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The rooms have grown darker since Laura died. Today even the kitchen is charcoal grey. It is not my imagination. I have not succumbed to metaphors. I have seen it happen day by day. And today is the seventh day. Blackness leaches through every egg-blue strip of wallpaper, into every flower-nubbled cornice, across every honey-brown floorboard. It has become ordinary, this seeping darkness, like watching a housewife roll out pastry. Like watching another of my photographs swim into monochrome life.
[private]At first, I thought it was a sudden fit of rising damp. This is still what I tell my Jessica today. ‘Just mould, petal,’ I murmur as I butter her toast soldiers.
I do not turn to look at her. I know she has stopped believing me. She stopped believing long ago. I am no longer her god. Laura’s death saw to that. Every time she peers into my blinking eyes, she sees only lies, a frightening treacle of lies.
‘Daddy, I’m scared,’ she whimpered the morning after the funeral, when the darkness first slithered into our house. ‘Is this what happens when someone dies?’
Children her age, they see cause and effect everywhere. Jessica thinks our hobbling, tweed-skirted neighbour Miss Cramond broke her hip because, really, she wanted to be in hospital, fussed over by nurses. And so she also insists there is more daylight in these summer months because this is when children have their school holidays and the sun understands that children must make the most of these days with their weekend- and holiday-fathers. The world is a jigsaw to her; our darkening house is just another piece in her jigsaw, her kind-hearted, eight-year-old jigsaw. And so, Jessica insists, our rooms grow darker because my twin sister died, my blind twin died.
‘It’s cause Aunt Laura’s not here,’ she said the second day, when a plum-black nest hatched in the crimson wallpaper behind the piano, the piano that Laura played for Jessica every Sunday morning. ‘The house is sad, Daddy. Take a photo! Take one of your photos.’
This is how Jessica disowns her grief – she daubs it like finger-paint onto the darkening walls around her.
‘She’s come back to be with us, Daddy…’ she suggested the third day, when the dampness spidered across her rose-pink bedroom walls. ‘She misses us.’
‘Stop your nonsense, Jessica!’ I snapped. ‘Your Aunt Laura’s dead! She feels nothing. She’s ashes now!’ I pointed at the charcoal-grey urn that I had put by the fireplace.
Jessica glared, turned on her heels and marched out the room.
The fourth and fifth day she sulked in her darkening room, just as Laura would do when we were young.
Yesterday, the sixth day, the builder came. He probed the walls with his stethoscope fingertips as though they housed a heart. He would need to make further investigations, he said, and left, while I stood in the corner sweating blackness into my shirt.
Today, the seventh day, the day she returns to her mother, Jessica wonders if it is my fault. She knows I am a liar and she wonders if I lie to protect myself.
I place the boiled eggs and toasted soldiers before her and she finally comes out with it.
‘Aunt Laura blames you, Daddy!’ she sings in a nursery-rhyme voice, as though in the playground. ‘You made her die!’
Her lower lip trembles.
I try to smile at her.
‘Darling, you know that’s not true.’
‘You made her blind!’ she sobs.
My gaze drifts towards the blackened door, suddenly scared of my child’s sky-blue eyes which want to wash over me, to expose pictures too long hidden. The action of light upon a sensitive surface: photography at its simplest. My Jessica at her simplest.
‘It was an accident,’ I say, finding my bedtime-story voice. ‘Your Aunt Laura knew that.’
Over thirty years now since Laura blinded herself in my makeshift dark room under the stairs. In she ran one dishwater-grey afternoon, the day of our eighth birthday, and upturned a tray of developing solution. I should not have left it lying there, of course. I should have padlocked the room. I knew she was always prying, always jealous of her twin brother’s ‘cave’. ‘An accident waiting to happen,’ everyone said. But nobody blamed me. Neither mother nor father. Not even Laura. I was a child, after all. Nobody blamed me. At least, not for the accident. Persisting with my cameras and my chemicals: that was my sin. Living off the dark room was my crime.
‘It’s your dark room…’ Jessica murmurs, stroking the hot egg with her finger.
I notice her pink canvas foot peep into the corner of my eye and sweep a circle across the floorboards.
‘It wants to take over the house. Like Aunt Laura said…’ she grins.
A circle of black and silver ink flowers under her foot.
‘You’d turn the whole house into a dark room if you could. That’s what she always said.’
Laura always exaggerated my love of the dark room. The dark room was her obsession, not mine. She wanted my cave to be hers too. She thought we were peas in a pod, a dark, sweet, suffocating pod. I wanted air.
It was always the camera that fascinated me. An eye that you can build to your liking: a prosthetic eye. Clean, permanent, and objective. An eye you can telescope, widen, soften, or sharpen, as you like. An eye that suspends a moment forever. Some days I cannot stop. I take photograph upon photograph. I salvage moment after moment. Sometimes, I cannot tell whether it is my eyelid that blinks or the shutter that snaps.
My dark room, however, is only a means to an end: flint to a fire. Laura never understood that. It was never a dwelling place. Never my cave. She misunderstood. I never meant to banish her. Or only temporarily. Only for the sake of my photographs, my monochromes, which demand all absence of light. Still, Laura misunderstands and distorts. She presses her lies now upon my Jessica. She foisted those lies upon her, when I was not looking.
I have often wondered if Laura meant to do it – if she wanted to make her world a dark room. Sometimes, I think yes. It was deliberate. She wanted to cling to my arm forever. She was to blame. The sin was hers – if there was sin.
‘Is she right, Daddy?’ Jessica’s voice pulls me back. ‘Are you making the whole house your dark room?’
‘Stop it, Jessica! Just stop!’
Jessica’s lungs snatch for air. I can almost see them, poppy-red, through her lemon T-shirt. I turn from my little girl, my angry, bereaved little girl who wants to punish me. I stare at the box of light from the window. Silver fingers of rain swipe against the glass. I close my eyes, but I still see Jessica. Hurt flushes like sunburn to her cheeks. Her eyelashes clog. She blinks and a tear buds on her underlid. She hates me. The family tradition continues.
‘Go to your room, Jessica.’
I walk into the living room and lift one of my prints from the table. I hear Jessica’s footsteps follow. I peer at a tear-shaped smut on the model’s cheek – a careless blotch I had not noticed before.
‘Make sure you’ve packed everything in your case. Okay?’
Jessica says nothing. She does not move. She has Laura’s silent way of crying, an insinuating kind of crying. They were always alike. And always so close, right up to that last day when Laura glided out in front of the school bus, the morning of Jessica’s eighth birthday.
‘We’re like twins, Jessie and I,’ Laura would laugh. ‘Another pair of twins.’ I would stare back at her unseeing eyes, set in those milk-like scalds of skin, and wonder if she could sniff my revulsion, my dog-breath revulsion.
‘She’s just like me, when I had eyes,’ she would sometimes, murmur when Jessica trounced through a doorway or cartwheeled across the floor. ‘When I had eyes,’ – that was always how she put it, how she described her eight years of sight, as though I had somehow gouged the pebble-blue eyes out of their sockets, as though they did not remain in her ravaged face always seeming to look everywhere at once.
It was not my fault she lost her sight. She was the one who ran in there. She invaded my dark room, her hands all sticky and treacherous with baby-pink, birthday-cake icing. It was our eighth birthday and she thought we should spend every moment together.
‘It was our birthday, Tony,’ a soft voice murmurs, hot in my ear.
I swivel towards Jessica and she grins back. Sugar-pink saliva dribbles from her lips
‘What?’ I ask.
‘Come into our dark room…’ Laura’s voice sings.
The print falls from my hands. I watch it sink into the transparent floor and settle. I hear the lap of the developing solution. The black lines and curves begin to swim. The purple-black eyes and hair fade to an albino-silver. Black turns to white. My print becomes a negative.
It’s my imagination, of course. I am grieving like Jessica, of course. I am only a child… I was only a child. I see the hallucinations of grief. It is understandable. It was understandable. The human eye is unreliable, not a camera. I must not succumb, for Jessica’s sake. This is our living room. The little girl is Jessica. Laura is dead. Ash and dust.
I blink and look towards the fireplace. I nod towards the silver clock – the clock that was once gold.
‘Pack your case, darling! Your mother will be here any minute to collect you.’
‘Come to the dark room,’ a voice whispers. ‘It’s your turn now.’
Crumbs of pink icing trickle down my throat.
Jessica stalks towards the fireplace, picks up the urn and turns towards the door. I watch her plum dress and pink ribbons spangle as she glides through gashes of sunlight. The urn is suddenly iridescent. The only colours in the room are hers and she is taking them away. She will bundle her confetti of colour into her suitcase and smuggle it away to her mother’s house.
I watch a trail of black and silver footsteps rise up beneath her padding shoes. The smell of hypo drifts across the room, a smell I always loved. It is too late now for sponge and water. She has fixed those footprints to the floor. This room is photographic paper. I know this without dabbling my fingertips in the trail she has left behind her. I need no proof of touch.
Jessica spins towards me when she reaches the door. Her eyes are bluer than ever before, even though she stands in shadows. She is now immune to the absence of light.
‘I’m never coming back!’ she yells. ‘Never, ever!’
She wrenches open the urn and sprays the ashes across the room. They swarm and chatter: charcoal bees. The black door slams shut. The keyhole flickers white then disappears.
‘You’ll never see her again,’ Laura croons.
A shutter snaps. Black threads float across my vision. Beads of silver splash into my cornea.
‘It’s your turn now, Tony.’
Darkness rushes in. I see Laura again. We are in the dark room. She sprints in again through the unlocked door. She sparkles in her plum, sequinned dress. I see her giggle, arms outstretched – a comic Frankenstein’s monster – as she stumbles towards the developing tray. ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are,’ she sings. I feel the cold red linoleum beneath my backside as I crouch in the corner of my dark room, holding in my hot breath. I close my eyes and wish away my pest sister. I wish her not to see me. I wish the darkness to swallow her up.
‘Your turn now in the blind room,’ she whispers.
I stumble towards the corner as the cave turns another degree darker.[/private]
Carol Farrelly lives and teaches in Edinburgh. She holds a DPhil on the novels and readership of Thomas Hardy. Her first short story was recently published in Scottish literary magazine Random Acts of Writing.