My Husband’s Doing Soup



A cyclist shot by, passing so close to Elizabeth that she felt his Lycra-covered arm brush against hers. She stumbled to the side, almost tripping over her own feet. He didn’t even glance her way. He disappeared into the fog, the steady rattle of his wheels on the metal surface of the bridge the only evidence he was ever there.

‘Prick,’ she said distinctly, knowing he couldn’t possibly hear. She raised her voice a little and said it again, ‘Prick!’

The sound of the bike faded. There was nobody to hear her. It was as if she hadn’t spoken at all.

She stood where she was for a moment, breathing hard and watching her breath mist in front of her face. This was the first evening it had been cold enough for that. She had always liked it as a little girl. She used to pose, two fingers at her mouth holding an imaginary cigarette and blow out the mist in a slow stream the way her father exhaled smoke. She did this again now, taking an imaginary drag and blowing out slowly. Her breath drifted up past her face and was absorbed into the fog around her.

A steady vibration broke the silence. Her phone. She pulled off one glove with her teeth and fumbled in her bag for it. She brought it out and flipped open the leather screen protector. Liam. She swiped the screen to answer it and put it to her ear.

‘Alright?’ Liam said, ‘Are you on the train the now?’

‘No,’ she said, dropping the glove from her teeth into her other hand, ‘I’m just crossing the bridge. I’ll get the next one. I had to – I got held up.’

‘No bother,’ he said indifferently, ‘Would you stop at the shop on the way from the station? I’ve went and used the last bin bag there,’

‘You should have texted me earlier,’ she said, ‘I could have got them from work,’

‘Nah,’ he said, ‘You know what that boss of yours is like. No point in getting sacked over a quid’s worth of bin bags is there?’

She didn’t say anything. Just stood there breathing slowly, not sure what to say.

‘Liz?’ Liam said, ‘You there?’

She found her voice, ‘Aye,’ she said, ‘I’m here.’

‘Right well see you when you get back,’ he said.

‘Aye,’ she said.

Now it was his turn to hesitate, ‘You alright?’ he asked, ‘You don’t sound yourself.’

‘I’m fine,’ she said, trying to smile to make the words sound more believable. If you smile when you speak people on the other end of the phone could hear it. She had worked in a shit call centre job when she first left school and that’s what her boss had said. She could never quite make it work then and she couldn’t now.

‘You sure?’ Liam said.

‘Of course,’ she said, ‘Just tired that’s all.’

‘Well make sure you catch that train then,’ he said, ‘I’ve made soup. It’s baltic tonight,’

‘Yeah,’ she said looking out at the fog-obscured bridge, ‘It’s freezing.’

‘See you soon,’ he said, ‘Love you,’

‘You too,’ she said. She hung up and put the phone away. She really did need to hurry if she was to catch the next train. She didn’t want to catch it though. The quicker she caught the train, the quicker she would be home. The quicker she was home, the quicker she would have to tell him.

She had thought it was about her break when Dean called her into the office. The line at the snack truck outside had been longer than usual and she had stood, looking at her watch gain and again, as her break slipped away. By the time she got to the front and was given her roll and sausage she had already hit the half hour mark. It had taken her less than five minutes to force it down and she hadn’t bothered with a cup of tea but that still meant she was on the floor ten minutes later than she should have been.

Dean was a stickler for timekeeping. Her timekeeping not his. He could, he often reminded her, work from home to make up the time if he went over the hour he got for lunch. But she could only work when the building was open. Time theft. That’s what he called it. He always said it was the same as stealing from his own wallet. Elizabeth didn’t see how that could be. He didn’t own the company, a firm of media consultants, and nor did he own the building. He was just the facilities manager.

She had thought he hadn’t noticed her getting back to work late and had kept her head down as she worked on the first job of the afternoon – the level two and three toilets – in the hope that he wouldn’t speak to her as he did what he called his “rounds”. His rounds seemed to consist of him wandering through the floors and talking about TV or the football with the staff in the various departments. It was the closest thing to working he seemed to do. That and making sure not one penny of Elizabeth’s £8.71 an hour was wasted.

She was washing the sinks in the gents’ when he stuck his head round the door.

‘Alright doll,’ he said. His usual greeting. ‘You want to come and see me in the office? You can just leave that just now.’

She sighed internally. Caught. She forced a smile to her lips.

‘No worries,’ she said. She put her cloth and spray back in her cart and washed her hands. While she did this Dean watched her with barely disguised impatience.

‘Done?’ he said once she had dried her hands on some paper towels. She nodded and followed him out. ‘Just leave the cart there,’ he said, motioning to the wall between the two toilet doors.

She did so, frowning a little. Just the week before he had shouted at her for a full ten minutes for doing exactly that.

He didn’t wait for her but strode off down the brightly lit corridor she had mopped just that morning, leaving her to hurry after him, hating herself for the way she felt she must look. Scurrying after her boss like a servile little mouse.

Dean’s office was at the far end of the level three corridor behind an unmarked door with no name plate. It didn’t even have a handle. Just a rough keyhole. Most of the people that worked there probably thought it was a cleaning cupboard and that was indeed what it used to be before Dean took it over. Dean unlocked the door and went in, leaving it open behind him.

‘Close the door as you come in,’ he said.

Elizabeth did as she was asked, twisting and pressing herself against the wall to get the door past her. The office was tiny, barely six feet squared, and was dominated by a cluttered desk behind which Dean had sat. There was another chair on the other side, the space so tight that, if someone else tried to get into the office while you sat on it, the door would bump the back of your head. There was an air vent in the top corner which hummed incessantly and pumped stuffy-smelling cool air into the room where it mingled with the perpetual smell of cheese and onion crisps. There were no windows and a bare bulb hung from the ceiling above, swaying slightly in the breeze from the vent.

‘Have a wee seat,’ Dean said absently. He always played this game when he invited you into his office. He would pretend you had turned up without warning and he was almost too busy to give you any attention. He squinted at some papers on his desk and shuffled them around with his pudgy hands. Dean was a big man and in the five years Elizabeth had known him he had only gotten bigger. His size was cruelly exaggerated by the tiny room making him seem like some kind of corpulent giant. His belly strained against his work fleece and folds of flesh rose out from his too-tight shirt collar. His skin was always a lobster shade of red, as if he had sunburn, and he scratched constantly at dry skin on the backs of his hands.

He did this now as she sat down on the opposite chair and looked at him, waiting. Flecks of skin came away under his nails and drifted to the surface of his desk until it began to look as if there had been a sudden indoor snowfall. He gave his left hand one final scratch, sighed, and brushed the flakes of skin to the floor without apparent embarrassment. Elizabeth wondered just how much of his skin was on the brown carpet. She was fairly sure nobody cleaned in here. She certainly never had. The bizarre image came to mind of Dean being slowly buried beneath the endless falling flakes of his dry skin like a hiker in an avalanche.

‘Well,’ Dean said, shuffling papers one last time and shifting them to the side of his desk, creating a clearing for him to lay his hands palms down, ‘Thanks for coming down Lizzie, I thought this was the kind of thing it would be better to discuss in private,’

Elizabeth kept her mouth shut. She thought this was almost certainly about the lunch break but she knew better than to admit it before she was accused.

‘You’ve probably seen the news in England,’ he said, ‘About the lockdown they’re having down there. Well the company’s taken the decision to close all the offices for this month. A safety thing, you know?’

Elizabeth’s stomach did a sickening flip and. She didn’t say anything at all. She didn’t even breathe.

Dean watched her carefully for a reaction and then continued, ‘Aye,’ he said awkwardly, ‘So I’m to tell you that we’re not going to be needing you this month. You’ll definitely be back at in December. Guaranteed. It’s just all the folk here will be working from home so we’ll not need the cleaning, you know?’

Elizabeth wet her lips, ‘What about the payment thing? The furlough scheme,’

Dean looked even more uncomfortable. He looked down at the desk and his right hand began to scratch the left. Elizabeth watched his hands instead of his face. Watched his nails claw at his skin, leaving bright red marks in their wake and spraying miniscule white pieces of dead skin onto the wooden surface of the desk.

‘Well, ah, likesay, the furlough scheme is being used for some of the employees but not for the zero hour contracts, you know? There’s just no need to use it for them?’

Elizabeth looked up from his hands, forcing him to do the same, ‘No need?’ she said. She wasn’t shouting. She was surprised at that. She felt like shouting. Instead her voice was a hoarse whisper as if she had only recently relearned how to speak.

‘Well not no need, you know what I mean? Not like that. I don’t mean it like that. What I mean is that the zero hours thing – it gives you the chance to choose when you work. But, um, that flexibility goes both ways you know. We can be flexible on our end but you have to be flexible on your end as well,’ he gabbled.

Elizabeth was incredulous, ‘But it wouldn’t cost anything,’ she said, ‘The government pay it all,’

‘Aye but there’s administrative costs and that,’ he said, sounding a little bit more sure of himself, ‘And this is what you signed up for, you know? Zero hours. Nothing guaranteed. Loads of flexibility for everyone,’

‘I didn’t choose it,’ Elizabeth said dully, ‘ Nobody chose it.’ Then, as if it mattered, ‘I haven’t turned down a shift in two years,’

‘Aye and we appreciate that,’ he said, ‘You’re one of my reliable ones, Lizzy, I can always count on you. But this corona thing is hitting everyone, you know?’

‘Are you getting paid?’ she asked.

He looked down at the desk again. Scratch scratch scratch, ‘Aye well, um, that’s a private thing isn’t it? I mean I wouldn’t expect you to share what we talked about today with any of your colleagues you know. So you can’t, ah, expect -’

‘So yes, then.’ Elizabeth said. Her voice was steady as she said it but she couldn’t stop her hands, clamped on her thighs, from trembling. She looked down at them and gripped her legs even tighter, feeling her nails dig in to her flesh. The slight pain was the only thing that tethered her to reality.

Dean didn’t say anything. Just watched her and waited for her to speak again.

‘So what am I supposed to do?’ she asked. She barely recognised her own voice. It sounded small. Almost girlish. There was a note of pleading there that she didn’t like.

‘I understand that universal credit can help people in your position,’ he said, ‘I think it takes a few weeks to come in but that’s why we have savings right?’

‘I don’t have any,’ she said, ‘I don’t have any savings.’

Dean looked at her, his face carefully non-committal, ‘I’m afraid I’m not able to give you financial advice, Lizzy.’ He said, ‘That’s something you need to work out for yourself.’

He looked back down at his desk and picked up some papers which he began to shuffle around. He clicked the mouse on his laptop aimlessly. Elizabeth got the hint. She stood up, noticing that one of the pieces of paper next to his chubby hand had the phrase “remind employee that IPP Consultants are not able to provide them with financial advice” typed on it. There were a list of other answers too, most of which Liam had repeated to her verbatim. The whole thing had been scripted by some smartarse HR employee from start to finish. That just added to the sense of unreality. She had been an actor and she hadn’t even known it.

She had opened her mouth to say something and then closed it. She could leave with her dignity. It was all she was allowed to have. She went out of the fat man’s tiny little office and went back to cleaning the toilets.

She did not, as she had told Liam, leave late. In fact she left fifteen minutes early. Who cared? It was her last shift for a long while, maybe ever. She left work and she walked aimlessly along the river watching the fog settle above the water. The whole world was grey. Not a spot of colour remained. The future seemed grey too. She didn’t want to think about going home and telling Liam what had happened. Not because he would have been upset – Liam never was – but because he would have tried to put a cheerful spin on it. Elizabeth wanted a little bit of time to think of it as the disaster it was before someone told her things could be worse.

So she had let her first train leave and then, twenty minutes later, had made her way back to the bridge that would take her to the right side of the river. She’d had plenty of time to catch the next train. She wouldn’t even have had to run. But now, as she was halfway across the bridge, she found she couldn’t go any further. She stopped where she was and leaned against the railing, suddenly weary.

It wasn’t just telling Liam that made her hesitate. It was the thought of all the days to come. The day you find out you’re going to lose your income for a month is a bad day. But all the days after, the days spent eating tins of things from the cupboards, sitting in front of the TV because there’s nothing to do and no money to do it with, wrapping blankets about her shoulders to avoid having to top up the gas meter and sitting there, freezing, bored and always a little bit hungry with only the post to look forward to, those days were the worst of all.

She looked left and right. She was almost exactly in the middle of the bridge now and she couldn’t see either end of it. Both sides were obscured in the fog. It was as if she and the six feet of bridge at either side of her were suspended in the clouds of some dark dream world. The idea that her work was one way and the bright lights of the train station were the other seemed preposterous. There was nothing here. Only herself and the bridge and the water down below which whispered to her incessantly, inviting her in. She closed her eyes and took in a deep lungful of freezing air as if the chill could calm her pounding heart and shaking limbs.

‘All right?’ someone said. Elizabeth jumped and opened her eyes. A young lassie, no more than twenty, stood in front of her holding a pile of leaflets in one hand and some plastic cable ties in the other. She wore a bright blue jumper several sizes too big for her which had something written on it in colourful lettering she couldn’t quite make out.

‘All right?’ Elizabeth said. She shifted away from the railings, ‘Am I in your way hen?’

‘It’s no bother,’ the girl said, lifting a handful of leaflets for her to see, ‘I’m just putting these up,’

The railings were covered in small advertisements for MOT centres, cafes, takeaways and pubs, all attached with the same plastic ties the girl held in her other hand.

The girl looked at her closely, ‘Are you alright?’

‘Of course hen,’ Elizabeth said, ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘It’s just that you’re crying,’ she said.

Elizabeth pulled back her jacket to expose the skin of her wrist and touched her cheek. It was wet. She hadn’t even noticed.

‘Oh don’t worry about that, hen,’ she said, ‘It’s nothing.’

Still the girl lingered. Or maybe it was Elizabeth who was lingering. She did have a train to catch after all.

‘Would you like one of these?’ the girl said, thrusting one of the leaflets at her. Elizabeth caught a whiff of perfume.

Elizabeth took it and brought it close to her face to read it. It said Talking Space Scotland and had a list of numbers and emails beneath it.

‘It’s the charity I work for,’ the girl said a little shyly, ‘It’s for people to talk to if you’re having a hard time and that,’

‘A hard time?’

‘Yeah. A lot of people are just now with the whole coronavirus thing,’ she said, ‘People pure isolated at home and all that. Nobody to talk to,’

‘People losing their jobs,’ Elizabeth said almost to herself.

The girl nodded, ‘Exactly. I was just out to hang some of them on the railings here. Anyway, you don’t need to call or anything like that. It was just like an FYI thing,’


‘For your information,’ the girl shuffled from foot to foot.

‘Well thanks I suppose,’ Elizabeth said, ‘That was nice of you but I don’t need it.’

The girl shrugged and moved slightly into the glow of the street-lights above. Elizabeth saw that her jumper had the same logo as the leaflet.

‘Why are you putting them here?’ Elizabeth said.


‘The leaflets. Why are you putting them up here?’

‘Oh,’ the girl said. Well… someone jumped off it at the weekend.’ she lowered her voice, ‘Took their own life,’

‘Oh,’ Elizabeth said, looking over the railing down at the River Clyde below, ‘Right,’

Even in the fog she could see the water running steadily under her feet. It would be cold when you first hit it, she thought. Freezing cold. The breath would leave her lungs in a single gasp and be replaced by the water. Was the water in the river salty? She thought not. But it was probably polluted. She wondered if she would taste it as it rushed into her lungs or if all she would notice is the cold. It would be like being frozen from the inside out. Ten seconds, a minute maybe, and it would all be over. No more work, no more bills, no more worry.

No more Liam too. She thought of the soup he was making. The polar opposite of the river below. Heat to thaw the cold inside of her. She thought of the soup slipping down her throat, of the tingle in her slowly warming hands and feet.

‘You okay pal?’ the lassie said.

Elizabeth tore her eyes away from the river, ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I’m fine hen. Got to catch my train though. Got dinner sitting at home. My husband’s doing soup,’

The lassie smiled, ‘Good for you,’ she said, rubbing her bare hands together, ‘Wish I was having soup. It’s freezing out here,’

‘Aye,’ Elizabeth said. She moved out of the girl’s way, ‘Get your leaflets up and then head home, hen,’ she handed back the leaflet in her hand, ‘I don’t need this one though,’

‘You sure?’

‘Aye,’ Elizabeth said. She managed to smile for the first time since she left Dean’s office.

She nodded to the lassie and then walked away. When she reached the other end of the bridge she looked back but there was nothing there but mist and darkness. The fog had swallowed the girl up just like it had the cyclist before. She was alone again.

She looked down at the rushing river but it didn’t seem to whisper to her as it had before. She stepped off the bridge and went to catch her train.



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