Second Best

a short story by   KAREN BAYLY

Let’s get this over and done with, she thought. She’d been putting off cleaning out his room for weeks and could quite easily keep doing so, but she knew it wouldn’t do her any good. The old bugger was dead and buried. Time to erase him from her life.

She pulled herself up and out of her comfy armchair. Her joints were on the fritz again and getting up and down from a chair, or even up and down stairs, was a major exercise. Every part of her ancient body groaned and ached like the dickens. What was it he used to call it? Her “Arthuritis”. Silly old coot. She never knew whether he called it that to be funny, or whether he really didn’t know that the proper term was “arthritis”. If he was trying to be funny, he certainly hadn’t succeeded.

Hand on the wall to steady herself, she shuffled down the hallway. She arrived at his room and paused to catch her breath. Well, here goes, she thought.

She pushed the door open. Inside it was dim and smelled of mothballs, urine and old man. She wrinkled her nose. Disgusting. Why did old men smell so bad? Like old tom cats they were. Smelly, scrappy, and snarky.

She could hardly believed she’d ever married this man. Of course, it was never much of a marriage. He shared her bed briefly in the beginning, then sporadically for a few years, then not at all. Somehow out of it, they managed to bring forth one child. A lot of good it had done them. The fruit of their loins was now as dead as their sex life, having wiped himself out of existence in a car crash at age twenty-two. But that was a long time after things had fallen apart.

Walter had moved into the spare bedroom about the same time as he started going on those weekend fishing trips with his mates. Fishing trips my arse, she thought. Or rather his arse. She knew what those fishing trips were about, and they weren’t fishing for anything with scales and fins.

She knew there was one mate who was special to him. They went on trips together for years and years until this fellow was diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t go fishing anymore. Walter moved out for a while to be with him. She told him not to come back but he arrived on the doorstep one night, so full of grief and pain, she felt sorry for him. She’d also been lonely since he’d been gone, so subscribing to the notion that better the devil you know, she’d agreed he could share the house with her again.

They’d been good company for each other in those later years. He’d stopped going fishing when his special friend had died. It was as if the will to be that other man disappeared. Not that they ever had sex again. She wondered why he didn’t find another special friend. Could he not get it up anymore? Or was it something else?

She could never speak to him about his other life, the one from which she was barred. She hated to think about what it was that might stop him finding someone new. Hated to think that he had some awful disease that he kept from her. Most of all, she hated that the dead man may have been the love of his life. For Walter was the love of her life and he had rejected her. She could never forgive him.

She entered the room and sat down on his bed. Something made a crumpling sound underneath her backside. She put her hand between the sheets and pulled out a creased slip of paper. Squinting, she adjusted her glasses and read:

Thank you, Betty, for loving me despite everything. I know I hurt you and I am sorry. We lived in a time when it wasn’t acceptable for men like me to be true to themselves. Please believe me when I say, though I may not have loved you as you deserved to be loved, I was always loyal to you. I loved you as much as I could. I am so sorry it wasn’t enough.

Your Walter.

Daft old bugger, she thought, and cried until there were no tears left.


© Karen Bayly, 2018

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