Arse(d) Ends: a collection of short reads
Considering there are so few of these words, their meanings crop up in people's lives with alarming regularity . . .(Mick Alec Idlelife)
Six stories with edge. Dark humour with a twist.
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Best Book Bit:
MY TURN TO SPEAK
(an excerpt from ENHEARSE)
from the website lexic.us
Referring to the opportunity or privilege of being heard: audience
My turn to speak is coming up. Nerves pummel my stomach and my mouth feels dry.
I know they’ll be kind. They will empathise with my situation. They’ll give their support. I can imagine their gentle eyes, their crooked little smiles, heads tilted in sympathy or nodding in agreement. They’ll encourage me. At first.
Joyce invites me to stand. I fix my gaze on the wall clock at the back of the room so I don’t have to make direct eye contact.
‘I don’t know where to begin,’ I say to the group.
Joyce uncrosses her legs and lays her arms across the clipboard on her lap.
‘Tell us why you’re here,’ she suggests.
My ears feel hot. I hope the redness doesn’t spread to my face. I take a deep breath. Stare at the clock.
‘I’m not assertive enough,’ I say.
Joyce leans towards me.
‘Good,’ she says. ‘Now turn that thought into a positive statement.’
I know what she means but my head is empty. I can’t think of the words. I remember what some of the others have said before me.
‘I want to be more assertive.’
Applause goes around the semicircle of women. My eyes slip from the clock and I catch sight of the heads and smiles, just as I had imagined. I’ve started now; I may as well continue.
‘I can’t stand it any more,’ I tell them.
They wait. They smile some more.
‘But, I don’t know how to stop it.’
A bell rings in the corridor outside the school classroom we use for our afternoon sessions. We can hear chairs scraping the floor, doors slamming. A swarm of navy blue uniforms buzzes past our window. Heels clack on hard floors. Voices rise through the octaves as the corridor fills.
‘Thank you, Helen,’ Joyce says to me. ‘Will you begin for us next time?’
I have to go home now and I don’t want to. I put up my umbrella against February sleet and hurry across the school forecourt, hoping none of the others will want to stop and talk. I’d like to linger but I really have to go home now and face what’s waiting.
John hovers while I’m cooking dinner. He always does. He looks over my shoulder to check on what I’m making.
‘Ah, chilli,’ he says. ‘One of my favourites.’
He doesn’t move away. He inspects what I’m doing and looks at his watch. I know what he’s going to say next and it makes me grit my teeth.
‘What time will it be ready?’ he asks.
He always asks. Every day. It’s one of his habits. As soon as he comes home, it’s the first thing he does. Comes to the kitchen to supervise and ask what time dinner will be ready.
‘In about an hour,’ I tell him.
He looks at his watch again.
‘That’s six minutes later than usual,’ he says.
‘I know, John. I’ve been out this afternoon.’
I want to shout at him. I want to say I’ve every right to go out on my day off work.
‘I went to meet some friends,’ I say instead.
‘You’ve put only one teaspoon of chilli paste in, Helen. You usually put two.’
I want to tell him to go away and leave me alone. No, that’s not true. I want to tell him to piss off and leave me alone.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
Fifty five minutes later he begins his getting- ready- for- dinner routine. He checks through glasses in the wall cupboard, selecting carefully. He fills his glass with water and places it, equally carefully beside his placemat. He casts his eye over the hob and looks at his watch.
‘Three minutes,’ he tells me while he paces up and down.
I want to scream. I want to ram his three minutes down his throat.
He hunches over the table. He sits sideways on his chair and leans over his plate with his weight on his left arm so that his chin is nearly in his food. With the fork in his right hand he shovels it in. He makes dreadful noises when he’s eating. Gulping for air, like he’s drowning. Stuffing his mouth so full his cheeks bulge. Swallowing with a whimper. I can’t look. He’s up and helping himself to seconds before I’ve finished half of mine. I’m relieved when he goes to switch on television.
I’m not interested in his choice of programmes and I can feel myself growing angry again as he flicks through the channels. He sits directly in front of the screen, pointing with the remote. Flick, click. He watches something for two minutes. Points again. Flick, click. Two minutes more. Flick, fucking click.
I go to bed early with my book.
Over the weekend he reminds me what my domestic duties are. He goes through the cupboards and tells me what we’re running out of. Says the tomato passata I bought in the discount store doesn’t taste as good as the usual brand. He explains the route I should drive to get to the supermarket and goes into detail about traffic lights and speed cameras. Offers to draw me a diagram.
‘I don’t need a diagram,’ John,’ I tell him. ‘I’ve been there hundreds of times. Why are you telling me how to get to the supermarket?’
‘Because I know a better way,’ he says.
He stands behind me as I’m loading the washing machine. I can feel his stare. I turn around.
‘What?’ I ask him.
‘Which programme are you using, Helen? Do you make use of the thirty minute cycle and low temperature?’
I just nod.
‘Keep a look out when they’re on the line, Helen. The forecast says says rain this afternoon.’
I force a smile. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I heard it on the radio.’
He hovers over Sunday lunch preparation. Watches me grating rind for lemon meringue. He presses the timer on the oven to see how many minutes the pastry case still needs.
‘It has to come out of the oven in eleven minutes, Helen. If it takes a further fifteen for the baking beans to cool down, that means you’ve got twenty six minutes to make the lemon filling and whip up the egg whites. Then you can remove the beans and fill the pastry case. Are you running late, Helen? Have you made Yorkshire puddings? The batter needs to stand.’
‘I know the batter needs to stand, John. It was me who told you the batter needs to stand.’
‘I saw green beans in the fridge, Helen. And sweet potatoes. They’ll be good with roast lamb. I’d like some Crème Fraîche with my lemon meringue. Did you remember to buy Crème Fraîche, Helen? I didn’t see that in the fridge.’
He looks at his watch.
‘Twenty five minutes now,’ he says.
Shrieking obscenities fill my thoughts. For fuck’s sake, shut the fuck up.
‘John,’ I say with another forced smile. ‘Would you take these out to the dustbin, please?’
He takes the rubbish and through the kitchen window I watch him walking down the garden path to the compost heap. Sometimes he prances like a pony when he walks. When he’s pleased with himself, he lifts up onto his toes and does a funny walk. I can see he’s pleased with himself. I know there’s going to be a lecture on sorting rubbish into recyclables and compost material when he comes back.
Later, he sits sideways at the table and gulps. He gulps louder over the lemon meringue.
Thursday comes around again and I go to my second meeting. Watery sunlight glistens on wet school walls. In the small classroom the tables have been pushed to one side; chairs arranged in a semicircle. I’m the last one to arrive. The room is warm but I’m shivering. I haven’t slept well. John has complained this morning about the smell of my perfume and my nerves are shot.
The women are in their usual places. I recognise a few faces. Besides Joyce, the group leader, I can remember only two names: Pauline and Christina. I smile at them. They are all smiling and waiting for me. I fix my eyes on the clock. Joyce begins.
‘Helen, are you ready?’
I was ready last week. It’s hard to begin again. I’m not sure how much I’m going to tell them. I’m worried it will come out all wrong, but I might as well get it over with.
I tell them about my weekend: John’s pacing about and timing the cooking; the way he eats; the supermarket route diagram he pinned on the kitchen pegboard showing positions of speed bumps, traffic lights and cameras; his hyper vigilance around the house. Watching me. Checking on me. Reminding me.
One by one, they gasp.
‘You’ve tried talking to your husband about the things that annoy you?’ Joyce says.
‘So many times. Years’ worth. It makes no difference. I’m wasting my breath.’
One of the women speaks up.
‘Stay positive, Helen,’ she tells me. ‘Don’t give up.’
Christina shakes her head and contradicts.
‘I’d say she’s had enough. How is being more assertive going to help?’
Now that I’ve started, I feel less nervous. Less worried. I take the floor.
‘I thought that being more assertive would help me get the message across. I thought perhaps I wasn’t saying it properly, that there was a better way, better words.’
More voices join.
‘But, he’s such a control freak, isn’t he? How long has this been going on?’ one asks me.
‘Jesus, I’d have killed him by now.’
‘Me, too,’ another agrees.
I know now that it’s all going to come out. I’m surprised to feel reasonably calm. I listen to them debating, arguing about the right way to deal with him. And so I reach the moment when I tell them. They’re not going to like what I say next. This is the point where their expressions will change; encouraging smiles will fade. They’ll view the whole thing very differently. And they will judge me.
‘John isn’t my husband,’ I say. ‘John is my husband’s child. He’s twelve.’
I watch them. Just as I expected, their faces fall. Mouths gape, wide yet silent. They look at each other and back at me.
‘I needed someone to talk to. Someone to tell,’ I say.
The silence persists. Joyce steps in.