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Patience Was Her Only Virtue.

He stood out on the sundeck contently watching the river flow past inches below his feet. It had been raining in the mountains. The water was deep, fast and treacherous. He admired the raw, uncontrolled power that could sweep a man to certain death, and think nothing of it.

A quick glance down the garden showed him Caroline cutting late autumn daisies for the living room vase. She looked up, smiled and raised a hand. He waved back, and grinned. God, she was beautiful! In two years of marriage she had never looked so good as now.

“Darling,” she called out to him, “I’ll put these in a vase, then I think I’ll lie down for a while before dinner.” He nodded, blew her a kiss, his eyes following her lithe body as she stepped demurely up the path and disappeared into the house. It must be six months since alcohol had passed her lips. Her once scrawny frame had filled out; developed curves that made his head spin with desire. Her long, dark hair shone in the evening sunlight; so different from how it was when that other one had been in control; lank, greasy, untidy. The other one! He shuddered, involuntarily; closed his eyes and remembered the night, a year ago, when things had been so different.

In his mind’s eye he recalled her swaying unsteadily, back and forth on the sun deck. The river had been running fast and deep that night; swollen, just like this evening. A storm had burst in the mountains, and all day rainwater cascaded down the valley sides, turning the usually sedate river to a maelstrom. Plumes of spray cascaded from the rocks, and by twilight the river’s voice had swished and swirled as tons of water hurtled past, on down the valley to the distant sea.

Just one push, he’d thought. Just one quick, hard, shove and she’ll be gone, swept away forever. No-one could survive two minutes in that millrace. It would be so easy. Over the previous weeks her weight had dropped dramatically– she was less than ninety pounds. She could barely stand. It would be…oh, so easy…..

He’d spun around, half-run back to the kitchen and sunk wearily into a chair, head bowed in his hands. What was he thinking of? Dear God, what was happening to him? He had come that close to being a murderer. A wife killer.

But he knew it had not been Caroline out there that night. It was Mrs Hyde, for so he’d named the black-eyed, sinister, foul-mouthed, entity swaying on their sundeck. She was possessing Caroline more frequently now, and she festered a hatred for him that turned his blood to water. He feared for his very life.

Mrs Hyde made her first appearance soon after they moved into the house. Caroline began drinking more heavily, first one bottle a day, then two. She became moody, would sit brooding for hours on the sofa or in the bedroom, always with an open bottle in her hand. Then the moods swung to anger and she would curse him; language he’d never thought to hear from his wife’s lips. During these bouts he noticed her face change shape, her hazel-brown eyes metamorphose to black, dark and evil. She would stare vehemently at him, as though he was a stranger in the house.

At times he had sensed an inner struggle within his wife; the warm and loving Caroline fighting to regain control from the evil Mrs Hyde. She would throw her arms about his neck, cry into his shoulder, murmur how much she loved him, needed him. Then, often only moments later, she’d lash out, scream obscenities, swear to kill him – drive him from the house – leap on him with slashing fingernails, gnawing teeth, until he fought her off, took flight into the spare bedroom to barricade the door and shut her out.

No longer dared he sleep in the bedroom they had shared since their marriage a year before. He had occupied the spare room, with a heavy chest of drawers against the door before attempting a night’s repose. His sleep was always disturbed.

She would come at some point of the night, usually in the early hours. She would pretend to be Caroline, tap gently on the door, sweetly, seductively, calling his name. He was awake at the first sound; alert, adrenalin surging, knowing what was to come. It was always the same. When he failed to answer, her voice grew strident, harsher and wilder, demanding he open the door. Once, weeks before, he had – just a few inches. The hammer missed his head. He slammed shut the door in the nick of time. After that, he never responded.

Sometimes she would move away, back to their bedroom on the far side of the wall, to hurl profanity from a distance. More often, the tapping changed to pounding fists, then objects hurled; a kettle, cups and dishes, whatever came easily to hand; once, the computer monitor. Finally, she would throw herself repeatedly at the wooden panels, shrieking abuse, and he’d leave his bed to lend weight to the chest of drawers. Her strength could be formidable.

Eventually she would leave, return to bed or wander about the house. For him, further sleep was impossible. He would lie anxious till dawn, rise, and clear the debris from outside the door, then feel safe to leave his sanctuary. By early morning Caroline would be sleeping peacefully in their bed. Mrs Hyde had gone; the only evidence, empty vodka bottles on the bedroom floor.

He remembered how, that night, she had followed him into the kitchen. The door had swung open with a bang. Startled, he’d looked up as she staggered across the stone floor towards him, wearing murderous hatred and anger. Black-eyed demons flashed his way, but then, as though driven by forces outside her control, she had robotically altered direction, staggered past his chair and on towards the bedroom. Minutes later, a clink of glass on glass emanated through the part-open doorway. He’d relaxed. She would drink, then she would sleep. Later, on waking, she could be dangerous, but for an hour or two he was safe.

He’d known he must leave this home they’d made together only twelve short months before. Mrs Hyde would kill him, given the opportunity. He was aware of that, and knew her patience would be infinite. Caroline had been an alcoholic for a decade. Now, the doctors said the drink was affecting her brain. Egotistically, he had assumed marriage would help her quit, that their love could forge the catalyst of her recovery. Finding their dream-home, beside the babbling Vermont river in an enchanting wooded valley, seemed the impetus required. Her drinking eased, though never for long. She would become irritable, unreasonable, retire to bed then wake refreshed and smiling, warm and desirable once more.

The councilors came and went. Three weeks in rehab. She emerged new and wonderful, shining and clean. Mrs Hyde was banished. He was ecstatic; his ego exonerated. Their love was healing her illness. Now they would be truly happy together.

But the ego is so often wrong.

Post detox, they shared apparent bliss for two months; toiled together at their garden, relaxed in the evenings by the river’s edge. The drink was never mentioned. Caroline was her normal, loving self. He relaxed, content they’d won the battle and their problems were behind them. All that summer they lived as newly-weds, basking in happiness, making love in the summer house, on the lawn beneath the huge oaks, laughing, planning, wrapped in an apparent, endless cocoon of wedded bliss.

Then, as summer merged to autumn and the evenings darkened, he’d grown aware of mood swings in his wife. He would note distant, disturbed glances. He sensed being in her way, as the log jam holds back a river, but only for so long. In time, the watercourse swells, pressure builds, till with a rending crash the logs surrender and are carried off on a violent plume of water.

One evening he’d returned from work to find the house in darkness. A late management meeting meant it was after seven, and twilight had succumbed to moonless night, as he parked his car next to Caroline’s Miata and picked his way carefully across the lawn towards the house. He could hear the river swishing and swirling to one side of him.

Usually, the porch light radiated yellow warmth, a beacon to the front door. This night there was no light on the porch, and the windows were in darkness. If her car had not been in the drive, he’d have assumed she had gone out.

The old front door was seldom used, so he picked his way round to the back of the house. The yard door was unlocked. With a sense of deep unease he opened it. Inside, the house was dark as pitch. He called her name, “Caroline!”

At first, no sound returned his call. Then, somewhere deep inside the house, he heard a low chuckle, a laugh that turned his blood to ice, stiffened the hairs of his neck. The voice was quiet, cold, menacing in its response, “Caroline isn’t here.” It spoke slowly, distinctly. Then, after a pause, “There’s just me tonight…and you.”

He reached in through the yard door and flicked the light switch. Nothing. The house was deathly quiet. Normally, he’d have heard the steady hum of the freezer; but it was silent. She had turned off the power. The nearest torch was in his bedroom drawer. To reach it he would have to pass through the kitchen in the dark. Somewhere inside she was lurking, waiting for him. He took one step into the house, reached out an arm to steady himself. His hand struck an object on the work-surface, knocking it to the stone floor where, with an echoing crash, it smashed into a thousand shards. Instinctively, he knew it was an empty vodka bottle. Caroline was drinking again. Mrs Hyde was back.

Gripped by blinding panic he ran, back around the house, down the garden and across the lawn. An oak tree loomed in front of him and, swerving, his foot found a patch of wet mud. He hit the ground with a jarring thump. On his feet in an instant, he ran on, desperately scrabbling for the car keys in his coat. The sound of mirthless laughter followed him down the garden, until he was safe inside the car and driving like a madman. It was several miles to the nearest town, but he would rather find a motel than risk confronting Mrs Hyde, alone, and in the darkness.

The following day, after an uncomfortable, dream-ridden night in a cheap motel room, he returned to the house. Caroline’s car still stood in the driveway. The garden looked serenely peaceful in the weak October sunshine. He heard the splash and gurgle of the river as he walked across the lawn. Last night seemed unreal, as though it had never happened. Then, he saw the long, wet slither of mud in the grass where he had fallen. It brought the moment into focus. He swallowed hard, and headed for the house.

There was no sign of Caroline. In a corner of the kitchen the freezer hummed quietly to itself. All was normal. His feet scrunched on glass. He remembered the vodka bottle shattered on the kitchen floor. Quietly, he moved through each room. Caroline was sleeping peacefully in their bedroom. He tip-toed, so not to wake her; collected three empty bottles from the carpet. There would be more, he thought, hidden around the house.

Later, before she woke, he left and drove back into town. He was fortunate. An advert in one of the local shops caught his eye: “Furnished cottage for rent.” It was only a mile up the valley from their own home. He met the landlord at the property, paid a month in advance, and moved in the same day.

Caroline had been shocked. She was reasonably sober when he told her. Later, he called in again on his way to fetch shopping, to see if she needed anything. She was drunk. Mrs Hyde was back in control. He beat an ignominious retreat.

Then, within a week, everything changed. Caroline stopped drinking and began attending the local AA meetings. She seemed determined to beat her addiction. He started to visit more regularly; occasionally stayed for dinner, then overnight. Within three months Caroline was begging him to move back in with her, needing him, wanting him. Mrs Hyde had disappeared. After a while, it was as though she had never existed.

He waited another fortnight, needing to be sure. He’d been spending more and more time at the house, hardly visiting his cottage at all. She was cured. It was obvious. She needed him and there seemed no reason to stay longer away. He gave notice to his landlord, and returned to the house.

That was three months ago, he thought, opening his eyes and returning to the present. With a start, he realized that his musing had taken him to the very edge of the sundeck. He had always meant to build a rail. It would be so easy to slip and fall. There was nothing to hold onto. Caroline would be awake by now, probably preparing dinner. He half turned to move away from the edge, away from the raging torrent below him.

The hammer struck him full on the left temple. At first the blow dazed him. Why was Caroline stood there, smiling so coldly? Then, nausea and dizziness took him. He staggered, reached out a hand, a plea for her to help him. She ignored it, pushed aside his outstretched arm with a sneer.

“Patience is my only virtue.”

The voice, the sneer, were not Caroline’s; nor were those coal-black, evil eyes. The malicious, cackling laugh rang in his ears till he hit the water. Fierce currents dragged him to the river bottom, cart-wheeling his body along the gravel bed. The first rock snapped his collarbone. An upsurge forced him briefly to the surface. He glimpsed the house, already fast receding. His final image was of Mrs Hyde, triumphant on the sundeck, draining the dregs of an upturned vodka bottle.

The second rock broke his neck.

© Copyright 2004 R.J. Adams

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