‘Don’t you remember?’ Harriet says, tipping well-brewed tea through the strainer. ‘You must, Maurice.’ She clinks the cup against its saucer as she sets it down, then she props a digestive biscuit on the edge of the floral, bone china and slides it across the coffee table towards her husband. Maurice doesn’t acknowledge her, his eyes are fixed, vacantly, on the view of the garden through the French windows. ‘Mind you, you don’t seem to remember much these days, do you love?’ Harriet tilts her head to the side as she says this, a belittling gesture that forces her second chin to swell like a goitre.
‘It was in that delightful gift shop in Ambleside. You know the one that always smelt of sandalwood,’ she says, trying to catch his eye. ‘Drink up, love, it’ll go cold.’
A wisp of white hair flutters on Maurice’s forehead. Harriet hefts herself to her feet and waddles over to the French windows, sliding them shut. ‘I was looking at that Tiger’s Eye ring, remember?’ she says, pulling the nylon cord on the blinds to shade them both from the early evening sun. ‘You said you didn’t have enough money on you. And then,’ she says, lowering herself onto the couch with a wince, ‘and then we were in that tea shop and you took it out of your pocket. “It’ll do until we find the real thing,” you said, as you put it on my third finger. Oh Maurice, you must remember that. It was the happiest day of my life. Well, until then it was.’
Harriet moves back to the coffee table and picks up Maurice’s cup and saucer. She dips his biscuit into the steaming tea. When she takes it out it sags, soggy and precarious. ‘Quick love, it’s going to...’ she says, as a dollop of tea-soaked digestive slops onto his tie. ‘Oh, dammit. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?’ She teases a ball of tissue from the sleeve of her coral, cotton cardigan and pinches the brown mush away from the beige silk. ‘I’ll have to sponge that down, love.’ Harriet pulls at the knot of Maurice’s tie, slipping it from his neck. He rocks in his chair.
‘Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing,’ she says, straightening up. ‘You know what they say, “the course of true love never runs smooth”, or something like that.’ Harriet cocks her head, then she ambles to the door, taking her weight on her good leg, as she carries Maurice’s tie into the kitchen. She dabs a little washing up liquid onto a damp sponge and sets to work on the wet biscuit stain. She pushes open the serving hatch and regards Maurice, still gazing at the lawn. ‘There was someone else, wasn’t there? Before me, I mean. We never would have made it down the aisle if you had stayed with her, would we? No, we wouldn’t.’ She holds the tie up to observe it in the light. ‘Ah, that’s much better.’
Harriet makes her way back into the sitting room and sidles around Maurice’s chair to face him. ‘We’ll have you looking smart and handsome yet,’ she says as she pulls up the collar of his shirt and slips the tie around it. ‘It was back when I was working in that coffee shop in the high street, do you remember? Oh, silly me,’ she says as she makes a loop with the tie and feeds the long end through it, ‘Of course you don’t remember that. You didn’t know that I worked there, did you? It was her favourite stop-off after work, when she wanted to avoid rush hour.’ Harriet pats Maurice’s chest, ‘There, lovely.’
‘Yes, she used to pop in there most days. Sometimes it was just as I was clocking off and I’d take my time packing up my things, and on occasion - just on occasion, mind - I’d follow on behind her, discreetly, like. I’d watch her meet up with you and I’d see how you’d scoop her up into your arms and lift her off her feet. I expect you remember that.’ Harriet hovers, bent at the waist in front of Maurice, fixing his vague eyes with hers, ‘No?’
She winces as she straightens up, ‘Bend at the knees, Harriet, you know you’ll pay for it,’ she says, kneading the small of her back. ‘Well, one evening I was on a later shift. And in she comes, Lady Muck, flapping her umbrella all over the floor.’ Harriet lowers herself onto the sofa, plumping a dusky-pink cushion behind her. ‘Anyway, it was me who served her that day, loitering at her elbow as she scrutinised the menu. She made such a fuss about her tree nut allergy. Oh, such a fuss. How she needed to be absolutely certain that her food would be prepared in a nut-free area; that the slightest contamination could be fatal. I mean, I’d never heard such nonsense.’
Harriet picks up a mini chocolate roll from a cake stand she has taken care to fill. She peels back the foil and takes a bite. ‘I must have completely forgotten that I’d just used the knife to slice that delicious coffee and walnut cake that Edith had made.’ The sponge muffles her words. ‘Yes,’ she swallows, ‘that would account for it.’ Harriet pauses and studies Maurice to gauge his reaction. When there is none she continues, ‘Dear, it was a terrible sight, seeing her struggling like that. And I couldn’t find that pen thingy that she swore she had in her bag. What a panic it caused. The other patrons were really quite perturbed. And it being rush hour and all, I don’t suppose the ambulance had a hope of getting there in time.’ Harriet screws up the empty foil into a little ball and flicks it at Maurice. It bounces off his whiskered cheekbone.
‘So that was that little problem sorted. Then it was just a matter of time, wasn’t it love? Until we met and fell head over heels. French fancy?’ Harriet says, offering Maurice the cake stand. ‘Oh, well, if you’re not hungry it’s a shame for it to go to waste. No, the course of true love really doesn’t run smoothly,’ she says taking half the cupcake in a bite. ‘You see you were such a ladies man, Maurice.’ She licks her lips. ‘The ladies loved you and you loved the ladies.’
Harriet glances down at the half-eaten cake. ‘French fancy. Yes, she was. French. And fancy. We’d only been married a year. A year, Maurice.’ She curls her lip and lets the pink, fondant-covered cupcake fall to her plate. ‘I saw to her when I was working as a receptionist at Grocott’s garage.’ Harriet pauses, eyeing Maurice’s open-mouthed expression. ‘Well there’s no need to look so shocked, she’d have been perfectly safe if you’d left her alone.’ She turns to the sideboard next to her and picks up a silver-framed photo of the two of them on their wedding day. ‘Til death us do part, Maurice. I take my vows very seriously,’ she says stroking the glass with her thumb.
‘Oh, I used to get on so well with the boys at the garage. They were a rum lot, but their hearts were in the right place.’ She shoots Maurice a stern look.
‘I told Nigel, one of the mechanics, that I’d been watching some silly detective show where a villain had cut the brake lines on a car and caused a terrible crash. I said that can’t really happen, can it? And Nigel said it could.’ She sets the photograph down and turns back to the coffee table. ‘Bakewell tart, I think,’ she says, picking up an almond-flaked slice. ‘You sure you’re not hungry, love?’ Harriet places another slice on a plate and holds it out to her husband. ‘No? Suit yourself. Anyway, we were standing under a car that was jacked up on the ramps and I said that I didn’t believe him. So there he was, showing me exactly where you would sever the brake line.’ Harriet picks up a cake knife, ‘Not even half a one?’ she says, pressing the blade to the frangipane. ‘Nigel said if you were careful you could just slice into it so that it would cause the brake pressure to very gradually drop. And then one day, when the driver least suspects it, the pedal would be pressed and… Voila! No brakes.’ Harriet chuckles to herself. ‘Did you like my use of French there, Maurice?’
Harriet gets to her feet and shambles across the room, checking her reflection in an oval, scalloped mirror hanging by its chain from the picture rail. She stokes the flabby skin of her neck. ‘I may be no oil painting, but at least my fine French features didn’t go face first through a windscreen.’ She turns to Maurice. ‘The poor police constable that attended the scene. Her first day on the job. She needed trauma counselling, apparently.’ Harriet shakes her head.
She wanders over to the French windows as gazes wistfully through the slats of the blinds at the fields beyond their garden fence. ‘Speaking of trauma reminds me of when I started volunteering for that crisis line. You know, for people who are at their wits end.’ She turns away from the window and looks at her husband in his chair. ‘No, you probably wouldn’t remember because you were always,’ she hooks her fingers into air quotes, ‘working late’. Harriet shuffles back to the sofa and sits down.
‘How long had we been married by then? Six years? Seven?’ She glances at her wrist watch as if it will tell her. ‘What does it matter now?’ she says to herself. Then she looks up and gives him a cold-eyed glare. ‘I knew where she lived, your latest pastime. I popped a leaflet through her door with a phone number to call if she felt the need to. You see, I knew she had a history of depression from my time on the reception desk at the doctors’ surgery.’ She shrugs as if Maurice’s eyes are reprimanding her. ‘So? You know everyone’s business when you work there. It was there that I saw the poster for the crisis volunteering. Night after night I was on that phone. Oh, the lives I must have saved in those few weeks!’ She puts her hand to her heart. ‘The lives I must have saved.’
Harriet lowers her eyes and clasps her hands together in her lap, ‘But for some… it’s kinder to let them go.’ Her features fall into an earnest expression. ‘That poor girl. She was distraught. Her boyfriend sweeps her off her feet and then as soon as she develops expectations he tells her he’s married. He’ll never leave is wife.’ She looks up scornfully, ‘I suppose I’m to be grateful for that?’ Then adds, under her breath, ‘You were just worried I would take you to the cleaners. I would never divorce you, Maurice.’ She brushes some cake crumbs from the sofa cushion into her palm and pokes them with her finger. ‘Anyway, there was no talking her down. So I eased her along. Towards her destiny, if you like. I told her that sometimes life is just too cruel to tolerate, and that everlasting peace awaited her on the other side.’ Harriet glances skywards.
‘Hanging though?’ Her eyebrows arch. ‘I didn’t think she would do anything so showy. She seemed such a quiet girl.’
She eases herself up from the sofa cushions. ‘Speaking of quiet, let’s put some music on.’ Inching past Maurice’s chair, she lifts the lid on the record player. ‘A bit of Andy Williams. You can’t beat a bit of Andy,’ she says slipping a long player from its sleeve and laying it on the turntable. ‘Remember this one, love?’ Harriet says, as she rests the needle onto the vinyl. ‘Almost There. We played it at our rehearsal dinner a week before we married, remember?’ she says, beginning to sway side to side and snaking her arms as if dancing the Hula. ‘Soon we’ll find our paradise, Maurice.’ Harriet sashays over to him and pats the back of his hand, then flounces back to the couch.
‘Of course there were others. Brief flings. Too fly-by-night for me to do anything about. But as the years passed and we entered the autumn of our lives together, I thought we’d put those days behind us.’ She sighs, deflating into the velveteen bolsters. ‘I thought those days were gone.’ She shakes a tissue from its box on the coffee table and dabs her eyes. ‘Another cake, love?’ she says, not bothering to move. ‘No, you won’t have much appetite now. It’ll be the oesophageal strictures.’ She nods. ‘From the vomiting.’ Harriet leans forward, picking up a potted succulent and strokes its quilted leaves. ‘I learned all about the hazards of ingesting weed killers at the garden centre. Lovely little job that was. One of the girls on the tills bought me this,’ she says, holding up the plant. ‘A Friendship Tree.’ She presses the soil, rubbing her fingertips together. Then takes the teapot and tips the dregs into it.
‘It was when I was there that I realised the cycle was starting again – staying out late, being distant when you were at home, smiling like a schoolboy at your phone. I mean, at your age? And I thought Harriet, enough is enough.’ She slaps her knee. ‘My problem isn’t those women, Maurice, it’s you.’ As she says this, she takes the television remote and starts to wipe the grease from between the buttons with her tissue. ‘The idea came to me one night when I was watching one of those old black and white Hitchcock films – one night when you were… out. Suspicion. That was it, with the lovely Joan Fontaine. She married a rotter too – Cary Grant, looking as dashing as ever. In one scene we’re led to believe that he has laced a glass of milk with poison. There is this wonderful image of him carrying it up the stairs to his wife. And the glass, it just seems to glow,’ she says, her hands moving as if caressing an invisible sphere.
‘Good lord, it made an awful mess to begin with, until I got the dose right. Do you remember? Oh, what palaver it was cleaning up after you. Both ends.’ Her face creases with disgust. Harriet arches her neck and sees that Maurice’s eyes have misted, like her mother's did when she had developed cataracts. ‘So I made a few adjustments. Just a little in your morning porridge, and your afternoon ham and pickle sandwich, and your evening steak and kidney pie. Just enough to cause some incremental damage.’ She gets up from the sofa and sits on the foot stool that Maurice doesn't seem to be using. ‘When the confusion set in and the seizures started, I knew were weren’t far off. I knew we were almost there.’ Harriet bows her head, ‘I do wish things could have been different. But here we are.’
She shakes herself from her thoughts and leans across to her husband. ‘Close your eyes, Maurice.’ She touches his cheek. ‘For we’re almost there.’ Harriet places her fingertips to his eyelids and gently eases them down.
‘You’re almost mine.’