beatrice’s thoughts and she realised that there was a conductor asking her for her pass or the ticket. Beatrice didn’t know how London buses worked. The conductor said she would have to pay a fine. That was what had made the girls opposite laugh. Beatrice said, Oh, but the conductor simply wrote out a form and asked her for five pounds. The girls laughed again as she paid, counting out the coins into the inspector’s hand, one-by-one. It was only when she got into town that she found her original ticket. But, by then it was too late.

Mothers walked across the pedestrian crossing as Arnold waited in his car. The DIY shop was in sight and he revved the car a little, a sign of his impatience with the traffic lights. Soon he was off driving again and pulling into the small car park that served the shop. He knew what he wanted and was in and out of shop within minutes. He looked up as he approached his car and saw clouds gathering to the west. He narrowly missed stepping into a half-eaten and discarded egg and cress sandwich, but he didn’t notice his good fortune.

Noise came at Beatrice from all sides. The many different accents and cultures blurred as she continued on her journey. She was heading towards a small bed and breakfast where she was going to drop off her cases. Once she had freed herself from the baggage she would be able to get over to the school and meet the girls. She wanted to be the first person they saw. Still no one came to her aid. The people flowed around her as if they were water meeting a static rock. It took her fifteen minutes to reach the hotel door.

Once Arnold had arrived home he had a quick bite to eat (a pasta salad with tuna and peppers) and another drink of coffee. He still hadn’t washed the cup and it now had paint splatters all around the handle. By his feet was a large toolbox. The plastic bags from the DIY store stood all around. Arnold was going to be busy this afternoon, painting and fixing and changing. Realising that the task in front of him was a huge one, Arnold swigged back his drink and set about beginning the transformation. First task was altering the front door.

Phoning hadn’t been in Beatrice’s original plan; she hadn’t thought beyond saying the words: I’m leaving you. After that she had just flung spiteful vitriol at Arnold, much of it she hadn’t meant. At first she thought that she might just ring to make sure he was okay and alive, that he would be able to continue without her there. When he picked it up in a cheery manner she had held her breath for so long he asked if anyone was there. She said her piece quickly; his acceptance of her return was something she hadn’t expected to ask.

Questioning her motives, that was natural. It was these thoughts plaguing Arnold as he moved the brush back and forth. Well, it had been over four hours and Beatrice had never been gone that long before. He had agreed to pick up the girls from school, it was the least he could do. Yes, he was absolutely fine, he had told her, but busy. He refused to give more details. She could pick her suitcases up later; the room was already paid for. Now, all he had to do was finish up so he could get over to the school.

Retching over the toilet, Beatrice realised that she hadn’t taken food at all. She was hungry and thirsty. Abandoning her bags she rushed down the stairs and out into the street, searching left and right for a café or sandwich shop. Her mind was asunder and in her panic she almost missed the bright sign across the road offering fresh rolls. The traffic was backed up along the road as a woman pushed a child in a pram over the zebra crossing. Beatrice stepped out between the cars and headed towards the café. Then, she would take a taxi home.

Several hours after he had started, Arnold had painted every wall downstairs and he stood in the hallway in his paint-splattered overalls, the floor littered with empty pots. There was still a brush in his hand and it was dripping paint. Arnold didn’t spot this happening, but he had placed sheets on the floor to protect it. Arnold liked forward planning. He knew it would take some time to clean up so he gathered up everything and rammed it into the dustbin. Out of sight, out of mind. This was unlike him, but Arnold was feeling better for changing things.

The walk back had taken longer than Beatrice had first expected. This was because she had passed by the school and picked up the girls. For some reason, she didn’t trust Arnold to remember, he hadn’t seemed right on the phone. She had to admit that this probably had something to do with her actions. The girls dawdled behind Beatrice, asking incessantly: where’s Dad? She always gave the same answer, but even she was beginning to doubt her words: He’s at home. She didn’t know what she might do if he wasn’t. The girls couldn’t see her panic. Could they?

Undisturbed by the usual clamour in the house, Arnold was free to patter about in his socks. He carried a can in his hand and was walking around the house in a pattern that was not discernable, even to Arnold himself. However, he walked with a purpose – something he couldn’t remember having done so for many years. Once back in the lounge, Arnold dropped the can to the floor and began systematically breaking the furniture into small pieces, placing them on the floor in front of him in a haphazard pile. As he worked, Arnold hummed just under his breath.

Very close to the house, Mr Banjhiani from the local shop (the one just on the corner of the street) stopped Beatrice. Even though she hadn’t been inside the shop for months – and who could blame her at the prices he charged – Mr Banjhiani appeared to be up on his knowledge of the family. He spoke to the girls in turn, by name, and asked after Arnold. Beatrice, while flustered, stood her ground and smiled sweetly at the shopkeeper. Thanks for your concern; we are all well, she said, looking down. The shrewd Mr Banjhiani knew that she was lying.

While Beatrice was, unbeknownst to Arnold, being kept from returning home by Mr Banjhiani, a strange silence had settled on the house. Arnold was sitting in the front room, carefully tearing photographs into small strips and letting them flutter to the ground like feathers; they gathered around his feet like pets being fed from the hand. The pile grew bigger and bigger until Arnold had exhausted the supply of photographs stacked off to one side. He didn’t look up once from his task, no even when he heard the first footsteps on the path that led up to the house.

X MARKS THE SPOT what does that mean? It took Beatrice a moment to take in the words, as her eyes were fixed on the front door. Painted, crudely, on the front door were the very words that Charlotte had read aloud. What on earth could they mean? Beatrice didn’t have the answer to this particular question. She shrugged the children aside and retrieved the key from her purse. Clumsily, she dropped it on the floor and, as she bent forward to pick it up she thought she heard the sound of crying through the letterbox. She couldn’t be certain.

Younger men may have been able to deal with things differently, especially when they found themselves with broken hearts. For Arnold, he only had one way to deal with things, he was set in his ways and, as the cup incident had proved, he was too old to change them now. He was laughing at the proverb, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Well, he was the personification of that, he thought. The first match didn’t quite catch as he ran it down the length of the packet. The heat engulfed him as it caught on the second attempt.

Zinc in the diet can help burns heal. This was the first thought that came into Beatrice’s head as she tried, valiantly, to enter the house. The girls were screaming behind her and the key wouldn’t fit into the lock. As she looked closer, Beatrice saw that she would never enter the house again, for the lock had been changed. The smoke was billowing against the inside of the windows as the curtains caught the flames that filled the room beyond. Someone in the crowd that had gathered said they could see a solitary person sitting on the burning sofa.

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