by Robert Ferguson
sweet, milky cocoa
Joan was having difficulty going to sleep. Again.
Arthur didn’t. Never did. Laid down straight out on his back, the same as always, and just went off, mouth open, organ-snores booming.
Joan lay on her side looking at him. Then she turned over onto the other side. Vigorously. Then back. The organ voluntary continued uninterrupted.
Joan gave up, rolled back on to her left side and reached out to switch on her bedside lamp. She sat up, rubbed her face with both hands, and said,
“Well that had no more effect than usual, did it?” She sighed. “Myra down the shop – not Myra in the dry cleaners – says why don’t I poke him? Well, I’m not that hard up, I say, well, not quite. Yet. Damn nearly, by the sound of it, she says, saucy moo.
“Why don’t you sleep in the nuddy, Myra says. What? I say. Arthur hasn’t ever seen me in the nuddy, never. I couldn’t. Wonder if I could, though? Ooooh. That’d frighten the old so-and-so! No. Probably give him a seizure, which is all I need. Anyway, I’m not getting out of bed now just for that.”
“He used to say he liked my body, when we were courting. Get off, Arthur, I used to say, and gave him a slap, but he did say it, then. Anyway, it isn’t respectable, is it? Not that anyone else would know, of course. Unless he told all his mates down the boozer. They’re a right lot, down there. Not gentlemen. There is that nice Harry, of course. Always nicely dressed, and hair like Johnny Curtis, all shiny. Now then, Joanie, that’s enough of that, my girl. But he is quite…”
“P’rap it’s the bed, Myra said.
‘The bed?’ I said. ‘It was my dear Mother’s bed, I’ll have you know, Gawd rest her poor soul.’ What she put up with from my Dad! Belted her something dreadful when he’d been drinking. G awd knows what young Walter knew, when Arthur was still interested.” She smiled at pleasant memories. “Even when we’d moved the bed round so it wasn’t against his wall, Arthur could still make it clatter. ‘Arthur,’ I said, ‘steady’. ‘Can’t,’ he said, and went on with it. Oooh, it was …” Joan took a deep breath and shook herself. “Not that it lasted long. But it left marks in the plaster till he finally re-papered in here.”
“P’raps I should get one of them whatd’youcall’ems? Baby doll nighties?” Joan sat up away from her pillows and preened. “Ooooh, now.” She paused. “No, I’d have to do without the curlers for a night, and look a mess in the morning. Whatever would the neighbours say? Anyway, Arthur wouldn’t notice.” She relaxed back against the bedhead and smiled complacently.
“Last time I had my hair done nice, I took the cash to pay for it from his wallet, when he got back from the pub the night before. He didn’t notice that, either, let alone my hairdo the next day. Just grumbled about the beans. Well, I like beans, even if he doesn’t. ‘More beans and fewer chips and you’d be a better shape,’ I told him. Nothing wrong with my shape, he says. Well, I thought of four or five possible answers to that, I can tell you. But there wasn’t any point in giving him any of them.”
“Not that Arthur has ever hit me. I have to say that for him. Come close, once or twice, I dare say, but never actually done it. Cut him off from his beer and his mates, though, and I wouldn’t like to say what might happen.”
“He never takes me down the pub these days, either. We used to go down the pub together. I used to like my drop of rum and pep. now and then, and a glass of port and lemon at Christmas. That was until our Walter came along. After that, and me stopping working, … no more pub, or films at the Regal.” She smiled to herself again.
“When I was a girl, mind, and had the odd bob in my purse, before I met Arthur, ooh, we had some fun with the boys. Especially after they put up that bus shelter on Park Road and put a seat in it. That Steven Phillips used to smash the lightbulb, regularly, and then dare the girls to go in there with him, but I never did. That Dawn Reynolds did. Mind you, she went away eventually. Not a word to anyone beforehand. Just here today and gone tomorrow. And her mum wasn’t letting on. So everyone said, well, you know. Deirdre at the chippy called it ‘bus-shelter-itis’. Wonder who else got caught? Wonder if that bus-shelter’s still there?”
She sniffed again.
“The Rent Man’s due to call in the morning,” Joan pondered. “Now, he’s nice, as long as you’ve got the right money. Mind, her at Number 19 says he’s quite nice if you haven’t, and she should know. He’s never been that nice to me when I’ve been behind, mind you. Tried it once, and he got all fierce. I went and ‘found’ some more cash sharpish, and he was all beams and smiles again. ‘Thank you, Joan,’ he says, all smarmy and raising his hat, so I said, ‘Now, you be careful and write it in your little book,’ and he says, ‘Now which little book would you like me to write you in, Joan?’ The sauce of him, right there on my own doorstep! What if one of the neighbours heard? So I just said, ‘That’s enough of that,’ and he went off looking pleased with himself.” She paused and leered to herself. “I could have been pleased with him, given half a chance! That’s my trouble, I s’pose. Don’t make the most of my chances. I’ve had my chances, of course, but had is probably right. Doesn’t look as though there are going to be any more. Mind you, Myra down the dry-cleaners – not Myra in the shop – she says, “Never say die, Joanie,” – always calls me Joanie, ‘cos it’s her dead sister’s name, of course, and she likes to remember her. Well, she says she’s dead, of course, but it happened in Australia, after they’d done one of those ten pound emigrations. ‘You going to go out there, Myra?’ I said, ‘See the grave and pay your respects.’ ‘Naw’, she always said, ’either she’s dead or she isn’t, but I never liked her when she was here, so I don’t see going over there either way. Got better things to do with my time, and my money,’”
Joan sighed. “I used to try to get Arthur to travel. ‘Oooh, look!’ I used to say, when he’d got the racing page spread in front of his great face, ‘look on the back of the paper!’ Mind you, Arthur, he’s very slow reading anything other than horses’ names – slow horses at that, generally – and the makers’ names on beer bottles. Still, I didn’t marry him for his intellect, did I? Might just as well have done. Neither of them seem to work these days.” She sniffed heavily. “Anyway, I used to say to Arthur, ‘Oooh, look, cheap holidays in Spain. Three nights in Malaga for forty pounds!’ That Mrs Thing at number twelve did one of them last year. Lovely, she said it was. Lots of paella everywhere. ‘How do they do thata?’ I asked her, but she just went all coy and said she had to put her hubby’s supper on.” Joan sighed again. “I wouldn’t mind a helping of that paella myself just now.” She stopped short suddenly, glowered, lifted the edge of the duvet and stared down the bed beneath it. “Coor, that gave me a turn,” she said, replacing the duvet. “Thought he’d brought in some sort of animal on his clothes. All furry and warm. Only his socks. I’ve said to him times without number, ‘Arthur, will you take off your socks before you go to bed,’ and he says, ‘But, Joan, it’s a long way down there.’ ‘You get your shoes off,’ I say.” She lifted the edge of the duvet and looked down the inside of the bed again. “Yes, well, he has, this time. You never know with Arthur.”
“That’s what my Mum always used to say about him, of course. ‘You’ll never know with that Arthur,’ she used to say. ‘He’ll come out of that daze of his one day, and then where’ll you be?’ Well, if he chose the right time and place to come out of it, I’d be perfectly all right, thank you very much, though I couldn’t say that to my Mum.”
Joan’s sigh was repeated. She shrugged her way down into the bed, and then pushed the duvet back and sat up again.
“A cruise, now, that’d be nice. Myra at the shop, her Mum, she went on a cruise with her friend, last year, after their hubbies both passed away. Had a lovely time, Myra said. Met very nice gentlemen on the ship, both of them. According to Myra, the roll of the ship is very, what did she call it? Conducive. ‘What’s that mean?’ I said. ‘Stimulates them,’ Myra says, ‘like a massage.’ Well, Myra should know. Worked in that so-called ‘sauna’ place, on Palmerston Street, till the Council closed it down. She was only young then, of course, and weighed a good deal less than she does now. Anyway, they went to the Mediterranean. All romantic Latins, singing opera and drinking wine. I wouldn’t mind a bit of that. And I expect we could find tea and chips for Arthur now and then. Very cosmopolitan, they’re s’posed to be these days, with package holidays and that. Arthur can’t drink wine, though. Goes straight through him, he says. I quite like the odd glass of wine, myself, like at Christmas down the social. Makes me quite merry.“ She giggled. “Maybe I should get some from Swiftshop. Couple of glasses might ‘relax’ me. Might make me forget to put on my nightie and curlers. Ooooh.”
“Mind you, they’re doing cocktails at the Queen’s Head now. Very modern. Not that I could get Arthur to try one. I could though, if he’d take me. I had one, once, years ago, at a posh place, a wine bar they called it, in town, when me and Myra – Myra the shop, not Myra the dry-cleaners – were in town for Christmas shopping. Well, there wasn’t much shopping, ‘cos we hadn’t got much money with us, and Arthur had plenty of socks at the time, even if he kept losing half a pair. Goodness knows where they went, ‘cos he never took them off at home without me telling him. And he never went swimming. Well, we weren’t doing much shopping, so Myra said, ‘We’ve got to spend something, having come all this way, an’ it’s nearly Christmas,’ so we went in this wine-bar and she had a screw-driver and I had something called ‘sex on the beach’. Well, I don’t know what was in it, but it went straight to my head! Then, when we went to get the train, it went to my knees. Giggle? Myra had to
be very firm with me. ‘No, Joan, the guard is not interested in going home with you. Nor the driver. No, they don’t do that sort of shift with the passengers, Joan, only with their own wives. Now, behave!’ Only she was giggling as much as me, and everybody in the carriage was looking at us. But there, we didn’t know any of them, and a lot of them were smiling, and it was nearly Christmas…”
“Wonder if Arthur might give me a ‘special present’ for Christmas? That’ll come round soon enough, and if I start dropping hints now, he might get used to the idea by Christmas night. That’d be really romantic. Snow, and bells, and the lights on the Christmas tree flicking on and off, always provided he can get them going this year. Oh, Arthur, you used to be so romantic! Whatever happened, Arthur? I did love you, when we were young.” Overcome, Joan sniffled quietly but audibly for a minute, then wiped her eyes on the edge of the duvet before composing herself again.
“He took our Walter to the dog track last week. Walter let it out, and then looked real guilty. I didn’t know Arthur went to the dogs. Well, I’ve been saying he’d been going to the dogs for years, but I didn’t know he really had. So I went through his pockets once he’d gone to work. Well, you have to, don’t you? Wouldn’t know what they got up to otherwise, would you? Anyway, what do I find? Only a ticket for a dog called ‘Joanie’s Dream’. I nearly cried. He’d backed it ‘cos of the name, of course, so he is still a bit romantic, isn’t he? It didn’t win, of course, or he wouldn’t still have the ticket. Slow dogs’ll be typical of my Arthur. But he didn’t just throw it away, like he might have done. I put it back in his pocket. P’raps he takes it out and looks at it, now and then.” She smiled fondly down on the still-sleeping Arthur. “Ah, well. S’pose I’d better try to get some more sleep.”
Giving up hope, Joan struggled back under the duvet. Suddenly, Arthur rolled onto his side and reached out beneath the duvet for Joan. “Ooooh, Arthur,” Joan said. “Ooooh, you naughty boy! Ar-thur, …,” and she giggled delightedly, and gave up all thought of sleep.
About the author
Robert Ferguson has previously contributed a number of short stories to CafeLit, in addition to publishing “Late Starter”, a volume of poetry, and other poems in 2018 numbers of “The Cannon’s Mouth.” He is the winner of the Solihull Writers’ Workshop Poetry Competition 2018.