Graham's Reward

 

It was Saturday. Graham gave a silent, inward groan. Everyone else he knew was allowed a lie-in on a Saturday. Everyone else spent their Saturday mornings watching television or flicking through the papers, idling round the shops or just doing nothing at all. But Saturday was the day Graham and Susie cleaned the flat. Every Saturday. From eight a.m. sharp. It was kind of his side of the bargain.

Susie was already up, dressed and impatient; Graham didn't need to check her side of the bed to know that. It was ten to. Graham wondered how much longer he could fake sleep, decided against it and reluctantly shoved off the duvet and struggled to his feet. It didn't do to keep Susie waiting; it only made the whole morning more stressful and, God knows, it was stressful enough without that.

He stumbled into the kitchen with a yawn and began the process of making toast. Ever since the toaster had died, this had to be done on the grill, which was slow to warm up and quick to turn decent bread into a burnt, inedible brick. Susie had one eye on the clock, but he wasn't bothered. Six minutes, he had a good six minutes. Susie had already started on the surfaces. It wouldn't be long before she was sweeping the floor, then she would fill the bucket and fetch the mop. Susie was smart: she started on the kitchen to prevent Graham lingering over his breakfast. Graham was supposed to be cleaning the bathroom while she scrubbed and mopped. Well, sod her. He was going to eat his…oh, Christ, it was burning!

Ten minutes later, Susie and Graham were in the middle of another blazing row. She was right, of course: he should have got up earlier, he should have watched the grill pan, he should have…whatever. He hated to admit he was in the wrong, to lose a battle so early in the game. That ceded all the power to her side. He had to try to stand his ground, even if it was turning rapidly to quicksand, but there was only one way this argument was going to end: he would clean the toilet and mop the floor and change the bedding. He'd take on some of her share of the chores and she would win, but at least that high-pitched screaming would stop ringing in his ears.

The cleaning began. Thirty minutes went by. Forty. The first hour ticked past. At last, they were onto the bedroom. There was only the living room and hallway left after that, a bit of hoovering and it was all over.

Dusting.

 

A bit of dusting and hoovering and it was all over. She was throwing magazines onto the bed now - picking them off the floor in that exaggerated motion she had, bending all the way down from her waist to collect his crap off the floor and straightening up fully, then dumping it like garbage onto the duvet.

The duvet he hadn't changed yet.

Bloody hell! Yes, it was his crap. Yes, he was the one at home all day while she was at work. And yes, before they had reached their agreement, she had been the one who had always done all the cleaning while he had done nothing at all. This was all ancient history, pre-deal stuff: he had made a mess, she had cleaned it up. At the time, he had supposed they were both happy in their respective ways of living. But then he would think that, wouldn't he? That was the way it had always been for him.

At some point, say two years ago, Graham had finally agreed to take his share of the responsibility, to make more of an effort, to grow up. If he didn't want to lose Susie, he had realised, he would have to meet her half-way. He knew she didn't approve of all those magazines by the side of the bed, for example, so he started to keep them under the bed. That was compromise; fair enough. But that was as far as Graham was prepared to go. He would clean up after himself, but that didn't mean he would stop littering the flat in the first place; he wouldn't give up his way of life altogether. She didn't like the fact he left his underpants lying around, but he liked to leave his underpants lying around. That was the way he wanted to do things and why should he have to change all his habits just because they were living together now? Couldn't some of how they managed be his choice? Did everything have to be on Susie's terms?

But this is Saturday morning. This is when we clean up. This is when things are on Susie's terms. When they first struck their deal, a good morning's cleaning would be followed by sex. Sex as reward for all his hard work. Susie would pull her sweater up over her head, knowing how aroused he got at the sight of her breasts, smile cheekily and say, 'Come on then, Gray, I think you've earned these now.'

Graham didn't feel so bad about having to clean the flat then.

That had been their Saturdays: cleaning, sex then shopping. But now it was just cleaning and shopping, which was a kind of purgatory for Graham. If he was lucky, Susie would go to the supermarket on her own and he'd have a beer. Sex was mostly a distant memory. It was still on offer in theory, if he made a special dinner, or bought her flowers, or paid enough compliments on the way she looked. But the one regular constant Saturday sex he could rely on, that was long gone. He still had to give her ornaments a good dusting and suck up all the dirt from the carpet, but the reward she gave him now was just to be left alone. Funny thing was, he had grown to prefer it that way.

Fine. He would pick up all the magazines and put them in the cupboard. He would hoover underneath the bed and would tidy the rest of the room, too. He would change the duvet. In fact, he'd do everything in the bedroom on his own. Why didn't she go for a quick sit down, then they'd tackle the living-room together?

Susie thought about it, gave him a pained, tight-lipped smile, and accepted the offer. He was turning it around. They could still come out of this on talking terms. The battle was not lost yet.

At the bottom of a pile of clothes he had dumped on a chair earlier in the week, Graham found a pair of trousers he did not recognize. They were smart, black, formal trousers, part of a suit. Where had they come from? They certainly weren't his. He looked inside the waistband. A forty-four-inch waist! Bloody hell! They definitely were not his. Graham patted his own thirty-eight belly with fondness. That little lump of blubber represented the good life, the beers and the curries and the sod-it-do-it-tomorrow approach to exercise he favoured. But it was still only a small belly. It was nothing that needed a forty-four-inch pair of bleeding trousers.

So whose were they?

Graham tried to think. Susie's in-laws, who only lived twenty miles away, came to stay from time to time. When that happened, Susie and Graham slept on the sofa bed and gave the bedroom to her parents. His own mum and dad never came over, thank goodness. The awkward and embarrassing encounters with his family were restricted to Christmas and the occasional Mother's Day. It was logical to suppose Brian, his father-in-law, could have left them behind. But Brian was a skinny, slight chap, thinner than Graham. There was no way these could be his trousers.

Graham sat on the edge of the unmade bed and thought. Susie, having had enough of a sit-down apparently, passed to and fro outside the open door. She was hoovering the carpet in the hallway. Graham ignored her. Who else could have left trousers on that chair? Steve had stayed over one time, when he and Graham had been out on the piss and he had been too drunk to unlock his car, let alone drive it. Steve was a big fella. But he only wore a suit when he went to the job centre, or the magistrate's court, and he had passed out fully clothed on the living-room floor in any case. That was months ago now. Graham couldn't think of any other candidates. They didn't often have people over to the flat anymore.

Susie passed by the door gain, eyeing her boyfriend suspiciously. Graham got to his feet and begin to strip the duvet. He did it rough-handedly, like a butcher skinning a rabbit; and absent-mindedly, his thoughts roaming the male cohort of their acquaintances. Susie bent over to remove a blockage from the hoover and Graham stood watching the rounded tightness of her buttocks, shown off to good effect in her skinny jeans. He had a sudden urge to take her around the waist and wrestle her to the floor for sex, but he dismissed it. Too much trouble for too little…whose could they be?

Could Susie be having an affair? No, she wasn't the type and anyway where would she find the time? He was at the flat most days and she worked so much. And a guy like that, a big man, that wasn't her type, surely. The deciding factor, though, what clinched it, was that the trousers were at the bottom of a pile of his things. Susie would never be so careless. And what was he supposed to think? That her lover had tossed his clothes aside and gone home without his trousers? The whole idea was ridiculous. He bundled the dirty bedding into the laundry basket and turned to fetch the clean stuff. When he looked at Susie again, Graham found her standing smiling at him. She was coming around. Should he mention the trousers to her?

No. Graham decided against it. He'd put them away in the chest of drawers. The thought occurred to him that they could be from a charity bag. People were always knocking at the door, leaving plastic sacks to be filled with old clothes for Romanians or Syrians or somebody. Susie always found something to give them, then the sack stayed outside the front door until it was picked up. What if they had left a bag that already had the trousers inside? Susie might have found them, assumed they were his, thought they looked too good for the charity and put them on the chair in the bedroom, meaning to hang them neatly in the wardrobe later on. Yes, that seemed possible to Graham. By the time he had made the bed, it seemed likely. There was no need even to discuss it, he decided in the living-room. By the time the flat was finally clean, he was definite that was the answer. Susie was already on her way out the door with a shopping list by then. That was Graham's reward. No need to talk about anything: bliss. He felt thirsty and headed to the fridge.

The following Saturday, Graham found an unfamiliar pair of pants under the bed. They weren't screwed into a ball, or crusty, or as pungent as his pants usually were. They were laid out flat on the carpet and they were huge. The label inside showed three 'X's and an 'L'. They were big pants for a big man and they did not belong to him. Graham peered inside. They looked clean. They smelt clean. Of course, they belonged to the owner of the trousers, but that did not explain their sudden appearance underneath the bed. They certainly had not been there the previous weekend, Graham was sure of that. He had cleaned under that bed. Susie had checked under that bed. They were new pants. New to him, anyway. He pulled open the bottom drawer of his chest and placed them neatly on top of the forty-four inch trousers. It was a mystery, but he wasn't going to let it bother him.

After another morning of thought, Graham decided that Susie must be planting the clothes to see what he would do when he found them. Perhaps she was trying to make him jealous, or it was a new way of ensuring the thoroughness of his work. True, this was more the sort of thing that he would do to her; it wasn't Susie's style at all. Even so, it had to be her. No one else had come into their flat that week and it sure as hell wasn't Graham hiding too-large underpants under the bed.

The next week, it was a pair of socks. Giant socks. Oh, for gooodness' sake, thought Graham, balling them up and stuffing them into the drawer with the rest of the clothes. Whatever next!

Whatever next was a rather nice, plain white shirt with an eighteen-inch collar. A big man's shirt. Graham was convinced Susie was waiting for a reaction from him. Well, she could wait. He wasn't going to fall for any of her tricks. The problem as he saw it was that there was no obvious purpose for this. It didn't make any sense and so Graham preferred to ignore it.

The following Saturday, Susie asked Graham to clean the gaps between the bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush. This was a long job and had to be done properly or Susie would make him repeat the whole process. He found himself annoyed, not because of the task so much as because it postponed the moment when he could tidy the bedroom. Graham was curious. He fully expected to find either a suit jacket to match the trousers, or a tie perhaps. Would it be on the chair? Under the bed? Or was there some new hiding place Susie had found? He realised he was working especially hard on the tile cracks in order to get into that bedroom. Good for Susie, he thought.

It was a tie, draped over the end of the bed but hidden beneath that week's sock collection. Graham did like to leave his socks hanging over the end of the bed, it was one of the little habits he had refused to surrender. An obvious choice for Susie and one he should have thought about. The jacket would be next week, in that case. For a while, he considered keeping the bedroom really clean and tidy for the whole seven days, so that Susie would have nowhere to secrete the 'mystery' jacket for him to find on Saturday. Then he realised that would be playing straight into her hands. Graham shook his head and gave a wry smile to the tidy bedroom. It would take more than that for her to get the better of him. They hadn't gone shopping together since this whole silly business began.

By the time the suit jacket turned up the next weekend, hidden beneath the fitted sheet on the bed (very clever, Susie!), Graham was bored with the whole thing. Maybe it would be better just to talk about it with his girlfriend, he thought. After all, what next - cufflinks? He had shown her he was prepared to wait, he hadn't conceded her any ground, it could still be an honourable draw. He would insist on coming to the supermarket today, he decided. He'd confront her in the chilled foods aisle. She couldn't make much of a scene in public, after all.

But Susie didn't need to make a scene. In fact, she denied any knowledge of the phantom clothes. Graham acted like he knew he was onto her, said her little game was up now anyway; but the way she looked at him, the confusion written across her face, the way her eyes flitted to and fro and her cute eyebrows bunched together as if huddling for warmth, made him doubt his own conviction. Susie swore she knew nothing about it and, despite himself, Graham was inclined to believe her.

On the next Friday night, Graham went to the pub with Steve. His friend had worked out a 'foolproof' method for hitting the jackpot on the Trivia Quiz machine and Graham agreed to witness the payout. The truth was less to do with Steve and his imagined fortune (it didn't work, of course) than a gnawing sense of fear Graham had begun to experience. If Susie was not behind the clothing scam (for scam it surely was), what did that mean? It was inconceivable that anyone else was doing it, so Graham had been forced to consider the supernatural. Was their flat home to a ghost? Was there a fastidious, fat former owner who was haunting them, getting ready to scare them both to death one night and merely waiting to get fully dressed before doing so? Graham couldn't help but wonder. He hadn't dared show Susie the clothes. After her supermarket denial, he had laughed the whole thing off, claimed he was only winding her up, which just got him a roll of the eyes and the shaking of a disappointed head in return. Graham decided the best approach was to get really pissed on Friday and hopefully be so hungover on Saturday he wouldn't even think about the mysterious outfit.

When he eventually fell into bed later that night, Graham was vaguely aware of not having much space to lie down in, but he didn't think anything of it, assuming Susie had taken advantage of his absence to spread out. That's what he would have done, after all. However, when he awoke about four in the morning with a mouth like a desert and a head giving harbour to a furious jackhammer, Graham was less tolerant of his lack of duvet, sparseness of bed space and cold feet. He turned over to give Susie a sharp jab in the ribs and found himself confronted by the bloated shape of an enormous, fully-clothed man in his bed.

The man had his back to Graham, a suited back, forty-four inch trousers, nineteen-inch collared shirt and tie and jacket. It was him. Bloody hell! Graham sat up in the darkness and reached out one hand tentatively to the man. He touched his arm and felt the firmness of his flesh beneath the jacket and the shirt. He touched his leg with his knee and felt sure that it shifted away from him, like a sleeper disturbed. He reached tentatively around the enormous waist to find Susie and found instead the stranger's stomach, big and bloated behind the buttons of his plain white shirt. Jesus! Graham looked, but in the darkness could make out nothing except a vague blur. He could not see the man's head, could not even be sure it was a man. He wanted to take Susie and run away with her, flee the house and keep on going until he had put many miles between himself and this intruder. But he could not be sure, after all, that Susie had not brought the man into their home, had not bedded him, had not intentionally done this to Graham. But why was he wearing the suit? If they'd been shagging, he'd be naked, wouldn't he? Graham shuddered. He didn't even want to think about it. Suddenly, Graham leapt from the bed and rushed towards the bathroom. He needed to vomit and vomit copiously, too.

Graham spent the rest of the night on the living-room sofa. His head was pounding too much for him to think straight. All he wanted was oblivion and then, when he woke again at seven, painkillers and coffee. Susie came down to see him at seven-thirty. She was concerned, she said. Why hadn't he come to bed? He didn't say anything, just went for a shower. Later, as Susie started on the kitchen, he sneaked back into the bedroom. The bed was empty, unmade, waiting for his attention. Susie came in and found him staring. Without thinking whether it was a good idea or not, he asked her straight out. Where's the man who was in our bed last night? Who is he? What was he doing there?

There was nobody in our bed last night, Susie told him. Nobody at all. Graham turned and left the room. He told her he was going to clean the bathroom. Instead, he went to the kitchen to make himself some toast. There, standing quite brazenly by the cooker, arms folded across its chest and quite motionless, was the suit. Susie was right. It was nobody. No body at all. It was just the suit - and the tie, the shirt, the socks, presumably the underpants - but nothing else. There was no neck sticking out the top of the collar, no head sitting on that neck. No hands at the end of the sleeves, nothing. Just the bulging, animated clothes, looking for all the world like they contained muscle, fat and bone, but no visible sight of any human form at all. Yet there he was, blocking the way to the cooker.

Tentatively, hesitantly, Graham strode over and poked one bony, inquisitive finger into the empty man's midriff. The figure didn't move. There was no reaction, except an inward bulging of the shirt, just like a stomach being prodded. The feeling was exactly like the spongy give of real flesh, but there was nothing there and no other reaction at all. The figure still stood with arms folded, apparently unconcerned. Graham waited a few seconds, then backed away, still expecting the empty suit to make some kind of move towards him. But there was nothing. Mechanically, without really thinking about what he was doing, Graham went into the bathroom and started to clean. He hadn't even had any toast.

Graham scrubbed and scoured that bathroom until it was the cleanest it had ever been. Somehow, the effort of doing so helped to erase the empty suit from his mind. By the time he was finished, Graham not only had a newfound sense of pride in what he had done, he had almost convinced himself the whole of last night and the earlier part of that morning had been nothing but a series of hallucinations brought on by too much cheap, foreign beer. Never again, he thought to himself, and not for the first time.

He heard Susie's voice coming from the hallway. It seemed she had cleaned the rest of the flat while he had been stuck in the bathroom. Happy to find him so hard at work, she had willingly shouldered the rest of the burden and was ready for the shops now. He saw her already stepping through the door and then, beyond her, saw the car and someone - something - in the passenger seat. Graham rubbed his eyes, then hurried along the hallway to have another look. No, he was not mistaken: there was definitely a figure in a dark suit strapped into the passenger seat. A dark-suited man next to his girlfriend. Without a head. Graham stepped outside but Susie was already in gear and revving the engine. Before he could do anything, she had pulled out and was gone. She had taken the empty man shopping.

It didn't stop, Susie and the suit. They came back from the shops together; they sat on the sofa together; they watched television arm in arm. They shared out the newspaper supplements between the two of them without even a glance in Graham's direction. The pile of clothes had a chair at the dinner table all to itself for every meal and a place in their bed at night. Graham's place. And it was the same the next day and the day after that; Susie and the suit were inseparable. Graham had to sleep on the sofa and, after the second night, didn't even bother trying the bed again. Susie never said a word about any of it. On Thursday, after she and the suit had gone to bed, Graham stood in the doorway of the bedroom and watched the two of them sleep. He heard the gentle breathing of his girlfriend and watched the soft rise and fall of her breasts. Then next to her he saw the vast expansion of the suited, shirted belly, like a child's inflatable toy filling with air. The silent, snoreless sleep of the man who wasn't there was the strangest thing of all. Graham wanted to tackle the situation, challenge this imposter to a fight, or point out to Susie it wasn't a real person; but he was scared by the size of it, the bulk, the potential. What if it could fight back? What if its invisible fists could pack a pretty punch? What if he had bitten off more than he could chew? Graham just stood there. He said nothing. He let Susie sleep with the empty suit. He let a stranger take over his bed. The battle was over, Graham knew. He had lost.

On Friday morning, without a word to Susie or anyone else, Graham moved out. It seemed that Susie preferred thin air to his company and that was pretty hard to take. His pride was wounded and he didn't want to talk about it, or think about it even. In just six weeks, he had been ousted by a man that wasn't really there. Graham slept at Steve's that night, on the sofa. Steve told him he could stay as long as he liked, didn't even ask him any questions. Good old Steve. You knew where you were with your mates, thought Graham. That first night, Graham and Steve went to the corner shop and bought forty cans of lager. They stayed up late, smoking cheap cigarettes, drinking beer and swapping stories about the fickleness and unreliability of the opposite sex. Each of them felt like crying inside but kept up the bravado nonetheless.

The next day was Saturday. Graham stayed on the sofa all morning in just his pants. He flicked cigarette butts into the dirty carpet and rummaged through the piles of magazines and half-consumed fast food orders on the floor. He put his head back, gazed at the smoky ceiling and belched a good deal. He was in a state of bliss. Graham did not see Steve until the afternoon, when he came in to announce he had a date that evening, was pretty sure he was on a promise and would Graham mind cleaning up all his shit and then buggering off until midnight, by which time Steve was pretty sure he'd be shagging his date in the bedroom. Graham said he would be happy to oblige.

Later on, Graham didn't feel like going down the pub on his own. For some reason, he worried Susie would be in there - with him - even though she hardly ever went out to pubs anymore and even though 'him' was just a collection of old clothes. Instead, Graham went down to the cinema and watched an expensively orchestrated series of explosions masquerading as a film, in the company of some over-excited pimply teenage boys. After that, finding himself in maudlin mood, Graham wandered around the town, visiting places he and Susie had been together, when their love was young and they were still happy. In those days, he remembered, they had talked about everything. They seemed to have plenty in common then and wanted to share their every thought with their partner, wanted to hear each other's plans and dreams. Even meaningless babble between them held a special fascination for each.

He had reached The Six Garters by the time he saw her. Walking along the other side of the road in the opposite direction, arm in arm with another man, was Susie. Her head was bowed and she stared down, listening intently to her companion. She looked happy; not smiling exactly, but with a rosy blush to her cheek that was like the bright glow of her soul. Graham looked at the man she was with. He was a short man, smaller than Susie even. He wore a skimpy jacket, almost a woman's jacket, and cargo pants. There was no suit in sight; no fat belly, no oversized shirt; this wasn't him. Graham could take this man, he knew it, could fist-fight flatten him with ease. The couple was lost in their conversation; neither had noticed him. Graham crossed the road and began to follow them at a distance.

They were on their way to Susie's flat. She was taking him home, to his home, his bed; Graham felt the jealousy boil within him. He clenched his fists in his jacket pockets and set his face. Unable to watch them, he turned his head. When he turned back, they had gone. Graham whirled around on the street. Where were they? Then he saw them, through the window of a pizza place. Susie and her date were ordering at the counter. He watched them, nose against the glass, that bastard's arm around his girlfriend's waist. Then he stepped back a little as they turned towards him, but neither of them so much as glanced through the window. Their eyes were only for each other. They sat at a table to wait for their order. Susie was so close through the glass, Graham could almost have touched her.  Instead, he watched her eyes dance and sparkle. Once, he had gazed into eyes like that, had joined the dance, had led the music. Was she falling in love? Was he thrown over so soon? And what about the empty suit? This man couldn't fill those clothes. What did it mean?

Susie's date got up to go to the toilet. She was alone, staring at the wall. Now that he had the chance to go in and talk to her, Graham didn't want to. He felt a little sick at the idea. He told himself it was all for the best anyway; that being alone was what he really wanted; that that was the only time he ever felt content. He should thank the man for what he had done. The empty man. Graham turned to go, grounding the ash of a tossed cigarette into the pavement with the toe of his boot. Before setting off, he took one last look. Susie was still by herself, but her face was now fully turned towards the window, her gaze directed outward.  She didn't see him, however. Her eyes were glazed over, her mouth smiling; she was thinking of something else. For one last moment, Graham stared right into her eyes and she stared right back, looking through him, as if he were not there at all.