The Lady of the House

Wow it’s so still. Isn’t it eerie. Oh yes. So calm. Everything’s still. That’s right. Look at the rowers – look at how fast the rowers are going. Ominous – yes, like the calm before the storm. If you like. Look at the rowers! Two long boats and bodies – rowers – like rungs or something. Like notches or rungs – or struts or bolts – something. The sound of the machine drying the bathmat behind me in front of you, very low – a good machine. Time to leave you to it pretty much. Handwriting, here and there – little notes, as you go along, things not to forget. They move me actually. Along with the photo on your travel pass, they move me.


I didn’t put on my hat even though it’s as cold as forever and the hat’s right there in my bag at the bottom. My mascara came away in the night and for that hat to look any good requires a little recent eye adornment – I realise that. And I didn’t say anything, not a word, about the creature beneath the water. No mention of the monster. The flowers are lovely instead, especially the roses. Oh yes, you say. They’re high enough that I don’t see Mary getting out of her car. I don’t have to see her any more, walking by and going into her house – it’s nice actually.


Would it be a scaly monster with a tremendous tail I wonder, or something wraithlike with straggly wings? Will it, in other words, be something dredged or something fallen? A decision doesn’t fix because the day is actually more nuanced than at first appeared – and anyway, I don’t know where exactly, but there is something shifting and suddenly the whole scene is quite altered. And yet, for all the world, it appears perfectly composed. As if hovering in fact. The whole vista hovers.


Some kind of trick, obviously. I could remain like this all day I expect, and not get any closer to working it out.


It wouldn’t be a big deal – the monster’s coming up from beneath wouldn’t be a big show. If it went on behind anyone as they walked along the river bank, for example, they might not even turn around. They could easily carry on walking in the direction of home and miss the whole thing. For all they know, this kind of thing is going on all the time just behind them without them noticing – though in some area of themselves they are aware, naturally, of what is going on – and this is why, from time to time, they behave in a way that in the normal scheme of things seems utterly irrational and unprovoked, because of this chimerically transcribed influence that they have zero conscious knowledge of. That could happen a lot.


Up it would come, from beneath the water, of this you can be sure, without any ripple or wave. Just a little white showing. Air. Air tipping over in linked white collections. I get so violently upset often. But now, look at this, not anymore! This morning everything is fine with me. I even stay after eating some toast, which broke up pretty badly into very unequal pieces when you tried to apply some cold butter to it.




And without looking at me you put the knife down onto the draining board sort of immediately and you moved along the worktop to where the kettle is. I would have been exactly the same. I would have done exactly the same thing and in just the same way. I hate Mary’s car by the way. I hate the cars your neighbours drive. All of them. What the fuck is it they are thinking of? Exactly? You have things like kitchen towels and coasters, and cats that aren’t yours. One of the cats walks with you up and down the drive – if the weather is good enough in the afternoon you walk up and down the drive. And you’ve got an electric blanket.


It had never before occurred to me that anyone might ever be afraid of me. And now, when I must accept that that is something somebody might in fact feel, I find it difficult to take seriously. For now it is all I can do to acknowledge the possibility – giving it credence is something that may or may not develop later. It’s not angry I feel. I am not angry. There is another translation, of that you can be sure – though how much context you’re going to need before you make it, I really don’t know! It’s easier for me to take a shower at home – which is still the case, even when the immersion hasn’t been switched on since yesterday morning so that the water won’t be anywhere near warm enough for an hour at least. Maybe when I get home I won’t have a shower anyhow. It doesn’t bother me because I self-clean very well. As such I don’t know why, when I went into your bathroom to put my tights and knickers back on, I turned the knickers inside out. That’s a new and very strange thing to do – I thought it at the time actually, as I was doing it, but I carried on anyway because perhaps I found it interesting or something. Perhaps I thought this deviation contained some sort of timely insight. It seemed natural to go along with it – to not resist it, so, understandably, I wondered if it might lead to something – evolutionary passages have strange methods of harnessing palpability after all.


Nothing, anyway. Just an uncomfortable sense that my smell was being worn on the outside and smothered by tights. I look at but don’t touch the earrings on the windowsill above the toilet cistern because I think maybe it will be nice if I leave them for you to notice later on, when you get back from shopping perhaps, or in the night, when you have got up to take a wee. What about this monster? Nothing more spectacular than a big bad-ass pike if you want to know. Shunting back and forth beneath the rowers, doing that shark thing with its eyes. That shark thing it learnt off the shark in the cartoon. So, in the end, here’s a pike that imagines it’s a shark. Leave it. I hate the colours of things today – the lack of deportment to be more accurate. Everything looks pissed upon. Like cats everywhere have just been endlessly pissing on everything all night. Drenching all the grasses and stone tracks and the leaves from every year that lie about. I hate cats if you want to know. I hate coming across photographic records of putatively outlandish cat behaviour and I hate hearing about cats. I hate hearing about how the cat walks with you, up and down the drive in the afternoons, when the weather is good enough – often the weather is not good enough. I sit in my place and look out at the weather and weigh it up too – and that’s not as straightforward actually as might be supposed. Some days I think, no way, there’ll be no walking up and down the driveway today – and then there comes a little light maybe, or, more likely, some sound, such as cows or birds – something really nice and uplifting, some indication that the world is really getting going again, despite the impression it tends to give. I don’t mind the impression it ordinarily disseminates for the reason that I understand it – then again this is a somewhat curtailed claim because if you must know there does come a point when I hate its ongoing despondency so much. It’s as if the sky some days is just hanging around. Moping – just moping. Moping and slouching and indolently seething. I’d like to shake it hard. Fuck you. Fuck you too. Man alive. Anyway, it was just a little idea, this monster. And now when I consider it that was the mistake, because if you want to know it started as an involuntary image – that was all. Just one of those visions that occur without prompting when your mind has retracted and is alert, or – the other way – when it spreads out and is almost completely oblivious. I can’t be sure which state it was my mind was at when the monster came about – if I say the first I immediately know it is the other and then if I say the other it is obvious that in fact it was after all the first. What a lot of nonsense really, but then why on earth not spend some time in the evening this time of year trying to figure out the landscape of some minor lapses? If you must know it’s not at all often he and I exchange any affiliated comments pertaining to the physical world. About what is actually immediately in front of us – no, I don’t suppose we ever occupy the same place at all. No common ground anywhere in fact, if you must know. This, then, was a rare thing. To establish by empirical increments a shared perspective was a rare thing. So of course, when the monster came, all by itself, I almost pointed. Because, naturally, it seemed entirely possible – logical, actually – that the monster, in a different incarnation notwithstanding, had happened to him too.


Later on I cycle to the out-of-town supermarket and as I get onto the second road I notice that both cars which pass me in opposite directions have their lights switched on to the max. It seems darker here than it did two minutes ago outside my house when I was putting on my gloves and then sort of swiped at the bicycle saddle with my left elbow to make it dry. I have no other choice but to turn around and go back for my body lights. It’s a load of shit that I didn’t bring them with me – I even took them out of my rucksack to make more room for the groceries I was heading off to buy – what a load of shit. Where is my fucking sense of eventuality exactly? When I get out onto the second road a second time it’s really obvious how quickly the last bit of light is getting used up, and of course there is so much rubbish all over the small fields I pedal alongside of. Entire household sacks filled completely up and knotted tightly and put into the back of the car just so and driven here. Not exactly spur of the minute then – but there’s very little difficulty in rationalising the implementation of even very appalling activities. That’s just something anyone can do very effectively and on the spot in fact. I notice the fullness of the moon when I come out of the supermarket – it’s right there in front of me when the automatic doors flinch further apart. The sky isn’t yet black so the moon has a sovereignty it doesn’t often possess – but in a way it looks as if it is coping with stage fright. Yes, it is as if the curtains have just opened on it! And so low is it and not far from people’s heads that without hesitation or ceremonious guff I reach out to the faraway moon. Pssst, take it easy – that’s right, I’m soothing the moon of all things – and yes, look, it’s as if in fact the moon has shut it eyes and is taking a slow inhalation.


A deep breath. I really want to communicate all of that, to tell you about the moon and its dithering autonomy and how I encourage it to get a grip, but I’ve already put my gloves back on and so I leave it, as inflexible as that seems, and when I get home, even though I take my gloves off right away, I don’t text you immediately about the moon – I hang up some coats that were looking very untidy on the back of the armchairs and I light the fire and I take a bin liner from beneath the sink and properly dispose of some perishables that were left on the worktop and I go back outside to take the main shopping bag off of the back bike rack, and I think I also eat some cheese before I text you about the moon. As it turns out you’re in the cinema so empathising with the moon’s wincing fullness isn’t on the cards for you at all right now. The moon of course will still be there, or thereabouts, when the movie has finished and you leave the cinema – but naturally I can’t vouch for what condition it’ll be in by then. The sky by then, you see, will undoubtedly be absolutely black – and a bit avuncular too I expect. It could actually get a little camp tonight if you ask me. Keeping the moon up with its camp and conspiratorial antics. Keeping the moon up all night long! Look at that, look at the moon yawning its head off all night long! You’re not enjoying the film, in fact it’s terrible, and I have a hunch which film it is and you ask me how I knew and I say I was talking about it in the week with a friend – which is true but doesn’t answer your question – and I add that despite wearing gloves my hands got really cold while I cycled back from the supermarket. I was surprised actually, at just how cold my hands got, given that I was wearing gloves, and a little bit later on, while talking to a friend on the phone, I mentioned to him how cold my hands had been, despite my wearing gloves, and I asked him about a pair of thermal gloves a friend of mine had leant me and which I’d subsequently leant to him one evening. We’d made jokes about those gloves the evening I leant them to my friend for the reason that they are the sort of gloves you’d wear in Siberia but now, since the wind is supposed to be coming more or less directly from Siberia, they are not quite so funny anymore.


I also watched a really terrible film, yet there was something so kindly about it that it was a while before I could admit how awful it was, by which time its awfulness was somehow indivisible from its kindness, so I carried on with it, right up until the end – which of course I do not recall. Now and then throughout each thing that passes I see something like a compressed Godzilla sticking up through the water – it’s so revolting, the way my mind keeps on turning it over, trying to substantiate it. I must have really needed an idea to get hold of. I must have been really desperate to have something relatable to work with. Something with girth! Not a metaphor, nothing like that – I’ve never wanted the monster to stand for something, that’s for sure. At the very most I would have maybe said something about the house nearby, which, by the way, did seem a bit susceptible. Just having it in my field of vision felt uncomfortable if you want to know, as if I was a very unpredictable pervert in fact. Even looking away was calculated. Even looking away was looking. The first time I got home I turned on the immersion just like I knew I would, but I didn’t take a shower, and even though I took my tango dress off and dropped it into the laundry basket I did not remove my undergarments so if you must know I’m still wearing tights and my knickers inside out. The smell of me like a young mouth to a compound fence. It’s better anyhow to leave things alone. I’ve decided that. I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things, it feels fatal for one reason. As if making the world smaller because of all the intact explanations that need to occur in order for one thing to become another thing. Secretly, deep inside, I accept I’ve no option but to retire from a vocation I’ve never achieved any success from and my plan now is to really throw in the towel and go to Brazilmysorebalimontanatrondheimnyonsbristol, as soon as my lease is up. And there’s no fear of my lease being renewed by the way because my landlady has had to put all three cottages on the market.


She’s more or less been forced to if you want to know. When she came around to tell me she was with her sister – which was to be expected, naturally, since the sister has some involvement with the properties, a vested interest you might say. The sister has a vested interest that is entirely commercial actually since she has never, not to my knowledge, inhabited any of the three cottages – unlike my landlady, who lived ignored in one and spent time repenting her subsequent disgrace in another. Needless to say their attitudes towards the sale of the properties are consequently quite distinct. Added to which the sister was wearing a very peculiar hat with a wide furry brim which I couldn’t deduce the point of at all. I hated the hat to be perfectly blunt, and I also hated, maybe even more so than the hat, the frosty lipstick she had selected to wear. Whatever was the point of all that? Exactly? She kept looking down at some metal things that I had resting near my door and then back up at me as if all of this was a question I would feel pressed to answer, but I easily ignored her and asked my landlady how she felt about having to sell. I could sense her response was regrettably hampered by the presence of her sister and the furry brim of her very peculiar hat, which took up a lot of space actually so that it was pretty difficult to even just stand beside her at my doorway. Ridiculous. Undoubtedly the landlady thought her sister looked absurd in that preposterous hat, and when, a bit later, I stood at my kitchen sink swilling out the teapot and looked at them both talking to some men – who I presume were estate agents because of the kind of folders they waved around and did nothing with – I thought how latently vicious the sister in fact looked in that hat and I felt glad that she wasn’t someone I come into regular contact with in a meaningful way. I get the feeling actually – if I’m to be a bit more observational – that both sisters believe themselves to be on the glamorous side – only one does this more successfully than the other for the simple reason that her face doesn’t register her discontent as adamantly as the other sister’s face does. I don’t know why it was I got talking about Martin’s Hill like that – I don’t know what exactly I was getting at with that little reverie on the arm of the armchair this morning. Has it really become an inclination of mine to reminisce in such an indulgent way? And since when? Because if you must know I don’t recall ever regarding anything I may remember from my past as being particularly interesting or poignant, or even especially reliable actually. On account of my radical immaturity – characterised by a persistent lack of ambition – real events don’t make much difference to me, as such the impact they have upon my mind is either zilch or blistering and so, naturally, I have to question my facility to form memories that have any regard at all towards what in fact took place – landmark events and so on included. Having said that my dreams demonstrate a rather impressive mnemonic flair – I don’t dream about the past, not the outside past, but quite often I will dream about, for example, daydreams I had when I was much younger – beside trees, behind curtains, that kind of thing. You see? Even so – despite my generally dubious mode of relation – I seemed rather determined to make something out of Martin’s Hill.


It might be the case that I thought my somewhat poeticised rendering of its central catastrophe made me sound perspicacious and grown-up, and very aware of how one’s life develops according to the uncanny notation of subtle kairotic moments. As a rule of thumb I don’t have much enthusiasm for inventorial reflection, however, on this occasion I transgressed my thumb multiple times. I even went so far as to say we had chicken. Now, I can’t be sure at all that we had chicken. It’s very likely we had chicken because it happened in the mid-90s and everyone knows that a staple component of an English picnic in the mid-90s was cold roasted chicken, along with some sort of pasta salad, and French bread and satsumas, and a six-pack of chocolate mini-rolls. Martin’s Hill of all things! Oh yes, I really went into some detail and highlighted quite the prelapsarian scene this morning after broken toast while pummelling the arm of the armchair with my pernickety sit bones his head more or less beneath my chin both looking out right across everything. The lake, the river, the ruined castle, the shrubs, the tall trees, the dismal clouds, the pissed-upon reeds, the rowers and their boats, the monster, the house nearby, the children, their mother, the garage, the garden tools, the drying clods, the hallway, the stairs, the doors, the keyholes, the bed, the underneath, the terror, the cold floor, the ankle-straps, the perpetuating dust. And one side of Martin’s Hill was very steep, I explained – I think I may have used the word gradient if you want to know – and I think my brother’s ball must have rolled down it you see, there must have been something anyway that lured him to that side of the hill because you wouldn’t normally go that side ever – it was very steep you see, and rough – steep, uneven, and rough. Orange. Blue. Orange. Blue. Orange. And he was alright for the first few steps, then he couldn’t keep pace – he lost control and he fell actually. Fell all the way down to the bottom of Martin’s Hill. All on his own with me just looking, and there was the proof I suppose that I was older at last.


I hated feeling that actually, yet it was sort of attenuated by the anticipation I had towards the evening to come and didn’t those two sensations combine to produce possibly my first experience of melancholia. And didn’t I immediately discover that melancholia brought something out in me that felt more authentic and useful than anything I’d previously sustained.


Look here, it’s perfectly obvious by now to anyone that I am worked upon by imagined things and hardly at all by surveyable circumstances – even so no one can know what fantasy is going on in anyone else’s mind and so, for that reason solely perhaps, the way I carry on is very confusing, bewildering, unaccountable – even, actually, offensive sometimes. It’s easy to be suspicious of someone like me and it frequently happens that I am accused of all sorts of impertinence. This time last year, for example, someone I know in a sort of professional way arranged to meet me in a hotel conservatory around lunchtime purely for the purpose of relaying a compendium of chancy aspersions – with which, by the way, he’d quite obviously had some assistance putting together – and all this for my own good apparently! Well let me tell you I found the whole ordeal very off-putting and I had no instinctive way of responding to it. We’d ordered buns and the buns were on the coffee table and there were those stupid wasteful cartons of jam I hate so much next to the buns. I tried to be gracious, be gracious I thought, but that was a hopeless prescription for the reason that I could not at all figure out what the gracious thing to do was.


It was very disturbing actually and it wasn’t until after I’d talked it over with a friend in her car on my driveway a few times that I felt sure enough of myself to not give two hoots about it anymore. It’s all by-the-by now. Under the bridge and so on. Since we are going on a two-day trip tomorrow I brought the phone into the garden after lunch and called him so we could discuss arrangements. He was eating soup if you want to know. Tomato soup with a little milk stirred in. He asked me right at the start of the phone call if I’d mind him eating his soup while we talked and I said I didn’t know, maybe I would mind, it depended on how much noise he made. I was teasing of course, that had been the intention anyhow, but as it turned out there was  also a note of sincerity in my voice, which took me by surprise actually, so I betrayed it immediately with some laughing and invited him to go right ahead and eat the soup.


Because it had been established that he was eating soup we talked for a little while about soup – he eats soup almost every day whereas I seldom bother with it and it was actually as if we needed to somehow reconcile this difference, or at least understand it better. When he surmises that I don’t like soup I find I’m reluctant to agree – I do like soup very much in fact, but I don’t enjoy the process of eating it – all that lifting and lowering of the spoon over and over, it soon gets very tedious, so mechanical – no, it’s the dismal activity of eating soup that turns me off, not the taste. I’m rolling about on my sleeping bag near the washing line while these disparities are addressed – the weather has been so good the last two days I took the opportunity to wash blankets and cushion covers and small rugs. I tell him about the cycle I went for last night, how beautiful it was because of the way the lanes were moonlit. I told him I got upset and pissed off because of a dog that ran out at me and went on barking at my ankles even as my legs lost density and the pedals spun uselessly beneath their sudden cascade. He told me I should bring a stick with me so in future I can belt dogs like that across the head and I point out that it might be difficult to take a stick on a bike and he says that I’d figure it out. You need it, he says. Your shirts dried nicely, I say, I’ll iron them a bit later – do you want me to bring both tomorrow? Yes, he says, bring them both. You’ll need another one, I say. Yes, he says, the one I’m wearing. Which one is that, I ask. I don’t know yet, he says. Oh, I say, you mean the one you’ll be wearing tomorrow – not now. Why don’t you wear the blue linen one, I say. The one with spots on, he says. Yes, I say – even though they’re not spots they’re very small flowers. OK, he says, I’ll wear it with the navy jumper. You look nice in that, I say. Then, at the end of the phone call, he reveals that he’s been holding the soup bowl and drinking from it with one hand and holding his mobile and talking to me with the other the whole time.


You know, he says, if you were to drink soup like I’m doing now you wouldn’t have to worry about a spoon and you could enjoy it better.


To be honest, I think I may have already experimented with taking soup directly from the bowl but as it turned out it wasn’t a practice I was particularly comfortable with adopting for the reason that it felt actually as if I were pretending to be from somewhere I’m not – I don’t know where, another continent, another epoch possibly, it hardly matters – it’s the sensation that’s relevant and the sensation, above all else, was one of displacement. Strange really. Besides which I often drink coffee from a small noodle bowl and that just suits me fine if you want to know. I’ve four small noodle bowls and it works out well with each, the terracotta one especially. And the green of course. I struggle to drink tea out of anything that isn’t white and chipped in the right place – and that’s still unwavering even though I drink it black now. When I was at school I was friends with a girl whose mother had no idea really when it came to housekeeping, the kitchen was especially unpleasant – deathly if you must know. She had some pretty morbid ideas, such as storing teddy bears in the freezer chest. Can you imagine? Fascinating really. From time to time she made efforts to introduce some warmth to the place, efforts that were so negligible that there was often something very creepy about the incongruous items they expressed themselves through – embossed handtowels for one, and patterned mugs for another. Now, I’d already come across patterned mugs and as such was quite familiar with the concept – and although not preferable occasionally they are perfectly passable. Nothing like these though – these were quite shuddersome on account of the pattern not being limited to the outside of the mug – as incredible as it sounds a single motif was discoverable on the inside of the mug too. She thought that was great, I remember very well her making a point of showing it to me. Do you think your mother would like these, she asked me, and of course I said yes even though she absolutely would not. In the same way, when he recommended drinking soup from the bowl there was really nothing else for me to say than that I would of course give it a go sometime. Sometime! Never say sometime, for the reason that, unfortunately, with each day that passes that I don’t drink soup from the bowl I feel terribly remiss, as if I am spurning him in fact, which is, naturally, an awful way for me to go on feeling. He was pleased with the suggestion you see, I could tell. I could tell it had been coming together in his mind throughout our conversation. He’d solved the problem you see – and that’s the way some people are. They are ceaselessly finding ways of getting to grips with the world, of surmounting certain antipathies so as to apply themselves to it that little bit more. It’s quite admirable really, how they refuse to let anything come between them and the rest of it – Oh, the rest of it! Sort of there, sort of hovering there all the time. Different ideas come to me now and again – strategies I suppose that might inculcate a little more congruity but, if you must know, not one day passes without an inappreciable calamity ricocheting through it. Not one day – yet I never see it coming! Imagine that! I just don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of it if you want to know – in fact I think I’ve left it a little too late to cultivate the necessary outlook.


And the outlook, it seems, is everything. It’s very difficult for anything to mean anything without that because without an outlook there is, obviously, no point of view. I open out the ironing board for the first time ever and set it up right by the window even though it’s more or less completely dark outside by now. I find his two shirts in the laundry basket and decide I’ll iron the darker one first – why a decision such as this came about at all I don’t know, since both shirts would surely be ironed, and yet, inexplicably, it must have seemed as if one ought to be done before the other because when I laid both shirts across the ironing board I stood looking at them for a while trying to figure out which one that was. And actually I think the right choice was made because it wasn’t long after I got started on the darker shirt that I began to feel very happy indeed and if you must know I was soon wishing there were more shirts of his for me to iron. I stood at the window ironing his two shirts for tomorrow, the darker one first, and I knew damn well how easily I could be seen. I don’t know what’s out there, I never could quite work it out, and all that time I spent behind the green curtains in the dining room at home, not getting any closer to it. And why shouldn’t I stand at the window like this? Why shouldn’t I be seen? I’m not afraid. Not afraid of any monster. Let it stand in the moonlit lane and watch me. It’s been watching me all along, all my life, coming and going – and I don’t know what it sees as it stands there, I don’t know that it is not in fact afraid of me – and I have to be doubly careful I think, not to frighten it away, because between you and me I can’t be at all sure of where it is I’d be without it.


‘The Lady of the House’ won the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize, sponsored by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.


grew up in Wiltshire and studied literature and drama at the University of Roehampton, before settling in Galway. Her short fiction and essays have been published in The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful, The Moth, Colony, The Irish Times, The White Review and gorse. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013 and has received bursaries from the Arts Council and Galway City Council. Her debut novel, Pondwas published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015 and shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2016. Her second novel, Checkout 19, is published by Jonathan Cape in August 2021.



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