An Excerpt from “The Houses That Are Left Behind”

Brenda Walker

One Sunday afternoon the intercom buzzed, just as I was setting out the things I needed to cook a meal for my husband’s children. I’d already set the table. I wasn’t expecting them so early. My husband was barefoot, reading a newspaper in a cane chair in the sun. I laid down my knife and went to the screen, which showed an image of the caller, shot from a vantage point above her head. It was a stranger, a girl in ugly sunglasses. When I greeted her, she began to talk, immediately, about a cell phone; she thought we had given her a phone or she had our phone. Her voice was metallic, an electronic interruption in an afternoon of low, winter sunshine. We were going to have to investigate.

I waited for my husband to pull on a pair of shoes, looking at the girl as she folded her arms and twisted miserably from side to side. I could see her shoulders clearly, her cheap sweater, her dark springy hair.

We didn’t plan to invite her upstairs. We could deal with whatever she wanted in the foyer quickly. When she took off her sunglasses to speak to us, I could see that she was crying. She told us she’d bought a mobile phone from a couple in our building. They made the transaction in this foyer, and they said they lived in our apartment, number ten. She paid them a thousand dollars, then the phone stopped working.

Her hands were dirty. She must have been digging hard, bare-handed in the earth, to get that amount of black dirt under her nails. We live in a region of parks. Opposite us was the park that overlooked the Parliament building. It’s planted with specimen trees, none belonging to this country. A little above us, on our side of the street, following a high escarpment that is one of the few scenic places in this flat city, lies a vast expanse of orderly lawns and monuments. We often walk along the escarpment paths in the early evening. In the dimming park young girls in hijabs play football with their textiles flying, babies are photographed on pale small rugs, lovers talk, frowning, in the privacy of lawns beyond earshot of the paths. As twilight deepens, teenagers occupy a Victorian gazebo, and the smell of cannabis, syrupy with natural oil and boyish saliva, drifts over memorials to fallen soldiers, over the whispering wall and the eternal flame.

There were so many places near where we live where the girl in the foyer could bury something or dig up whatever had been left in the earth for her to recover.

She said that she’d come to plead with the phone sellers to unblock the phone. My husband suggested the obvious things: she should contact the telco company, then the police. I suspected that just one of the things she told us was true: she’d lost some money.

After we said good-bye and watched her stumble, still crying, across the road towards the Parliament building, my husband said no, it wasn’t money she’d lost, it was love. She’d fallen in love with a man, he lived in our building with his wife, he gave her the wrong apartment number, she was trying to force a confrontation. The man had given her the phone so that they could talk privately, then he decided to end the affair and cut her off.

We had some experience with this kind of thing.

When we arrived and unpacked, he noticed a long, fair hair on one of the sofas. We’d bought some of the furniture that was already in the apartment; we were busy and it was easier than going shopping. The hair belonged to the previous owner, we decided, although we knew the owner was a man and unlikely to have long, fair hair. A visitor, then. A woman who visited that man and lay on the sofa. A passing woman, not a wife. We had the sofa cleaned. We were away often, at work, or at another house belonging to my husband. The cleaners were no good. Time passed and more hair drifted from the sofa: fine and fair. I picked it up and disposed of it, absent-mindedly, until one day my husband called a locksmith. After that there were no traces of strangers.

Sometimes I wonder about the woman who met a man in our apartment. How they must have rushed past our things, hand in hand, how she flung herself beneath her lover, overjoyed, laughing, both of them laughing at love and trespass.

I reminded myself that the woman we met in the foyer had dark hair.

I thought her crisis had to do with something that was supposed to be buried, something she scrabbled for with her desperate hands, until she admitted to herself that it wasn’t there.

 

The children came for their meal, they ate plate after plate of rich food, because they lived in a student household and this cooking was one of the small pleasures of their week. It was almost possible to forget the crying, dark-haired girl. Our dining table was lit with a row of candles on a shelf behind my eldest stepdaughter. A person sitting on a park bench near the Parliament building could see right into the apartment, despite the dim candlelight. They could watch my stepdaughter’s careful laughter and see her proud, slim dress; they could see her father, or the other children, or me.

I left the table and went into an adjoining room and closed the door. The only light in this room came from the streetlights below, which illuminated a wide margin of the park. There was no one on the benches. No dark-haired girl, not even one of the sad women who often crept away from an expensive rehab clinic on the far side of the park to sit among the trees in the darkness. But I had reason to be vigilant about all witnesses, man or woman.

Because of Neil and his long campaign of threats against me, I was always slightly afraid. Neil stalked his targets, gathering domestic information that he interlaced with his threats. He was capable of taking up position opposite the Parliament like a military officer on duty, motionless, guarding the small personal hinterland of his resentment. I was always slightly afraid, but I was also defiant, determined to be seen, even if the viewers were barking men or solitary lying girls or sad alcoholics, and I never drew the curtains.

 

In daylight the reflections of the big windows along the front of the apartment make it hard for anyone on the outside to see in. The view from inside, a view of sky and the crowns of trees, is bright and clear. I cook a great deal. I pause, in the kitchen, to stretch and look out through the windows. Herons fly over rooftops from some interior wetland to the feeding grounds on the river. Crows move about singly, or in groups. Wagtails land on our balcony, showing themselves to our elderly house cat, which mews behind glass. Parrots fly in pairs, and so do small brownish-grey birds fast as darts, one leading and the other following a wing beat behind, gliding or climbing and dipping very fast. The second bird lags slightly, so if the first flies through a gap in a moving obstacle—
traffic, for example—
the second might not be quick enough to follow. Then the first climbs, bewildered, circling back over a mate crushed on the road.

I thought of these birds as I followed the taillights of my husband’s car in heavy traffic one evening. My car is smaller, less powerful. He accelerated through a change of lights. Then he pulled over and waited for me, but I swept ahead of him and found myself on a freeway, the tarmac lit by high, majestic orange streetlights, each light at the end of an arc of steel, alone with the giant dark, green and cream traffic signs announcing directions to the airport. I turned back across many empty lanes to where he was waiting for me.

The next day I saw two crows high on the bend of the arm of a streetlight, one upright and the other bent toward it, bowing its head in what seemed to be a moment of worship. Crows make courtship gifts. Woven balls of grass or twigs, presented to one another with some kind of formality, before their love can begin. Crows are not easily led; they don’t fly in formation; believing in the joy of speed, they don’t take passionate and fatal risks.

. . .

Read the rest of this story by purchasing a print copy of the Mar/Apr 2017 issue here.

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