April 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
Stanley flicked the switch on, off, on, off, on, off, on. The light in the shed was blinding, almost surgical, in its luminance. He glanced round to make sure everything was as he had left it last week. Dusting off his sleeve, he headed over to the workbench, pulled out his red leather stool and eased himself down onto it. Outside it was a crisp but bright March afternoon, with air that fills the lungs and reminds you you are alive. But for Stanley, this Saturday was to be devoted to his toolshed.
He got to work. From the right-hand drawer, he produced a fresh shammy from the boxes lined up in neat rows. From the left, he withdrew a bottle of white spirit. He reached up and took the wrench on the farthest right from its peg, turning it over and over in pink, fleshy fingers before meticulously laying it out on the top of the workbench, perfectly parallel to the edge nearest to him. Wrench, he intoned in his mind. Wrench, wrench, wrench. He twisted the cap of the white spirit bottle three times to the right, then turned it back twice the other way, then another three times to the right. The cap popped off. He upended it gently onto the new shammy and then bent over the wrench. Four wipes to the right, another three to the left, then turning it over to repeat. Done. He pushed it to the back right corner of the workbench. First, he must clean them all, and only then would he replace them on their pegs.
There was a gentle knock on the door; it opened a few inches, and the head of his wife poked itself in. She smiled warmly, cherubic cheeks framed by curls of salt and pepper hair. Her make-up was all fixed, and Stanley caught the faintest hint of perfume tinge the air inside the shed. It was her shopping day with her friends. Every Saturday, like clockwork, almost immediately after Stanley had sat down to his weekly ritual, Deborah would collect her handbag from the sideboard in the kitchen, drop her car keys inside and get behind the wheel.
“Hi,” she said warmly. She pushed the door open and walked over, a cup of steaming tea in hand. She laid it carefully down on the workbench, mindful not to spill any of its contents on its pristine surface for fear of distressing her husband. Immediately, Stanley reached over and aligned the handle of mug parallel to the front edge of the workbench.
She stood over him a moment longer than usual, one hand bent backwards and resting on her hip, the fingers of the other lightly resting on the coarse red fibres of Stanley’s favourite sweater. He looked up at her slowly, faintly irritated at this continued disruption, but finally managing a curt, “Thank you”. She looked back at him evenly, the smile still on her lips but now faltering. Then, she gave a little cough, clearing her throat. As she did so, she moved her hand to his head, stroking his hair.
“I’ll be back by six,” she announced simply. She turned on her heels and left the shed without another word, the hint of perfume – was it Chanel? – lingering once again. Stanley immediately got up and crossed to the door. He opened it up and closed it again four times. Once he was satisfied, he returned to his work. He took a cautious sip of the tea and instantly regretted it; it was piping hot, and he burnt his tongue. He reached for the next wrench.
As he worked, a vague, unwelcome sensation began to settle over Stanley. Something didn’t sit well in his stomach. He tried to dismiss it as his usual anxieties, another by-product of the OCD that that led him to his quirky behaviour and rigid rituals. But this felt different, somehow. Then it struck him. The perfume. In all the Saturdays he could remember, Deborah had not once put on perfume to go shopping with her friends. As the realisation of this sank in, he began to tremble. He felt his face grow hot, felt it go as red as his jumper. A flush of humiliation clamped over his heart like an icy claw as visions of the worst possible scenario flashed through his mind. His breath came in shallow, rapid swallows. Then, as abruptly as the attack had started, it began to subside. Stanley clutched hold of the edge of the workbench, his head bowed. He took a long, cleansing breath. Then he took a second sip of his tea.
A third wrench came off its peg, and he applied himself once again to his task. He lost himself in his ritual, moving with mechanical precision, every swipe of the shammy clinically dispatched. Outside, the afternoon sun began to sink in the sky; shadows in the shed began to lengthen. His tea, long since forgotten, grew cold. As he began to hang the last of the wrenches back in its place, he heard the crunch of tires as a car climbed the gravel driveway behind the garden fence. He cocked his head and listened, and heard the car door slam shut. He rose from the stool, walked to the door. He closed it behind him and then turned the key back and forth in the lock until he was satisfied. He walked briskly over the lawn to the gate in the fence that led out onto their parking space. He stood looking over it, at his wife leaning against the side of their saloon, legs crossed, her hand holding a mobile phone to her ear. She was giggling softly, but turned away from him. He couldn’t see her face. “Yes, I love you too. You know I do,” she whispered. “But I have to go. I’ll speak to you soon.”
She turned just in time to see Stanley’s face break, and watched as he collapsed onto the path.
Photo credit: Amy Massey