After making Dan’s breakfast, Fina tackles laundry while he gets ready for work. Becca drapes herself on a chair and drinks strong black coffee. Fina has read up on the teenage brain, so she knows what not to expect from her daughter.
Since giving birth Fina has worked from home. It’s not a hobby. Her jewellery is in high demand. Hand-crafted rings and pendants; polished gems trussed in silver. Under the light, a wisp of shadow curls like smoke in the lucid heart of the stones.
When the front door closes behind the urgent and languid passage of bodies on their daily commutes, Fina does a couple of star jumps and shimmies her shoulders, letting go of a short yelp. The sound charges the air. She grins and tries another, rising through an octave, a yodel. A door somewhere bangs as though in reply.
‘Who’s there?’ she says, feeling stupid in her obviously empty house.
There is a pregnant silence. A something or nothing waiting to be. Fina picks up Dan’s black umbrella and holds it en garde, arranging her legs swashbuckle-style. She’s still grinning. Some wild thing has got into her. The house holds its breath. Nothing moves except Fina’s own slight form as she shifts her weight back and forth, head tipped, straining to hear.
She stalks past the disarming photos of Becca aged three, six and nine. The lounge door stands open. Through the bay window a feeble sun attempts adulation of the fake Turkish rug. Metaphorical tumbleweed rolls by. Fina lowers her weapon and subsides into the cushioned wicker chair. She kicks the pointy end of the umbrella up and down so it makes rhythmic thunks. A curtain billows at the open window. From somewhere above – three bedrooms, a bathroom, separate toilet, all unpopulated – a series of echoing thunks plays out. Fina rises to her feet. Terror has not been part of her life to date, and she’s surprised to find it makes her feel both strong and weak.
Hands clamped to the umbrella handle, she pans the room. What now? Lock the window. Into the hall, slipper-muffled steps on the laminate. Front door. Check. A slow glide to the kitchen. Windows, back door, patio doors. All closed and locked. Pocket the keys. Okay.
At the bottom of the stairs she stops to think, and becomes one of those wooden donkey toys you press underneath to collapse. All her connective tissues quit their day jobs without notice.
The house waits. Dust motes hang about to see what will ensue, then give up and drift off. Fina corrals her limbs. It’s a normal morning. She’s in her own home. Everything is fine. She leans against the wall. If she listens she will hear the sounds of an empty house, the creaks and groans and taps you never notice with other people there. She shakes herself; an actual physical shaking that ends in an involuntary shudder. All she can think of is to make a cup of tea. Ha! She’s a living breathing cliché.
The washing machine beeps for attention. Fina releases the door and heaves out a lumpen tangle. The laundry basket tips with the weight, spilling wet twists across the grey tiles. She wraps white-knuckle fingers around the warmth of her mug and kicks the basket upright. Outside the window the sun can barely make shade. The cherry shrugs its blossom over the long grass while light and dark close ranks.
Fina tries to be deaf to the noises. She climbs the stairs, the umbrella back in her grip. She can’t remember picking it up. A feral part of her mind is running the show.
There is no denying the clack clack, like drumming fingernails, audible on the landing. Fina concentrates on her knees, hips and spine. She visualises bones and tendons in harmony; the mechanics of stepping forward into the bedroom.
Blinding sunshine powers through half-open curtains. How can that be? It feels liquid, amniotic. A blurry outline fights for existence like an image failing to appear on photographic paper. Her heart tries to exit her chest. Maybe she’s dying. Maybe this is how it goes.
Daylight resumes normal service as the noise retreats, and the house expels Fina on a sigh. She crosses the garden and stares over the wrought-iron gate at an impossible moving shadow, unpinned from its source. Familiarity lurks in the spare form, the length of its stride, the querying slant of its head. Like looking in a clouded mirror. One arm beckons as it fades from sight.
Ali McGrane is an emerging writer of short fiction and poetry, living in the UK. She has studied literature and creative writing with the Open University and is currently completing an MA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fictive Dream, The Lost Balloon and Ink Sweat & Tears. @Ali_McGrane_UK
Image: Orlova Maria