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Article  •  25 October 2017

 

Short story club - 8 February

Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 8 February 2018

The Thing that Distresses Me the Most

by Lloyd Jones

 

Let me start by saying this. My husband is not a bad man. I don’t know the others all that well — Don Seeward, another from Auckland, Phil someone, James More from down south; ‘Macca’ I think they call him. Two others as well. Jim? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I’ve met Don once. The others I must have spoken to when they’ve rung the house for Stuart. They all work for themselves. Stuart knew Macca at university. The rest of them he’s picked up over the years in different jobs.

Once a year they get together to discuss ‘engineering issues’. This year it was Stuart’s turn to host the occasion. They flew in a few weeks before Christmas. It was a Saturday, a gorgeous day.

On the way to taking the kids to the beach I stopped by Stuart’s office to drop off a quiche and a cake. I could see them in the window gathered around the table in serious discussion.

‘Knock, knock,’ I said as I came in. They all leapt up like a bunch of thieves. Soon as they saw the food they gushed with compliments. Don gave me a hug and a kiss. Stuart introduced those faces I’d spoken to on the phone. They were happy about the food, and I was happy to leave them to it. I had the kids waiting outside in the car.

I saw them again, about five that afternoon. I drove by with the kids to find out Stuart’s plans for dinner. I slowed down, and from the street I could see them in the window. They were standing now, beer bottles in hand. Someone must have been telling a joke because I could see Stuart in a convulsive fit with a hand over his mouth and Don, more expansive, as he leant back, mouth open wide. I thought Stuart could ring home later and let me know his plans.

I was glad to get home. Clara and Bella were acting up in the car. Both of them had got too much sun. At home I ran a bath for them. I made that old-fashioned emulsion my grandmother used to drum up from vinegar and rubbed it into their sunburn while they squealed and shouted. They were hungry, and around six Bella started whining for pizza. I said let’s wait and see what your father’s plans are. It would be like Stuart to invite everyone back here; that would mean a quick run down to the supermarket. The pizza place is on the same block. I didn’t want to make two trips. To take their minds off their stomachs I switched the telly on. I thought I would ring Stuart’s office. But each time I picked up the receiver to dial I put it down again. If they were having fun I didn’t want to be that grumpy bitch who brings things to a close. So I thought I would text Stuart. But the moment I had the idea I saw he’d left his mobile on the table. It was sitting with some papers I think he had meant to take to the office.

At seven o’clock I went to get pizzas. The girls came along for the ride in their pyjamas. There were half a dozen people in the shop so we had a bit of a wait. After giving the pizza order I thought I’d run by Stuart’s office and gauge the mood. This time as I slowed down the blank window stared back. If anything the letters in the window were more bold — S. Richards. Engineer and Quantity Surveyor. Bella asked why we were back at Daddy’s office. No reason, I said.

I thought they must have gone off for a drink somewhere. A phone call to that effect would have been nice. But then perhaps Stuart was planning to come home soon anyway.

At home I put the pizzas out on the table and left the girls to it. I walked over to the phone and picked up the receiver. Bella looked up, a wedge of pizza jammed into her mouth. I put the receiver down and poured myself a glass of wine. The girls watched the Saturday night movie on Two. I tucked them into bed at ten and without complaint from either. This was as late as they had ever been up. They seemed to know that something about the night was different but they didn’t want to know what it was. While they were watching TV neither one could shift their eyes from the screen.

There was some washing to bring in, and outside under the clothesline I looked up at the night. We live in one of the inner-city suburbs. There must have been some cloud about because the sky over the city was a sickly yellow. I heard a siren, and closer, maybe two streets over, the godawful noise of a boy racer tearing up the night, and more distantly the steady rumble of the city. The washing still contained the airy warmth of the sun from earlier in the day, and for some time I stood there under the washing line with Stuart’s shirts bunched in my arms, just listening.

I thought I would wait until midnight before taking further action. I sat on the couch watching the minutes tick by. At the stroke of midnight I picked up the phone and rang the police. I was surprised to hear a woman’s voice answer. It made me hesitate — just a bit. ‘I don’t know where my husband is,’ I said. There was a pause at the other end, and in the intervening silence I heard the silliness of my complaint. Stuart wasn’t missing. I was sure he knew where he was. I apologised and hung up.

There was nothing else to do but to go to bed. I pretended to read. I managed to stay awake until one-fifteen before I switched off the light. Some hours later I woke with a start. I sat up in bed bright as a whistle. I got out and walked to the phone in the hall. I picked up the receiver. There was no message. I thought about calling the police, but I was afraid of getting the same woman again and telling her the same thing. I suppose I was afraid of my embarrassment. So I returned to bed. This time I slept; I slept well. When I woke, sunshine was pouring in the windows. I could hear the TV blabbering away at the other end of the house.

I got up and looked into the spare room in case Stuart had come home in the night and got lost.

It was 11am before his Subaru wagon pulled up in the drive. I watched from the living-room window. Stuart had on his sunglasses. In the strong morning light he looked pale. I watched him walk towards the front porch. I came out to the hall. I heard him fumble with the key. I could have unlatched the door, but I thought, bugger him. Eventually he got the door open, and as he staggered in I could smell the alcohol on him. His shirt was torn. There was a nasty scratch on his cheek.

‘I feel sick,’ he said.

For a moment I thought he might mean something else, but no, he leant against the wall rubbing his head, his other hand on his stomach.

‘It’s eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,’ I said.

He held up a hand — to stop me. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m really sorry. The night just got away on me.’

The night just got away on me. What a wonderful expression that is. Like it was the night’s fault. The night was a bull he’d wrestled with and finally submitted to, but not without a fight. Is this what he meant?

Still, I was surprised by my own calm. I said, ‘What do you need? Coffee?’

‘No. No. Jesus, no,’ he said. He waved a soggy arm at me and leant against the wall.

I ran him a bath and helped him out of his clothes. In the bath he lay back like a man dying. I got a cold cloth and held it against his forehead. I wondered about the scratch on his cheek. A red crescent tapering off to broken skin. A proper fight and there would have been bruising. A fight with a man, that is. It’s funny, isn’t it, where your thoughts lead you? Not in a million years would I have thought that one day I would be led down that dark path by a scratch on my husband’s cheek. I handed him two Disprin and a glass of lemonade. I watched him gulp down the Disprin, and sip at the lemonade. I waited, but nothing more was said.

I went out to the front room. I switched off the TV and sent the girls outside. Then I went into the bedroom and closed the curtains. A moment later Stuart came out to the hall, a towel around him. He saw me staring at that scratch. He said, ‘It’s not what you think it is.’ But that’s all he said. He said he needed to sleep. He would explain all later.

Bella was due at a friend’s birthday party in an hour. I ran down to the bookshop and picked up a gift, then I dropped her off on the other side of the city and left Clara at my sister’s.

When I got home Stuart was up. He was in the kitchen waiting for the jug to boil. As I came in he barely looked up. I pulled up a chair and sat down. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘this is what happened.’

After the office, the younger ones had wanted to go to one of the bars. Stuart and Don had lamely followed. Stuart is forty-one years old and Don is perhaps a year or two older. I am thirty-seven. The other engineers who’d flown up from the South Island for their ‘conference’ are younger still. According to Stuart the younger ones led the charge. And one thing led to another. Or, more true to say, one bar led to another.

Around eleven o’clock it occurred to Stuart to ask the others where they were staying. Well, that was the funniest thing, according to Stuart. It seems none of them had stopped to think that far ahead, so Stuart led them to a backpackers, where the engineers checked in their bags before heading back out to the bright lights.

It seems . . . well, it doesn’t seem so much as it happened . . . they headed off to a well-known strip club. This wasn’t so much a surprise, I have to say, as Stuart admitting to it; as a result I feel able to trust the rest of what he had to say.

At the strip club, one or two or more, god knows, paid for lap dances. It doesn’t matter who, though Stuart did mention names, but a few of them headed upstairs to pay for a woman. That’s when I found myself looking back at the scratch on Stuart’s cheek.

‘So. That’s it?’ I asked.

‘More or less,’ he said.

‘You spent the whole night in the strip club?’

‘No. They did. I didn’t.’

Stuart said he left them; he doesn’t know what hour that was. He’d had enough, he said. He says he couldn’t remember where he’d left the car, which is a good thing. And he’d forgotten about the room he’d paid for at the backpackers. He says he didn’t have any idea where he was headed. It was late, but not that late, he claims. Anyway, he says there were still lines of people waiting to get inside the more popular night spots.

Within a block he’d left behind the noise and the lights and the crowds. He was on one of the streets running down to Te Papa on the waterfront. His legs carried him on. He says there was no decision in head or will left in his body except for in his legs, apparently. Somehow he got himself across those lanes of traffic on Wakefield. I shudder to think. Then, he says, he walked around to the seaward side of the national museum and that’s when he saw the flax bushes. As soon as he saw them, he says he knew what to do. He crawled into the flax, where I suppose he passed the rest of the night, and which, I gather, accounts for his torn shirt and the cut on his cheek.

In the morning, as he woke in the flax bushes, he says he became aware of others — drunks, I suppose, hoboes, I guess, whatever you wish to call them, street people. That’s the company he kept that night sleeping in the flax bushes outside the national museum.

Now, if someone else was telling this story, in other words if all this was being recounted by someone else and it involved someone else’s husband and family, I wouldn’t know what would have appalled me the most. The lack of a phone call — at any time that night. The binge drinking. The strip club. The lap dancers, or the business upstairs in the strip club. But no, the thing that distresses me the most is the thought of Stuart crawling into those flax bushes. It is the thought of the man I married in good faith waking in the flax bushes with all the other drunks of the city, and it is also this: he is really no better than them, and that fact would be known to everyone if he didn’t have a home to go to.

 

 

Sunday night I ironed a fresh shirt and left it on the bed. Monday morning I dropped Stuart off at the office for an early meeting with a client. Later I went along to Te Papa as a parent helper with Clara’s Year 8 class. It is that time of year when teachers cast around for activities outside the classroom. We took in the Maori waka, and after that the kids scattered and flew like moths to the voices of piped history in various parts of the museum. The trip ended up on the marae level overlooking the waterfront. From there I could look down to the flax bushes where my husband had spent Saturday night.

Already it felt like history. And here I suppose this story might have ended. I might try and forget it, and move on, as everyone says. But while standing there with the rude wind in my face, I felt a nagging that had nothing to do with it or the cries of squabbling children over my shoulder. I decided to take myself down to those flax bushes.

A woman office worker sat on the lawn, smoking and sunning her bare legs while she tackled the crossword. She didn’t pay me any attention though. She didn’t see an anxious middle-aged swamp hen creep into the shrub and the flax. It was easy to see where people had burrowed through. The ground was well trampled. I poked around. You could see where sleeping bodies had lain, and in one or two places there were plastic and glass bottles lying among the bark chips. One of the other women, the mother of one of Clara’s friends, yelled out to me. What was I doing down there? What on earth was I grubbing about for? I could hear her laughing voice rallying above the gusting wind. But I pretended not to hear, and went on looking for a piece of Stuart’s white shirt.

 

‘The Thing that Distresses Me the Most’ © Lloyd Jones

This story was first published in The Best New Zealand Fiction volume 3, edited by Fiona Kidman, 2006, Vintage

 

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