Mortar

MORTAR

He felt like a traitor. Placing the cold chisel against the wall, Raymond struck half-heartedly with the hammer. His blow merely scuffed the paper. He picked at the raw edge, and tore a thin white scar across the wall. He tried again, positioning the chisel on the exposed surface. This time, he managed to raise a puff of grey dust and send sparks of plaster into his eyes.

Blinking away tears, Raymond saw his small damage and how it spoiled the wall. Now he had to go through with it. He looked around the room at the uncovered furniture. Everything looked ordinary, apart from the rolled-up carpet.

A sound at the door made him turn. Lucy was there, with her hard look again. Marina stood close behind her, chewing gum. Both were in bikinis.

‘I see you’ve started, Raymond,’ Lucy said, without looking at him.

‘It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

Lucy flipped her sunglasses down over her eyes.

‘Let’s go outside, Marina, we don’t want to miss the sun.’

Raymond heard the sound of the back door closing. He stood for a moment, and then peeled away more of the skin of the wallpaper, and started to pick uneasily at the plaster flesh until a pile of grey clinker littered the floor, and his sweat – mixed with the dust – clung to his skin, like batter.

Now the wall looked hurt, and he could see the bones of brick beneath. Carefully positioning the chisel over the mortar line, Raymond struck heavily, sending a fine rift between the bricks. He thought of Lucy in her bikini, her white skin stretched taut over her ribs. He struck again, working until he’d freed the first brick, and punched it through to the other side. It crashed heavily onto the dining room floor. Bright sunlight speared through the gap. He could hear the women laughing about something.

Once, Lucy and Raymond had laughed together, but things had changed. It had been five years, and Lucy had changed; he had changed. They didn’t laugh together any more. Raymond swung the hammer, jarring his wrist on the metal impact with the chisel. Lucy with her wishes, Lucy with her schemes. He swung the hammer, hurting his shoulder. Lucy with her hard look. His shoulder ached, his head pounding with the blows. Lucy, Lucy, Lucy.

She had adored him; he had loved her. She wanted him; he wanted her. But not now. Now was for nagging; now was for her contempt. He swung the hammer. Lucy had slammed the bedroom door last night when he wouldn’t give in. He swung the hammer; three more bricks fell. Lucy had been compliant once, but not now.

He looked at his work through sweat-stung eyes. He was breathing heavily. Through the hole, a shaft of dusty sunlight penetrated the quiet of the sitting room, dazzling him. He could hear the women shrieking with laughter. Raymond wondered what had possessed him to give in to Lucy. She would not be satisfied even if he rebuilt the entire house. He worked on. His hands ached, sweat dripped into his eyes. He was beginning to feel light-headed; he had hardly eaten.

The hole was large enough now to see into the dining room. A film of dust coated the table and sideboard. That would make Lucy angry. Through the window, Raymond could see Lucy and Marina lying on towels on the lawn, laughing and pointing at something in a magazine. The light hurt his eyes, but Raymond could see that Lucy had eased her bra straps down over her shoulders and was undoing the back hook. Marina smoothed oil onto Lucy’s back. His vision greyed at the edges, he needed a drink.

Raymond staggered out of the sitting room, leaving a trail of white footprints on the hall carpet. His hands were still clamped around the tools. He yanked open the back door and stood on the threshold, glowering at the laughing women. Lucy did not look up. He watched her, she was evidently intent upon something in the magazine, but she had stopped laughing. His breath caught in his chest. Marina whispered something to Lucy, and she peered out from under her sunglasses.

‘What is it, Raymond?’

‘I think he’s annoyed, Lucy,’ giggled Marina.

Lucy fastened her top, leaving the straps down, and came in. Her long hair had come down from its pins and was stuck to her oiled skin. Her mascara ran and she was flushed. She moved the heavy hammer out of the way as she stepped into the kitchen. She looked at the mess in the hall and at Raymond.

‘I can’t knock my house down without making a mess, Lucy.’

‘It’s just a wall, Raymond.’

She banged things until Raymond had a cup of weak tea. Marina watched from the garden, her mouth working mechanically on the gum. Marina practically lived here now. She kept some of her clothes in the wardrobe in the spare room. Flash and tarty, Raymond thought. Lucy had never dressed like that.

She put a half-finished packet of biscuits on the worktop and went out again without a murmur. Marina welcomed Lucy back with an outstretched arm. Raymond drank his weak tea.

The mounting pile of rubble reminded Raymond of the bombed-out house he’d lived in as a tiny boy after the war. His parents had been lucky to get this house after his aunt died. It had come to him in his turn and he was proud to have it. But Lucy hated the house. Raymond banged the wall. Lucy wanted a new house. Raymond knocked another brick through. Lucy had aspirations. A chunk of plaster hit his shin. He couldn’t afford a new house like the one Lucy wanted.

Three bricks came away together; he had made a fair-sized hole now, and the cosy sitting room, once cool and restful on summer afternoons, was filled with alien light. In summer, his mother had sat here, sewing or reading her magazine. And on cold, winter nights, he would sprawl by the open grate and listen to his dad tell stories of the war. He was feeling dizzy with the effort of his work. Apart from the biscuits, Lucy had provided no food for him. He could see the women through the hole in the wall, but the dining room window was dusty now. They were sharing a glass of something pink, sipping through straws, lying face-down on their towels.

The bright sunshine burned his eyes, and he sat down shakily on a pile of rubble. The light danced on the dust of the broken wall. He looked into the dim corners, trying to reconstruct the room in his mind, seeking an unblemished area where he could pretend that he had not started this. Shadows wavered uncertainly around the edges of his vision. He looked into the corners again, trying to penetrate the dark. It seemed that cracks were running everywhere, but he couldn’t be sure.

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