Raymond looks at the office clock for the tenth time in the past two minutes. Ten seconds to half five… nine… eight… seven… He switches off his computer and pats his pockets: keys, wallet, pen, comb. He picks up his briefcase and is lifting his coat from its hook just as the second hand sweeps past the vertical. Perfect.
He locks up and walks down the corridor, past all the idiots now doing unpaid overtime for Dudbury Borough Council. You won’t find him doing overtime, matey. Not on any day, but especially not today, because today is his fiftieth birthday.
Not that he received a single card from his doltish colleagues. Not even a ‘happy birthday’, despite stating several times when his birthday was. Which means he’ll be spending it alone, yet again. If you don’t count Sonia – and who does?
He trots down the concrete staircase into the lobby, nods to the young receptionist, then pushes open the door to the street. A blast of wind and rain stings his face, so he retrieves the umbrella from his briefcase and heads out into the dusk.
Cars are already queuing, brake lights reflected on slick tarmac, exhaust fumes hanging in the air. Raymond strolls past the queues, swinging his briefcase. Ten years ago, when he got the council job, he’d bought a house within walking distance so he didn’t have the stress of sitting in traffic. Sonia can’t drive, so it means she has to cycle to her job, but five miles is nothing on a bike. The worst thing is Raymond has to negotiate her dripping cycle and sweaty waterproofs in the hall. But he’s a tolerant man, so he says nothing. Sometimes the smell makes him whimper and cough, but he says nothing.
Ten minutes later Raymond rounds the corner into Poplar Avenue and his thoughts turn to dinner. Sonia always makes him something special on his birthday – not up to fine dining standards, but at least she puts in some degree of proper attention. He hopes today it’ll be lamb. If it’s duck like last year he may well fail to compliment the meal – and this seems to upset Sonia. He tells her she’s oversensitive but that seems to upset her more. She never has been able to control her temper.
He strides up his garden path, unlocks the front door and goes inside. The hall is empty – no bike and no pungent waterproofs. Odd. He enters the kitchen, his coat dripping and his shoes leaving prints across the floor. The oven is cold and empty. So is the hob – and the kitchen. He marches back to the hall and calls up the stairs, hands on hips.
She’s not even home yet.
On his birthday.
This deserves more than the withholding of a culinary compliment. This deserves… He grinds his teeth as he tears off his overcoat and shoes. Still grinding, he takes the stairs two at a time to their small bedroom and removes his jacket. This deserves being ignored for at least a week. At least. He opens the wardrobe he shares with Sonia and extracts a coat hanger for his jacket. Something jars in his mind as he fits the garment carefully on the wire frame, and he turns back.
Sonia’s side of the wardrobe is empty.
All her frumpy clothes – gone. On the floor, shoe-shaped holes like coroner’s outlines in the dust. The hanger slips from Raymond’s hand, he steps back, stumbles against the bed and sits heavily down on it. Then he spots a note on her pillow. A piece of lined paper, shredded along the top where it was torn from its metal spirals. He reaches across the smooth floral duvet and picks it up.
I’ve left you for someone who doesn’t ignore me. Her name is Lucy.
He reads it twice. Three, four, five times, before he can absorb it.
But… he’s been so good to her – the perfect husband. Pecking her on the cheek every night, whether he wants to or not; performing his husbandly duty with her twice a year, without fail. As well as allowing her to keep that blasted bike in the hall. What more could he have done? There isn’t any more. He’s done everything.
He stares at his feet. His socks are wet where rain found a way through his shoes. The image blurs as tears fill his eyes and brim over onto his cheeks. How will he live without anyone to do his laundry? Or cook dinner? How will he hold his head up at work once people know his wife left him – for a woman? This Lucy, whoever the hell she is.
He sits quite still as rain spatters against the window and neighbours’ cars reverse into block-paved drives. Returning to their faithful wives.
Finally, he pushes himself to his feet and pads over to a small pine bookcase on the floor (he never got round to putting it up). On the bottom shelf, beside his old accountancy books, is the Yellow Pages. He pulls it out, flicks through to Domestic Help and stops at the first entry, which is in fat bold letters: ‘Home Angels: We Will Make Your Life Easy. Competitive Prices for Cleaning, Cooking, Laundry. Give us a call today!’
He reaches into his trouser pocket for his phone and dials. By the time the soft, feminine voice answers, he’s feeling better. Quite a lot better, in fact.