This story was first published on Reedsy Prompts on reedsy.com and was inspired by the writing prompt ” Write about someone who wants to stay home alone, only for their plans to be disrupted.…“
Rebecca had been looking forward to this alone time all week. It had been particularly tough at work with deadlines that needed to be met without prevarication and it had been relentless. Usually, her office was her little corner of solitude, left only for necessary meetings and being able to return to it and plough her way through whatever needed to be done. However, this week had been a stretch of constant interruptions: barely had she sat down to address her workload than the phone had rung or a conversation had been needed about some report or deadline or both or, worst of all, there was a tap on her door and a pleading face looking at her through the blinds.
But now, it was Friday night and she had done an excellent job of clearing everything that was essential and although there were still things to sort when she got into the office on Monday, there was nothing urgent; none of those sudden startling moments were on the horizon for her where the letter that hadn’t been sent or the report that hadn’t been forwarded entered her mind. No, she was confident that everything was shipshape and she could have a glass of wine and watch Ted Lasso in peace.
She hummed to herself, her cat Eric winding his way around her legs as she poured a cool refreshing white vintage into a glass and emptied the cheese-flavoured crisps from the packet into a bowl. It wasn’t exactly a classy cheese and wine night but it was a great substitute, she thought to herself. Besides, a cheese and wine night usually meant socialising and there was no way that she was in the mood for that. No, her date was with the TV and the couch.
She picked up her glass and bowl and headed into the living room to settle down. Feet curled up under her, Eric wandered over to join her, his belly rumbling with purrs. He settled down on her lap and Rebecca felt pure contentment. She could feel the tension of the week slowly releasing itself from her shoulders as she sank deeper into the couch and took a sip of her wine.
It was a short time later when she was just about to get up and put her now empty bowl of crisps in the kitchen, pausing her programme with the remote control, when the absence of the TV’s babble introduced another noise to her. It sounded like a car.
She went over to the window and sure enough, there was a strange vehicle now parked on her driveway. It was a bright red sporty number and there was only one person she knew with taste in sports’ cars like that in her immediate circle: Nigel, her boss. Rebecca felt a strong flash of irritation. What was he doing here and how did he know where she lived? She watched for a moment and wondered if it was too late to turn everything off and pretend that she wasn’t home. She moved back from the window and turned off the TV and made sure that the curtains were closed with no gaps before realising that she couldn’t turn off the lights without it seeming really obvious. She let out a sigh and resigned herself to her fate.
Taking her bowl into the kitchen, she waited for the inevitable sound of the doorbell. Eric was still sleeping blissfully on the couch and she felt a small pang of envy at the uncomplicated nature of his life.
There was a sharp knocking at the door, aggressive and loud. Rebecca felt a small impulse of nerves shoot in her belly. Nigel was a nice enough man at work but she didn’t really want to let him in to her home. This all seemed highly unusual and mentally, she wasn’t prepared to offer any company much less talk about work issues. She felt really annoyed at him doing this to her. He really was taking advantage of her good nature, never mind the inconvenience of it all.
Heading to the door, Rebecca suppressed her frustration and resigned herself to the fact that she had been robbed of her evening and would just have to get on with it. She was a true Stoic.
But Nigel was not at the door and while Rebecca had fixed a smile on her face to offer a friendly greeting it was superfluous to the occasion as it was soon struck off her face by the sharp slap of the dishevelled woman standing there.
“How dare you! How dare you steal my husband! How DARE you!”
Without a thought, Rebecca reacted and did so by automatically punching the stranger on her doorstep in the face. Her sister, Sarah would tell you that this was normal Rebecca behaviour; she had no flight reflex and when confronted by hostile physical contact, Rebecca’s instincts took over and she struck out. Sarah’s rather badly shaped nose was testament to a surprise sneak attack that Sarah had done on her sister one Sunday morning. Thinking that Rebecca was still asleep, Sarah had gone to stick some gum in her hair in retaliation for some misdemeanour performed earlier that weekend against her. Unfortunately, when Rebecca felt her hair slightly tweaked, she hit out, even in shallow slumber and Sarah’s nose was mashed in an instant. Much wailing and bleeding ensued as well as a respectful wariness in Sarah for her sister and an avoidance of close encounters involving surprise.
The woman was floored and fell to the ground in a slumped heap, her legs at an awkward angle to her body. Her face was a picture of wide-eyed shock and incredulity. It was like her “Off” button had been pushed; she lost all her fire and looked sad and inanimate; a misshapen lump.
Rebecca simultaneously reached her hands to her face when she realised what she had done, silently thanking and cursing her instincts for the situation in which she now found herself. The shock that had been caused by Rebecca’s involuntary violent act gave her a chance to look at the figure in front of her.
She had no idea of her assaulter’s identity but whoever she was, she looked like she had been having a right night of it. Her hair was a mess: big and tangled and wild. Her face was blotchy and puffy and streaked with make up which made her look like a glam rock star at the end of a concert – overheated with the cracks starting to show. Her clothing was well-tailored but there was something about the way she was dressed that lacked care, like she was thrown together. And yet, there was an air of pride about her, the vestiges of someone who was once formidable, successful certainly, powerful even but had fallen, or been pushed, from grace.
This assessment happened in moments and was propelling Rebecca to utter an apology as she saw just how deflated the figure who slapped her had become when there was the most enormous wailing as the stranger burst into tears. She didn’t move but she cried so loudly and with such passion and her posture was so loose that it was like watching an overgrown toddler puppet have a tantrum.
“Look at me! Look at me!” the woman repeated between wails. “I’m so pathetic. Ab-so-lute-ly pathetic!” She continued to cry on the lawn, neither tempering her volume nor adjusting her position, which Rebecca was guessing was pretty uncomfortable.
She was also thinking that whoever this person was and whatever she had done to Rebecca this evening, she was a pathetic figure; in that, she was right. She could see a small river of blood coming from the woman’s nose, helped along rather magnificently by a steady stream of snot which the woman made no move to stymie, even as it was coating her mouth and heading towards the drop off of her chin.
Gradually, the noise of the sobs abated, as the little remaining energy that the woman had, dissipated with her tears and soon, she was just a husk of human, bereft of emotion sitting on the grass in a heap.
Ever the benevolent sort and still suffering the afterglow of Ted Lasso, Rebecca felt a rush of compassion and said,
“Oh my gosh! I am so sorry!”
She went towards the person and said, “Come on. Let’s get you up from there and into the house,” carefully placing one arm around the person’s shoulders and the other under her armpit to try and get her to her feet. “You’re bleeding and we need to do something to stop it. I’ve got some tissues and ice in the house. Come on.”
Gently, as if dealing with a wild animal, Rebecca coaxed the now sniffling and passive woman to her feet and escorted her slowly into her house.
“There we go. You come and sit on the sofa while I get something to clean you up. That’s it,” Rebecca said as she guided the rather stunned woman to sit down. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Martha,” the woman replied, now entirely subdued and showing all the signs of shock after a traumatic experience.
“Well, Martha. I’m just going to go through there to the kitchen to get some supplies and then I’ll be back. That’s Eric,” she added as her beloved cat started to stir at the extra pressure that he detected on the couch. “He won’t bite. I won’t be a minute.”
Martha was now staring at the floor in a trance-like state, still sniffing occasionally and Rebecca was starting to fear that her punch had done more than just startle and that she may have inflicted lasting damage. And why had she decided to invite her in? Rebecca tried to hurry to find the items that she needed and tried not to question if her kindness was misguided.
Rebecca’s internal monologue while she moved about the kitchen gathering things to administer to her unexpected guest went something like this: I mean, she is pretty harmless now and you did just punch her in the face and you couldn’t really leave her on the grass, now, could you? Although it may not be wise to bring someone who resembles an older Robert Smith into your house after they’ve slapped you. I hope she’s not strangled Eric while I’ve been in here. No, I would have heard it, I think. Maybe she’s asleep or snuck out while I’ve been in here and just gone home. No, I think I would have heard that too. Who is she? Is she Nigel’s wife? Does Nigel have a wife? What is she doing here and what was it she said on the doorstep? How dare I? Did she say something about stealing her husband? Yes, she did, she definitely did. Well, who could that be?
Rebecca went to the sink to fill a glass of water and with a deep breath, headed back into her lounge.
Martha hadn’t moved much but Eric had and was now sitting firmly on Martha’s lap nudging her knuckles with his nose. Rebecca just saw Martha’s hand start to move in response and it was like watching an ice statue thaw as she slowly uncurled her fingers and touched the cat’s head, still not moving her eyes from where she was staring at the floor.
“Here you are, Martha.” Rebecca passed her the glass. “I thought you might want this and then we can go about cleaning your face.”
Martha continued to gently stroke Eric, who was purring loudly and very slowly began to lift her eyes from the floor towards Rebecca and the proffered glass. Slowly, she took the hand that was stroking Eric and reached for the water. She said nothing and Rebecca, once the glass was firmly in Martha’s hand, moved to sit on the arm of the chair adjacent to the sofa. Whilst she didn’t feel like there was any immediate danger, Rebecca felt like sitting comfortably was probably not a wise move just yet.
Martha lifted the glass to her lips and took a sip. Her expression was starting to look more animated as if with each sip of water, she was coming back to life. A look of perplexion was forming as if she were examining her predicament and her actions of the evening. She reached to put the glass on the table, carefully so as not to disturb Eric and turned her head towards Rebecca.
“Thank you,” she said.
Rebecca smiled at her, relieved that after the explosiveness of their first meeting, manners had been reinstated, normal behaviour for adults resumed.
“You’re welcome. Shall we get you cleaned up now?” Rebecca said, as she grabbed the tissues she had put on the seat of the chair.
“Yes, thank you.” Martha reached a finger to her cheek and when she looked at her fingertip, grimaced at the blood that was there.
Rebecca went to her on the sofa, Eric looking up at her as she got closer and mewing gently at his owner. She knelt in front of Martha and dabbed at her face and nose with one of the moistened tissues she had brought.
Martha was placid and passive as Rebecca cleaned her face. At first, Martha wouldn’t look at her but then, as Rebecca was removing a stubborn blood smear from Martha’s cheek, Martha looked directly at her and said,
“Why are you doing this? Why are you being so kind?”
Rebecca thought about this and said,
“Because you needed my help.”
Martha continued to look into her eyes.
“But I hit you.”
Rebecca looked back and saw in Martha’s eyes pain and bewilderment and a lack of understanding.
“Yep. And I hit you.” Rebecca replied and shrugged.
Martha let Rebecca continue to wipe her face but looked away for the duration. Rebecca wondered where the silence was headed. She had a feeling that she had placed herself in a potentially volatile situation with a person who she didn’t know with violent impulsive tendencies in her living room and she didn’t want another eruption.
And then Martha spoke.
“Why are you sleeping with my husband?”
Rebecca stopped what she was doing. Whoever this woman was she was obviously hurt and seeking answers, answers which Rebecca was not able to give but she knew that she needed to handle this carefully. She thought about how to respond. If she said, “Who is your husband?” that sounded like she was trying to be clever even if it was a question she was desperate to know the answer to. If she said “I’m not” it would be difficult to move on from that as it sounded like a denial for something she might have done. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” sounded too confrontational, too defensive. What to say? Instead, Rebecca adopted the indirect approach by deflection and a swift change of subject.
“Do you like Eric?” She nodded towards the cat, still very comfortable and still purring on Martha’s lap, occasionally raising his head with half closed eyes of contentment.
“Who?” Martha responded, still stroking Eric’s fur.
“Eric. My cat. Do you like him?” Rebecca asked again.
“Yes,” Martha said. “He’s a lovely cat,” and as if in response, Eric lifted his head towards Martha’s chin and gave it a lick. Martha smiled a hesitant smile.
“The only living male that ever shares my bed is Eric and I haven’t stolen anything in my life,” Rebecca said. She waited for those words to sink in and looked directly at Martha. She said gently, “I don’t know who is stealing your husband but it is not me.”
Martha looked at Rebecca with sadness and Rebecca held her gaze. Martha’s eyes were once more filling with tears but she continued to look at Rebecca, flitting from one eye to the other, searching for the truth. Rebecca had the poise that only comes from knowing that you are in the right and so, Martha must have seen this and said,
“I believe you,” and then a moment later, “I am sorry.”
Rebecca reached for her hand and was about to say something else when the sweep of headlights from an arriving car flashed across the TV screen and heralded the arrival of another unexpected vehicle outside.
Martha glanced towards the window and said, “I expect that will be him.”
Rebecca said in response, “Who? Your husband?”
Martha had once more sunk into herself and replied, “Yes. He has a tracker on his car so he can trace it.” She paused. “He loves his car.”
Rebecca went to the window. The car that had recently arrived had left. It must have been a taxi, Rebecca surmised. But there was no-one at the door. She reached out to turn on the light that shone on the driveway and the red sports’ car, still parked. Hovering around the car was Nigel, who was checking every last detail of it as if ensuring that it was indeed still intact and without scratches. He looked quite comical as he crouched down to examine the headlights, an expression of concentration on his face. Eventually, after some time, he must have been happy with his inspection as he wiped his forehead, blew a kiss to the heavens as if thanking some deity and headed for the front door.
“I don’t want to see him,” Martha said.
Rebecca looked over at the woman on the sofa and turned back to look at her boss on her doorstep as he checked his reflection in the glass of the door and smoothed his hair.
In that instant, Rebecca knew that some other woman was stealing Martha’s husband but also that Martha might just be better off if that woman was successful.
It was career suicide but Rebecca replied with firmness, her hand on the door handle, “That’s okay, Martha. You won’t have to.”