(published 10th September 2018)
Derek Pryce hated the cold.
He pulled his thick, double-hooded coat tight as the angry wind and lacerating rain pelted his back. The constant thudding of the torrid weather and the sheer misery of it all drowned out the self-preserving voice of reason that tried its best to warn him: turn back; you shouldn’t be out here.
He forced himself forward, slowly, cautiously. The footpath wet and treacherous.
Ahead a figure was coming back the other way, a woman. She had found a piece of tarpaulin from somewhere and was using it to shelter from the rain. With her eyes focussed on the footpath and her peripheral vision obscured she’d not yet noticed him.
She was clearly struggling. On any other day he would have gladly escorted her back. Instead Derek cursed under his breath and looked around. Just up ahead there was a large ash tree; he could probably make it behind before she got too close. He dragged himself along as quickly as the mud could allow. Taking hold of the trunk, he pulled himself behind it, waited and listened.
After long moments he saw the flash of her purple anorak as the woman approached the tree. He remained motionless, breathless, not daring to look around to track her properly. The squelches and curses of the passing woman were so loud that at her closest she might have been just a few feet away. Yet she passed quietly and without hesitation, enough to reassure Derek that he remained undetected.
He reached into his coat, produced his hipflask, and took a gulp of cognac to reassure his nerves.
Mary would’ve disapproved of that, he thought.
With the woman gone from view, Derek pulled himself back onto the path.
Mary would disapprove of pretty much everything he was doing right now. Briefly he wondered, what would you say if she saw me now?
Surely she would’ve blocked the doorway and said something along the lines of, ‘you’ll catch your death out there. It’s too dangerous love, don’t be such a silly bugger and stick the kettle on instead.’ ‘Alright lovely’ he would have replied ‘would you like a biscuit with that tea?’ They would have watched a quiz on the TV, and that would have been that.
To continue the conversation from there would lead towards awkwardness. Derek never wanted awkward conversations with his wife: not for obvious insinuations of henpecking; or simply because Mary possessed solid common sense and was usually correct about things anyway; but because Derek is deeply English in essence. As such, awkward conversations filled him with panic, fear and the irresistible compulsion to back down immediately and apologise for causing argument – especially when the truth of his feelings and motivations were being assessed.
Mary’s not here tonight though; she can’t stop a thing.
Derek pulled himself from his thoughts. The path turned upwards so sharply they had built a hand-railing to assist the elderly and others with impaired mobility. Normally he wouldn’t need it, but tonight he did. It would not do to fall here and now – an ankle could get easily twisted or something similar. He might find himself stuck, waiting for assistance in the fury of the storm. Even with the railing the ascent was slow. He soon favoured the use of both hands to drag himself along the steeper sections.
Derek and Mary’s marriage was the very model of harmony. Twenty-six years: no cheating, no fighting, not even one noteworthy disagreement to recall. She was away now for the weekend, visiting her sister in Norwich. A jealous type might worry she was lying, might be making seemingly innocuous phone calls every few hours for updates on what she might be doing, and who she might be doing it with. Derek never felt compelled to indulge in such silliness. Mary was with her sister; they would drink Orvieto white wine and eat at the local Pizza Express, no more and no less. Mary was probably eating her goat’s cheese and red onion chutney-topped meal right at that moment. That is what they always did and always ordered – every single time.
And that was just the problem. It’s easy to trust someone you know inside out, easy to love someone who remains a steadfast presence in life and a source of reliability. Too easy, in truth.
The path turned and then flattened back out. From here the cold dark water of the North Sea crashed against the rocks below like the baseline in the symphony of the storm. Derek stopped to savour the feeling of Nature at its most elemental: stone, wind and water.
He shimmied along until he found a spot suitable to look out from. He drank deeply from his hipflask, savouring the pleasing burn of the warming liquid.
What would you say if you saw me drinking that up here? What if I asked you – is our relationship anything more than mutual suffocation these days?
They had nothing left to say to one another, a sex life that had died so long ago that they were now apologetic when they glimpsed each other accidently in some state of undress. For one reason, then another, they hadn’t had children when young enough to do so. Now at 48 and 47 respectively that ship had not only sailed, but in all probability arrived at its destination. By their mid-thirties they had become overly dependent on time apart, and the outpourings of the television to provide stimulation and to fill long protracted silences.
How then do you solve such problems?
It was clear to him that his wife felt the same way: Just one indicator among many was that five years ago she began sleeping in the guest room, hoping for absolute peace and serenity. She had not moved back. The marriage continued in name, in practice it was purely habit and mutual politeness. Derek never wanted to be with any other woman, it’s just that the thing between him and Mary was no longer love, it was friendship. A deep friendship, and claustrophobic: as if they were both guests, aware they had outstayed their welcome, but lacking a home to return to.
He’d thought about articulating these feelings many times – have “the chat” as the American’s say on the television. Once Derek had even written it all out on paper, however he remained painfully aware that once an awkward conversation started, all scripted thoughts abandoned him, leaving Derek frozen and broken – vainly trying to force out his feelings like a man regurgitating razor blades.
He could easily envision himself backtracking at the slightest pleading from his wife; a clearing of the air can do that to a failing couple. He could see them being close again, perhaps happy too, for a little while. Then a year later back to the silences and the same awkward stand-offs, and with his cover blown.
He thought about what might be if Mary didn’t act relieved- the thought that she might be utterly rejected, broken and destroyed forever. Good God. 26 years of marriage and 15 of friendship prior to that, Derek had never once hurt her feelings yet and he’d be damned if he was about to start now.
No, something dignified was needed instead, something quiet, something permanent.
Naturally the moment had to be right, the stars had to align a certain way: there had to be a storm, Mary had to be away. This way she could remember him as a careless fool rather than a heartbreaker.
Derek finished the cognac, tossed his hip flask and breathed the sharp wet air. This isn’t the coward’s way out; this is the gentleman’s. A particularly strong gust of wind battered his back and pushed him towards the cliff edge. He began to run and within second felt his feet slip from underneath. Derek fell, his arms instinctively flapped around in vain, trying to grasp at the void.
There was fear in Derek’s final few moments of life; but mainly just relief.
Definitely the right decision. Much, much easier than a traditional break up.
Jake Kendall is a Creative Writing graduate from Cardiff University currently based in his hometown of Oxford. He writes about the moments where tragedy and comedy converge.
You can find him on Twitter: @jakendallox.