Mingled with the aroma of plug in air freshener and the chemical lemon of floor cleaner was a faint but unmistakable whiff of putrefaction. Bob forked an undercooked piece of broccoli into his mouth, chewed it the requisite number of times then swallowed. Across the table, Blaise and Rita were locked in conversation about plastic waste. Mumbling an excuse, he rose from his chair and stumbled over the orange, polyester sports bag Blaise had dropped on the floor.
‘Steady up there Bob,’ she said, making her eyes big.
He shot her a withering glance as he pushed the bag into the corner with the heel of his shoe. Moving it released a fine mist of the noxious odour he’d detected earlier. He eyed it suspiciously.
‘What the hell have you got in there, Blaise?’ he said, ‘A dead cat?’
‘Oh Bob,’ she said, folding her arms around his wife, ‘You’re a hoot!’.
Refusing to be drawn into the merriment he slow tapped his foot. Messy, chaotic woman. Barging into their home, scattering her possessions like airborne seed, throwing herself into his armchair, wittering on and on about social justice. What was she going to do about social justice? She couldn’t even park her car in its allotted space without spilling over the edges.
‘Is it a bit whiffy?’ she said, switching to apologetic, ‘I meant to leave it outside. Rita told me about your pond. I’ve brought you a present for it.’
‘Really, Blaise?’ said Rita, feigning a level of enthusiasm he found unconvincing.
‘Venenum Sacris,’ said Blaise, helping herself to another glass of wine. ‘An ancient life form with a profoundly transformative energy.’
At that moment Bruno ambled into the kitchen, sniffed the air and erupted into a volley of frantic barking. ‘See that?’ she said, dribbling red wine on the tablecloth. ‘He senses something. It’s instinct. Animals understand when they’re in the presence of wonder.’
‘And postmen and hoovers,’ he said, snorting back a laugh as he shunted Bruno out the back.
‘Bob,’ said Rita, poker faced, ‘Blaise has brought you a present. Why don’t you go and put it in the pond?’
‘Yes dear. Of course dear,’ he said, tapping his heels in military fashion, holding the bag at arms length and making his way down to the pond. His pond. An oasis of calm he personally had conjured into being. Watching fish flit darkly under it’s surface usually provoked in him a mildly pleasurable sense of omniscience. Usually, but not tonight.
As he stooped to pull some creeping buttercup from the margins, he had a prickly, uncomfortable sensation. Ignoring it he unzipped the bag, averting his face as a sulphuric stench hit his airways. Closer inspection revealed a mass of jelly like tendrils awash with a thick coating of slime. Adverse to touch it without gloves, he upended the contents directly into the pond watching in fascinated disgust as it sank slowly to the bottom.
Next morning he returned to the pond, coffee in hand, newspaper under his arm. In the far distance, traffic on the motorway hummed like a sleepy swarm of wasps. Other than that it was quiet. Too quiet. Yesterday, the garden had trilled to the early morning sound of bird song. A joyous, uplifting sound. A sound he’d wanted to share with Rita, only she was busy. She had jobs to do. Important jobs. The elections were fast approaching and Blaise was relying on her support. He coughed, a dry, acid-reflux cough. Of course it was all a big waste of time. Anyone could have told her that. Blaise hadn’t a hope of getting elected.
Then, out of the corner of his eye he noticed something floating on the surface of the pond. Swearing under his breath, he swatted a cloud of flies buzzing around the swollen bodies of two of his Koi. With a sickening lurch, he recalled the stench from the sports bag. Blaise; silly bloody woman. Whatever it was she’d given him was quite obviously toxic. Walking up to the house to get his fishing net, his sense of outrage accelerated.
‘Blaise’s wonder,’ he announced, stamping his feet on the door mat, ‘has only gone and killed two of the Koi Carp!’
‘Really,’ said Rita, tearing her eyes away from her phone. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure,’ he said, acutely aware that her right index finger remained poised over the letter pad. ‘I think I can tell a dead fish when I see one.’
‘Umm,’ she said returning to her text.
Baffled by her indifference, he retreated to the conservatory and sank in his chair. Most likely she was texting Blaise. Squat, lipstick-less Blaise with her trailing scarves and her left wing views. Droning on, ad infinitum, about globalisation and climate change. Too full of her own importance to see that Rita really didn’t care.
As he sat and watched the passing traffic, a thought came to him. Try as he might to dismiss it, it kept pushing it’s way forward, hammering on the table, shouting for attention. Maybe she did care. Maybe she cared more than a married woman should?
Sinking his head between his hands, he groaned. He couldn’t deny that of late, something was amiss. Since she’d met Blaise at the Community Council, she’d become increasingly preoccupied. Checking her phone, smiling to herself, singing snatches of songs he’d never heard. Half listening when he attempted conversation, seemingly bored by what he had to say. He groaned more loudly. On the campaign trail together, the evening meetings which all too often ended in the pub, the planned tour of municipal recycling facilities. It was just a smokescreen, a ploy. He’d been a fool not to have guessed. All swagger and bluster, Blaise had her eye on the prize. His prize. Rita.
Propelling himself out of the chair, he knocked a potted azalea from the window ledge sending it crashing to the floor.
‘Is that you Bob?’
‘Yes, dear,’ he said, stooping to pick up the broken shards as she appeared at the door dressed in her outdoor coat and shoes.
‘Bruno’s disappeared,’ she said, her voice tight and strained. ‘Blaise is going to help me find him.’
Blaise, Blaise, Blaise. The sound of her name on Rita’s lips after the revelation he’d had was like a blow to his solar plexus.
‘You might have mentioned it to me before notifying all and sundry,’ he said.
‘Really Bob?’ she said, rolling her eyes and hurrying past him out the door.
Not knowing what else to do, he wandered into the kitchen, cracked two eggs into the frying pan and stared despondently as they sizzled and spat in the blackened butter. Should he confront her with his suspicions? On the whole, he thought not. She’d dig her heels in; insist he was being ridiculous. He bit the inside of his cheek. Was he being ridiculous?
Something about the sight of eggs congealing in the pan put him in mind of his dead fish. Abandoning the idea of breakfast, he rifled the under-stair cupboard for his fishing net. As he was searching, the phone rang.
‘Bob, have you seen Tickles?’ It was Marianne from next door, abrupt in that dour, Northern way she had.
Tickles? Who the hell was Tickles?
‘She didn’t come home last night.’
‘Have you reported the matter?’ he said.
‘She’s a cat, Bob.’
Of course she was a cat. A cat he detested. If she was gone, then he was glad of it.
‘Rita might know something,’ he said neutrally, ‘I’ll get her to ring you.’
Clearly, Rita had put the fishing net somewhere it didn’t belong. He’d drive over to Garden World and buy a replacement.
Edging out the front gate a short while later, he listened with interest as the radio presenter spoke about a club the Beatles frequented in 1961. His grip on the steering wheel tightened. Obviously that was wrong. The Beatles played the Indra Club in 1960. Forty eight gigs in all. Pondering whether he should ring in and offer a correction, he drove the rest of the way in silence.
Unfamiliar with Garden World’s new premises, Bob ambled through aisle after aisle of roses, alpines and shady perennials before eventually stumbling upon fishing nets in the aquatic section. Then, as he passed through tropical palms on way to the checkout, a flash of inspiration struck. Treating himself to an Americano, he perched on a one-legged stool and scribbled some numbers on a sheet of paper.
As he sipped his coffee, a picture of Blaise floated into his head. Frizzy grey hair, arm tossed proprietorially around Rita’s shoulder, laughing hysterically as she snake charmed his wife away from him. Slurping the last mouthful, he scrunched up the sheet and tossed it in the bin. To hell with the cost. He’d take Rita off somewhere exotic. By the time they returned, sun kissed and care free, Blaise- with her public service pension and her council flat, would be a distant memory.
Arriving home later than he intended on account of a tailback on the western bypass, he turned the key in the front door anticipating the thunder of paws along the wooden floor. Nothing. He flicked the light switch. A dark imprint of Bruno’s heavy body flattened the synthetic fur lining of his tartan dog bed, amplifying his absence like a crime scene. It’s very emptiness screamed accusation.
‘Bob. Is that you?’ Rita’s voice floated down the stairs.
‘Yes, dear,’ he said, relieved to find he wasn’t alone. ‘When did you get back?’
‘Not long ago. We searched everywhere… Blaise is helping me make a poster then we’re going door to door.’
We. The casual way she used that word made his lip curl in a sneer. Rita and Blaise. Blaise upstairs in his house making posters on his computer with his wife.
‘Do you think we should offer a reward?’ she said, treading down the stairs.
‘Isn’t that a bit dramatic?’ he said, unwilling to go along with any plan Blaise had a hand in. ‘Have we established for a fact, he isn’t in the garden?’
‘I called him this morning,’ she said, pausing mid-step, ruffling her blond, grey perm with the tips of her fingers.
‘He’s usually at the back door waiting for me.’
‘What if he’s injured?’ he said. ‘Did you think of that? He’s hardly going to come running if he’s hurt himself.’
Vindicated by his own clear headed, man-of-the world logic, he made his way out to the garden, scanning borders, checking behind the larger and leafier shrubs, peering tentatively behind the oil tank and recycling bins. Nothing.
Recalling Bruno’s form at dinner, he grimaced. He’d been frantic, rabid. Something about the sports bag had scared him. Blaise had picked up on it straight away. ‘See that,’ she said. ‘He senses something.’ In the soundtrack that was playing in his head, her pronouncement ended with a sonorous drum roll.
He smacked his forehead with the flat of his hand. Bruno sensed the bag contained something dangerous, something malevolent. Ever loyal, he did his utmost to alert them. Now he was gone. The birds were gone. Next doors cat was gone. Two of his prize fish were dead. Very soon his own wife would be gone. This thing, this profoundly transformative thing was lurking at the bottom of his pond, souring the air, unpredictable and menacing as a predatory shark!
Clutched by an impending sense of doom, Bob proceeded slowly towards the pond. As he got nearer, the fug of blocked drains got stronger. Holding his breath, he scanned its dark surface looking for evidence of toxicity, of malevolence. Nothing. Sheltered by a clump of spreading rhododendron, the pond was flatly calm and tranquil. He exhaled slowly, swinging his arms, releasing some of the tension that had built in his neck and shoulders.
Then, as the cold winds of April chased a flurry of ragged clouds across the sky something caught his eye, glinting amongst the slender reeds of horsetail. Thinking it might be a drink can, Bob edged precariously around the pond’s circumference until he was near enough to poke at it with a stick. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he managed to untangle a scrap of frayed fabric attached to a buckle. Too short to be a belt, the object appeared to be a collar of sorts.
‘Any luck, Bob?’ Rita’s voice, shrill and anxious, rang from the top of the terrace.
‘What’s that?’ he cried, swivelling around, teetering and falling heavily into the wet margins. As he went down, he registered in a detached way the bass line hit of his head on hard granite.
‘Bob, Bob, Can you hear me?’ Rita’s voice, staccato, commanding, roused him from his slumber. He loved that voice. The unwavering certainty of it.
‘Yes, mummy,’ he mumbled, attempting to roll over and pull unseen blankets over his head.
‘Bob. It’s me, Rita.’ She was whispering in his ear, rubbing her soft hand across the part of his brow that wasn’t throbbing.
Of course it was. He knew that. If only he wasn’t so sleepy he’d tell her to pack her bags. He was going to whisk her away somewhere exotic. Somewhere that didn’t smell so bad. He forced his eyes open. Right now, he couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather be than here with Rita.
‘I love you Rita,’ he mumbled.
‘I love you too, Bob.’ God, she sounded terrible.
‘More than Blaise?’ he said as Blaise’s frizzy mop of hair surfaced in the hazy swirl of his thoughts.
‘Blaise,’ she said, her hand quivering. ‘What’s she got to do with anything?’
‘You’re not going to run away with her?’ he said, thickly.
‘That’s ridiculous. Of course not.’
Ridiculous. In the present context it was the most sublimely perfect of words. Ridiculous to think that Rita loved Blaise and not him. Ridiculous to doubt her. He had been ridiculous. If he could, he would have laughed long and hard at the scale of his ridiculousness.
‘That’s good,’ he said attempting to form words with lips that were stubbornly refusing to cooperate. The sticky trickle from his forehead had picked up pace and was filling his mouth. If his mouth was a pond, his forehead was a gushing fountain. It was all so absurd, he would have laughed out loud if he hadn’t been quite so distracted by the proximity of Rita.
‘Lovely Rita, Meter Maid.’
Lovely Rita. The smell of her perfume filled his nostrils. Finger nails, she’d lacquered in the same shade of red every week for the past forty years. The depth of his knowledge about her provoked in him a tenderness that very nearly took his breath away. His Rita. Five foot nothing without her heels. She was talking fast now, cutting across the music. Telling him he’d be alright, that she’d get help, that she loved him.
Too late for all that, old girl, he thought, zoning out as John Lennon whispered in his ear.
‘Let me take you down, cos we’re going down,’
‘Do as the man says, Bob.’ Mummy was back.
‘OK,’ he mumbled, closing his eyes, allowing himself to spin around and around in a delightful candy coloured vortex.
‘Living is easy with eyes closed. Misunderstanding all you see.’
How come he never realised? It was all ridiculously easy. Closing his eyes, he relinquished himself to the heady sounds of the Beatles as the suckering of a thousand tiny tendrils wrapped around his ankles, dragging him every so gently into the tranquil waters of his beloved pond.
Marie O’Shea lives and works on the Beara Peninsula in the West of Ireland. When she’s not doing the day job, she is busy trying to be a writer. Her short stories and essays have been published in The Caterpillar Magazine, The Galway Review, Literary Mama and Backchannels (forthcoming). She is left handed.
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