Author Notes: This is a prequel to Hand-Painted Blue Periwinkles. :)
It began as a very ordinary day, just like every other day since Richard had retired. He found himself being woken up by a perfunctory kiss on the cheek by Hyacinth who immediately swung her legs out of bed and got up.
"Remember, dear," she said, as she stopped by the door of their bathroom, "Elizabeth is coming over for her usual morning coffee."
"I know," Richard mumbled into his pillow but she had already disappeared into their bathroom. He could feel an insistent pressure in his bladder and wished for the fiftieth morning in a row that he had the foresight to wake up before her. Hyacinth was always in the bathroom for at least an hour before emerging in a cloud of steam that always made him cough. Shivering slightly at the cold, Richard got out of bed and padded down the corridor to the guest bathroom.
After relieving himself, Richard got the morning paper and settled back into bed with it. This was his favourite hour of the day. It was the only hour Richard had to himself without Hyacinth nagging at him to do something with his life, such as keeping up with the gardening. Richard wasn't sure how much more he could do with the garden! The garden was already perfect. Not a leaf or a branch out of place. The Gardening Club had even commented on its perfection in their last issue. Hyacinth had simply looked at the periodical and threw it in the corner. Apparently the Gardening Club was not well-connected enough.
Richard found himself relaxing as he flipped through the paper. The small coil of tension in his stomach was beginning to uncoil and he was beginning to feel that his life wasn't too bad after all. His clothes were always clean and ironed. His food was always on the table. He owned his own home. What more could a man want?
The door to the bathroom suddenly opened and Richard found his heart jumping slightly. "Richard!" Hyacinth exclaimed as she emerged, together with a large cloud of steam, wrapped up in a floral bathrobe. "Why have you not showered? Do you plan on lazing around in bed all day?"
Richard looked over at the clock on their bedside table. It was only just past 9 am. The day was just beginning. He could never understand why Elizabeth seemed so put out whenever he stayed in bed past 8 am. It wasn't as though he was like Onslow who spent all day in bed! A part of Richard wished that he was like Onslow. Onslow was always happy. Of course, he always walked around in those dreadful vests; however, he seemed pleased with his lot in life. "Sorry, dear," he said. "I'll get up now."
"Breakfast will be on the table when you're finished," Hyacinth said grudgingly. "I need to get dressed now." She looked at him pointedly.
Richard sighed. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen Hyacinth naked. They had sex in the past. Never a lot of it, however, they did have adequate amounts. However, in recent years, especially since Sheridan had left home, Richard found that the sex had decreased drastically. He thought they might have had sex on his birthday last year, but it had been a perfunctory affair. "Yes dear," he said.
Richard walked into the bathroom and shut the door.
Breakfast was ready on the kitchen table when Richard finished his shower. The cornflakes were slightly soggy but far better than when Richard made his own breakfast. Somehow, whenever Richard poured his own cornflakes, a lot of them ended up breaking and it just never tasted as nice as when Hyacinth made it. He walked over to the cabinet and took out the sugar bowl.
"You should watch your sugar levels," Hyacinth told him.
Richard grimaced at the cabinet and put the sugar bowl back without taking any sugar out. He couldn't remember the last time he had sugar on his cornflakes or in his morning coffee. Hyacinth was always on his back about looking after his blood sugar levels (apparently since one of his third cousins, twice removed, had diabetes, this meant that Richard needed to be very careful) and his cholesterol. Dinner nowadays was invariably broiled fish.
Whenever they were at Onslow's, Richard always looked longingly at Onslow's beer and chips. He couldn't remember the last time he had munched on chips with vinegar. Hyacinth tended to look down on vinegar.
"I thought I might head into town today," Richard ventured after a few minutes of silence, where he tried his best to eat cornflakes silently. Hyacinth thought the crunching sound of cornflakes was too low class for their table and therefore, Richard was obliged to wait until they were soggy.
Hyacinth put down her cup of coffee and stared at him. "Whatever for, dear?"
Richard could feel his hands beginning to sweat. "I wanted to get some gardening equipment," he said. It was true. Their old hedge trimmers were getting quite blunt with all the effort he had been putting into the garden lately.
Hyacinth frowned. "Richard! That can wait until Monday. We wouldn't want our neighbours to think that we were the type of household to go shopping for gardening equipment on a weekend!"
Richard stared. Sometimes Hyacinth's logic seemed so utterly illogical. He sighed. "Of course, dear."
She beamed at him. "Elizabeth will be over for coffee very soon."
Richard stood up and eyed his half finished bowl of cornflakes woefully. He wasn't that hungry anyway. Not for soggy cornflakes. At least lunch would be nice, he reassured his stomach. Anyway, it was obviously his cue to leave.
Richard spent his morning like he had spent most of his mornings since his retirement. He spent it in the garden. When Elizabeth popped over for her morning coffee, punctually at 10:30 am, Richard waved to her.
"Gardening again, I see," Elizabeth said, with a smile.
Richard nodded. "These plants, they grow every day. I have to ensure that everything is perfect."
Elizabeth looked around awkwardly. "Well, I'd better go inside," she said finally. "Hyacinth will be expecting me."
Richard nodded. He thought he could see a Hyacinth-shaped shadow lurking behind their living room curtains. Doubtless she was beginning to wonder why Elizabeth was standing outside talking to Richard instead of being inside, dropping beakers of coffee on the kitchen floor. Every time after Elizabeth visited, Hyacinth always bemoaned the loss of yet another beaker.
It was then, in the midst of one of the most ordinary mornings, that the most extraordinary thing happened. Of course, Richard didn't know it yet. He was simply snipping away, reasonably contentedly at the garden hedges. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if he ought to get a ruler in order to ensure that the hedges were precisely even when it happened.
Richard looked up from his hedges. In front of him was an old man, his gnarled and wrinkled hand gripping tightly on a walking stick. "Hullo," Richard said politely. "Are you new in this neighbourhood?"
The old man shook his head emphatically. "Me? Live here? Never! Couldn't afford it, for one, and can't stand these middle-class snobs."
"I don't mean you, of course," the old man said, less gruffly. "You seem like an upstanding young chap. A bit crazy though."
Richard found his voice. "Why would you say that?" he managed to say.
The old man leaned closer and Richard could smell whiskey on his breath. "I've been watching you for the past half hour," he confided. "You've been neatening up that hedge for at least that time."
It was actually closer to one hour, but Richard didn't want to tell him that. "My wife likes the garden neat," Richard said quietly. "She told me that she wants it to be perfect."
The old man waved his walking stick around, barely missing Richard. "Be a man!" he exclaimed. "If I had a wife who told me told me that, I'd leave her in an instant."
"I have to be going. It'll be happy hour down at the pub in town in six hours!" the old man said as he began to walk away. "And stop trimming those hedges! They'll disappear if you keep on doing that."
Richard stared after the old man. Leave Hyacinth? Plenty of people had surreptitiously mentioned things like that to him over the years, but the idea had never sunk in properly. He had always reassured himself with the notion that his shirts were always ironed, and food was always on the table. If he left Hyacinth, then none of these things would ever be done for him again. Richard wasn't quite sure how to wash a shirt, other than the fact that some form of soap was obviously involved.
But still, he could leave Hyacinth.
The idea seemed to buzz around his head like an irritating fly. It wasn't as though Richard didn't know other divorced people. For one, Emmet was divorced and he seemed to be able to survive quite well. Of course, he did live with his sister, and Richard didn't have a sister, but you couldn't have everything.
He could leave Hyacinth.
Richard had to admit the idea had merit. He couldn't remember the last time they'd had sex or even a normal conversation where she wasn't telling him what he should or shouldn't be doing. Richard stopped and paused, resting his hand gently on the hedge, lost in thought. He would have possibly spent the next few hours standing like that if it wasn't for Hyacinth.
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed.
Richard jumped. He never understood how Hyacinth could just creep up on him like that. It was spooky and really made his nerves jangle at times. "Yes dear?"
"Richard, what on earth are you doing?" Hyacinth asked, her lips pursed.
He looked frantically around, hoping that something would appear to distract Hyacinth. It would be the perfect time for the postman to appear. Or the vicar. Or even Elizabeth. But as he looked over at next door, he could see the curtain pushed to one side slightly. Undoubtedly, either Elizabeth or Emmet was currently watching their front yard, probably waiting for Hyacinth to leave. "Trimming the hedge, dear," Richard ventured, hoping that was the right answer.
Hyacinth wrinkled her nose. "You looked like you were daydreaming," she scolded. "We're respected members of the society! We do not daydream!"
Richard sighed. "Yes, dear."
"Now, pick up your things and come inside," Hyacinth instructed. "We can't have you standing around the garden looking lost. Somebody might come by and think that you had escaped from one of those old person's homes." She looked scandalised.
Some of the most important decisions of Richard's life were made impulsively. He had woken up one day and decided not to become a butcher. His father had been very disappointed that Richard was not following in his footsteps, but Richard decided that he was sick of the metallic tang of meat. The decision to join the civil service was made on a whim. Even the decision to propose to Hyacinth was not a thought out decision. In fact, they had only been dating for around two weeks when he had popped the question.
Back then, Richard had been enamoured of Hyacinth. She was slimmer back then with a rather fiery temper. He used to look at her and think that she looked like a goddess scorned whenever she was furious. Of course, now whenever he looked at her, he just wondered what he ought to say to ensure that she didn't sigh at him.
Given that so many pivotal moments of Richard's life were decided in mere seconds, it should have been unsurprising that he would have chosen to leave Hyacinth with so little warning. Of course, Richard was surprised. As was Hyacinth and everybody else who knew them.
And it all started with lunch.
Richard stared at his plate. "What's this?" he asked, frowning. He picked up his plate, accidentally getting some of the brown liquid onto his hand. He thought it looked like bangers and mash except it seemed to be missing some vital ingredients. Like sausages. And potatoes.
Hyacinth folded her hands primly on the table. "It's healthy. It contains carrots, beans and gravy. Your doctor said that you shouldn't have too much meat or carbohydrates."
Richard looked over at Hyacinth's plate. "Your plate looks normal," he complained. Indeed she seemed to have two plump sausages and a heaping of mashed potatoes with cheese on her plate.
"I am not the one on the diet," she said primly.
Richard picked up his fork and cautiously tasted some of the food. He made a face. "This isn't real gravy either."
"It's healthy," Hyacinth told him. "Your diet has been inappropriate. We wouldn't actually want you to get gout, would we?" She frowned. "It is quite a respectable disease, but who would do the gardening then?"
His mind kept on drifting back to the conversation he had with the old man. It was an unusual sort of conversation to have a stranger, but it had made so much sense. He could leave Hyacinth. He should leave Hyacinth. She might have his shirts ironed and have his food on the table, but he was retired now. He didn't need shirts any longer. Richard could feel a smile spreading over his face. He could wear those new-fangled t-shirt things. He could even wear vests like Onslow.
"Don't smile like that, Richard. It's undignified."
Richard straightened out his smile. He began picking at his food again. He took another bite of the sausage on his plate. "This tastes like cardboard."
"It's tofu," Hyacinth said with a sniff. "Don't you remember, dear? We had it last time we were over at Violet's."
Richard certainly remembered that visit; however, he didn't remember the tofu. In fact, he didn't remember anything Violet had served that day. All he seemed to recall was the fact that Bruce had danced around the table, half-naked, wearing a tutu and carrying a sparkling pink wand. He had seen Violet gritting her teeth and deliberately ignoring her husband. Hyacinth had simply acted as though everything was normal. Richard remembered spending the entire afternoon staring at the mahogany table (that, as Hyacinth continued to remind their friends, they had spent several thousand pounds on) and trying not to stare as Bruce stood on his tippy-toes and leaned over the table. For Christ's sake, they could all see the man's bum!
"Eat up, Richard!" Hyacinth said irritably.
Abruptly, Richard pushed back his chair. In response to Hyacinth's uplifted eyebrow, he responded, "I need to use the loo."
"Bathroom, Richard," she called as he retreated out of the room. "We must be dignified, dear!"
Once outside the room, Richard slumped against the wall. His stomach growled at him reminding him that he was rather hungry. Straightening up, he hurried towards their bedroom. Richard thought he might still have a chocolate bar stashed in his briefcase. Pulling the briefcase out of the cupboard, he opened it only to see an empty space where the chocolate bar used to be.
"I removed it."
"Remember what the doctor said," Hyacinth said. "I also found your stash of crisps in the garage."
Richard let out a long breath. He found himself reaching forward and pulling one of their travelling cases out of the cupboard from behind his briefcase. He placed the case on the bed. In a daze, Richard straightened up and walked towards the bureau where he opened the top drawer and pulled out his underclothes.
"What on earth are you doing?"
Richard thought he could detect a note of fear underneath Hyacinth's shrill voice. "Packing," he said shortly.
"Whatever for?" Hyacinth exclaimed. A bright smile suddenly spread over her face. "Oh Richard! You're taking me on a holiday."
"What?" Richard stared. "I am not."
"Yes, you are," Hyacinth corrected with a dismissive sniff. "We must be going to the south of France. You know how much I've always wanted to go there ever since Violet and Bruce went on holiday there last year."
"You mean the holiday when Bruce dazzled everybody with his bikini?" Richard couldn't help retorting.
Hyacinth ignored him. "We'll have a wonderful time," she burbled. "I must thank my Sheridan. I'm sure he had a hand in helping his daddy plan this. I must tell Elizabeth as well. Oh and the ladies down at the church. And the local newspapers. I'm sure they'll want to do a piece on this given that I'm so well known locally."
Richard cleared his throat.
"Don't do that, dear. It's undignified," Hyacinth said absently. He could tell that she was already planning her outfits inside her head. Doubtless, they were all flowery with matching hats.
"We're not going to the south of France," he said quietly.
Hyacinth stared at him. "Whatever do you mean?"
"We're not..." Richard began but Hyacinth interrupted him.
"You mean to tell me that you booked us a holiday to somewhere like India? Or America?" She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Oh Richard! Whatever am I to do with you?"
"We're not going on holiday," Richard managed to get out. His voice sounded strangled even to his own ears. His hands suddenly felt far away as he placed his underclothes in the suitcase. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears and his breath coming in shallow gasps. It was finally happening. After so many years, he was finally going to do this. He just prayed that he had the courage to go through with it.
Hyacinth stared at him open-mouthed. "Well then, Richard," she said, sounding disgusted. "You shouldn't be packing."
"Yes, I should," he said as he walked back over to the cupboard. "I'm leaving, Hyacinth."
"Pick up some milk while you're out," she said sharply.
Richard took a deep breath and screwed his courage to the sticking point. "I'm leaving you, Hyacinth."
He had imagined this moment for years. He had always wondered what it would feel like, what expression would be on Hyacinth's mind, what would be going through his own head, but now that the moment was here, it wasn't anything like what he had thought. There wasn't a feeling of relief, or even of fear. Richard simply felt numb as he gathered an armful of freshly ironed shirts and stuffed them into his suitcase.
He stared over at Hyacinth who was simply standing there with a blank expression on her face. "Did you hear me? I'm leaving you," he repeated.
To his surprise, she let out a harsh laugh. "Don't be ridiculous, Richard. You can't leave me. I'm your wife. Who else would iron your shirts, cook your meals and take care of you."
"I can take care of myself," Richard said, his voice getting firmer. He made another trip over to the cupboard to gather some trousers and then zipped up his suitcase.
"No, you couldn't." There was now a distinct note of panic in Hyacinth's voice. "Richard, you haven't thought this through. You need to sleep on it. Come back to lunch. I have some extra pork sausages. You can have those."
Richard found himself wavering but steeled himself. "No, Hyacinth," he said and could feel a rush of power slide through his body as he said it. "No," he said again. "I won't. I can't live with you anymore. I need to get out of here." He lifted his suitcase off the bed and walked towards the door. He half-expected Hyacinth to try to stop him physically but she simply stood there in the bedroom.
As Richard walked out of the house, he could feel a sense of finality fill him. It seemed so unlikely that less than half an hour ago, they were both eating lunch and everything was normal. He couldn't be leaving her, but yet, as Richard heaved his suitcase into the car, he realised that he was. He definitely was leaving Hyacinth.
A small smile hovered over his lips as he started up the car. This would be his first car trip in decades where he wouldn't have to mind random pedestrians, cars and buses. He was quite looking forward to it. Then a thought struck him. Where would he go? Hyacinth looked after all their finances. He barely had any money. What would he do?
Richard slowly turned the car motor off. He couldn't go back inside again. Not after what he had just said and done. Besides, he didn't want to go back. Looking around, Richard found his gaze land on Elizabeth's house next door. There, that was it! He could go over there. Elizabeth and Emmet had always been sympathetic towards him. In fact, he had thought that Elizabeth liked him a bit more than as a friend at times.
A smile spread over Richard's face as he walked over to ring the doorbell. After half a minute, the door opened and Elizabeth peered out. He could see the flicker of surprise over Elizabeth's face as she looked him up and down and noticed his suitcase.
"Can I stay for a few days?" Richard asked.