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by Gwen Williams

It's four in the morning in the still suburbs of Solerby. Blackbirds and dunnocks are tuning up, croaking their sleepy first notes of the day in the Gingko tree in our back garden. I am standing by the bed watching Julian breathing into his pillow with a slack drooling mouth.

Should I risk waking him to tell him about the events in the night? Shaking him awake could be the most dangerous part of the incident. The question of whether to spare him or share with him hangs there in the bedroom at dawn. That's our whole marriage dangling there.

In thirty-five years of sharing a bed with Julian, I have never had the right to decide small matters such as when to switch the bedside light off. Last night was no different. He decided he was tired just as I had got into the bloodthirsty third chapter of The Last Samurai.

"Ready for lights out?" he said on cue giving me five seconds to put down my book and glasses, apply face cream, check the clock, shake my pillow and return to Solerby from 19th century Japan. He's been worse since he retired six months ago. Much worse. Julian doesn't understand that the older I become the longer it takes me to get ready for sleep. Cosmetics to remove and nourishing potions to apply just to rescue my ripening face.

I found a comfortable position for my head with its bristling hairpins and started to conjure up a visual mantra. Shameela, my meditation teacher, suggested that I should imagine a soothing work of art to calm me down. Tonight it was Monet's Waterlilies.

The 1916 version in greens and blues. I started counting lilies on Monet's pond at Giverney, the green and blue reflections pointing downwards to the depths. Those dark depths seemed to sink into eternity. Between the lilies and the leaves, a verdant darkness, a lurking attractive terror.

I was sinking, drowning in the endless viridian pool when a bell started to ring in the cul de sac. It came from the house next door.

Bursting from the depths of Monet's pond with a gasp of panic, I flung my legs out of bed. A cry of pain escaped as my left hip joint rebelled. I looked at Julian hoping he would do something. He was pretending to be asleep. We hold the keys for our next door neighbours but Julian gave no sign of rising to his duties as a neighbour, or as a husband either, and had started to snore with great sincerity.

I stamped downstairs, found the neighbour's keys in the sideboard and snatched the nearest coat from the stand in the hall. A green anorak belonging to Julian, which smelled of the golf club bar. The sleeves swallowed up my hands immediately. I thrust my feet into a pair of blue wellies. Like an automaton I punched the code into our alarm, unlocked the house and went out into the night. Silvery needles of rain attacked me coldly from all directions.

We live in a suburb of Solerby where most of the houses are detached and hide behind massive fir hedges trimmed monthly by gardeners. What else is hidden? You have to take a rogue alarm seriously just in case burglars are fumbling through collections of designer handbags or rifling through solid oak sideboards for gold and silver somewhere behind those hedges.

We even have a premiership footballer living nearby as we know from the thump thump of his late night parties. There have been incidents. Once a fight spilled out into the local park and the police came. One of the footballers mates escaped running through the gardens with a hefty cop panting behind him. Incidents like this are pinpoints of light on the glum runway of my domestic life.

The house next door was lit up like the Ritz and the alarm clanged louder and louder the nearer I went, my feet feeling strangely loose in the outsize boots. They belonged to Paul, our son who has left home for a gap year. How inspiring to have a gap year! The lights, the noises, panicked me. "Shush," I said absently addressing the noisy glittering house. "You're not fooling anyone."

I strode up the path rehearsing the code for the alarm, feet flapping on each flagstone. The lights had painted a glowing mask of courage onto my face. Not until my key was in the door did I realize how alone I was. Floodlit by the glitzy house, any prowling villain would pick me out and pounce. Feeling in my pocket I felt sick at its emptiness. Julian's anorak, of course. Normally I take my mobile every where with me but left it at home on this occasion along with my logical thought processes. I blamed the infectious swagger of the Seventh Samurai.

But I was used to doing things on my own. Rushing round to aged parents with microwavable meals, inventing different ways to make cabbage appetizing, washing Julian's faded check shirts, listening to Paul's sorrows after his heart was broken or he had suffered a hundred unanswered interne application forms. Julian has a secret protective armour from troubles like these.

I was so lost in thought that I didn't notice the pad pad of several feet until they stopped right behind me. I froze with the key in the lock. Not alone after all. A tall shadow fell across me as if a fairy tale giant was sneaking up. I could even smell the gherkins in the cheeseburger he had eaten for lunch. And there was a bestial panting as if he had brought along some wild creature.

"I like your style," said a gruff voice, "but you shouldn't be doing this on your own."

I turned around and looked up at a big man in dark clothing, which I hoped was some kind of uniform.

"I'm Norman," said the giant, "and this is my partner in crime, Blair." It was the security guard who works for our local football star taking his guard dog for a bit of midnight exercise. Blair looked up at me panting enthusiastically.

There was no need to explain the situation and I breathed out gratefully. Norman told me he was a former Royal Marine.

"We're going to clear the house," he said, "Ready?"

"Ready," I said used to doing what I'm told.

He thrust the mobile at me.

"I've keyed 999 into it. Press the green button if anything happens." "Yes" I nodded.

"Right, open the front door. Now!"

I flung open the door and leaped back making a rubbery squelch with Paul's wellies.

He shouted a warning. Blair bounded forwards and we were up the stairs, in the hall, and in and out of each room with me unlocking and standing back and Norman wrestling the wolf-like Blair eager to gnaw the arms of any unfortunate burglar.

We checked every room up and down stairs and even the attic and cellar, Norman yelping a warning before each foray. I tapped in the code for the alarm and we ended our tour of duty in the master bedroom and only then did my surge of courage fail me. My legs let me down. Despite the wellies and the green anorak I felt like a World War Two resistance worker who had just checked out enemy headquarters. Norman noticed my eyelids fluttering and caught me as I collapsed shedding hairpins on the cream carpet. He let me sink into the satin counterpane of our neighbours’ king-sized bed and, after removing Paul's blue wellies, left me there.

I lay on the bed still clutching his mobile phone sinking into Monet's dark green waters with their impenetrable depths. I, the trusted keyholder, had let this stranger and his fierce dog into the house at night. And now I was lounging on my neighbours' bed in my pyjamas and Julian's anorak while the stranger was wandering around the house. He could be rifling through their possessions. I stared at the phone in my hand and realized that I could press the green button ready to speed dial the police at any time I wanted. I sank back into the satin counterpane of my neighbours’ master bedroom, too comfortable to panic, feeling like a heroine still, behind enemy lines, in disguise.

"Strong sweet tea is what you need," said a voice from the landing.

The bedroom door opened and Norman came in carrying a tray of china. "I managed to find some chocolate digestives," he said.

He kicked the bedroom door shut and placed the clinking tray on the bedside table.

"Here you are, my have-a-go heroine!" he said "I've tied up Blair in the garden while we give ourselves some aftercare." He started to arrange the tiny cups decorated with flowers on matching saucers.

Before I could stop myself I had blurted out "Oh, it’s such a long time since anyone brought me... Oh!" I clapped my hand over my mouth.

Norman looked at me kindly and I put a hand up to my hair. Hairpins still clung on there and my face was unevenly smeared with globules of Nivea. With a shock I noticed for the first time that Norman had the murky eyes of a Spanish Flamenco dancer.

As I sank into those lowering eyes of his, I started to feel as if I had run away from home on the spur of the moment without packing a bag. How unlike me. I always keep a packed overnight bag in the boot of my car just in case.

"So you live alone next door?" said Norman pouring some mahogany tea into flowery cups. The teapot looked tiny in his huge hands.

"Husband's there."

"A husband? Does he know you're out dealing with burglars in the middle of the night?"

"He was asleep. Look, should we be doing this?" I murmured half-heartedly, "I mean, they could come back at any moment."

"So what. They should be grateful to you. To us. They've got some decent stuff here. Come on, drink this."

He handed me a cup and saucer and started to roam around the bedroom picking up ornaments, sniffing bottles of perfume. He opened a mirrored wardrobe and whistled.

"Vivienne Westwood, Balenciago, Yves Saint Laurent, all fake though."

He dragged out a backless evening dress in red satin with a huge diamante clasp holding the shoulder to the pleated bodice.

"Norman, you mustn't do that." I hissed.

"Just checking nothing's missing. I bet there's nothing fake about your wardrobe, is there?"

"My wardrobe! Full of charity bargains. These people's cast offs, I'm afraid." I wished I had a dress like that.

"Do you know these people?"

"We don't mix very well. Julian's a bit, reserved."

"Stand offish, you mean? But you're not. You're full of joie de vivre." "Used to be"

"Full of spirit," he said. "Now take these footballers wives, overprotected, pampered," he raised those dark eyebrows. "You should see the state of them when they get ready for bed at night. And look at you. Just a pat of cream and a few hairpins and that's all you need to keep on looking great every single day."

"Oh Norman," I gulped my tea and strength flowed into me. "Is there brandy in this?"

"I don't suppose you sit around all day having false nails glued on and worrying if your photo's in some magazine with sweaty armpits."

"Well, no, not at the same time as cooking Julian his three meals a day. And he likes me to be around. He's a bit lost without his job."

"But you can't be retired. Not at your age? Let me guess, you're a writer, no, a musician? You do something creative. It’s obvious you've got imagination. And you're so reckless!"

"No, I'm not at all usually."

It was easy to talk to Norman. He was in no position to judge me.

"I trained as an artist, long ago. But things took over. Julian doesn't see the point of it. He thinks painting pictures is a waste of time. He thinks a wife shouldn't, well anyway... just shouldn't. There is brandy in this, isn't there?"

I drained the cup tossing back my head to sink the last drop and the last of the hairpins scattered onto the satin pillow.

"Armagnac, perfect for a bedtime nightcap. From your neighbour’s bar. Your hair just sprang into shining curls just then."

He filled my china cup again and this time I caught him taking a small bottle out of his pocket and pour in a swallow of brandy.

Soon I was telling Norman about Julian's petty routines, and his absences at the golf club, our awful silent evenings in with mediocre TV programmes, his insistence on hot meals and the bedtime light business.

Hours later, just as we were finishing the Armagnac and some Belgian chocolates,

which were by the bed, we heard a noise from the garden. It was Blair, barking, carrying out his guard dog duties.

"My early warning system," said Norman lifting up my feet gently and sinking them into the wellies. "Quick, I've planned an escape route."

We made it to the back door just as my neighbours were trying to coax their keys into the front door lock. Their giggling and shrieking bought us some extra time. Norman pulled me through a gap in the hedge and into the back lane.

The rain had polished up the streets and left a clean smell of leaves and grass in the air as we strolled next door like a couple returning home from the opera. I felt in my pocket. No key. Julian's anorak. Naturally he didn't need a key. I was always there to let him in. His dependable housekeeper.

"No worries," said Norman producing a kind of wire contraption and clicking back the lock in seconds.

"Make sure you sort out that bedtime light problem," he whispered. I watched as his dark figure and the eager hound were eclipsed by the shadows of the night. I saw him look both ways as he reached the gate.

Of course Julian will say "you shouldn't have let me sleep and you shouldn't have gone interfering on your own."

"Julian," I will say, "you are far too good at telling me what I shouldn't do." For I realized that on the five occasions alarms have gone off in the neighbourhood (all false) it has been just me going out and dealing with them until tonight.

The "men" should start up a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme as Norman suggested. As for me, I plan to wear earplugs. And not just at night.

The birds have finished tuning up and are greeting the first light with a rapturous concert as if they're celebrating a fresh new world. Julian can carry on snoring for now. We'll talk later, but I won't tell him everything. I won't mention the keepsake I slipped into Julian's anorak pocket. A china cup decorated with water lilies in a dark background. Norman said it was Royal Albert. Now there's a man who appreciates fine things. And I'm not sure how I would explain why I'm wearing this red evening dress.

Judges comments

''Sinking is hilarious, unexpected, a real laugh out loud story with a great ending.''

Tracy McLoughlin

Winning stories 2011

1st prize - The Bed Lucy Made, And She Lies In It

2nd prize - Body

3rd prize - Sinking

3rd prize - Valerian

Highly commended

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