The din of the vacuum cleaner seemed to rattle my brain within its very skull. In the hallway, Jake moped along the threadbare carpet, his lips pursed with pent-up rage as he thrust the vacuum cleaner head repetitively into the skirting-board. Thwack-thwack-thwack…
“Don’t do that, love, you’ll chip the paint.”
I rose and headed over. The noise screamed between us like a wall. I watched him for a moment there, in the half-light. His swaying, lank hair made me feel nauseous. Stepping over the vacuum lead, I rested my hand gently upon his arm. Without as much as a moment’s pause, he slapped my hand back against the wall. There was the hollow dunh as my knuckle whacked the thin plasterboard. He kicked off the hoover switch.
“What the hell’s your problem?”
“Sorry, love, I was only saying we’ll lose our deposit if…”
“Oh yeah, that’s nice.”
I went back to the bedroom and slumped on the bed, angry once again at my inability to stand up to him. I had tried in the past. Many times. But somehow my words always felt so thin and papery against the red force of his violence. His smart, quick fist. In the corner on my bookshelf, my eyes came to rest on the spine of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Mind drifting, I thought of the Schlegel sisters, trapped between those pages. How strong they’d been. How capable and able to stand for what they believed in, despite what those heinous Empire-ready men said. Why can’t I be like that? I sighed and massaged my dully throbbing knuckle. Over by the window, the sun shone wanly through the net curtains which billowed into the room on the damp breeze, their rustle braided with the sound of motorway traffic. I’d never liked the autumn. To see summer start to collapse into endless months of British grey made me shudder. Jake and I had been renting Elder Drive for five years now. We had said that we’d not let ourselves see out another drab Christmas in this soulless cul-de-sac. A move would fix things. A fresh start. Jake could find work in another pub kitchen somewhere more picturesque. Yorkshire, perhaps? Or maybe Northumberland. I’d always liked the idea of Northumberland, even though I’d never been. I loved the way it rolls your mouth. North-um-berrr-land.
Then, in time, I could finally stop working thankless hours in the pet shop cleaning up after all the animals, and actually commit to my dream of studying zoology. That’s if I could ever persuade Jake that university was a good idea.
“I’m down the pub. See you later.”
The door closed. I heard him cough with a catarrhy wheeze as he pushed open the little squeaky gate at the end of the front lawn.
“Dezzie! Dezzie, puss!”
Skulking out from his basket alongside the laundry pile, I saw Desmond’s tail make inverted ‘S’-shapes through the air. He jumped up on the bed with a half-meow, burrowing his soft head into my hand with half-closed eyes. As he did, I noticed how his back leg seemed lame. Whenever he moved, it buckled slightly.
“Have you been fighting the big cats again, puss puss?”
That afternoon around 6.30, Jake came home half-cut. The match against Nottingham Forest had gone to penalties. I’d heard the roars of triumph down the garden from the pub at the end of the road as Leicester City had scored the decisive goal. They echoed against the brickwork of neighbouring houses like an eerie war cry.
“Do we have dinner in?”
“Not yet. I could get in one of those Jamie Oliver lasagnes. Fancy that?”
“Don’t all his stuff contain nuts?
I often forget Jake was prone to vicious anaphylaxis. Something about a person so cable of causing hurt being struck down by a rogue walnut would forever seem fascinating to me.
“No, there are nut free ones.”
“Ugh, yeah, alright. Listen, uh… You got any cash?
I felt a pang in my heart as he slammed a cupboard door.
“No, love, I don’t get paid ’til end of the month.”
Stand up to him, dammit.
“Yeah, um, 28th, usually.”
“What about your Gran’s money?”
There’s no way he’s getting his hands on my dear nan’s inheritance, the b******.
“No, that all went to pay off the loan for the car.”
I know Jake is stealing from me. Several times over the last month, notes have gone missing from my purse. Each time I mention it, he flares up, saying I’m a mad cow for being so scatty with my bag. But the other week something worse happened. The year before my nan died, she’d promised me some of her Sunday Best jewellery. I’d loved seeing it on her dressing table ever since I was a little girl. Two delicate pearl earrings, each orbited by a tiny constellation of rubies; two brooches, one with a small unicorn and the other a lion; and a ring containing a single, tiny sapphire stone gilded in white gold. I remember sitting in her living room, the gas fire singing and the cuckoo clock warbling out the hours, as she’d tell me how she’d met my grandfather in Scotland, how they’d courted on the banks of the Forth in Aberdour, and how he had bought her the brooch with the lion and unicorn – the symbols of the Scottish heraldry – so that she’d always think of him while he was away at war. “It’ll be yours, ducky, one day. I want you to have them, ducks. You’re the only one who’s ever shown any interest.”
The other night, I’d noticed one of the brooches wasn’t in its usual place.
In Howard’s End there’s a character who’s killed by books. His life his so pathetic, his social standing and job so lowly and insignificant, that all he has of value is his love of literature and ideas. In this one chapter towards the end, a bookcase falls on him killing him instantly. I’m thinking it’s a kind of metaphor; it’s as if he’s killed by his own need to be fulfilled. The books rain down on top of him squeezing the very air out of his lungs.
It is Monday and I am heading to open the pet shop. The sky is as white as clay, but over in the east, there is a little wisp of blue. “If there’s enough blue in the sky to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, then it’ll be a fine day!” Sometimes the thought of my nan’s fortitude and love really helps me kick out the Monday morning blues.
I turn the corner and head along the gum freckled pavement until I reach the graffiti-decorated corrugated store shutter. I bend down and unfasten the bolt sending it clattering skywards, before opening the door and switching on the light.
In the corner, Gerald and Sarah – the iguanas – nod up and down in greeting, while a pair of cockatoos screech as they sidle back and forth along their perches.
I reach into a bag of dried mealworm and begin feeding the birds and lizards who nibble cheerfully out of my hands.
Out in the back room live the rare breeds and reptiles. There are a couple of endangered clown loach – Mable and Susan – in a heated tropical tank; a venomous Cambodian Tarantula named Rosie, and a dart-eyed Malayan water lizard. And I loved them all.
Mondays are the only days when Tracey, the shop assistant, didn’t come in to help out. As a result, Jake and I had a routine. A little after 2pm, just before he started his shift at the pub kitchen at the end of the High Street, he would come into the shop to give me half an hour’s break, so I could go out for a sandwich and coffee. He resents standing in at the “the run-down bird coop” so much that I even agree to pay him. No customers come by when he is in anyway. The called him “the lanky leerer.” I can understand why.
That afternoon, it was a little after two when he slunk in, chucking his coat behind the counter.
“Here I am, you can leave now.”
“I won’t be long; do you want me to bring you anything back?”
“A coffee and a blowjob? But, oh yeah, you don’t do those. So, er, just the coffee, I guess.”
My head bowing, I shuffled over to close the door of the arachnid tank, and put away the mealworm. That was my moment. With marked delicacy, I kneel down to pick up one of my Grandma’s earrings that I’d planted carefully in the gloom just under the lip of one of the reptile tanks. With Jake behind me at the till, I twist the milky pearl slowly so the light caught the little circle of rubies around its edge, reflecting a ray of sunlight that streamed in through the window. I watched as little spots of yellow danced up the wall. All the time, behind, I could feel him watching; calculating… his beady, protuberant little eyes trying intently to catch a glimpse of what small bounty I’d found quite by chance.
“See you in a while, then”, I say flatly, my left hand going to the cash register dropping in the prized ingot with a purposeful clatter. “I won’t be long”.
I was in the coffee shop when the ambulance arrived. It was three hours later. A hubbub of rubberneckers had gathered around the pet shop, as two blue coated individuals conversed erratically with each other behind the glass frontage, before emerging with a stretcher. A long individual, supine, covered in a white sheet; and hanging from one side, a drooping hand, black and necrotic. They say neurotoxin works within 17 seconds on an allergen-sensitive individual. At least that’s what one of my zoology textbooks stated.
The ambulance pulled away. It moved with an eerie slowness. The sort of slowness that makes one look twice at an ambulance. Taking a deep breath, I stepped out the coffee shop and surreptitiously looked through the pet shop window. The door had been pulled shut but wasn’t locked. But that didn’t even matter. Through the glass, I could see everything: the phone, clutched then dropped; the mealworm jar, toppled and smashed; and, of course the cash register, pulled out fully and off its runners. Beyond it, glistened the ruby encircled pearl. And there, between till drawer and pearl, stood her… dainty, composed, and ethereal. Two arachnid fangs still supping. Rosie.