Everything is perfect
There’s this thing we have, a routine we both share. Ruth makes holes in the earth. I drop a seed into the hole and then she covers it over with soil. And we repeat the process over. Ruth carefully moistens the earth with the watering can, and places each pot in line to ensure maximum exposure to sunlight. It excites me when Ruth tampers down on the dirt to seal in the seeds with her index finger. Sometimes, when I'm with her, I have thoughts; I imagine Ruth taking advantage of me in my sleep late at night. Ruth takes an empty planting tray from the floor and places it on the shelf before her. As she puts it down on the surface, I notice how chewed the skin is around her nails. I make a mental note to pick up cuticle restorer from the pharmacy in the morning. As she turns towards the wooden trays, she begins rifling through the empty pots, casting them aside one by one. She sucks in air through her teeth.
‘The seeds Kevin’ she says, ‘where are the fucking tomato seeds?’
I note the tremble in her voice. Ruth drops the tray to the floor and gives me that dead-eyed stare. It’s accompanied by the pout that tells me I'm inherently wrong about everything—the very same look her sister gave me when I ate all the meatballs at Christmas. As I check through the pallets, she huffs and raises her hands to her temples.
‘You left them at the till again didn’t you?’ she says.
I knew I had fucked up. Last week it was the Bounty bar at the petrol station, this time it was the sodding seeds. I decide to busy myself by picking up a grow bag and dropping it down by the rhubarb. As I lift the second bag, Ruth discards her gardening gloves and throws them to the floor.
‘you’re an utter cock, Kevin,’ she says.
‘Sorry’ I say.
‘Your crap is giving me a migraine,’ she says.
‘Sorry, I repeat.
‘You can sleep in the spare room tonight.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘But isn’t it…’
‘No’ she says, ‘it isn’t’ And she heads off indoors.
Ruth means everything to me. I love showing her off at the Rotary club. For a 62-year old she’s beautiful, highly intelligent and has all her own teeth. As my second wife, Ruth is the kind of woman that loves pampering. Now that we have a shared bank account, she says I don't even need to do the shopping with her. Ruth encourages me to take more interest in my personal development and books me to go away on learning courses pretty much every weekend. My love for her is all-consuming, and I show it every morning with a cup of Silent Whisper Lady Grey from Waitrose. She tells me we don’t need friends when we have each other, and she’s right. ‘Loving you is easy when you’re beautiful’ said the great Minnie Ripperton, and I couldn’t agree more.
I hang up Ruth’s gloves and douse the ‘strawbs’ with the watering can. I have this thing where I like everything to be just so in my potting shed. I love that within the confines of these four walls, I can take comfort in knowing that everything has its place. The hedge-trimmer is kept oiled and maintained on a bi-monthly basis, the handles to the rake, fork, and spade regularly soaked in sesame oil, and the blades to my Wilkinson garden shears carefully sharpened. I know it’s a little over the top, but my shed is the one place in my life where I feel in total control. Ruth not only tolerates this, but she also encourages me to spend as much time there as possible.
So, here’s a thing. I know all about David, her ex-boyfriend. Why Ruth keeps all his postcards is beyond me. Sometimes when Ruth goes off to Pilates classes, I open up her wardrobe to check the box and see if there are any updates. David writes to her every week. They seem pretty straight-forward, things like where he’s staying in the country, the kinds of people he meets, and the hotels he is staying in. The pictures are invariably of well-known landmarks; the latest card from Blackpool shows an image of a tower, a stick of rock with the name through the middle and people enjoying donkey rides along the promenade. In his latest postcard David writes; Dear Ruth. This week I’m in Shepton Mallett, on the A303 heading towards Stone Henge. Remember Stone Henge!? We sure made it a Summer Solstice to remember!!! Yours always, David. He has this annoying thing where he makes his signature look like a smile. I ensure everything is returned in the correct order before placing them back inside the wardrobe. And I go about my day trying to forget the cards. Reading between the lines make me sure things aren’t right.
A week later, Ruth and I are setting up the dinner table for the two of us. Ruth is on edge, I can sense something is out of kilter with her. Her hair is tied in bunches, and she keeps saying things under her breath. It’s then that she chooses to bring up her ex;
‘You remember I told you about David’ she says. ‘I think he’s coming to stay.’
I feel my eye twitch–David has never come to visit before. To me, he’s a former relationship way past its sell-by date, and I’m not sure what to say. I consider my response; too negative, and it will rile her. Too upbeat and she will say I’m being sarcastic. I picture myself slamming the door in his face when he arrives, and Ruth thanking me for it.
‘He’s just a friend,’ she says.
‘Is he travelling for work, or just visiting relatives?’ I say.
Ruth wanders through to the kitchen. I hear drawers abruptly shutting as she returns into the room with that look on her face. I regress instantly to errant schoolboy mode; shoulders down, hands in pockets, with ‘sorry’ written all over my face.
In our first year together, Ruth and I had been on a caravan holiday somewhere between Devon, Dorset or Cornwall. I never knew which was which. That’s when Ruth first told me about David. We’d decided on a romantic picnic by the cliffs–An escape for us both from the suburbs. I’d seen her scratching the dry skin on the back of her hands, and when I saw the blotchy marks rising on her neck, I realised this was not going to be good news; I guess I was more attentive back then. So, I listened to her telling me about the ins and outs of their relationship, how they had met, how they’d fallen deeply in love, and about how at times had felt so close they were inseparable. Until she says, he started seeing someone else, and then things had fallen apart.
I gather from Ruth that David had messaged her at the weekend while on the road, and had told had her he was passing. She continues to say they hadn’t seen each other since they went their separate ways, but had mailed from time to time. Now his wife had left him, and taken his dog too. He seemed pretty down, she says. So, I wasn’t excited when she said he was coming to stay. I decided this wasn’t the time to bring up the postcards.
It’s early evening when David turns up. Ruth is pegging out the laundry in the garden; she never pegs out the washing. That's when I see him walking up the driveway. He has a matching pair of Louis Vuitton suitcases, the expensive ones with the swing tags, big gold letters and stuff. I can tell by the cut of his suit, the pointy shoes and the side-parting that things were not going to pan out well for me. He rings the door-bell, and I wait for a beat before opening the door; like I have other things on or something. I can see his distorted form in the frosted glass, and I hear myself sigh.
As David enters the house, I am polite and courteous. I take his coat and offer to carry his bags to the spare room. As we walk through to the kitchen, I’m a bit taken aback by his gaze.
‘Hello,’ he says
‘Hello,’ I respond.
He has a lazy eye, and I’m was unsure which one to look at when he talks. Were it not for his wandering pupil; he would have been more handsome, I guess. I do my best not to stare. I smile, gesture him in, and take him through to the kitchen
‘Gosh.’ David says, looking into the garden, ‘Ruth hasn’t changed a bit’.
‘Tea?' I offer, and I switch on the kettle.
‘I hope you don’t think I’m imposing,’ he says.
‘Well.’ I say. ‘It’s only a quick visit. We love to have friends over’.
I notice David scanning the glasses in the kitchen cabinet. He admires my collection of Toby jugs and takes down my 1982 Royal Wedding mug from the shelf and turns it in his hands.
‘Quite a piece,’ he says, and returns it to its place.
I smile politely, correct the angle of the mug, and walk him through to the garden.
David kisses Ruth awkwardly on the cheek.
‘Gosh,’ he says, ‘look at you.’
‘How long has it been?’ she says.
‘Well now,’ he says, ‘let me…’
‘I’m sure you have a lot to catch up on.’ I say, but by then they have both walked away. I mumble something about tea and return to the kitchen. From the window, I note how she curls her hair around her finger as she talks, how she touches him on his elbow repeatedly. Better to let them get this whole re-connection thing out of the way. He will soon be on his way.
One evening, during week two of this over-extended stay, the three of us take off to the Red Lion pub. I wasn’t sure who had initiated the idea, but we were sitting in the corner of the bar with two local beers, a chardonnay, and a bag of dry roasted nuts.
‘So,’ he says, ‘how did you both meet?’ or words to that effect.
I guess I was too embarrassed to admit that we were two lonely souls looking to fill our empty lives when we met; that what had started as companionship at the allotment had slowly flourished. That was when David had changed the subject to stories about himself; he was more comfortable listing his cars, his money, and the cities he had visited.
My concentration drifts. I hear David leaning in to repeat a question.
‘Did Ruth ever tell you about us?’ he says.
This shakes me. He uses the word us as a collective ‘us’ as in the two of them, an item, an ownership of something. I feel sweat collecting under my armpits, and my forehead becoming waxy. I become fixated with his face; this chameleon, able to adapt to his surroundings, and luring me in. His intense concentration. And so many self-congratulating compliments. Pretty soon, I find myself on a sixth beer, and my words beginning to slur. I lose focus as the conversation moves towards their history together. I can hear Tom Petty sing Free falling on the jukebox and in my mind see them both locked in some tantric position in front of me. As I drift in and out of the moment, I became fixated by the tip of David’s nose as it bobs up and down as he speaks. I watch how Ruth touches her sternum whenever he makes her smile. She is happy; happy like I’ve never seen her before happy. I’ve wanted to reach all of her–and I realise something; that we’d never really connected, nor have I made her feel special. It’s always been just a co-existence. I drift further out, and some time may have passed. I think I hear him say something like ‘Let’s move on.’ As we approach the taxi rank, my legs buckle, and I black out.
While nursing my hangover the next morning, I avoid the growing request list on my screen; I’m distracted by the thought of them both back at our home. This morning while he’s out running I strip his bed, put his sheets in the wash, and I place his Louis Vuitton collection on his mattress. I’m hoping this will make it clear his stay is over. I even return his toothbrush and shower gel inside their wash bag. Last night I had stupidly offered to extend his stay further. I was trying to please Ruth. I pull out a bar of Snickers from my top drawer and open the wrapper. My laptop pings as another IT request comes in.
It’s from top floor management.
I pick up the handset, and I listen.
I take a deep breath.
‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ I say.
I replace the handset and drop my head to the desk.
I google ‘unwanted vermin.'
I spend my remaining hour at work scrolling.
The cold evening wind forces the bushes back and forth as I pull into the driveway. Removing my keys, I approach the doorstep to find the front door ajar. I rush through to the lounge and see David down on the floor; the postcards set in a perfect circle of around him, my garden shears are lodged in his upper chest.
‘Shit Ruth?’ I say, ‘who did this?’
Ruth is on her knees by his side, her eyes glazed over, and her hands covered in blood; she makes no reply. Her makeup has run. Checking his wound, I grab the sofa cover and pack it in around the garden shears, his chest heaves up and down in quick succession.
‘He needs to get to hospital’ I say.
Ruth glares at me as David rasps something incomprehensible. I lift him and stagger out towards the car. Ruth takes the back seat next to him.
We make our way towards the hospital. Ruth offers no explanation of what’s happened and avoids all eye-contact; I guess things are pretty much broken between us. As I drive, I picture the car swerving to the verge and flipping over onto its roof. I switch on the radio, slow my breathing and tighten my grip of the wheel. Tom Petty plays out, and I start mouthing the words to his voice; ‘It’s alright if you love me, it’s alright if you don’t, I’m not afraid of you running away, honey, I got the feeling you won’t.’
With a sinking feeling, I look back in the mirror and study her eyes for a sign–anything. David is resting on her lap, and she strokes his hair. I see her biting down on her lip–I want to tell her everything will be okay, but she drops her gaze to the window, and I feel utterly broken. Bubbles of red rise from his lips and I begin to fixate on his condition. I hadn’t noticed until now that his eye had corrected itself. I see my blood-soaked sofa cover scrunched up close to his chest. Looking into the distance, the city lights come into view.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘we’ll soon be there,’
My foot tips down hard on the accelerator.
I pull into the visitors parking zone of the hospital; a red brick building with its name mounted in lights above the entrance. I check the angle of my car and open the rear passenger door and check David's pulse. He rolls his head to the side and gasps for air.
‘We’ll soon have you fixed.’ I say.
‘Shut it,’ Ruth says.
‘Kevin,’ she snaps, ‘just hurry the fuck up.’
I rush forward to grab one of the visitor’s wheelchairs from inside the entrance. David tries to mouth something to me as I place him carefully in the blue chair. Ruth hushes him to conserve his energy by places a finger to his lips. As we approach the welcome desk, we see a nurse, mid-fifties and heavy makeup mid-conversation on the phone. Her lipstick runs further than the outside the line of her lips. I put both hands on the glass screen in the hope this will bring her conversation to a close.
‘Excuse me?’ I say.
The nurse tips the phone away from her ear
‘Yes?’ She says. Her lower jaw juts forward.
I gesture towards David. ‘This man needs a doctor.’ I say.
‘Are those garden scissors?’ she says.
‘Wilkinson.’ I say.
‘I see,’ she says.
Her shoulder hunch together and she covers her mouth to the phone.
Moments later, David is placed on a bed and wheeled through to theatre by the duty doctor and an orderly. Ruth and I follow on behind. He’s still breathing. The anaesthetist dressed in darker blue follows on. He has one of those decorative surgical caps like it’s a bandana or something. He says something positive, but I don't hear him. Ruth and I follow in silence as the metal frame clunks through a series of automated doors. I notice pictures on the walls, their angles all askew. And I know that Ruth knows exactly what I'm thinking.
Ruth and I sit outside the operating theatre. With the lights down low, only a hand full of staff remain on the ward at this late hour. Unable to sit still, I notice a small gap in the door. I crouch down to let Ruth join me. We see the doctor preparing David for surgery. The anaesthetist applies a mask to David’s face, and I see his eyelids close. The doctor works quickly to remove my garden shears and stem the bleeding from the wound. The nurse is mopping the doctor’s brow as David’s body begins to shake uncontrollably as the lights on the machine next to him turn red. Alarms begin to sound. I use all my strength to stop Ruth from bursting into the room, and she begins to sob uncontrollably.
‘I am so very sorry.’ I say.
Ruth desists, allowing me to console her.
A further ten minutes pass before the doors swing open.
The doctor approaches us both.
‘He’s going to be okay,’ he says, ‘it was touch and go. Unfortunately, the patient is paralysed from the neck down. He may be here for some time.’
Ruth lets out a gasp.
The orderly wheels David from the room.
We both rise as he passes and follow him to the lift.
Ruth approaches his side.
A relief passes slowly through me.
And I wonder if this is what my life has culminated to.
This very moment.
‘Hello David,’ I say. ‘How about we go somewhere more interesting?’
David does not respond. He’s still under. His face is puffy, and a mark sits where the mask once covered his mouth and nose. His wound has been replaced with 24-stitches in a near-perfect line. As I take in the sheer beauty of the needlework I listen to the life support machine attached to his bed; a rhythmic chorus of gas, beeps and pumps all playing to the beat of his heart. It’s beautiful. And as two women in police uniforms approach, I feel the touch of Ruth’s hand in mine.
About the Author
Robert Huddlestone Phillips ‘Huddlestone’ draws on his experience as a copywriter in advertising. When not in his studio, his fascination for the more macabre leaves him writing dark fiction or what some call dirty realism. He is a Level IV fiction writer with the International Writers Collective in Amsterdam. He is married to an incredible photographer, has two boys, two dogs, and lives in on the island of Ijburg.