In the Beginning
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 cradling 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 bounced out onto the floor, spilling beer. Ruth left it and laid 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—peas rolled off the plate and fell onto the floor.
"Congratulations," the doctor had told her, "you're going to have twin bundles of joy." Twins!
Yes, Ruth 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 her 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 high-rise 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. They could be happy again.
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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 at the clouds again—her eyes filled with tears.
© 1994, 2019 Robert Fairhead
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Furious Fiction writing competition.
Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
Footnote: As I blogged on Tall And True in November 2019, I started working on Both Sides of the Story in February 1994. It was my third submission to the then annual Ian St James Awards, at the time the UK's biggest fiction prize for unpublished writers.
The idea for the story came to me while working out in a gym. The news at the time was full of items about people for whom the public (including me) had little sympathy. Phil Collins was singing his Both Sides song on MTV in the gym, and the music video set me thinking: Could I show both sides of the news in a short story?
So I started writing Both Sides of the Story, as a five-part short story. Westminster, Bosnia, A Council Flat, and The Gym are four standalone vignettes. And Bad News is the fifth and final part, which links and resolves the story.
Please note, my intention in writing this short story twenty-five years ago was not to be an apologist for my characters or their actions. Then, as now, my goal was to follow Phil Collins' lead and try to imagine both sides of the story.