Isolation Tales 4: ‘The Most Boring Woman In The World’
So here we go with a fourth short story, this one from fairly early on in my timeline. I’ve never understood quite why this tale has proven to be so popular over the years – it’s been filmed at least three times and often comes up in readers’ conversations. I’ve decided to delay ‘Total Midnight: The Complete Short Stories’ because lately I’ve started writing some new ones! I’m not sure they’d be called horror stories because I’ve become a fan of John Cheever, Raymond Carver and the like, and they’ll be different in tone to what’s gone before.
I CAN’T IMAGINE why you’d want to interview me, I’m the most boring woman in the world.
I’m nobody. Nothing interesting ever happens in my life. I live in a house like thousands of others, in a banjo crescent called Wellington Close in a suburban part of South London, in a semidetached with three bedrooms and a garden filled with neatly pruned roses that have no scent and a lawn covered with broken plastic children’s toys. I have a labrador called Blackie, two children, Jason and Emma, and a husband called Derek. I keep my clothesline filled and my upstairs curtains closed (to protect the carpets from the sun – blue fades easily) and my days are all the same.
Derek works for a company that supplies most of Southern England with nonflammable sofa kapok. I met him when I was a secretary at Mono Foods, where he was senior floor manager. One afternoon he came by my desk and asked me out to the pub. I’ll always remember it because he drank five pints of lager to my three Babychams and I’d never met anyone with that much money before. Six weeks later he proposed. We were married the following June and spent two weeks on the Costa where I picked up a painful crimson rash on the beach and had to be hospitalised in a clinic for skin disorders.
Before that? Well, nothing much to report. I was a happy child. People always say that, don’t they? My older brother, to whom I was devoted, died in a motorbike accident when a dog ran out in front of him, and at the funeral they muddled his cremation with someone else’s, an old lady’s, so that we got the wrong urns and her family were very upset. Also, the dog was put down. Things like that were always happening in our family. On Christmas Eve 1969, my father got completely drunk, fell down the coal-hole chute and landed in the cellar, and nobody found him until Boxing Day. His right leg didn’t knit properly so he had to walk with a stick. One day the stick got stuck in a drainage grating, and he had a heart attack trying to pull it out. My mother passed on a few weeks later. They say one often follows the other, don’t they? I lost a cousin around the same time, when a gas tap jammed in a Portuguese holiday villa. He got in the papers.
No such calamities ever occur now. Now my days are all the same.
When I was young I was a pretty girl, with straight white teeth and hair that framed my face like curls of country butter, but I didn’t know I was pretty until I was thirteen, when John Percy from three doors down tried to rape me (not very successfully, it must be said) in exchange for a Chad Valley Give-A-Show projector. I told my mother and she went over to the Percy house. They moved away soon after. They had to. John came around and hit me when I opened the front door to him. He broke my nose, and I wasn’t so pretty after that.
When I was sixteen I wanted to go to art college, I wanted to be an artist, but my father said there was no call for it and I would be better off in an office. So I went to work for Mono Foods, met Derek, got married. I didn’t have to or anything, it just felt like the right thing to do. He seemed interested in me, and nobody else was, so I said yes. My father joked about it being a relief to get me off his hands, but he wasn’t really joking.
For a while we moved in with Derek’s mother, but that didn’t work out because she hated me for taking away her son and stood over me in the kitchen while I cooked, saying things like, ‘That isn’t how he likes his eggs,’ until I felt like strangling her. Then I fell pregnant and we moved here. We put her in a very nice old folks’ home, but the first night she was there she wrote and told me I was cursed for stealing her boy, that she was going to die and that it would be on my conscience forever.
The awful thing was that she had a stroke that night and died, and I had to go into therapy. Derek took his mother’s side, and while he didn’t actually call me a murderer to my face, I knew that was what he was thinking. Since then I always joke that I’m not addicted to Valium, I just like the taste.
My days are all the same. Here’s my routine:
The white plastic radio alarm goes off at seven-fifteen. The DJ makes jokes about the day’s newspaper headlines as I rise and slip into a powder-blue dressing gown covered in little pink flowers. I’ll have been awake since five, lying on my back listening to the ticking of the pipes as the boiler thermostat comes on. Derek sleeps through the alarm. I wake him and he totters off to the bathroom moaning about his workload and complaining about people at the office I’ve never heard of because I’m just a silly housewife who can’t retain any information that isn’t about the price of fucking washing powder.
I drag the children out of their beds and pack them off to wash and dress, make them breakfast (cereal and toast in the summer, porridge in the winter), check that they’re presentable and send them to school. Derek usually finds something to bitch about, like I’ve ironed his shirt with the creases going in the wrong direction or there’s a button missing from his braces, and tuts and fuffs until I sort out the problem. Then he takes the Vauxhall, leaves me the Renault and the house falls silent. And I sit down with a cigarette, a nice glass of Scotch and a Valium.
They don’t know I smoke. I have to wash the ashtrays and open the windows before the kids get back.
During the day all sorts of exciting things happen. Last Tuesday the knob came off the tumble dryer, on Thursday next door’s cat nearly got run over, and on Friday I found out that my husband was having an affair. Her name is Georgina. She works in his department. His pet name for her is ‘my little Gee Gee’, and she explains all of the awkward, stilted phone calls that take place here in the evenings. If you’re going to have an affair it’s a good idea to remember to empty the pockets of your trousers before you give them to me for dry-cleaning, that’s all I can say.
I don’t get on with the neighbours. The stuck-up bitch next door won’t talk to me because I once got a little soused in the middle of the day and fell into her fishpond. Sometimes I sit in the car and rev the engine just to blow smoke over her washing.
Jason and Emma come home and lie on the floor on their stomachs in that curiously impossible position children use for watching television. They remain glued to cartoons, space serials and Save The Fucking Zebra updates, all presented by some perky fresh-faced teenager I’d secretly like to ride naked.
I cook. I make sausage, egg and beans with chips, and fishfingers with chips, and beefburgers with chips, and chop, chips and peas. Everything comes with chips at number 11 Wellington Close. I’m the only one who doesn’t like chips. I’d like to cook langoustine swimming in garlic, loup grillé with capers and shallots. But you can’t get langoustine around here, just doigts de poisson avec frites.
I don’t eat with the others. After the smell of frying has permeated my clothes I’m no longer hungry. I have a brandy. I keep a bottle at the back of the sink. Sometimes Derek comes into the kitchen to refill the saltcellar and finds me on all fours with my head somewhere near the U-bend, and I tell him that the waste disposal is playing up again.
Then I clear away the dinner things while Derek provides more news about the people he works with and who, for me, only exist as a series of names with personality quirks attached. The Byzantine intrigue of the sofa kapok world is such that if Lucrezia Borgia applied for a job she’d barely make a secretarial position.
I don’t wash up very well. By now the kids are yelling and I’m getting jumpy. Anything I drop goes in the bin. Nobody notices. Nobody notices anything. My days are all the same. I listen to the pounding in my head and watch as the lounge fills up with blood. You can’t see the telly when there’s blood in the way.
At the weekend I go shopping. Sometimes I go shopping in my mind, but I don’t come back with anything. Oh, how we love to shop! B&Q, M&S, Safeway, Tesco, Homebase, Knickerbox, Body Shop, we just wander around lost in amazement at the sheer choice and ready availability of luxury products at the end of the twentieth century. If the excitement was running any higher it would be leaking from our arseholes. Derek doesn’t come with us, of course; he stays behind at the house to creep around making furtive phone calls from the bedroom. He says he’s ‘doing the accounts’, presumably a coded phrase that means ‘telephoning the trollop’.
On Sunday mornings we rise later than usual and I prepare a cooked breakfast before Derek heaves his flabby body from the chair and chooses between the pastimes of straightening up the garden and hoovering his floozie’s hairpins from the car. Do they still have hairpins? I can’t remember the last time I saw one. There are so many things you don’t see any more. Those little pieces of green string with metal rods at either end that used to hold bits of paper together. Animal-shaped Peak Freen biscuits. Jubblies, sherbet dabs and Jamboree Bags. You never see any of them any more. Instead I see the white plastic radio alarm clock and the powder-blue dressing gown and the hairs on Derek’s indifferently turned back.
The first time I took speed I got all the housework done in under an hour. It was great. But I felt so tired afterwards that I couldn’t cook, and Derek had to go and buy us all fish and chips. Speed helped me to organise the household. Thanks to the speed, which I got in the form of prescription diet pills, I not only started collecting money-off coupons, I catalogued them all in little boxes according to date, value and type of offer. I just never got around to using any of them.
I have never hit my children. Not even when I caught Jason smoking in the toilet and he was abusive. It would have been hypocritical of me. Is punching hitting? Sometimes I don’t remember things very well. I have lapses. Little bits of housewife downtime. Sometimes the children tell me I did something when I’m sure I didn’t. The dog won’t come near me any more, and I think it’s something to do with one of those vanished moments. I think I fed Blackie something bad.
When we argue, which is quite often these days, Derek always tells me that I never learn. I try to learn, but it’s hard to get motivated when you’re alone all day and you know exactly what’s going to happen from the minute the white plastic radio alarm goes off until the time you set it again at night. I don’t like the nights. It’s when I feel most alone. We go to bed, read magazines and sleep, but we don’t speak. I lie there listening. Derek’s furry back is turned away from me, the children are unconscious, the streets outside are black and silent. It’s like being dead, or being buried alive, or some damned thing.
Wait, here’s something new I learned. Cocaine, Valium and Lamb’s Navy Rum don’t mix at all well. I got the cocaine from a man at the shopping centre because I’d just had a huge fight with Derek and it seemed like a good angry response to his wheedling, wide-eyed denials. I’d already drunk half the bottle of rum to get my nerve up, and the Valium was a matter of habit. I opened the little paper packet of coke and chopped it finely on the breadboard with my M&S card, then snorted it up through a Ronald McDonald straw. The kids were in the lounge watching adults get green slime tipped over their heads on TV, and I was off my face in the kitchen. I threw a careless glance at the lasagna filling the oven with dense grey smoke and thought, hey, it’s takeaways again tonight, kids!, chucked the burning lasagna in the dog’s bowl and crawled under the sink for another hit of rum. Derek was at the office ‘attending an extracurricular staff meeting’, which roughly translated as ‘bunging the bimbo one in the photocopying room’, and I no longer gave a toss about the world or anything in it.
I love my children because they’re my flesh and blood. But I don’t really like them. Jason, without intending to, has learned to be sly and grasping and is already watching his father for tips at gaining a better foothold on the easy life. Emma is, well, bovine is too unkind a word. Slow to catch on, shall we say. She stares slackly with eyes like chips of glass and only becomes animated before certain TV programmes. These children are from me, but not of me. Each day they become a little more like Martians, shifting away from my embrace with each incomprehensible new habit learned in the school playground. And as their language grows more alien, as the cults and rituals they design to be misconstrued by adults grow more elaborate, I lose them a little more each day, meal time by meal time. Every mother knows that her children eventually leave. I just hadn’t expected the process to start so fucking early.
Derek works on winning the kids over to his side, of course. He can only allow himself to be seen as a hero. He teams up with them against me. Fathers often do that. Nice habit.
The house is quiet now. But then, it always was quiet. Our fights were conducted in a series of controlled explosions that wouldn’t wake the children, muted insults escaping like hisses of steam.
It was important to Derek that we also presented a unified, peaceful front to the neighbours. It didn’t take them long to cotton on, of course. The bin bags filled with bottles were a giveaway. Well, Mr and Mrs Rodney Boreham-Stiff next door can go and fuck themselves as far as I’m concerned. They’re dead from the wallet up, like everyone else around here; you want to talk about politics or art, they want to ask you how you get your windows so clean. Everyone’s a Stepford Wife. We have television to thank for explaining to us the importance of germ-free, pine-fresh tiles in our lives.
I’ll admit it now. At some point, I lost the plot. I could no longer remember my set routine. Housewifely duties became unfathomable to me. When the alarm went off I would rise and stand at the bedroom window, looking down into the deserted dawn streets, wondering what on earth I was supposed to be doing. How to function as a mother and a wife. Was it get up, wash the kids and iron the breakfast, or make dinner, fry the dog and kill the husband? I asked the children, but they didn’t know. Just got frightened and ran to Daddy. Big brave Daddy.
When Derek came home early one day and told me he was leaving for good, heading off into the sunset with his little Gee Gee, I was heating oil in a copper-bottomed omelette pan. Bad timing, big mistake. The pan left a series of concentric rings on the side of his face, and the oil badly burned his neck. The second time I hit him it dented the back of his head with a crunch, like putting a spoon through a soft-boiled egg. He dropped to his knees in complete surprise and pitched onto his back. I wanted to make sure he was dead, so I cut open a cushion and stuffed his mouth with kapok. I expected my civic-minded neighbours to call the police any minute, complaining of hearing ‘raised voices’, as if such indications of human life should never be given, and I began to panic. I imagined being led away through a crowd of gawping, tutting onlookers to a waiting car. But before agreeing to go with the police, I would tidy up the kitchen and tearfully say goodbye to the children. And I thought to myself, if only one of you could have met me halfway, just to show that you cared, I wouldn’t have had to murder someone. But I had, and he was lying on the kitchen floor, a halo of coagulating blood expanding on the diamond tiles, and I had to do something about it.
So I put him in a bin bag.
Well, not one, about three, but it wasn’t at all difficult. I did it without thinking, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to do. Derek wasn’t a large man, and I was used to manhandling sacks of rubbish, and before the kids were back from school I had him trussed up by the back door ready for collection. I squeegeed up the blood, rinsed the mop and replaced it, then showered and changed and came back downstairs just as Jason walked in, asking what was for dinner.
That night after the kids were in bed I entered the garage from the house, put the bin bags in the Renault and drove over to the edge of the estate, where there was a gravel pit that the council were landfilling so they could built yet another Tesco nobody needed but would soon be hypnotised into using. I dragged the bag across the back of the carpark and gave it a good shove down into the pit, then kicked a load of rubbish on top of it. Then I went home and watched ‘The Late Show’.
I didn’t plan any of this, you understand. I simply acted without thinking about it. The police would turn up and arrest me and that would be that.
But they didn’t. The next morning, Derek’s office called to find out where he was, and I told them I had no idea. The kids asked in a half-hearted way, and I told them the same thing.
I didn’t go to the police and report him missing, because if they came calling I knew I could say he’d run off with his mistress. Instead I opened a fresh bottle of rum, got pissed watching ‘Pebble Mill’, and got away with murder.
When I was a little girl, I believed that you got what you deserved. If you were very good, you were rewarded with a lovely house, a husband and children. If you were disobedient, you would never meet anyone and die a bitter, loveless death. Now I know that it’s the other way around; you get what you don’t deserve. And I didn’t deserve this frozen life where my days are all the same.
Oh, but they are. You think they should be different since I murdered my husband? And you wonder why I chose to confess to you?
Well, because I only just made the murder part up.
I didn’t really kill Derek, even though I had the opportunity. He’s still alive. We did have a row about his fancy woman, but he promised to put an end to the relationship. He hasn’t, of course. And I missed my chance to conk him on the head.
But it’s always there in the back of my mind, the knowledge that one day I might just go berserk with the Black & Decker. Hack his dick off, saw the dog in half, drink rat poison and set fire to the house while the children are in bed.
Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and watch them all sleeping, and I wonder if they realise how much danger they’re in. I stand above Derek as he snores lightly, his head buried deep in the pillow, and I want to pour lighted petrol into his mouth.
Each day they bring themselves closer to a reckoning with me. And they have no idea, because our days are all the same. Soon there’ll be screams in the night, power knives, lamps being overturned, doors slamming, flames and madness.
Or perhaps there won’t.
I have to go, my husband will be home from work soon and the dinner isn’t on. I don’t know why you wanted to interview me, anyway. I’m just like everyone else around here – more so. I’m the most boring woman in the world.
At the moment.