The Outline of Him by Eleanor Gow


Short Fiction by Eleanor Gow


Night has settled. I stand facing my bedroom window. In a house across the road from me, he is there, more than an arms stretch away, more than many. I cannot see him yet, ‘come closer,’ I mutter, ‘come closer.’

I sit perched on the edge of my bed. Although it is winter, I have left the window slightly open so there is a tremor of wind whispering through the room. I imagine there is someone else in here with me. Maybe this is how it feels to be watching someone who hasn’t seen you. The lights in my house are switched off so I am shrouded in darkness. There is an ache inside me but I can’t place it.

We met in this bedroom. He says now that he’d seen me before, walking past his house. I waited forty years to be seen. A middle-aged woman, unnoticed.

I was undressing for bed, the lights were on so he had a clear view of me if he wanted, and he did want, so I was glad. I could see the outline of him at the window standing in a mask of shadow, I could tell it was him from the shape of his body. I had memorized it.

I am usually a shy woman, but that night I wanted his eyes to rest only on me and so I stood there in the burning light and I removed my shirt, fumbling at first and then, when I saw it laying somewhat surprised at my feet, I unclipped my bra and dropped that to the floor too. I was shaking but he couldn’t see it. I felt his eyes on me, imagined the warmth of him. I am not a physically impressive woman, but it worked. He came to me the next day.

When the doorbell rang, I didn’t think it would be him. I’d been on the sofa reading a book and was ruffled and warm. I did not look the way I had hoped to when I’d daydreamed his face in front of me. But then you only have the face you are born with. Nothing I could have done would have made much difference.

It was a slightly awkward exchange, there was a blush to his cheeks, and he seemed out of breath, his words knocking against each other. We didn’t kiss then, just talked, maybe he wanted to scope out whether I was willing to enter the world I had opened for him the night before. I was.

He called me ‘crazy’ I remember that, ‘I’m a crazy kitten,’ I giggled winding a noodle of hair around my finger. He still calls me that sometimes. Whenever he says it, I purr.

He has a wife. I had always said that I would not be one of those women. But he is not one of those men.

‘I understand,’ I said to him one evening when he stood in my doorway, arms crossed.

‘Don’t say that to me, you understand nothing,’ he shouted and turned his face. He doesn’t shout often but I know that this is hard on him, he is a man frustrated and worn. So I decided on the woman I would be when I realised I was in love with him. I do not claw at him to leave her. I wait.

I check the clock; it is nearly midnight. I am tired but I will not sleep. A shifting of light in the room opposite reveals the flicker of him, edging towards the window. He pauses, lit from behind and I can see he has taken off his shirt and left me his body. He knows I am here. But it’s late and he disappears into darkness, the light goes out. I sit watching the window.

There was no warning. My rusty gate leapt open with a thud. I hadn’t expected him, it was daylight, and I had been asleep. I don’t often sleep in the middle of the day. I don’t often sleep.

As I walked to the door I grabbed my scarf off the hook, swallowed cold air and coughed. What beautiful hands I thought as he reached out towards me and thrust me backwards. I resisted a little to be sure of the strength of him, we danced for a while, a Tango; his desire tumbling from him as he moved forward, my body dizzy against his, the force of him pushing me further towards the backdoor, reaching for me. He took the weight of me, what was left of it, hard wood against my back, his hands searching for my waist then higher, my chest, holding me tighter until he held me almost by my neck and he had me, hands drifting as my eyes closed. I could smell his body leaning bent over mine, his face held so close I could swallow his breath, panting.

He was rough I think now, or maybe it was just his hands, a builders hands, calloused and worn.

There was a time when I used to fold myself under the bed sheets, head on soft pillow and drift to sleep, not waking until the sun crept through the curtains. Now, I sit and I watch and when I stop watching my mind repeats the day, so whatever lies within me won’t switch off. The loss of sleep has left me frantic. I am a woman wrung out.

My eyes droop. My body often tricks me into thinking it is ready to sleep but when I place my head on the pillow it wont rest there. My eyes blink until the sun begins to rise and so I don’t listen to it anymore.

I have never seen him sleep but I can imagine it. His dark hair against white sheets, those golden eyes closed. I wonder how much of a gap there is between them, whether their feet are entwined. If she rolls over in the night and strokes his back tussles the feathers of his hair. I close my eyes and think elsewhere.

Exhaustion is the feeling of being drunk. I have sat at my kitchen table with two empty bottles of wine open. I felt the most tired I have ever felt at that moment, although I couldn’t sleep, my mind was racing, heart beating so fast I could hear it’s echo in my head, the only sound in the room.

It was a Sunday. We had shouted at each other that day, the absence of him growing larger each time he came. I’d begged him to leave her and he had slammed the door. This is not the woman I was meant to be. That’s why I opened the first bottle, filling the emptiness with the warmth of wine. I promised that night that I would stop, that I was being a fool and he would never leave his wife, that all of this was nothing, I wasn’t enough I never would be. It was just a fantasy.

I pictured her lovely face resting on his chest. I scratched a patch on my finger where a ring should be, tried to remember who I was before I saw him, but I couldn’t quite find myself. That evening I was back at the window, watching the curtains blank out his life with a blink.

He has a beautiful wife. She is tall and slender with a nest of blonde curls. I am nothing like her but maybe that is the reason.

I have started to mumble aloud. I notice myself doing it throughout the house. I will hear a voice and it will take me a couple of seconds to work out that it is mine. I see my lips move in the window of parked cars, in the mirrors that jump out at me in shops. ‘Pardon?’ an assistant will say to me. ‘Can I help you?’

Help me I think as I stumble out of the shop, nobody can.

He is the only person that I talk to. He will stand head slightly bowed in front of me and watch the words tumble out of my mouth. I will tell him about my day. I hand him that invisible piece of me and let him hold it for a while.

‘I long for you now.’ I say to his curtains closed. I am stood my face against the window. Cool glass pressed on my lips.

‘Longed.’ I breathe a smudge on the windowpane; scrape a finger through the mist to make a kiss. I say the word slowly let my tongue hit the roof of my mouth. ‘Longed.’ ‘Longed,’ it feels like kissing.

Maybe I have slept and don’t remember. I am still sat, my neck bent and broken as I tilt it upwards to watch the morning sun spread across the road. The thickness of night is lifted, my favourite part of day. The monsters in the room have gone.

I flop my body back, head on the pillow and hear the slamming of car doors. I get up. Trip towards the window, the bed sheet wrapped around my feet. There is a police car parked outside his house, the curtains still closed. ‘This is it,’ my shirt gripped at my fist. ‘He has done it.’ All this time and it was last night. How did I not know it?

She would have pleaded. She cannot live without him she would have said, I am sure of it. She would spit tears at him, beg on the floor; hold on to his legs.

‘Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave.’ She will be better, she will be enough for him, she’s sorry that she hasn’t been, she is neglectful left him to wander. She can’t imagine waking without him there at her fingertips; she can’t sleep unless he is with her. She will change, they can escape, they will sell the house, go somewhere better, be better at it, and it is all said between sobs, gasping. She can’t do it, again and again. ‘I can’t.’ ‘I can’t.’

He must have lashed out at her if the police have been called. I will forgive him. Or would she have hit him? Did he tell her about me, did he say that’s why he was leaving? He wouldn’t have, he is too gentle.

There is a sickness inside my body but there is no time for it, my head feels light, did I sleep? If it was dark I would pour a glass of wine, it would calm me but it has happened the wrong way round and in any case I can’t leave the house to buy any. He will come soon.

My clothes are damp, I find that I am sweating; there is a musty smell in the room. I should wash.

The door opposite me opens. I see her dressed in a navy blue playsuit, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she has showered. Two policemen appear behind her, their heads are turned away from me. I sense him there in the background.

They don’t get back into the car, the policeman on the right glances up at me. She is still there, the door wide open, her face a smile. I duck my head and hide.

There is a moment, maybe a couple of breaths when they disappear out of sight and then the doorbell rings. There is no need to change after all. I make my way down the stairs, my body sluggish. They will wait. I wish I could be sure that I had slept; it would have made more sense that way. I know I will be harder to understand. My tongue feels thick and ugly; there is a temptation to bite at something. I put my fingers to my mouth and hold it closed. The door opens in my right hand; my left still spread against my mouth so I imagine all they see are my eyes. I move back slightly, enough for their feet to appear on my ‘welcome’ mat. And I feel that familiar turn twisting in my stomach.

‘Eve, there’s been another complaint. Mr Taylor informs us he’s had to come here again and ask you to stop.’

When I was a child I invented a whole world. Each Monday morning we would sit in front of the teacher, spread cross-legged in a smile and share our tales of the weekend. I can’t remember what any of the other children would say, not because I don’t have a good memory, I have, but because I never listened. I would sit there when they stuttered through their days, reciting mine. How I wanted it to sound when it was just my voice in the room.

I would always talk about my younger brother Jacob, even if the weekend had been an uneventful one I would think of something we had done that was funny, everyone would laugh. Jacob was my favourite thing.

We had spent that Sunday decorating our Christmas tree. I explained how we had argued like every year about who was to place the angel on top. Whoever won would get picked up by my father, his hands nestled under our armpits and we would fight over that,

being lifted weightless into the air. Jacob won, he always did. He was young and silly, and if he didn’t get his way he would whine and roll around on the floor kicking his legs like an upside down beetle. I explained how the tree dripped in silver; the picture I painted was magical. We held our hands in awe.

That afternoon my mother came into the school to collect me. It gave me a fright to see her there, dressed in red, like a warning. She would usually wait in the car, but it was Christmas and in her hands she held a box of chocolates.

She handed the box to my teacher, I couldn’t look at her face, and I remember that, I didn’t see her. Warmth spread across my cheeks; my legs and arms twisted in knots.

‘I have a little something for you too, actually,’ Mrs Davis said, ‘Eve made them just last week.’

And it was then that I knew it was over. They were Christmas decorations, two snowmen made out of cotton wool.

‘Here’s one for you, and maybe we could give the other to Jacob.’

‘Jacob?’ My mother asked.

And just like that, he was gone.



Image Credit

14 December 2016