By: M S Pallister
The kettle whistled. Virginia looked at her I-heart-NY cup, sitting lonely on the worktop, and for the second time that morning broke down in tears. Rage tears.
What about the allotment I had planned? All the rhubarb, asparagus, and runner beans that I wanted to grow. And the air show. Oh, the Farnborough air show! How dare he die on me?
She banged her fist on the oak dinner table with roses carved along the sides. Arthur had made the table with his own two hands, his wedding gift to her. He was a carpenter: mind, body and soul. Virginia had once said that if Jesus had got time from doing God’s work and had followed his family trade even he couldn’t have made anything as nice as Arthur did. But that was when Arthur’s carpentry had not yet begun to get on her tits.
She sat down at the table, sipping her tea. She ought to call Georgie. This would completely mess up his plans. He had already requested time off work for his visit next month with Virginia’s granddaughter, Maisie. Arthur was so looking forward to spending time with her and had wanted to build her a doll’s house for her birthday. Virginia looked at the fresh scratch along the honey-mustard wall of the hallway, like charting the course of the Thames. Those idiot delivery men! First they couldn’t keep to the runner, stomping their dirty boots on the carpet, then damaging her walls with the plywood they couldn’t carry between their chunky-selves.
What am I supposed to do with all that Baltic Birch now?
As she contemplated the palaver involved in selling plywood on e-bay, something appeared then disappeared in her peripheral vision. Someone had come down the stairs and walked past the kitchen. She ran into the hall.
Arty! You’re alive! I could’ve sworn you were …
She had checked his heartbeat five times, there was not the faintest of pulse. She had put her compact mirror near his nose and there wasn’t a smudge of condensation on the glass.
She grabbed Arthur’s cold hands. He turned around slowly, like a pirouetting wind-up doll.
Virginia gasped and let go of his hand.
Your eyes … they’re like … like …
Like Maisie’s teddy bear’s. Still big and blue but at the same time so dark, like a storm brewing over an ocean. And he wasn’t quite looking at her. His gaze, if it could be called that since his pupils were so dilated, seemed to be focused on something just left of her left ear. He creakily turned around, plodded to the basement door, opened it and walked down the steps.
Virginia stared as the door swung shut, unable to make sense of what was happening. Was she finally losing it? She was so certain he was dead. Surely, after forty years of marriage you’d be able to tell if your husband was alive or not. But that wasn’t important. Arthur was back, and now they could go to the air show. But those eyes. What was wrong with those eyes?
All this while she could hear rustling and snipping and cracking from the basement. Then came the jarring sound of the saw. Not the familiar screeching which Virginia usually started her day to and had even begun to find comforting. This new sound was laboured, arhythmic. There was anything between a second to fifteen between two strokes, as though Arthur didn’t know what he was doing. Which was odd because he could blindfolded saw a piece of wood into any shape. And as for the rhythm, his strokes were perfectly timed to and fro movements which he could sustain for twenty minutes.
She giggled then immediately blushed.
The bloody sawing. I can’t hear myself think. Don’t know when it’s going to screech next.
Virginia went back into the kitchen and finished her tea. Then showered and got dressed. The sawing continued. She drove to the supermarket and did a leisurely shop, buying avocado, haddock, those little chocolate pots, all the things she had to forego because Arthur didn’t like them. She had a feeling he wouldn’t mind anymore. She returned after noon, heated up leftover quiche Lorraine from the day before and ate it with a glass of sauvignon blanc. Beneath her feet the floor rattled from Arthur’s discordant efforts.
Virginia thought about visiting a friend or watering the garden. Instead, she binge-watched Downton Abbey which she could never find time for because she was always doing Arthur’s accounts, ordering plywood, and taking orders for whatnots, rocking chairs, bookshelves, and things she had never even heard of, while Arthur spent his time in the basement in the company of Hazel, Maple and Ash.
Ha, ha! Arty loved that one. Loves, I mean.
Anyway, with the kind of morning she had had she couldn’t be expected to work. If she were working for someone else she would have called in sick. So Downton Abbey it was.
Halfway through the season Virginia was bored.
Who watches this crap!
In protest she fell asleep on her favourite purple chaise longue. It was a Victorian piece which Arthur had bought at an auction, repaired and re-upholstered with the softest of velvet. Virginia awoke just after 4pm. Arthur was still sawing. Still badly. She felt groggy, maybe because she didn’t really do siestas or because there was a hint of a headache brewing between her temples. Either way, the sawing was not helping. She decided to go down and have a word with Arthur, avoiding his eyes if possible.
Sawdust flew into her nose as she opened the basement door. Virginia sneezed, but Arthur, standing by a plank of wood, didn’t twitch a muscle.
Arty, what’s going on?
Arthur didn’t acknowledge her. His one hand rested on the plank, while the other listlessly moved the saw.
Arty, stop that for a minute, please. You haven’t even had lunch. Come upstairs and I’ll make you a sandwich. Have a little break.
She grabbed his wrist, but he didn’t stop or turn around. She subtly moved a finger where his pulse should have been but wasn’t.
Oh my God!
Virginia stepped back. She tripped on the bottom step and fell down. A pile of wood cut in squares, rectangles and hexagons fell around her. Arthur finally stopped sawing and turned around.
You really are dead.
His lips twitched a little. Was that a smirk?
Virginia rushed up the stairs, ran to her room, got under the covers and cried for the third time that day.
The edges of the blackout curtains shone like silver lining, and Virginia knew that behind the curtains waited a beautiful summer morning. She drew them open and sure enough the sun was sitting nice and yellow in the sky; not a cloud to turn it a shade duller.
Underneath the house, sawing had turned to hammering.
Bang! Five-second pause. Bang!
It sounds so listless. Like Arty’s heart isn’t into it.
She gasped and stiffened. But it was such a beautiful day. And it was quite a clever pun. She laughed. It felt good. She laughed louder. Laughing, she walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on.
Ha! Ha! Ha!
Bigger and louder.
HA! HA! HA!
The laughing took on a life of its own. She lost control of it. She lost control of her body. Before she knew it she was doing star jumps, jumping higher and higher. Why had she never thought of doing this before? It was invigorating. More than invigorating. It was liberating. Like the time she went to the Kinks’ concert. She did so much more than jumping there. That was before she had met Arthur and his carpentry.
Virginia hummed You Really Got Me and jumped — Boing! Boing! — to the cabinet and took out her I-heart-NY mug and a teabag.
She laughed and jumped and laughed and jumped. The kettle whistled. She stopped, shook out her arms and legs, and poured the boiling water into her mug. She turned around and screamed, dropping the mug on the floor.
Look what you made me do.
Arthur stood in the doorway.
It was my favourite mug. We bought it on our honeymoon. I was very happy then.
Virginia sighed and slowly cleaned up the mess.
So, what’s brought you up here?
She wasn’t making eye contact.
Have you lost a tool?
Don’t tell me it’s your flat blade screwdriver. You keep losing it all the time. Don’t look at me, I don’t have it.
She turned around and washed her hand in the sink. She could feel his unfocussed stare on her back. Did she really have it? She did have a tendency to borrow his tools but not put them back.
Aha! Yes, I did take it to get into the nooks and crannies of the oven. You can wrap a damp kitchen towel at the end and you wouldn’t believe how much dirt you can—
Now, where did I put it?
Virginia scuttled around the kitchen, looking under jars and behind the toaster. Finally, terrified, she opened the oven door. Down at the bottom lay the half-melted flat blade screwdriver. Shaking all over, she handed it to Arthur.
Arthur took the Daliesque screwdriver, as though it was perfectly normal for tools to have melted handles, and went back to the basement. Pre-quietus Arthur would have bitten her head off.
See you at lunch!
The air smelt of sardines.
Must put air-freshener on the grocery list.
Virginia returned from the Farnborough air show, wiping her brow and the back of her neck. She needed a shower she was sweating so much. But Arthur was in her way, standing in the hallway, uttering a deep growl.
Arty, what happened to you?
There were two dark holes in the middle of Arthur’s face. And he smelled worse than ever. A buzzing bluebottle drew Virginia’s attention to something lumpy by the basement door. She swatted away the fly and bent down to look at the lump closely.
It’s your nose!
The oysters and champagne travelled back up her oesophagus and she had to swallow hard to keep them down. Thank goodness she didn’t have the lobster. That would have definitely escaped and joined Arthur’s nose on the carpet, making quite a cosy bed for the bluebottle to lay its eggs. She pulled out a Kleenex from her handbag and daintily picked up the fallen appendage and was about to throw it in the bin when she stopped. She changed her mind and dropped the nose and the tissue into a crackers tin she had recently emptied and cleaned.
Arthur followed her movements restlessly. His growl was getting louder.
Arty darling, do you need anything? Is it more flooring cards? Or wallpapers? I ordered fifteen sheets last week.
Arthur slowly lifted his arm and spread his fingers. In the middle of his palm was a tiny brown ball.
Clay? Polymer clay? Is that what you need? Okay. So you’re making miniatures now, eh? Good progress, Arty.
Virginia smiled encouragingly. Arthur lowered his arm as slowly as he had raised it. His limbs seemed loose, like they had been attached to his body with screws which were coming undone. After he wobbled back into the basement, Virginia got out her bottle of No. 5 and sprayed it around the room.
Isla? These days all little girls are called Isla.
Virginia turned on the speaker on her new smartphone and picked up a packet of seeds.
How about India? Now that’s a solid name. Tell your son to name his child India. No Sue, I’m not being bossy. I’m just giving good advice. You’d be foolish not to take it.
Virginia turned her head towards the basement. An odd shuffling sound was coming from it. What was Arthur up to now?
What was that, Sue? Your hip? Try star-jumping. I do it every morning and it’s worked wonders. I’ve never felt better.
Virginia moved closer to the basement door.
I can’t decide if I should plant turnips or swedes in the allotment. Space is precious. What do you think of kohlrabi? I bought the plot last week. Did I not tell you? Must’ve slipped my mind. I’m so busy these days.
The sound from the basement was getting closer and deeper.
No, Arty doesn’t mind. Not anymore.
Like a sack of potatoes being dragged up the stairs.
Yes, he has changed. Mostly for the better.
A loud crash.
Jesus, what now? I’ve got to go, Sue. I’ll call you later.
Virginia shoved aside the egg-and-mayo sandwich and grapefruit juice which she left every morning by the basement door knowing fully well that it would remain untouched. Equipped with room freshener, she opened the door and found Arthur lying on his back at the bottom of the stairs. She ran down.
Arthur’s limbs flapped in the air, like an upturned beetle’s. Virginia noticed that there was only one leg waving. Where the other should have been was now a slackened piece of trouser fabric.
Oh Arty, you poor man.
Virginia bent over him to help him up.
She stepped back, tripping over the surviving leg.
Yes. Right. You’re working on miniatures, aren’t you? Well done for remembering the magnifying eye glass.
Virginia made another attempt to lift Arthur up. His blue eyes looked back at her, ten times bigger and as vacant as her daughter-in-law’s smile. Virginia lowered her gaze to Arthur’s chest and kept it there until she put him in a chair.
Now, where is your leg?
Arthur grunted, but it sounded more like a whimper.
It’s okay darling, I’ll find it.
Virginia ruffled his hair and a clump of it came out in her hand. She made a face and quickly brushed it off. On the work table in the corner lay sofas, cupboards, a dressing table and a cooker. Was it the light or were these miniatures actually crooked?
Arty, you’re supposed to wear the magnifying eye glass before you start working, not after. Ha ha!
All right, calm down. I’m looking.
Under the table, the floor was covered with paper cuttings, fabric, wool and fluff. She pointed the room freshener towards the floor, sprayed, then bent down. Lo and behold, a shoe was sticking out from behind a pile of wood shavings. She pulled it out and dangled it in front of Arthur.
There. I can’t really put it back on you, Arty, but I’ll see what I can do. Now stay here and don’t move.
Arthur tried to lift himself up but fell back down.
I don’t think you’re going anywhere.
Virginia went upstairs and around to the garden. There wasn’t a tin big enough to hold the leg, but there was a bin. She put the leg — minus the shoe — into the compost bin, took a detour into the shed, then went back to the basement.
Remember this crutch, Arty? You made it for Georgie when he fell from his bike and sprained his ankle. Now you can use it for yourself.
Virginia placed the crosspiece under Arthur’s left arm and supported him until he got the hang of it.
And here’s my old bell from our office.
She put a reception bell by the stairs.
You don’t need to come upstairs anymore. You shouldn’t. Ring this whenever you need me.
The bell rang day and night. Occasionally because Arthur needed something but mostly by mistake. On rare days, it seemed to Virginia that he rang the bell only to see her. He’d stand at the bottom, leaning on his crutch, looking at her. When asked if he wanted anything he wouldn’t even grunt in response. He’d just stare at her, as though trying to remember who she was.
Virginia started wearing earplugs at night and sometimes during the day when she watched TV. She continued to star-jump in the morning, and when the bell-ringing got on her nerves (It’s like I’m living in a church!) she went out to her allotment. The hot summer boosted the growth of the runner beans, tomatoes and kohlrabi, and she was looking forward to making a delicious casserole. If Arthur weren’t sentiently-challenged he would have enjoyed it.
One morning, when Virginia removed her ear plugs she heard the bell ringing with an urgency she hadn’t heard before. In her silk pyjamas she hurried downstairs to see Arthur bending over the bell and hitting it with his head, like a deranged woodpecker.
What’re you doing, Arty?
Arthur looked up.
Why’re you still wearing that damn lens?
Arthur pointed with his head at the doll’s house resting on the work table.
You’ve finished? I don’t know what you want me to say, Arty. It’s awful.
The house looked like it was suffering from subsidence, leaning to one side. The roses on the wallpaper were upside down, but at least it stayed put. The carpet, on the other hand, was already peeling off and the windows were torn. The wall separating the bathroom from the kitchen had fallen over the bath, and Arthur had forgotten to put in the stairs. A single doll sat on a rocking chair in a state of stark nakedness! This was not at all like Arthur.
But Arthur was unlike Arthur.
Well, maybe not awful, just not what Maisie might like. You know how little girls are. They like pink and pretty things. And everything has to be perfect.
Arthur hopped closer and pushed a hammer in front of her.
No, Arty. I won’t do it. I know it’s bad but that’s no reason to destroy it.
Arthur shoved the hammer in Virginia’s hand.
Arty, I can’t. Please don’t make me do it.
He pointed at the roof, then at the house.
Huh? Oh, you want me to attach the roof onto the house? Why can’t you do it?
Arthur swung his left side towards Virginia. There was only air, stinking air, in that shirt sleeve but no arm.
Oh no, you lost your arm this time. Were you using it too much? Don’t worry, I’ll find it.
Arthur shook his head vigorously.
Okay. Just tell me what to do.
He pointed at the placements along the walls and Virginia gently hammered down the nails.
You know Maisie and Georgie are coming today?
I’ll bring Georgie down here to see you. He’ll understand. He’s quite practical, isn’t he? He and I can carry the doll’s house upstairs to Maisie.
Virginia glanced at Arthur but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. It was incredible how inexpressive his face had become since he lost his nose. And that eye glass didn’t help either.
I don’t think you should see Maisie. You might frighten her. And this doll’s house is frightful enough. Ha ha!
She hammered down another nail. The roof was almost in place.
Perhaps when she’s older she’ll be able to accept you. That is if you’re still around. I’d like you to. You could stay here, I upstairs. We could do our own thing. Also some things together.
Arthur placed the last nail in position.
I can make this basement more comfortable. Put an AC in, get you some prosthetic limbs, fit one of those automatic fresheners. Time to retire carpentry, though. We can find you a new hobby, like watching boxsets. Ha ha! I think it can work. What do you think?
Virginia looked up.
There’s something in your eye, Arty.
She raised the hammer, and just as she brought it down she saw a large, red head followed by a pale, lumpy body crawl out of Arthur’s beautiful blue eye. The maggot pushed against the inside of the lens, trying to find its way out.
Virginia gasped. The hammer came down heavier than she had intended and missed its mark completely, crashing through the tiny bathroom and living room, crushing the sink and the sofas.
Arty, I’m so sorry.
Arthur howled and lunged at her. Virginia screamed and ran up the stairs. She slammed the door behind her.
The bell rang. In the basement and outside. Through the frosted glass she saw her granddaughter jumping up and down.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
Arthur was still howling like a wolf.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
Virginia walked into the kitchen, put on the kettle and began star-jumping.