Chiaroscuro

by Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson

 

Audrey is debating whether or not to allow herself a third glass of sherry when she hears a clicking sound coming from the front door. She remembers turning the key in the chubb and sliding the nub of the security chain along its track after she cleared away her supper.

The clicking ceases. All is silent again apart from the slow tick of the grandfather clock.

Then she hears a distinct crunch on the gravel that runs along the side of the house. Three thuds echo through the narrow passage, followed by a soft grunt and the slap of shoes hitting paving slabs. Footsteps, measured, slow, perhaps on tiptoe, cross the yard and stop at the back door. Her blood is pulsing now, high in her throat. Should she hide? But where?

A sharp crack. Something hard, metal, breaks glass. She breathes in shallow bursts, her mouth dry. Another crack. A snap. Glass rains onto the floor and nerve endings crackle in her armpits. The key turns in the lock. She should have listened to Mary. She digs her nails into her palms and clenches every muscle with the effort of not crying out. Mary told her not to keep the key in the lock, but the thought of not being able to leave in a hurry frightens her.

The back door opens. Closes. Someone is in the kitchen. A zipper is pulled open — a coat? Muffled clunks — a tool bag? The shuffling and tapping on the lino sounds like the someone is slipping off their shoes. She holds her breath. The clock portions the silence into seconds and she counts, reaches twelve before the man steps over the threshold.

‘Shit! Jeezus…’ Something heavy topples and lands on the carpet with a punctuated chime. ‘Arghh… Shit!’ Or maybe on the man.

‘What the fuck? What you doin in the dark? Scare the shit out of me. You crazy? It’s the middle of the night man. You nuts or somethin?’

The man steps back into the kitchen and Audrey presses one fist hard against her teeth. She has lost the ability to speak.

‘Lady?’ He calls from the kitchen, his voice low, but harsh. ‘Did you see me? Course you effin saw me didn’ you? Did you see my face? Speak lady or I’ll…’

‘I didn’t see… I can’t…’ She hopes it won’t hurt, whatever he decides to do. The terror lies in the idea of pain.

‘What? What you sayin?’ his voice is raised now, in panic, or anger.

‘I didn’t see your face… I’m blind.’

And the man is back in the living room. ‘Blind? You sure?’

‘Yes. Of course I’m sure.’

He strides over to her and stands very close. She can sense his energy, his louring bulk. A rush of air makes her flinch and his hands come together. The clap rings in her ear. ‘You sure lady? If you takin the piss I’ll… I’ll…’

‘Yes! I’m sure!’ Audrey juts her chin and stares at him with her mind’s eye. ‘Of course I’m sure. Look at me.’ You brute, she thinks, you brute.

She senses him studying her for some time.

‘Blind huh? Who’d a thought…’ He moves around the room, picking things up and putting them down, chuckling to himself, ‘unreal man…unfucking real…’

His laughter incenses her. She imagines him touching her things, face severed in two by a grin, for she can tell that he is at ease now, confidence renewed, comforted that her lack of sight will preclude any form of self-defense.

‘Phone.’ He says.

‘Phone?’

‘Where is it?’

‘In the kitchen.’

‘Socket?’

‘Next to the radio.’

‘Mobile?’

‘I don’t have one.’

‘No shit. Everyone has a mobile.’

‘Well I don’t.’

‘You sure?’

‘I’m sure.’

‘Mess with me lady… You bin warned.’

‘I don’t have a mobile.’

Then he’s back in front of her, sucking in a lungful of air, blowing it out slowly.

‘OK… Now I need to drain the main vein.’

‘Pardon?’

‘The toilet – where is it?’

‘Across the hall. Second door.’

He walks past her into the hall and the bathroom door opens and closes. She wonders whether she could escape now, reaches for her stick, stands for a moment listening hard, then sits again. Outside – alone – would be even more frightening than this.

She’s heard about burglars leaving their calling cards. Will he leave his on the loo seat, in the bath, or on the floor? She imagines faeces squelching through her toes and shudders. It happened to her accountant – those thugs emptied their bowels into a filing cabinet and a desk drawer and no one found the mess until the following day. He got rid of the furniture and cleaned up the files as best he could, but swore he could still smell it a year later. She hears the loo flush and water running in the basin.

‘OK lady.’ The man returns and sits in the armchair to her right. ‘You gonna make this easy for me, or am I gonna turn the place over?’

‘I have no money here.’

‘Jewellery then? Posh lady like you’s gotta have lotsa pretty things tucked away for sure.’

‘Behind the painting over the double bed there’s a safe. The key is in the cut glass bowl on the dressing table.’

‘Now we’re communicatin!’

Audrey won’t miss the jewellery. She would rather he took it all than make a mess and break things. And he’s right, she does have a few good pieces. Mary’s had her eye on the pearls for a while. If only she’d passed them on to her before. She had considered it on several occasions, but her daughter’s persistent eagerness made her hold off.

‘Painting?’ He calls from the bedroom. ‘Which painting?’

‘Over the bed. The portrait of the woman.’

She retrieves the image from that corner of her memory she rarely visits anymore – a woman in a blue dress, a sash window, summer morning light gilding a penumbra through her copper hair. She remembers sitting for hours, sensitised by the intensity of Sydney’s gaze. She’d supposedly been reading The Magus, but her thoughts kept returning to the secret she carried inside her.

A jaunty whistling drags her back to the present, metal clinking against glass as the man rummages for the key. She thinks about what he said – posh – hasn’t heard the word in years: Port Out Starboard Home. She thinks of sailing with her husband when they were first married and can see that compared to this man she is posh. But in the end it’s all relative – beauty, success, money, breeding – you can always find someone with more or less of anything than you.

‘Were you born blind lady?’ The man is standing in the doorway to her left.

‘No.’

‘How’s that happen then?’

‘An accident.’

‘Car?’

‘And I’m diabetic.’

‘Diabetic? Needles an stuff innit?’

‘Injections. Insulin. Everyday.’

He walks in front of her and sighs a thin descending note through his teeth. She recalls that same sound soughing through a gap toothed smile. She hears a dull jangle as he sits down.

‘So, you found it.’ She says.

‘Yeah.’

She sees coarse hands circling the delicate box; Japanese – elegant cranes and bamboo picked out in gold across its black lacquered surface, inside – blood-red velvet, the reward for negotiating the fiddly brass clasps.

‘You sit up in the dark of the night every night?’

‘I don’t sleep well.’

‘You fully dressed, man. Don’t you go to bed?’

‘I thought it was six in the morning – miss-read the hands of my watch. But it was only half past midnight.’

‘You can tell the time?’

‘I have a braille watch.’

‘Can I see?’

Audrey nods, lifting her wrist in his direction. He holds her hand in his, delicately, twists and turns it, his fingers brushing against hers. A shiver runs down her spine.

‘Jeezus. That’s amazin! I’m closin my eyes an I can’t feel a thing. Not surprised you got it wrong.’

‘I’m normally very good actually. I just wasn’t concentrating.’

‘And diabetic, whatsit, makes you blind, yeah?’

‘It can do.’

She sees him sorting gold from silver, holding gems up to the light, pinching an earring or a brooch between thick fingers, the pearl necklace luminous against his skin. Rising over a faint odour of sweat is a sweetness that awakens a memory of nakedness and warmth, smooth beneath her palms. Attempting to place the smell she can’t get beyond coconut, chocolate. She has registered the man’s drawn out vowels, clipped word endings, glottal stops, and wonders if her assumptions are accurate. She thinks of the baby – he would be a young man now – and tries to recall the correct way you should phrase it these days.

‘You’re mixed-race.’

‘Am I a black man? That what you wanna know? That’s for you to wonder lady.’

‘In your early twenties.’

‘You sure got opinions, for a blind woman who can’t see.’

She decides she’s not far off the mark. He sets down the jewellery box and walks across the room. She wonders what he will do next.

‘Being blind,’ he says, ‘what’s it like then?’

‘Dark.’

‘Dark as night?’

‘I can sense light. Especially sunlight. But I can’t see it.’

‘You afraid of the dark?’

‘Not any more.’ And she realises she isn’t afraid of this man any more – senses that he will not hurt her.

‘And these pills,’ he says, ‘these for diabetics?’

She doesn’t understand him for a second, then it dawns on her.

‘Look like paracetamol to me, an there’s a whole heap o’them.’

Audrey gives no response.

‘Were you gonna top yourself?’

‘I don’t know… Probably not.’ She sighs, leans back into her chair and closes her eyes. Would she have gone through with it this time?

‘But you was thinkin about it.’

Exhaustion has crept over her and she longs to be in her bed. Why can’t he just get on with it and leave her in peace?

‘You remember colour?’ This question surprises her and she takes a moment to consider it.

‘Yes.’

‘In your dreams can you see?’

‘Yes… I suppose I can. I’ve not really thought about it.’

‘You like bright colours then, before you went blind like?’

‘Of course. I loved colour.’

‘Ahh… That’s why you dress so crazy.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Dress like you headin for a carnival.’

‘I don’t know what you mean. I always wear black. All my clothes are black.’

‘Who’s this belong to then lady?’ She feels a tug to her skirt and her heart lurches in her chest.

‘This…’ She says, tapping her thigh. ‘It’s black.’

‘Not from where I’m lookin. Jumper – yellow as sunshine, skirt – flowers growin up it like a garden. Blue, red, green and…’

‘Flowers…?’ Mary bought her clothes under strict instruction. She’d been buying them for twenty years and knew she always wore black. ‘Are you lying to me?’

‘Hey man, why’d I do that?’

She touches her sweater, smooths her hands over her thighs and tries to see colour where before she had only imagined its absence. She feels disorientated.

‘An while we’re talkin lady, that aint no painting over the bed.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Jus a tatty poster inside of a big fancy frame.’

Audrey pushes herself to her feet, reaches for her stick and taps her way through to the bedroom. The man follows close behind her.

‘It’s on the bed… There.’ He says.

She feels for the painting – carved wood, cool glass – same as always.

‘Can you turn it over please?’

‘Sure.’

She explores the back. Instead of the flat gummed brown paper that should be there her fingertips meet curls of crisping Sellotape. She scratches at them. The man touches her arm gently.

‘Let me,’ he says.

She shrugs him off, ‘No. Don’t touch!’ Tears spring from her eyes and she claws at the brittle fragments. They gather under her nails like flakes of dry skin.

‘Hey… What’s so precious lady?’

‘It’s all I have…’ She can’t transfer her thoughts to her mouth and can only stutter, ‘But what…? What does it look like?’

‘It’s a drawin of a girl an a boy. Black lines on white. Cartoon like. They aint wearin no clothes, but they aint got any… y’know… At the top it says, Love is, dot dot dot, at the bottom, never having to say you’re sorry.’

Mary had pinned those Kim Casali posters all over her student bedsit in an attempt to obliterate the swirling 70’s wallpaper. She took them down when her father told her they were utter tripe, making her blush like a child. She wonders whether a propensity to be cruel is passed on genetically, father to daughter, like eye colour?

‘What used to be there?’ He wrenches her into the present, only to shove her into the past again.

‘A portrait of me – painted twenty-four years ago by someone I… Someone I cared about.’ He whistles again and makes that sucking sound through his teeth that only black people seem able to perfect.

‘Are there any more like this? This poster?’

‘Yeah man. In the other room.’

‘Show me? Please?’

She follows him into the living room.

‘There… Over the fireplace.’

That was where she’d hung her Craigie Aitchinson – one of his famous Bedlington Terriers on a vibrant ground of scarlet and vermillion. She feels sick with dread but has to know. ‘What’s in it now?’

The man chuckles again, ‘Sorry lady, but someone’s gotta sense of humour. This one says, ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’.’

She feels like the carpet might swallow her. ‘Any more?’

‘Above the cupboard with all the pots.’

‘What’s there?’ She knows what should be there – Jock McFadyen’s blustery coastal view.

‘Another cartoon, old lookin, Victorian like. Says, A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter’s a daughter all of her life.’

Audrey steps back and sits down. ‘And through there, in the second bedroom, is there a large landscape? You can’t miss it – gunmetal grey, ochre, crimson, purple, titled, Chiaroscuro?’

The man investigates.

It was her first to be accepted by the RA – the Summer Exhibition, 1986 – back when it still meant something. She remembers that day: scrambling up the Red Hills of Skye, Sydney’s arms reaching out for her, hauling her up the steepest inclines, his broad hands always there to steady her… And then the view… across Glen Sligachan, the magnificent Cullin Ridge spread out before them.

‘Mountains an water an a sunset like somethin from the Bible?’

‘Yes. That’s it.’

He sits back down next to her. ‘Why they leave that one then?’

She feels the insult like a slap. ‘I painted that one.’

‘What’s goin on?’

‘I don’t know.’ She says, although she thinks she does.

‘Hey… Want a cuppa?’

‘I’d rather have a sherry.’

‘Sherry?’

‘The bottle’s next to the kettle.’ He picks up her glass and she can hear him moving around in the kitchen. A minute later he’s back, ‘Here you go. Poured myself one too. Hope you don’t mind.’ He sits down again. ‘You bin robbed, aint you.’ He chuckles again.

‘I think you may be correct.’

‘Any idea whodunit?’

‘Mmm.’ Audrey is not ready to admit to this stranger that she is very sure who is responsible.

‘You a painter then, lady?’

‘Was.’

‘Famous?’

‘I may have been, if I’d not had to give it up.’

‘An these paintins that’ve disappeared… Were they famous like? Worth somethin?’

‘In the hands of the right dealers, maybe a hundred thousand.’

‘Jeezus! No wonder you was cryin.’

‘It’s not about the money. I loved those paintings. I loved knowing they were there. When I stood in front of them I could see them as clearly as if… Oh… as if I could see them!’

Audrey plants herself in the middle of the room and brandishes her stick, ‘All this time I’ve been worshipping ugly meaningless pieces of… Pieces of shit! You wouldn’t understand. How could you? You don’t know anything about art, about beauty, about the value of something that’s way beyond its bloody price!’

‘Whoa! You gonna smash somethin! Sit down lady, you’ll fall over else, an get me accuse of molestin you. An quiet yourself or the neighbours’ll come runnin.’

‘I don’t feel like being quiet. I feel like screaming.’

‘That’s not a good idea.’

‘Not for you, no. But it might be for me.’

‘Look lady, I’m not gonna rob you. You got troubles enough. Sit down man, drink your sherry.’

Audrey sits, knocks back the contents of the schooner and holds it out in front of her. ‘I’d like another please. I feel like getting drunk.’

When he returns and gently presses the cool glass against her fingers she says, ‘By the way, I am not, nor have I ever been, a lady.’

‘What do I call you then?’

‘Audrey.’

‘OK Audrey… What you gonna do now?’

‘I’m going to ask you some questions, and you, young man, are going to answer them.’

‘What makes you think I’m gonna do that?’

‘It’s up to you. You could leave now with my jewellery, but you could have done that half an hour ago. Why didn’t you?’

‘I dunno… Never done this before.’

‘What?’

‘Thieve off anyone.’

‘Really? You appear to be very… practiced… to me.’

‘I read books. You learn a lot off books y’know.’

‘What books?’ Audrey laughs and tries to cover it with a cough.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘I’m picturing a How to series on burglary and wonder if they publish a braille version.’ And then they both laugh.

‘True crime. Detectives. That’s what I like.’

‘But why?’

‘Why detectives?’

‘No. Why set out on a life of crime now?’

‘Need the money.’

‘Drugs?’

‘Y’all the same. Y’all think you know so much. Don’t know nothin.’

He is still and very quiet. The clock ticks and Audrey feels for her watch. Ten past three. She wonders if he will go now, disappearing as suddenly as he appeared.

‘I’m sorry.’ She says. She sips her sherry and waits for him to do or say something.

‘No. I’m sorry… Man…’ He sucks his teeth. ‘Musta scared you… You bein blind an all.’

‘Yes… But…’ Audrey fiddles with the cuff of her sweater trying to imagine the exact shade of yellow and an idea comes to her. ‘Will you do something for me?’

‘What?’

‘Help me sort through my clothes… I’d like to get rid of all the frightful colour that seems to have invaded my wardrobes.’

The man laughs again ‘OK… Lead the way. I’ll bring the sherry.’

They make their way through to the bedroom and she sits on the bed. The man places her glass on the bedside table and tops it up. ‘What’s the rules? Only black? What about a little bit of white?’

‘Just black.’

He sums up each item with a disparaging one-liner: Skirt – looks like you sat on a pizza an rubbed it in. Blouse – Tesco’s finest – guess you spilt curry on this’un. Shiny top, ugly – small chile’s been at this one with his crayons. Jeezus, these are loud pants – the Yanks’d go golfin in these. Orange dress – no way, man – you bin tangoed! And Audrey’s jaws ache with laughter. Soon they’ve amassed a huge pile. She imagines the textile rainbow spilling over the arms of her Lloyd Loom chair and knows who she will ask to help with its disposal.

‘So…’ She says. ‘You were telling me… Why you need the money?’

‘Was I?’

The mattress swells under her as he sits down on the other side of the bed and she thinks how odd it is that he is the first man she has entertained in her bedroom for over twenty years.

‘I wanna go to America.’ He says. ‘My father’s in America.’

Something somersaults in Audrey’s stomach. ‘How long is it since you saw him?’

‘Never met him. Never even seen a photo. He don’t even know I exist, man. But there’s people… Agencies an stuff that’ll help. I read about it.’

‘And your mother?’

‘That bitch – scuse me – gave me away soon as I was born. That white woman didn’ wan no black baby crampin her style…’

‘Sometimes things are more complex than they seem. Circumstances may have forced her hand.’

‘I don know what circumstances is so bad you give away your own flesh an’ blood. This ain’t Alabama in the great depression. This was England, man. 1989.’

Audrey feels dizzy. ‘What’s your name?’

‘You no need to know that.’

‘Don’t you trust me?’

‘Don’t trust no one, Audrey.’ He leaves the room then and she hears the bathroom door open and close.

She wants to tell him about Sydney; how the first sight of him flicked a switch in her brain; how the combining of their blood and sweat, their semen and mucus, triggered something that irreversibly changed her; how she knew she was pregnant for six months and told no one; how she’d only confessed to her husband when her increasing girth became impossible to hide; how she’d told him that he was not the father, that the father’s skin was the texture of ripe plums, the colour of bitter coffee; how it was for this that he hit her; how when she fell, the blow to her head detached retinas already damaged by diabetes and a second pregnancy she’d been warned never to risk; how under those circumstances it had been impossible for her to keep the baby.

She knows that she will tell him nothing.

Yet this stranger who she has known only a few hours has given more thought to how it must feel to be her than her daughter has in half a life time.

He could be her baby. He’s the right age. It would be an improbable coincidence of course, she knows that, but still… What if this was a chance to make amends?

Of course, she has no statistical information from the eighties, no idea how many white married middle-aged women had love affairs with young black American art students.

When Sydney returned to America he was unaware his child was growing inside her. She wrote and told him that it was over between them, said nothing about the baby, the accident, the loss… How angry would he be to learn that she kept so much from him?

‘Hey, Audrey,’ The man is back, his cheer restored. ‘You want this picture hung on the wall again, or what?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Think about it while I clear up the mess.’

He sweeps up glass and broken vase, and replaces the missing pane with a rectangle of cardboard. Audrey decides it would be best to rehang the picture after all. Mary will be none the wiser and nobody can steal the portrait from its safe corner of her memory.

‘I’ve decided. Yes. Can you put it back where it was please. And thank you.’

‘I’ll come back this evenin and replace that pane properly like. Six o’clock.’

‘Will you?’

‘Don’t you trust me Audrey?’

Audrey’s alarm wakes her at half past nine and her head is pounding. Suspecting her hangover will blight the hours ahead she washes down three paracetamols with a pint of water. In preparation for her daughter’s arrival she showers and dresses in what she believes to be a black cashmere polo neck and a pair of tailored black wool pants. Mary pops in on Wednesday mornings at half past ten and stays for precisely fifteen minutes. These duty-laden visits and the once-a-month Sunday roast, for which she is picked up at twelve and dropped home by three, are the only relief from her hermit-like existence. Strange to think she was once quite gregarious.

The paracetamol dulls her headache to an ignorable level and she enjoys two slices of toast with honey. By the time her daughter arrives she feels quite chirpy. Mary’s voice reaches her before she’s opened the back door.

‘What’s been going on here Mum? How did this get broken? Who mended it?’

‘Oh, the wind blew it shut with a bang yesterday and I patched it up myself. I’ve arranged for a glazier to come in later today.’

‘Blew it shut? Was it windy?’

‘There’s often a vortex out there in that passage dear. I’m surprised you’ve never noticed.’

‘Can’t say I have. And who did you say is coming to fix it? How do you know they’re trustworthy?’

Mary fills the kettle.

‘Have you been drinking sherry Mum? Why are there two glasses? Has someone been here?’

‘You know I never receive visitors, Mary. And the glazier will be fine dear, he sounded very nice on the phone. Don’t get het up about nothing. But there is something I’d like you to do for me. I’ve had a bit of a sort through my wardrobes and there’s a pile of clothes on the Lloyd Loom in my bedroom that I’d like you to take to the RNIB shop.’

Mary pads off to the bedroom saying, ‘What brought this on?’

The silence lasts even longer than Audrey anticipates and Mary retreats into the bathroom for a further five minutes.

When she returns she says, ‘Are you sure you’ve not had any visitors Mum? Things have moved. Where’s that large vase gone – the Moorcroft Anemones? It’s always on the far end of the sideboard.’

‘Is it dear? I don’t know. I’m sure I can’t remember. Are you making us a cup of tea?’

They drink their tea in silence, heavy with the unsaid. Audrey poo-poos her daughter’s suggestion that she should call by at six o’clock to coincide with the glazier’s arrival. She is eager to see Mary gone. Once the car has been loaded up with three bin bags of clothes Mary pecks Audrey on the cheek.

Lingering on the back doorstep she says, ‘Are you sure you’re OK Mum?’

‘Yes dear. You can go now. I have things to do.’

‘What things?’

‘That’s for you to wonder, dear… Bye-bye. See you next week.’

She toasts some bread, microwaves a can of baked beans and eats them off a tray balanced on her knee while listening to a George Orwell essay on the radio. After loading the dishwasher she lifts out the jewellery box from under her bed and opens the lid. Perching on the edge of the bed her fingers search for the black velvet pouch that holds her mother’s pearls. She can see the lustre in each sphere, each miniscule imperfection, each pink-gold tinge like a score of tiny captured sunsets. She remembers her own small hands coiling the heavy rope of hair, baring the pale freckled shoulders framed in dark silk, fastening it around her mother’s neck. But the pearls don’t seem to be there and in frustration she tips out the jewellery onto the duvet and trawls through the pile. After half an hour of untangling earrings from necklaces, brooches from chains, she has to concede that they have gone, and she has no idea who is to blame.

She leans back into the headboard, closes her eyes, and mouths a silent prayer for the boy to return at six, as he promised he would.

 

Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson

Chiaroscuro by Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson first appeared in Issue 1 of Bare Fiction Magazine (December 2013).