Simon Markham had been heating water in a saucepan, but now his kettle had arrived. His new neighbour Mrs Stephens had taken in his Amazon parcel, and when he called upstairs to collect it after work she moved past their nodding acquaintance and ushered him in for tea for the first time.
He waited in an armchair in her neat living room, watching her son, or more likely grandson, Nathan (Mrs Stephens was well into her fifties, the boy about ten), bash two toy cars together in one head-on collision after another. The boy was still dressed in his school uniform, and he sat on the rug in front of the electric fire, on despite the warmth of the spring day. He ignored Simon, and the only sound he made was the explosion that accompanied each car crash.
Mrs Stephens came in carrying a tea-set on a tray. She set it down on the coffee table beside Simon’s parcel, and sat on the sofa opposite him.
‘So, did you know the area before you moved in?’ she said.
Simon nodded. ‘I used to live in a house just the other side of town.’
She glanced at the wedding band on his finger as she poured the tea. ‘And will Mrs Markham be joining you?’
Simon thumbed the ring and thought of Ellie. He guessed that Mrs Stephens knew the answer to this question— there were few reasons you moved from a house to a basement flat in the same town, and she’d seen him coming and going on his own for the past fortnight.
‘No,’ he said. ‘We’re separated. That’s why I’ve moved.’
‘I see,’ Mrs Stephens said. She handed him a cup and saucer. ‘You’ll be looking for a new wife then?’
Simon let out a hoot of laughter, more in shock than amusement, but Mrs Stephens didn’t seem to realise that she’d said anything untoward. She stared at him over the rim of her cup as she sipped her tea, and he realised that she was waiting for an answer.
‘I might let the dust settle on this one first,’ he said.
‘Do you still love her?’ Mrs Stephens said.
He paused, assuming he’d misheard her, but then realised that she’d really been so direct. He felt a flash of anger, and then confusion as to how to react. A weak ‘It’s complicated,’ was all he managed. He gulped at his tea, although it was still too hot and the room too warm.
She gestured at his cup hand with hers. ‘It’s just the ring,’ she said. ‘You’re still wearing it.’
‘Oh, that,’ he said. He meant to add something bland and innocuous, perhaps that it was just force of habit to keep it on, but he found himself telling the truth: ‘I’m just not ready to take it off.’
‘Hers was off right away though, I imagine,’ she said.
He thought back to the day he’d moved out, to sofa-surf with friends until he found the flat downstairs. That was two months ago. Ellie’s wedding ring was off her finger by that point, yes, but it had been absent for months already.
Simon offered Mrs Stephens a thin smile. He didn’t even know her first name; he wasn’t about to discuss his marriage with her.
Mrs Stephens set her cup on its saucer. He braced for another invasive question, but she turned her attention to the boy.
‘Did you meet Nathan?’ she said.
‘I did,’ Simon said, but the boy hadn’t even looked up from his cars.
She beckoned the child to them.
Nathan put his cars down and wandered over, staring at Simon. He stood beside Mr Stephens, leaning on the arm of the sofa and twisting in place on one foot.
Simon leaned forward to put his cup on the table, and a thought popped into his mind – fully formed and with an urge to be acted upon – that he has been an awful husband, that he had made a terrible mistake, and that life without Ellie wasn’t worth living.
The boy was still staring, but now he was smiling. The thought grew stronger, setting down roots, not just intrusive but compulsive, and as bleak and hopeless as depression. There was a hot water pipe running across the top of the bathroom wall in the flat downstairs, and he wondered if it might hold his weight.
Simon could feel a ring of sweat forming around his collar. He leaned back in the armchair, and the idea evaporated at once, a dark cloud that had blotted out the sun, but which had now passed by.
‘You’re doing it the wrong way,’ Mrs Stephens said.
Simon shook his head, not understanding, but she was talking to the boy. Nathan stepped forward, lingering between sofa and armchair.
Simon thought of Ellie, and how quickly their marriage had come tumbling down. They’d planted green beans together in the spring, but she would be harvesting them alone. Maybe he could call and offer to help? Maybe she would say yes. He jumped from one scenario to another, and in all of them he saw a way back to happily married life. And why not? He hadn’t been an awful husband and they hadn’t had a terrible marriage. They’d drifted apart – that was all – and that was a situation that offered hope.
‘I should get going,’ Simon said. He stood up. He would call Ellie as soon as he got back downstairs. Or maybe he would just turn up at his old house, and surprise her.
‘You’ve gone too far the other way,’ Mrs Stephens said to the boy. ‘Softly softly Nathan—she’s supposed to come here, not him go there.’
Simon had made it to the living room door. He realised that the idea of turning up at his old house – Ellie’s house now – was ridiculous. They hadn’t ‘drifted apart’ – they’d grown bored of each other – and that had festered into resentment. But earlier in the year he’d tried and failed to have an affair. Ellie had found out. That’s when she pulled the plug, before the resentment could boil over into hate. It was a wonder that she was still speaking to him.
He turned back to Mrs Stephens. ‘What did you say?’ he said.
‘Oh, it’s just a game we play.’
‘Is it?’ he said. He stepped towards her and Nathan, and felt a rush of excitement at the thought of Ellie, and an urge to run to her, to go now and never come back here. He stepped back, sensing that he was somehow stepping out of range of the boy and whatever it was that he was able to do, and back to his real feeling about his wife and their marriage: disappointment.
Mrs Stephens frowned. ‘I told you not to be a kid—I told you you’d forget how to do this properly,’ but Nathan wasn’t listening. He wandered back to the rug and picked up his toy cars.
Mrs Stephens pushed herself up and off of the sofa. ‘I’ll do it myself,’ she said.
‘What’s going on?’ Simon said. ‘You’ll do what yourself?’
‘We’d like to meet your ex-wife,’ she said. ‘It would be helpful if she could visit you. Then you could introduce us.’
This wasn’t funny, and Simon didn’t laugh this time. ‘We’re still married,’ he said, but he wished he’d told Mrs Stephens to shut up. He turned on his heels and left the flat.
He walked down the steps to the basement flat, cool air drying the sweat patches on his cheeks. Wait until Ellie heard about these weirdos, he thought, but she wouldn’t hear about this at all. Their split had been amicable enough, but they weren’t at the point where he’d be telling her anecdotes about moving out. And these two weren’t weird; they were just different. Mrs Stephens clearly lacked social skills, but she had invited him in for tea, and it didn’t feel fair to mock them, even to himself. A guilty gloom descended, and with it the vague feeling that this wasn’t the first time he’d felt down recently.
He got as far as the door to his flat before he remembered the kettle. He paused, keys in hand. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said aloud. ‘I’ll call in tomorrow after work.’
* * *
‘It didn’t work, did it?’ Nathan said. ‘Is the man coming back?’
‘No, it didn’t, and yes he is,’ Mrs Stephens said. She patted the parcel on the table. ‘He’ll be back again tomorrow to try to collect this.’
‘And will we try again too?’ Nathan said. He was still holding one of his toy cars, although there was no longer any need to pretend to be a little boy.
She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow I’ll try on my own.’
‘And will we be together then, like him and his wife?’
Mrs Stephens nodded. ‘Yes, just like them, Nathan. Just the very same.’
Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short dark fiction. His work has appeared in Fictive Dream, Idle Ink, Vamp Cat Magazine and XRAY literary magazine. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.