A short story by Claire Fuller
Harriet, lying on her back in her nightdress, stared up at the ceiling, and tried to keep as still as possible, only breathing through her nose. She smelled him first – the aftershave he had used, mixed with the warm scent of pillows and bodies. She didn’t feel the bed shift, no creak of the springs, although the mattress was old – the same one they had bought after they were married with some money given to her by her uncle.
Nothing had changed, but she knew, as she slid her left hand across the sheet, that she would touch the coarse dark hair on his back. His skin was warm and soft, not the flesh of a man who had been dead for three months.
There was a noise, a ‘hmm’ or an exhalation of breath.
‘Is it really you?’ she said into the dark, even though she knew it was.
He made a deep groaning, like he used to when the alarm went off before he got up to start work. ‘Let me sleep,’ he said. It was Bahir’s voice, low and rumbling as if he needed to cough, the sound of it making her tremble with relief and the possibility that she no longer had to live alone. She prodded his heavy flesh with her fingertips, testing his body to check it was real, until with a huff of effort her husband rolled over.
‘I’m here aren’t I?’
In the weeks following his death there had been so many things Harriet had wanted to ask him – whether she should hire someone to trim the hedge at the front, if she should buy a large packet of peas or a small one, how to reset the radio channels after a power-cut – but now, in bed in the dark, these questions appeared too trivial. And yet to ask the ones about life and death, and how he was here lying beside her, seemed like bad manners.
Harriet slid her left foot over to his side and touched his hairy leg with her toes, relieved that his body stretched all the way to the bottom of the bed. She remembered how, when they were students and Bahir was thin, they would take baths together in the afternoon and he would lift each of her legs out of the bubbles in turn and shave them tenderly, never nicking her skin, and then he would wash her hair, rinsing it out with fresh water from the rubber hose stuffed onto the ends of the bath taps, and tell her that he loved her. But that was forty years ago when Bahir was a different man, and Harriet supposed, she must have been a different woman too. It was impossible to put a date on when things had changed; a gradual erosion, like a magnificent rock eaten grain by grain by the wind until one day you look and too late, you see it’s half the size it was.
Now, in bed, a tear collected in the corner of Harriet’s eye, ran down her temple and soaked into the pillowcase.
‘I’ve missed you,’ she said. Bahir gave a harrumph. She turned onto her side, propped up her head with one hand, and rubbed Bahir’s large stomach with the other in the way she knew he liked. She could make out his profile against the bedroom curtains – his small nose, his full lips and the dent above his chin that went in slightly too much. ‘Are they feeding you well?’ she said. It was impossible to imagine who was doing the feeding, how he ate.
‘There is not enough spice in the food and the portions are small.’
‘I could get you something now,’ Harriet said, immediately regretting it. There was nothing in the kitchen downstairs that Bahir liked to eat – no chicken or beef, no milky puddings or chocolate. She had been cooking simply since he died, eggs and lentils; things that Bahir claimed gave him indigestion.
‘It is not allowed,’ he sighed. Harriet didn’t ask who made the rules wherever Bahir existed now. When he was alive, he had made them.
‘Your mother’s well,’ Harriet said. ‘She fell over last week, and I thought she’d broken her hip or her wrist, but after giving her the all-clear the doctor said she has the organs of a woman half her age.’
‘A son should not die before his mother.’
Bahir sounded angry, and to stave off one of his tirades, Harriet chose her words carefully. ‘She hasn’t been the same since you went.’ Bahir’s mother had joined the local Bridge Society when her son died and had taken up dancing. Harriet was happy to see less of her.
‘And the business?’ Bahir asked. ‘How is that getting on without me? No doubt you haven’t managed it well.’
Harriet wasn’t sure what to say. A couple of weeks ago one evening she had finally opened the ledger where Bahir used to enter the receipts and payments for the small company he had run from their spare bedroom, importing spices in bulk and re-packaging them for small shops around the country. Harriet had gone through the columns of numbers, adding and subtracting and double checking the information against the paper files. At midnight she started looking through the stock, marking down on an inventory the goods which were unaccounted for or those which hadn’t been received. She went to bed as the sky was getting light. The next day she arranged for her neighbour’s daughter to come round and show her how to turn on Bahir’s computer, how the mouse and cursor worked, how to send an email, and within a few days Harriet had replied to all the outstanding enquiries going back many months. She telephoned the bank and all Bahir’s major customers. The business was doing well.
‘Surviving,’ Harriet said, and then worried the word was inappropriate to say to a dead man. ‘I’ve hired a girl to come round after college and do the packing and the posting. I’m sure you’d like her. Her father owns the post-office on the corner of Richmond Road and…’
‘They wouldn’t stock my spices,’ Bahir cut in.
‘No,’ Harriet said. ‘But she’s a good girl.’ They were both silent and Harriet thought about the girl’s mother, who had become her friend since Bahir died.
‘Have you been walking Rex?’ Bahir asked. He didn’t wait for her to answer. ‘You need to walk him more. A dog that big needs a lot of walking. Didn’t I always take him out twice a day? Once around the block is not enough, not for a dog that big. He needs to run. He is a big dog.’
Harriet closed her eyes, and said, ‘Yes, alright Bahir. I heard you. He’s a big dog.’ And at the same time it occurred to her that she didn’t need to keep the dog which she had never liked, she could find someone else to look after him, walk him, whatever size he was. Bahir could no longer stop her doing anything.
‘Take him in the car up to the Rec and let him off the lead.’
Beside her dead husband Harriet smiled to herself and the couple were silent once more.
After a few minutes, Bahir let out a fleshy snore, a sound that Harriet had wiped from her memory, but now took her immediately back to the years she had lain beside her husband, awake and so tired and angry by the morning that her jaws ached from hours of clamping them together and keeping silent. This time she pinched him hard on the soft skin of his arm. Bahir woke with a yelp.
‘What are you doing, woman?’
‘You were snoring. I don’t want you to snore any more.’
‘I can do what I like in my own bed,’ Bahir shouted.
‘This is my bed now,’ Harriet said calmly. ‘If you’re going to sleep here you have to be quiet.’ She pushed her legs out and flung her arms wide, starfish fashion; they touched nothing except the sheets and Bahir’s pillow. Harriet rolled onto his side of the bed and curled up. She inhaled, and caught the last of Behir’s smell: aftershave and warm bed. And then it was gone.
Claire Fuller's latest novel Our Endless Numbered Days is published by Fig Tree.