In the winter of 1962, after three years and two babies, our marriage had turned as frigid as the weather itself. Jackie and I barely spoke except to express our dislike of what were once our most endearing qualities. We scheduled our lives, as far as possible, not to be in the same room together. The marital bed had become just a place for sleep, the joy of sex yielding, by increments, to squabbles, threats and pyrrhic victories. Neither of us, teenagers when we wed, gave any thought to our kids who we swept into this soup of malice as casually as we might cut the head off a fish. The fights, punctuated by sullen silences lasted days sometimes weeks. And all worsened by a lack of financial acuity and a very slim wallet.
Neither of us knew much about restraint, but Jackie got angry often and, when she did, she gained strength and lost control rather like the comic book character the Hulk. The more our rows got out of hand, the more I became afraid of what might happen next. Notably so, on the day we had a loud bust up in the kitchen over a pan full of steaming fish.
I had arrived home late from an after-work pub crawl with the lads. I had been declaiming the rightness of the left and in particular the merits of a Socialist government. My friends mostly shouted me down.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about, Bobbie, you bolshie bastard,” Wayne summarized neatly — a bolshie bastard himself if ever there was one. But passion and getting a rise out of your friends was what counted. Neither side wasted any time on facts. When the shouting died we all said a friendly farewell, I smiled with the rest as we departed.
The winter air and the walk home, amid the traffic noise and the green fluorescence of the streetlights on the Fulham Palace Road, did not cool my angry mood.
Muttering without moving my lips, I trudged up the bare stairs to our three-room flat and notched up further irritation from the rosebud pattern on the cheap wall-paper. I took off my coat and scarf and plopped down at the tiny table in our tiny kitchen. A haze of steam and the smell of boiled fish hung in the air. On the mantel two china bunnies her mother had given us held two grubby tea towels in place over the boarded up fireplace. Oil cloth, ripped at the corners, had been nailed to the table in lieu of cotton cloth. I grabbed my knife and fork and held them upright in each fist, in caricature of eager anticipation, awaiting the poached haddock my wife had prepared. But with a few pints of Guinness and the leaden meat pie from the pub swirling in my guts, I had little interest in eating it.
Pan in one hand and a spatula in the other, she stepped forward to serve, hurrying as a waitress in a cheap hotel might. I pushed the plate away with a dramatic sweep, emphasizing my action with a true but unwise observation,
“I can’t eat this shit.”
I might have taken better note of Jackie’s mood and avoided what followed.
“You prick,” she crooned quietly suggesting that somehow it was a compliment. I had become accustomed to, and almost enjoyed, this kind of crude chat. But I couldn’t have been less prepared when the volume wound up along with the pitch.
“If you don’t want to eat it, you can wear it!”
She deftly raised the heavy pan, simmering water and overcooked haddock and dumped it over my head.
A sense of well-being does not come easily when bits of haddock are drooping from head, shoulders and arms. Nor does the sting of hot water help maintain an easy or understanding manner. So odd was the situation that I would not have been surprised had a monkey swung out of the kitchen cabinet, across to the hanging cord of the bare metal lamp and out the lintel of the wooden doorway.
After the brief period of mental numbness that seems always to follows the unexpected, the mood I had walked in with filtered itself back in and I heard myself scream, “You fucking cow.”
I leapt up and went for her. Spatula still in hand, she threw the now empty pan at me and started for the open kitchen door.
“Bastard,” she shouted over her shoulder as she headed for the bedroom. She slipped around the back of the worn, second-hand armchair and off up the stairs at a gallop.
I ran after her. I’d put on about twenty pounds since we married and the booze made my legs feel as if they were tied at the knees. She shot through the bedroom door like a ferret after a rabbit and almost had it shut when I crashed into it. A splitting sound cracked the air as my shoulder hit the door, but it held. Choice epithets flew back and forth as Jackie pushed from the other side hoping to get it closed and locked before I could get in. She was strong alright, but my weight won out. Slowly I squeezed my shoulder in and reached around the door grabbing for her hair. She backed off and rolled over the double bed to the momentary safety of the other side of the room, as professional as a paratrooper hitting the ground. I fell into the room and bounced off the shabby oak wardrobe by the entrance, knocking it to a half fall against the garish pink of the far wall. Winded and panting, with my hands on my knees, I paused.
We stood, on opposite sides of the room, red-faced, raw angry and drawing fast, deep breaths. Moving the back of her right hand over her face she swept a wisp of her fine red hair out of her eyes. My eyes locked on hers as my lips twisted to a wry grin.
“You pisshead, fuck, bastard, shit, sonofabitching…” she trailed away, so angry she couldn’t assemble a coherent insult.
I noted the fresh split in the downed wardrobe and saw the old iron key nestled in the bedroom key hole. I locked the door and threw the key into a pile of dirty linen, thinking that she couldn’t easily retrieve it if she somehow slipped past me.
“Now, you bitch,” I said, savoring the possibility of whacking the contemptuous look off her face. I put one foot on the bed and stood up on it, covering possible escape routes. Jackie lifted her left arm out in front of her and the flash of metal caught my eye. I now regretted my rash disposition of the key. For in her hand she clasped not a spatula but a very wide carving knife. As the grin transferred from my face to hers, she raised her eyebrows asking with mute expression what I thought now. She didn’t move toward me, but jabbed a threatening arm forward a few times like the star of a pirate movie. The knifepoint hit the air a bed-width away from me, but my head went back instinctively at each stroke.
“I could run you through now you fucker and no one would blame me,” her eyes as cold as the spilled fish on the kitchen floor. Her voice quivered with the thrill of advantage.
The clamor fell away and a wet blanket of silence dropped between us. The thin squeal of our daughter’s crying broke in from the other bedroom, a beacon of reality in the emotional squalor of our fight.
I backed up cautiously feeling my left foot down to the floor. My eyes glued to the point of the knife, I paused before allowing my right foot to follow. Jackie’s eyes held the gleam of a hungry savage advancing on her downed and damaged prey. She seemed unaware of anything but the two of us and stepped around her corner of the bed intense, advancing toward me, still firmly gripping the knife. As she closed in, I thought to step up onto the bed again. But the ineffectiveness of such an action swept me aside. The years of whacking and whining had, with the compelling urgency of a gut punch, revealed a life so broken as to be not worth living. A heavy weariness seeped in. The effort of thinking about surviving was outweighed by submission to fate.
I turned, offered my back to her and lowered my head, a defeated bull awaiting the matador’s sword. A line from one of the old black and white movies came to me.
“Go ahead honey,” I said, in a slow, steady voice, “you’ll be doing me a favor.”
The next few seconds took eons to pass. As I stood, sweaty but calm, I imagined the feel of the blade as it pierced my skin, sliced through my guts and skewered one of my kidneys. I did not long to die, but the release of execution in that moment seemed somehow just, even desirable. With my back to my mad wife and thoughts of the wounds to be, I ran up the white flag feeling only indifference to the outcome.
Then, in that long quiet, we drifted into the calm eye of the storm.
“You’re not worth it, you shit.” Her voice came in a growly rumble.
A few seconds more and the metallic clang of the knife clattered across the cheap lino floor. I stood inert but tingling, unsure if her rage from just minutes ago would repossess her, if she would pick up her weapon again and stab me just because she could. I heard her rummage about in the limp pile of dirty shirts and nylon underwear and retrieved the key. I felt the brush of her breast on my arm as she padded past me, through the door and into the hallway.
Now my easy acceptance of dying fell away and I trembled like a rag doll jerked on a string. Fear and gratitude came to me as if they were natural brothers. My knees gave way and in one quick collapse I was sitting on my heels. Not a praying man, I heard “Thank God,” fly from my lips. I sat there until the crying of my infant daughter pushed its way through the temporary deafness that, in a crisis, bars all but the immediate.
Quiet settled in the house and I listened until there were no sounds of Jackie. I crept out across the hall into my daughter’s room. Picking her up and cooing “Rockabye baby” in a low voice, I rocked back and forth until the disquiet shaking both of us settled to something resembling calm. In the soothing silence of the room I lowered her into the protective rack of her crib and watched as she drifted off. I made a heap of quilts, pillows and stuffed animals on the floor and lay down.
As was her habit, Jackie came in around six the next morning to ready our daughter for the ride to her mother’s place. As she bustled about with the routine preparations, I kept my eyes closed and breathed slowly inserting a slight rasp as if sleep held me firm. After mother and daughter left the room, I waited until the front door slammed shut and rose quickly. From the front window, I watched as she pushed the stroller to the end of the street. I returned to our wrecked bedroom and threw armfuls of shirts, pants, sweaters and personal items into my duffle, enough to get me started. A half hour later, after one hurried look around, I left through the same front door.
Hebditch grew up in London, and entered the U.S. after a five year odyssey around the world. He was a contributing editor to the Macmillan Dictionary of Archaeology, wrote movie reviews for the Courier News, and has published two stories in past fiction issues. Married with two sons, he is a retired staff member of Princeton University and lives in Princeton.