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The Meter Man by Celia Micklefield

© Celia Micklefield

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The Meter Man

It’s the red and white checked breakfast cloth today. When Alison first picked it up at the market stall, she imagined cosy bistro-style suppers with exotic dishes and new wines to sample. Retirement was going to be an adventure. Now, she wishes she’d never bought it. Standing at the kitchen sink, she turns her head away so that she can’t see what Stuart’s doing with the marmalade.

She knows what he’s doing with it. She doesn’t need to watch him to be certain that he’s manoeuvring the cloth across the table so that the checks line up just so. He’s making sure that the white lines of the pattern reach exactly to the edges of the table. He’s running his fingers along the corners, smoothing and perfecting the cloth until it hangs the way he wants it. When he’s sure it’s right, he’s placing the jar of marmalade on the intersection of the red and white lines, one square up right from the dead centre.

When it’s the poppy and cornflower breakfast cloth, he follows a similar procedure and the marmalade pot goes down on the small cornflower that leans to his right. But today it’s red and white checks. She waits. She can hear rustling noises. When the sounds cease, she turns and hands him a knife from the dishwasher. A clean knife. Sparkling clean. Washed with handle down as Stuart insists to save wear on the plastic cutlery baskets. She turns away again so that she can’t see what Stuart’s doing with the knife.

‘Was the bacon all right for you, dear?’ she asks, still not looking at him until the knife is in its position.
‘I much prefer to have my bacon grilled,’ he answers.
‘Yes, dear,’ she says. ‘That’s why I grilled it.’

Next comes piano fingers. The tap-tapping of his fingers as he waits for the toast. She knows he’s fanning his hands over the cloth and getting ready to begin. Little finger right hand, followed by little finger left hand. Rap-TAP. Third finger right hand followed by third finger left hand. Rap-TAP. Alternate middle fingers. Rap-TAP. Alternate index fingers. Rap-TAP. Thumbs. Rap-TAP. Twice through and then faster. Twice through again and speeding up more. Rap-TAP. Rap-TAP. Rap-TAP. Rap-TAP. Rap-TAP.

The toast’s ready. She fills the rack and takes it to the table. She puts it down on the wrong intersection and steps back and away while piano fingers stretch out to smooth the cloth again and reposition the toast rack on the correct lines.

Alison returns to her work at the sink.
Stuart looks up from his marmalade-spreading.
‘Sit down, my dear, and have some toast with me.’
‘I’m not hungry, Stuart, thank you,’ she tells him.
‘You haven’t had a bite to eat as yet,’ he says. He draws the knife across his round of toast. Alison can hear the small crunching noises as he dissects precisely from corner to corner. Little triangles of toast, perfectly glazed with just the right amount of shredless marmalade. Fingers fluttering like butterflies over his plate, picking up every last crumb. Fingers flitting like moths around his mouth.

A small black spaniel runs up to his mistress.
‘Leave the dishes when you’re finished, Stuart. I’ll see to them later. It’s a lovely morning, look. I think I’ll take Toby out now.’

The flickering fingers meet in an arch in front of Stuart’s face.
‘I’ll take the dog today,’ he says and she waits for the rest of it. She knows it’s coming. As sure as the End of Days, those extra words will drop like stones with their dreary timbre. He licks his lips and dabs with his napkin. ‘If you don’t mind.’

She closes her mind to their effect on her. Thinking about it too much only makes things worse.

When he’s gone she clears the table and plans her day. Housework doesn’t take long when there are only two careful adults and the dog is not allowed indoors until he’s had his paws wiped. Poor Toby. Never allowed a proper meal. Stuart says meat gives the dog wind. Toby only ever has biscuits. Alison sighs and decides to change her library books.

It’s a short walk to the town centre. As she passes the other pre-war semis she notices the smartly-clipped hedges and gleaming front doors. Bay windows sparkle in the spring sunshine; tubs of primroses decorate porches.
‘Stuart would have to move those tubs,’ she thinks. ‘If I put flowers out like that, he’d move them. He’d get the measure out and mark exactly where they had to go. That’s why I don’t put flowers out. That’s why I don’t do a lot of things.’

Some teenagers in a bus shelter are staring at her and giggling. She realises she’s been speaking out loud, reaches in her coat pocket for a tissue and blows her nose to cover her embarrassment.

In the library, some elderly men are reading the newspapers. Two of them have fluttering fingers. Alison can’t help but see the fingers twitching and hovering over the pages. She passes over ‘Enjoying Your Retirement’ and ‘Living Life to the Full for the Over Sixties’ to the librarian.
‘Any good?’ the young man asks. ‘We like to be able to make recommendations to all our borrowers.’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ Alison shrugs. ‘I never got past the first chapter. They don’t apply to me. I’m sixty-one and my hair’s gone grey, but I’m not ready for books like that yet.’

She wanders aimlessly through the aisles, waiting for something to catch her eye.
She’s in the Literature section and picks up a book left out on one of the tables. She’s never heard of scansion. She browses the contents for a moment and takes the book to the check-out desk.

In the shopping mall, she buys a Marks and Spencer sandwich and a drink. She chooses a notebook and pen in WH Smiths and sits reading the book on a bench near the water feature. Walking through the crowds of shoppers on the way to the bench she has counted seven sets of flickering fingers. People use their hands when they’re talking. She knows that it’s a normal thing. It never bothered her before Stuart retired from the drawing office at Piper Precision Engineering. It irritates now. She can’t help noticing them. Expressive hands and fingers. Everywhere. Now that she’s reading, she can’t see all the others that flutter past.

She buries her head in her book. Every now and then she laughs and writes something down.

The mall is decorated for Easter. Chicks and rabbits and chocolate. Stuart likes chocolate. Alison used to buy it for him. She stopped when he started breaking off one small square at a time and putting the rest in the fridge. All snapped off into its little squares. All stacked neatly in a stay-fresh container. Counting down the days till he would say,
‘It’s time to go and buy some more, my dear.’

She had loved him once. Not so long since. He was clever and she trusted him always to know the answers. When he proposed marriage in their fifties, it didn’t occur to her to wonder why a man of his age had none of life’s baggage. She thought she was the one he must have been waiting for. With two failed marriages behind her, she saw him as her saviour. A haven of stability. He would make her feel safe, secure.

She puts away the book and her notes and goes back to the library. She is smiling as she selects a volume of Twentieth Century Classic Verse and another on analysing poetry. She reads about Shakespearean sonnets and checks her notes on scansion. She looks at a little Hughes and Larkin and discovers Sylvia Plath. She makes more notes, checks out the books and makes her way home. She pays no attention to the flower tubs as she hurries past her neighbours’ homes.

Stuart has returned to the house. He has wiped Toby’s paws on the dog’s back door towel which lives on a hook under the rear overhang. He has opened the back door and Toby has lurched for his water bowl. Stuart has seen the open dishwasher. Disappointed by his wife’s uncharacteristic lapse, he leans forward to lift the door closed.

He can hardly believe that Alison has put the best designer- chef paring knife in the dishwasher cutlery basket. He reaches out. Toby pulls on his lead. Stuart overbalances and falls with his full weight on the hand with the knife.

The paring knife sits on Stuart’s open palm. The dishwasher door hangs open. Stuart is on his knees gaping at his hand.

Stuart is staring at his fingers. Two of them are hanging loosely. Two of them are lying on the tiles. Toby rushes to collect the offered treat and snatches them from the floor. His soft mouth cradles the tasty digits as he dashes for the garden, his lead trailing behind him.

Stuart is still on his knees as Alison steps into the blood-spotted kitchen. She knows immediately what she must do. Ice! Ice from the freezer. Stem the flow. She packs Stuart’s hand between two bags of frozen vegetables. She grabs the kitchen scissors and cuts off a strip of tablecloth to wrap around the ice-packed stumps. She looks at her husband closely. His face is a peculiar shade of grey and his eyes are glassy.
‘You’re in shock, Stuart,’ she tells him. ‘Stuart! Stuart, what happened to the fingers?’

He shakes his head.
‘Stuart! Listen! We can save the fingers. They can sew them back on again. But I’ve got to pack them in ice too. Where are they?’

He doesn’t know. Toby trots in from the garden with soil caked around his muzzle. He sits and holds up a paw waiting for it to be wiped.

Stuart sits in silence in the ambulance. His left hand is a bundle of red and white checks.
‘Your colour’s coming back a bit now, Stuart,’ Alison says.
He turns his head away from her.
‘They’ll give you something for the pain. Something to bring home. You’ll probably have to come back in a day or two for new dressings. Or I can do it for you.’
He doesn’t answer her. He will not speak.

He pays no heed to the thoughtless nurse in A and E who tries to make a joke.
‘Red and white checks?’ he says as he goes about his duties. ‘My mother used to hate red and white together. Would never have it in the house.’
The nurse cleans the wounds and the doctor appears.
‘Yes,’ the nurse says. ‘Red and white. Blood and bandages, she used to say. Blood and bandages. Funny, that.’

The doctor examines Stuart’s wounds.
‘Couldn’t have done that better myself,’ he says peering at the clean amputations. ‘It must have been a damned good knife.’

At half past nine that night Stuart gets up from his armchair in the living room and goes to bed. He says nothing to his wife. He doesn’t even look at her. He merely supports his sling with his good hand and takes himself, his two thumbs and his six remaining fingers upstairs.

He has said nothing since his accident. Not a word to anybody. No amount of cajoling or coaxing from Alison has shifted him. He has sat, rigid and morose, ignoring everything.

‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like a drink?’ Alison shouts up the stairs. She can hear him closing his bedroom door.

She pours herself a drink from the sherry cabinet and leaves the bottle out on the kitchen table. She is almost on the point of giving up on the plans she made during her reading and note-taking. The soothing liquid fortifies her resolve. She raises her glass in a toast to the ceiling. And pours another one.

‘I know what it’s about, Stuart,’ she says to the dog. ‘I know now what it all means. Having to get a taxi back from the hospital because we never had a car of our own. All because you couldn’t trust other drivers on the road not to do something silly. Never trusting anybody. Why we never went on holidays because you couldn’t see exactly what the accommodation was going to be like beforehand. Why I don’t put flowers out in tubs. Why I stopped being me. I see it all now.’

She takes out her library books and notepad and works into the early hours.
‘I know what you’re up to,’ she says. ‘And I’ll be ready.’

When Stuart comes down for breakfast next morning, there is no cloth on the table. There are plain place mats. He looks in the drawers for the poppy and cornflower but it’s missing. Alison is also absent. He doesn’t understand. He makes himself a cup of tea and wonders what to do next.

Alison comes down at ten. She’s wearing a skirt he hasn’t noticed before and she has used the tongs on her hair. She has even put in earrings. Stuart is waiting, hungry but still not saying anything.

‘Good morning, Stuart,’ she says. ‘I hope you slept well. Have you taken your pills, dear?’
He nods.
‘Would you like some grilled bacon? I know I would. I’m starving.’
He nods again.
‘Stuart, there’s something I want to say to you. I’ve been thinking very hard. I know you’re not feeling well at the moment, but I do want you to pay close attention.’
His face is non-committal.

Alison takes up a position in the middle of the floor.
‘Stuart,’ she says. ‘This is what I want to tell you.

The thing that first attracted me to you
Is now the one thing that I most detest.
You have to measure everything you do
And think that everything your way is best.
You speak to me in measured words that bore
Into my heart, my soul. I will not give
My time to what you want. It’s done. No more
Will I neglect my own desire to live.
Controlling me is finished, over now.
I may choose happy chaos and why not?
For while you tell me what and where and how,
There’s something you conveniently forgot.
This is my home, my happiness, my life.
You are my chosen husband. I’m your wife.’

She waits in hope. Her heart is thumping in her breast and she knows that his response will decide their future. Will he take her offering kindly? Is there the chance of a fresh start? Can he do it? For the briefest moment he looks stunned.

‘Stuart, I’ll make up the bacon in sandwiches this morning. Just until you get back the use of your hand.’ she offers. ‘The doctors said you would. It’ll be different, that’s all.’

He gently pats his bandaged hand. Alison can see the gleam of triumph in his eyes. He opens his mouth and puts four iambic feet in it.
‘I’d like to say that I’ve been wrong,’ he says.

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