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   Chapter 12 The Sandwich Shop

Attention Span and Other Stories By PaulineWiles Characters: 9296

Updated: 2018-01-11 12:03

Sometimes I talk to traffic lights.

I asked my hairdresser if she thought that meant I was nuts, and she said, 'Only if they answer back.'

I changed the topic after that.

The traffic signals in question were a few hundred yards from my office, on a steep stretch of dual carriageway with a 50mph limit. It's the kind of incline you barely notice in a car: a gentle roll through the green landscape of Norfolk. But on a bike, the hill was a different matter. It became a long, slow grind where my pedals seemed to turn slower and slower, where I had to look down at the tarmac road to confirm I was still moving. I made this climb every morning, the final hurdle on my six mile journey, because Malcolm insisted we couldn't afford two cars, not when he was ploughing every last penny into his environmental consultancy firm. He specialised in wind farms, which struck me as especially ironic every time a gust hit me in the face. Malcolm, meanwhile, drove to Norwich each day in a sleek maroon Audi, which he said was important to create the right image with clients. The car was leased, of course, but was a luxury model, with a sunroof and heated leather seats. I comforted myself that my bicycle did, indeed, have a sunroof – and a rain roof, and a sleet roof, and sometimes a snow roof. But a heated saddle on those January and February mornings would have been awfully welcome.

'Anyway, ' I said, on the most recent occasion we argued about money, 'if you really want to create a green impression, you should ride the bloody bike, not me.'

'Don't be ridiculous, ' he said, which I'd noticed was becoming his standard answer to everything I uttered, regardless of whether it was a complaint, suggestion, or observation about the weather. In fact, I couldn't remember the last time he found an opinion of mine valuable.

The office at the end of my pedalling was a company which rents out construction equipment, and I'd been a bookkeeper there for seven years. We had over two hundred different items available, including a range of portable toilets. I'm pretty sure Malcolm was embarrassed by my employer. For a long time he nagged me to look for something better, more prestigious. Gradually, though, he lost interest and simply referred to my job, when we were among friends, as loo keeping. Then he stopped referring to it at all. But since Friday night dinners with friends had dwindled too, it hardly mattered.

Malcolm, on the other hand, ate out frequently. When I frowned over his credit card bill and wondered what I could cut from our Sainsbury's grocery list to ease the pinch, he'd explain he was wooing potential clients.

'And you're so scatty about keeping receipts, ' I scolded, trying desperately to keep his records in order, in case the Inland Revenue got curious. 'Half of these dinners are missing.'

'I'm building a business, Esther, ' he replied. 'I haven't got time for bean counting.'

'Well, bean counting's what I do all day, ' I said, raising my chin and preparing to defend my job. 'Maybe you should employ me.'

Sure enough, 'Don't be ridiculous, ' came the immediate answer.

He could, however, afford a secretary – or Environmental Intern, as he preferred to call Melanie. She was around fifteen years younger than Malcolm, studying for a Masters in something impressively green sounding. She had swirly designs on her fingernails, and freckles dotting a little snub nose. The freckles ran up her forearms too, and beyond, I expect. When I called his office, she sometimes answered the phone in a cheery, upbeat voice which lowered when she heard it was me. Other times I called, nobody answered at all.

'If you haven't got the receipt, ' I said, exasperated because I wanted to soak my saddle-sore limbs in a hot sudsy bath, not untangle his ghastly finances, 'at least make a note of who was at the dinner.'

He looked at me blankly, then reached for the television remote. 'Four of us, ' he said, turning up the volume for the news. 'The guys from VentoTech, I think.'

But I was good at my job: it was the receipts which eventually made me suspicious. The evening I'd walked the last two miles home because of a puncture in my rear tyre, to find the house cold and unlit, I spotted the pattern. The missing receipts were all from the same three establishments: two restaurants, and a hotel.

I mended the puncture, listening carefully for the place where the air hissed out of the inner tube in the same way the last oxygen was hissing out of my marriage. Then I checked the restaurant menus: the amounts on the credit card statement were barely enough to feed four men

dinner. But two people? Two could have dined very well indeed. As for the hotel, yes, it had a restaurant. It was perfectly possible Malcolm had taken clients to the dining room there. But the amounts were high, often a round number, in the way a meal doesn't tend to be. A room, however, is a different matter.

I kept quiet, biding my time, struggling up that hill on my bike each morning, and watching my meagre salary plop into our joint bank account before ebbing away on one business expense after another.

Then came the conference, on environmental subsidies, in Bournemouth. I said nothing. I smiled, I shrugged, I wished him a pleasant trip as I hopped on my bike early one February morning. But six miles in the chilly mist gave me plenty of time to simmer. I added up the number of miles I'd pedalled since Malcolm started his business. I calculated the number of days I'd made the right turn at the traffic lights on the steep hill, gripping my handlebars tightly as cars and lorries sped past, so close my bike shook.

That's how it started, you see: talking to the traffic lights. Having panted up that hill, it was so lovely if the lights switched to green at just the right second, so I didn't lose what little momentum I'd built. If they changed for me, I began to thank them. I knew it was silly, but over time I convinced myself the lights were turning more often in my favour, sometimes even going green immediately after they'd turned red for my lane. With a job chasing payments for mobile toilets, and my marriage actually going down the toilet, I needed to believe in something.

So, with Malcolm in Bournemouth, I rode my bike dutifully on Tuesday and Wednesday. I considered taking a taxi, to spite him, but by now, with years of biking behind me, I could feel the power in my legs. Power, and possibility.

On Thursday, I phoned the conference hotel and asked to be put through to his room. I wasn't all that surprised when a cheery, upbeat voice answered.

A month went by, a bitter, sullen month when Malcolm tried to tell me I was being ridiculous, but he must have known how pathetic that sounded. And he knew, too, how much he had to lose: the house was in our joint names, but a cottage in Yorkshire, left to me by my father, was in my name alone. The only assets belonging solely to Malcolm were a leased car and a life insurance policy.

Eventually, he suggested marriage counselling and I agreed, if only to buy time. I wasn't planning to stay with him; I just needed to arrange my alternative.

So that's why, one rainy April day, I didn't ride my bike to work.

'I'll pick you up later, ' he said. 'We can go to the counsellor together.'

'I can bike, ' I said, thinking I didn't want to travel anywhere with him. Not any more.

'No, ' he insisted. 'It looks bad, you showing up on that rattly thing.'

I raised my eyebrows. Didn't he see that it was a bit late to worry about appearances? He'd been betraying me with his assistant, using my salary to do it, and he was concerned with transport arrangements?

Still, I went along with it. 'Okay, ' I said. 'I'll be ready at four.'

So there I was, waiting out of sight under a tree near the main road, sheltering from the drizzle and watching the spray kicked up by the cars speeding by on the dual carriageway. I saw the maroon Audi come up the hill from town and join the right turn lane, Malcolm naturally assuming I'd be loitering outside my office. Just then the signal turned amber, then red, and the Audi stopped obediently. I stared at the lights, a slight smile on my lips. But my gaze was implacable and my eyes glittered. Almost immediately, the right turn signal changed back to green. So too did the light for the traffic hurtling down the hill, the oncoming lorry no doubt roaring along at 50mph or even a bit more on the wet road. Nonetheless, the Audi trusted the traffic light and made the turn, steering without question, right into the path of the truck.


Everyone was so kind. Their platitudes in the subsequent days swirled around me.

'Such a shock, ' they murmured, and I nodded.

'He didn't stand a chance, ' they offered, and I agreed.

'At least you'll be comfortably off, ' they said awkwardly, once the life insurance payout was confirmed. I dipped my head delicately and said nothing.

Sometimes, I talk to traffic lights.


>> Author's note: Once a week, I ride my bike to work before dawn. The journey includes a final, tedious hill, and I distract myself by pondering stories. When I found myself thanking the traffic signals at the top of the climb, this plot was born.

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