The Tow Rope By Stephen Jay


It was another quiet day at the DIY store, and Maria was chatting to her friend Debbie. Maria said, “You know I watched that film at Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life? There was this girl working in the library, she couldn’t have been more than thirty-two. You know what the angel said?”
“What?” said Debbie.
Maria said in a funny voice, “She’s an old maid George.”
Debbie laughed and said, “That film is very old and isn’t very PC.”
“Yes, but I’m thirty-nine so what am I if not an old maid?”
“You’re not an old maid, whatever that means. No one cares about that sort of thing today.”
“I suppose you’re right. Just that I took care of mum for all those years and now she’s gone I’m sorta lost.”
“I don’t know how you coped with it all. Then there was that time she spent in the hospice. That was private wasn’t it?”
“Yes. My mum had some savings.”
“Hey! There’s that guy you like?”
Maria looked where Debbie was looking and said, “Oh him! I don’t like him in the way you mean. He must be in his sixties. Just that he looks so sad lately. I wonder if he’s alright.”
“I think you should ask him out,” said Debbie grinning.
“I told you I don’t fancy him. I’m worried about how depressed he looks. Last time I served him he bought some brackets. I said that they should last a lifetime. Do you know what he said in reply?”
“Tell me.”
“He said,” Maria then put on her deep miserable voice, “well that may not be very long.”
“Sounds like he was having a joke about his age.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you replace Johnnie on the checkout, and you can chat to him.”
“Johnnie is due a break.”

Maria went over to the checkout and told Johnnie he could have a cup of tea. She sat at the checkout which was the only one open on the quiet day. The man came to the checkout carrying a tow rope.
“Hi there,” said Maria.
“I’ll pay by card thanks.”
“Fine. That’s our top of the range tow rope. It could tow a lorry!”
“Well, should be good enough for my purposes then.”
The man typed in his number for the card and went to remove it. Maria was quick though and took it out and read the name on the card before returning it to him. She said, “What do you need the tow rope for then?”
“What? Um, oh normal stuff. I don’t need a bag. Thank you.”
The man then took the tow rope and walked out of the store. Maria watched him through the window as he walked to his car. She thought it looked like quite a newish car. Why would he need a tow rope? Debbie came over and said, “Well? Any action?”
“No, no action as you put it. His name is Martin Ready,” said Maria, “he looked so down, and he didn’t seem to have a reason to buy the tow rope.”
“Oh, you don’t think he’s going to hang himself?”
“Could be. Maybe he bought those big brackets to tie it on.”
“I was joking Maria, God! What a thought. Let’s face it loads of stuff we sell could be used for all sorts of terrible things.”
“I guess.”
“Come on forget about him. Let’s figure out how to get you on the dating scene again.”

Maria couldn’t forget about him. The more she thought about it the more certain she was that Martin would be committing suicide with a tow rope that she had sold him. She looked up his name on the internet and found that there was only one within a short driving distance. She made up her mind and instead of going home at the end of the day she drove to Martin’s house.


Martin stood at the door looking surprised, he said, “You’re the girl from the DIY store, what can I do for you?”
Maria hadn’t planned what to say and spurted out, “I was a bit worried, um, I.”
“Tell you what, why don’t you come in, have a cup of tea and tell me what’s on your mind.”
Maria went into Martin’s house. She noticed the tow rope on the hall table. Martin asked Maria to take a seat in the lounge while he went to the kitchen. He came back with a teapot, cups and milk on a tray. He said, “Now why are you here?”
“You bought those brackets a while ago, where are they?”
“I’ve put them on the wall upstairs, in the passage. I have to get some shelves for them, so I’ll be giving your store more business.”
“So the brackets are just upstairs in the passage with no shelves. Nice and strong I would imagine. Could hold a nice weight.”
“Your weight!”
“I’ve read about suicide and when people have a means it just needs a few hours of depression and that’s it. In the US they just take a gun out of the drawer and bang they’re dead. Just a few hours, that’s all, and you’ve looked miserable for ages. I’m right aren’t I?”
“Wow! Am I the only person who comes into your store looking depressed?”
Maria drank her tea. She noticed that he wasn’t denying anything and felt pleased with herself. She said, “Look, you can get counselling or ring the Samaritans. I tried to volunteer for the Samaritans, but I was too busy with my mother at the time. I was there long enough to know that we must sometimes accept other people’s decisions, but that’s difficult. My mum wanted to die in the end. I hated it when she spoke like that. I knew she was in pain, and I couldn’t help. She lay in that hospice just wanting to die for months. But she was in pain, you have a life ahead of you and…”
Martin interrupted the excited Maria, “I’m sure you mean well, but it’s none of your business what I do is it? If you bother every customer that looks depressed and buys a tow rope you’ll drive yourself mad. What about cabling? Or a pick axe?”
Maria couldn’t stop herself, “Please don’t end it all. I feel like I know you, and I just couldn’t handle it. I’ll do anything to stop you. I’ll even sleep with you if you want, to take your mind off of the depression.”
“Hey! I don’t want. Now I think you better leave!”
“Ok, sorry, I get carried away sometimes. I’m so worried.” Maria stood up to leave, but her brain kept telling her she was right. This man was going to close the door and then hang himself. She imagined someone finding him dangling from her tow rope tied on to her brackets.
“Everything is fine, just go please.”
Maria walked towards the door. Of course he would still have said that if everything wasn’t fine. He hadn’t said that he wasn’t going to kill himself. She walked quickly towards the door and opened it. Then she grabbed the tow rope from the hall table and ran with it to her car. She could hear, “Hey!” but she was in the car and driving away, like a thief.

Maria arrived home at her council house. She carried the tow rope as she went in. There on the mat were several final demands. She recognised a letter from the loan company that she had borrowed from to pay for the hospice. Her mother never had any savings. There was also a letter from the council. Three bedrooms were not appropriate for a single person, and they were evicting her. They had found an alternative property, but she loved her house. They were coming round to see her in the next few days. She looked at her mother’s wheelchair and thought she must get rid of it soon.
“Oh well,” she said out loud. Then she put the tow rope on the dining room table and said, “At least I’ve saved a life today!”


Martin didn’t go to the DIY store for a month. Then he decided that it was time to sort out the shelves. He found what he was looking for and went to the checkout. He looked around to see if the strange Maria was there but couldn’t see her. He looked at the name badge of the girl serving him, and he read Debbie. He said, “Does Maria still work here?”
Debbie looked serious and said, “Maria? Oh, I’m sorry to say she’s dead.”
“What? How?”
“It was a month ago now. She hanged herself with one of our tow ropes. It was awful we all had to go to counselling.”
Martin was taken aback and said, “Oh that’s terrible, I’m so sorry.”
“We were told that sometimes with depression dark times can hit suddenly, and if you have a means then you might just end it all. She had the tow rope; some people may have drugs or a gun I suppose.”
“Maria was highly strung, once she got something in her head she wouldn’t let it go. I remember once she chased after a car shouting at the driver that his kids should have seat belts on. I mean she screamed at him and wrote down the number.”
“Wow!” Martin paid for his shelves.
“She spoke to you didn’t she?”
“Yes, sometimes.”
“I remember she said you looked sad, but you don’t seem to be today. I mean before I told you about Maria.”
“Yes, a pity we didn’t speak more. Thanks, bye.” Martin left the shop.
He loaded the shelves into his boot. He wondered about Maria. Why didn’t he take her seriously? The idea that he was suicidal was ridiculous, but he never really said that, instead he got upset when she said she would sleep with him. Who says that? He could have chased after her when she grabbed the tow rope. How was he to know?
Jane appeared with her shopping, kissed him and said, “Good, I’ll need those shelves for my books when I move in.”
“That’s the idea. The girl who used to serve me in there hanged herself, apparently.”
“My God!”
“Used a tow rope.”
“Wow! But you didn’t really know her did you?”
“No, but it’s so sad.”
“Yes. I know how sensitive you are. You grieved for Gerald all that time.”
“I’m glad you didn’t make fun of me about that. He was sixteen and had a good innings for a collie. Every time I went into that DIY place they’d have a display of dog baskets, chews, and things. It always made me miserable, but I’m ok now.”
“Good. Talking about tow ropes didn’t you say you’d get a new one for my dad? That useless thing he keeps looked pretty dangerous when I gave him a tow at Christmas.”
“At his age I think he should get a more reliable car. I’ll get one next time I’m here. A tow rope that is!”
“Thanks darling.”