by Sheila Kinsella
I tidy the kitchen countertop just the way Rob likes it. Left to right, equidistant between the sink and the fridge - olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. It’s half-past six, he’ll be home in fifteen minutes. The tantalising aroma of Beef Bourguignon escapes the oven. An uncorked bottle of Saint Émilion stands on the dining table, breathing.
I watch dusk fall. A bat darts in and out of the flickering streetlights. Its jerky robotic movements mesmerize me. I remember bats are a symbol of rebirth. The momentum is broken by the sound of a door slamming shut. I open the door to the stairwell, but it’s only the upstairs neighbour.
The V-necked black dress I’m wearing is Rob’s favourite. The pearl drop necklace he gave me for my thirtieth nestles between my breasts. Matching pearl drop earrings dangle either side of my face. Blusher highlights my high cheekbones. My strawberry blonde hair is tied up in a chignon. I spray perfume on my neck and wrists. Perfect.
Seven-forty-five comes and goes, I put the dinner on a low setting. I call Rob’s mobile. No reply. The evening news is on TV, the presenter talks about a terrorist attack. I feel sorry for the victims, but it’s not on Rob’s route home; I switch channels and watch a mind-numbing soap.
Another hour passes. I chew my nails.
At eleven-thirty I see him staggering across the square outside. Not again. I sit on the sofa pretending to read a book.
The key scrapes against the door as he tries to slot it into the lock. First port of call is the loo. The sound of him peeing is like a horse urinating. No flush.
‘Still up?’ Rob flings his overcoat towards the armchair; the combination of its weight and a half-hearted throw ensure it slides off the leather into a heap on the floor.
I go to the kitchen to faff with the dinner, opening and closing drawers. Tidying the fridge.
I feel a sudden vice-like grip on my arms.
‘I’m talking to you!’ Rob squeezes my flesh.
‘Want some dinner?’ It sounds pathetic but it’s what I say.
It happens fast. He lets go of my arms and lashes out. I duck, but a drunken punch meets my guts. In the scuffle my necklace snaps and pearls tinkle across the tiled floor. Winded, I clutch my belly, drop to the floor and bury my head in my knees. Through the small gap between them, I see the reflection of the kitchen spotlights on his shiny black leather shoes. He stumbles backwards, grabbing the table to stop his fall.
He lets out a groan and starts to sob.
I open my fingers wider. Rob sits on the chair, head in hands. I dare not move.
‘I’m sorry,’ Rob sniffs and gulps, snot dribbles from his nose. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
He lets out an enormous belch. ‘You know I don’t mean it,’ he reaches his hand out. ‘I’m sorry.’
I flinch when he tries to touch me. I take a deep breath, rush to the bathroom and lock the door.
I put the loo seat down, flush, and sit.
There’s a gentle tapping on the door.
‘Suzanne, please forgive me.’
I run the taps to drown out his voice.
‘It won’t happen again. I promise.’
It’s past midnight. My stomach aches and I’m tired. So tired.
Later, I lie in bed staring at the ceiling. Rob snores next to me, his body in the foetal position. I go to the toilet; grateful my period has arrived. Tomorrow is another day.
I awake to a pencil ray of white light streaming in through the chink in the curtains.
‘Morning,’ Rob carries a tray laden with croissants and a tiny vase containing a single red rose.
‘Oh,’ I manage. ‘Lovely.’ I sit up and rest my back against the soft bedhead.
He kisses my forehead.
It’s Saturday. We get through the day doing mundane tasks. I do the laundry. Rob washes the car. We do the weekly shop in the local supermarket.
‘Oh,’ I squeeze Rob’s hand. ‘I’m meeting Rachel tonight, she’s off to New York for six months.’
Rob lets my hand go.
‘You’re okay with that aren’t you?’ I smile.
‘Well, if you prefer meeting your girlfriends to snuggling up on the sofa with me.’ His face is deadpan.
Is he kidding or serious? ‘I told you last week.’
‘No, you didn’t. It’s OK. I’ll find a way to amuse myself,’ Rob looks away.
‘I could say I’m sick,’ I offer.
‘It’s too late now,’ Rob reaches up to the top shelf for a packet of cereals.
‘Oh look! Your favourite biscuits are back in stock.’ I take the packet off the shelf to show him.
‘They’re not my favourite.’ He sulks.
At home, I look for the Belgian chocolates I bought Rachel. Four pralines have been bitten into and replaced inside the box. The tiny handwritten card is missing. I find it in the bin. I’ll get her flowers on the way.
When I leave, Rob is working on his computer. He doesn’t stop when I kiss him goodbye.
Rachel waits at the table in the restaurant. The beads she wears around her neck jangle against the glass bottle of mineral water as she gets up to greet me. She flicks her long blonde hair over her shoulder.
She gives the warmest of hugs. ‘Oh Rachel.’ I fall into her embrace and weep.
‘What’s wrong?’ Rachel asks.
‘I’m OK,’ I sniff.
‘Come on, we go way back,’ she holds my hand in hers.
I roll the left sleeve of my cardigan down for her to see the bruises. She gasps.
‘You’ve got to leave him,’ she says.
‘Easier said than done,’ I reply.
‘Seriously?’ Rachel’s blue eyes pop open. ‘It’s a no-brainer.’
‘He won’t let me go.’ I chew my nails. ‘I know.’
The waiter hovers around the table before handing us the menu and telling us about the specials.
We order a bottle of Chianti and two vegetarian pastas.
‘Look.’ Rachel lets out a sigh. ‘You’re a shadow of your former self. He’s worn you down.’
Tears trickle down my face. ‘But we’ve been together for so long. I might not find anyone else.’
‘Better alone than with someone who treats you badly.’ Rachel thumps the table with her fist. ‘Right. I’m leaving in two weeks.’ She rummages in her designer handbag and pulls out a set of keys. ‘Move in.’
‘What? Just like that?’ I take the keys.
‘Yes,’ Rachel smirks. ‘Call in sick on Monday. Pretend you’re going to work as usual. When he’s gone, pack your suitcases and take a taxi to my place.’
‘It’s too soon. I’m not ready.’ I fiddle with the cutlery.
‘Don’t wait until it’s too late.’
‘It’s my fault, I make him do it,’ I mutter.
‘Stop being a victim,’ Rachel places her hand over mine. ‘Get out while you can.’
The waiter arrives with plates of steaming pasta and makes a big show of placing them in front of us, offering us grated Parmesan and olive oil.
I didn’t mean to blub to Rachel, but I feel overwhelmed and conflicted. I love Rob.
‘Maybe he can get anger management therapy?’ I twiddle pasta around my fork.
‘Stop making excuses for him.’ Rachel points her fork at me.
‘Enough about me. Are you excited about your move?’ I attempt a smile.
‘Don’t change the subject,’ Rachel replies.
‘I’ll think about it/’ I gulp my wine.
But I’m already thinking about what I can do to make Rob happy. Cook his favourite meal. Book a weekend away together. I can change him. For sure.
My phone beeps.
‘Don’t answer that.’ Rachel grabs the phone off me and reads the message: ‘When will you be home?’
We exchange looks. She pours more Chianti.
‘Here’s to New York!’ I raise my glass to chink Rachel’s.
‘You must visit.,’ Rachel smiles.
The phone beeps again. She casts me a stern glance before reading the texts:
‘Answer me now!’ ‘I’m warning you.’ ‘Last chance.’
‘Seriously Suzanne. Leave him,’ Rachel says.
My eyes well up again. ‘Sorry.’ I take a tissue from my bag.
We talk about her new job and her eyes light up with excitement. When we part, she tries to persuade me to come with her, but I insist on going back, even though I feel anxious.
As I turn the corner into our street, bats flash in and out of the light. I stand frozen to the spot. Renewal, out with the old and in with the new. Yes, I can do this. I call Rachel to say I’m on my way, before heading back to the tube station. But after a few steps, I feel a sudden blow to my head, and everything turns black.
About the author
Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. Blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.