By John Young
Five minutes! That’s all it took. As she saw the police officers, two of them, male and female, make their way to her front door, Lisa glanced at the clock on the living room wall, and then again while they announced with practised sympathy that her husband had been killed by a truck while crossing a street. I’m supposed to feel something, she thought, but it all felt so ordinary, just another episode in a day filled with events and tasks, all laid out like a path in front of her, first this then that.
She watched the officers leave, retreating down the garden path between the geraniums now in bloom, vividly red in the borders next to the grass on either side. The lawns needed cutting. Henry’s job, she thought. She immediately corrected herself: Had been Henry’s job.
As she closed the door behind them, she caught sight of herself in the long hall mirror—medium height, nice appearance, remarkably few wrinkles. Reasonable enough for a middle-aged person, she thought. She smiled as she often did when inspecting herself before leaving her home or returning. Only now, she lingered for a moment longer. Myself alone, she thought, as framed in the mirror, she glimpsed a subtly altered image of herself.
The new shoes on the grey mat caught her attention, brown, still in their box, partially shrouded in white tissue paper, the lid resting at an angle on the left-hand side. Good shoes, she thought. He needed shoes. By making the purchase, she was doing her duty as a wife—caring for her husband. For a few years, duty had increasingly provided the iron scaffolding of her existence. She wanted much more from the marriage, the return of the warmth and companionship, the closeness, the laughter, the sharing that had filled their earlier years together. Doing her duty was what remained and was sufficient—just.
“I have all the shoes I will ever need in this lifetime,” he had announced repeatedly for reasons that defied her understanding; but in this, as in many other matters, there was no argument to be had, no possibility of crossing the divide that had opened up between them. He had done a lot of that, in recent years, announcing things, each barked assertion chipping at the links between them. “Position statements” she had come to label them: views on women with tattoos, gay couples, young couples, the young in general, motorcyclists—an endless array of positions that he fixated on, including the shoes.
In the days that followed Henry’s demise, events and procedures flowed along smoothly: the identification of the body, Henry’s big square face now yellow, the bruise on his head covered; the confirmation that he had died immediately of a head injury; the visit to the registrar’s office to obtain death certificates; meetings with the undertaker, decisions about flowers, the wording of death announcements in the papers; discussion with the minister—a young, cheerful woman with spiky hair, the choice of hymns, background stuff about Henry’s life; phone discussions with the lawyer and some of Henry’s work and golfing friends; offers of assistance tactfully declined.
To the white-walled crematorium and the service: hymns droned through, a prayer or two, the address—lots of references to golf, to the friendliness of the deceased Henry, to the closeness of their relationship. The button pressed, the coffin retreated to its place behind the doors.
Home again after the service and mandatory reception. Home and thankfully alone, she thought. She walked around the house, trying to capture the intangible change in the place. Her home, she wanted to say, all mine! Almost! Something was still wrong.
A few days later, black sacks stuffed with Henry’s clothes were lined up in the hall next to the front door for charity shops and the dump. In a queue waiting to depart, she thought. But for a reason, still not clear to her, the shoes remained untouched, still in their box.
One day in the car park of the local supermarket, Elizabeth encountered one of Henry’s golfing pals.
“Strange thing,” he remarked as he was about to make his way to his car. “He was very irritable before…” His voice trailed off.
“Before the accident.”
“He had a terrible competition. Got a lot of stick. Wasn’t in a good state of mind to start with. Stormed off into the road. Didn’t check the traffic.”
What an idiot! she found herself thinking, surprised by the vehemence of her feelings remaining with her unabated even after she returned home.
Such nice shoes, she thought.
When that final day she had shown Henry the shoes, his face tightened, his lips formed a line beneath his nose. Then, in a silent fury, he left the house hurriedly, leaving the front door ajar.
During the following days, the shoe box increasingly began to anchor her attention and spurred her to a level of rage she did not think she was capable of. In a moment of relative calm, she drew breath. You are driving yourself crazy! What is going on in your mind? she asked herself. He was a total idiot! He died because of the shoes I bought him—because I cared! Then suddenly she found herself laughing, unrestrained and liberating in a way she had not laughed for years.
‘Landfill only’, read the sign above the half-filled skip in the recycle centre. Lisa cast a downward glance at the assorted detritus of human activity: a roll of faded brown carpet, a torn duvet, and a massive mound of bulky black bin bags. Then she launched her shoebox, now bound round with black duct tape, and watched it slide, too slowly, she thought, to its resting place between two stained pink cushions.
Lisa paused and for a moment looked back into the skip. “Goodbye, Henry,” she chuckled, then more shrilly, “Goodbye,” as she turned towards her new life.