Warren’s hand pauses on the doorknob and it rattles, little more than a whisper, as he tries to stop himself from shaking. The noise is drowned out by the sound of his wife fucking loudly on the other side of the door. She makes demands peppered with words he has never heard her use, urging on the grunting, sweating man who is cuckolding him as he stands on the landing in a moment that has lasted longer than any he can remember.
Turning the handle, he rushes in, and the door slams against the wall. The noise and movement of his interruption mean he only glimpses the scene as it was for a fraction of a second, but the moment is once more elongated, and his mind is silvered paper; the imprint takes. His wife is on her knees, face pressed into the pillow as the man kneeling behind grips her hips. He is tattooed, shaven-headed; muscles stand out in relief from limbs sheened with sweat. The ease with which he holds her in place sends sudden certainty through Warren: this is something they have done before.
The moment, stretched taut, snaps; everything is happening at full speed again. She is turning, disengaging, eyes widening in panic where a second ago they were closed in bliss. The man is slow and confused, and Warren finds himself charging towards him. The force with which he bulls into his rival pushes the man away from Judith and throws him awkwardly, half on, half off the bed. His penis juts up, a glistening reminder, flopping incongruously. He’d like to hurt him there, but his fists take the lead, and the closest target is the man’s head.
He starts hitting him; wild haymakers and little jabs, flurries of knuckles. There is no plan, no technique. Judith’s scream is a weak, impotent warble. He can make out his name and the word ‘stop’ in there somewhere but Warren is only interested in this fucker, in making this fucker pay, this fucker who’s been fucking his wife while he earns the money to pay for the bed they’re doing it on – the payments aren’t even finished yet – and he draws blood on the third or fourth punch and he would keep going, but the man falls off the bed in a heap, and now Warren’s over him, kicking, kicking the curled form as Judith clutches at him.
He turns to look at her and he sees himself through her eyes: attacker, aggressor. Leave him alone. He’s the wronged one, he’s righteous anger, justified wrath, but it’s the man on the floor she’s concerned about. Not that Warren’s found her out, not at what they’ve done; there is nothing there for him and the pain is dull this time, but familiar as the moment stretches again and her accusing eyes, perfectly framed, enter into the album of humiliation he carries with him.
Turning the handle, he lets the door swing open without a sound. Standing in the doorway, he takes in the scene before him. The Adonis lying on his bed has flowing hair, straw-coloured, spread out around the pillow. On top of him, Warren’s wife is a wave, rising and falling, taking control. She’s wearing the nightdress he gave her on their anniversary, and he can see that she’s loving every minute of having this strange man fuck her. Neither of them has heard him; only when the man’s eyes open and see him in the doorway is their rhythm disrupted. Judith realises something is wrong and turns, still astride the figure below. Seeing Warren, she stops halfway through a stroke and now she’s squatting, poised. She is blinking, panting, flushing, her eyes mute terror; nobody moves, and the silence draws out, milliseconds counting beats that must be longer.
Then Judith breaks it, babbling, inarticulate. Her words mean nothing, underscored ridiculously by the sight of the man still halfway inside her as she stammers. Warren almost begins to laugh, but the rising tide breaks in his parched throat and he lets out a strangled sob. Then everything is movement as she climbs off, flailing, and the man retreats to the back of the room, rummaging for hastily-discarded clothes and pointless apologies.
Warren turns and goes downstairs. Sitting at the dining table, he looks at the garden, at the water feature he is building for them. The beaks of the oversized stone swans lovingly entwine to form the fountain, and even now he can’t think of her obsession with the damn things as stupid, just endearing. He is looking at them for a time he couldn’t even guess at, the quiet punctuated only by the refrigerator humming into life, lifelessly.
Then she is beside him. She sits, and begins to talk. Every sentence is broken, started three or four times, never finished. Some words filter through to him: sorry, didn’t, only, stupid, love, just, hard. They make no sense; maybe it’s him who is broken. The effect is the same. Wide-eyed rivulets trickle down faces like statues; too winded for floods, they sink into numbness at the same time but not together. The man has left, but he will always be between them. lurking at the back of every conversation, every laugh, every kiss. If there are any more. Words pass back and forth sporadically, and a dull ache spreads through Warren and settles, as the silences lengthen.
Turning the handle, he hesitates. The pause goes on, becomes something more, and he lets the handle creep back to its rest position. Judith’s noises become higher, louder, closer together. Warren listens to the sound of his wife fucking another man until she reaches a crescendo. A few seconds later the man lets out a long, low sound.
Quietly, Warren removes his hand and creeps back down the stairs. He lets the car roll back down the drive before starting it in the road. His driving and his thoughts drift, and when next he notices his surroundings he finds he does not recognise them. By the time he has found his way again, he realises he will reach home at about the usual time.
He turns the key noisily in the lock and lets himself in. Judith is at the sink, doing dishes. She doesn’t turn as he comes into the kitchen. He hesitates, just for a moment, then comes up behind her, nuzzling into her neck and squeezing her tight.
‘How was your day?’ she says.
He makes a noncommittal noise. ‘Some parts seemed to go on forever,’ he says, watching the washing-up bubbles swirl and join, part and burst, over her shoulder.
‘I’m sorry, hon. I’m sure things will get better,’ she says.
‘I can hope,’ he says.
Terry Paul Pearce is a Londoner. His work has surfaced in places like The Legendary, Cezanne’s Carrot, and Grey Sparrow Journal. You can read more at terrypaulpearce.blogspot.com.