Alice was yet again in the kitchen, checking on the food being kept warm. It looked appetising when it was ready over an hour ago, but the prolonged stay in the oven irradiated any vitality it once had. Steamed greens lay pallid and mournful. Within the casserole, the lamb, root veg and liquor have broken down into a single homogenous mash, and a thick skin has formed over the top, already tanning under the orange light of the cooker.
She hears the front door and his usual clatter when returning home. He ascends the stairs without fanfare; no explanation for his lateness, nor for not replying to her texts and calls enquiring as to his whereabouts. Just his work bag slung into a mangled shape in the vestibule and soaked-through shoes bleeding dirty rainwater onto the floor.
So much for pot-roast.
For a number of days, every other month or so, Jim becomes incapacitated by thoughts of death. During this time, he is unable to manoeuvre himself through the most basic of tasks, even those pertaining to personal hygiene. Brushing his teeth, bathing and changing of underwear are no longer within his capabilities. Awash with thoughts of unrealised ambition, of conquests attained whose lustre failed to satiate whatever had initially driven him, and the futility of this whole endeavour that is life. In this state, it’s a trial to keep raising his chest, inflating his lungs with air. He can ‘exist’, but it’s a loose definition of living.
Alice, by now, is unhappily resigned to the melancholy that overcomes her husband, what, to herself, she refers to as his ‘Somnolent Mistress’. From experience, she’s found no words, no gesture or bribe can shift the malaise―and she has tried them all. Sex, the ever-ameliorating act for men, provides a momentary spark, but during their intimate conclave, he is remote, unreachable, like a body working off mechanical impulse and nothing more.
She has tried talking to him about it, but he isn’t forthcoming, has tried arranging for him to see someone, but he won’t go. He is obdurate when in this condition, and she’s since learnt to no longer engage him in such entreaties, as she can feel herself getting angry and resentful towards him and his unwillingness to try and mend whatever it is that brings about his torment.
Almost anything can be a trigger. It could be dissatisfaction with his current standing in life, but it can also be external. In witnessing an exceptional athlete no longer able to re-capture their otherworldliness once displayed and in the deep throes of decline. The realisation that his expanding belt-line isn’t an aberrant period in an otherwise slender life, but instead a ten-year-old permanent appendage, growing still.
She opens the bedroom door to ask if he’s ok and also―in a careful tone, to not appear like some bonafide domestic deity, or to in any way suggest that he has caused her some consternation over it―inform him that there is dinner ready downstairs if he is hungry. There’s no reply, but this too she has come to anticipate and doesn’t let it irritate her. Some days, nothing. Others, a malformed word or inaudible grunt. No response typically means she will be living with her fallow Mr Hyde for some time to come.
Another lovingly prepared meal consigned to the bin, or, at best, nuked in the microwave the next day. They really ought to get a dog, she thinks, who at least might savour these neglected meals and bring a much-needed boon of joviality to the household when it’s in short supply. He must’ve been to a vending machine again or picked up some pastry or dismal sandwich from the all-night convenience store. Those bright, bold-coloured wrappers have sold him a modicum of happiness―only to feel all-the-worse once the treat is gone and all that’s left is the spent wrapper in hand and an impending crash from the sugar that, really, he could’ve gone without.
Embarrassment festoons over his ferment. Being crippled by an innately human and yet prosaic crisis―one that should be reserved for your late teens, as the realisation hits that you are not, as you might’ve convinced yourself, immortal after all. A crisis that stifles for a few days but is worked through, accepted, and then put to rest. Aren’t you supposed to matriculate past these juvenile woes and move on to profounder things?
When was the last time his heart raced, excited by some sublime news or imminent desire? When was the last time he didn’t worry about money and indulged in a spontaneous holiday or a dolled-up meal with Alice without the impending regret and a mental castigation afterwards? When was the last time he just sat and watched the ocean swell or trees sway without feeling harangued by time or some device pinging from his pocket? When was the last time he ran, just because? As a young boy, he couldn’t keep still. His mother would say he’d be veritably climbing the walls and, even in bed at night, would be up all hours fidgeting with anticipation for more activity the following day. Jim mourned those ebullient times of his childhood and the impossibility of returning to them.
Even on better days, ones not surrendered to fatalistic thoughts, his bed is a sanctuary left bitterly and not by his own mandate. Work or a bladder begging to piss is what insists he throw aside the duvet and embark on the day ahead. It’s been many a year since he’s sprung out from bed as soon as morning light hits his waking eyes. As a child, he would assault the day with as many copious plans he and his friends could fit into those few fleeting hours. Now, days blur together without significance. As more and more fly by, the less they seem to count or have even warranted being awake through at all. The advancing years start feeling like dress rehearsals for your coffin, where truly nothing happens or matters anymore.
Within this directionless inner-narrative, flights of imaginative speculation will manifest any number of morbid scenarios. A common one is where he passes away in the night. Dead but however implausible, he remains sentient and aware, still occupying his fresh corpse through the early hours of the next morning. He continues onto a detailed imagining of Alice discovering him cold next to her. Initially, she’s oblivious, trying to awaken him with oft-heard words and gentle nudges that become more and more insistent for his stubbornness. She detects something’s not right. He pictures her eyes whiten as reality hits and those eyes, fixed open, looking equally helpless and insipid. Fumbling a pulse-check, not knowing what she’s doing, she aborts and instead begins shaking him even more violently as incoherent murmurs emit from some suppressed place inside. She one second can’t look at him, and the next can’t bear to look away, pacing around the bed now in a heady state of denial and trauma. He just lays there, unable to move. Unable to soothe nor advise. Feeling deeply pained but also oddly comforted by Alice’s presentiment.
Although dark, thin slivers of outside streetlights creep through the blinds to partially illuminate her still-clothed husband, who’s entangled himself into a not-all-that-uncomfortable-looking nook amongst the duvet. There’s no movement. His breathing is slow, protracted, enough to keep him ticking. She feels like a cold bitch in these moments. No longer does her stomach quarrel with her mind at the sight of him like this. It doesn’t vie for her concern or unease. Over time she has become complicit and, if she thinks for too long, a little indignant.
It’s duplicitous, of course. ‘Love’ is a powerful―if overused―word, but it doesn’t truly capture what a couple of their years have built together. That word betakes beginnings, of manic lust and the possibility that someone has become essential to your life. Only having walked that line and lived up to those auspicious vows does the word begin to feel ephemeral in how people voice it around you―equally employed for an impassioned fling, short-lived and transient, of palettes of insouciant greetings cards or in declaring your unyielding affinity for all-things Biscoff. Jim is her reality. They just ‘are’. Not exactly something you could sell at Clintons, but a true statement all the same. She loves him, that’s undeniable, but beyond that, there’s no conceivable other states, no alternative life imaginable, no questions outside of what they’ve forged between them. But, for as much love she has for her husband, it’s almost equal at times to that of hate. Those emotions are inconsequential. They’re intrinsically bound together, as much as gravity is a law unto the earth. It’s fundamental.
That duplicity, love and hate are in evidence in this facet of their marriage, too. Throughout his spate of solipsism, she remains stolid, supportive and understanding. It’s an endurance test in its own right, wearing on her to be like a still pond, emotionally even keel. It’s a role she adopts and whilst in that persona refrains from any crises of her own, of giving in to anguish, allowing it to envelop her as it’s so deftly able to with her husband or even to vocalise the frustrations brought upon by Jim’s fluctuating psyche for risk of exacerbating it, adding validity to the false sense of burden he already ascribes himself during these periods of self-loathing and ennui.
In the quiet of the night, there’s no escape. Whenever he tries to clear his mind or shift his inner monologue to something more benign, they are quickly supplanted once more with death: the loss of loved ones, with how tenable life is, how as a species we’re born into this harsh world with illness, disease, bad choices, the fatal errors of others and pure calamity all capable of cutting short our already short-changed lives. This grim gallimaufry of thoughts―at one minute preposterous, the next perfectly plausible―wrestle with his tiredness to keep him awake and miserable, no matter how little sleep he’s had.
Movies become his last saviour. The collected oeuvre of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Statham: the stoic action stars plying their impossible physiques through a gloriously absurd plot is the only panacea that works when sleep simply must be had. A temporary measure, at best. A plaster over a cavernous wound. But there’s something about the utter anonymity of the foes and the balletic depiction of their deaths. It’s how they just seem to break apart like cheap dolls to the comparatively indestructible titans that, for whatever reason, soothes his mind. How token and laughable a character’s life is rendered and how our hulking protagonist dispatches dozens without any remorse―often the contrary, ready with a wry quip to denigrate their whole existence and the ending of it, into a mere punchline. It’s a momentary escape from the dour and into a state equally stimulated and sedated by the fires, explosions, gunfire and cartoon logic.
It’s not so much the fear of death, itself―as a younger man, that was the terrifying possibility to have to face―the older he gets, the real horror is found in looking back over his years on this earth, particularly the recent and becoming disillusioned by how little he has done. How little he has amounted to in his life. With each year that passes, the more reticent he seems to get and the remaining years, which do not feel as infinite as they once did, don’t look all that inspiring, either. His best years―and he can’t delude himself otherwise―are not in front of him.
Rarely do these surly moods coincide when applying himself to a substantive and fulfilling project, endeavour or ambition. He knows this. Throughout the fugues, amidst swings of apathy and self-pity, this familial throb tries to incite something out of him. Drive. Purpose. Anger, even. Something to embolden Jim enough that, after the usual scatty sleep, if not to reinvigorate his life entirely, at least inspire to cast aside the mental shroud that has been blanketing him of recent and just move forward. Brush his fucking teeth and move forward. Ready for bouts of beatings and beauty all the same. For life’s full of both.
Alice awoke to the gentle caress of her shoulders and collarbone. She asked what time it was and got a whispered response that, in her awakening haze, forgot immediately. She soon gathered it was early in the morning. 2–3 am; black indeterminate time. Her husband was sat up next to her in bed, running his fingers along her skin, staring into nowhere. He’s looking better, she thinks, looking himself, and it seems, for now, his torpor’s come to an end. It’s quiet in their room. If not for the hollow whoosh of passing cars in the distance, she might have believed they were the only two awake in this world. He turns towards her. Through the room’s poor light, she recognises the look on his face and the impulse beneath it. It appears when a certain idea resurfaces, the one that is the most fraught to Alice: the notion of a child.
Fraught because of the reactionary manner in which it seems to arise―one that, in turn, compels its own instinctual response. Alice would give anything to say yes, to not have to dismiss him so callously. For Jim, she’s shattering a momentary spark of inspiration, but for her, it is a lifelong dream she’s suppressing. One Alice has given up on for the sake of them both. It is not a reactionary decision; a child is not a solution to―whatever. How can she say yes? How can she bring a child into this dysfunction? They’ve stumbled into this life together, founded on the sense that they love each other and are in it by their own volition. But it’s a turbulent existence, unsuited and unfair to a child. To imagine her son-or-daughter confused, even scared at their father’s sporadic shifts in mood and availability. To have to explain his intractable condition to them. For them to realise too young that their parents are not the all-knowing guides they can rely on for any instruction or advice but instead, faulty people, making it up as they go. How can she say yes when she knows a child will become her priority? She can be complicit and understanding of Jim’s ineffectualness when it’s the two of them, but, with a child, it would drive an immovable wedge between them.
She keeps looking at him into those wide, yearning eyes. Can they just lie here in silence, looking at each other? Keep the question unasked, unanswered. Leave hope intact.
Krystian Morgan’s fiction leans towards the dark and sardonic, but he’s a fairly amiable fellow in real life. His work has been featured in OpenPen and a forthcoming anthology. When not writing, he can be either found playing the guitar or fussing in the kitchen. He lives in a small cottage in Wales and has worked for over 11 years as a lead designer.