In the Dark
He sat in the red armchair all evening, drinking cans and smoking. In his shirt pocket there was a small black notebook and three times he took it out, then put it away again. And when the light started to fade, first into the warm hue of sunset then into a cool, shadowy dimness that quickly became night, he didn’t bother to reach over and turn on the lamp.
Shortly after 1am her keys came fumbling for the lock. His hand shot up to the notebook in his pocket, then he took it out and slid it down the inside of the armrest.
‘Don’t turn on the light,’ he said.
‘Jesus,’ she said, slapping a hand to her chest. She could see the outline of a head and shoulders in the corner, in the red chair, two arms either side. A slant of orange streetlight shot across the floor and stopped at the tip of his shoes.
‘You’re like a hitman, sitting there in the dark, you know that?’
‘Just don’t turn the light on,’ he said.
‘Ok, ok,’ she said, closing the door. ‘But how do I know it’s you?’ Then she laughed, a single note – ha – and wobbled a little, bending down to take her shoes off. She had bought a bag of chips on her way home and kept them squeezed shut in her hand.
He lit a cigarette, the side of his face flashing into view, underlit and ghoulish, then gone. She glanced across to him, then walked towards the kitchen.
‘You do know they’ll kick us out if you keep smoking here,’ she said.
He exhaled, loud and slow.
‘I need water, urgently,’ she said. ‘And ketchup.’
She moved around the kitchen noisily, getting out a plate and a glass, nearly hit her head off the cupboard door as she reached into a drawer. Turned on the tap. Then sighed as she shut it off again.
‘Why are you sitting in the dark?’ She said, then pulled the fridge door open. It made a shaft of icy light across the tiles and into the far corner of the sitting room, and above the mantlepiece to a photo of the two of them at the top of a mountain. She was still holding the chip bag high in the air, like she was trying to keep it away from things, like it was dangerous.
He tapped his foot slowly on the floor. The rubber sole made an empty smacking sound against the lino. He never liked the idea of taking his shoes off inside, seeing people in their socks. Better to keep them on.
‘Did you have a good night?’ he asked, shifting in his seat then starting to cough. The question came out roughly, like he’d thrown something at her.
‘It was grand,’ she said, taking out a plate. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I knocked over the bottle of ketchup? We were trying to trick the babysitter she was so uptight. We streaked ketchup all over our faces and started screaming like we’d been attacked by some mass murderer. But just as I was about to lie on the ground beside the others I knocked over the bottle. It made this huge smash and went everywhere, this massive puddle of red with all the bits of glass in it and the stink of vinegar and the babysitter came running in all freaked out.
‘She thought we were complete lunatics – “you are CRAZY GIRLS”, she kept shouting in her Spanish accent…’
He was silent in the red armchair, just a tiny orange glow from his cigarette going back and forth. She sighed, leaning against the press, and shook out the bag of chips on to the plate. The soft, salty vinegar steam came up into her face.
The night before she had woken up, out of breath. Shaking him. Her face was blotchy and shiny with sweat.
‘Are you ok,’ he said, with his eyes still shut.
‘I’m not ok,’ she said, she was sitting up, letting a blast of cold air under the blanket. Choke-crying sounds were coming from her mouth. He turned on the light then shot out of bed and ran into the kitchen. Came back with his phone in his hands.
‘I’m going to call an ambulance,’ he said. ‘Or will I take you to A&E?’ He stood there, bare chested in his shorts.
She shook her head. ‘No,’ she whispered.
Then he sat beside her on the bed and tried to rub her shoulders but she flicked his hands away. He got up again and said he was going to get her a glass of water, which he ended up drinking himself as he sat and waited. And watched, as her breathing slowly started to regulate.
‘I think I’m ok now,’ she said, after a while, wiping the tears away with the back of her hand. He stayed quiet for a moment because it felt like she was emerging from somewhere, like he needed to be careful. That even the tiniest of movements could drive her back in and make those choking sounds come back. After a few minutes he spoke.
‘Did I ever tell you about the time I pretended to be dead when I was eight?’
She turned and looked at him, her eyes red and cloudy.
‘I lay down on the ground in the middle of the hallway right where everyone could see me. And I was just lying there, my mouth half open and my tongue out like I’d been murdered… I remember looking up at the bannisters, then at the skirting boards and the little ridge of dust running all along. They were all there in the house I know it, because I went into Mum after and she was reading in the front and Dad was in the garden. And my brothers they were around somewhere too – yes they were all at home somewhere.’
She pulled the blanket around herself as he spoke. Was she listening? He couldn’t tell.
‘I lay there for ages. But nobody came… So I just got up again and went off to do something else.’
He was quiet for a moment, then turned to look when she coughed lightly.
‘Is that it?’ she said, turning towards him, a grimace was crossing her face. Her hair was smoothed back behind her ears and her nightie hung loosely from her shoulders. She looked very small, all of a sudden, like that. Though she was recovered now, he could see that. She was back.
‘So you just got up and went off again after all that?’
‘Well that’s a killer punch line,’ she said. ‘I was on the edge of my seat there listening to you waiting to find out what happened.’
Then she laughed. He looked at her. She laughed again.
‘I was only trying to take our mind off things,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s a lovely story but… I can’t…’ her hand was fanning her chest and another laugh erupted, then another and she was gripping her sides, tears streaming down her face. She tried stopping then sighing but the laughter just came back, in waves and curls and then a snort escaped and that was it, she was off again.
‘And you could hardly breathe a minute ago,’ he said, getting back in under the covers.
‘I know,’ she said, but speaking made it worse. She was unreachable now. She was in fits and that was that. There was no talking to her.
‘You’re nuts, you know that,’ he said and turned on to his side. She got up, hiccupping, and said she was going to watch TV for a while. Then she padded across the room, a hand clapped across her mouth, and turned off the light.
A while later he woke, briefly, to the sound of her pen going back and forth across the pages of a notebook, the bedside light on. He had asked her once, not long after they met, what she wrote in her notebook.
‘Not much really,’ she’d said. ‘Just things I notice…’
And when they moved in together, he’d see her, sometimes, writing in the evenings, not every evening, but she always had it nearby. And she usually kept it in her bag or in the drawer beside the bed but that morning, after the night of crying and laughing, it was there on the kitchen table, like she’d left it out for him to read. Like it was an offering of trust, another step they might take together. But had she said it was private? He couldn’t remember. He slipped it into his shirt pocket and took it out during his lunchbreak.
‘I did some reading this evening,’ he said, pushing his hands down his legs like a pianist. Like he was about to perform.
‘Cool,’ she said. She was scrolling through her phone, staring down into a glow of blue.
‘Most of it was fairly dull, I have to say,’ he said, sliding his hand down the inside of the armchair and pulling out the notebook. Her handwriting had been hard to decipher, the big looping letters were messy and overlapping, bursting across the lines.
‘Although there was one part I wasn’t sure about,’ he said, clearing his throat and speaking as though he was on stage. ‘There was this list of positives, like: “he listens to me; sees the world in the same way; won’t hurt me; makes me laugh”? Now why would someone write a list like that? Ha ha.’
His voice was sarky, high-pitched.
‘What are you talking about?’ She said, looking over towards his voice.
‘If there’s positives there’s usually negatives isn’t there? But I’ve looked,’ he said, ‘I’ve looked at every word in this notebook but I can’t find them. I know they must be somewhere because if they’re not written down they must be in your head…’
He started flicking through the notebook but he couldn’t see anything in the dark, felt a little puff of air across his face from the pages in motion.
‘If you need to say something to me, Annie, just say it, and let’s be done with all this now if that’s where we’re heading anyway.’
The light from her phone went out and he looked up towards her. He searched for the shape of her in the darkness.
‘You have to say something,’ he said. ‘Say something to me… What about this bit,’ he skimmed through the notebook again, he wanted the page from the night of crying and laughing. She’d even dated it in her blue biro right there at the top…
He held it up, like he was reading from it though he couldn’t see a word, but he knew it by memory now from reading it so many times.
‘This bit: Not really sure about him, or us, anymore… I don’t know what to feel… Oh and there’s another bit, he said, I don’t think we’ll– ’
There was a single, dull thud from the kitchen – her phone dropping on the counter. And then she was there, right in front of him her arms coming at him.
‘Give me that,’ she hissed. He held his arm out to the side, the notebook in it. She was thrashing about, missing him, reaching too wide.
‘Give that to me,’ she said, then grabbed him below the wrist. He felt the tips of her fingers, cool and soft, then she began to squeeze. Her nails began to dig into his skin.
‘Stop will you,’ he said, gently.
‘You can’t do… that,’ she said. She squeezed tighter and harder, her nails going deeper and piercing his skin.
‘You can’t read other people’s stuff.’
He dropped the notebook and it made a crack against the floor, knocking over the empty cans. She let go of his arm and he snapped it back towards him and held it to his chest. She got down on to the ground, on her hands and knees, scrambling around at the side of the chair for the notebook. Then she was at his feet, pulling up his legs and climbing on to him, and he could smell her hair and feel her whole body, her breathing fast and hot into his neck, she was shaking.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, and he leaned his head back, away from her, and closed his eyes.
She prised his arm from his chest and held it to her. Then she kissed it lightly, so softly as though it might break. And he could feel the very tip of her hair brushing against his skin, and just below his wrist where four red marks would appear the following morning.
Sorcha Hamilton lives in Co Wicklow, Ireland, and has had work published in The Dublin Review. In 2020 she completed the MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. She writes regularly for The Irish Times, where she also works as a subeditor. She is working on a novel.
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