The Little People
(Shortlisted for the Artist's and Writer's Competition 2008)
Marie Sloan recently widowed wife of Howard Mathew Sloan, bids farewell to the last of the mourners. She closes the door of her mid terraced home and sits on the couch next to her closest friend Tara Forest, she pours two glasses of red wine.
‘I thought they would never leave, half of them were strangers to me.’
‘Faces from the call centre he managed.’
‘There was a big turnout Howard must have been well thought of; he must have had lots of friends.’
Marie stared into the contents of the wineglass; this was typical of Tara. Plausible, reassuring, positive warm all the qualities that had no doubt contributed to a successful career as an advertising consultant; she admired her for her independence. Marie herself though had a tendency towards the truth.
‘A man like Howard never had any real friends.’ ‘He was like the school bully, pretend to be his friend and there was less chance of being picked on.’
‘Every morning he would get up for work, I would cook him a huge fry up and heaven forbid if those egg yolks weren’t just perfect.’
‘Breakfast would be washed down with copious amounts of coffee punctuated by as many cigarettes as he had time for.’
‘He would fasten his tie and joke about who he was going to fire that day.’
‘He would say,’
“When you’re the manager of a call centre you have to keep the little people on their toes.”
‘Then he would laugh and say,’
“No mercy for the little people.”
She paused for a moment.
‘I remember one instance in particular; Howard had an employee a team leader Charles White. A nice man, I had met him once or twice, his wife Babs, she was nice too a bit dizzy but nice. She used to forget things; little things, like when to take her pill anyway Charles had worked there for five years. He came into work one day he was over the moon they had managed to get a mortgage on a one bedroom flat, astronomical of course.’
‘House prices in London.’ commented Tara.
‘House prices in London, anyway he comes into work a couple of weeks later Barbara is pregnant. Give it a few months and the pressure is going to be on.’
‘That Friday Howard comes home from work, he’s grinning like a Cheshire cat and pours himself a large one.’
‘Fire anyone today, I asked, not that I really wanted to know but that was the type of thing that passed for polite conversation in this house. He downs the glass in one and starts to pour another.’
‘Since you asked, Charles’s team didn’t make their targets this week, so I’m afraid he just had to go.’
‘He sits down laughing.’
“The pressure came a lot sooner than he thought.”
‘Then he trots out his favourite saying,’
“No mercy for the little people.”
Tara made an attempt at being positive.
‘There must have been something there; there must have been something that attracted you to him in the first place?’
Marie thought for a moment.
‘He was my boss, he was twenty five at the time, even then he was over weight and balding, but he was so self assured so confident so, so solvent.’
She mimicked her dead husband’s voice.
“Marry me and you will never have to work again.”
‘I was 19 going on 20 and working in a call centre, it sounded like a good offer at the time. He was charming at first. We married within a year, all too soon I realised, marry me and you will never have to work again meant I’ll take away any independence that you might think you have, you will be my wife meant I will do my best to isolate you from everyone else that you ever loved or cared for, we will have a happy life together translated into, you will look after my every need.’
Her voice became bitter.
‘No matter how sordid, what is it they say Tara, marry for money and you will earn every penny.’
‘It has been a bad day; it’s understandable that you’re upset.’
Marie leaned forward and refilled the glasses.
‘All I ever wanted Tara, all I ever wanted was a quiet life just a quiet life and a couple of children.’
There was anger in her voice.
‘Well I wasn’t totally stupid, I knew something was wrong, he never gave me any peace and I never got pregnant. Then five years into our marriage, Howard the macho man, the weekend warrior, the Millwall casual, in an unusual moment of weakness and under the influence of several pints of lager, a few whiskies and god knows what else, confesses to me that he’s infertile. Turned out he fired blanks.
As if he couldn’t have told me this before we were married.’
She started to cry Tara slid her arm around her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. For a while they sat in silence.
‘I never had a lot of luck with men either, even in the three years that I was actually married to Terrance we started to see less and less of each other. A pair of go-getter’s too busy with our careers for children, too busy to sustain a real relationship. Towards the end, we were more like flatmates than a married couple.’
Tara sipped her wine.
‘It was just after we split that I met you, remember at the aerobics class.’
Remember, she remembered it well, the immediate friendship that they had struck up, the warmth, the unspoken physical attraction.
‘That was a bit of an irony, if it hadn’t been for Howard always on about my weight I would never have been there.’
‘I’ve never been bigger than a size ten. But for years I listened to, you’re over weight, your letting yourself go, have you looked at yourself in the mirror recently and this from a man who died weighing nineteen and a half stone.’
Her hand tightened on the glass.
‘Quite an achievement for someone of five foot seven.’
There was a few moments silence. It was Tara who spoke first.
‘You always looked good to me.’
‘I don’t think that I would have survived the last few years without you.’
Tara leaned across and kissed her on the side of the head.
‘Of course you would have, you’re a survivor.’
‘So you and Terrance, it just sort of fizzled out then.’
‘Not quite, I mean things weren’t that bad, in a lot of ways it was quite convenient. We both had good salaries so money was never a problem and between my work at the agency and his shifts at the Hospital we hardly ever seen each other.’
‘So what finished it then?’
Her friend looked away.
‘If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll understand.’
She pulled the cork from another bottle of wine.
‘It’s just, well, I’ve never really told anyone before.’
‘Honestly, it’s all right.’
There was a brief pause as the wine was being poured.
'I remember it vividly; it was a Monday morning, typical, an important presentation with a major client and running late. Terrance had the day off he was still in bed. Anyway as I said I was in a rush I kissed him goodbye and took a cab to the station. At the station I took my purse out of my bag to pay the driver and suddenly realised that I had left the disc with the presentation on it in my computer. So it was a case of, get me back home quickly please.’
She paused to drink some wine.
‘Anyway got home opened the door and I heard these grunts and groans coming from the bedroom. I walked in and there was Terrance with his good friend Roger, Terrace is leaning over the bed wearing stockings and suspenders. My stockings and suspenders! And Roger was well, Roger was well.”
'How else can I put it, Roger was rogering.’
There was a moment’s silence then both women fell about the couch helpless with laughter. Tara wiped a tear from her eye.
‘It seems funny now but two hours later I’m trying to deliver a professional presentation to a room full of stone faced men with that image fixed firmly in my head.’
The laughter continued to flow, as did the wine.
‘Anyway, that was it well and truly over and as you can imagine. Terrance didn’t want his sordid little secret dragged through the courts. So I got to keep the flat and a better than even settlement.’
‘The official story was irreconcilable differences.’
‘Nice to know men don’t always get it their own way.’
‘They aren’t that smart, remember all those Thursday nights at Penelope’s wine bar, Howard thought we were at the bingo. Every week you would take home the same set of used books.’
‘Grumbling about how I had been waiting on one.’
There was a sudden unease.
‘Right up to the time I was spotted by that little tart Laura Smiley, she worked in the call centre at the time, oh Howard enjoyed that, he made me sweat for a full hour before he started.’
‘He was very thorough everywhere but the face.’
‘No mercy for the little people.’
She cringed at the memory.
Tara still felt the anger.
‘You showed me the bruises; I would have happily taken a knife to the bastard.’
‘I know you would have, but it’s worked out better like this.’
Tara refilled the glasses.
‘Do you think anyone will suspect?’
‘Suspect what, that I looked after Howard and catered for his every need.
He was never out of cigarettes, there was always an abundance of alcohol in the house, lots of coffee, the fry ups I used to make him and he did so love his take away curries.’
‘No, in the last five years, I really looked after him and even though he had ballooned up to nineteen and a half stone I always reassured him that he looked great. But with such a busy life and a stressful job, well is it any wonder that the poor dear died of a massive heart attack and only forty one too.’
She raised her glass.
‘No mercy for the big people.’
They touched glasses.
‘No mercy for the big people.’
‘I was tempted to up his life insurance, but that might have been a bit too obvious.’
She looked at Tara.
‘Not to worry, I’m quite sure that the two hundred thousand I did have him insured for will be sufficient to take the two of us around Europe for a couple of months and still leave a few bob, just in case the gas runs out.’
Tara squeezed her hand.
‘When we come back, I’ll sell the flat put the proceeds in the building society and move in with you; we should be more than comfortable.’
Marie raised her glass a second time.
‘I give you a toast, a toast to Howard Mathew Sloan a true bastard, a man so self-assured, so arrogant so blinded by his own importance, that he overlooked one very important thing.’
‘It’s not always a good idea to fuck with the little people.’
Written by Greig Hepson