There was no warning. It was a morning like any other. John ate his usual cereal of high-fibre bran sprinkled with blueberries while reading the paper. Aimee hadn’t seen it coming.
‘I’m leaving you,’ said John. ‘You’ve become boring.’
Aimee dropped her cup of coffee, smashing it over the kitchen tiles. John stared at Aimee. It was as if he was looking right through her. After twenty years of marriage he couldn’t even stick around to help clean up the mess. Aimee watched the brown liquid slide its way under the fridge.
‘I’m moving in with Anne,’ he said, walking away.
From the front room, she watched John’s green t-shirt disappear down the drive from their Californian Bungalow home, a grinning golden pig on his back. She’d bought him that t-shirt in South Korea. It was supposed to bring good fortune.
Divorce sounded ugly, like a disease or an infectious skin rash. After he’d gone, Aimee stacked his breakfast bowl in the dishwasher, along with last night’s plates. Her hands shook but her mind pretended he’d return. After all, he’d promised to fix the kitchen drawer. Aimee pictured Anne, a large, vulgar woman with too many rings and garish clothes and wondered how long they’d been having an affair.
Maureen had never liked John, whispering in her daughter’s ear on her wedding day, while she was zipped into her sequined gown. The wedding took place at a vineyard thirty kilometres from Melbourne. From the grave, came her mother’s shrill mantra.
‘I told you so. I told you so. I told you so.’
‘Shut-up,’ said Aimee.
The worst was posted like an ordinary letter, arriving in the letterbox with no hint of what was inside. It stated the facts without any trace of emotion, just like John. Aimee emptied a box of tissues while reading. It really was end. She’d signed the papers carefully at the bottom, not knowing whether to revert to her maiden name. Not surprisingly, John claimed their pet budgie, Rocket. He’d fed the bird toasty crumbs, post Carmel the cat.
Carmel had been obese. John talked to the tabby more than he had to Aimee. She’d been embarrassed whenever friends had come over to visit.
‘She has an eating disorder, poor thing,’ she lied. ‘Vet says there’s nothing we can do.’
It was a relief when Carmel was found with her legs splayed under the lemon tree, rigor mortis setting with the sun. John had to manoeuvre the wheelbarrow onto its side just to roll the cat in. After that, he’d transferred communication from a cat to its natural enemy, a bird. Rocket smashed into walls, his clipped wings rendering him directionless.
‘You’re my little Rocket, aren’t you boy?’ John said, picking up the straggly bird and placing him on his shoulder.
The last time she’d seen John was in an office on the twelfth floor in the city. Solicitors had also been present. John had worn a new suit, which made him look special. They’d smiled politely and she saw he’d had his teeth whitened. For as long as she’d known John, he’d been opposed to any form of cosmetic improvement, no matter how small. It occurred to Aimee that he was already a stranger. She’d caught the train into Flinders Street in the same dress she’d worn to her fiftieth.
Two years ago John had booked out an entire Thai restaurant to celebrate Aimee’s birthday, inviting everyone they knew. He’d stood up for the toast, tapping a spoon against his champagne glass.
‘To my wife and my love,’ he began. ‘You mean the world to me and although we never had children, I wouldn’t have wished to share my life with anyone else. Happy birthday, sweetheart.’
Raucous applause followed but Aimee’s heart was in her throat. When the first course came out, she’d lost her appetite. John’s speech was a powerful reminder that she was broken. The words ‘never had children’ were stuck in her head like the chorus of a sad song.
It’d happened when Aimee was a foetus, floating around in the womb of a drug-taking hippie. When she told her mother what the IVF doctor said, Maureen scoffed her way out of that responsibility, like any other.
‘Your generation,’ she said, ‘Always pointing the finger. Why don’t you do something about it?’
‘Mother, I’m infertile. There’s nothing I can do.’
In her thirties, Aimee wanted a girl of her own, a clone of herself, to dress in gorgeous frocks. When the tears came, John was her rock. He’d wrap his arms around her and murmur ‘I love you,’ a thousand times until she reached the snuffling stage and came up to breathe. They’d talked endlessly about their options but it seemed they could never agree until middle age crept up and they’d grown accustomed to the routine of their quiet lives. Infrequent sex in the dark was empty and passionless. Aimee only missed the company.
With the generous property settlement, Aimee purchased a two-storey sandy brick unit in a peaceful cul-de-sac in Malvern. It was close to trams and the shops. A few months later it was clear to Aimee that she and John had been chalk and cheese. He’d had been raised in the south-eastern suburbs where middle class meant a weekend barbeque with the neighbours and a bottle of chardonnay. Aimee had grown up in the western suburbs where single mums stood on street corners in fish-nets and miniskirts. The fish and chip shops were run by Greeks and chockfull of Aussie kids who’d been told to ask for credit for the Friday night meal because Dad had already spent his pay down the pub.
Aimee liked to read crime fiction, written by Australians who swore like troopers. John had always overreacted to swearing.
‘It makes you sound so cheap.’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake, get over it.’
Settling in bed, she opened the latest in a series of novels, where a body had been uncovered, lying face down under a busy bridge. Sergeant Lloyd took in the bloated body, the purple discolouration of the skin and the fact that the victim’s fingertips had been snipped off with the most likely tool, a pair of secateurs. Aimee tended to agree. Good quality gardening shears would have the best leverage. Dental records took much longer to process. Murder was usually committed by someone who knew the victim. Serial killers were the exception. When the medical examiner arrived at the scene, Aimee heard a noise.
Instinctively she turned to the other side of the bed, to John. She wanted to ask, ’What was that?’ and have him reply, ‘Don’t worry I’ll check it out,’ but he wasn’t there. Aimee heard it again. It was a small sound, but not small enough to be overlooked. She lay the novel face down on the bed and concentrated. A few minutes went by with nothing but the sound of the clock. Then suddenly there it was again. Aimee felt a strange terror she hadn’t experienced since university.
Automatically, she grabbed the handset and went to dial John’s mobile. She paused over the keypad, reconsidering the call. What did she expect him to do? John and Anne lived at least twenty minutes away in Richmond, by which time Aimee could be bludgeoned to death. Finally, she replaced the phone and got out of bed. She’d deal with this herself. After all, she was a capable and independent woman.
Aimee crept down the carpeted stairs, imagining herself in an episode of City Homicide. She grabbed the heavy crystal vase, a wedding present. Down the hall to the front door, she stopped. Through the frosted glass, she could make out a figure bent over the lock. Listening, Aimee was strangely fascinated but as soon as she wondered what type of person would be breaking in, documentaries of methamphetamine users with scabby faces and desperate eyes, came to mind. John wouldn’t be able to label her ‘boring’ after this. Summoning her courage, Aimee tightened her grip on the vase, took a deep breath and opened the door.
A set of soft brown-green eyes met hers, devoid of malice. The broad head yawned, displaying a level bite and a wide muzzle. A black Labrador sat on the doormat looking up at her, his ears hanging like plush pendants.
‘Yes?’ said Aimee. The dog raised his paw and wagged his tail. She noticed he was collarless. ‘Well then, you’d better come in.’
The dog seemed to understand the invitation. He also knew his way around the unit, loping through the lounge and vaulting up the stairs two at a time. Aimee laughed, replaced the vase and sprinted after him. When she reached the bedroom, there he was, spread out at the end of the bed, like he belonged. He watched her burrow under the doona, getting comfortable. When she was still, he relaxed, allowing his jet black shape to nestle into the bed. Aimee smiled and closed her eyes, calmed by the Labrador’s light snore. John was allergic to dogs.