Burning the bed: a short story by Patrick Chapman
Aidan Gillen and Gina McKee in the 2003 film adaptation of Burning the Bed by Patrick Chapman
Later in the afternoon, Caroline and Stephen put the bed out of the top floor window and burned it on the beach. That morning, Stephen had cut it into pieces with the hand saw. It had taken all of his will to do it, not because he was weak, but because it sickened him to acknowledge to himself what this meant.
Before going up to the bedroom, they stopped in the kitchen for some iced home-made lemonade that Caroline had kept in the fridge for a couple of days. She stood in her white cotton summer dress patterned with wild flowers, he in his checked short-sleeved shirt and blue Wranglers. They paused there, in the small space that separated them. After a few minutes in which they drank the lemonade and stared wordlessly at each other, Stephen gave Caroline a nod. They put down their glasses and walked up the stairs. They went into the bedroom and looked at the bed they had shared. It was in perhaps 30 pieces, in the middle of the floor. Little trails of sawdust surrounded the bits. The headboard was cut in three. It was a simple rectangular frame, which, whole, had spoken of their mutual liking for elegant simplicity but which, now, seemed so much firewood.
The legs were separated from the rest of the bed, broken and cast to the four corners of the room, like the legs of a beast that could no longer carry them, one that had collapsed under the weight of their accumulated bad dream-s. The frame of the bed itself was cut, like the headboard, in pieces on the floor. Instead of metal springs, their bed had had wooden slats interwoven to provide support and flexibility.
When they used to sleep together on this bed, their bodies had made it creak. Making love, they would hear a sound that, in retrospect, had seemed to Stephen to be echoed in the rhythm of the saw.
The mattress was coil-sprung and sewn with diamond patterns. It was slouched against the wall, just inside the door, a rectangle of light from the window bisecting its form.
Caroline said: "This is it," and turned to him.
"Let's just get on with it," Stephen said.
He was a stocky man with strong, hairy arms. His short-sleeved shirt, Caroline thought, those arms around my shoulders, his little pot belly in the small of my back . . .
Stephen bent to the ground and picked up two pieces of the bed frame. He took them over to the window and threw them out of the house on to the beach below. Caroline began to help him. She took a piece of the head board and flung it out. It missed the gap in the window, bounced off the frame that was hanging open, but did not break any glass in the panes. The wood made a dull sound as it fell to the sand, throwing up a shower of the fine white powder.
They worked quietly, each taking bits of bed to the window, throwing them out and then walking out of the way to let the other do the same. After what seemed like half an hour, but was probably only 10 minutes, the remains of the bed were now lying in an untidy heap on the beach.
There was still sawdust on the floor. Stephen swept a small pile of it with his shoe, making a comet's-tail arc on the floorboards.
Caroline said: "Did you ever think we'd do something like this?"
Stephen replied: "Let's go down."
Caroline shrugged and left the room. Stephen, despite what he had just said, stayed awhile, kicking the sawdust. He listened to Caroline's footsteps descending the stairs. She was leaving him. She had left him already. They did not need to talk to sort that out. They had decided.
After a moment he followed her down the stairs. She was already on the beach, beginning to pile the wood in a small hollow that she had made in the sand earlier. He stood on the verandah of the summer house, looking over her head, out to the Atlantic.
"Come on, give me a hand," she said.
He started, then walked on to the sand and began to help her.
The light in the sky was bright, but not blue. The sunlight hitting the horses' heads on the water seemed to reflect back on the underbellies of clouds. The circling seagulls cried like atonal music, its austerity undermined by the rushing of the waves against the shore. For a second, Stephen considered that they might be actually living inside a new age music video.
"I forgot the firelighters," he said, as the two of them worked in concert to make what would become a fire.
"We don't need them yet," said Caroline, "just let's get this thing built."
They worked for a few minutes. Light pieces from the slats that had once supported their bodies they now made into a tent structure, a wigwam around which they arranged the other, heavier wood.
Stephen could feel an old back complaint acting up. He stood up when they were nearly done - only a few pieces of wood remained - and watched as Caroline took one of the last bits and put it on the small hill of wood that they had built.
She stood up and looked at him. "Are you going to just stand there?"
"Fine. I'll do it." She took the last two pieces and placed them on the structure. "There."
"Let's go for a walk. There's nobody around."
"Come on, then."
They walked along the edge of the beach, with Stephen nearest the water. Once, they would have done this hand in hand. Now, their hands stiffly by their sides, each felt a new awkwardness at the thought of physical contact.
They had been married for two years and had been seeing each other for three before that. Their wedding day promises seemed hollow now. Apart from the burning bed and the other furniture, what worldly goods they had amounted to a few possessions in the summer house and the car, an old Volkswagen, parked on the hillock behind the beach.
"What are we going to do now?" Caroline asked, as they walked along the beach. Stephen did not answer directly. He looked out at the sea as they walked. All the way to vanishing point, he could see only the water and the sky. A faint smudge on the horizon suggested an island.
"Remember the first time we were in Donegal?" he said. "You asked me if I loved you and I said yes."
"How many times did I have to drag that information out of you?"
Seduced by talk of old times, Stephen attempted to brush his fingers lightly against Caroline's. She did not move away. Each of them wanted to make contact but neither of them knew how, or what the consequences would be. Now, after five years together, they were toying with holding hands.
Finally, it was Stephen who said: "Hold my hand." Caroline gripped his hand but did not look at him.
"What are we going to do?"
"Take the car back into town."
"And then . . .?"
"We have to get away from here," he said.
"We'll drive back into town then I'll get a train to Dublin. You can have the car."
"Hold me, just the once." Stephen stopped walking. Caroline, still holding his hand, went on a couple of paces. Wordlessly, she turned to him. He seemed lost, like a dog whose master was about to be put down. She took his shoulders and buried her head in his chest. "Stephen," she said.
They stood on the beach for several minutes. Stephen was focusing on this moment. Caroline could think of nothing but what had still to be done.
"What about a baby?" he asked as she lifted her head and looked into his troubled face.
"Let's go back," she said.
They walked to the house, listening to the waves and the gulls. When they reached it, she went into the kitchen and turned the radio on. It was tuned to a pop station playing hits of the 1980s.
Stephen went into the living room and got the firelighters from beside the fireplace, the only part of this house that had been made of stone.
"I'll get it started," he called over the blare of the radio. Caroline was already out on the beach again, sitting down in her bare feet and summer dress. She had the matches.
"What if it doesn't take?" she said as he emerged from the house.
He bent down by the pile of wood and began to place firelighters inside. He reserved one for last. Caroline handed him the matches. He took one out, struck it, and lit the firelighter. He put this inside the pile of wood. It would be a slow burning.
"What time is it?" Caroline asked.
Stephen, still kneeling by the fire, looked at his watch and said: "Twenty past four. It'll be bright for a while yet."
He sat down beside her, looking at the fire. Smoke was rising. The first licks of flames were beginning to work on the wood of the bed.
"What about the mattress?" he asked.
Caroline said "We'll burn it later."
"Later," Stephen echoed.
There was too much heavy wood for the conflagration they had expected, at least for the moment.
"We'll have to deal with it some time," Caroline said. She did not mean the mattress. Staring at the fire, she wondered if, when it really got going, it would be noticed. Would a passing ship, though she could see none on the horizon, mistake it for a distress signal and send a boat out to the shore, rescuing this pair stranded on the western edge of Ireland?
"What if somebody comes? Aren't fires illegal?" asked Stephen.
"Let's not talk now," Caroline said.
There was a momentary pause before Stephen said: "I'll be kind of sad to say goodbye to this place."
"Have we any beer left?"
Stephen said, "A couple of cans in the fridge."
"It's not that I don't love you . . ." Caroline said.
"I thought you didn't want to talk about this now."
"Get the beers."
Stephen stood up, went into the house and got the beers. When he returned, Caroline was crying softly to herself. He dropped the cans in the sand and put his arms around her shoulders. She shrugged him away.
"We have to try to move on," she said.
Stephen picked up one of the beers and snapped the ring pull. Lager spurted all over his hand. "Shit," he said, as he licked the beer off his fingers.
He handed the opened can to her and picked up the other one for himself. She took the beer and downed a long swallow of the effervescent liquid. Making a whiskey face, even though she was drinking beer, she said, "I suppose we could try again, in a few months."
"Let's see how we feel then, OK?"
"I thought you wanted out."
They fell silent for a while, watching the fire build its cathedral of flames and smoke. It was still bright, but evening would not be long in making the sky greyer and the sea more mysterious.
"Remember the time in the pub, was it Hanlon's? We had just met and . . ." Stephen began.
"You were wearing a long black coat and nothing under it."
"You enjoyed that," she said, "just knowing."
"Everybody else in the pub, it was heaving, everybody else in the pub was getting twisted. Summer. The whole place was throbbing with sex. Seemed no one was actually getting laid except us. There they were. A hundred people getting shitfaced, hoping that they'd end up with someone at the end of the night. And all the time, we knew."
"We had just fucked." Caroline allowed herself to join his reminiscence. "You were feeling all smug."
"Lucky bastard, that was me." Stephen put down his beer. "Listen, I'm going for a swim."
"You shouldn't swim with drink taken."
"See you later."
He walked to the edge of the water, took his shoes off and started to paddle in the incoming waves.
"The tide will get your clothes," Caroline called after him but he didn't look back. Stephen took off his shirt and threw it on the beach. Then he rolled his jeans off, revealing his white legs and backside. His arms were tanned up to where the shirt had covered them. The tan on his face and neck stopped at the collar.
Like a man committing suicide, he walked into the water. It was freezing. He allowed himself to walk in up to his waist, then lay back, letting the water carry him. Maybe, he thought, it would take him all the way to America. He closed his eyes, his body bobbing up and down in the sea. Then, he turned himself on a gentle roll of surf and began to swim out. Stephen had a sense of the depth beneath him. The alien worlds below. If he dived deep enough, he might mutate into a form of life that could survive the pressure, the non-human environment. He might lose the human-centric world view he had always accused others of, but had rarely suspected in himself. He thought himself not only aware of the other life forms on Earth but also of how small this world had really become. Now, he felt at one with the sea. But he was also aware of the reality. He was an interloper.
Stephen stopped swimming. On a whim, he let the water take him under and then, he felt the beginning of a pain in his torso. Through the wall of sea, he could see Caroline approaching the edge of the land, a water mirage. The sea drew him down again and he thought that he should not have had beer, especially not on an empty stomach.
Rallying his energy, he tried to swim to shore. His head turning from side to side, he caught glimpses of Caroline through the water. She was walking into the sea. She was reaching out to him. As he approached the shore, about to black out, he could not tell how near he was to safety, or how close he was to drowning. Disabused now of his romantic notion of being one with the creatures of the deep, Stephen swallowed water.
Then, in an instant, Caroline pulled him out of the waves and dragged him onto the sand.
She was frantic. She knelt down and started to give him mouth to mouth. She pummelled his chest with her fists.
He spluttered: "I'm all right!" But she did not seem to hear him. She was in floods of tears. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook. When he looked up, he could see that she was distracted with fear.
"I thought you were gone," she said. "I thought I'd lost you."
Stephen let her collapse on top of him. He held her in his arms. They were both confused. They lay like that for a long time. He could feel the tide lapping at his bare feet as if the sea had unfinished business with him and was summoning him back for a rematch. He held her closer than he had in a long time. Her heartbeat against his chest. But it was no good. They had burned the bed. How could there be any coming back from that?
Stephen tried to comfort her. Quieter now, she seemed slightly embarrassed at her display of emotion. "It's all right," he said. "I'll live."
When she drew herself away from him and stood up, he could see the silhouette of her body through the material of her dress. He desired her more than ever.
She walked away, picked up his clothes and his shoes. She dropped them in a bundle beside him. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I'm fucking sorry, too," Stephen replied, raising himself from the sand.
Caroline went back into the house. Stephen stood awhile, looking out to sea. Suddenly, he could see the silver body of a naval rescue helicopter, the sun glinting off the rotor blades, whose sound followed them like a coda. It was flying low over the hills to the east, moving inland, oblivious of these two people and their little fire.
The blaze that they had made of the bed was going well now. Stephen could feel the heat on his face. Smoke rose into the late afternoon air, like the ghost of their relationship, climbing into the sky that ended in the darkness of space.
(c) Patrick Chapman 2001