Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"Behind Closed Doors" by Eddie Stack

A Reading Life Special Event
"Behind Closed Doors" by Eddie Stack

Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
Eddie Stack

"Behind Closed Doors"
Eddie Stack

Austin Solan was the youngest dairy manager ever to come to town. A quiet, balding man of thirty-three, he had the slender look of an acetic and it was only a matter of time before he was leading the men's solidarity legion in prayer and good example. Austin and his wife Una had no family. They lived in a stark, one-story manse of grey cut stone that brooded on a small rise at the edge of the town. Once the home of Master McGrath, the Solans bought it for a song, unaware it was a house with a shadow. But on the amount of prayer that Una and Austin packed into a day, nobody thought it necessary to tell them about things supernatural.

One warm Saturday in August while Austin mowed the front lawn, the postman arrived with a letter addressed to the previous owner.
“Why are you bringing this here?”Austin asked quietly, “Don't you know Master McGrath is dead for the last seven years?”
“I'm only doin' my job,” apologized the postman, “I know he's dead, an' you know he's dead but the poor woman who wrote the letter don't know that...his sister below in the mental asylum. I was thinkin' it was better to deliver it than to send it back t' her. D' you know what I'm sayin'?”
“You're drunk,” Austin said, recoiling from him, “You're drunk and it's only mid-day.”

Una shelled peas at the kitchen sink and listened silently to his story.
“God alone knows what letters and parcels that drunk has lost. I should tell the postmaster. That man needs discipline.”
He was agitated and walked around the kitchen, fanning his face with the letter.
“And this,” he cried, “What are we going to do with...this letter?”
“It's not ours so we shouldn't open it,” Una said softly.
“Of course it's not ours. No...but it's just so odd...I mean Master McGrath has been dead for years...and this is from his sister! I mean...what should we do?”
“It's only a letter, Austin,” Una smiled, “Don't get so upset about it, it has nothing to do with us.”
She took the envelope with the scratchy handwriting from him and left it beside the Child of Prague statue in the hall.

The letter was forgotten about until a few weeks later at breakfast, when she related a dream she'd had the previous night. In the dream, Austin and herself were in the entrance hall of a stately house with black and white checkered marble floors and tall mirrors on the walls. Master McGrath appeared with a whip and chased them through the building until they came to a room which was like their present kitchen, only larger. There were dogs everywhere, barking and frothing at the mouth, they leaped on table and chairs. It was frightening she said, and the next thing she knew, Austin and herself were naked, racing down the town like hares, a pack of wild dogs at their heels and the Master shouting for his letter.
Austin stopped eating.
“Good God! Why did he want the letter?”
Una shook her head.

“I can't remember...the letter only came into it at the end. But his face...I saw it vividly...the purple wart on the side of his nose and all...the big round eyes and the droopy mustache. He shouted that we wronged him.”
“Wronged him? The letter? What can be so important about a letter from a deranged sister?”
It wasn't what he said but how he said it. Una shivered and goose pimples tingled the back of her neck. She sensed a strange feeling sneak into the kitchen.
“Austin,” she said shakily, “we better say a prayer, quickly.”
There and then they crossed themselves, bowed their heads and recited a decade of the Rosary.
After work that evening, as he approached the gravel avenue to his home, Austin saw a man in black walking away from the front door. He wondered who could it be, as the figure crossed the lawn and disappeared over the fence. Father Hannon? But why hop the fence rather than come down the drive? Couldn't be Father Hannon. Must be someone else.
Una said she had no no callers and when Austin insisted he saw a man leave, she stood still in the middle of the kitchen and said quietly,
“Austin, surely you don't think I'm hiding something from you?”
“No. No, it's just that I'm sure I saw a man leave this house. That's all.”
They didn't speak for the rest of the evening and Una went to bed early and prayed herself to sleep. That night she dreamed about a man prowling outside the house; he was young and good looking and she saw him come to the kitchen window, beckoning her. She opened the window and he reached in and fondled her breasts until Master McGrath came running across the lawn with a gun in his hand. Una woke sweating. Austin lay beside her, snoring erratically.

Next morning at breakfast, they ate in silence until Una left the letter beside her husband and said,
“You might drop that off at the post-office today if you get a chance.”
He nodded and slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket. He would write across it in red pen, Return To Sender, Addressee Deceased. That would do it, he reasoned.

Torrential rain slowed Austin's driving to a crawl. The car roof rattled with pellets of fury and wipers slish-sloshed waves of water across the windscreen, blurring the world. But he didn't notice the downpour so much, Austin was wondering if the heat from the letter next to his heart was real or imaginary. Troubling himself into a trance, he nosed the car deeper down the flooded road until the engine choked in the hollow outside the Market House. Muddy water oozed into the vehicle and Austin abandoned it and waded the rest of the way to work.

 Drenched and preoccupied he trudged into his office where Terry Morris, his assistant manager, waited with a worried look. Dairy Crisis: the butter was not balling and the butter-makers were alarmed.
“My God!” Austin muttered, pulling a white lab coat over his soggy clothes.
Batty Gill, the head butter-maker, was baffled. In all his years by the churn he had never failed to transform cream into butter before. He followed Austin and Terry around the plant while they took readings and frowned into vats. After tastes, samples and stringent testing, the bossmen concluded that everything was in accordance with the book. There was no reason why the butter should not ball. Batty was encouraged to keep churning. Austin suggested that it may just be some freak humidity caused by the downpour. The butter-maker rubbed his jaw and said that whatever the reason, it was certainly something beyond his control.

When the dairy gold failed to form by lunch time, the normally noisy canteen was silent. Austin couldn't eat with worry. Some old hands whispered that this was only a sign of something more serious afoot. Matta Kelly, a milk strainer, hinted that butter-making had been taken for granted ever since the churn moved from the cottage to the state dairy. He said that just as the head of the household had to accept responsibility for butter-making in the old days, the dairy manager had to carry the can in these times.
That afternoon, word of the butter crisis had rippled down town and Father Hannon telephoned Austin and pledged his prayers. He suggested blessing the churns if things didn't improve by evening. But Austin played it down, explained that the problem was due to freak weather conditions.
“Still, a drop of Holy Water never did any harm,” Father Hannon reminded, “especially in a superstitious part of the country like here.”

With no butter to show, Terry Morris brought Austin home early that evening. Una was scrubbing carrots at the kitchen sink, yellow rubber gloves stretched to her elbows. She jolted when she saw him. He was exhausted, drenched with worry and rain.
“What happened?” Una asked.
“Bad day. Bad day. The butter wouldn't ball.”
His voice croaked and she tensed and whispered,
“Sit down Austin, I'll make you a cup of tea.”
She left the day's mail before him and then he remembered Master McGrath's letter was still in his jacket pocket. He hopped from the chair and uttered what sounded like a squawk. Una asked if he was alright, but he didn't hear her, he was staring at the soggy letter whose ink had run through his clothes from head to toes. Austin could feel the cold thin ink all over his wet body, the words of Master McGrath's sister seeping into his skin like tattoos. He felt tactile hallucinations, and slapped legs and arms where they began to tingle. Una thought he was having a fit or seizure and stammered,
“Are you alright Austin?”
He flapped about saying,
“I must have a bath, must have a bath.”

Austin dashed to the bathroom and she heard water cascade into the tub. Steam rose from the letter on the table and nervously Una picked it up with a spatula and tossed it into the coal burning stove. Muttering a Hail Mary, she retreated to the sink, expecting something to happen, some sort of explosion or inexplicable event, something supernatural. Nothing. From down the corridor came the sound of water thundering into the bath. A tap winced and then there was silence.
“My God,” she muttered, “I should make a hot drink for Austin.”
Una knocked politely on the bathroom door before entering.
“This will do you good,” she said, halting abruptly when she noticed the tub was empty.
“Austin? Austin?” she called curiously, looking around the bathroom. She heard a rustle overhead and saw a big black raven perched on the shower rail. Feathers dripping, eyes darting with distress, the bird began to flap its wings hysterically.
“Austin!” she screamed, banging the door shut, “Austin! There's a crow in the loo!”
She searched the house but there was no trace of Austin. The raven flapped around the bathroom, squawking and croaking. It didn't make sense. Austin couldn't have disappeared, he wouldn't put a toe outside the door without telling her, he wouldn't even go to the toilet without letting her know. She wandered aimlessly around the kitchen, then eased into a chair and prayed.
Half-way through the Lord's Prayer, it struck her that Austin was overcome by the butter crisis and had returned to the creamery. Then the bird somehow got into the bathroom. That was it, she thought and gave God thanks for the insight.

When Austin wasn't home by midnight, she began to panic and called the dairy. Nobody there, so she called Terry Morris and interrupted his lovemaking. He hadn't seen Austin since driving him home that evening and news of his superior's disappearance jolted him. He volunteered to  come over to the house, but Una said that wasn't necessary, that there was probably some simple explanation. Maybe he had gone to see Father Hannon.
“But it's a terrible night out,” Terry said, “and he has no car.”
Waiting for her husband, Una had a fitful night. Awake at dawn, she felt the bed for Austin and shivered at his empty place. She rushed to the phone and called Father Hannon. He came over immediately.
“It's bizarre,” the priest muttered when he heard her story, “bizarre.”
“Would it have anything to do with the butter crisis?” she asked hesitantly.
He rocked uncomfortably in his chair and said,
“It's a coincidence, just a coincidence.”
That was the feedback he was getting. Coincidences that are somehow connected occur: like the blood red moon that rose on the night the Viet Nam war ended. He had seen it with his own eyes. And his heart missed a beat when he remembered the morning the horse burst into Hannifin's Bar, hours before one of the sons was killed by a run-away Ford Mustang in California.
“I think,” he said, slowly rising from the chair, “we should notify the police about Austin's disappearance. I don't want to alarm you but it may be serious.”

The police took a long statement from Una, Father Hannon at her side, stone faced. When Sergeant Malone asked questions about her husband's habits, worries and hurries, the priest reminded him that Austin was a saint. Sergeant Malone nodded and closed his blue notebook with a sympathetic sigh.
“We'll file a missing person's report immediately,” he said.
Rattled by Austin's disappearance, Una didn't think to tell either priest or police about the crow in the bathroom. But in light of the crisis, the bird didn't matter and all day she used the toilet by the kitchen rather than deal with it. The phone rang intermittently, friends pledging support, parents weeping, neighbours sniffing. And everyone heard the same story: Austin left the kitchen to have a bath and disappeared.
That evening, around the time her husband usually returned home, the door bell chimed and she rushed from the kitchen. The man in black was a stranger and for a moment she thought it was a young priest. He was in his mid-twenties maybe, and had a small leather holdall over his shoulder.
“Yes?” Una said.
“I've come to catch the crow,” he announced with a shy smile.
“It's in the bathroom,” she said nervously.
Una stood in the hall while he captured the bird, talking to it, coaxing it, cawing to it. He reappeared from the washroom, proudly displaying his squirming hold-all.
“It won't bother you again,” he said.
Una muttered thanks and he walked away with the bird in his bag. Later that night when she cleaned the bathroom of feathers and droppings, it struck her that he was a replica of the young man who fondled her breasts in the dream.

Austin Solan never returned to his wife. He seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. Police couldn't find him. Psychics couldn't dowse him, priests failed to pray him back home. Una grieved. Shunned friends and neighbours. Rarely went out and invited nobody to her home. Every other week the young man in black came to see her and they sat in the kitchen for hours,  barely speaking, always sensing. His name was Johnny and as time wore on she learned his likes and dislikes. One spoon of sugar in tea, lots of butter with potatoes. On a cold evening when he remarked that he loved flannel sheets like they had in the old days, she said,
“That's what I've on the bed tonight.”

Every Saturday evening for years after, Batty Gill the butter-maker and Matta Kelly watched Una wander from shop to shop while they drank their weekend pints in Bridgey Looney's bar.
“And she still thinks poor Austin Solan will come back some day,” Bridgey would sadly say.
“He won't be back,” Matta would sigh, “that man went with the river. Suicide. He'll never be heard of again.”
Bridgey moaned that great credit was due to Una for staying in the town, but of course the woman was unhinged by it all. Imagine, she told the men, after all these years, poor Mrs. Solan still bought socks and underwear for her vanished husband and shopped for two when she went to the grocery shop and the butcher. Even got him cowboy books from the library.
“A tragedy,” Batty usually said, “that's the only explanation for it.”
“But it had to happen sometime,” Matta would insist, glass empty, waiting for a refill, “Sure that house is haunted.”
Bridgey would nod and fill two pints for the old timers. For the umpteenth time she heard the horrific story of Johnny Doyle, the bird catcher who fell in love with Lucinda McGrath, the Master's sister. Johnny had a vociferous appetite and could not see enough of his love. And when the Master stumbled on them coupling in the bathroom one evening, he lost his senses and shot the bird catcher through the head with a pistol from the revolution. Lucinda went crazy and the Master was acquitted on self-defense.
“That house is haunted,” Matta said, “sure it couldn't be otherwise. The place would give you shivers to look at it. You'd go mad living in that house.”

Up in the manse, saucepans boiled over on the stove and the Glenn Miller Band blared from the radio. In her Saturday night kitchen, Una was oblivious to the world, as she danced the Chatanooga Cho-cho with Johnny Doyle the bird catcher.

End of Guest Post

My deepest thanks to Eddie Stack for allowing me to share his wonderful stories with my readers

this story and all of the other stories by Eddie Stack are protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without his consent.  

Mel u

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