© Timothy Saint
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‘Solomon Says’ is a collection of Modern Morality Tales comprising twenty short stories, each inspired by an Old Testament quotation from the Book of Proverbs – traditionally supposed to have been penned by King Solomon. All the stories are posted on YWO.
SOLOMON SAYS: Time For Reflection (revised)
A Short Story - 3,000 words
The roar of the boiling kettle sounds loud in the silence of the kitchen. The noise is cut short by the metallic click of the automatic switch, and the kitchen falls silent again. I consider rattling the empty china cups within their saucers, but reject the idea. Too provocative by half, I decide. I tiptoe to the foot of the stairs.
“Tea, dear?” I call up into the recesses of the house. I keep my voice light, my tone conciliatory. Answer, however, comes there none. Nor movement. Nor sound. ‘Yes please, Jim,’ would be welcome but, I admit, unlikely.
That Helen has retreated into both total silence and what she is pleased to refer to as her ‘upstairs sitting room’ surprises me not in the least. Hefting the kettle, I make myself a cup of tea as quietly as I’m able. I drift into the lounge and glance at the central heating thermostat, although I know full well it is set at a comfortable sixty-four degrees. The chilly atmosphere pervading our modest semi on this particular Saturday afternoon has little to do with the vagaries of the autumn weather and a great deal to do with the vagaries of man. Or myself, to be more specific.
It had started well enough. My courtship and subsequent marriage to Helen Cooke had been as pleasurable as it was conventional. Staid and stilted formal evenings out gave way to time spent in each other’s company just for the pleasure of being together. Our growing mutual attraction had been accompanied by an increasing level of physical intimacy. And although I had grown ever more insistent this had, for one reason or another, always stopped short of what Helen referred to as ‘hanky-panky.’ Consequently, we both came to our wedding night as virgins.
A degree of uncertainty regarding who would get undressed first, and where, evaporated when Helen appeared in the provocative nightdress she’d chosen. That flimsy garment had been discarded within seconds of our first tentative embrace and we had each been happy to be surprised by the other.
I sip the last of my tea, leaving the traditional quarter inch of brown liquid in the bottom of the cup. My mind, eager to seize on the most trivial of distractions, wonders why this should be the case as modern tea bags have long since banished the problem of tea leaves and dregs. I want to turn on the radio, as much for some company as to catch the latest football scores, but I dare not. To hear me surrounded by the cheery voices and triviality of sport can only worsen Helen’s mood.
Our marriage had got off to an excellent start. I had been sure Helen was a good catch and would make me happy. For my own part, I promised myself I would not only be attentive to my new wife’s every need, but would work hard to provide the comforts she had every right to expect. The sole area of married life I entertained any qualms about was that which I mentally referred to as the ‘bedroom department.’ However, the triumph of that first night, despite our initial shyness, had removed the last of my uncertainties and with happy hearts we both prepared to sail off into the sunset of wedded bliss.
That, I reflect, might well have been that. I pad back into the kitchen with my empty cup and saucer. Had it not been for Ruthie. I rinse the dirty crockery and place it on the draining board to dry. Despite my best efforts, the delicate bone china comes together with an audible clink. If the brooding presence above me hears, she shows no sign; but continues to cast a pall of gloom throughout the house.
Ruthie had been a mistake. A big mistake. My mistake. There had been no reason to get involved with Ruthie. I hadn’t planned it, hadn’t wanted it and don’t understand how or why it came about. But it had. And, like a pebble dropped into the tranquil waters of my marriage, the ripples spread until - at regular intervals - they dashed themselves against the shores of the here and now. As they do today.
I patter in my stockinged feet back to the lounge. It wasn’t as though we’d been unhappy. I concede the possibility we had reached that stage of married life where we had entered a kind of ‘comfort zone’; where the initial magic was being replaced by a deeper, less frenetic contentment. But for a couple in our early twenties at the time, I know it doesn’t begin to excuse my infidelity.
I glance at the imposing clock which sits on the mantelshelf. A wedding present from Helen’s parents, it dominates the redundant fireplace and complements the large, gilt-framed mirror which hangs above it. About half-time now, I reckon. I wonder how Spurs are getting on. I regret Helen having found out about my extra-marital liaison; life would have been so much more agreeable had she not. That, of course, is wishful thinking. The way events turned out, there was never the slightest possibility of her not finding out. And punishing me for it at regular intervals.
I tilt my head and listen. Still no movement upstairs. It will, I know from experience, be some time before Helen makes the overtures that will signal my rehabilitation. Until the next time.
Ruthie hadn’t even been that attractive, I think as I approach the mantelpiece and fish the small brass key out of the ornamental flowerpot. In fact she had - in all honesty - been quite nondescript. In any objective comparison between the two women Helen would win hands down. Quite apart from her looks, Helen is funny, witty and intelligent. Ruthie, on the other hand, possessed the only attribute Helen lacked. I had not known what that was at the time - and I’m damned if I know now - but Ruthie possessed it in spades.
Early on in our marriage, Helen and I enjoyed a convivial afternoon dividing and assigning each other’s marital chores; ironing, mowing the lawn, taking out the rubbish and so on. One of my allotted tasks was to wind the mantel clock every Saturday. The timepiece has a deep, sonorous tick - pleasant enough at the best of times - but on an afternoon such as this it adds an almost companionable air to a comfortable room rendered sterile by a frosty silence. There is also a guilty ulterior motive involved in the weekly winding ritual. More so on this of all days.
It had hardly been *Gone With The Wind* when I first met Ruthie, I remember with a wry smile; although funnily enough it had also been a Saturday afternoon. She had served me poached eggs on toast in a quiet tea-room in an equally quiet country town.
“Thank you, miss,” I said.
“Polite. I likes that,” she replied, looking into my eyes. Something moved within me.
“Manners maketh the man,” was all I was able to come up with. She looked ridiculous in her flounced black uniform with its showy white bows, but something tangible - almost like an electrical charge - had passed between us as she plonked the plate down in front of me.
This subtle yet powerful kinesis generated in me an erotic and unsettling sensation, and I’d experienced a tingle somewhere so deep within my viscera I’d been unable to put an anatomical name to it. “What’s maketh?” she asked, holding me with that gaze. I mumbled something. Something inane, no doubt.
The strange but definite impression I had known this woman somewhere or sometime before just added to the curious mixture of excitement and discomfort I felt at that moment.
“Have we met before? Somewhere? You seem … familiar… .” My voice trailed off, my train of thought derailed.
“Familiar,” she murmured. “Familiar,” she said again, as if it was the first time she’d heard the word. I was sure she was affected as well. She snapped out of her reverie and raised an enquiring eyebrow. “Does familiar maketh the man, then?” she asked. I had no idea what she meant. Was she making a pass at me? I looked down at my meal, embarrassed by my sudden vulnerability.
I tried to put the encounter out of my mind; the town in question lay at the far end of the county and my business there would be completed on the morrow. And that, I have often thought, might have been that. Had I not met Ruthie again that evening in her alternative part-time job as barmaid at my hotel, all our lives might have turned out very differently.
This time there had been no mistaking - nor contradicting - the chemistry between us. I have never regarded the expression ‘knees knocking’ as anything other than that - an expression. Yet when our eyes locked as, for the first time in my life I tumbled into bed with someone other than my wife, my knees really had knocked as they gave way. And my hands had shaken. And the breath had caught in the back of my throat as I had fallen, spinning, into a deep, dark whirlpool as unavoidable as it was delicious.
Even after the most exquisite night of my life, I have been at a loss to explain my behaviour. I have analysed the evening over and over but have come to no concrete conclusions. The mechanics of the sex act appeared to differ little from that which I have come to regard as normal, but our lovemaking had taken place on a different and higher plane. Her slight, almost boyish frame, hard-edged and flat-chested, so different from Helen’s curves, still at times insinuates itself into my memory all these years later. And still, I cannot put into words what attracted me to Ruthie. Destiny perhaps? It seems, to say the least, a glib excuse for a night’s illicit passion.
Feeling full of guilt the following morning - yet still elated - I avoided looking around the hotel lobby as I paid the bill. Although certain that Ruthie would be once more engaged in her tea-room duties, I had been nevertheless resolved to get back to Helen as soon as possible - and put what had surely been no more than a minor indiscretion well behind me.
Which might well have been the way things turned out, I think, as I shift the clock to gain access to its rear. If it hadn’t been for Thomas. Placing the key in the keyhole I pause and glance over my shoulder. This, I know, is an unnecessary gesture. Given the silence that reigns within the house, Helen is unlikely to take me unawares. I depress a tiny lever and allow the back of the clock to swing open. Pausing once more, my apprehension only heightened by the quietness, I withdraw the only secret I have ever kept from my wife. The black and white photograph, grainy and a little out of focus, is that of a young child. My child.
Following my temporary departure from the straight and narrow, I settled back into married life and domestic routine with a renewed will. The uncanny attraction I’d felt for Ruthie, along with the powerful passion of our lovemaking, had been pushed to the back of my mind. That something strange and wonderful happened was a fact and would live long in my memory, but those memories mingled guiltily with my feelings for Helen. The past, I decided, was the past. Life would go on.
And life had gone on. Until that fateful knock at the door - again - as chance would have it, on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps, I think, as I study the small photograph for the thousandth time, events would have turned out differently if I’d answered the door myself. But I hadn’t. Helen had opened the front door of her marital sanctuary to be confronted by a visibly pregnant young woman.
Somewhat dazed by Ruthie’s unexpected appearance, I wondered how she’d managed to track me down. I had just concluded that my address must have been taken from the hotel register when the full implication of her swollen belly crashed into my consciousness.
“May I help you?” asked Helen. Her icy tone had no obvious effect on Ruthie.
“Doubt it,” she said, looking straight at me.
“James?” Helen, white-faced, lips compressed, invited me to respond. Ruthie took charge.
“I don’t want nothing … just needs you to know, is all.”
“Is there … can I … ?” I stammered.
“I’m alright. You needs to know, that’s all,” she said. She fixed me with that stare again. “Ain’t been with no-one else this past year. If you get my meaning.”
That was all she wanted to say. Ruthie, as tough and determined as she was open and unsophisticated, neither needed nor wanted anything other than my moral support, and the acknowledgement I had fathered a child. This I’d been both happy to give and powerless to deny. Ruthie departed, satisfied. Helen shut the door with considerable restraint.
I addressed my carpet slippers. “I … I’m not sure what to say, Helen.”
“Do not.” She draped a mackintosh around her shoulders. “Say.” She slipped into a pair of shoes. “Anything.”
“We should talk about … ,”
“Stuff it, Jim. Stuff you.” This time the door shook in its frame.
I attempt to draw a veil over the subsequent accusations and recriminations as I think, also for the thousandth time, that the child in the picture has a charming smile. I slept in the spare room that night. And every night for some considerable time.
It would not be accurate to suggest that things returned to normal, for our lives had changed in several small ways. But I love Helen, and Helen, although never prepared to forgive my unfaithfulness determined that, after a few months, she would carry on as if nothing had happened. Needless to say, any further mention of either Ruthie or the newly-born Thomas had been, and is, taboo.
Still I can discern no movement from upstairs. The ticking of the big clock, especially loud given my proximity, is the only sound in the house. The photograph - complete with my new son’s name and date of birth printed on the reverse - turned up in the post eighteen months after Ruthie’s visit. For this small consideration I offer up a silent prayer of gratitude on a regular basis. I also thank my lucky stars I opened the badly written envelope myself, and out of view of my angry wife. I hid the photo in a place where I was sure Helen would never find it. And she never has.
As tacitly agreed, we have never again discussed in any rational manner what I always mentally refer to as my minor indiscretion. Naturally, any trifling argument will inevitably gravitate toward accusations of infidelity, and the paternity of what Helen has, more than once, called ‘the little bastard.’ This nearly always leads to a period of the silent treatment.
Our eventual realisation that our union would never produce children of our own only served to make matters worse. I sometimes wonder if I could cope without a peek at my son’s likeness during my Saturday clock-winding duties.
Today’s silence is different of course. It’s expected. Ever since I let the date slip out in an unguarded moment Helen, bless her, has never once failed to deliver. Like clockwork. Thomas’s birthday. Today. I look again at the photo I hold between forefinger and thumb. My hand trembles. Does the child bear some of my features? It’s difficult to tell. I slip my precious memento back inside the clock and close the little door. Grasping the key, I begin to wind.
I have never seen my son in the flesh. I’ve never seen Ruthie again either. I have long since come to the conclusion my tryst with Ruthie, and the subsequent wonderful gift of Thomas’s life, must truly have been but a single strand of Destiny’s intricately woven tapestry. I wonder - as I often do - how the boy is faring, what he’s doing. Does he indeed physically resemble me? Continuing to wind the clock, I raise my eyes and gaze at my reflection in the large mirror.
Lined, sunken features look back at me. Below the few remaining tufts of white hair which cling to the shining dome of my pate, the piercing blue eyes beneath the bushy grey eyebrows are the sole remaining sign of the man I used to be. My weary face shakes its denial at me. The intervening years have been interminable and arid. Thomas is sixty years old today, and I know we might pass in the street and I would have no inkling whatsoever.
The tightening clock-spring reaches its full capacity and the key stops turning. The reflection in the mirror begins to blur as my eyes mist over. As the key strains against the fully wound mechanism, the ticking ceases. And, in that brief moment, the silence in the house is deafening.
A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance:
but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.
- Proverbs, 15:13