She had often thought of killing him.
The reverend had joked about that once in a sermon on marriage. “I said to a parishioner once, Have you ever been tempted to divorce your wife?” and he replied, “No, but I’ve thought of murdering her plenty of times.” The congregation had chuckled knowingly.
It was a lesson on the hard work needed for the long haul of marriage, the necessity of compromise, the endurance of hard times. Taken from the husband’s point of view of course. No-one jokingly asked a wife if she’d been tempted to divorce her husband.
“Marriage is a marathon,” the reverend had said. “Your legs hurt, our body is in meltdown, yet you keep going. And at the end you look back with pride and declare ‘Yes, I did that.’”
Not that the podgy reverend had ever run a marathon, married though he is.
She often looked back.
When she did, she saw a dust heap, with tattered rags and strips of ripped plastic fluttering in the wind, gulls arcing above hunting for scraps in the uneven detritus of their lives. There was a stench of putrescence too, like all garbage heaps had. At different times she saw different artefacts of her marriage protruding above the mounds – their first couch, the red roof tiles, an ageing palm from a dismal beach holiday. How nauseating it all was.
She told herself her task was not to rue her circumstances. She was well off, compared to many in the world, like those she had seen on their trips to Asia. That poor leper woman who had stuck her stump leg into the window of the taxi. No, she was well off. She had good clothes, a solid roof above her head, food security. Access to good health care. She was alive, too, a more philosophically minded friend had told her once: mere sentience is a privilege, no matter how deep one’s misery. Endure the compromise and call it happiness.
You’ve got to accentuate the positive, she said to herself. Eeeeliminate the negative. Don’t think about his affairs, his sweats, his demands, his sporting priorities, his loud voice when she protested, his raised hand, the tears, being told to get on with her job, how lucky she was, not to get ideas above her station, not to compete with the men.
In her effort to forget, she brought to mind his long weekends on business, the reduction in housekeeping funds, the jewellery he bought for someone else – oh yes, she had seen his credit card bill and on one occasion the actual necklace itself – she had ironed his shirts so he could enjoy a night out with her, or them. She knew there were a few, but she was not sure if at once or in succession.
She detested his total lack of engagement in the children’s upbringing. “I work to pay for the school fees,” he said, repeatedly. When their daughter Jenny got divorced: “These are not my problems.” Their son Angus had left one night, after one hell of a fight. Her husband had screamed at him to get out of the house. And ordered her not to contact him ever again. She tried of course, surreptitiously, but had no luck making any contact.
So it was just the two of them. Empty, empty nesters. He was at the table, scratching his unshaven chin, picking his teeth, and reading the paper. He called for tea. She made it. He called for toast. She made it. She turned her back on him when he raised his face with a sour grimace, to indicate the toast was too cold, or too dry, or too thin or thick with jam. Or, in line with his cardiologist’s advice, she had used too little butter.
At these moments she often thought of killing him.
She kept the kitchen knives sharp. Or, more precisely, he demanded they be sharp, as part of a proper kitchen. Not that he ever used them, apart from when he carved the Sunday roast, patriarch he wanted to be. There was one particularly good one. It was a medium sized knife with a very pointed end. German made, it was a wedding gift from long ago, something else that had endured all these years. It was very versatile. You could use it to cut meats, veggies, anything. She liked to watch the knife sharpener man when he did that one. It suited her hand and size.
She often wondered if her imaginings about plunging the knife into his neck and chest would ever take hold, whether she might think she only imagined herself doing it, but was in actual fact doing it. She wondered if she’d wake to find the dream had become reality. That unsettled her. She wondered how dissociated she had become from her self, how she could splice her mind and its perceptions from her actions.
Had he really had affairs? Was he really the oppressive chauvinist she thought he was? Or was this just a perception? Was she really a housewife stuck in a dreary, disconnected and bullied life, or was she in reality a happy contributor to the suburban health of the nation? She knew she really was cooking a roast just now, but she observed herself doing it as she did, with a mixture of detachment and curiosity. Look, this is how I live. This is what I perceive myself doing. I wake up, I stretch, I make my husband breakfast, I dream of a past forgone, I fear what the day might bring, I yearn that it will bring more than it does. I keep the knives sharp.
She wondered, if she did something authentic for once, something real, would she observe herself doing it, or be so absorbed in the act that she was unaware of what it was. Would she watch the knife slice through the jugular (yes, she had researched how best to do the job), or would she watch herself watching the knife slice through the jugular?
Doing an authentic act – one which expressed her desires and state of being – was a foreign experience to her, so lost was she in the life the two of them had forged. Or that he had forged and she had gone along with. She wouldn’t be sure if she was just seeing the knife slide in or seeing it in her mind’s eye.
She did wonder if she was being melodramatic. This was just another ordinary Saturday morning. There was no special trigger that might compel her to an authentic act with the knife. Knives. (There were several them, all in razor sharp condition, in the utensil drawer or the knife block). So there was no particular need to kill him today. It was nothing more than she had had to endure all thirty-nine years of their married life.
But, she then argued to herself, do I need a trigger? Why can’t I just rely on the slow build up of bile over the years? Until one day it bursts. That can happen. There is no one big trigger, it’s just the repetition of the same stultifying tedium over and over again.
Authenticity, she decided, would require choice. Reacting to a trigger would be an act of raw passion, but responding to the slow aggregation of misery would be an act of conscious acknowledgement of her state – a declaration if you will, that, yes my perception of myself as a downtrodden house frau whose soul had been stripped of its fabric was correct. I am not a blithe cog in the machinery of pleasant suburbia, but a residue, left from the ruination of intimacy and hope. That’s what I am. That’s what the truth is.
She knew the weight of the knives, that was real. They were true. She had carved and chopped so many different meats in her life that she knew the best knife for each cut, the force needed to slice the muscle, the ease with which the steel can be manoeuvred to best effect. Yes, that was real, and she was less conscious of herself attesting to that reality than she was of perceiving the rest of her life. She knew their knives and their potential – their worth. She didn’t know her life or its potential, or worth.
She had to ask herself, though, why not just divorce him? Despite the reverend’s misogynistic little quip.
There were many reasons of course. Chief among them was the furore that would follow. Could she endure the months of his rant and rage that would inevitably follow? It would take an enormous toll. Murder on the other would get rid of the problem in one foul (easy?) swoop (or swipe). There would be legal repercussions of course, the arrest and trial and probable media attention, but it would at least cut the cancer from her being and set her free to endure the rest. She felt she could abandon herself to that, as she had so often abandoned herself to events that diminished her. She would let the charges flow and observe the passing parade of lawyers and prison steel and blue police, much like the detached way she had watched the doctors when she had her cataracts done.
Divorce on the other hand would require strength, and she doubted if she had the strength within her. The strength to persevere through the process, to pursue her claims, to make him, if not understand his arrogance and narcissism, at least suffer their consequences. Did she have that courage?
Courage, she thought, might be more authentic, more representative of what I am. Or if not what I am, what I want to be. But succumbing to the bloodlust of the knife was a great and easy temptation.
Poverty and isolation were other considerations of course. She knew too many wives who had no funds besides what their husbands provided, and if they left the marriage, would be destitute. Those that did often found their husbands had manipulated the finances to secure their position and could afford better lawyers for the fight. She asked herself, could she find the strength to not only risk the fight, but end up impoverished whether she won or lost?
She reminded herself, her daughter had got divorced, so that was a precedent. But her daughter was much younger, and had a future ahead of her. Sometimes it seemed the younger generation almost expected divorce, and so catered for it up front, even if unwittingly. By contrast, divorce at her late age carried much greater risks. She had not been employed for years. Would she find a job? And even if she did, would she have the energy to return to the work force? And even then, would the wage be enough to cover her cost of living?
The horns of a dilemma. Divorce, or murder? It was as blunt as that. Delayed gratification with high potential for impoverishment, or instant gratification with high certainty of imprisonment? The hard or easy road? Or the third option – just keep on sticking it out?
Which was more authentic, more true to herself?
She selected the middle-sized knife for the job. She thought the large carving knife would be too cumbersome. She pulled it out of the knife block. At sixteen centimetres long, it was more than adequate for the job, but comfortably so. She ran her thumb gently across the blade and felt its sharpness. She admired the black handle with the three silver nibs on the side, and the sparse light that reflected from the blade. She smiled at the familiarity of her grip, the ease with which her fingers encircled the handle.
She picked up the large envelope on the bench next to her, and tested the blade on its seal as she walked over to her husband. It sliced evenly along the paper edge, without any tear or rough edge. A perfect cut.
She flung the contents of the envelope on to the table and stood over her husband holding the knife aloft. He looked up.
“What?” he said.
“They are divorce papers,” she said. “I’m divorcing you.”