There was nothing special about the room. It wasn’t large, perhaps 6 feet by 10. It was on the second floor of the house off one of the bedrooms. Over the years, the house had settled, and the door from the bedroom into the room sometimes stuck, particularly in damp weather when the wood swelled. Occasionally the fit grew so tight that the door could be opened only by throwing one’s weight against it. But that was of little matter. No one ever used the room. Indeed, it seemed almost to discourage use. Years of inattention had left the room dilapidated. The walls had been painted white many years before, but they were now streaked and dirty. Cracks split the plaster of the walls and ceiling. The floor was rough, barely finished boards. A bare lightbulb hung from a cord in the centre of the ceiling, but it often went unused for months at a time. The room was lit during the day by a small window facing the back garden. The houses on the next street over were barely visible through the years of grime that had accumulated on the panes. It would have been difficult to reach the window from the outside to wash it, and there was no reason to make the effort. No one would have stood at it and looked out. Jack and Margaret conjectured that the room might have been intended as a room for a servant, perhaps a nursemaid who slept next to a child’s bedroom.
When they had bought the house forty years earlier, Margaret had been pregnant with Julia. The house was too big for their immediate needs, but they planned to have more children. Margaret always said that she was made to be a mother. Unfortunately there had been complications during Julia’s birth, and Margaret hadn’t been able to become pregnant again. Still, they were quite happy with Julia. She more than made up for the lack of other children.
And they were happy with the house. The extra bedrooms were often filled with guests—both Jack and Margaret had large families and many friends. Margaret liked to be surrounded by people, and she was always inviting people to dinner or to come for the weekend. The house often served as free lodgings for their friends and family when they were visiting the city. Many of Margaret’s friends from her school and university days kept up with her for just that reason. ‘I know Margaret can be a bit overbearing, dear,’ one of them might say to her husband, ‘and Jack’s a bit dull, but really it’s just for a few hours on Saturday. We’ll be at the theatre on Saturday night, and then leave on Sunday after breakfast. And it saves us the cost of a hotel.’ Later, after Julia had married and left, Jack’s mother came to live with them for three years until she died. So they found uses for the extra space.
The stairs leading to the second floor were steep and narrow. The bedrooms on that floor were reserved for younger, more athletic guests. Jack and Margaret had turned one of the bedrooms on that floor, the one next to the empty room, into Jack’s home office. He seldom went up there. Perhaps once a week, he would trudge up the stairs and sit for an hour or so at his desk paying bills or writing letters or working on a report for the office.
About the only use they made of the empty room was as a temporary hiding place for Julia’s Christmas presents. In other people’s hands, the room might have become a storage place and gradually filled with objects that one imagines are still of use, the sort of thing that is gradually forgotten and rediscovered years later when, after much groaning and repeated promises to your spouse, you finally tackle the job of cleaning out ‘that room’. But Margaret did not like clutter. If they had no further use for an object, she threw it away.
From time to time, they would speculate about remodelling the empty room, perhaps into another bathroom. Only the ground and the first floors had plumbing. They had even had a builder in to give them an estimate, but the cost and other, more urgent needs had led them to defer their plans. Gradually the room all but dropped from their consciousness. The woman who came every Monday to help with the housecleaning ran the vacuum over the floor perfunctorily and dusted the window sill when she thought of it, but she devoted very little effort to the room. Still, she spent more time in the room than either Jack or Margaret.
In their forty-fifth year of marriage, at the age of sixty-eight, Margaret died in her sleep. There had been no hint of anything wrong. For someone so lively and full of energy, she passed without commotion, evidently without pain or even a transitory awareness that her heart had ceased beating. That would have disappointed her, had she known. She definitely would have preferred a bit of drama at the end. Oh, she wasn’t morbid and she didn’t enjoy being sick, but, still, she would have like the chance to face her death bravely and be admired for her quiet heroism. She wouldn’t have copied her friend Jane, whose passing came almost as a relief to her long-suffering family and friends. Jane had made sure that everyone appreciated each of her trials and shared all her pains.
Margaret wasn’t like that, however. Margaret would have set an example for others. She would have confronted her death rationally and remained active as long as she could, taking to her death bed only when she could no longer avoid it. She would have provided for Jack and made sure that he was set to continue his life without her. Her daughter and her two grandchildren would have been left with the memory of a woman who suffered in silence and accepted the inevitability of death. She lived according to her principles, and she would have liked to die by them.
But that was denied her. Jack awoke when the alarm clock went off at 6:30. That in itself was unusual. The clock sat on the nightstand on Margaret’s side of the bed. She was usually quite prompt about shutting the alarm off. About a second before the alarm began buzzing, the clock clicked loudly. Both of them were so used to that sound that they treated it as the alarm. As soon as she heard the click, Margaret would press the button to shut the alarm off, even before it had rung. She would throw back the covers, impatient to get her day started, and jump out of bed, calling out to Jack to make sure that he was awake and was joining her in getting up. Occasionally, however, she could be a heavy sleeper. When she failed to turn the alarm off, Jack stretched an arm across her to push the shut-off button. He rolled back, swung his legs out of bed and sat up. He was stiff from sleeping and stretched his arms out and twisted his torso back and forth at the waist to loosen the muscles in his back. ‘Do you want a lie-in this morning, darling? I can get breakfast. You don’t need to get up.’
As he finished speaking, he turned to look at his wife and realised that Margaret’s mouth hung open. A line of drool ran from the lower corner of her mouth. It had dried, forming a crusted yellowish streak across her chin. Her right eyelid was half closed, and only the white part was visible. Jack shook her body by the shoulder. The coldness that met his hand was unexpected. He leaped backward, almost falling off the bed, as he stood up.
He couldn’t think. He knew he should do something, but it was as if those directions hadn’t been written yet. There were no lines for him to speak. There was only a sudden black hole absorbing all possibility of movement in the room. He had never devoted much thought to their deaths, but in the back of his mind he had always supposed that he would be the first to die. Men died at a younger age than women, and he had assumed that would be true of them as well—at some date safely far in the future. He had never imagined that Margaret would die before himself and so without warning.
His first coherent thought was that he should check to make sure that Margaret really was dead and not just sleeping soundly or in a coma. He pulled back the covers to uncover her arm so that he could check for a pulse. As he lifted the covers, he smelled urine. A stain on her nightgown around the area of her groin confirmed to Jack that she was dead. Margaret, even in a coma, would not have ‘soiled’ herself. Soiled—that’s how he thought of it. None of the more common words occurred to him. They were unthinkable in relation to Margaret. After looking at the body for a second, he straightened the straps of her nightgown and covered her face with the sheet. Margaret would not want to be seen in a dishevelled state.
Jack was wearing only the bottoms to his pyjamas. He stood there in the half-light, with his chest uncovered. It was, he suddenly felt, indecent to be naked in front of Margaret’s body. He pulled on his bathrobe and belted it tightly around his waist. But even that was too casual. The dead deserved more formality. He dressed hastily, pulling on the first clothes that he found. It was a Wednesday, and more out of habit than thought, he even put on a tie, as if he were preparing to go to work. It was only when he was fully clothed that he felt able to address the problem of what to do next. This was the sort of matter that Margaret had handled for the two of them. He knew that, unlike him, she would have acted decisively.
He walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the phone in the front hallway. He rang Julia. When she answered, she allowed her annoyance at being disturbed in her morning routine of preparing her husband for work and her children for school to show. When she realised that it was her father, she asked, ‘Is something wrong with mother?’ Only an event of that magnitude would, she instinctively knew, prompt her father to call that early. Her mother would have waited until later and then begun with the warning that she had some bad news. Her father had said only ‘It’s dad’ and then choked.
‘I think she’s dead.’
‘Dead? Are you sure?’
‘Yes. She died in her sleep, I think.’
‘Did you call for an ambulance?’
‘No, not yet. I thought you should know first.’
‘Raymond and I will be over immediately. Hang up and dial 999. The police or someone will come.’ Julia rang off. After a few seconds’ thought, she picked up the phone again and dialled 999 herself. She suspected her father might be reluctant to take a step that would inevitably initiate a sequence of actions leading to official recognition of her mother’s death. When the operator answered, she gave the information quickly and efficiently. The operator understood her brief explanation of why she and not her father was calling and promised to relay the information to the relevant local authorities.
Julia was very much her mother’s child. Margaret would have been proud of the way she handled the ‘crisis’. Indeed, that word ceased to apply as soon as Julia appeared on the scene. By the time she and her husband arrived an hour after her father’s call, the local ambulance crew and police had confirmed that Margaret was dead. Jack had refused to let the body be moved until Julia had seen her mother. More to satisfy her father than herself—Jack was insistent that she look at her mother one final time—she had walked upstairs to the bedroom and viewed her mother. The police constable who accompanied her upstairs stopped at the bedroom door. ‘I’ll let you go in by yourself, Miss,’ she said as she opened the door.
Julia resented being escorted through the house she had grown up in and at being given permission to enter her parents’ bedroom by an outsider. What particularly angered her was that she was being forced into observing others’ proprieties. Without replying to the constable, she walked into the room. The curtains were still pulled and the ceiling light was off. Julia switched it on and then stepped to the bed. She lifted the sheet covering Margaret’s face and stood there looking at. She felt nothing. Death had already taken her mother’s person and left this husk. The body lying there wasn’t her mother, but the public waiting beyond the door had expectations of how one should behave. She suspected that if she whirled about suddenly, she would discover the constable observing her. When she spent what she thought was enough time to satisfy the proprieties, she stepped away and then opened the drapes and raised the shades. It was silly to think that the light might bother her mother’s corpse. The only reason for leaving the room dark, she thought, was to spare others a clear look at what lay in the room.
She briskly led the way downstairs and then arranged for the body to be transported to the local hospital mortuary for the autopsy. She dealt with the police and gave them the information that they had been trying to elicit from Jack. The commotion in the street had drawn attention, and several neighbours had wandered in seeking information. They had stayed to comfort Jack. Julia found the house teeming with more people than necessary. She quickly sorted them out. She thanked the neighbours and sent them off with the whispered excuse that her father needed time to be alone. She deputed her husband to call the priest at Saint John’s and initiate arrangements for the funeral. When everyone had left, she made her father a cup of tea and sat him down at the table in the dining room while she began dealing with the task of notifying others.
For Jack, the next few days were haunted. Margaret was still present in the house in so many ways. There would be a movement at the corner of his eye, and, his mouth automatically composing itself into a half-smile of greeting, he would turn toward it, expecting to see Margaret and hear her speak to him. Margaret seemed even more present in the house for her absence. If she had merely run to the shops, he wouldn’t have noted her absence and would have taken her presence for granted. It was only because she was now truly absent that she was so extraordinarily present to him.
She left behind so many reminders of her unfinished life. The book she had been reading lay on her nightstand. He opened it at the bookmark and read the first paragraph on the page. The words made no sense to him. He replaced the bookmark and set the book back down. He wasn’t familiar with the title and decided that he would read the book later to be closer to what she had been doing.
He found the secateurs, the blades open, on the small table next to the back door. She must have brought them into the house to clean and then left them on the table to dry. He carried them out to the shed in the back garden and hung them from a hook above the shelf she used when potting plants. Tacked onto the wall of the shed, he found a list in her handwriting of things to do in the garden. As usual, when she had finished a task, she had drawn a neat line through the notation. The last task she had done was to prune the azaleas.
Jack thought he could remember looking out a back window the afternoon before Margaret died. The sunlight reflecting off the secateurs had caught his attention, and he had paused to watch his wife as he sipped at his mug of tea. As always, Margaret was focused on what she was doing and hadn’t seen him standing there. With her strong hands, she pushed aside the foliage beside an extruding branch so that she could reach down into the plant to clip off the too-long branch and prune the azaleas into well-shaped mounds. As she cut off each branch, she placed it on the neat pile to one side. Later she would have carried the clippings to the bin.
But the garden had been her major activity. He might, he admitted to himself, be remembering only a habit and not a particular day, not her last day in the garden. Had she said anything? She probably had; it was her custom to announce what she had accomplished. She would have looked in on him in passing and said something like a brisk ‘Well, that’s the azaleas settled then. They won’t bother us again for a few weeks.’ And he would have looked up briefly and nodded and asked if she wanted a cup of tea. But neither of them would have seen any significance in the act or the conversation. It would have been just one of thousands of similar interactions.
He left the list on the wall. He would have to finish those tasks alone now. The prospect of continuing his life without Margaret left him numb. He grieved for Margaret, and he wished her death undone. But inside, more than anything else, he felt unmoored and adrift. This must be, he thought, what it’s like to feel shell-shocked. The mind refused to confront what it was experiencing.
Jack slept in one of the guest bedrooms for the first few nights. The mattress on his and Margaret’s bed had been stained, and Julia had arranged for its removal. She had discarded the sheets after washing them. A new mattress was delivered two days later. Julia made the bed up, but Jack continued sleeping in the guest bedroom. The first morning after his wife’s death, he had ventured into their bedroom to dress, but he had felt that he was intruding. When Julia went out, he moved a few of his clothes to the bedroom he was using.
The day before her mother’s funeral, Julia sent her father away with her husband and devoted several hours to sorting through her mother’s things. The jewellery she took for her daughter. The clothes that were still usable she sent out to be cleaned and then donated to charity. Except for a few photos and trinkets, Margaret had been removed from the house by the time Jack returned in late afternoon.
Julia hadn’t told him of her plans, and the first inkling he had of what she had done came when he opened the front door and found four boxes that she had left there for her husband to carry to his car. The boot of her own car was filled with Margaret’s possessions.
She and the cleaning woman had prepared the house for the post-funeral visitors. All the everyday clutter had been removed, and every surface gleamed. The rooms smelled of a citrus scent, and the carpet still bore the marks of the sweeper. Jack hesitated to step into the lounge for fear of leaving footprints.
When he had climbed the stairs to the first floor, he found that his and Margaret’s bedroom had been turned into his bedroom. Margaret had never devoted much attention to her appearance, and the top of her dresser had held only a brush and a comb. Now even those were missing. The wood of the dresser had been polished and the mirror above it had been cleaned. Jack pulled open a drawer and discovered that it was empty. Margaret’s wardrobe had been emptied of all but a few hangers. The covering on the bed had been pulled taut. Not a wrinkle suggested that anyone slept in the bed. The book Margaret had been reading had disappeared. The room might as well have been one of the guest bedrooms for all the information it supplied about the inhabitant.
It wasn’t until he saw the empty wardrobe and dresser that the finality of Margaret’s death struck Jack. He closed the door to the bedroom. More than anything, he wanted to bar the door against further intrusions from Julia. What she had done had to be done, of course. He knew that. She wasn’t to blame. Clearing up after the dead was something one had to do, and she had spared him the necessity of doing that. For her, it was an act of love for him, and a final service for her mother. Margaret had done the same when his mother had died. He supposed their mothers had been the ones to do it for their parents. He wondered if that particular task was always left to women. Generations after generations of women putting lives away. The husbands and sons took care of the property, he supposed. They were the ones who dealt with the lawyers and the courts and closed out the final accounts. But they left the disposition of the personal goods to the wives and daughters.
Still, he would have like to touch Margaret’s possessions one final time, to say goodbye to them in that way. He would have welcomed the opportunity to risk that encounter. At least, he thought, he wanted to want that encounter.
He sat down on the bed—on ‘his’ side of the bed, his mind noted—and stroked the coverlet above Margaret’s pillow. He hadn’t cried yet, hadn’t mourned Margaret in that way. He knew that that was expected, but for him tears would be an admission that Margaret was truly dead. And that was an admission he was not willing to risk. He felt that against his will he had been cast as one of the lead players in a familiar drama. He knew what the role demanded, what lines he was to speak. The other actors were on stage and had spoken the cue for his entrance, but he stood stubbornly in the wings, refusing to make his entrance.
A short time later, Julia called up the stairs that she was leaving. He walked downstairs to the front entrance and thanked her for all she had done. She reminded him that they would arrive around 8:00 the next morning and then walk to the church for the funeral mass. ‘I shall be ready,’ he assured her.
The service was attended by over a hundred people, all of whom were quite sincere in their expressions of loss. Jack and Julia accepted their condolences with the proper display of sobriety. Margaret and Jack were enthusiastic gardeners, and Margaret had loved flowers and kept the house filled with them. Jack sent his granddaughter out to the yard to pick a bouquet of flowers right before they left for the service. She carried them stiffly out in front of her—she was worried that they might drip and stain her new dress—as they walked to the church. The five chief mourners were dressed in sombre black. The neighbours were much impressed by their gravity and dignity. As one of them remarked, ‘It would have pleased Margaret.’ When they reached the church, the granddaughter placed the flowers in the coffin, over Margaret’s folded hands. She stepped away from the coffin and bowed her head in prayer. She was a pretty child, and Margaret’s sister Emily was overcome by the sight. Her loud sobs threatened to disturb the even tenor of the ceremony. and Julia had had her son escort the grief-stricken woman out of the church so that she could recover. The tea in the parish hall was all that it should be, which is to say that it was no more than Julia thought appropriate to the occasion.
No one could recall Margaret expressing a preference, but following what they imagined were her wishes, they arranged to have her body cremated and the ashes scattered over the sea. On the appointed day, Julia picked up the urn at the crematorium and drove to Harwich. Jack went in his own car, and they met in the car park next to the harbour. When the boat they had hired reached open waters, Julia uncapped the urn and handed it to her father. Jack stepped to the stern and bent forward over the railing. He tipped the urn over. The stream of ashes trailed out behind the boat, a momentary trail upon the water, rising and falling with the waves. It was quickly lost to view as the boat turned and made its way back to the harbour. After a minute, Jack realised that he was still holding the urn. He dropped it into the water and watched as a wave broke over it and filled the cup with water. It sank. He turned away.
Jack looked up at the sky and then surveyed the shore. He remarked that Margaret would have liked the day. Julia replied that she was glad that it was pleasant and agreed that her mother would have approved. When they reached the car park, Julia kissed her father on the cheek and the two of them drove off separately, to their own homes.
Thus, Jack found himself a widower at the age of sixty-eight. He was still healthy, a touch of arthritis and an occasional ringing in his ears being his only complaints. Neither Julia nor he even contemplated that he would give up the house. It was, of course, far larger than he needed, but then it had always been larger than they needed, even when Julia had lived there.
As far as others could tell, Jack adjusted smoothly to the loss of Margaret, although he didn’t in fact think of it as a loss—that’s what others called it. An all-purpose euphemism, ‘your loss’. Jack knew that he was supposed to grieve, and when others asked how he was, he would look sad and say something brave like ‘Oh, I’m getting on. But I will miss Margaret. She was a grand person, and they’re not many like her.’ But he always unconsciously deferred the act of missing Margaret to the future, as if it were something he would get around to eventually.
It was not that he hadn’t loved Margaret. Their passion before their marriage had been genuine, and the intensity of its demands surprised both of them. Indeed, they long suspected that they were unique in the degree of their love for each other. Certainly no other couple of their acquaintance betrayed that they felt the same urgency to be together. The excitement had continued for several years into the marriage. It had gradually been replaced by a quiet sense of well-being and satisfaction. They were made to be married, and married to each other. They ‘fit’, as they put it. But for Jack, their marriage, especially its daily routines, became a habit. It was there. Now it was no longer there, and for the first time in years there was no trusted guide to tell him what to do. He knew how others thought he should act, and so that’s how he acted when circumstances dictated. But when he was alone and allowed himself to think about it, he felt rudderless.
The day-to-day adjustments were easy. The markets provided prepared food that he could heat in the microwave. Margaret had always made sure that they ate the recommended amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the habit remained with him. The salad he simply shook out of the bag it came in and slathered with bottled dressing. He ate a banana every morning with breakfast and another piece of fruit at lunch. He allowed himself one glass of red wine with dinner. He kept the few rooms that he used neat, and the cleaning woman visited once a week to do the rest. He took a walk every day. He occupied himself by working in the garden during the day and reading or watching the telly at night.
Once a month, Julia invited him for dinner. At first, she asked him to stay overnight, but he turned down each invitation with the excuse that she had enough to do and didn’t need the extra bother of caring for him. Julia did not insist. She told herself that her father preferred to sleep in his own bed. Eventually she ceased to ask.
His neighbours soon became accustomed to the absence of Margaret. When they saw that Jack was capable of caring for himself, they relegated him to the category of someone they greeted on the street as they passed by. Their visits quickly declined in number, and little by little they, too, ceased.
So Jack was left to himself. It happened so gradually that he didn’t remark on it. His days were full with the tasks he set himself and the quiet amusements he allowed himself. He had never been as actively sociable as Margaret. She had been the one who initiated the parties and invited the guests. Confronted with guests for dinner, he had supplied them with drinks and carved the meat. He was thought an ‘easy man to talk to’. But socialising had been more an activity that he was happy to carry on because Margaret had enjoyed it so much. It was not something he sought out for himself. In fact, he rather liked quiet.
He was careful not to let himself go or lower his standards. He continued to observe Margaret’s rules about dress. He always wore clean clothes and dressed appropriately for the weather and the occasion. He never ate the prepared meals from their containers. He set the table each meal with the necessary plates and silverware. He poured the wine into a proper glass. He sat in the same spot at the table that he had always occupied. He felt that it was important not to become careless and slapdash about such matters. He ate slowly and tried to savour his food. When he finished, he carried the dishes to the kitchen and did the washing up. Then he made himself a small pot of tea and drank it while reading or watching the television. He kept regular hours. He was in bed by 11 each night and up again at 6:30 in the morning.
The habits of a lifetime were built into each room in the house. Over time a certain decorum appropriate to each of them had gradually evolved. There was a chair for watching the television. Margaret had read an article on the subject in one of her magazines, and the chair was set at the right distance from the screen so that he would not damage his eyes. There was another chair for reading, next to a ‘good, strong light’, ‘a proper light for reading’. There he read the paper each morning, turning each page in succession from the front of the paper to the back, reading every article that interested him from beginning to end. He took a shower every evening before going to bed, carefully spreading the damp towels on the heated drying rack that Margaret had had installed. He aired the bed linens for an hour each morning before making the bed.
It was not that he valued these actions. They had been Margaret’s routines. When they had first married, he had sometimes been amused by her insistence on her ‘domestic dogmas’ as he thought of them. But neither observing them nor rebelling against them had been important enough to him to warrant comment. It was enough that she liked things to be done in a certain way. A protest would have given them a meaning that they did not deserve.
He had behaved in a similar fashion at work. The office had its routines, and he followed them. None of them were of any consequence. The world in which one found oneself demanded that one behave in a certain manner, and Jack had done so. A colleague given to remarking on others’ behaviour had once raised a laugh by commenting that Jack was so much a creature of habit that he even had the same dream each night starting at 2:00 am and lasting until 2:18.
Toward the beginning of each month, Jack would climb the stairs to the second floor, pull his chequebook from the top drawer on the right, and pay the bills. After detaching the payment coupon, he carefully noted the number of the cheque and the date on the remaining portion of each bill and deposited it in the proper file folder. He then removed the oldest bill and then put it through the shredder. Except for the statements he needed for tax purposes, he kept the paid bills only for six months. As he put each bill into its envelope, he placed a stamp on it and sat it in the out tray on his desk.
The Saturday he chose for paying the bills in February was damp and raw. The weather report on the radio had predicted a day of steady rain. When he finished paying the bills, he straightened the pile of envelopes. He would carry them downstairs and then post them in the box on the corner early Monday morning, before the van arrived to pick them up. He sat for a while and looked out the window. The wind was blowing against that side of the house, and the raindrops seemed to emerge from the air a few feet outside the window and then dash against it.
Behind him, he heard a branch scrape against glass. The noise came from the empty room. He opened the door to the room to check that the window was undamaged. When he switched on the light, a shock rolled through his body and left him feeling faint and lightheaded. He grabbed at the wall for support. He knew in his mind that the room was empty, but when he had turned on the light, its essential emptiness struck him with the impact of physical blow. All the usual objects that buttressed his existence were absent, not even thinkable in this space. The nothingness of the room was palpable. His stomach cramped and bent his body violently forward at the waist. He quickly backed out of the room and slammed the door closed.
He stumbled over to the desk and fell into the chair. His heart was beating wildly, and the bile rose in his throat. When he lifted his teacup to wash his mouth out, the cup almost slipped from his hand. His hands were covered with sweat. He pulled his handkerchief from a pocket and wiped them off. He looked around the room to reassure himself of its solidity, but the familiar objects refused to give him that. They seemed to have changed into something alien and strange in the few seconds he had been in the room. The desk lamp’s shade was now green with a gold border. Had it been green before? He couldn’t remember. And he was certain that he had not left the biro sitting atop the desk. He remembered putting it back into the tray in the central drawer of the desk.
He swivelled around in the chair and stared in fright at the door to the empty room. A streak of light showed around the edges of the door, and he realised that the light was still on. He felt he emptiness of the room invading his office along the rays of the light. He had to get out, to escape. He gripped the edges of the desk and pulled himself upright. His legs were unsteady and felt unequal to the weight pressing down on his shoulders. He fell against the jamb of the door and had to hold himself up. He tottered into the hallway but then had to sit down on the floor. He reached out and pulled the door to the office shut and then crawled down the corridor to the stairway. A wave of nausea passed through him as he thought about trying to walk down the stairs. He knew his legs would not support him. The thought of attempting to stand up and then falling down the stairs terrified him. His ears were filled with the pounding of his blood. He was shivering as if he had a fever.
The light coming through the windows at both ends of the hallway on the floor below outlined the opening at the bottom of the staircase, but it penetrated no further than the first few steps. Jack pushed himself up until he was sitting and then eased his body down the steps one by one. He had to lean against the wall and slide over each riser. The light at the bottom beckoned. It seemed a haven from whatever had attacked him in the empty room. He clung to the thought that if he could only make it to his bed and lie down for a while, he would recover. As he neared the bottom of the staircase, he felt the blackness lifting a bit. He pulled himself up by bracing himself against the wall and staggered into the bathroom, vomiting into the toilet. The remains of his breakfast splashed into the bowl and splattered onto the seat.
He slumped to the floor, with his arms wrapped around himself. He was sweating with fever yet he couldn’t stop shivering with cold. He wanted to phone for help, but every time he tried to move, the nausea swept through his body again, leaving him heaving and attempting to bring up something more from his empty stomach.
His physical suffering was nothing next to his mental anguish, the fear of the absolute nothingness that occupied the empty room upstairs. A hole has boundaries, but nothingness had no limits. It wasn’t limited by the room, that was simply where it was at the moment. He shook with fright. Of being alone. Of being finally nothing.
He lay on the bathroom floor, with the cold tiles against his cheek. His mind stopped. Time passed. He gradually became aware that somewhere someone was whimpering, a lost child deserted by his mother. He thought that perhaps he should try to help the child. He opened his eyes and stared at the room. A few feet in front of him, a green bath mat was draped over the side of the tub. He had used it that evening before when he had taken a shower. The bathroom smelled of vomit, and that made him feel queasy again. He pushed the thought away and drew himself up. The bathroom was a mess, but at the moment he didn’t have the strength to deal with it. He washed his mouth out and rinsed out the sink. He flushed the toilet by leaning on the lever with all his weight. He still felt weak and exhausted, but he was able to make it to his bed and lie down. The pillowcase felt cool and smooth against his face. He pulled the blankets up around his body, not even bothering to remove his shoes. It didn’t matter if he got the bedclothes dirty. He could wash them later. He needed to rest.
He must have eaten something bad for breakfast, he decided. Perhaps the bread had gone mouldy or there had been some chemical on the banana, something like LSD, that had caused a hallucination. Maybe some stray germs on the glue on one of the envelopes that he had licked. That was the only thing that could explain that vision. Nothingness. And the horror. That was mad. It was only an empty room. There was nothing in it. At least nothing harmful. He just needed to rest a while, then he would be all right. He burrowed his head into the pillow and pulled the covers tighter around his body, creating a warm nest for himself.
He felt much better when he awoke several hours later, better than he had felt for days. The rain had stopped but the grey light coming through the bedroom windows told him the day was still overcast. He eased himself out of bed and stood up carefully, just to make sure that his legs would support him. He took inventory of his body, searching for any sign that he was still unwell. As far as he could tell, he was fine. Whatever had caused the problem had struck without preamble and then disappeared as quickly as it had attacked.
He straightened the covers on the bed and then tackled the mess in the bathroom. He pulled the rubber gloves and the sponge and the cleaner from the cabinet under the sink and scrubbed the sink and toilet clean. He put the floor rug to rights and refolded the towels until the edges aligned and they hung square on the rods. As he passed the staircase to the second floor, he remembered that he had left the envelopes with the bill payments in them on his desk. When he opened the door to his office, he saw that he had left the light on in the empty room.
It was a measure of his recovery, he assured himself, that he felt no hesitation in opening the door to the room. He felt no fear, sensed nothing of the horror behind the door that had assailed him earlier. It was, in any case, better to face such things immediately and not let them develop into a complex. He swung the door open confidently. Still, he was relieved to find that it was only an empty room, the light hanging by its cord from the centre of the ceiling.
The room was still empty, and he wondered why they had never bothered to use it. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been in the room. Its emptiness annoyed him slightly, as if he had failed somehow to use the house fully. A simple wooden chair sat beside the far side of the desk. It had been intended for the use of anyone who might have reason to visit his office. As far as he could recall, no one ever had sat in it. Once or twice a year, Margaret might stick her head into the office and say something to him if she were passing by, but she had never sat down to talk with him. Talking was something they did downstairs, in the living room or at the table while they were eating or in bed as they were reading or in the car. The office had never been a place for conversation.
Jack carried the chair into the empty room and set it against the long wall opposite the door. It made the room feel occupied. He knew it was silly, but he felt that having something in the room would prevent a return of the ‘odd spell’, as he had labelled it to himself. He forced himself to stand at the window and look out, just to prove to himself that no more horrors lurked in the room waiting to attack. He should, he decided, do something with the room. It was a waste to let it go unused. When he left, he didn’t pull the door shut.
Several weeks later, on a Saturday, he was sitting in the living room trying to read. The children in the neighbourhood were playing loudly in the street. The noise was quite intrusive, and he found he couldn’t concentrate. His office was at the back of house, and it was far enough away from the street that it would be quieter, he decided. He marked his place in the book and picked up his coffee mug and carried it to the second floor. The desk light was too dim for comfortable reading. After reading a few pages, he gave up on it and brought a standard lamp from one of the bedrooms. There was only one wall socket in his office, and the cord on the lamp was short. He positioned the light as close to his desk chair as he could.
That made the light much better, and he sat down to read at his desk. But he had to move his chair so that he could place his book under the light. After a half-hour or so, his lower back began to feel stiff from the unnatural position in which he was forced to sit. He was used to sitting in a softer chair to read, one that allowed him to shift about. He tried the chairs in the two bedrooms on the second floor, but neither of them felt particularly right for reading. They were more the type of chair one had because every bedroom should have something to sit on, but they were not chairs one could endure for more than a few minutes. He descended to the first floor and finally found a suitable candidate in Julia’s former bedroom. It was a tight fit getting it up the narrow staircase to the second floor, but he persevered and was able, with some effort, to get it to his office. He would, he reminded himself, have to replace it with one of the chairs from the second floor.
After looking at the chair, he decided he needed a table to hold his cup, and something to rest his feet on. Margaret had only tolerated the hassock in the living room when there were no visitors, but he liked pushing his shoes off and putting his feet up while he read. A trip to one of the bedrooms supplied the table. The hassock was on the ground floor, and he didn’t feel like hauling it up to the second floor. Besides he would need it downstairs. He found a sturdy box at the back of a closet and brought that to his office to use temporarily. A cushion from one of the beds provided a padded surface. He made a mental note to himself to shop for a footstool the next time he went out.
His office was getting crowded with furniture, and there wasn’t much room to stretch his legs. It was then that he remembered the empty room. Well, it wasn’t really empty any more, he thought to himself, not since he had put the chair in it, but it did have the necessary room to stretch out. He moved the chair and table and the lamp into the empty room. It was the work of a few minutes to arrange everything to his satisfaction. He sat down and began reading. When he finished the book, he was surprised to find that several hours had passed. It really had been quite a good idea to use the room next to his office for reading. A new footstool would make it perfect. He decided to buy one in the morning, and a rug for the floor too. It would be more comfortable if he decided to slip his shoes off while he was reading. The unfinished boards of the floor looked like they would splinter easily.
He picked up his mug, and as walked downstairs to make his supper, he reviewed the food he had in the fridge. None of it appealed to him. Perhaps, he thought, he might eat in a restaurant. He hadn’t done that for a while, not since Margaret had died. There was that Italian place near the old town centre. He hadn’t been there for two years, but it had always been reliable. Yes, he would try that, he decided. He hummed to himself as he changed to go out.
The empty room (he found it hard to think of it by any other name) quickly became his favourite place for reading. He bought a second electric kettle and installed it in his office along with a cafetière, a teapot, and a supply of coffee and tea, so that he didn’t have to walk downstairs every time he wanted something to drink. A few days later, he added a packet of biscuits in case he got hungry. And it was no trouble at all to make himself a sandwich and take it and a piece of fruit with him up to the second floor. It saved him from having to walk down the stairs and back up again when he wanted his lunch. Rather like packing a lunch to eat in a lay-by when one was travelling.
Jack found that he quite enjoyed sitting in the room. Sometimes he didn’t even read. He would leave the light off and just sit in the chair looking at the sky visible through the dirty window. The room made no demands on him. It had no history. It didn’t expect him to follow a routine, because there was none to follow. He found the autonomy of the room peaceful. It was cut off from society and relations and all bonds. It was the first time in years that nothing was required of him. The possibilities for action were open, and yet at the same time closed. He could do anything. Or he could do nothing. It was the anarchy of total freedom. And the room had no memory. If he chose to do one thing today, it was not necessary for him to do the same thing tomorrow. The room imposed no consequences on his behaviour.
Mrs Abbott, the cleaner, noticed the change the first week. ‘Are you going to be using that small room off your office now? I see you’ve moved some furniture in there.’
Jack lowered the newspaper. He was sitting in the reading chair in the living room while she cleaned the house. He had never noticed before how uncomfortable it was. The seat was too low, and it made his knees ache. And without a fire going, the room was damp and cold. He nodded in answer to Mrs Abbott’s question. ‘Yes’ was all he said. He didn’t feel that it was necessary to justify his decision to her, and he didn’t want to discuss it. ‘I’m going out now. Will you make sure that the house is locked up when you leave?’
He found himself forgetting the habits of a lifetime when he sat in the room. One morning when he had entered the room and sat down, he was surprised to find that he had left his coffee mug on the table overnight. When he lifted it, he noticed that a black ring had formed around the top edge of the coffee remaining at the bottom of the mug. A few months before, such carelessness would have horrified him. His response was to buy a supply of disposable cups so that he didn’t have to bother with washing up.
The carelessness even crept out of the empty room into his office. It was a nuisance to have to carry the cafetière and teapot down to the kitchen to clean them out, and he had soon abandoned them. He bought jars of instant coffee and powdered cream for his office, but their chemical taste disgusted him. So he contented himself with making tea with tea bags. Not the best, but drinkable. And Mrs Abbott emptied the waste bin each week and put in a new liner. So he didn’t even have to take the used cups and teabags elsewhere to dispose of them. He schooled himself to take the electric kettle to the first floor when he left the empty room to go to bed. He filled it from the bathroom tap every morning before making his way upstairs.
Gradually he ceased to leave the room for what seemed increasingly trifling tasks. The phone rang about three o’clock one day. He lowered his book and thought about answering it. But it was in the front hallway down two flights of stairs and most likely the caller would ring off before he got there. In any case, it was probably just a recorded message urging him to buy something. While he sat there pondering what to do, it ceased in mid-ring. Fifteen minutes later when the phone rang again, he found it easier to ignore.
Just as, at first, he found it easy to ignore the doorbell when someone pushed it an hour later. It wasn’t until he heard footsteps in the front hallway that he began to pay attention. ‘Dad, are you there?’ Julia’s voice was filled with anxiety. Jack leaped up. He switched out the lights in the empty room and pulled the door to as quietly as he could. He tiptoed to the head of the stairway, thinking that perhaps he could make it to the first floor before Julia discovered him and pretend to be awaking from a nap in his bedroom. He did not want her to learn what he had done to the empty room. She would not approve, he knew.
‘He’s not here, mum.’ His granddaughter sounded aggrieved. ‘Can we go now? I don’t want to miss Music World. It comes on at 5:10. If we leave now, I can still see the beginning.’
‘I just want to check around. Something may have happened to your grandfather.’
Jack trod noisily down the stairs. ‘I’m up here, darling. I was clearing out some old files in my office.’
As he rounded the final bend in the stairs, Julia looked up at him with concern. His granddaughter looked unhappy. She was going to miss her programme now. ‘I was worried, Dad. I rang twice earlier, and there was no answer. I thought something might have happened to you.’
‘I was out walking for a bit. I only back a while ago. Would you like some coffee or tea? I think I have some of those biscuits you like, Alice.’
‘I don’t eat biscuits anymore, Grandfather. They’re not good for you. Too much sugar.’ Her mouth grimaced in disdain. Sometimes, Jack felt, she could be an ugly child.
‘We can’t stay, Dad. I just wanted to check to make sure you were all right.’
‘I’m fine, dear. Thank you for coming over, but there’s nothing to worry about.’ More than anything Jack wanted them to leave. Thankfully, he apparently would not be expected to feed them tea.
Julia turned around and opened the door. Alice scurried out and up the path to the street. She quickly leaped into the car and slammed the door. She didn’t want to risk her mother changing her mind. Julia looked around, inventorying the front garden. ‘The flower beds need weeding, Dad, and the shrubs need to be pruned.’ She looked at him speculatively. ‘I suppose now that you have to do all the gardening by yourself, it’s getting to be a bit much. Mother used to take care of so much of this. Perhaps you need to think about getting someone in to help.’
Julia’s look was not pleasant, Jack thought. It was as if she were wondering if he was still capable of taking care of himself. ‘That’s on my schedule for tomorrow.’ Jack hoped that he sounded convincing. He hadn’t even thought about the garden for days. And Julia was right. The front was beginning to look untended.
He stood in the front door until Julia drove off. He waited until she had turned the corner before closing the door. He changed into work clothes and found the pruning shears in the shed. He spent what remained of the afternoon trimming the privets beneath the front windows. The activity gave him plenty of time to think. The labour of keeping the house and yards presentable began to seem unreasonable to him. After some thought, he came up with an estimate of a minimum of twenty hours of work a week. More in the summer when the garden needed to be tended daily. He didn’t want his newfound freedom to be curtailed by the demands of the house.
And he hadn’t liked the way Julia had looked at him. If he didn’t keep the house up to her standards, she would begin to think of him as a problem to be dealt with. She would revert to her suggestion that the house was getting to be too much for him and perhaps he should get some help. She would enjoy managing his life and watching over him. If she felt that he was really getting past it, then she would begin a campaign to encourage him to move to a retirement settlement, somewhere with planned activities and a nurse on staff. He didn’t want that. He didn’t want anyone to run his life for him.
When he finished the pruning, he stepped out to the pavement and looked at the house. It was far too large for his needs. He had stayed in it out of habit, but he suddenly felt no loyalty to the house or the neighbourhood. They had no connection with him. It had once been a house he had lived in. Now it was a structure he inhabited. It had been Margaret’s decision to buy the house, and it had been more her house than his. It was her domain, and it came to him that he had always been a guest in it, the one permanent guest.
They had bought it at a price that now seemed risible. It had cost them far less than even a smallish flat went for now. The neighbours sometimes talked in awed whispers about the prices of houses in the area. Jack thought that the house would bring at least a million and half pounds, possibly even more since the grounds were more substantial than most. In any case, the selling price would be far more than he needed to buy a flat somewhere. He wanted only a bedroom and a sitting room. For the small amount of cooking he did, a kitchenette would be enough. The money from the sale of the house and the income from his pension and his investments would see him comfortably through the rest of his life.
A new flat would be like having a set of empty rooms. He could buy all new furniture, all new everything. He would let Julia take what she wanted from the house and then he would sell the rest or give it away. It would be like starting over again. The more he thought about the idea, the more it appealed. When he went inside, he found the directory and checked the listings for estate agents. He recognised some of the names from signs he had seen in the area. He wrote down the names and numbers of several agents. He would begin ringing them in the morning.
Perhaps they could help him find a flat to buy as well. He would like to get away from the city. Somewhere along the south coast, Devon or maybe even Cornwall. That way Julia wouldn’t be able to drop in on him. He would visit them at holidays, but his own flat would be too small to accommodate them. Yes, that was what he would do.
He decided to eat out and think about suitable locations. He took a small map of England with him to consult. As he waited for his food to be served, he jotted down the names of likely places in his memo book. Later, after he returned to the house, he turned on the computer for the first time in weeks and began pulling up information on various towns and searching the listings of available flats. There were so many empty rooms.
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