A Bit Of A Mess

......"Get out of it, you little bastard," Bernard cursed as he paced the room, rolled-up newspaper in hand: a thin, balding Nemesis on a quest for vengeance.
......"I'll get you yet, you filthy creature," he hissed, as his target winged away unconcernedly from his umpteenth attempt to end its odious existence.
......It was the biggest fly he had ever seen, with huge multifaceted eyes, glistening wings, and of such an iridescent blue-green colour it was almost beautiful. However, Bernard was in no mood to appreciate the wonders of nature; he only wanted to flatten the repulsive insect to pulp.
......Precariously balanced on one leg atop the coffee table, he made a desperate lunge for the insect that he had stealthily stalked to its present resting place, a corner of the ceiling, where it was calmly preening itself. His improvised weapon struck the wall nanoseconds after the object of his attack gracefully exited the scene of intended carnage. The force of his blow was such that it unsteadied Bernard's already tenuous equilibrium. The frail table teetered momentarily on one strained leg, instilling for a heart-stopping instant the vain hope that he would escape the imminent fall to earth that threatened. Alas, with a protesting creak and a relieved crack, the table leg splintered, tumbling its unaccustomed burden to a sudden, painful landing on the base of his spine.
......Waves of nausea rolled over Bernard as his vertebra sent messages of agony to his brain; sweat spouted from his brow as he sat in undignified torment amid the wreckage of a once elegant piece of furniture.
......Upon opening his eyes as his suffering eased, the first thing to greet his pained vision was his enemy, perched on the windowsill in front of him rubbing its forelegs together in evident enjoyment of his predicament. Ignoring the outcry of his bruised body, Bernard sprang forward intent on squashing the fly with the palm of his hand. He lunged, flattened hand outstretched, only for his momentum to send him sliding across the now sloping tabletop. With a dull, tear-jerking thud the bridge of his nose made sudden and unceremonious contact with the now flyless windowsill.
......Collecting what remained of his senses, he picked himself up and staggered off in defeat to his armchair to lick his wounds: a swollen, throbbing nose, twisted ankle, grazed forearm and, most painful of all, a crushed spirit. Picking a splinter of the table from his hand, he slouched disconsolately in the chair; the despised insect humming happily as it described circles around him. Although it appeared to him that the hateful insect was eager to continue the entertainment, that it was purposely tormenting him and even inviting further attacks, Bernard had no will left to mount another assault. He had been hunting the horrible thing for over an hour now with equally little success. The fly, on the other hand, had become so confident in its ability to evade him, it had taken to making kamikaze-like flights within Bernard's reach, even on occasion landing on various parts of his body. Yet no matter how craftily he had pursued his quarry, Bernard had yet to make a kill.
......As he sat in misery, occasionally swatting half-heartedly at the fly's more outrageous incursions, he morosely pondered his life. There were just three things on this earth that he detested: untidiness, dirt and flies. Until a short time ago he and his surroundings had been immaculately clean and tidy; the house had exuded cleanliness. Not a thing had been out of place, and flies visited only briefly, soon leaving in disgust upon discovering the all-pervading hygiene. Then Mary, his wife, had left him, and all that had changed. Before that traumatic day he had lived in a world of scrupulously spick-and-span order, the merest speck of dirt anathema to him.
......His father had died soon after he was born, of a protracted case of malaria, contracted while working on a new railway in India. His mother, associating both the disease and the country with uncleanliness and poverty, always having being a house-proud woman, became more so. She became so obsessed with protecting Bernard, her only child, on whom she doted, from filth and germs, that she spent almost every waking hour cleaning and recleaning her already spotless house and son. The scent of disinfectants, cleaning preparations, soap and polish accompanied him all the time, so much so that the outside fresh air almost smelled unnatural to him.
......It would not be to put too fine a point on it to say that Bernard's mother wrapped him in cotton wool and smothered him in affection. She would not allow him to leave the house without first making sure that he was scrubbed clean and dressed in freshly laundered clothes. Upon returning home he would be made to remove all his clothing, bathe and don a set of newly washed garments. His food was presented to him on gleaming china, to be eaten with glistening cutlery, the food itself painstakingly ridded of all possible contamination. After meals he would immediately have to scrub his teeth of any remaining morsel, then rinse his mouth with antiseptic wash. His mother would stand over him to ensure his ablutions were carried out to her high standards. Even when he had to use the toilet she would be there, disinfectant in hand, ready to sterilise the bathroom of infection. In short, his perhaps over-loving, overprotective mother went to the greatest lengths to prevent his father's fate from befalling Bernard.
......Under these circumstances it is surprising Bernard was ever allowed to come into contact with anyone outside the home. Somehow though, he met, fell in love with and eventually became engaged to Mary, a neat, clean-living girl, thoroughly approved of by his mother. When his mother died of bronchitis, probably aggravated by the fumes of the various cleansing preparations she breathed constantly, Bernard and Mary decided to marry and set up home together in the house he had lived all his life in.
......By now himself obsessed with the hatred of dirt and disorder his mother had inculcated in him, he insisted at all times their home be spotlessly clean. His mother had never allowed her son to soil his hands; preferring to do all the cleaning herself to further protect her precious boy, so it seemed only natural to Bernard his new wife should take over his mother's role.
......Mary was very meek and servile, not for her the modern trend of equality between man and woman. She had had an old fashioned upbringing that had instilled a belief that women were inferior to men; that the female should cater to the needs of the male. Her marriage vow to love, honour and obey was sincerely meant. She saw her wifely duty as one of subservience to her husband. He was the breadwinner, the one who braved the world and went out to work each day to earn the means of providing for her. It was her side of the bargain to stay at home to cook and clean for him, and she did this, happy in the knowledge that she was a good, faithful spouse.
......It was Mary's hope that one day they would have children to complete her picture of the ideal marriage. However, she did not like to press Bernard on this subject, as he disliked children on the grounds that they were 'too messy.' Indeed, they rarely indulged in the act necessary for the production of offspring for the same reason, the stains on the bed linen being abhorrent to her husband. This to such an extent, that after their infrequent dalliances in such activities Bernard would insist that they get out of bed, no matter the hour, to enable Mary to change the sheets.
......Because of Bernard's dominant character and her own mild nature, Mary complied with her husband's desires. She uncomplainingly cleaned and scrubbed until the house sparkled brightly. She swept, mopped, washed, polished, disinfected and deodorised from top to bottom, then started all over again. Rather like a painter of the Forth Bridge, her work was never ending. She spent all her day, apart from necessary excursions to the shops for food and cleaning materials, in constant war upon dirt. Armed with dusters, brushes and multifarious cleansing agents, she patrolled the house in search of grime; cleaning and recleaning already gleaming surfaces, never allowing dust and dirt the opportunity to settle in any nook or cranny; all in vain attempt to please the husband she dearly loved.
......As in the case of Bernard's mother before her, all this sanitary activity took its toll on Mary's health and appearance. A pretty, frail little girl when she married Bernard, the constant contact with bleaches and other powerful preparations had adverse effects on her delicate constitution. Her face and hands became red and blotchy, the flesh dry and cracked. The eternal bending and kneeling induced a stoop to her back. She developed a nagging cough. Her time being filled with care for the house and her husband; she neglected her own looks. Her prettiness faded away. She bore all this without a murmur: she adored her husband and would do anything for him. That his respect for her seemed to wane as time went by in direct proportion to his increasing obsessive dislike of dirt, she tried to ignore. As far as she was concerned, as long as she remained a loyal and dutiful spouse, then all was sure to come out in the wash, so to speak.
......Bernard interrupted his musings to throw a framed wedding photograph that had previously rested on the defunct coffee table in the general direction of the fly, which had become more impertinent in its violation of his territory. The silver and glass cased memory of a happier day crashed against the wall, feet away from its intended objective, which blithely buzzed off to alight on the sideboard, where it sat and stared at him with, to Bernard's mind, an expression of amusement on its vile face.
......"Leave me alone, you disgusting beast," he snarled at the uncaring insect as he rose from the chair and crossed the room. Picking up the photograph, he separated it from the remains of its frame. "It's your fault things're like this, you ungrateful bitch. If you were still here, I wouldn't be living in this squalor," he said to the smiling face of his wife in the picture.
......He looked around the room; at the dust on the sideboard; at the fly happily wallowing in it; at the broken table; the upset ornaments; the stains in the carpet; the grimy windows; the filthy curtains; the long-dead flowers in the vase on the once-shiny-screened TV. As his eyes absorbed the degeneration of his surroundings, he sobbed while his hands mechanically tore the photograph of happy faces in wedding dress, the resulting scraps of paper falling to the floor to join the accumulated jumble there.
......He could not recall when things had begun to change. Now he considered it, he realised it was true that he had become increasingly demanding in matters of hygiene as his marriage had progressed. As his insistence upon spotless conditions had grown more exaggerated, so it had seemed his wife's attention to his wants diminished, as if she could no longer cope with her duties. He would arrive home from his work as a manager at White's, a high quality tailors, to discover that when he ran his fingers over tops of doors, under the cooker, behind pictures and other hidden areas, they would come away bearing traces of dirt. He became more and more angry; she had so far always been so diligent, so unremitting in her efforts to maintain the house as he decreed. He ranted and raved at her, compelled her to reclean the offending sites, which she did with tears in her eyes, as he watched over her, making certain the task was accomplished to his satisfaction.
......As Mary's looks deteriorated he began to treat her with much less affection; to even regard with distaste her unkempt appearance; her ragged hair; her spotty skin; her work-worn clothes; the tired, harried look on her face. Their already rare lovemaking became non-existent; they ceased to go out together; he seldom spoke to her any more, except to complain about some imagined stain. Indeed, he treated her more as a housemaid, a mere drudge, than a wife and partner.
......As his ardour for his wife decreased, so his passion for cleanliness and order magnified. He would regularly search the house for signs of dirt, real or otherwise, which, if found, he would have Mary dispose of. Every surface had to emit a pristine glow; every object and ornament had to be arranged with military precision, lined up in regimented ranks; the furniture in exactly the right place; the books in alphabetical sequence on their shelves; the very cleaning tools and materials properly arranged in their correct cupboards. He scoured every room for the merest suspicion of contamination, for any object not in its designated position, and woe betide Mary if his search was successful.
......Mary bore this progressively more manic behaviour stoically and patiently. It did not occur to her to defy her husband, though often she privately wept bitterly in sheer frustration at being unable to please him, no matter how hard she tried. She had wedded Bernard for better or worse and accepted her lot with resignation, not realising that there should be more to married life, to life itself, than her sheltered upbringing and insular partnership had so far shown her.
......Bernard lashed out at the insistent fly, which had just alighted on his leg, succeeding only in giving himself a resounding slap as it once more evaded his clutches.
......He strode to the kitchen, opened the cupboard under the sink. "Where's that blasted fly spray?" he muttered to the depths of the cupboard as he flung bottles and boxes to the floor. "I know there was one. I can never find anything in this house."
......The fly, like a faithful dog, had followed him and was cheerfully dive-bombing him as he sat on the floor amid the litter of his fruitless search for an effective weapon. He snatched a plastic bottle of window cleaner and hurled it at the source of his irritation but his aim was way off. The flimsy container splattered against a corner of the refrigerator; its top flew off, spraying its contents over a large area of wall and fridge door, from where it dribbled slowly like mucus to form a green, scented puddle on the tiled floor. The fly drifted over to investigate the mess, but finding nothing of interest, droned casually back to the lounge.
......Bernard continued to sit on the cold, hard tiles, his head in his hands, his thoughts going back to what he now knew to be the turning point in his relationship with Mary.
......He had only been marginally aware of their new neighbours at first: he avoided too much contact with the outside world, as it was not clean enough for his taste. The house next door had been vacant for a while and had become quite run-down - much to his displeasure. When his wife mentioned that someone had moved in, his only interest was that now perhaps the place would get tidied up. This did not happen, however - if anything, the house became more disreputable. Rubbish was thrown into the unkempt garden, dirty curtains were put up at the grimy windows and the peeling paintwork continued to peel. His hopes of an improved neighbourhood were dashed.
......The occupants themselves, as Bernard discovered when he took to mounting long vigils at the window hidden behind the drapes, concerned that their slumminess might somehow infect his own property, were to his eyes a perfect match for their surroundings. The husband was a rough, unshaven, scruffy young specimen with tattooed arms, while his partner Bernard could only describe as a slut. She had bleached hair, exotic make-up, wore tiny skirts and revealing tops. She seemed to take a delight in flaunting herself. Indeed, she appeared to sense his constant observation and to take this as lustful interest on his part, for with a brazen, defiant look on her face she would often pointedly stretch or bend in his direction in such a way as to display greater proportions of her body. This much to Bernard's disgust - as if he was the slightest bit interested in spying her admittedly attractive charms!
......He had little to do with the new neighbours, apart from his curtain-guarded observance of the worsening condition of the adjacent property and the outrageous exposure of the woman of the house. Mary, however, at first unknown to him, became extremely friendly with the slatternly wife, to such an extent that while Bernard was at work she spent greater and greater amounts of time in the company of the woman, either in her own home, or more often, next door.
......Mary became mesmerised by the other woman; their completely opposite personalities seemed to draw her like a magnet. Where she was the loyal, faithful, house-proud wife, a believer in the sanctity of marriage, attentive to the desires of her husband, even fearing of him, Lynn, the neighbour, was totally the reverse. She and her untidy spouse believed in open marriage: extramarital affairs were encouraged rather than frowned upon. Lynn was very highly sexed: maintaining that her other half could not cater for her manifold needs.
......"So what if I have a little nooky on the side?" she would say, a mischievous gleam in her eye, "It makes life more interesting, and it doesn't hurt Georgie. Anyway, he's got plenty of bits on the side of his own - the randy sod!"
......A major part of Lynn's conversation revolved around sex and men: she was fascinated by both topics. Mary's sexuality had rarely been given the opportunity of showing itself. What little experience she had had in that department - infrequent, rapid, mechanical operations, that she had come to regard as somehow dirty - had rarely satisfied her. Although there had been occasions when an unfamiliar spark had been kindled in her: quickly to be doused by her own embarrassment and Bernard's disgust before it was allowed to burn into flame. She was not aware until Lynn came along, with her endless talk of her own experiences, that there could be more to the sex act than a covert fumbling, an empty feeling, and a visit to the airing cupboard for fresh bedding.
......As for household chores: what was a little mess here and there? A quick flick round with a duster now and then was good enough for Lynn. Life was too much fun to waste time cleaning up. Besides, what was the point, anyway? Everything just got mucky again.
......Her new friend's attitude to life and marriage came as a revelation to Mary. Her childhood education and her time with Bernard had led her to suppose that her sole aim in life was merely to be a good and dutiful wife, caring only for her husband and home. It had never occurred to her that it was possible to have an existence - a life - of her own, let alone one that contained excitement and enjoyment.
......Mary was an impressionable woman, quite malleable and gullible, easily led by those stronger than she. Over the years Bernard had shaped her into his idea of the perfect little wife and mother substitute. Perhaps if she had not come into contact with the outside world in the shape of the new neighbours, she would have remained so: a diligent, if unsatisfied, doting wife. However, Lynn's bubbly, outgoing character and the delights of which she persuasively spoke: independence; freedom; excitement, turned her head. The frequent dwelling on matters carnal, too, awoke urges in her that may otherwise have remained dormant. Lynn felt sorry for her dowdy, naive friend and angry with her husband for keeping her a virtual prisoner in her own home. So much so, that she felt it incumbent upon herself to emancipate Mary from her bondage; her perpetual round of cleaning and washing, and teach her the ways of the world.
......As the unlikely friendship developed, Mary spent less and less time in the pursuance of cleanliness and more in the company of Lynn. Of course, this very soon became apparent to Bernard, who no longer found it necessary to seek out dirt. The increasing negligence was all too obvious. His once immaculate abode soon began to lose its lustre. Waste bins overflowed, dust accumulated, bottles grew crusts around their necks, things were left lying about instead of being put back in their proper place. Bernard's clean orderly little world soon took on a similar uncared-for aspect to the house next door. It was almost as if his neighbour's neglect was spreading to his own home like some contagious disease.
......Bernard rose from the floor and slouched back into the lounge, half-heartedly swatting in the general direction of the fly, which swooped over to greet his arrival. Surveying the squalid state of the room with dispirited eyes he went to the drinks cabinet, where he got himself a bottle of whisky and a large tumbler. Slumping in his chair, he poured a generous measure of the spirit, some of it dripping unregarded onto his already stained trousers, and mulled over the many rows on the declining standard of housekeeping that had ensued as her friend's influence upon Mary manifested itself.
......At the start of the decline it had been relatively easy for Bernard to reconvert Mary back to the domestic paragon she had formally been. A few sharp words and she donned her apron and bustled off with her cleaning equipment, regretting her lapse. As time passed, however, and Lynn's hold on her became more pervasive, it was as if Mary gradually changed into a different person. Out went the docile, sweet-tempered little girl he had wed: in her place appeared a harder, more self-assured woman, almost the model of the woman next door. No longer was he able to control her; dictate to her; tell her how to behave, dress and look. Instead, now when he criticised her on the condition of the house, on her patent disregard of his demands; rather than timidly accepting his reproach, then doing his bidding, she was more likely to throw the cleaning implements at him and tell him to do it himself, then storm off next door.
......The house became more rundown and shoddy. Grime accumulated everywhere. As his home degenerated, so his wife bloomed, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. No more the dowdy, plain girl of old. She no longer wore the drab, unflattering clothes he preferred. She took to wearing more revealing, sexier garments, ones that displayed a lithe, sensuous body until then hidden. Her hair was tinted and styled; she wore artfully applied make up and the scent of alluring perfume wafted from her instead of disinfectant. Bernard did not know her any more; it was as if a stranger had come to live with him. In truth, she frightened him. For, as her outward appearance changed, so too did her personality. From the shy, stay-at-home, obedient drudge and easily swayed, meek little housemaid, she became an independent, confident, attractive woman who stood up for herself. He was incapable of doing anything about it. She was not the girl he had married; he just did not know how to handle a woman like this.
......Though he tried uselessly to forbid it, Mary took to going out with her friend to public houses and nightclubs; arriving back home at all hours of the night, while he waited, alone and worried, amid the settling dust of his changing life, frustrated and inadequate. On arriving home to find him faithfully waiting for her as she had once waited his own homecoming, she would taunt him for his fuddy-duddy ways, his obsessions and phobias and attack his very manliness. He suspected there were other men; indeed she hinted as much, but he dared not broach the subject, lest she confirm his fears and belittle him further. He was unable to cope with this new Mary; she made him feel small, impotent. His only hope was that the transformation was temporary; that it was only a passing phase that the old, tractable Mary he used to know would reappear.
......Time went by, and Mary became to be more and more the mirror image of her friend, Lynn. Dreading losing her altogether, Bernard became the docile one. He fawned upon her, grovelled and sucked up to her, trailed her about the house like a lost dog. He plundered his savings to pour money on her, which she spent with avidity on new clothes, hairstyles and cosmetics. He did all he could to regain the woman he had known, but to no avail. It was as if they had exchanged personalities. Mary was now the dominant partner, he the submissive.
......Bernard's distaste of uncleanliness and disorder still remained. His abhorrence was too inbred, too deep-seated to leave him even now. However, though it seemed that all the accumulated dirt of the years was gradually building up around him, as if it had just been waiting until now to descend upon him, he was powerless to do anything about it. The actual physical act of cleaning, the means by which he could rid himself of the distressingly mounting filth about him, was beyond him, alien to him. His wife had always seen to that kind of thing, and before her, his mother. He had never had to lift a finger to maintain the hygienic, sterile environment he had grown used to. There had always been a woman to scrub and polish for him. Now Mary had forsaken all interest in such pursuits - indeed, she was rarely in the home any more - he was completely lost, while the house got dirtier and dirtier. He felt as if he were drowning in a cesspool. It did occur to him to attempt the task himself, to do his own cleaning, but his unenthusiastic, spiritless efforts merely stirred up the dust instead of removing it, so he abandoned it in despair. He had become so accustomed to being mollycoddled; to assuming that housework was the sole province of womankind, that he could no more set to it than fly to the moon.
......His grief over the change of his once dependable wife to the liberated woman who was only pleasant to him when she needed money and the loss of his spotlessly organised surroundings, affected him deeply. He still loved Mary in his way and could not bear the thought of losing her - or perhaps it was her housekeeping abilities he mourned the loss of. Whatever, the two situations combined made him bitter and morose.
......His work suffered. Always a good timekeeper in the past, punctual and conscientious to a degree; he took time off, spending most of his days in bed, increasingly in the company of a bottle. He had not been previously a heavy drinker, rarely imbibing more than a glass on special occasions; now he took to alcohol like a drowning man to a life belt. He discovered that if he got himself sufficiently intoxicated he no longer noticed as much the state of his surroundings or dwelled too deeply on Mary's transformation.
......Though drink granted him temporary absolution from his problem, it created more of its own. Under its influence for much of the time, his own appearance deteriorated along with that of his home. Unshaven and unwashed, no longer provided by Mary with a never-ending supply of freshly laundered clothing, he soon acquired the aspect of a man who had seen better days. The advancing shoddiness of his apparel, his uncared-for looks, the obvious indications of alcohol abuse, all rapidly became apparent to the other employees at White's on the rare occasions he deigned to go there. The junior staff, ever eager for promotion opportunities, soon made it known at head office that their manager was no longer setting the example expected of a man in his position. This, compounded by a slump in sales as customers drifted away to other shops where the staff presented more the kind of image they were seeking, led higher management to regretfully dispense with Bernard's services.
......Taking a large gulp of whisky, Bernard sullenly eyed the bottle, the symbol of what had been the last nail in the coffin of his and Mary's relationship. With his job gone, and no money coming in, what little finances remaining going to fuel his growing dependence on alcohol, there was nothing left to keep Mary in the manner she was becoming accustomed to. It came as no great surprise therefore, when, upon stumbling from his bed late one morning, he discovered a terse note from his wife informing him that she had found someone else, had gone off with him and would not be coming back.
......This event, though not entirely unexpected, completely devastated Bernard. Once (to his mind) a happily married man with a faithful, loving wife and a home that sparkled and gleamed; he, the epitome of a satisfied man, was reduced to living alone in this shambles; this filthy, neglected, befouled hovel; while his selfish wife was whoring with her fancy man.
......As if conspiring to make his plight worse, the council dustmen were currently engaged in their annual strike for higher pay. Uncollected rubbish was mouldering in the streets, alleys and gardens of the town, and this in the longest heat wave on record. Ideal conditions to spawn the plague of flies that presently besieged the community. Bernard's disgust of flies was prodigious. He loathed the garbage-seeking, ordure-eating creatures with all his heart. He could not bear them near him. Despite the high temperature and stifling atmosphere he kept the doors and windows firmly closed for fear that the repulsive insects might invade his home. How the monstrously large specimen that had tormented him for much of the day had gained ingress baffled him, it seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
......His thoughts back on his adversary, he placed his unfinished glass on the floor beside the chair, rose and stealthily tiptoed across the floor to the sideboard. There, on the once highly polished; now dust layered wood, the fly was sampling one of several rings left by his whisky tumbler in recent days. He watched in disgust as it dipped its tubular proboscis in the sticky circle with evident relish. Seeing an opportunity to strike while the insect's attention was thus diverted, he slowly raised his hand with palm outspread, and then brought it down with murderous intent. The flat of his hand struck the wood with a satisfying slap, raising a small cloud of dust. With a surge of victory inflating his slight frame he lifted his fingers one by one, fully expecting to find the squashed remains of his foe imbedded in the sideboard. All he found was the imprint of his hand in the dust. He could not have missed it! He had taken such careful aim. How could it have evaded him?
......His bloodshot eyes scanned the sideboard top. He peered at the bowl of rotten fruit, the dead pot plant, and his hand. Where the hell was it? A familiar droning noise came to his ears. Glancing up, he saw the infernal creature flying merry circles just above his head, looking for all the world as if it were enjoying some great insectile joke. With a strangled cry of rage Bernard sprang into the air clapping his hands together. The fly languidly flew a little further from him, easily avoiding his clutches. There then followed a desperate chase; Bernard jumping and clapping his hands aloft; the fly teasingly just keeping out of his range, leading him around the room like a large angry dog on a lead.
......This latest ineffectual pursuit was brought to an end when, in the course of one of his clumsy leaps, his kneecap came into abrupt and painful contact with a bookcase, half the contents of which were spilled to the floor. Beaten yet again, he hopped, clutching the throbbing joint in two hands, in retreat back to his chair, where he slumped dejectedly rubbing his newest battle wound and once again reflected on his plight.
......Bernard knew he was in a bad way; that he was slowly, inexorably, heading downhill. This chair, along with the bed upstairs, had been his main sphere of activity for the last few weeks since Mary had departed, as evinced by the discarded bottles scattered about both items of furniture. Though to say activity is a little of a misnomer, considering that most of his days were spent in alcohol-induced stupor. His more sober moments being occupied alternately engaged in raging at the injustice of his wife's desertion and miserably bemoaning his squalid surroundings.
......In more lucid moments he would sit listening for the rattle of the letterbox, which he prayed would herald the delivery of a hoped for correspondence from Mary, instead of the inevitable bills and invitations from Reader's Digest and American Express that usually fell to the doormat. More optimistically, he waited the sound of his wife's key in the lock - he knew she would come back; his chauvinism would not allow the notion she could desert him totally. No, once the novelty of her new lifestyle wore off; when her new lover's enthusiasm waned; when she realised that he was the one who mattered, she would be back. She would come running home with her tail between her legs, begging his forgiveness, pleading and crying for him to take her back; and he, the wounded martyr, would graciously accept her apologies and take her back into his home. Then everything would be the same as it was. She would restore the house to its former glory, she would wash his clothes and feed him and he would get a new job, better than the last - he had the qualifications after all. He would of course ban her from any further contact with that slut next door, then Mary would return to being the sweet, timid girl of old; all this liberated nonsense would be forgotten and his clean, ordered existence would be restored.
......While his thoughts had thus been diverted from the fly, the insect, unobserved by Bernard, had been exploring the whisky tumbler on the floor. It must have developed a taste for the amber spirit, for it had been crawling around the rim of the glass and eagerly sucking up the traces of liquid there. However, its imbibition must have affected its footing, for it had slipped. The insect now floated in the last inch of whisky, its legs wriggling, its wings fluttering as it struggled to extricate itself.
......Bernard reached down and patted the carpet until his finger located the glass. Grasping it, he brought it to his lips and tossed back the whisky, fly and all. Too late, he saw the black object as it passed into his mouth. As he felt the soft lump going down his throat his foggy brain realised what must have happened.
......He had swallowed the fly!
......The filthy, dirty, obnoxious creature was even now making its way to his stomach!
......He went hot and cold all at the same time; his face turned ashen. He gagged and retched, lurched forward and a gushing stream of vomit flooded from his mouth splashing his trousers as it splattered to the carpet.
......The flow seemed never ending, but at last it ceased and he opened his eyes. There in the middle of a spreading puddle of steaming puke lay the fly, incredibly still twitching. The sight brought on another spasm from his stomach and more of its contents rushed out until finally there was nothing left to disgorge.
......Bernard stared at the fly, still feebly writhing as it clung tenaciously to life. He swayed to his feet, thin dribbles of bile running down his chin; unsteadily raised one leg and brought his stockinged foot down with a vicious stamp in the centre of the reeking mixture of used whisky and undigested food. Stepping away from the viscous slop, he tottered on one leg while examining the sole of his other foot. A victorious smirk came to Bernard's face. There on his soggy instep were the mashed remains of his deceased tormentor. Beaten at last!
......Leaving a trail of slime behind him, Bernard slouched to the kitchen. At the sink he turned on the tap and stuck his head under its flow. Feeling somewhat fresher, he swilled his mouth with the cold water to rid himself of the acid taste, then stood leaning over the sink dripping water on the assortment of unwashed pans and crockery that filled it while the last of his nausea passed.
......He still shivered with repugnance at the memory of swallowing the fly - but at least it was gone now; it would not be bothering him again. There was the mess on the carpet to consider. He ought to get rid of it; he could not leave it there. But no - he could not face dabbling in the stuff right now - he would see to it later.
......He ought to make himself something to eat. Lucky he had not had much before; that would have been too messy! However, now his stomach growled hollowly; he could not remember when he had last eaten. He should have something. As he stared into the overflowing sink, though, he realised he would have to wash a pan. He did not have any more; they were all there in front of him, the congealed remains of past meals adhering to them. It would take a sandblaster to get them clean.
......Bernard's eyes scanned the greasy worktops, his stomach rebelled as he took in the scattered debris of previous culinary activity: opened cans with jagged tops, their remaining contents putrefied; a loaf of bread, its wrapper open, slices coated with green fluffy mould spilling out of them; a half used pack of beefburgers, from which the scent of rotting meat emanated; the chip pan, its fat a sickly grey, old chips lying in it like cigarettes in a dirty ashtray. All thought of food left him as he regarded the evidence of his sloth. What was happening to him? How could things have got into such a state? He drew a finger across the grease-layered cooker; it came away black and slimy. Maybe food was not such a good idea after all, his throat still burned from all that retching and his stomach still rumbled ominously. What he really needed, he decided, was a drink - that would cure him.
......Bernard went back into the lounge; skirting the slowly spreading pool on the floor, he approached the chair.
......Oh no!
......The whisky bottle lay on its side, empty apart from a small residue that gravity and the bottle neck had spared. He must have knocked it over when he was regurgitating that damned fly. He picked up the bottle and drained its meagre remains before casting it angrily back to the floor. His insides heaved; but he kept down the precious liquid. He began to feel better but the mouthful had only served to increase his thirst. He had to have more - but how? The drinks cabinet was bare. He just had to have another drink. He longed for the oblivion of whisky.
......His fuddled brain finally provided the answer: he had a bottle upstairs, he remembered, right next to his bed.
......In his haste to get upstairs he forgot the coagulating puddle on the carpet and walked through it on his way out of the room, trailing more slime. Reaching the stairs he clutched the banister rail and stumbled upwards.
......The bedroom was in no better condition of upkeep than the rooms below. Dust and fluff lay all around. Clothes were scattered in an untidy heap in front of the wardrobe. You could sign your autograph on the mirror of the dressing table. Grey, soiled sheets lay tangled and strewn around the bed. The dirty curtains were drawn across the windows, the dim light coming through them making the scene even drearier. For once though, Bernard was unconscious of the disarray; his eyes had lighted on the almost full bottle of whisky on the night table and he eagerly reached for it.
......Slumping on to the bed, he unscrewed the cap and took a long grateful swallow. That was better. The smooth warming liquor spread gently through his system, its fumes rising to his brain, dulling it; bringing blessed forgetfulness and blindness to his plight.
......Bernard became aware of his damp, evil smelling trousers. Might as well take them off. His shirt was a bit crisp too - take everything off. It must be getting late - he could get into bed with his bottle. He shed the noisome garments, leaving them were they fell. He could only find his pyjama bottoms; the top could have been anywhere. No matter, it was too warm, anyway. He donned the discoloured bottoms, unwashed since Mary had departed, then collapsed onto the unmade bed.
......He might have slept; he did not know. The low level of the whisky bottle indicated that some time had passed, but it was still light. Something had disturbed him, made him sit up. But what?
......He dreamily looked about the room. What was it? Something had dragged him out of his stupor...
......A loud, familiar buzzing.
......His dazed eyes frantically swept this way and that. No, it couldn't be. Not that fly again. It was dead: he had flattened it; it was just another stain on the carpet.
......He grabbed for the bottle, gulped down the last of the spirit. He swayed as the room abruptly swung round, picking up speed, whirling like an insane merry-go-round. His stomach rushed up into his mouth. Gulping, swallowing, he kept it down, fought the sickness, the nausea, the impending loss of more good whisky.
......Sweating, yet icy cold, he lurched out of bed, still clutching the empty bottle. He took a step, and immediately fell to his knees, his foot entangled in a fallen sheet. He rose unsteadily; dragging the sheet he headed for the door, which seemed to swing from side to side as he approached it. Reaching the door, he clung to its frame as the whole house rushed round him. Trembling and shaking he rocked drunkenly on his feet, his flesh dripping with perspiration.
......The buzzing was much louder.
......He stumbled across the landing and grasped the wooden banister, sickness flooding over him again as he looked down into the hall reeling below him. He closed his eyes and the madly spinning house stilled.
......The buzzing went on.
......Something landed on Bernard's forehead, crawled down his nose. A fly! A dirty, disgusting fly, right there, on the tip of his nose. He shook his head, looked up. The fly shot to the ceiling, to join a dozen more, chasing each other around the dusty light fitting. Would you believe it? He lashed out with the bottle, but the light hung over the stairwell, out of his reach. He stretched out over the banister, struck out again, but still could not reach the unconcerned insects.
......Enraged, Bernard staggered to the bedroom, almost tripping over the sheet still wrapped around his ankles. He reached down, tugged the offending material from his legs, threw it to one side and continued into the bedroom.
......He emerged dragging a chair in one hand, the whisky bottle still in the other as if it were a part of him. Positioning the chair against the banister, he unsteadily climbed on to it. He stood swaying on the chair as his head swam and the hall below spun giddily. He watched as the flies circled unperturbed, gripped the bottle more firmly and grinned stupidly. Now he could reach!
......Bernard lunged, thrashing out with the bottle. He staggered, reeled, his whisky soaked brain rebelling at the sudden movement. The bottle hit the ceiling, cracked, and broke in two. One half fell to the floor below, the jagged neck still gripped in his hand scratched along the ceiling as he was propelled outward by his momentum. The chair went out from under him, crashed to the floor and he was thrown head first over the banister rail to the waiting hall floor.
......He plummeted face down, screaming. His head hit the floor first, silencing him; his body flopped down on the broken bottle. He twisted and rolled; the bottle pierced and gouged his stomach, driven deep by his weight. He rolled once more and came to rest face up, his head awkwardly propped against the lounge doorframe. Mercifully then he lost consciousness.
......Buzzing, buzzing. Like a motor racing circuit in his head.
......As awareness returned to him his ears were filled with a noise so loud as to be almost deafening, a buzzing that drilled into his brain.
......His vision wavered, misted. Slowly, like a fog lifting, his eyesight cleared.
......Oh God!
......There were hundreds of them - thousands - more.
......Get up!
......He willed himself to move, but his body disobeyed. Not a muscle stirred in response to his urge to get up and run. Not a twitch. Nothing.
......No, no! Please no!
......His brain cried, help me! But his mouth hung limply open, no sound issued from it. A fly alighted on his lolling tongue, in defiance of the portcullis of teeth, and sucked at his saliva.
......The fall had paralysed Bernard, he was completely immobilised. He was able only to see and hear. See the swarms of glistening flies; hear their incessant drone.
......From his position in the doorway of the lounge he could see into that room, where the pool of drying vomit had become the playground of a vast horde of greedy winged bodies. Further, through the open kitchen door, it looked as if the entire fly population of the neighbourhood had made it their bounden duty to eliminate all evidence of Bernard's dilatory housekeeping. Great swarms of them feuded over every juicy morsel; every surface was alive with busy hairy insects seeking out the wealth of rotting food. The noise of their fevered activity reached road drill intensity.
......Up above, what seemed to be the same group that had caused his downfall still leisurely performed circuits of the light fitting, as if they knew there were ample pickings to be had later and they could bide their time, wait for tastier fare.
......But the sight that, if he had been able to, would have made him gibber and scream with terror and revulsion was the rabid action around the area of his midriff. As it was, he could only stare in numb horror at the spectacle before him. For, about a great torn hole in his stomach, ragged and bloody, a large shard of glass protruding from it, a seething, heaving mass of the creatures he abominated fed rapaciously. They crawled and tumbled over one another, struggled and competed hungrily for the raw flesh of his guts. So large was their number that the lower section of his torso appeared to be covered by a thick blanket of bubbling black tar, flowing and turbulent; the flesh only visible briefly when part of the mass shifted, to be immediately replaced by another.
......To add indignity to his predicament his pyjama trousers had come unfastened and were now twisted around his knees. At some point both his bladder and bowels had unburdened themselves, and though his mind begged him to get out of it, he lay helpless in his own filth, much to the relish of the flies. Stinking too, for he now realised his sense of smell still functioned. To further increase his feelings of humiliation his flaccid penis had attracted its own brood of banqueters who jostled for position on the useless member.
......His whole being screamed in silent disgust and dread, cried out in mute terror as he was forced to watch powerlessly the gluttonous horde gorging on his paralysed body. He tried to tell himself that this was just a drunken nightmare, that he would soon wake and find himself in bed with only a hangover, but knew he was fooling himself. No, his fate was decided: he would lie there slowly rotting, attracting yet more loathsome insects to the feast, until they consumed his entire body.
......He drifted in and out of consciousness, unaware of the passage of time, except by the changing quality of the light and the slow putrescence of the wound in his stomach. It seemed that whenever he woke the ragged hole was worse, green and gangrenous, the stench of rotting meat emanating from it so strong as to be almost visible.
......Time passed, and he dumbly observed his own decay.
......The other object of his impotent attention, the ever-growing legion of flies, gained a new purpose as time progressed. Bernard realised to his mounting horror that they were not only feeding on him now; they were mating. He found himself the involuntary voyeur at a mass copulation. He watched in sickened aversion their courtships and unions, revolted yet fascinated. Worse than this, much worse, he watched as the pregnant females lay their countless eggs in his very guts. He was witness to and agent for an entire life cycle.
......Days went by. Bernard laid helpless and hopeless, home and larder for the thriving colony of insects.
......He had almost become immune to terror when the eggs hatched and the entire front of his body writhed with fat white maggots, wriggling and burrowing in his decaying flesh. Their number was so vast that they tumbled to the floor about him where they squirmed on the carpet, some creeping back to him to find other parts of his liquefying body to gorge upon. So satiated was he with fearfulness and revulsion; Bernard merely watched in resigned and morbid interest the gruesome enactment of insect evolution taking place before his eyes. He now impassively accepted that he had become simply a nursery and food supply for the burgeoning young of creatures he could once have slaughtered with the button of an aerosol can.
......He was too weak, too resigned to his fate to care any more, even when some of the obese, pallid grubs found their way into his mouth. He watched them enter without emotion, their squirming unfelt as they explored his tongue and teeth. He simply wanted to die, to pass gently away. He knew he could not last much longer: he might die from loss of blood and fluids; the maggots might eat into some vital organ or the ones in his mouth might choke him. He did not really care how he went; he just wanted the release of death. Tears filled his unblinking eyes, slid unfelt down his cheeks and dripped to his chest providing more sustenance for the infant flies.
......Then, when his grip on life had all but slipped away, above the humming of the flies that he had become so inured to he barely heard any more, came a new sound. A click and a rattle at the front door, a key turning in the lock.
......It was Mary! It had to be. She was back, as he had known all along she would be. He was not going to die after all. She had come back to the husband she loved. She would take care of him, clean him up and get him to hospital.
......She would be so tearful, so sorry for leaving him. She would beg him to forgive her and, given time, he would find it in his heart to do so. She would clean the house from top to bottom; get it back to its former pristine splendour. Life would go on as it had before: he would have his tidy little world back. The scent of pine and lemon, the aroma of cleaning solutions would fill the air, and everything would sparkle once more. He would be happy again!
......Mary entered the house, suitcase in hand, gagged at the stench. She looked down at her husband, rotting in his own filth, his eyes imploring, pleading, grateful.
......She stepped around his body. "Hello Bernard, got yourself in a bit of a mess, haven't you?" she said as she went to the stairs.
......"Christ, you stink! I thought you'd have got yourself another little housekeeper by now. This place's a dump; it's filthy! Look at all the flies; they're everywhere. What have you been doing?" Saying this, she climbed the stairs.
......Bernard dumbly watched her disappear. He heard her moving around upstairs. Doors banged, drawers slid open. She must be unpacking her case - she would be down soon to help him. New tears rolled from his eyes. Oh thank you, Mary!
......After a time Mary came back down, still carrying the suitcase. "I'd left a few clothes upstairs. Thought I'd pop back and get them," she said as she walked past.
......"Goodbye Bernard. The divorce papers are in the post."
......The door banged shut behind her.

Copyright Scorpio Tales 1992. All rights reserved.

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