Stifle, Beatrice Ross

Alice Grayson cringed when her husband laughed about dying Jews. The jokes came when he and his friend were drunk, when the blood flushed strong in their cheeks and their eyes grew dull. When they laughed like that, it left her with a heavy queasiness in the pit of her stomach. And the thought always seemed to float by in her head. What the fuck am I doing here?

The bustle of football fans and families crowded the RSL. The bar served ‘til three, and the drinks kept coming. Alice could think of a dozen better things she could be doing about now, but Richie could be persuasive in his own ways. So here she was. Pretending she didn’t hate every minute of his Friday ritual. A ‘get pissed and wake up shit-faced in the morning’ pagan ceremony, complete with booze and sex. It was early in the night and her husband Richie was still sober enough to walk in a straight line.

Alice watched the rising bubbles in a glass of soda water, tracing her finger around the rim. A high-pitched ring slipped beneath her finger, singing, breaking up the choking laugh of Harry Guilford, a heavy, fattened man sitting across from her. He was a good friend of Richie’s, a car salesman. From where Alice sat, he was more of a pig than a man, his stomach rolls wobbling in time with his double chin.

‘Why did Hitler commit suicide?’ Harry asked.

He left it hanging. Richie shrugged. The pig smiled cheek to cheek.

‘The Jews sent him the gas bill.’ Harry chortled, slapping the table with a knotted fist.

Alice scoffed. ‘That’s not funny—’

‘It’s just a joke,’ Richie growled, his smile falling flat.

‘Stop being such a tight-arse.’

He watched her sidelong, the mask slipping. An insatiable hunger lived back there, something ugly and untameable. Alice felt it stir and glimmer behind his cold, grey eyes. He gathered her in close. She stiffened, recoiling as the stench of beer wafted heavy on his breath.

Richie was at least a foot taller than her. But even at eye level, he managed to tower over her. He was well built at thirty-two, broader in the chest and shoulders. He’d been bred tougher than leather.

A darkness stole over his eyes, his voice edging sharp and thin.

‘Why are you being such a bitch?’ he seethed.

She shrugged, a knot catching in her throat. Goosebumps rippled across her skin. An icy hand squeezed her heart tight. And despite the warmth of the club, it felt like she’d plunged neck deep in bone-chilling water.

Richie held his gaze like that for a long moment, working his jaw, considering what to do with her right then and there. He slipped his hand across her thigh, squeezing tight, inching his fingers beneath her skirt. She flinched, the breath catching in her throat. She slapped him away. Richie muttered gruffly beneath his breath, releasing her, sparing his hand to drink deep from a schooner of pale ale. Across the table, Harry recalled the time in school he beat up a Jewish kid for walking on the wrong side of the hallway. Richie laughed, the tell-tale slur dragging down his voice.

Alice slumped in her seat, catching her hands in her lap to stop the tremor. Harry’s ugly words drowned out to a discordant rumble in her ears as she turned her wrist, the ugly puce of an old bruise dark against her skin. She tugged her sleeve down, hiding it from prying eyes.


Alice stood in the bedroom, looking herself over in the floor length mirror. Stripped down to her underwear, she studied the bruises spotting her stomach. They were fresh from last night. Then on her shoulder, a yellowing bruise, a week old. And most recent, a large discoloration along her ribs. She ran her fingers over the angry, black smudge, wincing.

Deep in her stomach, the queasiness was back. The choking urge to cry hit her hard. It aged her eyes and creased the worry lines on her forehead. She hated that. She hated the slump in her spine, the heaviness in her shoulders. Hated the dip of her hollowed out stomach and the dark shadows under her eyes. She used to be so pretty. But now…now…shit.

She thumbed the tears from her eyes with trembling fingers, swallowing down the lump in her throat. Don’t cry. Calm down. Pursing her lips tight, she snapped open a makeup kit, dabbing foundation on the ugly strangle marks on her throat. Makeup could only cover up so much. She wondered if she had a turtle neck sweater with a high enough collar. No, a scarf might do better. She smeared the foundation, wincing as the marks faded beneath the flush. Makeup hid the ugly Rorschach patterns on her body. Thankfully for her, he only left them in places where they could be hidden. In the end, the makeup and the clothes were all a matter of self-preservation. Yeah. Self-preservation.

Outside in the hallway, boots thumped on the hardwood floor. She stiffened, watching the doorway from the mirror, holding her breath. She’d come to hate the sound. After Richie’s raging nights of drinking, she’d expect it. The boots beating the floorboards, kicking in the bedroom door; His calloused fingers snatching, holding her down on the bed, the other hand teasing off her jeans…

Richie lingered in the doorway, listless, emotionless. He studied her with a lazy roll of his eyes, looking over every inch of her skin. She stiffened, cringing under the heat of his gaze. He was unshaven, his dark hair tousled, his knuckles raw from pounding down the bedroom door last night. Even the soap couldn’t wash the dark stain of blood from under his fingernails.

After a long minute, he pulled away, thumping down the hallway, wincing as he limped. She shuddered, her skin crawling. Nothing. Not even a grunt. What did she expect anyway? Another empty apology?

It used to be so different. They’d married two years ago. He worked building sites and she worked behind a desk, billing patients for fillings and dental check-ups. They’d bought a place in Penrith, even planned on having kids. He used to enjoy a beer or two, but never more than he could handle. Then he shattered his leg in four places under a pile of cinder blocks. Physiotherapy was a bitch. He lost his job. He didn’t feel like a man anymore. Not with Alice working and with him at home, confined to a wheel chair. The worker’s compensation didn’t ease the sting of the bite or the blow. He numbed the pain with the deepest bottles he could find. The pain killers, hospital bills and the sleepless nights crowded in, and something died deep inside. Months later, he was back on his feet. Couldn’t walk without a limp though. The bad habits held firm, and it was like he was a stranger all over again. Drinking made him forget that he felt more like a cripple than a man. And nothing eased the powerless rage than landing a fist to soft, squirming flesh.

She was still waiting for the man she married to come home again. The man with the warm smile and the gentle hands; The one who laughed like he meant it, without the venomous spark glinting back in his eyes; The man who loved her, even when she nagged like her mother. It all seemed like a naive fantasy now. But it kept her kicking. Kept her alive. But the doubts were always there. She couldn’t help feeling trapped. How could she leave him? How could she say it directly to his face? If she left, he’d find her. And he’d urge her back. Or beat her raw. No. She could wait. One day he’d put down the bottle and they’d leave this shitty life behind. One day.

Alice looked herself over, her vision washing over as the tears swelled. She slapped her hand over her mouth, stifling the ragged sound. No! He couldn’t hear her cry. Not this time. She sunk to the floor, hugging herself tight, breathing deep. She filled her lungs. It was a shaky, half-drawn breath, a strangled noise hitching in the back of her throat. Be strong. Oh God, let me be strong.


The rain poured in soaking sheets, spitting on the bus shelter roof. Under the glow of the streetlamp, the bitumen road glistened, giving off the odour of melting crayons. Alice huddled under the shelter, shivering, checking her watch again. He was late. Half an hour late. Again. If he didn’t come, she’d chance the rain.

Down the road, headlights sliced through the darkness. A battered ute pulled up at the bus stop. Richie rolled down the window, squinting through the pouring rain. He waved her in, rolling a toothpick between his teeth. She crossed through the rain to the car, slamming the door behind her. The air con brought feeling back to her frozen fingers. Richie pulled out into the lane, heavy on the accelerator.

Alice held her silence, listening to the thumping of the windscreen wipers. The radio crackled, fuzzing in and out of static. He spun the tooth pick between his teeth. It kept his fingers busy when he needed a fag. He was trying to quit. Said it was bad for him. ‘Its bad shit, you know,” he’d say, “breathing in fag smoke. When you fuck up your lungs, that’s it. You can’t breathe. And when you can’t breathe, that’s when you know you’re fucked. ’

Back on the main road, he stopped at the traffic lights. He looked sidelong, watching her steadily, rapping his fingers on the steering wheel. He opened his mouth, but paused, reconsidering something. She endured the silence, counting the seconds as the light turned green. He eased the car forward, finding the words he was looking for.

‘I’m sorry about last night.’

She felt the twinge in her ribs redouble. He continued, determined.

‘I’ll stop drinking. I’ll skip the pub visits.’

Alice held her tongue. How many times had she heard that before? She often wondered if he practiced in front of the mirror, measuring every word and every line on his face, reciting his lines with the precision of an actor. If he hadn’t said all this a hundred times before, she would’ve believed him.

‘That’s what you said last time.’

He tightened his fingers on the steering wheel.

‘Yeah, well I mean it this time.’

He mashed the toothpick between his teeth. She shrugged.

‘Good. You can join the alcohol group I told you about. The one on Fridays—’

‘Jesus Christ!’ he snarled. ‘I’m not a fucking retard!’

He took a corner sharply. Alice flinched, holding on to the edge of her seat. Her heart jumped into her throat. Steadying her voice, she continued, unsettled.

‘They’re not retards. They have problems. Just like you—’

He tightened his jaw. The tooth pick snapped in half. Dread sunk deep and she flinched back against the seat, expecting a heavy handed slap. If he didn’t have one hand on the gear stick and the other on the wheel, he’d throttle her right then and there.

‘You little bitch!’

He floored the accelerator. The car wavered, fishtailing on the road. It picked up speed, forcing her back against the seat.

‘Slow down!’ she urged. ‘Richie. Slow down!’

The rain pelted on the windscreen, a hazy mess of sheeting water. The headlights flashed back, lighting up the guard rails of a bridge. Richie swore, slamming on the brake. Too late.

The car swerved on the slick road, careening sidelong on the curve of the bridge. It hit the guard rails with a screech of steel. It crashed through. Below, deep water rippled in the pouring rain.

The car plummeted over the edge. Alice screamed, lurching forward in her seat. The hood of the car smacked the water. The impact hit them hard. The airbags exploded. The world snapped out of focus. Dark numbness knocked her out. The ute lurched, sinking, going under.


It was the chill that stirred her from unconsciousness. The chill and the sound of churning water. Alice groaned, pushing the deflated air bags from her face. She peered around the car, fighting the heaviness of her head, tasting blood fresh on her lips. She wiped her bleeding nose, a cut on her lower lip twinging.

Richie lay slumped on the steering wheel, unconscious, bleeding from a cut on his forehead. Beyond the windows, they were surrounded by water. The glass ticked, straining under the pressure. Water streamed in from a gaping crack in Richie’s window, filling the car to her knees. She reached over, shaking him, the panic rising hot and strong.

‘Richie! Wake up!’

No response. She snatched at her seatbelt, clicking it loose. She bent over, working at Richie’s. It held firm. She gasped, doubling her efforts. The water flooded in, rising fast.


She tugged at the seat belt, yanking it. The water rose. The air thinned. Shit! Oh God! Her thoughts raced. Her heart thundered. She had to wake him up. She had to get out!

The seat belt disappeared under the rising water. She released a strangled moan.

The crack in the window strained, splintering, spider-webbing. The icy water bubbled higher, rising to her waist. She fumbled on the belt buckle, fingers trembling. It wouldn’t budge.


It rose up to her chest. The crack kinked, glass clipping loose. A splurge of water surged through, filling to her shoulders. She let go of the buckle, gasping, her voice rising to a sob. Richie bobbed in the current. The water slipped over his mouth. Over his nose. Bubbles blustered on the surface of the rising water. Water crept to her throat. She bumped the car roof. No time left. She had to leave him.

One last breath. She filled her lungs.

The window popped. Torrents of water flooded in. The force knocked her hard against the passenger window. A bout of air bubbled from her mouth. She pressed her lips tight. Get out! Get out!

She blinked, her eyes adjusting. Richie drifted. Pockets of air glimmered on the car ceiling. Fighting the panic, she urged her arms to move, her eyes stinging. She slipped through the window, swimming out into open water.

For a moment, there was no up or down. It was too dark. She urged her body up. Or was it down? The stretch of water went on endlessly. It clouded over with sediments, thick and impenetrable in the darkness. Black dots swam across her vision. Bubbles of air slipped from her nostrils. She swam furiously, her lungs burning.

Above her, the surface shimmered. The swim was agonising. Nearly there. Nearly there.

She breached the surface.

She gasped, gulping in a wet breath. She blinked the water from her eyes, her head spinning. Air. Sweet Jesus. She could breathe again!

She treaded water, walloping air bubbles rising from the wreck below. With every ounce of strength left, she paddled to the river bank. She staggered on shallow ground, crawling up the bank, slipping on slick pebbles, mud oozing between her fingers. She collapsed, lying flat on her back. Hard pellets of rain spattered her face. She lay there for a long minute, her eyes closed, her heart thundering. The exhaustion sunk in deep. Out in the pouring rain, in the darkness, she opened her eyes, curling her fingers in the mud.

Minutes passed. It was too late.

He was gone.

Every moment with Richie had been in that car, drowning. It had all been a vicious cycle of stifling control—a nasty, twisted sensation of drowning in icy water, holding her breath, breathing thin air. Those precious moments of loving a sober man had pulled her through. Those pockets of air had kept her alive. But just barely. And now she could breathe again.

The rain pockmarked the surface of the river, air bubbles rising and popping on the surface. The chilling air stung her throat, leaving searing trails. But with every breath, every wet gasp, the heaviness lifted from her shoulders.She shivered, breathing deep, the air thick with the stench of mud.


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Drift, Elizabeth Laird

The screen door rattled in its frame as Chris’s footsteps ground along the gravel path past the kitchen window.

‘Geez he can disappear quick,’ Angela muttered to the empty bowl and the newspaper, spread like a drop-sheet round her place-mat. She finished her coffee dregs and shuffled the paper into some random order, put the dishes in the sink and headed to the bathroom. Leaning into the mirror, she bared her teeth at the reflection, hastily applied a toothbrush, smear of lip-gloss, dash of mascara and just thirteen minutes after Chris, stepped out into a sullen Monday morning. The hydrangea wet her side as she pushed past the lanky branches poised halfway across the side passage. They had been just waiting to off-load their soaking cargo of drizzle. She sighed. Chris swore that he was going to borrow Mick’s hedge-clippers and open up the path to the front door. Even he said Mr Kurtz would have trouble negotiating the jungle that flourished there.

Having to use the door off the kitchen instead of the one at the front of the house was the problem. The old brick semi was a bit of a basket case in its layout. The room at the front of the house, the one with the front door in it, was going to be The Baby’s Room. That was what Angela and Chris called it when they bought the place five years ago. Instead the room was full – with Chris’s bicycle with the mangled front wheel, Angela’s kayak that needed patching after a rock oyster rendezvous, Chris’s surfboard, unused since his new job at Hamer and Wiley Lawyers devoured his free time, plus numerous boxes of unsorted paperwork and paraphernalia. The door was closed on the junk and the promise of a baby, it seemed.

Angela pulled her coat tighter and tucked her hands under her arms as she ran through the restaurant’s menu in her head. Dodging a dog turd on the footpath, she hoped the tram was on time. Sue would have a fit if she was late to work again. She pulled out her phone to Google ‘Chez’. The tram trundled into view, sparks flashing on the power line in the dingy light. Angela wondered, as she stepped into the commuting scrum, when Chris had become so ungenerous, with his money, his time, his Chris-ness; that package of a man who had looked at her with such hunger. She fumbled in the chaos of her handbag, finding her pass as the tram lurched into a sweeping bend that sent her untethered body careering into a sneering school kid. When had that hunger waned? She shivered as she recalled the press of his hands as they delved her flesh and his mouth’s ravenous explorations; those eyes that searched so deep that the rest of the world could evaporate in that moment. All that seemed like a lifetime ago. Now those eyes averted, were cast down or looked straight through her. When had the indifference become so normal that she hadn’t even noticed it happening?

Where’s the spark?, she thought, releasing a stifled groan hastily transformed into a cough to divert the stare of the woman next to her. She stepped down and faced the thirty-minute uphill walk to the dog shelter. As the tram disappeared over the rise she realised she’d left yet another umbrella, the third in six weeks, on the tram. And then the sky opened.

As her shoes began to make squelching complaints, Angela reflected on this morning’s breakfast. It felt like some blooper outtake from a sitcom, the kind of ‘Special Feature’ that came in the DVD boxed set edition brought out in time to capture the Christmas retail frenzy. The laugh track was missing however. The clichés just felt unnerving. She re-ran the opening scene in her head:

‘What’ll we do Wednesday night?’ she had asked, as she poured the milk over her cereal. She watched, dismayed as it rebounded off an upturned flake and sent a jet onto the table.

‘Why? What’s Wednesday night?’ Standing at the kitchen bench, Chris looked up from studying headlines on his iPad. He flipped the cover closed with a slap and watched Angela mop at the puddle.

‘Our wedding anniversary. Eight years of wedded bliss.’ Her voice pitched up on the final syllable. She flung the cloth at the sink and it gave a squelch as it hit the cupboard door and slid to the floor.

‘Oh yeah. Er, the pub? Wednesday’s two for one deal,’ said Chris. He turned away as he picked up the cloth and rinsed it.

‘Aww,’ Angela squawked. Chris flinched at the childish whinge. ‘Couldn’t we do something besides the pub? What about Mario’s, or Thai Dyed, or that French place up on Newland Street, Chez something-or-other?’

Chris slumped into the dining chair, not made for such a casual pose, with its rigid, high back. He tapped his middle finger on the table like a distracted woodpecker. With his eyes squeezed into slits, he imagined the scene before him filmed from inside a post box. He was a spy, an observer of this life that was surely someone else’s. He suddenly felt the urge to escape. He watched Angela chomp on her cornflakes and released a sigh across the table.

‘Wha?’ she said, displaying the mashed cereal and a dribble of milk.

‘Nothing. You book, I don’t mind. I’ll be late tonight. Catching Mick and Andrew for a beer or six after work,’ Chris said. He grabbed his brief case and pulled open the front door. Angela swallowed and opened her mouth to comment.

His footsteps this morning had echoed like the closing bars of some avant-garde symphony; novel sounds met with enthusiastic applause and total incomprehension by a bewildered audience.

‘I need some kind of Inspector Gadget attachment on my shoulder or head,’ Angela whined to Sue when she finally got to the office with a soaking coat and a forehead curl dispensing a trickle down her face, taking her mascara with it.

‘Excuse me? Inspector Who?’ Sue was stacking the clinic shelves with worming tablets and hadn’t bothered to turn to look at Angela.

‘You know, Inspector Gadget. He has all these helpful gadgets in his hat and coat and stuff. I can’t seem to own an umbrella for more than a week these days.’ Angela was struggling to extricate herself from the clinging coat. Sue pursed her lips as she turned and watched the spray settle over everything like one of the dogs out in the kennels had sent a squall across the room.

‘Maybe I need to build one into my…’ Angela’s voice petered into awkward silence as she noted the frown and the mess. She grabbed the roll of paper towel and swished ineffectually over the floor, bench and cupboards and sidled to her desk.


‘Coming to training Wednesday?’ Andrew asked as he manoeuvered the tray laden with beers and a bowl of chips onto the table. The pub was busy for a Monday night and he pulled his stool in closer to the table to hear Chris’s reply over the din. Chris looked up from his phone screen.

‘Yeah, ah, no. It’s me and Angela’s anniversary. She’s booked that fancy French joint up on Newland Street. Probably cost a fortune.’

‘Man, you’re a tight-arse. She deserves a nice night out for putting up with you for another bloody year.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Chris thrust out his chin.

‘Well, you’re hardly the most romantic bloke I know.’

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Nothing. I’ll be back.’ Andrew headed to the toilets and Chris looked at Mick with a what-was-that-about shrug. They both reached for a chip.

‘Mate, I’d rather be at footy training,’ Chris moped as he ran his finger down the condensation on his glass.

‘Geez Chris. Andrew’s right. It’s a night out with your wife, not root canal.’

‘Anniversaries are like that Auntie you only saw once a year at Christmas when you were a kid.’

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Mick.

‘You know, it was all like ‘Ooh, look how much you’ve grown’. The other 364 days is like your parents who see you every day and don’t notice the changes. Then Auntie pops up once a year and sees the two inches you’ve grown painstakingly over the last twelve months and makes out like it happened overnight. Ange and me, we’re just drifting away from each other and then come 25th of July each year, I suddenly see the distance.’

‘What distance? You two are great together.’

‘Who two?’ asked Andrew, returning to the table and picking up his beer.

‘Chris is having a whinge about him and Angela. Reckons Ange is like his Auntie.’

‘I didn’t say that Mick, you idiot. I said anniversaries are like my once-a-year Auntie. Look. Forget it. She drives me nuts though.’

‘Who?’ asked Andrew, ‘your Auntie?’

‘Oh for God’s sake! Angela, Angela drives me crazy. She loses her keys every day. She forgets what night I train. It’s been the same night for the past three years. She eats with her mouth open, the paper looks like it’s been through the shredder by the time she’s finished with it. She sticks these obscure pop culture references into every second thing she says. She’s got more band tee shirts than you can poke a stick at. That stupid job of hers pays peanuts and she’s always bringing home one or other of the dogs for respite, she calls it. What’s the point of an Accounting Degree if you’re going to waste it working for a dog shelter?’ Chris noted how shrill he sounded and for the second time that day, felt the urge to escape.

‘Whoa mate. Calm down.’ Andrew reached over the table and grasped Chris’s shoulder. ‘Ange loves that job. If it weren’t for people like her, there would be no shelter and all those dogs’d be put down. And she loves her music. So what if she wants to wear that on her tee shirt. Chris, what’s going on with you and Angela?’

‘I’m fucked if I know. Eight years, and two before that when we were going out.’ Chris’ voice faltered as he struggled to find some context for a problem he couldn’t clarify.

Mick shuffled the stool round the table so it was closer to Chris’. ‘Yes mate, eight years. Are you telling us that you’re gonna throw all that away? Because she eats with her mouth open and owns too many tee shirts?’

‘I don’t know what I’m saying. I just know that I’m unhappy. But the stupid thing is, I don’t even know it ‘til my bloody anniversary comes round and I realise I have to force myself to do something special for Angela and it feels like some mammoth effort.’

Is that what married couples do? he thought as he pressed his fingers into his forehead. We work, eat, sleep, get up, do it all again. Going through the motions. Once I couldn’t keep my hands off her; now I don’t even see her. We were gonna travel, have kids, fix up the house, I was gonna make partner. Images from a misplaced future bombarded his thoughts.

‘Where’s my bloody Machu Picchu?’ he said out loud. Oh God! he thought. Now I sound like a raving loony. His fringe flopped over one eye. He stared at his friends like a sleepwalker waking mid nightmare.

‘Mick, get us another round mate,’ said Andrew. He downed the dregs in his glass and stacked it onto the five others perched on the tray. ‘I remember that day Chris.’

‘What day?’

‘Your wedding day, you moron. You were both so bloody happy. All those things you are whinging about are all the things you loved about her; her scattiness, her sense of humour, her passion for her work. You’ve changed a bit, just quietly.’ Chris looked up with a chip poised halfway to his mouth. ‘This new job for a start, you’re making a packet but you still complain like you’re a student living off two-minute noodles. You work every minute God sends you and you don’t do anything.’ Andrew brought his hand down on the table and the stack of glasses clinked and shook.

‘Whadya mean? I play footy, I ride my bike.’

‘Mate, you haven’t ridden your bike since you pranged it two years ago and I don’t mean you, I mean you and Angela. She rang Michelle the other week to go to a gig with her. You’re thirty-two years old, you’ve got a great job, plenty of moolah. Can’t you loosen up and live a little?’ Andrew moved the tray onto the empty table next to them to make room for the new glasses.

‘I thought I was having a few beers after work with my mates. I didn’t know I was going to be nominated for Arsehole of the Year.’ Chris finished tearing the coaster into a spiral and chucked it onto the table.

‘I am not calling you an arsehole, you dickhead,’ said Andrew with a grin. Mick returned with the beers and they drank in silence.

Andrew broke the awkward pause. ‘See you at training Mick. Chris, Ange is a great girl. Get your head out of your bum and make it work hey. Enjoy Wednesday night.’ He gave Chris and Mick a gentle thump then strolled towards the door.

‘I better head off too Chris. Big presentation tomorrow. Take it easy mate. You and Angela will be fine. You two are solid.’ Mick followed Andrew onto the street.

Chris tilted his head, closed one eye and watched the bubbles rising through his lager. He didn’t like examining his own life. He knew he was pretty good at dissecting other people’s but his was just fine if he didn’t look too close. He and Angela didn’t fight. They didn’t even argue much. When had he stopped loving her? A continental drift moved them apart. He could hardly see her standing on the far shore, waving, grinning, and spilling her breakfast. The realisation felt like a punch. ‘Now what?’ he muttered.


Angela ran her fingers down the wine glass and grasped the stem. I wonder if I get the habit from Chris, or if he got it off me? she thought as she watched the trail appear through the condensation. The candle flame wavered as she tapped her foot against the table leg and reached for the menu again.

‘No, I’m fine thanks,’ she answered the hovering waiter as she checked her watch for the millionth time. Her phone sat in silence on the napkin she had taken from her lap and placed in front of her. She hit the button and the image of Chris and her grinned out of the screen. Just how she could have missed a call or text when the phone was under her nose was unknown and she felt the welling desperation in the action even as she did it. When half an hour turned to 40 minutes, then 45, she snatched up the phone. ‘Yeah, it’s me. Give me a call so I know you’re ok and how long you’re gonna be. Want me to order you a drink? Anyway, wondering if I should start calling hospitals. Yeah, er, call me.’

‘Shit.’ It came out like a slow leak from a tyre. What if he had forgotten or worse, decided that football training was more important. Angela glanced at the door through the mood lit couples and the gentle chinking of cutlery on plates. There was only a twenty-dollar note in her wallet, a bit extravagant for one glass of Sav Blanc. She couldn’t bring herself to face the waiter so slipped it under the base of the glass and stepped in silence out into the neon strip. The air was cold but she walked anyway. It would give her time to think but her mind numbed to blankness after she had reconsidered the possibilities one more time.

The house was hunkered in darkness as she fumbled in her bag for the key. A shudder passed through her and she opened the door. She swung her handbag onto the bench, her keys jangled to the floor and she turned and flicked on the kitchen lights. She froze and felt her skin burn as fear hit her body.

Then she registered that the figure sitting at the table was Chris. Wearing his new shirt, smelling of aftershave and hair gel, he raised his face from where it rested in his hands and turned to look at her.


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