The dawn light found first the ceiling with a single, cool finger that reached from a point above the wardrobe all the way to the chimney. From there, light bled slowly across the room, soothing white walls whiter still.
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Beneath the blanket Clare lay, patiently listening to the silence of the house, eyeing the lithe morning shadows. The pulse fled in her fingertips, her heart raced. She had lain like this all the night, watching, waiting—alive at last, and unwilling to miss a second of it.
Softly came the tender sounds of morning—the clink of spoon against cup; the rush of water in the bathroom sink. From outside came the low, fluid call of a pigeon. Clare caught the sounds in her mind; she took each in turn, admiring its smallness, its completeness, its peace. Gone were the pounding of feet, the shrieks and tantrums and giggles of mornings past. No one would leap upon the bed today, nor demand tea and papers. There were no breakfasts to be cooked, no quarrels to referee, no remonstrations to be made over lost buttons, torn hems, the need for new shoes, the housekeeping.
Such trifling things; it made her at once ashamed and angry that no one should ever have asked more of her. That no one had ever asked more.
But, today, there was only silence—silence and that delicious morning indulgence of blankets blood-warm from a night’s rest.
Clare tried to get her bearings, to picture her place in the house. There were four rooms off the downstairs hall, another six on the floor above. She had liked the look of the place the moment she saw the advertisement in the newspaper. Ingham’s Boarding House, it said. Single Rooms—Reasonable Rates. The house overlooked the city from a low rise near the Botanical Gardens.
Clare could still remember the area from the early days, when she and Ray had lived in a nearby satellite town, and visiting the city had been a matter of a short train ride. Back then, she’d come up regularly while Ray was at work, to run errands, pay the bills, and find them something nice for tea. If she was quick at her shopping, she might even have time to see a movie before she caught the afternoon train home.
This had been before the children, before Ray had announced that he was moving his little family to a small country town, with its “fresh air and wide open spaces”, its dreary community and isolation. In those early days before the move, the city had been close, welcoming. It had seemed so much less intimidating than it did these days, now that an older and more grounded Clare knew herself to be provincial, lacking both sophistication and a town haircut.
But back then, before they’d moved, she’d loved the city, felt at home there. Sometimes, on those excursions, she’d treat herself to lunch in the teahouse at the Botanical Gardens, and spend a little time afterwards admiring the rose display. How small the world was, she thought now, how strangely things came about. The rose garden was only a few streets from Ingham’s Boarding House. Perhaps she would visit it today, to see how it had changed after all these years.
Today was a Sunday, a day for relaxation, of relief, Clare told herself. But, to the children, Sunday had always been pikelet day. Ray would have no idea how to make pikelets; he’d be cursing the stove, slamming the pans across the burners. She imagined the children—two blonde faces at the table, silent, eyes fearfully wide—and their expressions cut her to her very core.
A blackbird trilled outside her window; sunshine flooded the rug by her bed, illuminating the roses in its faded border as brilliant, woven jewels.
Clare had left the house immaculate—the ironing done, floors washed, pantry stocked—and a short note, which she knew Ray would never understand. To be fair, though, she’d not fully understood it herself. All Clare knew was that she was suffocating; that if she stayed there, she would cease to exist. She wondered what he’d told the children. She wondered how soon she’d find work.
The aroma of toast wafted up from the kitchen. The room was chill, the rug rough beneath her feet. Clare opened the wardrobe and surveyed its meagre contents: two shirts, a skirt, and a pair of trousers were all that had fitted into her small case. Yet she pondered the day’s attire with the anticipation of a wealthy town lady dressing for an occasion.
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