Winner 2013 - 'Chiaroscuro' by Gaynor Madoc Leonard
Short Story Competition Winners & Runners Up 2009 - 2014
By Gaynor Madoc Leonard
Rising stiffly from her desk, she walked slowly over to the window where light was stealing through the louvred shutters. “Intimations of dawn” she thought, smiling to herself. The very last words of the book she had just completed editing. How apt.
She stretched out her arms and moved her head from side to side, easing the tension in her neck and back. All that was left to do was to send the document to her client and her job would be done.
Just an hour later saw her returning from a brisk walk, laden with newspapers, fresh bread from the local bakery and fruit from the greengrocer. Day was finally making its presence known and the walk had refreshed her mind as well as loosening her muscles. She showered, changed into pyjamas and took fruit and slices of new bread, along with some tea, into the small garden. The sun promised light and warmth but she was glad of the hot drink.
At last she returned to the house, locked up securely and went to the bedroom, opening the shutters wide. In the few minutes before she fell asleep, the sun, a light breeze and the trees in the garden conspired to dapple the room with light and shadow, reminding her of a Whistler nocturne and soothing her into rest.
It was mid-afternoon when she awoke and she luxuriated for a few moments in the knowledge that she wouldn’t be working that night; she was to have an evening out with friends. The checking of e-mails would be necessary but otherwise she had plans for a light lunch and some reading in the garden before leaving for the theatre.
It was a joy to go out on a light summer’s night; the play was a great success and she and her friends chatted for hours over a late meal and drinks in a private club. At 3am, everyone was hungry again so taxis were hailed to take them all to Brick Lane and the 24-hour bagel shop where they asked permission to go into the back room to see the bagels being made before ordering their favourites along with cups of builder’s tea.
By the time they left the café, night was beginning to turn into day. Danny sweetly asked her if she’d like to sleep on his sofa as he lived nearby but she spotted a taxi and hailed it, leaving him with a lightly kissed cheek and a smile. He stood watching, as the cab drove away, and saw her glance back at him, giving a short wave to say goodbye. Glumly, he hunched his shoulders and put his hands in his pockets as he walked home.
At home again, she changed into night clothes and went out into the garden. Sitting with her feet up she thought about Danny with affection; he was a gentle person and she was very fond of him. She knew that his invitation to sleep at his flat had not had an ulterior motive but she didn’t feel relaxed in other people’s homes and, although they had been friends for some time, she was certain that he didn’t understand the way she lived her life.
Why would anyone understand her fear? How could they understand it? It had been deep within her from childhood and she knew it would be with her for the rest of her life.
Now it was summer and the days were long; from the arrival of the first daffodils her heart lightened, no matter if it rained. The days lengthened and that was all that mattered.
She recalled with a shudder the years when she had commuted to work in the City, leaving home before daylight, arriving at the office in the dark winter mornings and leaving it in the even darker afternoons. Now she was at home and could choose to work in the night, lamps keeping the darkness, and her fear of it, at bay.
There had been nights when she had been almost afraid to go back to her house and would go to late films to pass the dark hours away, then on to Soho and Bar Italia, the 24-hour coffee bar, sitting under the harsh and unforgiving strip lighting before taking the last night-bus home.
In the last few years she had taken holidays during the depths of winter, to places where there was more light, but she could hardly spend half the year away.
Once, on a business trip to New York, she had found her hotel room so claustrophobic that she’d gone out at about 3am and found an all-night café where she had sat nursing successive cups of weak coffee and reading a novel. Aware that the café-owner was keeping a wary eye on her, she would look up occasionally and give him a wan smile. Eventually, a police officer had asked to join her and sat in silence for a while before enquiring whether she was all right.
She found herself telling him of her fear and sensed that he sympathised; in return he told her some silly story about his own childhood fear which made her smile and which she didn’t altogether believe although she knew he was just trying to cheer her up. Again they sat in silence but this time it was a comfortable silence.
‘Nighthawks!’ She said suddenly, with a light laugh.
He smiled, ‘I like that one but my favourites are the seascapes.’
‘I love those too, especially The Yawl and The Lee Shore.’
‘I hadn’t expected to end my shift discussing Edward Hopper paintings in an all-night café!’
‘I’m so sorry, you must want to get home and get some rest, not sit talking to a crazy person who’s afraid of the dark.’
‘You’re not crazy; everyone’s scared of something. But maybe sitting alone in a café in the night in New York City isn’t the wisest thing to do.’ He looked out of the window, ‘It’s beginning to get lighter so I’ll walk you back to your hotel. When do you leave the city?’
‘Thank you. I leave this afternoon. And thank you for being so kind and patient.’
He shrugged, ‘Try to get a little sleep before you go.’
They walked slowly back to the hotel and she thanked him again. Before he left, he hesitated and took her face in his hands, kissing her deeply before turning and walking briskly away.
From the hotel doorway she watched until he’d turned the street corner, aware that they had had a real connection and even more aware that she would never see him again. Back in her room, she sat in a chair by the window and looked out at the street far below before finally falling asleep.
On the flight home, she had thought about him as she sat in the half-light of the cabin, scarcely noticing the film on the screen in front of her. Arriving in London, she took a taxi home and lay on her bed, exhausted from lack of sleep and a sense of loss.
Time eased the ache in her heart and life went on although she never forgot him. She had a measure of success in her work as an editor and published romantic novels under a pseudonym, stories which she despised but which were, nonetheless, lucrative. Bodice rippers, pretty nurses falling for handsome doctors, sexy vampires, the usual suspects; they all made money. She knew her limits and was pragmatic.
In her own life, there was the occasional affair but she didn’t want a lover around all the time. She had her own way of living and neither expected nor wanted anyone else to share her home. So, in the predatory night the lamps would burn while she worked and in the day she would sleep in the gentle sunlight.
One night, having hosted a supper party, she invited Danny to stay in the guest room. At about 4am, he wandered into the kitchen to find her busy editing a novel.
‘Is this what you do? You work all night?’
She sighed and put aside the manuscript. ‘Yes, this is what I do.’
‘But when do you sleep?’
‘I sleep in the day time; when morning arrives I’ll have breakfast and go to bed.’
During the next few minutes, she explained, rather reluctantly, about her fear of the dark and how she had reinvented her life to cope with it.
He rubbed his eyes tiredly, ‘Now I understand why you turn down my invitations to stay over and why you don’t have a permanent partner.’
‘That’s not the only reason I don’t have a permanent partner, as you put it. I’m used to being on my own and I don’t want anyone else living here on a long-term basis. Selfish, I know, but I’m being honest!’
He laughed. ‘I’m afraid I have to sleep now. I’ll leave you to your work.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll see you later.’
He shuffled out of the kitchen again, wearing a pair of pyjama trousers which were far too big for him and made him look like Charlie Chaplin. She smiled as she returned to the manuscript and then winced at her client’s grammar and spelling.
Out of courtesy to Danny, she delayed her breakfast; when he eventually arrived downstairs, clean from the shower and dressed but rather dishevelled and dozy, she gave him poached eggs on toast with mushrooms and tomatoes while she nibbled at some toast and sipped tea. For several minutes he didn’t speak as he devoured the food. When he’d finished he sat back and closed his eyes.
‘That was great, thank you. I’m sorry I haven’t spoken much this morning.’
‘That’s okay with me; I’m not one for conversation before I’ve had tea and toast, or even before midday for that matter. Read the papers if you prefer.’
‘I’d rather ask you a question. Now that I know why you’ve turned my invitations down, do you think that you might go out with me? I mean as more than just a friend. I’m happy to work round your schedule.’
‘I’m not sure that you’re being fair in asking me that at this time of day, when I’ve been working for several hours and I’m looking forward to some sleep!’ He looked disappointed, even hurt. Hurriedly she added, ‘I’m joking – it’s sweet of you and I’d be happy to go out with you.’
‘Really? My new exhibition starts at the gallery on Tuesday; there’s a private view but you know about that. Will you come and then have dinner with me?’
‘Why are you giggling?’
‘Your hair is sticking up all over the place – it looks funny.’
‘So much for romance, eh? So much for being the suave suitor.’
They both laughed and then Danny got ready to leave. At the front door he turned and kissed her gently on the cheek before heading home.
Tired, she went to her bedroom and lay down, falling asleep almost instantly. In the middle of the afternoon she was woken by rain falling heavily against the windows. She turned over and looked out to the garden. Slowly she sat up and stretched before going over to the glass doors and opening them to a clean, fresh breeze. She went outside and stood in the rain, looking up to see the sun shining brightly behind the grey clouds. Summer would soon be over.
The clouds scudded across the sky, the rain stopped suddenly and sunbeams played across the garden and the glistening leaves, creating light and shadow, shadow and light.
Gaynor Madoc Leonard 2013
updated by @gaynor-madoc-leonard: 11/24/19 06:16:51PM