So tired. Bone tired. Arthur wasn’t quite sure when tired had become his default feeling. It was as if his internal computer had been reset to exhaustion.
This morning was no different than any other morning. His bones ached with resistance as he tried to bend them to his will. It was time to get up. Time for work.
Beside him his wife slept on, oblivious to his pain. Arthur allowed himself the pleasure of looking at her, soaking her in. Beautiful. Soft white skin, long blond hair fanned out on the pillow and lips so delicious and… blood.
A tiny spot of it marking her lips. So tiny, and yet so wrong. It marred her perfection. He couldn’t focus on anything else, but that tiny spot.
He shook her shoulder, “Astrid.”
She moaned in her sleep and turned over. He shook her again, “Your lip Astrid, it… it’s bleeding.”
Her eyes opened slowly. The deep ocean blue that he always found himself sinking into. “It’s nothing,” she said and the tip of her pink tongue darted out and licked the spot of blood away. “Must’ve bit my lip,” she purred, still drowsy. Her eyes trailed lazily over Arthur, but he felt no warmth, no love in them, she was assessing him. “You look tired today,” she finally said, “have you taken your pills?”
Arthur nodded. “I’ll get them after my shower.” He heaved himself up off the bed. His back ached and his legs felt shaky beneath him but he willed them into submission. He had played rugby in his younger days, even run marathons but now he was only a shadow of his former self. He leaned on the headboard for support as he stood up, and he felt shame burn through him; his wife would be still assessing him, the weak fool she had married. He kept his back to her, he did not want to see the contempt in her eyes.
It was the job. He knew it was killing him, slowly and surely. Taking all his energy from him. Sucking it all away. And yet the job paid well. It was the trade-off he supposed, beautiful wife, nice house, great kids, good schools, holidays abroad, and all he had to give was a little bit more of his life – every day.
He winced as he took his first halting steps towards the shower. Some days the pain was worse than others.
“Arthur,” his wife called softly, “happy birthday sweetheart.”
He didn’t turn around. He looked straight ahead at the ensuite – the shower beckoning. Sweetheart. It was a nice endearment. But empty. Much like how he felt most days.
“Yes,” Arthur muttered to himself, “Happy birthday.”
And yet he knew there was no happiness in his soul.
Arthur sat at the computer in his office, it was the helm of his ship from where he commanded all his operations. Here at work, he was important, needed, here his mind was worshipped not his failing body. He was one of the partners in the largest accountancy practises in New Zealand. He was good at his job, and he knew that, and the firm knew that. And yet there had been a price to pay for being so good at his job.
He had lost his hair first. He’d tried the comb-over for a while but when more hair started falling out he’d resorted to having it all shaved off. Now he was completely bald.
Then there was the feeling of lethargy, the constant weakness in his bones. His muscles wasting away as he spent most of his time behind his desk. He had tried to get back to the former glory of his younger days, but he couldn’t even manage a run around the block. In the end he had embraced it, he was aging, that was all there was to it. And yet when he looked at his wife, and his two children, he felt almost resentful. They remained young, unravaged by stress and age. Still, he told himself, he did this for them. It was the greatest sacrifice. Proof of his love.
His thoughts were distracted by Edith, his secretary, entering his office. She smiled warmly setting down a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake, “Happy birthday Arthur.”
“Thank you Edith.” He looked at her closely, only twenty or so, an abundance of hair, and soft, unwrinkled flesh. She was about to leave when he stopped her. “Edith… can I ask… how old do you think I am?”
“Oh, no more than twenty one,” she deflected smiling.
He could have let the conversation end there but he felt compelled to know. “No, really, take a guess,” he persisted. And he could almost feel himself trying to look younger as he said it, smiling a little, lifting the corners of his lips up, unwrinkling his forehead, trying to put the twinkle back in his eye.
Edith looked taken aback. He could see her run her eyes over his wrinkled flesh, his balding head, his stooped back. He knew she had a figure in her head and she was now minusing ten years to be on the safe side.
“Maybe… sixty?” she said hesitantly.
Arthur felt the shock hammer his bones. Sixty? he thought, she thinks I’m sixty? He waited for her to laugh a little, to say she was pulling his leg, but she looked expectant, waiting for an answer.
“No, I’m not sixty,” Arthur managed to say.
“Oh, I didn’t think so.” She was trying to cover up the awkwardness of the situation. “Was I closer with twenty one?”
“No. Never mind. Thanks Edith,” he forced himself to smile to try and ease her embarrassment.
After she’d gone he turned back to the computer, but he couldn’t type anymore. He felt something choke in the back of his throat and with horror he realised he was about to cry. Can’t cry at work, he thought to himself. Can’t cry.
He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in his computer screen. The image of an old, tired man. And yet he was only forty five.
Astrid didn’t like him drinking, but it was his birthday so to hell with Astrid.
He sat at a local bar on his own. Downing whisky. It felt good to have the hot liquor burn his throat, it made him feel… alive.
He had come close today to packing up his job. Sixty? He thought again. How could she think I was sixty? And the sad fact was she had said sixty to be kind. Edith must have thought he was much older to have been prepared to say sixty. He took another hard swallow of the liquor feeling it temporarily numb his pain.
Yes, the job was killing him. The late nights, the desk work, the stress. And yet he loved it. Like an addict with his cocaine. He couldn’t give it up even though he knew it was bad for him. That’s all I am, he thought with disdain, a drug addict. Addicted to work.
He’d sat at his desk for a long time after his conversation with Edith. Holding back those tears. Unable to work. In the end he’d taken the afternoon off to drown his sorrows here.
The regular, washed up alcoholics were watching him. He could see them trying to guess his story, wondering if he was going to be one of them.
“Bartennder….annnother onee,” he slurred.
“Think you’ve had enough mate. Ain’t you a wife to head home too?”
“Yess!!” said Arthur with such enthusiasm he almost tipped off his seat. “I have wife, she is beeeautiffful.”
“You should go and see her. You want me to call you a cab?”
“…Annnd I have two children, booootiful children. They all b-blonde. Boy and girl. Twins. Look like their Mother. They… They….” Arthur tried to think of their age, was it fifteen, or fourteen? He couldn’t quite remember. He tried to see through the fog in his head. “They… bootiful,” he repeated.
“You’re a very lucky man,” said the bartender patiently, “I’ll get you a cab.” Arthur wrinkled his brow. Something the bartender had said.
“Lucky? Yes, lucky, lucky man.” And then the tears that he’d been holding back all day came, suddenly and violently. He was crying. For his youth. For his health. For his life.
When the taxi driver came Arthur found that his legs failed him. Not because they were too weak but because he was too drunk.
He slurred his address to the taxi driver who looked at him with something akin to disgust. “My b-birthday today,” he sloshed out before he passed out.
Arthur woke up at home, in bed. His head hurt like hell. What happened? he thought. And then it all came flooding back. The bar, the drinking. Astrid would be mad. She didn’t like him drinking. But hadn’t he thought to hell with Astrid? And it had been good to think like that for a change.
He could hear her voice now in the hallway. And that of his boy, Bjorn. It was dark still, the light from the hallway cascading shadows into the bedroom.
His son was angry, he could hear his voice strained, barely holding it together, “I don’t care what you say, he’s weak. And now, he’s drinking!”
“Shh, you’ll wake him.”
“He’s not providing enough for us.”
“I know. I’ll sort it.”
Arthur tried to sit up in bed. But the movement caused too much pain. Not providing enough? How dare his son say that. One thing he did do was provide. Trusts in both the children’s names, top schools, horses and holidays, everything provided for.
Unless, he thought, with worry, unless his son wasn’t talking about money.
A slow guilt washed over him. The guilt of the emotionally absent father. Sometimes it was too easy to go on his mobile phone and answer emails rather than engage with his children. People at work always mentioned what a proud father he must be. He would nod enthusiastically, but no if he was honest, he didn’t feel proud… he felt… strangely nothing.
He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think about any of this. Happy birthday to me, he hummed softly in his head until sleep reclaimed him.
It was morning.
Arthur took his pills and made it down to breakfast. His son looked up from his bowl of cereal and glared at him angrily. His daughter, Anni the spitting image of her mother gazed at him serenely but with disinterest.
His wife was cooking bacon and eggs. As always a blessing to look upon. But he could sense her anger bubbling underneath her beautiful surface.
“You came home drunk yesterday,” she said over the noise of the range hood. She kept her eyes on the frypan. “Drunk during the day,” and she let the condemnation hang in the air. “You know how we feel about drinking Arthur?”
And now she looked up. Those beautiful blue eyes burning into him. It filled him with desire.
“I’m sorry,” he said, like a dog with its tail between its legs. And he was sorry. Sorry for everything. He knew his wife abhorred drinking. No wine. No beer. No spirits. No liquor at their house. She was a regular goody two shoes. He’d never met anyone so anal about it all. Yet there were worse things in the world.
“Bye Mum,” smiled Anni sweetly, hoisting her school bag on to one shoulder. “…Arthur,” she briefly acknowledged with a quick raise of her eyebrows. He wasn’t rewarded with the same smile that she had given to her mother. She didn’t even call him Dad anymore.
His son stood up to go as well. Arthur noticed his son was taller than him now. When had he got so big? It seemed like only yesterday when….
“See ya. Basketball training after school remember,” muttered his son. He wasn’t speaking to him, wasn’t even looking at him. He was looking at his mother.
“Bye kids,” said Astrid warmly. And then she turned to Arthur and the warmth faded away. “Are you going to get ready for work?” she asked politely.
He looked at his watch 8.20am. He had slept in. He was never late for work. But today… perhaps today was the start of something new.
“I’m having today off,” he said, sounding surprised by his own words but growing more certain of them as he thought about it. “Yes, mental health day. I need…” what did he need? “I need to think about things.”
“Is everything okay?” Astrid looked a little worried. “Have you taken your pills?”
“Pills? Yes. Yes, I’ve had them.”
She moved towards him now slowly and surely. Was she coming to him? It had been so long. She placed her hands on either side of his face, tenderly. He found himself exhaling at her touch, the arousal beginning.
“You look tired Arthur. So tired. You should see Doctor Steadman today.”
He nodded at her words. Hoping for more. He looked at her lips. So delicious. He felt he could melt on them. Did she still want him? Did she still love him? He allowed himself to hope. She pulled his face close to hers and brought her lips close to his ear, he could feel her warm breath tickling him ever so slightly. It sent shivers down his spine. Her fingertips caressed his tired, wrinkled skin. Arthur closed his eyes in longing. She loves me still, he thought.
But her words were icy cold. “I don’t like you drinking Arthur,” she whispered, “don’t do it again,” and then she pulled away and left the room.
“I… feel so old Doctor. And weak. And tired. And the pains…. It seems to be worse. I don’t feel forty five. I don’t look forty five….” Arthur had to stop talking. He had said too much. He felt a lump in his throat already forming.
Doctor Steadman nodded and kept on smiling his warm smile. It had never left his face. As if it was plastered on. “Look Arthur,” he began, “What we’ll do is get a blood sample, send that off just to make sure everything is alright.”
Arthur nodded. His last blood tests had come back perfectly normal. But maybe this time it would be different. He definitely felt as if something was wrong. Something eating away at him. And not for the first time he thought of the dreaded “C” word.
Doctor Steadman was still talking but Arthur had switched off. Cancer, could it be? Funny, that was his horoscope sign as well. Yes, funny, but he didn’t feel like laughing. Arthur found himself distracted by the doctors blonde hair. No baldness there, thought Arthur with envy. He has a good head of hair on him.
“… and you know Arthur we all age at different rates. Some of it’s hereditary. Some of it physical, such as exposure to the elements, or stress.”
Arthur nodded, brought back to the conversation. The doctor was giving him two prescription sheets and a sheet for a blood sample.
“Are you still taking your pills?” the doctor was asking.
He sounded just like Astrid. Pills? Are you still taking your pills? Have you had your pill today?
“Yes. I’m still taking them.”
“White for during the day. Blue at night. Every day. Okay?” The doctor said.
Arthur nodded. “And we’ll be in contact with you with the result of your bloods alright?”
Alright? No he wasn’t. Something was wrong. He knew that, he felt that. He was definitely not alright.
When Arthur got home, Astrid was in the shower. She’d been off playing tennis. Arthur didn’t know how she did it. He barely had the energy to hold a racket these days. For one crazy, impetuous moment, he wondered if he should join her. But he imagined her disgust at having her shower interrupted by one lecherous, old man. And perhaps that’s all he was now. An old, tired man.
He sighed and sat down at the kitchen bench. His head in his hands. The word cancer was still rebounding inside his brain and wouldn’t go away. The more he thought about it the more the idea gathered substance and became not just a notion but a fact.
A beeping sound distracted him from his morbid thoughts. It was Astrid’s i-phone, the latest money could buy, beeping from inside her Gucci handbag, again the latest money could buy. He’d never before looked at Astrid’s phone. That was her private property. He’d never been one of those snooping, jealous partners. He was faithful and he’d always just assumed Astrid was too. And yet… there was no love in her eyes. Not anymore.
He found himself quickly going through her handbag and pulling out her phone. He looked around furtively, guilty. It was wrong. But then, if there was nothing there, a harmless text message, then it would be fine, wouldn’t it? He swiped the touch screen quickly, he knew her password, had even helped set it up for her at Christmas. He saw the beginnings of a message.
Hows the old man?
Getting older. Not sure how much longer he can last.
How wd u like someone your own age? 😉
Lol. Yes. Not sure how long I can put him off.
Arthur dropped the phone as if it had burnt. He heard the shower turning off. He quickly picked up the phone and shoved it back in Astrid’s bag.
A cold sweat covered his brow. The room went dizzy. He felt he couldn’t breathe. He clutched onto the kitchen bench and went outside. Taking deeps breaths. To the courtyard. Spanish tiles. Only the best money can buy. Landscaped gardens. Only the best money could buy. Heated swimming pool and gazebo. Only the best money could buy. Was his wife having an affair? He’d been so busy at work, so busy. Perhaps, it was his fault. His wife. Only the best money could buy, he though caustically. And yet just like the Beatles song, he knew. Money can’t buy love.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. The children came home. His son bad tempered about something. His daughter oblivious to his presence. His wife occupying herself in the kitchen. Arthur watched them all as if he was from a great distance, an outsider looking in.
Dinner was served, formally in the dining room. His wife placed his meal down in front of him. Red meat with roast vegetables. And of course accompanied with a tiny white pill. He swallowed it quickly with a glass of water. They always had water at the table. Any visitors would think they were teetotallers. He thought longingly about the whisky last night. It seemed like so long ago now.
His family watched him in silence while he took his pill and then they resumed talking… to each other. And Astrid listened and nodded and advised while Arthur found himself just looking on. Watching.
“How old are you?” he suddenly asked, interrupting their polite conversation. His family turned to look at him in surprise.
“What?” said his son in incredulity. His eyebrows squeezing together, as if to say, what an idiot. “How old are you?” repeated Arthur. “I couldn’t remember. The other day…”
“Fifteen. We’re sixteen in two months time Arthur,” his daughter answered stiffly.
“Oh, sixteen. Sweet sixteen. That’ll be nice,” he said and resumed cutting up his meat.
“Are you alright?” asked his wife. She sounded genuinely concerned.
Alright. There was that word again. No, he was not alright. But instead he found himself plastering on a smile, much like Dr Steadman had done, and saying, “Yes. I’m alright,” as he lied to their pretty little faces.
And they went on eating.
It was bedtime. Arthur faced the bathroom mirror. There was a new look in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Was this what madness looked like? Perhaps. He giggled to himself. He wasn’t even too sure why. He hadn’t giggled since he was a child. It felt good. Naughty. Like having a drink of whisky.
He opened up his side of the bathroom cabinet and took out his pills. Blue one for night. Blue, just like the smurfs, he thought and had another little giggle to himself. He popped the pill out of its tinfoil and looked at it. Blue, not quite the colour of Astrid’s eyes. But still a nice blue, a pretty blue. The pills courtesy of Dr Steadman. Such a nice man. With such nice hair. He prepared to swallow it.
And then he stopped.
He rolled the tiny little blue pill over and over in his hand. He’d been taking pills for so long. Since Dr Steadman had discovered his congenital heart defect. It was thanks to Dr Steadman he was still alive. Otherwise BOOM! Heart attack. Dead meat. But was that really so bad? Wouldn’t it be good to feel something? To feel anything but the misery in which he was encased. What did he have to live for anyway? A cheating wife? Kids who couldn’t care less about him?
He looked at his reflection in the mirror. Yes definitely something not quite right in his eyes today. Something wild. Naughty. He was going to be a naughty boy today. Very naughty.
And Arthur dropped the blue tablet down the sink with another small giggle.
It must’ve been just after midnight when he heard their voices. The three of them. He had thought about calling out, but he didn’t. He just opened his eyes, his back to them and listened curiously, his eyes half closed.
“I’m so hungry.” His son.
“Yes, it’s been a while.” His wife. “Come on. There’s not much meat on his bones these days.”
A small laugh. His daughter.
Their words didn’t quite make sense, he felt half groggy from sleep. He could see dim reflections in the mirrored glass wardrobe doors as they entered the room.
They didn’t turn the light on.
“You go first, you didn’t feed last time.”
What the f***, thought Arthur suddenly awake. But he said nothing. Did nothing. Just kept rigidly still. He felt the goosedown duvet roughly pulled off him.
His heart hammered in his chest so loudly. He’d never heard it beat so hard before. And then he remembered, the blue pill, he hadn’t taken it. Foolish. Was he having a heart attack? Was it the end?
Arthur felt his pyjama trousers being pulled roughly down. His buttocks were exposed now. He could feel the cold air lightly on his skin. But still he did not move.
He felt his son’s hands on his spinal column. He saw the shapes in the mirror, his daughter and wife, watching. Just watching. What were they doing? Why were they just standing there?
A noise came, a soft, slurping sound, and he felt wetness on his spinal column. I need to scream, he thought. Scream. But he couldn’t. Because he wanted to know. And so he kept quiet, until he felt the sharp pain of a hundred needles pummel his spinal column.
He screamed then. An almighty scream that echoed off the walls. The pain stopped abruptly. Someone turned the light on.
“WHAT… WHAT THE F*** IS GOING ON!” he shouted.
His son backed away, a strange mixture of blood and mucus and clear white liquid splattered on his face, he looked confused, “He didn’t take the blue pill,” his son was saying looking at his Mother. “He couldn’t have…”
“You’re damn right I didn’t take the blue pill!” Arthur spat out. He could still feel the pain needling through him. It had been so intense.
“Leave us,” his wife commanded to Bjorn and Anni, and like obedient pups the children left the room, his son casting a sulky backwards glance.
Arthur rubbed his spinal column. It felt wet and tender, like something had been sucked right out of him. His wife moved slowly towards him. Her eyes that beautiful blue, drawing him in. “I’m sorry you had to see that Arthur. If only…”
“A-Are you trying to kill me?”
Astrid stopped. Her head tilted. “You should feel privileged really. We only choose the very best.” She smiled as she moved closer. Arthur felt himself instinctively inch backwards against the bed.
“You see Arthur, I’m a parasite. But like all parasites my children and I need a host to survive. Someone from whom we can… feed from.” She kept smiling. The same smile as Dr Steadman.
Arthur felt a slow mounting horror building inside him. Host. Parasite. Feed. The words bounced around in his head. For one second he thought perhaps it was all a dream, a terrible, terrible dream, but the pain in his back told him this was real.
“As the children have aged their appetites have increased. It’s taken a toll on you my dear.” She sighed, “an unfortunate toll, but a necessary one.” She looked at him now. His wife, so beautiful, so perfect. A monster.
“Are they m-mine? The children?”
His wife laughed cruelly. “Of course not. They’re mine. We self replicate, always twins, sometimes more, if we’re lucky. But you have helped raise them through your blood… and spinal fluid. You should be proud of them.”
Arthur felt like he was going to throw up. He was the provider. Not of money, but of food. And he was the food.
“Dr S-Steadman?” he found himself asking, his voice breaking.
“One of us. He’s arranging a replacement. You see you just don’t provide enough for our growing children anymore. And your depression and the alcohol incident are worrying. But we have grown to like you Arthur.”
She was still smiling. She reached out to touch his hand. But Arthur pulled away. “You don’t have to be like that,” she simpered.
Arthur wasn’t listening, “… the alcohol. W-Why no alcohol?”
She screwed up her face in disgust at the word. “We can’t feed from you when the alcohol is in your system, it’s not good for us.” It was all she’d reveal. “And when you provide so little these days… well you wouldn’t want us to starve would you?”
Her blue eyes penetrated his. He had always thought her so beautiful. Now she made his skin crawl.
She purred, seductively. “It’s shame you didn’t take your blue pill. We were hoping you would last out the year. But now. Well you can understand the situation is untenable.”
“Wait, wait,” spluttered Arthur, “Let me take the blue pill. The pain. I don’t want to feel the pain. Please Astrid,” he found himself begging now, tears filling his eyes, “Please, for old time’s sake.”
She cocked her head to the side. Thinking. “Well, I suppose. It would be better for all of us. I’d rather not hear you scream.” There was no sugar coating to her words. “Yes, take the blue pill. I will tell the children.”
Arthur got up hurriedly and stumbled to the bathroom. He closed the bathroom door behind him. And allowed himself to breathe. Just breathe.
He could hear his wife talking to the children in hushed whispers.
He opened the bathroom cabinet, saw the blue pills in their foil casing and ignored them, instead he went for the mouthwash. It had a small alcohol content, but perhaps it was enough. Enough to ward off the monsters. He took off the lid and hastily gulped the contents. He half gagged, but he finished the bottle.
“Are you ready Arthur?” called his wife from the bedroom, “We’re waiting.”
I bet you are you bitch, he thought to himself.
He turned the lock on the bathroom door. It made a loud click. His wife heard it. “Don’t be silly Arthur, come out,” she cajoled.
“I need more time,” he shouted out. “Please, time for the pills to work,” and while he was saying this he was pushing open the bathroom window. It was a fair drop from here, the second floor, but he was going to do it. He stood on the toilet seat and climbed up to the window ledge. He carefully positioned himself so that his legs were hanging over the ledge. “Please God,” he prayed, “Please help me.” He hoped his prayer was heard over all the other ones in the world, hoping it was upgraded because this was an emergency. And then he dropped into the waiting darkness.
It was early afternoon the next day when Arthur made it to his local bar. The same one he’d been to on his birthday. People looked at him strangely. This bald, barefoot, old, limping man wearing what looked like striped PJ’s.
“Please…please,” he managed to cough as he approached the bar. “Please… bartender a drink?”
There was desperation in his eyes.
“Water?” The bartender asked seeing no evidence of any money. “No – whiskey, please – I need- “
“Sorry mate, no money, no…”
“The drink’s on me,” piped up a voice from the corner. It belonged to one of the old drunks, one of the same ones that had been here on Arthur’s birthday.
“Thank you,” said Arthur gratefully. The bartender poured him a whisky and Arthur downed it in one go. The hot liquor burned his throat, but it felt good. He felt safe now. Safe for a while. Until the alcohol wore off.
The old drunk looked at Arthur knowingly, “Parasite?” was all he asked. And Arthur nodded and started weeping. “Welcome then,” said the old drunk and he pointed to the group of men in the corner cowering over their whiskeys and bourbons for protection. Men who looked just like Arthur. Old and withered. The fear set in their bloodshot eyes.
And Arthur knew he was now one of them.
The Provider by Anne Wilkins from New Zealand