The vodka has done its job. The tremors in her hands have almost stopped. She opens the door of the flat and goes down the back stairs, feet ginger on the splintered wood. For all his pretentions, Carrington let the place go. It is shabby, not up to his idea of his overblown place in the world. She slots the key in the back door, stands in the hallway.
Don’t go in there just yet. We might need to have another look around, the policeman had said.
But had he mean it as a standard warning, following procedure, or was it a subtle message? I know what you did.
The main part of the house is quiet, except for the sound of cars or voices on the street now and then. She wants to call out Carrington’s name, just to check he has actually gone. She creeps along the hall, edging toward the front door.
The staircase is magnificent. It announces the house as soon as the door opens. The sun, shining through the blue stained-glass windows framing the door, casts an unnatural glow on the old wood. She looks for blood, or some other fluid. Evidence his body has cracked open and poured his life out all over the floor. Around the foot of the stairs, there is nothing. No sign he came to an end right there. They removed every trace of him while she was passed out. She rubs her foot on the bottom step. It is bowed like a soup spoon.
Two weeks ago, she wanted to push him down the stairs. He was on the landing, right in front and below her, wearing socks, too soft to grip those soapy stairs. A gentle disturbance to his centre of gravity was all it would have taken, but bodies are strong, almost unbreakable, even those belonging to 69-year-old men — or so she had thought. Was he old enough to tumble down a flight of stairs?
She walks back along the hall and into the kitchen. The cupboards are painted mission brown and the tiles and benchtop are burnt orange, like walking into a forest in autumn. It is the most depressing room in the house. There is no pair of empty cut-glass tumblers with a film of whiskey, single malt, on the sink, or in the dishwasher. But even if there had been, that sharp-eyed policeman would not have left them. She sighs so hard the breath chokes her throat, more like a sob. She can’t tell if she has got away with it, or even if there is something to have gotten away with.
What time did you get home, Claire? the policeman said.
Around twelve, a bit later, she had told him, trying hard to sound vague, but not too vague and no, she did not remember seeing Carrington. Now, she can’t remember exactly what she told him. The blood had been roaring in her head and she was still in that hyperaware state that comes before the crash.
We’re trying to pin down his time of death.
Her path to the back stairs and her flat lead past Carrington’s lounge and dining room windows. Through them, he sees her come and go and sometimes calls out to her, beckons with his finger, at all hours of the day and night. She usually goes because she needs him now, as much as he needs her.
Called, beckoned, needed.
She told the policeman she had not seen Carrington for a couple of days, but not why. It was because he was asking too many questions about the nursing home.
She opens the fridge. The milk is running low, but no, he has gone. There will be no more messages to run, as he calls it, trips to the supermarket, the post office, the chemist. Her rent has been shrinking as Carrington asks her to take on more jobs, to the point where it is almost nothing. The house will be sold, her flat reabsorbed into the rest of the house, her space taken over. She will be homeless.
She takes a fresh glass into the dining room and sloshes whiskey into it. The vodka has worn off and her body shudders. It is about this time of the day she swears never again, this time for sure she will stop, but now is not the time for giving up. She pulls out one of the carved wood and leather dining chairs. It is covered in dust, but she sits on it anyway. That cleaner deserved to find a dead body, she had not been doing her job properly. She had her eye on that work, now that she has been booted from the nursing home.
She was best qualified to help Carrington because she was willing to listen to him banging on about the only passion he had. It was a small price to pay for low rent, for security. It was the violins, three of them, that obsessed him. He was retired from the symphony orchestra but still played every day. She could hear the music, softly, through their shared wall.
You have to practice every single day, never miss, to be the best, Claire, he told her that day. People don’t understand how hard we work. Raw talent isn’t enough, not at my level, hmm?
He looked at her with an expression that invited her to worship him. He was in the room upstairs, the one where he kept the violins. He stroked the body of the violin with his grey-veined hands and stared out the window. She sensed that he was speaking to an invisible person in those moments, his younger self perhaps. The violin he was holding was worth a lot of money, but how much she does not need to know — or so he said. He had a thatch of iron grey hair and a tall block of a body powered by a heart that did not beat like he played, with perfect rhythm, and he swallowed handfuls of pills every day.
Falls, Claire, are the danger. But I can’t wrap myself in cotton wool, hmm? he said, though he did just that, in so much as he was using her, more and more, to bring to him what he needed, so he did not have to leave the house. He was becoming more dependent, yet knew almost nothing of her life. He never asked.
You know, playing the violin was not all I excelled at. I got top marks and I was a very good schoolboy cricketer, I even had a talent for art. But I gave them all up to concentrate on music. You have to be single-minded, utterly devoted, to be the best. No distractions. All it takes to succeed is hard work.
And privilege, and luck, and money, and all sorts of other advantages you took for granted, you entitled arsehole, she thought. She had wanted to rip the violin out of his hands and smash it over his head. And then, the desire, the frightening, satisfying desire, to push him down the stairs.
Remembering the intense emotion makes her want to vomit. She has done many things in those missing hours — driven a car, had sex, walked miles. If only she could remember the night before, but it is a dark abyss. She wants a sign to illuminate it, but there is nothing.
The whiskey begins to enliven her blood, and she stands. From between her legs comes the perfume of piss, as strong as the booze. Humiliation rolls over her again. The way the policeman looked at her. The disgust that turned to pity. The stain on the front of her black dress.
She goes back to the stairs and creeps up. Yes, they are a death trap, no doubt about it. At the top, she rests against the balustrade, looks down and tries to imagine the scene. Carrington flailing, surely head-first, hitting the floor with arms and legs rearranged in unnatural ways. Or was it just his head, knocked off its delicate axis? It could not be possible to blank out something like that. Although, what if it was not her, but someone she invited in? Back in the days of shared houses, a flatmate had warned her about bringing strangers, potential criminals, into their home. The shame still makes her burn.
On the right, at the top of the stairs, is the boarded-up door that once led into a bedroom, behind which now is her quarter of the house. Kitchen, lounge, bedroom, bathroom. To the left is Carrington’s bedroom and next to it, the room where he kept the violins. A huge Edwardian wardrobe, full of old sheet music, dominates the room. He had not bothered to update the house and its furniture since he inherited it from his parents.
She opens the case of the most expensive violin. No one can tell her not to touch now. She unclips the bow, grasps the disc of rosin by its calico cloth and gently rubs it along the strings. She used to love this preparation, the faint smell of pine dusting the strings. She never owned a violin, just hired one from school. She takes the instrument from its green velvet bed, attaches Carrington’s shoulder rest and sets it on her shoulder. Her hands shake, but she puts her fingers in their places on the bow, captain thumb in the captain’s chair. The position comes back after all these years. She begins to play, a scale first, then fragments of pieces rehearsed, learned off by heart and the muscle memory in her arms takes over. She reached grade five before she gave up. She quits everything, there is no potential in herself she has not managed to destroy.
You have to be single-minded, utterly devoted, to be the best. No distractions. All it takes to succeed is hard work.
Is that her problem? She is just bone lazy, she does not try hard enough. If only she knew how to work hard, to finish those half-finished courses, to be the qualified, instead of the not-quite-qualified nurse, or all of those other things, to have something to show for the piled-up debt. But her heart used to pound, and her hands shake, and then the dread, like a thin stream of black ink, would pour through her blood and she would do anything to make it stop.
Hard work equals success. If only it were so simple. Yet for all that success, it did not stop Carrington’s friends from drifting away, if he ever had any in the first place. He was a lonely old man with just her for company. He did not even know she could play.
Her fingers wobble on the strings, but the feel of the violin returns her to a time when she felt in control. She remembers learning new pieces, mastering more complex fingering patterns, playing them over and over until the rhythm was perfect. The sound she makes is flawed, but it is beautiful all the same. Tears begin to leak out of her eyes.
After 20 minutes, she is exhausted. She puts the violin in its case, slides the bow back into its holder, zips it shut. It must be worth tens of thousands. She turns and watches herself in the mirror on the wardrobe door. If he were still alive, Carrington’s eyes would have roved over her in this dress, lingered too long. The torn sleeve is like a wet leaf on her arm.
Were you here on your own all night?
Good question. He was clever, wasn’t he, that policeman? Her body is a generalised factory of pain, but there are no particular sites of damage, such as between her legs for instance.
On her own? This time, probably.
On the landing, she pauses. The thought of his dead body lying at the bottom of the stairs is terrifying. If she threw her own body down, would she die too? It would take a couple of bottles of vodka to drum up that sort of courage. And would that make the chances of dying more or less likely? Her body has proved stubbornly resistant to death so far. Sometimes she enjoys indulging these thoughts. Other days they act as a warning.
She takes the violin down the stairs and out of the house. It is raining. The leaves of the frangipani tree beside the outside stairs are glossy and raindrops wash her face as she goes up to the flat. In the kitchen, her handbag lolls off the table; a couple of tampons, a lipstick and a half-empty blister pack of codeine spill across the floor. The vodka bottle is empty. There is another in the pantry, but no, she feels stronger now, mentally at least, if not physically. She walks into the bedroom, scans the bed, the bedside table, the floor, looking for a sign of someone else. She needs something to stir the sludge of her memory, because she has no recollection of the last 24 hours. She takes off her dress and crawls into bed. Carrington is dead, but she does not really believe it.
When she wakes, the light is feeble, and the rain has stopped. How long has she slept? She reaches for her phone. How was your trip with Saed? the message from the app reads. She clicks it. Saturday, 5.18 a.m., from a friend’s place. Or, not friend exactly, more an accomplice with a shared need for oblivion. While she drank the night into nothingness, Carrington lay at the bottom of the stairs. He was almost certainly dead by the time she got home. Was he conscious? She hopes not, she really does. The thought of it is unbearably sad.
She uses the card to call the police station, tells the woman on the other end she made a mistake about the time, her statement needs updating. She will need to come in and change it, the woman says, and she hangs up. She is exhausted, and freezing. The violin is in the middle of the floor. She has never stolen anything in that state, at least not as far as she knows. But she has been violent, more than once, without remembering it.
She goes into the bathroom and stands under the hot shower for a long time. The water warms her, melts her blood, brings it to the surface and makes her skin flush.
Catherine Hanrahan lives in Sydney. She is a fiction writer, journalist, and author of Changing Minds: The go-to Guide to Mental Health for You, Family and Friends.