SHORT STORY: Pain Control
Heather Richardson story from new Lagan Press collection
The music had stopped and the little girls were whispering. Mike could hear them from his seat at the kitchen table. If they were daring to whisper, that meant Rosa had left the lounge. He must have been absorbed in his work, because he hadn’t heard the door open or close. Normally he could judge where in the house she was by the sound of her footsteps. Rosa had a firm step. It was natural, not something she put on for her pupils. He listened hard. There was no sound now but the hiss of the girls’ whispers, interrupted by an occasional bubble of laughter. He hoped they weren’t creeping around the room, peeping into the bookcase. It was something the bolder ones did when they had the chance. Mike looked down again at the report he was writing. It is my opinion. He tried to remember what his opinion was, and looked again in the case folder. What was the boy’s name? Nesbitt, that was it, Stephen Nesbitt. An oversized, torpid boy. His mother said she was at her wit’s end. The lad looked too lethargic to get into trouble. It is my opinion.
The downstairs toilet gurgled, and Rosa walked back along the hall towards the lounge. She spoke sharply to the girls. Mike heard the sullen mumble of their apologies. Then the music began again, the five recorders piping together in something like harmony.
After the girls had been collected by their parents Mike heard Rosa go upstairs. He carried his paperwork into the big smoked-glass dining table in the lounge. It was his favourite place to work. His books were nearby, and the light was better. As he had expected, the bookcase was disordered. Some books jutted out untidily, as if they had been pushed back in haste. Mike straightened them, pushing them in and running his hand over the spines, until they were all flush. Rosa came back into the room, and smoothed the cushions on the pale leather sofa.
'Have they been reading your dirty books again?' He didn’t reply. This routine had been a joke between them, but he was tired of it. She straightened up and looked at the sofa. It was shaped like the letter L, and filled two walls of the room. You could fit six people on it. It was still new enough to please her.
'Do you need a hand with the tea?' In the flats and terraced houses where his clients lived the men would sit hungry and stubborn, waiting for tired wives or daughters to come in from work and cook their evening meal. Rosa shook her head.
'I’m only doing salad. It’s just us. Rory has orchestra practice, remember?'
He wanted to follow her into the kitchen. There would be something he could do; set the bottle of salad dressing on the table, or open the jar of beetroot. Instead he stayed where he was, listening to the evening sounds. Usually he found something tranquillising in these familiar domestic noises. He waited patiently for his mind to settle. Instead he thought again about this morning, in their bedroom. He had turned away as she’d put her make up on. There was a pop when she’d opened up her pan stick, and then almost silence as she’d drawn it across her face and blended it in. She’d snapped the lid back down and reached for something else, lipstick perhaps. Another pop and snap, then the rasp of her hairspray. The silence afterwards made him turn and look at her. She was sitting in front of the dressing table, her tights half pulled up, so that her legs looked tanned to the knee, then pale above the crumple of nylon. Her fingers were laid across her right breast. It had annoyed him at the time. There was something affected in her pose. When she saw him looking she’d dropped her hands. She’d stood up and walked past him out of the bedroom. As she’d passed he had smelt the sticky sweetness of her make up and perfume. He’d seen how she had put the pan stick on more heavily, around her eye and cheekbone.
Their argument the night before had been quiet. Rory had been in his room, listening to a new LP, but his presence in the house meant they had kept their voices low. The changes in her had crept up on Mike, and then last night he had recognised it from the last time. Her restlessness, the feverish excitement, even the delightful, unexpected eagerness of her lovemaking. He had felt calm when he said to her,
'You’ll only get hurt, like you did before.' She had stared, not understanding at first.
'You think I’m having an affair?'
'You’re behaving like you did the last time.'
'That was fifteen years ago. I thought we’d forgotten that.'
'I just don’t want you to be hurt again.' He’d felt proud of himself, saying that.
'David didn’t hurt me.' At the sound of her speaking the man’s name Mike felt the heavy sensation in his chest stirring, like the sleep-snarl of a drowsy animal. He didn’t know whether it was love or hate. 'I hurt him,' she went on. 'He wanted me to leave you. He went to London, and got a flat for us. We were going to live there.'
For the first time he understood how much he needed to make her feel his pain. Before the thought had made its journey through his head, the back of his hand had hit her face.
Now he stood, looking down at his reflection in the glass table, listening to her moving around the kitchen. He heard the plates lifted from the cupboard, the sigh of the fridge door opening, the tap-tap of the knife slicing through the lettuce. When he went into her she was rinsing her hands under the tap.
'Why did you stay?' he said, 'Why didn’t you go away with him?' She dried her hands slowly, and looked at him directly for the first time in years.
'I don’t know,' she said. 'I can’t remember.' The heaviness in his chest pulsed and intensified. The word heartbreak didn’t fit somehow. A heart didn’t break like a wine glass that slipped from your fingers. That was sudden, and irreparable, and over. This feeling inside him had started a long time ago. It didn’t seem that it was ever going to end. Perhaps if I live long enough, he thought, the pain will go away.
She lifted her watch from the windowsill and buckled it round her wrist. 'I have to go out.' She lifted one plate of salad and set it on the kitchen table. 'I’ll have mine later.' She had already covered the other plate with tinfoil.
'Where are you going?' This was the sort of question he had always stopped himself from asking. 'It must be important.' He hated the way his voice sounded.
'I’m going to the doctor’s. Evening surgery.'
'I’ll come with you,' he said, and waited for her to lie, but she said, 'I’d like that.' There was softness in her voice, but her face was as rigid as a mask, and her eyes were turned away, as if she had already left the house.
Heather Richardson was born in 1964 in Newtownards, Co Down and grew up in Belfast. After graduating from the University of Leicester with a degree in English Literature, she worked in England until 1993, when she returned to NI. Her stories have been published in a number of magazines in the UK and Ireland, including QWF, Black Mountain Review, and Writing Magazine. She is a former winner of the Brian Moore Short Story Award, and has been shortlisted in several local and national competitions, including the Asham Award in 2003. In 2002 she was a finalist for BBC Northern Ireland's Tony Doyle