The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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Short Story Competition 2021

Ruth Clarke-Irons

4th Prize – Ruth Clarke-Irons with:

Cross My Heart

Clichés are everywhere. When Mike died people offered them to me freely, in person and in dove grey cards. I understood: originality is too risky. Honesty might be insensitive, or awkward. Better stick with the familiar.

I’m so sorry for your loss. He was such a good man. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Mike was annoyed by clichés. He used to roll his eyes every time I used one. My favourite was always ‘better safe than sorry’. It was my mantra when Liz and Benji were babies, and then I would repeat it to them as children to teach them to be careful. I can still hear the tutting noise Mike would make to accompany the eye roll. He did it so often that eventually the kids would join in. ‘Gentle teasing’ he called it. I knew he meant no harm. He’d always wink at me afterwards and give me that smile, his eyes brim-full of love, making my heart quiver and swell.

I stare hard at the road ahead as I see that smile in my mind. My grip tightens on the steering wheel and I blink quickly, trying to wring Mike from my consciousness by squeezing my focus into a tight knot.

A change of scenery is what you need. It’ll be good for you.

So here I am, trundling up the motorway to Newburgh on the East Coast of Scotland. Apparently a journey of 9 hours and 21 minutes.

I’ve not seen Christie for four years, but we have what I call a ‘freeze-frame friendship’. All our in-jokes are well-worn as we don’t see each other often enough to generate new ones. But as soon as we’ve had a glass of wine we’re finishing each other’s sentences and bursting into fits of laugher from a raised eyebrow or a curled lip. Christie and Duncan must have been married nearly 40 years. Duncan isn’t shy, but what I would call ‘low-energy’, whereas Mike was always the ‘life and soul’. Everyone loved Mike with his expressive features and twinkling eyes. He’d bound into a room and you’d have to stop what you were doing just to watch him. Absorb him. It seemed so unfair that someone like him could develop heart disease. He was all heart. He had heart to spare. Surely it wouldn’t be his heart that let him down in the end? But it seemed it was.

I shake my head quickly to dislodge the thought and the lump it forms in my throat.

‘In two miles, take the next exit.’ Susie chimes. Susie is the Satnav. Benji christened her when he was about eight, and now any female Satnav is Susie.

I look up at the blue sign: Burton-in-Kendal. This is the service station where I’ve decided to spend the night. There’s a Travel Lodge. ‘Cheap and cheerful,’ I think, and immediately hear Mike tutting from the passenger seat.

‘Well it IS!’ I say out loud.

I grab my overnight bag and check in, then I head over to the main concourse and buy a tuna sandwich and a bottle of orange juice from M&S.

Back in the room I eat my sandwich and text Christie to let her know where I am and that I’ll see her late afternoon tomorrow. She texts back: Can’t wait to see you. Drive safely. Cx

As I lie on the cold white sheets, I try to focus on the sounds around me. The wall-mounted TV hums a static electric tone, almost too high and quiet to perceive. Behind my headboard I can hear a man and woman talking, and an occasional burst of laughter. A horn beeps in the car park. Behind it all is the gentle thrum of the motorway. Mike would have been glad I’d stopped for the night. He always worried when I drove on my own. ‘You know I’ll stop if I get tired.’ I’d say, adding ‘Better late than never!’ just to wind him up, and maybe get that smile.

It was funny that Mike disliked clichés, when he’d made my entire life into one. Actually, he’d made my life into three.

The first was our domestic set-up. We’d met when he’d been working for a building contractor and I’d been the new receptionist. Sweeping into the office that first time, big cement-rough hands, hard hat under his arm, he’d beamed at me. A year later he’d proposed, three months after that we were married. Soon I found myself mother to a girl and boy, two years apart. It didn’t make sense for me to go back to work. ‘Housewife’ used to be the word but Liz tells me that’s not politically correct nowadays.

For years I looked after the kids, did the laundry, washed the dishes, picked up underpants from the floor next to the laundry basket and threw away inexplicable empty packets I found in cupboards. My life was a blur of school-runs, bloody knees, Calpol, bake sales, consent forms and after-school activities. My day was book-ended by a peck on the cheek - before work with ‘have a great day, sweetheart,’ and after work with ‘what’s for dinner?’

The next morning I have a quick breakfast of porridge and a coffee in the Travel Lodge, and by 9am I’m on my way. Thankfully I’ve missed the worst of the rush hour traffic. ‘Text me when you get there, sweetheart.’ His voice is clear in my head. I can taste the accompanying kiss. My eyes begin to sting. I clear my throat and it sounds forced and polite, even though I’m alone in the car. Perhaps after today things will get easier. But right now, with just Susie’s disembodied voice and the hum of the motorway for company, my mind won’t stop.

Cliché number two broke me. The blotchy, red-eyed wife sat alone on the marital bed, a pair of men’s trousers in one hand, and a receipt for dinner for two and a double room at a posh hotel in the other. It was a scenario so familiar, although I was new to it. An out-of-body experience elevated me above my pathetic, crumpled form and I saw the whole stale story. Of course, the cliché didn’t end there: there was the obligatory reading of his emails and going through his text messages, followed by lots of shouting.

How could you? After everything I’ve sacrificed for you? The life we’ve built together - the kids!

This time he hadn’t rolled his eyes or tutted. He’d sat with his head in his hands. And I’d known then that he wasn’t going to fight for me.

‘In three miles, bear left.’

I’m nearly there. But I’m not going to Christie and Duncan’s house just yet. I ignore Susie and continue past the turning to Newburgh. I’ve looked on the map and just north of the village, along the coastal road, there’s a carpark next to the Bullers of Buchan: magnificent cliffs overlooking the sea. Sure enough, after a few minutes I arrive. Pulling up in the almost deserted gravel car park I spot the brown sign that indicates the coastal footpath. Before getting out I lean across to the glove compartment, pop it open and retrieve the container. This is the best place I can think of to do this: somewhere that means nothing to Mike or I and is miles away from any part of our lives. After everything, I couldn’t have faced doing it somewhere I passed every day. Somewhere that would make me think about it (about him) every day.

The wind buffets my hair and boxes my eardrums. As I approach the cliffs the sound mingles with the roars of the angry waves below. The sky is ash grey, and the sea a writhing mass of foaming charcoal black. I walk as far as I dare towards the edge and peer over. Jagged rocks jut up towards me, bubbling snakes of seawater between them far below. I look around to check I am alone. Carefully I unscrew the lid, stretch my arm out as far as I can in front of me, and turn the container upside down. The contents seem to quiver in the air before scattering and bouncing down towards the rocky shards. I watch them dance and ping off the cliff, making no sound discernible against the roaring wind and waves. A seagull’s squawk from above startles me and I suddenly have an awful thought: what if a bird dives down after them thinking they’re food? What if a mother bird scoops some up in her beak and takes them back to her nest to feed to her chicks? But even as the thought strikes me, it is washed away by the sight of the waters below. They are dissolvable, and within minutes, if not seconds, their contents will have dissipated, rendered harmless by the vastness of the sea.

This is the last part of cliché number three. Admittedly not all women who experience the first and second ultimately progress to the third, but enough for it to be unsurprising when you read about it. And after all, hell hath no fury etc. Now, that is one cliché I always hated. With all the shit the world has to put up with that’s caused by men, it’s women’s fury that is to be most feared? Although I realise the irony of me, specifically, arguing this point.

‘This is the last time you’ll make a cliché out of me,’ I say. But my words are whipped away by oblivious gusts.

I look at the anonymous orange cylinder in my right hand, and the white lid in my left. I screw the lid back onto the cylinder, and with a roar, I hurl it as far as I can towards the horizon.

‘Better safe than sorry,’ I say.

About the author:

Ruth a musician, actor and stay-at-home mum who has been writing for the past couple of years. She loves exploring different writing styles so after finishing a middle-grade novel (currently on submission to agents) She is now attempting a psychological thriller. She finds short stories a constant and welcome distraction!


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