Cora sipped coffee and gazed out through the open kitchen window at the rear garden. Her husband sat slumped in his deckchair, drinking little green bottles of beer, reading his paper, the modest patch of lawn lit in brilliant July sunshine. The summer breeze teased what remained of his white hair, like static electricity, and fanned the corners of his newspaper.
She came away and slipped out a postcard from beneath the fridge magnet, its photograph showing the interior grandeur of the Vienna Opera House. Cora turned over the card and skimmed again the superlatives in her best friend’s tidy hand. Wonderful time. Amazing architecture. Glorious weather.
She walked outside with her coffee mug, her face pleasantly baked under the afternoon sun. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day again, Arthur?’
Arthur drank beer. His blue checked shirt was unbuttoned to the navel. ‘Sure is.’
‘Have you taken your pills?’
She hesitated by the whirligig clothesline. ‘They’re expecting temperatures to break records over the next couple of days.’ She drank her coffee, looked down at him. When he didn’t answer, she said, ‘I thought we might go for a walk.’
He blew carefully into the newspaper’s pages, separating them. ‘Walk where?’
‘Doesn’t matter, really.’ She watched bumblebees and an orange butterfly flit among the lilac flowers of a shrub plant. ‘It’s such a nice afternoon. Perhaps down along the water, what do you think?’
‘I’m reading the paper.’
‘Oh, come on, Arthur. You sit out here every day, drinking beer.’
‘I’m retired. I’m allowed to sit in my own garden.’
‘Of course, I just mean . . .’
He made a shooing motion. ‘Give me peace, woman, go on.’
In the room by the stairs, Cora sat at her walnut Steinway piano, moving her fingers over the major scales. The music rack was empty, so she ran off a few basic melodies by rote, the notes floating around her. As a soloist, she kept the piano’s top raised for improved resonance. Its keys had begun to yellow slightly, but the soundboard was unaffected. The room stood unfurnished except for the piano, white transparent drapes softening windows, sunlight flaring across the laminate floor. The walls displayed her various framed achievements and certificates of competence, arrayed equidistantly around a pendulum clock. She played a great deal less nowadays than in her teaching years, her fingers considerably less nimble, but having the Steinway here went some way to keeping alive her love of the instrument.
‘I’m off down the bettin’ shop,’ Arthur announced, startling her. When she turned, he was standing in the door, grey cap on his head, newspaper under his arm.
‘To give away more money?’
‘I don’t complain when you sit in here, tickling the ivories.’
‘I don’t tickle ivories. I taught piano for a living. And that, incidentally, has nothing to do with wasting our money.’
‘Whatever. Why don’t you just learn to look the other way?’
He left, and the front door opened and closed, noticeably louder than necessary. A tear formed warmly in the corner of her eye. She quickly wiped it clear, as if unwilling to be seen crying, despite now being quite alone.
As she regarded the clock, its second-hand circling relentlessly around, so she felt again the uncomfortable sense of time—of life—slowly wasting. She looked at her hands, aged and slack-skinned, and marvelled how the body continued to deteriorate while the mind, for the most part, remained the same. She positioned her pale fingers and struck D minor, traditionally considered the most melancholy of keys, its sound reverberating throughout the space until it dispersed, consumed by the silence. Then she shook her head and closed the varnished fallboard and vacated the room.
Next day, the heatwave continuing, Cora observed Arthur through the kitchen window as she finished up the lunchtime dishes. She had the radio on low, the classical station playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Arthur was supping beer in his deckchair, perusing his paper, topless above the waist now, his sagging flesh burned an unsightly red, paunch exposed in all its glory.
She dried her hands, opened a drawer, and withdrew her glossy cruise brochure. She smiled as she paged through the scenic destinations—France, Bora Bora, Singapore, America, the fjords of Norway—admiring both them and the great lavish ships, like floating hotels, ready to take you there. The liners provided terrific nightlife, the brochure revealed, great dance halls and Broadway-style shows, fine dinners interspersed with music, from classical to Memphis blues. Something for everyone. Through her mind’s eye, she saw herself stepping out to a cabin balcony, champagne flute in hand, the setting sun flashing a million sparkling sequins across the ocean’s breadth. But, alas, the scene was difficult to accept as anything other than a dream . . .
Since they had retired, she from teaching, Arthur from his warehouse job, she felt they were under each other’s feet more than ever. It wasn’t surprising really, with both of them constantly kicking around the house, less like man and wife than like passing lodgers. And his irritating little habits did annoy her: the way he sat out there and periodically picked at his nose, for instance, as if it didn’t matter whether or not she was nearby to see it. The way his eyes darted around as he drank from those stupid green bottles, like a baby feeding at its mother’s breast.
Now that she really considered it, many things about him irked her, from the terribly uncouth smacking noises he made when he ate, to his stony refusal to visit her mother when she was alive. And what about his moods? He hardly smiled any more, certainly not at her. Sometimes his abject lack of affection cut her right down to the bone. Occasionally, when feeling particularly blue, she wondered if he had remained faithful to her throughout their years together. She mulled over the path she’d chosen when she was young, and the various outcomes her life may have had.
Perhaps a good holiday would work wonders. Perhaps it could release some of the tension. A nice cruise. She took a cornetto from the freezer, one of her limited guilty pleasures, and flipped through images of sun-splashed foreign lands, savouring the ice cream and raspberries, the wafer cone, and finally its rich chocolatey base.
When she finished, having returned the brochure to its place, she wiped her hands and stepped outside and stood in the sunlight beside Arthur. He was wearing shorts and sandals and nothing else.
‘You know what Dr Kilbride told you about drinking so much,’ she said, indicating the little drained bottles by his feet.
He penned a circle on the newspaper’s racing page.
‘. . . Arthur.’
‘Dr Kilbride said you shouldn’t drink so much. He also advised you lose weight. Your sugars and cholesterol aren’t good.’
‘Hell does he know. Them quacks, they love to dish out advice.’
‘You shouldn’t sit here without a shirt. You’ll burn.’ She stooped and collected a couple of the empties. ‘I’m going to brew coffee, would you like some?’
He circled with the pen again, batted at a fly. ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’
‘Busy with racehorses.’
‘Give me peace, will you, woman.’
Cora prepared coffee—for one—and sat at the kitchen table, pondering her life and how it had turned out, something she found herself doing more and more lately. She looked at Maryanne’s postcard from Vienna, the tiered seats of the Opera House, pinned to the fridge door. She contemplated another flick through her travel brochure, but wasn’t in the mood now. What was the use in torturing herself? The situation wouldn’t change.
She believed people’s situations, their status quo, were ultimately the result of all the decisions they make. Which partner to take and whether to remain with him or her. Where to live and whether to stay there. Which career to follow and whether to stick it out. Who to avoid or befriend. Whether to travel or always put it off. Whether to turn down a date or see where it might lead. To accept injustice or fight against it. Indulge or abstain. Countless choices over many years.
Cora drank her coffee.
It seemed she didn’t make decisions any more, that Arthur made them, based solely on the effort the subject in question entailed. When they had married many decades ago, it’d felt like the beginning of something unique, exciting, full of possibilities. Had she been entitled to feel expectant—or had she been young and naive? Either way, it hurt now to reminisce, knowing as she did that the majority of those possibilities had not reached fruition, and perhaps were never destined to in a life of routine and repetition that, after a while, felt like marking time. Marriage wasn’t a fairy tale, she knew this better than most, but that didn’t stop two people from trying, did it? Contrary to an exhilarating journey, wedlock had proved a steady, single-track progression, and she wondered if others felt this way after a lifetime of marriage. Relationships were hard, and many failed, and nobody could exempt themselves from the possibility. She had loved Arthur—at least she believed she had—but was never really sure he’d felt the same. He had told her he loved her, of course, although not for a long time now and never very convincingly. Often, when considering how little he conversed, how little he did, she couldn’t avoid the notion he had simply settled for her, that he was no happier trundling along this single track than she was.
That night, occupying separate single beds, Arthur tackled a crossword while Cora cooled her face with a handheld fan, which whirred quietly like an oversized summer insect. On her side table was a paperback copy of Mozart: A Life in Letters, but the air remained too warm to concentrate on reading. The window stood open but it didn’t help. She glanced across at her husband, chewing her lip.
‘What do you think about a cruise, Arthur?’
Arthur printed an answer, pressing against raised knees. He plucked off his thick glasses, frowning. ‘Cruise?’ She smiled, working the fan. ‘I’ve been looking at a brochure Maryanne gave me. We’ve got money tucked away, we can afford it. Imagine: the journeying, the anticipation, the fresh air.
‘Can’t get this last bugger.’ He tapped the newspaper with his pen, like a conductor with a baton. ‘Ten letters, finishes with an e,’ he said. ‘L in the middle. Dreary or uninspiring.’
‘Arthur . . .’
‘Why you wanna go trekkin’ round them far-flung places? Can’t even drink the water in half them damned countries. What kind of endorsements that?’
‘We owe ourselves a break.’
‘Cruises, they’re bloody expensive, Cora. No. No, I don’t think so.’
‘We’ll just give all our money to the betting office, shall we?’
‘I’m retired. I wanna bet, I’ll bet.’
‘So I gather. Being retired doesn’t make gambling a worthwhile pastime.’
‘Does for me.’
Arthur put his glasses back on. ‘Call it what you want.’
‘The crossword. The answer is “lacklustre”.’
‘Hey, look at that . . . There it is.’
Arthur completed the grid and clicked his retractable pen. He switched off his lamp. Cora switched off her fan.
In the morning, as Cora loaded the washer, the phone rang in the kitchen. She dialled down Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the radio.
‘Mary!’ she said happily, drawing up the little corner chair. ‘How was Vienna?’
‘Fantastic,’ Maryanne told her. ‘Ooh la la. You and Arthur have to get away, Cora, really, you just have to. Did you mention the brochure to him?’
‘Oh, no, I haven’t got round to it yet,’ she lied. ‘But I will. I will. Come on, more about the trip. It was an anniversary, wasn’t it?’
‘Forty years,’ Maryanne said. ‘It’s hard to believe us pair have lasted so long.’
Cora smiled. ‘Oh, you don’t mean that.’
‘No, I don’t. It was so breathtaking, Cora. The Imperial palaces, St Stephen’s Cathedral. Don’t get me started. It was all just, well, breathtaking. You’d love the Opera House, it’s simply divine.’
‘I saw it on the postcard. It looks wonderful.’
‘And what about this heat? God, it’s unnatural. Oh—and guess what Doug gave me on our last night, before we went to dinner . . .?’
‘A beautiful bracelet, with alternating rubies and diamonds.’
‘Really?’ Cora regarded her own unadorned wrist. ‘That’s so lovely.’
‘I spent the whole evening peering at it, right through the meal and everything.’ Maryanne touched on the Grand Ferdinand Hotel and its nearby restaurants, then said, ‘Ooh, listen, Doug and I’ve pencilled in a few pina coladas for tomorrow evening, just to sort of finish off the holiday, you know. Why don’t you and Arthur pop round, we’d love to see you both. Are you free?’
‘I’ll ask him,’ Cora said, staring at Arthur’s old colour-drained underwear in the wash basket. ‘It should be fine.’
‘Great. I brought you back a chic little something I think you’ll love. Any time after seven.’ Maryanne giggled, sounding decades younger than her years. ‘I’ll look out the rum and coconut milk.’
Around noon, Cora draped and pegged washing on the whirligig line. She was barefoot, the soft lawn warm beneath her toes. The sky was an expanse of faraway blue, marred only by the contrails of a passing plane. The air felt even muggier than earlier in the week, almost unbreathable, and was odorous of shorn grass and creosote. The neighbours’ Irish setter barked playfully, the sounds growing louder as the prancing dog would near the high perimeter fencing. And she heard the distant whine of an electric saw.
‘The weather said it might be the hottest day of the year,’ she began, fluently fixing coloured pegs to the clothesline.
Arthur shifted in his chair. He licked his thumb, turned the page. ‘Feels like it. Like a bloody sauna. We’ll pay for it, though. Always do.’
‘It’s gone above forty degrees in parts of Europe,’ she said. ‘Forty-two in Paris. We’re inching towards it here, too.’ When he didn’t respond, she separated a bedsheet from the load, and said, ‘Maryanne phoned.’
‘Hmm. Thought I heard you gassing to somebody.’
‘They’ve just come back from holiday. Doug gave her a ruby-and-diamond bracelet for their fortieth anniversary.’
‘They’re having a few drinks at the house tomorrow.’ She glanced at him. ‘They’ve invited us round, sometime after seven?’
‘They’re your friends, Cora, not mine.’
‘Doug’s your friend, Arthur.’ She pegged the sheet, smoothed it out. ‘Least he tries to be. I told her we’d go along, you know, just for a little while.’
‘You go if you want, I’m staying here.’
Cora stopped what she was doing. ‘Please, Arthur. Only a little while.’
He drew a paisley hanky across his brow. ‘Listen to him prattling on about his fancy liqueurs and conservatory? I’ll pass, thanks.’
‘They’ve just got back from Vienna, it’s a nice gesture.’
‘God. Be pictures an’ stories an’ all sorts. Look what we did. Look where we went.’
‘Arthur, you can’t spend your whole life sitting out here.’
‘Go on, woman. Give me peace.’
By early evening the weather remained stifling, too close to cook anything save simple cheese omelettes and side salads. Cora, in her striped apron, chopped baby tomatoes and cucumber and shredded lettuce. The radio played Mozart from the corner, whose compositions always instilled in her a sense of freedom, of relaxation. A fan spun cool air on the worktop. She had a glass of red at her side, from which she sipped and topped up at intervals. She’d set about beating eggs when she turned and absently glanced out at Arthur—and gradually her practiced wrist-motion came to a stop.
He was standing unsteadily, bent at the middle, clutching his left forearm with his right hand. His newspaper lay on the grass, large pages curling, trying to blow free. Cora laid down the glass bowl and fork. Arthur’s eyes were gripped shut, his face pained, his lips moving as if in attempt to communicate something. He took a few stuporous steps backwards and collapsed over the deckchair, capsizing it.
Cora rushed across to the phone and snatched it from its mount. When she returned to the window, Arthur had worked himself onto his back, his mouth open, arms outflung, his chest rising and falling slowly. She watched a moment longer, before placing the phone down on the counter. Then she retrieved the bowl of eggs and turned from the window. She closed her eyes against tears she knew would come, and went on beating, as Mozart’s symphony soared through the kitchen.
Issue 10 & 11
To request your story to be removed from online publication: EMAIL US