Marjorie rolled over, groped instinctively for the warm body beside her – and recoiled as if stung from its absence.
She forced her eyes open to stare at the clock, waited for the figures to focus: they read 03:52. As she slithered from beneath the quilt, Marjorie wondered distantly how anyone could stay sane on so little sleep.
Peter had always slept badly. He had turned and turned, and most nights he’d woken her. Then she’d snapped, called him selfish and worse, and he’d slipped out of bed and disappeared downstairs. She’d never thought to ask what he did in those hours of banishment.
At the memory, something caught in her throat. She ran a sleeve across her eyes, and held her breath.
The something retreated.
In the kitchen, she began to prepare Horlicks. Then, remembering she wouldn’t be capable of sleep again for hours, she emptied the mulch into the sink and fished for the coffee instead.
When sitting made her cramped, she took to pacing instead, navigating the kitchen like a swimmer making laps. On her third turn she strayed too close to the patio doors and the outside light strobed on. It stung her aching eyes, but did nothing to illuminate the garden, served only to force it into deeper blackness. She turned the key in the door and slid it open.
Outside, bathed in astringent light, she felt exposed in her thin dressing gown – as though she were being watched, condemned. But the eyes of neighbouring windows were curtained, and there was no one to see.
There was no one to see but them.
She hissed between her teeth, remembering the whispers that had woken her. She hadn’t dared to come out here, not since that day – hadn’t dared to face them, or him. She hadn’t meant to be here now. Yet she could hear the slap of her soles on the damp flagstone path. There was no avoiding it, it seemed.
Still, when she drew near the pond she stopped short and hugged the mug to her breast, seeking comfort in its warmth. The surface of the water was still and black. Did fish sleep? Were they lurking blank-eyed beneath the surface, dreaming of other, greater waters?
She hadn’t seen his body, not properly; just an outline, face down. She remembered screaming. Perhaps she’d cried his name. Inside, she couldn’t find the phone, though it was in its cradle where it always was. She didn’t remember calling the police, or opening the door, or leading them to the garden.
Her memories picked up with them all sat on plastic patio chairs. There was a blanket round her shoulders, and she was pretending to drink tea that had materialised from somewhere. One of them was asking her questions. Did he drink? Was he taking any medication? Why would he have been outside so late at night? Marjorie didn’t know. Only then had she realised how much of Peter’s life had been a mystery to her.
The days after were a blur. Friends visited, tried futilely to hold lopsided conversations. Then there had been a call that wasn’t a well-wisher, something she couldn’t ignore. Minutes later, she was sat again with the young policewoman, trying to listen to terrible, impossible statements:
“Almost a bottle of whisky,” … “Think he tripped, banged his head,” … “Not treating it as suspicious or intentional.”
“As a suicide.”
There was a bench beside the pond. Peter had made it over the course of a week’s leave. It creaked dangerously as Marjorie lowered herself onto it.
From the other side of the pond, eight eyes stared blankly back. She assumed they were supposed to look charming, in their flamboyant coats and off-kilter hats. The one on the left carried a fishing rod that drooped towards the ebony water. His partner was driving a shovel towards the ground. Another was waving, and the fourth rested his chin on his fist as though deep in thought.
Peter had tried to tell her their names once, and she’d reminded him how ridiculous it was, no better than playing with dolls. This garden had been his escape from her – even before his final escape, his pitiful drunken exit from her life.
“It was you,” she addressed them. “You took him away.”
Day by day, he’d drifted out here, away from her and into endless projects. There was always a wall to construct, a flowerbed to arrange. As the garden had become more his, so she’d dared less and less to follow him.
Wasn’t that why she’d been cruel? If she had been, that was why. For love. For what could have been. She’d always known there was some perfect isolation that would plaster over every fracture. When he’d stopped seeing the last of his friends, she’d thought that would be it.
The garden had been a wilderness then. She’d never imagined it could be an escape route.
“He was supposed to be mine and you took him away.”
Marjorie stood, walked round the edge of the pond. She picked up the first gnome, the one with the fishing rod, and held it up. Its eyes were crude black circles, its mouth a ragged line. She hurled it onto the slime-edged stones and watched with satisfaction as it shattered messily.
The second one she threw with all her strength towards the patio. She didn’t see its demise, but heard it explode against the flagstones.
The third she used as a club to assault the fourth, and when its head came off and span away into the grass, tossed into the pond and kicked its companion after.
Then she walked back round to retrieve her coffee, and was pleased to find it still warm. She took a last sip, poured the remainder into the pond.
It would only keep her awake. And she didn’t think she’d have any more trouble sleeping.
WRITTEN BY DAVID TALLERMAN
ILLUSTRATED BY SIMON MARSHALL-JONES
David Tallerman is the author of around a hundred short stories, as well as comic scripts and poems, countless reviews and articles and at least two novels.
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