Paul Thomas

Marge Bristow, This is Your Life

May 3, 2003 | Short Story

Marge Bristow had had it. Up to here. No, really, she’d reached the end of her tether.

She sat in darkness in the home theatre of the house overlooking Raumati Beach. Melancholy pressed even more heavily on her as she recalled her husband’s elation the day they’d taken possession. In Rex’s mind, an extravagantly large, architect-designed beach-front residence made it official: he’d hit the big-time. It’s a long way from Eketahuna, Marge, he said any number of times as he stood on the balcony, exposing white, wobbling flesh and jauntily hailing non-plussed passers-by.

Marge loved the place for what it was rather than what it said. The beach seemed to unbutton people who wouldn’t have given them the time of day in town. When Rex suggested they trade in their barracky suburban mansion for a city apartment and base themselves on the Kapiti Coast, it was a dream come true. It had never occurred to her that he might share the dream.

Dreams seldom become reality without something getting lost in the transition. Pressure of work often kept Rex in town, leaving Marge to keep herself company in the beach-house. It got to the stage where she couldn’t remember the last time they’d slept under the same roof for more than a couple of nights on the trot.

Marge wasn’t one to complain. She bottled it up until the occasion of a friend’s boisterous birthday lunch. Perhaps it was the second glass of sticky that opened the floodgates. Afterwards, her friend Val drew her aside. She hated having to do this, did Val, but what were friends for? She explained to Marge that when a husband said to his wife, ‘let’s live up at the beach,’ what he really meant was, ‘you live up at the beach.’ It was a ploy to get the wife out of the way and make it easier for him to play up. Val knew what she was talking about because her ex had pulled the same trick.

‘Not my Rex,’ declared Marge. ‘He wouldn’t do that.’

Val rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, really? How old is he?’

‘Fifty-one.’

‘Right on schedule.’ Val’s eyes gleamed with the grim satisfaction that comes from shattering a friend’s illusions. ‘As soon as they think they can get by without us, they want to be single again.’ She gripped Marge’s shoulder. ‘Get yourself a good lawyer, darling.’

Being married to Rex was, literally, Marge’s life. She’d been his girlfriend at 16, his fiancee at 17, his bride at 18 and his loyal, loving wife ever since. She’d helped him build his printing business from a hand-to-mouth garage operation into a multi-million dollar enterprise with franchises throughout the North Island. She’d picked him up when he stumbled and put a rod up his back when the going got tough. They’d wept together when she miscarried and again when the doctors broke it to them that Marge could never have children. So be it. They had each other.

By his own admission, Rex was no oil painting. Marge, on the other hand, had been the prettiest girl in Eketahuna and wore the years well. After the miscarriage, she’d set out to make herself everything Rex could want in a woman, the perfect partner. She dieted and exercised relentlessly; she painstakingly applied anti-ageing cosmetics; she submitted to the indignities of minor plastic surgery; she overcame scalding embarrassment to acquire sex manuals and stoically put them into practise, even when it went against her instincts, judgement and what remained of her Methodist upbringing.

Rex, meanwhile, grew flabbier, more florid, more flatulent, less appreciative, less responsive.

There was no point in having it out with him or hiring a private detective. In her heart of hearts she knew Val was right. Rex had a girlfriend, a bit on the side. At a stroke, he’d rendered her entire adult life meaningless. She’d devoted her life to him. He’d repaid that devotion by sidelining her at the beach where she’d been tranquillised by a routine of pat-a-cake tennis, wretched golf, coffee mornings, leisurely lunches, soap-operatic gossip and discreet topless sunbathing. All to make room for another woman.

The betrayal went beyond the bit on the side. Rex had decided that she was past her use-by date. He might as well have dumped her at the tip, like a clapped-out appliance or a saggy, sweat-stained mattress.

Marge was nothing if not single-minded. She resolved to kill herself.

Tonight was the night. She’d had a few drinks and watched her favourite film, Crocodile Dundee 2, on video. Most people preferred the original but Marge loved the fish-out-of-water scenes in New York. Afterwards, she sat in the darkness in her dressing-gown, hands clasped on her lap, psyching herself up.

She glanced at the illuminated dial on her Omega watch. Rex had offered to get her a gold Rolex but she’d practically swooned when she saw the price tag. You can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl. It was 1.12am. It was time. She poured herself another slug of Cointreau. Knock it back, she told herself, then do it, before the buzz wears off.

As she raised the glass, a noise came from the back of the house. She put the glass down and listened. Yes, there it was again, a sort of scratching noise, a possum maybe or a cat. Then there was a soft pop that could’ve been a number of things, the most likely of which was the sound of a window being levered open.

Even though Marge planned to finish her drink and die, she felt a queasy tremor of fear.

She didn’t know what to do, not that she had many options. Her tongue lay on the floor of her mouth, as inert as a beached whale, and the armchair seemed to cling to her like quicksand. There were rustling sounds as if someone was slithering in through the window, followed by the cushioned thump of rubber soles landing on the laundry floor.

Marge strained her ears but heard nothing more until the intruder appeared in the doorway. The black balaclava was a sinister touch. Through the slits, his eyes seemed to glow with a yellow fire.

They stared at each other through a throbbing silence. Finally the intruder said, ‘Mrs Bristow?’

She nodded, mesmerised.

‘Mrs Marge Bristow?’

She nodded again.

The intruder sighed and clicked his tongue. ‘I was hoping you’d be asleep.’

Marge willed herself to speak. ‘Take whatever you want,’ she croaked. ‘I won’t do anything.’

‘I’m afraid you don’t understand,’ said the intruder. ‘I’m here to kill you.’

The intruder was Colin Hound, a 39-year-old full-time public servant and part-time professional killer. At an early age, he’d been dubbed “Dog.” As is often the case with abusive epithets, the fact that it was crushingly obvious didn’t lessen its sting. Hound sometimes wondered if he would have interacted better with the rest of the human race had his father been a Smith or a Brown.

Marge was more stupefied than terrified. ‘Why?’

Hound frowned behind his balaclava. ‘Because I’m being paid to, of course.’

‘Who by?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ said Hound indifferently. ‘I’m just the bloke at the end of the chain.’

It didn’t matter. Marge could work it out for herself. She didn’t have an enemy in the world. She abided by the Golden Rule. For Marge, the iron law governing all human contact was that one should avoid saying or doing anything that could possibly give offence. As Val regularly told her, she was too nice for her own good.

And Rex was too greedy for his. During the course of their marriage, they’d progressed from battling to getting by to living high on the hog. Ten years earlier, Marge had welcomed the news that Rex had achieved millionaire status. She’d never particularly aspired to being married to a millionaire but it certainly had a ring to it. Furthermore, it presumably eliminated any risk of them having to live on pet-food in their old age, as so many old age pensioners did nowadays if what one heard was true.

Then Rex floated his company and suddenly they were no longer merely rich, they were rolling in it. Marge didn’t really understand the mechanics of going public or the extent of the windfall. She was stunned when Val said she’d read somewhere that Rex was worth thirty million; she hid her confusion behind a wan smile and a shrug, as if to say, who’s counting?

Marge visualised the situation in all its raw ugliness: Rex wanted to get rid of her but couldn’t bear to hand over half his fortune in a divorce settlement, so he’d sent this man to kill her. That way he could have his cake and eat it too. My God, she thought, ten minutes ago I was heartbroken over him cheating on me. I didn’t know I was alive.

She realised the intruder was speaking to her. ‘No skin off my nose but it’s a pity you weren’t asleep. You wouldn’t have felt a thing.’

Marge shook her head distractedly. ‘It doesn’t matter. Really.’

Hound was impressed by her fatalism. This one wouldn’t give him any trouble. In fact…. ‘Look, Mrs Bristow, the idea is to make it look like you had a burglar who….well, got a bit carried away. Would you mind telling me what you’ve got that’s worth stealing, save me having to go through the place from top to bottom?’

‘Let’s see,’ said Marge, obliging as ever. ‘There’s the pictures. I know some of them don’t look like much but my husband’s always telling people how valuable they are. There’s my jewellery. Oh, and there’s my husband’s gun collection.’

Hound had a professional interest in firearms. ‘Oh yeah? What sort of guns are they?’

‘Little ones. They’ve got to be at least a hundred years old – it’s something to do with the licence.’

‘Let’s have a look.’

Marge rose, still clasping her hands in front of her, as submissive as a geisha girl. A natural-born victim if I ever saw one, thought Hound who considered himself an expert in the psychology and sociology of violence. If it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else.

She led him upstairs to her husband’s study, found a key in a desk drawer and opened the glass cabinet. Hound pushed past her to inspect what was a moderately impressive collection of late nineteenth century palm pistols and derringers.

He pointed to an empty space in the mathematically precise display. ‘There’s one missing.’

‘Yes,’ said Marge. ‘The Velodog.’

Hound felt a nerve twitch in his cheek. ‘The what?’

‘The Velodog. Cyclists used to carry them in case they were attacked by dogs. Imagine these days shooting a dog just because it growled at you. You’d never hear the end of it.’

That was more information than Hound needed. ‘Where is it?’

Marge opened her right hand. The tiny, nickel-plated, hammerless pistol rested on her palm.
‘Here.’

While it occurred to Hound to wonder why this timid little woman had been sitting in the dark clutching an antique miniature pistol, he didn’t sense danger. He held out his hand. ‘Give it here.’

With a speed and deftness that Hound would have admired in different circumstances, Marge coiled her fingers around the butt and snapped her arm out. Hound found himself staring down the Velodog’s barrel from a distance of less than two metres.

Stupid bitch, he thought, pointing an unloaded knick-knack at me and expecting me to shit my pants.

Hound’s contempt was based on five invalid assumptions: Marge wasn’t stupid, she wasn’t a bitch, she wasn’t pointing the gun in the expectation that it would cause him to lose control of his bowels, the Velodog, while ornamental, was rather more than a knick-knack and it wasn’t empty.

The only thing Rex Bristow enjoyed more than putting one over the busy-bodies, as he called them, was bragging about it. He loved telling people how he came to possess a pistol in full working order with usable ammunition despite only having a collector’s licence. The Velodog took a 6mm cartridge, an old, rare, virtually unobtainable type of ammunition. However, 6mm is as near as dammit to the standard .22 calibre. As Rex had demonstrated more than once, when loaded with .22 short cartridges, the Velodog, although 120 years old and ridiculously inoffensive-looking by the standards of modern weaponry, was still an effective anti-dog device.

Hound snatched casually at the gun. Marge countered by shooting him in the throat, mouth, right cheek and forehead.

As Hound died in the same self-effacing manner with which he performed his clerical duties at the Office of Film and Literature Classification, Marge rang the inner-city apartment. Rex picked up the phone after 20 rings. He sounded peeved, as well as a little out of breath.

Marge said, ‘I just wanted to say, it’s good to be alive.’

This short story originally appeared in Paul’s 2003 novel Sex Crimes.

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