WHEN THE DOORBELL RANG
At first the day seemed entirely innocent. The slow motion continents of clouds were endlessly reconfiguring in the endless ocean of summer blue above the miles-wide meadows of Arden Park as the girl walked sluggishly on. Memories from earlier that day occurred to her as if in a dream: a small bird’s tinny duotone from somewhere amid the ancient oaks; a maggoty spawn of fresh rust where the bracken flecks unfurled, a gaggle of Egyptian geese mulling a cud of dry grass, their hoarse rasp like a spluttering engine with no juice in its tank; fallow deer browsing in swathes in the dappled distance.
Overcome with the sultry languor of the day Clara decided to rest a few minutes in a refuge of shadow that one of the oaks threw across the forest of chattering grasses. Cross-legged, she reached into her satchel and sucked at a bottle of tepid water. She considered wedging it in a nearby pond to chill its temperature and was distracted by a thin whining sound that travelled beside her. Near where she placed her hand she noticed a small black shape rocking in the grass: a spider. She followed the reedy thread of sound until it revealed itself: a black wasp. The two suddenly locked in a brief frantic struggle and as Clara parted and flattened the grass to look closer the black wasp flew away. The spider, now on its back, inwardly enclosed its legs and rocked to and fro, as if animated by an imperceptible breeze. She had seen this happen before, or something like it. Clara was bemused by the spider. She’d had a phobia of them when a little girl, instilled by her older brothers, but this one looked vulnerable, almost dead, except for its gentle prostrate rocking, its stupefied agitation. The thin whining sound then returned and the black wasp reappeared and went directly to the spider. Clara wondered how, though it had been waved away, it found its way, precisely and methodically, back to what Clara now realized was effectively a corpse. The thin black wasp returned, mounted and injected the spider with a needling electric sting, making it a paralysed victim. The wasp had put the spider in a coma for the consumption of its offspring, laying its egg in the spider which would hatch into larva and eat it alive. This, Clara knew, was incubation, and even though her curiosity was scientific she could not disown the process as somehow sinister. Leafing through a notebook she made some detailed notes before rising to her feet and foundering on amid the buzz and sizzle of merdivorous flies in the throbbing grassland.
The Indian summer had broached the evening air and earth with parching humidity, giving way to pools of shadow in which Clara felt the sweat beading on her skin. The thick tufted grasses were silent now and no longer a jungle of mating calls. She felt sure the way back home was on the other side of the small wood she had been circling. The sky had imperceptibly grown dark; she had hardly noticed its gradations of depth. Suddenly it was so dark she began to wonder where she was. A new resident to this place, had she taken a wrong turn? It was soon too dark to tell.
The reticence of the wood too perturbed her. In the faint moonlight she peered into its labyrinth of coiling roots, but beyond it she could see nothing. The more she tried to strain her eyes, the more the blackness invaded her and inhabited the trees and all that lay beyond them. Apart from a freshness that swathed her senses, she seemed, at that moment, almost deprived of perception. When she stood still, she could hear nothing. Any sound triggered caution and terror. The silence seemed somehow like a presence. She couldn’t escape the impression that something, or someone, was watching her.
She cursed herself for finding herself in what now seemed a very inhospitable place. Where was she anyway? She remembered leaving a narrow path and following a dusty narrow track into golden glades tinkling with birdsong. She remembered these things, but could not recall the direction from which she came. Where was she? Darkness had transfigured everything.
As she walked on, the high antlered boughs began to groan and cry. Without any warning, rain, heavy and sudden, started falling with such weight that there seemed no hint of respite. Clara started to run. The needles of water changed to pins of hale that pelted with scorching stings on her pimpling forearms. It drummed so hard on pool and puddle and path that the tumbling sky itself seemed to roll with an orchestra of bass and brass. Clara started to run faster. With a cymbal clash a tin foil tear of lightning fissure-clicked through the turbulent heavens.
The cracking rain became the crack of antlers, the strut and clatter of stags in the unstable darkness. Clara felt very tense. Had she stayed out later than the park’s curfew? What if the gates were locked? Who would find her, and in what state, if she were galled by one of the stags, grown deranged and volatile in the storm? One, abruptly breaking across her path, careered into the shrubbery gloom, into the understory of scrub and saplings. Another forked tongue of light flicked across the sky, the darkness now only alleviated by these fitful gashes and spurts of erratic silver.
Running into a puddle she cursed and stopped for breath, thinking now that she couldn’t get any wetter than she was. She turned to see what ground she had covered and there, against the obscure curtain of dusk and rain, was the shape of a figure, the silhouette of a man, running towards her at a distance. In blind panic she started to run again, gaining momentum from a fresh burst of adrenalin and fear.
She had once felt sheer exhilaration from running, but her palpitating sprint now was one of blind panic. Bewildered one minute, the next she caught sight of a gated exit. Squinting through the dark dragging mists of rain she felt relief when she recognized it as the main gate. She knew the direction from here. Puddles exploded at her feet and mud spattered and danced. Unable to stop herself, she crashed into the main gate and locked her grip on the bars. Mercifully the park warden hadn’t locked them. Rain had plastered her hair to her forehead as she dared to glance behind her. Nothing. With her hands on her knees she bent and inhaled in raw and rasping gasps. Then she saw the figure again running out of the darkness, seeming to trail the darkness behind him. Swinging the gate aside she exited the park and without looking back did not stop running, animal-like, until she reached Meath Gardens. Arriving at her front drive she glanced back, not wanting her pursuer to know where she lived. There was nobody there.
By the time Morne came home she had showered, dined, redressed.
“How was your day off?”
“It was good, but I got soaked to the bone. I got lost in the park.”
“Just out in the park. It got dark very suddenly and then it began to pour. You perhaps didn’t see how heavy it was while at work, but I got drenched.”
“Not good for your studies then?”
“I got lost. Morne, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“What?” – distracted – “what is it?”
“I think I was followed home.”
“What? Why? Sorry, I didn’t mean why, I mean why do you think that, by who?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him. I assume it was a he.”
“What do you mean you didn’t see him?”
“Just a silhouette. It was very dark.”
“What, followed you home?”
“No. I don’t know. I didn’t keep looking back, obviously. But now and then.”
“And he was there?”
“Only in the park.”
“But what, how do you know? What makes you think that he, someone, was following you?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I didn’t say that, did I?”
“I sensed it more than anything. It’s happened before to me, you know.”
“I know, but that was years ago. I wasn’t being incredulous, I was just asking.”
“Forget about it. It just made me feel strange. And what with the doorbell ringing at night, it just gave me the creeps.”
“We’ll mention the doorbell the next time we pay the rent. That might just be an electrical problem, Clara.”
“Which only occurs in the middle of the night?”
“It is a little odd. But anyway yes, forget about it, before you start imagining things. How was the rest of your day?”
“Imagining things? Great, now even my own husband doesn’t believe me.”
“Clara. Clara? Come on, I didn’t say or even suggest that.”
“Then what are you suggesting?”
“Nothing! Come on, we’re going for a drink, aren’t we? Are you ready? Aaron will be here in a minute.”
“Yes. No, I’m fine.”
In mock solemnity, Morne started to intone:
Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
“Give it a rest with your spooky poetry. It’s not funny. The stags in the darkness and the storm were going crazy. I couldn’t see them.”
“The rutting season already? Perhaps the storm spooked them.”
“Still September. I thought they started bellowing in October. In autumn.”
“Yes. They don’t care what month it is, obviously. But they know the season all right. Why that time of year I don’t know. Hardly the season for the birds and bees. You couldn’t see them though? How well could you see the man?”
“Never mind that. It just reminded me of, you know, when it last happened, years ago.”
“There’s no one in the shadows, Clara.”
“How would you know? I’m sure you think I imagine things. Well, you might, with your druggy past. It’s different for a woman.”
“We’ve been through this. Don’t get hysterical.”
“I’m not bloody hysterical. How dare you.”
“Well, hysteria is the property of women.”
“That’s a very sexist thing to say.”
“That’s what the root meaning of the word suggests. Hysteria comes from a Greek word relating to the hymen, the womb and uterus. And no man I ever met was hysterical. Forgive me, but you do get excitable at times.”
“Great. Words being the absolute reality again.”
“I didn’t say that. I’ve never said that. Come on, cheer up, I’m only teasing. I think that’s Aaron at the door.”
Clara didn’t know whether she felt appeased, challenged or merely indifferent; she just gave a deflated sigh while Morne winked at her and went to answer the door, drawing the curtain aside that veiled the glass as he did so.
“Good evening, Aaron.”
The brittle clink of glass and bottle in crate and sink was a crass cacophony in the echoing acoustic of The Porcupine.
“An anodyne interior,” said Morne, grimly. The echo and thud of syncopated electronica spun across him like a spider.
“Stays open late though. Not many places do round here,” said Aaron, always making the best of a situation. “Anyway, what’s your poison?
“I’ll leave that with you, mister.”
“Mine’s a Baileys,” said Clara.
“I don’t know how you drink that stuff, it’s like ice cream. For me it would be gone in seconds,” said Aaron.
“Maybe a Bacardi actually. No, wait, do they serve coconut rum? I’ll come with you to the bar.”
Morne waited alone, standing beside an empty table. Clara had told him when they first met that one of the things that attracted her to him was his “willingness to stand apart,” as she termed it.
“Yes, they have it,” Clara told Aaron at the bar, pointing to a shelf arrayed with a city of bottles. “There, Club Havana.”
While Aaron ordered and waited for his change, someone, a refined man in his fifties or sixties, nudged Clara and spilled her drink.
“Oh I’m so sorry. Let me get you another.”
“No, it’s quite all right. I’m not much of a drinker these days. Not that I ever was. Though I did spill some on my dress. It’s okay though.”
“You’ve not spilled much. But here, let me get you another, as a token of goodwill. I’m sure one doesn’t suffice for the night, even if you don’t indulge often.”
“Well, all right. Thank you.”
He smiled and held a note up to the bartender to flag his attention. “And what do you do?”
Clara hesitated, then narrowing her eyes said: “I’m studying. I aim to specialize in endoparisitoid hymenoptera.”
“But of course, dear, what else?” He smiled an ancient mustachio smile and peered mischievously above the thin rim of his glinting spectacles.
Aaron brought Morne a pint of frothy beer. “There you go, lad. Get that down you.” He raised his glass – “Good health” – and they ceremoniously clinked while meeting eyes. A group of Austrian girls they once knew had told them that in their country it was discourteous not to meet eyes while toasting.
“Şerefe!” said Morne, just for the flourish. “I always find it ironic when you toast good health, especially when we’ve quaffed about ten pints. Where’s Clara?”
“At the bar. Talking to some old fella who bought her a drink after spilling the one I bought. We should get him to spill ours.”
“What’s she drinking?”
“A dark rum. Put hairs on her chest, that will.”
“Let’s hope not, eh?”
After some time the place filled with people pouring in from other local pubs that were closing. Morne and Aaron felt at home in the bustling hubbub, enjoying their banter as they had as schoolboys. Clara had joined them, but something seemed amiss in her disposition, and both men noticed that she had started to slur and swoon.
“Are you all right, Clara?” Aaron was concerned.
“I feel a bit woozy.” She didn’t seem able to fix her focus and her limbs gestured limply as a mannequin. Her pupils, glazed and dilated, wobbled almost imperceptibly; her eyelids slow and pendulous as she raised a hand to her head, placing the other, for comfort and balance, on Morne’s chest.
“Where have you been, Clara, just with those two older men?”
“I don’t feel well. Yes, just with them.”
“Where are they, Aaron? Point them out to me.” Morne’s gaze was searching like a lighthouse beam.
“They’re over there,” Aaron directed with a nod of his head. “But they seemed fine to me. Could they have spiked your drink, Clara?”
“I don’t know. Take me home.”
“Has she eaten much today?”
“We didn’t eat together, but she never does, really. Could you take her outside? I’ll be out in a minute. I just want to ask the staff if they know those men.”
A moment later he caught the attention of a glass collector. “Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt, but I want to ask something. Those two men over there with the whitish hair, have you seen them here before?”
“Yes, I recognise them, they’re regulars here. They tend to come in on weekends. Why do you ask, is everything all right?”
“My wife. My friend’s taken her outside. She’d been speaking to those two men and when she came back she was behaving strangely, she seemed very faint, as if she had been drugged.”
“I wouldn’t have thought it was anything to do with those two, they seem respectable and gentlemanly. Are you sure she hasn’t had too much to drink?”
“She hasn’t had much, no. Okay, thanks for your opinion anyway.”
The glass collector went back about his business. Morne regarded the men watchfully. He realized he had no solid evidence or reason to suspect or confront them, and turned to the exit to find his two companions outside. Aaron had draped his coat around Clara’s shoulders and was lighting a cigarette.
“Is she any better?”
“She’s still disorientated but we should perhaps get her home. Did you speak to those men?”
“I decided not to. The barman said they were respectable regulars.”
On the walk home the road ahead swerved with the blur of oncoming cars to Clara; Belisha beacons blinked like the shuddery pulsations of congested arteries. Stupefied she watched her heeled feet scuff over damp tarmac that gleamed and swirled like a river of raisins and berries. She held onto no logical concepts; she was all deranged sensation. Any words of consolation ventured by her escorts conveyed no more meaning than the scrape of her heels, which dragged like the heels of all the inebriated. Soon they arrived in front of their drive at Meath Gardens.
“Will she be okay?”
“I reckon she’ll be fine. I’ll pour her some water and get her into bed. She already seems a little clearer.”
“I’ll leave you to it then. Will call you soon.”
“Yes, see you later, and thanks.” The two men shook hands.
Morne stabilized Clara as they went into the basement flat. She sat in the lamp-lit living room and drank the water he brought for her. After a while she seemed to revive and Morne put her to bed. After turning off the lights in the hall and the living room he joined her in the bedroom.
Just then there was a high pitched ring through their basement flat. Clara froze. Morne felt her eyes peering at him.
“Turn off the lamp,” he said.
Clara pulled the cord above the bedside shelf, assuming the rigid posture of a sculpture. Tree shapes and shadows crawled across the bedroom wall in wavering silhouette. Closed though the window was, the lace veil gently swayed, animated by a wind without. For a moment they waited in silence, then the bell rang again, this time for several seconds. Morne stood by the open curtain and strained to see anything, any motion, on the drive or the street outside.
Morne gave no response but faced the window.
“Morne, can you see anything?”
“What is it?”
“No, it’s nothing. Just a bedroom light across the road. The window’s open. I can see the shadow of a hand moving against the light, a silhouette smoking.”
“Morne, I’m scared.”
“Where’s the large screw driver I brought in here in case of intruders?” Morne looked about him in the faint oscillating light.
He turned and the two looked at each other in silence, trying to make out facial features in the darkness; some expression either to console or else to corroborate mutual fear. They waited. There was nothing. Morne made as if to walk from the room into the corridor.
“Don’t leave me,” Clara said.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he whispered.
“Be careful. Don’t go outside.”
Even the creak of the floor as he left the room made Clara shudder. Perhaps such fear was irrational, she thought, but the repetition of the occurrence, so late into the night, induced foreboding as the bell rang chill and loud, startling.
In the unlit corridor Morne stood with his back to the cloak stand and peered at the front door. The veiled curtain was like a web of pale haze concealing what lay beyond. There was nothing visible from outside beyond the partition of glass. As far as he could make out, nothing made motion or sound. For several minutes he stared at the front door and his blood pulsed like a moth beneath his skin.
He returned to the bedroom to find Clara comatose. She was pale, feverish. The wavering shadow of a tree trespassed across her whose papery leaves and knuckled twigs loomed and snatched before the streetlamp across the road. Beyond the taut glass the rosebush stirred in its dark and drinking bed, its thorns glistening and clicking. Reaching for his keys and the screwdriver Morne left her there unconscious, ovoid, swelling and seemingly paralysed with an appendage of bed sheets shawled about her.