Barrie Darke

Hard Times Open Your Eyes

MY LADY, MRS Claire Bradbury, began to pale and sicken. It happened that she was delivered home early from a night’s engagement, gasping for her air and twisting from a pain in the guts of her. A roving pain. She took to her bed, there to hew herself down to the bones, her eyes dark.
                Medical men arrived and departed, uniformly solemn, yet I saw that half a week passed before my master, Mr Joseph Bradbury, granted the full seriousness of her plight. This was not born of callousness, but quite the opposite, if that should be your first thought. The worst faced, Mr Joseph passed his every free hour by her bed. The change in him was succinct and plain. Abruptly, he was a pale and dark-eyed character himself.
                I have witnessed men proud to be upright in the face of this bereavement, men both high and low who were about their business with good humour the very next day. Theirs, however, was that loveless nature bred by the hardships of dissatisfaction. It was an evening, light and warm towards the end of summer, to furnish you with the full picture, that Mrs Claire left this realm. Mr Joseph could do no more than lay on the floor by her bed.
                ‘Molly,’ he said to me. ‘Our breaths will no longer mingle in the night time.’
                He wept there for a full hour. And then, he rallied.

Mr Joseph approached me and reported that he had stared into her eyes and saw the fading away of intelligence, warmth, and, naturally, love. He said that this was cruel, terrible, and worst of all, inhuman. Very rapidly, he said this also: ‘Contact no one, Molly; make no arrangements with the industry of death; do not yourself touch Mrs Bradbury; other elements are to be considered at this time.’ Fortunately, even a mere ten years’ service equips one with a mask on troubling occasions.
                Mr Joseph left for his workplace, the offices of a bank, on the morning, his face unrent by emotion. The day and the house were absolutely my own, and I must confess that my duties were neglected then, and would be for many days to follow; I hope this can be understood in time, and that I not be considered idle.
                When I was certain Mr Joseph would not immediately return, unable to brave the working hours, I stood before the body of Mrs Claire. She was not particularly a beautiful lady, being too tall and thin, yet death had left on her a tranquillity. I looked particularly into her eyes. They say that the eyes of the deceased hold the final image life had offered them – or perhaps it is a glimmer of the afterlife, I misremember. In any event, I saw only myself, so closed them. I took out two coins, two of my own, and placed them upon her eyelids. Shamefully, I wrestled with laughter and had to quit the room.
                On Mr Joseph’s return, he retired directly to her room, now the mourning room. It was seconds before he called me, and it was a scream, his voice, a terrible shrill breaking-out. The coins were pitched at my chest as I arrived in the doorway. ‘You little fool!’ he said, his voice no longer a scream, but still with something of the scream echoing.
                I withdrew to prepare a meal and await his apology. It came before seven o’ clock – the first seven o’ clock, as he said, without her.
                Mr Joseph was a modern, rational man, and therefore perhaps not as Godfearing as many another. He had, that distracted day, wrought new ideas on the role of love. ‘Love is a fierce energy,’ he insisted as he ate. He had me sit by the table. ‘It is my belief it will prove to be an infectious electricity.’ He shared these thoughts with me, whereas others would have thought them beyond my wits, and I believe that is why I remained in his service through those harsh days.
                That evening we ‘inverted’ the mourning room. So as to ‘invert’ the state of lifelessness. It became a pattern that, despite my assistance in such plans being required, my opinion on their likely success was not.
                This work involved forming the room into a mirror image of itself. I worry that the task was planned with insufficient care. The large items, including the dressers, the wardrobes, the laborious bed on which Mrs Claire lay, proved straightforward work, even if they did block doors and windows; yet it was the rearrangement of ornaments, dozen upon dozen of them, which confounded all attempts at accuracy. Mr Joseph scolded me for this, although he saw it was verging on the impossible, so there was restraint in his admonitions. Certainly, when the final object was placed, with not a little guesswork, my nervous state was unjustified: her hands did not lift, her tongue did not attempt to wet her lips, her eyes did not lighten or sharpen.
                Mr Joseph scrutinised her form for upwards of two minutes before nodding abruptly. ‘We must turn out attentions,’ he announced, ‘to the remainder of the rooms.’ I felt a tickling grey in my guts, yet resigned myself to a night of back-break. However, we were not halfway done with the kitchen’s toil before Mr Joseph laid down his end of the table we were transporting, and dismissed me for the night. I hesitated; I looked for him to sag, to wring tears once more – I strove for the words to bring this about, but could not find them. There still remained the energy in his eyes, the awful striking sheen. He asked that I rise two hours before the dawn.

I lay sleepless for the entire night, as expected. Presumably at the lowest ebb, I attempted to find happiness in the fact that I had failed to break through the hardship of my life station, and thus loved no one dearly, and would thus be spared these degradations of grief. It was an attempt, still, that failed.
                Presenting myself at the lightless hour suggested, Mr Joseph was waiting, still dressed in his office clothes, though they had never appeared so ungentlemanlike. His eyes were red - the pulse of heat that only sleep can damp down. I was acknowledged in passing: time was too short for decorum.
                Between us we removed Mrs Claire to the rear garden. We were reduced to carrying her, and it was my misfortune to view her head lolling at angles against Mr Joseph’s middle. I am far from an easily perturbed woman, yet this was the first of the images that I wished struck from my memory and experience.
                Sheets of bedding had been placed on the lawn, weighted by plant pots, forming a pale square in the gloom. It took no stretch to see that this had been meticulously and doubtless repeatedly prepared through the night. We lay Mrs Claire down, and as it seemed indecorous to step on the sheets, this called for an action that made my sides heat and pull.
                I was required to remain outdoors, despite the chill, which was a cold in the bones to last out the day. Strangeness upon strangeness: I found that the early hours, the sleeplessness, the silent air, the frank strangeness of this, carried a billow of freedom to my mind, and rather than stand by his side, I roamed the garden boundaries, breathing away the glow in my sides. I scrutinised the windows of adjacent houses. Again, there was almost laughter in me on occasion.
                Simply, I shall report that Mr Joseph believed birdsong, the dawn chorus, was life-generating, bound as it was to the sun’s emergence. In general, a vast wakefulness ushered in by natural music.
                Mr Joseph glared at the figure on the white square, which became more stark and damply-patched as the milky light broke upon the sky. The first of the birds found its tune. He muttered to himself, and although I could not hear the words, I took this to be a prayer, perhaps a prayer to no deity I could acknowledge. I very much wished to return indoors.
                Then he crouched by her, regarding her eyes. The birdsong filled the air in minutes, louder than I had ever heard it before, though that was unsurprising. Could he not hear it was impersonal? All the same, I did not look at Mrs Claire, not wishing to see direct failure or success: I would witness it through my master’s posture and expression. After a time he cried out, and I believed in that moment, believed any possibility. But he had mistaken the light of the sun for the light of life.
                On the stirring of other households, the sharp banging of doors and the yelping of released dogs, Mrs Claire was returned to the house. To the music room, was the instruction. So immersed was he that I was forced to remind him I would need his assistance. There was no delicacy now in stepping on the sheets.
                ‘It is evident,’ he declared along the way, ‘that the natural world responds to natural phenomena. It stands to reason that a human spirit should respond only to a human interpretation of such phenomena.’
                Mrs Claire was laid on the floor; I crossed her arms over her chest, and Mr Joseph came close to reprimanding me – this was too reminiscent of finality. Her arms were laid lovingly by her sides. He gave one wrist a reassuring squeeze.
                I had passable skills at the piano keys. He had me emulate the random runs and trills of birdsong, and in this I persisted for thirty minutes. At no point did the randomness harmonise into anything as free or melodious as birdsong, an outcome that should have been clear after three minutes. At the end of it, I was barely trying. That said, I take no responsibility for the project’s failure.

The maintenance of facades became our duties. Mr Joseph was late leaving for the office that morning, but he left, his reasons no doubt ready and perfectly delivered. It fell to me to uphold a natural odour in the passages leading to the mourning room, whence Mrs Claire was returned. This task was both paramount and impossible. Mr Joseph was oblivious to the air around him, or oblivious to all in the air that should prove a distraction.
                That evening he announced he had arranged time away from the working day, to nurse his wife, as he told his employers, to health. I had never known him lie, but of course, in his mind, this was not a lie. The next morning he announced he was to visit the library. He returned within the hour, florid, almost levitating with rage. I was forced to struggle once more with what he relayed to me – that he had demanded entry to a secret room within the library, which, he stated, was known to be stocked with arcane and grossly forbidden lore. Poisoned texts on reanimation and the dormant goblins of nature. Assistants at the library were firm that they had no such room and no such books. Inevitably, he had been pressed upon to leave.
                I remained steadfast and silent, withholding any sympathy he may have expected. I could lend no support to this Godless folly. If he noticed the lack, he gave no sign.
                He passed the balance of the day in the drawing up of plans. I ensured I scanned them, and found they meant nothing to me. They were not incantations, as I had feared, rather structural designs. Across the following three evenings, and into the long days of the weekend, Mr Joseph, with much toing and froing and the passing of money to the sons of toil, completed in the rear garden a contraption. I can invent no other name for it.
                Put simply, it was a metal platform to be raised by balloons and kites of various dimensions, buckled to the earth for now with ropes and bags of sand. The work of the days had added to his tumultuous state, so that he failed to express his reasoning clearly. Night radiation from outer space unfiltered by the rays of the sun was his new hope.
                This did not gull me. I saw the entire idea to be a mockery of the soul rising to the uplands of heaven, and I put this to him, more forcefully than even I expected. It gave him no pause. ‘Nonsense, Molly,’ he said. ‘Night radiation. It is an unexploited resource, that is all. Please, Molly. Do not desert me at this juncture.’
                At midnight – I saw nothing to be gained from arguing against that ill-favoured hour – we stationed Mrs Claire on the platform. There was no strong breeze. Mr Joseph tugged at the sandbags and took hold of a rope – the sand drained from the bags in tandem with our grip on the ropes tightening. The ascent, though slow, was not smooth. Mrs Claire was raised as high as five storeys, more than equal to the surrounding rooftops. I counselled against any further height, lest an unknown channel of wind should steer it out of our control. There we stood.
                I am not privy to the thoughts Mr Joseph entertained, though I know my own were inching into the vaults of insanity. Perhaps the people in the houses received something of her spirit, had their evening reveries disturbed by her fright?
                Mr Joseph was not used to physical labour, yet he would have persisted to the point of collapse. It was my decision to draw down on the ropes. It caused an imbalance that Mr Joseph could meet only by drawing down too on his ropes. The contraption bucketed gracelessly and he commenced to insult me then. Anger coarsened his movements as it coarsened his tongue, for the descent began to slip further awry, the angles became fraught. Finally Mrs Claire fell a distance of ten feet, and the contraption flew upwards and was lost to the trade winds in our haste to reach the twisted body. He attempted to say she had stirred beyond the movements of the breeze, and that the fall had stunned her back to her sleeping state. We must try again, with greater care.
                ‘Your contraption, sir,’ I informed him, ‘is somewhere south of here. Your wife should now be returned to the house.’
                He barracked me aimlessly for my cruelty and incompetence as we did so. Then I retired to my quarters. I refused to be roused by any hammerings or petitions or unjust curses, and indeed, he had little time to waste on such a one as I.
                After a fitful sleep, I lay for a spell and leant an ear to the household, for heavings and clatterings, the dragging of feet across floors. There was none of this. I looked to pack my belongings – yet still I fought to forgive him. This was love working on him. I did not know what it could do.

When I began my day, at a later hour than was custom, I found Mr Joseph muttering over Mrs Claire. I wondered if this was an incantation unearthed from somewhere dank after all; but he was in fact speaking of their lives. Not only their lives together, but the details he knew of her life before him – memories she had imparted that were as vivid as his own. The callous childhood tricks of an elder sister, who she hated unto this day. The gifts her father brought from the world’s ports, and how some of these scared her for no reason she could name. The schoolmistress who beat her for pricking a finger while sewing and staining the cloth with blood.
                This persisted the entire day and night. He did not eat or sleep that I saw, and took water only to prevent his voice cracking to dust. It is indelicate to report: he had placed buckets for his ordure around the bed. I was lazy in my duties once more, and sat silent in the garden, considering his love for her, and if it was now an evil.
                By the second morning, Mr Joseph had ceased to make sense. Times merged in his recollections so that the innocence of youth became hardened experience. Characters blurred into one another and acted without reason, previously shiftless brothers taking on the sturdy financial roles of fathers, and mothers long since dead baking cakes for weekly visits. Events collapsed so that he was present in her life when he could not have been. Worse yet were the gaps while the mind roamed in the desperate search for uncharted territory.
                He noticed my presence, insisted I add my own recollections. I said I would do so only if this could then end. I was harried from the room.
                I considered the risks, then accepted them. I busied myself around the surface of the house, and when the necessary rooms were presentable, all but one, I alerted those who could assist.
                Dr Furay was led into the mourning room, whose stench revolved day into night. Even his well-travelled eyes blinked and widened. I saw him reach into his top pocket for his kerchief, then reconsider. He put a sturdy hand on Mr Joseph’s shoulder, and something was communicated between them. Mr Joseph offered no resistance: in fact he clasped Dr Furay to him and heaved sobs into his shoulder. Dr Furay looked as though the horror had escalated.

Mr Joseph did not release me from service, although I had my effects stored in expectation. I made an attempt to explain my actions, yet he was in no mind to hear. He slept for two days, and was able to retain some composure during the funeral. That is to say, he wept without sound while in public. In private he bayed like a hound, and it fell to me to comfort him. My other duties were picked up when the need became pressing and not before. A little grime, after all, is not difficult to bear.
                We sat in the rear garden during the shortening, cooling evenings. We talked little, but this was no discomfort. We had recent memories linking us, after all, those lovely shortening, cooling evenings.
                The day of ... the night was empty. No wrongful element in it that I was aware of. Mrs Claire came to my room after midnight. I opened my eyes and she was there. A small, animal sound escaped me. She was there, standing against the wall directly opposite, as though she had come in at the door and slid along. Frail and grey yet still somehow vibrant, taller and thinner even than before. She was now prey to shadows that had no source in this world. Forgive me, but I cannot yet speak of her eyes. I hid myself under my bedclothes. I surveyed the room when courage allowed. Sometimes she was there, staring at me, sometimes she was absent. When the room was free of her, and there was light in the window, I rose.
                Mr Joseph readied himself for the office. I saw no glee in him, no vindication, and so I remained silent. Barricaded myself with rationalisations. That night Mrs Claire returned to my room, by my bed, eyes absorbing me, and the following morning I stepped into the kitchen to discover her sitting on the table, her legs swinging, grinning at my dismay.
                I busied myself out of doors, calling on various merchants, yet – behind me, or a vague shape ahead of me, turning to look. Patiently waiting around corners. From open windows of houses, her steely hair blowing around her face. The eyes of her ... she had learned savagery wherever she had been. She had made herself into a form of wild beauty to confront me.
                That evening I told Mr Joseph his work had been partially successful. That was how I chose to phrase it. The newspaper slid to the floor. He had me repeat the events time and again, an endless description of her new self. He had the look of a man fighting off a great happiness lest it turn and disappoint him.
                That night all manner of decorum was forgotten and he sat on a chair in my room; he would not allow me to leave, he was by my bed and would not remove himself. I did not believe she would appear in such circumstances, but she did, she hissed at me, and he could not hear it, he could not see her – he swept the air, he passed his hands through her. Mrs Claire was not blind to him, but perhaps he was dead to her now.
                ‘You thwarted my efforts,’ Mr Joseph insisted in the morning. ‘That is why Mrs Bradbury is visible to you me only.’
                I claimed it was the decay of his memories on that second day which had brought about this miscarriage – yet I knew these were false words. Perhaps he did also.
                ‘I have no option but to release you from my service,’ he said. His last words to me.

I am lodging now with my sister. I no longer have the nerves of a healthy woman because Mrs Claire of course came with me. Her face is callous and joyful at my fall. She belongs to a jealous God, and it does not matter that I try to speak to her, try to explain that I should not be punished for a possible future that never appeared. She is content where she is, she cannot see what it is to tire of the draining hardships your state affords you. She has unworldly power, she cannot recall what it is like to have loneliness as your only energy. Her eyes blaze now, she cannot believe what it is like to be helpless over what may shine forth from your own.

Barrie Dark has recently been published in the UK by Byker Books, New Writing North and Sentinel Literary Quarterly; and in the USA by Menda City Review, Nossa Morte, Demon Minds, Infinite Windows, Underground Voices, Big Pulp, Pseudopod, Inwood Indiana, Bastards and Whores, Onomatopoeia, Orion Headless and Xenith.
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