William Morris was always home at 6 pm on Mondays. The train pulled in at 5.55 pm and it was a five-minute walk home. When his train was delayed, which was often, he always called to let her know so she could have everything ready for him at his new arrival time. It was now 6.15. There had been no call. That was not like William. He always called.
Karen stared out through the backdoor window. A low sun glowed across the neatly trimmed garden lawn to the shed at the bottom. She stared a few moments more before picking up her phone and calling her husband’s number.
There were more modern models, the battery didn’t last and the screen was cracked. William said it was a waste of money to buy a new one as she didn’t go anywhere important. The tech companies only wanted to sell
more units by giving them shinier covers, fancier names and apps no one needed. His model was the latest but that was different, he went to important places.
A muffled ringtone came from upstairs.
She hung up, waited a few moments, and rang again. The muffled ring sounded. She strode out to the hall and up the stairs grasping her old phone. Her free hand slid up the white bannister, a fine layer of dust stuck to her fingers. William hated dust and she didn’t miss the constant smell of lavender polish. Her swollen lips throbbed in pain from the faint smile at seeing her blackened fingertips. Small victories but no less satisfying.
The ringing got louder as she approached the landing; it came from their bedroom. It was like a hotel room on arrival. The vacuum cleaner lines from a couple of days ago were still faintly visible like random train tracks across the cream carpet. The ironed bed-cover was sharp, starched and as white as the plain walls. White was William’s favourite colour, as was grey.
Matching pillows lay on either side of the double bed, his smooth and wrinkle free as he expected every night, hers lined and with a head-sized dent in the middle. Built-in oak-effect wardrobes went over the bed head with floor to ceiling units on either side: an effective use of wall space. According to William.
The ringing was loud and from William’s bedside shelf. He preferred the side closest to the door as he needed to get up to pee at least twice during the night. Problems for men of a certain age. He’d been annoyed when she’d used the word prostrate. It was unclean, crude. He told her through gritted teeth and a red face to say, men’s problems. She breathed out hard and slow, shaking her head, her legs weak. She’d paid for that transgression.
His latest model Smartphone stopped ringing and went to voicemail.
“William, where are you?” she said into her phone and hit the red screen button. She picked up his phone, missed call Karen 18.17. Her knuckles knocked over the bedside lamp and she moved to pick it up. William expected everything straight and ordered. She stopped and left it on its side. That felt good, small victories.
It was odd to hold his phone, as if she was breaking a law. She guessed she was in some ways. She pressed her fingertips around the case then put his phone down, trotted downstairs and opened the front door.
She paced along the black and white Victorian-effect tiled path bordered by short clipped hebe shrubs. The plants were practical: waxy evergreen leaves
and flowers all year round. He liked practical. The garden was her job, the decisions his.
William said there were man jobs and woman jobs; men went out to work, women did everything else. It didn’t pay to debate. Sometimes it didn’t pay anyway. She touched her swollen eye with a delicate touch and winced.
She leant over the barred gate and looked past their box-square front hedge.
At the end of the street commuters were streaming away from the station to their homes like a swarm of escaping rats from a docked ship. She spotted a face she’d seen in the neighbourhood before.
She raised a hand, waved and forced a smile. “Hello, how are you?”
He looked back without recognition.
“Any problems with the trains this evening.”
The commuter shook his head, looked down, and walked on.
She called after him. “My husband hasn’t come home, he’s missing.”
From the corner of her eye she saw her next-door neighbour walking out of the front door, a large white bag for life hooked over a shoulder. Karen didn’t know her name, they’d never spoken. William hadn’t liked them from the moment they’d moved in last year. He thought they were ‘stuck up’. He named her Queenie and her husband, Prince.
Karen cleared her throat to attract ‘Queenie’s’ attention; she couldn’t exactly call out, Hello Queenie.
The neighbour stopped a moment, looked up, glared and walked on. Queenie had accused William of being responsible for the disappearence of her two cats a couple of months ago. He didn’t like cats. Or any animals. Cats serve no purpose. Like rats, he used to say, we need a cat cull around here.
“William’s late home from work this evening, I think he’s missing,” Karen said as ‘Queenie’ passed by.
‘Queenie’ stopped, hitched the bag higher on her shoulder and held a glare. “Maybe the evening’s looking up for all of us then.” She walked on.
Karen suppressed a grin.
She went back indoors, sat on the sofa and scrolled through her phone for her
husband’s boss’s number. William said his boss was one of them. William never elaborated about what that meant apart from his tone suggesting one of them was not a compliment. Karen knew not to ask.
She pressed call, inclined her head and tucked the phone under her brown
supermarket brand dyed hair.
“Armstrong.” William’s boss picked up before it rang.
“Hello Mrs Armstrong, it’s Mrs Morris here.”
Karen frowned. “No, I’m a Mrs.”
“I meant me.”
A long moment passed.
“What can I do for you Mrs Morris?” Ms Armstrong hit the word Mrs with a heavy emphasis.
Karen heard nails clicking on a keyboard and then a hand scraping over the microphone. Ms Armstrong gave sharp muffled orders to someone Karen assumed was a cringing underling.
“I called to find out what time my husband left the office today.”
“I’m sorry?” The typing stopped.
“I called to find…”
“Yes, Mrs Morris, I understood what you said but I don’t know why you said it. William sent me a text this morning to say he was unwell and staying at home. I hope he’s better because he’s got a lot of work to catch up on tomorrow.”
Karen didn’t reply.
“Are you sure, Mrs Armstrong? William wasn’t ill, he went to work this morning as normal. He hasn’t come home and he’s missing.”
“It’s Ms.” The typing restarted. “I suggest you have a word with him when he turns up from wherever he is and inform him I don’t allow shirkers in my team.” The call cut.
Karen’s hands shook and she placed the phone beside her. She breathed in a giant gulp of warm air and let it out slowly. She wrapped her hands around herself, feeling the pain in her arms. It would go away.
She googled the local police station and called. It rang for several minutes.
The line clicked and she heard shouting before a strained female voice answered. “Police, how may I help you.” It sounded like the last thing the officer wanted to do.
Karen cleared her throat. “Hello officer, my name is Mrs Karen Morris and I want to report my husband, William Morris, as missing.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Mrs Morris.” She heard a finger tapping on a keyboard.
“How long has William been missing?”
“About thirty minutes.”
“Yes, it’s most irregular, he always calls when he’s late.” There was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Karen added. “Aren’t you going to put out an APB or something?”
Karen heard a long sigh. “Mrs Morris, maybe you should check the pub.”
“He doesn’t approve of alcohol, officer. He’s missing and didn’t go to work today. I’m Mrs Karen Morris, 69 Acton Drive. It’s near the train station.”
She heard a keyboard clacking. “OK, call back in twenty-four hours if you haven’t heard from him. Good day. Madam.”
The line clicked dead.
Karen went to the kitchen, got a bowl and filled it with milk. She took it to the back garden and put it down on their paved patio. The neighbour’s two new cats watched her from the top of the fence as she backed away from the bowl. They leapt down and ran to the milk, tails erect, mewing. A faint smile crossed her lips.
She went back in, poured a long glass of the rosé she’d left to chill in the fridge and carried it through to the living room. She settled on the sofa. She picked up the remote and flicked on the TV. It had been a long time since she’d been able to choose evening programmes.
She rubbed her sore arms, William’s favourite target when he had time to think about it; the bruises could be hidden under sleeves. Sometimes he didn’t think about it.
She looked back along the living room and out through the patio doors. The small shed stood square and solid at the back of the long garden. William had got builders to put it up over the old submerged oil tank they’d used before piped gas arrived in town. The tank was no longer entirely empty.
Tomorrow, at 6.30 pm sharp, Karen will call the police back. William will still be missing.