Helen sat at the kitchen table, her stomach in knots. She looked down at her hands, the paleness of her fingers contrasting with the dark wood. Her fingertips rested on a groove, and her face tensed as she remembered how it got there.
‘What are you doing?’ He shouted, and she flinched as he raised his voice. ‘Well? Aren’t you going to answer me?’ He slammed his knife down onto the table.
She sighed, and gently shook her head, as if it would help shake the thoughts away. As she looked around the room she knew so well, years of memories stared back at her. Their first holiday, the sunset on that day they’d gone skinny dipping, their wedding day. Her eyes settled on the picture of them with Piper, their dog, and her eyes filled with tears.
It was time.
‘I have something to tell you. I think you should sit down.’ Her voice startled her as she spoke out loud in the empty room. She had to practice, she needed to be strong, though she felt anything but. She couldn’t give up now; she had come so far.
He would be home soon. She should make some tea. Everything’s better with tea, right? Or not. She stood up, and then sat down. She laughed out loud at the absurdity of it, but it didn’t sound like her. It was a nervous laugh.
There was a noise outside and her stomach churned. She felt sick. It was his car, pulling into the driveway. Her heart was beating so fast she thought it might leap right out of her chest. Since when had she felt so nervous to talk to him? Shouldn’t he be the one she could tell anything to? She tried to remember when it had changed but couldn’t. It must have been a gradual process, like a dripping tap. You don’t notice it, then suddenly there’s an overflowing bath and everything is flooded.
The door opened, and he walked in. He looked tired, she thought.
‘Martin, do you want a cup of tea?’ She knew she sounded strange, but he didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t even look at her.
‘Yep. It’s been one hell of a day.’
She got up from the table and he walked past without a glance. She listened to his heavy footsteps as he went upstairs, the creak of the floorboards familiar. She could picture him folding up his trousers and putting them on the back of the chair, ready to wear again tomorrow. She heard him move across the room, no doubt going to retrieve his joggers from where they lay on the floor, thrown aimlessly into the corner last night before he went to bed.
His feet were softer as they came down the stairs. No shoes. She heard his voice from the living room. ‘I’ll have my tea in here.’
No please, no thank you, she noted, as she stirred the light brown liquid. She made a point of hitting the spoon against the edges of the mug. She wasn’t sure why, but it helped her feel calmer.
He didn’t look up from his phone as she went into the room and put the tea on the table in front of him.
She sat on the sofa and waited. She looked at him, at how his brow was furrowed while he squinted at the small screen, mouth twisted and tight. She had loved that face once. A strong jaw with a smattering of stubble, always wearing a wide smile that reached up to his eyes which would crinkle in response behind his glasses. Nowadays, he didn’t smile much. His hair was grey, where it was once black. His skin was pale. She didn’t recognise him anymore.
‘Martin.’ Her voice was quiet, and he didn’t move.
‘Martin.’ She spoke louder this time, and he looked up.
‘I need to talk to you.’
‘Can’t it wait? I’m in the middle of something,’ he replied, pointing at his phone.
He sighed and put the phone down. He seemed irritated.
She took a deep breath and spoke out loud. ‘When did you stop loving me?’
‘What?’ He looked surprised. ‘What are you on about? Of course I love you.’
‘Do you?’ She looked up and their eyes met. ‘It doesn’t feel like it.’
He looked at her. He didn’t recognise her anymore. He realised he’d not really seen her for months. When did she get so thin? Why was she so pale? Her blond hair was pulled back tight in a ponytail, making her blue eyes stand out. They were glassy, wet with tears.
He felt sick. His world was shifting, and he didn’t like it. ‘What can I do? What can I say?’
She laughed. It was a bitter laugh. Empty.
‘You think it’s as easy as that? That you just say something, and everything is OK?’
Yes, I do, he thought. He didn’t understand. What was her problem?
‘It doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve stopped loving you too.’ She said quietly, her voice sad.
He felt like he had been punched in the gut.
‘What the hell?’ His voice was loud. ‘Since when? Why?’
‘It wasn’t you as such. It’s just. It’s…’ She paused, searching for the right phrase. ‘It’s what we took for granted,’ she said, with a sigh. Her heart felt heavy in her chest. She hadn’t wanted it to be this way. ‘We grew complacent. We forgot each other. We didn’t pay any attention to,’ she waved her hand in a sweeping motion, ‘all of this’.
He looked at the pictures she was pointing to, and realised there weren’t any from the last two years. When did they stop taking pictures together? When was the last time they did anything together? He couldn’t remember. He shook his head.
He could feel panic rising, coming from somewhere deep within. Like a caveman facing a predator, his fight or flight response was kicking in. His palms were sweating, his heart beating fast.
‘No!’ he shouted. ‘We haven’t! We don’t need to do this. You’re throwing it all away!’ His face was red, his breathing panicked. She watched from the sofa as he got up and started pacing the room, hands gesticulating wildly.
She knew he thought it could be fixed. She knew he’d now be thinking of what they could do to fix it. What promises he could make. Although they’d likely turn out empty, she thought. Perhaps he would suggest counselling. After all, The Fletchers went and they’re still together, he’d argue. She pictured them in her head; together, but still miserable.
She felt strangely calm. Saying it out loud had made it real. She felt in control, for the first time in a long while.
‘Here, drink your tea.’ she said, handing him the mug, hoping it would calm him down.
‘NO!’ he shouted, grabbing it out of her hand and throwing it against the wall. She flinched; surprised.
‘Look what you made me do!’ he said. ‘You should clean that up.’
She watched as the tea dripped down the wall. Brown marks on the white paint. Everything was in slow motion, like time had stopped. It was strangely hypnotic.
She didn’t hear him shout her name. She didn’t see the fist that came on her right side, straight into her jaw.
Her head hit the floor as her body slumped to the ground like a rag doll. The taste of metal filled her mouth and she tried to swallow but it hurt too much. She was face down on the carpet, and all she could think about is how nice it smelt. It had been cleaned recently. What an absurd thing to be thinking about, she thought.
‘Now look what you made me do!’ He was angry. She waited for the next blow, but it never came. She heard him punch the wall. ‘Fuck!’
A single tear fell down her face. His face was above her, contorted with rage. She had never seen him so furious. That wasn’t the man she fell in love with. She tried to speak, but it hurt too much.
This wasn’t supposed to be how it ended.
If only he had drunk the tea. She had taken it for granted he would. After all, he liked tea. She should have let him drink the tea first before telling him.
She sat up slowly, her head pounding. She moved her jaw and winced. He sat opposite her, head in his hands.
‘I’m sorry,’ he stuttered, ‘but it’s only because I love you so much. You just made me so angry.’
He looked at her, his eyes wet. He was bent over, his tall frame hunched and small. She’d never seen him upset like this before and saw a glimpse of the man she fell in love with. Maybe he was still in there.
‘Let me make us a cup of tea.’ she said, slowly getting off the sofa. ‘I think we could both do with one.’
He started to pick up the broken mug pieces. ‘Leave it,’ she said, touching him lightly on the shoulder. ‘I’ll clean that up later.’
She could see him from the kitchen, sitting on the sofa staring out the window as she stirred the tea. It felt like déjà vu. This time she wouldn’t say anything.
She walked back into the room softly and handed him the steaming cup. They sat in silence. He didn’t seem to want to talk, which was fine by her. She could wait. She touched her chin; it was tender. She knew it was going to bruise.
Martin liked to drink his tea fast when it was still hot, while she preferred to savour it. She had not even taken two sips before he slurped his last mouthfuls and put the mug down.
She stared at it. They had got it in a set as a wedding present. It was a blue and yellow striped pattern, reminding her of those colourful beach huts you get at the seaside. She closed her eyes and pictured the ocean; she’d not been to the beach in a long time.
There was a noise, and she opened her eyes, looking up. He tried to speak, but only a strange, gurgling sound came out. She watched as his eyes bulged and he gasped for breath. His hands flailed around, grabbing at his collar.
‘Tea makes everything better; don’t you think Martin?’ Her face broke into a smile as he looked at her, confused.
She sipped her tea again, watching as his lifeless body slumped sideways onto the sofa. She swilled the sweet liquid in her mouth, enjoying the moment.
Who knew arsenic worked that fast?