Well, not that much. The thing is I decided to enter a fun short story competition where you were given the theme by email on a Friday afternoon and had until Monday lunchtime to come up with a fabulous 1000 word short story. (the Lit Bits Weekend Challenge. @LitBitsStories, http://www.otherpublishingcompany.com/LITBITS-Weekend-Challenge.html) The last one I entered had to be called The Lie. As of course I had no time to start completely from scratch, I decided to take a very short piece I had written for www.parapgraphplanet.com and expand on the deceit and bitterness that lay within its 75 words.
The truth is, I didn’t win. But I did rather like my Lie. What do you think? (BTW before you read on, there’s some swearing.)
I stifled a bubble of hysteria and coughed as I noticed the way the brigade emblem on his coffin sent a halo-shaped shadow onto the wood. The sun was so intense that August morning I thought it might burn its way through the oak and consume his already charred body. Finish off what it had begun.
It was a day for wearing shorts and a halter-neck top and lying in a hammock with a book, but here we all were in black, sweating. The mayor wore full regalia and the Chief Fire Officer was in ceremonial uniform, complete with a shining helmet to reflect more rays of glory. I was grateful for my widow’s veil. It gave my cheeks the faintest breeze and my dry eyes a hiding place. I took out my handkerchief and dabbed. Nina, my eldest, squeezed my hand. I squeezed back and felt the shake of her shoulders in the clutch of our fingers. The twins were at home with the babysitter. They were too young for this, but I would bring them here when all the black costumes had gone. They needed to lay down flowers and give him the pictures they were drawing for him today. I looked down at my patent court shoes and felt my throat tighten. Simon would be driving thick black lines and fat yellow and orange flames across the paper, with a group of stick figures picked out between them and long red curls for hoses. The drama of it all, that was what he loved. Sophie would be drawing her father, in uniform. She almost always drew daddy, the fireman. I was the school-runner, the cuddler, the bedtime storyteller. Just as much to love, but less to be proud of. They were only four, but Sophie always tried so hard to colour in every detail of him. At least all the details that she knew.
The first time it happened was almost a year after the twins were born. I was still breastfeeding and I expressed some milk for their bottles. I remember that sharp feeling of being torn. It made more milk leak out and I almost didn’t change my top, but it was Julie’s birthday and so long since I’d had a night out with the girls.
“Just go, darling,” Paul said and kissed me on the forehead. “Don’t worry about them, we’ll be fine. I looked after Nina ok, didn’t I?”
“I know, I know, it’s just… Well, there are two of them.”
“We’ll be fine. Go and enjoy yourself.”
I kissed him on the lips, hard, and he smiled and gave me a tap on the bottom. “Go on, beautiful.”
When I got home, the house was dark. I eased the front door shut and pulled off my heels at the bottom of the stairs. The sudden light from the living room dazzled me.
“Yes? Sorry, I thought you were asleep.”
“Asleep? You stupid bitch. You think I can sleep when you’re out until this time, do you?”
“But it’s only…” I grabbed at the living room door as I saw the two baby bottles, almost full on the table, standing beside two bottles of wine, empty. It was eleven o’clock. Sophie and Simon were lying on their play rug. They were asleep, but still in their little jeans and jumpers. The stench of their nappies hit me.
“Why are they down here, Paul? They should be…”
“They should be? What the hell do you mean, they should be? What about you? Their mother? You should have been here hours ago, you slut.”
I turned to face him as his palm smacked into my cheek and he snapped my head back with my hair.
“Who were you with tonight, Isabelle?”
“Paul, you’re hurting me!”
“I said who were you with?” My scalp burned harder.
“But you know, it was Julie’s birthday! I was with Julie and Louise and Melanie.”
I shouted out as his hand came down again.
“Shut up, you fucking liar!”
“But it’s true, you know it was Julie’s…”
“I said shut up! I know that’s a lie. That with you it’s lie after lie after lie. I know you’re just a little slut.”
All I could hear as my husband pushed me down onto the sofa was my babies crying. My milk flooded out of my breasts as he pulled at them and tore off my tights. I wished my ears could shut as tightly as my eyes. I thought they would never stop.
I let the clumps of dry earth fall onto the gleaming wood slowly. Each thud smashed into my stomach like his fist. I mouthed silent words that were not prayers with the lips that had swollen and split so many times. I bowed my head as his threats whispered in my ears: “Don’t think I won’t find you if you leave. Don’t think I won’t kill them.”
I turned and handed the rose they had given me to Nina. She let it drop into the grave and I held her against my breasts as she sobbed.
“Thank you,” I said as the mayor gave me the folded flag that had flown during the ceremony. It was a lie.
“Yes, a hero,” I said as the Chief Fire Officer recounted Paul’s bravery as the forest burned around him. Another lie.
“Your children will be a comfort to you.” The chaplain cupped Nina’s chin with his hand and traced the track of a tear with one finger.
“Yes, oh yes. My children have always been a comfort to me.”
“When Paul was out there, facing the fires,” the chaplain nodded. “Yes, I can imagine they would be.”
I said nothing. That lie had been licked clean by the flames.