In our series of short stories centred around the song Stand by Me and the photo by Gregory Crewdson, Loretta Proctor sets the ball rolling with a hauntingly beautiful story.
Enjoying the stillness of the night was Brad’s greatest pleasure. It was his silent secret ritual to stop in some sleeping town when returning home from a day travelling the wide dusty motorways. His life was spent talking to some truly stupid men and women in huge impersonal blocks of concrete and glass. He had juries to persuade with his eloquence, clients to impress with his skills, subordinates to bark commands at and employers to fawn over and assure that he was working all hours of the day and night in order to help their huge firms make money and more money. Much of which, it had to be said, he earned in big fat salaries. He knew he was overpaid but heck – he worked for it. Look at him now, coming home at two in the morning! Glad of a day or two off at last to be at home and unwind a little; play a round or two of golf with some boring old fool at the club. Or maybe not. Maybe just sit and read some good books, lose himself in his imagination as he always loved to do.
His life ebbed away, as it seemed to him, in meaningless conversations about baseball, the state of the government, food, sex and how much money one was making. During the day, he was Bradley Alleyne, a handsome, debonair, amusing lawyer. A bright spark, life and soul; all those things. But by night, driving home, running away from it all, he was alone with himself. This was a person no one else knew, not even his wife, Louellen. A secret inner person who lived in different worlds, with different and unusual thoughts. When he was young he was sometimes afraid that he was a little mad. Why didn’t he seem to care about all the things that others loved and deemed so important? To him they were meaningless and trivial. Life however, had to be lived. Eventually, he put the brilliant, yet weird thoughts and ideas into another compartment and faced the world wearing a solid mask of charm, bonhomie and ordinariness.
Tonight he felt tired and dispirited. He couldn’t help wondering, as he manoeuvred his car in and out of the lanes of traffic that still streamed along the highways, what exactly was life all about. It was true he had a beautiful home to go to, the token slim blonde wife, a crowd of cheery friends to slap him on the back and call him ‘buddy’. But he knew he cared for none of them anymore. They were no different to the men and women in the soulless offices. Life had slowly and progressively lost its allure and sparkle.
He recalled the day he’d met Louellen, a pretty, flirty little thing, a secretary in one of the law offices he regularly visited. He’d fallen for her looks, who wouldn’t? She had a girlish, feminine appeal, a bit of a Marilyn Monroe type. That kind of ‘little girl lost’ had always appealed to his sense of masculine protectiveness. He’d never rated her intelligence as high. He wasn’t bothered about brains in a woman in those days. She was sexy and beautiful and that was all that mattered. She made a good wife and hostess and that was good too. They were happy enough in their way, at least at the start. Things had become tedious, monotonous over the years. They knew each other’s habits. He certainly knew her, what there was to know – but nurtured with a secret pleasure the fact that she didn’t really know him at all.
Lou once started talking about what she called ‘spiritual things’ and he’d upbraided her for being so naïve, so silly as to believe in reading tea leaves and going to fortune tellers or astrologers or whatever they called them. She’d looked abashed, as well she might, put all that nonsense aside and said no more about it. He still caught her reading the odd book on tarot or whatever now and then and one day went so far as to throw the book in the trash can. She was still being stupid, he told her. It was, he upbraided her, time she read something on science or history or . . . if she liked the stars so much . . . why not study astronomy, for Chrissake? And she had hung her head and looked the lost little girl again and he’d felt kind. gave her a hug and said it was for her own good. In a way, it had been more interesting knowing her then though. She had become such a bore these last few years. Immersed in home and keeping the house so spotless, you couldn’t put a pin in the wrong place; she’d be down on it, quietly putting it back on the pin cushion. She wouldn’t say a word, just ooze annoyance and disapproval. Trivialities. It was all about trivialities.
Lou was part of all that wearied him. Everything and everyone wearied him now.
While driving mechanically along these well known routes, he spent these precious moments of solitude thinking in peace. At last! The thoughts that he had held back all day now flooded into his mind with a peculiar force and vividness. In such moments he enjoyed a secret world he had invented. In these living dreams the people he conjured to his mind were real. He saw every detail, smelt their clothes as if they stood before him. He heard their voices; mellow voices not the harsh New York accents such as he encountered during the day. Sometimes he lived in the past amongst the great ones. He met Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and conversed with them on politics. Or else chatted with Emerson and Thoreau about philosophy. Once it was Florence Nightingale he’d accompanied to the battlefields of the Crimea and Tennyson’s famous poem came streaming through his mind . . . ’theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die . . . into the vale of death rode the Six Hundred . . .’ There were times he felt deep sympathy with those ill-fated men.
Tonight the rain slashed against the windscreen and perforce he had to abandon his delightful private world and concentrate on the road ahead. He stopped as he often did when he got to one of the small towns on his route. The rain had abated a little and the wide streets looked shining clean, a fine damp mist swirling about the lamps, captured like haloes. Oh, the emptiness, the peace, the silence! It was such a noisy world, this modern world. He remembered the quiet times of his youth when few cars passed along the street of his little home town in New York State. They had lived by a creek where deer and stags had roamed. All one could hear some days was the burbling waters of the creek and the songs of bluebirds and red cardinals.
He sat back for a few moments just savouring the emptiness around him, the silent shuttered shops, the gentle drip of rain from roofs and flowing in the gutters. If Lou was with him the radio would be on or a c.d. blasting forth or she’d be chattering on the phone to someone. He always turned his phone off on the journey home, defying anything to happen while he enjoyed these blissful moments of quiet. Home wasn’t too far away now, only a few more miles to go. But, out of a sense of duty he would always stop at this particular town and ring his wife to assure her all was well and to leave on the porch lights. He knew Lou would be sitting up in bed waiting for him. He really wished she wouldn’t but she insisted on it. Then there’d be the inevitable dreary conversation about her day when all he wanted by then was to go to sleep. He switched on the phone and rang his wife. There was no reply.
This was most unusual. She hadn’t said anything about going away . . . or had she? He seldom really listened to her, switched away to more interesting thoughts. Sometimes he fantasised about meeting and marrying an intelligent, thought-provoking woman. A woman who might read him poetry, tell him about her work as . . . say, a journalist or a lawyer herself. A smart, sassy sort of woman like some of the ones back at his legal firm. He wouldn’t go for looks now. He’d go for brains.
Stopping again, he tried the phone once more. Still no reply. Maybe she’d said she was going over to her Mother’s for a couple of days. But rack his brains as he might, he couldn’t recall her saying so. No, really – all that must have happened was that for once, she’d got tired of waiting and fallen fast asleep. He chuckled a little at the thought. All the same, he was used to her instant chatter and brightness when he rang, whatever the time of day. He always had to stop her flow of nonsense, saying, ‘Honey, just hang in there, I’ll be home soon, okay. You can tell me about Martha’s varicose veins then.’
Idly, he wondered if she was unwell. Perhaps a neighbour had taken her to hospital and he ran through a vivid scene where he dashed over to a hospital in the night, to find her full of drips and tubes; the drama and the excitement of it all. But nah . . . she was healthy as an ox, his Lou, her whole boring family were healthy as oxen. Hardly likely she’d suddenly be taken ill. On the other hand, she hadn’t been quite herself of late. Suppose she’d decided to leave and abandon him. Run off with another man? What Lou? She adored him – so that wasn’t a likely scenario either.
Brad got back into the car and sat for a few moments imagining the scene as he walked in. An eerily empty house, the silence and the space. No silly, cheerful Lou. Is that what he really wanted? No one in his life at all? For some reason he began to feel a sense of unease and fear. He put his foot on the pedal and drove off fast into the night. On reaching their house, he was relieved to see the porch light on as always, in fact, all the lights were on. This was puzzling him now and he parked badly, scraping the side of his precious car against a low wall. Jumping out, he ran the steps to the front door. Entering the house, relief flooded over him. At first nothing seemed amiss until he realised that there was no murmuring sound of the radio or television in the background. Lou kept it on in the bedroom for ‘company’ she said. Well, Brad conceded, maybe she sometimes felt a bit scared alone in this big house. The house, like the rain washed street outside, was silent. He called Lou’s name loudly as he stood in the hallway – but again he was met by silence. He went into the kitchen. She wasn’t there. He went into the sitting room; empty also. More frantic now, he ran upstairs two steps at a time, his legs leaden with anxiety and ran into the bedroom.
She lay on the bed, her hand dangling over the edge. But he knew at once that she was not asleep. This was the calm tranquillity of death. A quiet, peaceful Lou, her face at rest but pale and vacant. Beside her were two empty bottles of sleeping pills. He picked up the note that had fallen from her lifeless hand to the floor.
It simply said: ‘I got tired of being someone else, tired of trying to please you and be the perfect woman you wanted. Maybe now I can be me.’
Brad stood for a moment and stared at this lifeless form that looked so relaxed and rested and so very silent. His cheerful, foolish Lou! He looked around desperately. Surely this was just a dream, a story he was making up? It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. This was too much silence, even for him. He sobbed and knelt beside her, clutching her cold hand and saying over and over again, ‘Why, Lou, why? I gave you everything! What more did you want?’
But there was no reply from Lou – only the silence answered him back.
Loretta Proctor was born in Cairo, Egypt to an English father and Greek mother. She won prizes in the 1970’s for essays and plays, then wrote specialised articles. Now retired to Malvern, she delights in story telling, writes poetry and is pleased to be a distant relation of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning.
Her first book The Long Shadow is set in Greece in WW1 and explores the theme of dual nationality and is soon to be released as an ebook as well. A lifelong fascination with Pre-Raphaelite art led to writing The Crimson Bed,, a novel set in Victorian London. Her new novel, Middle Watch, is based partly on a friend’s real life story which captured Loretta’s imagination. The setting for this story is amongst the lighthouses and lighthousekeepers, stormy seas and stormy passions.