PART I, Chapter 1
That morning, a hard rain like someone knocking on the door roused me from a harrowing dream.
In it, I’d been walking alone through a dark house—trespassing, more or less, without intending to. How I got there was a mystery, but I felt innocent of any wrongdoing. I suppose a sense of privilege propelled me. I felt as entitled to my intrusion as that explorer whose recent burial excavations in Egypt had been reported with much fanfare in the press. Giving no thought to the dead and how they might feel about my presence, I wondered if I too might find gold in this dark place.
I hadn’t gone very far when an old man, bandaged like a mummy, began to creep along behind me. Pretending nonchalance, I began to walk faster. But I knew he was near even when I didn’t turn to look. A rank, medicinal smell emanated from his body, which I took to be embalming fluid. When I was no longer able to contain my fear, I started to run.
I ran past cavernous yellow-mouthed fireplaces and rows of armless white statues, women mostly, with uncovered breasts that made me feel all the more exposed. But I didn’t have time to explore my own insecurities. The old man was like a dog—teeth bared, nipping at my heels, gaining on me at every turn.
When I looked over my shoulder again, he was very close. His long bandaged arm reached for my neck, and I opened my mouth to scream. But I could hear only the thumping rain and my heaving breath.
I woke up.
The rain that morning struck the house like a faucet turned sideways, and I felt as if the whole world were closing in on me. Instinctively, I reached across the bed to touch the tangle of red hair on Ian’s chest. But his pillow was cold. I got dressed and made a pot of tea.
Downstairs, I sat in the jutting bay window trying to collect myself. A small black-and-white dog scampered across the street, its fur wet and matted with rainwater. I drank my tea and watched the dog huddle beneath a green wheelbarrow used as a planter by our neighbor. The rain grew persistent, striking the window in slanting silver needles.
This was weather the cuckoo likes. That’s what my father would say, standing with thumbs in his vest pocket, addressing some imagined jury in the clouds. I never took to Thomas Hardy the way he did, but the opening line of the old poem seemed to fit my mood that morning. Despite the tea, I was still feeling a bit cuckoo myself. The dream had shaken me.
The sinister old man seemed to gain on me even as I sat wide awake in my own house, trying to pretend a cup of Earl Grey might set me right. But the dream was only half of what troubled me that day. What bothered me even more was the way I’d left things with Ian.
It was a late spring morning with signs of clearing in the distance. The chilly, prickling rain seemed to permeate the glass. I looked up to inspect the ceiling. But my sense of seepage was just the trick water sometimes plays on the ear. The roof was fine, apparently. It was my marriage that had sprung a leak.
The view from this side of the house offered no trees, just a river of wet concrete and long rows of yellow daffodils bearing up bravely beneath the flat white houses across the street. I suppose Hardy’s chestnut spikes were tumbling to earth somewhere. But I couldn’t see any.
What I could see from my window-seat was the drenched cap of a delivery man. His head, bent low against the light rain, sank into the raised collar of his coat. A leather strap across his chest glistened in the gray light as did the brown satchel at his side. This was not at all the sort of person the wife of an RAF pilot wants to see after her husband has flown off to fight Hitler.
The strong wind that had been pushing the rain sideways all morning shoved me back into the foyer a little when I opened the front door. Surprised, the postman widened his eyes as if I had just sprouted wings. He had the cherry-cheeked face of a boy and spoke with a pronounced East End accent.
“Good day, ma’am,” he said, handing me a yellow envelope and thanking me for the tip. His voice had the pitch of a soprano, and for a moment I thought he might be a girl. So many men had already shipped out.
I slid a fingernail beneath the envelope’s flap and tried to steel myself against the worst. Across the foyer, the gilt-edged mirror my parents had given us as a wedding present stared back at me. It framed a pale, dark-haired woman, eyes half-closed, her narrow back against the paneled door, trying to keep the stiff upper lip we English are known for.
I didn’t know exactly where Ian was. But I knew he hadn’t flown to America. The cable was from my father’s old university friend who had been living across the pond now for several years. I could almost hear his voice as I read it.
Rita: Your services urgently needed for hush-hush assignment in the U.S. Princely compensation. All expenses paid. I’ve contacted Mrs. Reid at your agency. Decision entirely up to you. Please reply at once. Travel and other details to follow.—Uncle J.
The rain continued its relentless assault against the house. But all I could hear was the hammering of an anvil inside my chest.
END OF PART 1, Chapter 1
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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