Elements by Mark Colbourne
I watched my first wife die in a house fire. From the invidious vantage of my front lawn, I writhed against the regulating grips of numerous neighbours and screamed her name in deranged panic. My ambition was to rush inside and save her; convinced that I alone could have negotiated those dancing flames, that violent heat. The Emergency Services of Police, Fire and Ambulance had also been summoned, presumably by an onlooker who had managed to maintain a clear head amongst the crisis. Unfortunately, their arrival - a blur of roaring engines, spinning lights and howling sirens - greeted us just a devastating second too late. Trapped in the bedroom, my wife - I'm reliably informed – would have been rendered unconscious by the toxicity of smoke and fume long before the fire itself had even reached her. The following enquiry lawfully ruled, with little deliberation, that this had been a terrible tragedy. With a bang of gavel and shuffle of papers, the case was accordingly closed.
Fire is such a vociferous creature. So hungry; so insatiable. That's the impression that remains with me to this day; the horrific image scorched inexorably on my retina. The greed with which it chomped up the stairs and tore through the rooms held an appalling fascination. The flames devoured furniture and demolished walls. They consumed fixtures and fittings. They swallowed whole the skirting boards and carpets, the mantelpiece and curtains, the nick-nacks and the what-nots and those bits and pieces that we had amassed during our lives together. As my neighbours crudely but kindly held me in check, I could not help but marvel at the sight with which I was presented. A spectrum of red through orange to yellow which swept across the house that my wife and I had previously called our home. As I looked up, I’m convinced that I saw an arm at the bedroom window: a tepid limb raised wretchedly at the glass… I'm assured that my eyes must have been deceiving me. The panic and the smoke and the distress all colluding to provoke some manner of terrible optical illusion. But, to this day, I've never been completely convinced. No, I've never been convinced at all.
There is a quality of complete destruction which one associates with fire; a sense of utter finality. Nothing returns from the ash which remains. As the embers fade, an end is defined. There is no mystery with regard to the consequences of a fire, whereas mystery surrounded the death of my second wife in spades.
She loved the outdoors. That was, in fact, how we had first come to meet - hiking our way around the Peak District. I had indulged a portion of the insurance money from my first wife's death to pursue certain unfulfilled ambitions and experiences. The young widower, I reasoned, must keep himself distracted. Through an online company which organised walking tours, we had the serendipitous fortune to find ourselves side by side with cagoule and backpack as part of a larger group. We hit it off at once and were married within the space of a few short months. A modest ceremony, but a day warm with fond memories. We were in love and we were happy. It is to my eternal regret that this happiness was not to last.
We had taken a break to the West Coast of Scotland - a week of white water rafting, abseiling, orienteering and the like. During an organised canoe trip, we broke away from the rest of our tour (my wife ever the ardent adventurer) only to fall prey to choppy water. Without warning, we were capsized by a sudden seismic eruption from below. Flowing at a petrifying speed, the current span us around and swept us away. I managed, by luck rather than fortitude, to break to the surface and gasped an exhausting, desperate breast-stroke back to my upturned canoe. Holding on for dear life, I screamed my wife's name as I was dragged along at the river's mercy, the buoyancy of my vessel the only thing keeping me afloat.
Her body was never found, and it caused nothing short of a stink. My latest in-laws refused to allow the inquest to reach a suitable conclusion. Utilising the services of a succession of lawyers, they argued - successfully for a time - that the absence of a body rendered it impossible for their daughter to be legally pronounced dead. In one unsavoury exchange, unfortunately conducted in the oak-panelled and very public corridor of the courthouse, her mother even went so far as to reveal that her trust in me directly corresponded to the distance that I could be thrown.
Now, I didn't blame her - nor the father, for that matter. They did not want to let their daughter go. I can understand this completely. But, as I retorted at the time, we all needed to grieve, and to grieve we required closure. Their ears, however, were deaf to my sentiments and the legal quandary therefore continued, dragging itself out across a torrid couple of months. As I waited for the court to reach their conclusion, I somehow managed to unearth the wherewithal to successfully sue the tour company who organised the holiday for negligence. It was only after this that the enquiry into my wife's disappearance finally concluded that she must have drowned and decreed a verdict of death by misadventure.
As this saga drew to a close I was utterly exhausted. A fatigue similar to that I experienced when my canoe had finally washed ashore and I dragged my choking, spent body onto the muddy, sodden riverbank. Some inner reserve enabled me to climb to my feet and I surveyed the water before me, desperately searching for the slightest sign of life. But alas, no. Like the teams that were sent to scour the river in my wake, to comb the reeds and bushes, to drag the depths, to prod or poke between rocks and crevices, I found nothing. The water had taken her. To where, I do not know, but taken her it had, and it had taken her by force. The rapids before me were in uproar; a riot of passion, a cacophony of harm. It struck me how strange it seemed that this liquid so vital to our existence had the power to maim and crunch and kill. The torrents twisted together, bubbling with fury and spite. I knew then that she was gone, and that she was never coming back.
Perhaps the one slender ray of sunshine that crept through the blanket of lugubrious clouds was the fact that I no longer had to worry about work. The insurance policies and out of court settlements had, at least, lifted that mundane burden from my shoulders. This sudden wealth, however, did prove itself the birthmaid to other concerns. I was still a young man, and desired companionship. A partner who would help to steady my hand on the rudder of life. Only the hardest of hearts would have denied me this. But money attracts an unscrupulous suitor. I felt as if I was besieged by the very worst of womankind: gold-digging, back-stabbing, feckless trollops who quite obviously cared only for the inside of my wallet. It was therefore a moment of immense relief when the woman who was to become my third wife quite unassumingly appeared.
Her innocence was akin to a breath of fresh air, and she was genuinely uninterested in my money as she already had a vault full of her own. We married and purchased a pile in the Cotswolds. Something of a fixer-upper, but this was all part of the grand plan. Our life was intended to be perfect. Supported by a few shrewd investments, we were a couple in debt only to leisure. Our days were ours to do with as we wished. We pursued art and culture, philanthropy and personal development. We worked on the house which we believed would become our Shangri-La. She died in the strangest of circumstances.
No one can explain the accident, and many have tried. There were theories. There were, if I'm to be completely honest, direct accusations. For a time things looked particularly bleak and I was cursed with a run of sleepless nights. Eventually, the Crown Prosecution Service took a pragmatic view that the hard evidence required to haul those farcical notions through the courts suffered in short supply. I was relieved, of course. Not just for the state of my own liberty but also the memory of my poor, unfortunate wife. No one likes to have the stench of terrible events lingering around. Often, we are best to draw a line under these matters and move swiftly on - to open the metaphorical window and let the fresh air waft it all away.
During the renovations to our home, we had taken delivery of various building supplies in a shipping container. The cost to transport this from the docks had been extravagant, but the economic advantage was still far greater than sourcing the materials individually. I remember it looming in what we hoped would one day become our back garden. A steel box of rust red with faded numbers painted somewhat arbitrarily in white. It was a blot on our landscape. Against the green fields and rolling hills it rose like an insult; it imposed like a tomb.
How my third wife came to trap herself inside is something that I still do not understand. I had been away in London to put some business affairs in order and, when I could not seem to contact her by phone, suspected that something may have been amiss. With a sense of anxiety which mounted by the hour, I returned to find our house empty. After calling her mother, her sister and any friends that I could think of, the alarm was officially raised. The police swept in to search and interview, to probe with questions and bustle around. I was informed - by a squinting detective who regarded me with a great deal of distaste - that a missing person would not typically generate this level activity so early in their absence. My wife, however, was somewhat different to the norm. She was, he said - making a very definite statement - really rather rich.
Isn't it a cliché how the things we believe ourselves to have misplaced are always found right beneath our noses? The Keystone Cops had rifled high and low, comprehensively bemused that my wife’s car, phone and purse remained at the house. The surrounding fields and woodland had been mined to no avail. It was only when one enterprising officer had the lateral idea of opening the shipping container that she was finally discovered. She lay on the other side of the door, quite dead. The container, it transpired, was airtight, and whilst trapped within she had suffocated. I have been presented with differing hypotheses of how she may have died. Did she burn through that precious oxygen by shouting and banging on the door in a futile attempt to attract attention? Or perhaps she more calmly reasoned that time was on her side, that someone would eventually find her? When her blood thinned, did she attempt to battle the sensation or simply sit down to accept her fate? Did she fall unconscious? Or - the vision in my nightmares - was she awake right unto the very end, clawing at her throat with bulging eyes, praying for release, praying for some air… ? Air - the essential quality that we all take for granted; that we do not even recognise until, for one horrific reason or another, it is withdrawn.
My fourth wife and I met abroad. My reasons for leaving England were manifold. Awful memories lurked in every corner; they followed five paces behind whenever I glanced over my shoulder. They were accompanied by an aspiring journalist and seasoned police detective who had both separately taken a keen interest in my movements. The gall of these people, refusing to respect my right to mourn. England, it seemed, held only blackened recollections and unwanted complications. Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of holidaying in the South of France, and enjoyed the experience so greatly that I decided to up sticks and move to the region. Not wishing to cause a fuss nor stir any unnecessary emotion, I took my leave without fanfare. Renting a small but decent apartment near the sea, my life began afresh and, amongst the social throng of my new home town, I found someone to share it with.
A local girl... She took me under her wing and helped me settle, showing me the area and the many businesses that her parents owned within it. We found a plot of land that we'd be able to develop, and were married in a joyful ceremony before her family and friends. My French, although at first faltering, progressed in leaps and bounds. Entre deux coeurs qui s’aiment, nul besoin de paroles. I placed the ring on her finger and said, “I do”.
I remember them often, you know. All of them. The women; the wives. The little qualities and traits that I loved and loathed in equal measures. My first wife, for instance, would never directly ask me to do anything. Rather than requesting that I pass her a particular item, she would instead offer her desire as a proposal or invitation: Would you like to get the glasses out? Do you want to take my coat off the hook? I remember that it used to infuriate me, but now I think of her little foible quite fondly. My second wife would leave me breathless with her capacity for adventure. I often felt like I was straining to keep up. There was always the next challenge, the next undertaking to cross from the list. Sometimes all I wanted was to take a quiet moment and be with her. To enjoy a good meal, a nice bottle of wine, to spend an hour or so in her gentle company. Of course, now that she's gone, I look back upon her lust for life with nothing but unbridled admiration. Her spirit was unequalled and I miss it every day. My third wife had such great plans. She had vision. Our home was to be a fortress from which we would conduct great enterprise. She argued that her life had been blessed, and it was her duty to return this fortune through numerous charitable endeavours. I had warned her often against the encroach of frauds and charlatans, the pack of vultures who circled in the belief that she was a soft touch. And now, of course, I see only the good in this saintly woman. I wish I had supported her very noble and honest intentions with a great deal less circumspection.
And my fourth wife, well, she sits here with me now. Relaxed side by side on the veranda of our villa, we share a bottle from the local vineyard and silently look out as the sun drops in the distance towards a welcoming sea. The view is simply breathtaking. We are so captivated by this wonder of nature, by the comfort that our company conjures for the other and the journey that we’re beginning, that we can almost ignore the building site which surrounds us. The cement mixers and tools. The pallets of various materials and supplies. The hole which has been excavated for our swimming pool. The vast amount of earth which has been piled at its side.
Mark Colbourne is a 40 year old writer from the West Midlands. He has recently been published in Scritturia and Tigershark.