by Michael Owen Fisher
6 FEB 2009
Iain is washing up when a light comes on across the quadrangle. He sees a smudge of movement in the window opposite him and reaches for his glasses. A young woman is clasping a towel to her chest. Iain drops to the floor, scurries on all fours across the lino, and flicks off the kitchen light. The woman pauses in the centre of her bedroom and pads herself dry. Iain’s mouth lolls open as he shuffles on the draining board, attempting to find a clear line of vision through the candles on her windowsill. The rubber gloves trail suds across his fly.
Rachel pulls the duvet further up her body and twists onto her side, so that her head rests a metre from the screen. The TV licks her face with red flecks. “Finished?” she asks.
“Yes, all done,” Iain replies, moving from the doorway of their marital bedroom into the en suite bathroom. He cleans his teeth every morning and evening in their en suite rather than the larger bathroom at the end of the flat. “You looking forward to seeing your mum tomorrow?”
Rachel’s eyes laze on the TV.
“Should be fun. The trip with your mum. Tomorrow.”
She closes her eyes. “Yes.”
“We’ve reached that time again,” the host announces over the game show’s incidental hum.
Iain reaches across the bed. Rachel’s nose twitches, as if she were able to sense her husband’s hand hovering above her arm.
“Goodnight,” he says. “You sleep well.”
7 FEB 2009, afternoon
Iain listens to Barbara’s footsteps echoing up the block. She stops on the third floor landing and drops her head to one side, feigning exhaustion.
“So many stairs,” she says, “don’t know how you do this every day.”
“Good journey?” Iain asks. He bends forward to kiss his mother-in-law. Her cheeks are pink, downy, and cold.
“Not too bad. Slight hold up around Crowborough.”
They look at each other, then at the hall floor.
“How’s she been?” Barbara asks.
“It’s ok.” Iain puffs out a cheek and focuses on the space beside the front door. “You know. We’re doing ok. She’s been drawing a lot. Really got into it, as the doctor suggested. Little sketches of buildings. Skyscrapers. Which is good, I think. A good hobby.”
Barbara opens her arms. She has dyed her hair late-summer brown this morning. Iain smells a trace of ammonia as he presses against her soft pastel wools.
“Little Eiffel Towers,” he says, laughing.
Rachel fumbles with her jacket as she enters the hallway. She looks up and her mouth curls into a rictus. “I’m ready,” she says, “if you are mum.”
Iain drowses on his bed, and the damp winter sun drops low. He thinks about the woman in the window. Her shallow curves and her skin, mannequin smooth. Stray light from the quadrangle wisps across the ceiling and hangs over the black of his eyes.
18 JAN 2008
Rachel is home. She is Iain’s wife of nineteen years. Rachel is a retail consultant for a large pharmaceutical firm. She plays the clarinet, but less often than she would like, watches legal dramas, and enjoys reading novels by Maeve Binchy and Alan Hollinghurst. She is E(xtroversion), (i)N(tuition), F(eeling), J(udging) on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. When she is confused her eyes circle round and round like a child’s toy. She loves cuddles.
Iain forms a letter T with his forefingers, which is the couple’s shortcut for “do you want tea?” Rachel sits on their sofa, caressing the underside of her chin and staring past him into the plane-scarred sky. She fails to see her husband’s question.
“Any tea?” he asks.
“I’m ok for now.”
“Sure? We’ve got some Lady Grey in, or builders’ tea.”
Beside Rachel is a family photo in which Adam has shoulder-length hair. Iain wears an iron grey sweater, the one that made him look thinner but later began to unravel at the sleeves. Rachel wears a skirt that lets through sunlight. She is leaning into her son’s shoulder, laughing.
“Adam’s going to phone this evening,” Iain says.
Rachel moves a hand up and down her cheek. The sun crawls from behind a small cloud, setting off slow-motion explosions on the steel and glass of the office block across the road.
“Good. That’ll be good.”
7 FEB 2009, evening
Here is Iain at his desk, wearing a smart black shirt. Outside is dusky. The windows around the quadrangle glow solar yellow, as if they were soaking up the sunset. A baby’s cry thrums, hangs, and distracts Iain from the parity product graphs on his laptop screen. The girl hurries into her room and tosses her hat onto the bed. Her hair tumbles across her shoulders. Iain scrolls down the jags and spikes of the graphs and pretends to make notes in his writing pad. Her face is flushed. She removes her jeans and heavy winter coat and disappears into a wardrobe. Iain presses his pen to his lips and stares academically into the night sky, his eyes squinting and unsquinting as if he were zeroing in on a thought. The girl emerges from the wardrobe holding a green dress, and her eyes skip across the quadrangle. He exhales. Sighs Jesus. His flat door clicks open.
15 MARCH 2008
Iain watches Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula late at night and is taken aback by the similarity between Dwight Frye’s unhinged expressions as the dark prince’s servant, Renfield, and his wife’s smile.
9 FEB 2009
Iain rummages in his clothes cupboard. Water runs and stutters into confluences down to the towel around his waist. The young woman is curled on a chair in her dressing gown, eating from a bowl. Her bedroom is lit in muted yellow, but brighter light pulses from a TV in a hidden corner of the room. Iain dabs his hairy torso with the towel and waters a plant on the windowsill with his free hand. His midriff has the firm, buttery swelling of middle age. The woman removes her dressing gown and moves about her room in a knee-length negligee, which gleams like sun-drenched fuel. On Iain’s desk are the latest pupilometrics data for the prototype Eos double-page spread, which features every colour in the Eos range: chocolate, crimson, caramello, mother-of-pearl, ivory, coral/aqua. As Iain suspected, crimson and coral/aqua elicit the strongest responses. He holds one of the data sheets, his eyes narrowing in faux-concentration. The towel has made his skin pink. The girl stretches forward to close her curtains, allowing Iain to see the swell of her breasts. She smiles and produces an equivocal movement with her hand, which Iain interprets as a wave. Her curtains close.
15 APRIL 2008
Dr. Gianakos edges the acetate sheet across his desk and waves his pen over Rachel’s forebrain. “It’s here we’ve seen…where we have found something of note. The forebrain, here,” the doctor says, lifting his long fringe and massaging his forehead, “exposed to the bony ridges inside the skull is, I mean, it’s probably the most vulnerable part of the brain.”
Iain nods, his eyes fixed on Rachel’s indigo brain, which the doctor has illuminated on a mobile electronic tablet.
“Rachel has damaged a specific part of these frontal lobes. It’s easy for this to happen in a crash. I mean, the effects are varied, but some damage, temporary or otherwise, is common.” The young neuropsychologist draws a squiggle in the air over Rachel’s frontal lobes. “There is such a high chance of—”
“Yes.” The doctor shifts upright in his chair, and now he nods, encouraging Iain to speak.
“So this part of her brain is affecting her emotions. Has changed her…”
“Yes, exactly. Damage here explains this…this emotional void she has developed.” Dr. Gianakos pauses, anticipating another question, but Iain has glazed over. The doctor’s hand fans and contracts on the desk. His tone becomes more subdued. “You mentioned Rachel’s outbursts. I mean, this is an associated sign. The frontal lobes, one of their jobs is censorship. Screening out this aggression and certain…primitive urges.”
On the doctor’s desk, beside the brain scan and propped on the rear of a framed photo, is a wide-eyed, white-coated bear holding a stethoscope in its paw. Iain leans on the desk and toys with the bear’s fur.
“Yes,” Dr. Gianakos says.
“And in the long run?”
11 FEB 2009
Behind the frosted glass of their flat door is a tall silhouette. Rachel is motionless on the marital bed, except for micro-movements of her eyes across the TV screen. The bell rings for a second time and Iain opens the door.
“Hello sir. I was wondering if I could come in for just a brief moment.”
“Yes, yes, come in,” Iain says. His voice rises an octave mid-sentence. “Tea? Can I get you some tea?”
“No thank you. It’s just a brief visit actually sir.”
Rachel stands in the bedroom doorway, tugging her dressing gown across her chest. The policeman nods hello to her before turning back to Iain. “Is there a room we could pop into briefly, sir?”
21 JULY 2008
Iain has been with Cook & Magris, part of the Praesto Group, for eighteen years, for the previous five of which he has been a creative director. He is respected within the company for his understatement and gently-delivered assessments, especially of product life cycles, and for his analyses of parity products. Today Iain plans to commute to Cook & Magris’s London offices once Rachel and he have finished at the Centre for Clinical Wellbeing. He holds his briefcase between his feet. The cognitive therapist’s room is stuffy even though she has left open her awning window. Through the window waft summer scents: dead air, clean grass and the soapy, carnal smells of plants yielding and opening.
“Rachel, do you feel as though any changes have taken place in you since the accident?” Dr. Leighton asks. She has the poise of someone trained to avoid unnecessary movements and maintains her expression of professional sympathy while she waits for Rachel’s response.
“The main thing is, I don’t worry about things.”
“And is that a good feeling?”
“It is good?”
“Yes. I only worry about how I feel in the morning. Sometimes I feel…bored. I think that’s it. Bored. Or restless.”
Dr. Leighton writes in her notebook. Iain watches the trees rustle outside and pictures the doctor, in black spandex, ordering him to remove his trousers.
“And Rachel, when you say you don’t worry, does that mean you don’t care about anything?”
“That…I think so.”
“Do you care about Iain?”
Both the doctor and Rachel glance at Iain, who is knifing his nose with his fingertips.
“I suppose so.”
“Do you love him?”
“Oh yes. Course.” Rachel’s lips contort into another Renfield Smile. Over the preceding weeks it has dawned on Iain that, although she spots cues and produces appropriate and well-timed facial responses, his wife has forgotten why she smiles.
“And what does the love feel like?”
“I don’t know. It’s good having him around. We’ve been together so many years.”
Dr Leighton’s hand whirrs across her notepad. She nods encouragement, her head sweeping down in slow arcs. Her hair is fizzy red. Iain imagines how it would feel on his skin.
“I don’t know.”
11 FEB 2009
A wedge of amber light shines from the top of the girl’s window, where the curtains have failed to meet. The policeman leans from Iain’s bedroom window, nodding to himself, satisfying himself with something or other.
“Can I ask,” Iain says, “who reported this…what would you call it? Display?”
“Public indecency is the term that tends to be used.” The policeman plays a couple of scales across the sill. “And I think we both know sir, for me to reveal that sort of information is a hostage to fortune.”
15 MAY 1987
Gianni’s’ lighting is low. Rachel and Iain sit opposite each other on a small table near the window. Every curl of lip, change of timbre, and head movement is precise and measured. The restaurant is busy. They watch their waiter hurry back to the kitchen.
“He’s funny,” Rachel says.
Iain imitates the waiter, dipping his head with exaggerated deference, and they both laugh. “Yeah, he sounded like the skeleton from the Scotch tape ad.” He begins swaying his head to a private rhythm.
Rachel raises an eyebrow.
“Tape what you want both night and day,” Iain chants, tapping out the beats between lines in the air. “Then rerecord, not fade away.”
“Rerecord, not fade away,” they repeat in unison. Rachel rocks back in her chair, giggling, hitting an angle where her filigree broach reflects the candlelight onto her face. “He does.”
Iain wears chunky-rimmed Cazal glasses. His hair is wiry and big, and he has a habit of stretching his facial muscles by flexing his jaw to his chest, which action refreshes his eyes but results in his mouth opening in the style of a horror film still or the figure in The Scream.
Rachel tells him about her cat, how she loves that almost every meal in South America is served with popcorn, and of her fascination with tall buildings. Whenever she struggles to remember a name, her nose crimps and puckers, and the small muscles above her eyes knot so that she resembles a person trying to scratch their head without using any hands. Iain steals looks up and down her purple dress and makes an effort to avoid stretching his facial muscles. Gianni’s empties around them.
18 FEB 2009
The exposure data from 2007’s Maia campaign falls into the range Iain envisaged, and, in his opinion, justifies the ramped-up DAGMAR he has been pushing for Amy’s new Eos range. He scrolls down the spreadsheet on his laptop one more time. An architect’s lamp illuminates the prototype Eos spread beside his computer.
To bring a Smile to Your face, and His
Most of the windows around the quadrangle are asleep, but Iain’s attention is caught by a fourth floor flat in the opposite block. In the curtains’ slight opening he sees a shift in the varieties of black, a shadow of shadows forming, then stillness. Iain stands and tilts forward over his desk to improve his view of the window. Seconds later the curtains ruffle and close.
The young woman’s curtains are closed too. They have been for several days, ever since the policeman’s visit. Iain feels beneath the folders and papers in his desk drawer. He pulls out a jiffy bag, on which he has scrawled the woman’s address in thick black felt tip. Inside the bag is a mother-of-pearl Eos bra. The new Eos range has embroidered tulle and a high cotton percentage for maximum comfort, no underwiring, and a macramé lace balconette. Iain runs one hand across its surface and rereads the note he has paper-clipped to the strap. He puffs out his cheeks and reburies the jiffy bag at the bottom of the drawer.
Iain pulls on his pyjama bottoms and leaves the room. The door to the marital bedroom is ajar and from it light leaks into the hallway. He pauses by the door, bends forward and peers through the gap, which is no more than a pupil’s width. Rachel is standing in front of the mirror, examining her body, lifting and kneading her heavy breasts. She mumbles as she jerks a comb through her hair. Iain watches with one eye pressed into the thin band of light. His face hangs post-coma blank. Rachel sets down her comb on the dressing table and turns to face the quadrangle. Her nose crinkles, and she presses herself up against the cold window pane.
Michael Owen Fisher is a 31-year-old writer from Brighton. His stories have been published in several magazines, most recently Riptide and Bewilderbliss. He is working on his first novel.