PRESENT AND CORRECT • by Terri Mullholland

Alan was the man who had everything. Not just the successful career, the big house, and the beautiful wife, he also had a gadget for every occasion.

At a loss for what to buy him for birthdays and Christmas, Alan’s friends and family resorted to ever more eccentric gifts: a singing chef pasta timer, a salmon shaped fish steamer, and rainbow cutlery that changed colour when it came into contact with hot food.

Everyone thought he liked them, but his wife, Charlotte, knew that Alan never used these novelty gadgets; his only interest was in organising them.

He had whole drawers full of them in the kitchen, arranged in neat lines, and grouped by category. Alan loved things to be in order, in their own boxes and containers, and labelled where possible. He had even been known to keep the vegetable rack in alphabetical order: carrots at the top, descending through onions, potatoes, with turnips at the bottom.

Alan made no secret of this. On Charlotte’s first visit to Alan’s house, before they married, she had remarked how immaculate it was, despite being packed full of stuff. Alan had explained he rather liked cleaning, that there was “nothing as soothing as buffing up a piece of furniture until it gleamed.”

They lived a contented married life, buying things, arranging them, buying other things, just like everyone else they knew. They went on holiday twice a year, skiing in winter, tropical beaches in summer. Alan would plan these holidays with military precision, making careful lists of everything they needed to take. Counting out the exact number of multi-vitamins and putting them into a container labelled with the days of the week. Everything had its own separate bag or box in his luggage.

Then, one day, Alan decided it was time for the whole house to be decorated.

Scrolling online through photographs of showrooms with their white walls, Alan discovered an article on minimalism and a man who had given away the majority of his possessions. There was a picture of the man’s zen-like apartment. It was empty apart from the man, who sat cross-legged and serene on a mattress on the floor.

Alan told Charlotte the benefits fewer possessions would bring to their life: clearer thinking, fewer distractions, and because he would spend less time tidying, he would have more time to focus on the things that mattered. It all sounded laudable enough and Charlotte liked a clutter-free house as much as Alan did, but she wasn’t keen on giving away her piles of books and collection of vintage frocks.

“Maybe just get rid of some of those silly gadgets in the kitchen drawers, that would be a good start,” she suggested.

Alan started small. He gave away most of his clothes, books, and records to charity, then gradually he began to whittle away more and more. He sold his car, his golf clubs, his skis. Chairs disappeared, pictures and ornaments vanished. Then he started on the soft furnishings. After Alan gave her basket away, the cat moved in with the next-door neighbours: they had never heard of minimalism and had lots of comfy cushions for afternoon snoozing. Charlotte bought a padlock for her wardrobe and hid her treasured books. Their friends started muttering about Alan having a mid-life crisis.

Charlotte went away for a couple of days to visit a friend, to complain that Alan was more interested in making the bedroom into a temple of emptiness, than in making love. Her friend agreed that the loss of the bed probably didn’t help.

When she returned, Charlotte discovered the kitchen was almost empty, all the gadgets had vanished and all the kitchen appliances apart from the kettle had gone. Alan still liked a nice cup of tea.

Alan had now reduced the contents of his wardrobe to six outfits, one for each day of the week — and one for weekends. He had read that this was the optimal number. Each day he had a different coloured shirt, from Monday’s sombre grey pinstripe to the bright purple and white check for Saturdays and Sundays. Alan never, ever, wore Wednesday’s white shirt on any other day.

The more Alan reduced his stuff, the less Alan there seemed to be. When Charlotte saw Tuesday’s green shirt and black trousers wafting through the living room, it would remind her that Alan was still there. He had always been the silent type, but now it seemed he had less and less to say. He had also started whispering, so it was becoming harder to hear him.

Charlotte was worried; as their home emptied, she noticed that Alan was looking paler than ever. In fact, since he had painted all the walls and floors in the house white, he had been looking quite ghostly. Maybe it was the way the paintwork reflected off his skin.

On the morning of Alan’s fiftieth birthday, Charlotte woke up in bed alone. The house was very quiet. She tiptoed to the spare bedroom where Alan had started doing his early morning yoga and meditation.

The bedroom windows were thrown wide open, the curtains flapping in the breeze. On the yoga mat, lay Thursday’s sky-blue t-shirt and navy trousers, neatly folded.

There was no sign of Alan.

Charlotte closed the windows, shutting out the noise on the street outside. It was then that she noticed Alan’s wedding ring on the windowsill. It had been polished until it gleamed and it was sitting on top of the little box Alan used when they went on holiday. She picked it up, it was still warm. It was one of his habits, ever wary of swollen joints, he always removed his wedding ring before a flight, just before take-off.

Terri Mullholland is a writer and researcher living in London, UK. She has a PhD from the University of Oxford, where she has taught English Literature and Critical Theory. Her flash fiction has appeared in Litro and Flash Fiction Magazine.

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