It was love at first sight. Despite the slap he received for making a joke to his buddies about her sun burnt thighs looking redder than a baboon’s rear. Laguna Beach was a sun worshippers paradise and both young and old flocked to the white sands. Fresh out of college, George was enjoying his summer break with no plans other to soak up the summer as much as he could before the fall.
Stern words from his father following graduation left George with the clear understanding that he would be working by autumn’s gambit. “Slouchers and bums are not fit for our house,” as his dad put it. But before that George was granted the summer to celebrate the end of college, and though he wasn’t ready to settle into a working routine, George knew what was expected of him.
Grey autumn skies seemed a long way off and the summer was for dancing, music, fun and adventure. George had a four step plan: Fun, Work, Wife, Kids. That summer would close the book on his adolescence and a new chapter of his life would begin. Not quite so fun, but he promised himself he would never be quite so grey and stern like his regimented father. George carried a twinkle in his eye and a playful smile on his lips, his good looks turned heads and he knew it. He wasn’t arrogant, simply confident. He wasn’t ready to settle down, heck at 23 he wanted to enjoy life, not be shackled to a girl.
Irene changed his outlook by the time the burning sun had all but sizzled into the shimmering ocean. After waltzing around camp fires they left the crowds and walked hand in hand along the beach bathed in a golden sunset. They talked, laughed and kissed. When the sun reappeared the following morning George and Irene knew that was the first in a life time of sunsets and sunrises they would share.
Love has a unique way of awakening emotions never imagined.
By New Years Eve they were married in a flurry of silk, big band music, white roses and lipstick kisses.
T’aint nothing but fuss & drama!
Irene pressed the button on her chair and sighed with contentment as the back tilted and the foot-rest rose. It had been a long hot sticky day and she was glad to be indoors where the air-con soothed her itchy skin.
She fingered the remote control and in the corner of the living room the TV crackled into life. Irene waited patiently for it to settle down then switched channels. According to her grandson, Craig, their TV was ancient. It didn’t have an EPG, record-and-play, video-on-demand or anything. It didn’t even have the internet, which made it a dinosaur. Irene didn’t mind. She liked the TV. It was like an old friend that never let her down in a world that was changing far too fast for her to keep up.
She settled on the 6 O’clock News and swiveled her side table across the chair. She sipped her tea and bit the end off a short bread finger. She glanced at the empty chair beside her and closed her eyes.
“George?” She twisted her shoulder to look at the living room door. “George, you’ve left crumbs on the antimacassars again.”
There was no reply.
Irene sighed. He had been gone too long. Not one to give in so easily, Irene wondered if it was time to join her husband.
“Any more holloring like that and the neighbours’ll think we’re up to hanky panky in here.”
George crossed the living room, cup of tea in one hand, walking stick in the other. He paused beside his wife to brush a hand against her cheek before easing into his arm-chair.
“Hanky panky indeed.” Irene rolled her eyes and smiled. “I hope the neighbours don’t think that kind of thing goes on here.”
George gave his wife a quick wink. “Good job we keep it quiet then isn’t it?”
Irene wasn’t too old to blush.
“What’s the news got for us this evening?” asked George.
After a life time of snuggling up on their cosy sofa Old Man Age had finally forced them to buy orthopaedic arm chairs. They sat side by side in front of the TV, close enough to each other so they could still hold hands. George pulled his side table across then held out his hand. It wasn’t out of habit that he did this. Even after decades of marriage they both wanted and needed each other.
Irene slid her hand into his and gestured at the TV with the other. “Same old, same old.”
George sipped his tea. “Doom and gloom.”
“Seems like all of India’s now wrapped up in this thing too,” Irene said. She took another bite of her short bread finger, careful to flick away the crumbs before George could call her a hypocrite. “And Japan’s closed its borders by the looks.”
“It’s poppycock,” said George.
“Looks more serious than that stars out break,” said Irene. “Look see, the Japs are even wearing them bio outfits to work now.”
“Scaremongering is what I call it. I dare say someone is making a buck or two out of it.”
“George. That’s a terrible thing say.” Irene gave him a harsh look. “They say folk are dying at the drop of a hat.”
They watched in silence as a cameraman fought against a panic-stricken crowd. The screen flashed with static and before the feed was lost one final shot showed a line of soldiers opening fire at the crowds. The anchor man on the news desk was momentarily stunned before composing himself and moving onto Sports.
“It’ll all blow over by the fall,” said George.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. You know Ellie, from my book club? She heard there was a scare in New York yesterday.”
“There’s always a scare somewhere, hunny-bun,” said George. “Just folk jumping to the wrong conclusion. Someone gets the flu, gets spotted looking all haggard…makes the news…” He paused to glance at the worried expression on his wife’s face. He smiled to comfort her and reassure himself. “T’aint nothing but fuss and drama.”
“Ellie says it’s not just this virus we ought to be worried about. There’s thugs out there who take advantage,” Irene said. “Them looters that take when no one’s looking.”
George watched her hand idly toy with her broken heart pendant at the end of her necklace. They had one a piece, a symbol of their unbreakable love, one heart for two soul mates. He hadn’t taken off his necklace since the day Irene slipped it over his head.
“Thugs and looters aren’t interested in us,” he told her. “What’ve we got? An old TV and a few precious things that don’t mean nothing to no one but us.” He patted his walking stick that was leant against the arm-chair. “And if they do come I’ll fight them off.”
Irene smiled at this. “Love, you can barely make a cup of tea.”
“I hear looters don’t like tea.” George caught the uneasy look on his wife’s face. “Where are you off to now?”
Irene had slid her tray aside and waiting for her chair to fold up. “Never you mind. I’m just going to chain the front door.”
George thought about this for a moment. “Don’t forget the top lock while you’re there.”
For three years they were the perfect example of a happily married couple. But when the phone calls started during the late evening and sometimes in the dead of night, George felt something wasn’t quite right. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Irene seemed distracted, and nervous whenever the phone rang. They had been trying for a baby for almost a year, even went to the family doctor for help. Everything was a-okay but the reassurance failed to give them the confidence they sought.
They didn’t argue but the tension was there, bubbling away under the surface. George began to wonder if his beautiful wife and soul mate thought less of him for not providing her with a baby. His college buddies, most married with children, offered advice – some encouraging, other ideas shocking. George couldn’t bear the idea of his marriage falling on rocky times.
Things worsened the first time he heard the stranger’s voice on the phone.
George had called home the day before Valentines Day to pick up his check book. He had something special in mind for the big day, a surprise he hoped would lift their spirits and help push away the dark cloud that hung over them. Irene wasn’t home, her shift at the garden centre didn’t finish until late afternoon. George was surprised when the phone rang.
“Afternoon. Wilson residence.”
There was a moment of silence. “Hello? Irene please.” The caller had a gruff monotone voice.
“She’s at work today. Can I take a message?”
“Oh.” A long pause. “You are the husband?”
“Who is this?”
The line went dead. George left the house feeling rattled. By the time he reached the mall his mood had grown dark and he walked by the shop his check book was ear-marked for and went back to work. The endless series of phone calls at odd times of the day and night had driven a cold wedge between husband and wife. Now George had heard the voice of their mystery caller he decided he wanted the truth from Irene.
A peaceful evening meal soon led to an argument about the phone calls. George recalled the brief conversation earlier in the day but Irene remained quiet and withdrawn, refusing to admit she knew the caller. She toyed with her food and spent the majority of time twisting her wedding band on her finger. Emotions ran wild as the evening went on. For the first time since their wedding night they slept apart.
George took to their sofa and Irene shut herself away in the bedroom.
Neither of them slept much that night.
The morning brought no Valentine’s Day gifts. No happy greeting. No kiss. Nothing. Irene slipped through the front door, careful not awake her husband snoring on the sofa. When George woke to an empty house he knew the problem was serious.
On his lunch break George confided in his closest friend, Bud Jones, a divorce lawyer. George didn’t want a divorce, he wanted to know how to avoid one, something Bud found amusing. Short of hiring a private detective George was left with two options – wait for Irene to confess or follow her and hope to uncover the truth.
Irene called George’s office later that afternoon. She wouldn’t make it home for dinner as one of her friends was having a wedding plan crisis and needed her help. That was all George needed to hear to make up his mind. He left work and drove to the garden centre. At precisely 5pm Irene left and drove to her friend’s house. George parked down the block and waited. After an hour he started to wonder if he was just being foolish. Irene was innocent of anything his jealous mind had created.
So who was the mystery caller?
When Irene left her friend’s house at 6:30 George fought the urge to bolt from his car and sweep her into his arms. When she drove away he hammered the steering wheel for being so stubborn.
He followed her home and felt his adrenaline kick in when she didn’t pull into their driveway. Instead she continued into town and entered an all night cafe, Faust’s Bar & Grill. A run down rabble renowned for its shady customers, street walkers, illegal traders and gamblers.
Why would his precious flower go anywhere near a stinking pit like that?
Irene joined a middle-aged man at a window booth. Across the street George watched as the anger boiled in his chest. He struggled to remain calm, part of him thinking there must be a good explanation for her clandestine meeting. But what else could it be other than an act of betrayal? The only good sign was it seemed their meeting wasn’t happy. Irene fiddling with her wedding band as the man with the thick moustache waved his hands at her, an expression of anger never left his face.
With each passing minute George came closer to giving into his rage. He wanted nothing more than to storm the cafe and hurl the man through the window. He must be able to see she was married. Irene never stopped rotating her wedding band, even when talking.
George gripped the door handle. He’d seen enough. It was time to put an end to this.
But it Irene who brought the meeting to a close.
Abruptly she stood and hurried outside.
Again George hesitated. The man joined her and they argued more on the sidewalk. George could hear their voices but not the words. The chains that restricted his actions snapped when the man gripped Irene’s arm as she turned to leave.
George left his car door open. By the time he had crossed the street the mystery man had forced Irene into an alley. With his heart pounding in his ears, George dashed into the alley, his pent-up rage twisted from anger to protection.
The slap that landed across Irene’s face unleashed every ounce of George’s rage.
He threw himself at the man, knocking him to the ground. The first punch missed the man’s face but the second broke his nose. Irene was crying and shouting but George wouldn’t stop.
The fight, such as it was, lasted no more than a minute. And when George pulled himself to his feet he turned to a distraught Irene and held out his arms. She ran to him, sobbing and buried her face against his chest.
George held her head. “You’re okay, hunny-bun. It’s done. Over.”
Only it wasn’t.
The man scrambled to his feet and came at them. Blood and snot poured over his mouth that was twisted into an animal snarl.
“You prissy little bitch! Think a couple of pussy whipped punches can stop me from getting what’s rightfully mine?”
George wasn’t a fighter. He’d survived on adrenaline and the element of surprise. This time the mystery man tore them apart, pushed Irene to the ground and hailed fist after first into George. The man was stronger than George and was clearly no stranger to brawling.
It was George’s turn to lay on the ground, head pounded, ribs aching. Dizzy and close to passing out.
The man rounded on Irene and held out his hand. “It was never meant to be yours. Your mother was nothing but a two-bit whore. She owed a lot of money to a lot of people. That will help settle her debts. Now hand it over.”
Through blurry eyes George watched Irene stare up at the man. “No.”
The man laughed. “You know what? I sorta wanted to hear you say that.”
Irene screamed when the man grabbed her by the arm and yanked her off the ground. That was all George needed to forget his injuries. If it wasn’t for Irene he would have laid there feeling sorry for himself then stagger back to his car. But he’d made an oath to love, honour and protect his wife – a promise that was unbreakable regardless of physical damage.
George didn’t feel the pain as he stood. Later he would discover he had several broken ribs, a broken collar-bone and a fractured wrist, but at that moment none of it mattered. He was fuelled by his love for Irene, a single driving emotion to protect her from harm at all costs.
The fight was short and bloody. The man didn’t stand a chance. He had the upper hand where body strength was concerned but it was no match for a man defending the love of his life with passion and fury as his weapons.
“Stay away from my wife,” George told the man laying on the alley floor. “I won’t call the cops but if I see you again I’ll hurt you worse than your nightmares.”
George cradled Irene in his arms and took her home.
On their sofa Irene bathed George’s wounds and called the family doctor. When they were finally alone Irene told her story.
Her mother had been a whore, a blot on the family name and a dark period for the family history. Her desire for more than the typical family life had led her astray, to drink and drugs. She had died a broken woman, poor and rotten to the core from cheap whiskey and a lifetime of bad choices.
Until recently no one knew where she was. Irene last saw her mother on her tenth birthday and her father seldom talked about her. For all her faults and debts her mother never gave up a family heirloom – a pair of gold chains with a broken heart at the end of each one. A lawyer had called Irene a few weeks ago, seeking to hand over the only piece of inheritance she had left.
Within days Uncle Henry made contact with Irene and insisted the necklaces were rightly his. A long-standing family feud that went back generations. Irene refused to part with them but Uncle Henry wouldn’t take no for an answer. And so the phone calls began.
“You could’ve told me, hunny-bun,” said George. He eased back on the sofa, wincing at his injuries.
“I know,” said Irene. “I’m sorry. I worried Uncle Henry would make you give them up.”
“Never. They’re a link to your family. I wouldn’t ever do that.”
Irene reached out to hold his hand. George touched her wedding band with shaking fingers.
“We are bonded together,” he said. “The world may try but nothing can break us.”
Irene took a narrow velvet box from her coat. She removed two ornate necklaces with hearts at the end. Keeping her eyes fixed on his she placed one around his neck. George leaned forward, trying not to show her how much pain he was in. He took the other necklace and with gingerly put it over her head.
“One heart,” he said to her.
Irene placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. “Happy Valentine’s Day my love.”
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write between 50 and 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt. The twisteroo this week was to write a romance story – unleash your inner romantic and pen a love story.
I admit I have a secret romantic side and believe in the deep bond that two people can share, an unbreakable chain of love that resists all challenges.
There is a vague link to my novel, The Range, as it mentions the initial stages of the outbreak, a strange flu-like virus that grips the planet. Initially I wanted to swap back and forth between the two time lines a lot more, with snippets from their lives at either end of their journey together and culminating with darker ending. However, the characters had other ideas, as is the way sometimes!
I’m quite pleased with how it turned out in the end. I hope it wasn’t too slushy, yukky or schmaltzy for you!
NOTE: Indigo Spider has moved to a new domain – http://www.indigospider.org – If you were a previous subscriber to her blog you’ll need to re-subscribe.
NOTE 2: Indigo Spider’s blog has had a bit of a face lift recently, with a new easier layout, forums and live chat! Well worth a visit!
This picture prompt has an unknown title and is by Vivian Maier.
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.