Laura McKenna writes poetry and fiction. Her most recent work has been published in The Examiner and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Awards include the Penguin/RTE Guide Short Story Prize, a nomination for a Forward Prize for Poetry 2016, and a Hennessy Award nomination in 2012. She is a past winner of the Novel Fair (Irish Writers' Centre) and in 2016 is longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and Bath Novel Award. Her work has been supported by a bursaries from the Arts Council and Cork County Council. Currently she is completing a novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at University College Cork.
The Uncertainty Principle
“Sorry Daddy. I said I’m sorry.” Darkness. You drag yourself from sleep’s swell, damp with sweat. Darkness still. Not a hint, not a chink of light. You sit up, grapple with the bedcovers, urgent hands feeling the unfamiliar heavy brocade. Not your bed then. The sound of breathing. Deep breathing. You feel your own breath catch as you reach over, touch the shoulder of the sleeping body. In that instant, you know it’s Dan. Know you’re in a hotel room, Leane House Hotel in Killarney. Dan’s idea. All Dan’s idea. You lean back against the head board in the darkness.
When you told your Mum that Dan had booked a weekend away in Killarney, her face had loosed itself from its tight lines. An expression of relief as much as happiness.
“Oh, bet he’s going to propose.”
She hugged you, body like a leftover chicken carcass, all bone and dry skin. Strange how she was still such a believer in love. She who was so marked by it, from the crinkled heart tattoo on her upper arm to the misshapen collar bone which had refused to knit discreetly. Even her nicotine tipped fingers betrayed the tensions of love lost.
Or it could have been her job, care worker in a large nursing home. Never ever end up in a job like mine, she used to say. Battery farms for the elderly. Get yourself a degree and a proper job. So you did. A degree and a proper job. Accounts, where you met Dan.
You get out of bed, carefully, feeling your way along the wall to the bathroom and the light switch. It’s a vast white marble affair, double sinks, and that redundant bidet thing. There’s a bath with those claw legs like in magazines. You’d spent a good half hour in there, wallowing in the expensive bubbles, before dressing for dinner. Dan sucked in his breath at the sight of you, his broad frame filling the doorway, his face stretched in a wolfish smile.
“Well, I guess it was worth the extra money for the deluxe.”
Actually, you’re not sure about this. Don’t really see the point of a sofa – chaise longue as it’s probably called – or the two fancy armchairs and the little coffee table. Still it looked beautiful when you arrived yesterday. Huge, with those wide windows and heavy drapes, and that view over the lakes. Yes, you did feel excited, felt that buzz of possibility. In fact you’d been feeling strange since leaving home with Dan, and driving up over Moll’s Gap. Maybe it was the brightness of the March day, or just leaving the city behind. But when you saw those snow topped mountains against the mad blue of the sky, you leaned over to Dan, stroked his fair hair where it curled at the back of his neck. He started humming “Love Is In The Air”, and you joined in. And the road twisted down towards the lakes, past clumps of yellowed grass under lichened trees, and tiny green ferns uncoiling from copper bracken. And you felt it, that strangeness, almost a lightness.
You try to settle back in bed, willing yourself to drift into sleep again. The room is hot. The windows won’t open and the air conditioning seems to be more about grinding noises and whooshing sounds than temperature change. You lie on your back and try to visualise yourself in a small boat drifting down river at sunset; past trees with their branches swaying in the water, past reeds with ducks nesting, looking up at wisps of cloud trailing along an orange sky, past …
“No, Daddy.” A scream.
You are flung from sleep, pitched into sticky, thumping wakefulness.
A child is crying, loudly. Crying and pleading. You lean against the wall behind the bed. Again the child. “I said I’m sorry.” The voice is high, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a boy or a girl. It’s coming from the room next to you, though. You’re certain, almost.
The crying goes on. Then a sound like furniture being moved. You scramble out of bed and stand, palms pressed to the wall, ear tight against it. Something being shifted around, definitely. Again the child’s voice. You rush to the bed and shake Dan’s arm.
“Dan, Dan, wake up.”
He turns over. You can just make out his shape propped on one elbow.
“What is it?”
“There’s something going on next door.”
The child has settled into a dull gulping wail.
“Christ, it’s just some brat, whinging. Come back to bed, would you.”
“No, listen. Listen. I think it’s more than that.”
You turn on the light. Dan’s face crumples, his eyes squeezed tight. The child screeches. Now Dan listens. He looks alarmed.
“Do you think we should ring someone?” you say, willing him to answer yes. “The Manager?”
“God, those poor parents.” He slumps back on the bed. “You are joking about the Manager.” He pats the bed. “Come on, forget about it.”
You try. Dan’s breathing settles into noisy intakes and long laboured exhalations. You feel resentful at the way he just switches off. It’s quiet next door, now. You burrow down into the duvet, try to ignore Dan’s breathing but it just seems so loud. Is it always like that?
Did he suggest moving in together? You can’t remember. It seemed like the right thing to do. It was. Dan seemed like the right man to be with. Is the right man. You do remember when you saw him first, on a work night out. And even though you despised cigarettes, it was the way he smoked that attracted you, the pleasure he seemed to extract from a long drag, the tilt of his head as he exhaled. Everything about him seemed easy, rounded. His physicality was almost lazy, languid, an arm slung over your shoulders, his hand resting on your leg. You have trained yourself not to jump when he does this, even to do the same. Though not without thinking about it first. Hard then to guess what he saw in you, with your restless impatience, and your wariness. “A challenge,” he liked to say. A challenge.
A sudden noise from next door. You hear a crash, see the lamp fall from the bedside table to the floor, the bulb explode in tiny splinters. You hear a dragging sound, and the child, whimpering, no. No. The child being pulled off the bed, by her feet, her bare feet, and flung on the cold ground. There’s a low insistent rumble, and you hear his voice, feel his hot beery breath on face and you know, just know …
You rap on the wall, three loud knocks. The crying stops. Dan wakes.
“What the fuck … ?”
A door slams.
You head to the bedroom door, press your eye to the peephole. A man is funnelled into the tiny space. His shoulders huge, arms dangling at his side. He turns toward your door, his face filling the lens, nose splayed, pale eyes peeled back and his mouth a dark sink hole. You reel away, breathless. Stand gasping.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
You ignore Dan. Cross back over to the door, wrench the handle and fling it open. Outside on the corridor, two young women in heels and bright dresses, weave past you. They glance in your doorway, indifferent. Then they tip forward and cave into giggles, tottering towards their room, fumbling with the key card. No sign of the man. You back inside again, close the door. Hear the click.
Fumble your way to one of the armchairs, sink back. Arms wrapped around your knees. Staring hard into the darkness. Dan has fallen asleep again. You start to rock, hum to yourself, a song you remember “I’m walking on sunshine, woho, I’m walking on sunshine … ” Your mother used to sing that. When your Dad was around. But it never made you happy. Too urgent, the way she sang it. Too … determined.
You wake once more, this time to brightness. You are back in bed and a blade of light is slicing through a gap in the curtains. The light cuts across the bed, pointing at the far wall. There are scuff marks on the skirting board. You turn to the window. Beads of light are oozing through gaps in the pelmet where it has slipped from the railing. You drag yourself to a sitting position, smooth the covers out beneath your hands. A dark stain catches your eye. Was that there yesterday? You hadn’t noticed.
Dan is robust in his morning cheerfulness. He shouts out at you from the bathroom as he shaves. Teasing.
“I expected a bit of action last night, but not that!”
You find it hard to make light of it, so you just shrug, knowing he can’t see you.
“Ever seen that film with the dead rabbit and the blonde psycho killer?”
Dan is warming to the subject.
“Ok, ok, Dan. Can you just drop it?
He comes out wrapped in a towel and pulls you to him. His bulk, his smell reassures you. You reach for him, pulling the towel away.
“Whoa there psycho,” he says, diving onto the bed.
At breakfast, the room fills up. Couples take their seats, speaking quietly to each other. Sounds of cutlery on china, clinks and scrapes, a low hum of conversation. You push your food around, filling up on coffee, to give you a boost. You notice one family in particular. The woman with long dark hair, and an impassive face settling a baby into a high chair. The man, cutting his food, slowly. Sliding the cut portions of sausage to one side of his plate. Buttering a slice of toast, right to the edges. You feel a tiny recoil in your spine. A young girl sits opposite him with her back to you, in a pale green dress. She is still. Her upper body is absolutely still. But her right foot is turning in small circular motions. She tilts her head sideways to look out the window, to the lake below. And you know that look. That stillness. Her eyelids drooping. The man reaches across the table towards the girl, a swift movement of his arm. She jumps, pulls back. You mirror her actions, jerking suddenly, knocking over your coffee cup. The dark liquid pours out, soaking the white table cloth, and splatting onto your skirt. When you finish your useless dabbing with a napkin, the girl is eating a slice of toast and looking out the window again. You lean across to Dan.
“Dan, I think that’s the family next door.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, last night, the crying girl.”
“So what, at least she’s not making a fuss now.”
“But Dan, what if something more was going on?
The family get up to leave. The waiter comes, clears some things, then calls after the man. “Oh Sir. I have forgot your room number.”
The man stops and checks his key card. “322.”
Dan stretches out in his seat.
“That was some breakfast, we should do this more often.”
He smiles at you, his easy open smile, flicks your key card on the edge of the table. 402. He has the day planned out already. First a trip to Muckross House and then out on the lake in an open boat. This is where he’ll propose to you, on the lake, you suspect. You look at him now, happy to be here with you. You wonder at his certainty. Certainty about you, the future, about what happened or didn’t happen. You want to feel the same way. Wish you didn’t have a sense of dullness. And it may have something to do with Dan, the way he shrugs things off. Because you just have one certainty in your own mind. You can’t tell. You just never know. You think of your mother, her bird like frame, her jerky optimism. All her energy put into you and your future.
But you suppose you’ll go with Dan in that boat, dip your fingers in the dark insistent water. Gaze up at the wisp of trailing cloud unravelling against the blue sky, pull your coat tight around you. You’ll listen as he talks about the future, your life together, about marriage. And you suppose, probably, you’ll say yes. Yes.
©2016 Laura McKenna
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