by Ian Skewis
The old man stared out of the window. Except he wasn’t old. It just felt that way. He hated this time of year. It always set in motion the same chain of events: the promise of a celebration then the bitter disappointment. The same old birthday card and cheap socks, and the novelty wears off all too quickly. The entire day becomes an exercise in hopelessness. It reminds him that once upon a time he had the entire world at his feet. Now here he is, grovelling at the feet of the entire world. The great grandfather clock ticks in the background, counting down from hero to zero.
He was someone to be reckoned with once: young and confident, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Suited and booted, armed with a flash car, and the freedom to do as he pleased. He loved that car. It raced him from one success to another. Peak after peak after peak. It took him on far-flung holidays and to life-changing business deals. He was the king of real estate. Property developer extraordinaire. His wrists were sore from all the handshaking, his jaws ached from all the smiling. There was fire in his heart, a twinkle in his eyes, and a very definite spring in his step. He didn’t have to wait in queues or take a taxi or even book a table for dinner. Everyone knew his name. Everyone wanted to be him.
So how the hell did it come to this?
His head was held high then, his sights set on the next big thing, the blood coursing fast and uninhibited through the highways of his arteries. Now his arteries were clogged up with the slow-moving traffic of fat and sugar. Too many takeaways, alcohol and not enough exercise had pulled his sights down. His distended belly weighed like guilt on his spine, causing a stoop in the roof of his shoulders and a constant pain in his neck. He could only stare at his feet now. Bathing was a near physical impossibility and he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoelaces anymore. Even breathing was difficult, and he could barely feel his fingers or toes. His skin, once smooth and bronzed, was now pale and blotchy, as if suffering from a case of rising damp. His body was like a condemned house. Unfit for human occupancy.
He couldn’t bear to look in the mirror anymore. On the rare occasion when he did manage it, he would see the expression of regret hanging limply from his yellowing, bloodshot eyes.
‘Derek, I’m going out.’
‘Okay,’ he called, in the polite voice he reserved for all those who did not know him, and yes, that was his wife calling him. They were complete strangers now. The dry rot of their marriage had finally taken its toll. How he wished he’d taken heed of those warning signs. But the truth was that Derek didn’t know who he was either. He had undergone something of a change in recent years, and not just a physical one. The man who he had strived to be was long gone, and in his place was someone he barely recognised. All that staring at his own two feet had turned him into someone else. He had become apologetic for his own existence. He could rarely leave the house anymore.
His wife had always been the most obvious and visual measure of his prosperity. She had dressed in couture and had the finest things that life could offer: champagne and caviar; first-class seats; endless parties and charity balls. Now she was dressed in clothes that were a season or two old, and inexorably falling further behind as each year passed. She could barely look at him these days without casting what would no doubt be a disapproving press of her Botoxed lips, had they been capable of such a manouevre. Her gaze was always distant, her hopes and dreams trapped in the grandeur of years past. She made small talk when it suited her, and not much more. She was always occupied. Some days he would be lucky to bump into her at all. She was more an absence than a presence these days. She rarely stayed at home anymore.
The house, which he had arranged to be built from scratch, and which had once been filled with the excited voices of all those who wanted to bask in his glory, was now deathly quiet. His birthdays had once been a sight to behold; champagne towers, classical musicians and his hostess with the mostess. That sweet smell of success had once been easy to measure against her. It was as evident in his wife as it had been in his investments and holiday homes and American Express card. But how do you measure the stench of failure? Failure is hush-hush. Failure is a silent house. A card, and cheap socks. Or perhaps your wife dressed in faded glamour, slinking out of the house in last season’s clothes, and never wanting to talk about it. It left him feeling lonely and dejected, as if he was living in a vacuum. An imposter in his own once successful life.
Left to his own devices, he felt vulnerable, and constantly on the edge. He didn’t believe in anything much anymore, least of all himself. He tried to recall what it had been like to be him, the him that he still wanted to be, but that he calculated he would never be again. It seemed so long ago now that he wondered if it had actually happened. Perhaps it had happened to someone else.
His wife didn’t even bother to lie to him anymore. When she was going out they both knew that it was to be with someone, anyone, but him. She looked different now; bored, irritable. Never quite looking him in the eye, the spirit level of her gaze always slightly askew. She had been doing some bad things behind his back. It had been going on for some time now. She had tried to hide it from him at first, but she soon grew careless when she saw how little he did to defend his honour. He didn’t blame her. After all, what did he have to offer her now?
Nevertheless, he was hurt, deeply so. When he found out, his life was rocked to its foundations. He sobbed his heart out. He even thought to kill himself. Her lover, typically younger, better-looking and wealthier, had been picking her up in his flash car at the edge of their estate for some time now, and dropping her off a few hours later. It was almost a daily occurrence, and in time they grew so blatant about it that he had even begun dropping her off at the doorway. Derek suspected that her lover had even stayed the night once, but he couldn’t be sure, since he and his wife now slept in separate rooms, on separate floors.
He wondered how long until his wife decided to put him through a messy and expensive divorce, and rob him of everything he had ever worked for. He knew she had been planning it for some time. His bank had notified him of her attempt to withdraw all their cash without his signature. She had made quite a scene, apparently. He never mentioned it. What would be the point? It was clear that her mind was made up. It didn’t make it any easier though, knowing of her intentions. He had been nothing but kind and gentle towards her. He knew this because she had told him so, once. Perhaps he had been too kind. He held back his tears and looked around him, taking comfort and pride in the elegant cornicing that he had imported from Italy, and the mahogany staircase and the beautiful oriental mosaic on the wall. He hadn’t done badly.
Then one day, she formally introduced this lover of hers, declaring that he would be a regular visitor. Her gaze was insolent, almost daring him to defy her. Unbelievably, the wrecking ball of his marriage had the audacity to extend his hand for friendship. On shocked autopilot, Derek actually complied, thus sealing the unwritten contract of this new and highly questionable tenancy agreement. Afterwards, he heard them both laugh about it behind his back. His kindness, his inability to say no to his future ex-wife, was being taken advantage of. His rival had come home to roost. A cuckoo in his nest, and Derek was the cuckold. With the demolition of his marriage now well in progress, Derek felt marginalised to the point of non-existence. Dissociation had begun to set in, like some new strain of mould. He felt like a tenant in his own home. He might as well start paying rent.
That night, he caught sight of his reflection in the window; distorted and murky, another version of himself staring back from a parallel world. Something furtive was hiding in that dark place. Or maybe not hiding. Waiting perhaps, mulling things over. The more he stared at it the more real it became. An intention lay there, in the blackness, in the glint of his eye, gazing back from the twilight world beyond the glass. But what was that intention? Derek did not know. He did not want to know.
But then, he knew. Oh, he knew. And it terrified him.
Derek turned away from the window in fear and his other self vanished, but at the same time so did he. When he shuffled off to his bed he shuffled off what seemed like an old skin. When he switched off the lamp, soft-centred Derek ceased to exist.
The next day he was up before the sun. He went for a jog around his estate, taking in the fresh, botanical air, and marvelling at the fact that all this land was still his. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed again. Nothing was going to get to him. His wife and her lover viewed this new version of him with suspicion, but he didn’t care, not anymore. He had tried, how hard he had tried, but she just hadn’t been prepared to build a bridge between them. It dawned on him that the power had been in his hands all the time. This was his house, not hers. As with their bank account she couldn’t do anything without his planning permission. But he could do what he liked. The renovation of the house was an inspiration. He couldn’t think why it hadn’t popped into his mind sooner. He’d been employing builders for years, not realising that he was rather adept at it himself. It soon became an obsession, so much so that he lost touch with the last few friends he had, and even his closest family. Phone calls were ignored. Emails unchecked. There was no one left to talk to, except his wife, of course, but the conversation between them had dried up a long time ago. And sex was but a fond and distant memory. How apt that he should take up DIY.
With renewed vigour he spent entire days and nights sawing, sanding and painting. He began to feel useful again. Better than that, it was fuelling his desire to succeed. His ambition was elevated and so were his sights. He sweated and strained and in doing so he began to lose weight again. His body and his libido were functioning once more, and, rather fortuitously, he had found a weapon to use against his two conspirators. In time, sick of the hammering and the dust and the constant smell of wet paint, she stopped bringing his rival home. Derek was master of the house now.
But it wasn’t enough. No matter how many layers he applied, he could not paper over the cracks that had begun to appear. A shapeless and persistent presence haunted the back of his mind. It was no longer easily disposed of by keeping himself in work around the house, carrying out his repairs and improvements, doing his best to keep his thoughts in a dormant state. All his efforts were in vain because as soon as he stopped, the presence was still there, like a ghost in need of exorcising. It was neither random nor benign. It had a purpose, and that purpose was secretive and dangerous. And it was slowly seducing him.
No matter what he did, the dark thoughts seemed to emanate from every nook and cranny; whispering from the pitch-black cellar, breathing in the eaves and forming ice-cold condensation on the window. Now that he had almost finished renovating the house he had more time to think, and that was the last thing he needed. It was always at these times, when his guard was down, that his doppelgänger would come to darken his already shadowy life, dredging up old grudges again and again, over and over: he had no children; she had never wanted any. Too vain, she had admitted. He had always resented her for that. It was just another brushstroke in her long streak of selfishness, the latest of which was her trespassing boyfriend. How he envied their bright, colourful lives. They were exciting in comparison with his, which
despite his new-found momentum, still remained unfulfilled. He tried to forget what he had barely dared to think about, but the whispering continued and he would be forced to busy himself around the house once more, performing unnecessary surgery on a perfectly healthy home.
It should have been simple. Like ignoring a phone call or deciding not to read that email. But drowning out those voices in his head wasn’t easy. It was an indelible stain on his mind, and no matter how many times he tried to scrape it away there was yet another layer underneath. In his latest bid to keep his mind occupied, he explored his house, admiring all his most recent constructions; the extra staircase that led to nowhere, the cupboard that touched the fifty-foot high ceiling and the overcomplicated water slide that dropped rather too sharply into the indoor pool, and he began to wonder if he was taking things just a little too far. He knew all too well why he was avoiding the eye of his alter ego. Therein lay a dreadful, wonderful idea, and a mind not yet made up. But something had to give. He would be forty soon and what did he have to show for it?
The question was monumental.
Of course, he had a house filled with lovely things, but other than that he had absolutely nothing. The front door slammed shut, making him wince. He could hear his wife’s shrill laughter, and her high heels clacking annoyingly on the marble floor, accompanied by the loud and somewhat pompous voice of that oaf she now called her lover.
Another slam, the bedroom door this time.
Seeking escape, he stomped into the study and gradually calmed himself down. Afterwards, he gazed around the room, cherishing the chaise longue in the corner, recently upholstered and draped, just so, with a burgundy throw; the grand marble mantelpiece, adorned with old photographs elegantly framed in gold leaf.
And then there was the great grandfather clock in the corner, now counting from zero to hero. He loved it because she loathed it. It had become a unique symbol of their difference. He felt a sense of pride at his handiwork, at his good taste, his expertise in choosing just the right accoutrement, for this, his perfect house.
He hadn’t done badly.
But increasingly, he felt trapped on all sides by an enemy who would not be vanquished. His wife meant nothing to him. Derek had come to that conclusion a long time ago. He was fighting an increasing desire to run away but he had nothing and no one to run to. So he just sat tight and the uninvited guest would gatecrash his mind once more. Yet tonight felt different somehow. It’s just that he couldn’t figure out why.
The sound of his other half’s approaching Jimmy Choos made him sigh wearily, and he made a concerted effort to appear relaxed, turning to smile at her as she surveyed his surroundings with an air of disgust, cigarette poised in her perfectly-manicured hand.
The clock began to chime midnight, almost but not quite drowning out the creak of her other half’s footsteps as he sneaked out the front door. Derek ignored him, as he always did, besides, he was somewhat preoccupied. The clock was counting down to his birthday. He wondered if she was going to give him his obligatory socks now.
She lit her cigarette, and took a careful draw, narrowing her eyes at him. ‘He’s moving in and there’s nothing you can do about it.’
Derek felt the world spin a little too fast on its axis, and watched helplessly as she clacked off to the doorway, then turned and said to him with a cruel smile, ‘Oh. Happy Birthday.’
The front door slammed shut. He heard her being driven off to somewhere probably very exotic. The smile was still fixed stupidly to his face, even when the tears began to fall. He remembered when he was training to be a real estate agent all those years ago and there was one of those A4 posters on the wall which read the legend, It takes 46 muscles to frown and only 7 to smile! It all seemed so pointless now.
The clock had finished chiming.
Suddenly, he knew what was different about tonight. It was his turn to play the host. He listened for the first time to what his guest had to say, and he accepted it, wholeheartedly. It had been a long time coming. They would return soon, no doubt inebriated and unable to defend themselves very effectively, and when they did he would be waiting, and he would give them a present instead. Something they would never forget. There, his mind was made up.
He glanced round the room once more, noting the crossed swords that hung on the wall above the chaise longue, and the heavy iron poker in the fireplace, and the gilded paper knife on the table beside him. And the ticking of that great grandfather clock.
His smile broadened into a rictus grin. He hadn’t done badly, not bad at all.
But what he was about to do was bad.
Really, really, bad.