By Jay St John Knight.
Part three in a series of posts from my third year creative writing portfolio produced for my dissertation. This portfolio was comprised of a series of short stories from a variety of narrative points of view leading up to, and surrounding, a fixed event to provide a puzzle-like fragmented narrative on an ill-fated coach journey upcountry.
The sweet and alluring smell of honeysuckle wafted down the short garden path as Henry locked the car and picked up his work bag. It was so powerful that he paused for a moment, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before walking up the garden towards his house. Jangling keys rang out across the street like the shuffle of shackled feet as Henry tried to pick out his front door key in the dark, eventually finding it and ramming it into the lock. Before he pushed the door open, he silently prayed for a peaceful night, one free of arguments and snide digs. His marriage, after thirty seven years, was finally on shaky grounds. It wasn’t even a painful thought anymore; they weren’t the same people that walked down the aisle just days after his twentieth birthday. They used to be devoted to each other, symbiotic; living in a cushioned bubble only big enough for the two of them. Now they were two very different people, strangers that happened to live in the same house and their cosy bubble had burst, letting a grim void grow between them.
He breezed in and began taking off the trappings of his day. Henry was a coach driver; his job involved long hours of monotonous motorways and stopping off at service stations and depots to swap passengers. Years ago he used to be a bar manager at a reasonably swanky inner city hotel, before the drink got out of control and cost him his job. The drink had cost him a lot in the past: friends, family, job prospects, and his self-respect had all fallen victim to his past inability to put down the bottle. But all that had changed; he’d turned it around and had been clinging desperately onto sobriety like a stranded sailor on a piece of flotsam for the last seven years. He had his slip ups on the way, rare relapses that served to remind him why sobriety was so important.
Claire, his wife, was sat on the sofa reading the TV guide whilst the television was muted in the background. The table was all set for dinner and the smell of shepherd’s pie from the kitchen made him hungry. Claire looked up at him with a half-hearted smile.
“Evenin’ love. How’s your day been?” Henry asked as he began making tea.
“Ok thanks, dear. Dinner’s nearly ready. How was work?”
“Same old, same old. There must’ve been a big crash just outside of Sheffield today because it was chock-a-block for miles, took me an extra hour just to pass through.”
Claire didn’t look up from the guide but let out a quiet, “Ah right.”
She seemed different, distracted, preoccupied with something. Henry sat down at the table with a cup of tea and they had dinner, all the while Claire’s distance seemed to grow more noticeable to Henry. He had expected an argument about something this evening, their mortgage payments were becoming harder to keep up with recently and the house needed some work doing to it before winter settled in, but his wish for a quiet evening seemed to have been answered. After dinner he cleared the plates away and began washing up whilst listening to the news on the radio. Claire came over with a tea towel and dried up with him, and, as if all their recent troubles hadn’t happened, they chatted away about current affairs and neighbourhood gossip. Every now and then a smile even crept across Claire’s face and he soon forgot all about the arguing; it was different, it was pleasant, it wasn’t normal. When the kitchen was clean and everything put away, Henry made himself a packed lunch for the next day and got his work bag ready.
“Where are you off to tomorrow?” Claire asked with genuine interest.
“I’ve got the 771 route to Manchester and back tomorrow. Nice and easy. I can’t see me being back until at least midnight though so I’ll grab some dinner on the way.”
“Well there’s the rest of the pie in the fridge if you want to heat it up when you get back.” She said from the doorway. “I’m going to bed now.”
“I’ll see you in a minute.” Henry replied and she slipped off up the stairs.
When Henry had finished getting himself ready for the morning he went upstairs to join his wife. After cleaning his teeth and making sure all the lights were off he quietly slipped into the bedroom to find his wife cosily curled up in the middle of the bed. She looked peaceful, her back rising and falling slowly with each breath. He suddenly remembered their trip to Alicante twenty years ago, when they sat up all night on their balcony drinking cheap Spanish wine waiting for the sunrise, and how she eventually fell asleep wrapped up in nothing but a white linen sheet on his lap. He smiled fondly and undressed, carefully sliding into bed next to her so as not to wake her and leant over to give her a loving kiss on the cheek. She nestled into him slightly and he thought they were twenty years younger again, smiling as he drifted off. Tears fell from Claire’s closed eyes.
The beeping of the alarm clock dragged Henry out of his sleep. Early morning light poured through the open curtains and Henry blearily rubbed his face. He’d had the best night’s sleep in years, dreaming of old friends and happy times. He turned over and noticed Claire was gone, probably downstairs making tea he thought. Henry washed and dressed, getting himself ready for a long day of driving. He went downstairs to make breakfast, expecting his wife to be sat drinking her tea and listening to the radio at a whisper in the kitchen. She wasn’t there. He shrugged, thinking she was probably out getting milk or something and would return any minute. The kettle boiled and Henry began making tea, strolling over to the fridge half expecting there to be no milk but there was. He took his tea and sat down at the kitchen table. There, right next to him on the table, was an envelope with To Henry written across it in his wife’s delicate handwriting. Perplexed, he picked it up and began to open it, semi-frantically tearing along the top with a growing curiosity. Inside, he found a handwritten letter from his wife and tears began to well up as he read the first line:
I’m sorry. I’m writing this letter because I can’t bring myself to tell you any of this in person. I’ve tried to countless times because it’s the very least you deserve but I just couldn’t bear the idea of watching our marriage finally come to an end in an explosion of arguments and anger. I feel that at least this way we part on calmer terms; we both know we aren’t good at communicating anymore without it turning into a battle. We just don’t listen to each other properly anymore. And I don’t want you to feel like I’m blaming this on you, it’s both our faults and neither at the same time. Thirty seven years is almost an entire lifetime. We’ve watched each other grow up and grow old and, despite the fact we haven’t had children of our own, we’ve watched our marriage mature instead. We’re not the happy-go-lucky couple we were when we were in our twenties, heck we’re not even the fiery pair that we were in our forties when the first cracks appeared between us. So Henry, what I’m trying to tell you is that it’s over. It’s time to let go of our marriage, neither of us are happy and it’s slowly killing us. I don’t want to feel responsible for making you miserable anymore, just as I’m sure you feel the same way. We deserve better than that. So I’ve packed some essentials and gone to live with a friend for a while until I can find a place of my own. At some point soon, be it in a week or a month, I’ll get my brother to come and help you pack up the rest of my belongings. It’s easier this way.
Henry, I’m sorry again. I know this isn’t the way I should have told you this. It isn’t fair and you deserve better but I hope you understand. And Henry, please don’t turn back to the drink. I know it’s always been your fall-back when things get bleak but you’ve made such progress that if you fell back into that cycle I would never forgive myself. It’s been such an uphill battle for you, for us, to beat that monster that’s lurked in your shadow all these years and I’m incredibly proud of you for keeping it at bay. Don’t let all that effort and hard work go to waste. There’s still so much more out there in the world for you to throw it all away spending what’s left of your life controlled by that beast again. Even if you never forgive me, please just do this one thing for me. Please.
Thank you for all you’ve ever done for me,
Henry sat there staring at the letter, rereading it over and over again. Tears flowed from his face silently as he struggled to grasp its meaning. Her voice filled his head as he read over the words that put the final nails in their marriage’s coffin. Mournful droplets fell from his cheeks and ran like inky streams down the paper as he sat trembling. Finally, he took several deep breaths and checked the time. He had to leave for work. There was nothing else left to do. He got up from the table in a daze, like he’d been hit by one of the coaches he drives, and paced the kitchen. A fury began to creep across him, he was shaking with such force that he could barely breathe. His clenched, white-knuckled fists were rigid at his side and there, in the darkest recesses of his shadow, the beast began to rear its ugly head. He wanted to forget, to numb the pain and anesthetise his mind to this sudden emotional sundering. Then he remembered, out in the shed hidden away under a mound of boxes and gardening tools was a secret cache. A stashed bottle of whiskey he’d hidden there purposefully the last time he relapsed. His wife never used to go rummaging through the shed, that was his space, and when he’d finally clawed his way back to sobriety he’d decided to leave it there as a test of his own self-control. Before he knew it he was in the shed clamouring to get to the bottle, throwing boxes aside frantically. There it sat nestled snug in his power drill box, dusty and faded from years of concealment. He picked it up and ran back to the house, aware of how late he was for work, grabbing his work gear and slipping the bottle in his bag on his way out the door.
The traffic on the way to the coach depot moved slowly but Henry was oblivious to it all. He was in autopilot. Every emotion ever conceived was rippling through his body like a surging and unstable current of energy. He didn’t even realise he’d arrived at the depot until the security guard at the entrance tapped his window and said hello. Henry barely forced a smile. He drifted passed his work colleagues, flowing down towards where his coach was, oblivious to the other drivers’ early morning nods and greetings. He clambered into the coach and went through the pre-departure checks that he had to do every shift. Henry slung his bag down next to the driver’s seat, it’s partially opened zip revealing the neck of the bottle of whiskey sat cosily amongst his things. He reached slowly out for it, his fingers gently caressing the cool glass bottle before a knocking on the coach doors snapped him back into reality.
“Alright Henry, you on the 771 today?” It was Frank, one of the other drivers he worked with.
“Hey Frank. Yeah, Manchester and North bound today. Only going as far as Manchester though thankfully, got a driver swap to bring the return coach back else I’d be on an eighteen hour shift.”
“Fair play mate. You feeling alright today? You’re looking a bit peaky.”
Henry swallowed the lump in his throat. “Think I’m starting to come down with this cold that’s going around.”
“I best stay clear then.” He laughed. “Have a good drive.”
Henry closed the coach doors and sighed heavily, the whiskey bottle still glinting in the morning sun from his workbag next to him. The engine roared into life as he pressed the ignition and the 771 Manchester and North Bound coach lurched its way across the depot and out into the city.