Alabaster Conjugal (Part 1)
By Mark Burrow
I walked into the kitchen and saw that Marnie had turned to stone. The door of the fridge was wide open and I could see she had been removing my last scotch egg when she transformed.
I closed the fridge and took the egg from my wife’s rigid fingers and realised it was edible. I put it in my lunchbox, along with my wrap filled with salad leaves, hummus and black olives. I also had an orange and healthy nut bar. I put the plastic box in my rucksack with my laptop, headphones and chargers. I set the house alarm and headed to the train station.
Too many people lived in this city. It was a dead-cert that the platform would be packed with the bodies of commuters. A couple of trains went by before I was close enough to the platform’s edge to push my way onto a carriage. I listened to my music through the noise of the train. I liked the Gnossiennes by Erik Satie and Songs of a Wayfarer by Gustav Mahler, especially the part where it switches to a waltz. I could picture myself living in Berlin during the Weimer Republic, drinking in smoky basement bars with ex-soldiers, their various limbs missing from injuries suffered in the Great War, clanking heavy steins of frothy beer and shouting rude comments at a middle-aged woman in a cheap red dress who stood on a low and softly lit stage, her face caked in heavy make-up, singing into a large microphone in a slow and lugubrious voice about heartache, poverty and madness.
I often frightened myself on my forty-five-minute commute by imagining a bomb exploding among the passengers. The blinding flash of light, blistering heat and the ear-splitting noise of breaking metal and glass. And then the scream filled darkness and cries of agony at torn, severed flesh and compound fractures. At least three or four times a week, I am haunted by these visions. Amidst the carnage and suffering, I picture myself as a lucky survivor, emerging from the blackened wreckage with only a charcoal smeared face, ripped clothes, a gash on my arm and a minor case of tinnitus. I crawl from the twisted metal and lay my rucksack down by the side of the track and use my phone to dial the emergency services, and then wrap up my arm with a tie and return to the chemical fumes and smoke of the mutilated carriage to aid the wounded and bring words of solace to the dying. I wonder if everyone likes to picture themselves as a hero.
The train arrives at my station and I step off, scan myself through the barrier and then I queue for a medium white Americano and head to the office. I start to wonder if I should have called an ambulance for my wife and if I will get into trouble for not doing so. It didn’t occur to me that doctors might be able to treat her condition, but then I work in car insurance so what do I know? If I dialled now, I might be judged poorly. Was it possible that I could be accused of turning my wife into stone? That I was some kind of deviant, homicidal alchemist? The reality could not have been further from the facts, but I’ve noticed that when a person tries to explain themselves, it only makes matters worse. They sound defensive. If anything, they’re guiltier than if they stayed silent.
Joe was hungover. He sat at his desk and drank from a large mug of instant coffee with the US-owned company’s decal on the side. He nodded at me as I placed my Americano on my desk, hung my suit jacket over the back of the chair and then sat down to open my laptop and log-on.
“I’m broken,” he said.
“Went on a date last night with a mental health nurse. We hit it off and she was knocking back the white wines and I was downing pints. You know, she told me she’s had patients swallow cutlery. Can you imagine that? Swallowing a fork. Anyway, we go back to her flat and she has this cockapoo called Terence and we’re in her bed, going at it, and Terrence is on there with us and he starts trying to lick my balls, so I’m kicking at the dog and she’s crying out for me to go harder, but I’m like, ‘Get your sodding dog off the bed.’ And she’s like, ‘Don’t be mean to Terence.’”
Joe was younger than me. I should have been his supervisor. In my appraisals, I was told I had to develop my ‘people skills’ if I wanted to climb the corporate ladder.
“She had a massive tattoo of a sun across her back. I mean, her entire back.”
“She said she regretted getting such a massive one. I lied and told her I liked her tramp stamp of the sun. Everyone seems to have a tatt nowadays."
“Obviously, you don’t. That goes without saying.”
“I think she liked having Terence join in. By the end, the dog stopped going for my balls and was ripping her sheets to shreds the more she got into it. I guess that’s my first threesome.”
I looked at my emails and the calendar reminder of the seminar I had to attend on automated vehicles and why they didn’t signal the end of the car insurance sector as we know it.
“What did you get up to?” Joe asked.
“I had a row with Marnie about her trying to eat my pack lunch.”
“When I woke up this morning, I went into the kitchen and found her transformed into stone.”
Joe was reading his phone and grinning. He looked up and turned the screen to me, “Check out what she’s sent. I tell you, mate, nurses and teachers, they’re filth’meisters.”
I looked at the photo of the woman’s small breasts with dark pointed nipples – one of them was pierced – and read her message.
Joe seemed happy about what she wanted to do with his appendage. “Guess I’ll be seeing her and pervy Terence again,” he said, tapping a dirtier reply on his phone.
I read an email from my supervisor, who was younger than me, about a claim that needed to be rejected as it transpired the driver’s MOT had expired a day before the collision. I logged onto the claims system and then filled in the boxes and submitted the rejection. The claimant would receive an email notification and then I would be the recipient of a phone call from the person begging me to reconsider the decision.
I sipped my Americano. The woman serving me at the train-station café wore a trainee barista t-shirt but, judging by the spot-on temperature and rich flavour, she had natural talent. I hoped that she was promoted soon and was given the “Born to Brew” t-shirt worn by the other, less skilled staff.
Fact Number 1 about Marnie and me: I was a coffee drinker. She liked tea.
Was that one fact or two?
My thinking wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. I wondered if I had early-stage Alzheimer’s. The synapses of my brain weren’t firing properly. I would lie in bed and try to recall aspects of my life, such as my first school, and experience a sense of panic as I struggled to think of its name. I had also forgotten the name of the street where I was born. There was no-one left alive in my family to remember those places.
“Do you think you’ll marry her?” I said to Joe.
He looked at me over his phone. “Who?”
“The mental health nurse.”
He burst out laughing.
I laughed too.
I took my shiny tablet from a drawer, pressed for the power to come on, and took a lift with branded motivational slogans on the walls to the seminar on the 15th floor, where I joined a cohort of my ‘colleagues’ in a room of high glass windows that overlooked the city. I listened to a plump woman from Missouri tell us about connectivity in the fourth industrial revolution and how the driverless roads would be filled with quiet, eco-friendly electric cars, buses and lorries. We were on the cusp of the autonomous age, where vehicles would never break the speed limit or take a wrong turn. Passengers would input their journeys and technology would ensure they never had to stop at a single set of traffic lights.
In the future, we would live in a world where everything was synchronised.
The tone of her voice was upbeat, like she was describing Utopia.
At lunch, I sat alone in a graveyard where William Blake and his wife were buried.
I ate my wrap and a healthy nut bar.
Blake loved his wife and she loved him.
She used to make his pack lunch before he did his drawings or wrote his poems.
I stared at the scotch egg, summoning up the courage to take a bite.
I swear it felt like I was devouring Marnie’s soul.
(Click here for Part 2 - https://www.abctales.com/story/mark-burrow/alabaster-conjugal-part-2)