Short Story by Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, Ireland has started working on a new novel set in her home town. She was awarded a Certificate in Creative Writing from the National University of Ireland Maynooth. Her short stories have won numerous awards including first prize in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award while others have been long-listed, on four occasions, in the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Ireland’s Own Anthology, My Weekly, Boyne Berries 22, Live Encounters, Flash Flood Journal, Spelk, Flash Fiction Magazine and The Flash Fiction Press. Susan blogs at: www.susancondon.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter: @SusanCondon or check out her crime fiction reviews and interviews on www.writing.ie
They shared the same taste in books. Each early morning commute saw their heads bent between the pages of a crime fiction novel. Yet that and a wedding band were the only things they had in common.
They never spoke to each other, but as a book lover, Eliza took a mental note of his novel titles. Many of them she’d read already, but quite a few, of late, she hadn’t. She wondered if he’d taken up writing because many of the books were now of a more technical nature. The latest, Forensics for Dummies, was looking particularly battered and bruised. Her pet hate was dog-eared pages. This book had plenty. Now she watched as he removed a pen from the inside jacket of his suit and began underlining and scribbling in the margins. Naturally inquisitive, she’d glanced over, hoping to read a line or two, but the print was too small for her eyes.
Six months ago, just after Christmas, he’d been reading one of her favourite American authors. Eliza had been tempted to enquire whether he was aware that the book was, in fact, the second in a trilogy. But she decided against it. She hadn’t noticed him reading the first and she’d been a little disappointed herself, on reaching the end, to find no conclusion. But she hadn’t been too upset as it was, after all, a present from her granddaughter.
Better to keep myself to myself, she decided, her eyes travelling down to her worn black shoes. His shoes looked expensive. Leather, no doubt, two-toned tan and shiny. Size 10, she guessed, just like her late husband. Although Jack would never have owned such a pair of shoes.
Eliza, with her book on her lap, found herself leaning forward in an attempt to make out what was so interesting as to suddenly have his pen underlining and asterisking half the page. The only word she could make out appeared to be bulbs. But surely, she’d misread?
He looked up from the page, his ice blue eyes holding her gaze. Feeling like a young child with her hand in the cookie jar, she smiled, hoping to break the awkwardness of the moment.
He said nothing.
She wondered how long they might have remained that way if his mobile phone had not begun to ring and ring and ring …
Although her eyes searched for the source, his eyes remained focused on her. Not moving. Not blinking. It felt never-ending, intense, uncomfortable and unsettling. Even a little scary. His eyes seeming to assault her every bit as much as the mugger who had knocked her to the ground and stolen her bag nearly two years ago. She could feel a hot flush, steadily climbing up her neck, eventually reaching her face, its heat intense as a furnace. The mobile never stopped, never reached voicemail, it just continued to ring and ring and ring. She hadn’t noticed that she’d been holding her breath until he removed the mobile from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and eventually broke their connection by turning towards the window.
He spoke in a low voice. “Good morning, Rob Cullen speaking.”
He entered into a muttered conversation while she returned to her book. Much as she tried, she found it impossible to block out the incident and the sound of his voice. Instead of the champagne and limousine conversations of previous commutes, she was surprised to instead pick up on the word’s tulips and allotment!
Keeping her head down for the remainder of the journey, she barely managed to read three pages, the words swimming before her eyes without any meaning. Although shaken by the episode, she vowed not to tell anyone. She could already hear her children telling her she was too nosey and what did she expect. But they were wrong – she wasn’t nosy, merely inquisitive – she was, and always had been, interested in the world around her. People and their interactions with each other had always been a fascination.
For the next two months she avoided the first three carriages, instead heading towards the back of the train to ensure she wouldn’t see him. The last day she saw him was the eve of her stroke. It was close to 8.00am and the train was about to pull off. She ran down the platform, breathless, until she reached the fourth carriage and had barely pulled herself on board when it departed. He’d been at the window of the third carriage, looking out. She’d seen him clearly and he’d seen her, their eyes connecting for the briefest moment, but enough to upset her.
Enough to have her thin body tremble so much that it caused a young woman to enquire if she was feeling okay. Maybe even enough to have her blood pressure steadily rise so that while heating a cup of hot milk before bed she slipped to the floor, banging her forehead on the corner of the kitchen table.
The pain had been unbearable, but knowing that each hour she lay there would make her recovery more difficult was worse. Eventually, as if crawling through quicksand, she’d managed to reach the cordless phone and pressed hard on number one. Like a deflated balloon, her body lay curled into the foetal position, while her mind fervently hoped that the speed-dial number she’d called would bring the help it promised.
One side of her face felt numb where it lay on the linoleum and she alternated between scanning the spotless floor, looking anywhere her daily sweep had missed and scrunching her eyes tightly shut to fight against the nausea building in the pit of her stomach. Having watched enough hospital dramas she knew that the longer she lay here, the more damage was being inflicted on her body.
A haze of blue and white intermingled; uniforms and flashing lights and blaring sirens. Progress was slow and she cursed herself inwardly for not getting help sooner. She’d felt dizzy days earlier, knew she was stressed, but she hadn’t bothered mentioning it to anyone or visiting the doctor.
“I don’t want to be a burden,” she said aloud, but even to her own ears, it was just a muddle of sounds that didn’t make any sense.
It looks like I don’t have a choice, she thought, a single tear rolling down her cheek.
* * *
Three months later and her recovery, although slow, was making progress. Sarah, her teenage grand-daughter, was reading out snippets from the newspaper while Eliza squeezed a stress ball in her right hand. Everything helped to get her back to some semblance of her former self. It was while Sarah was turning the page that she saw his face, those eyes peering out at her, not releasing her, not letting her go. Her breaths became short and shallow, Sarah’s voice becoming more and more distant until she became aware of a mask over her face and one of the nurses at her side taking her pulse. Sarah was advised that Eliza had enough excitement for the day and had been ushered off the ward.
Eliza, the mask covering half of her face, could only watch and breathe, her eyes following the folded newspaper towards the bin. But, with her foot on the bin pedal, the nurse seemed to feel Eliza’s eyes boring into her; to somehow physically feel her distress. She turned, patted Eliza on the hand and muttered something about the ward getting cluttered before she knelt and placed the paper into her locker.
* * *
Eliza’s recovery progressed rapidly once she became aware of why Rob Cullen’s photo had appeared on the front page of the newspaper. A beautiful, blonde woman was pictured further down the page; his recently deceased wife. She had been a healthy, thirty-six year-old woman who was four months pregnant, when she was rushed to hospital with stomach cramps. Hours later, she died. Her death was currently under investigation, while her status as a wealthy socialite, garnered her plenty of media coverage.
In the hours and weeks that followed, Eliza – confined to bed for the most part – pushed herself to recall every detail about Rob Cullen. Maybe he had nothing to do with his wife’s death, but somehow, thinking about those eyes and their intensity that day, she shuddered, forcing herself to remember. Nothing initially sprang to mind, until her daughter arrived with a bunch of beautiful tulips.
* * *
Six months later, home in her favourite armchair, Eliza put down her book in favour of the newspaper dropping through the letter box. The headline, above a photo of Rob Cullen, screamed: Anonymous Tip Leads to Prosecution of Wife Killer.
A sense of satisfaction coursed through her, as she read how Cullen’s crime of poisoning his wife, using large quantities of tulip bulbs disguised as onions had been uncovered thanks to a tip-off some months ago. The bulbs had been supplied from an allotment on the other side of the city. It was presumed it was someone close to Rob, because the voice appeared to have been heavily disguised. Experts determined it was female and the assumption was that it may have been a scorned lover.
Eliza picked up her book and practiced reading a few lines aloud. She smiled, content that her speech was nearly back to normal. Hopefully soon she’d be able to return to her job in the city.
© Susan Condon