An early short story – not crime. Hope you enjoy it. Published a year or two ago in a Woman’s magazine.
The Scent of Lavender
She always had to know better. As if he couldn’t take a few baubles off a tree without needing an instruction manual.
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Could’ve fooled me. You’ll have pine needles all over the floor, if you’re not careful.”
Giving her orders, in that black dress, with the pearl drop earrings, and the lavender perfume she always sprayed on her hankie.
“And those are glass. Mind you don’t –”
“I know, I know. I’m being careful. Aunt Beatrice gave them to us our first Christmas. You think I don’t remember?”
“And mind those lights. We should get new ones. I said you shouldn’t put those on the tree again this year. And unplug them before you take them off.”
“They’re all right. They’ll see us out.”
“Probably not safe any more.”
“Will you stop flapping?”
Artie took the coloured glass balls off the tree with great care and wrapped them up in the cream tissue paper they had come in all those years ago, putting them in the box where they lived for eleven and a half months of the year. He looked across at the place on the settee where Fay should have been sitting.
“You see,” he said to nobody at all. “I can manage. I don’t need you to tell me how to un-decorate a tree.”
He paused to take his handkerchief from his pocket and blow his nose.
Stupid. Upsetting himself like that. If only she were still here, nagging at him. Picking things up after him. Watching out for him in all her little ways. Irritating at times. Driving him mad, going on and on. Perhaps it was his fault for trying to change everything.
When he’d picked the ring, he’d felt like a young man again. The chap in the jewellers had thought he was batty, of course, buying an engagement ring at his age. He’d given it to her in the restaurant.
“Soft old thing. What did you want to go and do that for?”
“I got the size from that pearl ring of yours.”
“And fancy ordering champagne, Artie. So extravagant.”
“Got enough for a nice holiday too. I’ve been saving. Ever since Margaret’s had no claim on me and I haven’t had to support the children.”
“But that’s years.”
“Even on the pension, we’re better off than we used to be – all that money we never saw.”
Fay sipped the champagne and smiled at him. He laughed at the way she wrinkled her nose against the bubbles.
“I never minded,” she said. “I had you.”
“Even so, I wanted to do something, make it up to you.”
“You know what it means, don’t you?”
She looked at him, her head on one side. Everything about her was predictable. He could describe it all with his eyes closed. Even at seventy, she was lovely. Skin soft, like a peach, lightly dusted with powder. The fair hair, traced with grey, untouched by bleaches and colours.
“Will you marry me, Fay?”
Blushing wasn’t just for the young then.
He picked up his champagne glass. “To us, for ever and ever.”
“You are soft, Artie,” she said again, “We’ve always been for ever and ever.”
“It isn’t the same, though, is it? Women always want marriage, don’t they? And I read somewhere that common law wives -”
“That’s a horrible expression.”
“They don’t get the same benefits as proper wives. If anything happened to me you wouldn’t -.”
She made a clicking sound with her tongue and sighed. “Nothing’s going to happen to you, Artie Brimshaw. I won’t let it.”
“You wouldn’t get my pension, or anything. Anyway, I want us to be married.”
“Obstinate old goat.” Fay had smiled and nodded and sipped at her champagne, and stared at the solitaire ring on her finger. That had been the day before Christmas Eve.
On Boxing Day, they’d gone for the walk along the prom. It was sunny, but cold, not enough to be uncomfortable, just a crisp day for a wander. After they’d had a drink in the Pier, to keep out the chill, he nipped into the gents, just for a second. When he came out, she was waiting for him on the other side of the street, near the bus shelter.
The car was out of control before it turned the corner. Joy riders, the police said. Not much joy for him.
And now here he was, dismantling Christmas on his own.
Dammit, he blew his nose again, this wasn’t important anymore. Who the hell cared if he took the stupid tree down and put all the decorations away in the loft? How dare she go and leave him all on his own? For ever and ever, she’d said. Did she think she could just run out on him?
He left it all as it was and went and put on a warm coat – not his best one: no sense in ruining a perfectly good camel hair – and took himself off the to railway line. He lay down across the tracks, settling himself as comfortably as he could. It was a cold night, but with no frost forecast, thank heavens. It was ten past eight. The train would be along at about twenty past. Not long to wait. He watched the moon slide behind a cloud and the stars twinkling above his head. If Fay were here, she’d be looking out for shooting stars, so she could make a wish. Big on wishes, she was. Artie’s only wish was to be with Fay, but he couldn’t see any shooting stars. Where the hell was the train?
He waited until twenty to nine, and then hung on until nine o’clock. That should have been three trains on the up line and three more on the down, where he lay, but nothing had arrived. No sense in lying around out here, catching his death of cold. He trudged back to the house via the station, only to discover a notice outside.
‘Workmen on the line until 1st March. Buses in operation between Porham and Hilbury.’
He went home and slept alone in the big double bed.
When he woke, he had a better idea. He’d throw himself in the river, upstream of the weir. That should do it, especially as he couldn’t swim. It was another beautiful day, and he dressed for the event to come. Thin layers. He wanted to drown, not freeze to death slowly. He put his raincoat on over the top of everything. That seemed practical. When he got to the riverbank, he took off his shoes. Soft leather ones that Fay had bought in the market in Florence on that four-day city break. Mustn’t mess those up.
It took Artie several minutes to psyche himself up to jump into the river. He’d never been fond of the water, not paddling or anything, even in the summer, and this was freezing. In spite of himself, he gave a little yell when he hit the water. The river was so cold, for a moment he forgot how to breathe.
The current grabbed him and whipped him along. All was going well as he headed for the weir, until two lads larking about on the bank saw him. One of them was that Jason Elliot from along the road.
“Hold on. We’re coming.”
Jason swam out and caught Artie before the river funnelled into the torrent that would become the weir. The other boy, William Someone-or-other, helped to drag him out.
“It’s all right Mr. Brimshaw, don’t struggle. We’ve got you. Blimey, don’t struggle. Anyone would think you didn’t want to be rescued.”
They took him home to Jason’s mum, who scolded Artie. She sat him in front of the fire in a blanket and made him eat tomato soup while she sent for the doctor.
“I don’t need a doctor,” he said.
“Strikes me you need a psychiatrist,” Mrs. Elliot said, “Going down to the river in this weather. Catch your death of cold, you will.” She rubbed his hair with a rough towel and stared at him with cold blue eyes. “Whatever would your Fay say? In the river, your life hanging by a thread?”
That gave Artie another idea. He’d try tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. He’d had enough adventure for one day.
It snowed during the night and he woke to a quiet world, big flakes sighing down to join the duvet on the ground. Good job he was staying in today. Artie hated it, nasty cold stuff. Pretty to look at though. Fay would have been delighted. She’d always loved the snow. Though she wouldn’t be too pleased if she knew that his Italian shoes were still down at the river. They’d be buried under that lot.
Oh, well. No matter. He didn’t need them today, and if all went well, he wouldn’t need them again. It would take a while to rig up. He had to find a piece of rope that would be long enough and then find away to open the loft, but make sure the ladder stayed out of the way. Difficult, because it had been designed to come down automatically when you opened the hatch.
He managed it in the end. He tied his rope to one of the rafters and dangled it over the stairs. He needed a chair, of course, which had to be wedged on the stairs. That was easier said than done. Then he had to stand on the chair.
It was horrible. He knew it would be. Fay had always laughed at him about his fear of heights.
“You’d get dizzy standing on a matchstick, Artie Brimshaw.”
Now here he was, trying to stand on a chair on the stairs, swaying a bit, with a rope around his neck. All he had to do was to kick the chair away and Bob’s your –
Except that the chair slipped, the rope broke and he ended up in the hall with a bruised kneecap.
Well, that was that. He’d failed. Couldn’t even hang himself properly. Nothing for it now, he’d have to go on living. Without Fay.
He went into the sitting room and looked at the mess. Bits of tinsel, baubles everywhere, and that bloody tree was shedding. It would take him till next Christmas to get all those needles out of the carpet. Next year, if he had to have a tree, he’d make sure it was artificial.
He got the steps out to finish taking the decorations off the tree. There was a faint scent of lavender in the air.
“Watch what you’re doing on those steps.”
“Give over, will you? I’m all right. I can’t do myself a mischief even when I’m really trying.” He reached up to unhook the lights. They were caught at the back of the tree somehow and he gave them a quick tug.
There was a flash and a bang and he landed on the floor underneath the tree, stuck all over with pine needles.
And Fay was standing over him.
“Silly old fool. Now you’ve gone and done it. I told you to be careful, but would you listen?”
“I’m all right, don’t fuss.” The smell of lavender was very strong.
“I told you those lights needed replacing. And you should have unplugged them before you started messing about.”
“That’s true. You’re right,” he said, smiling. “I thought you’d deserted me.”
“Idiot,” Fay said. “I told you we were for ever and ever.” And she kissed him gently on the top of his bald head.