A Living Hell

Couple arguing in Car
Photo by Noella Choi

It was the speed limit signs. The constant reference to the speed limits in Zita’s car. That’s when it started.

“It goes down to thirty soon. In anticipation of the village. You aren’t slowing down. Are you listening Zita?”

Not just the speed Zita was driving. Changing gear too soon or too late. Putting strain on the engine.

Zita had something she wanted to tell him that late April day. She wanted Nigel to just listen. For once. Just to listen without interruption. Without a vindictive little swipe. Without knowing better.

She even said it. “Will you just listen to the story, Nigel, without passing comment?”
He looked across from the passenger seat with that “what me?” look of hurt in his eyes. Then graciously swept his hand towards her face, his mouth zipped, almost for seconds.

Zita nearly lost the plot. She actually shouted. And swore. Surprising herself almost as much as him. In was only in retrospect that she analysed her astonishing reaction. It was, she decided, the fact that Nigel did exactly what she expected him to do. He’d interrupted her story after only moments, despite her preamble. It was the predictability of it all. Like an old married couple.

Nigel was married, but not to Zita. Zita had expected Nigel to marry her, had longed for the day they would live together in happy concert as man and wife. They’d dated since university and Zita thought they were still dating when Nigel rucked up as usual on a Wednesday evening and announced that he was getting married to Zita’s friend Lucinda. Luscious Lucinda with the double d lips and child bearing hips. That seemed predictable too.

Zita missed Nigel’s handsome face, if not his constant reminders that she was in debt for climaxing when he didn’t. “Don’t forget you owe me one,” he used to say. By phone, in person and by text. That was the trouble with Nigel. It didn’t always happen, but when it did, it was spectacular. And hard not to keep her raptures muted. “The noise puts me off my stride,” Nigel would tut, rolling aside. Hence the occasional debt which Zita used to duly repay. Al fresco. Just to please Nigel.

But Nigel married Lucinda. It was hard for Zita to watch Lucinda and Nigel in gurning wedded bliss. Even harder to feign a smile when baby Lucindas were born. Yet Zita slowly became accustomed to Wednesdays alone and met one or two chaps who didn’t criticise the way she walked or talked, who admired her soft hair and fine eyes, even if they never quite succeeded in taking her to the heights of that exquisite little death.

Three years on, Zita was on the point of accepting life without Nigel, of seeing the benefits of wearing fashionable clothes and delicate shoes without having to worry about an impromptu request to kneel on a damp hillock or mound of leaves, when Nigel came back. Perhaps Lucinda didn’t appreciate the great outdoors; maybe Nigel had missed her. And this time it was different. No longer did Nigel ruck up on a Wednesday. No longer was Zita a girlfriend. The Wednesdays became Thursdays when Lucinda was at Zumba and Zita was upgraded to mistress.

Although Zita lived alone and there was plenty of time and space for the interludes behind Lucinda’s toned back, there was still the question of Nigel’s proclivity for fresh air. Which was why Zita was driving to one of their regular secluded haunts on a spring Thursday evening when her unexpected outburst occurred. At that moment Zita couldn’t think of one single reason why she had allowed Nigel back into her life. She could only glare at this petty, inflated, self opinionated and critical man, when the traffic lights allowed, and feel nothing but loathing. She hoped never to dirty her palms and her knees ever again. But Nigel was the passenger and she was driving at fifty miles per hour along an A road with a lorry close behind, so there was nothing to be done except drive to the woodland as planned.

Nigel stalked out of the car and for a while Zita watched the back of his neatly trimmed hair as he marched towards the trees. For a moment she contemplated driving away, but she knew the rush of pleasure would only be short lived. She’d be reprimanded, criticised and harried for days and for weeks until Nigel’s anger was spent. Far easier to follow him. Eventually.

Zita roamed the woods alone for a while, not even a dog walker to keep her company as she picked her way across the mossy carpet of twisted roots and knotweed towards their usual nesting place. Every now and then she heard the shriek and halloo of a bird, or perhaps a small animal, but the woods were otherwise silent. But as she neared the edge of the ravine, the howl became human. The cry became her name. She fell to her knees and crept towards the edge, keeping her hands steady whilst inching her neck towards the sound.

Nigel was below her, hanging from the face of the gully, his handsome features red and puffy, his eyes bulging, the veins in his neck pulsing with the effort of holding on to the sinewy root of a tree.

“Zita. Help. Now,” he hissed as orange sandy earth sprayed his face. “Get a branch. Pull me up.”
“Of course,” was Zita’s first thought as she stood, turning to search the ground for a sturdy branch. But then she noticed the pulled root of a tree and remembered Nigel’s oft repeated words, which now seemed rather funny. “For the love of God, Zita, you don’t have a disability. Lift your feet when you walk. You’ll trip on a root and break your neck one of these days.”
She turned back towards the gorge and peered over. The spray of fine soil spilling onto Nigel’s ruddy face had become globular. The root Nigel grasped was peeling away from the hard clay and the leak of small stones was escalating, falling fifty feet towards a mass of green and purple foliage below.
Zita thought of the speed signs, the lectures, the betrayal and not least the current debt.
“You should have listened,” Zita said as she wiped off the dirt from her palms and her knees for the very last time. As she drove back towards home, carefully obeying the speed limits, she wasn’t sure whether Nigel had actually heard.

Life on the Friday and over the weekend without Nigel felt good. If Zita worried what Lucinda and the twins were going through, she didn’t dwell on it. She went to work as usual at the Library, accepted compliments from her colleagues on how well she looked, that purple was really her colour and that whatever she was on they’d like some. On the Monday she ate garlic bread with her pizza for tea, watched reality television for two hours with a tub of ice cream and settled in bed to read a trashy romance. But then Nigel came back.

The reprimands, the criticism and the harrying went on all night, there in Zita’s bedroom. Stunned and confused, Zita didn’t at first register the dirt, the scratches and the blood. The torn clothes and missing shoe. The displaced position of Nigel’s shoulder, the protruding white knuckle of bone. The spear of wood through his temple. But the penny eventually dropped. The valedictory look on Nigel’s smug face was unmistakeable. She’d never get rid of him now.

As the days went by, his constant self satisfied presence, his sniping and criticism was bad enough at home, but Nigel would turn up at the library when Zita was alone to give a sneering commentary on the staff and the students, the books read and music borrowed. In the car too, checking her gear change and the speedometer without warning. In the garden, in the bath, at the supermarket. Inspecting her trolly, counting the calories.

On the plus side, Zita’s house was tidy. But on the down side, Nigel was always there, watching her eat, criticising her choice of nightwear, the television channel, her reading matter. Opining constantly. Dusting the shelves. Wiping away fingerprints from mirrors and glass. It was a living hell, as Zita privately termed it.

Time passed and the weeks of living hell slowly became months, but little by little Nigel changed. He stopped visiting Zita at work. Or even in the car. He lost interest in surprising her at a window or on the loo. Kept his opinions to himself. He’d stay at home and stare into space. Listless and vacant. Deflated, almost.
“What’s wrong, Nigel?” Zita would ask.
“I’m bored,” Nigel would reply.

Zita had previously suggested watching daytime tv, peeling the veg, getting rid of the knotweed, playing Cluedo or surfing the internet. But bolstered by his passivity she felt braver one day.
“Why don’t you go and haunt somebody else?”
“I can’t,” Nigel reluctantly confessed. “I chose you.”

It all came out eventually. Nigel’s body was stuck in the thick glossy foliage at the bottom of the ravine. No one had found it. He couldn’t pass through from this life to the next until it was discovered, blessed and buried. Until that happened he’d chosen to plague Zita to punish her. But ironically she was the only one who could help.

Nigel had to say please. It was hard.

As she steadily breathed garlic into the atmosphere that night, Zita contemplated her options. Of course she could tell Lucinda where she might find Nigel’s body. Lucinda wouldn’t need to know Zita was there, though it would be fun to watch Lucinda’s satisfied face fall when Zita elaborated about the affair. But then again Lucinda was back at Zumba. She didn’t seem so very sad without Nigel. And she’d done Zita a favour by marrying him really, for three years at least.

Perhaps Zita could do nothing. Nigel was sadly no longer handsome, but she was used to him now. By wintertime the foliage might clear, his body might be found. And if it wasn’t. Well, Nigel did love life al fresco. And he could stay with Zita and watch, lonely and bored forever, as she rebuilt her life. After all, Nigel wouldn’t exist unless she let him.


About Caroline England

Caroline England's short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses was published by ACHUKAbooks in 2012. Many of her short stories and poems have been published in literary publications. She is currently looking to publish her novels Beneath the Skin, Worm Roses, Lie With Me Under The Toothbrush Tree and Snapshot.

Caroline England's short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses was published by ACHUKAbooks in 2012. Many of her short stories and poems have been published in literary publications. She is currently looking to publish her novels Beneath the Skin, Worm Roses, Lie With Me Under The Toothbrush Tree and Snapshot.

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