Jul/Aug 2004  •   Fiction

Down the Plughole

by Alexandra Fox

I've got a riddle for you, Malcolm. What's about ten inches long, fairly straight with just a bit of a kink about it, darker at the tip? Can you tell me? Do you know?

I can tell you, because it never got where it was aiming for. It never got down into that dark, wet hole, that welcoming gape, that mouth with its slimy walls.

No. It's here. Look at it, Malcolm. A hair. A long, bleached, brassy, dark-rooted hair, wound from the plughole on a nailbrush. Now who could it belong to?

It's not yours, is it? I mean, you've still got some hair, but I'd say it's rather on the grey side and cut short so you can pretend to really stupid people that the bald patches are where the clippers just went in a bit too close.

It's not mine. I sacrificed mine 15 years or so ago. I couldn't get the kids off to school, get myself ready for work, cook you a full, hot breakfast, and deal with rollers or blow-drying every morning, could I? When the hot water ran out after all your morning showers, who was always the one who didn't get to wash her hair? Remember complaining when my hair got in your mouth in bed and twisted round your tongue?

It isn't Jenny's. I might be a slut and a slob and a useless cow at housework, but she last came home to see us at Christmas, and even I don't wait three months before cleaning the bath. Anyway, last time we saw her, she had red hair, or was it dead black that time, and short and spiky to go with the studs in her eyebrows.

It's not the cleaner's. You never let me have one.

So. Who's left?

I go away for one weekend. One solitary weekend in 15 years, taking your son—our son—with me to watch the nationals—and you wouldn't come, I wonder whyever not—and I come back to a hair in the fucking plughole.

What did she think of our bathroom, then, with its crooked tiles and lines of fallen grout on the floor? Was she impressed by your DIY skills, or did you tell her I did it?

And how did that hair get into the bath, anyway? Did you sit in there, crammed together, toes caressing one another's intimate places, poking, swishing in the warm water, gliding with the soap, transfixed by excitement against the cold enamel? However did you fit? She must be very small not to cause an overflow; you and I would never manage it. Suddenly, you're twice the man you used to be, as Paul McCartney never said. Your firm fit, 12-stone days are long behind you; it's all flab and droop now. Maybe she found it was a change, a challenge, a new experience.

Or did you do it standing up, with the shower pumping its half-hearted lime-blocked spray and the pathetic drip-dripping from the underside of the head where nobody's bothered to clean it out? Did you have her up against the tiles? Did you pull that rickety glass door across the bath to keep the water off the floor, that cheap-etched Perspex? If I look at that glass in daylight, will I see an imprint of your spotty buttocks grease-embossed against its dripstreaks, like the feathered shadow of a pigeon that kills itself in a plate-glass window?

Did you even bother with the shower door? If I look up at the kitchen ceiling, will that yellow watermark have grown broader? Tom's so careless about using the bathmat, isn't he?

I thought you were such a good husband when I got home. You'd run the dishwasher and put it all away, changed the bed, even done some washing, tidied the kitchen, vacuumed the dining room—though we hardly ever use it—even bought flowers for me. How you must've fucking laughed.

That hurts, Malcolm.

I hardly dare investigate.

Take these candle-holders, for instance, here on the dining-room table, the unexpectedly polished mahogany table. If I look closely, there's blue wax in the bottom.

I'm turning into a bit of a detective here. Blue wax... daffodils and blue iris in a blue carafe... yes, willow pattern dinner plates, and hey, presto, here they are, unused since your fiftieth fucking birthday party, but shiny on top of the pile, no dust. Oh, yes.

You sat here at the table, didn't you—I can see the placement of the chairs—not across the table from each other, that would be too far apart, but close together on the corner, knees brushing, accidental hands back-touching, showing her that almost-profile that you try to use in photographs, because your nose doesn't look so big from that angle.

Did she cook for you? I can't bear to lift the surface crap out of the wheelie bin and look for take-away cartons for two, but somehow I'd rather think you shared a carry-out chicken jalfrezi, extra naan, mushroom bahji on the side... I'd rather that than imagine that you let her into my kitchen.

If I look there, in my househeart place, my tumbled jumbled saucepan lids, my impenetrable larder system that only I can understand, my wooden, metal, non-stick utensil drawers... if I look closely, I might see there's been a wiping in the corners, a pulling out of pasta strainers, serving dishes, wooden salad bowls—all the things I never use because they can't go in the dishwasher—brought out for the night to make it special. For you.

Is that where it went wrong? I hadn't noticed. Was it the serving up of food straight onto plates and plonking them in front of you on the unclothed kitchen table? Was that where the end of choice started for you—the lack of serving bowls so you could make your own selection? When we were first married, I stood there, offering it to you, letting you dip in your spoon and take what you wanted, not just the limited amount that I was willing to give you.

Did you offer to help her in the kitchen, making a salad, chopping and stirring? Maybe she let you help, encouraged you, didn't tell you in an irritated voice to stir into the corners, not to let it boil over, use a board, not leave the peelings on the side.

You must have carried the food through to the dining room together, thinking about the presentation, lighting those tall, blue candles in their first-polished silverplated cups. Maybe you pulled her chair out for her—probably not, it's been so long, I doubt you would remember. You'd have done the serving. You might have had a starter, smoked salmon, perhaps, or tiger prawns, individually priced from the supermarket.

Then you ate and talked.

When did we last talk at the dinner table? Alone? I try not to go out for a meal with you because of those awkward silences. I'd rather have a child along to fill in the gaps. You might bring up our dwindling pension funds, or I might talk about work. For years we've both avoided talking about us. We've filled that space with gabbling if it's looked close to a real conversation: we can't talk about that sort of thing here... it's far too embarrassing in public... then when can we discuss it?... you never want to talk about it... no, I don't.

I wonder if you had a pudding. Maybe you just had the hint of a pudding, just there for the refusing of it, for the saying no to it, to use a fresh cliche for the first time together: let's have each other for dessert instead.

And then to bed. Has she got stretch-marks, Malcolm? Is she still tight? Does she touch you in a way you don't remember? Is she just a habit, a rather boring one like cleaning underneath your nails? Perhaps she's interesting, young, old, different anyway... someone who relights your fire.

Have you left a note, or weren't you even going to tell me?

What do I tell Tom? How do I say that his father's left us, that his dad's gone?

And that it's all my fault.