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ruby cowling

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by Ruby Cowling

      Professor Donald Braithwaite's fall is farcical. 5:00 p.m. on a bank holiday Friday and he's on tiptoes on the worn-away stair, straining to close a window against the storm, when his trembling right ankle gives way and he catches his left foot in his flapping trouser leg and crashes through merciless space quite unbelieving until the hallway floor slams the air from his lungs. For a second he revels in this proof that his house is, unarguably, trying to kill him. Then blackness, and then the very next thing is that hours have passed and he's awake, blinking into the unlit hallway, and he tries to move.
      Something rough and wet scrapes against his cheek as he moves his head. With a lurch of resolving dizziness he comes to understand that it's the carpet. He is on his front. There is a long lump under him, making it hard to breathe. He goes to push himself up but he can't find his right arm; then he realises that his arm is the lump under him. When he pushes with his left to roll himself over, he hears a squeaking, gasping noise escape his throat. He can taste iron.
      Damn this house. Never an ally even during times of health and marriage, it has been tormenting him in these weeks of recuperation — ever since he was discharged from hospital — and now it has thrown him down the stairs. Insult to injury. And what shocking injury: the sudden and exquisite pain that tore through his chest as he bent to pull clothes from the washing machine, just weeks after Louisa's funeral, was a surprise to him in spite of twenty years of doctors' head-shaking warnings. He was thrown awkwardly to the utility room's stone floor, damaging all kinds of bits of him, hard and soft, inside and out. Things that had been ready to crumble or burst. Ever since, he has thought of it as the accident; something that could happen to anyone. Not a heart attack. He doesn't think of his heart.

      He lies on his back, listening to the whistles of tiny birds in his lungs. Wetness creeps down a temple and curls into an ear. Heat stabs through his right arm as it crackles its way back to life. His mouth is so dry. The darkness tells him it must be late, perhaps even the early hours of Saturday. No-one is coming to the house until next Friday, when the community ambulance picks him up for his weekly pain management group. As his eyes adjust he begins to understand where he is: the insects' nest or egg hanging over him is just the hallway light; the looming black monolith in the corner of his vision is the open doorway into the sitting room.

      He has been on his back for much of the time since he came out of hospital. In the sitting room is the folded tartan rug on which he lies, reluctant, like a child ordered to bed on a sunny afternoon. Unmoving for hours in this wall-less prison, he is forced again and again to note the few stubbornly unchanging features of the room. A drooping strand of abandoned cobweb fluttering without reason. A doggy fust rising from the carpet. The smug white right angles of the ceiling coving, dumb and blind and maddening. Meanwhile from elsewhere in the house come sudden snaps and groans, heralding, surely, the collapse of the entire structure. The time and space meant to restore him are instead tearing him to shreds. He regrets every minute his refusal to let Robert replace his broken radio.
      Louisa dug in her heels whenever he talked about moving; you'd think the house was her third child, the way she coddled it. But now she has no say in the matter and the sons need what they've decided they need for their thousands-of-miles-away lives, the house is on the market. The reason it has not yet sold is that the asking price is ridiculous. But Robert is adamant about demand outstripping supply, and blames his father for not keeping the place nice, scaring buyers off, apparently. He seems to have inherited his mother's fuss over such things: the tidying, the endless neatening. The constant fight against the unravelling of things.

      Now a dull ache in his right leg is becoming more insistent. Sharp. There's something wrong with his ears, too — between breaths he can hear a soft tickling or chuckling sound that won't stop. But no, it's not his ears: it's water running, still, down the wall at his left: the leak, from window or roof or God knows what malevolent feature of the house, that got him foolishly up the stairs in the first place.
      Sudden noise comes from behind him, from the kitchen at the end of the hall: a crash, splintering, scrabbling and thuds as if someone is dropping from a window to the floor and righting themselves. Chill air streams through the gap under the kitchen door. His parched tongue starts to form the call Louisa but he stops himself, foolish.
      He must move. There is a telephone in the sitting room, but he keeps the phone numbers in a book in the kitchen. Robert tells him if he'd just agree to a cheap mobile, he'd have the numbers with him all the time. From the kitchen come scuffles, grunts: the perpetration of unimaginable sins. He groans, makes an attempt to sit up, but can't. Instead, his mind swims into the kitchen on its own, and hurtles back with a vision of a black cloak and a flashing blade, as if he were being burgled by Zorro.
      Then he sinks again into darkness.

      And in this floating night world he lets go of his body altogether. Here, his thoughts aren't the usual gassy tangle; rather they're solid and discrete, a string of pearls he's pulling through the soft meat of his brain. Pleasure beads. Here is a marbled steak forked off a barbecue, dripping red. Cold water pearling on a bottle of white wine angled in an ice bucket. And Louisa, smiling, serving herself a small plate of sliced tomatoes and shaking her head at his strained shirt buttons. Which of us went first in the end, though? he would tease her, if he could.
      Louisa's obsession with the sensible and the moderate kept her slender and sober, but he always maintained her way of living was no better than his. She spent so much time attending to her body — of all things, the body! Which should shelter the soul, but only betrays — while his unwavering focus was his work: the writing and teaching of philosophy. He would talk to her, try to bring her with him to the further realms of his discipline, but she'd pull him back, urging him to put down his glass, to go for a walk or play with their boys, or to shave for heaven's sake his four-day growth of beard.
      The beads pop one by one through his mind. Now he sees his house from the outside. Robert and Edward, little boys, are kicking a football in the garden. Here is the warmth of Louisa's body, through satin, curled against him under blankets as rain hammers the bedroom windows. His father's hand on his shoulder, pausing in silent pride on their moving-in day. And he feels pleasure. There is nothing of the nights of drunkenness or indigestion or of the real and imagined infidelities of the twenty years that have passed since then. Nothing of the enmity, the strife, of living in this building designated 12 Keats Drive; no pain, now, from the fleshy bag of chaos designated Donald James Braithwaite. Whatever it was he's been fighting for seems utterly distant. Whatever it was — to prove himself somehow stronger, to neglect everything as much as possible and yet cling to it, knowing his own death would never come if the house lived on as his enemy — the agony of meaning dissolves into a mist of peace.

      Yet he knows he can't stay. Someone or something needs him. There is an invasion and he must repel it. He grasps at his slippery mind and starts to rush to the surface as if he'd been held underwater, and up he bursts and here he is again in his dark hallway. Pressing both hands against the floor, he lifts his torso enough to squirm away from the stairs. Now he's close enough to the wall to heave himself up and rest against it in a slumped half-sitting position.
      Ten feet away the kitchen door starts to open in his direction.
      And he laughs. Instead of gloved fingers curving round the door's edge, twitching white streaks appear at its base, followed by the snuffling, squat form of a badger. It freezes when it sees him. It must have got in through the dog flap they never sealed up after Moriarty. Looking to get out of the rain, probably.
      Moriarty was really the boys' dog; Donald never paid much attention to the warm brown creature always nosing around his feet. But now he looks at the badger and whispers, "Hello, old chap."
      The animal twitches its nose. Donald reaches out a hand, but the badger turns and scoots back into the kitchen. A heat comes to his eyes; he blinks it away.
      The bodily reality of his situation comes to him suddenly. It makes him feel very small. He can think only of water and how wonderful would be a cold drop of it at the back of his throat, but no-one will come now and bring it to his lips. He will not get that tall clear glass. Unbidden, a memory appears: a doctor telling him you must stop drinking. He starts to drag himself to the sitting room where there is, at least, somewhere to lie.
      The still-undrawn curtains mean it's not as dark in here, and as he rounds the doorway he makes out the shapes of chairs, the innocent small tables, greeting them with a sad heart like photographs of lost friends. He flops over onto his back when he reaches the mat. The familiar square of ceiling, the jutting of the windowsill, the dwarfish furniture around him, in some way restore him. By the telephone on the occasional table, ten-day-old chrysanthemums loom black with the light behind. Saturday morning's early light glows through the vase and through the water —
      The water.
      Has it come to this?
      With a great effort of will he gets onto his knees and crawls over, yanks out the stalks, and takes noisy swallows of pondish, glorious water. When he puts the vase down, panting, he knocks the receiver from the telephone. The intermittent dial tone burrs into the room. It means something, this tone that stops and starts. For a minute he kneels staring at the receiver in his hand, waiting for his ears to tell his hands what to do.
      A little white sticker on the cradle says 1571 in his own crooked hand and that's it, of course — that's what you dial when there's this sound; it means there's a message. And the electronic woman tells you the number afterwards. His knees seem to dissolve but he hangs on to the precious telephone, dials the precious four digits.
      You were called, today, at fourteen, thirty-seven, pm.
      Dad, it's Ed.
      We've been so busy, what with the takeover and the baby and everything.
      Rob says you're on the mend.
      Wondered if there was any news on the house.
      Okay, then. So. Call me back.
      To use ring back, press five.

He presses five. His fingers shake. He is a mess. He's still alive. When help has come, when life starts again after the holiday, he will take the house off the market.

Ruby Cowling ( lives in London, UK. Winner of the Words With Jam Short Story Competition 2012 (judged by Jane Fallon), Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize 2012 (judged by Patrick Gale), and a Micro Award 2013 nominee, her short fiction has appeared in various anthologies, literary magazines and websites including Punchnel's, The View From Here and (in audio format) 4'33". She is currently working on a short story collection. When not making up stories, she works as an editor for non-profits and other writers.

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