Cellars

Chapter 1

Eliza swept past Dale and marched out to the moving van to retrieve the painting. Dale lingered in the kitchen, attempting to look busy by re-arranging boxes. He stopped to watch Eliza’s heavy stride out to the van, where all of their possessions sat strapped like prisoners in the back.  Ignoring the eyes of the removal men, she lifted the painting from the far corner of the van and held it loftily, her arms raised high above her head.

There was something glorious about her ascent into the van – the twists and curves of her small frame amongst the bulky furniture, the fluttering flexes of her muscles as she lifted the painting above her head. A familiar sense of pride and admiration swelled in Dale’s chest.

Of course, the other men were watching too. The hired removal men were standing at the side of the pavement, sharing a cigarette. The paper seemed to burn quicker under the heat of their eyes as they watched Dale’s wife weaving between boxes. Dale wanted to put out a chivalrous arm in front of her, or to grab a fistful of her hair, anything to stake a claim in her. But all he did was watch her, carrying the painting, from the kitchen window.

            Dale couldn’t understand why Eliza loved the painting; he hated the aura of death and decay that seemed to emit from the canvas. It depicted a circle of roses are held in a plain vase in a dark room. At first glance, the flowers seem normal. The roses are red, ripe and lusciously blooming around the edges of the bouquet, the petals capturing the little light they can and reflecting it back, creating a subtle sense of movement around the top of the vase. But a closer glance reveals that the roses begin to decay towards the centre of the bouquet. The petals gradually lose their vivid colour and begin to darken. Slowly, their edges begin to curl and split. The deterioration drags the onlooker’s eye to the centre, which holds one decrepit rose.

He stepped into the kitchen doorway, watching Eliza’s movements as she arranged it on the wall. The removal men were attempting to pass her with some of the larger furniture. Even her slight frame was an obstruction in the narrow hallway. She remained there, under their stares, seeming to be determined to have the painting up before any other item was brought into the house. Dale forced himself to speak, unwilling to allow the men to gawk at her.

“Eliza,” Dale began. Their eyes flickered to him as they waited. Eliza had stopped, her hands on her slim hips, shaking away hair that had fallen out of her messy ponytail and landed on her damp forehead. She was looking at the painting. Behind her, the removal men took a step forward.

“Eliza,” Dale began again, willing a little more force into his voice, “That might look better in a lighter part of the house.” Eliza sighed and turned her head sideways. “The living room, perhaps.”

“I like it here,” Eliza’s response was sharp. “It will be something nice to arrive home to.” The removal men moved again. The man standing closer to Eliza almost pressed his back against her. Eliza didn’t take her eyes off the painting.

Dale thought he could see a small smile on the faces of the removal men. He thought about turning to them and meeting their look, daring them to step closer to his wife. He stepped back into the kitchen. “Yes,” he muttered, “perhaps you’re right.”

Once the painting was secured on the wall, Eliza became a tornado of dusters and bleach, twisting between piles of boxes, her own imposing furniture and the bulky frames of the two removal men. She poked the broom into the corners of the rooms, with smiling apologies as she did so. “You just never know what the former tenants might have left behind,” she declared, as she put out a hand to stop them from putting down her Victorian chest of drawers, thinking there was a stain on the wooden floor.

Every room in the new house had wooden floors. This meant that every footstep could be heard echoing intrusively through the walls, sending coarse vibrations knocking between each smooth, cold surface. The floorboards were made from a dark, walnut wood with lashings of cherry red. The colour reminded Dale of the fireplaces in their old house; the blacks and reds that folded into each other inside the dying embers of the fire.

“These floors are too dark,” Eliza murmured, walking away from the supposed stain. Dale nodded and the removal men dropped the chest of drawers with a triumphant thud.

The whole house was dark – a dark, square building that sat hunched at the bottom of a cul-de-sac. To get to it meant passing a row of brown tiled, red bricked beauties that the sun seemed to shine out of rather than into. The house sat at an odd angle, facing away from its neighbours, as if it was deliberately turning its shoulder away from them. This contrast only made the already gloomy house look even bleaker. The roof was littered with black and grey tiles, while the front of the house was caked in dark grey cement with noticeable cracks across its dismal aspect. The windows were small and square, allowing very little light inside the house. Scattered around the front door, were an assortment of wild flowers. This provided the only colour to the house – an untamed arrangement of reds and yellows and greens. They spread themselves like a carpet around the side of the house, into an alleyway that led to the equally wild garden.

It was only now that Dale realised how dark the place was. And how small. Leaving Eliza to dictate orders to the removal men, Dale began to drag in his own boxes. In the old house, there had been a whole room for him to house old copies of his newspaper. In the new house, there was no space for them. Left with no other option, and with Eliza nowhere around to offer instructions, Dale began stacking the boxes of yellowing papers in a corner of the living room. The boxes stood like a totem pole made of paper.

On the very top, Dale placed a smaller box that was held together by reams of sellotape. It housed his camera, the first camera he’d ever owned as a professional journalist and the only one that he couldn’t bear to part with. It was a black Nikon N2000 model, fitted with a Sigma Hyperzoom lens. The lens was so wide and so long, Dale could see its black edges bursting from the thin and fragile cardboard box. A stunning example of photography equipment.

Dale stood back and admired the tower he had created. A thought crept into his mind that, perhaps, Eliza had chosen this place out of spite. He had removed himself from the decision making process. After everything that had happened, he thought Eliza might want to choose the house herself. He had even thought that she might enjoy it; embarking on an exploration of different, albeit smaller, houses and deciding on a suitable, albeit modest, house. But it seemed it was now another reason to blame him for how low he had brought them; to remind him that they weren’t here by choice.

Once his boxes were safely in the house, he escaped to the garden. The garden was overgrown. Dale didn’t know much about gardens. But he definitely knew it was overgrown. Perhaps he could hire someone to sort it out? Behind him, Eliza’s voice echoed as she barked calls and commands to the men inside.

He shuffled his feet amongst the weeds and waited for the noise in the house to subside. He was acutely aware that Eliza hadn’t asked him to help move anything around the house. Perhaps this was another way of reminding him of his lack of responsibility. Not that he needed reminding. The day they moved into the house was the two hundred and forty third day since he had lost his job.

After waiting for the removal men to leave, he walked back into the house. He attempted to make his footsteps sound louder as he wandered from room to room. He paused at the cellar door, his arm outstretched, reaching for the handle.

“That door doesn’t open”. Eliza’s voice rang out from the top of the stairs. “Try and open it.” Dale obeyed half-heartedly, only to find that the door wouldn’t budge. Not a single movement could be coaxed from the handle. He tried harder, grunting as he pressed his minimal bodyweight against the stubborn door. Eliza, losing interest, walked away.

“I want to see what’s down there,” she called out, over her shoulder, “The landlord hadn’t mentioned there was a cellar but there it is. I want to see what’s down there.”

Dale sighed. “Maybe he hadn’t mentioned it because there is no cellar.”

“No cellar?” Eliza shot back. She returned to the stop of the stairs, leaning over the banister to glare down at Dale. “Just a door? Why would there just be a door? There’s always something behind a door”. She shook her head, seeming to shaking away any notions of doors without rooms, or gardens, or cellars sitting obediently behind them.

Dale rolled his eyes. “Perhaps the cellar has been filled in.”

Eliza didn’t answer at first. “Try and open the door again. Or we’ll have to contact the landlord.”

The landlord was a short, loud, yet nervous man. When they had first come to view the house, Eliza had stood in the empty, echoing living room to discuss the terms of the tenancy. Dale had only come in as far as the hallway, before deciding to retreat to the car. He could hear the landlord’s voice bellowing from the front door and Eliza’s voice attempting to match his volume.

“I hope you’ll be very happy in the house, Mrs Feeman!” He yelled.

“Thank you very much, Mr Fallin!” Eliza yelled back.

He was also the kind of man who laughed a lot and often for no reason. He’d almost giggled as he walked Eliza back to the car where Dale was waiting, cowering behind the window from the two loud figures approaching him. Mr Fallin didn’t speak to Dale, only continued to smile and laugh silently to himself. Eliza returned the laughter for a while and then turned her back on him as she got into the car, frowning. Dale watched the landlord turn towards the house, looking up and down the street before he walked in, his laugh turning to a sudden, violent cough.

Mr Fallin was not the sort of person Dale wanted to deal with. As nervous as Mr Fallin appeared to be, Dale was considerably more so. Dale often stumbled over his words when he spoke to strangers, which usually led him to avoid strangers altogether. Despite this, on their second day in the house, Eliza left for work early and set Dale the task of phoning the landlord to enquire about the cellar door. She’d squeezed his arm as she left. Now he wished he turned over and pulled her back under the duvet with him.

Dale stood by the phone for a while, muttering under his breath; “Mr Fallin, it’s Dale Feeman here. I’ve got a quick question about the…the cellar door. It’s just…you see, we can’t seem to …to open …it.” Dale shook his head. He walked back to the cellar door and tried the handle again. If he could open the door, he wouldn’t have to ring Mr Fallin, Eliza would be happy, she wouldn’t complain when she got home. He tried the handle again. He knelt down to inspect the handle closer. It was a typical round, gold handle. He ran his finger over the metal surrounding it and down to the keyhole, pushing his finger into the small hole. He couldn’t feel any air coming through the keyhole. He pressed his face against the door and looked into the hole. There was nothing but black.

Sighing, he sat cross-legged on the floor and considered what to do. His eyes ran from the handle, to the keyhole, to the gap between the door and the door-frame. He was just about to pull his face away when something caught his eye. Scrambling up onto his knees, he leant closer, almost pressing his face against the grain of the door. Running throughout the small space around the edge of the door, was what appeared to be a very thin line of cement.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Excerpt from Chapter 4

Eliza willed herself to look up from the essay she was holding in her hands. Across from her, with her knees pulled up to her chest and a sulky expression on her face, was Janice Wilder. Eliza had been given the thankless task of supervising the girl’s coursework. In her hands, was the first attempt. Eliza sighed, wondering how to mould her criticism into encouragement.

 The desk chair seemed a little too high; she felt herself loom over her own desk. Janice was sat in a lower, more comfortable chair, her chin resting on her knees. The tight confines of the office pushed the two of them closer than Eliza would like. Janice kept her eyes fixed on the worn carpet. Eliza sat back in her chair and sighed again, to fill the silence, to delay the moment when she would have to speak.  Beside her, a cup of coffee steamed. She watched the curls of steam snake into the air as she prepared herself.

“Janice,” Eliza began, “this is not an essay. It is more like a treatise of your political and social views, completely removed from any literary context.”

Janice opened her mouth as if to speak, but her mouth only hung half open in some awkward grimace as she took in Eliza’s words.

“You don’t even refer to your key texts,” Eliza pressed on. “It’s all about your ideas about Feminism, not a feminist view of literature.”

In one clumsy movement, Janice’s feet dropped to the floor. Her foot kicked the side of Eliza’s desk. Eliza watched it for a moment, waiting to see if it would kick again. When Janice didn’t respond, Eliza leaned in, lowering her voice in a way she thought might be comforting. “It’s not good, Janice but – “

“So tell me what to do!” Janice barked, also leaning forward, her open mouth snarling.

Eliza sat back and regarded her. Janice always looked scruffy, even to the point of looking unclean. But now, with that bitter, sullen expression on her face, she looked downright gruesome.

Janice obviously fancied herself as a bit of a rebel. Eliza thought of her as a walking, talking, spitting cliché; a purveyor of ridiculous ripped jeans and t-shirts adorned with the usual bands. Her ears were filled with studs and rings, and her earlobes had been stretched to nearly an inch. The world was usually protected from the sight of them by the curtain of dirty blonde hair that hung over her face. In her meeting with Eliza, however, she had pulled her hair back into a makeshift bun, exposing her large ears, vapid blue eyes and pockmarked cheeks. Eliza stared through the giant holes in Janice’s ears, fascinated by the hollow space torn into the pink flesh.

It took Eliza a minute or two to realize that Janice was staring back at her, her mouth still hung in that ugly smirk. Ignoring the traces of amusement in her student’s eyes, Eliza continued. “It’s obvious that you’re passionate about your subject matter. That’s good.” She stressed the words too much, her voice too high. “You’ve just got to reign it in. And for God’s sake, refer to the key texts.”

“I do!” Janice moaned. “Have you even read it properly?”

Eliza breathed deeply, leaning further back into her chair. “It’s my job, Janice. I can assure you that you don’t.”

Janice frowned. “I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” She collapsed back into her chair, slumping down into it like a petulant child. “I can’t believe I got stuck with you as my supervisor.”

It was stupid, but the words hit Eliza hard. She felt her stomach tighten. “Well,” she declared, hiding her eyes behind Janice’s essay. “We can always fix that.”

“Right.” Janice turned to go, reaching her hand out for the door. She stopped.

“Janice.” Eliza tried to make her wavering voice sound comforting.

“Do you have this effect on everyone?” Janice asked, her eyes locking with Eliza’s.

“Sorry?”

“Do you make everyone you meet feel so … inferior?”

Janice let out a tiny, bitter laugh as she threw the door open, knocking over a pile of books as she almost fell into the hallway. Eliza listened to her angry footsteps pound the corridor.

At first, Eliza didn’t move. She just stared at the open door. Eventually, she shut the door and gathered up the fallen books. She tried to ignore Janice’s words, hanging in the air like moths, as she gently placed the books on the already cluttered bookcase.

The bookcases around the room only served to bring the office walls in closer. They were filled to bursting. Some books were inherited from former occupants of the room, others she had placed there herself. More had come recently, as she had brought books from home. Bringing them to her office had been like rescuing survivors from a sinking ship, placing them in a safe port in which to see out the rest of the storm. Eliza placed her hands on the top shelf, breathing deeply.

Remembering her coffee, she crossed the office, dropping Janice’s essay onto the desk with a flourish. She was angry at herself for letting Janice get to her, but she couldn’t deny that she’d been stunned by the girl’s words. Inferior? Was that the effect she had? An image of Dale, when she first met him, flashed into her mind. Was the change in him down to her?

Attempting to shake away the image of Dale’s face, Eliza stepped in front of her desk and leant on the window sill to stare out at the pale sky. She breathed heavily onto the window pane, watching the condensation fill the glass like a blot of ink. She traced anxious crosses into the moisture of her breath with her finger. Below her, a multitude of students wandered between the college’s buildings, scurrying from lesson to lesson. None looked up towards her window.

Beside her, Janice’s essay lay abandoned on the desk. After a moment, Eliza placed her coffee up on top of it. A small drop of cold coffee edged its way towards the paper. Its slow journey ended as the drop penetrated the page, seeping across the word ‘sensation’ that was peeking out from underneath the mug. Eliza watched it happen. She waited until the coffee hit the page and then she turned back to the window with a satisfied smile.

She would have to find another teacher to supervise Janice’s coursework. There was no way she could work with that girl. She would be biting her tongue in every meeting, trying to avoid the girl’s wild temper. And she couldn’t bear to be spoken to like that.

Inferior.

The word came again, penetrating Eliza’s thoughts like a pellet.

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