When Shirley came in from the shops and found him lying flat-out on the kitchen floor, his skin purple and his mouth gaping wide, she said, “You’ve really done it this time, haven’t you?”
She shook her head and dumped the groceries on the table, which made the wine bottles rattle—both of them empty and all the whiskey gone too. He’d promised her, but she should have known better than to leave the drink where he could find it.
His arm was in front of the fridge. With one foot she nudged it to the side. Then she stepped over him and half-filled the kettle. While she waited for it to boil she sat down, pushed his glass away, then dug into the shopping for a fresh packet of cigarettes. She lit one and let the taste of the smoke linger on her tongue as she looked down at him. Not much else she could do with him filling the kitchen, his head smack up against the larder and his slippers an inch from the bin. His chest was perfectly still. His slicked-down hair had come loose, hanging like the bent pages of a book. He’d never been much of a looker but years of drinking hadn’t helped. All that whiskey had swollen his stomach and burst the veins on his nose.
“Look at you, you stupid bugger,” she said on a breath of smoke. “I knew you’d end up like this.” She looked around for the ashtray, dragged it out from behind the bottles. “Is this what you wanted? Is it?”
Where was the panic she’d felt the last time? Not a trace of it now, but Ralph wasn’t twisting on the floor, his hands weren’t grabbing at the air. There was just the massive stillness of him, the tick of the kettle as it heated, the thud of the neighbour’s door then a radio coming on. Too loud as always. She got up and slammed the window shut.
She was forty-nine and jobless but she knew what she wanted: no more hiding her purse, no more stink of sweat and alcohol when he came to bed. For a moment she saw how much simpler her days would be. The house the same when she came home as when she’d left it; no shower curtain hanging off its rings where Ralph had tripped and pulled it, no rubbish bin so full it tipped when she tried to empty it. No Ralph taking up the whole kitchen floor with his felled log of a body.
To get to the teabags she stepped over him again. She said, “You’ve never even tried to stop, have you?” Of course there was no answer. And that, she thought, was Ralph all over. If she propped him up in his armchair, switched on the telly and wrapped his hand around a glass of whiskey her evening would be much the same as any other.
She dropped a couple of teabags into the pot and leant against the sink, staring out the window. The autumn sun had turned their cramped garden golden. Over it swam her reflection: a mass of greying curls, TV screen-shaped glasses, a wide slack mouth. You’re turning into an old woman, she told herself, and what have you done with your life? Nothing you’re going to be remembered for; nothing to be ashamed of. Except—and she glanced down—leaving Ralph on the kitchen floor like this.
“Bugger it,” she said, and took a long drag on her cigarette. She thought: Is he dead … or in there somewhere dying? She rested her cigarette in the ashtray and got to her knees. His neck was warm to her fingers. She pressed harder, and there, faint, the flicker of life going out.
Gerri Brightwell is a British writer living in Alaska with her husband and three sons. She has two published novels: Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003) and The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008). Her writing has also appeared in such publications as The Guardian (UK), Camera Obscura and Camas. She teaches in the M.F.A. programme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.