Third Prize Story Winner
2018 Cooney Insurance Short Story Competition
By Jackie Rutherford
There was a knock at the door.
Maisie was in the laundry when she heard it. She paused, her hands hovering over the bucket.
It came again, an impatient rattling of the glass panes.
She took off her gloves and rinsed her hands slowly, then walked in measured steps to the door. Her lack of rushing was deliberate. She’d found a time delay normally deterred everyone but the most urgent of visitors. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the door-to-door salespeople, the politicians, all normally gave up and moved on to the neighbours by the time she reached the front door.
Today there were two policemen on the front step. They were not moving on to the neighbours.
“Are you Maisie Evans?” The policeman had a melodic voice for such a big man, it almost made her smile. But the grimness on his face, matched by his companion’s expression, made her realise that this wasn’t a smiling occasion.
“Yes, I’m Maisie.”
‘Maisie-rhymes-with-Daisy,’ Ned had chanted to her on the night they first met. She’s been charmed by his irreverence, as she’d been charmed by so many other things that night. His curly dark hair that ruffled at the back, his eyebrows that were slightly too bushy, but made a great accent for his eyes that sparkled mischievously below.
“Can we come in?” the policeman asked.
The policemen hovered in the hallway, looking like overgrown children in a cubbyhouse. They were both big men, looming over her by at least a foot. Ned wasn’t that tall, but he was strong. ‘Built like an ox,’ her mother had commented when she’d first brought him home. Maisie had liked his solidness in the beginning. In her mind, it advertised dependability.
“Come through to the living room,” she invited.
“I’m Constable Harry Miller and this is Constable Mike Brooks.” The older of the two, the one with the pleasant voice, continued to speak.
“Is something the matter?” Maisie was wearing a butterfly brooch on her cardigan and it felt like the butterfly had wormed its way inside her chest cavity and was now frantically beating to get out.
“I’m afraid we have some bad news.”
She listened in solemn silence as Harry, having made his opener, proceeded to tell her the facts. Swiftly. Savagely.
There had been a car accident, at the bottom of Nelson street. It appeared the brakes on Ned’s car had failed. He had been killed instantly. The car had been engulfed in fire afterwards, so not much remained.
As he finished up, Maisie supressed the ludicrous need to laugh. Because this could not be happening. It could not be her husband they were talking about. Ned was indestructible.
“Do you have any children? Anyone who can be with you?” Harry asked gently.
“No, we don’t have any children.”
Maisie regarded her and Ned’s children as invited guests who’d never bothered to show up. Sometimes there would be an RSVP, but then their hope would be brutally snatched away by bleeding.
Ned hadn’t taken it well. Maisie had tried to be understanding. After all, she regarded her failure to have children as a black mark against her womanhood, and her despair after their near misses had been merciless. But Ned had let his grief fester like an ingrown hair. It would erupt in ferocious boils that Maisie found impossible to lance.
Of course, now there was miraculous technology that could help people with ‘difficulties in that area’, as her mother used to phrase it. But they’d arrived far too late for Ned and Maisie. Their branch of the family tree would forever remain pruned.
“Is there someone I can ring for you? Who can be with you now?”
Mike, somewhere in the midst of Harry’s telling, had slipped away to boil the kettle. Maisie was only aware of this when she felt a cup of tea pressed into her hand. He’d made it in Ned’s favourite mug, the one with the orange handle.
She supposed it wasn’t Ned’s mug any longer. Everything that had been Ned’s was now hers.
“No.” She realised she sounded too abrupt and tried to correct it. Suddenly she was talking, babbling really, words pouring out of her mouth in an uncontrollable stream.
“The car’s warrant expired on Tuesday, Ned was going to take it later on in the week, after pension day. I’ve been worried about the brakes for a while, they’ve been ever so squeaky.”
How long had she been urging him to check the brakes? Why, she’d even mentioned it in front of her friend Nancy just the other day. Not nagging, because Ned had grown up with a nagging mother and any shrillness, any hint of disapproval, and his expression would darken. She’d learnt to temper every tone in her voice into the acceptable range.
Temper her voice to avoid Ned’s temper. How very ironic the English language could be sometimes.
“He left around nine thirty this morning,” Maisie continued to talk. “He was going to the pub to put some money on the dogs. Ned follows greyhound racing. Never horses. Always the dogs.”
Maisie had read an awful article a few months back about how many greyhounds were euthanised after they retired from racing. There were charities that rehomed the retired greyhounds, and Maisie had tentatively suggested the idea to Ned. She’d always loved animals. But it turned out Ned’s love of dog racing didn’t extend to the actual dogs themselves.
“I asked him to take the gas bottle to get checked because the valve wasn’t working properly. It was full, I guess that’s why the car exploded like it did,” Maisie finished with a shaky breath.
“I’m very sorry for your loss Mrs Evans. Are you sure there’s no one I can ring for you?”
Harry fiddled with his phone. Maisie could tell he was a man of action, who wanted to do something to fix this. But he was trying to fix the unfixable.
Watching him with his phone, she decided that what she’s missed out most about not having children was how they kept you up-to-date with the world. Young people today were almost a different species. Their phones were their Gods, something they turned to for all the answers.
When she needed information she still did it the old-fashioned way, in the library. She’d spent a lot of time in the library recently. The young librarian didn’t pay her any more attention than you’d give a pot plant. An old, doddery lady prowling the non-fiction section wasn’t even worth the effort of raising your eyes away from the computer screen.
“No, I’ll manage. I want to catch my breath before I ring anyone. Thank you for coming to tell me.”
She stood. Harry regarded her with a sceptical eyebrow as he mirrored her. She knew he’d categorised her as one of the stoic older generation, who kept a stiff upper lip in front of strangers. In some ways, it was true. Maisie came from a family who didn’t complain about their problems. They solved things themselves.
She followed the policemen back through the tiny hall.
When her mother talked about retirement, she’d described how she and Maisie’s father had to get used to rattling around in a big house together. Unfortunately, Ned and Maisie’s unit wasn’t big enough for them to rattle in. They were constantly colliding.
She saw Harry’s eyes drift to her arm and she self-consciously tugged down her sleeve. Young men didn’t need to see what happened to old skin. Old skin that easily stretched out of shape, like a jersey pegged on the washing line wrong. Old skin that was papery, veiny. Old skin that bruised oh-so-easily. Let them keep their youthful levels of collagen and their belief in the eternity of elasticity.
She thanked them again for their time, shutting the front door behind them. The butterfly in her chest had settled down, although it gave one excited flutter as she walked slowly back to the laundry.
She glanced into the bucket. The metal of the pliers had dissolved into oblivion in the acid. Just like the books had promised. It was like a magic trick, and a surge of… something… rushed through her. It was the same feeling she’d had on that night so many years ago, right before she’d met Ned. Like the world was full of magical possibilities.
In a week or so, she might enquire about adopting a greyhound. One of those poor animals that had worked hard for no thanks and now deserved a nice retirement. No one would think it was strange that an elderly widow wanted some company.
She went out the back door and tipped the contents of the bucket down the drain. Then she came inside to make herself another cup of tea.
As the kettle boiled, she wondered again why she’d been so charmed by Maisie-rhymes-with-Daisy. Even kindergarten children could rhyme.