*Features adult language and themes.*
Why did he have to wear steel toe-caps?
The thug kicked him again. Kurt was laying on the floor of the alley behind the bookshop where he’d just finished a signing.
When he spotted the two guys in line he’d thought it was odd. His audience didn’t usually extend to people that had neck tattoos. They waited patiently and each had a book for him to sign. The one with the neck tattoo was very quiet while the other was scarily enthusiastic.
He’d got through the signing with his fake smile and easy manner. There wasn’t a spot of trouble but by the end he’d started to get the shakes. It had been a real challenge to keep sober and his body was protesting. By the time he left the shop by the rear exit his mind was firmly fixed on finding a bar and giving himself precisely what he needed.
The two men emerged from the shadows and without a word, attacked him. One of them pinned his arms while the other punched him in the stomach. He tried to curl over, he tensed his stomach, but the impacts took his breath away, he couldn’t shout for help. He took a shot in the face and fell to the ground. Then the guy that had held him took his turn by kicking him.
He felt blood trickle from his nose and the bruises forming on his torso. Both of his attackers stood over him out of breath. One of them nudged him with a foot to put him flat on his back.
The tattooed man leaned over him and casually spat in his face. “Barry’s patience is running out. You know who I mean?”
“Barry the bookie. You’ve managed to test the limits of his generosity. You’re 150 grand in the hole. He ain’t taking any more of your bets until you start paying up. If you don’t pay up he’ll start taking in back in body parts.”
The other guy leaned over. “And Barry don’t start with limbs, he likes to take the smaller more important bits. You understand? Nod if you do.”
“Do you reckon we should have said our piece before beating him up?” Said the tattooed man.
“Nah, I think he’s got the message.”
They each gave him another kick and left.
Kurt couldn’t think straight.
Barry the bookie. Despite everything he laughed causing pain to lance through his nose. What an absurd name. Am I in a Guy Richie film? I wonder if he became a bookie just for the alliteration?
Then he blacked out.
* * *
There was no point going to the police. His life was being held together by the thinnest web of deceits. It would only take one of them to fray and ping loose for the whole thing to fall apart and ruin him.
There wasn’t much point going to the hospital. He didn’t think his nose was broken, but he had a good hunch that they’d cracked a rib. He’d be sore for a while but he’d survive, for now.
I don’t have £150,000. I’ve barely got enough to pay the whore to keep her mouth shut. After that it’ll be a struggle to have enough to fend of the shakes.
Kurt found a public toilet to clean himself up as well as he could. It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. Luckily they hadn’t mugged him so he had some money to get a taxi home.
Once there, he went straight to the freezer, put some ice into a tea towel and put it to his nose. He picked a few cubes out and put them in a glass. Searched through a few cupboards, but couldn’t find any booze.
“You won’t find any in there.” Kurt turned around, Martha was standing in the doorway. “What the fuck happened to you?”
She doesn’t sound all that concerned.
He tried to give her a look of distain, but he ruined it by wincing. He walked past her into the living room, reached underneath the sofa and pulled out a nearly empty bottle of scotch. He sat down, forgetting about the ice and took a long swig straight from the bottle.
“Seriously, what the hell have you been doing? Fancy coming home in this sort of state.”
Her compassion is… Fuck it. “You’re compassion is really touching, you know. You could at least act concerned. You could try to feign worry, perhaps muster a bit of tenderness?”
“The only thing I feel when I look at you is pity. If you’re wondering where your precious booze is, I’ve thrown it all away.”
“What the fuck did you do that for?”
“Look at yourself, Kurt. You’re a drunk. You’ve been losing it for months. It was only a matter of time until I found you like this. I didn’t mind when you kept a lid on it, but when this crap starts affecting me you need to be warned.”
Kurt’s head was pounding as he tried to absorb her words. Martha’s shrill voice was slicing through his brain making it all worse. “What the hell are you talking about woman?”
“My credit cards. They’ve all been cancelled. I had a snippy little maitre’d cut up the platinum card in front of all my friends today. Do you realise how galling that is?”
Kurt stood up, his anger overpowering the pain. “Seriously, that’s your problem. Your fucking credit card didn’t work? You suffered a little embarrassment? You petty, fucking, bitch.
“Do you realise this is the most you’ve spoken to me in the last three months? All because you’ve run out of money. That’s all I’ve been to you isn’t it? A bloody bank balance. The idiot that pays for the lifestyle you want.”
“Finally something we agree on. You are an idiot.”
A wave of exhaustion broke over Kurt. He slumped back onto the sofa.
I guess she’s got me there. “You want to know why your cards don’t work? It’s very simple. I don’t have any money. Or rather, we don’t have any money.”
“How is that possible? You’re not making any sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. You spend money as quickly as I can earn it. Our beautiful home has been re-mortgaged so many times that for the amount we owe, it should be made from gold bricks. I also have a serious drinking problem, so a lot of money goes into that.”
“Well, as you ask. Over the last few months I’ve formed a gambling addiction. Turns out I’m no better at picking horses than I am at choosing wives.”
“Nope, I owe a man that calls himself ‘Barry the Bookie’ a hundred and fifty grand. The cracked rib, bloody nose and plethora of bruises are compliments of his friends.”
“Barry the Bookie, do you think you’re in an episode of the ‘sopranos’ or something. Jesus. I didn’t think you could be so dumb.”
“I’m not finished. This last one will make you really proud.” He took a deep breath and swigged from the bottle again. “I have to pay a hooker three grand a month to keep her mouth shut about our relationship and everything else in my life that’s fucked up which I happened to confide in her.”
Martha was very still. The temperature in the room seemed to drop a few degrees. When she spoke her voice had a dangerous edge to it. “You’ve been seeing a prostitute?”
“Course I’ve been seeing a prostitute. When you threw me out of our bed did you really think I’d be content to whack off alone for the rest of my life? At least I tired to keep it discrete. I paid a professional for a service. I thought I was paying her enough to keep her mouth shut, plus I was pretty sure she had no idea who I was. Anyway, don’t think you’re blameless in all this. You’re the one that’s been acting like a whore for the last six months.”
“A whore?” Martha ran at him and began to slap him repeatedly. “How dare you…”
Kurt covered his head with his arms, her blows wouldn’t usually have hurt, but she managed to increase the pain he was already in. Finally he got up, grabbed her by the shoulders and flung her down onto the sofa. “Enough. You’ve been sleeping with people left right and centre. You knew that I knew about it too. I saw you at the New Year’s Eve party, coming out of the toilet with the slick looking bastard that was about 15 years your junior. You came out and looked me straight in the eye, not five minutes after you fucked him. I dare you to deny it.”
Martha looked up, breathing raggedly. “I don’t deny it. And you’re a fucking idiot if you think I haven’t been cheating on you for longer than six months. I’ve been taking lovers for years, Kurt, and I’ve enjoyed each and every one of them. When you saw me at New Year’s, I figured it was stupid trying to hide it anymore. I wanted to see if you’d have the backbone to confront me about it. Cynthia thought you’d do it within the month, my bet was on never. If you don’t think you’re to blame for this whole mess, you’re an even bigger arsehole than I thought you were, and that’s saying something.”
Kurt took another slurp from the whiskey bottle and found he’d emptied it. He threw it against the wall above where Martha was sitting. She gave a panicked shriek and was about to move away before Kurt blocked her. “Come on then Martha. I guess it’s about time. Time to get all of this out in the open. I’ve laid all my cards down. All my dirty secrets are there for you to see, you know how much I’ve fucked up. Tell me. Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me what I did to deserve what you’ve done to me?”
“Get away from me. You’ve gone too far. I’m leaving.” She tried to get up. Kurt pushed her back down.
“No. This is good. This is communication. The bedrock of a good marriage. Come on, this is your opportunity. Lay it all out for me. Why was I such a shitty husband that you feel no guilt for fucking half of London?”
“Step away from me and I’ll tell you.”
“Am I intimidating you, Martha? Huh. Finally showing a bit of backbone? Are you scared?”
Martha settled back in the sofa, shards of glass clinging to her clothes. She was very calm. “You don’t frighten me, Kurt. You don’t have the balls to harm me and that’s part of your problem.
“You’ve never done a thing in your life that might reflect badly on your career. Well, until now.
“Ever since we got married, probably before that, you’ve been living a complete and utter lie. In public you present yourself as this charming, easy going man that has life, oh-so, figured out. Your career always depended on it, you had to seem like you had all the answers, so you could charge to dispense them.
“I look back on when we met and shudder. I was such a naive little girl. I got sucked into this persona you’d made for yourself. I thought that was the real man. You can’t imagine how disappointing it was to find out the truth.”
Kurt had begun to pace back and forth in front of her as she spoke. “Yeah, this is good so far, Martha. I like it. Laying the foundation of blame. Keep it going, keep it going… What was the terrible truth?” He twirled his hand, motioning for his wife to continue.
“You’ve never lived your own life, Kurt. You have no idea who you are. Can’t you see that? You made this self-help bloke up. He started making a bit of money, he seemed to help people and you got a buzz out of feeling important so you kept up the act.
“Once we were married it all dawned on me. In the quiet moments when it was just us, you had no idea what to do, how to act around me. You don’t have a personality, you’re the most vacuous person I know, and Cynthia is my best friend. In the end it became your default. You just acted like the guy on stage all the time. The only variation was when you had to stop yourself and think about how your actions might be seen by others. You always worried about how things looked, rather than just living your life. All of your decisions were made for your audience, never for me, never for yourself and never for us.
“You created this little bubble and refused to let anyone else inside. The only thing I blame myself for was to be drawn in by the act. Once I was there I couldn’t find a way out and you made it so easy for me to stay where I was. We had money and comfort. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted as long as I was careful. I found myself in a sham marriage with a man who wanted nothing more from me than to play along and let the rest of the world think we were perfect.”
Kurt’s pacing had become faster. “So, you married me and didn’t like the man I turned out to be? That’s my fault is it? You always had a choice, you could have left anytime you wanted but you stayed, you took everything you could get. In fact you took advantage of me at every turn. Why didn’t you just leave? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I tried, Kurt. Over the years I tried plenty of times. It was like repeatedly walking into a wall. You dismissed me and spouted your usual spiel. The stuff you sell to the punters. Empty words and vague advice. You always put my unhappiness down to everything but our relationship. You gave me gifts, you threw money at me, pushed me toward my friends and work to keep me occupied. Deep down you knew the truth, I’m sure, but you’d stop at nothing to keep the status quo. If we ever had trouble you knew your career would be over. You’d be seen for the hypocrite you are.”
“That’s bullshit Martha, total crap. I gave you everything you wanted. I gave you as much of myself as I could.”
“You never gave me all of yourself, that’s the problem. The saddest thing of all is that you never gave everything to yourself. You don’t know who you are, Kurt. You have no idea what sort of person you are. The worst thing is you know it too.
“That’s what this little path of self-destruction is all about. You’ve been trapped in your life for the last twenty years. All you’ve worried about is being found out as the fraud you are…” Kurt started clenching his fists, he was breathing heavily through his mouth. The pain came in waves through his skull and his body ached. Adrenaline was pumping through him making his vision blurry. “Deep down you’re fed up with it all. You’ve never been brave enough to change your life. You can go on stage and tell others what to do, but you haven’t got the guts to take your own advice.
“The drinking, the gambling, your extortionate lover, it’s all been a way of forcing the issue.
“Circumstance will push the decision so you don’t have to actually make the choice yourself.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
“You asked for the truth.”
Kurt turned and slapped Martha hard across the face. She fell onto the sofa, her head bouncing on the cushion. She laid still for a moment. Kurt stood over her. Some pieces of glass on the sofa had cut her head in a few places. Blood flowed from her split lip and an angry bruise was already rising on her cheek.
Martha opened her eyes. She was completely calm. She kept her composure. She showed no signs of being scared, she simply looked up at Kurt with pity. “Well done, Kurt. Finally you’re letting the real you come out.”
Kurt stood frozen to the spot.
What have I done? He began to shake all over, tears sprang to his eyes.
Martha stood, went up on her toes and grazed a light kiss on his cheek. “I’m going to help you. I’m going to do what you haven’t got the strength to. I’m leaving now. I’m going straight to the police station to file a report. I’ll make it my personal business to make sure the press know every little detail of our marriage, then I’m going to make sure they dig a little deeper and find out about the drinking, the gambling and the prostitute. Once it’s all died down a bit I’ll file for divorce and take you for as much money as you’ve got left.
“I’m going to set you free.” She walked past him, picked up her bag and coat then left. Kurt heard the front door close and Martha’s car pull out of the driveway before he could move.
He fell to the floor sobbing.
It’s all done. I’m finished. He cried so hard his throat was raw and his eyes hurt. He rolled over and lay flat out on the floor. Stretched out his arms and legs as far as he could. The sobs receded slowly.
My life as I know it is over.
He wasn’t scared. He didn’t dread the next day and the inevitable hell that would follow. The immediate guilt from hitting the woman he’d loved for half his life lessened. The pain all over his body was gone.
All he felt was relief.
Many thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to comment below.