Carol & Max
A short story about love.
Even with the benefit of hindsight I can’t really pinpoint when our problems actually started. But I can clearly remember the build up of hostility between us over that long, hot summer.
Of course, you blame each other. In her eyes I could do no right. Everything I touched was wrong somehow; if I tried to help then I was in the way, if I left something alone then I was useless. But I was trying, trying hard to keep us all together. And from my point of view she was becoming increasingly short-tempered, critical and distant.
It was probably harder for the kids though. When Carol and I were arguing they kept out of the way. Made themselves small and slipped into another room. But I know they didn’t blame me. Didn’t blame either of us possibly, children are capable of boundless love. If we’d been fighting then one or other of the girls would inevitably seek me out afterwards and give me a hug. Sometimes they’d offer up their own kind words as if to rub ointment onto the sting of Carol’s last insult. “Well, I love you” they’d whisper into my ear while giving me a reassuring squeeze. They were only 6 and 8 around that time, but even so I relied on them for the love and tenderness that Carol had stopped giving me.
I can clearly recall one particularly bad argument. It was a Saturday, a glorious July day. We had the patio doors open to cool the house and the kids and I had spent much of the earlier part of the day playing in the garden. No particular game really, just chasing each other around, throwing balls, laughing. The silliest and simplest fun that you look back on with the most fondness as you get older, when the children are grown up.
Anyway, I’d worn both the children ragged and to be honest, was pretty exhausted myself but didn’t really want to show it. Carol had been out getting the shopping, and with the girls now splayed out on the warm sofa, I thought I’d get a bit of work done in the garden that I’d been putting off for a while. I wasn’t doing it just for Carol; at least I don’t think I was. But I know that in the back of my mind I thought she’d appreciate it. I pictured her coming home, arms full of shopping bags but with a large smile spreading across her face when she saw what efforts I’d gone to, for all our benefits.
I remembered back to a month or two before, when she smiled all the time. I never thought we’d lose that closeness, that bond. Thought we’d always give each other a gentle caress as we passed in the house, and spend every weekend evening cuddled up together on the sofa. But it was now weeks since either of those things had happened at all.
I worked for nearly two hours in the garden, under the stinging heat of the glorious, broiling sun. I dug, I arranged, I tidied. I was ordered and meticulous, and transformed an old and unloved corner of our small garden into something rather wonderful. By the time I heard the kids jump up from the sofa to greet Carol, I was hot and dirty. I didn’t mean to contrive anything, but I confess I was a little pleased with how I’d look to her. That I’d been busy was clearly evident, and I carried on with my work so that she’d see me hard at it when she walked towards the patio doors from the kitchen.
Needless to say, I was wrong. She was furious. She’d had her own plans for that corner apparently, though obviously had never thought to mention them to me. She accused me of ‘wrecking’ it, of destroying her garden. Her garden? I think that word stung the most, as if she claimed everything we’d once shared as her own now.
The girls were as meek as usual, hiding in the shadows as their mother stood in the doorway screaming at me, her arms waving around in the air and her eyes dark with anger. She was still holding a small bunch of spring onions from the shopping, bound with an elastic band. I remember watching the onions describe jarring figures of eight in the air as she vented her anger on me, oblivious to everything else.
She barely spoke to me for the next few days. I made the classic mistake soon after of trying to show affection, perhaps trying to show that I still loved her even if she could barely look at me any more. She was cooking in the kitchen and seemed happier than for a long time. She had the little radio on the work surface switched on and was humming along to Frank Sinatra, chopping carrots on a board. From behind she looked so typical of the Carol I still adore; a loose-fitting jumper slightly stretched with age and hanging lopsided down her body, her foot occasionally tapping out of time to the music.
As I walked past her I caressed her, like I had a thousand times before in the past. She swung round, her face creased with anger and snarled “For Christ’s sake, can’t you see I’m busy?”. I didn’t even touch my dinner that evening.
A week or two after that day, something happened that I’ll never forget. It was now August and even hotter than it had been in July. The doors into the garden were open for as much of the day as we could manage, before being closed up just before bedtime. The tall glass of the living room meant that even with some air moving around we couldn’t defeat the stifling heat encroaching into the house.
It was a Sunday night I think, and we’d taken the children to the beach earlier in the day. Again, I’d encountered Carol’s wrath for something I barely felt I deserved. The girls had ice cream on the beach, the soft, curled kind in a cone. It was a running joke between us that I’d sneak a lick or a small bite when one of them wasn’t paying attention. It was just something we did. As Martha turned to look at another small girl of her own age pass by, I lept forward a few inches and snipped off the top of her ice cream with my teeth. She swung back and then looked comically at me, the ice cream, then back to me before squealing in mock outrage and swiping her free hand towards me with a grin.
Carol had been looking out to sea at the time, but turned on hearing the commotion and saw my grinning, guilty look as I made a big show of licking my lips for the girls’ benefit. “Oh for god’s sake, that’s disgusting! Jesus!” I didn’t want a big argument in front of the girls so let it go, lay back onto the warm sand in silence and let the mood between us fester.
That evening, we all went to bed early. The air was still and heavy and I found it hard to sleep, the events of the day and the previous few weeks spinning around in my head. I eventually drifted to sleep though, only to be woken by the sound of a door opening somewhere in the house. I got out of bed and tried to follow the source of the sound. As I walked through the kitchen and towards the living room, I caught a glimpse of the open patio door glinting in the moonlight. I stiffened. I could feel fear begin to trickle down the back of my neck and down my body, but my overriding thought was of the two little girls, and Carol too. The protective instincts when you have small children are almost overpowering, tangible.
I still hadn’t seen anybody though and couldn’t actually be certain there was an intruder. It was possible that the door had been left ajar when we went to bed and had merely blown open in the midnight breeze, but I feared the worst and tried to calm my quickening breathing as I became aware of my own heartbeat, pulsing in my neck.
And there it was, another noise. Unmistakable this time, and nothing that a gentle breeze could cause. It was another door handle being opened, the one from the living room into the dining room. With the thud of my beating heart echoing through my head, I edged forward into the living room. As I passed the doorway and stepped quietly into the room, I stared into the darkness towards the other door, trying to focus in the dark. Initially I could see nothing. I even thought for a fleeting second that I’d perhaps imagined the second noise in the tension of the moment. Maybe it was just the open door after all, probably Carol forgetting to shut it in her rush to get an early night before work in the morning.
But then movement. As the door into the dining room moved slowly, I could at first see the reflection of the outside street lamps moving on the glass panes in the door, and then the silhouette of a head passed silently behind the glass and into the next room.
I confess, my next move wasn’t perhaps the best thought through. I didn’t wait in the shadows to pounce, I didn’t try to wake the children and flee, or call for help. No, I shouted. Shouted at the top of my voice, in anger and perhaps frustration. The nerve of this man, this burglar, this thief. Breaking into my house, putting my family’s lives in danger. And with the pent up emotion of the weeks of resentment and bitterness coursing through me, I snapped. I ran towards the dining room, shouting the whole time with all the force I could muster.
I had no idea what I was really doing, no plans, no clue how I was going to tackle this intruder. Hell, I didn’t even know if he was alone. For all I knew he had an accomplice, maybe several. But I clearly surprised him with the violence of my voice and as I was running across the living room floor, he appeared in the doorway he’d just passed through, running in panic back towards the open patio door.
We met in the middle of the living room floor, and crashed into each other hard. I was still shouting, grabbing at him. He swung towards me and kicked out hard, cracking into my knee with a sickening blow. I realised at this point that I didn’t even know if he was armed in any way; perhaps the patio door had needed jimmying open with a crowbar that he now carried with him. It seemed he had come empty-handed though, and we struggled together violently and desperately.
In the panic and darkness, neither of us was truly able to completely overpower the other. At the time I wasn’t really aware of him managing to cause me much pain as such, but then I felt a sudden lurching in my stomach as his foot forced the air from me. I crumpled to my knees as he made a sudden dash towards the open door into the garden. As I forced back the wave of nausea rising from my stomach, I stood up and tried to follow him through the door. Just at that moment the world seemed to explode in colour, and I had to close my eyes for a second against the glow of the lights coming on in the living room. Although still a little disorientated, I regained my balance and sense of sight and managed to run into the garden. The burglar was now a good 20 feet ahead of me, and clearly fuelled by adrenaline. My last sight of him was as he vaulted up onto the top edge of the brick wall that led into the narrow alley running down the side of our house, and as he leant his chest onto the top of the wall he brought his legs up and over, and disappeared.
I ran towards the wall but knew I had no chance of climbing over. Knowing the danger had abated, my body allowed me to feel the effects of my exertions. I felt suddenly weak, my left knee giving way from the kick earlier. I sank down to the dry, summer grass and tried to get my breath back.
Carol and both the girls came running across the garden towards me. Martha was in tears, her whole body shaking with her sobs. Little Ellie was dry-eyed, but her features set in a look of terrified shock. The poor little babies. I looked at Carol, now kneeling on the grass next to me. ‘Oh my god, you’re bleeding!’ She cried out. Her hand was shaking as she stroked my leg, stopping short of the cut that was now gently oozing bright red blood.
Martha flung her arms around me, a little too tightly for my comfort but I didn’t complain. As I caught Carol’s gaze again I saw something I’d not seen for so long. Her eyes were wide but softened, her head titled slightly to one side. ‘You saved us,’ she said, ‘my god you’re so brave!’ She ran her hand gently across my head as she looked deep into my eyes. ‘Oh, you’re such a good boy, Max’ she said, ‘who’s a good dog?’. And I gladly fell into her warm arms as I lay down and felt the deep joy of knowing I was still loved.