Listen to Johnny Cash sing 'Ring of Fire'

"The Contract"

by Eric Carwardine

'I got it! I got it! Oh, where is that key?'

But the key to the front door was in her car, hanging from the same ring as the ignition key. Kicking-off her shoes, 'J' ran down the side path of their home. He was more likely to be on the back patio, rather than indoors. The sharing of her good news could not be delayed by an unyielding door.

She was greeted by the sound of Johnny Cash singing 'Ring of Fire' - his favourite song - but her husband was nowhere in sight. Can't be far away, she thought, the barbecue is all setup and, 'Oh Goodness', looks like he's cooking fish. My favourite!

The scaling knife alongside the cutting board. The fish-spines sticking to the blades of the open scissors. Sprigs of fresh rosemary. Asparagus trimmings. Cloves of garlic. Dish of butter. Red capsicums. Black pepper. Chopped coriander. Crusty bread. Plump green grapes. And on the hotplate, the hidden delights, wrapped in metal foil. Carefully, 'J' touched the silvery parcel, but it was not yet even warm. 'Must have just put it on', she thought. Still, it was unusual for him to let something cook unattended. 'He must have made a special trip to the markets to get that fish' she thought 'I'm sure we didn't have any in the freezer'

Johnny Cash finished singing 'Ring of Fire'. 'J' could now hear a very faint sizzling from the hotplate. A pair of magpies alighted on the back fence. An easterley breeze wafted through the patio. It was going to be a warm night. And suddenly 'J' felt the stinging blaze of tears behind her eyes.

For months, 'J' had been struggling to keep her little business afloat. A year ago, her husband had come home and quietly told her that his job for twenty years was at an end. He and other employees of long-standing had been given a modest lump-sum payout, but the regular income they had come to depend on was at an end. Like so many other couples in the town that night, their dinner went cold as their appetites faded with the setting sun.

She hadn't had time to work out why the contract had been awarded to her little business. As a child, she had read Nevil Shute's 'Ruined City'. Maybe it was like that, she thought. She had taken the phone call that morning, and now felt ashamed that all she could utter at the time was 'Thankyou, thankyou'. She wanted to phone him now, but it was probably just as well that she had left his phone number at the office. Her voice would have failed her again.

'J' got slowly to her feet, and wiped her eyes. She loved this little culinary scene, and all it promised for their evening together. But her husband was still nowhere to be seen, and the fish was starting to cook. 'I'll turn the heat off' she decided 'I'm sure he won't mind. Maybe he's been caught-up with something. Might have been called away'

One magpie flew down to the lawn, as 'J' slid open the patio door. The day was still hot, and she was uncomfortable in her business suit. 'I wonder if he'd like me in that lingerie he got me for Christmas' as a delicious thrill went through her body, and a huge smile spread over her face. 'Who cares if the neighbours see us. They might even join us' as her smile turned into laughter. 'J' could feel her breathing changing, and her eyes settled into an unblinking stare, as she wandered into their bedroom. Maybe he's taking a snooze, although she knew he'd never be absent-minded enough to sleep while their favourite food was incinerating itself on the barbecue.

The bedroom was empty, but she needed to change her clothes, and let the perspiration dry from her body. She gratefully slipped out of her jacket and long skirt and was unbuttoning her blouse when her gaze settled on the lowest drawer in the chest-of-drawers. And her heart almost tore itself out of her chest, as her lips tightened into a thin line, and the breath snorted in her nostrils. That drawer. The lowest drawer. Deliberately selected because it was the lowest. She needed to kneel to open it. Her quavering legs would never support her. Her hands were on the knobs, gently easing the drawer open. The drawer that was very seldom opened. The tissue-paper inside rustled like thunder as her trembling hands unfolded it. 'J' closed her eyes. She desperately needed to get her breathing under control.

The terracotta tiles were beautifully cool on 'J's bare feet as she crept back onto the patio. The warm breeze played mischievously with the translucent material of her top, as she nervously approached the table. Two places had already been set, and she assumed that her husband would sit in his usual place at the end. Without looking at what she held, she took her arm from behind her back, and laid the straw-coloured cane on the table. He would notice it when he sat down. He would know what was required. No words would be necessary. Although he would invite her to sit with him, as he talked about the cane. He would say it was a lovely piece of work, that she had done a splendid job of making it. He would talk about how they had visited the rattan shop together, and selected it, still in its raw unfinished form. And how she had sat at this same table, and with glasspaper rounded one end of the sensuous length, and smoothed its shaft, and applied a glistening coat of varnish, and hung it to dry, and ...

'I hear you got the contract'

'J' almost overturned the table, as she shot to her feet.

'Say, you alright? Look, you better sit down again. And stop breathing so fast. You'll pass out. I'll get you a drink.'

Her husband ran his fingertips along its length, without picking up the straw-coloured wand. Neither of them spoke. She avoided his eyes, staring intently at the bubbles in her drink. Minutes passed. The magpie's mate had joined it on the lawn. The hotplate had cooled, but the fish in the metal-foil parcel would not be spoiled. The two magpies moved closer, as if to provide silent witnesses.

'Would you like it inside - or out here?'

'J' nearly died. 'I ... I ... oohh ... I ... please ... please ... thankyou ... thankyou ...'

'I think we better go inside' he smiled 'Magpies can talk, you know'

The End

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