The Proposal

There’s blood on my shoes. Warm, brown blood drying with every second into a crusty sheen. It’s unattractive. Bloody shoe-prints trail the linoleum in pairs – one, two; one, two; one, two; turn, continue; one, two. Six steps across the kitchen. Eight steps back accounting for a detour around the pool of blood and the dead man’s arm.

I check the numbers. It’s definitely six steps to cross the room. The ring box in my pocket is uncomfortable. It whacks against my leg when I walk, so I take it out and roll it over in my hands. Six is a good number. The day I was born and the number of freckles on Christine’s right leg.

***

Christine was born on the eleventh. Wednesday, December 11, 1985. At 6:97pm. Born Christine Elizabeth Jordan. Isn’t that a beautiful name? When I first saw her, she sang to me. Not with her voice, but with the way the light bounced off her hair – like it was made of silk and bronze. When she moves her hips sway in a way most men would find provocative, but I appreciate the music in her movement.

Her husband doesn’t hear her song. All he hears is the sound her money makes when it fills his bank account. Sorry – his ‘joint’ account. A name means so much, doesn’t it? Like her name: Christine Elizabeth Jordan-Beckett. Her name loses all its melody when the man she married comes into it.

She uses her real name for publication. Christine Jordan, crime reporter for the Sunday Telegraph. I was so proud of her when she got that promotion, but I was less proud when I realised how she got it. Her husband is the editor. There was an article about their wedding in the paper but I didn’t read it. I was there.

I cut it out anyway, of course. Everything Christine has published is in a book under my pillow and I read it every night before she goes to sleep.

News LTD hired me on September 25, 2007. I received the confirmation call at 1:46pm. They’d advertised for a cleaner at their Holt Street offices – Christine’s building. I had to fake a few references and relevant work experience, and I had to quit the law firm, but it was worth it. Now I could keep an eye on her, and make that sure she was safe. Crime reporters cop a lot of flak. Especially when they’re beautiful women. Edna Buchanan was threatened by some of the worst serial killers in history. Nobody (outside the newsroom and her marriage, that is) will ever hurt Christine while I am protecting her.

One night, right before the paper went to bed, I snuck into the conference room. The conference room has a glass wall that looks out onto the sub-editors’ and web page editors’ desks, and when you’re inside with the light off you’re practically invisible. The editor’s office was pressed against the right side of the glass room. You can’t hear through the walls, not like in spy movies, but if you open the window and lean out you can. Provided the editor’s has the window open too.

‘I’ve already spiked it, Chris.’

James had the window open. I heard his voice – smooth and wet from years of binge drinking – echo through the room and out the window.

‘I worked on that story all week,’ Christine’s voice, like warm piano strings, is always quieter than James’, ‘and you spiked it?’

‘It wasn’t up to par,’ said James.

He should have been bowing at her feet. If I were the editor, I’d let her write whatever she wanted. I’d fire the entire news staff so that her name could be on every story.

‘Like shit it wasn’t up to par.’

‘It wasn’t,’ James said. ‘You pitched a story about an eighty-year-old drug dealer and you gave me a story about prison conditions. I’m sorry Chris, but if I’d known that was what you’d wanted to do –’

‘Stories evolve all the time.’

‘Yes, but if you’re going to make it worse. For Christ’s sake, you don’t even mention the grandpa until the sixth par! That’s what the angle should be and you’ve buried it.’

My hand slipped as I leaned forward to catch her reply. For an instant, I took my attention off of Christine and focussed it on the three-storey drop beneath me. Thirty-six feet to the ground. People scurried like ants on the footpath and the parking lot across the road was practically empty save the twenty-nine cars belonging to Sunday Telegraph staff. That car park wouldn’t be empty until well past 12:00am.

I righted myself, letting out the breath I didn’t realise I had been holding, easing myself against the window ledge and putting more weight on my knees as I jutted my body out towards James’s open window and held on tight. Christine’s voice came to me like a flute on the wind.

‘Get used to your right hand,’ she said.

I heard her expensive high heels (three-hundred and fifty dollars from FCUK in the Broadway shopping centre) click out of the room. I scrambled out of the window in time to catch her long hair streaming furiously in her wake as she strode across the newsroom, snatched up her purse, and left.

My Christine would never leave the situation like that. No, first she went downstairs to get a cappuccino with skinny milk and no sugar (I don’t know why she bothers watching her weight; she’s weighed fifty-seven kilograms since she was twenty-two) then returned to her desk. She sat for a moment glaring at the screen and when the intern beside her had the nerve to lean over and break her concentration, Christine had every right to hurl her coffee into the girl’s face. Too bad it was only lukewarm by then.

***

Christine and James made up later that night. I heard them. I saw the lights go off in their bedroom right after Christine slinked out of the bathroom looking beautiful and wearing nothing at all. I’d want to do it with the lights on so I could see her. James took her that night like he’s taken her so often – in the dark with absolutely no finesse.

But she’d had no choice. The next day her story was on the fifth page and completely unchanged. It’s horrible what a person has to go through for their artistic integrity.

I went to Prouds Jewellers that Sunday. At precisely 12:37pm.

‘Would you show me your engagement rings, please?’ I asked the woman at the counter.

‘Oh?’ she raised a brow. ‘Congratulations.’

‘Yes, thank you.’

After what she’d had to do, I thought Christine deserved the pick-me-up. I couldn’t give it to her until I was sure that our relationship was ready. No rushing, no guilt-trips; not like her first husband. But it was nice to know that I had it for when the time was right.

‘Tell me, do you want yellow or white gold?’ the sales girl asked. I asked for yellow gold to match Christine’s hair and thought about how I would propose.

***

It never snowed where I grew up. It does snow in Australia, but I’ve never seen it. Every winter was wet and miserable – we’d go days and weeks and months without seeing the sun. But it never snowed.

When school was in session I’d have to fight my way through gale-force winds to get to the bus. By the time got to school my pants would be soaked through and my shirt would be clinging to my scrawny chest. Girls would laugh at me as I tried to flatten my hair. I begged my father to buy a car, just so that I wouldn’t have to walk in the rain, but he said no. My father was very strict about luxuries like that. I didn’t get proper shoes until I was in high school.

One winter, when I was nine, my father got a job at the Tunuk Ski Resort in Vancouver. He showed me pictures of the snow: light balls of the stuff falling onto the resort, the white peaks in the background bending and dipping and arching into the blue sky. I thought about going snowboarding, or skiing. I imagined myself like one of those skiers in the crumpled magazines at the school library – with their perfect sculpted chests and strong arms.

Then my father told me I wasn’t going with him. He couldn’t afford to take me along. I was to stay at home, take in the mail, cash his welfare checks and hide whenever the DOCs worker stopped by.

***

It hurt when I saw Christine in that white dress. Her hair was braided with white roses, and she walked with the bouquet held firmly in her hands. I wanted to cut that dress right off her. And that grin on his smug face – I wouldn’t have minded a crack at that. He’d stolen her from me.

I know she’s not happy; how could she be happy with him? Every night I wait outside her house to make sure he’s treating her properly. Every night. Right across the road, in my car, and Christine lets me stay. She pretends she doesn’t know I’m there because she doesn’t want him to know. Sometimes I catch her glancing out the window, rubbing the back of her beautiful neck like she can feel my eyes on her. We’re that in sync.

On October 23 of this year, at exactly 10:37pm by the watch Christine bought her husband for their second anniversary, she was taken to hospital. James broke her wrist. I heard the screams from outside her house and called the ambulance. Christine told James that it might have been a neighbour, but I know that, in her heart, she knew it was me. She must have wondered why I didn’t come rescue her but I was afraid to go inside. James is a big guy and I’m not.

I’d wanted so badly to protect her. I wasn’t ready then.

James got away with it. He even brainwashed Christine into staying with him. After October 23rd, the screams and shouts came more regularly. Judging by the amount of wine bottles in their bins, alcohol was involved 93.7 per cent of the time. Once Christine went to work with a black-eye and James went with scratch marks down his cheek. I’d call the police every time but Christine refused to press charges. I couldn’t do anything except sit in the car with my finger on the emergency call button.

She put on a big show of pretending she didn’t know was me, glaring at her neighbours whenever she happened to pass one on her morning jog. It breaks my heart to see her being hurt. To see her letting herself be hurt.

Now, every story she writes gets a big headline. The headlines are attention-grabbing; almost at the point of sensationalism. He’s making a fool out of her and her craft and she lets it happen. She sneaks into his office when everybody is busy and does all the things she really wants to do to me.

James hated the watch Christine gave him for their second anniversary. Ungrateful bastard. He didn’t even miss it. Christine noticed it was gone, but she didn’t mention it. I saw her eyebrows contract, though, when she saw his naked wrist and the empty space on his bedside table where it usually sat. The watch had meant something to her and James hadn’t realised.

I didn’t even need to have links taken out – the watch Christine bought was perfect for my wrist.

***

When I was twelve, my father put me to work. It wasn’t hard; I just had to stand on the street corner with a sign that said ‘Please help, need food’ and wait for people to give me money. I’d normally find some quiet piece of pavement, one that was free of urine or stains, sit down and watch the people who went past. Most avoided looking at me. Some were kind, even offering me food or fliers for youth centres.

I’d liked to sit and watch their feet. They were all headed towards important things in their important lives, normally wearing pristine work shoes to protect their skin from the glass-embedded concrete. Walking as though they were going somewhere.

When I was thirteen, my father went away. At the time, we were sleeping in the Conway Building on George Street. That building was eventually demolished, but when my father and I were there it was a good place to squat. He’d scout some piece of floor that looked like it was soft, take off his many jackets and make a kind of nest there for us both. If it was cold, he’d leave his jackets on.

I still don’t know where he went or why he left me there, curled up alone in the Conway Building. Asking a copper was out of the question – my father always said to never to trust those slimy copper bastards. Instead, I folded his jackets and separated them into three piles (thick, medium and thin) and went out to find him.

I never did find him. But a woman with bright red shoes found me on my corner a few days later and she gave me another flier for the youth centre.

***

At 6:07pm on December the 11, 2012, I was ready. Ready to present the greatest love offering in the history of the world. Christine’s birthday present would be her freedom.

James never took the same amount of time getting home every day. He’d get caught in traffic jams and make up the time by beating red lights. His inconsistency made it difficult to plan Christine’s gift. When he did get home at 6:07pm, I was already in the house preparing dinner. The lamb was cooking nicely and a bottle of red wine was breathing on the counter. James never let his wine breathe. He guzzled it down and threw himself around the house until he made contact with either the bed or Christine’s face.

He smelled the meal. I think that’s why he took so long coming inside. When he finally did he had his phone in his sweaty hands and his finger on the dial.

I was quick. I’d wanted to take my time, to let him understand his crimes, maybe give him time to repent or show remorse. Perhaps I might have made him write an apology to Christine. But the phone in his hands meant that I had to be quick, which was a shame.

When I thrust the blade into his neck the blood went everywhere. All over my new shoes.

Doesn’t matter, I thought as I positioned the body so that Christine would see it when she got home. All that matters is that he’s gone and she’s safe. Perhaps she could even apply for his job. She was certainly smart enough and she deserved it after what she’d been through.

One of the most wonderful things about Christine is that she was always punctual. Always home promptly at 7:30pm, allowing for traffic delays along the M6. When her car pulled up the lamb was resting and two glasses of wine stood proudly beside it. Her ex-husband was still warm.

I hear her keys in the front door and feel my heart clench, like someone has forced their fist into my chest and is squeezing hard. What if, like the dead man at my feet, I’m not good enough for her? Don’t think like that, I tell myself. You can make her happy – you can treat her with the love she deserves. Six steps across and eight back. I hold the ring with trembling fingers.

‘Jamie?’

She comes into the room. Her hair is back in a knot that shows off her pretty face. When she sees me, she stops.

It is just how I pictured it. Down on one knee, wearing my best clothes (the blood stains can’t be helped and I know she will understand) with her brutish husband’s corpse on the floor beside me, hands on his heart, as though he is giving his blessing. His eyes are closed. He doesn’t get the privilege of looking at her now that he is dead.

Christine sees him there. She steps back with a quiet, diminuendo gasp as she takes in the sight. Her fingers flying to her lips. The skin that isn’t obscured by her hands is pale. If I’d known that she’d wanted me to propose so badly, I wouldn’t have waited so long.

‘I want to be with you and share your life,’ I say – the first words I’ve ever said to her. Rehearsed for hours in the toilets at work. I raise the ring so that she can see it. ‘Will you marry me?’

Why isn’t she smiling? Why isn’t she rushing into my arms? Doesn’t she understand – she’s free! We can be together. She takes a step back, looking from James to me. Her eyes are wide and filled with tears and I smile encouragingly at her. It’s OK, I want to tell her. But I don’t have the courage.

Christine Elizabeth Jordan opens her lips, draws in a lung-full of air, and screams.

 

Author’s note: I actually wrote this a while ago and pitched it to a literary journal. It was rejected because the editors thought that the main character lacked motivation.

 

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂

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