Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
A Knock at the Door
This prompt comes from Graeme Cumming at GraemeCummingdotnet. It is one he was given at school and started him writing.
Sylvia Patterson has waited for the knock at the door for what seems forever.
Not just any knock. Not the postman or the gasman kind of knock. Or the Jehovah’s Witness couple from over the way.
It will be a knock that is at once confident and threatening. Confident in that the person knocking will know they have the correct house and threatening because they will know – just as Sylvia knows – that the knock will be the beginning of another life, another existence; one in which Sylvia’s certainties will go; one in which Sylvia will no longer know who her friends are; one in which she will avoid the daylight and exist in shadow; one in which she knows death is preferable to living in hell.
Sylvia doesn’t watch the television. She turns it on after her tea and sits on her sofa with the grey-white light turning her skin a pallid sheen. She holds her knitting but she barely manages one stitch let alone a row. Her coffee sits and cools, the oily sheen that covers the surface repeated in her eyes as, once again they are consumed by a thousand yard stare.
Sylvia sits in bed, a book on her lap, its pages remaining unturned. She reads a paragraph and forgets what it says, returning to it with the resignation.
And when they become so overwhelming, these ceaseless churning thoughts, when sleep will not come despite a tiredness so bone deep that it seems her entire frame will crack and shatter under the weight of the tension, she returns to that crate, squatting in the spare room like a demon awoken from its angry sleep. She opens it once again with the same care as might the curator of a precious exhibit and sit by the side, preparing herself to revisit the source of her despair.
Methodically she takes out the letter and the string bound notebooks she has already read. It is here that time is suspended; it is here that she sees the past rapidly crossing the years to join her in the present. How long has she been turning to the crate? How long has she waited for the knock? Millennia? A moment? To Sylvia they are now the same.
She starts with the letter, smoothing it on her lap. She notes the name and address of the law firm and their bland reference. Pointedly she ignores the date.
Dear Mrs. Patterson,
I regret to inform you that on the fourteenth inst, your former husband died in the Maningtree hospital having been transferred there a week before from the Bellevue nursing home. His estate is a collection of small debts and the crate, enclosed. These contain his journals from the time of your marriage which he requests are sent to you, unread.
You will note the crate is open. As executors, we have a duty to collect his assets. Once we assured ourselves of their absence, we delved no further.
Yours sincerely, etc
Sylvia opens a journal, the next one in the sequence. Inside the cover is a label. It is in every journal.
Sylvia, it is only right you see these journals first and you decide what to do with them. They cover the period from the birth of Daphne to my departure.
Sylvia smooths down a page but she doesn’t read anything. Not at first. At first she forces herself to recall all that she has read to date, from that first journal through to this point. She has lost count of the number and the period they cover, but the early years reflect a relaxed happy couple building a full life. Even the birth of Daphne and later the twins, Edmond and Constance bring on no sense of the storm brewing. His early indifference to the children is hidden by their absence from the pages. Is she sensing in his terse words the building tension, the suppressed anger, the start of his fixation with control? Or is this an echo of what she should have seen, should have sensed?
She sheds a tear, as she did at the time when circumstances – his injuries – force her out to work. And those self-same injuries bring on a wall of self-pity at once cloying and, in retrospect, terrifying.
On the floor is a photo album; she opens at the page showing Daphne aged one and she follows her through to nine. Sylvia runs her finger around her daughter’s eyes seeking evidence of her pure and uncorrupted soul. Can she see the seeds of the horror that is brewing, a tightening in the skin, a hollowing out, a sunken glower?
Is there fear? Was it there all along and she missed it? Or, as she now fears herself, she saw it and ignored it. Is that the fear reflected back at her by the television she does not watch; on the pages of the book she does not read; in the mirror she barely glances at; in the knock she awaits?
Sylvia closes the album and returns to her memories. She steels herself to repeat the day she opened that journal, the one the sits where she threw it, unable to contain herself any longer. Sylvia has forgotten when she read that journal; a minute ago perhaps. The words she read seem fresh enough. Page seventeen and time stopped. She shakes as she remembers that page.
Sylvia remembers the day covered by page seventeen. A sun filled day of happiness with a small sad ending. Memorable for barely being memorable. She still remembers what happened and what was said; she remembers what she thought and what she did; and what she didn’t do.
Sylvia plays her memories of that day like a tape on loop, each loop confirming to her that she knew – she couldn’t not know – at that precise point what had happened. And with each turn of the loop, tightening like a tourniquet around her heart she knows that it was then she became complicit. She became part of the journal’s story; any sense that her ignorance protected her became redundant that afternoon. That she knows is when time stopped.
She sees those words without looking, scratched in his spidery writing, embossed in her brain.
Today Daphne is eleven. It is her birthday. She is a woman and it is time.
Sylvia remembers the moment she opened the door, back from work, carrying the presents she had carefully hidden. The strange, unnatural silence. Her husband at the kitchen table reading the paper. The tea on the stove. The absence of noise from the children. The explanation of tiredness, of headaches, of an early night. The sobbing through the bedroom door, his insistence on leaving Daphne be. Her subsequent withdrawal, her reluctance to speak, the sense that she was never alone with Daphne, not once.
Sylvia opens the next journal and reads the label inside the front. She turns the page and reads the date. She has not stopped anticipating what she will read. It is a story that has such a twisted narrative she cannot – she dare not – wonder at its truth. It is a truth that she is sure she has known all along. And she knows that, whatever the truth of that knowledge, everyone else will imagine she knew it all along.
She reads the first entry and pauses. How long after her birthday? She no longer remembers, beyond too long. She thinks she has read the worst and has already questioned why she reads on. She has understood the catalogue of abuse metered out on her daughter that is never expressly stated but which screams at her from the page. She has passed the point of horror, of revulsion and surprise. She wants now one thing, an answer to the question that has haunted her and which she is sure in in these journals.
Sylvia will read them to their conclusion. Today the journal’s revelation is not a surprise. She has known it would be appear eventually.
Daphne must be dead. She has to be. If she were alive I would know.
Sylvia stops breathing. Where is she, she cries silently for the umpteenth time? Tell me. This entry is a month after Daphne disappeared; endless days of police searches and questions; her gnawing pain at the lack of news; public pleas and false hopes; and shattered dreams. How long before her breakdown; Sylvia both a prisoner inside a soft walled room and in her head.
Ahead she knows there must be the removal of the twins into care; her husband’s admission he couldn’t cope and his eventual desertion. It is like reading about the world outside a fog for the first time.
Sylvia pauses and goes back. Sylvia is used to going back. Her mind wanders and speculates and she knows she must miss nothing, nothing beyond those unread pages of her daughter’s initial abuse that she cannot bear to read. She goes back three pages.
I need to make things right. I need to restore order to save Sylvia. I need to find a place where she will not seek her demons. I need to sort out the basement.
Sylvia is hit by a shudder so big she drops the journal. She recalls her husband, despite his afflictions, working on the house: the materials brought in, the new plasterwork, the carpentry, the remodelled bathroom, all taking monumental effort. And yet Sylvia knows with a cruel certainty that, at no stage, did he mention the basement. He knew she hated basements, would never set foot in their basement about which she was phobic since being shut in as a child.
Sylvia stands. Her new phobia, the knock at the door, is stronger than any other. Sylvia walks carefully and deliberately down the stairs to the basement. She pauses and lifts her clenched fist before knocking. As Sylvia enters she feels lighter; this is where the rest of her life begins.