If I’m being totally honest I had fantasized about Phil dying. Only in a mild, half- baked, Thursday morning in Sainsbury’s sort of way. I’m not talking about lying awake at night plotting his demise, no, just idly cruising those aisles, popping in the Weetabix, or driving to pick Clemmie up from nursery, dreaming a little dream, that sort of thing. Like you do when you’re bored and you’ve got two small children on your hands and you’ve been married for a while to an irritating man. Wondering what life would be like without a husband. And always the life afterwards bit, the nicer bit, not the horrid bit of the death itself.
A Rural Affair
Information about the book
Having the house to myself appealed. Getting rid of those ghastly leather sofas in tummy-upset brown, never having to hoover them again and get right down into the cracks, or keep the house immaculate as he liked, and as his mother had so assiduously done. No more wiping the skirting boards weekly, or turning the mattress monthly. No more meat and two veg and a lot more pasta. Or just a boiled egg. No more frantically raking up autumn leaves, I mused to myself now as one fluttered onto my windscreen, a beautiful, blood-red sycamore, spiralling down, winking at me. They could just lie where they fell, in a red and gold carpet on the grass as nature intended, instead of having to rush out like a lunatic when the first one dropped, Phil shouting, ‘Quick! They’re coming!’, raking furiously. These sorts of thoughts – innocuous, harmless ones, that crested, then sank, only to resurface some weeks later. Being alone with my babies, for instance; I glanced in my rear-view mirror at my toddler son as I drove along, watched as his thumb dropped wetly from his mouth and his eyes slowly closed. I reached back and deftly took the carton of juice he’d been clasping.
And OK – I straightened myself back at the wheel – just very occasionally, very fleetingly, my mind had inevitably turned to the mechanics of it. A piece of scaffolding perhaps, falling on his head from the construction site he walked under every morning, on his way from Charing Cross to Ludgate Circus: the one outside the Savoy, where they’d been at it for months. One of the workmen dropping a hammer. Clunk. But after six months, the scaffolding had come down – I’d checked. So . . . what about a mosquito bite? Turning septic? Quickly and painlessly, on one of our annual trips abroad – always Spain and always cycling. Same hotel every year, with other cycling enthusiasts. I read, mostly, and looked after the children. But the summer would slip by and Phil would remain unbitten, so, to embrace the winter months, I’d fondly imagined him slipping on ice as he went to get the paper in the village shop.
‘It all happened so quickly,’ Yvonne, who ran the shop, would say, her saucer eyes seeing everything before it happened anyway. ‘One minute he was breezing out with the Telegraph, the next he was flat on his back, blood pouring from his head!’
No, not blood, that would be horrid. All internal. I turned down the lane that led to my house, so narrow in places the hedges brushed the sides of the car. And unlikely too, because since when had an icy fall actually killed anyone? So then I’d had him falling off ladders while clearing gutters, but Phil didn’t do much gutter clearance so that didn’t really work; but then, it wasn’t supposed to work. It was just a run-of-the-mill, quotidian fantasy most housewives surely toy with occasionally when they’re married to – not a bad man, and not a complete fool, but not a terribly interesting or exciting man either.
I narrowed my eyes at the low autumn sun, pulling the visor down in defence. And since the cycling bug had bitten – he’d taken it up with messianic zeal a few years ago – he was almost permanently clad in blue Lycra, which didn’t help. Even to Clemmie’s first parents’ evening, complete with extraordinary Lycra shoes. He’d arrived in the classroom, where Miss Hawkins and I were waiting, looking like Jacques Cousteau emerging from the depths. Miss Hawkins had dropped the register she’d been so flustered, and as he’d sat down beside me on an infant-sized chair, peering over his nylon knees like a garden gnome, I’d thought: not entirely the man I’d envisaged spending the rest of my life with. But then again he paid the bills, worked extremely hard, was faithful, didn’t beat me, loved his children – despite sometimes behaving as if they were annoying relations of mine who’d come to stay: ‘ Your daughter thinks it’s a good idea to throw her food on the floor!’ Surely his daughter too? And even though he liked to be in complete control of our little household at all times – even taking the TV remote to the loo with him – I didn’t really hold it against him. Didn’t really want him dead.
It was a shock, therefore, to open the door to the policeman.
‘Mrs Shilling? May I have a word?’
Whilst he’d been cycling along the Dunstable Downs, the ridge of hills above our house, an easyJet plane returning from Lanzarote had simultaneously prepared for its descent at Luton. Dropping from freezing high altitude into warmer air, it had relieved itself: had fall-out. A chunk of ice, eighteen inches in diameter, had broken off from the fuselage and, five thousand feet below, found Phil, pedalling furiously. As my husband strove to render his body a temple, God, it seemed, had had other ideas.
I remember struggling to comprehend this; remember gaping at the policeman as he perched opposite me on my sofa, twisting his hat in his hands.
‘A piece of ice? From where exactly?’
‘From the undercarriage.’ He cleared his throat uncomfortably. ‘From the toilet, as a matter of fact.’
‘Yes. Blue Ice is how it’s known. Being as how it’s mixed with detergent.’
I stared. Not in a million years could I have dreamed this up. Fantasized about this in Sainsbury’s. Phil had been killed by a piece of piss. A hefty, frozen block of pee, travelling at spectacular speed and velocity – and which, it later transpired, hadn’t actually claimed him as he’d been cycling but, as bad luck would have it, when he’d stopped at a stile, taken his helmet off to scratch his head and wonder how to get the bike over. A freak accident, but not the first of its kind, the coroner would later inform me sympathetically over his bifocals as I sat at the back of his court in a navy-blue suit, hands clenched. ‘Thirty-five similar instances in the last year alone.’
‘Although in the last forty years, only five fatalities,’ the man from the Civil Aviation Authority had added stiffly. Six, then, with Phil.
‘Right. Thank you so much. I mean – for telling me.’ This, to the policeman in the here and now, in my sitting room. I stood up shakily.
The officer got to his feet, uncertain. He spread his hands helplessly.
‘Do you . . . want to see him?’
My mind reeled. ‘Where is he?’
‘In the hospital morgue.’
I caught my breath. Oh, God. On a trolley. In a bag. ‘No,’ I gasped instinctively.
‘No, not everyone does.’ He hesitated, unwilling to leave so soon. ‘Well, is there . . . anyone you’d like to contact? Have with you?’
‘No, no one. I mean, there is. Are. Plenty. But – not now. I’ll be fine, really.’
‘Your mother, perhaps?’
‘No, she’s dead.’
He looked shocked. So many dead.
‘Really, I’ll be fine.’ I was helping him, now. But he was only young.
‘And the children?’
‘Yes, I’ll pick them up from school.’
And pick them up I had. Well, only Clemmie. Archie was asleep in his cot upstairs, and I’d taken him with me and driven very slowly, because I was pretty sure I was in shock. I was a quiet mother at the gates, but not a distraught one, so Clemmie didn’t notice anything, and then I’d driven back and given them tea. Chicken nuggets, I remember, which I only serve in extremis. At the table Clemmie had told me about Miss Perkins, Mummy, who’s an assassin. ‘Assistant?’ Yes, and got a moustache. And later I’d bathed them and put them to bed. And then I’d walked around the house on that chilly, blustery evening, clutching the tops of my arms, gazing out of the window at the shivering late roses, the clouds rushing through the dark blue sky, flashes of sunshine casting long shadows on the lawn, waiting, waiting for something to happen. For the sluice gate to open. For my hand to clap my mouth as I gasped, ‘Oh, God!’ and fell, like Phil must have fallen, I told myself looking for a trigger, in a terrible heap to the ground. I tried to imagine him lying in the bracken, his bike a tangled mess, his face broken, shattered. Nothing. So I walked round the house some more, the house we’d lived in together for several years – happy years, I told myself sternly. This lovely cottage, in this beautiful village, which we’d stretched ourselves to afford, had done up meticulously, sourcing terracotta tiles from Italy, Victorian light switches from Somerset, cast-iron door handles from Wales, and from whence Phil had commuted into London every day, toiling in on a packed train, to bring back the wherewithal to raise our children. A selfless, dedicated man. I waited. Nothing.
Shock. Definitely shock. I’d read about it.