A short story about a marriage that was doomed to fail
The alarm clock blasts One Direction into my subconsciousness and I slowly come round from my night time stupor. I reach across the empty space in my bed to hug Greg but he’s not there. I knew he wouldn't be. I don’t know why I always let myself hope.
It hurts to be awake today. I force my legs to swing over the edge of the bed. My head is full of sledge hammers and my eyeballs have cracked and split lengthways. Coffee. Strong and black, that’s what I need.
I go straight to the kitchen and flick the switch on the coffee maker. The hum of the machine rattles in my brain. I feel nauseous as my body starts to sway. I steady myself on the nearest chair, then sit on it. It scrapes noisily on the lino and my teeth feel on edge. It’s not long before my thoughts return to my absent husband. How could he do this to me again? He promised me he'd changed. Empty promises, I guess we’ve both said our fair share of those. We always mean them at the time.
I grab a large mug and pour the thick, bitter liquid energy and survey the bombsight of my kitchen. Immediately, my eyes fall on the almost empty bottle of gin. Mother’s Ruin, they call it. My ruin, Greg calls it. But it’s my best friend, I don’t have anyone else. I gave them up when we moved 200 miles from home for our fresh start. Greg promised to stay faithful and I promised to stay sober. I’m sure we really did mean it at the time.
As I sit at the table, warming my hands on the coffee cup, I lift the gin bottle and I’m shocked to see there’s only about a quarter inch left at the bottom. Surely I didn’t drink it all. Did I? I can’t remember and it hurts too much to try.
Then I hear the front door open. Very slowly, quietly, carefully. He’s trying not to wake me. He thinks I don’t know he’s spending nearly every night with her. Probably in the same way that I think he doesn’t know I cry into a bottle of gin every night when he’s gone. Fools fooling themselves.
I quickly hide the gin bottle and take my coffee out to the hall to meet him. He’s well prepared, I see. “Lauren, you’re up early. I just popped out to get milk,” and he brandishes the carton at me. I am almost flattered he is still trying to cover up his infidelity.
I feel too ill to play along today, though, so I say, “You’ve been out all night. I’m not stupid, I did notice you weren't in our bed.” I walk into the living room and take a seat. Before I even know I’m doing it, I start the argument. “So who is she then? The same one as last time?” I steel myself for the usual lies and accusations of paranoia. I just want to get this over with so we can go back to pretending our marriage is okay.
But he doesn’t answer me straight away. He stands in the centre of the living room and, for the first time in our eighteen years together, I see something like shame on his face. “Lauren, we need to talk. We can’t keep up this pretence.”
He can’t look me in the eye. I know this conversation is heading somewhere I don't want to go. I have to say something, anything, to change its course. Only, I can’t say anything because my stupid head is throbbing so badly I can hardly see.
Before I can speak, Greg continues, “I was with the same woman as before. Her office has moved to Malmesbury. I love her, Lauren. I’m sorry.”
“And you don’t love me,” I whisper, more a statement of fact than a question. The nausea hits me again like a freight train. Fast and fatal. He loves her. He doesn’t love me. But I love him. I need him. He can’t love her. I have to do something. “No, Greg, I have something to tell you, actually. It’s hard for me to say, but it’s important. I have to tell you, so just let me, okay?” He agrees, he owes me that much, he figures. I take the deepest breath I can and say, “You know I went to the doctor’s yesterday? Well, it was to get some test results.” Even as I’m saying it, I can’t quite believe I’ve sunk this low. I hate myself. I need gin.
“So you’re ill, then? What is it, your liver? Has it finally drowned in all that gin you pour down your throat? Or you kidneys? Have they gone on strike through overuse, with all the alcohol passing through your bloodstream?” He waits and his anger destroys me. A little concern would have been nice. I jump when he shouts, “Come on! Tell me what’s wrong.”
His voice is filled with hatred and it hurts because I love him so much. I don't know if I can really do this, but it is my only hope. “I’ve got six months to live!” My voice sounds small and I’m not sure I actually said it. But I force myself to continue. I want to hurt him, I want to make him suffer the way I do. I look up from the sofa and see a different man to the one who told me he loves another. He is speechless, his face frozen in confusion and fear. “Not long is it, Greg, six months? Might even end up being less. So, please, don’t worry about filing for divorce. I’ll be gone soon enough and you can move her into this house and you can live happily ever after. This must be a gift for you, Greg.” He winces in pain at my last sentence and I have to look away. I am a terrible, selfish, waste of space. I deserve my lie to become truth.
Then Greg sits next to me on the sofa. He is a man who has had his spirit sucked out of him. I want to hold him and comfort him, then I remember the cause of his pain. It all seems unreal, as though I am watching a recording of us that has been slowed right down. I am not a part of this, it is an imposter playing me. But why would anyone want to play me? It doesn’t make sense. Greg pulls me out of my head by saying, “What is it, Lauren? What do you have?”
“Cancer,” I reply. The first word that comes to me. I realise he wants more of an explanation, so I add, “Pancreatic. They can’t operate and chemo would only give me a couple more months. So I’m not having any.”
“No. There must be something they can do. This is 2015, for Christ’s sake! Come on, get dressed. I’m taking you to the doctor’s.”
I stand but the floor is falling away from me. I am being pulled into a vortex and I lose my footing. I fall onto my arm and exclaim in pain. “Oh my God, Lauren! Are you okay? Where does it hurt?”
I smile inwardly, it’s years since he’s shown me this much care. “It’s fine, Honey. I just landed on my arm but it doesn’t hurt now.” I let him help me up and lead me to the bedroom to get dressed. It is only as I sit on the bed that I realise what Greg said. Shit. I can’t go to the doctor’s. Then I hear him downstairs on the phone, arranging the appointment, insisting it’s an emergency. Oh, this bad. This is so, so bad. I dress quickly and rush to try to stop him.
“Bloody doctor’s receptionists,” he growls as he turns to face me. “They think they own the surgery. Screwing with people’s lives. They don’t care about the patients, they don’t even pretend to care.”
I insist there is no need to see a doctor. I take his hand and lead to him into the kitchen. I pour him some coffee and sit opposite him. For the first time in years, I look my husband in the eye. I search for a sign that he is acting from a place of love, not guilt. But I can’t find one. I wonder where I am going with this. It won’t be long before he discovers my lie. It’s a big one, I know, but when I consider the hundreds of times he has lied to me in the past, they add up to way more than this. Don’t they?
I retrieve the almost empty gin bottle and pour the dregs into my coffee cup. “Laur - “ Greg starts to say but stops himself. I think he figures it can’t make things any worse. I try to control my breathing as I open my mouth to confess my sin. He stops me, though, and says, “Look. I’m sorry, Lauren. About what I said earlier. I won’t see her anymore. I promise. I will be here for you. You are my priority. Maybe if I’d realised that sooner, you wouldn’t be ill now. I’m so sorry, Babe. Can you forgive me?”
It is as though I am now believing my lie and I kiss his forehead and say, “Of course I can, Greg. I love you so much. This means the world to me.” We hold each other for at least ten minutes and I savour every second. Greg is warm and he feels safe. Maybe we can make this work.
It is not long before he leaves the house. He tells me he has things to sort out and I know he is going to see her. I imagine her face when he breaks it off. I know what she looks like, I saw her picture on his phone once. She has hair the colour of rust, that is wiry and out of control, dull grey eyes and a nose that takes over her face. I remember being outraged that I was less attractive to him than that.
I begin tidying the kitchen but my hands are shaking and I can’t concentrate. I am undulating between self hatred and elation. I am all over the place. I need a drink. I go to the tumble dryer and locate one of my precious bottles. I pour a small glass and drink it in one. I pour another and do the same. After a few more ( half a bottle more, to be precise) I hear my mobile ringing from upstairs. It is my mother. I answer and her first question is how my marriage is faring and have I left the bastard yet. Without thinking, I tell her all about my lie. I enthuse over the efficacy of my plan. I even laugh at how dumb my husband is.
Then I hear the floorboard creak. I turn to face Greg standing in the doorway, open mouthed. He doesn’t say a word, just turns around and heads for the front door. I drop my phone and run after him, shouting I am sorry, I was desperate, he drove me to it! At this last accusation, he stops dead. He rounds on me, getting so close I can taste the salty scent of anger on his lips, and he says, “Right. Because nothing’s ever your fault, is it, Lauren? I drove you to drink. Your mother drove you to me. You’re pathetic, I never want to see you again.”
I stand sobbing, watching Greg leave me. He crosses the road to go to his car. Then it happens. Quickly, surreally, definitely. He is lying in the road, mangled, not moving. The nurse from next door rushes to him but it’s too late. He’s too broken. I broke him. I turn and go back inside to resume pouring from my bottle.