Someone was in the kitchen again. Cupboard doors opened and closed. Footsteps, not loud but not furtive either. Plates rattled in the sink and a coffee maker gurgled. I could smell butter melting in the frying pan. And that sounded like a food processor. I was pretty sure I didn’t own a food processor.
The morning light shone through the curtains, giving a soft, rosy glow. I shut my eyes. I had a faint recollection of them being cream. I liked cream better. I rolled over to check the time, but the slim, black radio on the bedside table was flashing 12:00. When I pushed back the duvet and swung my legs over the side my feet dangled in mid-air. A pair of shorts lay in a heap on the floor. I pulled them on and stumbled in the direction of the cooking noises.
Doors led off the hallway like the teeth of some intricate key. I opened them in turn. In the bathroom the shower head was dripping. That needs a new washer, I thought. The front door was fastened with a safety chain. The cylinder cupboard was bare. The second bedroom was also empty except for a pile of cardboard boxes in one corner and indentations in the carpet, the ghosts of dead furniture.
I moved on to the living room. Bookcases, a plant stand, a TV and stereo, but no chairs or couch. I guess whoever lived here liked sitting on the floor. Out of curiosity I examined some of the novels. The spines were creased with use but I didn’t recognize any of the titles. When I tugged one out the cover curled slightly as if it had been left in the sun. Someone’s name was written on the title page in round, child-like printing. Each shelf was arranged by colour and size, a neat line of yellow backs next to a clump of taller blues, then green and so on. It seemed like false logic to me, disorder disguised as order. I’m an alphabet person myself.
“Is that you, dear?”
I almost dropped the book. Slipping it back in place, I hurried through to the kitchen.
“So you’re alive after all.”
She flipped over a pancake with a practiced swish. Her apron had the same tiny flower pattern as my grandmother’s. She pointed to a mug steaming on the bench.
“There’s your coffee. I was just about to wake you.”
“Thanks,” I said, blowing on the hot liquid and leaning against the wall in the far corner. “That smells great.”
“You haven’t forgotten your appointment, have you?”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Of course not. What time is it again?”
She clucked at me and turned back to the stove.
“And I hear that fellow might be showing his ugly face around here sometime today. Any truth in that?”
“I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “Just have to wait and see, I suppose.”
She raised her spatula in disapproval.
“He’s a bad egg, that one. You be careful.”
She fixed me with a beady stare.
“You always say that.”
Through the window I could see a strip of lawn and a neglected vegetable garden. A man walking up the driveway towards the house at the rear grinned at me over the fence and doffed an imaginary cap. I waved back timidly. He didn’t look like a bad egg, but you never can tell.
“Here you are, love.”
She smiled as she passed me my breakfast. With a small bow I carried the plate to the dining room. I smoothed out the newspaper, started at the sports page. A large photo showed a player jumping in a line-out, outstretched hands clutching at the ball. I stabbed a slice of banana, smeared it with syrup and read the match report. The Titans had staged a dramatic comeback to defeat the Hawks by a single point. I’d never heard of either of them. I hunted for the cryptic crossword. At least that made sense, so I puzzled over the clues as I finished eating. Not that I could answer any of them.
I looked up at the sound of a tap on the door. A young woman was making unlocking motions through the glass. Her nose bobbed as she stamped her foot, feigning impatience. I tossed the paper aside and went to let her in. Turned the key in the lock but the door wouldn’t open, so I pushed harder. It still didn’t move. I paused for a moment, scratching my stomach, then pulled the handle towards me.
“Hi, darling,” she said.
I breathed in her perfume as she gave me a perfunctory kiss.
“Aren’t you dressed yet? Don’t you think you should hurry up? Just in case?”
“Just in case what?”
She shoved me away.
“I don’t see how you can be so relaxed about it!”
“OK,” I said. “I’m going.”
I dumped my plate in the sink on the way. The old woman was in the back yard hanging washing. In the bathroom I inspected my reflection in the mirror and screwed up my face. My self-image had been taller, more rugged. Less nondescript, anyway. After a quick shower I scuttled to the bedroom for some fresh clothes, peeking through the door first to make sure the coast was clear. The floor of the wardrobe held a row of cartons. Socks, underwear, T-shirts, sorted bachelor style. I picked out some cargo pants and a loose, white top. They seemed to fit all right. In one box I found a pair of dark sunglasses which made me look almost cool. I could hardly see a thing, though, so I slid them up onto my head. On a whim I tucked a pair of nail-clippers into my pocket.
The young woman was waiting out on the veranda. I sank into a creaky deckchair and accepted a bottle of homemade ginger beer. It was good, with a sharp bite that burned my throat. She perched on a canvas stool, glancing frequently towards the road. I tried to think of a safe topic.
“Tomorrow’s Sunday, isn’t it? Do you feel like doing anything?”
“I told you. I’m working tomorrow.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“I hope he doesn’t come.”
She wound a strand of hair around her fingers.
“McIlvoy? Was that his name?”
“Um, something like that.”
“Maybe he won’t,” she said.
“Maybe not. It could be a bit awkward.”
She gave me the same look the older woman had. Then she leapt up and dashed inside. Startled, I banged my head against the wooden crossbar of the chair. Was it something I said? I rested my drink in the hollow of my chest, but with my back to the street I felt exposed, vulnerable. I jiggled the recliner round a few degrees so that I could see the gate out of the corner of my eye. A minute later she returned brandishing two spray-cans.
“Silver paint. Nearly empty, unfortunately.”
She shook it and it made a shucking sound.
“And fly spray. Shame you don’t have any mace.”
“But it’s not going to come to that. I mean, he’s not the violent type. Is he?”
“How should I know? Just being prepared.”
Her choice of weapons wasn’t very reassuring.
“Hey, we should take a holiday,” I said. “Just hop on a plane and lie on a beach somewhere for a few days.”
“Don’t be silly. You know you can’t.”
“No,” I agreed. “You’re right. It was just a thought.”
I rolled the bottle between my palms. There was probably a perfectly good reason why I was a prisoner here. Home detention. Daily dialysis. My finger on the nuclear trigger. A phone rang, an insistent, jarring noise. We looked at each other.
“That’ll be the phone,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to answer it?”
As I walked inside I ran through possible conversations in my head. None of them were pleasant. The ringing grew more demanding as I approached, but just as I reached for the receiver it stopped. I grimaced, waited for ten, twenty seconds for it to begin again. When I turned around she was chewing at her thumbnail. She saw me watching and folded her arms. I went outside, moved my chair a bit more to the left.
“Wrong number, I guess.”
She started picking at her fingers again. I peeled the label off my bottle, scattering flecks of paper onto my trousers.
“Probably just some telemarketer.”
She didn’t look convinced. She stared at the street and I stared at her. Even with the corners of her mouth turned down and worry lines wrinkling her forehead, she was still out of my league. Perhaps I had hidden depths.
The old woman appeared in the doorway, a shopping bag in the crook of her elbow.
“I’ll be off then, dear.”
I looked at her in surprise, then remembered the unfurnished spare room. Of course she didn’t live here. The young woman smiled.
“Bye, Meg,” she said.
“Yeah, bye, Meg. Thanks for breakfast.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Meg, is it?”
I shrugged. What was I supposed to call her?
“And make sure he doesn’t miss his appointment. You know what he’s like.”
She bustled past me as if I wasn’t there, laid a gentle hand on the other’s shoulder.
“You’re sure you’ll be all right?”
“No problem,” I said, gesturing towards the fly spray. “We’ve got Raid. Kills bugs dead.”
One of them whimpered, a stifled mew in the back of the throat. I twisted sideways to see a tall figure standing in the gate. Gaunt, lopsided, in a worn suit and tie, he glowered at us like a malevolent preacher. Meg scurried inside. I pulled the shades over my eyes.
His cane rapped on the concrete as he limped up the path. He stopped a half dozen paces away and looked me slowly up and down. I sipped my ginger beer.
“So you’re him.” He turned to the girl. “Frankly, I thought he’d be more impressive.”
I spluttered into my drink. I’d had exactly the same reaction myself.
“I’m glad you find it amusing. I suppose you’re pretty proud of yourself, aren’t you? But you need to put a stop to this before it’s too late.”
I took out my clippers and started trimming the nails on my left hand, cutting them shorter than was really necessary. He ground the tip of his stick into the lawn.
“The hookers,” he continued. “What’s going to happen to the hookers? And the graves? Have you thought about them?”
The question hadn’t occurred to me. I glanced at the young woman but her hair was dangling across her face. I studied my toes, flexing them back and forth, then clasped my hands behind my head.
“I’ll figure something out.”
His jaw quivered. Then he reached into his jacket and flung a small object onto the deck.
“Is this what you’re after?”
The woman gasped. I leaned over and peered down at the brass key shining beside my chair. I grinned up at him.
“It looks like a key.”
“You’re going to regret this,” he said, jabbing at me with a bony finger. “You mark my words.”
He spun on his heel and stumped away. We watched him leave and someone heaved a loud sigh of relief. I threw her the key, which she placed carefully in the pocket of her jeans. Then she stretched forward, lifted one foot and pressed her big toe against mine.
“You handled that rather well.”
She didn’t have to sound so surprised.
“I think I’ll go and visit Naomi next week.”
I nodded sagely.
“Yeah. That’s a good plan.”
“This calls for a celebration.”
She stood up, patting her hip to check that the key was secure. At the door she paused.
“It is going to be OK, isn’t it?”
I drained the last few drops from my bottle and smiled back at her.
“Of course it is,” I replied. “Probably.”
Someone was in my bed again. The luminous hands of the clock told me it was almost four. My groping fingers closed on the key on the nightstand and a wave of relief swept over me, though I didn’t know why. She had pulled all the blankets over to her side but I didn’t want to disturb her by dragging them back. Deep in my subconscious, like the tickle of an elusive sneeze, I dimly recalled a promise. Scout’s honour. Cross my heart and hope to die. I wished I could remember what it was. Her shoulder rose and fell in the creamy half-light and I listened to her breathing, wrapping myself more snugly in the cotton sheet.
It seemed that this was home. I think I liked it.