Here is a short story for the winter season.
On The Way Home
Janice pushes her sheets into the old washing machine. Saturday; synonymous with sheets and housework. Shopping. But there is a snow warning. Travel disruption likely – she prudently shopped on the way home from work last night. She has enough food to last the week.
Coffee… She needs coffee. The exuberant voices of the next-door neighbours’ kids playing on the grass at the front are plainly audible from the hall. Seven-year-old twins, and a toddler. A car door closes. Silence. Imagine, a small new-build house like this, three kids, two adults. But this modest house is more than enough for Janice. After a divorce, there can be too much space. Until a couple of years ago, she had a spacious home – an ideal family home that had been occupied just by the two of them. Janice and Philip.
The smell of coffee cheers her. She hates Saturday. The aloneness of it. The coupleiness of Saturday in supermarkets. That’s where Lynette and Jim will be going. Must be hard work with their kids. She wonders if she would ever have had the patience.
The postman delivers the energy bill. She has become used to all the bills being addressed to her in her maiden name. She props it by the bread bin and pours herself a coffee.
The ancient washing machine groans as the drum starts to turn. She’d like to get a new one, but she needs to be careful with money after buying this house. It has taken months, but she has started to think of it as home, of decorating it to her own taste. Perhaps she will do her bedroom first. It’s a distraction from melancholy thoughts. Leaving the washing machine to clank its way through the cycle, she takes her coffee upstairs to the bedroom. She could go out and buy paint before it snows. She likes the idea of bringing bright colours into the small, private domain of her bedroom whilst the outer world is blanketed in snow. In the wintry light, the bedroom looks cold. The walls, like unglazed porcelain, absorb the greyness of the sky, throwing a lace net over all the surfaces. Nothing has any tangible colour. She pulls back the curtains as wide as they will go. The opaque sky seems painted over, like an emulsioned wall. A few flakes of snow are falling already. Next door’s kids will be excited. That is a nice thought. As she turns back into the room, she hears the sound of a car engine. Not next door’s car, but something more powerful. A large, blue four-wheel drive pulls up outside. She doesn’t recognise the car. The driver’s door opens, and a surreal froth of colour fluffs above the roof – an enormous bouquet, held aloft, as if to be launched into the grey sky. But then she realises who it is. Her heart thuds. It’s her ex-husband. He appears to be bringing her flowers. Expensive ones at that. Flowers from Philip always meant appeasement. She hasn’t seen him for eighteen months, not since he came to tell her about his marriage. He had brought flowers then. ‘I didn’t want you to find out from a third party,’ he had said. But he had been too late, of course. She had found out from mutual friends. His comment – ‘Haven’t you found someone new?’ had hurt her in ways she couldn’t explain. Perhaps he had commodified her somehow; she wasn’t sure. A wife, not a person… Had he only ever seen her as a ‘wife’? He’d managed to replace her quickly enough.
He looks around at the quiet street. It is not the kind of street they lived on for the time of their marriage, with the big executive-style house they had bought as a couple. He locks the car, hesitates, hefting the large bouquet, and walks slowly down the drive. Janice pulls away from the window in case he should look up. Perhaps she will pretend that she is not in. But instead, she quickly slips out of her weekend sweatpants and baggy top and yanks on a dress she wore at work yesterday, and shimmies on yesterday’s tights that had not managed to find the laundry basket. She pulls the brush through her untidy hair as the doorbell rings for the second time. She is not wearing make-up, but quickly dabs on perfume. The doorbell rings again. From the top of the stairs, through the glass door, she can see him turn, ready to leave. Perhaps that is for the best. But her heart is pounding. She can’t let him leave without discovering the reason for his visit.
Janice takes the stairs more quickly than she should, almost skating down in her stockinged feet. She opens the door as he reaches the car.
He turns. A smile. A genuine smile. But he suppresses it, and walks slowly towards her, holding out his free arm. The large bouquet seems to drag his other arm down. He looks a little apprehensive. She tries not to show how she feels, however that might be.
‘Philip. It’s been a while…’
‘Hi, Janice. Sorry to drop on you like this. I was on my way back home from Scotland. Business.’
The flowers hang at his side, like circus performers on a trapeze, upside-down.
‘Ah, the new job. With the car, I suppose?’
He nods. Looks her up and down as he used to do, when it was a compliment.
‘You look nice.’
‘Thanks.’ She tries to keep the edge of sarcasm out of her voice.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound patronising. You always looked nice…’ He falters.
‘There should be coffee in the pot. If you’ve time, that is. You’re still a long way from home.’
‘Yeah, sure. Thanks. I won’t keep you.’
A tiny flake of snow flitters in front of the porch as he approaches. He doesn’t seem to notice, waving the flowers towards her. They are as wide as a ballet dancer’s skirt. She backs into the hallway, as he steps over the threshold of her small house. The hall seems even smaller than it is. He leans forward, as if to offer a kiss of greeting. In the narrow hallway, the flowers make a barrier between them. The wrapping is wide enough to touch the wall on both sides.
‘I assume that you intend these for me?’ Janice asks.
He passes them to her. She thanks him and leads him backwards into the kitchen. There is no room to turn without damaging the huge bouquet. She backs into the kitchen. The lavish offering puts her in mind of a gift given to a child when some announcement is to be made. ‘We are moving to a new area.’ Or, ‘You are having a new baby brother or sister…’ Yes, that will be why he has called. They are expecting a baby. She had already suspected as much. Perhaps he is telling her first, before a general announcement. Some kind of a consolation. What a terrible thought! She feels a sob rising. It comes out as a hiccupping noise, but it is obscured by the thumping of the washing machine. She dares not look at him, and turns away to put the flowers on the worktop. They are huge and bright in her dull kitchen. She will not give him the gift of her feelings.
He notices the envelope by the bread bin and the strange name.
Then he realises. ‘Sorry. I hadn’t realised that you had gone back to your maiden name.’
Janice says nothing. It could be he had made a silly slip, after all this time apart… They had been married for ten years. But it could be he imagined he was keeping her as a kind of virtual wife. Or she, him, as a proxy husband in her lack of replacement. She should not analyse this. She passes him coffee, now rather cold.
‘We should take our coffee into the lounge. The washing machine is very noisy.
‘Isn’t that the one we used to have when we were, ah, together?’
‘Yes, it is.’ She bites her tongue. They were married, not just ‘together’.
A grinding sound, a loud clang. Abrupt silence. Janice swears under her breath. The machine’s display is flashing some error code. Is that the code for old and worn-out, time for a new one? Janice can see her sheets in the soapy water. She’ll have to drain the sump and rinse them by hand.
‘Sounds like the bearings on the drum…’ Philip ventures.
‘I daresay. I shall have to drain it manually.’
‘Let me help…’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve done this a few times.’
She could do it later, but feels bloody-minded. Let him feel guilty! She grabs an old roasting tin from the worktop she has ready for just this emergency, and sets it on the floor by the washing machine.
Through the back door window, she notices that snow is falling densely, big flakes now. The second she is distracted, Philip is on his knees in front of the faulty machine and has the drain flap open. In the narrow kitchen, she is wedged-in by the back door, with her ex-husband on his knees at her feet.
‘Look, Philip – it’s snowing. You should go soon. It’s going to be bad here.’
She is so close to Philip that she can smell the strong scent of laundry detergent from his shirt. It’s different to the one she uses. The vibrant flowers remind her of their wedding – the garlanded hot summer day; the enormous skirt of florist’s cellophane and tissue reminiscent her of the lacy dress she had worn.
‘This won’t take long. At least you’ll be able to get the washing out.’
‘I’m used to doing it. It was never the best machine.’
‘Why don’t you buy a new one?’
He looks up at her, then realises he has said something stupid.
‘One income. Not so good as two.’
‘Sorry. I could help…’
‘I don’t think that your wife would like that.’
The phrase ‘your wife’ makes her sound as if she is speaking of herself in the third person. She knows the name of Philip’s new wife, but can’t bring herself to use it.
‘Besides, am I to gather that there will soon be an addition to your household?’
She nods at the flowers. His face clouds, then brightens.
‘Yes. I wanted you to know before…’
He looks up at her with shining eyes, forgetting the job at hand. Water rushes out of the hose, splashes over the edge of the pan and soaks her feet, his trousers and the floor. He swears.
Philip tries to stop the water pipe with his thumb, but he is clumsy. Janice bends down and quickly caps the tube. They are head-to-head in the cramped space; she can feel his warmth, smell his familiar, manly smell.
‘Not so long ago, I would have been the first to know, by default.’
‘We could have had our own kids, only you weren’t ready.’
‘I thought that you weren’t.’
‘Not then, but I am older now. Probably a bit too old. But my replacement is somewhat younger, I understand.’
Philip tries to get up, but slips, lands back on all fours like a dog.
Through the window, she can see that the snow is coming on fast. Janice opens the small drawer at the end of the run of worktop.
‘I found this in the washing machine trap last year, when it first happened.’
Philip looks puzzled. Janice takes out a button.
‘From your favourite shirt, one I bought you on our fifth wedding anniversary. I daresay it has long since been consigned to the bin.’
He takes the button from her hand. His voice is hoarse.
‘Yes, he says. I remember. I still have it, but I don’t wear it anymore, obviously.’
He gets up, his trousers thoroughly soaked from the knees down.
‘I can’t drive like this.’
He looks at the snow through the window, a look of confusion on his face. They are close enough to feel one-another’s warmth. Part of her imagines they are a couple again, as if the intervening years did not happen. He bends his head down to touch hers gently with his forehead. He smiles, sadly. For a moment, Janice thinks that he will ask if he can stay. It seems the most natural thing in the world. But there is no going back.
‘Do you have some spare trousers in the car?’
‘I have my suitcase. There are trousers in it. But look at the snow…’
‘The roads down your way will be OK. The band of snow cuts off at the south of the county. But this area could be snowed in for days. You must get home – to your wife.’
‘We were foolish,’ he says, taking her left hand, now devoid of a wedding ring, and pats it.
‘What’s done is done. Congratulations on the baby.’
Next door’s car returns. The children get out, screaming with excitement at the snow.
‘If you have dry trousers, why don’t you get them?’
She leads him to the front door and opens it. The twins are rolling about in the snow on the communal front lawn. Through the open front door, their mother calls from the house. Janice can hear the littlest one crying loudly inside. There is no sign of their dad.
She steps outside in her stockinged feet. The snow underfoot is shockingly cold. Somehow, she draws strength from the sensation. The huge flakes are frothy, like old-fashioned soap flakes. She helps the twins up. and sprinkles snow onto their heads, making them laugh.
Philip smiles, ruefully. ‘We could have made the grade, perhaps?’
‘Who knows… You had better change those trousers.’
Philip goes to his car. Lynette appears at her door, clearly frazzled. The toddler is clasping her around the neck, still sobbing. She looks at Janice with an air of exhaustion and puzzlement.
‘Look at you with no coat on. No shoes on in this snow… You’ll catch your death.’
Janice nods towards the twins. ‘Let them play in my back garden for a while whilst you sort out the little one. They can throw snowballs.’
‘They’d love that. If you’re sure? Jim had to go into work at short notice.’
Janice takes a twin in each hand, as Philip appears at the door, his wet trousers draped over his arm.
‘Will you make a snowman with us? Please, please…’ The children pull her eagerly.
‘We’ll see about a snowman!’ she says, swaying the arms of the children upwards. ‘If there’s enough snow.’
‘Goodbye, Philip. And all the best for fatherhood. Thanks for the flowers, but you should really take them for the mother-to-be. I am sure that she would appreciate them.’
The flowers are beautiful. She cuts a tiny yellow rosebud from a stem; Philip’s wife won’t notice its absence amongst the opulence of the bouquet. Janice waves at the happy children playing in her garden. Perhaps Philip will make a snowman with his child one day.