Northwords Now

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by Roddy Murray

I woke up in bed and felt very peaceful. Never more relaxed. I’d had such a good sleep. I stretched and yawned and thought about what I had planned to do that day.

But I’d forgotten and it didn’t matter anyway.

It reminded me of when I was younger with fewer responsibilities. Of when I was very fit. And earned my rest through work and physical effort and awoke renewed. Reborn. Each day a gift. A promise.

My resting pulse used to be forty-five beats per minute. It must be something close to that now. I put my fingers to my wrist.

But I could not find a pulse. I pressed two fingers against my throat. Nothing.

I am exceptionally relaxed I thought. I may never have been this relaxed. This calm.

I got up and as I was taking my pyjamas off, I heard a noise downstairs. But I live alone. It seemed unusual to have an intruder, not at the dead of night, but on a bright sunny morning. Somehow though, I was not alarmed. I went to the bathroom, showered and afterwards took my time getting dressed:  fresh underwear, new socks, jeans and my dark green sweater. Then I laced my boots and went down into the kitchen.

Silhouetted against the window, washing a cup at the sink, was a slightly built figure, his head haloed by the morning light. I cleared my throat: Ahem. At which he turned round and resolved into the room.

He had a pale, benign, obliging face. About my own age, yet with a youthfulness latent beneath the skin. You might say he was dapper. Compact and self-contained. Well put-together: Pressed trousers, collar and tie, a V-neck Fair-Isle pullover. Polished brogues and careful grey hair, combed with a spirit-level parting on the left.

I imagined him mowing the lawn on a Saturday morning, just as he was. Without looking, I saw his elbow-patched herringbone jacket hanging in the hall. I was sure he had a dog.

I had surprised him.

‘You’re not supposed to be here’ he said. ‘We’ve rented this place. It’s all pre-paid.’

I said ‘I don’t understand. This is where I live.’

When I spoke, it was as if I were listening to my own voice on a tape recorder. Or standing beside myself. Off-set. In the wings. Or as if there was a delay on the line.

I must still have had some water in my ear.

A quizzical look fleetingly crimped his face. Like a ripple across a full moon reflected in a still, deep pond. And then he smiled, graciously.

‘Yes,’ he said ‘There’s been a misunderstanding. Perhaps we got our dates mixed-up. My wife and children are in the living room watching television. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘No, of course not. I won’t disturb them.’

And then I said, ‘I thought you’d be on your own.’ But I don’t know why I said this to a stranger in my own home about whom I knew nothing.

‘Oh no’ he said, ‘We all came. It was the least we could do.’

I wasn’t at all sure what he meant.

I glanced at the framed photo of my wife and our two children on the wall beside the door. And remembered that squally day at the beach. The intermittent bursts of sunshine, the strafing showers. Four seasons in a day. How the wind had whipped her fair hair across her face and the blown sand scoured our feet as we walked. The crabbit sea, distanced by the low Spring tide. Salt. The awkward huddle when we took shelter behind a tall black rock, ankle-socked with seaweed. How the children had complained and just wanted to go back and sit in the car.

The future we had discussed. It seemed only yesterday.

I suppose I forgot about my guest momentarily because I was slightly startled when I became aware of him again. Only now I didn’t know what to say. Nor could I comprehend, how such a small kitchen within a modest two-up, two-down could accommodate such a vast, vacant silence.

Our eyes unlocked, and he returned to the sink and began to fill the kettle. And sound and process poured into the room. ‘I’m making some coffee’ he said. ‘Would you like a cup? How do you take it?’ His soft voice sounded louder. More brittle.                                                                                    

‘White, please. No sugar.’

‘Of course.’

He looked in the fridge and frowned. ‘Ah, it looks like we’re out of milk. Forgive me, I always take it black.’

‘No trouble’ I said, ‘I’ll go out and get some. I won’t be long.’

Although it was morning, and not especially early, there was no-one else about and as I walked, squinting in the sunlight, I began to wonder whether the shop would be open. Perhaps it was Sunday. Or a Bank Holiday. I decided there was no point and turned back to go home.

‘I’ll take it black from now on,’ I thought.

When I arrived, there was no sign of my guests. And yet, although they had gone, the house somehow felt more occupied than when I left.  Even so, my own presence seemed inadequate. Incomplete.

Quite suddenly, I began to feel overwhelmingly tired.

I woke in my bed again. My phone beeped and thumped on the side-table. It was a text from the Bank saying that I had exceeded my agreed overdraft limit and would need to pay funds into my account before 3pm or I would incur further charges.

Traffic droned and murmured outside. Rain swept across the window.

I felt exhausted. Anxious. Fearful. My heart was pounding.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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