Sunday, August 18th, 20:45
The pain came, slowly at first, like an orchestra warming up. Then it built until it was a roaring crescendo. Cramps tore his stomach apart as he lay writhing on the floor. He pulled himself up on the coffee table, sweating with the exertion. Nausea gripped his throat and he vomited over the deep brown carpet. He yanked at the phone's curled cord, pulling it crashing down onto the floor next to his foot. His belly was on fire; it spread upwards to envelop his chest. His breathing quickened and slowed irregularly. Internally, the toxins were flowing in his veins already; his heartbeat was beating as fast as a hummingbird's wings trying to keep him alive, his lungs straining desperately for oxygen.
Beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead. He wrapped his arms around his stomach as he groaned. Sight and sound had been distorted. The overhead lights were almost blinding, yet the room was strangely dark and clouded at the edge of his vision. The television in the corner faded away until all that was left was a dull buzzing in his ears, but he could hear the noise of cars outside as if they were speeding past only a foot away.
Pain contorting his face, he tried to sit up once more. He pushed himself up until he was leaning sideways on the low coffee table and then manoeuvred himself until it was at his back. The sudden vertigo made his head swim and his vision blur. For a moment, he thought he saw a person standing to his left by the heavy oak door that led to the garden. He snapped his head round to catch the identity of the stranger and appeal for help, but they had gone.
His body was on the verge of giving up. The foreign substance was coursing through him. The few white blood cells he had left were no use against such a poison. He clawed at his sweatshirt as fever took him over then shivered violently as it deserted him just as swiftly.
His grey eyes clouded over. His breath rattled in his lungs. His heart gave on last feeble protest and stopped.
His last thoughts were of his wife.
Sunday, August 18th, 11:30
The warm room had never seemed so cold. He sank onto the white leather sofa. It creaked under his weight and settled. The pictures on the wall stared at him accusingly. A huge sigh escaped his lips and he rested his face in his hands. Everything he had previously found familiar and comforting was now alien and detached. The china tea-set sat in the display cabinet, bought on impulse for his wife in the January sales and yet to be used. The vase on the mantelpiece used to be the most beautiful thing in the world to him, besides his wife. Now that he saw clearly, it looked tacky and cheap. He cast a long, sweeping look around the room, searching for something to find solace in. His eyes found the framed picture on the wall. He stood up, his heavy shoes making imprints in the thick-pile carpet. He glanced at the floor, but looked away; the carpet had always repulsed him. The colour reminded him of mud. His wife called it 'chocolate brown' but to him, the floor just looked like dirt.
He made his way over to the portrait on the wall. Large and colourful, it showed him and his wife last June, but at that moment, he felt no connection to the couple in the picture. Inside the frame, a man and a woman were lying on a chequered blanket. The scene looked like a park; there was a pond in the background and trees to the couple's right. The sky was light blue and cloudless and the scene was bathed in sunlight. The woman's auburn hair shone and her green eyes sparkled. The man had his head propped on the woman's shoulder as she sat, comfortably leaning her back on his chest. Her head was turned and she was gazing upwards, into her partner's eyes. He was looking back adoringly and it was obvious from a glance that they were in love. Just inside the frame, the woman's hand rested on her stomach, as did the man's. There was a slight swell to her belly and the way the man seemed to be caressing it showed clearly that she was pregnant.
Sharply, he tore his eyes away form his former self. Looking so closely at that picture had brought back many memories. He suddenly wanted to clear his head. Striding through to the hall, he grabbed his coat from its peg, opened the front door and stepped outside into the brisk autumn day.
He walked swiftly with his head down. Hedges, fence and walls passed at the edge of his peripheral vision. The tarmac felt solid beneath his feet. Glancing upwards, he saw a neighbour acknowledge him with a wave of the hand and he smile in response. The expression felt fake, as if a cut-out picture of a grin had been stuck onto his face. He carried on walking, staring at the grey pavement, lost in his thoughts.
He suddenly registered the fact that he had stepped sharply downwards. Looking up in shock and confusion, the first thing — the only thing — he saw was the van bearing down on him. For a second, he froze. Rooted to the spot, a million things flashed through his mind. His wife, his home, his family; could he stand to lose them? His brain was screaming at him to move. His knees bent, ready to jump out of the vehicle's path while, at the same time, his slim frame was bracing itself for the seemingly imminent collision. His body decided — he jumped backwards onto the kerb. Panting heavily and shaking like a leaf, he didn't hear the van driver's abuse; he didn't feel the hands of nearby do-gooders ascertaining his condition. He shrugged them all off, ignoring their protestations, and strode on.
He kept on until, with a start, he realised that he was back in familiar surroundings. There was a pond in front of him and trees to his left. The cold sunlight filtered through the leaves; he shivered. After looking at that picture, was it any wonder that he'd ended up here? This was the place he had first met his future wife, taken her on many a date and finally proposed to her — just there, by the side of the pond. He sighed heavily. Was that photo really taken only a year ago? So much had gone wrong since then.
First his business, a small furniture shop, had had to close due to lack of business. He was devastated, but Amanda always said it would work out. Then they found out she was pregnant. They had always wanted to have kids, so they were overjoyed by the news; they had been trying for a baby for years and years. However, it had happened at the worst possible time. He was still unemployed; they were scraping by on Amanda's small part-time salary as a teaching assistant. It was apparent that the stress was taking its toll. The house had always been full of laughter, but his wife never sang as the washed the dishes any more; he no longer danced with her in the garden in summer, when the nights were cool and balmy. He missed these occurrences, these small gestures that made his day. Most of all, though, he missed her smile. His bright, beautiful, bubbly wife had stopped smiling.
And then his world fell apart. Amanda went to the hospital for her final ultrasound scan. Of course, he went with her. Everything had been fine at the last scan; they were told they were going to have a baby girl. That night had been a rare exception from the usual stony silences. They talked all through dinner and well into the night. He caught a glimpse of her smile once — her emerald eyes shone and she seemed to glow from within with a radiance so lovely it almost made him weep. Eventually, they decided on a name for their baby: Harriet. That night, instead of lying as far away from each other as possible, they slept as a couple. She lay on her side and he curled round her, their hands set lovingly, protectively, on her stomach.
Amanda lay on the padded turquoise reclining chair, staring intently, almost desperately, at the grainy image being projected onto the television-like screen. The nurse had been smiling until a minute ago. She had joked about little Harriet being asleep. Now, her face was ashen. The picture hadn't changed since the scan started and there was no tiny heartbeat coming from the speaker. She reached over and switched the machine off. He knew before she said it. Harriet was dead. Not yet alive, and she was dead. Still inside her mother, she was dead. His innocent, tiny, helpless little girl ... his heart lurched as he realised he was never going to be able to see his daughter. Tears sprang to his eyes, spilled over his cheeks and ran down to his jaw. For the few months she was in his life, Harriet had been the Sun to his Earth, Moon and stars. She had been the centre of his universe. Now the centre of his universe had been ripped out and he felt like his heart had been taken with it.
Amanda went back to the hospital the next day to deliver their perfect child, too perfect for this world, on her own.
Monday, August 19th, 9:00
She grumbled to herself as her key slid into the lock and turned. She stepped into the dim hallway, frowning. He never let the house get dark. She wandered into the living room. The first thing she noticed was the drawn curtains and overhead lights. The second thing she noticed was the body.
Her husband lay curled into a ball on the floor by the low oak coffee table. His face was distorted into an expression of pure pain. She staggered backwards, reaching out a hand towards the white leather sofa for support. It creaked under her weight and settled. Shaking like a leaf, she lowered herself to the floor. From here, she could see her husband's expression. The skin was pale, with red blotches and his eyes were half-shut. His arms were tight around his stomach and his knees were drawn up to his chest. He seemed to have been in incredible pain. She wondered if this had anything to do with what happened the previous day, and a wave of guilt washed over her.
She noticed in confusion that her husband was still fully dressed, complete with shoes and sweatshirt and a half-eaten bowl of soup was on the coffee table. She spotted his dark trench coat lying on the back of the sofa too. Either he had just returned from somewhere, or he was planning to go out after dinner. Her eyes widened in shock — if he was planning to go out, then he might have been murdered before he could go anywhere! She came to her senses; she had to phone the police, now.
After that was done, she went upstairs to see if she could see anything that might give her a clue as to what had happened last night. There was the tray on the half-landing, its contents strewn over the floor where she had knocked them the day before. Suddenly, a flash of pink caught her eye that she hadn't seen earlier. She knelt down and pulled out an envelope with 'Amanda' written on it in his flowing, graceful script. Her hands shook — a suicide note? A clue as to his killer? She peeled the two paper layers apart and reached her fingers in to see what was inside. A card, white and pink, came out. It had a picture of two teddy bears on the front holding hands. She opened it and read what was inside. It was her anniversary card. A smaller, white envelope fell out of the card and she bent to pick it up. It, too, had her name on it. Trembling more now, she opened this new surprise. She pulled out two cruise tickets, departure that weekend. Reading on, mouth open in surprise, she found that he had booked the two of them on a cruise, lasting two weeks, around Hawaii.
This was too much for her. Unsettled and quivering, she slid down the wall until she came to sit on the half-landing floor. There, she finally gave in to her first reactions. She sat and let the tears wash over her, sobbing on the half-landing surrounded by debris.
Sunday, August 18th, 17:00
He trudged on, not knowing where he was headed exactly. The street names were vaguely familiar; he had been here with some friends a few times. He looked up and saw a neon sign urging him to go to 'Donny's Burger Joint.' He declined the polite offer and instead turned up a small road that led to a bar. It was called 'Charlie's' — he remembered hearing someone joke about it, but couldn't recall exactly what they had said. He was glad he was nearly there; it had turned cold during his walk and slight drizzle was starting to fall. He was cold, despite having worn jeans, a sweatshirt and a long trench coat. He reached the doorway of the bar and his face fell. It was not, as he had hoped, a pub-like atmosphere. It was dark and dingy inside. The barmaids were wearing outfits that left nothing to the imagination, and the men were apparently given free reign on how crude their language and actions could be. He turned to leave, but saw with dismay that the rain was now heavy, bordering on torrential. He turned back — there might not be another bar for a while, and this was as good a place as any for a man to drown his sorrows.
He strode in, feeling uncharacteristically defiant towards the looks he was getting from some of the men. They were huge; they looked like ex-wrestlers. He looked around for somewhere to sit, feeling like the new kid at school deciding which clique to sit with. He chose an empty stool by the bar and waited to be served.
It soon dawned on him that you weren't served in the usual 'first come, first served' order — to get the barmaids' attention, you had to be loud, vulgar and muscle-bound. Resigning himself to sobriety, he decided to wait his turn; he guessed that if he pushed into the fray ahead of some of these men, he would be crushed.
He took the time to look around and see just what kind of place he had wandered into. The bar was fairly small and extremely crowded, which added to the claustrophobic, crowded atmosphere. There were small booths to sit four people all around the bar — all full. The floor was black and the walls were panelled with dark wood. Film posters and festival banners were pinned all over the place, giving him something to read while he waited. He leant on his right elbow, resting on the bar. There seemed to be every kind of alcohol imaginable on the shelves behind the barmaids. He started reading some of the labels while he waited to be noticed. Smirnoff, Jack Daniels, Malibu ... Suddenly his view was blocked by a barmaid. While he had been distracted she had, apparently, bought him a shot, though due to his inattention, he had absolutely no idea what was in it. It was difficult to see in the dim light what colour it was, but by lifting it, he could make out a faintly reddish liquid. Throwing caution to the wind, he picked up the small, curved shot glass, tipped his head back and swallowed.
The cold liquid burned as it went down his throat. Tears sprang to his eyes and he coughed and choked on the searing liquid. The sound of raucous laughter reached his ears and he looked around to see the group of leather-clad motorbike enthusiasts roaring with laughter. Turning to the barmaid, he motioned for a glass of water. She brought him another shot. He looked over at the bikers, who were watching intently by now, waiting to see if he could hold another one. He grasped the small shot glass, lifted it to his lips and swallowed all in one. This time, the fiery sensation wasn't as bad, perhaps because he was expecting it. He set the glass down firmly on the bar and breathed deeply, inhaling as much cool air as possible. He wasn't going to be outdone by these men.
He looked over again. This time one or two looked vaguely impressed — they evidently hadn't expected him to take the second one, but to them, two drinks was nothing. They all began making drinking motions with their wrists, egging him on for another one. He turned back to the barmaid, watching with a small smile on her face, and nodded. This time, he watched intently as she mixed the shot and saw that it was made up of roughly one part vodka, two parts whisky, and a liberal dash of — his eyes widened and his mouth gaped — fiery Tabasco sauce. He swallowed nervously; perhaps not knowing was better than knowing. Shrugging off any remaining inhibitions, he lifted the glass, turned to the bikers and raised it higher in a mock toast. Without any hesitation, he drank the liquid in one gulp. This tine, he relished it. The sensation was no longer one of burning, but one of enjoyable warmth, and the taste of the peppery chilli sauce mixed with the whisky was unusual, but by no means horrible.
With each drink, time seemed to pass slower and slower, but in an almost dreamlike state. He didn't remember drinking any more but every time he looked down at the bar, the number of empty glasses in front of him had multiplied. Brow furrowed, he looked at them intently, half expecting them to spontaneously multiply. After a few minutes, when they hadn't, he concluded that he had drunk all those shots and consequently must be a lot drunker than he felt. With a start, he remembered his wife. She would be at home, waiting for his return. He lifted his sleeve to check his watch; his eyes blurry and unfocussed, he couldn't make it out. The digital display danced in front of his eyes, the numbers morphing and changing. Finally they stopped. The time was only quarter past six - he had no need to return home just yet.
He turned back to the bar, hoping for another drink. The barmaid who had previously served him was on the other side of the semicircular bar area. Curiously, he wondered why he hadn't noticed how pretty she was before. She was petite and slim with auburn, almost red, hair. She wore a short denim skirt and a red halter neck top that had almost no back, exposing her skin. He noticed that she had a freckle on her right shoulder blade and a small scar about the length of his thumbnail further down near her waistline. When she turned around to pour someone a drink, he watched her face closely. She had smooth skin the colour of milky tea and deep brown eyes. Her lips tightened in concentration as she poured from two bottles at once, spinning them back onto the bar afterwards. A small smile lifted the corner of her mouth as she accomplished this and she turned to give the buyer his drink. She looked around as if deciding who to serve and walked over to his side of the bar, a few feet from his seat. He watched her face as she took the order and poured. She had high cheekbones and a stunning smile that radiated warmth. Her eyes were beautiful up close; rather than covering them under tons of make up as the other barmaids had done, she had accentuated the colour and size of them with subtle black eyeliner. She caught his eye once, smiled and winked at him.
After serving the man near him, she poured another one of those wicked shots and left it in front of him. Gratefully, he drank it down, afraid he was sobering up. He didn't want to remember, didn't want to know what had happened last night. His phone vibrated in his pocket, jerking him back to reality. He pulled it out and saw a small box on the screen telling him he had one new message. He pressed the button to open it and found a message from his wife: 'Where are you? We need to talk. A.' Brief, but to the point, he thought. He looked down at the phone, across at the barmaid, then back at the phone. Pressing the button to delete the message, he slid his phone back into his pocket and stood up. His legs wobbled and his head spun; he grabbed onto the bar for support. Looking dazedly around him — he hadn't remembered being this tall — he staggered out of the bar.
On the street, he suddenly felt much colder. The bitter wind blew; the sky was overcast and grey. He shivered and pulled his coat tight around him, wistfully dreaming of the balmy summer nights he and his wife used to enjoy. Weaving across the pavement slightly, he made his way home.
Sunday, August 18th, 10:45
Her face was a tangled web of emotions: blame, anger, guilt and sadness flitted on her features. Usually a warm verdant green colour; her eyes were now cold, hard emeralds, with edges sharp enough to draw blood. Her lips were moving but he couldn't hear anything, he just saw her shout, snarl and sneer at him. Her eyebrows knotted together in a fierce frown and harsh wrinkles appeared in her alabaster forehead. As she moved around, her auburn hair flew behind her and waved in the breeze coming in the window. Her hands gestured madly in the air, changing their movements according to her emotion. When she was angry, her fingers curled into claws and scratched at the air; when she was pleading for forgiveness her palms were upwards, beseeching him to see her point of view; when she was sad they would abruptly stop moving and fall to her sides; when she was blaming him and avoiding taking any responsibility for her mistakes, her hands pointed like daggers, stabbing at him.