The Marmalade Moustache by Katey Batten

Steve would always start with high hopes. ‘I’m not well,’ he might announce at the breakfast table, thin body alert, waiting for a sympathetic response. Sometimes he followed up with a deliberate cough, sharp and short. Then, with no response, three longer ones, possibly with a sigh at the end, trying them all out for effect. His wife would carry on masticating, blobs of orange marmalade bobbing up and down in her moustache.

He was rarely ill and it annoyed him. His wife collected ailments like trophies, going on about lungs and backs, boils and nerves, getting them out and polishing them as soon as someone visited: ‘Doctor said it was the biggest one he’s ever seen,’ or, ‘It was putrid and oozing pus… More rice pudding, Steve?’

She would usually announce ailments with a theatrical flourish: ‘I have a rash on my thigh!’ Sometimes, his opinion was sought, ‘Steve, why is my elbow green?’ Then there were the more foreboding announcements: ‘I believe Doctor will want to do tests this time.’

Occasionally, he learned of her latest disorder by over-hearing her on the phone to Maureen: ‘Well, my eye was dreadful, an infection I think, all green and swollen, so I rang the doctors and can you believe this, they told me to go to the opticians as they “don’t do eyes anymore!” … I bet you, next time, they’ll be saying they don’t do kidneys and what would we do then? Go to the butchers?’

Early on in the marriage, Steve had cared. Abandoning his gardening and rescheduling plumbing clients, he had rushed to her side, examined, tutted and deliberated on courses of action. A few decades later, his response time had slowed but he still contributed to the sense of emergency, rang the surgery or popped her up to the hospital. Recently, his mind had started to rebel but his body still responded – years of obedience honed to perfection.

Steve was both grudgingly admiring of his wife and deeply resentful. He had never had a good lie-down in hospital, a well-earned rest chatting to nurses, eating good food and lots of sleep. Instead, he’d had to do the ferrying back and forth, carrying chocolate and silly magazines, fighting for car spaces and dealing with recalcitrant car park machines with his fingers too big to plug in the numbers and his eyes too old to see them.

At seventy, he decided it was time to take centre stage. Coughing was too tame, he needed to be really ill. He chomped his way through green mouldy bread, old rice puddings and high smelling ham. He waited and waited, but nothing happened. Next, he tried accidents! At first, it was merely trapping his fingers in doors and stepping on rusty nails, but eventually he progressed to swaying at the top of the garden ladder while ostensibly pruning branches. Disappointingly, he did not have the courage to hurl himself off.

To Steve’s dismay, these attempts only resulted in his having to driving himself to hospital and a bandage or two. Looking longingly at the corridors leading to beds and nurses, he would be bustled into his parka coat and cheerfully shown his way to the exit with a, ‘Say hello to your wife from me. She’s such a soldier!’ ringing in his ears.

It became apparent that things had to change. She had to go. He let the word dance around at the periphery of his imagination, accompanied by images of a peaceful table loaded with cooked breakfasts and no marmalade in sight. He began to feel surprised when he saw his wife’s floral blouses billowing into view and would freeze and wait for her to pass, the echoes of her instructions following her phlegmatic form down the hall: ‘Try to not clutter the place up, Steve!’

When the package arrived from Amazon one wet Wednesday, he looked at it in surprise. It had his name on it but he couldn’t remember ordering it. He opened it and stared at the two hundred metre pack of clear nylon craft thread, wondering why on earth he had bought it.

After wrestling the thread out of the packaging, he was mightily impressed with its invisibility and strength. There was a picture on the packaging demonstrating the thread holding up a one-kilogram weight and Steve’s engineering mind immediately set out to test it. The thread held up plants in the garden and pulled together a fence panel. Yes, it seemed very strong. He found himself at the top of the stairs, tying it between the bannisters at ankle height on either side of the top step. Round and round he wrapped it, and round and round again. He leaned back and marvelled at the sight. The thread glistened very slightly but, if you had old eyes and were in a hurry, you wouldn’t see it.

He heard his wife humming in the bedroom. He looked at the thread and decided that he had better remove it immediately, or a nasty accident could occur. The humming became louder, and Steve realised that his wife was crossing the bedroom floor to the door. He looked at the thread. His wife bustled into view with some dried flowers and he stepped forward.

‘Get out of the way, Steve.’

Well trained, he stepped back. Barely glancing at him, his wife swept past, tripped over the thread and sailed through the air, her flowered blouse billowing, a butterfly in flight. Her body landed and Steve winced at the bangs, bashes and bumps that followed. The fabric flowers fluttered to the floor, scattering cheerful petals over pieces of splintered banister.

That thread certainly could cause a nasty accident.

He craned his head down the stairs, ‘Are you alright, my precious?’ he enquired of his wife’s inert body.

She nestled peacefully in her torn blouse amongst the petals and wood splinters. The stairs might need some DIY later, he noted. His wife liked it when he did DIY.

’Do you need me to ring the doctors … or Maureen?’

There was no response, but that was quite normal.

He unwound the thread from the top banister, and put it back into the packaging. Someone really should tell Amazon that this stuff could be quite lethal in the wrong hands. He was definitely going to return it.

Hours later, as he lay in the hospital bed, the clean starched sheets enveloping him in a cocoon of safety, he felt quite relieved. Apparently, he had collapsed after discovering his wife’s awful accident and everyone had been very sympathetic to his trauma. There was a succession of cups of hot sweet tea, comforting words, and kindly pats from burly ambulance crew. Even Maureen had been pleasant, ringing him and offering to come around later to look after him should he need it. He wasn’t sure about that. Maureen had a penchant for marmalade too.

Katey Batten nestles in Guildford surrounded by her fabulous husband, family and friends. She spends her time opening tins of pet food and stomping through muddy puddles. She is also busy guiding two older teenagers through the mysteries of life such as operating washing machines and showers. Katey writes short stories and is working on her first novel.