I wrote this story for the debut event of Liars’ League Blackpool; the theme (for obvious reasons) was ‘Bed & Breakfast’. You can watch Katy Darby’s wonderful reading of the story here.
A good breakfast is important because it gives you something to look forward to while you’re crying yourself to sleep at night.
I poke the bacon about the pan. It fizzes at me rewardingly. There’s a shop-bought muffin sliced in two on a plate on the worktop beside me and on the back burner a saucepan of water is coming to the boil. I flip open the eggbox and pick out a brown egg (I have the idea that a brown egg is somehow more wholesome than a white egg). I bash it on the saucepan’s edge and break the shell apart one-handed: the yolk drags the reluctant white into the hot water. I put a lid on the saucepan and turn down the heat under the bacon.
Then I wipe my hands on a rag and turn away from the cooker. I turn to face the two police officers who are sitting on the sofa. One’s a man and the other’s a woman, a young woman. He’s perhaps thirty-five, forty, clean-shaven, balding from the front, white; she might be twenty-three or so and is Anglo-Indian or Anglo-Pakistani, I think.
‘Sorry about that,’ I say. ‘But a good breakfast is all about attention to detail. Distraction can be fatal.’
They stare at me.
I notice that a corner of the insulating-tape pasted across the male officer’s mouth is starting to peel away from the skin. I step forward and thumb it firmly back into place.
‘There,’ I say. More to myself than to them.
They’re lucky, in a way, that they came to see me before I’d eaten my breakfast. After I’ve eaten my breakfast, my mood tends to darken considerably.
This all started not long after my husband died.
I shake the composting bin out into the heap behind the house. Vegetable trimmings and crushed eggshells. Withered teabags and the trimmed stems of hothoused tulips. I can’t consider the compost without considering Henry. That’s all he is now, of course – a wooden box of compost, bones and shirt-buttons – but that isn’t why I’m put in mind of him.
Henry drank tea (without milk, copper-coloured and refractive) and ate eggs (in omelettes, mostly). Sometimes he bought me tulips. He enjoyed vegetables, the way I cooked them. When I do these things now – drink tea by myself, cook for myself, buy myself flowers – I don’t think of Henry necessarily. I might but I don’t necessarily.
But the compost always makes me think of Henry because the compost takes all these things and puts them in the past tense.
And that’s where Henry lives now.
I use the trowel to knock the last bits – an onionskin and a wet lump of coffee grounds – out of the bin and I go back inside. The two police officers are still where I left them. Well, where else would they be? Sooner or later I’ll have to decide what I’m going to do about them. But I need a cup of tea before I can start thinking sensibly about that.
I take down a mug from the cupboard and put the kettle on.
‘It’s all been for nothing,’ I said.
‘No. No, Mrs Fletcher. It gave you so much. Your marriage gave you both so much.’
It’s the sort of conversation that vicars get a lot of practice having. They always have the advantage because they’ve had all this practice and most of the time the person they’re talking to has had hardly any practice at all. I certainly hadn’t.
I thought I’d just start talking and then keep talking and see what happened. The main thing was that I didn’t want him to talk any more.
‘Twenty-four years married and what’s to show for it? No husband. No children, and that’s not anyone’s fault, I know that, I’m not angry about it, but it’s a fact, no children. No career to speak of. I wouldn’t mind – well, I would, but you know – if those twenty-four years counted for something. If they were like money in the bank or points on a scoreboard. If they were in an account-book somewhere. What I’d like, you see, is if I could start again where I left off. I don’t mind being sad now. I’m supposed to be sad now, I see that. But in a few years’ time, if I’m looking to – oh, I don’t know, just start again, somehow – what bothers me is I have to start it all again from scratch. From nothing. That’s the part that just makes me so angry.’
Reverend Farnham must have got bored with not talking because he’d stood up and was pacing around the kitchen. He nodded once or twice.
At one point I had to take off my spectacles and give my eyes a wipe with a tissue but I didn’t stop talking.
‘There’s just nothing, now,’ I said. ‘It’s not just that something, Henry’s life, our life, has stopped. It’s that it might as well never have been there. It’s as if when you stopped putting money into your ISA, the very day you stopped, your ISA just went up in smoke, every penny. And you have to start all over again. It’s not much of a life to look forward to, is it? Is it, Reverend Farnham?’
I was sick of the sound of my own voice. And to tell the truth I was bloody angry.
‘You’re the one that’s meant to have all the answers,’ I said. ‘You tell me. Go on, tell me. What’ve I got to look forward to?’
He was over by the kitchen counter. He smiled a well-practised vicar’s smile and I could tell he’d thought of something clever to say.
He gestured with an open hand at the carrier-bag of groceries I’d left on the counter that morning. You could see what was in it through the orange plastic: a double pack of bacon, a parcel of butcher’s sausages, a loaf of bread, a carton of half a dozen eggs, a two-pint bottle of milk.
I buy far too much, but it’s force of habit.
‘Breakfast,’ Reverend Farnham said. He went on smiling, and held out his open hand towards the carrier-bag. He looked like he was doing the harvest festival. ‘One day at a time, Mrs Fletcher,’ he said. ‘Start every day afresh.’
Well, it sounded sensible. I took his words to heart.
And then just a little bit later, when he told me that he fully understood what I’d meant about starting again, making a new life, though that wasn’t exactly what I thought I’d said – when he told me that he’d always been terribly fond of me, that was the word he used, ‘terribly’ – when, seated beside me on the sofa, he put his hand on my knee, and pinched the fabric of my tights between his finger and thumb – then I brained him with the middle-sized frying pan, and, when it was dark, buried his long, heavy body in the raised beds Henry put in for rhubarb.
I felt terrible that night. But come the morning I found that the Reverend had been talking sense. I had a bowl of cereal and two fried eggs and four sausages and a cup of tea without milk and I thought, yesterday’s done with. He was right: it’s all gone, just gone.
Mr Fogarty from up the road, who helped himself to Henry’s gardening boots from the back porch because Henry wouldn’t be needing them any more, now lies beneath the patch of sunlit soil where springtime after springtime Henry tried in vain to get runner-beans to take hold. Slugs got to them, every year. Now the slugs have Mr Fogarty for food.
Mr Collingwood the windowcleaner, who was drunk outside a pub at four o’clock in the afternoon and yelled lewd things at me as I passed by on the other side of the street, occupies a berth beneath the cellar floorboards. He shares the space with a young evangelist who knocked on my door and, with a nice smile, said beastly things about the souls of the unbaptised.
Each time I felt terrible. Of course I did. Each time I felt like a monster and at night I sobbed into my pillow with the guilt and misery of it all.
But I knew that it would pass. I knew that if twenty-four years, our twenty-four years, mine and Henry’s, could go up in smoke, poof, just like that, then so could the things I’d done. It has to apply to the bad as well as the good, doesn’t it? Otherwise where would be the sense?
Each time, the rising of the sun brought breakfast – sometimes cooked, sometimes cold, sometimes just cornflakes or a piece of toast with butter – and each time breakfast brought a wonderful clarity.
I perch on the edge of my chair and try to cool my cup of tea by blowing on it gently. The lamplight dances on the ripples that result.
In all honesty I prefer tea with milk in it but I suppose I’m sentimental. And it’s certainly true that it looks prettier this way.
I have told the two police officers that I won’t hurt them. They haven’t done anything to harm me, after all, not really. But in any case I think that’s out of my hands now.
They’re staring at me with wide, frightened eyes, and I know why. In addition to the light reflected and refracted by my milkless tea there’s a little dot of pink light, a perfect little circle like a tiny pink planet, moving over my body: over my white cotton cuff, up the pale-blue cable-knit of my sleeve, to the row of four thumbnail-sized mother-of-pearl buttons that runs down the front of my blouse. The little dot stays there, trembling.
I was a silly old woman and didn’t think to pull the curtains closed. Now special police officers are here with their guns and lasers and tasers and what-have-you.
I will put this, too, behind me. There’ll be another day, whether it’s in a cell or in heaven or wherever it ends up being. There’ll be a breakfast. Whichever of those places it ends up being, I’m sure they have to give you breakfast.