The Last Morning

The radio clicks on and punches the air with a deeper darkness. Not Rob’s choice, but Karen’s. Next to him, she stirs and Rob holds his breath, hoping she won’t say anything, won’t ask for connection. Not today and not now. It’s not a likely chance, as she has neither greeted him nor kissed him in the mornings for longer than he can remember, but there’s always the possibility of the unusual. It would be enough to defeat him.

      One second ticks by, then another, and Karen groans and rolls over, her back towards him now. Rob releases a soft sigh he hadn’t realised he was holding. The danger is past.

      Propping himself up on the pillow with one elbow, he performs the week-day ritual of turning off the unwelcome noise of the radio. Karen wouldn’t mind if it were left on - it doesn’t wake her up and there’s no need for her to face the day for at least another hour - but the thought of the cheerful, false-accusing sound waiting for him to return to the bedroom makes Rob shiver. It would be too much.

      In the bathroom, the lino chills his feet and he winces before grabbing the yellow chequered mat. He hates the colour - Karen’s choice because it’s her bathroom bought with her money - but takes a moment to appreciate the edge of comfort it gives him. The full length mirror made out of tiles shows him the full force of what he is: a thin figure of average height with a soft paunch round the waist and a rapidly-receding hairline. Sideways on, his slight stoop makes him look like an academic, something which he’s never aspired to. Willowy, Karen used to call him, interesting. Not any more and not for a long time. Nobody would pick him out in a crowd now, but that’s all right. That’s what he’s hoping.

      He stands in the shower for a long time, letting the water wash away the outline, the memory of who he was yesterday. Maybe if he stands there long enough, he might disappear completely. What would Karen do if he did? He isn’t sure and wonders if she would notice at all. This is something he doesn’t want to dwell on, so instead he switches off the flow, grabs a towel and tries to wipe away all his thoughts. His breath comes in short bursts and he has to take a moment - no more - to steady it.

      After rubbing himself dry, he shaves, the familiarity of the last daily routine taking the place of decision-making. There have been too many decisions and there is no room for others. So he gazes at his face in the cabinet mirror, catching the glimpse of things longed for and now discarded, as he runs the razor over the contours of his skin and bone. Perhaps later, he thinks, if necessary, he might go unshaven. Glancing up for the final time, he moves back a step and as always the shape of the mirror and the way the frame is positioned make his whole head disappear, so only his shoulders are left. This is another part of Rob’s daily routine and it gives him pleasure.

      Smiling a little, he pulls on the thin cotton dressing-gown hanging behind the door and pads back to the bedroom. Karen is still asleep, or at least pretending to be. Trying to be as quiet as possible, to slip out of her dreams, Rob dresses. In the darkness he knocks himself against the edge of the chest of drawers, the handle on the wardrobe, the shelves, but he does not cry out. Instead he wonders if he ever fitted into this world at all, or if it is just now that he has grown too angular.

      He has already chosen his clothes. Last night, as he always does - did - he picked the items from his wardrobe that he wanted to wear in the morning. An old Marks & Spencer suit, bought in a sale years ago and fraying now at the cuffs, a white shirt with a light blue stripe and, to match, a navy blue tie. Nothing outstanding, the uniform of a thousand others. Karen, again as always, had laughed but made no comment. She must have thought there was no point.

      Once more in the cool indifference of the bedroom, Rob’s clothes make him feel as if he is disappearing beneath the weight of what they represent, the constancy of demands he has never been able to fulfil. Perhaps, he thinks, that is why his marriage has died. He has never been able to give Karen the things she wanted and the status she longed for. And somehow, somewhere along the path, he gave up trying and pretending to try. Because he knew, he had always known - and the realisation of this is like a bright wave of acceptance drowning him, buoying him up - that nothing he does or has ever done will make him what his wife wants him to be. And, suddenly, shockingly, the tears are like a clenched fist behind his eyes and he breathes in deep, deeper, fighting to contain them in the emptiness, and the sound he lets forth into the cruel air is the low howl of a child or an animal in pain. Hugging himself, he rocks once, twice, and then the fit is over. He can catch his breath again. But in the bed, Karen stirs and moans a little. His heart pounds a staccato rhythm on his chest’s frail cage and he struggles to hear if he has woken her.

      Is she awake?

      What will she say? Something? Or nothing?

      It doesn’t matter. A few, elongated seconds later and his wife eases herself into sleep again. Or seems to. Whether awake or not, she will not react to him and he is glad of it.

      Yes, today he is glad of it. Because there can be no explanations. He has none.

      Downstairs, Rob passes through the hall, noticing his small case tucked in under the table. Inside its battered leather lurks all the world, everything he counts as his. In the kitchen, he slips like a ghost around the cupboards, retrieving coffee, sugar, cups. Glancing at his watch, he sees there is no time for food, but it doesn’t bother him. He isn’t hungry and he wonders if he will ever feel hunger again. There is time for one drink though, isn’t there? Just one small coffee to commemorate this day.

      At the kitchen table, the dark oak full of memory, he sips his drink, for the first time taking it strong and sweet, without milk, because from today everything will be different. It has to be. He has to believe he can change. Any other belief would be unbearable.

      The cup he uses is the last of the set he and Karen were given at their wedding. He has never liked its rounded shape, the pattern of pastel roses round the rim and on the saucer but even then he knew enough to say nothing, and he has lived with that choice for twenty years. Twenty years of early, close-held hopes fading and settling to dust, twenty years of gaining nothing and losing even what they thought they had, twenty years of disappointments and a growing loneliness so sharp it is like a dagger in the throat which each day leaves him bleeding just enough so that he doesn’t, can’t, die.

      He wonders if, once, there might have been a path back, one that didn’t involve walking away but, in any case, it is now too late and what he has willed, dreamed, planned to do for so long will today be done. At last. At last.

      The dregs of the coffee have cooled and taste like gravel on his tongue. For a moment he thinks about smashing this last cup, breaking it into bitter fragments, but now there is no time. He has sat here, remembering and not remembering, for dangerously long. He must go.

      He moves to the hall. The case is there, willing him on. He heads for the door.

      From upstairs, the sound of Karen stirring makes him shiver. She won’t be expecting to find him still here, she will imagine - hope - that, in the same way he has slipped out of the house on the way to work without any goodbye for the last ten years, he has already gone. And perhaps he has. Because he cannot face her; one look will tell him everything and nothing. And this time it is different. This time he can no longer live with the loneliness; this time he isn’t coming back. The case is in his hands and the way through is clear. The sound of movement from upstairs again. He must go. Now. To leave, to run, to vanish. All it will take is one step away, across a path he has not yet walked on.

      Just one step, one step only and he will be gone.

Anne Brooke's fiction has been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Novel Award, the Royal Literary Fund Awards and the Asham Award for
Women Writers. She has also twice been the winner of the DSJT Charitable Trust Open Poetry Competition. Her latest book is Painting
from Life, and her latest novel is Maloney's Law. More information can be found at and she keeps a terrifyingly
honest journal


Copyright 2009