He wakes with a start. The mug is there as always but the message this morning reads like some terrible urban legend.
Your wife is dead it says.
Housebound since the accident this ritual is now a part of his daily routine. Every morning he wakes to find the mug on his bedside table. On it is always a message from his wife, written across the slate surface in brightly coloured chalk. During his morning slumber he can always imagine her writing the message while he sleeps, always pictures her smile anticipating his.
These messages began as simple get well wishes. Over time they developed into activities designed to help pass the time inside the house – microwaveable recipes, phone numbers to television competitions, hand drawn Sudoku grids, the first and subsequent moves in a noughts and crosses game, short story prompts, knock-knock jokes, treasure maps to items hidden downstairs, moral dilemmas, inventive swearwords, outrageous shock websites, and so on.
As the length of his recovery period increased the messages became more substantial. It took forty three mornings to relay the lyrics of her favourite song. It took twelve mornings to complete a hangman puzzle that progressed one letter at a time.
No matter what the content – playful, sincere or obscure – the messages are always hers, sharing a consistent and common tone. The most recent message simply read surprise, and it was a further ten minutes before he discovered that the mug was full of confetti. He had tipped it all over himself and his bed like a honeymoon suite.
The message this morning shares none of these qualities. The handwriting is unfamiliar. He rubs his eyes again in the hope that it will somehow erase the message from his vision, somehow replace it with something more in keeping. These messages are a key component of his mental recovery, the first thing that he sees every morning, comforting and essential to his daily routine. They are powerful watermarks for the rest of the day, personalised horoscopes that he can see with every blink.
With this in mind he attempts to mentally reset. He sits up and opens his eyes once more, hoping the message to be a leftover part of his dreams.
Your wife is dead it says.
He takes the mug from the table, almost fearful of its intent. Panic threatens to take hold of him and he takes the long, slow breaths that he has been taught. The bedroom looks no different than normal but his imagination goes wild. He half expects to see some lunatic stood in the far corner, dressed in his wife’s underwear and carrying a rusty scalpel. He has to blink several times to remove this image from his vision, the room swirling before settling down into reality once more.
The mug feels heavier this morning and he is afraid to examine its contents. He holds it inches away from his face and examines every grain of chalk, hopeful that there is another layer to the puzzle before him. Despite everything that has happened over the past few months he still has an optimistic streak. He tries to convince himself that it is a joke – not a very good one, but a joke nonetheless. Deep down he knows the humour is not her style. The falsifying of the handwriting is out of character. The shock of the message is inappropriate for his delicate condition.
He cannot convince himself otherwise. The message is simply wrong. It is handwriting that does not belong in his house. It is written in an alien language. It is the handwriting of a clown.
With these thoughts his mental routine collapses. He can feel a self-analysis forcing its way back in, aware of his constant internal conflict. For the first time in a long time he is unsure of how his day will proceed. He grabs the frame of his bed and pulls himself upright onto his bruised legs. His movements are exposed and unsteady as he makes his way across the room and out onto the landing.
At the top of the stairs he is grateful for the bannister to support him. He pauses and listens for any signs of an intruder, his ears straining to listen through the silence. Something rumbles and he almost loses his balance in fright. It is the central heating switching on, the noise now deafening and obtrusive to his search.
In his mind he goes through all of the possible hiding places downstairs, wondering which one the intruder may have decided upon. It is many months since he last left the house and he is intimately familiar with its landscapes. He can picture every unfinished decoration, every uneven surface, every frayed piece of carpet. He knows the house better than he knows himself, repeating this fact over to himself as he descends the staircase.
Methodically he works his way through every downstairs room. He is unarmed and without a plan. The mug still hangs from his forefinger, echoing the terrible message. Although nothing appears to have changed everything is somehow unfamiliar, altered by the threat of external company. Just before he enters the kitchen diner he pauses for some inexplicable reason, an unidentifiable part of him warning of danger. He waits for the sensation to pass, one hand on the door handle, the other still clutching the mug. Everywhere is silent. He can no longer hear the central heating. A million thoughts race through his mind as he pushes open the door, briefly registering the scene before him before continuing towards the kitchen.
The room is full of mugs.
They line the windowsill and cover the dining room table. Many spread across the floor like an army. Each ones carries an individually written chalk message. Carefully he makes his way to the kitchen with new smoother movements. He focuses on the floor as he carefully tip-toes across the room, not wanting to brush against any of the chalk messages as he does so, not wanting to erase anything from this minefield of memories.
He reaches the kitchen and forces himself to look at the mugs from a safe distance. The hand of his wife fills the air like static. The messages form a chorus and engulf him, lyrics singing to him as he delicately takes a mug from the table and reads the message out loud.
The trees that whisper in the evening it says.
He places it back as though it were a priceless antique. In the corner of the room is an open box full of blank mugs, the cardboard torn open at one side. Pinned to the fridge is a message, written in the same unwelcome writing as on the mug in his hand. It reads as a simple to-do list – an appointment time for a health visitor, an unpaid invoice reminder, a shopping list with several grocery items listed. The final item on the shopping list is chalk.
For a fleeting moment he recognises the writing as his own. He compares it to the writing on the mug and is unable to reconcile it in his mind. As if prompted he goes back into the dining room. Like every other morning he finds a place for the new mug in amongst the others. Unlike every other morning this was a desperate wake-up call that has gone unnoticed, his attempt to reach himself all but lost.
He turns the new mug around to hide the message from view. Morning sun now fills the room, highlighting the chalk dust that floats in the air, messages that will never reassemble. A small part of him considers going outside, pushing past the mugs that still block his exit. Even his optimistic side knows that he will remain inside, trying to retain the memories that are as delicate as the chalk dust they are written in.
He will remain trapped inside this house of mugs, wondering what message he will wake up to in the morning.
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