It is very quiet in the kitchen. He sits with a cup of coffee in both hands, his elbows on the table, staring out of the door which leads to a tiny balcony; looks over the roofs of the neighbourhood towards the harbour in the distance. Cranes and funnels, towering stands of containers. Beyond that, tiny on the horizon, ships at anchor in a long line, far from the coast.
He is very tired. He wonders what his life is all about. It seems to him that he has staggered from one misadventure to another. That he is staggering still. On the table before him, stacked neatly, is the opened mail. A postcard from a friend of Molly, a flyer advertising specials at the local supermarket, a couple of bills.
Behind him he hears the front door opening, hears the sounds of Molly arriving home, puffing from the effort of climbing the narrow stairs, three floors of them; hears her lower the bags to the floor, probably far more than she should have attempted to carry, but better than making two trips.
‘Oh,’ Molly says in surprise, ‘you’re home.’
He feels like making some wisecrack in reply, but hasn’t the energy. ‘Yeah.’
Molly says nothing for a moment. He can feel her staring at her back. Then, quietly: ‘Want to help put this lot away?’
He turns his head until he can see her from the corner of his eye. ‘Not really,’ he says flatly.
Molly comes to him and puts her hands on his shoulders, caressing them lightly. ‘Something’s happened.’
He sighs. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Something’s happened.’
‘You goin’ to tell me?’
He slumps. He knows he has to, but can’t it wait for a while? He straightens up and leans back against her, his head between her breasts. ‘How about I help you first, eh?’
She clasps him tightly, reassuringly, then turns to the bags on the floor, lifting them one by one to the counter.
He should ask her about her day, about the kids, about how it went, and above all about how she feels. But he is silent and doesn’t, simply puts the shopping away robotically. They finish, both feeling the difficulty, the stress.
Molly twists the empty bags and puts them under the sink near the bin, then turns to him brightly. ‘Want anything? A drink, maybe?’
He is sitting again, the coffee cup again between his two hands, his elbows again on the table, his eyes vacant. He shakes his head slowly.
‘Well, I will, anyway,’ she says, and leaves the kitchen. He hears a clinking of glass, and soon she returns. She has two glasses, one in each hand, a generous scotch in each. She puts them on the table and turns to the refrigerator, returning with a glass jug, already dimpled with condensation.
He is still looking through the doorway, so she takes a chair at right-angles from him, so as not to break his view, if that’s what he wants. She pours water into her scotch and lifts it, ‘clink’ to touch his coffee. ‘Cheers,’ she tells him, and takes a sip. Quite a large one for her. She waits for a few moments, looking at his face. He looks forlorn. ‘Tom?’ she says. He ignores her. ‘Tom, it might as well be now.’ She puts down her glass and waits.
Slowly, as though he is tearing his eyes away from something irresistible, he turns his head to look at her. He puts down his coffee and takes her left hand in both of his. ‘It’s over,’ he tells her.
Molly feels a stab of fear. What’s over? Does he mean his job? It’s been hard for him, but if it’s over it might mean something better, something new, maybe even some place new.
He squeezes her hand, and she places her right hand over his two. ‘We are,’ he says so quietly that she can hardly hear the words.
‘Don’t be silly, Tom. Of course we’re not over. Why, we’ve hardly started.’
He knows that. They have been together for nearly two years, and he had thought at first that this would be forever, that they could do it together, help each other, support each other, laugh their way through thick and thin.
Well, they’d had the thick, and this where the thin started. It wouldn’t work out. He could feel pinpricks at the side of his eyes, and knew that a tear was starting, that he couldn’t stop it. He is no good, and he can’t pretend any longer. He shakes his head, lowering it, and the first tear begins to fall. He can’t prevent a sob building and bursting out, and he feels Molly getting out her chair and crouching beside him, her arm around his shaking shoulders, her other hand smoothing back his hair, her lips kissing him somewhere above his ear.
‘What’s happened?’ she asks again when the worst of his shaking is over.
Tom is snuffling, his nose running, his mouth open. She reaches to the counter behind her for a tissue, pulling a handful from the box. She lifts his head and he lets her wipe his nose and his chin, his eyes, and gradually his breathing returns to normal.
He is grateful, of course, that she should care for him like this, but resentful at the same time that she sees him so weak, so beaten. He wants to get up and slam out of the apartment, to show that he is still man, despite everything.
‘What’s happened?’ Molly insists.
He knows he won’t slam out of the apartment. It would be unforgivable. He takes a deep breath and pours the scotch into his coffee, takes a mouthful and rolls it around his teeth before swallowing it.. ‘They’ve chucked me,’ he says.
‘Down at the site.’
He feels his anger return.
‘Blakey says I’m too slow.’
‘They can’t do that. Not just like that. They’ve got to give you a couple of warnings.’
Tom says nothing, but he can feel another sob starting. He fights against it. When he is in control again he lets it out. ‘They did.’
‘Oh, ages ago. What’s it matter?’
‘Well, still, they can’t just dump you.’
‘They can. It’s all cash in hand.’
Reality crowds in on Molly, and she feels weak. She leaves his side and sits at the table once more, takes her glass and gulps it down in two big swallows. She puts the heavy glass down on the table. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘We can get by. Tighten our belts a little. Come on, Babe. We can do it.’
He sucks in breath through his teeth. ‘No,’ he says eventually. ‘No, It’s not fair on you. We’ll get nowhere like this.’
Molly looks at him, sees his eyes red, his brow furrowed. His receding hair. The bristles on his cheeks. Why does she want him? She has no idea. When they met he was full of hope and excitement. Confident. Sure, his expertise was redundant; no-one needs astro navigators any more, not with GPS so cheap and easy.
But he was going to find something new, something exciting.
Now his confidence is gone, beaten out of him by the pressure of age and the global turndown. He points to the electricity bill that lies between them on the table. Molly picks it up. Scanning it quickly, she finds the total owing. ‘Christ,’ she says, ‘that’s ridiculous.’ She looks up at him.
He nods. He stands, and Molly does too. He takes her hand, pulls her to him. ‘You’ll be better off when I’ve gone,’ he says, and hugs her tightly.
‘No,’ she says desperately, knowing that he really has made up his mind and that nothing will stop him. ‘No,’ she repeats quietly. ‘Not like this.’
He kisses the side of her head, then turns away. He pulls his jacket on, takes a fat envelope from the inside pocket. He puts it on the table. ‘That’s everything I’ve got,’ he says. He opens the envelope and takes four fifty-dollar notes, stuffing them carelessly in his pocket. Then his hand returns to her hair, slides through it, pulls her head to his shoulder once more. She is sobbing quietly, knowing it will make no difference.
He leaves the kitchen and opens the front door, pausing as he goes through to the landing, looking back. ‘Take care,’ he tells her. Pulls the door closed behind him.
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