‘CLUES’

‘Clues’ By Dean O. Arutoghor 

With the help of the night’s shade and from within my discreetly parked car further down the road, I watch my laughing wife and best friend link arms as they enter the pub.

My hunch was right all along.

My throat stiffens.

I am suddenly racked by a violent fitting cough.

Then my chest begins to tighten…

…I start to gasp for air…

…My head slams back into the headrest involuntarily…

I yank desperately at my tie with one hand and with the other stretch for the glove compartment…I grope desperately until my fingers hit the metal and plastic casing.  Immediately, I go into autopilot…One puff then count to thirty before inhaling again.  This time, I need the maximum ten puffs before my wheezing subsides.

As my breathing returns to normal, I quickly replace the near-empty inhaler in my trouser pocket with the spare one I have just retrieved from the glove compartment.

The urge to storm into the pub and smash my cheating wife and ‘best friend’s’ heads open with the nearest and thickest bottle I can lay my hands on was almost overwhelming but no sooner do I open the car door to follow through do I quickly close it again.  I start the engine, give them one last withering look, put the car in reverse and screech out of the car park.

I return home around 9pm that night and I am surprised to see that my mom, who had been babysitting our three young children, was still there.

‘Is Liz not back yet?’  I ask.

Mom explains that Liz had rung earlier to say she was running late because she had to take a drunk colleague home.

I scoff at that before apologising on Liz’s behalf.

‘Anyway, thanks for looking after the kids and staying on longer than you should have, mum.’

‘Don’t be silly.  They are my grandkids.  I will grab any opportunity to see them.  You know that?!’

As she makes to leave, she notices the bottle of wine (bought it on my way home) I thought I had cleverly hidden just behind the TV as soon as I walked in.

She knows my history with alcohol and why I had to give it up.

There is undisguised panic in her voice as she queries whether I have started drinking again and whether I am feeling stressed by work or something.

I put on my best reassuring smile and tell her I only bought it to have a toast on my 40th birthday tomorrow morning with Liz.  She raises a doubting eyebrow.

‘Sweetheart, do you want me to stay until Elizabeth gets back?’

I smile, kiss her on the cheeks and start to steer her towards the door.

At the door, she reminds me not to forget that she is taking me out for a birthday meal tomorrow evening and asks me several times where and when we are supposed to meet.

‘6pm at the Crown.  Oh and I won’t be late,’ I say rolling my eyes.

She smiles but it wasn’t a ‘that-was-funny-smile’.  I think I caught a hint of mischief in her eyes.

Before I can stop myself, I blurt it out: ‘Are you, Liz and Fred planning some kind of surprise birthday party for me?  You know I don’t like surprises?!’

I have studied my mum’s facial expressions all my life.  When lying, she ALWAYS looks to the left of whoever she is talking to for some reason and then stammers.

‘Believe me, I wanted to but Liz said she had to be at some annual work conference in Birmingham tomorrow.’  No stammer and she is looking straight at me.  I give her a knowing smile but she keeps a straight face.

Finally, I shrug.  ‘I know.  Unfortunate timing.  It couldn’t be helped.  She told me about the conference a few weeks ago.  There’s a lot riding on that.  If she does a good job there might be a promotion in it for her.’

‘What about Fred?  Can’t he join us for dinner tomorrow?’

I shrug again.  ‘No!  He has to be at his mother’s 70th birthday party in Wolverhampton.  Anyway, don’t forget that we will be inviting everybody round for the summer barbecue…’

‘Yes,’ mum said excitedly.  ‘I am so looking forward to that.  We can have a proper celebration then.  I know it’s not the same but…’

‘It’s fine mum.  You know I am not big on birthdays anyway.’

As soon as mom is out of the front door, I sprint up the stairs to our bedroom to rummage through Liz’s parked suitcase for her conference tomorrow.

I find the rail tickets for London Euston to Birmingham Central dated for tomorrow.  So she really is going to Birmingham!?  I don’t know what to believe anymore…

I suddenly remember that Fred said he is also travelling tomorrow.  To Wolverhampton, for his mother’s birthday party.  I whip out my phone and do a quick Google search for the distance between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.  Driving distance: 29 kilometres.  That’s what?  A mere 15 minutes on a good day.  I shake my head.  ‘On my birthday?  On my 40th birthday of all days?’

I want to cry and laugh at the same time but instead, I trudge downstairs and pour myself a drink.  I stand there for a good ten minutes weighing up the pros and cons of hitting the bottle again before finally gulping down the content of the wine glass in one go.  I sink back into the sofa, sigh and shut my eyes.

My tipsy mind tries to make sense of the whole thing…

Storried Clues

Fred had held a simmering grudge against Liz for years because he felt she came between our friendship and she, on the other hand, couldn’t stand the sight of Fred because he was always ringing me to come out for a drink, especially after the collapse of his marriage eight years ago.  Then three years ago, out of the blue, they didn’t seem to mind each other’s company.  Just like that?  I can’t remember any meeting at the time to try and patch things up.  Whenever I ask how come things have suddenly thawed between them, they both shrug and say they got tired of fighting each other.

A few more minutes pass before I stagger up to the children’s bedroom.  The older two (Vicky, 7 and Scott, 5) are tucked up in their bunk beds.  I kiss their foreheads before walking over to Tracey’s to watch her sleep.  I smile as I reach down to run my fingers through her hair.  Even though she is fast asleep, I still can’t help singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ in a whisper to her.  As I sing, my eyes wanders over to the family portrait on the bedside cabinet.  I blink repeatedly at it.  I lean forward to have a better look as if it’s the first time I am seeing it.  It is the first time I am ‘seeing’ it!  Liz, myself and our two older children are all blondes….I look down and suddenly realise my fingers had gone from stroking Tracey’s red hair to being wrapped around her tiny throat.  I am gently squeezing the life out of her.  She starts to steer and cough.  I instinctively snatch my hand away.  ‘What in God’s name…’  I stagger backwards in shock, trip over one of Tracey’s Barbie dolls lying on the floor and land on my arse.  I curl up in the foetal position and cry from the heart like I did when, in primary school, my first love, a Nigerian classmate called Ayaba, dumped me for another boy we used to call ‘The King’ for some reason.

That night, when Liz eventually returns, I am lying awake in bed upstairs.  I listen out for her unzipping her boots before doing the same with her dress.  I then hear her opening and closing the washing machine door.

Afterwards, she creeps up the stairs and goes straight for a shower.

I don’t steer when she lifts the duvet and sneaks into bed.  I had sworn that I would confront her as soon as she walks through the door but cometh the hour, all I can do is let the tears run down my cheeks with my back to her.  I will confront her tomorrow instead.

The next day, as she leaves for Euston station by taxi, she stands on tiptoes and puckers her lips for a kiss.  All I can see is her doing things to Fred with those lips.  I kiss her on the cheek instead.  She looks puzzled.  Thinking I am sulking, she apologises for not been there for my birthday and reminds me that she will make it up to me during the summer barbecue.  She waits for a response.

I open my mouth to say something.  Anything.  There is nothing.  My throat is dry.  I bottle it.

As I wave her off at the front door, my phone pings.  It’s a Whatsapp message from Fred.  I open it and he is wishing me a happy birthday and apologising again for not being there on my big day.  I quickly drop the phone onto the sofa and take a step back.  No!  I am not smashing another phone against the wall because of those two.  No.

At work, I can’t focus as images of those two continually run through my mind.

I am split.  I think of different ways I can carry out my revenge but almost immediately think of reasons why I can’t afford to be vengeful; she is a good mother to my children and Fred has an 8-year-old daughter from his failed marriage to Chloe.  Chloe was an ex-colleague of mine and I had actually set them up on a blind date.  They never told me why their marriage failed but the good thing is that she has never tried to stop Fred seeing his daughter, Sam.

My manager notices my shoddy work and tells me I am of no use to her in the state I am in.  She gives me permission to go home but fix up before tomorrow otherwise we would be having words.  I thank her and make my escape before she has time to change her mind.

I intend to go for a walk in the park to help clear my head but instead take a detour to the nearest pub on the way.

At the pub, I slouch in my chair and remain like that for several hours.

As I start to swig from my fifth bottle of beer, my phone pings.  I squint at the screen.  It’s a text from my mom wondering where I was.  It’s 6:30pm and she had been expecting me for 6pm.

Grabbing my coat, I gulp down the rest of my beer before staggering out of the pub.

Images of Fred and Liz continue to jump around in my mind during the taxi ride to The Crown.  I keep seeing her run her fingers through his red hair as they make passionate love in some dingy hotel room somewhere in Birmingham or Wolverhampton.

An hour and a half later, as I fumble in my pockets for my wallet to pay the taxi driver, I glance over my shoulder and think I make out a woman that looks like my mother sitting by herself in The Crown.  There is a ray of light on her.  The rest of the pub is in darkness.  Very odd.

I stagger in and instead of apologising to my scowling mom, I furiously blurt out that I believe Fred and Liz are having an affair.

Right at that moment, the pub lights suddenly come on and a handful of people start to sing a subdued ‘Happy Birthday’.

I peer at them but in my drunken state, the only faces I can make out are Liz, my three ‘children’, Fred, his ex-wife, Chloe and their daughter, Sam.

The red mist descends, I yell and charge at Fred but my left leg trips over my right and I somehow manage to knock Fred over.

We clatter into a table before I hear the back of Fred’s head hit the floor with a sickening thud.

We pause.  I hold my breath.

His eyes eventually flutter open.  He manages to focus on me.  He seems alright so I make a grab for his neck.  He scratches at my face.

As we scuffle on the pub floor, I demand answers as to why he betrayed me after all we have been through.  The bare-faced liar protests his innocence as I manage to land a few lucky punches against his face.

I hear my mom, Liz and Chloe screaming for us to stop.

The kids are crying hysterically.

Then Sam breaks free from her mother, runs over to us and hits me repeatedly on the shoulders.  She is screaming something about me leaving her dad alone.

I suddenly stop, grab hold of Sam and shake her violently.

‘This is why you are doing this, isn’t it?  You are getting me back.  The affair was my punishment’.

I then look from Sam to Chloe.

‘You bitch.  You told him, didn’t you?’

Chloe looks mortified.  She denies that she has said anything.

I jump off Fred and charge at her.  She tries to run but I manage to catch and slam her against the wall.

I grab her by the throat as I bear my teeth.

‘You told him, didn’t you?  We promised we would take it to our graves.  You told him about her, didn’t you?’ I say, pointing at Sam.  She shook her head.

‘Look at what you have caused because you couldn’t keep your flapping mouth shut.  That’s why he is punishing me by sleeping with Liz, isn’t it?  To get back at me.  When did you tell him?  Answer me, you bitch.’

I shake her violently.  A still dazed Fred tries to pull me off Chloe but even in my drunken state it was easy for me to push him back down.

I hear Liz shouting at me: ‘Nothing is going on between Fred and I, you idiot!  We have been meeting up to plan your surprise birthday party.  There were a lot of people that needed to be invited…Most of them were here earlier but have left now because they got tired of waiting for you to arrive…Thanks a lot, Matt.  Thanks for ruining weeks of planning.’  I started to loosen my grip on Chloe.

‘I couldn’t arrange and contact everybody by myself, could I?’ she continued.  ‘That’s why I roped in Fred.  Besides, we know how you can be very suspicious and go looking for clues so we had to put you off the scent by lying about our whereabouts.’

Mom chips in: ‘It was my idea that Elizabeth buys the train tickets and pretend she wouldn’t be around today.  I know you too well and know you would go snooping.  You finding Liz’s ticket was supposed to make you fall for it and truly think nobody apart from me was bothering with your 40th.’

Liz opens her mouth to say something else but quickly shuts up as what I had been saying earlier suddenly seems to dawn on her.  Her eyes widen.

She demands to know what I meant when I was pointing at Fred’s daughter, Sam.

I let go of Chloe and turn around slowly to face Fred who is rising to his feet again.

He looks in shock from me to Chloe and then back to me.  ‘This is the guy you had the one night stand with?’ he yells at her.  ‘Matt? It was Matt?  Oh my God.  That’s why you would rather grant me a divorce instead of revealing the identity of the ‘mystery’ man you had sex with?…Oh, my God.  Oh, my God.  You mean…You mean…It was Matt?…Matt!?  So, Sam could be Matt’s daughter?  And…And all these years, I…I might have been paying child support for his child?  I have been raising his child…You mean…’

‘Well, we are even then!’ I snarl.

A puzzled look comes over Fred’s face.

‘Yes.  That’s right!  I know that she is not mine’ I say, pointing at a petrified-looking Tracey, now in her mother’s arms.

‘It makes sense now.  The animosity between you two suddenly thawing about three years ago.  Just over nine months later that bastard was born.’

I turn to Chloe.

‘That’s when you told Fred, wasn’t it?  Three years ago you eventually cracked and told him about our little secret, didn’t you?  The two-faced, low-life then sets out to seduce my wife and voila, a few months later, she was pregnant with Tracey.’

I turn to face Liz.  ‘…And you two try to pass her off as mine just like Chloe and I did to him.  Bravo.  Well played Fred.  I can’t say I really blame you.  I would probably have done the same.’

Still facing Liz, I start to clap sarcastically.

I felt the sharp pain sear through my brain first before hearing the bottle smash into the side of my head.

As if in slow motion, I crumble to the floor.  My eyes slowly flutter open just in time to see Fred pulling back his right leg as far as he can before bringing it forward to smash into my face.  I lose consciousness.

Three weeks later, as I recuperate from my injuries at my mother’s place after being discharged from hospital the night before, my mom brings up my breakfast with the post on a tray.  There is a distinctive brown envelope.  No doubt, the results for the DNA tests on ‘our’ children I had demanded from Liz.  She had told me that the relationship was definitely over when she came to visit me the once in hospital.  I have tried ringing Fred several times to rant some more at him but he seems to be blocking my calls.  Coward!!!

I notice an additional envelope similar to the first one.  Puzzled, I open that one first.

It says that Fred’s ‘daughter’ is 99.9% biologically mine.

With shaky fingers, I then tear open the other envelope.

The results say it can be 99.9% confirmed that the older kids are biologically mine.  My eyes well up with tears.

I look down at the third line.

It reads that red-haired Tracey is also………99.9% biologically mine.

I scream in distress and tear at the piece of paper with my teeth before crumpling the rest of it and throwing it in a fit of rage.  Ironically, it hits a framed picture of my late dad and his equally late, red-headed dad.

 

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‘CLUES’

By Dean O. Arutoghor 

With the help of the night’s shade and from within my discreetly parked car further down the road, I watch my laughing wife and best friend link arms as they enter the pub.

My hunch was right all along.

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