A Council Flat (England 1993)
18+ The sound of the twins fighting in the bedroom filled the flat. Their screams drowned out the drone of sport on the TV and the sizzle and bubble of dinner on the kitchen cooktop. "For Christ's sake, Ruth," Stu bellowed over the TV, "shut those bloody kids up, will you!"
Ruth lifted the lid from the pot of potatoes. She turned down the gas and waited for the steam and boiling water to subside. Stu shouted at the twins and turned up the TV. But they kept fighting, and Ruth heard him charge into the bedroom. The flat shook with violence as Stu beat the twins. And then there was only the drone of the TV and sound of dinner cooking. Ruth replaced the lid on the potatoes.
"Why can't you stop those bloody kids fighting?" Stu demanded, thundering into the kitchen. "They're at it all bloody day." He opened the fridge door and grabbed a can of beer. "What's a man got to do to get some peace?"
Ruth moved the sausages to stop them from sticking to the pan. The pot of mixed vegetables boiled over. She lifted the lid, turned down the gas, and waited.
"How long till dinner?" Stu asked, opening the can and taking a long swig. Ruth watched a stream of beer dribble down Stu's unshaven chin and onto the floor. "Well?" he prompted, wiping his mouth with a tea towel. "Are you deaf as well as stupid?"
Ruth dropped her eyes and replaced the lid on the vegetables. Stu swore at her and stomped back to TV. Ruth heard the twins crying in the bedroom. She turned up the gas on the sausages, letting them sizzle loudly, and prayed the twins would stay quiet.
It hasn't always been like this, Ruth reassured herself, staring out of their tenth-floor flat window at the white clouds hanging in the pale blue sky. It's a bad patch. Stu's been under a lot of pressure since he lost his job. It's hard for a man, sitting in front of the TV all day, especially with the twins carrying on from dawn to dusk.
"It's their diet, dear," the elderly social worker had explained on her last visit. "Children eat too many sweets these days. It makes them hyperactive. You must be firm with them, feed them good food, like a good mother."
Yes, but how do I stop them screaming and fighting, Ruth had wanted to ask but didn't. Instead, she'd nodded, promised to give the twins healthier food, and agreed to meet the social worker again in two weeks. Stu hated her visits.
"A bloody old busy body", he'd called her. "Put on to us by some sodding nosey neighbour. What's it got to do with her what we feed the bloody kids?"
Something was burning. Ruth looked down at the sausages, now blackened and stuck to the bottom of the pan. She lifted it from the cooktop and turned off the gas. Stu was swearing at the twins; they were fighting again.
Ruth turned off the potatoes and vegetables. She had planned to mash the potatoes. But now she just wanted to serve dinner, even if it was overcooked and burnt. Hopefully, it would calm things for a while. The flat echoed with the drone of the TV and screams of the twins.
"For Christ's sake, Ruth," Stu bellowed again over the TV, "hurry up with my bloody dinner, will you. I'm starving."
Ruth finished straining the vegetables. No, it hadn't always been like this. In the beginning, she and Stu had good times. They'd met at a disco—Ruth smiled at the memory of him in his satin shirt, flared trousers and platform shoes. A regular John Travolta, Stu was, strutting about the dance floor. They'd eyed each other dancing and chatted at the bar. She was a receptionist; he was an apprentice builder. It still made her feel warm inside remembering the firmness of his body on the dance floor, and later that night.
"What the hell are you up to, Ruth?" Stu asked, standing in the kitchen, still swigging his beer—Ruth hadn't noticed him move from the TV. "Why is it taking you so bloody long?" He lowered the can and sniffed the air. "Christ, you've burned dinner again, haven't you? What's wrong with you, you stupid bitch?"
There was a crash from the bedroom, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Stu's face turned a mottled scarlet. "Bloody little bastards, I'll fix them!" he spat, throwing his unfinished beer at the sink and storming off. The can ricocheted off the tiles and spilled onto the floor. Ruth left it and pulled out the dinner plates.
No, it hadn't always been like this. There'd been dancing, laughter and passion. There were movies, parties, and holidays—they'd even been to Spain. There had been friends' weddings and finally their own. Stu liked to plan things. "Life's like building a house, Ruth," he'd explained to her. "You'll never get anywhere without a plan."
So, she and Stu made their plans. They worked hard and eventually saved enough to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder, a modest ex-council terrace, which Stu could renovate. And then Ruth fell pregnant.
"Shut the bloody hell up, you two!" Stu shouted at the twins in the bedroom. Ruth heard him beat them again. Her hands shook as she served the vegetables—some rolled off the dinner plate and onto the floor.
"Congratulations," the doctor had told her, "you're going to have twin bundles of joy." Twins!?
Yes, her and Stu's plans had included children. But not until well into the future, when they'd climbed a few more rungs on the property ladder, when they could afford a proper house, and for Ruth to stop working. Twins! Double the expense on half the income.
Stu had worked hard to make up for Ruth's lost wages, and for the first few years, they'd managed to get by. But, as with the twins, they hadn't planned on the recession, soaring mortgage rates, and Stu's redundancy. And then they lost their terrace and had to move into the council flat.
The twins were screaming in the bedroom. Ruth winced when Stu hit them, repeatedly. She finished serving dinner and fetched a fresh can of beer from the fridge for Stu.
If only the twins would be quiet. Then perhaps he wouldn't get so angry. If Stu wasn't under so much pressure, then he might have more luck getting a job. Then they could move out of the flat, and their life could get back to normal. And they could be happy again.
Stu returned to the kitchen, wild-eyed, sweaty and breathing heavily. He washed his face and hands in the sink and dried them on the tea towel. Then he picked up his dinner plate and beer and walked away without a word.
The only sound in the flat was the drone of sport on the TV. Ruth looked out the window again—her eyes filled with tears.
© 1994, 2019 Robert Fairhead
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is an editor and a writer for Tall And True and blogs at RobertFairhead.com. He enjoys reading, writing, playing the guitar, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Footy with his son. Robert has worked as an electrician, sales and marketing rep, computer programmer, dog trainer and (wanna-be) writer. He also had a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
As I wrote recently (Tall And True blog post, November 2019), I started working on Both Sides of the Story for the Ian St James Awards in February 1994. It was my third submission to the annual awards, the UK's biggest fiction prize for unpublished writers.
The idea for the short story came to me while working out in a gym. The news at the time was full of stories about people for whom the public (including me) had little sympathy. Phil Collins' Both Sides of the Story music video was on the gym TV, and it got me wondering: could I show both sides in my short story?
And so I set about writing four vignettes and a fifth piece to pull them together—Westminster, Bosnia, A Council Flat, and The Gym are the vignettes. You'll have to wait for the final piece that links and resolves these stories.
In the meantime, let me know what you think of my attempt to show both sides of a story.