A short story by Tina Konstant
A candle. That’s all it takes. Just sit in a dark room and stare at a candle. Josie tried. God! She had to get a grip. Get the noise and chaos out of her head. I want milk. I want juice. What’s for dinner? I hate cottage pie. Where are my shoes? Gimme chips. I want to watch TV. I want I want I want I hate you!
That’s what the stranger at the bus stop had said. He had a nice face. Calm. She imagined he’d just come back from some sunny holiday and had never had anyone put their face an inch from his and scream because he’d said no to sweets at a supermarket checkout. Didn’t matter. For a moment his smile broke through the noise crushing her sanity: got to get the kids’ uniforms ready; parents evening tonight; Mum needs a lift to hospital; Dad needs his meds picked up; Boss needs that damn proposal finished. Shit. Shit. Shit. Something had to give.
Meditate, the stranger had said. Sit in a dark room. Light a candle. Look at the flame. Clear your mind. Focus on your breathing.
What part of “I don’t have time to breathe” do you not get?
Oh, Christ, then there’s Dave. He’s got a work’s do. “You have to come, Josie,” he’d insisted. “They’re expecting the wives. They like to see I’ve got stable support, you know what I mean?”
Support. Brilliant. Fill my legs with concrete and call me a pylon, why don’t you.
“When is it?” she’d asked, flipping through her mental diary.
“Thursday. I can meet you there after the gym. If you fancy, you can get a new dress. You want a new dress?”
What was he saying? That she didn’t have anything fancy enough for his lawyer buddies? That she didn’t know how to dress? That she was a goddamned frump? Well what did he expect? Who cleaned up after the kids? Who picked up after a boss so up-her-arse she could qualify for the Chinese Gymnastics Team? Who ironed, washed, sorted, ordered, fixed, scheduled every damn thing?
So she’d gotten a little fat. It seemed that the only time anyone left her alone was when she was hiding in a corner, eating. Now he says he’ll meet her after he’s been to the gym? Oh God! How is staring into a candle in the fricking dark going to help that?
Josie shut her eyes. The candle stenciled an imprint on her brain. She watched it flicker and morph. Something had to give.
Her children were sleeping. Dave was sleeping. Her dogs were sleeping. Her boss was sleeping. It was three in the morning and she wasn’t sleeping at all.
Josie reached up and pulled down a box of Oreos from the shelf above her head. She loved her pantry. It was the reason she insisted they bought the house. It was a beautiful, walk-in affair with doors that closed and locked. She opened the Oreos.
All the peace and calm that the stranger had promised the candle would give her, rushed through her veins after just a single bite. She smiled. Quiet. Peaceful. Everyone sleeping. All she really needed was a few days off, or maybe a week. Oh, can you imagine. A month? A whole month of peace?
She opened her eyes and stared at the candle again. Everyone was too busy really. She bit into the chocolate, crumbling biscuit. She had no illusions. She wasn’t moving from the pantry floor until the entire box was finished. That’s okay. Time to think and breathe. That’s all she really needed. Time. A bit of time. When she wasn’t responsible for everyone or everything. When someone else took care of things. Anyone really. She didn’t mind. Maybe even Dave. Can you imagine?
Josie rested her head back on the shelves and smiled. They were the same age, her and Dave. Married the year they both graduated Uni. He launched an engineering career that won him trophies. Seriously. It was news to Josie too, but there’s an equivalent of the Oscars in the engineering world and Dave had won it twice! At 45 he looked 35. Lean, fit, sleek and handsome. At 45 she looked 55. Fat, dumpy, spotty and grey.
“Why don’t you pick up a nice new dress?”
Josie breathed out and chewed her eighth Oreo. Twelve in the box. Just four to go. She wished she’d bought the super family size pack. She would next time. Or someone else could. What if someone else could do the shopping and cook and wash the dishes?
3.25 a.m. Silence. The whole house. Sound asleep. Josie knew dozens of people like her. All overworked, hurting, bored and panic stricken. No one was going to do anything for her. If she wanted something done, she would have to do it herself. That was a fact.
3.26 a.m. She did have time. The kids wouldn’t be awake for a few hours. Dave wakes at six sharp and goes for a run. He’d think she was looking after the kids if she wasn’t in bed. He wouldn’t miss her if she was still out.
Josie sealed the last three Oreos in the wrapper and put them in her dressing gown pocket. She could make time. She could. The man at the bus stop was right. If you quiet your mind for a moment, the answers would come. She could make time.
She opened the pantry door and peeked out putting her hand over her mouth to still her breathing. She tiptoed upstairs and changed into jeans and a grey jumper. She liked it. It matched her hair. She opened the kids’ bedroom door and paused. Gentle breathing. Worry-free sleep. She tied the laces to her trainers without putting the light on, then snuck downstairs again. Keys in hand, she stopped at the front door then went back into the pantry. She swept up an Oreo crumb, picked up the matches and blew out the candle. Didn’t want the kids coming down to a mess. Then she picked up a small tin from the top shelf and put it in her pocket.
3.52 a.m. With no traffic, it would take her just 14 minutes to get to the office. She closed and locked the house, got into her car, pulled the handbrake off, let the car roll down the small hill that made their driveway, and slid onto the road. The neighbours were sleeping. The whole street was sleeping. So much quiet. Perfect.
On the road, Josie started the engine and steered her car towards the building that used her five days a week. She had a 24-hour pass because her head-up-her-arse boss once needed her to go in and fetch a report she wanted for an out-of-town presentation. Could the boss not get it? “No! I have a house full! Please, Josie. Thank you, dear.”
Thank you, dear? Josie had kept the pass. The boss had never asked for it back.
At the office, things were even more quiet than Josie had expected. Still and dark and peaceful. “Beautiful,” she whispered then glanced at the clocks on the wall showing the time in six different countries. 4.19 a.m. The night watch guy was asleep in his van. It’s what he always did. She’d checked on her way in, just in case. Magazine open on his chest. Snoring deeply. Sleeping peacefully.
Josie went to the fourth floor, took the tin out of her pocket and started in the bosses office. The stranger had said to stare into the flame. She lit the curtains first, then spread lighter fuel up the walls. The sprinklers would come on soon. She had to spread the flames fast. So she ran. Like she did when she was eighteen and she had a plan and a vision and dreams. She ran down the stairs lighting bins and paper and chairs and tables and anything a flame would take to. She ran like the Greek gods themselves were on her heels. The alarm screamed, water spewed from the ceiling battling the fire, Josie laughed and spun in circles.
Outside, she stared into the flames, focused on her breathing and let her mind go clear. The stranger was right. The answers do come when you let things slow down.
She pulled out her phone and dialed 999. When the operator answered, Josie was brief. “My name is Josie Cane. I’ve set a building on fire. I’m going to do it again. Do you want to pick me up here or should I come to the nearest police station?”
At the police station a very nice young officer asked her to empty her pockets. She had keys, an empty tin of fuel, matches and three Oreos. “You can have those if you like,” she said to the young man. He smiled and gave her a very comfy white jumpsuit to put on. White also matched her hair so she didn’t mind.
She was charged with arson. She said yes, she was guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. Josie was given fifteen months in prison. She smiled and thanked the judge. “We can get it reduced,” her lawyer insisted.
“Oh, no.” Josie hugged her children and kissed her husband. “Fifteen months is much more than I hoped for.”
Protected from the world by concrete walls, Josie sat in the yard with a dozen other women, all with their faces to the sun, focusing on their breathing, calming their thoughts, clearing their minds. Meditation. The prison recommended it. In fact, there were classes. Rehabilitation, they called it.
One of the woman breathed in deep, then let the air flow slowly from her lungs. “Anyone know what’s for dinner?”
“Not sure,” one of the others said. “I think it’s cottage pie, chips and bread and butter pudding.”