by Richard C Elder
Barraquito (never stirred)
Pat and Aoife live in a cul-de-sac of eighteen semi-detached houses in Belfast.
‘Piggin’ day,’ she says, staring at the monochrome view from her living room window. It’s 9.50 on the first Monday morning in January. The sky is an overturned grey bowl clamping down on the frozen city. Leaning close to the glass she cranes her head to the left to get a better view. Her breath fogs the pane; she pulls a crinkled tissue from her cardigan cuff and wipes it clear. ‘Where are you?’
And then she appears, black and lustrous, patrolling her territory. Aoife taps on the glass with a fingernail. The cat freezes mid-stride, its ears swiveling to pinpoint the sound’s source. It looks at her with unblinking hazel eyes. They stare at each other then the cat turns away and trots across the frozen lawn, melting into deep shadow below the conifer at the far corner of the garden. Aoife lifts a yellow duster from the arm of the settee and Pat’s voice leaps into her head, “You wouldn’t stay in a mingin’ B&B. Would you?”
She’s breathing too fast. Light-headed she lands heavily on the toilet seat which skews sideways, the hinges creaking. Forearms resting on her thighs she bows her head and takes slow, deep breaths. Her skin is shrinking, squeezing her, threatening to split.
She stands and the room swirls.
Stumbling on her way down the carpeted stairs she saves herself by grabbing the varnished banister with both hands.
Pat’s standing on the concrete step with the kitchen door wide open. Cold air floods the room. He’s wearing his usual expression: the frown, brown eyes boring into hers, tight pale lips.
‘Sorry, I was in the bathroom. What is it?’
‘No problem. Give me five minutes.’
He turns away and goes back to his ‘workshop’ as he likes to call it. In reality it’s a draughty garage with tools, heat, light and him in mucky dark-blue overalls.
‘Wee bastard,’ she mutters through clenched teeth, angry with herself for apologising. Cutlery rattles like a car crash when she rips open the drawer.
Months ago their GP advised him to adopt a healthy diet, drink decaf and take some exercise or face the possibility of an early death. Being a coward at heart, Pat ordered her to buy decaf right away, insisted she cooked him better meals and told her to use sweetener.
He would balk at the plates of chips, sausages, fried chicken, black pudding, pointing a stubby finger across the dinner table, interrogating her, ‘How’s this good for me, eh? All this fried food. I told you what he said, about how dangerous it is for me to eat crap.’
Resisting the urge to stab him in the face with her fork, Aoife explained, ‘I’m usin’ olive oil in all my cookin’ now: Extra virgin. Everybody knows how good it is. Look at those Italians; they’re long-livers compared to us, use it on everythin’. Doctor told you to eat healthy, that’s what you’re doin’, no problem.’
His protests faded and now the greedy little man shoves anything and everything into his mouth. As for his coffee, it’s a full strength Arabica, sweet enough to make her teeth wiggle, topped up with full-cream milk.
She smiles to herself as she crosses the icy, desolate gap between the house and the side door of the garage: every sip he takes is a step closer to the heart attack or stroke - whatever - he deserves.
Warm air pours out when he opens the door, carrying with it the smell of sweat, hot metal and grease. He takes the coffee. The door thunks closed, leaving her staring at peeling turquoise paint.
Someday I’ll take a hammer to your precious motorbikes, little man.
After a monosyllabic lunch she walks to the supermarket fifteen minutes away on the main road. The walk gives her time to look around, smell the air and breathe. Sometimes his favourite newspaper has sold out by the time she gets there. Today is one of those days so she buys ‘The Independent’ to wind him up. On the slow walk back a cherry-red VW Beetle pulls alongside her and stops, the tyres throwing dirty slush over the granite kerb stones. The passenger window whirrs down and the driver leans across, asks, ‘Hey, Aoife, how’s things?’
Aoife crouches and smiles. The smell of good perfume wafts from the car’s interior. Music machine-guns from the sound system.
‘Great, Nikki. Sorry, miles away.’
You look wretched. ‘No worries. Listen, I’m free this afternoon. Fancy coming in for a catch-up?’
Aoife does a quick calculation. He’s going on a parts run for his bikes. Leaving at 2.30, back at 5.15, thereabouts. And spending time with her friend will be a change from afternoon TV.
‘Quarter to three?’
Nikki winks and selects first gear, saying, ‘Absolutely! Lift?’
‘Nah, need the exercise. See you soon.’
The car shoots away. She checks the time: it’s 2.20 so she walks fast. Turning into the cul-de-sac she sees the Beetle parked in the driveway beside hers. Pat is sitting on his three-wheel motorcycle waiting for her. Pale-grey fumes pulse from the chromed twin exhausts. There’s a light tinkling from the matt-black engine. He’s wearing tight black leathers, boots, gloves and a silver helmet with its mirrored visor raised.
I hate you.
‘Thought you’d left the country.’
‘Sorry, long queue. You goin’ for parts?’
Aoife sets the table for dinner then races upstairs to change. She pulls on a fresh tee-shirt and jeans, brushes her hair and redoes her lipstick. Nine years younger than her husband, she’s a good-looking woman, with shoulder-length red hair, green eyes and an athletic build. She’s slightly taller than him, standing at five feet seven inches in her bare feet. On her way out through the kitchen she grabs a tub of Ben and Jerry's ice cream from the freezer.
Nikki has two large glasses of Pinot Noir and a plateful of nibbles waiting in the living room. ‘Deadlines and Commitments’ is bumping in the background. Strategically placed table lamps and a log fire push back the gathering gloom to give the room a cosy, intimate feel.
The women met eighteen months ago. Nikki is forty-seven, unattached and works for Radio Belfast as well as doing some voluntary work for a charity called ‘Bright Life’. Why she is still single is a mystery to Aoife. The couple next door despise each other. Reason enough, don’t you think? Grimacing, she swallows a mouthful of wine, sinks into the deep leather settee and swallows another. The seat cushion swells and settles when Nikki drops beside her. Neither woman speaks. Nikki holds the wine in her mouth, savouring the heat and flavour of the grapes. Her head tilted back against the cushion she lets it flow into her stomach, eager for the delicious lightness to begin. Both of them have their reasons for letting the alcohol do its work.
Nikki’s father died a violent death and loneliness is killing her mother. She can tell Aoife how she feels because both women have shared secrets and tears. And the secrets have remained secret, the tears evidence of trust in one-another. It’s a worn-out joke, but Aoife often tells her that her own life would be perfect if it wasn’t for one small problem that rides a motorbike and hasn’t had an accident yet.
Drawing her legs under her, Aoife asks, ‘No man yet?’
Nikki raises her eyebrows, takes a slurp of wine and says, ‘If there was he’d be in the kitchen making us dinner, the lazy sod.’
Jabbing an index finger into her friend’s side, Aoife tells her, ‘You’re a bad woman, Ferguson. Bad but right. Hell with all of them.’
Sniggering, Nikki fetches a fresh bottle from the kitchen. Dropping the screw top on the coffee table she tops up their glasses. Leaning close to Aoife she whispers, ‘This itch hasn’t been scratched in a while, girl. Just give me an opportunity.’
They laugh, snort and the banter continues. These two women are good for each other because they’re both lonely. Nikki pulls the curtains closed and adds wood to the fire. Setting the dented spark-guard back in place she flops onto the settee. Both of them squirrel into the cushions. Shimmering golden light plays on their faces and hands.
‘How’s it going with Pat?’
Aoife takes a swig and empties the glass. Wiping her nose with a tissue she spits the words out, ‘Is what it is. Fill me.’
Wine glugs, the bottle clunks on the table. Resting her hand on Aoife’s knee, Nikki asks, ‘What’s happened?’
Aoife moves forward onto the edge of the settee and checks her phone; it’s 4.25. ‘Have to go soon. He’ll be home...’
Nikki mutes the music, waiting.
A flickering diamond falls from Aoife’s chin to the carpet. She sets her glass on the hearth, mumbling, ‘Water.’
Nikki follows her into the kitchen. Aoife opens the tap and water bounces out of the tumbler, soaking her hand, arm, the front of her tee shirt. It runs down the cupboard doors and puddles on the cream floor tiles.
‘I’ll do it,’ says Nikki, taking the glass. She gives it back half-filled, murmuring, ‘Take sips. There’s no rush.’
Aoife’s body is a tuning fork, quivering and taut. The water in the glass has miniature tsunamis careering back and forward. She sips noisily. Her eyes are dull, unfocussed.
Aoife shakes her head, sets the empty glass in the sink.
Aoife groans and draws fingers down her cheeks, stretching the skin.
The window is a black mirror silently playing-out the scene in the room. Aoife presses her mouth against Nikki’s cheek; her breath is hot and moist, heavy with the smell of alcohol. ‘Can’t take any more of it,’ she cries, dissolving into sobs.
Aoife’s head slumps against Nikki’s shoulder. Her breath is lurching. ‘I’m wastin’ my life. I have to get away from him.’
Nikki sighs and embraces her. Aoife crushes her like a mother who finds the child she thought was dead. The kitchen door flies all the way back to the wall. The handle breaks a porcelain tile with a sound like bones being snapped as a barrage of words explode in their ears, ‘WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD IS GOIN’ ON HERE?’
Pat takes two fast steps into the room, freezing air swirling in his wake. He catches hold of Aoife’s hair in his left hand and shoves Nikki away with his right. Twisting his wife’s head round he pulls her toward the open door, hissing in her ear, ‘So that’s what you like, eh? Well we’ll see about that, you ungrateful bitch.’
Nikki roars at him, her every word a thunderclap, ‘LET HER GO!’
He stops, looks her up and down then shakes his head, his words venomous, ‘You ugly, bony dyke. Stay away from her, she’s mine.’
Her heart pounding, Nikki takes a small step toward him. With quiet authority she says, ‘No. You let her go. Let her go now.’ Releasing Aoife, he crosses the six feet of floor between him and Nikki in an instant and punches her in the belly. Her breath ooofs from her gaping mouth and she drops to the floor, dry-retching, knees pulled up to her chest.
Panting, Pat hunkers down and leans forward, dominating her. Rubbing his crotch, he tells her, ‘Stay away, dyke, or I’ll come back. And next time you’ll really not like what I’ll do to you.’
Then he clears his throat and spits on her.
Aoife has watched all this unfold, frozen by fear: until he spat. She is vibrating with rage. Plucking the empty wine bottle from the draining board she disturbs a tea spoon. Clink. He turns toward her, rising, but he is too late. Far too late. Adrenalin supercharges her body. Muscles twitch in readiness. The last thing she sees as she swings the bottle down is a wide and uncomprehending eye staring back at her: it belongs to a beast in the slaughter house.
The dark-green bottle strikes forward of the crown, smashing the skull and sending sharp-edged bone fragments deep into his brain. Blood explodes from severed vessels, spraying across cupboard doors and spattering floor tiles. He collapses on Nikki, pinning her to the floor. His arms and legs jiggle like he’s plugged into the mains. She wails and struggles beneath him; taut black leather groans and squeaks. Nikki shrieks. Blood flies in all directions, like a meat rocket exploding at a butchers’ convention. Then he slumps, crushing her. Punching, twisting, heaving him to one side, she rolls out from under. And there he lies, with his back against the sink unit cupboards and a fat pockmarked cheek on the floor. Suspicious, Aoife stands over him, her makeshift club ready. You’re a crafty bastard, always were. She kicks him in the gut but he doesn’t react. Hooking his nose with her fingers she pulls his head off the floor then lets it drop; blood oozes from a hair-choked nostril. Chuckling, she turns to Nikki, saying, ‘Hope you’ve plenty of kitchen roll.’
Dark winter cold has turned the kitchen into a meat locker. Aoife locks the door and pockets the key, pulls down the blind. Nikki crawls away from the horror and sits shivering, leant against the washing machine, thin legs straight out in front of her. She’s rubbing both palms on her jeans leaving glistening dark stains on the faded denim. The kitchen clock marks the seconds. Tickatickatick. Both women look at each other through thickening, foetid air.
Aoife crouches beside Nikki and pushes sticky, blood-splattered blonde hair back from her friend’s face. Desire surges like a freak wave, its dark back a rippled monstrous hump lifting her toward the sky. ‘That’s that,’ she says, her scalp prickling. ‘And the rest...uh...the rest is just gettin’ rid.’
Nikki’s breath whistles through pursed lips. Swallowing, Aoife straddles her thighs; firm muscle trembles under her buttocks. Looking Nikki straight in the eyes she murmurs, ‘It’ll be alright. It will. We’ll bin bag him, move him into the workshop then give this place a good clean.’
‘Leave me be.’
Aoife takes her face in both hands. Wiping at the tears streaming down her blood-caked cheeks, she smiles and says, ‘You’re bloody freezin’. Let’s you and me get in the shower, right now, wash this muck of us. He’ll keep for an hour or two.’
Nikki winces, shakes her head.
Aoife moistens her lips, whispers, ‘Shhh, it’s okay,’ before kissing Nikki who recoils in disgust. Thumbnails sharp as needles dig into her cheeks when Aoife tightens her grip. Nikki grabs handfuls of red hair and shoves with all her strength, locking her elbows to keep the madwoman at arm’s length. Aoife snarls and seizes Nikki’s skull, pulling on it with such force that Nikki feels sure her neck will snap. Two pairs of arms judder with effort. Summer-blue eyes lock with reptilian-green: stalemate.
‘I did what needed to be done,’ grunts Aoife, rose-pink sweat dripping from the tip of her nose.
Nikki’s arms are burning, her shoulders molten. This thing in front of her is a stone-cold psycho bitch. Get in the shower? GET IN THE SHOWER? Get the cops is what I’ll do.
‘You’re what? Thinkin’ I’m a fuckin’ nut? That right, Nikki?’
Nikki croaks through dry lips, ‘He was a horrible man...but we can’t cover this up...we’ve got to phone...’
‘NO WE DON’T!’ screams Aoife, locking bloody hands around her throat.