Mr Dixon's Lawnmower by Michael Snelle

* 1st Prize Winner in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition *

‘So but then,’ he says.

‘Go on,’ she replies.

‘That’s all I’ve got so far.’

‘What do you mean that’s all you’ve got? It’s not even a sentence’.

‘It is a fucking sentence.’

‘Don’t be like that. What’s it about?’

‘Dunno.’

‘You must have some idea.’

‘I guess it’s about the human condition. What it feels like to be violently thrust into a chaotic universe with no meaning. How we are animals who suffer uniquely because we are burdened with the cruel evolutionary gift of self-consciousness. Stuff like that.’

‘Sounds good.’



Good, she says. Sounds good. He vows never again to show someone the opening line of his novel, not until it’s finished.



They’ve been together nine years, married for three. Their relationship has so far survived: one cancer scare (testicular), the death of a parent (hers, father), four job changes, three house moves, and a second trimester miscarriage. At 34, he’s worried that his potential is dwindling. He’s afraid of becoming…ordinary. More than that he’s afraid that he’s always been ordinary but can no longer hide the fact from himself. He recently bought a lawnmower.



‘I’ll wash and you dry?’ she says, clearing the breakfast things from the table.



He replies with a grunt and a slight nod of the head.



Drying dishes is pointless. If you leave them stacked on the draining board they dry themselves. He thinks about saying something, and then thinks about the discussion that will inevitably follow. On reflection, he decides that it’s easier to just dry the dishes than enter into a conversation about drying the dishes.



‘What are your plans for the day?’ she asks.



He continues to wipe the already dry knife in his hand. He could stab her now. She’d be dead and he’d be a murderer. He’d spend the rest of his life in jail. It’s like standing on the edge of cliff, or on the platform as a train comes into the station. There is a strangely compelling temptation; a single split second decision could change everything you’ve ever known forever.



When the police ask him why he did it he could tell them about their differing approaches to drying the dishes. One of the policemen, the good cop, would empathise with him. He’d talk about how his wife irons creases into his jeans, or makes him coffee with no sugar because she wants him to watch his weight. He’d laugh kindly and say that they’d all kill their wives if they could get away with it. Then the bad one would call him a sick fuck and throw a coffee cup against the wall.



‘Max?’

‘Sorry, I was miles away.’

‘Are you ok?’

‘Yeah, why?’

‘You seem a little distant.’

‘Sorry, I was just thinking about my novel.’

‘That’s good. Are you going to work on it today? I’m taking Mum to visit Dad’s grave this afternoon.’



He thinks about offering to go with her. Maybe she’d enjoy having him there. Feel supported or whatever. But it’s cold as fuck outside and there is no telling how long they’d be standing around. He doesn’t see the point in visiting graves. Either you’re religious and the deceased is in heaven, or you’re not and it’s just some bones in the dirt. Makes no difference which one you believe, there’s still no one there to visit. He’ll probably stay home. Maybe have a wank.



‘Cool’, he replies.



An ex-girlfriend once compared going out with him to riding a roller coaster at a badly maintained theme park - all the exhilaration of the ride with the added excitement that it might come of the rails. True, it had been in the first few weeks, and she’d left him a couple of months later. But still.



The lawnmower bothers him.  



Maybe his novel could be about a man with a lawnmower. A groundskeeper or gardener or whatever. No-one pays him any mind or asks him about his personal life. He’s just the guy who mows the lawn and fixes stuff. Where’s Harry? Cutting the grass. Fixing the dripping tap. Unblocking the men’s toilet.



Who gives a fuck?



And all the while Harry is some kind of secret psycho killer. His first victim was his wife whose constant criticisms over the decades have slowly eaten away at him until one evening he finally snaps during the washing up and stabs her in neck. He buries her under the football pitch which he mows ever Sunday. Harry’s a good name for a psycho murdering gardener. Harry Dixon. Better still - Mr Dixon.



So but then it finally happened. Mr Dixon killed his wife.



‘I’m going now, be back around six,’ she shouts from downstairs.

‘Have fun,’ he replies.



The door doesn’t exactly slam but it does close with unnecessary force. She’s always banging about these days, come to think about it. As he listens to the car pull away he wonders whether it’s impossible to realize your true potential if you’re married. In a relationship even. Is it inevitable that you’ll dilute one another’s potential for the sake of remaining together? Perhaps there is some as yet undiscovered law of nature that says the better one person in a relationship feels, the worse the other must feel to compensate. Like a see-saw. What if physics dictates that no two people can ever be truly happy together - one’s happiness must always be balanced by the other’s unhappiness? Even when you were happy it would be kind of rubbish because you’d have no one to share it with except your miserable partner. Maybe that’s why so many people are content to settle for mediocrity. It’s no wonder everybody’s lonely.



He sighs. He could leave her. He could do it today. Pack a bag and go….somewhere else. Not back in with his parents though. Fuck that.

So but then it finally happened. Mr Dixon left his wife.

So but then it finally happened, Mr Dixon left his wife who he loved very much.

So but then it finally happened, Mr Dixon left his wife who he loved very much in order to answer to his own looming potential.

So but then…



One of the reasons they’d rented the house was that it had a little spare room that they could turn into his office. At the time it had seemed like the kind of room he might write a novel in. He’d put a desk in front of the window and strewn some books on the floor. Bought a bunch of pens and a pack of highlighters. He can see now that it is a spare room masquerading as an office. Across the road a neighbour is washing his Prius.



Themes: Death - how to find meaning in a world made random by the debunking of the God myth. Loneliness: Is it possible to be alone but not lonely? Is it possible to be in a relationship and not lonely? Love – a convenient evolutionary illusion? Morality – could you kill your wife and bury her under a football pitch and still be a good man? Was there even such thing as a good man, as goodness? Art - Could you own a Prius and or lawnmower and still become a famous writer/filmmaker/musician/artist?



They’d met in college. Actually he’d been in college and she’d been a barista at his local coffee shop. Every great artist/musician/whatever had, at some point, been a waitress/barista/whatever, so when he’d seen her scribbling in a notebook he’d taken it as a sign and asked her on a date. They’d gone to a spoken word night at the pub around the corner from his studio. Admittedly it was a bit shit. To hide his embarrassment he’d made witty disparaging comments about the appearance of several of the performers, which he later regretted believing it made him seem petty or cruel. When it was over he’d shown her his studio where a dozen blank canvases were waiting to be painted. She’d knelt on the concrete floor and given him head. He’d had mixed feelings about it.



If only he had a diagnosed mental illness. He probably did have one – they just hadn’t thought up a name for it yet. When they did though, his life would be vindicated. He’d refuse to take medication and argue that they were trying to neuter his originality. He’d finally be misunderstood. He’d finish his novel, leave it on his desk, and then hang himself. It would be published to great reviews. Tearful critics would mourn his passing – what about all his unwritten books, all that lost potential? Better still he’d pretend to kill himself, leave a note or whatever, and then go into hiding and enjoy the reviews.



During the pregnancy there’d been talk of turning his office into a nursery. They’d picked out a cot and wallpaper with imaginary animals on it.  A Giraffipotamus and the like.  The idea of a baby usurping him inspired in him the kind of dread that’s not acceptable to talk openly about unless you live in South America. Everyone knows that poetry is the most important thing in South America. Poets become politicians. Or revolutionaries. In Chile people have fistfights over whether poems should rhyme or not. Murders are committed over iambic pentameter, stabbings over haikus.



So but then, When? Then

Mr Dixon killed his wife

After years of strife



For three months after it happened they didn’t speak about their dead baby. Then for a year after that it had been impossible to talk about anything else. It was the name that made it difficult. They should never have given her a name. He’d refused to say it even when she’d asked him to. It was less painful to mourn a foetus. More abstract. The foetus didn’t make it to term. The foetus is no longer with us. The foetus won’t need to use my office as a nursery after all.



The neighbour is waxing his car. Who waxes a Prius? Who waxes any car for that matter? Unless you’ve got a Bentley. But if you’ve got a Bentley you can probably afford to get someone else to wax it for you. And you’re probably a smug twat. A smug twat who points out a patch on the Bentley that hasn’t been polished to the required standard by the Eastern European man struggling to eke out a living on minimum wage.



His own car is a Volvo estate he bought two years ago on hire purchase in anticipation of the foetus arriving. Although the boot is generously sized there is no way it could have accommodated both the lawnmower and a pram.



Perambulator, that’s what they’d called it. ‘Can we see your selection of perambulators?’ Carla hadn’t been able to hold it down and they’d run out of the shop laughing. Dumb what you laugh at when you’re happy. When they’d been wallpapering the office/nursery for the usurping foetus they’d spent hours looking at all the make believe animals and trying to invent new ones. ‘How about a fuck?’ she’d suggested, ‘half fox half duck. Or a shit, when a sheep fucks a blue tit.’



She was funny, was Carla. No one had ever made him laugh like she did.  



So but then there was a young couple who were very much in love and spent their days making each other laugh. 



Across the road the neighbour loads bags into the boot of the Prius. His wife comes out of the house, a toddler in her arms and another struggling to get free from her grasp. She looks tired. Like she needs a break. Maybe they’re going on holiday. Or maybe you just need that much shit if you take the kids out for the day to visit their grandparents. Maybe one of the grandparents is dead and they’re going to the cemetery to visit them. Is it ok to take kids to a cemetery? Wouldn’t it give them nightmares about Grandma clawing at the soil trying to get free? He doesn’t have a clue about kids, not really. Carla would know.



Maybe he was wrong about Mr Dixon. Maybe he doesn’t kill his wife and bury her under the football pitch. Maybe Mrs Dixon has her own troubles. Maybe she is doing her very best, and trying to be kind and patient even when Mr Dixon complains about stupid things like the lawnmower.



Maybe Mr Dixon just wants everything to go back the way it was before. He’s not even sure he wants to be a critically acclaimed writer/artist/filmmaker anymore.



So but then there was a young couple who were very much in love and spent their days making each other laugh until they lost a baby. 



Through it all she’d been so strong. Even when her Dad had died she’d somehow had the strength to put her grief aside and comfort her mother. She was always taking care of other people, even when what she really needed was someone to take care of her. He’d been a fool. Too blind to see how lucky he was. It was Carla who wasn’t ordinary. It was Carla who’d smiled at him from her hospital bed to let him know she was ok even though she wasn’t. It was her who had time and again found it in herself to love him despite the ways he must have disappointed her. Perhaps that’s what love is – the ability to grow according to another’s need, to become the person they deserve.



So but then there was a young couple who were very much in love and spent their days making each other laugh until they lost a baby, and sometimes the man thought about leaving her, and others he’d think about killing her and burying her somewhere because of the way she did the dishes, and he thought he’d never know happiness again, never fulfil what he was put here to do, and who realised, almost too late, that she was strong and special, and that maybe it was him who’d been wrong, and maybe stuff like lawnmowers didn’t even matter. They’d lost their baby and it hurt him more than he could ever admit, than either of them could. And the baby’s name was Iris.