This week we’re really excited to bring you a short story by Murder Room author Margaret Murphy. ‘Low Visibility’ is a taut depiction of the lengths to which the human spirit can be driven by fear and oppression, as well as being an object lesson in the art of short-story writing.
John is watching TV, one hand on the remote control, the other on her thigh. She keeps very still.
The news is on – always a serious business, but tonight it is momentous. A car burns in the centre of the road. Thirty or forty people have gathered, most are armed, some wear masks; on the other side, the police form a nervous line behind plastic shields. The mob hold on to their stones, their bottles and half-bricks, content, for the moment, to hurl abuse.
‘Scum,’ John says.
A flash of something white and orange shoots high into the night, over the burning car, spiralling as it falls, a looping script of flame and smoke. The bottle smashes at the feet of the police cordon and fire leaps, a splash of heat, a puddle of flame, curling around the edges of the shields, prying at the chinks in their defences. They shuffle back a few steps and the crowd roars in triumph.
‘What are they protesting about?’ John demands. ‘Their own shitty lives?’
She wishes she could protest, but has forgotten how. Every muscle in her body trembles with the effort of keeping still.
John digs his fingers into her thigh and she bites her lip, but doesn’t move, and after a few seconds the pressure decreases, leaving only a dull throb.
She wasn’t always like this. Once, she was a girl who could set a room to laughter. He wanted her for her spirit and energy, her exuberance. He thought that her good humour would seep into him, breaching the walls of his defences, that happiness was something that could be absorbed, as a plant takes in water, by osmosis. But he hadn’t the intelligence for wit or the disposition for contentment, so he held her too tight, his hostage and his shield, squeezing the joy out of her until there was none left.
She barely noticed the change, but gradually she stopped feeling the sting of outrage, the injustice of his unkind words, his indiscriminate criticisms. By slow degrees she began to expect them, like the dripping tap he never fixed, constant, insistent, the white noise of their marriage.
The slaps and shoves that at first shocked her, became something to be expected; they reshaped her, moulding her into something less distinct, more insubstantial.
He has always been good with his hands.
‘Vermin,’ he says, and she feels the pressure of his fingers, testing for a tender spot, finding the bone. She winces in anticipation of the pain and he feels the movement, notices her. Turns his head and she feels his gaze on her.
‘Did you say something?’
She shakes her head – just enough so he knows she didn’t mean to interrupt, not so much he might think her adamant in her denial. But she can’t stop her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest.
‘Nothing to contribute?’ Her heart flutters. ‘No sharp insights into the situation?’
She is wordless, stripped of language, of the liberty of expression. She doesn’t know the right thing to say, because he changes the rules each time. So she says nothing. It’s safer – less painful.
He’s distracted from her by the flicker of light from the TV. For John, the cohesion of dots on the screen has substance where she has none. Another arc of flame rises over the heads of the mob, over the burning car. It smashes on the ground and sends a second wave of liquid fire out to the police defences. They retreat another few steps and she feels a kind of wonder. Had these people simply tired of staying still? Perhaps they felt ache of inertia in their bones and had to act.
She wonders how it would feel to shout, to throw things, to see John scuttle back.
It is warm – barbecue weather. Perhaps it is the heat, or perhaps the rage of the mob satiates him, for John settles back on the sofa and for a time, forgets she is there. His hand does not forget, though: as violence leaps like sparks from a forest fire, setting up plumes of smoke across the city, he hurts her. Twists and kneads, probing, bruising her flesh. Better this, she thinks, than his fist or his elbow. Better that he hurts her absent-mindedly, as a man might puncture and tear at the rim of a polystyrene cup. It comforts her that there is no malice in it. She has learned to find solace in small things.
The television cameras switch to Upper Parliament Street. A wide stretch of road, a barrier built from a van, a burnt-out milk float, a VW Beetle, the silvery sheen of its metallic finish peeled off like plastic in the heat. The reporter sounds afraid. A baker’s delivery van turns into the road, brakes hard and starts to reverse, fishtailing wildly back the way it came. But it hits a pothole and loses control, smashes into the wall of a derelict building. The mob is on him. They drag the driver from the van and beat him. His van is overturned and set alight as the fire brigade sirens wail inconsolably beyond the police line.
‘Animals,’ John mutters, feasting on her pain.
Lodge Lane: a steady flow of people wheeling shopping trolleys, or toting bulging carrier bags, their knees sagging with the weight. It’s fully dark – the wires of smashed street lamps hang like the intestines of eviscerated corpses. The TV crew interviews a woman. She is a quarter of a mile from the nearest supermarket, and her supermarket trolley is brimming with food. ‘I was pushing this thing round Kwik Save, looking for the bargains.’ She laughs, giddy with adrenaline. ‘What am I like?’
The journalist is young – breathless with terror – but ambition gives him courage. ‘They’re looting the shops?’ he says, with a sly glance to the camera. Does it get better than this on local TV news?
‘The door was open,’ she says tartly, not liking the tag of ‘looter’. ‘And there wasn’t no one on the tills.’
‘No-marks,’ John says. ‘Selfish bastards.’ John, who takes what he wants, never thinking to ask. Never thinking of her at all.
Warm air stirs the curtain, bringing the reek of burning fuel and soot. Is the whole city ablaze? The roar of the mob on TV, the howl of sirens, the excited babble of the journalists cover an insistent bass note, a murmur of voices. For now, they’re in her head, but they are coming: she can feel the crackle of tension like an electrical charge in the air.
A glass smashes and she jumps.
He misunderstands its proximity, having grown used to viewing the world through the letterbox of his TV set. He slaps her with the back of his hand, his knuckles bruising her cheekbone.
‘Sit still, you twitchy cow,’ he says. When he replaces his hand, he moves it higher up her thigh. This is his foreplay, his substitute for romance.
She tastes blood, but dares not reach up to wipe her mouth. At such moments, she allows herself to float away, imagines she is a million particles of matter that can simply disperse: it makes what will inevitably follow endurable. This is not without risk – it takes time for the particles to find their way back to her, an effort of will to bind the essence of herself together again. She has lost some of the constituent matter over the years; the light is dimmer, the colours a little faded.
Shouts drift up from the street and he points the remote control at the TV, lowering the volume. Three solid thuds rattle chunks of plaster from the ceiling, then a cheer, and the sound of footsteps on bare boards.
They’re in the shop below. He paces to the window and pulls up the sash. ‘Get out of there, you robbing bastards!’
They aren’t listening. She hears them crashing about, rummaging through the cheap crockery and plastic bric-a-brac. He crosses the room and flings the door open.
She stands, afraid of what he might do.
‘Don’t.’ The sound of her voice startles her. She hasn’t spoken a word of command in four years.
John stares in her direction, as if trying to locate the source of the sound, but he sees no more than a shimmer of something against the orange glow beyond the curtains. She has become invisible.
He turns and she hears the thud of his boots, feels the joists tremble under him. People say he’s light on his feet for a big man, but he was never so with her. When he walked all over her, she felt it.
Her hand goes to her jeans pocket, and she takes out a tiger eye stone, a gift from a friend. ‘For courage,’ her friend said. It didn’t cost much – John’s wife is not to be trusted with anything of value. ‘The tiger eye creates harmony out of chaos,’ her friend told her. ‘Heals bruises, alleviates pain.’ She could have hired herself out as an experimental subject on the healing properties of gemstones.
Family, friends, religion, hope, have all rushed past her, like corks lost in the torrent of his rage. She clings to this last plank of her previous existence in the blind faith that it will keep her from going under for good.
She hears shouts from below. His voice raised in anger. She trembles, staring into the tiger eye for strength. Sometimes when she gazes into its depths she sees only gathering darkness, but on rare, magical moments she sees a flash of light spark from the amber stripe at its centre and feels a stirring of something within her – spirit, perhaps, or hope.
She hears his voice in the street and creeps to the window. He is fighting. When he falls, at first she is afraid. She should have gone with him. Should have persuaded him to stay. Should somehow have stopped all of this happening. She will be blamed. She backs into the shadows, hears a rumble of noise as the looters run out of the shop, whooping. She smells burning candle wax and something more acrid. Wisps of smoke slide up the staircase, into the room. She feels heat through the soles of her feet. The shop is ablaze.
She slips her shoes on and runs, the tiger eye tight in her palm.
Seconds later she is in the street amid the thick blue stench of petrol fumes, charred wood and burning plastic. All down the wide stretch of road, fires rage, and a smutfall of sooty flakes spins down. A block away, they have set fire to the bakery, and incongruously, the chemical smells are overlaid with the reek of burnt toast.
John lies on his back. His head is bleeding. She looks right and left – but invisibility is not cast off lightly. Two men lug a fridge from the electrical shop and vanish down a side street; others emerge. Radios, an iron, a portable TV, are all carried off. The toy shop has a festival atmosphere: Christmas has come early, and Santa is in generous mood. An existence of want has exploded into wanting. They carry their stolen trinkets like trophies.
She alone is silent amid the noise, still in the confusion of screams, the shriek of burning houses, the keening of the sirens. A wind rushes in from the Mersey, drawn by the heat. They have unleashed a firestorm that will change the landscape of their lives for ever.
John stirs and moans and she feels a stab of fear. He opens his eyes. And her heart stops. He sees her.
‘Give us your hand.’ He has spoken.
She looks down at him and it occurs to her that she might not.
He raises himself to his elbows and a ripple of alarm tingles from the top of her head to her fingertips. ‘What are you waiting for?’
She looks at his hand extended towards her, demanding help; the fingers are bloody. She doesn’t want blood on her hands.
A man approaches pushing a stolen TV in a supermarket trolley. One wheel is wonky, it balks and judders, and he has to keep redirecting its course, but he does the work with jaunty good will.
John begs for help, but the man seems not to hear. ‘Save a mint on the rental,’ he says as he passes, dropping her a friendly wink.
She marvels that he sees her – sees her and not John. John has never been invisible. Even when he slouched at the edge of their group, out of place, longing to be part of it, but resenting the effort of fitting in, he was noticed. Big John. She wanted to help him, to give him a chance to feel like he belonged, but he hadn’t the knack, and he blamed her for it. Blamed her for his unhappiness, his dissatisfaction, until she broke under the weight of his misery. And as she shrank into silence, faded into invisibility, he seemed to grow bigger, louder, until he was a constant presence, even when he wasn’t around. She might be showering or combing her hair, cleaning or shopping; he would be looking over her shoulder, finding fault, whispering a solemn malediction of her transgressions. Until finally, even when she looked in the mirror at her own ghostly reflection, he was omnipresent, his fury like a black, pestilent swarm at her back.
But just as sunlight conveys solidity on invisible motes of dust, so the fire and fury of this night have reconstituted her. While he is eclipsed, she has taken form – she feels herself returning – the particles of herself that her husband caused to flee are returning into her.
‘Aren’t you afraid they’ll catch you?’ she calls after the jaunty man.
He glances over his shoulder, into the darkness made thick by the burning. ‘Not me, girl. I’ve been invisible all me life.’ He makes a sharp right at the school and is gone, and they are alone again.
‘Don’t you disobey me.’
The hairs rise on the back of her neck, but it is only from habit, a Pavlovian response. She hears a quaver of fear in the command, astonished to discover that it’s been there all along. He tries to get up, but he is weak.
Around her, bricks and rubble. She bends to pick up a brick, and he shrinks from her. She could finish it. Make her protest and vanish. Rejoin the invisible.
She balances the brick in one hand and the tiger eye in the other. The husband licks his lips. His eyes widen, and she recognises the expression of terror.
‘Harmony out of chaos,’ she says, choosing the tiger eye, letting the other go.
She turns and walks away, feeling light, unburdened.
A window explodes behind her, sending cascades of glass, musical, deadly, to the pavement. Laura walks on, unharmed.
Copyright © Margaret Murphy, June 2007. This version, Feb 2013
All six titles by Margaret Murphy are available in ebook from The Murder Room.