Fractured Characters · Short Stories

The Picture of Timothy Gray

It was a Thursday in December when Tim Gray drove his wife to the hospital. He escorted her through the entrance with one arm round her shoulders, giving her small squeezes of encouragement all the way. She walked slowly, her head down, and asked him to stop pinching her.

“I’m not pinching you,” he said, removing his arm from her shoulders.

They went up in the lift to the cardiac ward and met a large woman in a tight uniform at the entrance. She introduced herself as Nurse Crowther, but only, Tim noticed, to his wife.

“Follow me, Mrs Gray – you’re in room fifteen. We’ve all had to hurry to get it ready for you.”

hosp-corridor

Tim came as well, despite being ignored. They walked along corridors smelling of stewed offal and stale bodies before coming to room fifteen. It was a bleak cell with a bed, a handbasin with a mirror above it, and a visitor’s chair. The window overlooked the car park.

“We’ll get your preliminary checks out of the way first,” said the nurse, wheeling in several computers on carts. “Remove your top and sit down, please.”

Tim’s wife took off her jumper and perched on the bed in her shabby beige bra and jeans. Since no one had offered him a seat, Tim settled in the visitor’s chair to watch all the fuss. At one point a doctor joined the nurse and they both flapped about with wires, stickers and clips, scrutinising the computer screens the whole time. The doctor left the room without uttering one word to Tim, who felt tired and fed up. He crossed his legs at the knee and began twitching his foot.

Nurse Crowther, her stickering tasks complete, rounded on his wife. “There’s no need to look so frightened, Mrs Gray. I expect the surgeon explained the risks of your operation, but you should remember you’re in good hands here.” She bustled out.

His wife didn’t reply. She remained motionless on the bed while the posse of machines stalked her hidden inner failures. Tim turned his face to the window. All the lucky commuters were leaving the car park and driving home. Street lights flickered on. He should be home too but instead he was here, because he was a devoted husband.

“Tim, could you pass my bag?”

He could see his wife’s ghostly reflection superimposed on the street outside. She was pointing to her handbag, but he decided he hadn’t heard her.

“Tim?” she said. Then, “Never mind.”

She stood, took a few careful steps – as far as the wires would allow – and stretched for her bag.

He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry. You’re in good hands at this hospital.”

“That’s what the nurse just said. Couldn’t you give me any comfort of your own?”

“I’m sorry. I – I – I am trying my best.” He turned back to the window and saw his wife take a packet of tissues from her bag – and not offer him one. Bristling, he folded his arms and carried on jiggling his foot. Bronchial coughing drifted through the walls.

hosp-bed

A few minutes passed before footsteps approached. Tim jumped up, crossed the linoleum and was dropping a kiss on his wife’s hair as Nurse Crowther came in again.

“Well, isn’t that nice, then?’ she said. ‘Cheer up, Mrs Gray – hubby will take care of you!”

Tim delivered his boyish smile; wide mouth splitting to reveal sharp teeth. “Hubby certainly will,” he ruffled his wife’s hair until it stood up in ludicrous tufts. “She’s in good hands with me.”

“Here’s a form for Mrs Gray to sign,” the nurse dropped a clipboard on the bed. “I’ll be back in a few minutes to collect it.”

As she left, Tim bent close to his wife and said into her ear, “Would you like me to get your bag for you?”

Her shoulders sagged and she sighed. Put her head in her hands.

“Would you like me to get your bag for you?” he said again.

“I’ve already got it, Tim. You saw me get it.”

“I didn’t, actually. But anyway… So long as you’re alright.”

He walked to the mirror where he leaned on the sink, gazed into his eyes and heaved a long sigh.

His wife continued staring at the floor.

He made a small whimpering sound.

She didn’t respond.

Finally, he said, “You know… It’s not going to be nice, going home to an empty house day after day… And driving all the way here after work, in the dark. Not nice at all.”

There was still no reaction from his wife, and he felt a surge of annoyance. He glanced at her in the mirror. Fat tears were sliding down her cheeks now, and his annoyance turned to anger. He was being ignored and disrespected. He looked again at his wet-faced wife and ground his teeth. Waited.

Eventually, she took a shuddering breath. “I’m scared, Tim. I don’t want to die, but even more I don’t want to end up… There are worse things than death.”

“Don’t talk about dying,” he snapped, then regretted it. Resumed his concerned face.

“Won’t you hold my hand?” she said. Her reflection held out both hands towards his back. Her nose was red now, oozing snot into her open mouth.

“Tim – please?”

mirror

He turned and walked towards her until he saw relief spread across her face: the pale flash of exposed underbelly. He sidestepped and sat in the visitor’s chair.

“I’d better not touch you,” he said, his mouth curving upwards. “I wouldn’t want to disturb any of your connections.”

She screamed at him then. Told him to get out, called him names – even threw her pillows. He batted at them with helpless hands and whimpered loudly. How angry she was. So angry! He cowered, relishing the warm familiar rush of victimhood in his veins.

But her tantrum didn’t last long – they never did, these days. She liked to pretend she was tired all the time, like some overblown dying swan. As he straightened, he saw she was in her usual state: slumped over, sobbing, a mess. One of her wires had come lose and an alarm sounded. Or he assumed that was why an alarm was sounding – he didn’t care either way. He was replete now with her anguish; the previous indignities of the evening forgotten.

He sauntered over and looked down at her. “I love you,” he said, injecting a little tremor into his voice. Perfect.

Nurse Crowther was hurrying up the corridor as Tim strolled down it.

“Is your wife alright?”

“I’m afraid she’s angry at me again.” He made a sad shape with his eyebrows. “I – I – I’ve tried to comfort her, but I can’t seem to do anything right…”

The nurse touched his arm. “Well, I think she should be grateful she’s got a husband like you.”

“Thank you,” Tim’s voice faltered with grief. “That means so much to me.” Hanging his head, he trudged along the corridor and round the corner.

The lift doors opened for him as he arrived. He stepped inside, punched the button for the ground floor and checked his hair in the mirror. Began whistling a jaunty tune. A blonde with great legs got in at the next floor. Perhaps this hospital visiting wouldn’t be so bad after all.



This was an exercise in character study and took at least twenty re-writes before I was happy. Well, semi-happy. I wanted to stretch myself by portraying a character on two levels: the surface persona in stark contrast to what lies beneath.

My first attempt was too subtle, resulting in some readers feeling sorry for Tim! So I re-wrote it, making the clues stronger and also revealing more of Tim’s thoughts. I’m not sure if I prefer my first, more subtle, effort or this piece… The first piece was more realistic in that it showed Tim as a stranger would see him – with no internal thoughts to give away his true character. But I’m posting this version because I want the character to come across as clearly as possible, even though this Tim probably has more self-awareness than a real covert narcissist would have. Or perhaps I should say: more self-honesty.

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8 thoughts on “The Picture of Timothy Gray

  1. LoBed this tale of anguish. I’m always fascinated by how people communicate with reflected images. If any criticism, maybe a little too much use of these reflections but I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Meg x

      You know, the reflections thing wasn’t even conscious – it’s what real-life Tim actually does all the time. Looks at himself in any mirror he can find and addresses himself instead of the other person. I didn’t realise it was recurring until I read through the first draft.

      Like

  2. I love a good multifaceted character. I enjoyed the story. After reading about your exercise in character study, I actually wanted to read your original piece. I personally loved the initial subtle details you included as to hint to the reader that Tim isn’t quite as devoted as he thinks he is. Like when he says he “should have been” at home but instead is with his wife in the hospital because he is a “devoted husband”. I knew right away, though it was not overt, that Tim is about as devoted to his wife as water is to fire.

    I got a sense of how he belittles his wife (ruffling her hair!) without the text being so obvious about it. Later on you get more and more concrete about what kind of man he is, which I totally understand, as my characters tend to be a little too subtle. But I just wanted to let you know that I began to see Tim as the moron that he is much more by his actions and little disparaging tidbits here and there. It was wonderfully done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading my piece, and for your thoughtful comments. I was disappointed at the reception of my initial story, but of course a lot depends on the intelligence and perception of the reader… For some, the character needs to be hammered home and for others, like you, light touches are enough. So I suppose I have to decide – what kind of reader am I writing for? And I guess the answer for most amateur writers is – ourselves. So perhaps I’ll put my original piece up as well! xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love and hate this. I hate it because I know this man. On some levels I am married to this man. Your character is well portrayed, but even more so the defeat and frustration of the wife is tangible. I would love to read your original piece.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Nonie, and I’m sorry to hear that. It’s very personal to me, too, unfortunately – frustrating and crushing. It felt like a huge achievement to pin down such a sly, slippery character in print – and very cathartic.

      I could post the original story in the comments, perhaps? It’s shorter than the later piece.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Here’s the original, shorter, piece:

      It was a Thursday in December when Tim Dougherty drove his wife to the hospital. He escorted her up to the cardiac wards with one arm round her shoulders, giving her small squeezes of encouragement all the way.

      A severe, thin-lipped woman met them in a corridor which smelled of offal and stale bodies. “Mrs Dougherty? I’m Nurse Crow. Follow me, please – you’re in room fifteen. We’ve all had to hurry to get it ready for you.” Tim came too, though the nurse hadn’t acknowledged him.

      Room fifteen was small but clean with a high bed, a sink with a mirror above it and a visitor’s chair. The window overlooked the car park.

      “We’ll get your preliminary checks out of the way first,” said the nurse, and wheeled in several computers on carts. “Remove your top and sit down, please.”

      Tim’s wife took off her jumper and perched on the bed in her shabby beige bra and jeans. Since no one had offered him a seat, Tim took the visitor’s chair and watched all the fuss. At one point a doctor joined the nurse and they both flapped around with wires and stickers, scrutinising the computer screens the whole time. The doctor left the room without uttering one word to Tim, who felt tired and fed up. He crossed his legs at the knee and began twitching his foot.

      His wife’s top half was now dotted with circular stickers from which wires emerged. She sat and stared at the floor, her arms limp in her lap.

      “There’s no need to look so frightened, Mrs Dougherty,” said Nurse Crow. “I expect the surgeon explained the risks of your operation, but remember you’re in good hands here.” She bustled out of the room.

      His wife remained motionless on the bed while the posse of machines stalked her hidden inner failures. Tim turned his face to the window and watched commuters heading home in the frosty darkness. He should be at home too but instead he was here, because he was a loving husband.

      “Tim, could you pass my bag?”

      He could see her ghostly reflection superimposed on the street outside. She was pointing to her handbag, but he decided he hadn’t heard her.

      “Tim?” she said. Then, “Never mind.”

      She stood, took a few careful steps – as far as the wires would allow – and stretched for her bag.

      He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry. You’re in good hands at this hospital.”

      “That’s what the nurse just said. Couldn’t you give me any comfort of your own?”

      “I’m sorry. I – I – I am trying my best.” He turned back to the window and saw his wife take a packet of tissues from her bag. She didn’t offer him one. He folded his arms and carried on jiggling his foot. Bronchial coughing drifted through the walls.

      A few minutes passed before footsteps approached the room. Tim jumped up, crossed the linoleum and was dropping a kiss onto his wife’s hair as Nurse Crow came in again.

      “Well, isn’t that nice, then?’ she said. ‘Cheer up, Mrs Dougherty – hubby will take care of you!”

      Tim produced his boyish smile; wide mouth splitting to reveal every tooth. “Hubby certainly will,” he ruffled his wife’s hair. “She’s in good hands with me.”

      “Here’s a form for Mrs Dougherty to sign,” the nurse dropped a clipboard on the bed. “I’ll be back in a few minutes to collect it.”

      As she left, Tim bent close to his wife. “Would you like me to get your bag for you?”

      Her shoulders sagged.

      “Would you like me to get your bag for you?” he said again.

      “I’ve already got it, Tim. You saw me get it.”

      “I didn’t. But anyway… So long as you’re alright.” He bobbed his head up and down, then walked to the mirror. He made a small whimpering sound. “You know, it’s not going to be nice, going home to an empty house day after day… And driving all the way here after work, in the dark…”

      No reply from his wife; she was obviously ignoring him just like that doctor had done. He felt a surge of annoyance and glanced at her in the mirror. Fat tears were sliding down her face, and his annoyance turned to anger. He looked back into his own eyes and ground his teeth.

      Eventually, she took a shuddering breath. “I’m scared, Tim. I don’t want to die, but even more I don’t want to end up… There are worse things than death.”

      “Don’t talk about dying,” he snapped, then regretted it. Arranged his face into an expression of concern.

      “Won’t you hold my hand?” she said. Her reflection held out both hands towards his back. Her nose was red now, oozing snot into her open mouth.

      “Tim – please?”

      He turned and walked towards her. Saw relief spread across her face. Then he sidestepped and sat down in the chair against the wall.

      “I’d better not touch you,” he said, and smiled. “It might disturb all your connections.”

      She screamed at him to get out then. Called him names – even threw her pillows. He batted at them with helpless hands and whimpered loudly. Relished the warm familiar rush of victimhood in his veins.

      Then she slumped on her bed and sobbed. One of the wires came loose and an alarm sounded.

      He crossed to the door. “I do love you,” he said, before he left.

      Nurse Crow was hurrying up the corridor as Tim walked down it. “I’m afraid my wife’s angry at me,” he told her. He made a sad shape with his eyebrows. “I – I – I’ve tried to comfort her, but she’s always been so angry…”

      The nurse touched his arm. “I think your wife should be grateful she’s got a husband like you.”

      Tim gave her a mournful smile, then said goodbye. When he got to the lifts, he started whistling.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It certainly is effective as I still want to punch Tim in the nuts. I can see how if someone has never dealt with this kind of person they may not get how awful he really is, just like the nurse did not see it. I and I’m sure others who “know” him, we see him and we get that he’s a real selfish a$$hole.
        Either way your story makes me want to know more and that is a sign of good story telling. Keep up the great work.

        Liked by 1 person

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