by Andrew Clark
Yes, she can see him.
He is sitting, his back turned to her, looking out over the gray water of the lake. The sun is low, its sharp light playing on the thin layer of frost that stretches over the ground. Although the bench, framed by a glassy corona of light, is almost in silhouette, Hannah is certain it is him.
She is breathing heavily now: because of the shock at seeing him here; because the winter air, though it bites at the roof of her mouth, seems strangely short of oxygen. Still, she exhales furtively, stifling the smoke of carbon dioxide emerging from her lungs with cupped hands. As she pulls her hood closer over her face, its coarse lining brushes like a fingertip across her cheek.
Hannah reaches into the pocket of her coat. Though her fingers grasp for her cigarettes, they meet instead an old notepad she has taken to carrying around with her. Fetching it out, she studies its surface. Her father’s initials are inscribed neatly into the top corner of the cover.
Hannah finds herself flicking through the pages. Her eyes drift over the endless pencil sketches of small animals and birds. The drawings are precise, diagrammatical; careful renderings of muscle structure, outstretched wings, twisted limbs. On an impulse, Hannah searches for a blank page and writes: I am watching him.
She settles over the cigarette, the deadening taste of hot tar on the back of her throat familiar, calming. He seems to be unconcerned by this addiction of hers. At least, as long as she keeps eating.
Lying anxiously in bed, a diaphanous film of sweat forming over her body, she waited for him to depart. Perhaps he was gone already. Certainly though, better to wait until she was sure. He would never feed her until evening anyhow, never apply the lotions or spread the thin layer of powdery white material over her gums. It was simply a matter of assuring herself she was alone.
Shower day had been yesterday, when again she had sensed his presence behind her as she washed: keeping an unseen eye on proceedings, his bony fingers tentatively sampling the contours of her flesh as he checked on the progress of his favorite project.
For some hours, Hannah hesitated. In the Old House she lingered, immersed in its fossilized rooms, breathing in its stagnant air, heavy with half-formed, hypnotic memories. And vainly she steeled herself against the inevitable: against the budding claustrophobia, against the daytime’s invasion of this quiet, preserved place.
In her bed clothes and threadbare dressing gown, she drifted into the kitchen. A fetid smell raked the air: of uneaten food beached on the week’s dinner plates, of the overflowing bin he must have forgotten to take outside the previous night. The floor was flecked with cigarette ash. Coffee stains, coffee mugs, the insides of some flowering with crops of a whitish mould, were scattered everywhere.
On most days, Hannah remained compliantly in this open cage of hers. Although frequently she stayed in bed until late afternoon, at other times she found herself to be helplessly restless. She had explored every corner of the place many times over, knew every loose floorboard, every dusty memento of the counterfeit existence on every shelf and in every cupboard.
The pictures that spilled from the drawers and lined the mantelpieces were a part of it; he had placed them there to deceive her. All of the photographs she could find had been doctored, his ghoulish face introduced into scenes of birthdays, celebrations, holidays. She knew they were unreal, that they were a trick, but still her nightmares fed on the images of formal smiles, glinting plastic eyes... and a long, flowing white dress, the looming arch of a church door, with that ghoulish face, his face, always by her side.
Silently, Hannah waited. For what? Restive, she turned on the television. On the screen, the image of a male figure flickered. For a moment she thought it was him, but it was simply a news correspondent wearing a bullet-proof vest and reporting from some distant war zone. For some time she watched the moving pictures listlessly before finally being taken by a decisive impulse. She dressed, turned the television off, and left the Old House.
One morning some time ago, he had placed the key on the kitchen table when he went away. By then, Hannah had been housebound for almost two months and immediately she had known what she must do. Her heart pounded as she stole the key, fled upstairs, and hid it inside an empty suitcase under her bed.
When he returned, after what had seemed an eternity, she had been concealed in the bed, swaddled closely in blankets, almost not breathing so as not to compromise her hearing. The sound of the thick front door opening was entirely routine; evidently, he had a duplicate key and had left the spare deliberately. He was, she is now convinced, encouraging her to exercise. Whenever she leaves the Old House, there is an inescapable sensation that he is watching her from somewhere. Walking her.
On the afternoon in question, Hannah heard him come up the stairs and into her room. Silently, with her eyes closed, she felt his exhalations interact briefly, moistly, with the hairs on the back of her neck.
At least, she is almost sure that it’s him.
What is he doing, sitting inertly at the foot of the lake, whose surface coruscates under the cold, bright light of the sun?
The streets of the town were filled with unfamiliar faces. Office workers marched in ragged military lines, their collared shirts and ties marks of tribal allegiance, their expressions inscrutable but evasive. Mothers struggled with pushchairs and ill-behaved children. And the cars filed impatiently along the thick channels of concrete that marked their territory, their toxic exhaust fumes spiraling like malevolent ghosts into the crisp, dry air.
Hannah walked quickly but without purpose, fixing her gaze on the pavement ahead of her. Its dirty, pastel-collared slabs were sprinkled with a fine dusting of frost. The shops were open, dummies in their windows; she made sure to avoid their unmoving, marbled gazes. Milk bottles still stood on some doorsteps. Everything seemed to be on sale.
The park lay at the end of this suburban shopping street. Through the wrought iron gates she wandered, past the small playground whose garishly colored climbing frames stood unused. By now, she had decided to head for the lake. The lake remained a potent memory of childhood, when her father would take her to watch the birds and she would marvel at their vivacity while he thought, quietly, of disemboweling them.
And, on the bench where they used to sit, is that him? Hannah strains her eyes, the doubt creeping in.
Carbon monoxide: a slow, invisible, asphyxiation. They had been found in their conjugal bed, separated by as great a distance as the mattress would allow. Supine, they had been placed there, their mouths open, their eyes shut. A faulty heater had been to blame, or so they said at the inquest, the poison air filling their lungs as they slept, displacing the oxygen from their bloodstream and killing them long before morning.
As their only child, Hannah had been called to identify the bodies. In their bed she had seen them, had confirmed the inevitable with a calmness that disturbed her companions. But they had not known what she knew, had not seen what she saw.
Dead eyes, yes, but eyes dead because they had never been alive. Hannah herself had closed their eyelids, had watched as the others covered up the manikins for good, as lifeless as the creatures that populated the other rooms of the Old House.
In her mind, she knew well that the knives and scalpels had been flashing that night, that the tanning fluids had been scrupulously applied, the rods and pins diligently introduced into the right places, the stitches neatly inserted. The fleshing machine next door had done its work, and the degreaser, and the deodorizer. It had been neat, clean, sterile. He had done a beautiful job. And soon it would be her turn.
The carbon monoxide is gone now, though Hannah still imagines it adhered to the crumbling wallpaper of her home. She sees herself in the Old House, returned to her now by last will and testament, sees herself breathing the air that they breathed, feels herself weakening and her blood running cold...
Above the lake, the birds would fly, their ghostly, broken shadows scattered across its surface. Smoke would rise from the chimney of the groundsman’s house across the water, a squat red brick structure half hidden from view by a narrow copse of trees. Hannah’s father would bring her here often, would sit on the bench and become lost in his thoughts as she ran and chased.
When she was seventeen years old, Hannah fell in love with a boy who moved in across the street. She remembers little of him now, and less still of their affair, furtive then and shrouded now in the fog of broken memory. And yet, for what had seemed a lifetime, she had felt his presence everywhere.
The boy cycled every morning to school. Whenever Hannah saw a bike in the distance, she felt sure it was he who was riding it (though when the rider drew closer, it never was).
In the distance, she saw the boy at the shops, in the park, on the crackling screen of her parent’s black and white television. She heard his voice across the crowded playground. She saw him on a camping holiday in France, filling a plastic jug with water at the communal washing facility.
This was love, she used to think.
But now: it is him that appears everywhere. He is behind her, in front of her, on both sides of her. He is following her and yet leading her on a leash, he is a cancer growing inside her. She knows that if she is able to watch him, then implicitly he is watching her also. And yet, much as she might try to elude him, she finds herself inextricably drawn towards him. It is clear he is waiting for something, some sign, and yet she is unable, or unwilling, to fathom what it is.
She knows he lives in her father’s workshop. Sometimes at night, she is certain, she can still hear the muffled drones of the fleshing machine.
This is not love. Nor hate, even. It is simply a rhythm, a pattern, and without it Hannah imagines that she would cease to exist.
She watches now the rigid figure in the distance, struck by the sudden sensation that this has happened before. She thinks to write again in her notepad, but hesitates, trapped in the memories that come to her all at once, muddied and jumbled. Her father, sitting by the lake, examining a dead rat washed up by the shore. And her father, in his workshop, a bird’s wing and plastic eyes in a jar. She thinks again of the boy across the street. She tries to picture his face, but all that appears is her father’s.
It isn’t him. The man rises slowly to his feet, turns towards her. Although briefly a feral gaze locks upon her own, in the absence of recognition it quickly recoils.
Hannah looks across the water. The birds have flown south for the winter, and the red brick house, unoccupied for years, has fallen into neglected disrepair. Back in the Old House, his gray hairs clog the plughole in the bathroom. And his scent pervades, his presence stretched like a dust of carbon monoxide across every surface. Hannah knows he is waiting for her.
And she knows, it is time to go home.
Copyright © 2006 by Andrew Clark