By Alexandra Newson
The tiny porcelain ballerina squatted on the bedside table. Evelyn slowly cranked the rusty handle that pierced its side until the drawer underneath shot open. She took out her wedding ring and forced it over her knuckle. Secret midnight biscuit binges over the last couple of years had swelled Evelyn’s fingers, until they resembled the cocktail sausages her mum brought out at birthday parties when she was a child. During the day, she could feel the band digging in to her clammy flesh and tightening its grip. Sam didn’t know she took it off every night and replaced it each morning before he woke. She found that she dreamed better that way.
The ballerina had unfurled herself now and was spinning in increasingly erratic circles, before coming to an abrupt halt. She looked up with her bored expression and Evelyn fought the urge to throw her across the room.
A groggy intake of breath and sudden movement under the covers announced that Sam was stirring into life. She looked at the clock. 07.47 exactly. They didn’t even bother with an alarm these days. The day-in-day-out routine had somehow seeped its way into their bodies and settled there. Evelyn imagined it sitting inside them, like some sort of awful giant metronome. Sometimes she thought she could hear it during the day – a faint but incessant tick-tocking, four beats per measure.
Evelyn played dead. Thighs clamped firmly together and eyes shut tight as Sam’s sickly sweet breath edged closer. Before they’d got married he’d been meticulous about his teeth-brushing routine and their love making was always peppermint fresh. Now his hand made its way clumsily down her body, reaching for any bit of flesh that would signal a chink in the pyjama armour. But there wasn’t any. Evelyn’s choice of nightwear had evolved from come-to-bed nakedness to matching camisole and shorts, to neck-to-toe thermals. Her current favourite was a lurid fuschia affair, which Sam said made her look like an oversized pink tea cosy. After a couple more half-hearted attempts, he rolled over and got out of bed. Evelyn un-stiffened. Through one half-closed eye, she watched him make his way to the bathroom and shut the door.
“One egg and soldiers for my best girl coming riiiiiiiiiiight up.” Sam slid the plate beneath her paper. Waited for her favourite-breakfast-smile. “I’m not hungry.” She knew she sounded ungrateful but she couldn’t help herself. His desperation was cloying. Today she wouldn’t fake it. She pretended not to notice his face crumple and right itself instantly into a too-wide smile. She bargained with herself that she’d be nice to him tomorrow, however much he irritated her.
Anyway, something was bothering her this morning. “Can you smell that?” Sam was distracted, preoccupied with packing his briefcase for work, tornadoeing the kitchen like he always did in the process. Evelyn made a show of crinkling up her nose, jutting out her chin, and sniffing. For months now there had been a sharp, nauseating stink gradually filling the house. It hung in the air with a heaviness that made Evelyn catch her breath. At first she thought it was the Yankee vanilla chai candles that she’d bought from the Haversham Arts & Crafts Fair last Christmas. More recently, she thought that perhaps she was just going mad. But this morning it was unmistakeable. How could he not smell it? “You’re imagining things again darling. Now enjoy your day. I’ll be back late so don’t wait up.”
When he’d gone, Evelyn tidied the morning’s detritus away and put the house back in order. Then she put the kettle on and waited for the whistle, tracing her fingers over the worn grooves of their ancient kitchen table – and like she always did, wondered when the rot had begun to set in.
Evelyn tried to ignore the smell. Upstairs it seemed to be fainter so she stayed there, re–arranging drawers and working on a quilt she was making for her new niece. When it was finished it would say “May all your dreams come true”. Her mother had made one just the very same for her and Sam when they got married. They’d unwrapped it together the day after the wedding and, in their heady just-married euphoria, they’d laughed and thought to themselves: They already have. Whilst she sewed, she liked to sit on the edge of the bed and look out of the bay window over the mustard-coloured fields at the edge of their garden. Sometimes she imagined she was one of the woodlarks that flocked here, and that she was flying out towards the horizon, smaller and smaller, until she was just a black dot.
By midday the smell seemed to have seeped upstairs to the bedroom, invading that part of the house too. Evelyn stifled a retch and put down the quilt. She was angry now – angry that she was trapped in her own home by this awful stench, and that she seemed to be the only one affected by it. Whatever it was, she decided to find out and get rid of it once and for all.
Evelyn followed the odour downstairs, where it grew stronger. Then into the dining room. Definitely fainter here. She retraced her steps. Back in the hall, she inhaled the air. Her nostrils filled with the putrid pong and she almost gagged again. She stopped dead outside the cellar door. “GOT YOU!”
The light down here was faint as they’d never got round to changing the broken bulb that had been there since they’d moved in. Evelyn felt her way carefully down the steep wooden stairs, praying that they wouldn’t collapse under her considerable weight. Once she reached level ground, she squinted as her eyes adjusted to the dark; she could just about make out the outline of the old microwave they’d discarded and the wedding presents that had never made it above ground.
In front of her, in the middle of the concrete floor, was what looked like a giant decaying shrub. Its roots, just visible, were pushing their way up through the ground and seemed to Evelyn to be reaching towards the cellar stairs. Its leaves were black and had almost turned to mulch. The smell reached its crescendo of dreadfulness down here and Evelyn clamped her hand tight over her mouth. Just before she fainted, she was sure she could hear the muffled tick-tock of the metronome, hammering out its insistent beat.
Alexandra is a freelance copywriter and editor by day, and enjoys writing about all things cultural in her spare time. She loves books and cake - preferably but not necessarily together. Follow her occasional twitterings @akaalicat
Copyright © 2016 by Alexandra Newson. All Rights Reserved.