Emma Devlin


Emma Devlin

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Jane rises and throws the phone towards Mel, and it might have cuffed her across the cheek if she hadn't caught it.

     “Answer if you want,” Jane says, not looking at her. She is taller than Mel and it takes her three long strides to get to the front door. Frank has commented on that walk more than once: Mel drifts like a twig on water, Jane walks like she thinks she's owed something. Jane and Mel, he says, is what happens when parents have a favourite.

     “But—” Even while wanting her sister to stay, Mel wants, for the first time in days, to be left alone. She glances at the phone. He's rung off anyway, leaving the total at eight missed calls. This morning the landline howled continuously. The walls are like cardboard.  You could put your fist through them. The phone rang and rang, bringing up the dogs next door, until Mel finally pulled it out of the wall and brought it down in a crack onto the hallway table. She was sorry to have done it, and had wondered aloud if maybe she should just answer next time.

     “I can’t help you.” Then Jane is through the door and into the car, then, the car black and barrelling through the rain like a bull, she is gone. The door is left open behind her and it swings in the wind, which rises like a great hand against the house and squeezes, coming in through the door frame. With it comes the rain, spilling across the hallway floor. Mel doesn’t move to close the door; she is caught. There are times like this in her own house, after a ruckus, when things become quiet again, and where she is supposed to act as though nothing has happened. Tidy, get some tea, sit, smile. She does these things feeling each time like she's clamped between somebody's thumb and forefinger. She stands in the hallway, not quite thinking of calling Frank back, but her body is poised on it, bending at the shoulders, becoming rigid. Outside, the cracks and potholes in her sister’s yard are filling with ruddy water. Frank has offered to fix them hundreds of times.

     “I don’t like being idle,” he would say, “Unlike some.”

     “You’re always busy,” Mel would say. “Never worry about it.”

     He has never fixed them. Mel relaxes and puts the phone on silent, leaves it face down on the hallway table. Outside, the neighbour’s dogs have bounded through a gap in the driveway and they jump into the potholes. The rain is getting heavier. The dogs are kept outside by the neighbour, even in weather like this. Jane dislikes them as raggedy half-witted things that dig up her yard, but Mel is a little softer on them. She feels, never telling anyone, a little like them at times. She watches them snap at the rain and chase one another in circuits through the yard, around and around, and she starts to feel a little better. A pair of water dogs, Jane would say, like they themselves used to be, only Mel has forgotten. When they were children they lived so close to the sea that their bikes rusted every few weeks from the salt air. Mel knows that they went to the beach together every few days, and knows that they used to dip their feet in it and sometimes lie down in it until they were numb. Coming home smelling of brine, hair stiff from the salt, freezing, happy. She knows these things, but doesn’t remember them. The details are in the dark. Mel always forgets things, Frank would say, Mel has a hole in the head. He’d say it like a joke while at the same time pointing two fingers at the dead centre of her forehead.

     She moves towards the door, meaning to call the dogs inside until the rain stops. Let them shake the rain off against the walls, shed their fur, muddy the floors. She doesn’t have to tidy it up. When the man appears on the driveway, causing the dogs to tumble over one another in fright, she freezes. For a moment she thinks it's Frank. The man is short and lean, like him, with his hair cut close to the skull. But older. Less wound up, too, less ready to spring; there’s something pulled together and trim about him, in the way his dark suit tapers, in the way he holds his briefcase just so. He stands there as she stares at him. He comes up the driveway, steps onto the porch and wipes his face with his sleeve.

     “Are you selling something?” she asks.

     “I have things for sale, yes,” he replies. He’s not quite old enough for the voice that comes out of him. He waits. “That rain.”

     “Oh, come in for a minute.” The salesman steps past her and brushes the raindrops out of his hair with stiff, red fingers. “Would you like some tea?” The dogs seize their chance to run into the house. Mel, on her way to the kitchen, is almost happy to see the short work they make of Jane's white walls. 

     “Please. However you’re making it.” He steps into the living room. The salesman glances around, taking in the mess: the broken landline phone that Mel dumped into the corner, the magazines and newspapers in a kind of collage along the floor, sweet wrappers and dinner plates on nearly every available surface, shifted around from time to time as Mel is caught between needing to clean up and wanting to let it be. Her temper has been building up as surely as the mess has. The salesman says nothing, perching himself neatly on the edge of the sofa. The briefcase, which she sees now is a little battered in the corners, lies across his knees.

     The phone hums on the table as she’s making the tea and she’s glad for the distraction of the salesman, odd as it is, for her body may well have leaped to answer it anyway. It has rung off by the time she brings in the tea. The salesman takes the mug from her and places it on the centre of his briefcase. 

     “Not many people would have let you in around here,” says Mel. She keeps back, standing at the other side of the room. “My sister wouldn't even have let you up the driveway.”

     “It’s not your house, then.”

     “No. I'm only here for a few days.” She fidgets, picks at her clothes, turns the teacup around and around in her hand. She notices the salesman glance around again. “A week and a half.”

     “Things are a bit tense, then.”

     “We had a fight, actually, just now. She's not a bit happy with me.” 

     “You've definitely been fighting someone.” The salesman looks again at the broken phone. “Wouldn't have thought it was your sister.” With that, Mel's mobile in the hallway begins to vibrate again, falling off the table and hard to the floor. Mel doesn't move to get it. “It's over that, is it?”


     “Let me guess,” the salesman moves the cup of tea to the floor and opens his briefcase. “Partner. Husband?”

     Mel pauses. “Yes.”

     The salesman nods curtly. He reaches into his briefcase and Mel can hear him rummage with the things inside, though she can't guess at what they are. Large, solid things with hard edges. Some smaller things, beady, spilling over themselves. She didn’t think there were still people like this out here. He hasn't, she realizes, told her what he's selling. “I didn't bring much money with me,” she finds herself saying, “I’ve just the bankcard.” 

     “Oh, I wouldn't worry about that.” He brings out a little Perspex display case. “Take a look at these.” He doesn't rise from the sofa, only holds out the case, waiting for her. Mel can see that it's just a box of charms, not even with the bracelet, and she laughs, a little at a loss, and comes to take it. Frank has tried buying her jewellery before, after their rows, and he resorted more and more to buying charm beads. She has a whole string of the stupid, silver things at home, most of them heart shaped. She rarely wears this bracelet except to please Frank when he asks her about it. Most of the salesman's charms are no bigger than her thumbnail and she thinks cheap, almost without really thinking, until she takes the case and sees them close up. 

     “They're nice,” she admits. One, in particular, has caught her eye. A little black and white koi fish, carved into a jump. “What's this made of?” 

      “Bone. Knuckle, possibly. Do you like it?”

     “Yes. Kind of. No. Jane has a fish pond out the back here. I don’t like it.”

     “Why?” The phone begins ringing on the floor, inching towards the pool of water, and the salesman sits back in the sofa. “I see.”

     “He pushed me into it, two weeks ago.” She thinks the salesman might laugh, but he doesn’t. “Jane has koi, just like this, and the orange and red ones too. Frank lost his temper with me – I don't remember why, something silly – and he just pushed me as hard as he could down into the pond.”

     “I'm sorry.”

     “I still feel it.”

     “I’m sure.”

     “Yes.” The cold, the weight of herself in the water, the fish swimming around her legs. She hasn’t been out the back since. She feels like if she even sees the water through the window she might be sick. She stays away. “But it wasn’t just that, it was how felt. We went back inside. I was drenched. Jane was there, and a couple of other people. He told them we had been joking around, that he’d pushed me, and wasn’t he funny. I didn’t want to cause a fuss.”

     “And Jane?”

     “She told me to stay with her, so I did. She doesn’t want me to go back. I don’t want to go back, most of the time. I think all I want to do is make him feel, just once, the way I did then.”

     “And how was that?”

     “I'm not sure. Strange. Like there'd been a mistake, and I didn’t understand where.” In the beginning, Mel tried, many times, to talk to Jane about what had happened that night. How she'd been so certain that Frank wouldn't act out at Jane's house. How she'd thrashed and struggled to get out, even in the shallow water. How humiliated she was. How she shouted at him. How she'd raised her hand to flick back her hair. How he thought she was going to slap him. How she thought, long afterwards, that maybe he hadn’t really thought that at all. How he'd grabbed her hand, bent it so far back that she thought he'd crack her fingers, and said don't you fucking start. How Frank had stepped back, shrugging, before slinging his jacket over her shoulders. How weighed down by the water she was as she stepped, shivering, into the house after Frank. How Frank had never hurt her like that before. “Not even Jane knows everything.” Jane's anger was crushing. Frank had embarrassed her sister, in her house. There was no room for anything more complicated than anger against Frank, and she couldn't understand how Mel could feel anything else. 

     The salesman nods. “Would you like that fish, then?” he asks. Mel feels that she has given too much away to this stranger and she cringes, crushing the fish into her palm.

     “Sure,” she says. “How much?”

     “Don’t worry about that.” He rises and ignores the dogs which bound about his feet, nearly overturning the cup of tea that he has left there. She notices that he never touched a drop. “That rain’ll get worse,” he says, “Best get moving before it does.” He steps over the pool of water in the hallway and into the porch, where he seems to brace himself against the weather outside. Mel wonders briefly if it is right to let him go, but feels like she has taken up too much time, as she always does. Face burning, she watches as he walks slowly down the driveway, stepping past the potholes and, finally, disappearing around the corner. The dogs crawl after him as though following his scent, until they lose interest and bounce back into their own yard.

     She is left with the house. The wind has died down and with it goes the pressure against the walls. The rain pummels the house. Mel picks up her mobile from the floor: Frank, Frank, Frank. Instead of calling him back, Mel steps out into the back garden and heads towards the pond. By the time she gets to it she is soaked, though somehow she doesn’t feel so heavy. The water thrums under the rain and the koi are reduced to inkblots, little drops of brightness in the dark water. The noise is everywhere, coming from Jane’s roof, the trees, the water, and now there is a banging in Mel’s own head.

     Her phone rings again and Mel thinks of throwing it into the pond, until she sees that it is Jane calling her.

     “Hey,” Jane says. “I’m outside your house. Something’s happened...”

     Mel’s stomach drops. “Why? Jane, what did you--?”

     “No, no. I didn’t do anything, I swear. I’m still in the car. He hasn’t seen me, but…” She hears Jane fuss with her phone. “I’ve taken a picture of it.”

     “What’s happened?”

     “I’m sorry about earlier, Mel.”

     “What’s happened, Jane?”

     “I’ll send you the photo. I’ll be home soon and I’ll help you tidy up. Don’t worry about anything. Just stay put, okay?”

     “I’m not--”

     “Stay.” Jane hangs up. Mel gets the picture in her messages.  

     She doesn’t quite make it out at first. There is the rain, there is the dim afternoon light. There is her house in its perpetual half-finished state, with the odds and ends of work that Frank has done on it. There is Frank himself standing by the front door, a little cream-coloured figure at the back. Soaking. Beyond that she isn’t sure what she’s looking at, until it dawns on her. Across his lawn, spotted along his roof, over his car, are koi fish. Fat, black and white koi fish, as though a whole school of them had come down in the rain. Not a single one of them have inched onto the pavement, or into the neighbour’s gardens. They lie across the length and breadth of Frank’s property, heaped up on top of each other as though swimming to the surface of an invisible lake. Frank is slouched against the door frame, looking out at the mess with an expression she has never seen before: I don’t understand, there must be some mistake.

     Mel heads back into the house to wait for Jane, and she is smiling.

Emma Devlin

Emma is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast. Her work has featured in Blackbird and The Bangor Literary Journal. She can be found on Twitter: @theactualemma