Doing a good thing
By Stephen Thom
It was a wet day when the letter arrived. Rain was beating against the glass panels of the front door and the floorboards creaked as Dave bent to pick it up. For a second longer it was crisp and clean and invasive against the wisped doormat. Then he had it in his stubby fingers, examining the jerky writing.
'Carol! Carol - letter for you.'
She came through, mobile phone pressed against her cheek. Her lips folded together in acknowledgement as she clasped the envelope and Dave swung the front door open. Chimes tinkled and he stood in the rain a moment, watching puffed clouds etched against the sky. Drops filmed his forehead and he looked across the spread of garden and the safe place they had made and he remembered what it was to be separate and to be always outside the door. He scratched the tiny white scars on his arm. The rain washed him and it was a fresh rain, not a rain brought from other times.
She was drinking when he shuffled into the kitchen. He checked the clock. 13:00.
'Dave, sit down, I need to -'
He made to question the glass, but saw the sheen in her eyes and slumped into the seat opposite. It felt like a separate motion, as if he were pressed into position.
'What's going on?'
'Here. Here, you have -' she fumbled with the bottle and poured him a glass. He reached for it and his stomach turned at the scent.
'What's going on?'
The letter lay crisp, clean and spread out between them. She toyed with the edges.
'Listen. You remember John? John, you remember - remember I told you about him?'
He slugged a mouthful back and felt a tightness in his chest. The drilling rain outside boxed them in.
'Yes,' he said. 'Yes, I do.'
'He's been having... he's been having the hardest time,' she went on, stroking up and down the rim of her glass. 'You remember... remember what I told you before? All that time ago. And I always thought, I always thought, if he could just... just get a good six months under his belt. But you see, he did - he did, and he went off and joined some awful group or... movement, I don't know - Dave, you know, you know what I mean?'
The spill of light from the bulb above washed the letter and he watched her face, watched the nest of wrinkles in the corners of her eyes.
'John,' he mumbled, then caught himself. 'Yes, yes. What, some kind of religious group?' He slugged another drink and felt sparked.
'Well... I don't - listen, it says very little about... look, either way, he got out of that in the end. He got out and he started again. Worse than ever. You remember, Dave? Remember I told you what it was like? And from what I understand... what I understand is, he's been to detox... to a ward, no funny stuff, and he's done it properly. He's done it properly, and he's clean and ready to go. To leave.' Her eyes drifted back to the letter and she looked lost in it.
'That's quite a... that's all in the letter?' He wanted to reach for her hand and press into it, but the beating rain and the muddy daytime-drink feeling wedged him still.
She looked up with wet eyes and he wanted to kiss them.
'Dave, listen. He needs somewhere safe to go. He needs somewhere safe. Just for a short time. Just until he can show his sister how well he's - Dave, do you see?'
He wrapped his fingers round the glass. The rain was a kinetic snare drum and the bulb above seemed to cut a milky curtain between them as they sat. He drank again and the muddy trail played out between his ears, sifting.
'Seems a bit...' he heard himself say. 'Seems a bit, you know. What with you two - what with...'
Her face was keen and lit now and she slid her glass aside and leaned across the table.
'But we'd be doing a good thing, Dave. We'd be doing a good thing. And you know about this. You know how important it is to be like this. Remember those people who helped when you were... down, they gave - '
His forehead scrunched instantly and he pushed a hand out to clip the sentence.
'Right, right. Right. I get this, I get this, it's just it seems a bit...'
'But we're adults now, Dave,' she breathed, folding her little fingers over his own. He felt the warm touch and reached for another draft. 'That was all a long time ago, and all that matters is he gets better. That's all that matters. And we'd be doing a good thing. A good thing. Giving something back for all the help you -'
Again he clipped it.
'Okay, okay. I get it. I just think it's a bit... but I get that people might have nowhere to turn, I guess.'
She padded round the table, cutting the light divide, and knelt to embrace him. The rain rattled against the window and behind his temples as her cheeks sunk into his own. He felt change in the fingertips clasping his neck.
He tugged his boots on as she gabbled into the phone. Under the bulb above the table her hair looked frizzier, as if responding to some internal surge.
'No, now you listen - you listen, all that matters is that you keep getting better. And we'll, we'll look after you, we're more than happy to - no, John, don't be like that, don't be like that. It's our duty. It's a positive thing, it's all positive, so don't be like - '
The chimes sprung mockingly as he eased the door shut behind him and paced down the garden path. John. The name sounded like nothing. It sounded like a big fat load of nothing.
The long grass rising from the hill beyond their house wet his trousers as he strode through it. The sea stretched in short glassy panels until he reached a high peak where the grass flapped and suddenly it claimed the world beyond, but for a sliver of grey where the sky met it. In the salty breeze he picked at green stalks and remembered the beating clutch and his own sunken eyes in the mirror as she slept. He remembered the certainty that it was always going to be like this. He remembered the mousey woman in her cream office, her list of automatic thoughts, her sheets to fill in, her examples of 'catastrophizing'.
It would be nice to give something back. Everyone has a past. Everyone has a sexual past... the mousey woman had said that too.
We are adults. All that matters is that he gets better.
We'd be doing a good thing.
In the corner of his eye a flurry of brown movement shifted between the grass. Snapping over, he clamped his hand down. His trouser knees sunk into dirty wetness and he felt a warm, glossy shiver beneath his fingers. A rabbit. It stared straight ahead, trembling. The sea carried away from them, separating worlds from worlds, and he wrapped his fingers around its neck. He pressed them in, feeling the rustling bundle squash. It felt like a big fat load of nothing. Then abruptly he released. The rabbit darted off; he aimed a kick after it, missed, and fell.
She was her own quivering bundle of energy when he returned, lugging plastic bags full of bottles out to the recycling bin.
'What are you doing?' He said, dragging his boots over the mat.
'We have to get rid of all of this - all of it,' she sighed as she lifted the lid. There was a nervous, peaky thrill in her words. 'There can't be any temptation here. It has to be a safe place.'
'Rid of? Could we not have just locked it in the shed?'
She was flushed when she looked around, and she walked over and grasped his shoulders.
'This has to be a safe place, Dave. We can replace these. We're doing a good thing.'
'For John,' he said, and the swell of the 'o' licked around his mouth.
'For John, and for us,' she said, pressing her head into his chest.
He lay awake until he heard the shift in her breathing and slipped out of bed. The night cut wrapped shapes throughout the hall, layers of black folding into deeper layers and he tried to project another shape; tried to body forth this new shape in their house, mingling with their own.
At the back door he flicked the outside light on and it made his eyes feel full. It pushed the darkness back to the edge of the patio and in this glowing, boxed pitch he rummaged through the recycling bin. His hands crawled and clinked over wet bottles and one by one he fished out sticky vessels with watery remnants inside.
We all have a past. In the past it was always going to be like this, and... automatic thoughts, catastrophizing... and Carol, she said 'we're here and safe now and I will always love you.' Or he imagined she said that, and not 'we'd be doing a good thing'.
In the cold pinch he slugged the dregs back and he re-pictured her not as a close thing but as a small ship bobbing away on the sick sea all around them. And no matter how often he tied and pegged it back, it broke free and drifted off. A wild thing, a free thing. And this new shape, blossoming beyond the lit sliver of patio - this John, this rolling 'O' sound, this good thing -
A spray of stars were out as he sunk the bottles back into the bin, and a glassy moon ground out through the black; ground down time and vital links that could never be broken, because if they were broken you would have nothing. You would be back to the start and back in that place you came from.
Stumbling a little as he slipped back into the house, he nudged through the dark and into the kitchen. Fishing a chopping knife from the holder, he lurched into the bathroom and sunk, hunched, onto the floor. With wavering precision he settled the sharp curve over little white-mound memories of previous cuts, and with each slit he pushed the gathering shape away.
In the morning he awoke to needling light flacking against his eyelids. Beneath the covers his arms were bandaged and veiled in a heavy sweater that itched and stuck to him now.
Her face was bright and floating by the bedside. He felt the peel against his eyeballs as he stared back.
'Oh, Dave, it's wonderful, John's sister visited him at the ward. She rang me, she sounds so kind. She visited him, and she's going to take him in. She's seen how well he's doing, and she's going to take him in. She's going to be be his safe place. Isn't that wonderful?'
Her eyes were wet again and she nuzzled her face close to his on the sheets.
'I'm so happy, Dave, I'm so happy. He's with his family, and we have our little family, and it feels like everyone is getting better, everything is working out. It just shows, even if you have good thoughts... thank you though, thank you so much for even agreeing to help, it just shows.'