Short Fiction by Shauna Mackay
Dougie-on-the-corner worked nights and so did Rob Frinton opposite, and no husband of Marie Frinton should be doing nights, not with Marie’s track record. Marie must be well into her fifties now and no energy dip in sight. Only yesterday, Hazel was watching as Marie relocated the stone lady with the bird bath hand from the middle of her front lawn to the paved bit. Marie’s strength was surprising, and in someone so perfectly slim. That thing they said about a glass of wine being equivalent to a doughnut had to be gup. The paved bit was where Marie and Rob polished off whopping great jugs of wine or Pimms or Sangria, something reddish anyway, whenever the weather and Rob’s shift pattern allowed. Marie worked in Karen Millen so wasn’t often home through the day. And since Tash-at-No-4-with-the-oil-rig-hubby-and-the-babies had gotten herself all disfigured by that mobile hairdresser who’d turned out not to be qualified in anything but how to maim, it had fallen on Hazel to be the taker-in of the parcels. She didn’t mind. It was no skin off her nose. She wondered where that phrase came from. There was a time she’d have looked it up, but now she thinks why bloody bother? Everything came from something and that was that. Besides, Tash had lost more than a bit of nose skin, there’d been talk of a graft, and all because that rogue hairdresser hadn’t bothered to do a strand test. A big thing, a face was, to the young.
No, she didn’t mind taking-in the parcels, not really.
They hadn’t seen rain like it that summer, and thank goodness Wimbledon had the rollover roof thing, shame it was only the special part of Wimbledon and not her bit, but how dare she gripe about the sky, especially now they were all living through a baking August, dry as sticks. She would put money on the Frintons being out on their paved bit later. There was a chop at its best-before-date on a plate in the fridge and she went to shove it under the grill. She didn’t really fancy it in the heat but wasn’t going to risk letting it go off. Neil, her husband, had hated waste. It used to delight him whenever she captured something on the turn. A few blue spots on the Cheddar never bothered Neil. She’d taken in four parcels today and not one of them collected yet. More important things to do, that lot.
Rob Frinton was first to come over. Hazel watched him whistle his way over the road as if the man didn’t know the meaning of monotony and shift lag. Since losing Neil, she’d taken to eating her meals in the bay window, repositioning the armchair to see both the TV and the front garden with barely a twist of her neck. She had to drop her half-eaten chop to go to the door and on the way thought that Rob would just have to wait while she went to the kitchen to degrease her fingers under the hot tap with a squidge of Fairy.
‘For a minute there, I thought you’d gone out,’ said Rob when she opened the door. ‘Mind you, couldn’t get a better evening for it.’ He put a flip-flop on her step. His foot seemed shower fresh. Toenails the colour of baby cheeks. He looked behind Hazel. ‘Is it a big one? She hasn’t bought another chiminea has she?’
‘How would I know, Rob?’ She opened the door to let him look at the box. ‘It is a fair size.’
‘She’ll not be happy until I slip a disc, Hazel.’
She was glad she’d been at her front with the Stardrops. Of course, she’d always given it the quick once over but now with so many neighbours coming to her for the parcels, she’d shined up the floor tiles. The house was Victorian and she’d not been paying any notice to those lovely tiles and they were the originals, likewise that gorgeous stained glass in the door. ‘Are you all right there, Rob?’ she said.
‘Job’s a good’un.’ He hefted the box up into his arms. ‘If you can just get out of the way, Hazel, I’ll manage.’
When he’d gone, Hazel wondered how long that spider had been living in the shadow of the bag of scarves. The bag, the scarves and that umbrella lying on top of them like a dead bat could all go out at the next charity shop collection. She’d only been holding on to that brolly so she could pretend to herself she was going to brave the rain again one day and that was silly because she’d reached a stage in her life where she didn’t have to brave anything. Her son was happy in Australia and Neil, her husband, had always had a terrific business brain, sensible with all the money too. Had been able to cry fire! at fifty. FIRE, he’d told her, stood for financially independent, retire early, and he’d done that. She too. Not that she hadn’t enjoyed the office but it wouldn’t have been the same being secretary to a man not your husband. The people who bought the business from Neil had been young bucks, they’d probably replaced her with one of those app things. Neil had said they’d be able to live by their biological clocks instead of the alarm, that they’d earned the right to go to bed any time they liked, but Neil hadn’t banked on a massive coronary at fifty-two. He’d left her sitting pretty—financially anyway—she must have looked like the wreck of the Hesperus at the crematorium, and for ever since, really. Grief brings nightdress afternoons, knots in the back of one’s hair that are so painful to untangle it’s best to snip them off with scissors, and be done. Of late, though, with all the knocks, she’d been making more effort. A dab of subtle blush, hand cream. She didn’t want to be one of those women in denial, drinking sangria from giant jugs in a twenty-year-old’s skirt, roaring with laughter. She might be past it—no might about it—but she was nothing if not a woman who could face truth, and there hadn’t been one of those delivery chaps who’d looked her in the eyes. They were only after her signature, that was all, no unspoken wants, not these days. Not that they’d get any of their unspoken wants met even if they were to have them. She was no Marie Frinton.
It wasn’t common knowledge that Marie Frinton was a man eater. But Hazel knew.
She was still there in her vestibule when the teenage daughter from two doors up knocked for her parcel, a soft something from one of those cheap and cheerful fashion websites, going by the feel of it. Hazel opened the door.
‘Hello there, Rachel, how are you?’
‘Fine,’ said Rachel and she stuck out her hand to show Hazel a small white slip. ‘It says you’ve got my parcel.’
Rachel wanted a quick snatch and run. Well, why wouldn’t she? Hazel thought. Rachel was fifteen, a skin and bone stunner who recently, while being forcibly dragged around Waitrose by her mother, had caught the eye of a model scout. Lorna, Rachel’s mother, was scared of her own shadow these days and couldn’t go out unaccompanied. That was exactly how Lorna herself had put it to Hazel anyway but when Hazel had asked why she was like this, Lorna had jazz-handed her off with a don’t ask. ‘How’s your mum, Rachel?’
‘And look at you there, with your new haircut. Very Chrissy Hynde.’
‘Let me know when the magazine’s out, you won’t forget, will you? I want a copy to keep. I wasn’t just saying it.’
Rachel smiled as though it was hard work. ‘I will.’
Rachel got as far as the gate before Hazel called her back. ‘One sec, honey.’
Rachel stopped, thumb hooked her soft turquoise shorts out of her tiny bottom crack, and came back up the path.
‘Would you mind dropping off Tash-from-No-4’s parcel? She’ll be busy with the babies.’
Rachel stretched out a long arm.
‘Give it here.’
That’s an arm that’ll never need to lift or carry, thought Hazel. She handed Rachel the parcel. ‘It’s only little, a box of nothing, seems like.’ She looked at the other uncollected parcel. She wondered if she should ask Rachel to drop Dougie’s off too but Dougie being a middle-aged man living on his own might not want teenage girls at his door. Not the way the world was. There was nothing wrong with Dougie, a real open book he was, but he could be a bit loud and crude and you had to know how to take him. Anyway, there he was on his way over now, so no need to worry.
Dougie held the gate open for Rachel. ‘C’mon, Kate Moss, I’m being a gentleman here.’ He took care to close the gate properly behind her and then he grinned his way up the path.
‘Gorgeous evening, Haze.’
‘It is that. I expect we’ll have Rob and Marie out half-clothed on their paved bit.’
She knew she was all right to say this to Dougie. He lived next door but one to the Frintons. He wasn’t keen on them. Something to do with round the back and cats.
‘And drinking for England, no doubt,’ she said. ‘I fear for their livers, I really do. I bet that stone lady of hers could tell some tales.’
‘Oh, don’t set me off thinking about Marie Frinton’s front garden, Hazel,’ said Dougie and he waggled his eyebrows.
‘Now, now, Douglas.’
‘So, how are things with you, Haze? You OK?’
‘Fine,’ said Hazel and she realised she felt as resentful at being asked for information about herself as any teenage girl.
‘Finey, finey, fine,’ said Dougie.
Rachel was back at the gate again. ‘Tash isn’t in.’
‘She is,’ said Hazel.
‘Well, she isn’t,’ said Rachel.
‘You need to give her time to get to the door,’ said Hazel. ‘She’s got two babies on her hands.’
‘It’s a lovely night,’ said Dougie, ‘She’ll have gone for a walk or to somebody’s barbecue.’
‘No,’ said Hazel, ‘I’d have seen her go out and anyway she wouldn’t, she’s got the babies in a routine and…’
Hazel circled around her own face with an index finger. ‘It’s not healing as fast as she’d hoped. She’s very conscious of it.’
‘That’s daft,’ said Dougie.
‘Yes, well you’re not a young woman, are you?’ said Hazel. She looked back at Rachel, standing there, bored and put-out.
‘You need to give the door a good hammer, Rachel.’
‘Give it here,’ said Hazel, and Rachel, with filly legs, stepped right over the closed gate to bring Tash’s parcel back and then she legged it again.
‘What did I say?’ said Hazel to Dougie. The Frintons had come out. Marie was in a strapless dress, carrying a jug. Rob had snacks and things clasped to his naked chest. When he lifted an arm to wave at them he dropped a melamine cup.
‘Doesn’t look like we’re going to get an invite over,’ said Dougie.
‘I wouldn’t go,’ said Hazel.
‘Neither would I…not unless it was just Marie on her own.’ Dougie waggled his eyebrows again.
‘I’m only good for taking in their parcels,’ said Hazel.
‘You don’t have to do it.’
‘Have you noticed how they never have people over now?’ said Dougie. ‘Not so much, not like they used to.’
‘Shush, they can hear you.’
‘No, they can’t,’ he said. ‘Too busy getting stuck into a good swallow.’
‘Rob’s realised mixed company and Marie’s not a good idea,’ said Hazel.
Dougie looked properly at Hazel.
‘What are you saying, Haze? Are you saying she plays away?’
‘I’m saying nothing,’ she said.
‘Would I be in with a chance of a naughty quickie?’ said Dougie. ‘Not that I would. No, never. Married woman and all that.’
Dougie stared across the road and then his eyes came back to Hazel again.
‘Nah…no way…Anyway, you got that parcel, Haze?’
‘Here you go.’
‘Smashing…hey, you wouldn’t think a blow-up doll would weigh as much, would you?’
Hazel was looking at Marie on her metal chair across the road. Bare legs, thin ankles.
‘Hazel? Haze? Come on, I jest.’
‘What? Oh, yes, I know, Dougie.’
‘It’s a Playstation, actually. What can I say? I’m sad and lonely.’
‘Dougie, could you pop this into Tash’s on your way back. Rachel didn’t hammer, that’s all.’
‘No bother, pass it here. What is it?’
‘I don’t know, Dougie. My X-ray specs are away being mended. Now make sure you hammer.’
She watched Dougie leave. Across the road, the Frintons were laughing together like love’s young dream. She went back inside, shut her door with a little slam. Fancy Dougie asking her if she was OK. He’d never done that before. Maybe she should’ve turned the question back on him. How are you, Dougie? Are you OK, Dougie? Dougie had been through a couple of wives in his time. Had come to the street after his second divorce. There were grown-up kids but they never came much and though Neil used to joke that Dougie would ride a warm scarf, they’d never actually seen him with any woman. She thought now how crude it had been of Neil to say that about Dougie. As if he was a Golden Retriever needing castration or something. She’d hardly settled back into her armchair when the door went again. That lot must think she’d nothing better to do. It was Dougie.
‘Oh, give it back,’ she said, out of patience now. ‘I’ll nip over with it tomorrow.’
Hazel helped herself to the small box sat atop Dougie’s larger one and put it back on the shelf.
‘It’s not that,’ said Dougie.
‘What is it, then?’
‘Could you come?’
Hazel was in her slippers but they were the good ones with the rubber soles. She followed Dougie. His face had told her she must.
As they hurried across the street, Marie Frinton looked up, stretched out her legs and berthed herself lower down the metal chair as if her sacroiliac joint was made of snake. Her hands pushed up her dry copious hair to a swirl on the top of her head so her neck could cool.
‘Something up, guys?’ she called out.
‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ said Hazel.
‘The babies are screaming their heads off in the lounge but there’s no sign of Tash,’ said Doug to Hazel, loud enough for the Frintons to hear. ‘I think we need to gain entry.’
‘Gain entry, Dougie?’ said Hazel. ‘We’re not The Sweeney.’
Hazel could hardly keep up with him. She went over on her ankle, sucked in some breath. ‘What were you doing leering into her lounge?’
‘I wasn’t leering, Hazel. Give me a break, will you? I heard the babies crying and I looked, all right, is that all right, Hazel?’
They reached Tash’s front door. Dougie tried the handle. It was locked. He shouted through the letterbox. Hazel looked through the front window. Both babies were there, screaming. One of them crawled towards Hazel, looked up at her through the bay window, its shrimpy mouth all curled up tight in distress.
‘Smash a window, Dougie,’ said Hazel.
‘What the hell with?’
‘Think, think, put that bloody Playstation down for a start.’
Marie and Rob had arrived. ‘Thought we better come see,’ said Rob, ‘what’s the matter? The two of you crossed that road like shit off a stick.’
‘Your stone lady, Marie,’ said Hazel. ‘Hurry, Rob, Dougie, you too, go and fetch Marie’s stone lady.’
‘What’s going on?’ said Marie to Hazel when the men had run off. ‘Please tell me Tash and the babies are all right. Please tell me that.’
‘I can’t tell you anything, Marie. I don’t know anything.’
‘Quick, through the kitchen window,’ shouted Rob, when he and Dougie came back with the stone lady bobbing between them like a shared erection. ‘We can’t do the front, not with the babies.’
They all ran to the back. ‘What if Tash is just upstairs running them a bath?’ said Marie. ‘Or what if she’s only trying to learn the babies to self-soothe? I’ve heard my daughter talking about it. It’s a thing these days, I’m sure I’ve heard it’s a thing.’
Rob and Dougie hurtled the stone lady at the window. She bounced right off it.
‘One more time,’ said Rob.
But Hazel beat both men to the stone lady. She picked her up off the grass and launched her hard, missiled her towards the window. This time the stone lady penetrated the glass.
‘What the hell!’ said Dougie.
‘Let me,’ said Marie. She was small and nifty, the obvious choice to go through the hole in the window.
Rob pulled a towel off the line, wrapped his arm in it, began to punch out the shards, prepared a safer entry for his wife.
‘Love you,’ he told her and then he lifted her up to the window so deftly anyone might have thought the two of them were a quite good circus act.
‘Just grab the babies, Marie,’ he shouted at his wife’s backside inside the red sundress as it disappeared through Tash’s shattered kitchen window.
‘Don’t go looking for Tash, mind you, leave that to me and Dougie.’
Hazel, Rob and Dougie ran to the front of the house again. Marie opened the door from the inside.
‘The babies are OK,’ she said, not even out of breath. ‘Breaking their little hearts they are but they’re OK, Tash has safety gates everywhere.’
‘And Tash?’ said Hazel.
Marie shook her head. ‘Dunno.’
Hazel checked the lounge, the breakfast room, the kitchen, nothing. She ran up the stairs. Tash was on the bed. Dead. Was she dead? ‘Call an ambulance,’ Hazel shouted. She was scared to go to Tash. Scared to go to death again. You couldn’t meet death with anything other than powerlessness. While she was stood there, on her own, she could pretend she had some power. Dougie and Rob rushed past her now but she couldn’t see them, not really, she couldn’t see anything properly. She was staying still, strong, holding onto her power while the rest of the world was spinning, everything flying sparks, a mess of sparks. Hazel had seen shocking things before though only one of them like this thing. A dead thing. That other thing had been a moving thing. Two bodies moving together. In her house. Marie Frinton’s and Neil’s. Marie Frinton was a man eater. A devourer of men. Her lion mane hair, her mouth wide with desire, not cheap laughter that day. Hazel had seen not sparks then but flames. Marie Frinton was a killer of men. Marie Frinton had killed Neil. They hadn’t heard Hazel come home. They hadn’t seen her. And she never told. Not for a long time. That night though, no longer could she hold it in, that secret. You and Marie Frinton she’d said to him. Nothing more. You and Marie Frinton. That was all. And then the thud of Neil hitting the floor. The comical suddenness of his leaving her forever. She should have kept a better eye on Neil when there was a man eater on the prowl. Well, at least she had nothing to lose any more. When the man was gone, there was no need to fear the man eater.
‘Shift, Hazel, come on, move,’ said Rob.
‘Go and help Marie with the babies,’ said Doug.
‘Is she dead?’
‘Of course not,’ said Doug. ‘Go, go.’
‘You’re lying, you’re just saying that, she’s dead.’
She heard sirens and then the ambulance people had come into the house, their heavy feet on the stairs. She crossed her hands behind her neck and used her bent arms to press the hearing out of her ears like she’d done as a child.
Dougie steered her out of the bedroom by her shoulders. He was shouting at her but she wouldn’t relax her arms and let herself hear. Help for Tash had come. She started to run back to her own house now. She hadn’t known how to do CPR. She hadn’t known. She hadn’t done anything to help Neil. And who had killed him, really? Marie Frinton or her? He’d dropped down dead when he was with her, hadn’t he? She shouldn’t have said anything. She should have kept it hidden, what she’d witnessed, locked her husband’s infidelity inside her head. A dream too strange to ever tell.
The world can be OK until they make you hear it’s not, until they make you see it’s not as OK as you need it to be.
She should’ve spotted that Tash wasn’t OK. The husband always working so far away, baby twins, she should have recognised depression when she saw it. The effect the facial burns had had on Tash. Tash adored those babies. What state was her mind in to do this? What state? Hazel had reached her own house now but she couldn’t sit, she couldn’t sit and drink tea. She paced up and down, went to look out of the front again. The ambulance was still in the street. Was that good or bad? She should be over there helping with those poor babies. Calming the babies, helping Marie Frinton calm babies. Instead, she walked through to the kitchen to wash the grill pan.
The door went about ten minutes later. It was Dougie. ‘Can I come in, Haze?’
Hazel stepped back to let him enter.
‘Just tell me, Dougie. Just say it, please.’
‘She was conscious when they put her in the ambulance.’
‘Are you being truthful, Dougie?’
‘What about the babies?’
‘Marie and Rob have got them, they’ve settled down, amazing what a choccie biccie can do. Anyway, the babies know Marie. She said she looks after them sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, lets Tash get a nap.’
‘I don’t think that’s true.’
‘Well, that’s what she said, Haze.’
‘I should go over and help.’
‘Really, no need. They’re all at Marie’s now anyway and Marie found Tash’s phone. There’s family on the way over. Worry not. Any chance of a coffee?’
She flapped a hand at him.
‘Go through to the lounge. I’ll put the kettle on.’
‘Half a sugar, Haze, plenty milk though.’
When she took their coffees through, Hazel said to Dougie, ‘I didn’t know she was so sad.’
‘She didn’t try to top herself, Haze.’
‘You didn’t think that? What, with the babies in the house? God, no.’
‘Well, what was wrong with her?’
‘She wasn’t diabetic,’ said Hazel.
‘She was. They found her insulin and needles and stuff on the bedside drawers. They gave her liquid sugar or something and she came around. She’ll be fine, honest, don’t worry.’
‘She never told me she was diabetic.’
‘Well, I’m hypertensive and I’ve got a corn but I never knew I was supposed to tell you, Hazel.’
‘Drink your coffee, Douglas.’
He was sat in her chair by the window. He looked so alone over there. She got up from the sofa and went across to him. She stroked him on the cheek. She undid the top button of her blouse.
‘What are you doing, Hazel?’
She took the cup from his hands. ‘What am I doing?’ she said. ‘I think we both know what I’m doing, Douglas.’
‘I’ve never…it’s just I’ve never thought of you like that,’ said Dougie, ‘like this.’
Hazel could see Marie Frinton in her garden, not on her metal chair, but down on her knees on a rug now, playing with babies, her thick blonde mane bobbing about as her husband looked down at his lustrous-haired queen.
Hazel straightened herself, pushed her shoulders back, lifted her chin up. ‘No, I don’t expect you have,’ she said. ‘Sorry, Dougie. I wasn’t myself for a moment there. Forgive me.’
‘Forgotten, Haze, promise,’ said Dougie. ‘Can I have my coffee back?’
After Dougie had gone, Hazel made sure the night latch was on and then she picked up Tash’s parcel. It was small and square and wrapped in brown paper tied up with rustic twine. She opened it, pulled back tissue paper the colour of Rob Frinton’s toes, the colour of baby cheeks. Was that a racist thought? Could you be a racist even when you were sure you weren’t? Baby cheeks came in lots of shades. What a small-minded English woman she was. Self-disgust almost knocked her off her feet but she stood there, gripping the floor tiles in her rubber-soled slippers. Nestled within the pale pink tissue paper was a tiny wooden heart-shaped box filled with three artisan chocolates, beautiful, special. Attached to the box, a pretty printed label.
For all you do
Love Tash and the twins x
Hazel popped a chocolate into her mouth and she chewed until it was gone.