Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Woman in the Cupboard

“Would you like some tea?” I whisper across the kitchen sponges and rolls of paper towel and Tupperware and Thermoses.
    Her face has been getting progressively clearer over the past few weeks. I can see her fine grey eyes, straight, classic nose. And her hair: dark brown, like a World War II land girl, cut in a bob.
    What do you call a man with no arms and no legs floating in the sea? Bob.
    I don’t tell her this.
    “No, I don’t want tea, you idiot. I want Champagne. The best. And if you can’t afford it, go get a job.”
    “We don’t have any Champagne in the house,” I plead with her.
    “What kind of house is this? A slum? A house for losers?”
    She’s right on the money. Except my husband and son aren’t losers. They’re members of society.
    What do you call an unemployed woman talking to a face in her cupboard?
    Ellen Jones.
    Ben breezes in.
    “Ellen, what are you doing under there?” he asks.
    “Just getting a new sponge for the washing up. The old one smells like the inside of a dog’s mouth.”
    He pours himself a large cup of coffee.
    “I’ll be late tonight. David just called to say there’s an emergency meeting scheduled for six o’clock. You’ll be OK won’t you?”
    He kisses the top of my head.
    “Yes, I’ll be fine,” I reply.
    Noah bounds downstairs. I can smell the mango hair gel over the coconut shampoo and deodorant. He’s a walking cloud of pheromones, parabens, fake fruit additives and something that smells like artificially clean laundry. He is giving us all cancer.
    “What’s for breakfast?” he asks.
    “Whatever’s in the fridge,” I reply. I’m still decongealing last week’s scrambled eggs from the frying pan.
    “Oh god Mum, that looks gross.” He peers into the sink full of floating egg and washing up liquid gone flat from so much grease in the water. “I’m going to Jen’s tonight for supper. Don’t wait up. We’re going to watch a DVD after dinner.”
    No kiss from Noah. But I do get a smile and four sentences. I am grateful for anything.
    The door slams. I hear him unchain his bike from the front gate. I know every sound within a radius of about a hundred feet from this house. It is amazing how much noise can be heard in an empty house.
    Ben is upstairs getting ready for work. His steps are lighter than Noah’s.
    “OK honey, I’m finally off. See you tonight,” he calls out as he leaves. Honey? He hasn’t called me that in ages. Does he know something I don’t?
    The woman is shouting. I stop my egg scraping and listen.
    “Champagne, Champagne, Champagne!”
    I bend down and look at her. “I’ve told you we don’t have any Champagne and I can’t afford to buy you a bottle.”
    “But it’s what I want. And if you don’t give me what I want I will make your life hell. Hell!”
    I collapse into a kitchen chair, my face in my hands. I have no choice. I get my coat and walk the ten minutes to the Tesco Metro. I find their cheapest Champagne and put the £24.99 on my credit card.
    But the woman in the cupboard is not impressed. She wants a brand name: Moët or Veuve Cliquot or Taittinger. However, she drinks Tesco’s Finest* quickly, her Adam’s apple pulsing with every gulp. I have never seen anyone drink Champagne like that, as if it were water. She asks for another so I get the same again. She drinks that one up too. Then she gets more abusive. She’s swearing and telling me I’m worthless. She asks me what Ben sees in me and how my son can bear to look at me and call me his mother. I don’t deserve the words ‘mother’ and ‘wife’, she says.
    What do you call a woman cursing in your cupboard?
    I’ve had enough and wander upstairs to lie down.
    This is how Ben finds me when he comes home around 9:30. He wakes me gently, asking if I am all right. Why does he keep asking me that? I am fine I tell him and then apologise that I haven’t made anything for dinner. I find us a frozen Pizza. We share that with a few carrot sticks and some yogurt just on the right side of edible.
    He tells me he is going away for a few days. There is a conference in Germany in some hotel in the middle of a parking lot on a roundabout near an airport. I know the type. I worked once. I have also stayed in business hotels smelling of particle board and bedbug spray.
    “That’s fine,” I tell him. He gives me the dates that he’ll be away and then stands up, stretches and says he’s hitting the sack.
    “I’ll be up soon,” I reply.
    He throws me a wan smile. He looks tired. Poor Ben.
    The woman in the cupboard starts knocking.
    Just as I am about to tell her to shut up, Noah walks in.
    “Hi Mum,” he says opening the fridge and standing in its glare assessing its contents. He closes it. “When are you going to buy some food?” he asks.
     He doesn’t seem to hear the woman.
     “Um, maybe tomorrow.”
     “We need, like, everything. There’s no milk or orange juice or anything,” he says, not exactly sounding outraged.
     “OK, why don’t you start making a list. I’ll go do a shop tomorrow,” I say.
      “OK. G’night Mum.” He bounds upstairs.
      I know I should feel lucky. I have a sixteen-year-old son who doesn’t spend his weekends getting off his face on pills and weed and Vodka. He still speaks to me in sentences, he does well at school and is nice to his girlfriend. Does life get any better?
      Now she is shouting. She wants asparagus tips with béchamel sauce and some poached salmon with buttered baby new potatoes. A lemon tart for pudding. Fresh, not frozen.
      “Are you crazy?” I whisper. “I can’t go shopping now. I’ll get you what you want tomorrow.”
      “Fucking lazy whore,” she shouts, “you’re nothing but a loser. A pretend person.” She is laughing at me.
       Even when I block my ears I can still hear her.
       I tie the cupboard doors together with garden twine. You can’t be too careful. As I pad upstairs I hear a tinny headphone buzz coming from Noah’s room. Light seeps out from under his door like melted butter and spreads itself along the cream hall carpet.
       Ben is fast asleep. After brushing my teeth and slipping my clothes off, I get in next to him naked. I’m feeling horny. Why don’t we have sex any more? I slide my hand down between my legs and pleasure myself. He used to do this for me and now he is always too tired. After staring at the ceiling and listening out for the woman in the cupboard I finally fall asleep.

I wake to hear the front door slam shut. I impress myself by knowing it is Friday. Most days are the same as each other. Apart from Saturdays and Sundays when Ben is around. I hate how much I look forward to those days.
      I find some still warm coffee in the cafetière and as I take my first sip, the shouting begins.
      “Don’t forget my lunch. I’m starving in here. Can you get a move on?”
      Someone has untied the cupboards. Maybe Ben needed a thermos to carry his coffee into work. There she is: red-faced, her grey eyes full of fury. “Get me my food, you cunt,” she shouts at me.
      I bang the doors shut and run upstairs to shower. I am trying to understand this phenomenon. How can a woman be living under my kitchen sink?
      What do you call a greedy woman living in your cupboard?
      I chuckle as I dry myself with a towel and find some clean clothes.
      The breakfast dishes need washing and then there’s the shopping to do. Should I do the shopping first to stop the woman’s outbursts? They are beginning to drive me crazy. I am not a lazy cow or a whore and I don’t appreciate her language.
      I wrap myself in my coat, which is one of those long wearable duvet types, and rush off to buy what she has asked for. I walk the extra distance to Waitrose. I know the woman won’t settle for anything less than the most expensive ingredients. I am beginning to get a feel for her character.
      I arrive back home in time to hear her coughing. She calls out to me in a hoarse voice. “I think I’m ill,” she says.
      I open the cupboard and can immediately see that she is very sick indeed. She looks tubercular. I make her a cup of hot water and honey and squeeze the lemon that I bought for her to have with the fish.
      “I don’t think I’ll be wanting that lunch after all,” she says softly, taking the hot drink. “I think I just need to sleep.”
       I close the door and leave her to nap while I tackle the breakfast dishes and tidy the house. I have let it go these past few weeks. There are dirty clothes everywhere and Noah’s room smells like sweaty rubber. God knows what he does in there. Maybe just growing and sleeping are enough to create such a stinky fug.
      I check on the woman periodically. She carries on sleeping. I take her half empty mug and put it in the sink.
      Around nine o’clock in the evening, I cook the salmon and vegetables and make a béchamel sauce. Ben gets home as promised around 9.30 and we share the woman’s meal.
      “This is great,” he says, smiling. “You haven’t made anything like this in ages.”
      It is getting late and Noah is upstairs revising. He had some pasta earlier as there wasn’t enough fish for all of us to share.
      “Thanks,” I say. I think I can hear the woman snoring under the sink, but I can’t be sure.
      Ben comes over to where I am rinsing the plates and hugs me from behind. “I’m going up to bed. You coming?” he asks.
      “Yeah, I’ll just finish the dishes. I’ll be up in a second.”
      I check on the sleeping woman who is breathing through her open mouth. She looks pale, almost green. I turn out the kitchen lights, climb the stairs and find Ben in bed with a legal magazine. He is highlighting sections of it. I stopped asking him about his work as soon as I started finding it boring, which must have been about ten years ago.
       I pick my book up from the floor and get in next to Ben. He looks at me with his handsome face and says, “You seem better today.”
       “Better?” I ask.
       “Yeah, you’ve been,” he pauses looking for the exact word. He is a stickler for using the right word. “You’ve been a bit detached, like you’re shut away from us,” he finally says.
       I shrug and open my book whose cover shows a woman staring out to sea. There are no women living in cupboards in this story. It is about a failing marriage and infidelity and blame and recrimination and jealousy. Nothing in it feels particularly real to me, at least not as real as the woman living under my sink. She is real. But I don’t tell Ben about her. Instead I tell him about the woman in the book who thinks she deserves an affair because her husband has stopped finding her attractive.
      “Do you think she deserves one?” he asks.
      “Yes,” I say. I can see his gaze moving around my face not knowing where to land. “I think people should do whatever they want,” I add.
      “Right,” he says clearing his throat. “Of course they should.” And with that he rolls over to fall asleep. I recognise that tone of his.
      Once his breathing steadies, I walk quietly downstairs.
      I open the cupboard to find the woman lifeless. Her eyes are closed, her head is flopped to one side, her hair falling forward like the filthy strands of a mop. I reach out to touch her face. It is cold. I stare for some seconds taking it all in. I wipe my eyes and sit back on my haunches. Do I need to dispose of her? Or will she leave as she arrived, without any assistance? I realise her face is growing fainter. She is disappearing before me.
      Suddenly the lights come on and I jump.
      “What are you looking at?” Ben asks.
      “Nothing,” I say. “I thought I heard something dripping under the sink. But it’s stopped now.” My heart is racing.
      “Good, now come to bed,” he says sounding annoyed.
      “OK,” I say and follow Ben up the stairs like the good girl that I am.
      What do you call a dead woman in your cupboard?

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