Shutters pushed back. Sunlight beams through glass. A warm glow fractures over furniture and slashes across lemon coloured walls. The wind-chime tinkles on the deck and the light breeze ruffles through leaves on trees. She doesn’t want to look. She hovers by the couch and tries to walk away. Somewhere in the house the cat meows. Celeste closes her eyes, knowing they will come, she cannot stop them. She must tidy up before they get there. She counts to ten but her feet just won’t move. The cat patters over head and goes towards the stairs. Her movement is swift, faster than the cats as he comes pelting into the room in search of her. Hands gripping the window seat, she leans forward and looks out. Sky so clear it shimmers. Her knees rest against the wooden bench and her breath is trapped in her chest. The cat curls around her legs mewing for breakfast. He doesn’t understand. Or perhaps he does. He stops and sits down at her side, looking up at her with big yellow eyes and head tilted.
She is paralysed. Staring out into the garden wilderness, heart pounding so hard it thumps her ear drums. There’s no one there. Of course there isn’t and yet she watches, waiting for them to appear. She sees the flower bed and decides it needs a revamp. The cat loses his patience and puts a white paw on her bare foot. Reality seeps in. Celeste looks down at her feline friend and apologizes,
“Sorry Marlow, come to the kitchen then.”
As she walks away she cannot resist a quick glance back. A blue jay soars towards the glass and swoops only at the last second to avoid a broken neck. She puts her hand over her mouth and breathes in relief. Marlow has gone ahead. Celeste gives in and follows him.
The kitchen is cold. She shivers. Pots are piled in the sink and dirty pans still rest on the stove. Two days they have been there. She goes to a cupboard and opens the pine door. A selection of cans cram the shelf.
“Tuna today?” she asks. Marlow mews and walks to his bowl. As she twists the can-opener he scratches at the floor impatiently. “It’s coming,” she says bending over and tipping the contents into his dish. He sniffs it and takes a tiny bite as though testing it for poison. Celeste laughs at him and throws the can-opener into the cluttered sink.
Wheels crunch on concrete. She looks up. Are they here? A car horn beeps and a neighbour’s front door slams shut. Voices chatter and the car door clunks then the tires roll away. Not them. She glances around the kitchen. Dollops of gravy splatter the checkerboard floor and a raspberry has been squashed and smeared into a bright red streak by the table leg. Upstairs a floorboard groans. Her heart leaps and clamps her throat tight shut. She gasps. She is running now, through the house, down the hall and up the stairs. Into each room she bursts. Searching frantically, under beds, inside wardrobes, she even opens drawers. Empty. One by one the rooms are checked and eliminated. No one is there. She takes a breath. She would have seen if they had come in.
Marlow is waiting for her by the front door when she returns. He is looking at her with a disapproving glare. She goes to stroke his head but he ducks out of her way and stalks off.
“Time for a little gardening,” she says, more to herself than the cat. She pulls open the hall closet and digs out her gardening gloves and boots. The April air is chilly despite the suns warmth so she tugs on her jacket. As she heads for the back porch she sees Marlow. He is pawing at the dining room door. She freezes then shakes her head and walks by.
The trowel is small but it does the job. Tenderly Celeste draws out the plants and lays them on the grass, roots all stretched out ready for replanting. One by one she sets them down. A seagull swoops low overhead and makes her jump. A lone cloud cuts across the sun and shadows her face. She looks up and frowns, typical for something to try to spoil the day. Her stomach growls. She pulls off her gloves and sets them next to the plants then rises and makes her way back to the house. Celeste considers what she has in the fridge for supper. Perhaps she had better stick with a nice plain cheese sandwich.
In the kitchen she remembers the dishes. She turns on the faucet and sets about clearing the mess. Water gushes, hammering like thunder on pottery and steal. She squeezes detergent into the stream, for a second it turns green then the bubbles begin to rise below. White foam, lime scented and glistening in rainbow streaks, drowns the dirt. Rubber gloves on, she begins to scrub. Harder and harder she scrapes but crust and grease seems determined to stick. “Out,” she says until her fingers are raw. The clock in the hall strikes six. Plates gleam in the strainer and glasses shine. Satisfied at last Celeste takes out the breadboard. Down the hall Marlow is complaining.
“What is it?” she calls but the twist in her stomach tells her she already knows. She goes into the hall. There is a peculiar smell and she wonders if Marlow has an upset stomach. The cat yowls and she considers letting him out. She looks at the hall rug and decides they need a new one. A car outside. She listens. Footsteps on the path. She holds her breath, waiting. Nothing happens. But her appetite is gone and her hands are shaking. She sits down at the telephone desk and steadies her nerve. She glances at her husband’s photograph. He looks young and happy. “It’s alright Marlow,” she assures him, “tomorrow is a new day.” The cat watches as she goes to the dining room door and turns the handle.
Empty trifle bowl sits in the centre of the table. Marlow bursts in and leaps up next to it.
“Get away from there,” she says, “Damn. I forgot that.” She removes the dish and leaves it by the kitchen sink.
Marlow is whining now. She picks him up and turfs him out the back door. He scarpers over the neighbour’s fence. It’s getting dark. ‘Good’ she thinks, “Time for bed.” The phone rings. She stops. The answer machine picks up. The voice at the other end is anxious and tight. It’s only the stupid slut. Humming something nonsensical she blocks out the sound and begins to roll up the hall rug.
The sun is rising. She looks at the closed trench. Fertiliser has darkened the soil. The plants look well and bright. It has taken longer than she thought but Celeste is pleased. She sets down the trowel and sits back on her heels. Her shoulder is pulled and her back aches. She doesn’t care. She calls for Marlow but he won’t come. “Fine,” she says, “You’ll be back when you’re hungry.”
She takes breakfast on the stoop and surveys her work. She glances at her watch, it’s nine thirty. She ought to take a shower then she can go shopping. A car is drawing closer. It pulls into her drive. Someone is knocking at the front door. They’re here. Celeste sighs. Slowly she goes through the house, opens the door, smiles and invites them in. The officer looks all concerned when he asks,
“Mrs Johnson when did you last see your husband?”
“Monday morning,” she tells them, “He’s at a conference,” she adds forcing a look of fear on her face, “Why, has something happened?”
“Your neighbour said she last saw him washing the car on Sunday afternoon, and you drove away alone in the morning. Are you quite sure you haven’t seen him?” The officer asks cautiously.
“I assure you he’s at a conference. I took him to the station myself on Monday. I haven’t seen him in three days.”
“He hasn’t turned up for work all week. His secretary said nothing about a conference mam and she seemed very concerned for his welfare. ”
“The slut’s lying. If there isn’t a conference then he must be with her, they’ve been sleeping together for months,” she can’t keep the venom from her voice. The officer looks at her dirty jacket and muddy shoes.
“I've been gardening,” she says.
“You must have been up very early.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she offers.
The officer suggests a hot drink. Celeste is happy to oblige until she sees the bottle of rat poison and the empty trifle bowl still sitting on the kitchen counter.
(C) 2011 Liah s Thorley; all rights reserved