Catherine Martin

For most of his life, Arthur Burman lived alone in the old house on the corner of Mount and Main Streets. The product of a neglected childhood, he was a consummate hypochondriac, from the tip of his athlete’s foot, to his patchy, alopecia-ridden scalp. His medicine cabinet was a junkie’s heaven, crammed with pills and capsules for all occasions, as well as creams and lotions for those special places that are private between man and God. His preoccupation with illness distracted him from his loneliness, and repelled would-be suitors ... with the exception of one woman just desperate enough to fool him into marriage, and tenacious enough to stay for all of nine months, one week and fifteen hours.

Jacqui had an enigmatic appeal that had lured men with more worldly experience than the likes of Arthur Burman. She was vulnerable and strong, careful and impetuous, aloof and generous of spirit. In Arthur’s case, she was additionally attractive because she was the only woman who had ever looked at him that way. With a mixture of gratitude and surprise, he fell deeply in love.

The marriage began well enough, but it wasn’t long before Arthur’s obsessions began to irritate Jacqui. He knew this, yet the more he tried to change the worse he became, as if he was sabotaging his own happiness.

She made her bid for freedom one Sunday morning, while he was in the bathroom performing his daily rituals of cleansing and medication. Knowing Arthur would not emerge for at least an hour, she threw her favourite belongings into a suitcase, and plunged out the door into the arms of Life. Some said Life appeared in the form of a yellow taxi, others spotted a flying saucer over Mount and Main that day. The more astute in the community concluded she’d run off with a travelling salesman, one of those men who pass through but never stay long.

When Arthur discovered her farewell note, he was distraught. He wept profusely, prostrated himself on the floor and curled up like a hedgehog.  After several hours he found the strength to phone his doctor. He had known many pains, but none as severe as that of heartbreak. The doctor – a shrewd man who often despaired of Arthur’s fixations – prescribed anti-depressants and sent him to a psychologist. Although the psychologist was unable to cure his broken heart, after a year he did manage to bring Arthur’s hypochondria under control.

Some said it was a miracle.

After Arthur’s wife left him, she didn’t get into a yellow taxi, or a blue or white or red one for that matter. Nor did she climb aboard a UFO and make history as the first woman to mate with a Martian (in fact, that honour went to Marta Pachulski in Poland in 1959). What she did do was walk down the road to where Colin Burns was waiting in his Triumph station wagon. Colin was a carpet salesman and, yes, he knew how to charm the ladies (they didn’t call him Carpet Burns for nothing).

Jacqui threw her suitcase into the station wagon and took her place beside Colin on the front seat. He resisted the temptation to ravage her then and there, instead taking off in the direction of the northern motorway. They drove out of town for two or three hours until they came to a dusty old country pub with a vacancy. They checked in, and once they were alone tore each other’s clothes off and performed the usual – and some less usual – unspeakable acts that are a private thing between man and woman.

While Colin was in the shower she noticed the black book. It had fallen from his jacket onto the floor. With the exception of moments of wild lovemaking with carpet salesmen in country pubs, Jacqui was a tidy person, and so she picked it up.  She was also inquisitive, and it took all of five seconds before she opened it and began to read.

Holly 388 8919, Miranda 973 7823, Trixie 021 266435, Jessica 09 415 9909, Aroha 388 8109, Felicity 021 288 3844, Good Time Greta 0900 459 950, Chrystle and Carla 387 2911, Barbara 476 2353, Alison 479 4090, Kitty’s Massage Parlour…

By the time Colin had emerged from the shower, Jacqui had made her second bid for freedom in twenty-four hours. She had taken the keys to his Triumph, helped herself to some cash and left him with the bill.

That was a waste of Old Spice, Colin thought as he pulled on his y-fronts. But she’d left his book so not all was lost. He flicked through the pages and found the name of a woman who lived forty miles further on. One quick phone call, a veiled reference to her husband, and she was on her way to his rescue.

I knew Arthur was a weirdo when I married him, but I figured I could handle it, or maybe I could change him. I didn’t marry him for love but I did like him. There was something special about the way he looked into my eyes, like he could see my soul.

Not too many men bother to look for it.

Anyway, I was down on my luck, no money, no job. Besides, I wasn’t getting any younger. So I turned on the charm, and before long we were sleeping together and then he popped the question.

He was always worried he was going to catch a cold or get food poisoning, and he had so many things wrong with him as it was! When his hair started falling out I tried to make a joke, told him he was lucky that something else didn’t fall off, but that only made him worse, and then he started to get heart arrhythmia, so I decided I’d better shut up or I might kill him. I think all that worrying was a way of avoiding something, though I’m not sure what.

The marriage lasted less than a year, and on reflection I think I deserve a medal for not leaving him sooner. In the end it was that goose honk he made every morning when he cleared his sinuses that pushed me over the edge.

I took off with a guy I’d met in a carpet shop on the other side of town. Colin had a kind of reckless, sexy charm and I figured he’d be fun for a while. After Arthur, it was a relief to meet a normal man. On top of that, he was extremely good at – well, some things are private between a woman and a man. Unfortunately, he was a disappointment in other respects. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

We lasted less than twenty-four hours. I left him at some country pub, took his car and the contents of his wallet – and before you go judging me, I had good reason to leave him with his pants down.

Fortunately, the bastard didn’t press charges and I never heard from him again. I’ve been living in a boarding house a year now, got a job at a café and I’ve started saving. I might be able to move into my own flat soon. No men on the scene – I’ve decided it’s about time I stopped looking for someone to throw me a lifeline.

As for Arthur, I thought I saw him in the street the other day. I couldn’t be sure – this guy had the same features, but he looked taller somehow, his shoulders were square, and his hair was thick. He walked with confidence, like he had nothing to fear, so I figured I was wrong. But then, just as he rounded the corner and passed out of sight, I thought I heard a familiar sound – a car horn, maybe – or the honk of a goose.

Just for a moment, my heart squeezed tight. I felt…

I ran to the corner but he was gone, whoever he was.


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Other work by Catherine Martin - Birthday Song

Other work by Catherine Martin - The Smokescreen