Mark loved a cooked breakfast; it was always his preferred choice whenever they went away. But during the week there was never enough time, and even at weekends, it seemed too much of an effort. But not today though. Today, Susan wanted to do something special for her husband.
His firm was trying to win a big contract so he had been working very long hours recently. On complaining that she barely saw him anymore, he had told her this was his chance to impress his new boss. But now he was planning to be at home for the whole weekend.
‘I’ve been selfish,’ she told him. ‘I know you wouldn’t work such long hours without good reason. So… I thought, breakfast in bed. Not just coffee and toast but the full works.’
‘Hmm, sounds wonderful,’ Mark murmured, his eyes still closed to the sun shining through the bedroom curtains. ‘Hash browns?’
‘Even hash browns,’ Susan laughed. ‘Leave it all to me. You go back to sleep. I don’t know what time you came home last night, but you still seem tired.’
‘I am.’ Mark turned over, pulling the duvet tightly about him.
Susan wanted this breakfast to be perfect. She lightly oiled her griddle pan, lying the strips of bacon on top to ensure they would have those stripes of brown which Mark loved. The sausages she cooked separately in the oven; just the way Mark liked them. She would bake the hash browns in the oven for the last fifteen minutes to make them golden brown and crispy, adding the slices of black pudding to the oven tray for the final six. She would take special care when frying the eggs. Mark hated it if the yolks split. Then, lightly toasted sourdough, orange juice, fresh coffee… oh and mushrooms of course. Mark loved mushrooms. These she would quickly fry at the end, in a separate pan, well-seasoned with herbs, to add to the flavour.
As she cooked, Susan hummed along to the tune on the radio playing softly in the background. She had suspected that Mark was having an affair for nearly half a year. It was small things like unexplained text messages in the middle of the night, his suddenly having to work late, or bringing her flowers for no apparent reason – a sure sign of a guilty conscience, as Susan had read in her women’s magazines.
She had often wondered what she would do once she was certain. She needed proof of course, but Mark was careful. He never left his phone or laptop unlocked, and his friends were always able to provide him with an alibi whenever she asked questions. Her only option was to follow him.
The other woman didn’t even look like Mark’s type. Susan had always believed that she was his type: blonde and curvaceous. This woman had dark brown hair and what her magazines called an athletic figure ¬– flat chested Susan thought spitefully.
She had watched them together. Visiting hotels, eating in tiny back-street restaurants – the kind of places she and Mark used to frequent in the early days of their relationship. Despite her misery, she found herself unable to stop; it was as if she was addicted. She would watch them walk hand in hand along dimly lit streets, and tumble into darkened shop doorways. They looked so happy, as if they were really in love.
Wiping the mushrooms clean, Susan thought how simple it was. They looked so ordinary, so innocuous, with their small white stem and round white cap. Just like the ones she normally bought from the supermarket.
The other woman was younger than Susan who, at 56 was considered past her prime. She chopped the mushrooms aggressively.
Mark had always told Susan the time wasn’t right for children. She had accepted this. Accepted the logic of his argument, until she was finally forced to admit that it was too late. It would never happen. So when she noticed the curve of the woman’s belly…
Susan stabbed the knife into the chopping board. Then, gripping the edge of the counter, she breathed in deeply then slowly exhaled.
Once she had decided on her plan, she had visited her local library, making notes in a small notepad which she had already discarded. She had seen enough crime series to know that one of the first things the police always did was to look at phone and internet history. Amanita phalloides, more commonly known as Death Cap, were in plentiful supply at this time of year in nearby woods and the unsuspecting could easily confuse them for the edible Wood Mushroom, Agaricus sylvicola.
It was the amatoxins in the Death cap which made them so dangerous. Not even freezing or cooking reduced their effectiveness. Mark’s symptoms would be similar to gastroenteritis: diarrhea, nausea, stomach pains. He should begin to experience discomfort sometime that afternoon, during the time she planned to be in town, shopping with her friend Margaret. Perhaps she would buy Mark a new sweater.
The beauty of the toxins was that the symptoms would fade, lulling the sufferer into believing they had recovered. Then when they returned, perhaps several hours later, the effects would be even more severe, by which time kidney failure would have already begun.
Susan laid out two breakfast trays in readiness, with cutlery, a napkin and a glass of orange juice on each. A hearty breakfast for the condemned man, she thought with a wry smile.
‘Hmmm, that smells good.’ The shock of Mark’s hands on her shoulders made her jump.
‘Sorry, he said. ‘I just couldn’t wait any longer. Anything I can do to help?’
‘No, go away.’ Susan tried to laugh, to cover her agitation.
‘I’ll set the table,’ Mark said, gathering up the items from the breakfast trays. ‘I’m up now, so we might as well eat downstairs,’ he added, when he saw she was about to protest.
‘Alright, alright, but then sit down. I’m almost finished.’
She divided the food between two plates. They looked almost identical. Except of course, that her plate had no mushrooms.
‘There you are.’ She set Mark’s breakfast down in front of him. ‘I hope it’ll be worth the wait.’
‘It looks delicious,’ Mark said, wrapping an arm around her waist. ‘You’re wonderful. It should be me treating you. I know I’ve been neglecting you lately.’
At the sight of his smile, Susan felt a lump in her throat, and she quickly turned away. ‘I forgot the coffee,’ she said, disappearing into the kitchen.
When she returned, Mark was scraping food from his plate to hers. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I know you love mushrooms as much as I do,’ he told her, sitting back down.
Susan looked at her plate in horror. There were mushrooms on her bacon, on the soft yellow yolk of her fried egg, and amongst her baked beans.
‘Tuck in,’ Mark said.
Jacqueline resides in Whitstable, Kent – famous for its oysters. She studied Creative Writing as part of her undergraduate degree at The Open University where she also recently gained an MA in English. Jacqueline loves writing short stories, flash fiction and haiku. Her work has been published, or is awaiting publication in, Potato Soup Journal and Literary Heist magazine.