ONLINE FICTION ‘The Stranger Within’ by Mark Montinaro
Sarah remembered her fortieth birthday, three years ago to the day. “Life begins at forty”, they had said. And it had, in a way; Peter had bought her a state of the art lap-top as a present. She had been threatening to write a novel for years. It had always been a bit of a family joke, though she did attend the odd course on writing and subscribed to a literary journal. No one had taken her seriously, least of all her husband: all that soon changed.
Tonight, she sat quietly at a long bar sipping neat rye whiskey. Most people who might have seen her there; alone and dressed to kill would have got the wrong idea. “Let them”, she no longer worried about such things. Sarah Collins might as well have been a million miles removed from the person she had once been. She reflected on the changes in her life that had brought her to this place and point in time. “Sarah Collins”, the perfect housewife: life had revolved around a husband, two children and an assortment of pets. “Sarah Collins”, Queen of the coffee morning, backbone of endless charity drives. In those days everyone had thought how marvellous she was. “How does she do it?” they all patronised. Peter Collins was certainly a lucky man to possess such a paragon of womanhood.
Married at eighteen to her one and only serious boyfriend, those few important years her senior. Children followed quickly and Peter proved an able provider. Sarah resolved to be a perfect wife and succeeded in this, her one and only ambition. It seemed there would be little of significance to her life other than living happily and uneventfully ever after. Sarah Collins was after all, secure in her identity as the perfect wife and mother.
Life moved on, the perfect children left their perfect Mother and home. The perfect husband prospered in his golden career, spending more time away from his perfect wife. At thirty eight years of age, Sarah found her carefully constructed role and purpose in life ripped away. An empty hole replaced the full wholesomeness of previous years. Time on her hands, the day to day mechanics of living began to lose their value and finally, meaning. Insomnia led to pill taking, boredom to solitary drinking, the combination to a hospital ward and psychiatric help.
Everyone was there again, for a while: as soon as she seemed herself, they were gone. Sarah accepted this, did not go back on the pills, even managed to control the drinking but she could never be the same person again. She felt calm and empty, valueless, a stranger to her former self: a receptacle waiting to be filled by whatever came its way. What might that be? Possibly an affair, she was still a desirable woman and there was plenty of opportunity. No, the shallow obviousness of the idea for a woman in her situation was repellent. Besides there were enough wagging tongues as it was. Since her, “Accident”, the smiles on people`s faces had become ever so slightly strained. Conversations appeared to stop or change direction in her presence. People were avoiding her, or so it seemed. Was she paranoid or had the attitudes of so called friends changed towards her? The truth was a bit of both. There was no hypocrisy or malice involved. The Sarah Collins who popped pills and slugged back whiskey was not the woman they had known. Sarah had implicitly broken the contract of who she had always been accepted as and expected to be. There was nothing overt. “They”, were not really avoiding her, no one was gossiping any more than would be usual after her near escape from death. Unfortunately Sarah was one of those sensitive souls who pick up on the slightest feeling of strangeness and being fairly imaginative, interpreted it as others having it in for her.
To confirm her suspicion, she started keeping a diary, noting down anything that seemed unusual: this soon changed character into something entirely different. It developed into an all consuming passion to get to the root of things and ultimately who she was. The conclusion Sarah came to was that deep down, she did not really care what others thought of her: “Sarah Collins”; wife, mother, charity queen would have cared. She had assumed these rolls at such a tender age; they had come to fit her like a glove. Well the gloves were off now and Sarah Collins approaching forty no longer recognised the person she had been. Where better to start finding the new woman than by defining what she felt about those around her. So what did she come up with? At first nothing that made any sense to her. At least nothing definable without a social role to give it substance: then there would be little to most people if viewed under such stark circumstances. She wondered who Peter was without his roles as a husband, father and provider. Sarah did not know; she remembered a sweet young man who talked about setting the World to rights but that person was not her husband.
Sarah`s diary became a series of suburban observations of those around her: the postman`s distinctive whistle every morning, whose house he popped into for a coffee when the husband went to work early. A record of over the fence conversations heard during the course of the day. She got into the habit of reading them over at night, filling in the gaps, developing some of the implicit scenarios. The musings were initially humorous, as time went by they became harder edged, she even trawled her family for material.
As her absorption became more obsessive, ironically she appeared more her old self. Inside she was metamorphosing into someone entirely different; harder, more self reliant and analytical. She reassumed her old role as “Mrs Sarah Collins” consciously now, in order to gain information. To her notebooks, she added descriptions of people and things. In her version of reality, the noses tended to get sharper, hair tints brassier and human nature altogether more insect like. Peter didn`t have the foggiest idea his former wife no longer existed. Of course he had noticed the scribbling. She had even shared some of her less personal observations with him. They had laughed about them together as they might have done years ago in a different life. He even noticed her looking at him and jotting things down which she refused to share. Peter had interpreted this as rather flattering to himself. He felt so secure; he could not imagine her thinking anything derogatory about him, let alone writing it down. He was sure it was something poetic she was struggling with. Sarah would show him when she was ready. That was when Peter had the fateful, some might say fatal bright spark that changed their lives forever, though he could not possibly have foreseen it at the time.
Sarah`s fortieth birthday was looming, Peter knew it would require something special. He was not ignorant about or unfeeling toward the changes in his wife`s life, though he was oblivious to their extent. Put simply, there was little he could do without radically altering his own. Writing seemed to calm her, even make her happy. God alone knew; anything was better than when she had been hitting the bottle hard; so he went out and bought her a shiny new PC, “Top of the range”, the salesman assured him. It was pricey enough but nothing was too good for his Sarah and who could know where it might lead he thought to himself. Perhaps Sarah might end up a famous writer, “Great for business, being the spouse of a celebrity”.
Poor Peter, the proverbial, “Lamb to the slaughter”, he unwittingly provided the instrument of his own destruction. Who could know? If he hadn`t performed that kind and well intentioned act, Sarah might eventually have stopped “scribbling” and returned to the semblance of a normal married life with no one the wiser. That was never going to happen now, the Rubicon had been crossed and there would be no turning back. For Sarah it was a dream come true, the catalyst that finally decided who she was to be; Sarah Collins, writer! She was genuinely grateful to Peter. Protestations of, “I love you Darling”, and, “Oh it`s wonderful”, were in the moment, heartfelt and true. But after the initial birthday fuss was over she set to work in earnest. Her, “scribbling” looked important when put into print: something tangible to hold onto, a thing of value and beauty.
Sarah scrutinised the results of her time in the wilderness and felt it had all been worth it. No room for regret. She had something to say in her own way and nothing was going to stop it being said. If nobody wanted to listen? Well she would cross that bridge when and if it came. Sarah no longer assumed her old role as a convenience, it became an undercover identity through which she could subvert the enemy and achieve her long term goal.
So who exactly was the enemy? Everything and anyone in her life who she thought might have brought her to a psychiatrist`s couch at the age of thirty eight with nothing left to live for. This time Peter did notice the change. She no longer shared any of her work with him. He wondered what she might be writing in such secrecy. Curiosity became preoccupation, turning finally to obsession; he had to know. So one afternoon when Sarah was out, this male Pandora resolved to find out what was in the electronic box. The first paragraph which met his eyes was enough, he never got any further; there was no real need,
“So here I sit, Sarah C, a stranger to the house I inhabit. Sleeping every night with a man I no longer know; the Father of children I barely recognise as my own. Here sit I; Sarah C. I think back on the course of my adult life and realise it has all meant nothing, been for nothing.”
He left the computer on, packed a few necessaries and left.
Peter found he was not too hurt once he moved past injured pride and marital habit. There was somebody else. His discovery simply made the switch of allegiances that much simpler. Sarah suffered a few panic attacks but soon recovered her composure and moved along. When it came right down to it, she almost regretfully found herself not minding at all. With new awareness, came an acceptance that her feelings were born out of little more than the safety found in familiarity and a fear of the unknown. It was with sadness for Peter as well as herself that Sarah came to realise how she had mistaken dependence for love throughout much of her married life. For some people these things were the same but not for her: “What a waste”, she concluded and then got on with her life.
In time, Peter started a new family and Sarah birthed her first novel, A Stranger Within. Critics hailed it as “naive” and “self-indulgent”. Sarah knew better and so did her public. Sales were buoyant and the Thank you letters from grateful readers abundant.
A forty-something woman sat at a long bar sipping rye whiskey on her own and content to be so. Occasionally a man might attempt conversation. She talked if there might be anything to learn. She didn`t know how far she was prepared to go with this new role. The probable answer was as far as necessary to finish whatever her new story might be. After all she had slept with a stranger for over twenty years: whatever happened next would be little different and perhaps more interesting.
Mark Montinaro lives in the West Wales township of Laugharne. He divides his time between working as a gardener and a performer. He is a regular contributor to the South Wales spoken scene circuit and has recently begun submitting work with a view to publication.
© Mark Montinaro, 2015. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2015.