The Good Wife

November 13, 2013 § 13 Comments

A Short Story


She sat on the stairs and stared. The spider behind the central heating pipe stared right back. Sophie had taken to wearing sunglasses in the house which made it hard to spot the cobwebs, but it meant the spiders couldn’t tell when she was watching them. This one was smart. It hung upside down pretending it didn’t know she was there, swinging calmly beneath its huge, dusty web waiting for something to set off its booby trap. Discarded bits of woodlouse and spider lay in an untidy pile on the white carpet, and Sophie remembered why spiders got on her nerves.

As she leaned forward to get a closer look, the spider vibrated its web so fast it turned into a blur and made Sophie’s head spin. It didn’t look like a very nice spider because it had a pattern like a tattoo of a human skull on its fat, round body; and after she’d looked it up in her arachnid book and found out about its bad habits – including its fondness for eating its own babies – she decided to suck it up with the vacuum cleaner. That way it could do the nasty things it did inside the paper dust bag and she wouldn’t have to watch.

She switched on the machine and the spider vibrated its web so ferociously Sophie began to feel sick. The closer she got, the more manic it became. But Sophie took no notice, pointed the hose, and sucked it into the brown paper bag.

‘Hi, sweetheart,’ called Colin. ‘I’m home. Had a good day?’

Sophie kissed him on the cheek. ‘Lovely,’ she smiled.

‘What have you been up to?’

‘Just a bit of spring cleaning, my love.’

The next day Sophie bought a car vacuum cleaner she could carry around the house without getting backache, and every day for a week she sucked up everything that made a web. It made her very happy.

Mosquitoes were next on Sophie’s list because they kept coming in through the bedroom window to steal her blood and give her malaria. They were easy to deal with because Sophie knew where they lived: inside the water butt in the back yard. She liked to swish them around with a stick as they wriggled on the surface breathing in air through tubes sticking out of their heads. But that was yesterday. Today, Sophie turned on the tap at the bottom of the barrel until it emptied itself, then she waited until the larvae lay still on the steaming concrete. Soon they began to shrivel and turn black in the sun.

‘Did you forget to turn the tap off, sweetie?’ asked Colin when he got home.

‘Sorry, darling. All my fault. Not to worry. Rain’s forecast for the weekend.’

Sophie thought she was doing rather well clearing out the irritating things in her life, and that evening, just after sunset, she attended to number three on her list. She leaned the stepladder carefully against the apple tree where the wasps were settling in for the night, and dropped a deadly smoke bomb into their nest. She ran off as fast as she could, as she’d heard wasps could be rather vengeful.

 The following morning she went to retrieve the ladder – not a single wasp in sight – she thought happily. She celebrated with a bowl of strawberries and cream underneath the apple tree, and a long cool glass of homemade lemonade with muscovado frosting around the rim. All was well in Sophie’s world until a bumblebee came to sniff out the strawberries. This minor irritation took the edge off her sense of achievement and set her thinking.

She felt a transient pang of remorse about the bumblebees. She did like them buzzing about in the garden, but they would keep getting trapped in the kitchen and bashing themselves against the windows. They could turn quite vicious when she tried to rescue them. The buzzing was making Sophie rather bad tempered, so she decided that a little bit of meddling wouldn’t make any difference to the world bee population.

She bought some ant poison that said in big red letters on the tin that it was harmful to wildlife, particularly bees, and poured it down their holes in the garden. Then she plugged the holes up with cotton wool. Sophie was sure they wouldn’t suffer, and in any case the poison would come in handy if she got an ant infestation in the front garden like last year.

‘Are you bored, my love?’ Colin enquired.

‘Not at all, sweetheart. Why do you think that?’

‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s just that you seem to want to change things all of a sudden.’

‘Like what?’ asked Sophie.

‘First you vacuumed up all the spiders. Then you got rid of the mosquitoes. Then there was the wasps’ nest.’ Colin didn’t know about the bumblebees.

‘Really, I’m fine, sweetie. Just trying to make life easier for us. That’s all.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Colin brightly. ‘But if you want to go out and get a little job, I really wouldn’t mind you know.’

Sophie didn’t believe in God, so she didn’t believe in divine retribution either, but when the rats appeared in the front garden and took up residence in the foundations because the airbrick had fallen out, she did wonder if there was a God around who’d decided she needed teaching a lesson.

Sophie liked domesticated rats – the female sort with silky white fur that lived in cages, smelled sweet, and got taken to the vet when they were under the weather – but Sophie didn’t know the pet varieties were exactly the same species as the wild ones that were eating their way through her floorboards.

Fancy Pants had been Sophie’s pet when she was four years old, and her favourite place had been up Sophie’s sleeve. Every Monday they would go to the post office and wait in the queue; and when it was her mum’s turn, Sophie poked Fancy Pants to make her pop out her head out and make the woman behind the counter scream her head off. Fancy Pants didn’t mean any harm, she was simply being nosey. She liked running up and down the piano keys too, and eating spaghetti – and could eat one strand of the long variety in twelve seconds flat. Fancy Pants died of stomach cancer when she was snacking on rhubarb crumble and listening to The Archers, and although Sophie wept as they buried her in the rose garden, she knew she’d had a good life.

But Sophie knew there was one difference between pet rats and vermin rats: one sort she loved and the other she didn’t. After a day or two of settling in under the floorboards, the rats began to take liberties.  Every afternoon they’d come out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. Dad first, then Mum, then the babies, all in a long line, smallest last. Sophie decided it was a bit of a cheek to take over the garden as well, and wondered what to do. But while she was wondering, she started having nightmares. Rats the same size as she was barged into the house without knocking, then marched from room to room in a regimental line on their hind legs, big one first, baby last. When she told them to clear off, they rudely growled in unison, showed their yellow fangs, and gnawed spitefully at any piece of furniture close to hand.

Sophie decided if she sorted out the rat problem then the nightmares would stop, so she emptied a whole tin of rat bait into the hole, and stuffed a new brick into the gap with some ready made cement.

Sophie felt pleased with herself. She was getting good at setting her life in order. She’d taken the cat off her list because the postman had accidentally reversed over it, which she hadn’t minded about because it was black and left bits of mouse on the kitchen floor. That was the other thing: Sophie didn’t like anything that was black, and this soon refined itself into an aversion to anything that wasn’t white.

And then the smell started. At first it was a slightly sweet, not sure whether it was really there, type of smell. Sophie opened the windows and bought a plug-in air freshener that gave off a sharp, chemical stink of something that was supposed to be roses. It least it masked the other smell – for a while. After a few days Sophie worked out what it was – it was the rats rotting.

‘What’s that pong? said Sophie’s husband. So she told him. ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we take that holiday to Brazil you’ve been after? The smell will be gone by the time we get back.’

But Sophie had been reading up on Brazil. She knew about the man-eating caimans that lay in wait for days lusting for the taste of human flesh, and the Surucucu Bushmaster snake that sent you into a coma if you as much as poked it. Malaria, dengue fever, rabies, Chagas’ disease, leprosy, bilharzia, she knew about them all. Then there were the rats as big as cats that would bite off your nose while you slept, and the chiggers that laid eggs under your toenails then crawled into your blood stream and fed off your brain.

‘Changed my mind,’ she said decisively. ‘Too uncivilized. Why don’t we spend the money refurnishing the house instead?’

‘If you like, darling. But what’s wrong with it as it is?’

‘It isn’t white,’ she said.

The next day Sophie got down to the serious business of ordering the right colour furniture and gallons of white paint. A skip was delivered and Sophie began filling it with anything that wasn’t white.

‘Good morning,’ said Maria from next door.

‘Good morning,’ said Sophie panting a bit.

‘You look like you could do with a coffee. Kettle’s on.’

So Sophie and Maria became friends. Maria helped lug the heavy furniture into the skip and began telling Sophie her life story. She started with her husband. ‘He never talks to me,’ she moaned.

Maria took to knocking on Sophie’s door at eleven o’clock every weekday for coffee and more life story instalments. Maria’s complaining soon began to get on Sophie’s nerves, so she changed the subject and told her about the grand plan that had changed her life. Maria was so impressed she decided to have a go herself. Sophie lent her the little vacuum cleaner, and soon a skip turned up in Maria’s front garden.

Then Maria’s husband disappeared. ‘He said I was obsessive and he’d had enough.’ Every day at eleven o’clock Maria wept her heart out all over the brand new white kitchen table until Sophie decided she’d had enough too.

The rat bait came in little pellets, and Sophie thought that if she put one in Maria’s coffee every day it might make her feel a bit poorly and she’d stop coming over. Nothing happened for a while, until one day Maria complained she was feeling a bit dizzy.’ It must be the anti-depressants the doctor put me on,’ she said.

‘Perhaps you should stop taking them and see if you feel better,’ said Sophie helpfully.

Sophie carried on putting a pellet in Maria’s coffee every day but it made no difference to the frequency of her visits.

‘Did the doctor take you off the happy pills then?’ she enquired.

‘He did. And he’s put me on some stronger ones. Now I feel even worse.’

Maria began to get quite wobbly on her feet, so Sophie advised her to go to bed and stay there until she felt better. She promised to pop in for a chat every day.

But Sophie was so excited about getting the house just right that she forgot. Colin said it looked very beautiful and what a resourceful woman she was, so Sophie changed her mind about the last item on her list and crossed it off with a thick black pen.

Sophie’s life was perfect. Everything was as it should be, and Maria was now in excellent health and had found herself a new husband.

‘I love my new job,’ she told Sophie. ‘Perhaps you should get one too.’

‘Perhaps I should,’ Sophie agreed.

‘I’m drinking Earl Grey these days. Milk or lemon?’

‘Lemon, please,’ she said.

‘You know,’ said Maria thoughtfully. ‘My stomach has been absolutely fine since I stopped drinking that coffee.

‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,’ said Colin. ‘You’re getting so bored here by yourself.’

Sophie was grateful to Maria for putting in a good word for her at the nursing home. Maria introduced her to all the elderly patients and showed her what to do.

‘They’re so sweet and so loving,’ said Sophie happily. Just like children.’

Sophie and Maria were put on dining room duty. ‘It reminds me so much of when my children were babies,’ laughed Maria spooning scrambled egg into an old lady’s mouth.

‘Sometimes I regret not having children of my own,’ sighed Sophie.

‘Did you have a choice?’ asked Maria.

‘I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle their toys all over the place, and all that dreadful noise.’

‘Wise move then,’ she replied.

‘I’m not sure now. This is so rewarding.’

            Everyone was excited. ‘What’s going on?’ asked Sophie.

‘A new patient’s arriving today. All the ladies have dressed up and had their hair done. It’s a rare thing to have a new man in their midst. He’ll be spoilt something rotten.’

Daniel had a shock of white hair, an innocent smile and a short fuse. ‘It’s quite normal for patients with advanced dementia to have little outbursts,’ said Sophie. ‘He doesn’t mean it. He’s lovely.’

            Sophie was right, and Daniel became the centre of the old ladies lives. A week later Michael arrived. He was a rather deaf mild mannered man of few words, and now Daniel had to compete for the ladies attention. He didn’t like it. He began to make a fuss at mealtimes, shouting at Michael and upsetting the ladies. ‘What can we do?’ asked Sophie.

            ‘I really don’t know. We’ll have to keep a close eye on him. Matron will make sure they don’t sit at the same table.’

            ‘But surely if he is told to behave, then he will,’ said Sophie.

            ‘Life isn’t like that here,’ said Maria. ‘Remember, some of them really are like children.’

            ‘In that case,’ said Sophie, ‘I shall treat him like one.’

            Sophie began to punish him. She smacked him when she thought no one was looking, and sent him to bed without supper if he wouldn’t do as he was told.

            ‘You can’t treat him like that,’ said Maria. ‘If Matron were to hear of it you would be sacked.’

            Daniel didn’t stop behaving badly and neither did Sophie.

‘This is not working out,’ said Matron. ‘Your behaviour towards Daniel is unacceptable. I am giving you one week’s notice.’

Sophie began to cry. ‘I really don’t want to go, it will break my heart.’

Maria was silent until Matron had gone. Then she hugged Sophie very, very tightly until she couldn’t breathe. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Maria with the kind of smile she reserved for the old people. ‘I’ve learnt so much from you. I know just what to do.’


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§ 13 Responses to The Good Wife

  • mikesteeden says:

    Fascinating! Well written, unusual theme not giving the game away until you were ready.

  • Oh Rachael, very dark indeed. It put me in mind of Franz Kafka and it is very beautifully written.
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

  • OK. So I really enjoyed reading this story … and then went back and read it again. Had a break, came back and re-read it once more. There is something about both the story and your style which sucks the reader in, which is great. I don’t know whether this was intentional, but there are hints of depression in your lead – the obsession with trivia for example – which ring very true. Great writing!

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Really good it grabbed you enough to go back to – although I think the end bit is far from right. I did try to evoke a sense of obsession through the sentence structure and the repetition – interesting that you spotted it. It’s interesting to take a common emotion and then try and develop it into something verging on pathology. That can be a good way to draw a reader in.
      Really enjoying your posts btw. Keep them coming!

  • Miranda Stone says:

    I think you did a fantastic job with the ending, Rachael. I didn’t see that twist coming. From the beginning, the reader has a strong sense that all is not right with Sophie. Her neuroses continued to build throughout the story, causing me to wonder when she would crack. It’s ironic that she is terrified of catching malaria or receiving a bumblebee sting, but the real danger lies in her neighbor Maria. I think the story could be tightened just a bit if you were to eliminate Michael’s character. Instead of having Sophie be understanding of Daniel’s outbursts due to dimentia, she could lose patience with him and punish him straight away, leading to her firing. Also, I think you could eliminate a few adverbs. (And I’m not an adverb hater, as many writers claim to be. I wrote an entire blog post about adverbs and their undeserved bad reputation.) Your writing is strong, and you don’t want to weaken it by using adverbs like rather or very. This is a well written, chilling tale that held my attention to the end!

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thanks for taking so much time over this piece Miranda. Much appreciated, as always. I did change the ending at the last minute – as it was utterly predictable – it does need more work and I take your comments on board. I have mixed feelings about the adverbs. On the whole I’m not a fan of them – preferring precision – but in view of Sophie’s interesting mental condition I deliberately threw a few as they seemed to help build the picture of her character! This story was inspired by your story about anthropods btw!

      • Miranda Stone says:

        I hope my comments were helpful. I was hesitant to offer any constructive criticism, since it appeared from your comments that this is still a WIP. The ending of the story is superb, very well done. And as I said before, my suggestion about the adverbs is just that–a suggestion. It’s your story and your character, so if you think that the adverbs help build a picture of Sophie, then by all means, leave them in. That’s fantastic that my arthropod story inspired you! I thought it might have gotten you thinking about bugs. 🙂 When Sophie was going for the spider with the vacuum, I found myself thinking, “No! Spiders are beneficial! Have a change of heart and leave it alone.” Same with the bumblebees! Again, great writing, Rachael, and a very strong story.

  • Rachael Charmley says:

    That’s lovely, Miranda, and I do value helpful criticism. I have to confess that I really did do the awful thing to the wasps…

  • SirenaTales says:

    Eek! Like your other readers, I did not see that ending coming–gave me goosebumps. I found your matter of fact tone to match perfectly and enhance Sophie’s “no problems or messes” character. I admire your strong pen, Rachael. xoxo

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Teehee. I haven’t read that story for months! It really needs editing and there are loads of mistakes – but I’m so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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