Wednesday, 2 May 2018

SHORT STORY: "Residue" by Carla du Preez


Not because she had an unhappy marriage, but because there was simply nothing more to discover about their life together, she packed a small suitcase, made the bed, put bird seed in the feeder and locked the kitchen door behind her with the set of spare keys that she kept in a biscuit tin under the sink for emergencies.

He will arrive home at 17:05, take a peek in the post box next to the gate and walk through the front door whistling whatever had been playing on the radio on his way back from the office. At some point he will notice the prolonged silence throughout the house. Musing, he will hang up his jacket in the bedroom, exchange shoes for slippers and go in search of her. Along the way he will use the toilet, wash his hands and dry them on his trousers.

By that time she will have pulled in at a petrol station, getting the tank filled, the windows washed, the oil and tyres checked.

He will spot her usual set of keys on the hook next to the pantry door, take his own from his pocket and hang them next to hers, where they will swing in merry unison for an instant. Opening the fridge, he will marvel as he always does at the neatly stocked shelves: dairy products top shelf; meat and left-overs middle shelf; fruit and veg in the bottom tray; jams and condiments in the door above the milk, juice and a half bottle of red wine. Eventually he will have some of the wine, and then he will have all of it. He will briefly consider making a sandwich but will settle for a slice of cold pizza from a plastic container on the middle shelf instead, pinching the olives off the top and trashing them without a thought.

She will purchase 500ml of bottled-at-source still water in a recycled plastic bottle, some fruit and a pre-packed ham sandwich at the little shop next to the truck stop. She will zip up her teal and tan sweater and do a few stretching exercises before sliding behind the steering wheel once more.

At 21:35 he will have exhausted all the offerings on the documentary channels several times over. The empty wine glass and sooty pizza crust will remain on the coffee table till morning. By then, the wine in the glass will have evaporated, leaving a deep crimson residue that would be difficult to remove without scrubbing. Only then, with his yellow-gloved hands precariously submerged in warm soapy water, will he consider her absence in more detail.

That same morning, after a surprisingly comfortable night in Room 4 of a small motel, she will discover that she has an appetite for coffee and cigarettes – both courtesy of a cashless vending machine outside her room. During a vain moment she will consider growing her fingernails and painting them an elegant shade of apricot, to create the impression of longer, slimmer fingers. But when she is forced to pull off the road at 13:35 to change a flat tyre, she will be relieved that her nails are short and bare. The initial guilt over her fifth cigarette of the day will waft through the open car window along with a dainty smoke trail as she speeds off towards the next town and a well-deserved late lunch.

On his way to work, having done battle with the percolator and ending up with an impotent cup of instant coffee instead, he will pass the police station as he does every day, and will make a mental note to contact them from his office. Once there, faced with a heavily pregnant secretary and an overdue financial report, he will immerse himself in the busyness of his day. Hours will chase each other on the wall clock in the tea room and by 16:35 he will leave the office building where he had worked all his adult life. For the first time he will question the choices he had made over the years. He will wonder about the job interview he had missed on that rainy day when gridlocked traffic had caused havoc across the city; about the moment he had taken his eyes off the road to light a cigarette and the rain-drenched cyclist had ended up on the bonnet of his car in a flurry of frizzed hair and yellow poncho; about the guilt that had urged him to rush the woman to a hospital, take her details and pay for her treatment; and about their awkward first and subsequent dates and the life they ended up having. A companionable life - two sets of keys briefly swinging together on their hooks in the kitchen next to the pantry door.

After a pleasant lunch in the open-air smoking section of a cosy restaurant, she will inadvertently catch the eye of a younger man. He will pass her table, lean in to light her cigarette, and stay to share the bottle of chilled white wine she had ordered with her meal. Underneath the table, shielded by the starched tablecloth and her intense interest in his tenure at the nearby university, she will wriggle out of her wedding ring, rubbing the impression on her ring finger and dropping the gold band inside her shoe to circumvent an uncomfortable explanation.

At 17:05 he will again walk into his house, now expecting the silence and the absence of her. He will whistle a tune, hang up his jacket, use the bathroom, and check the contents of the fridge. Pulling the rubbish bin across the kitchen floor, he will do away with mouldy cheese, wilted lettuce, expired milk, stale bread and two empty jam jars. He will make a shopping list, grouping items according to their categories. Then he will sit down to scrambled eggs and tea, in time for the evening news. Tragedies will play out on the screen, triumphs will be celebrated, opinions argued and missing persons found.

Walking back to her car, she will admit that it is far too late to travel further. She will feel her wedding ring sliding down inside her shoe towards her toes, causing her to limp ever so slightly but with dignity. The younger man will patiently watch her from his idling car, noticing the subtle disturbance in her gait, leisurely wondering what her naked feet would look like. He will watch as her car appears in his rear-view mirror, ready to follow him out of the parking lot and into the quiet street.

© Carla du Preez August 2017