Richard Breakman is forty-three years old and has a soft belly that would not look out of place on a toddler. A milk belly, his mother might call it, in that pleading way of hers that she uses when something distressing appears on the nightly news. Richard visits his mother, Ava, every Sunday. He parks his small Fiat Punto outside her redbrick bungalow and lets himself in. Sundays are his bewildered days. His face is set in an expression of shock and Ava, who has only seen him on Sundays for the past year, has given up asking him how he is or why he looks so surprised. As far as she knows, this is Richard’s normal appearance now.
It is not Richard’s normal appearance. Today, for example, is Monday and he looks quite different; terrified, in fact. He is wearing a pair of elasticated tracksuit bottoms and a faded football shirt, and walks cautiously up the street outside his house. He looks about him and thinks that the world is emptying of colour. Monochrome grey seems to sponge through the flashes of blue and green as the cars rush by. He finds himself asking the question again. Am I going mad? Am I going mad?
This time there is a man at the bus stop. Young, unshaven. He is dressed for summer but instead of his lime t-shirt and denim shorts, Richard sees only khaki and brass buttons. He stops in front of the man.
“Did it go off? At Zero hour?” Richard squints in the morning sun. There is a rush of noise in his ears and somewhere in the distance he hears a bugle.
The young man, a stranger, is pulling earphones out of his ears and pressing something in his pocket. “What?”
A car whizzes by, glass reflecting and throwing white shards into the road. Richard ducks, hands up. The noise is louder. An explosion sounds somewhere. His body feels hot and itchy.
“Are you all right, man?” the youth at the bus stop is staring into Richard’s face. He is concerned. He tries to take Richard’s arm and Richard shakes it away.
“I don’t want to either! But the orders are as they are!” Richard suddenly leaps onto the flip-up seats of the bus stop, balancing precariously, head snapping rapidly from left to right. Then he is down again, crouching close to the ground. He mumbles something.
The young man is now alarmed. He had not expected this today. It was not on the horizon when he lingered in his flat to eat toast and drink coffee, nor when he stood waiting for the bus and listened to the CD he had put together for the girl who left him eleven days ago. He had not expected that an individual with apparent mental problems would break into the steady yet sadly fragile drumbeat of his day, that a disturbed man would interrupt the circular notion of his thoughts: Emma-fighting-distance-receipts.
But the young man is kind and has some experience of breakdowns which, he thinks, he is observing. Whereas another man his age might have walked away, laughing over his shoulder and storing the image of Richard crouched on the pavement to regurgitate later to his mates, the young man at the bus stop does not. Instead he kneels down and cups Richard under his elbows.
“Where do you live, man? Tell me your name.”
The woman who answers the door does not seem surprised to see Richard weeping. She is short and wide, with large hips and black hair cropped to her neck. But her hair is not just black, the young man observes, in the brief moment it takes for her open the door and speak. Her hair is raven-like and shiny, like the pelt of a bird. It is so complete and deep a colour that the young man wants to touch it, to plunge his fingers into the inkpot and draw them back, dripping. But he does not and stares at the woman’s own hands which are white with flour. She leans awkwardly against the frame. The man from the bus stop can see pink lines appearing in her arms, like wire on meat.
“What is it this time, Richard?” She sounds tired and the man can see the thrum of her pulse at her throat. Over her shoulder a clock set to the wrong time ticks weakly.
“Are you Yvette?” The man from the bus stop still has his hand on Richard’s arm. He can feel Richard shaking, a soft vibration that makes him think of a boat bobbing on water.
The woman nods and opens the door wide. “His wife.” She does not ask who the young man is and he has the impression that this line of action, this train of events, is familiar to her.
Richard walks into the flat. He knows where he is immediately and the noise that has harried him all the way home disappears. He can no longer hear the shouts and explosions; the grey mud has faded back into lilac striped wallpaper and purple carpets. He sits down on the sofa and holds his head.
“He was upset. At the bus stop.” The young man stands uncertainly at the door. He has not been invited in and the hallway to the flats is warm. He would love a glass of water but is afraid to ask. He had not expected the day to go like this, this eleventh day without Emma. She has left a bag at his house and while waiting for the bus he had been thinking about calling her.
The woman, Yvette, seems not to hear him and moves over to her husband. The door is left open and the man edges in. Yvette sits down on the arm of the sofa and touches her husband’s shoulder. “What was it this time?” she asks again.
Richard says nothing but begins to silently weep.
Yvette clears her throat and stands up. There is no sympathy in her posture. Her back is straight and she has placed her hands on her thighs: ghostly prints tattoo her jeans. She brushes the flour away and goes towards a book shelf lining the wall opposite the sofa.
“What date is it today?”
“Huh? The first.” The young man is now fully in the room. “Was he a soldier? I knew someone once who acted like that. Hearing explosions and stuff.”
“Richard? No.” Yvette is turning the pages of a thick book. “It’s not that. Oh.”
She has found what she was looking for. She closes the book slowly and puts it back. When she turns back, her forehead is creased, the dabs of flour making her skin look old and folded like a manuscript. “First of July. Start of the Somme, isn’t it Richard?”
After Richard has gone to lie down she gets the young man a glass of water and finally asks his name.
“Well. Pete.” Her hand is on the back of a wooden chair, one of a pair pushed up against a small kitchen table.
Pete cannot think of what to say so empties his glass. He decides to leave and not to ask further questions. The glass is on the table when she speaks again and, when she does, it comes in a rush, like a blast of hot air through an open oven door.
“It must seem odd to you but he didn’t use to be as bad as this. He takes an event that happened on that date and somehow – it sucks him up. He lives it. But just for the day. Not even the whole day. He might forget about the Somme when he wakes up.”
Pete blinks. He is twenty-two years old and has never heard anything like this before. He wonders for a moment if someone is playing a trick and if it’s just a ruse to get him in a flat to rob him. Maybe Richard – if that is even his name – is about to burst out from his bedroom and subject him to some sex game. But he can see from Yvette’s still face that she is not joking. He does not know what to say. The Somme?
“Sometimes it can be funny. Yesterday he tried tightrope walking. Anniversary of someone crossing the Niagara Falls, apparently.” Yvette has sat down at the table and extends a hand to the other chair. Pete sits down opposite and waits. “I’ve stopped him from going on the internet but he reads that book over there. On This Day.”
Pete clears his throat and says something he hopes will not offend her. “Have you thought of throwing it out?”
Yvette looks at him from beneath a frown. “I did. That’s the third copy.”
A ball of half-kneaded yeast crackles and fizzes on the kitchen counter. It is a small apartment and each sound carries. Pete can hear the static of the television and the hum of the fridge. He thinks of his own compressed space of living and how Emma seemed to make the flat feel bigger. Her absence has knocked it out of kilter and for the past eleven days he has walked from room to room like a man walking a cliff face.
It takes him a while to speak again. “Why is he like this?”
But Yvette is not prepared to answer. Instead she gets up and walks the short distance to the fridge and retrieves a half-empty bottle of white wine. A vineyard in Tuscany smiles smugly up at Pete and he stays silent as Yvette sloshes some into his glass.
He comes back the next day. He cannot say why but the road from his door seems to lead back to Richard and Yvette’s small home. As he walks he looks at the road markings, how they organise the traffic, how the drivers turn and steer their cars according to the instructions painted in white and yellow. He pauses at the pavement edge, waiting to cross, aware that he, too, is being marshalled by a set of unspoken instructions. He has not called Emma.
Yvette opens the door to him again. She has fruit smears along her forearms and the smell of baking blankets Pete as he walks inside. A pie with red juice breaking through the pastry bubbles on the kitchen counter. Over her shoulder he can see Richard hunched at the kitchen table, a map spread out before him.
Yvette steps aside to let Pete in. “Roswell,” she says simply.
Pete moves cautiously to where Richard is sitting. Now he is closer he can see that the map covering the table is of New Mexico. Richard has a pen in his hand and is drawing lines directly onto the paper and writing notes in a tiny, cramped script. There are many of them and Pete is reminded of the pictures of Maoris in Emma’s text books, with their charcoal swirls and twists. Richard looks up at Pete and the younger man thinks he sees a light of recognition blaze, just for a second, in the filmy milk of the older man’s eyes. Pete wonders again what has driven Richard to this kind of life. Has he a broken heart? Pete grips the wood of the table, suddenly fearful.
“How can this be a weather balloon?” Richard asks. His voice is breathy and something crackles in his throat. Yvette, now opening the fridge, pours something into a small plastic cup.
“It’s time again, Richard. Drink it up.”
Richard complies without question and then hunkers down over the map again. As Yvette bends into the oven and deposits another fruit pie on the counter he starts muttering and writing again. Yvette nods over to the sofa. “You’re back, then,” as they sit down.
“Not to make fun,” but why would she think that? Pete tries to throw off his defensiveness. Misunderstanding has painted his heart black and he imagines it turning in his ribcage like a shrivelled apple. Not everyone is trying to trick me, he tells himself. “Did he remember the Somme again? Yesterday?”
Yvette shakes her head and lights a cigarette from a packet on the coffee table. She offers one to Pete who refuses, pauses, and then takes one. “He watched a food channel all afternoon.”
“Do you like to cook?”
Yvette picks at the fruit drying on her arms. Her limbs are not long but appear powerful. A plump line of flesh curves down to a surprisingly delicate wrist. “The pie will be cool soon. You can have some.”
A sigh from behind them and a movement of papers. The fridge hums. Pete sits back in his chair, breathing on his first cigarette in over a year. Emma had always hated it. He inhales, exhales, watching the grey smoke coil towards the ceiling. A draught comes in from somewhere and the smoke drifts towards it, vapour seeking vapour. He has noticed that Yvette has not answered his simple question about cooking but decides not to ask again.
But then she speaks, surprising him. “He has pneumonia. Secondary infection,” and Yvette flicks her head backwards, meaning Richard. “Too many Antarctic expeditions and war zones. He sleeps outside in all weather. Sometimes I think his body hurts more than his mind.”
The smell of the fruit pie is sharp and acidic but Pete feels hungry. He is aware of his own body in Yvette’s presence. “How long has he been doing this?”
“Just a few more minutes and you can eat.”
“How does he pick which event to relive? Does he have any control over it?”
“Tired, Richard?” Yvette stands up and stubs out her cigarette, unfinished. Richard is yawning and rubbing his eyes. Yvette touches his cheek and his temple like she would a child. Pete watches. Yvette’s fingers are thick, like her arms and legs, yet she touches her husband with a softness that makes Richard sigh. And then his arms are around her, hooped around Yvette’s neck, and he allows her to help him up and into the bedroom just off the kitchen. Pete hears the swish of a duvet being pulled back and quiet muttering as Richard settles in. He coughs once, twice, and there is then silence.
Yvette reappears. Her mouth is pulled up in a pout, as though she is thinking. She goes over to the fruit pie and cuts out two slices. She puts them on plates and then brings them over to the coffee table.
After they eat she allows him to touch her but Pete is aware that it is merely curiosity on her part, or a brief interest that quickly passes. Her breasts are solid but Yvette moves away when Pete tries to move his hand under her top. A band of distance settles between them once more. Their pie, pastry too thick, sits unfinished.
“Shall I go?” Pete asks.
Instead Yvette begins to talk. “Amost a year ago. Maybe less. It’s hard to say exactly because it was subtle. He didn’t suddenly wake up as Captain Oates or Louis the Fourteenth.”
Pete stays silent. He has recognised that he cannot press Yvette directly; she is like a balloon that will slip away under his fingers.
“On Sundays he is just Richard. He visits his mother. She doesn’t know about what he does the rest of the week. She has asked why we don’t have any money but he can’t work. I can’t work. Got to look after him.”
Pete bites back his question about Sundays. Why just on Sundays?
“He’ll sleep for a while. The medication he takes for the pneumonia and psychosis tends to knock him out.” Yvette stands up and adjusts her top. She picks up their plates. “Done?” She doesn’t wait for an answer and puts them on the kitchen counter. She cuts another piece of pie for Richard and then throws the remainder, and the untouched pie cooked earlier, in the bin.
For the next three weeks Pete comes every day. He is not working and the prospect of job hunting retreats into the faded margins. Occasionally bills and letters arrive for Emma and it is only until they topple off the telephone table that Pete realises he has not thought of her for days. Instead he finds his feet hurrying towards Yvette and Richard’s small flat. He makes himself useful. A shelf is straightened, the washer in the bathroom tap is replaced. He empties the bin full of uneaten baking. Yvette does not like to go outside much and the bins frighten her. Pete is happy to help. But each day, right before he taps their door, he wonders what will meet him. What will Richard be wearing? One day Richard answers the door in a faded Live Aid t-shirt, Queen blaring in the background. The significance of other dates are not as clear; on July 14th, Yvette has to explain that the cowboy hat and plastic pistol are a reference to Billy the Kid, shot by Pat Garret. Pete sees the humour in a grown man wearing a child’s fancy-dress costume but he does not laugh.
He wonders what it must be like for Richard on Sundays. These are the days when the real Richard comes to the surface, breaking through like a dying fish. On Sundays Richard sits on the sofa drinking coffee with a trembling hand, pushing his hair back from his forehead repeatedly. He breathes in and out and his chest makes a struggling, ripping sound. Occasionally he coughs up blood into a tissue and stares at it. Yvette picks up the white debris and collects it in a basket, red streaks blazing through the wicker. Richard watches her, the way a sailor looks for land.
One Thursday Pete sits on the sofa next to Richard, who is wearing a tired flannel dressing-gown. Pete has yet to talk to the real Richard and has only conversed with him through one of his alter egos. He has met Richard the explorer, the soldier, the cowboy. Pete thinks it is possible that less and less of Richard comes back on his day of rest; that the six days of – what was it? not exactly make-believe, more like otherness – has scraped away a layer of authenticity and made it harder for the real Richard to resurface.
“How long?” Richard suddenly asks and it takes a second for Pete to realise he is talking to Yvette. She is dressing in the bedroom; her body is not so solid when she is unclothed and Pete has become used to the roundness of her back. Richard has spent many nights on the living room floor, on expeditions, hugging a crackly transistor radio. He does not appear to notice Pete is in his bed.
Richard looks around now. “How long, Yvette?”
Pete does not know what he means but Yvette answers him. “Three more days.”
She does not say anything more and Richard falls silent, too. He wraps his hands around his cooling tea. Pete watches his knuckles turn white and wants to ask what Richard means. But he does not.
Though he cannot admit it to himself, Pete almost runs to their flat three days later. He has not been able to summon up the courage to ask Yvette about the significance of the date, expect that it is a Sunday. She has withdrawn and he has not stayed over since Thursday. Instead her body has become spiky; elbows appear where previously there had been smooth ribs, a chin where there had been lips. She does not need to say it but Pete knows their brief, blazing union has come to an end.
He still wants to know, though. Richard and Yvette have pulled him into their orbit, occupying a space in his head that had been filled with threatened heartbreak and irrational behaviour. Emma came and fetched her bag without incident. Pete didn’t look up from the television when she spoke and her returned key still sat untouched on the kitchen side.
It takes a while for Yvette to answer the door. For a moment Pete does not think she is going to allow him into the flat. She is breathing hard, chest rising and falling. There is no smell of baking. She has been crying.
Pete pauses. This he has never seen. Richard has cried, many times, over the past three weeks. He cries for lost comrades and for people who died a hundred years ago. But Pete has never seen Yvette cry.
A pink box is on the coffee table. Something else new. Pete has come to know this small flat and has never seen the box before. Richard is looking at it and he is weeping. He holds a photograph in one hand. And Pete can see he is there. It is Sunday, but he is not there because it is a Sunday. Richard is really there.
“Maybe he was scared of this day all along.” Yvette is speaking behind him. Her eyes are wet but when Pete turns, he can see a smile threatening to break through. She is looking past him to Richard. “He hasn’t been like this for such a long time.”
Pete knows what she means. He can see Richard, too. He is not wearing the skin of another and his grief is his own. Pete looks at Yvette again and sees he no longer has a place in her home.
So, although it hurts more than it should and although the world beyond this small flat seems a space of blackness, Pete smiles back at Yvette. He touches Richard on the shoulder, and leaves.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2013, Rebecca Burns