Jim Garfield had always slept with his eyes wide open. It used to scare the living daylights out of Martha, his wife of forty three years, for a long time after they were first married. She said, with a shiver, that he looked like he was dead.
Luckily, the ambulance men managed to see the funny side the first time Martha walked in on Jim sleeping in his favourite armchair, panicked and called 999. By the fifth time though, their humour and patience had diminished somewhat and Martha – a sweet woman, if perhaps a little bit ditzy – had had to do a lot of explaining and apologising to convince them that she wasn’t inconveniencing them on purpose as each time she had genuinely believed that her husband, a morbidly deep sleeper, had actually been dead.
However, over the last thirty years or so Martha had become accustomed to Jim’s sleeping handicap, if it could be labelled that, and it no longer affected her in the same way whenever she caught sight of him whilst sound asleep. The same way his cruel, relentless criticism of her had not yet completely eroded her, despite his best efforts during their marriage.
That was, until last Sunday.
Martha had spent the majority of the day preparing and cooking the usual, traditional Sunday roast with all the trimmings and after eating the meal that had taken hours to prepare in less than fifteen minutes, husband and wife retired to the living room, as they always did, for Jim to watch whatever sport was on the television and for Martha to do her crossword. Now, if anyone had observed the Garfield Sunday afternoon ritual over the years, they may have wondered why they engaged in these activities when Jim always fell asleep within half an hour and Martha always ended up frustrated because she had yet to complete a whole crossword, no matter how many she attempted.
Last Sunday however, that all changed.
By 3pm Jim was still wide awake and contentedly glugging his fifth can of lager and Martha was on the verge of finishing her very first Sunday newspaper cryptic crossword. Jim was comfortable and relaxed; Martha was almost popping with excitement.
‘This will finally stop Jim making all those snide comments about me being stupid’ she thought as she filled in the little white boxes, her tongue protruding slightly in concentration and anticipation.
Thirty seconds later Martha shrieked and jumped up!
“I did it, I did it Jim, look!” she exclaimed, proffering the crossword page to the now unfocused eyes that had fooled her so often in the past.
Jim, unfortunately, was a bit more inebriated than he realised and could barely manage to raise an unkempt eyebrow.
“Great Martha”, he slurred sarcastically, taking another swig from his can.
“Ha! What do you think of me now…not just some daft, old woman eh? I’ve heard you talking to that Jerry Donald, I know what you say about me. Well, now I’ve proved you wrong!”
“Whatever you say, Martha”, Jim chuckled, crumpling further down in his comfortable, worn armchair.
Sometime his wife was just too much – one crossword in over forty years and she thinks she’s ready for Mastermind! Jim shook his inebriated head, chuckling again, and motioned for her to move out of the way of the television – the football held more fascination than Martha did.
Martha obediently moved out of her husband’s eye-line but stood glaring at him for a few moments, hands exasperatedly on hips, before leaving the room. She stood silently in the kitchen for a while, her one and only completed crossword crumpled in her clenched fist, before she began to tremble and cry.
All the frustrated rage at Jim was released with her tears – he didn’t appreciate her, he never had. Even in their early years of marriage, when they ‘made love’ he was always more intent on swiftly pleasing himself than her and she more often than not laid awake feeling unsatisfied and frankly quite used while Jim laid comatose beside her, snoring loudly with those wretched, creepy, open eyes.
Martha had no friends to turn to anymore, Jim had seen them off over the years with his taunts and jibes and general unpleasantness, and even after she had sadly miscarried their baby, enduring complications and leaving her unable to conceive more children, he showed little sympathy or understanding and once even had the utter gall to suggest that it was probably for the best as Martha would have made an incompetent mother!
Now, after months of hearing him and that damned neighbour Jerry Donald making fun of her on their Thursday afternoon drinking binges, her husband hadn’t changed his consistently low opinion of her even after she had only a few minutes ago proved she actually did have some sense in her aging head.
Martha’s frenetic, cascading thoughts were interrupted as Jim shouted from the living room.
“Martha, bring me another beer.”
It wasn’t a question, or a polite request, it was an order. Martha automatically crossed to the fridge and as she opened the door and the light switched on, a light seemed to switch on in her brain too.
That’s when she had the idea.
What a brilliant idea it was too! But, she had to act fast, before the logical side of her mind tried to talk her out of it – she didn’t want to be talked out of it, she immediately believed it was the most ingenious idea that had ever been formed within her own clever head!
Martha took a can of beer from the fridge and opened it. She glanced through the doorway to check that Jim hadn’t heard the crack of the ring-pull, not that he should without his hearing aid, and poured a little bit of the liquid down the sink. Next, she opened the cupboard beneath and took out the box of rat poison which had been there since last year when Martha had been convinced she’d seen one of the rodents down the side of the fridge. In a tizzy, she had called Jim at the pub and asked him to buy the rat poison on his way home, but when he returned and investigated, the ‘rat’ turned out to be Jim’s brown, woolly hat that he’s lost only days before. He and Jerry Donald had had a good laugh at Martha’s expense for that but, nevertheless, Martha had decided to keep the poison ‘just in case’. What a lucky decision.
Martha worked as deftly and efficiently as an experienced surgeon in an operating theatre. She poured a substantial amount of poison into the can, and then a bit more for good measure – for years of resentment in an unhappy marriage and a lost life full of chances denied – before swirling the can around as the concoction fizzled then settled down.
“Where’s my beer?” called Jim, “Or are you too clever to get it for me now?” He laughed at his own lame joke.
Martha walked through to her husband and handed him his beer.
“About bloody time”, he growled as he snatched it out of her hand. Some of it spilled onto his jumped and Martha watched it soak into the material, thinking about how it would soon permeate his insides. She sat back down on the settee to observe her husband.
All sense of time and space left Martha as she eyeballed Jim, barely blinking, drinking to his death. About three swigs later, or maybe it was fewer than that, the can dropped from his arthritic hand onto the old, worn, busily patterned carpet and the remainder of its foaming contents gurgled out, seemingly seeking and tracing the pattern like the rapidly increasing flow of blood from a fresh gunshot wound. Jim’s gnarly fingers clasped his throat, he gasped and choked for breath, his freaky eyes bulged quite visibly and he gagged on his own foaming tongue. He lost the fight for oxygen and after a confused, despairing look at his statue-like wife, he slumped and was finally still. Forever.
Martha smiled to herself.
The following Thursday a smartly attired and neatly moustachioed Jerry Donald arrived on the Garfield’s front doorstep, ever prompt, for his weekly boozy afternoon session with Jim. Martha opened the door and let him in, as she always did. He smiled broadly in the patronising manner that always seemed to emanate from him, his fat face stretching outwards, not unlike a rugby ball.
“How’s Martha?” He spoke like a stereotypical, greasy, game show host. Jerry fancied himself as a bit of a dapper gentleman but Martha, misfortunate enough to have known him for a decade now, regarded him as nothing more than a pompous, pretentious fool, only mildly more tolerable than her own husband.
“Come on in Jerry”, Marthan beckoned, “Jim’s in the living room.”
Jerry slinked stealthily past Marthan, patting her bum as he did so. Martha cringed, closed the front door and stood in the hall waiting for the inevitable.
“Oh my God! Martha! Martha, call an ambulance! Oh my God!” He carried on repeating himself until Martha leisurely appeared in the doorway. She saw Jerry urgently shaking his best friend, her husband, but to no avail.
“Don’t just stand there you stupid woman – Jim’s dead! Do something!”
“He’s sleeping”, replied Martha calmly, “He always sleeps with his eyes open Jerry, you know that.”
“Goddamn it woman! Don’t you know the difference by now?” shouted Jerry. The question hung in the air for a few moments before his expression changed and his face contorted into incredulity.
“No, you don’t, do you? Jim told me how you used to think he was dead and ring for an ambulance willy-nilly! My God Martha, he was right, you are absolutely bloody stupid!”
A knock at the door interrupted Jerry’s barrage of abuse and Martha rushed to answer it, leaving Jerry slapping Jim’s face, foolishly trying to revive him from his death slumber.
What happened next was a blur to Jerry. He watched two policemen orderly enter the room before feeling handcuffs fasten around his wrists. “Jerrold Donald, you have the right to remain silent…”
“What the hell are you doing?” he spat at the officer restraining him. “My friend is dead, his dumb wife didn’t even realise!”
“That’s enough now Sir,” interjected the second officer, “save it for the station.”
Jerry looked over at Martha who was now sobbing uncontrollably in a young WPC’s arms.
“This woman is insane!” he shrieked, nodding towards Martha. “Her husband lies dead and she now needs coppers to tell her he’s not asleep when she used to call 999 every time Jim took a nap!”
“What happened Mrs Garfield?” the WPC asked Martha softly.
Martha took a few seconds to compose herself before she spoke, shaking as she did so.
“Well”, she began falteringly, “I’ve just returned home after spending a few days with my sister and when I got home I found my husband, Jim, dead. I think he’s been poisoned” she whispered, tugging at her worn, frayed handkerchief that had absorbed her years of tears.
“He’s been WHAT?” shouted Jerry, moustache bristling and fat, rugby ball head getting redder by the minute.
“Go on, Mrs Garfield”, urged the WPC, frowning at Jerry.
Martha sniffled into her handkerchief again. “I found Jim and telephoned you, then Jerry barged in the house out of nowhere and seemed startled to see me. I wasn’t due back until tomorrow so I think I interrupted his plans to get rid of Jim’s body!” Martha collapsed onto the hallway telephone chair, her face covered with her liver spotted yet elegant hands, weeping quietly.
“I don’t believe this!” Jerry writhed and wriggled and roared as he was led away from the house, neighbouring net curtains furiously twitching within the surrounding spectator bungalows. “What are you doing you idiots? Can’t you see the deranged, conniving old hag is lying!” he screamed venomously. “She obviously killed Jim, not me!”
He continued to protest his innocence and shriek obscenities at the policemen as they bundled him into the police car and behind her handkerchief, ever so softly, Martha began to laugh. No, she wasn’t stupid. She was capable of anything. Now Jim and Jerry both knew it too.