Don't worry, it won't take up too much of your time, as it's only 2500 words. You could read it over a quick cup of coffee.
As always, your comments are welcome.
And now, without further ado:
Angus Breaks Free
CW Lovatt – 11/11/11 – 25/02/2012
“Ain’t no use, Betts, it’s over!”
“Fifty years spent living with the likes of you is about enough to send any man around the bend!”
“I’m sure you know best.”
Angus glowered at his wife, his shaggy brows beetling like a wet cat’s whiskers. “Ain’t no use,” he repeated, all surly, like he was challenging her to rise up and protest.
He wished that she wouldn’t just sit there like that, so placid, with her hands folded on her lap, and that damned, patient smile plastered all over her face. But she did remain that way, just as described, and it set his blood to boil!
Maybe it was the sight of those hands, dish-reddened from half a century of marriage: the way they sat there on her lap, accusing him with such cunning patience. Who were they to accuse? Hadn’t he offered to buy her one of those new-fangled dishwashers forty years ago? But no, that wasn’t good enough for her, was it? She’d claimed that it would leave spots on the glassware – like anybody’d care – and refused it outright. So be it, then. It hadn’t all been a bundle of joy for him either. The attrition had taken away the best years of his life, until he wasn’t much good for anything anymore, except to accuse in his own turn, and accuse her he did.
Oh yeah, accused plenty!
Maybe it was all those wrinkles on her face, or the liver spots on her arms, or the stretch marks across her torso, beneath the faded housedress she’d made over a decade ago. A man could only take so much of that, too.
Surely she could see that? The woman wasn’t stupid after all. She had to know just how offended he was - how all those accusations could never be born by only one suffering soul, but he had born it all these years, and he resented the hell out of what it had cost.
He growled, “Well? Haven’t ye got anything to say?”
Betts sighed and got up from their kitchen table, but her smile remained serene. She went over to the stove, taking up the kettle on the way to the sink.
“I think I’ll make us some tea.”
“God’s teeth, woman, you irk me!”
She took two bags of Earl Grey from the canister and put them in the teapot, carefully draping the strings over the edge. He hated the way she made tea, since the time he could first remember – the way those strings hung over the edge like that, reminding him of a woman’s monthlies. It was downright repugnant, that’s what it was!
“Don’t call me that!”
Betts held the kettle under the spigot and gave the faucet a twist, filling the kitchen with the sound of drumming water.
“Call you what, dear?’
“That, goddamit – that!”
“Dear!” Angus felt like he was close to coming unglued. “I ain’t your goddam ‘dear’ no more – not now, not never again!”
“Very well, darling.”
If there was ever a man that was close to erupting, it was Angus at that very second. He cast a savage eye around the kitchen, looking for something close to hand that needed smashing. It lit on a chair, and it occurred to him that the pine would splinter very satisfactorily on the floor. That ceramic tile was hard as hell: he’d installed it himself thirty years ago, and it was still good as new. He snatched it up in both hands, swinging it high above his head. He wasn’t a man ordinarily given to violent measures, but this was a bona fide exception if ever there was.
Running water continued to be the only sound, the liquid pitch rising as the kettle gradually filled.
The chair remained poised over Angus’s head while he hesitated, struggling with the memory of when it had been given to them - it and the table, and three other chairs. The set had been a wedding present from his parents – both twenty-five years in their graves now, his dad passing first, his mother two months later. He decided that the chair didn’t need smashing after all. However, the sentiment wasn’t enough to keep him from setting it back on the floor as firmly as he dared.
Unheeding, Betts twisted the faucet and the flow of water ceased. She set the kettle on an element, turning it to high.
They’d bought that stove the same time that he’d set the tiles, when they’d re-done the kitchen, back in the winter of ‘82. He’d wanted white appliances. Betts wanted ivory, but had given in when he’d insisted on having his way. Angus couldn’t rightly remember why he’d felt so strong about something so insignificant to him as the colour of a stove, and he was damned if he could tell the difference between white and ivory anyway; but he guessed that it had something to do with the way his wife had of always being right, and how that gave him the sense that his own opinions didn’t matter. Maybe that wasn’t any way for a grown man to feel, but it didn’t make it any less true. Her always being right was something he could never quite forgive.
Angus entertained a dark suspicion that maybe Betts had understood all along - that woman understood everything, it seemed! That was probably why she’d given in so readily, and that had pissed him off so much that he’d insisted on changing his mind, so they’d bought ivory appliances after all. Damn her to hell!
Betts set a cup and saucer in front of him. He wanted to swipe them away and hear them smash into the wall, and watch while they blossomed into a thousand shards, but the tea set had been a gift from the kids on one of their anniversaries. Which one he wasn’t sure, they tended to mingle at his age, but that wasn’t the point. Fealty to children didn’t stop the minute they walked out the door.
Denied that vicious pleasure, he was left frustratingly denuded of intent, so in the end decided that he might as well take his place at the table, sitting on the same chair that had come so close to being rendered into kindling only a minute before.
He sat with his hands clasped together - two fists entwined - and tried to think of something hurtful to say.
Betts took the kettle off the element when it began to whistle, and poured the boiling water into the pot, settling the lid with a gentle porcelain ‘clink’. She brought it to the table, wrapped in the cozy she’d knit sometime in the ‘70’s. Over on the stove, the kettle resumed its somnolence with a throaty sigh, while Angus glared at the teabag strings, reflecting in spite of himself.
Fatherhood had been another area where he hadn’t exactly excelled. Not that the kids hadn’t turned out all right, but there was no use denying that it was because Betts had been around to guide him through it. Those memories brought on guilt, the same as they always did. He knew that he should be grateful, and maybe that gratitude had been real when it mattered, but now there was time to take stock, and be duly offended, as well. He hated the guilt, so it only stood to reason that he hated the cause of it, too.
Betts pulled back her chair, preparing to sit, the legs scraping across the tiles.
Angus winced dramatically.
“For Christ sake, woman, do you have to make so much racket?”
“I’m sorry, darling.”
“And I’m not your goddamned ‘darling’ either!”
“I’m sorry…” Betts fished briefly for a substitute, “…Angus.”
“It gets on my nerves!”
“And stop being so goddamned sorry all the time!”
Once more his teacup came perilously close to taking flight, but in spite of his rage, he knew it wasn’t her fault that the chair scraped; she was just a slip of a thing after all. Still, it was an imperfection, and he seized on it, hoping against hope to reveal an even greater flaw…only to reach the conclusion that if the chair’s scraping bothered him so goddamned much, he could just get off his ass and move it for her. That made his scowl grow darker than ever.
If she would just say something to defend herself, then he would really be free to vent his spleen, but Betts was never one to lose her temper - not like some folks he could mention. Arguing with her was almost like arguing with himself.
So instead he growled, “What are you smiling at?”
Betts poured: a weak, amber stream - just the way he liked it, of course.
“I was thinking maybe we could go into town tomorrow. We could get you a new sweater.” She glanced at his sleeves, “That one’s getting frayed around the cuffs.”
“Bloody hell, woman! How many times do I have to tell you? There ain’t no ‘we’ anymore!” Angus shot his cuffs, giving them a perfunctory glance, “’Sides, nothin’s wrong with this one.”
She spooned some sugar into his cup – exactly two – and stirred. Her smile remained a picture of contentment.
Angus slurped from the cup, knowing how much she disapproved. Distracted as he was, he soon found himself relishing the taste, and his scowl almost lightened a shade, but he caught himself just in time. Instead he grimaced, his self-reproach passing as disgust, as he slammed the cup back in the saucer. Tea spilled over the brim, huddling in the saucer in a frightened pool.
“Tastes like horse piss!” he cried, and then delivered his verdict, “That does it, I’m outta here!” and with that he was on his feet, not so much charging toward their bedroom as steamrolling. Woe betide anyone who stood in his way.
That didn’t turn out to be a problem, however. There was no screaming wife clinging to his leg, begging him not to leave. Nor were there any cries or pleas, or appeals promising to do better in the future. Betts remained at the table, sipping her tea, like she hadn’t a care in the world.
Angus had intended on getting their old leather suitcase down off the closet shelf, but when he got to the bedroom, he was surprised to find it lying open on the bed, already packed, awaiting his inspection.
Hesitant, he stood in the doorway, glowering in deep suspicion.
That suitcase had been spanking new on their honeymoon; he couldn’t recall using it since. Betts had taken it with her when she’d gone to visit her sister in Portage five years ago, and maybe once or twice before that, but without question it remained the least used of all their possessions. Staring at it now, he felt the years fall away, remembering how it had looked the same in that fancy hotel, down east in Niagara Falls.
Funny how things stuck in the mind: the suitcase couldn’t have been on that bed any more than a few minutes, but the vision remained frozen in memory like an old photograph. One moment it had been there, the next he’d swept it to the floor – he could still see the scuff mark along the edge, from where it had struck a side table along the way. There hadn’t been time to set it elsewhere with any sort of care; their need had been urgent, and the damn thing had been in the way. He remembered how they had laughed about it later over dinner.
That had been the beginning, when the future hadn’t been anything more than an exciting jumble of promise and fear. Now the future was the past, and the fear had been faced. The promise had been rejoiced over, or mourned, with each success and failure, and there’d been plenty of both. The whole ordeal had been gone through together, through thick and thin. Now they’d finally reached the end.
Angus ran a cursory inspection over his wife’s packing. Everything was neatly folded and arranged: shirts on the left, pants on the right, with socks and unmentionables (also neatly folded) in between. Grudgingly satisfied, he closed it, pressing the clasps firmly into place. It wasn’t as heavy as what he would’ve thought fifty years would weigh, but that was all to the good when it came to shifting from one life to another.
Betts was standing when he returned – her lone acknowledgement to the gravity of the occasion.
Angus nodded, “Seems so,” but refused to look her in the eye.
“Well, I guess that’s it, then.”
He made his way past, bending sideways from the weight of the suitcase - away from his wife while the suitcase tried to draw him closer.
He’d reached the landing when she asked, “Will you be coming up for supper?”
He paused, the silence pensive. He stared into the basement, at the suite where he’d just finished applying the final coat of paint the day before. There lay his future, his bold venture into a brave new world, one he was determined to make on his own.
Those stairs led to a life fashioned for him, and for him alone. Down there, being wrong wouldn’t matter, nor would there be any liver spots, or stretch marks, or dish-reddened hands, or any other badges of sacrifice to accuse him. What had been his own imperfections could now be embraced as part of himself, without all those reminders that kept him aware of how much he had failed the one person that mattered. Maybe in time he’d be able to see what she’d seen in him all along.
At last, still without looking at her, he asked, “What’re ye having?”
“I thought I’d cook a pot-roast.”
Damn the woman!
“And gravy?” Betts always made the finest gravy.
The pause grew longer. He stared down at his new life with naked yearning. Everything was there, just waiting for him to begin.
“I thought that I’d make a batch of biscuits, too.”
His shoulders slumped, like the bones had suddenly been yanked from his body.
“Oh, all right, then.”
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
“And tomorrow we can get you that sweater?”
Angus stared at his cuffs. They were indeed frayed, as Betts had claimed. Clearly its best days were well in the past; but she had knit it for him when their youngest was still in diapers. Her fingers weren’t as nimble as they once were, so her knitting days were well in the past, too. A person couldn’t just discard something like that.
He shook his head, for once speaking without rancour.
And in that moment, he knew without question that, this time at least, he was right.