“Of course I can’t tell him until we’ve signed the contract. Once we’ve officially committed to buying the big house I can push for a better divorce settlement.”
“Poor deluded idiot.” I heard my best friend, Colin, laughing at me from my own bedroom as I stood on the stairs out of sight. “Anyone else would have suspected, but not Michael. I tell you I’ll be glad when I don’t have to see him anymore, when he finds out about us. Too much lying is a big strain, I don’t know if I can keep it up.”
“You’re able to keep up something else all right though, aren’t you?” My wife laughed, twisting a dagger in my heart.
I turned and quickly went downstairs and out of the house to my van – relieved I’d not parked in our front drive and disturbed them. I got in and drove away.
It was early evening in cold wintertime and pitch dark. Fog was rolling in as I cruised along the road, wondering what the hell I was going to do now. Strange to think that as a mobile mechanic for ABC Car Breakdowns, I spent my days helping stranded motorists out of scrapes, yet now my own life was in irrevocable turmoil, where was some knight in armour who’d come to rescue me?
I was alone. Utterly and completely alone.
Poor deluded idiot, my ex-friend had called me. And I guess he was right. . .
After hearing the contempt in Wendy’s voice, I now knew that there was no way back for my marriage, nor did I want one. We had no children, and the affection I thought we shared was all an illusion, and maybe I had always been on my own. And I thought about my best mate Colin, the bloke I spent hours with, chatting about cars, football and his girlfriends, when all the time he was having it away with Wendy and laughing at me for being a cuckolded pillock. A pillock who for once wasn’t working overtime until 10pm, because I’d just been told I’d be out of a job in another month, and my boss felt sorry for me, telling me to “Have a break, mate, go out somewhere nice with your wife and try to take your mind off things.”
The fog was much thicker now, and I drove on in a daze, wondering what to do and where to go. Maybe I should drive to a distant part of the country and stay in a hotel on my own? Get drunk? Go to a cinema and stay all night? Walk along by the river and contemplate jumping in?
It was as I was on the main road, literally crawling along because of the bad visibility, that I noticed the dim flashing of a car’s hazard lights in the distance. As I got closer, I saw it was a car parked in a layby. I pulled in behind, deciding that if someone was inside, they might come to grief in this freezing cold.
When I walked up to the small vehicle I could see there was just one occupant, seemingly an elderly lady, with her face in her hands, leaning across the steering wheel.
I tapped on the window. There was a delay, then she lifted her head, flashed me a look of confusion, then lowered the glass.
“Are you in trouble?” I asked her.
“The engine just cut out,” she replied. “I don’t know why.”
“Let me see if I can help.”
“Honestly, really, there’s no need.” She turned to look behind at my van. “I’m not with your organisation, anyway.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I told her. Strictly speaking if we help out a motorist who’s not a member we’re supposed to ask them to join on the spot, for an exorbitant cost. But I was off duty, she was an old lady in trouble and I didn’t really give a flying fuck about anything anymore. “Open the bonnet. Please, let me help.” I shook my head to try and clear it. “You’ll be doing me a favour taking my mind of my troubles and giving me something to do.”
The problem didn’t take long to fix, and soon her engine was running fine, but there was a problem.
“It’s an electrical component, and they’re pretty fickle, so you really need to have it properly checked over at a garage. It could conk out again at any moment.”
“But don’t worry. Look, ma’am, you lead the way, I’ll follow you home and if you break down again I can do another temporary fix.”
She stared ahead. “You’re being very kind to me, I do appreciate it. I’m sorry, but you see I don’t really care about anything right now, I can’t think straight. My husband died an hour ago in hospital, and I haven’t taken it in yet. I guess I’m kind of stunned.”
“I really am so sorry.” I meant it. The look of hopeless misery in her eyes was breaking my heart. I bent down on my haunches to talk to her. “But it’s freezing cold and the fog is getting worse. Can I phone anyone for you?”
She shook her head. “There’s no one now. My daughters are abroad. I don’t feel like listing to sympathetic friends yabbering away, I just want to be alone. And I don’t really care what happens to me right now. Hypothermia seems like a pretty nice option.”
“No, no, you can’t go thinking like that,” I told her forcefully. “Look. I just found out that I lost my job, and my wife’s been having an affair with my best friend, so my world’s been shattered too, just not as badly as yours has been. I reckon we’re both at our wits’ end, but decisions like life and death, well they’re not for us to make, are they? We’ve got to keep on, keeping on. Honestly, it’s the only way. We’ve both got to somehow get through tonight, and tomorrow is another day.”
She agreed and I followed her to her house on the outskirts of town. She drew up and parked on the drive, and when I went to her window to say goodbye, she held onto my arm.
“Please, would you come in and have a drink with me?” she asked. “I thought I wanted to be on my own before, but you’ve been so nice to me, I really would like to talk to you for a bit if you don’t mind.”
In her living room, she left me alone while she made us coffee, and I looked at the photo on the mantelpiece. A wedding photo, and even though she was thirty years younger, the lady was instantly recognisable, next to a tall handsome groom.
When she came back in she saw me looking at it.
“Kenneth was always the handsome one, I was plain Jane,” she explained, smiling as she sat on the sofa, and inviting me to sit on the armchair opposite. “People always said I was lucky to get him. Kenneth and Ginger, we were like a golden couple, everyone said, compatible in every way. It’s stupid, but I keep hoping to get some sign from him, some message from the afterlife if there is such a thing, but of course nothing’s happened, and nothing will. He’s just …. Gone. I’d give anything in the world to just get a sign that wherever he is, he’s thinking of me.”
And then, stupidly, before I’d even stopped to think, what did I do? I only opened my mouth and started lying: “Listen. Just before I saw your car, I was going really really slowly, cos of the fog,” I rambled on. “And this older man was standing in front of the van, gesturing for me to follow him. His face wasn’t very clear, but I think it was . . .”
“You don’t mean?”
I nodded, pointing to the wedding photo. “Now I’ve seen his photo, I’m pretty sure of it. You often do hear of recently deceased people making contact with loved ones, don’t you? Especially if they’re in trouble and need help.”
“You really saw him?”
I nodded. “Tell me all about Kenneth. I reckon I’d have liked him.”
“Yes, I rather think you would have done, and he’d have liked you, you had a lot in common – Kenneth loved tinkering about with cars.” While she told me how they had met, and went on to chat about their life together, our cups of coffee went cold, and she suggested we should open a bottle of Kenneth’s favourite old malt whisky.
“Please, Michael I’m sorry, I’ve been going on and on, when you’ve got your own troubles. Tell me about your wife…” she asked tentatively.
It was my turn to let her into my secrets, and my fears for the future, of ending up lonely and living on benefits in a bedsitting room. And she listened. More importantly, she cared.
“Could I stay the night?” I said at last.
She looked momentarily alarmed.
“What I mean is, do you have a spare bedroom I could use for tonight,” I explained quickly. “I obviously can’t drive if I have another drink. And quite frankly I reckon the best thing for both of us is to have something to eat, then to get blind drunk, so we can’t go on thinking.” I stood and picked up the wedding photo on the mantelpiece and put it on the coffee table between us. “Cos thinking is the last thing we need to do right now. After all you’ve told me about your Kenneth, I really wish I’d known him. And in a strange way I feel as if I’ve met him tonight. As if he’s sitting here, with us, right now.”
“Do you really feel that?”
“Don’t you?” I looked around, then stared back at the smiling young wedding-face of Kenneth. “The way I see it is this. When someone dies, or you have some other huge crisis in your life, there are all these practical things you have to do, and I reckon that’s a good thing, cos it takes your mind off your grief. But neither of us can do anything practical now, so we’ll just be thinking and thinking in circles all night, and sleep just won’t come. And getting drunk together and you talking about Kenneth and me moaning about Wendy seems like a plan.”
“Seems like an excellent plan to me, Michael.”
Much later, after we’d eaten a couple of ready meals, and polished off the rest of the bottle, Ginger, as she’d told me to call her, had fallen asleep with a smile on her face. I went upstairs and found the main bedroom, and returned with a blanket, tucking it up around her. I moved the wedding photo on the table nearer to her face, so that it would be the first thing she saw when she woke up.
Then I found another bedroom upstairs which had a single bed, took my shoes off and got beneath the sheets and closed my eyes, thinking what a funny old world, as the alcohol soothed me into unconsciousness.
In the night I woke up with a jolt, sitting up in bed, wondering where I was, thinking I was at home. Then I remembered that my life was completely fucked and that my home wouldn’t be my home for much longer. I wondered if I had been right to invent Kenneth’s ghost, misleading Ginger as I had done. But if it gave her some comfort, where was the harm? Who said a lie was always such a bad thing? What was that old saying ‘a white lie’? A little white lie.
Which was when I felt a firm pressure on my shoulder, as if a hand was squeezing hard, a friendly affectionate squeeze. A masculine squeeze, like your mate saying ‘Well done you.’
I looked around, but there was no one there.
(image courtesy of FotoRieth from Pixabay)