Short Story : Behind The Curtains

She pulled the curtains back ever so slightly and peeked out onto the cobbled streets. She stepped back from the curtains and looked the other way looking out for anything suspicious. Things out of place. Signs or symbols that might hint at a good or bad day ahead. She stepped back from the windows and then retired into her armchair sofa. The rest of the room was dark, and all the other curtains were drawn. It was eleven o clock in the morning and the sunlight outside was begging to be let in but that couldn’t be done until 12 o clock.

There was no rhyme or reason as to why this needed to be done but this was one of the myriads of checks and balances that Susan went through each day as part of her religious ritual. It never appeared religious to her, but it was. The way she had placed all furniture in the room to be symmetrically opposite each other. How each piece of ceramic pottery or brass statue was placed two inches away from the end of the shelves or tables on which they sat. And how the checking of the furniture and ornaments required an early rise each day.

The only thing missing were any references to a religious god or deity. Susan had no faith. Routine and order were her faith. Once she had checked and double checked everything in the house, she would go about preparing to get ready for the day. On her coffee-table lay a white business card and stamped in black letters was the name Michael Davidson: Grief Detective.

Michael lay on his bed. His quilt and bed sheets were wrapped unceremoniously around and through his legs. He slept in a position that said much booze had been consumed last night. There was an ashtray on the bedside table that looked like it belonged to a tramp. The ashtray sat in front of a photo of his long dead wife. The irony was astonishing. A man whose job was to help people through their own grief was still consumed with grief about his wife that had passed away ten years ago. But it was more than that. Michael seemed consumed with the grief of nearly everyone passing away. His last shrink said he couldn’t work out if it was death anxiety or a morbid way for Michael to seek attention. This hurt Michael and naturally he let the shrink go. Not because he didn’t know what he was doing but because he was too good and had hit a nerve.

Michael was great at seeking help from others but not so great at seeking help for himself. He was a car crash that had happened again, and again, and again. But today he was feeling good. He had received the call last week from the lady in grey and had to admit she had been the most beautiful, fragile woman he had worked with to date.  

Michael never mixed business with pleasure but found it difficult to manifest the cool exterior he was supposed to when visiting Susan in her home. Most clients were broken in a visible and obvious way, but Susan showed no signs in the way she dressed but the attention to detail when it came to her house and her insistence on regimentally checking everything, showed classic signs of death anxiety. Susan was an astute aware woman who was watching every move Michael made and looked as if she was analysing every single word he spoke.

 It was always a tougher case when the client had awareness about their own condition and in many ways one would have to play a careful game trying to unpick the remnants of psychological traits that had been taken on while the client continued to hide and add others.

Today would be their first walk and proper talk. Susan only went outside of the house at 12, 3 and 9 o’clock. Her first outing would be for two hours. The mid-afternoon stroll was 45 minutes and the 9’o clock time was a brief 15 minutes. Not a second more or less. She kept a keen eye on her watch. If she erred over the seconds a resultant panic attack would occur. She had arranged for Michael to call the bell at least five minutes before, and of course not a second less.

Michael made sure he had risen earlier and was waiting down the street leaning against a lamppost. He was unsure about leaning against the lamp post as it made him feel like a stereotyped character from a post-war movie. All he needed was a cigarette and a three-quarter length jacket. The cigarette he had. The jacket he didn’t. His kind of jacket was a black leather jacket that middle-aged men wore when they wanted to appear cool. He refused chinos and the expected checked shirt. He swore blind he would try to hold off from wearing the age-appropriate stuff even if it meant he would end up looking like a poor man’s Mick Jagger.

He flicked the cigarette into the bin opposite him and it bounced of the litter fine sign and into the bin. That made Michael feel cool. He decided on a walk as he felt the environment didn’t quite match a saunter. He sauntered in Central London. Paris. Rome. He walked briskly in suburbia.

He reached the door and checked his watch. He was three minutes early and knew that he would have to hang around idly for two minutes feeling like a local pervert or worse still a poorly dressed Jehovah’s witness. The curtains across the road twitched. Either a wealthy older woman, bored and lonely while her CEO husband played Golf after a business lunch, or an elderly lady or man bored shitless with retirement and counting the seconds till death came.

Michael shuddered. Death. The biggest bummer ever invented. Why oh why did he end up in this profession. The door suddenly opened which made Michael jump and owing to Susan’s fragile condition she screamed and jumped too. Michael calmed himself down and raised his hand for reassurance.

‘Sorry Susan. It’s ok. I’m here for our first visit. It’s Michael.’

She composed herself as well. She was about 5ft 2 and very svelte-like. Her hair fell in a low bob just above her shoulders which he noticed were showing before she placed the jacket on.  Again, the grey dress. A white cream jacket, and this time red shoes. She also had pearls around her neck and a pearl bracelet. She dressed as if she was a very wealthy and classy woman and Michael wondered about her choice of residence. It didn’t seem her. Quite boring.

Maybe the entire house and neighbourhood was a kind of safety net. Each plot dived into the same parts. Each house looking the same. With a green carpet of grass out front the only connection to nature. She stepped outside the house and looked both ways. Michael stood around wondering what to do next, but the problem was answered when Susan placed her arms through his and said, ‘Let’s walk this way.’

Michael’s chest puffed with pride as he walked but he tried to readjust himself and appear relaxed so as not to show that he was too impressed by her presence. She walked with a little uncertainty and he could see her eyes darting to the left and right as if on the lookout for some spook or stalker. Her condition forced her to squeeze his arm a little bit which made him feel happy. It also brought back memories of his wife and the love they had for each other. 

They continued to walk down the street for a few minutes not saying much until Susan stopped, ‘You see him over there. What does he want?’ Michael looked across the street to see a man leaning against a lamp post reading a newspaper. He looked like the burly type wearing slack blue jeans and a beige waist length jacket. There was nothing imposing or suspicious about him unless you counted the idea of anyone reading a newspaper during a day as grey as this. The man did look over briefly then folded his paper and walked away.

‘You see. You see. It happens to me all the time. Come let’s walk quickly to the cafe.’

Susan tugged at my arm and we were off at a quick pace further down the street. The street opened onto a small village green with empty benches and a poorly organised cricket match going on with the local youth.

‘I think you can slow down Susan. It’s probably nothing.’

But she continued walking quickly. Michael could sense her breath was quickening and hoped she was not about to go into a panic attack. Luckily, the cafe was not too far away. I quickened my pace to match hers.

Michael opened the door for her and as soon as she went in one of the waitresses recognised her but didn’t say anything. She just walked over to a table in the far corner and pulled out a chair. No looks were exchanged as Susan started to take of her jacket and sat down in the chair pulling the menu up to her face in almost a comical fashion. Michael nearly laughed as if he hadn’t seen the palpable expression of fear on her face and the modest smile coming from the waitress.

‘Thanks.’ I said to the waitress as I sat down composing myself. I could see she was breathing quickly, and I thought the best thing to do was just order a drink and distract her from the panic.

‘I suppose a coffee is out of the question?’ I offered a smirk but was met with a stern look so dropped it.

‘Actually, I do like a coffee. Black no milk or sugar. As you can see, I’m sweet enough.’ She smiled at Michael.

‘Paranoid, but sweet.’ and she smiled at Michael and Michael was taken back and blushed.

‘Not so tough after all Mr Detective. That’s alright, vulnerability in a man is a good thing.’ Michael composed himself and ordered a black coffee for Susan and an espresso for himself.

The waitress brought the coffees to the table and placed them down. They both reached for their cups and there was a quiet moment in between. The cafe was a very neat and tidy place. The kind you would expect in a town like this. Most of the other people drinking were about ten years older than Susan. Another oddity that added weight to my argument that she was looking for safety and comfort after her experience with grief. I thought I would ask her question to test my hypothesis.

‘May I ask you how long you have lived here?’

Susan continued to look at Michael for a while as if she was trying to read his thoughts.

‘Since my partner passed away. And yes, I agree that the monotonous visual appeal of the place drew me in after his death. I seek safety and reassurance in the world because I no longer have it in my life. But you are no different Michael, except where I seek safety in the bland banality of suburban mediocrity, you seek apparent danger to rebel against the uncomfortable feelings you can’t express.’

Michael pulled the coffee cup closer to his face and put on his poker face. She knew it all, but he was convinced that she was in a worse state than him.

‘You seem more trapped than me. I go when I want to you are trapped by your routine and need for order.’

Her face dropped. She didn’t like that, and he didn’t want to turn this conversation into a you against me.

‘Yes, I seek order Michael because I fear death but want to live. You care so little you dream of being killed. It’s not that you fear death but more like you don’t know how to live and dream of dying.’

Michael didn’t like that at all. He finished the last remnants of his coffee and got up to leave. He wasn’t too sure who was playing who.

‘It was you who called me. I never asked for an analysis.’

He was showing anger now. ‘Maybe. Maybe not.’

She got up and pulled a gift box from her bag and handed it to him. It appeared heavy and he took the parcel.

‘Now walk me home as it is nearly three o’clock.

Michael got up feeling unsure and wondering what was in the box.

‘Is this just a scam?’

‘No Michael it isn’t. Take the parcel and go.’

Michael walked her home in silence. His heart was beating faster than it should and was pissed to find someone more aware of him than he was of them. They walked to her door and she kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye. Michael walked home quickly. When he got home, he couldn’t wait to open the parcel.

He moved the ashtray to the side and laid the parcel on the table. He unwrapped the gift like a greedy child at Christmas and inside was a leather-bound case. He undid the golden clasp that kept the box closed and lifted the lid. Inside was a gun and to the right were six bullets. Michael let out a gasp of air. There was also a note inside.

 ‘I may fear living but I want to live. You however dream of death. So, go on and do it if you don’t want to live. But if you do decide to live. Come and see me again.’  

Michael pulled the gun from the box and picked up six of the bullets. He placed the bullets into the chambers and then spun round the barrel. He sat down on the bed, but something wasn’t right. He placed the gun to his head, but he just felt sick with fear. He looked at the photograph of his ex-wife. It had been ten years since she had died and in that time he had helped a lot of people get through their grief. He got up of the bed and went into the kitchen. He placed on his favourite morose tracks. He grabbed the bottle of scotch that he had in the cupboard took down a tumbler and poured himself a large glass. The large gulped he took burned his throat and then he summoned up all the Dutch courage he had.

He went back to his bed and raised the gun to his head. He pulled the trigger and bang! Michael fell to the side of the bed. He pulled the trigger again, and again nothing. They were blanks. He laughed hard and then took another swig off scotch. He lay back on his bed and then he heard a beep as a new message arrived on his phone. He picked up his phone and read the text.

‘Are you ready to live?’

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