It’s just past midnight and the kitchen’s half-lit by a weak strip-light that flickers and hums above the cooker. It makes the open-plan sitting room/kitchen look like a scene from a silent horror movie with Jean playing Nosferatu. Her thin fingers cast distorted shadows onto the wall as she stirs powdery clots into a mug of hot water. She hunches over pressing stubborn lumps against the china with the fat belly of a teaspoon. A distant clatter from next door’s garden doesn’t make her flinch but she does glance up. She thinks she sees something shift in the shadows outside the thin window but she’s been round this loop too many times to let midnight get the better of her – ‘ its just trees, or cats, or the wind, nothing to get jittery about.
She’s leaning forward to blow the first sip cool when she feels a movement in the air behind her, cold and sharp. It that makes the fine downy hairs on the nape of her neck itch and rise. Her hand jerks up before she has time to think, snapping the light switch on. Overhead spots fill the kitchen with solid brightness that shrinks the shadows back to the margins. She cups the mug two-handed but it’s too hot to hold, so she picks it up by the handle and tries a tentative sip, but it’s too hot to drink. Drawing what warmth she can from the steam, she watches it thread upward and disappear into nothing, then adds a slug of brandy from the half-empty bottle on the windowsill. It makes the chocolate cool enough to take a proper swallow, then another. The heat moves through her as she walks forward.
The staircase twists its way up to the open bedroom door where a weak splash of lamplight leaks onto the landing. She fixes her gaze on that, flicking the downstairs switch at the last possible minute so the darkness never quite touches her. Her slippers slap the wooden stairs, tight and regular. She goes slowly – moving too fast would be to admit something. Once she’s inside she pushes the bedroom door shut behind her, trying not to imagine inky fingers retreating round it.
The standing lamp looks weary, angle-poised low like it’s ashamed of the frail light it always drizzles night and day onto the sheepskin rug. She presses on the up-lights, milky half-moons on each wall that lift the gloom with a buttery glow that’s soft enough to fall asleep beneath now she’s taught herself how. She climbs onto her side of the bed because old habits die hard, and lies on the coverlet, settling herself into the pillows, picks up the book that’s been lying face down on the bedside cabinet since this time last night. It’s something light and blah and carefully selected because it skims the surface. She reads, taking warm sips every few pages until the fist inside her stomach starts to unclench.
When it’s time, she walks barefoot to the tiny en-suite and brushes her teeth in the blazing lights that surround the mirror. For two minutes she lets the electric whir empty her head of almost everything except the clean cold taste of peppermint. When she’s done, she leans into her reflection watching the strings of her neck stretch themselves taut. She finds the cold just in front of the glass. The chill is bitter. It makes her breath visible, turns it into swirling plumes of grey vapour. She knows it’s impossible, but there’s something about the impossibility of it that gives her comfort. She breathes it in, letting the naked winter fill all of her and for a few moments of oblivion, she forgets he even existed.
He waits on the stairwell where shadow meets shade. Poised, hair-triggered, sensing what he can. Not words. Words are a distant mumble, a long-ago memory of something lost forever, but he can feel the dry turn of every page, sense every sip and swallow, every breath and sigh, feel the glow of her emotions through the flimsy fabric of space and time.
When he’d reached out to her in the kitchen his hazy fingertips had all but disappeared when they’d lingered too long even in the pathetic strip-light, but it has been worth it for the almost-touch of her neck – the curved ghost of it. The blast of spotlight unmade him for a moment, flung him into the distant reaches searing like sunshine so he could feel only his own loss and longing, and nothing of hers, but that was worth it too to be left with the memory of that almost-touch.
Outside in the safety of the deepest shade, he feels the ache of her sadness, the peace of her grief. When she rises to clean her teeth, he grows in the glow of her, draws himself as close as he can, his face pressed to the dark outside, almost solid again. In those moments he feels only her loss, not his, basks in her sadness, loses himself in her sorrow. Everything he longs for is only a hand’s span away, if eternity can be measured in the span of a hand. When she pulls away, his need is so sharp. How he longs to soak up her sadness just one last time, to feed on her grief just one last time, to tell her he loves her, just one last time.
She leaves the lights on and climbs inside the sheets. They smell of summer Sundays, remind her of life and daylight and the relief of sunshine and that she really must stop all this, and start living again.
Jan Kaneen’s stories have been published hither and yon. Most recently at FlashBack Fiction and Molotov Cocktail. Her memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones will be published in spring 2021 by Retreat West Books.