This short story was published in Fresh Leaves, an anthology for new writers and won a prize by the editor for being in the top three editor’s choice.
It was a fine afternoon on Sycamore Road. I hardly noticed the Cherry Blossom trees that lined the street as I pulled into our driveway that Monday afternoon. I sat for a moment watching the digital clock. One more minute and I’d get out. I could see the front door was open, but from this angle, I couldn’t see my husband’s feet. I’d see them once I got out of the car. I knew they were there because Jenny, my next-door neighbour, had called me.
‘You need to come home,’ she’d said. ‘Something’s wrong; I think Matthew’s collapsed, I can see his feet by the front door.’
Jenny’s head was peeking from behind the box hedge that separated our two houses. She wasn’t very tall; she must have been standing on tiptoe, her head bobbed up and down as she lost her balance. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car.
‘Everything alright?’ Jenny shouted.
‘Yes,’ I waved. ‘I’m sure everything’s fine.’
Jenny looked unconvinced. ‘I’ve rung the police,’ she said. ‘Just in case. I didn’t want to go in… you never know….’
Jenny was a member of the Neighbourhood Watch. I’d left my mobile phone number and spare key with her once when we went away.
‘That’s kind, thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m sure they won’t be necessary.
As I walked towards the front door, I could see Matthew’s ankles, and size 10’s resting neatly on the doorstep. I took a breath, pushed the door wide open and stepped over his legs. He was supine, on the floor, his left calf touching the leg of the hall table. His head lay between the staircase and the sitting room door. I put my keys down on the table and bent down towards him.
‘Matthew, get up.’
I gently nudged his arm with my hand. No response. I pushed a little harder, then leaned in closer to get a better view of his chest. It was moving, so he was breathing. I stepped over his head, walked through to the kitchen and dialled the Doctor’s. The surgery was just across the road from the house.
This wasn’t the first time he’d collapsed. During the past six months, he’d passed out in Sainsburys, over Risotto Al Funghi at Carluccio’s, and in the middle of my parents’ anniversary dinner. Each time he’d been taken to the hospital, and each time they couldn’t find anything wrong. Stress they said causes all sorts of problems; panic attacks, pseudo heart attacks, general pain in the arse attacks. I was trying to be understanding, but these “attacks” always seem to happen at the most inconvenient moment.
As I sat, phone in hand, waiting for my call to be answered, I looked across to the kitchen window. Matthew had come home for lunch; a dirty plate sat in the sink, breadcrumbs and a knife on the breadboard. Why would he leave work, a 30-minute drive, to eat lunch at home on his own?
Finally, the receptionist answered.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘This is Karen James from No 24, across the road. My husband has collapsed in the hallway, and I need a Doctor… no, he can’t come into the surgery, he’s lying on the floor, I can’t get the front door closed. I think it’s probably a panic attack…yes, he’s breathing. Yes… we’re right opposite; the Doctor won’t need to drive, it’s a two-minute walk. OK, thank you.’
Matthew groaned slightly. I put the phone down, stepped over him into the sitting room and picked up one of the cushions and the plaid throw off the sofa. Lifting his head, I placed it underneath and then stretched out the throw over his body. The spring sunshine at the front of the house touched Matthew’s feet, but there was still a chill in the air. I pulled the front door open a little more so I could hear when the Doctor arrived and sat on the bottom stair.
It was strangely peaceful. The only sound was the ticking of the big clock which hung on the wall, behind the front door. We’d bought it because it looked a little like the clock in Paddington Station, where Matthew and I first met. We’d been waiting for the same train, 6.30pm to Swindon, it was delayed. The station’s coffee shop was rammed, with just one free table, and we ended up sitting next to each other while we waited.
‘Do you mind?’ he had asked as he gestured at the seat next to mine.
I shook my head. ‘Not at all.’
He looked sort of homely, slightly rumpled from a day in the city. He was carrying a large portfolio case in one hand and holding an old rucksack in the other. It was covered in badges and handwriting and bits of stapled cloth; it looked like a piece of modern art.
‘I love your rucksack,’ I said.
He told me it was a mobile memento of the people he’d met, the places he’d been, and each mark told a story. And that’s how it all started, over a coffee at Paddington Station.
Here we were, eight years later, Matthew lying on the hall floor and me sitting on the bottom step, waiting for the doctor. The last few times he’d collapsed we’d been surrounded by people who’d taken charge, but this time I was on my own. This time it was down to me, and I didn’t know how to make it right. I looked at Matthew, really looked at him. I no longer knew how I felt about this person lying on the floor. I didn’t recognise this man that suffered from panic attacks. This man who’d once travelled the world alone with his crazy rucksack. I’d fallen in love with a free spirit, a photographer who had the ability to wring every moment out of life and turn it into a memory.
As we waited in that coffee shop all those years ago, I had looked through his portfolio; swathes of orange, pink and emerald silk wrapped around Indian women as they sat on the steps in a local market. I could almost hear the jangle of their gold bangles as they talked. An old man, playing cards in a remote French village, a Gauloises dripped from his mouth, his face, a road map of a life well lived, his eyes still sparkled, the flame not yet extinguished. But amongst the vibrant, living colours, one image stood out. A young child sat on a filthy, grey, ripped sofa surrounded by black mountains of rubbish. Her yellow vest the only colour across the wasteland, a Primrose in a slag heap. Her feet and face were filthy, her grubby shoes neatly placed side by side, next to the sofa, as if at home, not wanting to get it dirty. This was her life; it had no colour.
The crunch of feet on gravel told me the Doctor had arrived. I stood up as she stepped over Matthew.
‘Hello, I’m Doctor Stevenson… and this is Matthew?’
‘How long has he been like this?’
‘I’m not sure, I came home about 10 minutes ago, my next-door neighbour called me, she’d noticed the front door open… he’s done this before.’
She bent down and did the usual checks, pulse, heart, blood pressure.
‘I can’t find anything immediately wrong, but he should get thoroughly checked out. I’ll call an ambulance.’ She walked outside and took out her mobile phone.
Matthew moaned again. I wanted to tell him everything would be OK, but I couldn’t. Instead, I knelt down and touched his arm.
‘Matthew, the ambulance is on its way. It won’t be long.’
Sycamore Road became a busy place that afternoon. The ambulance arrived followed by a police car, an opera of professional voices and decisions. Matthew was examined and lifted into the ambulance and all along the police radio voiced a commentary in the background. Doors slammed, and gravel grumbled. Then, finally, it was silent again. I stood in the doorway for a moment and watched the blossoms fall gently onto the pavement.
I said I’d follow the ambulance. I needed to call Matthew’s parents and tell work I wouldn’t be back that afternoon. As I closed the front door I noticed Matthew’s keys, he must have had them in his hand as he was leaving to go back to work. They’d slid across the floor and nestled in the corner, between the staircase and the skirting board. I picked them up, and ran my thumb over the keyring. It was one of those clear, cheap plastic ones with a photo inside. I’d bought it as a silly gift after we got engaged. The photo was one of Matthew’s, the old Frenchman with that sparkle in his eyes and on the back I’d written ‘yours forever, may the fire never go out’.
It was as if the Frenchman’s cigarette had burnt my hand, but I couldn’t let go. I clenched the keyring tighter, feeling the pain searing into my skin. I wanted it to hurt, because it was all my fault. For years I’d studied to become a lawyer and Matthew had supported me. He’d given up his dreams to help me find mine. His travels of discovery had turned into a drab job, skittles on a Tuesday night and take away Fridays. His life had no colour because I’d taken away his future.
I dropped the keys onto the hall table and walked upstairs. The rucksack sat in a storage box at the back of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom. I lifted the box onto the bed and took the rucksack out. I ran my hand over the badges and bits of cloth and slowly opened the zip. Inside were a handful of photos, smiling faces laughing up at me. I grabbed the bag and stood up, walking over those faces as they fell to the floor. I stumbled into our bedroom and opened drawers, snatching at socks, jumpers, jeans, stuffing clothes into the rucksack until it was full. In the bathroom, I took Matthew’s toothbrush and shaving kit from the cabinet and put them in the front pocket. I ran down the stairs, picked up my keys and slammed the front door behind me.
‘Everything alright?’ Jenny’s voice slithered across the box hedge.
Ignoring her, I jumped into the car and sped down Sycamore Road towards the hospital. There was something I needed to do first.
Matthew was hooked up to a heart monitor. His eyes closed, and he looked exhausted. I walked towards his bed and gently touched his arm. He opened his eyes.
‘Hello, you. I’m sorry,’ he said quietly. ‘This is turning into a habit.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I said, sitting on the side of the bed. ‘How’re you feeling?’
‘Like I could sleep for a week. This is all pointless,’ Matthew said gesturing towards the monitor. ‘I’m just wasting everyone’s time.’
He sat himself up in the bed and caught sight of the rucksack on the floor.
‘What’s that doing….’
‘Matthew, why did you come home for lunch today?’
He looked at me for a moment, then lowered his head slightly. For a few seconds, we sat in silence.
‘I didn’t want to go back…I can’t stand it anymore,’ he said. ‘I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope. I’m trying so hard to keep my balance, yet all I want to do is jump off…I’m sorry, I know that sounds stupid.’
He couldn’t look at me and turned his gaze towards the rucksack. His words opened up the space between us, and I knew the decision I’d made earlier that day was right.
‘I’m the one who’s sorry.’
Matthew turned his head towards me.
‘You need your life back,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to; I didn’t realise….I was so caught up in….’ my voice wavered, and Matthew held my hand.
‘You didn’t take it,’ he said gently. ‘I gave it to you. I don’t want a life without you.’
I picked up the rucksack and put it at the foot of his bed. He looked up at me.
‘What does that mean?’ he asked.
‘I want you to be happy… I want to see the fire in your eyes when you talk about the places you’ve been and the people you’ve met. I want you back.’
I undid the zip on the rucksack and took out a little box which I gave to him. Inside was a key ring, not cheap and plastic but solid silver, made to last, I’d had it engraved on the way to the hospital, it said ‘yours forever, no matter how far apart’.