by Matthew Charles
© Matthew Charles -- all rights reserved
Nobody comes near me.
The sun is shining. The birds are singing. A gentle breeze wafts pollen through the air.
It shouldn't be like this. There should be rain, thunder, mist.
It's not my fault, is it? Not my fault that she's lying there, the only woman I ever loved, in a wooden box while the vicar throws dirt on it. Not my fault that she's rotting away, decomposing, little worms popping in and out of her skin.
Nobody comes near me.
I wasn't invited to the funeral. I turned up anyway. She was my wife, right? I loved her, yes? So I have the right to come to see her dumped into the earth in a coffin and be told that she's gone to A Better Place, where fleas with halos can bite her, and glowing maggots with wings can burrow in and out and in and out and in and out and
Getting funny looks now. Mental note: do not display bulging eyes and rictus grin in public. Although funny looks are probably preferable to the ice-cold shoulder, the invisible barrier of I-despise-you-and-nothing-you-can-ever-do-will-change-that. If this was any other country in the world, somebody would have punched me by now. But this is England, good old Stiff-Upper-Lip England. Proper ladies and gentlemen don't show their feelings, they bottle them up, push them down, because that's The Decent Thing To Do. Irony! Struggle briefly to keep the insane grin from surfacing again.
Deep breaths. Calm. Collected. But it's all falling apart. My knees give way and I crash down to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. What I really need now is for somebody to come over and comfort me, tell me everything's going to be all right, to hug me and shush me.
But nobody comes near.
It was like one of those "match made in Heaven" movies. We were perfect for each other. Neither of us was particularly good-looking; there seems to be some unwritten law that anybody who studies Physics must be short and wear glasses. But we fitted together perfectly.
We'd been thrown together by chance. I was supposed to be doing my PhD in another department, until an unexpected discovery two weeks before the start of the year made my carefully planned project obsolete. I was suddenly in need of a subject, and for the opposite reason Vivian's group was suddenly in need of another postgrad student. After a hectic couple of days, I landed on my feet. Again.
I was good at that. Whenever I was in trouble, a solution always seemed to pop up. Exam topics revised at the last minute would come up. If I needed money, I'd find a decent summer job, or get offered a bursary. I would get first pick of the rooms in college, and they'd be mysteriously redecorated just before I moved in. I could just breeze my way through life.
She had blonde, frizzy hair. She dressed sensibly. But she was kind and gentle and innocent and, well, nice. And she had a beautiful smile. She was also two years further into her PhD than I was, and knew the subject inside out.
We fitted together perfectly. There were so many little things we had in common. We both liked to read. Neither of us had any idea about films, which gave our cinema dates a Russian Roulette-like excitement. And neither of us drank anything stronger than water, which we found out when she first plucked up courage to suggest going to the pub after work. We drank coke for four hours and got high on caffeine and hormones.
It's gone beyond funny looks now. They're back to pointedly ignoring me. What's the matter, never seen a grown man cry before? I can almost hear the word "drunk" passing through their minds, one by one. Didn't they hear me? I didn't drink, I don't drink. I may have dog breath, but I'm not stinking drunk. I'm just depressed. Confused. Two sticks short of a stick. Care In The Community. Absolutely bugfuck.
We'd been together for about three months when it happened. She'd been under the weather for a few days. Then, one morning she didn't turn up to the lab. I didn't think that much of it, but I went round to visit her in my lunch break anyway.
There was no answer at the door after a couple of minutes, so I used my key and went in. The flat was dark and absolutely still. I stepped over to her bedroom door and opened it.
She was lying on the bed shivering, looking pale and gaunt. She tried for a smile when I came in, but could only manage a grimace.
I rushed to her side and took her hand. Clammy, pulse shallow. I touched her brow. Feverish, sweating. I gave her a smile, ruffled her damp hair and picked up the phone on her bedside table to call a doctor.
I wasn't the least bit worried about catching anything. Like I said, I always landed on my feet. When fifteen thousand students from all corners of the world come to the same university, bringing all sorts of bugs and germs along with them, everybody ends up with 'flu. Except me, that is. The worst I ever managed is a sniffle. I've never even had a broken bone. Illness and injury were things that happened to other people.
The doctor said he'd come as soon as he could, about an hour. In the meantime, I made a hot water bottle and two cups of tea. Mine went cold whilst I helped Vivian to drink hers, sip by sip. I talked to her about what I'd heard on the news. I explained a problem I was having with an experiment. I brought in the TV, and we watched some awful Australian soap, my arm around her shoulders.
I was worried that she had meningitis, and the expression on the doctor's face when he came to examine her told me I was right. But his diagnosis was Flu. Not little-f-flu, but capital-F-Flu, Martian 'Flu, effing Martian Flu.
"Effing" because, of course, one must never swear in the presence of a priest. I had this theory that all clergymen have a special device implanted when they're ordained which sends out subliminal messages saying "Don't swear, don't swear, don't swear." Except that I'd been given one by mistake, which is why people found it virtually impossible to curse properly when I was around. It affected me too, of course, so that I could barely get an ordinary four-letter word out, let alone an obscene one.
Obviously, it's worn out, because that priest is looking daggers at me and mumbling some pretty strong stuff under his breath. He doesn't realise I can hear him, because I am in my secret identity right now. John Tatler, The Man With Super-Human Powers! The man who can hear a pin drop at fifty paces, see in the dark and smell what you had for breakfast the day before yesterday! And nobody can ever tell, unless he forgets to brush his teeth four times a day! Because he always lands on his feet!
Still, he has a point. Her brother's giving the eulogy now. Let's listen and see if he mentions me. Bet you any money he doesn't, unless it's to criticise me implicitly. Stand up. Brush self down. Stop crying. Control insane grin. Try to look like I'm paying attention.
The ambulance arrives. Paramedics load her into it. I follow. Doctors and nurses scrabble around, taking temperatures and pulses and blood pressures. There is a lot of frowning.
I know we must have arrived at the hospital, because I'm in a Doctor's office, planted in front of his desk with a cup of tea in my hand. He's sitting there, looking concerned and talking to me. Time snaps back to its normal pace.
'She's going to be fine. Martian 'Flu is not serious if it's caught in time - and you did an admirable job there.'
For a moment, I was confused. I didn't understand. Then, gradually, it dawned on me. This was real life, not some bloodthirsty hospital drama. And in real life, things always turn out for the best.
But he hasn't finished yet.
'I've got some more good news for you.'
Alarm bells went off in my head. This is it, they said, he's just been softening you up for the real blow.
'Vivian is pregnant. Congratulations.'
Okay, not alarm bells. Wedding bells. It came as a bit of a surprise, given that we had scrupulously practised safe sex, but presumably some disgruntled worker in a condom factory was laughing now. I was laughing, too. Out of danger comes new life. Treasure your love, because you may lose it at any moment. Be happy. Morals to the story all over the place. Along, of course, with: do your best, and you always land on your feet.
Her brother's still going on. I win. He's talking about how important marriage is, and the bonds of love. Not naming names, but the message is clear. You failed her, John Tatler. You weren't there for her when she needed you. You ran out.
But it wasn't my fault.
You swore to love and protect her. You made a sacred pledge. You gave her this ring -
He takes the ring from his pocket. Her ring. My ring. He's taken the ring from her finger before they buried her. He can't do that. That's all she had of me, now that the baby's gone, and her memory's gone, because the little worms are popping in and out of her skull and eating her brain and her memories and her love and her
Get a grip. Focus. The ring. He's taken out the other ring as well. Oh God. He's taken both rings away from her.
It took me all morning and most of my bank balance to find the right engagement ring. In the end, I took the easy way out, choosing the best-known jeweller's and asking the assistant for advice. I had almost given up on seeing one which was just right, and was about to pick a substitute at random, when he produced it.
It wasn't showy or ostentatious. It wasn't particularly expensive, nor very cheap. There was a single sapphire mounted in the centre, surrounded by tiny diamonds. The stone matched the colour of her eyes exactly. And when I stared into its centre, I could almost see her smiling back at me.
She was already awake when I arrived at her bedside. She looked tired and her face was thin, but she was smiling.
'Vivian, did they, um, well, tell you, ah, all of the good news?'
By the end of the sentence, I was blushing, and had started to stutter. In reply, she just widened that magical smile a little more and nodded. I fumbled in my pocket for a moment, then produced the ring.
'Will you marry me?'
She reached up and caught my shoulder, pulling my head gently towards hers. She stopped just as our noses touched, and whispered, 'Yes.'
It's nearly over. Funny, that. I'm hating every minute of this service, but I don't want it to end. It's like I'm enjoying the pain, bittersweet and soul-searing. But then, I'm non compost mentis. Joke. "Non compost mentis". Ha bloody ha.
They're singing a hymn. Guide Me O, Thou Great Redeemer. Cwm Rhondda. Good old, reliable Welsh favourite. A tune anyone can belt out. But I'm afraid to. I had a good singing voice. I could probably get away with it. But I just know that if I try, I'll hit that long, high "ee" syllable near the end of the verse, and I won't be able to stop, and I'll be howling, and my secret identity will be blown. And anyway, we mustn't show our feelings. Bottle them up, hide them away, do whatever you can, just don't tell the truth.
It wasn't my fault.
I come to the hospital at six o'clock, as I have done every day for the last week. I have my usual bundle of fruit, newspapers, chocolates and physics to deliver. But Vivian isn't there any more. Her place has been taken by an old man, mumbling to himself. Flustered, I ask the nurse where she is. The nurse puts on her sympathetic smile and asks me to take a seat.
I'm in the Doctor's office again, clutching another cup of tea. Something's wrong. I can't make out his words. I've got a headache. I try to concentrate on what he's saying.
'There have been complications, I'm afraid. Vivian will be with us for a while longer than we expected.'
It doesn't make any sense. She's practically well again. They were going to let her out the day after tomorrow. What's he trying to say?
'Vivian has developed Stein's Chronic Acquired Biomorphic Syndrome.'
S. C. A. B. S. Which spells SCABS. She's turning into a SCAB.
There. That didn't hurt too much, did it? I can handle that. I don't mind at all. SCABs are people just as much as anybody else. And I love her for her mind, not her body, right?
I always land on my feet.
Wait a minute, he's saying something else.
'Unfortunately, she rejected the child. She had a miscarriage early this morning. There was nothing we could do. I'm sorry.'
But we'd already named it. Him. We were going to call him Luke. We were going to move into a house together, and put his cot in our room, and make coat-hanger decorations for it. Her mother would knit the clothes, and mine would send us the blankets. And as for the nappies - well, those would sort themselves out.
But he's gone. It's gone. Dead. Forever.
Never mind, eh? We can always make more babies. Put on a grin. Make the best of it. Always look on the bright side of life.
I'm following the doctor through a corridor, turning left and right. We arrive at a pair of double doors. I can't go in there, because her immune system is still in shock, and we must keep the germs out, but I can look through the window.
There are drips and scanners and oscilloscopes and wires. A nurse is fussing over her. But I can just catch a glimpse of Vivian's face.
There is dark stubble growing on it.
They've finished singing. The priest said the Grace, although he had to make quite an effort to extend it to all of us. All of me. Then they all walked away. Her brother and her sister, her parents and relatives and friends. But not in silence. They talk, in hushed voices that they think can't be overheard. Some of them feel sorry for her. Some of them are angry at me. Some just want to talk about something else, anything else.
By tomorrow, they'll have put all this behind them. Drawn a line. Then they'll get on with their lives. But now, they're walking slowly away from the grave, talking to each other.
Nobody comes near me.
I collapse back down, hugging the ground, sobbing. Why did this have to happen? It wasn't my fault. I don't deserve this. Viv, tell me I didn't do this to you.
There is no answer.
The six-foot border collie is leaning on my shoulder, sobbing. Sobbing with happiness? Relief? Guilt? Anxiety? I don't know. But I have to look after her.
The doctor is explaining that, although Vivian isn't fully recovered yet, she can't stay here because they need the bed. I just keep nodding. Neither of us believes it. For what it's worth, I think he protested against the decision. But it doesn't matter, because I'm going to take care of her. No matter what.
I help her to the taxi, which is no mean feat. She is four inches taller and forty pounds heavier than I am. But, step by step, we get there. Each time she touches the ground, she winces, because she is walking barefoot, barepaw, on padded toes. But I keep hugging her all the way. And we make it.
We sit, side by side, in the back of the cab. I hold her hands. Her tail is tucked behind her. Her face points to the floor. She has not yet said a word.
Gently, I touch the bottom of her muzzle and raise it so that she is looking at me. She sniffs, then speaks.
'John, do you love me?'
Her breath stinks. Her jaw is hanging open, tongue lolling out. I take her hand and lift it to my face. Her claws scratch me. I kiss the hairy hand. My lips touch the engagement ring with its perfect blue sapphire. Then I look back up into her dark brown eyes.
I lie through my teeth.
'With all my heart.'
I lie there. I've run out of tears. I'm just making soft keening noises in the back of my throat. Like the dog who refused to leave his master's grave.
A shadow looms over me. Easy, boy. I catch the growl just in time. Look up. It's the priest. He tries to be kindly. He's not doing a very good job. His scent says he really wants to hurt me. Grin. As if I'm not hurting already.
'Come along, please, Mr Tatler. I know you must be very unhappy, but other people need to use this church too.'
Translation: Come in, number six. Your time is up.
He's right, of course. I stand up and brush the earth off my clothes. Must observe the proper decorum, mustn't we? I thank him graciously for a delightful service and set off with a spring in my side.
An untrained observer might think that I am smiling, enjoying the sunshine.
I'm not mad any more. I'm cool, calm, collected, coherent. I know exactly how to solve my problem. All my problems.
We're drinking tea together in the morning. I have a cold. She has to pour hers into a saucer and lap it up, with slurping and splashing. My mouth smiles, but my eyes don't. I pretend that it's endearing, not disgusting.
I'm lying in bed, heaving and groaning. She is sweating and stinking. The rub of fur against skin feels repulsive. But I carry on. I must be the first man ever to fake an orgasm.
I'm cycling over to the lab. She can't ride a bike any more, so she runs alongside me. She's panting and dashing around and chasing butterflies. For a moment, I think I recognise the old Vivian. Then, she pauses a moment to let me pass. She believes I didn't notice that she stopped to mark her territory.
We're in a small chapel, alone with the vicar. I'm wearing a grey suit, she's in a white dress. She looks ridiculous. But I say, I do, and slip the ring onto her finger. How the hell am I supposed to kiss her?
We're walking through the park. I'm tired. I ache. But I keep talking and walking and laughing. Every dog we pass strains at its leash to reach her. I fake a chuckle and tell her how attractive she is.
We're eating dinner. I have a glass of fresh orange juice and microwave lasagne for one. She has a bowl of water and a tin of Pedigree Chum (Lamb and Turkey). I dig into the cardboard mush as if it were delicious. I feel woozy. My head hurts. I can't keep this up for much longer.
And each time we have sex, I supply a condom. And each time, she asks, Why don't we try for another baby? And I reply, I'm not quite ready yet. Or, I'm not sure we can afford it. Or, Why do I need a baby? I have you. And she nips me playfully on the ear. And I ignore the blood and the pain and the incessant pounding in my skull and pretend that I love her.
It takes a moment to pick the right one. We only get one shot at this, after all. Mustn't make a mess of it. What would the neighbours say?
I pad over to the sink and turn on the taps. For some reason, I feel that this has to be done hygienically. I scrub it down, removing the congealed food. Then, I fill it with water, not too hot, not too cold, but just exactly at body temperature.
And then, one day, I snap. That's it. I've had enough. I feel like shit, and I have no sympathy left for her. So, without explanation, I stuff sandwiches into my pack and cycle off. I don't know where I'm heading. I just turn at random. I end up in a corner of National Heritage woodland.
My mouth is dry. My bones ache. I shiver all over. I'm tired. I take a long pull of orange juice and lie down on the hard earth.
But I don't die, because I'm Mr Healthy. I always land on my feet.
When I wake up, it's dark. I feel a lot better. I'm hungry.
I sit up and turn over to my pack. It's still there, its contents still strewn over the ground. But something's wrong.
The sandwiches have gone mouldy. I can pick out the little white threads. And I can smell them. Foul and awful and overpowering.
But they're still in their plastic wrap. And the sky is dark and clouded over. No moon. What is going on?
I glance at my watch. I need no extra light. Twelve days have passed since I rode out. I've been sleeping for nearly a fortnight. And I can see in the dark. And I can hear every rustle, every whisper, for miles around. And I can smell the mould, the trees, the leaves, the squirrels in the oak to my left, the sleeping birds above.
And I can smell her, her scent on my clothes. Viv. My heart jumps.
My hunger forgotten, I jump on my bike and ride off like a madman. No lights, no helmet. None needed. My muscles enjoy the exercise.
I pull a chair over to the sink. After all, I'm probably going to lose consciousness, and I don't want to fall over. I pull out the knife. I hesitate for a long moment, then put it to my wrist.
Down, not across.
It wasn't my fault.
I'm at the front door of our flat. My heart is thumping. I'm excited and exhilarated and I feel on top of the world.
But something smells wrong. Very wrong. Like the mould, but worse, a thousand times worse. Fearful, I unlock the door and pull it open.
There is a wave of maggots seething under the bathroom door.
I can't stop retching for ten minutes. Then I call the police.
They find the suicide note almost immediately. I don't have the strength to read it. I know what it says.
All the time, I thought I was fooling her. I thought she didn't realise. I thought she believed me to be sincere. Stupid, stupid. With a nose like hers, like mine, you can smell a lie a mile off.
She knew. But she had to pretend that she didn't, otherwise she would have been alone, and I would have gone crazy with guilt.
She thought I'd left her for good, just slipped away. And it had killed her. And she said so. And suddenly everybody knows it.
This doesn't have to be the end, I think. I mean, look at me, best of both worlds. I appear, for all intents and purposes, human. I have a dog's senses of smell and hearing, and vision better than a dog or a man. I can do anything.
I can pretend that I'm happy. I can live life day by day. Nobody need ever know what I feel like inside. See? I'm grinning already.
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