Stephen McQuiggan

Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven and Trip A Dwarf.

OPEN 7 DAYS TIL MIDNIGHT.

Shaw awoke drenched in that all too familiar feeling – it was going to be a slut of a day. He checked his emails and they were the usual round of petty squabbles and cancelled orders. There was no hot water. He stubbed his toe, shouting the anesthetising ‘Fuck!’ so loudly he woke the boy up early and then had to waste precious time getting him ready for school.

Why had Janice suddenly decided to work nights – wasn’t it part of a wife’s contract to look after the children? She was probably having an affair; he had barely seen her in weeks. The bitch would probably end up running off with some guy he despised and, knowing his luck, she’d leave their whining son behind.

The plug on the TV fused, and he broke a string on his guitar strumming along to a song he hated on the radio. The news was all about a new disease that he bore all the early symptoms of. He could hear the wind howl outside as he checked his vulnerable new haircut in the mirror. Tony rang to say he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t give him a lift into work. Payday was ages away and the few loose coins lying in the ashtray were nowhere near enough for a taxi. The ashtray only served to remind him that he had three cigarettes left and this was shaping up to be a thirty cig day at least.

The phone rang, startling him, making him spill his sugarless coffee down his only clean shirt. He lifted the receiver, staring out the window at next door’s cat taking a dump on his roses. Yep, no doubt about it, it was going to be one of those days.

On the other end of the line Janice was pretending to sell him Life Insurance and Shaw struggled to keep his temper: he knew what she wanted, so why didn’t she just get to the point? Her shift would be finishing soon, she was tired, blah blah blah – could he be a sweetheart and pick up some ice cream and milk? It didn’t matter that she passed the damn garage on her way home, or that he might have other things to do.

At least she’d go to bed when she got home, leaving him to seethe in peace before the boy came squawking back from school. He rummaged around the bedroom until he found her handbag; she was definitely up to something, mused Shaw – no woman ever went out without her handbag. Taking her credit card he headed out to buy her damn ice cream (and what kind of morally dubious bitch ate ice cream for breakfast anyway?), only slightly mollified by the realisation that he could now afford some cigarettes too.

Maybe it would be better if she were having a fling, because if she really was working…Shaw winced at the thought of Janice emptying bedpans and wiping crap from wrinkly old arses.  He would have to make sure she had a bath and scrubbed diligently before she made his dinner. It was barely ten o’clock, he mused, and already it was one hell of a doozy of a day.

The sign outside the garage read – Open 7 Days Til Midnight – and for some reason this made his stomach crunch up into a little ball; hadn’t Janice made some crack about it the last time they’d been here together? He had complained about having to stop off for ice cream and she had pointed at the sign and said his temper was open seven days til blah, blah, blah and they’d had a row and…Well, maybe he had slapped her a little. Then she had gone onto nights and he was left to do everything around the house. Women just didn’t grasp the concept of pressure.

Even though there was a queue the silly bitch manning the counter was intent on having a conversation with the equally silly bitch holding up the line: holidays, babies, reality shows, blah, blah, blah. Shaw wanted to rip their empty heads off and chew on the gristly stub of their necks. His ice cream was melting and the print from his newspaper was rubbing off in gypsy shadows on his hands.

He sighed loudly, trying to draw attention to his plight, but the two vacuous little cows had moved on to The X factor and some guy who ‘looked really minging, y’know’ but who, apparently, still ‘sang, like, really good’. Then the giggling; always the giggling – as if their banality was somehow hilarious. Shaw threw down his paper, his ice cream, shouting ‘For fucksake!’ at the top of his voice.

Although the bitch customer with a hinge for a jaw had the decency to look frightened, the one behind the counter carried on her moronic laughter. Outside, with typical glee, the heavens opened and drenched him to the bone.

He could always go into work and show his face for a few hours (at least it would be warm and dry) but after losing the Miller account he felt like everyone was avoiding him; bad luck was infectious, people didn’t like to get too close to a carrier. No, best he go home and keep his misery all to himself.

The house was quiet as he closed the door, the rain puddling from his sodden trainers onto the hardwood floor. Janice was home, he could smell the wildflower perfume she always wore – the one that always made him feel ineffably sad and angry all at the same time – wafting down the stairs.

Shaw wanted to go and wake her and ask her what the hell she thought she was playing at; she’d had him running around half the town whilst she went to bed without even the common courtesy to wait up for him and say ‘hello’. But that would just ignite another row, and part of him realised that one more row might lead to consequences he’d rather not contemplate.

He dried himself off with a tea-towel and stewed in silence in the dusty cold of the living room. Dinner tonight had better be perfect, he fumed, it had better be fucking Michelin Star quality or else…Shaw caught his temper before it could boil over.

Maybe Janice was right, maybe anger had set up shop; maybe his rage was open 7 days til midnight and maybe that was what was really driving them apart.

Christ knows, he had enough stress in his life what with the Miller account going tits up and his son wetting the bed and yapping all the time, he could really do with getting his wife back on side. He smiled as an idea occurred to him: she loved to dance. They used to go out dancing all the time, back in the day. Hell, they even danced together out in the back field before the boy came along; danced for hours barefoot in the grass, then made love under the stars with the dew on their backs.

He could take her out dancing there tonight when the boy was asleep; he could talk her out of going to work for one night and they could rekindle the spark. The smell of wildflowers, her signature scent, assailed him once more as if the spirit of their former love was in total agreement.

His reverie was shattered when the boy came home from school, his face all puckered up from a heavy day’s snivelling, clutching a note from his teacher requesting his parents come in to see her. Parents – that was a laugh and a half; Janice wouldn’t go and he would end up having to sit and smile and sigh through all the god-awful platitudes as the ‘concerned’ teacher wondered how they could be ‘proactive’ in ‘breaking the cycle’ of his son’s constant crying.

He sent the boy out, warning him not to wake his mother and not to return until dinner was ready. He couldn’t remember if the boy had any friends; he was bound to, wasn’t he?

Then again, he was such a joyless sucking wound of a child it was entirely possible he was a total loner. Shaw didn’t care if the boy went to a friend’s house or wandered the streets in solitary despair, just as long as he stayed out of the way and didn’t annoy Janice.

He tried to concentrate on dancing again but his mood was all shot to hell; it really was one of those days.

‘Your mum doesn’t want to see you,’ he told the boy when he returned, soaked through and shivering: ‘She’s busy, so just sit in front of the telly and I’ll bring your dinner in to you when it’s ready.’ Part of him actually enjoyed the look of heartbreak on the boy’s face, but when the child started that crying of his it was all Shaw could do not to lash out and beat the tears out of him once and for all.

He would let the dinner decide. If it was chicken (please let it be chicken, he hadn’t had chicken all week) he would not beat the boy. If it was beef (Christ, he was sick to the back teeth of casseroles) he’d really lay into him. he took a whiff of the scents seeping in from the kitchen, then looked back at the boy cowering on the sofa; it doesn’t smell good for you, Son, he thought, it doesn’t smell good at all.

He brought the boy in some beans on toast (could you believe the fucking cheek of her?), his rage so strong he almost embedded his fingers in the plate. ‘I suggest you eat that upstairs. Mummy and I need to talk.’

The boy’s face was so deeply lined it looked like it was turning into a spreadsheet of the Miller account just to taunt him. ‘Now!’ Shaw yelled, feeling that flame must surely shoot from his throat if he shouted any louder. Then he returned to the kitchen to deal with Janice, to teach her how to dance with the devil, but she was already gone.

He destroyed the kitchen in her absence, breaking pottery in lieu of bones. Spent, he felt hungrier than ever. He rummaged for a bowl that had escaped his wrath and filled it with some Sugar Pops. The cereal crunched in his mouth like a horde of tiny skulls; it was as if he had poured milk over a killing field and then lapped up the charnel with God’s own spoon. He imagined all those tiny brains squishing out over his tongue, all the miniscule eyes peeking down the abyss of his gullet and thinking it Hell; ‘Delicious,’ he declared to the bombsite he stood in.

In the morning he would talk Janice into going out dancing – it was a Saturday and she could have no excuses; the boy could lounge about in his bedroom like he usually did, whilst he whisked her off to the back field and rekindled the magic.

Today had been the wrong day to try and put things right. Today had been cursed, but only in the little things – so, the dinner hadn’t panned out too well, big deal; when all was said and done, did it really matter? He would tidy up the kitchen, then go to bed and have a nice, long, relaxing sleep.

That’s what he needed most (he was so goddamn tired, weary to his very bones) and in the morning he would awaken early, refreshed and free from the petty hassles that had dogged him this day, and then he would prepare everything just right. He would leave out her favourite dress and sprinkle petals down the path to the gate that led out to the back field; how could she fail to be bowled over and melt in his arms?

He checked the weather forecast and tomorrow was going to be a scorcher; things were looking up already. He went upstairs, failing to notice the carnage of the bedsheets as he slipped under the duvet. He fell asleep instantly and found peace for a few hours.

The cuckoo clock awoke him – he could hear its cry, ‘Cuckold! Cuckold!’, mocking him downstairs – but his rage was a dead battery and he refused to let another day slip by in a blur of emotional violence. He dressed himself for dancing and went out into the field.

He loved to dance out here, with the sun like a panting tongue on his bare arms, the butterflies skimming by like shards of his soul unleashed by his rhythm; the dry earth crumbling beneath his calloused toes, his painted nails.

And when he danced he wore Janice’s dress: yes, it was tight around the hips and came up ridiculously short on the legs; yes, he had torn it beneath the arms as he gyrated and, yes, it was stained green in places as he lay writhing on the grass to the music in his head. But what did a few green marks matter on a dress befouled with other, more determined stains?

When he wore the dress he felt closer to her, and when he danced he felt he was her, felt he was watching himself from the vantage of her eyes. The dress was key – maybe because it was hers, or maybe because it was the dress she had been wearing when he had killed her.

He pirouetted, tripping a light fandango over her shallow grave. He felt so close to Janice now and the thought suddenly occurred to him that he could actually be her, all he had to do was let go. Shaw had been a good man, albeit one with a loose grip on his tight temper.

It was no fun being Shaw anymore – too many mistakes, too many damning faults – how easy it would be to just let him drift away.  He felt Janice suffuse him with her tolerance, her happy go lucky soul (Oh, such a relief), and now that he was her there was no more need for guilt.

‘I am Janice,’ she said to the unblinking sun in her gruff manly voice. Shaw had been wrong about so many things but that was understandable, he was too sensitive; was that not what had drawn her to him in the first place? He had always been an open wound, doomed to turn septic, but he had been right about one thing – their son was a leech, a drain on their marriage. It was time she rid herself of that parasite, then she would be free to dance forever. It would be a fitting homage to her poor departed husband.

Even as she opened the gate and entered the backyard she saw the boy at his bedroom window, horror etched on his crying (always crying) face. Constant, perpetual tears: a child composed of misery and saltwater. Well, soon she would give him something to really yap about.

What else did such a child deserve, a child who could drive his father to madness then gaze upon his own mother as if she were a monster?

She smoothed out the creases in her torn and bloodied dress, then scratched the week old stubble on her chin. When she was done she would go out shopping; none of her old clothes fitted anymore. The thought brightened her, but first she had her chores – a woman’s work was, truly, never done.

‘Stay where you are,’ she called up to the boy in her mannish voice; ‘mummy needs a word.’

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