This Funny Thing Called Murder

Fiction
Annabel White


Photo Credit: Jo Naylor/Flickr (CC-by)

At one point or another I wanted to be a painter. But you know that already, don’t you?

It was summer when we met and we were sitting in that room at the back of the church, a woman in a floaty skirt explaining something to us about brushstrokes. I was wearing this dress I’d taken from my sister, my thighs sticking uncomfortably to the red plastic chair underneath me. I can’t remember what you were wearing. Whenever I think about you now you’re always just in overalls. You’re lying on the floor in overalls right now. I’m washing my hands in the kitchen.

I don’t think we spoke on the first day, although we did on the second and by the third you’d splashed a line of red paint across my cheek. We each had a canvas in front of us, perched on some flimsy-looking easel. Your paintings were never very good but I thought it was sweet that you tried. I must have told you that; I can’t think why else you would have splashed me. The others were shocked but I thought it was funny. You laughed and ducked when I tried to do the same to you and right then it felt a bit like love, didn’t it?

On the fourth morning you started waiting for me outside of the church and there I spent the rest of the week, stuck precariously on that ledge of knowing you wanted me and having no clue what to do about it, afraid I might do something to make it all go away. You walked me to the bus stop on the final day and I thought about saying something, I wondered why you hadn’t, and then the words all got stuck in my mouth and I said something vapid like best of luck for the future. You gave me a nod, then I got on the bus.

The painting course was only one week and you were just some guy but everything bad that’s ever happened to me followed quite soon after that so there must be some relevance to it, I suppose.

I was meant to go to art school. I’d been accepted for the following year and there was definitely a moment, some point in the past, before you and us and all of it going wrong, when I thought it might happen, that I’d become everything I wanted to be. But then all that stuff happened with my parents and all that money I’d been counting on disappeared and there I was a year later, still at home, flipping food-truck burgers in a peach-coloured cap and polo shirt. My boss was this dumpy guy called Neil. He was always sweating, even in winter, and mostly he just sat outside smoking cigarettes while I served the customers. Now and then he’d come inside to give a few futile orders, to assert some kind of masculine authority. He told a lot of jokes I made a point not to laugh at and I’d always catch him staring at my boobs.

I was dating a trainee accountant with shiny hair on the day you came by. His name was Aldo and he had these freakishly long arms. His skin was so pale he sparkled in the sun. You hated him, remember? We’d been together exactly two months and I was wondering if he knew, if I should remind him that night it was our two-monthiversary, when I looked up and there you were, asking for a burger with cheddar and onion. Your hair was longer than it was last summer. You were looking at something on your phone as you spoke and I wasn’t sure you recognised me. It wasn’t until I said ‘ketchup’s round the side’ that you looked me in the eye and asked if I was still painting.

‘A bit,’ I said, though really that was a lie because by then my paints had mostly dried up and for some reason I was pretending I couldn’t afford more. A year or so later I would move out of the food truck and into an office where I answered the phone for an insurance firm. We’d be living in that tiny place off Hamilton Court, my hair would no longer smell of processed meat, and soon after that I’d give up painting completely. It was too hard to try and too painful to fail, easier to make up excuses.

‘Are you?’ I asked as I passed you your change.

In your right hand was the burger and in your left hand you were holding a can of Dulux. Your overalls were splattered in duck egg blue. You lifted the can, mockingly. ‘Oh yeah,’ you said. ‘I’ve gone pro.’

I only saw the accountant a few times after that.

 

It was a year later to the day that my grandmother died. We had tickets for a concert, some Scandinavian group you’d loved as a teenager, and we’d rented a room in a fancy-looking hotel round the corner. You were excited because you wanted to stand on a sticky floor in a dark smokey crowd with people bumping into either side of you. You wanted to stare up at the men who’d made the hopeless fifteen-year-old version of yourself feel something. You wanted to feel that again. I was excited because I liked going out with you, because we never did things as a ‘couple’. You hated my friends, they weren’t keen on you and in time I grew tired of their saying I could do better, of listening to their judgments of you masked as concern. What started in bars and parks and public places moved to sofas and bedrooms, and the highs and the lows of our first year together went on like that, concealed behind closed doors. So that’s what the concert meant to me. The publication of what we usually kept so private. Us.

I’d just sat down at my desk, barely had a second to catch up with overnight emails, when the call came through. My sister was driving down, she said. She’d be here tomorrow. My boss gave me the rest of the day off. I called and called but I couldn’t get through to you. I walked out onto the high street. The sky was bright and offensively blue. I listened to a man on a saxophone play a song I couldn’t place. I gave him five pounds, then I walked into Tesco and bought two bottles of Merlot.

I don’t tend to drink wine but my grandmother was an alcoholic and I wanted to do something private, to pay my respects in some kind of way. She mostly drank red, which is the reason I never do. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can’t see her face. I can see her long frail fingers wrapped around a wine-stained glass, the smear of her lipstick on its rim, stale cigarette smoke filling the air. But I can never see her face.

I called you again and you didn’t pick up, so I ran myself a bath and lay in the scalding water, drinking glass after disgusting glass as I cried.

You were annoyed. You couldn’t see why if I was drunk and upset in the bathroom, I couldn’t be drunk and upset in a sweaty bar with Scandi-rock pulsing through us. We couldn’t get our money back on the hotel and you hated it when I drank this much. I cried some more as you poured the remaining half-bottle down the drain and six days later I got even more hammered at the funeral. You were never a good actor and I liked that about you at the start, but you played the part of supportive boyfriend appallingly. A lot more people voiced concerns after that.

 

She wasn’t a rich woman, my grandmother. The house was rented and all the money she had went on her lifestyle. But she owned this mirror, this ridiculous six-foot mirror that she’d decided to leave to me. It was huge and golden with spirals and tiny decorations all over it. Cupid and his arrow, peacock feathers, roses and thorns, random shit like that. I used to stare at it for hours, finding something new and different about it every time I looked.

When I was eight and my sister was nine, we were cartwheeling along the corridor of her house and one of us, I can’t remember who, kicked the mirror and it cracked. It wasn’t a big crack but it wasn’t the kind of crack you could hide either. I blamed my sister and she blamed me and no one ever got to the bottom of it. There was a time when I would have been able to say with certainty which one of us was lying, although somewhere along the way my memory of the truth and my memory of the lie merged together and I don’t know what actually happened. I’m not sure if I started to believe the words coming out of her mouth or the ones coming out of mine.

You didn’t want it. You said it was too grand, too embarrassing. You didn’t want people thinking we had that kind of money, not that anyone ever comes here anyway. The crack’s bigger than it used to be but I remember that one clearly. I remember the night, the fight, your foot in my grandmother’s mirror, the sound of shattered glass. I remember that one was you.

You’re not making any noise in the living room. I’m looking at myself in the mirror and I’m thinking I should probably polish it. I lift up my shirt where the skin underneath is smooth and soft and sometimes beige, sometimes black, sometimes blue. I examine myself in my grandmother’s mirror before I walk back to the living room and sit next to you on the floor. I stroke the side of your cheek and I whisper your name.

 

Do you remember the trip we took to Scotland? The rain didn’t stop and that Volkswagen I’d insisted on renting barely made it five miles. We chugged to a halt on this tiny road overlooking the loch. The afternoon faded into evening and we walked down the path to the rocks to the water. Huge grey clouds hung over the hills and the loch spread out flat and vast in front of us. The water was dark and freezing; you squealed like a child as we waded into it. It was a noise I’d never heard you make, and I laughed and laughed when you did.

That night we slept in the van with the doors wide open, the rain occasionally spitting on our faces. You wrapped me in the blankets, you said you weren’t cold, and when you kissed the tip of my nose, I brushed the hair off your forehead and you smiled. It was nice. We were both happy that night. You told me about the summers you used to spend in the Lake District and the little house on the hill your parents always rented. You told me about the pub in town, the one your dad took you to, the beer he’d let you sip as he said things like don’t tell your mother and there’s a good lad. The women he spoke to were the kind your mother hated and they would squeeze your cheeks and tell you what a heartbreaker you’d turn out to be. ‘Just like your father,’ they’d say and you’d look at your dad, who would have his arm wrapped around some woman you’d never seen before, and you’d smile politely as they laughed.

There were fights, you said, when the two of you got home. You’d go straight to bed but you’d hear them through the wall. She’d shout at him for being a drunk, for keeping you out past your bedtime, for doing who knows what with who knows who. Sometimes you’d hear a slap or a scream or a plate smashing in two though in the morning everything would be in perfect order again. You said those trips were the only happy memories you had from your childhood and when I pictured your spindly ten-year-old legs barely making it to the second ring of the bar stool it almost broke my heart. By your eleventh birthday your father was dead and by your twelfth your step-dad had moved in and he wasn’t the type to take his step-kid to the pub, much less the Lake District. Then three or four years went by, you moved out of the house and you never saw the inside of it again.

We saw your mother that one time in town, a couple of years after Scotland. She smiled with her mouth not her eyes and said that you looked well. You spoke to the ground not to her and before she walked away she passed you a couple of notes from her purse and told you to look after yourself. You were in an awful mood that night. I bought the wrong type of milk and we were all out of tea bags and you told me you wished you’d never met me. I said that I could have done so much better, that I should have married the accountant, that I’d be rich and happy and somewhere far away if I hadn’t been weighed down by you. I don’t know what you said next, if you said anything at all. I was washing the dishes and I remember your reflection behind me in the kitchen window, your hand in my hair, the look on your face as you yanked me to the ground. The zip on your jeans and the cold hard kitchen underneath me. It would have been three years ago now.

The next place we moved to was bigger. There was an extra room, a tiny windowless space off the kitchen. The estate agent made some uncomfortable comment about kids and the two of us looked anywhere but each other. You came home one night with an easel, just like the ones from that course we once took, and you put it in the middle of the room. I tried to paint, I really did, but something inside of me just couldn’t. You bought oil paints in every colour with money we didn’t have and on the evenings you weren’t around, I stayed in that room, staring at the blank canvas.

One night you came home, you were drunk and in one of those moods where you looked at me like I was the best thing that had ever happened to you. On other nights I was a dumb bitch, a waste of space, so ugly no one would ever want me. But that night you talked about going away, you wanted to take me to France, you wanted to know what the world looked like from the top of the Eiffel Tower. You opened the door to the spare room; I always tried to keep it shut. We were laughing as you undressed me and I stood behind the easel as you painted my body onto canvas.

‘Look,’ you said as you pushed the brush into blobs of pink and white and brown. ‘It’s easy.’

The painting looked nothing like me. My breasts all distorted, my thighs too wide. I refused to let you hang it. We did it a few more times though. We’d take turns. Sometimes you lay out on the sofa, your legs spread and your penis served like something on a platter. It was easy to paint you like that, just impossible to paint anything else. The naked portraits are hidden under the bed at the moment. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them.

 

You’re still warm to touch and I’m thinking I should probably call someone. You look strangely peaceful, lying there like that. It’s the closest I’ve felt to you in months. Tonight was different in so many ways. I’ve fractured my wrist a few times now, got punched in the face at least twice. The bruises on my stomach always heal and I hardly see the ones on my back.

But it was the first time you had your hand round my neck and in that second your eyes locked in mine, there was no air in my lungs and I thought fuck you really might do it. You didn’t, of course, you don’t have it in you but I couldn’t wait around until you did.

You were so drunk you passed out on the floor. It was easy after that. All those years I’ve kept the carpet so clean, it’s funny to think about now. All those fights that started when you trailed mud through our house or smashed cups of tea onto the floor. All those hours I spent on my knees, scrubbing stains out of it. Now the blood pools out in bright red splodges, running like rivers through the thread of the carpet. I dip my index finger into the source, the pool by your neck, and I draw a thin smear of blood across the cream fibres. I do it again and again until brushstrokes of blood go back and forth in circles around us. Your face is blank and you’ve definitely stopped breathing. The room is splattered with raindrops of red and in a way it sort of looks beautiful.

One might even call it art.

pencil

Annabel White is a writer based in London. Her fiction has been published in Mslexia and Brilliant Flash Fiction. My non-fiction has featured in The Release, Twentyhood Magazine and Sick Love Zine. Email: annabelwhite123[at]gmail.com

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