The Sharpest Knife

Caught in a storm, Angie dived under the awning of a shabby little shop. She could hardly see through the curtain of wet hair that had blown across her face. She parted it with her fingers, using the shop's dirty window as a mirror. Even that dusty reflection showed the strand of grey that she had noticed for the first time that morning. She peered through the window at the muddle of second-hand furniture and bric-a-brac that inhabited the shop's interior. All seemed covered in a glaze of grease, set in soft focus by a powdering of dust. Among the muted wooden shades of the heavy pieces of furniture a few bright objects shone, a blue glass vase, the gilt frame of a painting.

Angie moved sideways to get a better look at this painting. Red, tan, gold filled swirling shapes cut with savage strokes of black. In a moment it resolved into a scene from a Spanish bullfight. The bull lay dying in the centre of the arena, a spear rising from his heart. The victor stood over him in triumph, waving to the senoritas in the crowd. A cold drip from the awning's edge ran down the back of Angie's neck. She moved again and the picture flicked back to a splash of red and gold. Angie pushed open the heavy door and went into the shop. A bell rang and she heard a distant shuffling of feet. Without the intervening layer of dusty glass, the painting was even more striking. The bullfighter's sharp sword gleamed in readiness for another act of desperate violence. A beautiful senorita with an ardent face threw down a red rose. As she was admiring the picture, a tiny old man shuffled into the shop. She asked him the price; it was cheaper than she had guessed. Hurrying home, she planned where she would hang her new aquisition.

Angie's living room was tastefully furnished in neutral colours. The only picture was a delicate print of flowers in a vase, done in pastel greens and pinks. Taking off her shoes, Angie stood on the sofa and, reaching up, managed to detach it from its hook.

Then Rob came in.

After a long, tense moment he said, "Angie! What are you doing?"

He was staring at her as if she had gone mad. Trying to keep her voice calm, Angie said, "I've bought a new print, Rob! I'm just taking this one down, we won't miss it will we? and I thought it would look good up here, do you like it, Rob?"

She had left the picture on the coffee table. Rob glanced down at it. "Not really my kind of thing," he observed. "Bit bloodthirsty, isn't it? still, if you like it..."

He picked up the bullfight picture and reached up to hang it on the exposed hook. No standing on chairs for Rob, he was a foot taller than his wife.

"Thanks, Rob!" she said.

He was having a little trouble getting it on the hook. Then he smiled. Done it at last! Angie took a few steps back to admire the effect. Rob moved away with a last touch to straighten the picture. Down it fell with a smash!

Angie picked it up, almost in tears. The glass was shattered and the frame was cracked on one side.

The bullfight painting was put away in the attic: Rob would fix the frame when he had time. Over the next few weeks, Angie was quieter than usual and Rob sometimes had to speak to her twice before he got an answer. One day Rob came home from work a little later than usual, to find that Angie was not in the living room. Calling her name, he stepped into the kitchen.

The pale grey worktop was patched with crimson smudges. Rob stared, unbelieving, at the usually immaculate kitchen. The smooth surface was marred by wet rose petals, scattered around a circle of water. Some red scraps had fallen to the floor to lie unswept on the grey tiles. Going through the arch into the dining room, he found himself confronting a batallion of large red blooms, their stems barely contained by a monstrous crystal vase. He recognised the vase as a piece of vulgar ostentation typical of Angie's relatives. It had been a wedding present, never used. Its harsh iridescence was a jarring note in that quiet room, intensified by the blatant crimson flowers that burst into the air above it.

"What a ridiculous waste of money!" Rob said aloud.

Angie entered the room promptly as if she had been waiting outside the door, listening. "I just thought I'd get some flowers," she said timidly. Rob stared at her and did not speak. "I thought the room needed brightening up!" she said, now defiant.

"I would like this room to stay the way it always has been," Rob replied coldly. "What useless extravagance!"

Next morning the vase had shattered into a hundred pieces. Roses lay strewn on the floor, petals loose, stems broken. A pool of water was soaking into the pale grey fitted carpet. Angie came downstairs first, while Rob was still asleep. She hurried to clear up the mess before he saw it. As she was picking up the fragments of broken glass, Angie cut her hand. She ran into the kitchen to wash off the blood. The first thing Rob saw when he came downstairs was a line of fresh red drops across the clean tile floor.

"Just soup and toast will do for me," said Rob one evening, sitting down at the kitchen table. Angie opened a can and poured the soup into a pan. She knew she wasn't the world's best cook, luckily Rob didn't expect much, not lately anyway. She wondered if he was secretly worried about his weight. She laid two cork mats on the spotless white-painted table and ladled tomato soup into two white bowls. "Forgot the spoons!" she said and reached into the cutlery drawer. "Ow!" She lifted up her hand. Blood oozed from the cut.

"How did that knife get in with the spoons?" Angie gasped. She was pale with shock.

"For God's sake don't make a fuss!" Rob was irritated by her fear. "It's nothing to worry about. Cuts to the hand always bleed a lot."

One Saturday afternoon, while Rob was out playing golf with his brother, Angie went to the supermarket. When she had finished putting away the shopping, Angie checked the washing machine. Yes, the hot wash had finished. Maybe it wouldn't rain before the sheets had dried. She moved the basket under the door and started to pull out the clothes. She screamed as the knife cut into her hand. Her blood soaked the front of Rob's white shirt.

Angie continued to do all the cooking, but there were some changes in the range of meals she chose to provide. A typical meal was minced beef, rice and peas. The can-opener was seldom used and the sharpest knife, the one used for meat, stayed in the rack. She even sometimes bought the pre-cooked packaged meals that Rob had despised when they were newly married. To her surprise, he did not comment.

Angie also gave up her habit of sewing. She was excellent at mending things and even sewed some of her own clothes. However she felt that getting in the way of the sharp points of pins, needles and scissors was asking for trouble.

Alone in the steamy bathroom, Angie towelled her dark hair. After a long shower she felt more relaxed than she had for a long time. She had tried a new kind of conditioner, lured by the promise of tangle-free shine. She reached for her new dressing gown, a white towelling robe from Marks and Spencers. As she swung the robe about her she felt a scratch on her thigh. She put a hand into the pocket and took out a sharp-bladed pair of scissors. She had last seen them a month ago when she had cut out a summer dress. She looked down at her thigh. Blood seeped from the scratch; the new white dressing gown was already stained.

The bloodstains did not wash out. It was too new to throw away, she could easily mend the small hole in the pocket and dye it a dark colour to conceal the stain. She chose a deep crimson, the colour of the darkest red rose.

Rob stood watching Angie as she lay asleep on the double bed. She was wearing a sleeveless white nightdress and looked as young and beautiful as she did when they were first married. He walked round the bed and saw himself reflected an infinite number of times in the triple mirror on Angie's dressing table. He noticed with some surprise that his right hand was holding the sharpest knife. He watched as an infinite number of Robs plunged their knives into Angie's defenceless heart. The knife stabbed down again and again. She did not bleed; he touched her cold skin. He cried out in horror. He needed to make her bleed; he cut desperately but she had turned into a waxwork figure. He heard her call his name, "Rob! What's wrong? Wake up, Rob!" He must have shouted in his sleep. His eyes opened and focused on her face. She looked pale, waxy, her expression frozen with fear.

Rob was sweating as if he had just been running. He pushed her arms away and escaped into the bathroom. Helplessly he vomited into the toilet.

Life quietly went on, for a while. They did not avoid each other, but spoke even less than they had before. One night Rob was lying in bed reading, well over to his side of the bed, the lamp on his bedside table switched on. He could hear Angie brushing her teeth in the bathroom. Then she came in, wearing a crimson dressing gown over her nightie. Rob stared at the multiple reflections of her slim form in the dressing table mirror.

"I wish you hadn't chosen that colour," Rob said grumpily, "It doesn't suit you a bit, you know." Angie went round the bed to her side and pulled back the duvet. Light from Rob's bedside lamp struck the blade of the sharpest knife. It leaned against the pillow where Angie's neck would lie.

Tears began to roll down her cheeks. "You're crazy" she gasped. "I can't live with you any more, Rob, you're crazy." She pulled out a suitcase from under the bed and, with shaking hands, started to pack her clothes. "I'm going to Karen's. I don't know how long I'll stay."

"Tell Ed about it," Rob suggested. He was quite calm. "Maybe he can help you." Angie's sister Karen had married a doctor.

When she had almost finished packing, Rob got out of bed and started to dress. "I'll drive you over" he said.

"No!" she shuddered, "I'll get a taxi."

"It's all right, I'm nearly dressed. It's no trouble." He finished lacing up his shoes and went downstairs with her suitcase. By the time she was dressed he was waiting for her in the car. He opened the car door for her. "Come on," he said, "I'll explain things to Ed. I'm sure they'll understand why you need a break."

As soon as the car started she realised she should have insisted on a taxi. Rob put on a cassette of country music and hummed along with it all the way to Karen's. They did not speak. In spite of the motorway's midnight emptiness, Rob drove slowly and cautiously. The journey to North London took more than an hour. By the time they got there, Angie was impatient and exhausted.

The next day Rob tried to phone Angie. Her sister answered. Rob approved of Karen, she was a calm, practical woman who had trained as a nurse before she married.

"I'm sorry, Rob, Angie doesn't want to speak to you," she said. "She's very upset. What really happened last night, Rob?"

"She hasn't been her usual self for a while," Rob replied. "I spoke to Ed last night, didn't he tell you what we decided?"

"I know he's referred her to a psychoanalyst." Karen sounded worried. "Is that really necessary? I suppose if Ed thinks so..."

The psychoanalyst was a middle-aged woman, her greying hair pulled back into a bun. She was without ornament, neatly dressed in shades of beige and grey. Dr. Grochowski's office was as tidy and colourless as herself, except for one bright touch, a print of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers". Dr Grochowski asked Angie to talk about herself. Angie was embarrassed, her mouth went dry and her mind went blank. "I...I'm not very interesting, I..."

Dr. Grochowski wanted Angie to write down a list of words. She called this "word association". "Words are symbols," Dr. Grochowski explained. "When I know which words are linked in your mind, I will know how you perceive symbols and how your perception varies from the consensus opinion." It reminded Angie of the paper and pencil games she had played as a child, the kind of game adults had used to keep bored children peacefully occupied. Even then she could never think of anything to write. She sat there with a pen and a plain white sheet of paper.

"Start with something easy, say a colour, what about red?" suggested Dr. Grochowski.

Angie wrote down
Red
Flower
Rose
Knife
Cut
Machine
Pattern
Circle
Moon
Scissors
Then her mind went blank again. "Scissors" didn't remind her of anything. After staring out of the window for a minute, she looked down at the list. Without meaning to, she had added another word.
Blood.

Dr. Grochowski asked about Angie's childhood, and about the sleepwalking episodes when she was a teenager. Karen had told Ed about the sleepwalking and he had passed this on to the psychoanalyst. Dr. Grochowski also asked a lot of questions about Angie's mother's death when Angie was ten, a time in her life that Angie tried hard to forget. She wanted to know about Angie's dreams. When Angie said she could never remember them, Dr. Grochowski asked her to keep a notebook by her bed and write them down. From this time Angie had frequent, vivid nightmares. She remembered them easily but seldom wrote them in the notebook. Rob, on the other hand, had no more nightmares while Angie was away.

Rob picked up the phone after the first ring. It was Karen.

"Hello, Rob."

"Karen! How are you? Is Angie all right?"

"She's fine, Rob, but she still says she doesn't want to speak to you. I've tried to persuade her, but as soon as I pick up the phone she leaves the room."

"Is she seeing that psychoanalyst?"

"Yes, she's been going there every day for an hour. Ed spoke to Dr. Grochowski yesterday and she feels that they are making some progress."

"It's a woman doctor then?" Rob asked. "I think Angie would take more notice of a man."

"Yes, but Ed says Dr. Grochowski's very good. She says Angie's suffering from a persecution complex and has paranoid delusions, but she is suggestible and responds well to treatment. She should be able to come home soon. I know you must miss her, Rob."

In fact Rob missed her very little. The lack of Angie's brooding presence was liberating.

Rob got the sharpest knife down from the rack. He diced beef into cubes for a casserole. He sliced tomatoes and onions for a salad. The onions made his eyes water.

Dr. Grochowski asked Angie, "Why do you feel your husband might want to do these things?" Angie stared blankly back at her. Dr. Grochowski asked another question. "Do you feel your husband is trying to control you?"

Angie understood this question. Rob was not trying to control her. He did control her, he had assumed control the day they met. Now that she had realised this, she could come up with an answer to Dr. Grochowski's previous question. She did not trust Dr. Grochowski. She chose not to give her the answers.

Soon after this, Rob got another phone call from Karen. "Good news, Rob. Angie just got back from the psychoanalyst, she says Angie has fully recovered. She is cured of her delusions. She wants to come home!"

After Rob had hung up the phone he stood, for a while, gazing out of the window, outwardly calm. "So she is coming home tomorrow," he thought, "where shall I hide the knife?"

When Angie arrived home she seemed calm and unthreatened. She smiled a lot and even laughed when Rob read aloud an amusing anecdote from the local paper.

The next day while Rob was at work, Angie climbed the stairs to the attic. She found her Spanish bullfight painting, seeing it once again through a layer of dust. She removed some pieces of glass, sharp and triangular, that had remained stuck to the heavy gilt frame. These she left on the attic floor. She carried the painting down to the living room. "Paintings don't need glass," she thought, "it reflects light that should be shining on the pigments, making the colours glow." She went into the kitchen and found some glue to fix the cracked frame.

For the second time Angie stepped up onto the sofa to remove the insipid print that hardly broke the smooth flat surface of the living room wall. In its place she hung the bullfight picture. The bright colours radiated energy, making the air of that silent room vibrate.

This radiant energy flowed into Angie and made her restless. Inspired, she picked up her purse and hurried out to the supermarket.

When Rob came home from work he found Angie in the kitchen, unpacking her shopping. She had decided to make a stew; she had bought a large piece of beef that needed to be cut. The sharpest knife was gone from its place in the rack.

"I'm all right now, really, Rob," she said, "you can tell me where the knife is."

Rob had hidden the knife on the top shelf of the stores cupboard, behind some tins of fruit. It was well above Angie's eye level and Rob could only just reach it himself. He opened the cupboard and stretched up his arm for the knife.

It was not there.

Rob turned around and saw the sharpest knife in Angie's hand. Like a bird mesmerised by a snake he could not evade her swift advance across the kitchen. The knife's sharp blade pierced Rob's throat.