Claire’s knees scream in protest; the cold concrete unforgiving. Groaning, she stands and pulls three stacked shoe boxes toward her. Envelopes and papers fall out as she stumbles backwards, her foot hitting the edge of an old rake, its handle falling forward and clunking her on the head.
“Ouch,” she cries, rubbing the spot at the back of her skull that would soon be home to a small and tender lump. Collecting the papers that had escaped their home of many years Claire navigates her way to the garage door. She dodges bookcases, a treadmill that she keeps telling herself she will use again one day, a stack of old paint tins, and a pile of camping equipment.
Blinking as she emerges into the sunlight Claire makes her way to the table and chairs on a deck that overlook a large backyard and pool. She can almost hear children laughing and splashing as she lowers herself onto the sun-faded, hard plastic chair. It is just Claire and Sean now. Empty nesters. She’d retired two years ago, and Sean is counting down the days to his last day of full-time work.
Sean has timed his retirement to coincide with their thirtieth wedding anniversary. A quiet man, her husband doesn’t believe in public shows of affection, instead it’s the little things he does that demonstrate the depth of his love. He’s taking her on a mystery trip for their anniversary. All he’s told her is to pack for cold weather and make sure she has her passport. Claire has tried getting him to reveal where they are going but Sean has refused to give her any hints.
Claire lifts an envelope out of the top box. The stamp is date marked April 1988. She recognises her own handwriting and carefully pulls out two sheets of yellowed notepaper. They’d been dating just six months when she wrote the letter. At the time, they were in different cities, attending separate universities. As she reads, she feels the surge of loneliness and the burning desire for the man who would one day become her husband. Ah young love, she thinks before smiling at the lyrics to The Beatles song, All My Loving which she’d included on the back page.
Placing the letter to one side she reaches in and pulls out a small, padded bag addressed to her. In it is a letter dated 1 January 1989 and a cassette tape. Turning the mix tape over Claire reads the titles for the music Sean had dedicated to her on the back of the case. It is like a homage to 80’s love songs. She pictures a young Sean with a curly mullet sitting by the radio, waiting for the right song to come on before pushing record to capture the music that proclaimed his love for her. Sean is old school. He still has around 300 vinyl records and two containers of cassette tapes that he listens to. She’d put this one on later. She keeps digging, opening letter after letter, taking photos of the sentences and phrases she is looking for on her phone and placing the letters she wants to keep to one side. As she works her way through the three boxes a pile of paper grows beside her.
They’d been happy for the last thirty years. Sure, they’d been times they annoyed the hell out of each other and needed some space. They were a few serious arguments, mostly about money or how to raise the kids, but generally, they were on the same page. The biggest test of their relationship had happened in the last twelve months.
Sunlight peeks through the leaves of the silver birch she loves, and Claire turns her face to the warmth. Feels the prickle of heat on her skin and skull, her hair providing little protection from the harsh Australian sun. Sean has always loved her luscious, thick red locks. The red is still there but there are more and more strands of grey these days.
At the bottom of the third box, she finds the crumpled note she’d written and never given to him. Her fingers trace the messy handwriting at the top. Thirty Reasons Why.
She’d hidden it there six months ago. Sean had no idea it existed.
Swearing she grabs her nose, blood covering her hand as she stems the flow from Sebastian’s deep scratch.
“What the hell, Sebastian!” she screams, reaching for a tissue on the bedside table. Sebastian sits on top of the doona, surveying his handywork before moving closer to meow loudly in her face.
“Alright, it must be breakfast time,” Claire says, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and rubbing her fingers over her forehead. Sebastian must’ve had a good go at her, she already has a whopping headache.
Pushing her feet into her pink fluffy slippers, Claire eases herself out of bed, heading to the toilet, Sebastian at her heels.
“Okay boy let’s get you fed,” Claire says as she wobbles her way to the kitchen, grabbing a satchel of cat food and dumping it in Sebastian’s bowl. “Happy now?” she asks before taking the empty satchel to the bin.
Lifting the lid, the bottles stare up her and her heart sinks. She thought she’d taken them to the garage before Sean got home.
Pulling the bin out, Claire carries the bottles to the recycling bin in the garage. Doing what she meant to do yesterday.
It’s only when she is back in the bedroom that she notices the envelope on the dresser, her name, in his handwriting, on the front.
Shaking, Claire takes the envelope and lowers herself onto the bed. Fingers trembling, she pulls the page scribbled in his untidy scrawl into her hands.
My dear Claire
I had to leave. I didn’t want to, but I had to. You are somewhere I cannot help you. Somewhere dark.
I’ve begged you to get help and made appointments that you haven’t kept. I realise now I can’t do this for you, but I can’t stand by and watch you slip away, to turn into someone I don’t recognise.
I know losing Susie was a terrible shock and you never got to say goodbye to your oldest and dearest friend, but Susie would hate to see you like this too.
You have to get help and not from the bottom of a bottle. You need to talk to someone who can listen and give you advice to help you move forward. And you have to stop drinking.
You were already passed out on the couch when I got home. Did you know that? And it’s not the first time. I worry every time I go to work, and I see the purchases on our account. It’s out of hand.
I’m going to stay at Rob’s. Below is the number for Alcoholics Anonymous and the number for Lifeline. Please call them, both.
When you have, and you commit to getting help, I’ll come home. But not before.
I love you but I can’t stand by and watch you self-destruct.
Please Claire, do this, for you.
Claire reads and re-reads the letter and then tears it into little pieces. “Bloody hide of him,” she yells to the room, her face red with anger. “I don’t need help.”
Storming into the bathroom she strips off and steps into the shower, letting the hot water wash her tears away.
Popping a couple of Panadol into her mouth and sucking down a tall glass of water, Claire sits in the dark loungeroom, the curtains pulled tight. Her phone pings. It’s her daughter Emma, checking in on her. Without reading the message she tosses the phone to one side. She can’t deal with that now. Instead, she thinks about a glass of wine to help calm her frazzled nerves. Licking her lips, she opens the pantry but there’s no wine in the cupboard. That can’t be right, she’d bought six bottles just two days ago. Sean must have been drinking them too, and he had the hide to have a go at her, she scoffs to herself.
Reaching into the back of the pantry her fingers find an old bottle of sake they’d bought ten years ago on a skiing trip to Japan. Neither of them liked the stuff, they bought it as a souvenir.
Claire places the bottle on the kitchen bench and grabs a tumbler from the cupboard, wrinkling her nose she uncaps the bottle and pours herself a shot. Closing her eyes she downs it one gulp, pulling a face but then pouring another. An hour later Claire is on the couch, the bottle half empty, tissues strewn across the floor, music playing loudly in the background
For the last few months all she’s done is cry. When Susie got sick, she cried. When Susie left her, she cried. When she couldn’t see her children because of COVID, she cried. Now Sean has left her, and she cries.
In her heart she knows he is right but getting help means facing up to all the sadness. To the loneliness that has spread like the cancer that took her best friend. There has to be another way.
She could leave it all behind. Say goodbye to everyone and everything. Wouldn’t it be easier if she just left? Easier on Sean, her children, on her? They wouldn’t have to worry about her. They could just get on with their lives.
Grabbing the bottle, she pours herself another shot, the clear liquid spilling over the side of the glass as she tosses it back, the burn of the liquor on her throat barely noticeable.
But she won’t leave without saying goodbye. She won’t do what Susie did to her. Grabbing the notepad she keeps on the kitchen bench for shopping lists, Claire stares at the blank page. There are so many reasons why she should go. She thinks about time. About the almost thirty years of marriage she invested in and starts to craft thirty reasons why it makes sense for her to leave.
As she finishes, the world spins sideways and she lands with a thud on the carpet.
A siren blares nearby and a soft voice is talking to her, asking her name. Claire shakes her head and sharp pain pierces her temple. She is staring at the face of a stranger. A young woman in a neat uniform is shining a light in her eyes.
“Claire, Claire, can you hear me?”
“What? What’s going on?” Claire croaks, her voice rusty and cracked.
“You’re in an ambulance. Your neighbour found you unconscious on the floor. She was worried when you didn’t answer the phone or the door and used the spare key to get in. It was lucky she did. You were in a pretty bad way.”
“I’m fine. I just had a fall,” Claire says, turning away from the female ambo.
“Claire. You’d almost choked on your own vomit by the time we got there. Sorry to be harsh, but it’s the truth. You are severely dehydrated, and your heart was racing. You were on the verge of a heart attack. We’ve managed to get your heart rate down, but you need to be seen by a doctor.” Touching Claire’s hand she asks, “Do you want to talk about what’s going on?”
“No.” Claire replies, staring at the wall of the ambulance.
“My name’s Julie. You can talk to me, it’s okay but … well I also found this,” Julie says as she hands over the note.
“I’m sure there are many people who love you, Claire. My mum used to say it’s always darkest before the dawn. I lost mum a few months ago. I never got to be with her at the end. You know … COVID.”
“Yeah, I know,” Claire says, tears starting to fall.
“We’re almost there Julie,” says her partner from the driver’s seat.
“Thanks Joe,” Julie says before turning back to Claire. “Your husband was called; he’ll probably be waiting at the hospital. You might want to keep that to yourself, hey?” Julie says nodding at the note clutched in Claire’s hand.
Claire nods and stuffs the note into her pocket as the ambulance pulls into the emergency bay. As they open the back doors, Claire sees Sean standing nearby, his eyes red and hands in his pockets. She gives him a small smile before they usher her inside.
Claire feels her skin starting to burn and returns the boxes to the garage. She is still holding the note in her hand. Taking a packet of matches from her pocket she lights it, watching the pages curl before finally turning to ash.
She will never tell Sean how close she came to leaving him. She wants nothing more than to be with him, her family and those she cares about. She looks at the time, she better get a move on, her volunteering shift at Vinnies starts in an hour and she wants to go to the shops before then.
Two weeks later when Sean opens his gift, Claire is rewarded with his trademark, off centre, goofy smile. In a frame are thirty love letters they have shared with each other, the pages and words overlapping a large photo of them kissing on their wedding day in the centre. At the top of the frame is a plaque inscribed: Thirty Reasons why I love you.
3 thoughts on “Thirty reasons why”
Great piece Kim
As an alcoholic I can relate to that story n still feel hurt I caused my wife n family n how lucky to still have them.