The Househusband paperback cover Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne
Danny Alfson is living his dream. He has an attractive, successful wife, the family’s sole corporate breadwinner, three beautiful children and an enjoyable job as a househusband. Apart from his paternal and household duties, he spends his time studying for his maths PhD and going to the gym. For years, he’s lived this way without a hitch, but recently things have started to unravel: Carol, his wife, is now busy undermining his househusband status.
After Danny discovers the reason for her behaviour, a downward journey begins into the darker side of their personalities, a journey which Danny feels powerless to prevent and one in which the nightmare never seems to end.
Here is the opening chapter of the novel:
Danny was hovering over the kitchen sink, wiping honey and bits of toast off the plate and knife that Carol had earlier thrown in there, while half listening to his children arguing at the breakfast table; as usual, arguing over anything and everything.
Emily, eleven, the eldest, paused in chewing a mouthful of cornflakes in order to spin the cereal box round so that the front faced her. “That’s the right way round,” she snapped.
Josh, three years younger than his big sister, lunged for the cereal box with milk dribbling down his chin. He managed to get a firm grip on it, and twisted the front back round to face him. “The front should be facing me.”
“No, the back should be facing you.” While it was still in Josh’s grip, Emily grabbed the box, and yanked hard. The box flew free of his hands, slipped out of Emily’s and sailed off across the table; it bounced off the edge of it, and crash-landed on the stone-tiled floor, spilling out its contents. Emily folded her arms across her chest. “Now see what you’ve done, Josh!”
Danny’s youngest child, six-year-old Abby, cried out, “Oooh!” as her eyebrows jumped high and her hazel eyes glowed with both horror and joy. “Daddy, look what Em and Josh did!”
Danny spun round, spotted the cornflakes littering the floor. “Whoever did that, clean it up!” He swung back to the sink.
Neither member of the guilty party made a move.
Abby sang out, “They’re not doing it, Daddy.”
Danny reeled round again, wiping his hands in the plain white apron he was wearing.
“Who knocked it over?”
“They both did,” Abby said smugly, giving her dad a rosy-cheeked smile.
“Both clean it up.”
“She knocked it over more.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Danny mumbled a mild oath under his breath, dug out the brush and dustpan from a low cupboard, and thrust them out to his son.”Clean half! Jump to it!”
Once Josh had swept up some cornflakes on his side of the table, he held the dustpan over the cereal box. Abby let out a high-pitched scream. The sound pierced Danny’s ears with the impact of an electric shock.
“He’s going to stick them back in the cereal box!”
“From the floor, they go in the bin,” Danny said calmly.
Josh pushed the bin’s swivel lid down with his free hand, and threw the dustpan of cornflakes toward the open bin. But he let go the lid too early and it flipped back up, hitting the cornflakes like a racket hitting lots of tiny balls, and, once more, the cornflakes went flying over the floor, this time spreading over a much wider area. Abby gulped in some air and puffed out her cheeks, as her eyes blazed away in merriment.
Danny tugged the swivel lid off the bin, offering Josh an easier target.
“Try again!” he said calmly. “Abby, Emily, finish your breakfast!”
Abby busied herself by sucking at the milk on her spoon and giving Josh sneaky, grinning glances.
Once Josh had cleaned up his mess, he held the dustpan and brush out to his dad.
“Give them to Emily!”
While Emily was cleaning up the mess on her side, Danny was picking up single cornflakes that Josh had missed. He paused at one point, the muscles of his jaw tightening. That’s all he needed: Carol coming home and spotting these on the floor.
Emily emptied the dustpan into the bin then picked up her spoon and continued eating.
Danny spotted a single black cornflake under the table.
“You missed one,” he told Emily.
She glanced under the table. “Oh, no, I’m, not touching it.”
Abby took a peep. “It’s a black one,” she whispered with delight. “I’ll get it, Daddy.” She slipped off her chair, scrambled under the table and reappeared holding it up triumphantly.
“Hold it over the bin,” Danny told her. “Then crush it and make a wish at the same time. Then wipe your hands over the bin.”
Abby did all this, laughing.
“What did you wish for?” Emily asked.
Both Emily and Josh looked a bit glum that they had missed out on a chance of making a wish.
With breakfast over, Danny cleared and cleaned the table and then did the washing up.
Out in the hallway, he helped them pull on their school blazers and overcoats. He also lent a hand to brush or comb a head of hair. Josh’s short, mousy blond hair took only a moment to comb. Abby’s blond curls fell naturally over her forehead and ears, and Danny had learnt just to brush them with light flicks to give her hair a neat, shiny, bouncy look. These days, Emily combed her own long, loose, shiny blond hair, which Danny had noticed she did each morning with long, lingering, dignified strokes as she sat at her dressing table in her dressing gown. Danny was happy to leave her to it, as he believed in speed and efficiency with his chores. Once Abby had pulled on her purple mitts, and Danny had buttoned up her overcoat, they were ready to leave the house.
Obviously, he drove very carefully with the children in the car, keeping his eyes peeled on the road for signs of trouble, never going above thirty in a thirty zone or twenty in a twenty zone, and at these times he always seemed to see more idiot drivers about. Today, he found himself aware of his hands gripping the steering wheel tightly as he wondered whether he’d missed a cornflake on the floor. His stomach suddenly felt cramped, his chest heavy. He hated feeling like this: overcharged. She was infecting him with her own anxiety. This way of feeling was beneath him and an attack on his self respect. He slowed at a zebra crossing and let a mother with her two children cross. She nodded a ‘thank you’ at him. Once she’d completely crossed, he pressed down gently on the accelerator. What he really feared was losing his patience with the children. What he feared most was taking it out on them. The car’s heating was on. He felt beads of sweat gathering up high on his brow.
The children were talking amongst themselves.
“You’re really getting on my nerves, Josh.”
He glanced at Emily in the rear-view mirror. She had her mother’s wide-set hazel eyes, but there the similarity ended. Emily’s face was thin, Carol’s feminine square. Emily was tall for her age, thin, a little gangly, awkward and self-conscious. She had been sick an awful lot over the years, since the age of two, in fact, which had at times caused a little conflict and stress between Danny and Carol – for what reasons he could not now remember – but they had got beyond that, anyway. They had never found out what was wrong with Emily. She suffered from one of those mysterious childhood sicknesses that disappeared as soon as childhood disappeared. She had always had a mixture of symptoms, and although she still suffered occasionally from this illness, the intensity, duration and recurrence patterns had certainly lessened over the years.
Emily was racing toward her teenage years, and wanted both to embrace them and retreat from them back into childhood, Danny thought. Nowadays, she used phrases like ‘You’re really getting on my nerves,’ in a priggish and indignant but overall fake kind of way, as though she was consciously testing out an older role to see how it suited her. Later in the year, she’d be going to high school.
“You’re getting on my nerves,” Josh snapped back.
“Daddy,” Abby gasped, “a car just turned the corner.”
“What’s unusual about that?” Emily asked.
“It didn’t wink.”
“You mean it didn’t indicate,” Emily corrected her.
“It didn’t wink its little light on the side. Daddy, you said it must when it turns.”
“Yes, it should do,” Danny agreed.
“Why didn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did it do wrong?”
“Yes, it did wrong.”
“The police might arrest him,” Josh said.
“No, they won’t,” Emily said.
“How do you know?” Josh asked. “Are you a policeman?”
Emily sighed contemptuously and shook her head. She changed the conversation. “You know Julie, Dad?”
“Sometimes she asks me things about you, but only when I’m over at her house. I think her mum gets her to ask them.”
Danny had to ask, “What sort of things?”
“About you being at home all day and not working like mum.”
Danny rubbed his nose, kept his voice level, “Oh?”
“Julie’s mum is amazed you don’t work and…”
“And that Mum allows this.”
Danny knew that Emily didn’t understand the power of the words she’d just used. “Julie’s mum knows full well I’m a stay-at-home dad.”
“I told Julie. I really like her mum usually, but… her questions are so stupid.”
Danny glanced at himself in the rear-view mirror. His brow was wrinkled with puzzlement. Was Becky Angelo, Julie’s mum, just dense?
“Julie’s mum told Julie that men who don’t work are lazy and have no pride.”
Danny laughed. “What does she think about women who don’t work?”
“Dad, she doesn’t work either. You went to university and Julie’s mum never did,” Emily said solemnly in solidarity with her dad. “And you take care of three of us. Julie’s mum only takes care of Julie.”
“That’s right,” Danny said, relaxing a little, and thinking how the woman was a shameless hypocrite.
Three hundred metres from the school, Danny emptied his cargo out onto the pavement and then herded them toward the school gates. Danny had no idea why so many people insisted on parking as close to the school as possible. The cars were lined up bumper-to-bumper both sides of the road leaving little room for a single moving car, never mind one coming from either direction. Twenty metres from the school, a woman was struggling to park in a tight spot, whereas back where he’d just parked the kerb was practically empty. She could have walked there and back in the time it took to park.
“I’m not walking on the gaps,” Abby cried.
“Make sure you don’t,” Danny warned her. “Or a small thing like you might disappear down a crack.”
Abby giggled at the idea.
“Your heel walked on a crack,” Josh pointed out.
“No, it didn’t.”
The usual crew were hanging about the school gates. Several mothers nodded and smiled at him. One grandfather beamed a smile at him. The others completely ignored him. Several wore purple or pink tracksuits with matching trainers. One was well groomed and manicured with designer handbag matching her shoes. Whenever she wore sunglasses, she stared at him sourly and continuously. She was staring at him like this now. She never ever spoke a word to him. Another glittered with jewellery like a Christmas window display, while her rake-thin body tottered about on heels that could have passed for stilts. She was always smoking and chewing gum. One had bright red-dyed hair, with rows of custom-made metal jewellery adorning her ears, neck and wrists; she bubbled over with youthful enthusiasm to such a degree than her ten-year-old daughter always looked quite subdued by comparison. One very young, petite mother stood with her hands on her swollen belly, caressing it lovingly, with her chin lowered and her eyes darting about, looking shy and self-absorbed like a child might do holding his football and wondering if the other kids will ever come over and play with him.
Danny had been bringing his children to this school for years, yet many still gazed through him like he were a stranger. There must be some sort of pecking order going on here, he had once told himself, and maybe as a man he was at the bottom of that order. But if the truth be known, he would have recoiled if any of them had attempted to engage him in a mother’s conversation.
Josh and Abby ran into the school, Josh without a backward glance, but Abby waved back at him. Emily remained by his side.
“Dad?” she said in a meaningful tone.
His listening antennae jumped to alert. “Yes?”
She caught his eye. “D’you think Mum’s acting a bit strange lately?”
“In what way?”
Her tone sharpened, “In whatever way.”
“She’s under a lot of pressure at work.”
“Oh? How come?”
Danny refused to run Carol down in front of the children.
He swallowed. “I really don’t know,” which was at least true.
“Well, Dad, she’s getting on my nerves a bit.”
She stared at him, as though expecting him to say something big, and looked disappointed when he only said, “You have to be patient with her, Emily. She’s a bit tired from work.”
She squeezed his hand and then got swept up with the flow of children passing through the gates.
Becky Angelo and her daughter, Julie, were approaching. Julie smiled and waved at Danny, and he smiled back at her. She kissed her mum, and ran into the school. Danny made no effort to acknowledge Becky Angelo. She was one of those infuriating women who completely ignored him whenever there was any kind of mutual acquaintance around, but then flirted crazily with him whenever they were alone or amongst strangers. Whenever it was the latter situation, her huge almond-shaped eyes were always fixed tantalisingly on him, making his head go a little light with excitement. But Danny felt that this hot and cold blowing behaviour was disrespectful and he tried to ignore her at all times. Considering what Emily had just told him about Becky’s opinion of him as a stay-at-home dad, provided it were true, of course, then he had even more reason to want to avoid her.
Danny walked past her, keeping his eyes averted, playing her game, but still catching a view from the corner of his eye of her shoulder-length, wavy black hair and her porcelain white skin; and then his nostrils caught the seductive scent of her perfume, which seemed to linger in his nose for ages.
On the way home, he played over in his mind Emily’s words that allegedly had originated from Becky Angelo’s mouth.
‘Men who don’t work are lazy and have no pride.’
These certainly weren’t the words of a child. He slapped the steering wheel and cursed Becky Angelo. Once, he’d have genuinely laughed away this sort of nasty and hypocritical comment, but it was not such an easy thing for him to do any more.
He pulled into the driveway, locked the car and opened the front door.
Danny was an efficient and precise man in his actions, which included his housework. He had all his duties written down in an electronic notebook and now checked them to make sure he had nothing special planned for this day at this time of month. Noting that he had one extra chore than he had thought he would have on this particular day, which was to clean the bathroom window inside and out, he set about his tasks.
First thing was to defrost the American-style, stainless-steel fridge that had a second inner door and a touch-control panel that gave chilled water with the choice of cubed or crushed ice. It had cost two-and-a-half grand and was supposed to be self-defrosting, but that had turned out to be a joke. He turned it off, and took everything out of the fridge and freezer parts. Then he cleaned the bathroom window inside. To do the outer window, he set up a ladder against the outer wall. He’d once tried to clean the outside from the inside and had slipped and almost fallen out.
Next he ran the vacuum cleaner over the pink carpet of Abby’s room. She had a cabin bed with three underbed drawers of different shades of purple and very colourful bed clothing. He tidied up the bed clothing, and straightened her teddy bears and dolls on various shelves about the room. The pink walls ran into shades of purple with lots of butterflies flying everywhere. Danny pushed her purple chair underneath her small purple desk. The room’s design had been Carol’s idea. Jemima, a rag doll of pink and purple shades, and longer than Abby’s bed, had appeared as an afterthought to complement the room’s colours, but had since captured Abby’s heart, and was now the centrepiece of the room. Danny straightened out her long rag limbs along the length of the bed. Her head lay on the pillow while the ends of her legs touched the floor over the end of the bed.
A chandelier hung from the ceiling of Emily’s room. All her furniture was white and elegant, including her computer; her pillows and stool covering were gold. Her dolls were porcelain, collectors’ items. She had a few golden teddy bears with a Victoriana aura about them. There was not a single book in sight. The room looked very bright, neat and spotless, but Danny ran the Hoover over the white carpet, anyway, for fear of missing anything. The room’s design had been a serious collaboration between Emily and Carol. Danny had merely been the interior decorator. As she grew older, Danny noticed Emily becoming more territorial, not wanting anyone to enter her room without knocking first and asking permission. He took some crumpled sheets of paper out of the bin on his way out of her room.
He entered a room with a sign on the door: Josh’s Batcave. The Batman theme dominated everything: painted figures on walls, posters, bedspread, pillows, cushions, carpet, toys, gadgets, computer screensaver, mouse mat, pens and pencil case. A Batman uniform hung over the back of a chair. One poster read: I’m not saying I’m Batman, I’m just saying no one has ever seen me and Batman in the same room together. The overall effect was dark and brooding just like in the Batcave. Toys, cushions and clothes littered the floor. Danny tidied up and then vacuumed over the Batman’s face on the carpet’s design.
Soon, he was sitting at the kitchen table, peeling the shell off a boiled egg. He didn’t like eating in the morning until he’d dropped the kids off at school and then done a bit of housework. He sliced the egg and spread it between two slices of bread buttered with mayonnaise. He ate slowly, occasionally scanning the floor for a renegade cornflake and cursing himself for his over-concern. He washed down his breakfast with a glass of milk.
On the wall hung a dog-themed calendar open to January with a photo of a tongue-lolling, black-and white terrier. Higher up hung a vintage-style, round wall clock with black roman numerals and black hands on a frameless, white background. It even had simulated greenish rust marks on it. Danny hated it, Carol loved it. The black hands pointed to half ten.
After mopping the kitchen floor, he wandered about the house, wiping door handles, wiping any handle he came across, as the children often left them sticky. The washing machine was nearly full. He threw a few more things in, and turned it on. He’d already made the measurements for a new shelf for Josh’s room for his model airplanes and ships. In the garage workshop, Danny cut out the required length and width from a piece of mahogany, sanded it down smoothly, varnished it and then left it standing up at an angle against the wall to dry.
He went to the study. Well, it was Carol’s office and his study. He sat down at the heavy, dark-stained mahogany desk in front of the window. The bamboo blinds were pulled down, and yet a strong January sun was flooding through the cracks in the blinds. In the corner of the room, near the desk, was a filing cabinet with a big, green-flowering plant perched on top. Behind him, on the other side of the fireplace, was a leather armchair standing on a jellybean rug. It was a thick, shaggy, hand-woven wool rug full of multiple jellybean colours, which Abby had chosen for the room, because she reckoned otherwise it wasn’t colourful enough. Munch’s the Scream hung on the window wall and Van Goth’s Self-Portrait without Beard hung over the blocked fireplace. Carol had chosen these two prints. Danny would never have done. He’d rather have had the jellybean rug hanging on the wall.
She’d left the computer on. The screensaver was a moving photo of the children with Abby’s smile broad as a cheeky monkey’s. Had Carol been at the desk early or was it still on from last night? No matter. He switched it off and pushed the keyboard out of the way.
Opening a drawer, he pulled out his books. He dipped his head in, continuing his struggle with his maths doctorate, centred on probability theory within the framework of artificial intelligence, which he never seemed to be anywhere near completing. At least, the silence and the stillness of the house meant that he was able to concentrate.
The time slipped by rapidly and by twelve fifteen his concentration was flagging. He stretched his arms above his head, ridding his neck and shoulders of stiffness. Ninety odd minutes of study five times a week was better than trying to cram in six or seven hours all together once a week.
The strong sunlight squeezing through the bamboo blinds was happily highlighting the dust particles floating around him. His heart sank a little. There would always be something for her to moan about.
He turned his mind to thoughts of exercise. In the utility room, he took the washing out of the machine and hung it up on the clotheshorse. Then he changed into his gym clothes, and left the house at a jog.
His gym had the usual array of equipment: indoor cycles, treadmills, rowing machines, elliptical cross-trainers, weight-lifting machines for arms, legs, back, chest, shoulders and abs, and racks of dumbbells and free weights. It had widescreen TVs hanging from the ceiling or stuck up on columns silently showing programmes while music blasted through the room’s speakers. Danny used a lot of this equipment, but what he really liked about the gym was its small ante-room where there was just enough space for two people to hit the two punch bags hanging from the ceiling and for two other people to skip rope nearby. Danny was thirty-seven now, and had boxed as an amateur in his youth, but he still enjoyed hitting the punch bag and skipping rope twice a week as part of his five-day-a-week exercise routine. This schedule took in Monday to Friday during term time and whenever he could fit it in during school holidays.
He stretched his torso, legs and arms before skipping for ten minutes. Then he got onto the punch bag. Danny was five ten in height, had once boxed at ten stone seven, welterweight, and was now about twelve stone, but he was all shoulders, biceps, triceps, chest and hard stomach. He hit the bag with good technique, power and speed, having lost none of his skills and none of his fitness over the years.
Tap, tap. Jab, jab. Tap, tap, tap, bang. Jab and right cross, followed by a left hook, then out again and in again with another combination. Bang, bang, bang. All the time he was working to a rhythm, a boxer’s rhythm. Danny could tell whenever a real boxer was hitting the bag just by listening to the rhythm of the thudding of the punches, as well as by the solid decisiveness of the punches. Bang, bang, bang! Near the end of his second three minute round, the sweat was pouring off him. Feign a jab, deliver on a straight cross then step in slightly and bang in a left hook. All the time he was on his toes, constantly moving, punching and keeping up his guard.
By the end of the fourth round, he was gasping hard, so he slowed his pace in the fifth. But he kept up the hard punching. More than any other form of exercising, the bag allowed him the best outlet for his aggression; and these days, he really needed this outlet for his growing frustrations. Bang, bang, bang, over and over. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, over and over and over. By the end of the eighth round his lungs and muscles were burning. But he wanted to do two more rounds. He would never think of not doing it once he’d made up his mind to do it. He believed in self-discipline and a punishing exercise schedule. After a minute’s breather, he went to work on the bag for the ninth round. At round’s end, he rested a further sixty seconds, and then set upon the bag with three minutes of constant hard punching. He threw shots to the head, shots to the body, crosses, uppercuts and hooks, thudding them in like the blows of a sledgehammer. Double jab, right cross, left uppercut, left hook, right hook, left hook… on and on and on… By the end, the sweat was streaming off him and he was panting vigorously with his mouth wide open. For the moment, the frustration and anger had emptied out of him.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted a woman entering the ante-room. While he was busy doing press-ups, he heard her on the punch bag and knew without watching that she did not know how to punch it properly. Forty-five, forty-six… forty-nine… Danny’s arms were trembling but he pushed up on that last desired press-up. Fifty! He jumped to his feet and shook out his arms, turning out of curiosity to see who was fumbling with the bag. She was a young woman in her early twenties dressed in light-blue Lycra shorts, work-out bra and flat, white gym shoes. She didn’t look that bad on the bag, he’d seen a lot worse with some men, but she didn’t know how to punch it properly.
She stopped and turned toward him, throwing him a disarming smile. She had two perfectly curved cheeks and a mouthful of perfectly even white teeth.
“How’m I doing?” she asked.
She stood about five eight on long, slender, shapely legs, was curvy in the hip, had a faint six-pack of a stomach, slim arms and neck and quite wide, bony shoulders. Her brown eyes were large and clear, her skin smooth and healthy, her cheekbones high and smooth, her jaw strong. Her dark hair was tied back tight in a ponytail.
Of course, Danny felt a current of sexual electricity run though him. The appearance of this smiling, young woman reminded him in stark terms how long it had been since he’d last had…
In fact, she had made him suddenly burn with raw sexual hunger.
“You can’t hit it properly,” he said. “You might even hurt your hands doing it that way.”
She laughed. “And you never bothered to tell me?”
“People don’t much like to be told they’re doing something wrong,” he said.
“I’ve watched you hitting the bag a few times now. You know what you’re doing. I really wish I knew how to do it properly.”
She was wearing a pair of purple bag gloves.
“Are those gloves new?” She nodded. “It’d be a shame not to see a new pair of bag gloves put to their proper use.”
The freezer part of the fridge hadn’t completely defrosted so he encouraged the process with some warm water and then dried out the whole fridge with a towel. He turned it back on and put the food back in. After a lukewarm shower, he returned to the study and tried to concentrate on his studies for thirty minutes. But his nose kept reminding him of Becky Angelo’s perfume from this morning and his thoughts kept returning to this girl he’d just met in the gym. He gave up trying to concentrate and sat there with his face in his hands, shaking his head slowly.
Finally, he said aloud, “How the hell has it come to this?”
His mind returned to those damned cornflakes. Was there still one or even two on the kitchen tiles he just hadn’t spotted? He shook his head, tried to chase the thought from his mind. But he failed in his struggle and hated himself for failing. He felt ashamed of himself for failing.
He ran the vacuum cleaner over the kitchen tiles.
At five past three, he left the house for the school. It was cold but the car window was down as his body remained hot from the workout.
Abby waved her new painting above her head immediately on sight of her dad.
“Wow,” he said, gazing at it. “Brilliant.”
Abby danced on the spot and clapped her hands with joy. “Can you guess who it is?”
“Is it me?”
Abby made another little dance on the spot, nodding.
Why did he have three eyes? Or was that eye in the middle just a wrinkle on the upper bridge of his nose?
“We’ll stick it up on the corkboard when we get home,” he told her.
As soon as they got home, Danny stuck it up on the corkboard which was as big as a blackboard and hung on the kitchen wall. There were already eleven of Abby’s brightly coloured abstract paintings pinned to it.
Tonight was sports night for the children, which meant they ate early and did their homework straight afterwards, so the food would be digested by the time they were ready for exercise. Danny had a very simple idea for meals. Make them nutritious and tasty and make them quick and easy. This formula had never failed him. Within half an hour, they were eating tuna and broccoli pasta in tomato sauce.
“Where does pasta come from?” Abby asked between mouthfuls.
“From the supermarket,” Josh answered smartly.
“Where does the supermarket come from?”Abby asked.
“Pasta comes from wheat,” Danny told her.
“What’s wheat?” she asked.
“It’s a cereal,” Danny explained.
“Like Honey Monster Puffs?”
“It’s not that type of cereal.”
Abby’s nose wrinkled. “Like Weetabix?”
Danny’s spoon of pasta paused at his lips. He wasn’t winning this one. “Wheat is a raw cereal. You take it from the field and you grind it into flour and then you can make bread, pasta and pastry from it.”
“Bread is made from wheat?” Abby asked.
“And pasta is made from wheat?”
“You’ve got it.”
“And Weetabix is made from wheat?”
“That’s right,” Danny said.
Her eyes widened. “Why do they all turn out so different?”
“Different things are added to the wheat and then it’s prepared differently to other things. For instance, you can eat chips, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, mash and potato cake and yet they’re all just from potato. Right?”
“Yes,” Abby said, with a nod.
“And crisps,” Emily said.
“Good example,” Danny admitted.
Abby went quiet, thinking about it all, and finally said, “I had cheese and onion crisps in school today.”
Once the meal was over, the table was cleared and wiped clean, and the children settled around it to do their homework. In between washing and drying the dishes, Danny went from one to the other, helping them like a classroom teacher. They weren’t allowed to fight or argue with one another during this homework period, only ask questions related to their work.
“No, darling, you’ve got to put these three numbers in order of the smallest first and the largest last,” Danny was telling Abby.
“If I put the smallest first and the largest last, where do I put the other one?”
“You put it in the middle.”
Josh’s nose was wrinkling with the agony of trying to get his spelling and grammar right. Emily was busy finger combing her hair while simultaneously trying to master the art of calligraphy in her writing style, but concentrating on nothing of any real use.
“I have to write a story,” she sighed, “but can’t think of a good idea.”
“What about something funny?” Danny suggested.
Emily shot Josh a sly glance. “Maybe I can write about my brother who thinks he’s Batman. That’s really funny.” Josh glowered at her, but Danny gave both him and Emily a warning look. Josh returned to his life and death struggle with his spelling and grammar, and Emily turned up her nose and said, “No, I want to write about something serious; something that has meaning.”
“Something that has meaning? Wow!” Danny said.
“Something tragic,” Emily said.
“Why don’t you write about Snowdrop?” Abby said.”Maybe he gets sick and then gets better with some good medicine.”
She was referring to a white cat, that she nicknamed Snowdrop, that sometimes came into the courtyard (side) garden and slept at Chez Abby’s, which was the big wooden doll’s house that Danny had made for her.
“A sick cat?” Emily played with her hair. “Maybe. Yes, maybe. A cat that’s lost eight of its lives and has only one left. If it loses this last one then it’s really dead. But it must save its kittens from a house fire. If it doesn’t, the kittens will die. But if it does then it will die.”
“Why does someone have to die?” Abby asked.
“Because it’s going to be a meaningful and tragic story,” Emily explained.
“Write it!” Danny said. “It sounds brilliant.”
Silence now descended on the table as the wheels of Emily’s imagination went into high gear.
The children were all in bed by nine and at ten past nine Danny heard the front door open.
When she entered the kitchen, he kissed his wife on her cold cheek. She made no move to kiss him back.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Well, it’s going,” she said. “Are they all in bed?”
“Yeah. Why so late?”
She pushed out a heavy breath. “You know how it is.”
She sat down at the table. Danny heated a bowl of food in the micro and then along with a spoon and a glass of ice-cold water placed it in front of her.
After glancing at the food, she said, “I’ll be turning into a bowl of tuna pasta soon.”
She used to enjoy eating his meals and even regularly complimented him on his cooking.
“I’ve been making that meal for years.”
“Exactly. I’ll have to buy you a cookbook.”
Danny’s right hand jerked involuntarily. He rubbed it against the thigh of his jeans.
She scooped a piece of pasta out of the bowl, and stared at it. “I’m not particularly hungry,” she said, dropping the spoon in the bowl.
“Fair enough,” he said, scooping up the bowl and looking for a plate to cover it with. “You can eat it tomorrow night.”
She let out a grunt of disgust.
It was like drops of water falling one by one slowly onto the centre of his forehead. Drip! Drip! Drip! At first, the drops had no effect; now a single drop of water crashed rather than dropped onto his skull with the sound and force of two cymbals clashing together, sending a convulsion throughout his head. At what point would he really lose it? After the ten thousandth drop? The twenty thousandth? And those cymbals were getting louder, too. Was she aware she was doing it? Was it deliberate? Was she trying to provoke him? What was behind it? Of course, he’d challenged her on her behaviour several times but she’d been as slippery as an eel with her evasive answers, and she’d always ended up by throwing it back at him.
‘Danny, I’m only just saying. Why are you getting so upset? Can’t I say anything anymore?’
When he’d tried to explain that she wasn’t ‘only just saying’ anything, that she was in fact constantly undermining him, she’d turn silent and fix a mixed expression on her face of both bafflement and contempt. Whenever he then pushed the point, she’d turn silent for a day or two. But she’d always come bouncing back at some point bursting with abuse.
What had happened to the woman he’d married?
“So what has kept you at work so long?” he asked.
She ignored the question, rose and picked a cornflake up from the floor at the side of the cooker. She gazed at it with a frown and deliberately held it up in the air for an unnecessary moment before dropping it on the table, knowing he was watching her. It was a provocative gesture.
If he were to shout at her, the children would wake, they would get upset and cry. It would destroy their sleep, it would affect their tomorrow. It might end up affecting a lot of their tomorrows. He inhaled deeply, slowly, silently. He had to find a way out of this increasingly stifling play. Why couldn’t she just communicate in simple words and tell him what the hell the problem was?
But Carol had no interest in taking the grown-up role here. She’d abdicated her responsibility in that way since the first day she’d started sniping at him.
“You come home late quite often now,” Danny pushed it. “Why?”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
Along with her wide-set hazel eyes, her lashes were long and flirty, her cheekbones high, wide and smooth, her hairline low, her mousy hair very thick and barely manageable when loose, which meant she mostly pulled it back tight off the brow and tied it up in a bun, like now. Her head was joined to her body by a long, kissable neck. At five eight, she was just two inches shorter than him. For so long, she’d always been a woman of health and vitality, of sexy curves and confidence, of briskness and focus. And humour. Her words used to tumble with humour.
“Proposals,” she said, switching on the electric kettle.
But that was then… and now was… well, now was now.
She was dressed in loose grey trousers and a loose white blouse but her recent drop in weight was still discernible. Her jaw line was tightening, her lips thinning, and the softness of her face was hardening. Her healthy colour was waning. Her movements had begun to lack that spontaneous confidence that had always been part of her overall sexual allure. Her movements were still brisk, but had become a little unfocused, sometimes awkward, and sometimes sharp edged and aggressive. Her once soft, playful, thoughtful gaze had become a critical stare. These days, her eyes generally focused only to deliver on a criticism; otherwise, they mostly appeared vague and fairly distantly cold.
The most terrible and desperate thing, Danny knew, was that she crying out for help, and every time he struggled to help her, she attacked him and drove him from her so that he was slowly forming his own hard bitterness toward her.
“There’s just so much to get through.”
He noted her tone of despair mixed with defiance.
He had imagined she might be having an affair and her guilt had forced her to be nasty to him. Yet supposing that were the case, what was with the weight loss? Why the dip in confidence? Was she really under that much pressure at work? Were they overloading her? But she always rose to that sort of challenge like he did in the gym when he pushed himself hard. She loved hard work. So what the hell was it? She used to come home and boast to him about the amount of work on her plate while she shovelled a mountain of tuna pasta into her mouth without ever once complaining about either.
What the hell! They had a deal. Nothing was beyond her at work because she had him at home to support her; a man taking care of the kids and the house, a man who was always there for her. So what had changed? What was different? Why wasn’t she confiding in him?
And now Emily was being affected by the change, too, as she had confided to him in her own clumsy, childlike way outside the school gates. He recalled her earlier words about her mother. “Well, Dad, she’s getting on my nerves a bit.”
Somehow, he had to wheedle it out of her.
“You’ve been really busy before. You used to strive on it. What’s different this time?”
“Is anything different this time?”
“It obviously is.”
“Is it?” He nodded. “I don’t know that anything is.”
“I’ve been waiting months for you to tell me. We swore to each other we’d always talk through our problems, that nothing would be beyond us.”
She took a mug down from the cupboard and dropped a teabag into it.
“Rather than worrying about my work, I suggest you worry about your own.” She flicked her head back toward the cornflake still lying on the table. “I’ll be working in the office tonight. Please don’t disturb me.”
Maybe not tonight, but soon he’d get it out of her.
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