Turning Up Shadows

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

1.

Through the window above the sink, Greg looked out at the old church. He held a cup of tea close to his face. It was still too hot to drink. His stomach pressed against the kitchen counter. He cleared his throat and the dishes stacked in the sink rattled against each other.

It was getting dark and the sun was turning up shadows behind the church and in the alleyway. It was always still in the church’s garden and it made him calm when he looked at it.

There hadn’t been a service for ten years. He remembered when the garden was tended to. Old women would sit in the shade behind the church on plastic chairs eating biscuits and drinking lemonade. He remembered the kinds of hats they wore, their long modest dresses and the cries of their grandchildren. It was nothing like that now. The grass was overgrown and vines ran up the walls, covering the stained-glass windows. He hadn’t seen anyone sit in that garden since a temporary fence was put up around it. There were signs that said the building had been condemned.

He’d read in the paper that the council were planning to knock it down. His neighbours had pushed with petitions over the years, calling the church an eyesore, that it was a great danger to the community, that it needed to go.

Greg didn’t agree with his neighbours. His small house was behind the church, backed on to an alleyway of pebbles and broken glass. His back window looked out onto the garden, which had grown wild and mangled. His own backyard was dusty, short and covered in piles of wood so he’d taken in the church’s garden as his own.

He sipped his tea and drummed his fingers against the metal edges of the sink. The day had been long and his eyes were dry and red. He went to turn away, to sit down on the couch and relax, when he saw the outline of two bodies lying on the grass in the church garden. He squinted and felt the strain of his eyes. He hadn’t noticed them earlier but he recognised the blue blazers they were wearing. They were from the Catholic school on the hill. He peered out at them and for a moment he forgot to breathe.

They were lying next to one another, on their backs, watching the sun burn orange streaks across the sky. One of them rolled over and rested their leg on the other’s stomach. Greg swallowed the tea in his mouth. He knew that through the temporary fence and the flywire of his window, they wouldn’t be able to see him. He stood with his teacup by the sink, stacked with old dishes, and watched. Their legs tangled together on the grass as the garden slowly disappeared into darkness.

His tea was cold by the time he sat down on the couch and turned on the TV. He shifted himself on the cushion as the cold colours from the TV spread across the walls of the room, moving shadows in short flashes.

It was soon dark outside the window.

2.

Greg’s Ford Laser stayed parked out on the street so that he could use his garage as a workshop. It was a small, one-door garage but he’d made the most of the space with floor-to-ceiling shelving. A work bench sat in the middle like an island. It was big enough to work on and small enough to walk around.

It was a Saturday morning and the magpies were swallowing their warbled cries from the trees. Greg had finished the bracing for the guitar and delicately laid it down on the bench. He’d have to wait for the glue to set. He’d been following online tutorials for six months on a laptop he’d borrowed from his neighbour’s son. The screen was covered in sawdust and he kept having to wipe it clean.

The soundboard was finished already and he was happy with it. He had it clamped and upright on the bench. The detailing around the sound hole was simple. Once it was set, he would stick the bracing to the soundboard and then finish the back and the sides. The sides would be difficult. He’d ordered a cheaper mahogany from Indonesia. He’d ordered more than he needed to.

He’d always wanted to build a guitar, but he had no idea what it would sound like when it was done. He knew that cedar was good for warm tones. He knew that he wanted a fainter sound, something rich and resonant, but still soft. He hardly remembered how to play guitar. The last time he’d played was when he was in high school, almost fifty years ago. Around the time he’d told Michael that none of it was right. That none of it would work.

He spent the day in the garage. When he was finished, he creaked back inside the house and came to the sink in the kitchen. His hands were creased and red. He ran the tap and held them under it. The water washed the dust down onto the dishes. He’d been meaning to do those dishes for a few days and they were starting to give off a smell. Drying his hands, he looked out the window at the old church. He thought of those two bodies pressed against each other on the damp grass. He looked over the garden for any sign of movement. There was nothing. The sun barely reached the garden. It looked cool and green in the deepening shadows. He breathed in slow circles, his hands gripping the metal edges of the sink.

He hoped the guitar would turn out well. He hoped it would sound the way he wanted it to.

3.

Greg walked over the main road, up to the oval and back again. He followed this route most nights after work. It was cold by the time he got back and the damp hung in the air. Outside his house, the Ford Laser was scratched and battered from long winters out on the street. His letter box was filled with nothing but bills.

He turned the TV on when he passed through the lounge. The news sailed into the room and nothing good was happening in the world again. He sat on the couch and watched the headlines repeat. When the ads came on, loud and obnoxious, he muted the TV and stood up from the couch.

In the kitchen, he filled the kettle, lit the stove and put the kettle over the gas ring. He pulled out a teabag, dropped it into his mug and tied the tag through the handle. The flame gripped the edges of the kettle and steam climbed its sides.

He looked down into the sink. The dishes had been sitting there for a week. A stack of plates, a glass full of spoons and forks, mostly stained with pasta sauce that had turned brown. He took the detergent from the cupboard under the sink, squirted it over the dishes and pushed the plug into the drain.

Looking up through the window, the sky was paling. He looked out over the alleyway. The shimmer of broken glass was disappearing with the light. He thought the fence made the church look more of an eyesore than it was. He looked along the church wall and blinked as he saw the two blue blazers again. The wearers were sitting against the wall of the church.

This time he could see their faces, not clearly, but enough to figure they were no more than fifteen. They were only boys. One had blond hair, the other had black hair. One looked taller than the other. The shorter one had his head against the other boy’s shoulder. Their hands were locked together on the blond boy’s lap.

Greg stood and didn’t blink when the kettle started faintly whistling beside him. Steam seeped out of the nozzle and started fogging the window.

The boys kissed in the half-light. The blond boy sat himself up onto the taller one’s lap.

Greg didn’t move. Before the boys, he hadn’t seen anyone behind that fence in a decade.

Then the taller boy stood while the blond boy stayed kneeling on the grass. The tall boy ran his hands through the blond boy’s hair and gripped his head. Greg couldn’t see clearly. His eyes strained. The light had faded and the steam from the kettle had spread across the window. The whistling grew louder and higher. The tall boy raised his head. His chin, the line of his jaw, his nostrils, the thick arteries in his neck pointed right at Greg. He shifted where he stood.

His hands gripped the metal edges of the sink and he looked down at the pile of dishes. After a small moment, he turned the tap on and ran hot water over them. The sink filled with foam and suds. Keeping his chin to his chest, he fished out a small plate, pushed the scourer against the porcelain and scrubbed clean the week-old stains. From the stove beside him, the whistle from the kettle rose to a scream.

 

by Jem Patrick Moore

 

Jem Patrick Moore is a writer of short fiction from Melbourne, Australia. He divides his time between writing and teaching English. He currently lives in Sweden.

About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.

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