Stories


Atchoo
By Crysse Morrison



If Daphne hadn't been suddenly assailed by one of those small wet sneezes which were prone to shake her unexpectedly, they wouldn't have known she was there.

She shouldn't have been there, of course. What kind of a woman hides in a bedroom wardrobe while her husband is making love? Ex-husband, admittedly, but by the same token her own ex-bedroom, as Daphne pointed out coldly on emerging. Very coldly, actually, for it was chilly for June, and the new Mrs Wiggins was wise with the heating.

The conversation went thus:

He (emerging pink and anxious from Charlene's thighs) : What was that?
She: ugh ahum go on.
Daphne: Atchoo.
He: There it is again!
She: Oh my goodness it's a burglar.
He: Where, where?
She: There, there! I can see his trainers, under the louvred doors of the wardrobe.
He : Give me my trousers.
She: Quick, quick.
He: I'm being quick. Come out, whoever you are.

So Daphne came out, muttering defensively 'It was my bedroom once, you know.'

Charlene shrieked in outrage, as the replacement wife has a perfect right, and Mike asked Daphne what she was doing there in terminology that though not unreasonable did have a certain semantic irony.

"I was looking for my gardening gloves" said Daphne.

There was now something of a lull in the conversation. Daphne, wearing a mint shellsuit and the tell-tale trainers, looked resolutely at Mike. Mike, wearing jeans and an incredulous expression, looked at Daphne. Charlene, wearing nothing but a rosy flush, drew the floral quilt up to her shoulders and looked demurely down.

Eventually Mike spoke.

"It's a year since you left, Daphne. Did you really imagine that your gardening gloves would still be there?"

And it did indeed seem unlikely, from the most cursory of glances at Charlene's cool pastel linens and pretty polka-dot frocks that there might be here, overlooked and unregarded, a pair of somebody else's gardening gloves.

Charlene lifted her gaze and joined in the debate. There was another line of enquiry which she felt Mike was overlooking and which she was anxious to pursue.

"How did you get in?"

Expressionlessly, Daphne held up a yale key.

"But why?"

Explanations, even the most truthful, are often complex and multifaceted. Daphne is not sure whether Charlene deserves the truth. Mike is not sure whether Daphne is capable of telling the truth. Charlene is not sure what's going on.

The conversation goes thus:

Daphne: I was pruning my roses, and I kept getting scratched. I thought, I need my old gardening gloves that I left behind. When I was thrown out.
Mike: You were not thrown out.
Charlene: It's not a very good time for pruning roses.
Daphne: Isn't it?
Charlene: No. You should have done them in March. They'll be well in bud by now. What sort are they?
Daphne: I don't know. Sort of red, I think. Or yellow.
Charlene: When do they bloom?
Mike: Look, will you stop sidetracking her?
Charlene: What!
Mike: The roses have nothing to do with it. I want to know what she thinks she's playing at.
Charlene: I'm just trying to get the picture. You show no interest in the garden.
Daphne: He never did. I did all the perennials.
Charlene: I can believe it. I must ask you about the clematis, before you go.
Daphne: The one in the front?
Mike: Oh for heavens sake, get on with it.
Daphne: I thought I might have left them here. So I just popped round, and rang, but you were out.
Mike: Why didn't you go away?
Daphne: I thought it would only take a minute, just to check. Then I heard someone come in and I didn't know who it was, so I hid.
Mike: Didn't know who it was! Don't be ridiculous. Who else would it be?
Daphne: Well you rushed up the stairs like a herd of elephants. It could have been burglars.
Mike: Do burglars rush up stairs like a herd of elephants?
Charlene: Look, could you just pass me--no, next to it. Yes, that one.
Daphne: It's a lovely colour, that.
Charlene: It is nice, isn't it. I got it from that little boutique by the station.
Daphne: I've looked in the window, but it seemed a bit dear.
Charlene: Well it is pricey, but good labels you know.
Mike: Oh for heavens sake. I'm going to make a cup of tea.
Charlene: He's always belligerent when flustered.
Daphne: Oh, I know. Don't tell me, I know.

Perhaps Charlene did show a sliver of disloyalty here, but she had only just got over feeling rather flustered herself. She was alright now, as she pulled the zipper of her custard coloured skirt and tucked in the glossy white blouse and smoothed her hair down, noting with relief how much better groomed she looked than Daphne. Younger, smarter, in her own room; she could afford now to relax. But she had not liked being caught naked and groaning. It must have been someone's fault, and who better to blame than her importunate husband? Daphne might be rather scruffy, might be an ex-wife and current interloper, but she too had struggled with the garden unassisted, she had admired Charlene's sartorial selections, and she was another woman. Women understand. So Charlene laughed with Daphne over Mike's tetchiness and said "Worse things happen at sea!" and they both went down together and had a cup of tea.

"Why did you really come?" said Mike when Charlene went off to fetch her rose directory to check on pruning times for Masquerade.

Daphne sighed.
"I found a key. I knew it was for here. So I came round. You were out. And I got sort of nostalgic. Or maybe just nosy."

Is there a hint of affection here? Daphne answers with bravado and indifference mixed, and perhaps something more. Is there some kind of frisson between them, covert or confessed, as he stares at her stubborn, unapologetic, smile. It is hard to say. They were married for four years. Mike is extremely irked with Daphne, but he often was. Daphne is being wilfully evasive, but that too is not a new trait. Once these things, like Charlene's crisp summer outfits, had led to sudden passion.

The conversation now unwinds thus:

Mike: Why get in the wardrobe?
Daphne: Why not? Do you want me to say I was looking for the land of Narnia? Because it was there.
Charlene: Here's the book. And I've found some old gloves you can borrow.
Daphne: Great. Do you have any secateurs, too?
Charlene: Oh, haven't you got them either?
Mike: For heaven's sake, Charlene. Can't you see she's making a fool of you?
Daphne: No I'm not!
Mike: She wasn't looking for gloves. She was snooping.
Daphne: I simply wanted to avoid embarrassment.
Charlene is unsure who to believe. She is uncomfortable in this new situation, uncertain of her new friend. But in her ears Mike has just called her a fool. Daphne has denied it. Daphne wants to avoid embarrassment. Charlene is all for that. It's not so surprising, all things considered, that Charlene gets angry not with Daphne but with Mike. It's not surprising to Daphne, but it does puzzle Mike. Bewilderment makes him loud and clumsy. Charlene weeps. Daphne consoles. Mike, protesting, quits the house and goes to the pub.

Charlene is still angry at bedtime. She sits up against the pillows in her peachy lacetrimmed bedjacket, frowning and filing her nails with brittle angular movements. Mike lies beside her with his eyes closed, breathing beerily. They have not made love. Mike thinks it will be difficult to make love again in this bedroom, his ex-wife's ex-bedroom.

Charlene thinks this too. She has had a long conversation with Daphne while Mike was out, about which he knows nothing.

It went like this:

Ex-wife: It's true I was snooping, but I didn't keep the key to do that, honestly. I found it.
Wife: Where? Oh, do have another piece of shortbread.
Ex-wife: Mm, delicious. You must give me the recipe. It belongs to Penny Barnes.

There is a brief moment while Charlene unravels this grammatical confusion and grasps that the recipe is not the subject of Daphne's last sentence. There is an even briefer moment while she absorbs that the subject of the sentence was the key, the yale key, the key that unlocks the door to her house and allows entry to her bedroom. After these two brief moments, which combine together into a shortish kind of fraction-of-a-second, there is a palpable pause, and then the dialogue continues:

Charlene (quietish): Why should Penny have it?
Daphne (indistinctly through a mouthful of shortbread): She left me her keys to feed the cats while she's in Tenerife. There was one that didn't fit anything, and I started wondering about it.
Charlene: But why has Mike's secretary got a key to this house?
Daphne: Well--atchoo, sorry--you had one, when I lived here...
Charlene: The bastard!
Daphne: Don't worry, you haven't spilled much

But she has now. Charlene has thrown the entire tray at the wall. Out of character really, as are the explosive tears that follow. Charlene is herself again by bedtime, calm as she sits viciously filing her nails and planning her revenge.

Charlene is not going to be bought out, as was the first Mrs Wiggins. She has no intention of allowing her replacement in the office become her replacement in the joint bank account without a struggle. She consults her solicitor, and confides her suspicions. He advises conclusive proof of infidelity, rather than tittle-tattle from an ex-wife who might, after all, have some ulterior motive.

"What motive?"asks Charlene.

"Revenge?" hazarded the solicitor, picking his nose and trying to make it look like thoughtful rubbing.

"Jealousy? Spite?"

"Nonsense" said Charlene. "She was a very nice woman."

But since she needed proof she went round to Penny Barnes' place to look for clues.

Penny's little Sprite was not in evidence but Oh no! Here is Mike's car parked in the street outside her ground floor flat. Here surely is conclusive evidence of illicit rendezvous. For what possible reason can Mike be here unless Penny has secretly returned?

Charlene pushes the bell. It has a prissy ring, a prim and muted resonance. Bing-bong, bing-bong.

Charlene presses repeatedly, and eventually the door is opened by Mike.

His face is flushed, perhaps with anger. The spouses exchanges go thus:

He: What on earth are you doing here?
She: I knew you were here. I saw your car.
He: Well, I haven't denied it, have I?
She: Where is Penny?
He: You know perfectly well she's on holiday till the end of next week.
She: So why are you here?
He: I'm getting some papers. She took them home and I need them.
She: So where are they, then?
He: Here.
She: Oh.

Charlene is disconcerted She does not like having a folderful of corroborative evidence waved under her nose. She is turning away, her mouth taut with disappointment, when from the flat within she hears the unmistakable small sharp sound of a sneeze.

end





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