It had started raining. Round, ripe teardrops signalled the change in weather coming into full swing. I was looking for fleeting distractions from the mental fatigue that sets in after spending too many hours staring at a screen, watching the drops slowly collect together in rivulets on the outside of the glass, the way that children do on long car journeys, cheering for their favourites. I watched them converge as gravity forced them downwards. All rivers lead to the sea. I heard the front door open with a creak and then slam shut. Bare footsteps softly slapped down the tiled hallway. Freya must have taken her shoes and socks off in the porch, which was strange for November but, hey, maybe it was part and parcel of her newfound vegetarianism. Grounding, or whatever. I was still trying to decide whether it would turn out to be a phase.
“Hey, how was school?” I yelled down the stairs. I was adding a final polish to my project and didn’t want to lose the flow by trudging downstairs to give Freya a hug that would probably be brushed off. The study was cooling despite the best efforts of the ancient radiator, and I had spread a shawl over my lap. I felt like one of the babushkas I had seen on the side of the road in Kiev, proffering their wares with gnarled and calloused hands. I was nestled in my ancient armchair. It had followed me ever since my university days, and now I was convinced I couldn’t write without it. I had always hated office chairs. When I moved into student accommodation at the age of eighteen, my second big move was to push the standard-issue swivel chair into the corner and go hunting for a secondhand replacement. It even had a reclining function for my fallow periods. Roping my flatmates in with the hauling hadn’t earned me any favours. I smiled at the memory before I realised that my greeting had been met with stony silence. Shrugging, I turned back to my work. If Freya wanted to be sullen, I wasn’t going to chase her.
An hour or two later, I had switched my desk lamp on and could barely see a thing outside. I clicked ‘send’ and closed the window I had finally finished, and a familiar feeling rushed through me. Elation, fatigue, a vague sense of dread about when they were actually going to pay me. I closed my eyes and leaned back. On paper, the wolf had been kept from the door, for another couple of months at least. I decided to leave it until the next day to go hunting for a new commission, and when I went to stand up, I realised how long I must have been sitting fixed in the same position. My bones felt frozen in place and it took a couple of seconds to get them creaking into action. I cursed my laziness about enrolling in those Hatha yoga classes at the local leisure centre. To me, there was something undignified about being middle-aged and sitting there in yoga pants in a draughty auditorium making small talk with other middle-aged women until the middle-aged instructor gets her CD player out.
I reached for my glasses, which I had laid on the desk next to my laptop. I was short-sighted, meaning I was blind only when it came to looking more than a metre in front of me. I only tended to put on my glasses whilst driving or walking around the house to avoid any head-on collisions. My hand hit bare wood. They were gone. I found myself frantically slapping the desk in a pathetic parody of patting yourself down when you realise you’ve left your purse on the train. I couldn’t be mistaken. I had definitely come into my office earlier wearing them. They weren’t expensive and I could easily replace them, but it was more the thought of being so mistaken in my short-term memory that unsettled me. I pulled the desk slightly towards me and searched frantically behind it, to see if they had slid down the back somewhere. Still nothing. All I could see was a dusty stretch of carpet with a few hairs and old bits of paper squashed into it. I slid the desk back into position. Dirt you can’t see doesn’t exist. I was still in a daze about my glasses, wondering how I was going to get to the opticians with illegally compromised vision.
I had just reached the top of the stairs and was, literally and figuratively, debating my next step when I heard the door go again. Like everything in the house and two thirds of its residents, it was old and stiff and needed a shake before it would function. James barrelled through the threshold having put a little too much elbow grease into the jiggling.
“Hiya,” he breathed and busied himself unloading his scarf onto the already overloaded stair rail.
“Hey. Have you seen my glasses today? I can’t find them” I was descending the stairs one at a time, gingerly as a retiree after a hip replacement.
“No, I haven’t actually. Are you sure you just haven’t left them somewhere random again?”
“I swear I took them with me to the study today, but they weren’t where I left them when I got up.” Early-onset Alzheimers?
“They must be up there somewhere” he shrugged.
“Well, they must. I don’t like going up the stairs without them. Do you think the opticians is still open? Maybe we could go before dinner? I need a spare pair anyway.”
“Can’t you just hang on until tomorrow? I could take you after work. Maybe they’ll show up by then. Maybe you just need to have a good look for them”
“James, I can’t look for them if I can’t see. They’re a common prescription. I could probably get some on the spot.”
I could see him groan inwardly. He pinched between his eyes, making a show of having just had a really long, tough day. “Yeah, I guess we have about an hour until they shut.”
“Well I can’t drive myself. Otherwise I wouldn’t have asked” he loved playing the martyr.
“It’s fine. Check the fridge first, though, and see if we need to get anything for dinner from the supermarket on the way back. It’s just the two of us, so we can have something meaty” he feigned a playful wink.
My blood ran cold.
“What do you mean ‘just the two of us’?” my voice was somewhere between a whisper and a squeak.
“Freya’s gone round a friend’s house for dinner. I’m going to pick her up later. Didn’t she text you? She texted me” James’ innocent confusion added to my deep thrum of foreboding. His face was a blur which slowly came into focus as I reached the bottom of the stairs, looking at me with concern. Should I tell him? Probably not, he’d laugh it off or tell me I need to stop sitting in this house alone, losing my glasses and imagining noises. My phone was always on silent, and I always kept it somewhere else when I was working. I was far too easily distracted. It was probably sitting on my bedside table at that moment, but I couldn’t be sure.
“I haven’t looked at my phone since lunchtime, actually!” I faked a sheepish grin whilst my mind was running, desperately trying to rationalise what I knew I had heard that afternoon.
“You don’t have to remind me what you’re like” he shot back. James was an instant replier. I found it hard to fathom how anyone could put up with being disturbed several times a day by something as jarring as a ringtone.
I still felt slightly queasy, so I bought myself time by slipping into the kitchen and opening the fridge, obscuring myself behind its door. I stared into it as if willing it to give up its secrets, some inspiration for dinner and advice on whether I was actually going insane.
“There’s chicken breasts. I could do a curry. Is that meaty enough for you?”
“Why don’t you let me do the curry?” he ruffled my hair, one of his habits. I didn’t usually mind it, but just then it took on a patronising tinge.
“You don’t like my cooking?”
“It’s not that I don’t like your cooking,” If I could see him at that moment, he would have been clasping his hands in front of himself in a gesture of mock sincerity, “It’s just that I have the time and inclination this evening to do something fit for human consumption.”
Absentmindedly, I looked at the space in the fridge which had until moments ago been obscured by the chicken breasts. It was in crystal clear high definition since I had stuck my head so far in, avoiding James’ perceptively gauging my emotions that I had, apparently, been alone in the house for the couple of hours since whatever it was had walked in through the front door on bare feet.
My glasses were in the fridge.