by Jane Turley
It was the hottest day of the year. Even under the shade of my umbrella the heat was unbearable. I’d discarded my shirt by mid-morning, wading into the water in just my shorts and plimsolls. Casting my rod out, I’d watched the multi-coloured fly skim across the surface of the river whilst the waters slipped silently past.
Like my life.
It was peaceful here. Sheer heaven. Free from Gilda and her constant nagging: “Do this, do that. Clean the car, empty the bins, paint the kitchen, and don’t forget to mow the grass before your mother comes.”
Oh yes, and kiss my arse.
It was hard to believe Gilda was the same woman I’d married long ago with a smile that greeted me daily as I arrived home from my job with the council. How things change. Maybe I hadn’t been ambitious enough. My job cleaning windows wasn’t great. But it was reliable. It wasn’t like I was self-employed and the income irregular. There was always money to put food on the table and for holidays. Okay, so we hadn’t had holidays to the Caribbean but we’d always had them: a beach in Spain; a villa in Portugal; a gite in France. We even went to Venice for our honeymoon.
At first we’d had a lot in common. Gilda had been a sales assistant at Little Women, a clothing chain for petite women. Nothing grand. We lived a simple life during the week but on the weekends we partied or went to the cinema and, whilst I went fishing on Sundays, Gilda seemed content to do her own thing. It all seemed quite perfect and I never felt the need to become chief window cleaner or look for another job. It wasn’t that I’d never had aspirations but, as I passed from my twenties into my thirties and no kids arrived, there didn't seem the urgency to progress. With no extra mouths to feed and no need to buy the latest fashionable trainers, I suppose I just became content with what I’d got.
Gilda had gone through a broody stage though. We’d tried homeopathic remedies for conception, special diets and ovulation temperature gauges. Gilda had even tried handstands against the bedroom wall. “Anything’s worth a try,” she’d say, her long blonde hair trailing over her face. I watched at first; her slim agile legs splayed against the flowered wallpaper and her breasts, round and firm, with nipples still engorged from our lovemaking. But as the months passed it became increasingly tedious. My advances were counteracted by; “You've had your lot. A week on Tuesday and I’ll be fertile. Let’s save it for then.” Eventually, we went to the doctors; I with my sperm sample in hand and her with a chip on her shoulder.
It turned out that I had a low sperm count. I wasn’t barren but instead of fifty million plus of the little fellas, I only had about forty million and some of the buggers had passed out through exhaustion. I wasn’t officially infertile although Gilda often made me feel that way. On Saturday nights at the pub she’d have one drink too many and tell everyone I was suffering from “oligospermia”. The lads used to back-slap me and give me the “Never mind, you can put it about and she’ll never know” routine. But it fell on deaf ears. I couldn’t please Gilda anymore and it hurt.
We had our free allocation’s worth of treatment on the NHS and when that failed there wasn't the money to spend on more. Eventually we came to accept that we weren’t going to be parents. We settled into our old habits and Gilda stopped mentioning the oligospermia. Well, that was until they started doing politically correct stuff at Gilda’s work. She was no longer a “sales assistant” but a “sales consultant” and, on weekends, while I fished, she no longer visited her mum or sewed dresses but studied for an NVQ in retail.
Gilda began to change, almost imperceptibly at first, until her boss left to look after her kids and Gilda decided to apply for the manager’s position. I was chuffed when she came home with the news that she’d got the job and we celebrated down at the Indian. I thought that maybe the new responsibility would lay the ghost of our childlessness to rest. Well, I guess it did. But not quite the way I expected.
From that day onwards, we spent less time together. Gilda was frequently late home because of problem with the tills, an evening stock delivery or the alarm not setting up. She worked loads of extra hours and before long she was an area manager, packing her Slimfast bars in her briefcase in the morning and striding down the path with the parting line; “I won’t be home till late. Don’t wait up!”
And I just carried on cleaning windows.
I shuffled around under the umbrella trying to get my body out of the burning sun, took another bite of my cheese and pickle sandwich and gazed out over the river. It was quiet, almost foreboding. Heavy branches of a weeping willow, laden with leaves, drooped in the water on the opposite bank. A lonesome bubble burst on the surface of the water as I savoured my last crust. So far my luck had been abysmal. Even the fish seemed to be asleep, hiding away in the depths and crevices of the riverbed. I snapped open a cold beer and slurped it down in frustration. In the overpowering heat it tasted better than ever. It reminded me of when Gilda and I were young and life was fresh and exciting. When I was going to be more than just a window cleaner and she was going to be a mother.
I guess there hadn't been one definable moment when our relationship turned sour. It was a gradual separation of ways. We hardly slept together anymore, even though Gilda’s underwear was becoming more exotic and expensive. It had crossed my mind that the late nights were a cover for an affair but, in the end, I’d put her extravagance down to the extra cash and her yearning for a better life. If we couldn't have a kid then I supposed a luxury car or a fancy kitchen were the next best things. Anyway, that’s what I thought. Until I found the condoms. Well, a woman whose husband’s six-shooter is firing blanks doesn’t need condoms, does she?
Heaving myself up, I brushed the crumbs off my shorts, cupped them in my hands and tossed them into the river. I waded back into the water with my rod and cast out my line again. The sun was even higher now, the skin on my shoulders prickling despite my earlier attempts to lather myself with cream. I wished I’d remembered my hat as a surge of dizziness made the water shimmer and glow with an array of coloured lights.
“Hello, Harry. I thought I’d find you here.”
I twisted towards the bank, my vision blurring as my legs remained fixed in the silt like ancient roots. Gilda flashed in and out of focus.
“You look unwell, Harry. Is the heat getting to you?”
“Yes, I think so. I’ll come in for another drink in a moment.”
“Have you had your lunch yet?”
“Yes, thanks. Your sarnies were great.”
“You know, you’re not looking good at all.”
“It’s the heat. I’ll be fine.”
I wound in my line and splashed water over my face, revelling in the cold droplets cooling my searing skin. As my head began to clear, I saw Gilda still watching sullenly from the embankment. She’d never been able to hide her distaste for my hobby, even in better times.
“About your sandwiches, Harry,” said Gilda, a streak of impatience crossing her face. “I think you should know that I poisoned them. In a few minutes, you’ll be dead.”
Gilda’s malevolent words washed over me like an all-consuming wave. I sank to my knees, the water rising to my chest. I knew now the full intensity of Gilda’s betrayal. She didn’t just want an affair, but a permanent separation. A deadly separation.
“You were always so predictable. I knew you’d eat your sandwiches at midday.”
I reeled backwards, my body straining against the current and the impact of Gilda’s words.
“You’re a useless twat, Harry. I’ve wasted my life with you. All you think about is your bloody windows and fishing rods,” said Gilda, wading through the water until she stood before me.
“You’re right. I never had any imagination,” I said, looking up at her icy, unforgiving eyes. “I guess I should have stopped cleaning windows.”
Gilda reached out and pressed her hands upon my head, using all her weight to push me further into the cold waters. But, as my face slipped under the surface, instinct overcame my lethargy and I seized her leg and began to pull her down with me. Grabbing her waist, I wrenched myself up against her until our roles reversed. Her blue eyes held mine as her mouth bopped in and out of the water, spluttering and gasping like a landed fish.
“Things are a little different now, aren’t they?” I said. “It really was the heat, Gilda. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not dying.”
“No, you weren’t,” I said, as Gilda’s lungs filled with water. “If you hadn’t been so wrapped up in yourself, you’d have remembered I don’t like prawn sandwiches. I bought some others and threw your's to the birds. They’re behind the bushes with some dead sparrows. I thought it was odd...but now I know the truth.”
I forced her down into the water whilst she mouthed words at me, her eyes bulging wide as her life ebbed away. As her hair trailed behind her in the current, I remembered how she’d looked standing on her head all those years ago when we were young. When we still loved each other.
But we didn’t love each other anymore.
When the bubbles stopped rising and her thrashing arms fell limp, I dragged her as far out into the river as I could go, where the current was stronger and faster. I pushed her downstream towards the open sea and watched her sail away, her blonde locks still trailing behind her.
I guess Gilda never recognized the value of good window cleaners. They nearly always do a grand job.
And sometimes, when the grime is too thick, they use plenty of water.