Romance is dead

Sandra wakes up promptly, every morning, at 5.30 am sharp. No exceptions, Sundays included, her slick hausmeister operation springs into action. She yawns down the stairs, a splash from the cold tap to revive her tired eyes, and she’s on, reprising the role she’s grown accustomed to over the years, that of relentless goddess of the domestic abode.

She lines up a small tray of thick, butcher’s choice sausages and places it into the oven, followed by a tin loaf of homemade bread dough, proved overnight. ‘Preparation is the key’, she always states with solemnity, possibly to lend some gravitas to an otherwise mundane series of tasks.

As the baking starts, Sandra prepares the griddle for some smoky rashers and pours some Heinz beans into a microwave-proof bowl, ready for a blast. Even the neighbours have become accustomed to this everyday tradition, to its pervading clouds of morning sizzle impregnating the street, and have in fact come to rely on it as a gentle olfactory alarm clock caressing their senses out of the night’s slumber. Jon, still tucked under the duvet on his side of the four-poster, is roused by Sandra’s magic and, bewitched by her sizzling pork spell, floats down the stairs and takes his rightful place at the kitchenette table, right on time for the last crispy slice of Danish back bacon to leave the hot pan and be presented to him on a glorious heap of full English-ness.

‘Yum,’ he says, at the peak of his daily excitement, and proceeds to gnaw away at his prize meal, without words or eyes for anything (or anyone) else.

Sandra never interrupts Jon’s morning feed, unless it is to offer him more food, or crucially, more coffee. Black, potent and from real Arabica beans, because ‘Jon hates instant’. She waits for a nod and an empty cup, and reciprocates with a refill and a smile. He gulps down cup number two, snatches the last sausage from the tray, and clutches his black overcoat, ready for the long walk up to the factory at the other end of town.

‘Laters!’ he buttons his coat and slams the front door shut without waiting for or expecting a reply. She takes a seat and a deep breath in, another dutiful morning’s work accomplished.

Jon and Sandra’s has always been an ordinary fairy-tale. A harmonious pairing of the traditional type. Having lived three doors down from each other since childhood, they’d never really been very far apart. Ever. Same school, same friends, same life. By the time they were leaving high school, their new marital home, three doors further up the road, was being readied as they both planned a life together.

Jon managed to find work at the local automotive plant, securing a decent source of income which would sustain them long-term, and Sandra settled for staying at home, a decision she was unsure of at the start, but which she embraced with the selfless devotion that was expected of her.

***

Only a few minutes have passed since Jon has left for work, and the house is already cleaned and polished to perfection. Dishes dried and put away, leftovers bagged and binned, kitchen floor swept and mopped to a sheen, front room vacuum-cleaned, furniture dusted, and the air carries the gentle fragrance of potpourri-scented detergent. The work done, Sandra can now shift her maniacal attention away from the outside, and finally focus on herself.

Today is Wednesday, which means her weekly social is about to happen. Market day, the day of crowd-watching, fridge-stocking, bargain-hunting and crucially, tea drinking. Specifically, tea and scones at the Princess Café on the Parade, an old Italian cafe that has stoically maintained its vintage image and feel (and clientele) for over 30 years while managing not to collapse in disrepair or refurbish beyond recognition, unlike most of its other High Street mining era competitors. Margaret is already there, waiting as usual, since 9:00 am. She’s there most days, timing her arrival with exquisite precision. Just as the first load of hot water is ready in the old copper boiler, Margaret crossed the threshold and, with her proud, assertive tone orders the first pot of tea and sits at the little round table at the far corner the one furthest away from the door. Sandra arrives at the café about half hour later, a nod over the counter to Franco, the café owner, and down through the rows of formica tables to join Margaret, or as she calls her, Mags.

Sandra’s very fond of her friend, and has relied on her counsel and wisdom in times of need for a number of years. Mags being 20 years her senior has accumulated a great wealth of insight and knowledge, and is always very keen to pass them on. At times she can be a little caustic, but she is hardly ever off the mark. Every Wednesday she bears witness to Sandra’s venting, and after tactfully listening to a week’s worth of spleen, she suggest truthful but impracticable solutions, always delivered with the ruthlessness of a Spartan warrior.

‘…And he just blanked me out and kept on, like I wasn’t even there.’

‘And then what?’

‘Then he went upstairs, straight to bed without even saying goodnight or touching his dinner.’

‘Ooh, that’s cheeky!’

‘I know, right? And the worst thing is he won’t back down until I say sorry and admit I was wrong.’

‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

‘I don’t either. You know, sometimes I envy you. No-one to account to, no-one to consider, no-one to cater for. It must be great!’

‘And lonely.’

‘Yes, but you’re free to do whatever you want…’

‘Sandra, my love,’ Mags starts off, with the most solemn tone. Every time she has something vaguely important or profound to say, she always prefaces it with her formulaic my love, and Sandra, aware of it, sits back in silence and awaits the ensuing lecture.

‘This freedom you speak so highly of, I didn’t want it. Sure, I’m enjoying it, making the most of it, but if I could have chosen, I would’ve rather not had it. You must remember, my love, I’m not a spinster, I’m a widow.’

‘Sorry Mags, how selfish of me. More tea?’

‘Sure. Thank you. So now here’s a thought. If you feel so hard done by, why don’t you just leave him? It’s not like you have to stay with him for the sake of the children!’

‘Maybe you’re right. But I don’t think I have it in me to do it. Just the thought of starting again, from scratch, after all these years together… I doubt I’d manage to get through with that.’

‘Then don’t complain about it. Suck it up, love!’

Among her many charming habits, Mags has that of always needing to have the last, vitriolic word in any argument, and today is no different. She sips the last of her tea, has a hearty, self-congratulating laugh and excuses herself.

‘I must go, bingo tonight, you see… You take care, my love. I shall see you on Wednesday. Tara Sandra.’

‘Bye Mags…’

Sandra stays behind a little longer, alone again, seeking a moment to reflect over Mags’ words. The lunchtime wave of hungry punters inundates the café, which only moments ago was as empty as a dry riverbed, and the luxurious, starchy aroma of Franco’s county-famous meat pies flows into the air and echoes out onto the cold street.

***

Standing inches away from bathroom sink, Sandra leans in and looks violently into the medicine cabinet’s mirror door, rehearsing over and over the pitch and intonation of the words she has decided she’s going to tell Jon tonight, straight after dinner.

‘That’s it Jon. It’s OVER!’

‘Jon, I’m leaving you.’

‘I’m going, Jon.’

‘If you don’t change, I’m gone.’

‘You need to change…’

‘…’

Every successive attempt loses a chunk of the intent of the previous delivery, becomes feebler and feebler, her resolve fading into the distance. Sandra agrees with what Mags has said today, of course, but somehow she cannot bring herself to follow through with any of it. Let’s face it, letting go of the one person you’ve grown up with, and with which you have planned to grow old with, is not an everyday thing to do. Even when that very person is an emotionally-unavailable workhorse with poor social skills and very little regard for other people’s sensibilities. Her sensibilities.

‘Arghhhh!’ Sandra grunts, angry at her inability to face the issue.

‘I can’t do it… Just can’t…’ She plays and replays the scenario in her head, and every time she falters, unable, to take that final step towards self-assertion. The wall clock strikes five from the kitchen, and Sandra’s dreaded moment is pushing in like a slow tide coming in at dusk.

‘Why is this so hard?’ Sandra, in the throes of desperation, throws her fist over the side of sink – BANG – the handwash dispenser perched on the cabinet’s side falls and spills its content onto the tiled bathroom floor.

‘Shit!’ She kneels down to scoop up the viscous, foaming liquid as her frustration grows and grows. ‘It’d probably be easier to kill him!’

Sandra, blindsided by her own throwaway comment, pauses for a second. She just cannot quite believe the words that have escaped from her mouth.

Kill. Him.

She chuckles, to demystify the gravity of the moment. Yet, as outlandish an idea as that might appear to be, it begins to gather pace in her frantic mind, an enormous red button with the words DO NOT PUSH etched in capital letters on it, suddenly taunting her, daring her with its sinister, sexy voice, whispering, ‘do it, do it, DO IT!’.

‘What a load of nonsense!’ She dismisses the thought again, at once, out loud. But the louder she gets, the deeper that stray, inane thought insinuates itself into her unconscious, its seed, planted deep into fertile ground. ‘Do it…’ It whispers. ‘Do it!’ She stares back gingerly into the mirror, intimidated by her own image, and tries to regain her composure with a cupped handful of water splashed over her face, in an attempt to kick-start a sensible pattern of thoughts. ‘I must be losing it, I swear.’

She heads down the stairs and into the kitchen. The dinner prep is already running behind her firmly established schedule. She immediately gets on with the task at hand, aiming to claw back some of the lost time.

First, the white onions, chopped to fine slithers ready to be sautéed in a pan full of hot, but not smoking, olive oil. Their vapours, rising to her eyes, sting her with heavy, bitter tears.

‘See, this is how he makes you cry, he doesn’t deserve your servitude.’ That voice again. Sandra ignores it. She pours a jar of passata in the soffritto pan and adds a large pinch of rock salt. ‘This is your blood, Sandra! We should spill his, tonight!’ She leaves the sauce to simmer on low heat, but not before adding a sprig of basil, for that Napoletana finish. ‘Can you feel your blood boiling, Sandra? Stop ignoring the truth!’

Sandra moves away from the cooker, and starts preparation for the main course, hoping to distract herself from the lingering madness. She spreads some white flour and some breadcrumbs on two adjacent trays, then breaks and whisks two eggs into a bowl with a pinch of salt. But then, that voice again. ‘You are not made to be with him, Sandra. You’re kinder, purer than he is. He’s coarse, vulgar. You’ve been cracked hard enough, time to do away with this life.’ Beside herself with fear, Sandra grabs the meat-cleaving knife, and begins slicing two chicken breast fillets, across their middle, then unfolds them open, like giant butterflies of flesh, ready for crumb-coating.

‘That’s it Sandra, you know how to use a knife…. Chop, chop. He won’t even feel it!’

‘Leave me alone!’ She whispers, in a short breath. The meat is laid in the bed of white flour, turned and then placed in the bowl of egg wash before a crispy rest into the roughly crumbed coating. It is then finally placed aside to stand, ready to be shallow-fried in extra-virgin.

‘It’s almost time, Sandra. Think about it, it makes perfect sense. You won’t be a spinster, you’ll be a widow. You’ll be free!’

‘Go away!’ Sandra pleads.

The sauce is ready. She pours a kettleful of hot water in another saucepan, seasons it, and drops a pack of spaghetti in it. They soften and fall under the bubbling surface.

‘Not long now, he’ll be back soon. Time for a plan. What about drowning?’

‘Oh dear Lord!’ Her muffled response is immediate.

With the spaghetti cooked to Jon’s liking (overcooked, that is), Sandra brings the pan over the sink and, as she strains its contents, a cloud of vapour over the kitchen. The pasta ends up in the sauce pan and gets doused with fresh salsa di pomodoro.

‘You could poison him. That’s right, poison is the definite way to go. Greedy bastard won’t even taste it, so fast he eats… a couple of these rat pellets in his starter, and he won’t even get to dessert… The Parmesan cheese of Death… ah!’

‘Enough!!!’ Sandra screams out. Silence ensues.

The front door opens and Jon gets in, his usual dejected post-work face.

‘What’s for dinner?’

‘Pasta for starters, then chicken cutlets, your favourite.’

‘Yum!’ He says, at the peak of his daily excitement, as he sits at the dinner table. Sandra, still wearing the old tatty apron he bought for her on their first holiday abroad, brings him his starter dish, spaghetti alla Napoletana, laden with Mozzarella and Parmigiano.

Bon Appetit’ she says, ‘make sure you leave room for pudding!’