Updated on May 24, 2015
This was a brief writing exercise from my MA: write a story that gives the impression something terrible is about to happen, but don’t say what the terrible thing is.
She was in a hurry that morning because I forgot to set the alarm clock before we got into bed. Ever since our wedding day, the natural delegation of trivial tasks that occurs between cohabiting couples had furnished her with sole responsibility for making the bed, operating the DVD player (something that I have still not learned to do) and checking for answer phone messages. It was up to me to take out the bins, purchase milk when we were running low and set the alarm clock. I had set the alarm that had woken us for our honeymoon flight and for every work-day and day-trip ever since; undoubtedly I would one day become the morning sentinel for bottled breakfasts and, eventually, the school run. On this day however, my failure in the timekeeping duty, thanks to a particularly fatal bout of absentmindedness, caused us to oversleep by half an hour.
This was the word that woke me, as my wife hurled herself out of bed and ran for the bathroom. I propped myself up on my elbow and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand. The clock read 8:30; I seized it and shook it a little for no good reason. Perhaps the alarm system had broken, or the battery had run out, but no, the second hand continued its monotonous round and the switch marked ‘ALARM SET’ was unmistakably in the off position. I flicked it to on and then immediately to off again, as the clock’s scream filled the bedroom, all the more piercing because it knew it was too late.
She came back into the bedroom, hair wet, and her lip curled when she saw me still in bed. As she began to dry her hair and lay out the shirt she had ironed the night before, I followed in the wrong direction the trail of her damp footprints on the landing carpet. When I returned to the bedroom five minutes later the footprints were gone, and so was she. There was the sound of the kettle boiling downstairs; she had not made the bed, nor had she opened the curtains. Later, when I stood in our empty room, I noticed that the rumpled covers looked like frozen breaking waves.
The kettle clicked as soon as I approached it, so I made the tea and brought it to her elbow at the table. She looked up and offered me a piece of toast. “Stupid alarm clock”, she said. A beam of sunlight fell across the table cloth and lit up the skin of her wrist. We had each neglected one of our roles (how kind of her to leave the bed unmade!), all was forgiven. I cut the toast and gave half of it back to her. Within seconds it was scattered crumbs.
She rose from the table and kissed me on the cheek.
“I might just make it,” she said.
As she was putting on her autumn coat I remembered the envelope she had propped on her bedside table. She had told me not to let her forget it.
“Anna’s card,” I said.
Feet on the stairs, running along the landing, coming to a stop on the floorboards above my head. I should have offered to get it for her, while she wrapped herself up, but I knew she would have been too impatient waiting for me. Better to feel you are doing something, rather than standing on the sidelines and watching. I picked up her bag and opened the front door to help make her getaway quicker. What was she doing? A dull thud and for a few seconds I thought she had fallen over, perhaps hit her head, but there she was at the top of the stairs holding the card. Already some of the pins in her hair had come loose.
“Bloody thing fell down the back!” Her fingers touched mine as she took her bag and wheeled out the door into cold sunshine. I followed her as far as the doorstep.
The street was quiet that morning, everybody else having already left for work: they had remembered to set their alarm clocks. A white cat stalked along the top of the neighbour’s brick wall, weaving between flowerpots and a glinting watering can, before jumping onto the neatly trimmed lawn and disappearing through a hole in a fence.
“Have a good day!” I called down the drive to her.
In the distance, behind the rush of leaves and rumble of the nearby river, I heard a siren and the sound of an engine.
She was absorbed in the car door. The key was sticking again, today of all days, and her face contorted in annoyance as she tried to turn it all the way.
“Do you need me to…?”
With her back to me she waved, and a few seconds later the door was open. I checked my watch as she got in: five past 9. She should have been arriving at her office. A gentle breeze blew all the way down our long street from the direction of the church and the motorway. A car turned onto our road quite fast. The cat had reappeared and was now sniffing through a pile of abandoned child’s toys on the driveway of the house across the road. The couple who lived there had a toddler who often sat outside and played by himself. The cat knocked over a plastic horse and cart with a crash, spilling its rag doll rider, damp with morning dew, onto the warm tarmac.
My wife rolled down her window and called out goodbye, stretching out her arm in a farewell wave. She switched on the radio and the sound filled the car and spilled out through the open window. The other car was already a few doors down from us. As she released the handbrake I said something to her that made her look at me and laugh. She reversed quickly down the drive, the radio-music still beating and I called again but this time she did not hear me. I shouted and the cat ran away as she backed out into the road.