Things are Becoming the Wrong Size (2010)

The English countryside is always more intense after a week away, but today the grass is definitely greener. And the morning sky, framed on either side by dark green pine trees and naked birch … yes, today it seems particularly blue. I nestle further back into the obliging leather and watch the rolling hills roll by, savour the multitude of greens, ambers, rusts and russets, the mounds of fallen leaves heaped along the hard shoulder, never quite enough to cover the entire roadway and imprison us in our proper places. I watch the road markings impose discipline upon our pathetic wanderings, as they disappear beneath Joe-Jag’s shiny bonnet and I am grateful after that terrible flight, that I don’t have to drive. Henry might be bald, menopausally petty, and only half the man he used to be, but at least he still does most of the driving. He’s still good for that. And he’s still in charge of grappling for a trolley at baggage reclaim.

However, Henry has started to hum.

It’s a non-tune. I suggest we listen to some music. Henry looks enthusiastic and reaches for the control. Probably Wagner or something else that will make me suicidal, but at least Henry will terminate his recital. Oh good: Mahler. I listen to the self-imposed dirge and fight to expunge memories of turbulence and other people’s children. But I am, all at once, disturbed from my reverie as the contents of the car, myself included, lurch forward. I sit up:

‘What’s up? Why did you brake like that?’

‘Sorry, I thought I saw . . . I thought I saw something rush across the road.’ Henry narrows his eyes towards the distance and drives on. ‘Must be seeing things.’

‘Do you want me to drive?’ I ask, desperately hoping that he’ll say no.

‘No, it’s OK. I’ll . . . SHIT!’ He brakes hard. We both brace ourselves then fight to regain our composure and sit staring at the road ahead. ‘What the fuck is that!’ he says.

paper-clipI look up at the vast metallic object that is currently obstructing the entire carriageway, perhaps 20 yards ahead. ‘I think it’s a paper clip,’ I say. I turn my attention to Henry, who is now leaning forward, in order to fully appreciate the height of the unexpected object before us. ‘Put your hazards on!’ I say, slumping back into the upholstery.

The hazard lights start to blink blink.

‘This isn’t likely,’ says Henry. ‘I mean …’ He is interrupted by a sharp tap on the glass beside him. A short, massively fat woman is pointing a machine gun towards us, using it to indicate for us to get out of the car. Henry winds down his window: ‘Excuse me, what’s going on here!’ he demands with atypical authority.

‘You need to come with me,’ snaps the fat woman, taking one hand off her weapon in order to adjust her face mask. ‘ Things are becoming the wrong size, some more than others.’

I stare at her in disbelief then discretely check my own dimensions.

‘Follow me,’ she insists, lifting her AK-47 back up to fat shoulder level. She moves to open Henry’s door, but just as she does so a terrified, relatively normal, autumn hare prangs past pursued by what appears to be a car-high shrew. ‘Quickly,’ she shouts. ‘We need to get away from here!’

Without glancing back, Henry leaps out of the car and follows her to an armoured truck parked over on the sqhard shoulder. I sit, briefly affronted by his lack of concern for my welfare, then decide to join them, but as I start to open my door four clawed fingers ease their way through the crack. I notice the absence of fingerprints, scream and bang the door shut. A piercing howl echoes across the empty roadway. I fully expect Henry to come running to my assistance, but he is nowhere to be seen. I am paralysed by disbelief: a gargantuan squirrel is now punching and spitting at the windscreen, its right paw securely locked in my door. I realize that my only escape is across the steering column and out through Henry’s side of the car, so I scrabble my way over and out onto the tarmac. I recoil from the sight of the rat monster, check for any oversized threats, then rush over to the armoured truck.

‘Henry!’ I shriek. ‘Where the hell are you?’ I creep cautiously round to the back of the vehicle and come up against a drift of swollen sycamore leaves, each one the size of a paving stone. ‘Henry?’ No response. I wrap my arms around myself for protection and am at once aware of a rhythmic rustling in the foliage some ten feet away to my right. With trepidation, I approach the untidy mound of leaves, aware that unknown beasts, oversized or otherwise, are engaged in some form of frantic activity beneath this autumnal blanket. I take another step forward and my feet become caught in something, I look down and see that Henry’s empty trouser leg has entangled my foot. Henry’s clothes are lying in a heap. I am both relieved and dismayed that Henry is not inside them. ‘Henry!’ I shout. I edge forward and stub my toe on a discarded Kalashnikov: ‘Henry?’

ak47_6The giant leaves rustle apart and Henry’s head slowly appears: ‘Could you give me a minute, dear?’ he says, wiping a fragment of vegetation from his mouth.

I unwrap and rewrap my arms. I try to comprehend the situation. Henry is naked. His glasses are askew. His head might be slightly larger than usual. I recover the power of speech: ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I demand. ‘Why have you taken your clothes off?  And Henry, dear, I think your head’s getting bigger.’

‘That’s not all,’ said a voice emerging from the litter beside him. I stare in disbelief as the head of the short, fat, military woman rises up beside Henry’s. I stare at them like a depraved fool.

Henry looks contrite: ‘It just happened, dearest. There was nothing we could do about it. Isadora was as shocked as I was.’ He attempts a smile as Isadora’s head disappears back beneath their coverings. Henry utters a punctuated gasp then in a strangulated half-whisper: ‘You go on without me …’

‘But, Henry …’ I search for a civilized response: ‘We have supper with the Dunmores.’ I take a step back and then another as Henry begins to sink back beneath the undergrowth. ‘And what shall I tell the children?’

‘I’ll text them,’ I hear him say.

I glance down at Henry’s discarded trousers, at the garish tie I bought him in Bloomingdales, then I turn and hasten back to the car. What else can I do? This is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. I check the back seats, slam Henry’s door shut, re-check the backseats, and hurry round to my side of the car. The squirrel is nowhere to be seen, although the stumps of its fingers are still wedged in the door. Blood is splashed across the entire side of the car, front and back, bonnet and wing mirror. I pull open my door, allowing the detached fingers to fall onto the road, climb inside, turn the key in the ignition and listen to the engine. I sit for a moment waiting for my mind to inform me regarding my options. How can Henry have behaved like this? Mother always warned me that he would prove to be unreliable. I had always suspected that she might be right. But this? It took this for him to declare his colours. What a bastard! What a total, absolute BASTARD!

I force myself to consider the children, pull away, negotiate my way around the paperclip, and head for the Downs. The sky is still Mediterranean blue. The pine trees are now almost touching it. I realise that I have perhaps been preparing for this situation my whole married life. Obviously not under these circumstances, but then who chooses circumstances? I watch the markings on the empty road ahead and, for the first time, I wonder why the A3 is so utterly deserted. Then, to make matters worse, I realise that Joe-Jag is not a left-hand drive vehicle, yet here I am in the passenger seat, driving.

‘The steering wheel’s on the wrong side!’ I announce to the unsuspecting windscreen …

‘What are you talking about?’ says Henry.

I turn to see Henry beside me. He is concentrating on the road. He has an affronted look on his face. ‘You bastard,’ I say. Then I pause.

Henry glances a frown in my direction. ‘Pardon?’

‘I … I feel really peculiar. It’s probably jetlag.’

‘Well, you’d better snap out of it,’ said Henry, ‘we’ve got supper with the Dunmores. You arranged it.’

‘I’m sorry. I’ll be fine.’ I take a deep breath, check Henry’s trousers for foliage, his head for its correct size . . .

‘Do you want to stop for a minute,’ he asks, adjusting his spectacles.

‘No, let’s get home. Can we have something other than Mahler?’

‘It’s Wagner.’ He pokes the stereo panel. We drive on in silence.

I lean slightly forward to check Henry’s shoes then sink back and watch the road signs come and go. Just the road signs. No cars or lorries. I notice something lying in the road ahead: ‘What’s that,’ I shriek.

Henry screws up his eyes. ‘Looks like a big old badger. Must have made a dint in some poor sod’s bumper.’

‘Poor old thing,’ I mumble. I check the wing mirror for signs of blood, turn to Henry and catch my breath:

‘Henry, when did you take your tie off?’

© Jean E Levy, 2013.

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