David North

He Makes the Bed

David North

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                                                                  FRIDAY NIGHT                   

HE entered the child’s bedroom through the door with the broken latch he had never fixed and wasn’t likely to. He pounded the two pillows into a more puffed-up shape, then ran the palms of his hands across the surface of the bedsheet, ironing out any creases. Lastly, he unrolled the duvet over the entire bed and folded back the top corner. Neat. He paused to inspect his work. Star Wars bedsheets. Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia. Darth Vader towered over them from a poster on the wall, lightsaber raised. Dark and Light. Good and Evil. Matching Star Wars pyjamas, neatly pressed, at the bottom of the bed. Jurassic World, Thomas the Tank Engine, Tractor Ted. All the phases of the boy’s life were here, stuffed into each corner of the room. A desk covered in coloured pencils and sheets of paper, some with elaborate drawings, some blank. Lego. Lego everywhere.

     In the main bedroom he performed the same ritual with the marriage bed. Pillows, sheet, duvet. A cloudburst in his centre. Fight or flight. Flight to the bathroom. Irritation. An ache in the kidneys. Back in the bedroom he laid out her nightdress. It was May, so she would like something light and floral in anticipation of warm, open-window nights. Her cologne was on it, flooding his nostrils and stinging his eyes. A death-grip in his throat, like a half-swallowed dumpling. He sat on her side of the bed and looked out the window. Fields, trees, sky. Feet, body, head. Daddy, what’s wrong? Don’t turn. Don’t look.

     Trinkets. Trinkets on every shelf, every chest of drawers, every mantelpiece. Dust-gathering, purposeless, mandatory, merciless. Demented gifts from the mothers. Among the glittering nonsense, glimpses of a once was family. Tee-shirts and sunglasses. Raincoats and scarves. First day at school. 

     He stood up and went to make tea.


                                                                           *


     In his dream the beach is winter empty. The sand powder fine and glitter golden. The sea grey green and unimpressed. The three of them walk together yet separate. The boy runs ahead then behind then across in increasing and decreasing circles that remind him of leaving home for the first time, then returning home three months later, then leaving again a year later and returning home again and so it went, getting further away for longer intervals until he finally married and became independent of, yet exactly like, his parents. She takes his hand and says nothing. He hated that nothing.


                                                                            *

                         

     The tea instantly furred his tongue. Haste. Pain. Herbal tea. What flavour was that? Chamomile and manuka? Must be one of hers. Another sip, more burning, down the sink. He opened the fridge. That damned bottle of Rosé, lying on its side, dying slowly like the wedding ring in his bedside cabinet. He shut the fridge and sat down, elbows on table, palms pressed against eyes, fingers in hair, bowels in motion. Did he eat? In the sink a plate and two pots, so there’s a clue. What though? Something was happening. A rhythmic rapping on wood and a muffled male voice. Stiff springs complained as the letter box was forced open and he heard his name being called. Was he there? Was he alright? They were going down the pub. Squeak clunk. Silence. It’s nice to have friends.

                                  He went to bed.


                                                                            *


                                                              SATURDAY MORNING

     The hasty sun blasted a blinding square of light around the curtains. He pulled a pillow over his head and swore for the hundredth time to get a blackout blind. Eyes shut, vivid imagery, psychedelic nonsense. Eyes open, brilliant white light. Eyes shut, the beach, empty, vast, pregnant. Three sets of footprints in the sand. The dog woke him up. The dog was dead. Peace, quiet, Quaker silence. That fucking pigeon cooing outside his window every morning. A fantasy of shotgun blast and feathers falling. Not the blackbird though. He liked the blackbird. He folded back the duvet and puffed the pillows and hung her nightdress on its hanger. He went in the boy’s room and folded back the Star Wars duvet and put the Star Wars pyjamas in their drawer. 

     Walk. Surf? Breakfast. Breakfast later, surf first. Bring the dog. The dog is dead. He downed a pint of water and wrestled into his wetsuit, then quickly pulled the thing off again, and ran naked to the bathroom to empty his bladder. How often had he done that? On with the wetsuit again and a mouthful of stale chocolate biscuits to worry the gut. He put on his runners and slung his bodyboard over his shoulder with one hand and carried his swim-fins in the other. Before leaving he paused to look at the dog’s lead hanging on the coat-hook. Even after the dog died, he would put the lead in his pocket every time they went for a walk, until she told him to stop it. He reached for it. Stop it, she said. Okay, he said.

     Fifteen minutes later he was waist deep in the Atlantic, forcing his legs against the undertow. A wave punched him in the chest and filled his wetsuit with frigid water. Ice cream headache. Deep enough to swim now, he climbed onto the board and began kicking furiously, working the swim-fins underwater so they created maximum thrust and drove him through the oncoming surf. Each slap in the face a cold hard baptism. They were still in his head, but right now they had to take a back seat while he focused on his immediate situation. He managed to dive beneath the next wall of water and pop up the other side. Then it was calm, like God had run his palms across the ocean to smooth out any ripples. Like when he made the little Star Wars bed. He had time to rest now. Smelling ozone. Cheeks and eyes burning. He lay his face on the board and looked sideways across the water, rocking gently. He could lie there and rock to sleep. Simply slip away. Schlip. Schlop. Plop. Gone. Four amphibious types sat on their surfboards a couple hundred yards away. Two men, two women, scanning the horizon. Five people out. Not bad for a May morning.


                                                                           *


     Back home he peeled off his wetsuit under the delicious fall of a hot shower. A second baptism to further wash away all worry, regret, and sin. The hollow in his chest was replaced by a more urgent one in his stomach and it felt good to want to eat, rather than having to force himself. The ocean had worked him over more than once that morning. A particularly fast ride trapped him inside a barrelling shore-break and spat him out onto the beach, ears, nostrils, eyes, wetsuit filled with sand. He had to stagger back into the ocean half blind to rinse it all out. The damned stuff was even in his privates. Last night’s dirty dishes were still in the sink, so he indulged in a simple toast and peanut butter gourmet, refilling the toaster with fresh bread each time it popped and topping-up the teapot. Finally, the discomfort of a stomach bloated with protein, carbs and strong black tea made him stop.

     Distended gut, distended mind. Heartburn, or emotional trauma? Wake up, a voice said, which was his own. Get up. Do something. Take the ghost dog for a walk. Anything. Fucking weekends – too much time, man. A sharp knotting of the bowel prompted a swift toilet visit, pants around ankles, head in hands. What the hell now? How many hours until dark? He washed his hands, brushed his teeth, grabbed the dog’s lead, and walked out the door.

     He rode his bike into the village, knees creaking, St. Mark’s flies hanging in the air, past the whitewashed milestone, the crippled hawthorn, the lanes that he and the boy would walk as part of their Saturday morning ritual to get pasties for lunch. First with the buggy, then the tricycle with the handle. Finally on his own two feet, the boy running walking running to keep up, calling out the names of tractors as they roared past and complaining about the sour silage.

     He braked hard and slid off the saddle and landed on the crossbar. Stopped at the top of the main thoroughfare, he looked down into the heart of the village. The bright Saturday morning buzz. The big family. The smell of baking pastry rolled up the street; chimes jangled in shop doorways; muffled reggae swam out of an open window. He recognized faces in the distance, faces that might ask questions, give advice, knock on his door, shout through the letterbox. The day got very bright very quickly and a bead of sweat hung off his nose and he couldn’t feel his fingertips. He backed-up slowly, swung the bike around and went home.

     Inside, he took the dog’s lead out of his pocket and straightened out the creased leather. The tether between man and ghost, now and then. He hung it on its hook by the door. A dead bellpull. He had no memory of the ride home, had covered the distance quickly, and realized there wasn’t a scrap of food in the place, save for two crusty loaf ends and a scraping of peanut butter. Eating is over-rated. He went into the main bedroom and opened the drawer in his bedside cabinet and looked at the silver ring lying there, solitary, surrounded by nothing but stale air and cheap timber. He went to pick it up, then withdrew his hand quickly and slammed the drawer shut. 

     He reached under the marriage bed and took out a meter-long cylindrical felt wrapping, unrolled it, and took up the katana. In the back garden he knelt in seiza and practiced one hundred cuts. He used too much muscle power at first and the cuts were weak and clumsy, but after fifty his shoulders were so tired, he was forced to relax and the sword moved swift, clean, Zen. Long time since he trained with the old master. Missed him. More cuts. Sweat. Stink. Salt. A moment of elation evaporated quickly. This wasn’t seventeenth-century Japan. This was twentieth-century England. What a shithole. What was the point? Of anything? In the distance the steeple of the little church on the cliffs pointed at heaven. Maybe there lies the answer. He’d been inside it once while out walking and he noticed the door was open. He found the gloom oppressive, the smell of old timber and stone, the outrageous silence. It scared the hell out of him. Maybe he should go to church.

   

                                                                          *


     He woke at four in the afternoon, cooking slowly on the sofa, bathed in a shaft of sunlight. Deep, troubled, daytime sleep. Them. Her. The boy. He took a cool shower and eyed himself in the mirror. Brown hands and face – a wetsuit tan, bit of a pot belly, not too shabby for someone nearly forty. He dressed in jeans, flip-flops and a short-sleeved collared shirt. There was nothing to eat so he resolved to have dinner in the pub and a couple of pints. Leave before the Saturday evening crowds arrived. He grabbed his wallet, locked the door behind him and slid the key under the doormat. 

     He cycled into the village which was quieter now and chose the pub that his ex-girlfriend didn’t work in. Village life. Memories, knowledge, baggage. He ordered pasty and chips and when it finally came he ate quickly, glancing nervously at the doorway, expecting someone he knew to walk in and take control of his evening, his life, his feelings. They used to eat pasty and chips together, a family favourite when work was regular and they had money to spare. The boy would dissect the pasty, steam rising like an escaping Jinn, remove the meat and vegetables and eat the pastry. Mum and dad would polish off the remains, bemused at their child’s insistence that the pastry case was the best part. The boy wanted to try the beer, or a sip of his mum’s gin, but they said no. He felt guilty for enjoying a pint in front of his son and wondered what sort of example he was setting. He wondered when the boy would join the throng of teenagers waiting outside the pub for the day when they could legally be served alcohol. They were always trying it on with the bar staff, insisting they had turned eighteen, the trouble was, this was village life, and in village life everybody knows how old you are.

     It was 6pm. He had eaten too fast and gotten instant bulky, bad food indigestion and was no longer in the mood for a pint. No-one familiar had appeared through the glowing portal that led to the street. A table of depressed tourists tucked into fat-oozing burgers, served with a tired leaf of lettuce and a couple of raw onion rings. Minus five on the Michelin scale. Bored teenagers stabbed buttons on the jukebox. Lonely gambling machines cried for attention with a cascade of bleeps and bloops.

     He paid the spotty student behind the bar and pedalled the hell out of there feeling like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. It’s nice to have friends. So why was he doing his damnedest to avoid them? Why this compulsion to be alone? He just wanted to be with her, and the boy. He cycled to the beach he surfed that morning. The waves were bigger now and there were twenty out and another dozen fools running down the footpath with boards under their arms. He hated crowds. He ditched the bike and scrambled along the top of the cliffs until he found the secret spot where they would sit after walking the beach and stare out across the ocean at the horizon. Three souls in separate heavens.

      They would have enjoyed this. It was one of their favourite pastimes - watching people battling the surf. Three guys limped out of the water holding half a surfboard in each hand. The dumping shore-break whumped onto the beach and sent shockwaves through the cliffs. Two surfers dragged ashore a hapless tourist who thought he would be able to body-surf but got swept out by the undertow. The portly victim sat on the beach coming to terms with his brush with death, as his two rescuers gave him a bollocking and pointed up the cliffs, clearly telling the man to get back to whatever desk he came from. The air was thick and sickly-sweet from the surrounding furze. A skylark warbled never-ending, higher and higher, until it was a mere speck against the purpling sky. Home.

     He made up the boy’s bed and arranged the pyjamas. He made up the marriage bed and arranged her nightdress. He looked out of their bedroom window facing west towards the silhouette church a mile distant. A ball of flaming absolution settled behind it, like Mars falling to Earth. Eight o’clock. Too early for bed. God it was quiet. Was it always going to be this quiet? He thought about moving to a city. Noise. Pollution. Culture? He took the framed photograph from the top of her dresser and sat on the marriage bed and examined lips, teeth, hair, wrinkles around eyes, dimples in cheeks. He looked deeply into their eyes, each one in turn. Him, her, the boy. Staring hard at the black, pin-head pupils, searching for truth. A familiar hollow aching sensation returned. Hunger pangs in the heart.

     There was a loud rap on the door and he dropped the picture. He’d been asleep. Beach, footprints, the boy, the dog, her smile dying day by day. He sat motionless, listening. Feign sickness. Jump in bed, call out that he’s not well. Then the door burst open and in they marched and he was no longer in control.

                                                                 

                                                                          *


                                                                      SUNDAY

     Nine-thirty. Blazing glory. That fucking pigeon. Hot, pounding head. A swift march to the loo (sticky feet, cold linoleum) then back under the covers. He stared up at the cracked plaster. What the hell happened last night? He closed his eyes and he was back on the beach, but it was just him and the boy. Where was she? Then he looked around and there were no footprints and it was just him and the wind. He opened his eyes and watched the curtains fill like sails and the cobwebs on the ceiling St. Vitus dancing. Look at the fool! shouted the pigeon.

     In the kitchen he filled a pint glass with chlorine-stinking tap water and sat listening to the fridge. Like sweet nectar the water lubricated his burnt throat. He looked at the clock. He was going to be late. He dressed, brushed his teeth, grabbed the dog’s lead and ran out the door.


                                                                            *

                     

     He traversed the narrow footpath towards the church, crossing stiles and wooden bridges over streams. Badgers had left trails in the long grass overnight. His already embattled senses reeled at the morning toxicity pumping freely from May-fresh wild garlic. The grey church loomed out of the morning haze; a ten-feet-tall finger of granite in the cemetery pointing directly at the Pole Star. Centuries old gravestones carried the names of local families. Here he was an outsider. Here most people were outsiders. Freshers were planted in the newer section of the cemetery, mirror marble reflecting the morning sun. He entered the porch and stopped at the inner door. Music, singing. He was late. With great effort he gripped the door handle, then released it. Then gripped it again. Then released it. Idiot. Scared! The singing ceased and a muffled Charlie Brown teacher voice took over. According to the church map he was in the vestibule. He thought it was a porch. He sat on the bench and strained to listen to the sermon but all he could understand were the responses. Amen. He worked the dog’s lead through his fingers like rosary beads and wondered what the hell he was doing. Two posters on the wall read: Jesus Saves, and, Lord, help me to keep my words sweet as one day I may have to swallow them.

     He walked out of the porch and through the cemetery. Defeated, pathetic. He had endured the worst the Atlantic could throw at him, but he didn’t have the guts to walk through a church door. God is more intimidating. Mission failed. At least he could walk home via the village and pick up some groceries. He looked back at the little church standing alone against the edge of the cliffs, surrounded by a baying army of New-Age shops, pagan paraphernalia, Celtic knots, crystal balls and candles. Him treading water between the two.

     The rhythm of walking cleared his head and snapshots of last night revealed themselves like flicking between channels. The lads had burst in on him, laughing, cajoling, pulling clothes from his dresser and forcing him to put them on, spraying him with Hugo Boss. He had a beer pressed into his hand and they marched him out the door and down the street in the direction of the village. When they reached the pub it was full, loud, alive, and everyone kept asking where had he been and was he alright and had he heard anything from her. He fudged his answers and looked for exits. Pints of strong, flat, cloudy cider, warm in the glass. A whiskey chaser. Acid indigestion. Crisps. Beermats drowning on the flooded table. The full ashtray. His first cigar in years. He puked in the gents and staggered back to his table and drained his pint, spilling much of it down his front. His mates told him to zip up his jeans. He felt his head being lifted off the table and he levitated out of his seat and floated through the bar, his feet making occasional contact with the floor. Smiles, laughter, pats on the head. The floor, the ceiling. He was lowered gently onto a bench outside. So this was the fun he’d been missing. 

      He heard a Zippo chime and snap, followed by a long breath out. He felt his hair being tousled and a voice told him what a bloody state he was in and laughed and then smoker coughed. He swallowed the rising tide in his throat and focused on the moths dancing around the neon pub sign light. Was he still living in hope, asked the cigarette on his right. She was a quiet one mate, said the voice behind. Don’t think she really fitted in, said the voice to his left. Outsider see, said the voice in front. Think she found it hard to make friends, said the cigarette. Think he went surfing too much, laughed the voice behind. She might come back yet, said the voice to his left. No-one comes back from Australia, mumbled the cigarette. Still married, aren’t they? whispered the voice behind. Sshh, said the cigarette. Too quiet, concluded the voice in front.

     Moths. What the fuck were they up to? Bang, bang, banging their heads against the light. Beating themselves to death with such single-minded devotion to get to the one thing that would burn them to a crisp. Little moth bodies lay on the floor, some still kicking and flapping. He loved those moths. Taxi’s here, said the voice behind and he levitated once more and someone pulled his trousers up and told him he was losing weight. He wanted to bring a moth home. Don’t be so bloody daft. He’s not going to puke is he? said an angry voice he didn’t recognise. 

     He stumbled into the bedroom and threw himself on the bed and wrapped himself in the duvet. A cocoon to save the world from his despair. He sobbed. Drunken, violent sobs. Transformation. Weeks. It had been weeks since they rang. Since the boy rang, anyway. Told him what a nice time they were having at his auntie’s and how hot it was and they were going to see some Koala bears tomorrow. Mummy went for a job interview yesterday… He listened to that sweet innocent voice at the end of the line. A voice he had ignored too often or written off as childish nonsense. The receiver was leaking. Why was the receiver leaking? It was dribbling over his wrist and down his arm and hanging in drips from his elbow. After the call ended, he used the number retrieval service and called back. A stranger answered. It was a payphone.

                                      She was too quiet.


                                                                           *


     He bought a pasty from the bakery and munched it thoughtlessly all the way home, biting his tongue in the process. Indoors, he sank into the sofa, aimed the remote at the TV and hit the on button. The warm familiarity of Sunday morning television. John Craven talked about farmers being worried because of the lack of rain this spring, and how people were sensitively renovating barns so that barn owls would have a place to roost. This was more reassuring than church. It was not long though, before the old dread feeling, the emptiness, returned with a vengeance. Sundays. If it was raining, they would be in the living room idly watching Countryfile, trying not to be bored with life, with each other. The boy would build Lego on the floor in his Star Wars pyjamas. If it was sunny, they would go to the beach. He had bought the boy a wetsuit and tried to entice him into the water, but the boy was having none of it. Instead, he would run away, kicking up sand and piloting his latest Lego spaceship through imaginary asteroid fields and space battles. She told him not to be so hurt. If he wants to surf, he’ll make up his own mind. He thought about finding a child that did want to surf. He couldn’t understand it.

     He stood up to stretch and immediately felt the aftershocks of booze and undigested meat, leaving a taste like death and copper. He brushed his teeth and examined the cut in his tongue. He made a cup of tea. No milk. Bugger. He washed down a couple of painkillers with a pint of water. He went to the boy’s bedroom and was horrified to see the little bed looking storm damaged. Now he remembered, he had gotten out of the marriage bed in the night and gone and slept in the boy’s bed. Stabbing guilt and remorse. Relax for one moment and look what happens. The room stank of alcohol. He threw open the window and folded back the duvet. Just enough time to freshen up before bedtime. 

     The marriage bed was a mess too. He had left the house in a hurry, head pounding, and only half an hour to spare before the church service, determined to find answers in that little building he could see in the distance at the edge of the cliffs. He folded back the duvet and puffed the pillows. Her night-dress lay dead on the floor. Twisted, creased, unloved. He gathered it up as if it were made of glass and hung it in the wardrobe. 


                                                                             *


                                                               SUNDAY AFTERNOON

     He cycled back to the village and picked up bread, butter, milk, sugar, frozen chips, fishfingers, balancing a dangerously stretched plastic bag on each handlebar on the way home. No sign of the lads from last night. He ate bread and butter and drank the first cup of black, sweet, milky tea in twenty-four hours. Another Paracetamol. He avoided loitering in the bedrooms absorbing the toys, the photographs, his guts, his mind, and quickly took the sword from under the bed and went out into the sun-trapped back garden, removed his shirt, knelt on the grass, and began cutting. Ichi, ni, san, shi… Someone was knocking at the front door and calling his name. Voices from another time, another place. He ignored them and cut harder. He cleaved molecules in two. He cut the imaginary Samurai. He cut his friends in half. He cut the little church and the standing stone. He cut the Great Bear and the Pole Star. He cut his boss in half. He cut his secondary school gym teacher. He cut her and she shattered into a million fragments. He cut his mother. He cut his father. Ghosts struck by lightning. Soiled, cleaner, cleanest. Full, emptier, emptied. Suddenly the tip of the blade stopped mid-air, quivering. The point rested against the kiss-curl on the boy’s forehead. The boy stood there smiling, petting the dog. Violent tremors rippled up and down his body, warm liquid oozed from his knuckles. He sheathed the sword and bowed deeply to the ghosts. Blind with sweat, he staggered indoors and mixed a little salt and sugar in a pint of water and drank clumsily, spilling it down his chest. He entered their bedroom and collapsed onto the marriage bed in the blazing glory of the afternoon sun. He wondered if there was an Evensong.


                                                                              *   

                                                 

                                                                   SUNDAY EVENING

     His feet gripped the Earth, hanging ten at the edge of the world. Behind him, the little church with its standing stone pointing at the Pole Star. In front, the life-giver descending. Above, Heaven. Below, a 200-foot freefall into oblivion. He put his hands in his pockets and pulled out his wedding ring in his left hand and the dog’s lead in his right. He held his arms out straight, hanging them over the hungry ocean that hissed and beckoned. He closed his eyes but he wobbled so he opened them again damned quick and bent his knees to lower his centre of gravity. He opened one hand. Merciful release. The ocean roared victorious. Amen. Namaste. Whatever. He took a step back from the cliff edge, pushed the remaining object back into his pocket, climbed onto his bicycle and rode home. 

     He entered the child’s bedroom through the door with the broken latch he had never fixed and wasn’t likely to. He pounded the two pillows into a more puffed-up shape, then ran the palms of his hands across the surface of the bedsheet, ironing out any creases. Lastly, he unrolled the duvet over the entire bed and folded back the top corner.

                                     

                                              


David North


David North is a writer from Cornwall who now lives in County Leitrim, Ireland. He graduated from Atlantic Technological University Sligo in 2022, where he studied the Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in Writing and Literature. David has been many things in his life including truck mechanic, art mover, tree surgeon and rock star (failed). He is currently writing a screenplay for a television drama set in Cornwall and a collection of short stories. www.davidnorth.ie Instagram: @davidnorth57 Twitter: @whoisMcNorth