There was never enough light in the kitchen to see her watch by. Ellen pushed the steel-rimmed spectacles further down her nose revealing a sore red patch where the jut of bone met the lined forehead. Drat it, ten past eight already, where was Tom? Supper would spoil. Tense hands scrubbled up the spotless apron, the third she'd worn today, discarding the other two when they began to soil. No dirt in the kitchen. No complications. Sandy brows rose in a caricature of astonishment, met somewhere in the middle. Goodness. She'd just caught herself on the verge of saying 'No contamination' but that was too strong, too close for comfort.
A little more salt in the potatoes, perhaps? Adding a little more salt, testing before adding, trying to ignore the patch of verdigris on the handle of the otherwise clean spoon, all these things would take time. But that was alright. She had a lot of time, nothing else these days, but lots of time. She shifted back from the stove that was steaming up her spectacles. The floor where she stood was cracked in places, the lino starting to chip and curl, making it hard to polish. Ellen moved her feet so they no longer crossed or touched any of the cracks. That was better. Then she linked hands in front of her and flexed the long bony fingers, cracking the knuckles with a shockingly loud pop. A gruff giggle escaped her, was suppressed at once.
Some salt then. A well considered pinch of it in the left palm, scattered on the boiling water, cauldron hot, instantly sucked into the toiling seams of bubbles that chased each other pointlessly across the water's surface. Like wondering where Tom was and what he was up to? Thoughts best avoided for being too hot to handle.
Chapped elbows protruded from the sensible blue serge sleeves of her overall, their scarlet tips seeming to blush that any flesh at all was visible. Absentmindedly, she picked at the fraying skin, peeling away more of her essence, more layers, forever trying to sweep clean and leave no stone unscrubbed. The stew was burning now. She could smell its leek and marmite gravy sticking to the inside of the casserole dish, and she imagined how much elbow grease would be required to get it clean again, the brillo pads, stinging hot water and soreness in her warts. Drat the cleaner who'd ruined their only non-stick pan. Drat the makers of less than perfect cookware. Damn them and damn the man! Where was he?
At bedtime, all alone for a change, she lay down in the very centre of the bed where she generally kept a pillow lengthwise to avoid contact with her husband. No need to share, to be fair about space. She smiled fleetingly. No chance that his legs, warm and overlarge for an older man, would jostle hers in sleep. But habit is strong and sleep kept Ellen waiting almost as long as Tom did.
Then the dream was coming at her again, at her and at her, though she tried to turn away, not to see it. With a groan of revulsion she lost the battle against the sleep that, only minutes ago, she'd longed for, and sank into a nightmare world. In bed still, in a nightdress over-long, with her auburn hair bound up and her wedding ring firmly in evidence, yet Ellen Peaks, newly Mrs. Price, felt naked. She was waiting for Tom to say goodbye to the wedding guests and come to bed. Waiting, why did that seem familiar? He'd never kept her waiting before tonight. With an ardor hot by even Williams Town standards, he'd courted her and swept her off her feet. One month, enough for banns, and she was away to a strange city and a giant bed, with a sagging mattress on which she felt she would roll and roll, down a hillside, like she'd once done as a little girl. No stopping place, nothing to hang onto except him. When he bothers to turn up, she added, with a sharpness new to her.
The door creaked. It had to be Tom. She heard his boots drop one at a time, heard him stub his toe, curse under his breath, the beer sounding even through the whisper. Oh Mam, Ellen prayed, please let him be gentle with me.
Then his hands reached for her. Instinctively, she rolled away, but he rested both knees on the side of the bed to get to her and the mattress dipped, rolling her back into the middle again. With a leap and a laugh he was astride her, playing with the ties of her nightdress, pulling at her hair to make it tumble down, tumble and roll, nothing seemed to be safe or steady on this heaving sea of a matttress. It hurt. Mam, it's hurting me. 'Tom, wait, stop please, I don't want . . . stop!' But his haste ruled him.
She lay afterwards, after the noise of love, that word, after the haste, trying to work it out. What just happened - am I a wife now? Waited for something that would make it alright, the pain and the mess, the absence of anything for her. There hadn't been any of what the girls had giggled over at the factory, no magic, no wicked pleasures, just that - whatever it was - and the mess too. She could feel it there, waiting to be cleaned up, but she was too shy to leave the bed till he was snoring, in case he saw her and saw what he had done. Ellen dreamed that she was sleeping, that time passed by. She cleaned herself. Things were never that bad in bed again. She waited for them to be somehow better. And waited.
Then she was waking up in her own room. Or was it? The door creaked. It had to be Tom. She heard him come over to the bed on stocking feet. He'd learnt in recent years to be canny and quiet at night or she'd give him an earful. Quick as anything, Ellen plumped up the pillow in its usual place and he lay down on his side of the big bed like nothing had happened. He hadn't been out late, oh no! She must've dozed off and missed him coming back. Bitterly, Ellen said the words to herself, made the excuses she felt sure he'd use, the ones he'd used before. It was that Andy's birthday and the publican got an extension. I dropped my wallet on the bus and had to travel to the terminus to get it back. There was a dog peed on my shoe, a ferret gone missing, a circus horse escaped and running loose up Maddock Street. Daft things he wouldn't have thought she'd believe except for the beer talking in his ears when he'd been out. But she never said any of this to him. In a way it was her power, to have stuff over him that she didn't use, but might do one day. Not much of a power, but you needed something when dealing with a man.
The next morning, at ten o'clock, the Home Help was due. Should be here earlier, Ellen always felt. Cleaning and washing should start with the sun and finish with it, never on Sundays of course. Tom sat in the corner where he'd moved when she pulled the covers back this morning. Always air the bed. Window open. Fresh air cleanses a room. And she'd looked sideways at him as he lay curled in the last of his body-heat, like a leveret in its form. Never really looked at him lying down in pyjamas before, not for years, because he'd always been up before her or as soon as she moved. He didn't like her way in the morning but she'd never done it to spite him, just for cleanliness and to mark the end of night. She didn't like night and dark and dirt. No.
So he sat in his corner and sulked. She supposed he was sulking, not dressed, his old coat pulled over his pyjama jacket, an unlit cigarette in his mouth. No smoking in the house, she said. No spitting. No missing the toilet, she said. Ellen heard her voice as if she wasn't using it, as if it belonged to someone else, someone very white and stern and fixed, hoover in one hand, duster for shaking in the other. She wasn't like that really, it was just the waiting that did it to her, just the waiting.
She'd had no word out of him this morning. Said none either. Nothing safe to say. Would the Home Help notice he was different? Maybe she'd better move him back into the bedroom, or put a blanket over him and say he had the 'flu. But would he go along with the pretence? To gain his help, Ellen would need to speak to him directly and she didn't think she knew how any more. Accusations, yes. She was adept at hurling those. For someone who didn't like harsh words, he was very bad at avoiding them. All the man had to do was to come straight home for once, to bring his little bit of pay home unopened in the brown envelope with the pink window, to help her once about the house without her having asked. But did he? No, he seemed set on going the other way and being a nuisance.
But this morning - this was really out of the usual for Tom. If she was a soft, silly kind of woman she'd be worried by now. She stole another look out of the corner of her eye without interrupting the rhythm of her tidying up, her way of waiting till the Home Help came. Tom's glazed eyes stared at the hearth as if a fire still burned there as it had done when they were first married. When had she ceased laying the fire each morning and smooring it at night? Her eyebrows met in the middle of her forehead as she tried to remember. Then the picture of a fireside came to her, and she with the little one in her arms trying to get her to suck. The baby never grew the way she should have done, never made the weight. Ellen had been skinny herself in those days, maybe her milk hadn't been rich enough? So she'd gone for the formula, careful as anything with the one scoop for every ounce of water and the bottles boiling in a saucepan on the stove. But then baby had taken an infection, gastro-enteritis. So small a child. Almost nothing to her. She'd lasted four, maybe five days. Since that time, Ellen hadn't laid a fire at the hearth and Tom had never spoken about the child.
She heard a knock at the door and went to unlock. Three chains and a bolt, then the Yale, you couldn't be too careful. Outside, Marisel the Home Help stood, plastic bag in hand, the trim grey overall going some way in Ellen's opinion to counteract the sparkling black eyes and matching spike-heeled shoes. A woman should know how to dress for proper work.
Marisel came in and put her bag down with a thump on the chair. Two oranges rolled out of it and onto the floor. She grinned as she wriggled under the table to retrieve the oranges, oblivious of the way her overall rode high on her thighs showing a flash of electric blue minidress. 'Lucky they were oranges, Mrs P. Imagine if they'd been slices of fresh pineapple? Though, even then, with a floor as shiny as yours, I'd likely be safe to eat them.'
'Yes dear. Now what I want you to do today . . .' Ellen said, with a glance from Tom to Marisel. Hasn't she noticed?
'You like oranges, Mrs P - care to share one with me before I start my shift?'
'No thank you, dear, just put the fruit back in your bag. You will have your ten minute break at the usual time.'
'Oh well, if you say so. You're the boss.' And she giggled. It was a warm throaty sound that reminded Ellen of her best friend at school. A carefree sound.
'What I am trying to do, Mrs Romero, what I have been trying to do since you came in today, is to tell you about the larder. It needs a good scrub. The higher shelves. I just can't reach them like I used to.'
'Yes, Mrs P. You want I should use the extra strong disinfectant, like before?'
'That's right, dear. The one in the blue bottle. Not the yellow one. It isn't strong enough.'
'Right-oh, Mrs P. You just put your feet up and I'll start work.'
'Oh, I couldn't do that, dear, not in the middle of the morning. I couldn't do that.' She waited until Marisel had gone into the larder and was singing away. It was odd to hear a woman singing as she worked, but Ellen had to admit that the cleaner lacked nothing in effort or thoroughness. Her shelves were always as clean as the ones Ellen did, her teatowels always as sharply pressed.
Ellen went over to her husband. He hadn't moved an inch. His highly coloured cheeks and full lips looked healthy enough but there wasn't a flicker or tremor to tell her if he lived inside his body. 'Tom, Tom, do you hear me, Tom?' He just sat in the chair, lumpy as wood, his eyes half closed still facing towards the hearth. With all the force of her arms, she shook his shoulders but there was still no sign that he remembered where he was. 'It's time for work, love,' she urged, surprising herself at the endearment, but his condition seemed to call for desperate measures. Very slowly, the puffy face turned towards her, the heavy lids opening onto blood-shot brown eyes. Ellen's own eyes closed momentarily in relief. So it was just the drink then? But again, he'd been home since late last night, surely the alcohol would've gone by now?
'Tom, lovie, let me help you up . . .' Ellen put both hands under Tom's armpits, braced her feet against the base of the armchair and tugged, but he didn't budge. She slipped her hands further round him and clasped them behind his back. It was the closest she'd been to him in years. His coat smelt of pipe tobacco and something else. She wrinkled up her nose, feeling the glasses catching on the sore place. What was that smell? It reminded her of an animal, yes, that was it, dogs. Tom's coat smelt of wet dog.
Laying her cheek against his chest and clasping her hands more firmly, Ellen took a deep breath and heaved. She didn't budge him at first but it seemed to give him the right idea because he lurched woodenly to his feet, almost overturning her in the process. There they stood, close as two teenagers at the Palais, neither knowing what the other one was doing. Ellen pushed her glasses down her nose and peered up at Tom. Why was he being like this, so strange and silent? They hadn't quarrelled. It wasn't ever anything like that. He was a quiet man, of course, might go all evening with never a word. But here he stood, like a child in her arms, yet tall enough to overtop her by a head. His bent position made most of the weight fall on Ellen's shoulders. I really should get him to bed. Work will have to wait. I'll get him to bed and call Doctor Jones. Yes, that's right.
Ellen looked past Tom's shoulder to the bedroom door. It was a long way to walk supporting him. She thought of Marisel. Could she ask the girl to help? There had never been anything personal before, just the cleaning. But if she didn't ask, Tom's weight might topple her, he might fall, and in his condition . . . Well, she didn't rightly know what his condition was but she was worried. There, now she'd said it. Worried. A body had a right to be worried about their husband or wife.
'Marisel, Marisel, could you step in here for a minute, dear?'
'Yes, Mrs P. You want something?' Before Ellen could answer, Marisel was across the room and taking the other side of Tom, her shoulder under his arm. She was even smaller than Ellen herself but, somehow, together they steered him safely back to bed and tucked the covers round him. Then Marisel went to phone Doctor Jones and Ellen waited.
'I'm good at that,' she said confidently, as she settled to watch him, hands folded in front of her. But he lay very still and the doctor took a long time coming. For a while, Ellen comforted herself with fetching a damp flannel and dabbing at his face. But the skin felt cooler now than he had earlier, cooler than it ought to do. What if he'd been in an accident? He might be suffering from shock. A cold flannel could be the worst thing for it. So she put it down. Then she thought of making him a drink so she went to fill the kettle. She made a cup of tea with one teabag, so wasteful, but she couldn't face a cup herself. Only, just as she was carrying the cup into the bedroom, she tripped on the rug. They never took food or drink in there. It wasn't hygienic. She dropped the cup on the doorstop and it smashed, spilling the tea everywhere.
Ellen sat down on the floor quickly. It was to pick up the pieces, she said to herself. She got most of them gathered into her lap but the china handle was stuck under the door itself. 'Drat my fingers! They just not as nimble as they were.'
Exasperated, she poked her thumb and index finger as far as they would go beneath the door but, as she finally grasped the piece of china, it cut her thumb. Suddenly, Ellen was in tears, harsh, rasping, stupid tears, the tears of a weak, soppy person, not her. She'd never been weak, never broken anything, never left a speck of dust in the house, not since the little one died. But that hadn't been her fault! The doctor had said so in exactly those words. 'You mustn't blame yourself, Mrs Price. You really mustn't go on blaming yourself. The baby's illness could have come from anywhere. You keep such a clean home, it surely wasn't anything you did.'
She'd believed him, or wanted to. If only Tom had spoken to her at the time, told her how he felt, reassured her that he didn't think she was to blame either. But he never said anything, about the baby, its illness, Ellen herself, anything at all.
At last Doctor Jones arrived and she took him into the bedroom, apologizing for Tom still being in his coat. The doctor examined Tom and took his temperature and blood pressure. Then Ellen had to wait some more while he took the pulse. When would he say what was wrong - surely he must have some idea by now? At length he looked up at her where she sat in her chair, tear stains on her cheeks, blood congealing on her hand and her hair all mussed.
'Mrs Price, I'm afraid there's a chance your husband may have had a stroke. I'd like to take him in for observation . . .'
'Yes Doctor, shall I put his things in a bag?' She was calm, so calm, it was horrible. But she'd done her crying for today, there wasn't any left in her. They got Tom to the hospital and she went on waiting. It took hours, then days. She was supposed to sit with him in the daytime and talk, just in case he came round and was frightened.
'What do I talk about?'
'Oh, anything you like,' they said, 'it doesn't matter.' But of course it mattered. She tried asking him questions but he didn't answer. Then she tried reading to him from the paper. Man jailed for raping wife's sister. Number of childless couples in United Kingdom rises by two per cent over decade. Corruption in waste disposal firm brings directors to court. When she ran out of interesting articles in the day's paper, she talked about her life - about polishing and Marisel's shoes and clean aprons and cooking stew. Even about waiting for him to come home at night and having the dinner spoil.
One day she was telling him about how to tenderise braising steak before chopping it up and rolling it in seasoned flour, and she didn't notice that his eyes were open. 'What do dogs eat?'
'Dog food,' she exclaimed, dropping her bag and staring at him.
'No, but, what do they eat? Does it cost a lot?' His voice had changed. It was weak and whispery. She took his hand, the lumpy flesh no longer feeling over cold or burning hot but just about right.
'Dogs eat dog-biscuits and chopped liver and tinned dog food and why d'you want to know?'
'Because I . . .' He looked at her hard, like he was really seeing her. 'At the pub, the Carlton, there was a man. He had a pup for sale, asked me, I said no, you'd never go for it.'
You were right about that, Ellen wanted to say, but she didn't. Just hearing him talk, after all this time. Who cared if he was talking about dogs?
'This man,' she asked hesitantly, 'he had a puppy, did he?'
'Yes. He let me hold it for a few minutes. A labrador bitch, female I mean. Very soft. But then I had to tell him . . . And he laughed. Said I was a nobody to mind what you thought. And I said there were things to consider, like the inoculations and the cost of food and such - that I'd let him know if I changed my mind. But I knew I wouldn't. So then I had a few too many, more than a few.'
'I see,' she said, holding his hand tighter, not knowing what else to say.
'Because you wouldn't want a pup in the house, would you Ellen?' His eyes pleaded with her, not blood-shot now but still protruding and brown as conkers under pepper and salt eyebrows. She thought of dirt, dog dirt and fleas and mud all over her nice shiny floor. And then she thought of the stroke he'd suffered and the need in him for something soft to cuddle. He was a sick man. You didn't need to be a doctor to see that. Who knows, he might never be coming out of here? They did say there was a chance of another stroke at any time. It wasn't necessary to make a decision today, they could wait and see how things turned out. She was good at waiting.
'I don't know about the puppy, Tom, really I don't, but maybe we should talk about it?'