Assignment 1: 2,200 word short story in first person from a single view point.
The taxi driver closed my door with a satisfying thud, returned to his seat and started the engine, but it was only when he accelerated away from the self-storage unit where he’d just kindly helped me stack the last of my most precious belongings that I realised it was actually going to happen.
I was leaving Paul.
I was really going to leave him, today, after all these years… wasted years.
Enough! I’d promised myself that I wasn’t going to look back any more, so, now was the time to start. There was just one more stop before I could start my new life.
‘Where to, now?’ the young man asked, as if he’d heard my thoughts.
‘I need to go back home…’ I paused a moment, realising that it wouldn’t be my home any more, ‘…back to the house,’ I corrected myself and took a quick glance at the time. My heart thudded uneasily with the knowledge that Paul would be arriving in ten minutes at the end of his working day and expecting his perfectly prepared meal to be ready to serve.. You could practically set Big Ben by the man and his routines, and checking that I was where I should be when I should be seemed to be paramount.
‘Did you forget something?’ the taxi driver asked, clearly puzzled. ‘I thought that load was the last of it.’
‘There’s just a small bag in the hallway with some paperwork, but I need to be there when he arrives.’ I swallowed and forced myself to draw in a deep steadying breath while I met his eyes in the mirror and realised he probably wasn’t as young as I’d first thought. All day, while he’d been ferrying me and my belongings backwards and forwards I hadn’t noticed that he might even be the same age as me… except I felt so very much older after enduring the last few years.
‘Please, I know I’ve taken up a lot of your time today, but… would you wait for me? So that I can climb straight in the taxi, afterwards, and you can drive me away? I’ll only need a couple of minutes to tell him I’m leaving him.’
I’m sure I should have felt embarrassed that this man knew so much about my secret misery, but it had only been once I’d received that life-changing letter and the decision had been made that I’d realised how much everything had been boiling away inside me. It had been such a relief to let the whole story come pouring out at last, even though I’d been inflicting it on a complete stranger.
Paul might have been that bit older than me - a bit more than a decade, in fact - but he’d been so attractive and so attentive and had such charming manners that he’d completely swept me off my feet. I’d thought I was stepping into a fairytale future with him; one that included the shared goals of a cosy home filled with a growing family and echoing with laughter and love. What I’d got was a sterile, servile existence totally focused on his comfort, his wishes, his rules.
Oh, and he’d had so many rules about everything, from the way the towels were to be hung on the rail in the bathroom to the way the table was to be set and the time the perfectly prepared meals were to be presented on it.
I’d been almost too embarrassed to admit that it had taken a couple of years before I realised that he’d driven a wedge between me and all my former friends. His campaign had been subtle, I’d given him that. It had started with the odd criticism of one old school-friend’s bohemian style of dress or another’s stridently avowed politics until soon, whatever entertaining we did was only for his colleagues, and then only with a view to impressing his seniors that he was a man on his way up in the world.
Looking back, I’d realised that wanting to impress at those events had probably been the only reason why he’d agreed to pay for the Cordon Bleu cookery course I’d attended, but even that had come to an abrupt end when I’d made the mistake of letting him know that the classes were attended by men as well as women.
After that, even when I’d complained that I was bored, he’d absolutely refused to allow me to look for a job, pointing out with terrifyingly cold intensity that I was his wife and it was therefore his responsibility to support me, while it was my responsibility to provide him with food and comfort and my body, when required.
I’d suggested that a way to fill my empty days would be to start our family sooner rather than later and was utterly dumfounded by his trenchant refusal.
‘There will be no children,’ he’d declared grimly.
I couldn’t believe what he was saying, certain that I was somehow misunderstanding him.
‘Not now, maybe,’ I’d agreed reluctantly, suppressing a sigh for all those empty hours and days ahead. ‘But in a year or two we could-’
‘No!’ he’d interrupted swiftly. ‘There will be no children. There can be no children. Ever.’
I remember staring at him, certain I had a stupid expression on my face as I tried to work out what he meant. Was he infertile? If so, it was something he’d certainly never mentioned before the wedding. I’d always assumed that there would be babies in my future and if he’d known that there could be a problem…
‘Don’t argue with me!’ he’d roared, suddenly. ‘It’s none of your business, but I had a vasectomy the week after you accepted my proposal, to make absolutely certain there would be no children. I have no intention of you being distracted from your duties by squalling brats.’
It was none of my business that he’d taken himself off for a vasectomy? It was none of my business that he’d deliberately robbed me of the chance to feel a baby growing inside me and to hold a precious new life in my arms?
That was the day something inside me died and my life stretched out like an endless desert in front of me with absolutely nothing to look forward to but an interminable cycle of cleaning his picture-perfect house, cooking his picture-perfect meals and entertaining his boring colleagues.
I actually contemplated going on strike as my disappointment and anger grew, but my first tentative attempt provoked such a terrifying rage that for a few minutes I actually believed he was going to kill me.
‘The only striking that will take place in this house is if you don’t perform your duties to the standard I require,’ he’d said afterwards, sounding utterly calm, but there was something in his eyes that told me it was both a threat and a promise.
Unfortunately, striking me for the first time seemed to have unlocked the door on his cruelty and I found myself spending every waking hour trying to make certain I would give him no excuse to turn his verbal abuse into physical violence.
From then on I also began trying to find a way out of my intolerable situation without letting him know what I was doing. It was only when I overheard a fellow shopper talking about using computers and the internet to work from home that the germ of an idea took root.
It had taken more than two years for that root to grow and bear fruit - two years of racing through the housework to have the rest of the day to work on my escape plan - and today was the day my gaoler would cease to have any power over me.
Now all I had to do was face the man and tell him.
‘What do you mean, you’re leaving me?’ Paul roared, the veins bulging at his temples. ‘You can’t leave me. You’ve got nowhere to go… no friends to help you and no money to pay for anything.’
‘Actually, that’s where you’re wrong,’ I said, hoping I sounded calmer than I felt with my heart beating so fast it felt as if it might explode. ‘You might have forced me to break off contact with my friends, but they were very forgiving when I got in touch with them again. As for not having any money… you couldn’t be more wrong.’ I held up the thicker of the two envelopes that I took out of the bag I’d placed ready on the hall table. ‘This is a contract for my first manuscript and the next two books after it. The advance money is already in my account - my new account, of course - and it really is an amazingly large amount of money.’
‘Manuscript?’ he scoffed dismissively. ‘What manuscript? You can’t write, and you certainly haven’t written any books. You haven’t even got a typewriter, for heaven’s sake, let alone a computer.’
How strange that his scorn now went sailing harmlessly over my head; how empowering. ‘After I leave, perhaps you should go up to the back bedroom - the little nursery that you graciously permitted me to have converted into a dressing room, since we weren’t going to be having any babies. You’ll find that the dressing table makes an ideal desk, and there’s a false floor in the bottom of the underwear drawer with a space just deep enough for my laptop.’
I tightened my grip on the bag at my side before drawing out the smaller envelope, knowing my final announcement was going to send him ballistic. I’d known for a long time that Paul saw me as nothing more than a possession - one that his colleagues envied for its beauty and the way I seemed to want nothing more than to make his life perfect.
‘By the way, this envelope’s for you,’ I said, dropping it on the side table with the perfectly polished and totally dust-free, pie-crust frill around its edge. ‘That is your copy of the divorce papers and an injunction preventing you from contacting me or coming anywhere near me. Everything is spelled out, but be warned that if you break the injunction you will be arrested and you will go to prison. I will never allow you to have the chance to abuse me again - and before you try to deny it,’ I continued, leaving him with his mouth hanging open, ‘my GP has a record of each incidence in my medical notes and so has the hospital. Both of them were only too helpful in copying that information for my solicitor.
‘Anyway, that’s all in the past, now,’ I said firmly, relishing his shock that I’d actually told people about his abuse. Had he believed that he had me so cowed that I’d keep his cruelty a secret? ‘Who knows, once the divorce is through I might even meet someone I’d like to marry - someone who’s man enough to want to give me children.’
I turned away to open the door then turned back just long enough to take my set of keys out of my pocket and drop them on top of the divorce papers. I’d never need them again.
The taxi driver was standing just outside the door, so he’d probably heard every word, but somehow it didn’t matter. The warm concern in his eyes outweighed any embarrassment.
‘Ready to go?’ he asked. He walked beside me all the way to the taxi without once touching me, but somehow just the fact he was there made me feel protected.
‘I’ve been ready for a long time,’ I said with far too much feeling, and when I heard him stifle a chuckle I suddenly found myself fighting laughter, too.
‘Where did you want to go, now?’ he asked when he was once more behind the wheel, and I was surprised to recognise that his eyes were still filled with concern when they met mine in the mirror. ‘You have got somewhere to stay tonight, haven’t you?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I reassured him, knowing I sounded a little smug but hoping I could be forgiven. ‘I’ll be staying in a hotel tonight - under my pseudonym, so he can’t find me even if he tries - and tomorrow I’ve got an appointment with an estate agent for a second viewing on a little flat.’
‘So, where do you want me to take you? Straight to your hotel?’
I thought for a moment, the realisation sweeping over me that everything had changed. For the first time in far too long I had choices; I could do what I wanted, where I wanted, when I wanted and that feeling was more powerful than I could have imagined.
In the mirror beside his reflection I saw the smile appear on my own face. ‘You know, I have absolutely no idea where I want to go, except I’m suddenly hungry. Have you got any suggestions for a really good restaurant because I think I’m in the mood to celebrate. After all, today is the start of the rest of my life.’