And they lived happily ever after…

Sleeping Beauty wandered through the palace aimlessly, vodka in hand. Her prince would be back soon, he’d expect her to be dressed for dinner, her hair piled high with diamonds, her eyelashes curled, but she was already half-drunk and could not be arsed.

“Not that he ever really looks at me anymore,” she muttered to herself, taking a mouthful of her drink and letting out a bitter sigh, “not while I’m awake anyway.” His fetishes no longer disturbed her, they were just one more irritation out of many.

She wandered through the grand hall, kicking off her shoes and shimmying around the floor. It was years since she had properly danced, and the lack of music was no barrier, she could feel a song in her skin, waiting to break out. She had spent a hundred years frozen still, and now three more bored stiff. She knew there were lives out there ready to be lived, new princes, new challenges, new mythical beasts to ride.

“Whatever happened to happy ever after?” she asked to the elaborate painted ceiling as she spun around the hall in her best approximation of a pirouette. She wondered if it was possible to hire herself a wicked witch, and made a mental note to google it later.

Short Story: 1000 Words

Denton could tie sixteen different types of knot and write five different alphabets. He knew the names of every country in the world and how to get from any tube station to any other, even though he had never been to London. He found this knowledge reassuring and periodically checked that he still knew it all. However, none of this helped him understand people. No matter that he could name each part of the brain; people were still a mess of unknowable, indefinable things. He suspected that other people had been given some kind of manual that explained everything – why sofas were important, when to speak, what facial expressions to wear – and because he didn’t have it, he was stumped, permanently. When he was with other people he always wore bewildered expression, hoping this would explain his situation. He wasn’t sure this worked though, because people were often angry with him.

Then, six months ago, Denton decided he’d had enough. He decided to take control. He was very fond of control, it was one of the reasons he was studying for a programming degree. After deciding fourteen separate times to take control, he had finally figured out how.

First, he worked to recreate the secret manual that he was sure everybody but him had access to. This required extensive research. With subtle questions to tutors and fellow students, with googling and searches to the dark web, the information had mounted up. He collated, cross referenced and edited each document, file and super-file. Now for phase two: only using one thousand words.

During his research into normal people and the curious stuff they do, he had read that most people only use a thousand words when speaking. They might know many more words, but normal conversation didn’t require them. As an experiment, Denton had spent a day with a Dictaphone keeping track of exactly how many words he used, and found it to be well over three thousand. He suspected that this excessive use of vocabulary might be why people thought he was strange, it was, at least a clue as to his oddness. So he had devised a list of an essential thousand words, and today would be the day when he restricted himself to using only those words. He had meticulously planned his wardrobe and behaviour to keep conversations on cue.

He heard a scuffling from outside his door and then,

“Denton!” he recognised the voice of his friend Steve. Denton knew that Steve would be standing with his feet flat on the floor and a shoulder’s width apart, that way he would be less likely to fall over when someone pushed him. Steve had been pushed a lot in his life.

“Denton, I’ve found a frog!”

The problem with a thousand-word limit, as far as Denton could see, was that you couldn’t know which situations would occur in any given day. He believed that for one day he could avoid describing the implosion of nebulae, or the function of a radio transmitter. He could avoid all references to the mouth parts of insects and the names of stones in archways. It would make conversation a little mundane, but he liked the challenge of repeating the same ideas over and over, like normal people.

When he had written out his thousand words, he had allowed for each basic everyday situation that he could think of – cancelled lectures, cold winds and earache, that the janitor was really a zombie; all very simple topics requiring just basic verbs and nouns. But he hadn’t thought to include the word frog. Still, Steve was a sensitive soul and Denton didn’t want to let him down. He shuffled from his bed and opened the door.

“Nice watch,” he said when he opened the door, then panicked. Steve stood holding the frog with two hands, two fingers spread slightly to let its head poke through.

“Frog,” he explained proudly, but Denton wasn’t listening, he was still panicking. He had spent several days outlining the plans for his thousand words. For example, he had decided that different verb endings didn’t fundamentally change the word – so he could count ‘speak’ and ‘speaks’ as one word. He had shaved a number of words out of his vocabulary, by choosing only one adjective, where normally several would be used – such as ‘red’ instead of ‘vermillion’, ‘pink’, ‘burgundy’. After all, many people couldn’t seem to tell the difference between those colours anyway. However, he had totally forgotten about Homonyms, words like ‘watch’, for example. He had actually included that word so that he could say “Can you watch my bag?” or “Did you watch telly last night?” but in his desperation to avoid conversations about a frog, he had used it in a different context. Was that ok? Or had he failed already? Not for the first time, he wished that social studies were published in the paper with proper methodology.

“I’m going to keep it,” said Steve, holding up the frog.

“Cool,” replied Denton.

“As a pet,” said Steve.

“Cool,” said Denton.

Maybe he could pass the whole day saying ‘cool’, other people managed it.

They walked to the canteen, across the paving, all the while Steve chatted to his frog and Denton tried to stay quiet.

They had reached the canteen doors where two girls from his year stood sharing a cigarette.

“Hi Denton,” said Su, who had dark eyes and a bright smile.

“Alright.”

“Why are you wearing your dressing gown?” she asked.

“Eccentricity,” replied Denton, glad the conversation was going to plan.

“Oooh, a frog,” said Katie who had red hair and a matching birthmark across her neck.

“Yes, I found it in the field. I’m going to keep it in the sink,” said Steve.

“Do you like frogs, Denton?”  asked Su.

“Sure.”

“What type of frog is it?” asked Su, with great effort of will, Denton kept his knowledge inside, and said,

“Don’t know.”

“You’re very monosyllabic today,” Su narrowed her dark eyes and folded her arms.

“I said ‘eccentricity’,” said Denton puzzled, wondering if people would think him stranger now that he was saying less.

“Eccentricity,” said Katie, rolling the word around her mouth like a boiled sweet.

“That’s a very good word, I don’t use it enough.” Su added brightly,

“You know, I read in the paper today that the average person speaks only three thousand different words in a day.”

“What?” exclaimed Denton.

“Yeh, apparently we all just keep repeating the same three thousand over and over. Except for Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare was an odious buffoon!” said Denton happily, as Su laughed. Denton decided today was going to be delightful.

Flash: The Empty Shelf

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Image from Pexels

This flat is too big without her in it, the wind seems to rush right through me, the floor echoes my footsteps instead of her laughter. We never even argued. She snapped sometimes, I just assumed she was tired, and I’d give her a hug to cheer her up. Maybe if we’d had a proper screaming row, I could understand the pattern that led us to here, retrace my steps. There must have been steps, there must have been signs.

I walk past where she kept her coat, folded over the sofa. She always wanted a hook on the wall, but I explained I had just the right number of hooks for my coats, and I didn’t want to spoil the paintwork. We’d laugh about it of course, I’d say give it another year and you can have your own hook, and we’d laugh. Laughing is the backbone of a relationship, I always think.

She was here three years. They were beautiful years, but I had to rearrange my life around her, I don’t think she saw how difficult that was. I’d find her hair in the plug hole, or she’d want to watch the Apprentice; it was tough, but I kept altering my world to fit her in. She wanted somewhere to put her stuff, so I cleared a shelf in the cupboard under the stairs. She kept her shower gel there, a change of clothes.

When the lack of her gets too much, I open the cupboard and stare at the empty shelf. I thought she’d be pleased with it, I had to clear away my motoring magazines to make space and I thought she’d fling her arms around me joyfully and be so happy, but she just nodded. Nobody else in my life ever had a shelf, she was special. I wanted her to know that, but it was like she couldn’t feel it, like she blocked all my efforts.

When she left it only took five minutes to up and out of my life. She cleared the shelf, picked up her coat and was gone, as if she’d never been here. Apart from the mug ring on the coffee table, she erased herself from my home. She hasn’t called. Why hasn’t she called? She must be regretting her decision by now.

We were happy, weren’t we? I was happy. She was special.

 

We All Carry Ghouls

All the world rumbles past at speed, but I live at different pace. While you rush up and down flicking through your phone whenever you have a moment’s pause, I see the slow world, always shuffling beneath your perception. Because I’m slow, because sickness has dragged me to a slug’s pace as the world speeds around me, I miss a lot: I don’t get how the latest crazes work and it’s years since I chatted celebrity gossip with a stranger at the bus stop, but I see the seasons. Not as you do, not the sudden blazing heat or the rain. I see the first bud break and the very last gasp of summer. I don’t see you when you’re running for the bus, that’s too fast, but when you’re waiting at the bus stop, I hear the gentle click of your brain as boredom sets in.

And most of all, I see the ghouls. I see them oozing through the streets looking for lunch, dripping in slow motion from the lamppost. I see them sliding their liquid fingers around the shoulders of that boy who has paused at the side of the road, waiting for the cars to pass, clamping their mouths around his neck while they masticate with painful slowness on his will. Sucking on his marrow at such a speed it will take decades before his bones are sucked dry.

Horror films always show monsters as fast-moving things, but ghouls aren’t like that, their disguise is their interminability. They surround you, but they move so slowly you can’t perceive them.

It wasn’t until I got sick that I saw them. When you’re ill you slow down. I don’t mean flu ill, a few weeks won’t teach you anything. I mean when the months stretch into years, when your voice fades and you adapt to the fact that moving your limbs is like wading through syrup. When my thoughts finally emptied out and there was space in my head, that is when I saw them. And I realised the ghouls were everywhere.

Some people carry more than others. The man with the frizzy beard who smells of pee, the ghouls crowd and shuffle at his shoulders, they like him because he can glimpse them sometimes. They whisper to him, they suckle and chew on his ears. That young girl with the face too tired for a child, they cling to her, weighing her down as she staggers along. I watch them out of my window, a street filled with slow-moving ghoul parasites, feasting on their hosts with the same messy abandon that children have when eating crisps at a party.

We all have them, you have them. Once I slowed enough to see, I could feel their greedy, destructive chomping as they guzzled on a vein, or scooped out my innards with a stick. I wondered how I could stay alive with so much damage, how any of us could.

I tried batting them away, but their liquid bodies just slid around the attack. I tried burning them with a lighter, but the flame fizzled and went out. I saw the doctor, and he listened patiently, then wrote me a prescription for anti-psychotics, but all the while a ghoul had its finger sunk into his eye socket and it looked at me and winked.

As I trudged my slow way home, the ghouls chewed on my hair and giggled, they knew I had no way to stop them, I couldn’t make them leave. Opening the door to my flat, I made my slow way to the fridge and cut off a hunk of cheese, too tired to make a sandwich. I sat on the sofa while a ghoul gnawed at my knee. Without really thinking I reached out and patted him on the head and he looked up, surprised.

“We get lonely sometimes,” I said, “us slow ones.” Another ghoul that was sitting on my shoulder also stopped, so I reached up and stroked his back, tickled him behind the ear. I don’t think anyone had ever been nice to them before.

That was three weeks ago, and everything and nothing has changed. I’m still ill, still slow, still carry ghouls, but they’ve stopped their gnawing and destruction, instead thy keep me warm. When I’m alone, which is mostly, I chat to them,

“You’re beautiful,” I say and scratch one on his nose. “Aren’t you a silly little pookums,” I say, as one nuzzles at my neck and purrs. We all carry ghouls.

Stenny Johanssen

Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.

The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,

“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”

“You’re Stenny Johansson?”

“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”

“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.

“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”

“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.

“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.

Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.

“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.

“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.

“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”

“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”

“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”

“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,

“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”

When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.

“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”

The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.

Backwards Daffodils

daffidils

Mrs Wrench nearly tripped over her own Jimmy Choo’s in her hurry to get outside.

“Er, Matthew!” she said, voice shrill with delighted indignation.

“Yes, Mrs Wrench,” said Matthew looking up from the box hedge he was pruning, his back creaking with effort.

“I believe I told you I didn’t want any purple in the garden!”

“Purple? There isn’t any purple,” said Matthew, looking about confused.

Mrs Wrench pointed to the Agapanthus that Matthew had recently picked up from the garden centre and potted into a huge urn.

“And what do you call that?” said Mrs Wrench, triumphantly.

“Blue?” said Matthew.

“I don’t think so! Get rid of it immediately, I won’t have purple in this garden.” Without another word she turned and marched back into the house.

“Well, that told him!” she announced to her husband as she walked past where he was reading the paper, he didn’t look up. “I mean, really!” she said to no interest whatsoever. Mrs Wrench stood glaring at the back of her husband’s head for a few moments and then went to the kitchen to look out to where Matthew was throwing the Agapanthus on the compost. She looked searchingly around the garden for issues. Then, she marched outside again,

“Matthew! Matthew!” she called, Matthew ambled over, a nervous look on his face that gave her a glow of contentment. “These daffodils,” she barked.

“Yes,” said Matthew, “I thought you liked yellow.”

“I do, I do like yellow, but they’re all facing the wrong way. When I look out of the window, all the flowers are facing into the garden, and I can’t see them properly.”

“Well, yes,” said Matthew, “they’re facing towards the sun.”

“It’s simply not good enough. I want you to dig them up and turn them around, so I can see them from the window. Understand?” The look of befuddlement on Matthew’s face was a joy to behold, and Mrs Wrench walked back inside with a spring in her step. She sat in her favourite armchair, took her phone out of her pocket and set the alarm for twenty minutes. Plenty of time for Matthew to do something wrong. She leaned back in her chair and smiled.

 

Finding a Guru

Wade had a blister that had started out as three separate blisters but had grown into one. He’d run out of energy bars. He was sick of breath-taking views of endless skies above endless valleys.  His knees hurt. But he was finally here, outside the guru’s cave, waiting to have the meaning of life explained to him.

He’d first read about the guru Alodu on the Internet. People would write gushing posts about how he had freed them from the nagging doubts, given them a lasting sense of peace. For years now, Wade had been dragging himself through life feeling each moment as itchy with guilt and insecurity. He had visited therapists, taken medication, listened to CDs, but these things only ever felt like a temporary solution, a hiding of his problems, not fixing them. When he heard about Alodu he decided the chance to free himself was worth the price of a flight and a hike. He hadn’t expected the route up the mountain and to the cave to be quite so well signposted. Luckily, since he’d run out of food, there was a fast food kiosk selling burgers, but it felt a little tacky.

He ducked under the cave’s low roof, and was surprised to see a small speccy white man sitting on the floor in a cardigan. He was unimpressive, and Wade felt his hopes deflate as his blisters throbbed.

“So, I’m Alodu,” said the guru, “what’s up?”

This felt all wrong to Wade, but he had rehearsed this speech a hundred times and he wasn’t going to waste the effort.

“I’m plagued,” he said dramatically. Dramatic had seemed right when he planned this conversation on the walk up. However, sharing with this librarian of a man, his head cocked to one side politely, it seemed inappropriate to be dramatic. “I feel like I’ve done and said too much that’s wrong. I want to forget, stop caring and get on with my life, but I can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”

“That’s unfortunate, “ said Alodu as if he was commenting on something mundane like a traffic jam, rather than Wade’s plagued soul. “Have you tried collecting stamps? I find that soothing.”

Wade shifted awkwardly on his rock, hoping this would convey his lack of satisfaction with this answer.

“Stamps?” he said.

“Yes or perhaps watch some Bob Ross videos about learning to paint, I do like a bit of Bob Ross.”

“Now look here!” snapped Wade, causing the guru to flinch inside his cardigan. “I’ve climbed a bloody mountain, I want better advice than my gran would come up with.”

Alodu looked at him thoughtfully, with infinite patience and calm. Then in hushed tones, whispered,

“You want meaning in your life? Serenity?”

“Yes!”

“Have you tried eating steamed broccoli?”

Wade stormed out on his blistered feet. As Alodu watched him go, he said sadly,

“Some people just don’t want to be enlightened.”

Short story: Running with Spiders

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Every day is a weary lie. I can barely force my face into a convincing smile, but no one notices, too caught up in their own worlds. I wear shoes, but they’re a lie, my feet don’t want to wear shoes, they don’t want to be confined to feebly gripping, clumsy slabs with laces; they want to feel the world and cling to it, never falling. I wear the suit, but my neck doesn’t like that choke-chain tie around it, my legs don’t like to be bound in fabric. I may wear cashmere, but it constricts like cheap nylon, because it’s wrong.

I get to work at nine o’clock sharp, an unconvincing copy of an enthusiastic smile clinging to my face, because this isn’t where I’m supposed to be. I’m not a creature of bright strip lights and open floor plans, instead I’m of the night, of the dark and dank and dusty. I’m at work now, because I haven’t the energy in the day to argue with convention, all my will is used up at night. At night, where truth rules and where I scutter and spin. So I sit down at my computer, fighting the urge to groan, my body is so heavy, so affected by gravity. I don’t understand how people can live like this without the glorious escape.

Craig in the next cubicle starts up a conversation, he always does, and I always react with empty platitudes and polite nodding. Slurping on his coffee, he says,

“Can’t go to the match this weekend, the wife’s said.”

“Oh dear,” I say with the appropriate tone I don’t feel.

“My brother in law died at the weekend, she says we’ve got to sort out his things.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Yeah, and an Arsenal home game it was too.”

“I meant about your brother-in-law dying.”

“Nah, I hated him anyway.”

My work is dull and pointless, the moment I leave the office I forget what it is I do all day. Something to do with numbers, and catalogues and the ever-whining public. All that matters is that eventually it’s over and the moment of freedom is close, true freedom from this dragging carcass. I ride the train, staring at my phone like everybody else, but all I’m looking at is a timer, counting down the minutes, the seconds.

Sat at my kitchen table, my alarm sounds, but I don’t need a clock to tell me, I can feel the change. The same change that has taken over my senses for five years now.  Every night, every night a revelation and a joy. The hairs first, thick and black, poking out from around my eyes and from my arms. And those arms! Becoming longer, thinner, sleeker. I stretch their beautiful form, feel a breeze tickle at the hairs, so slight that I didn’t notice it before, a delicate caress. I’m shrinking, becoming a size that fits my new senses, as those close-fitting walls get far away and irrelevant. The six new eyes pop from the front of my head one by one, each one telling me a new story of the world, but that’s only the start. Vibration sings its song to me, everything I touch is a tapestry of understanding. I am humming, I am alive with the song of the world around me. And then, as my new body solidifies and strengthens, I am ready to run. And I run and leap. Within moments, I’m on top of the sink and leaping down the drain. Faster and faster, encumbered by nothing. Running along pipes at such speed, the power! The freedom I have! I swoop and glide, gravity doesn’t touch me. As I scutter the depths of the world feeling no fear, my kith and kin run with me.

I run with the spiders, for I too am such a beast.

Day 4120 in the Big Brother House

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Day 4120 in the big brother house. They won’t let us sleep again.  Every time we start to drop off, they blare a klaxon horn and we all have to get up and start dancing. Becky collapsed, I was too scared to go to her. We need these food rations, another week eating just dried crackers is going to make us sicker. I’m not sure, we’ve got no way of checking, but I think we’ve all got scurvy, that’s why we’re so weak. Strange lesions have started to appear on my arms as well, I asked to see a doctor in the Diary Room last week, but no matter how many times I pleaded, the perky voice just tried to get me to talk about Hannah. It kept goading me to say something bitchy, and in the end I had to call her a ‘sow faced trollop’ just to be able to go back to the house.

Then Becky got called into the diary room. Her face was all twisted up in terror, looking at us pleading, but what could we do? She gets it the worst, I don’t know why they pick on her, maybe it’s because she made such a fuss when we first came in, she’d throw a tantrum over every little stupid thing they’d made her do, she was good telly. Now they take every chance to torment her, she cries herself to sleep at night, sometimes she wakes up screaming, and we can’t stop her; sometimes I don’t even try, she’s got reason to scream.

She didn’t come back in, but a screen opened up in the lounge, and we could see Becky, sitting on a stool, her eyes were red and wild, like they wanted to burst out of her head. She was wearing that stupid green lycra suit, so we know she was wired up to get electric shocks. They started playing Living La Vida Loca over and over at full blast, while she had to search through some cards to find the answers to trivial pursuit questions that flashed up on a screen. If she got one wrong, or took to long to answer then they sent a hundred volts through her spine. There was no reason to it, there never is, it was just about humiliating her, and trying to get us all to turn on her when she got it wrong. By the end she couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to even try and answer the question, she just curled up in a ball no the floor while they shocked her, over and over.

I can’t remember why I ever signed up to this, but I would chew off my own arm just to get my life back, just to be able to take a walk in the sunshine or to read a book. I don’t know if those things will ever happen again. In the beginning we would tell ourselves ‘It’s only a gameshow’, but we know now, this is no game, and understanding that is what will get us out. They think they’ve broken us, but we’ve got a plan. Not that we can ever talk about it out loud, but we’ve got good at silent communication, good at noticing when they aren’t around, at understanding the weak points in the walls. Little bits of information that we share through tiny gestures and glances. We’ll get out soon, I promise you that. Keep watching.

Patience and Sensitivity

“I’m a very patient person,” he’d said when I moved in, and I thought that was great. I’m a very sensitive person, so we had this lovely chat about how so many other people are thoughtless and rude, and how we’d both lived with unpleasant people in the past and it was great to have found each other.

That Saturday, he said it again,

“I’m a very patient person.” This time it was when he found some crumbs I’d left by the kettle, only there was a slight edge to his voice. And I thought Whoah! It’s only a few crumbs! And I actually had a little cry, because it seemed a bit mean. He felt guilty though, so I thought we’d be alright from then on.

Then he said it again on the Monday when I left a ring around the bath, only it was more high-pitched. I said, “Well I’m a very sensitive person, and I can’t live with this kind of atmosphere,” and I slammed the door and didn’t speak to him for three days.

I hoped that had got the message through, but then again, those words, spoken through gritted teeth while pointing at the coffee splots on the floor. He didn’t even seem to see how unreasonable he was being, so I poured my coffee all over the carpet and up the doors, because all this tension is intolerable.

We were fine then, until this morning. I was just chatting to him about something at work that had upset me, while he was doing the washing up that I’d left in the sink to soak over the weekend. Everything was fine, but then he started being so rough with the washing up, that he actually broke one of the plates, and then stormed out! His anger just came from nowhere.

As a sensitive person, I need to leave for the sake of my mental health. I don’t think he’s patient at all.