Sunday, 1 January 2017

A New Year's Gift

It's that time of year when many of us take stock and make good resolutions about how we will improve our lives. Having a healthier lifestyle with more exercise is a popular choice, but beware, there are pitfalls. In Motivation, Maureen's lifestyle change should have come with a serious health warning.

So everything in moderation. Just sit down with a cup of tea, or something stronger, and allow yourself a few minutes of relaxation and fun with this short story.

A happy, healthy and prosperous 2017 to you all.

‘Maureen! I’m home!’
No answer. I closed the front door behind me and tried again. ‘Maureen! Where are you, love?’
An ominous din came from the kitchen. Inside, I found my wife, Maureen, with her head in the fridge, tossing out jars and bottles with the gusto of an excited Jack Russell unearthing a bone. I dodged as she lobbed a jar of chocolate and hazelnut spread into the bin. Broken glass tinkled.
‘What on earth are you doing? You know I like that stuff on my toast in the mornings.’
Maureen emerged from the chilly depths, lips pursed and brow furrowed.
‘Forty per cent fat and a hundred and fifty calories a teaspoon, Frank; I’m not having that kind of thing in my house. If that’s what you buy, it’s the last time I let you go shopping on your own.’
‘What am I supposed to have for breakfast then?’
‘Low fat, high fibre cereal.’
She gestured to the kitchen table and I saw a stack of boxes. The topmost one had a garish picture of a beaming woman with her spoon poised over a sunflower-yellow bowl. The bowl seemed to be full of shredded up coconut matting. ‘But I don’t like that kind of cereal,’ I protested.
‘Nonsense, it’s just a matter of re-educating your taste buds.’
I swallowed the retort that my taste buds were fine just as they were. I doubt she’d have noticed anyway. Her head had already disappeared into the fridge again. I guessed there was no way that she would miss the bottle of tomato ketchup I’d bought at the supermarket yesterday. That was probably full of forbidden ingredients too.
‘What’s for dinner?’ I asked with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Maureen’s face emerged once more. She put her hands on her hips. ‘I’d have thought it was obvious I’ve been far too busy to cook; you’ll have to wait. I’ll put a salad together when I’ve finished here.’
‘I’ll go and watch television for a bit then, shall I?’
‘You do that.’
In the sitting room, I dug the remote out from under Maureen’s pile of slimming magazines. Flicking through the channels, I found an old film, North by Northwest. It had already got to the bit where the crop spraying plane chases Cary Grant across the fields. When we were first married, Maureen used to say I reminded her of Cary Grant.
I sighed. Somehow, I didn’t have the heart to watch to the end.
I stabbed the channel button again and found a programme about a middle-aged couple converting a derelict barn into a dream home. They were what I call comfortably built, rather like me and Maureen, or at least me and the old Maureen.
There didn’t seem to be a lot left of the barn except for crumbling walls with black holes like empty eye sockets where windows should have been. The roof had caved in and there were bats nesting in the rafters. I didn’t give much for the couple’s chances, but they looked to be enjoying themselves. The wife was a jolly woman, rushing about with mugs of tea and plates of chocolate biscuits for the builders. I was willing to bet she wouldn’t expect her husband to eat diet cereal if he didn’t want to.
Supper, when it finally arrived, consisted of clear soup and a carrot salad with a vinegary dressing. Afterwards, with my stomach griping, I sat down to watch Match of the Day. Maureen changed into pink Lycra shorts and pounded away on her exercise bike in the corner of the room. It was hard to hear the commentary over the whir of pedals, but I didn’t say anything.
The following evening, I needed a drink before I faced any more carrot salad so I dropped in at the Dog and Duck on the way home. In the bay window, two women in business suits sipped white wine. The only other customers were a noisy gang of youngsters whose loud conversation made it impossible to be unaware that they worked for the local computer company and were celebrating a birthday. Dora, the barmaid, finished serving them their drinks then came down to my end of the bar. She smiled. ‘Evening, Frank: pint of your usual?’
I nodded.
A burst of laughter came from the group at the end of the bar.  She swivelled her eyes in their direction.
‘I dread to think what they’ll be like after another round. Heathen concoctions these cocktails they like to drink; give me a pint of bitter any day.’
I grinned. ‘Each to their own.’
She reached for a glass from under the counter and started to pull my pint. I had just paid her for it when half a dozen more of the loud crowd arrived and she had to go off to serve them.
Left alone, I ran my finger glumly along the groove of a scratch on the wooden counter. The laughter from the other end of the bar only added to my melancholy. I thought of Maureen. If I was honest, she’d always been bossy, but I’d grown used to that. No, this was something else: in the last few months, with this new health kick, she had become impossible.
Dora returned and looked down at my empty glass.
‘Do you want the other half, Frank?’
I glanced at my watch and shook my head.
‘Better not, Maureen will be wondering where I’ve got to.’
‘All right.’
She swept my glass off the bar with a practised hand. I noticed how soft and plump it looked, the nails painted candyfloss pink. Our eyes met and she smiled. ‘Not too late to change your mind, y’know.’
I smiled back. ‘Maybe I could be persuaded.’
‘That’s better. I was hoping for to some civilised conversation.’
‘No good looking at me then.’
She laughed. ‘Don’t do yourself down, Frank.’
After the second pint, I set off home. A thin, icy rain was falling and a gust of wind buffeted me as I turned into my street. As I walked into the hall, Maureen came out of the sitting room. She had an odd, secretive smile on her face.
‘Hello, Frank.’
I gave her a peck on the cheek. ‘Had a good day, love?’
‘Mmm.’ The funny smile was still there. A strange foreboding started in my head and travelled down to my stomach.
‘I’ve got a surprise for you,’ Maureen went on.
‘Hope it’s a nice one.’
She giggled. A sound I hadn’t heard in a long time. ‘Come and see.’
Walking into the sitting room, I recoiled. ‘What on Earth. . .?’
‘You remember that competition I entered; the one where you had to complete the sentence, “I love Mr Motivator’s low fat, organic spread because . . .?” Well, this is my prize – Mr Motivator himself. Isn’t he gorgeous?’
Gorgeous was not how I would have described him. Mr Motivator was a six foot tall, inflatable man. In his black Lycra shorts and singlet, his perma-tanned body rippled with muscles. The smug smile on his chiselled, PVC features revealed white teeth so dazzling that I felt in danger of snow blindness. Worse still, he was propped up in my favourite chair.
‘He can’t stay,’ I said abruptly.
Maureen put her hands on her hips, the giggle gone. Her brows knitted and her voice would have cut granite.
‘I’ve waited years for a man like him. He’s staying and that’s the end of it.’
I opened my mouth to speak but she had already flounced out of the room, leaving me to stare in dismay at the plastic interloper.
Weeks went by.
Maureen and Mr Motivator were inseparable. She named him Max and wherever she was, he was too. She even took him out on drives to the coast or into the country. When I protested, she ignored me. My nails were bitten to the quick and I couldn’t sleep.
There was hardly a scrap of food in the house now. If it hadn’t been for the burgers and chips at the Dog and Duck, I’d have starved. Maureen had lost so much weight, I feared that a puff of wind would blow her away. I could have circled her waist with one hand – except there was none of that kind of thing between us now. ‘Max needs me,’ she’d frown if I went too close, then she’d brush me off like stray cake crumbs.
‘What’s going on, Frank?’ Dora asked as I wolfed down the plate of food she served me one rainy evening. ‘It’s always nice to see you, but don’t you ever eat at home these days?’
I finished the last lovely, greasy morsel and wiped my mouth on the paper napkin. For a moment, I was on the point of confiding in her, but then my pride took over. The truth was just too humiliating; so instead, I mumbled something about decorating the kitchen and Maureen not being able to use it. Dora just gave me a quizzical look.
A few days later, I’d left the house to escape from my enemy when I met Dora coming out of the newsagent’s with a huge, shiny, blue balloon. Emblazoned on it in a circle of gold stars was the name “Max.”
I nearly passed out.
She gave me a concerned smile. ‘You all right, Frank?’
‘Yes,’ I said weakly.
She pointed to the balloon. It’s one of those helium ones that stay up on their own. It’s for my sister’s kid. I thought it would make him laugh. He’s a dear little thing. They’re having him christened today. It’s a nice name, Max, isn’t it?’
‘Er… I suppose so.’
She looked surprised.
‘Of course it is,’ I said quickly. ‘Very nice.’
An awkward silence fell.
‘Well, better be getting along,’ she said at last. ‘Have a good weekend, Frank.’ I watched her walk away, those curvaceous hips of hers swaying.
It was then that the idea came to me. It took some research on the Internet but eventually, I found what I wanted. All I had to do then was bide my time until Maureen went out on one of her few trips without Max.
The opportunity presented itself on her next weekly visit to the beauty parlour. She’d taken to going there regularly because: ‘Max likes me to look my best.’ As I heard the car start up, I rubbed my hands. She was usually gone for at least an hour and a half. Perfect.
In the sitting room, I imagined I saw a flash of panic in Max’s plastic eyes as I bore down on him and wrenched him out of my chair. Wrestling him to the ground, I fumbled for the stopper at the back of his neck then pulled off the top. With a triumphant grin, I watched him deflate until he was just a puddle of black and orange plastic on the beige carpet. ‘Ha!’ I shouted. ‘Not such a hunk now, are you!’
I fetched the helium canister from its hiding place in the garage and attached the nozzle to the open tube in Max’s neck. The valve on the canister hissed as I turned it. Gradually, Max expanded until he reached his former size. I glowered at him, restored as he was to his cheesy good looks. ‘Say your prayers, sucker,’ I snarled. ‘Don’t think you’re going to be let off as easily as that.’
Finding a black felt-tip pen, I inked in his teeth then I started to drag him out into the garden. He bumped over the terrace and onto the lawn. The afternoon was drawing to a close and the grass was damp with early dew. He made a squeaking sound as I pulled him over it, almost like a pathetic plea for help, but I was past pity. We were out in the open now, away from the trees that fringed the lawn. I took a deep breathe: this was it, the moment when I took my revenge. I swung my right foot back and took aim. Any moment now, Max would be up with the angels.
‘Max? Frank? What’s going on?’
I froze. On this day of all days, Maureen had returned early from the beauty parlour. She screamed; her bracelets jangling, she seized Max around the waist and tried to pull him away from me. ‘Let him go!’ she shouted. ‘Have you gone crazy?’
I staggered as she ground one of her stiletto heels into my foot. With a howl of pain, I released Max. He shot upwards, taking Maureen with him as if she were no more than a feather. Too horrified to move, I watched as they soared up and away towards the setting sun. Then the adrenaline kicked in. Dashing into the house, I grabbed the phone, but soon I hesitated. Who would believe me? The story was too crazy for words. My head reeled: where would Maureen and Max land and when they did, would she be OK? What would I say to her? Even more alarmingly, what would she have to say to me?
I stood in the rapidly gathering darkness for a few moments before I reached for the light switch. Nothing happened. I frowned as I noticed that the clock on the DVD player had gone dead. It must be a power cut. I went to the front door and opened it; outside, the other houses in the street seemed to be in darkness too. The wail of sirens grew louder; two police motorcyclists roared by, followed by four patrol cars.
‘What’s going on, Frank?’ My neighbour poked his head out of his front door.
‘No idea,’ I said but even as I uttered the words, I was very afraid that I did have one.
In what seemed like no time at all, the town was full of news teams – reporters from the TV, the radio and the papers, all madly asking questions and spouting theories. It seemed everyone had seen something in the sky; stories of UFOs, Martians, fairies, even Harry Potter and his quidditch team spread like wildfire. ‘We’ll probably never know the truth,’ a solemn man from the BBC intoned into his microphone. ‘One thing is certain though: whatever the phenomenon was, it was blown to smithereens when it struck the local electricity sub-station.’
Racked with guilt, I crept back home and huddled in my favourite chair. Never again would Max displace me from it. Elation coursed through my veins, hotly followed by grief. Maureen too was gone forever and there had been happy times. I bowed my head and wept.
In the days that followed, I kept my secret to myself, but being alone was soon unbearable. Like a homing pigeon, I headed for the Dog and Duck; I reckoned no one would take much notice of me there and Dora was glad of my help. Poor old Maureen had certainly boosted trade. We were rushed off our feet as psychics, astrologists, science fiction fans and hairy members of strange cults made their pilgrimage to the now famous substation. It took two weeks for all the fuss to die down and the whole crazy road show to lumber off on its way. After life had returned to normal, I let a few months pass before I moved house. The neighbours waved me a sympathetic goodbye; they had swallowed the story that Maureen had left me for a personal trainer. Well, in a way she had, hadn’t she?
I didn’t move far. I still see Dora. We go salsa dancing every Tuesday night. It keeps us both fit.



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