‘Devereaux Drive’ is the eleventh piece in our Story: Retold series, published in association with the Rhys Davies Trust. It is inspired by the Siân James story, ‘Hester and Louise.’
It was the night that the grief poured out of him at the side of the road that he first saw a light on in Devereaux Drive.
He’d been running past that house for months, now, in all weather. He’d gone from floundering uphill in a wintry, endless dark, to find himself gliding back down through fresh Spring air. It was the only way he was able to measure the passing of time, the way the patch of sky behind the house changed colour as he ran; black, then navy, then violet, until one night the sky was a jaundiced yellow, and he knew the end was coming.
Summer, they’d said. It’ll be Summer when it happens.
Running away seemed honest. Or, at least it seemed to him more honest than sitting at her hospital bedside. In movement, there was hope; in flight, there was still freedom. He knew that she saw that, too, encouraging him, waving him away with a weak flap of hand. Whenever another tube went in, or another chunk of something needed to be yanked out of her, off he went, taking in another lap of road; up, down, and around, looping around the body of the town as those wires and tubes looped around her, hoping somehow that when the cycle was complete he’d come back to find his wife restored. But he never did, of course. When he returned to her bedside, his lungs contracting like a concertina, the air moving effortlessly, guiltily through his ribs, he’d find her there looking up at him, smaller than before. Smaller and smaller with every lap he took until one day he arrived at the finish line to find no one waiting for him at all.
Number Three Devereaux Drive was a bungalow on a hilltop, which didn’t look like it belonged to the fading, grey town at all. It looked as if it had been uprooted from a soap opera in one of those countries where the sun shone all year long; a red-bricked box of hopefulness, with a gate and steps leading down to a lower tier which had one of those pebble infills, a mass of little rocks gleaming uselessly like rotten teeth. He thought maybe it was the fact that it looked like an unreal house that made him pay attention to it; the thought that perhaps, behind those doors, misery was just an act for an audience, something you could walk away from when the day was done.
Whenever he jogged by, nothing stared back at him from that window but darkness; a long, rectangular abyss beyond the open curtains. As the months went by, its vacant stare worked its way into him, challenging him every time he arrived at the brow of the hill. He knew that it bothered him more than it should; but it became his one distraction – the quest to find life inside a stranger’s home, while all signs of life were withering in his wife’s insides. He took little breaks directly outside the house; as if kneeling in worship before it, his own reflection made blue and metallic by the car in the driveway. He always had this strange feeling of having just missed the inhabitants, and that – jogging past as he did – the same hour, every day – he was becoming too predictable for his own good; he was someone who could easily be avoided, erased from a day’s dealings. He imagined the inhabitants gathering themselves up from the driveway as they saw his luminous figure ascending that hill – get in, quick, he’s coming. He imagined how the car ignition would roar with intent once he’d passed by; its owner reversing down over the driveway and into the street, trailing behind him noiselessly until he was swallowed up once again by the hospital’s automated jaws.
Of course, he knew these things were unlikely. He knew full well that, while the house had come to mean everything to him, he meant nothing to the house. The house didn’t spend all its time worrying about his return. Whereas he and his wife had spent most of the last few years worrying about the return of an ascending little presence, and what would happen when it finally found its way into all the pathways that ran through her.
As his legs got stronger with each hill-climb, so did the memories of stories he remembered from those sunny soaps with their lone bungalow narratives. He couldn’t stop them from coming; all the useless plots that were somehow destined to become lodged in his subconscious forever, replacing far more important memories. He recalled bodies being dug up in gardens, teenagers hospitalised after accidentally drinking cleaning fluids, a baby left in a carpark, a scam that was meant to bring big money but which resulted in a family having to re-mortgage the whole house instead. He recalled how each house had a pool; that their gleaming surfaces were tragedies waiting to happen. He wondered that if his own life was a soap opera, if things would have played out differently. He supposed not. They surely would have made much of the dramatic irony that they both thought his wife was pregnant, that each wave of nausea and sudden twinge brought them unbridled joy; that they fooled themselves into thinking that death could be warded off with a fluffy hot water bottle cosy and a few glasses of ginger ale.
The night he finally lost her, he remembered seeing the sign for Devereaux Drive three times. It meant he’d been running for at least five miles, putting at least eight kilometres between himself and the truth; burning off yet another tiny piece of himself in the process. It was the first time he felt exhaustion settling well and truly into his bones, and he couldn’t bring himself to run any more. Instead, he trudged up the driveway up and looked right into the darkened window of number three Devereaux Drive.
He realised that the pinkish hue he’d taken as a mere reflection of the sunset, an illusion of light, was in fact, coming from the inside. Although the front-facing living room remained in darkness, the interconnecting corridor seemed to be illuminated with some kind of coloured light bulb. He remembered those novelty bulbs from his teenage years – he’d installed one in his bedroom once as a distraction from revision; straining to see his textbooks through its noxious glow.
He peered in again, his eyes adjusting slowly to the redness seeping into the living room. It was as if the house was blushing at being discovered. He started to make out a few shapes, a few contours; twig like shadows splayed upwards in the doorway of the living room. Someone had put a potted plant in a doorway; closing off the room. He heard voices; a sudden laugh cutting through the darkness, echoing somewhere beyond that corridor. The realisation that the house was not a dead, abandoned thing, after all, was almost too much for him. He felt something in his stomach lurch, and he vomited against the windowsill; his regurgitated hospital sandwiches pooling at his feet.
His vomit, suddenly, was a good thing, it was now a link with the house; a part of him imprinted on red brick. That was the logic of arriving at the door, of pressing the doorbell. He had forged his own soapy scenario; he was the stranger at the door. And in soaps, they never turned out to be complete strangers, of course. They were always more than that.
He heard the turning of a key. The door opened to reveal a thin girl in a negligee, a scarlet towel wrapped around her head. Damp, errant curls escaping.
“Oh, um…sorry to bother you…I…vomited,” he said, already hearing how mad he sounded. “Over the wall, outside…I wondered…if you had a bucket…and some bleach…I’ll clean it up for you…”
The girl stared at him, her eyes as vacant as the windows of the house.
“It’s blood that’s hard to get off,” she said. “Not vomit. I wish we could just go back to the vomit, you know?”
She left the door wide open.
“Should I come in?” he asked. His voice was hoarse, breathless, not like his own voice at all.
“Do what you like,” the reply came. “There are some rubber gloves there somewhere.”
He searched around for the gloves, finding them in halted applause on a hat stand behind the door, a hook for each palm. He took them down and put them on.
Then, he simply waited. The girl was nowhere to be seen. He was a stranger in a red house with yellow hands; wondering whether to close the door behind him. He turned, surveying Devereaux Drive from the other direction, from the perspective of the insider, through the open door that had always been closed. He saw that the road was just a dark, uninteresting hump of a hill. That there was no view to speak of from here; only rows and rows of identical, red-bricked houses – with pale, ill-looking people spilling out of them, hanging their washing against a colourless sky. From here you could see other joggers; other roads, little luminous dots all running away from things. And all the while, the white kingdom of the hospital stood staunchly above them all; beaming.
He had expected some reaction to the door closing; for the girl at least to check whether he was out or in. But there was nothing. Only a low murmur coming from that room, one or two voices, one considerably lower, gruffer, which suggested she had male company. His empty stomach suddenly contracted again at the thought of a man in the house, and he grabbed a bottle of bleach from the sideboard; ready to execute his rubber-gloved pardon, his toxic rationale.
But no one came. No one cared about the stranger in the house on Devereaux Drive. Not even the house itself.
The girl who’d let him in was tottering about in the small, darkened living room, in a circle of her own making, her pupils inflated, humming to herself, swaying her body in time to some tune only she could hear. On the sofa, a man and a woman looked on, grunting as though finding something perpetually funny. They tried, but failed, to get up to greet him.
“Is it Danny?” the girl said, twirling toward him. “Has Danny come back?”
He raised his rubber gloves and bleach to denote that he was not Danny.
“My Danny,” the girl said, coming closer, touching his face. “Yes, you’re my Danny.”
He shook his head. Again, she smiled. He wanted to be Danny. Perhaps this was his soap storyline. Long-lost Danny returns, in yellow marigolds.
“Nah, Danny’s gone love,” the other woman said, getting up, laying a gentle hand on her arm, pulling her hand away from his face. The loss of her touch brought with it a shock of pain, like a plaster being ripped off. The two women looked similar. Sisters, perhaps.
“Danny left you, remember?”
The girl shook her head.
“I told you…Danny would never have done that…”
“Well he did,” her sister replied, flatly. “He did.”
The hardened, older sister turned to him, her brown teeth exposed now in the red light.
“That’s why we moved in with her, you know? ‘Cause she didn’t know what to do after he left. Didn’t want a nice little house like this to go to waste. I mean, I don’t mind us all living together, we’re close. Not much between us, you know – our mum was knocked up with her almost the second I came out. And I don’t mind sharing him,” she gestured to the man sitting behind them on the sofa, who by now was ripping a small bag of something open with his teeth. “It’s not as if we do it that often anymore anyway. And he seems to like it more with her.”
The sister sat down again. The girl stared back at him; her lip quivering slightly. The frayed edges of her negligee hovered around her thigh; he saw that it had, at some point, been tugged at, ripped.
“You’re my Danny,” she said again, with such conviction that he thought maybe he could be. She walked off into another room, leaving him there, shining on into the darkness in his lycra. The other two had their heads bowed, fiddling with something. He heard the wrench of the strap, a gushing; an exhalation of release. He backed out. There was nothing for him here but fug and hopelessness. The interior of Devereaux Drive was a world removed from the clean red brick and the pebble infill; the clean blue slice of sky and his soap opera fantasy.
“Tell me about your Danny,” he said, following her into the bedroom. “I want to know.”
She sat up. He could see that she had been pretty once. Somewhere around those eyes was the promise of youth, all crinkled up like crêpe paper. She smiled at him hopelessly, as if she realised, in that instant, that he wasn’t Danny after all.
“He was clean,” she said, smiling. “You know?”
He said he did know, though he didn’t.
“Always nicely dressed. Shiny, clean shoes. And cause he was clean, I wanted to be clean, you know? It’s always the clean ones that go off and leave you. And if you think of it, I could have been clean. Gotten myself a little baby or something. But he left. He left and I don’t know why. I thought he was going to help me get away from them.”
As she lay back on the bed he caught a waft of something in her ponytail. It was the same lavender that had fragranced his early days with his wife, and it enabled him to recall the early gloss of her, the clean swirl of her chignon. He considered it a particular insult to the dying that they suddenly lost their ability to shine, to be clean, through no fault of their own. That bits fell off them, needed to be dealt with, that they needed to be turned in their beds, washed. That they could not control what their bodies did, and that no amount of aromatic promise from a bottle could hide awfulness. And when he saw those clumps of hair in the shower, that’s when he realised that there was simply nothing left for her cleanliness to cling to; no place for purity to take root.
“I pretend that he’s Danny,” the girl said, as he stroked the top of her head. “It’s why I bought the lightbulbs. So that I can never really see him properly when we do it. That way he can be my Danny when I need him to be.”
He turned towards her. He saw that it worked. That in a trick of strange, reddish light a stranger on a bed could be anyone you wanted them to be. That this girl, in front of him, forcing out a laugh – could easily be the girl he had married. He closed his eyes. He inhaled the lavender hope in her hair.
She laughed nervously, reaching a small frail hand up to his chin, rubbing at his stubble. He realised he still had the yellow gloves on, yet they felt necessary now; a reminder that he was reaching across to some contaminated place as he let her sit up and put her arms around him. He pulled her close. Felt her heartbeat, erratic and strange, underneath that frayed negligee.
“Tell me who you want me to be,” she said.
She tugged at him and pulled him onto the bed. He heard the squeak of rubber as his fingers touched the nape of her neck. He thought of how, in the end it was the only way he was allowed to touch his wife; though those awful transparent gloves, like this, just in case.
“Kiss me, Danny,” she was saying. “Oh Danny.”
He looked down and it was her. Just as he remembered her. Before the gloves. Before the loss of lavender. Smiling up at him.
He wasn’t sure when exactly things started to change in that room; when the perfect quietude of two conjoined bodies was replaced by shouting, or when someone peeled him away from his past. He knew it took two of them; and that, staggering around as they were, he was propping them up even as they were trying to pull him down.
As he was dragged back down the corridor he suddenly caught a waft of something awful coming from the living room; something hiding behind that potted plant, which was, he saw now, a small lavender tree, potent but withering away, a gathering of tiny purple bodies hanging lifelessly in the shadows. Their bowed heads directed him to the scene behind them; where the living room door had been ripped off its hinges, and hurled onto the floor, where it seemed now to be covering something. Two feet stuck out underneath. Two rotting feet in new, clean, shiny brogues.
It wasn’t until he was outside that he realised he was crying. Not just crying, but emitting wild animal noises; the likes of which read about in a pregnancy manual; the kind of noises perhaps his wife would have made towards the end if the growth had turned out to be something wonderful, something living.
“Where’s Danny?” she heard the girl screaming, somewhere behind him. “Where is he?”
It was still light outside. The whole encounter had lasted no more than a few minutes, yet it had felt like an eternity in that dark space, trying to grapple with the last remnants of life through his rubber gloves. He was relieved to be outside again, out in the bright, open surroundings, where he knew what was what. Knowing full well where his luminous, dot-like body needed to be jogging to next, and what he needed to do for poor, clean Danny before he returned to the hospital.
He slid off his rubber gloves and left them in the pebble infill, two yellow palms in quiet absolution, before turning his back on Devereaux Drive.
See Wales Arts Review tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Fflur Dafydd. You can follow Fflur on twitter @FflurDafydd
Special thanks to the Library of Wales / Parthian Books for providing our authors with complimentary copies of Dai Smith’s Story I anthology.