James Meredith

Shadow and Light

James Meredith

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You haven’t slept in four nights now, but it isn’t insomnia you’re suffering from. You have slept. Every day you sleep, from sunrise to sunset. You just can’t sleep at night. You try, though. God knows you do. After a sleep-filled day you get up, eat breakfast, watch some TV, then, around midnight, you return to bed. There you try breathing exercises, ones that you read in a book one time that are supposed to help if you can’t sleep. What you do is, you draw a breath slowly in, hold it in your lungs for a few seconds, then exhale slowly through your nose until all the air is gone, all the while concentrating your thoughts on the space between the tip of your nose and the top of your lip. Then you start over. You do this for what seems like hours. It doesn’t work. Not for you, anyway.

     Last night you tried getting drunk, working your way through two bottles of red wine. One is usually enough to have your head nodding and your eyes closing of their own accord, but this time there’s no effect: none whatsoever. You didn’t even feel the slightest bit tipsy. You lay in bed, eyes wide open in the dark, and listened to the alarm clock tick away the seconds until dawn. Finally, as the walls of the room began to pale, you felt yourself finally drifting off into sleep.

     You woke up again this evening, as soon as the sun had set.

     Obviously you haven’t been able to go into work. The first night you couldn’t sleep was Friday, so there was no problem with sleeping all day Saturday. It was the same on Sunday. That evening though, when it was obvious that whatever was wrong with you wasn’t just going to disappear, you phoned work and left a message on the ansaphone about a family emergency and that you had to take a few days off.

    You’ve been wondering whether you should call a doctor. You know this situation isn’t normal, but the thing is: you don’t feel unwell. In fact, you can’t remember a time when you’ve felt better, or more alive: you feel as if you can do anything.

     What you end up doing, though, is continue to unpack boxes, the boxes that sit silently accusing you in the rooms of this, your new home: the house that Mark and you have bought as you set out on your life together. Mark’s away with friends on his stag: a week in Prague. A weekend isn’t enough these days. You remember when it used to be a night. Anyway, it’s just as well he isn’t here. God knows what he’d make of this.

    So to keep yourself busy during the long nights you unpack boxes, store away plates and cups and saucers into kitchen cupboards, put books onto shelves, take clothes out of black bin liners and fold them into drawers. You do your best to fill the emptiness.

     Now, on this fourth night without sleep, all the work that can be done is done. The house is ready for Mark’s return. You’ve done all you can do.

     At about eleven o’clock you decide to run a bath. You ease yourself slowly into the hot water, steam rising around you. You take a breath and go under. You feel that, if you wanted to, you could carry on breathing underwater, but you don’t dare try. You grab the lip of the bath and lift yourself up, shaking the wet hair from around your face, spattering the tiled floor. You lie back and try to relax, try to make your limbs grow heavy, your body feel numb. It’s impossible. Since this problem started, you’ve begun to feel increasingly… horny. On the first night it was barely perceptible, a faint nagging ache emanating from somewhere deep inside, easy to ignore by concentrating on unpacking. On the second night your skin had become very sensitive. Even the touch of your underwear on your body as you dressed set you off: your nipples hardened, goose bumps rose on your arms and legs. As you continued to unpack that evening your thoughts kept drifting off into erotic revery.

     You spent most of the third waking night in bed.

     Tonight, though, your body seems to have gone beyond mere sexual arousal. Tonight you feel as if both your body and your mind have been renewed. You feel as you’re becoming aware of everything: your mind is clear, as if it’s been washed clean.

     You step out of the bath and dry yourself off, then walk through to the bedroom and stand naked in front of the full-length mirror propped against the wall. You study your heat-flushed body; your breasts, stomach, hips, legs. Your skin seems to glow with vitality. You’re alive with possibility. You can feel the outline of your body – the border between yourself and the external world – buzzing with energy. Even without your glasses on you can see yourself clearly; see yourself truly for the first time in years.

*

You’ve decided to go outside tonight. You feel you need to feel this new body of yours against the elements: the wind, the rain.

     The phone rings just as you’re getting dressed. The alarm clock reads just after midnight. It can only be Mark. You go downstairs to answer it.

     “Hello? Geraldine?”

     “Yes.”

     “It’s me. I’m on the mobile. We’re in a bar in the Old Town. I just came out to say hello.” He’s drunk. His voice is slurred.

     “Hello,”you say. You feel like you’re talking to a stranger.

     “So, how’s things? D’you miss me?”

     Maybe you’re the stranger. “Oh, you know. Nothing much. Tidying the house. Work.”

     “I love you, you know.” The sounds of the Prague night fill the silence: music from a bar, cheers, jeers, the faint laughter of a woman.

     “Hello? Geraldine?”

     “Yes.”

     “Two weeks. Two weeks and we’ll be married. Can you believe that?”

     “No.”You stare at your face in the mirror on the wall beside the telephone.

     “I’m having a great time, thanks for asking.”

     You bare your teeth. The reflection bares hers. You smile. Ditto.

     “Hello? Can you hear me?”

     You return the phone to its cradle.

*

As you walk up the Holywood Road towards the all-night garage you ask yourself where your love for Mark has gone. The past few months haven’t been great, but with the stress of finding – then buying – a house, and planning the wedding on top of that, you can understand why. And you’ve been together almost four years, so it’s completely normal that your sex life wouldn’t be the way it was in the beginning. It’s the same for everyone, isn’t it? And love’s not about sex anyway. You tell yourself these things but you no longer believe them.

     What happened to the certainty of your love for him, though? When did that begin to erode? When did it begin to vanish?

     Things you know that will stay with you forever: his green eyes, his smile, the way he walks, the way he places his hand at the base of your spine when you embrace, his comical shout of surprise when he comes. When you think of these things they come unencumbered with emotion.

     The night air is exhilarating on your face. You breathe deeply, letting the chill fill your lungs. You feel like laughing aloud up into the sky. The garage forecourt comes into view: neon and shadow, light and shade. You walk towards the shop. Leaning on the wall beside the automatic doors are three teenage boys, the peaks of their baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. The shadows they cast on the tarmac resemble the Veloceraptors from Jurassic Park. They exude an air of both menace and fear. They stop talking as you approach. You turn your face away from them as you pass, not because you’re not interested in them, but because you are. They stink of sex and cigarettes. 

     The light inside the shop hurts your eyes. You hurry to the chill cabinet and pick up a large carton of milk. At the cash register you ask for a pack of Malboro and a lighter, even though you stopped smoking over a year ago.

     The boys are still lurking outside the shop. One laughs. Another spits onto the ground. The third, the tallest, lifts his face and studies you. You return his stare; hold it for a few seconds before walking on. From behind you comes a single muttered word: “Whore.” For a few seconds you consider stopping and turning back.

*

The last time you slept through the night was the night before Mark left. That night you dreamed that you were flying high over the city. You passed over the green dome of the City Hall, swooped low along the deserted streets of Royal Avenue. You could feel the pull of Cave Hill to the left of you, but instead you turned and flew over the Lagan, back towards your new home in the east. You passed over the Odyssey Arena, then the Oval football ground, and finally reached your house. You paused outside your bedroom window, then passed through the glass and curtains as if they weren’t there. You came to rest on the laminate floor and stood facing yourself, asleep with your back turned to Mark. There was a strange silence in the room, as if the air had been sucked out and you stood in a vacuum. Watching yourself sleep you felt an immense sorrow come over you. And then you woke up, your eyes snapped open and you sat up sharply in bed. And you saw – just for a fleeting part of a second – you saw yourself at the foot of the bed, watching you. Just as you opened your mouth to cry out, you – the other ‘you’ – faded into the shadows of the room and was gone. You turned to Mark. He slept on.

*

Back in the house you hurry to change, fix your hair and put on some make-up. You book a taxi and smoke your first cigarette in a year. The ring back on your mobile lets you know the taxi has arrived. You stub out the cigarette in the sink, smoke rising in tendrils from the lipstick-reddened butt.

     “Bit late to be going out, isn’t it?” the taxi driver asks as he pulls away from the curb.

     “It took me ages to get ready,” you tell him, laughing. You give him the name of a club you used to go to before you met Mark.

     You relax back into the seat and watch the night flash past outside the window as you travel into the city centre.

     You’re going to start again. You’re going to form your life night by night, building it up using this exhilaration you feel, these rushes of pure excitement. You’ll work out what can be done with the house, and with Mark, when he gets back. One thing you do know is that you’re leaving contentment behind. You’re beyond the past now. You’re moving on. Your past life will be a pale imitation of what’s to come. Your life is now your own. You’ll no longer allow yourself to share it with anyone. You’ll not struggle to return to who you were before. You’re embracing this transformation. With every second that passes of the night you’re moving away from the person you once were and becoming... who? What? You don’t know the answer to that. But out there, somewhere in the space between the shadow and the light, you’ll find out.

An earlier version of this story was the basis for the short play, Shadow & LIght: a monologue, which was performed as part of LunchBox Theatre in The Black Box, Belfast, in 2013, and starred Mary Lindsay.

James Meredith


James Meredith’s stories & poems have been published in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the USA, including The Stinging Fly, Abridged, The Honest Ulsterman, The Incubator Journal, Lagan Press Poetry Originals, 34th Parallel, A Hundred Gourds, FourXFour Poetry Journal, Tellus & Black and Blue amongst others. 

A chapbook of haiku, senryu and tanka, a wine cup with base, was published by Pen Points Press in 2016. He is also widely published in translation in Romania. A collection of his poetry, Drawers of Sand, was published in 2014 alongside Romanian poet Laurian Lodoaba by Editura Timpul in a bilingual edition. burnt offering, a two poet collection with Romanian poet Paulina Popa, was published in 2016 by Emia Press. 

He is a past winner of the Brian Moore Short Story Award, and author of three short plays, Shadow & Light: a monologue (LunchBox Theatre), Don’t Get Me Wrong (part of ‘Arrivals’ from Terra Nova Productions), & Secrets (part of ‘Arrivals 2’ from Terra Nova Productions).  

[Photo by William Simpson]