The Twilight Hour

By: Nicci Gerrard


Eleanor woke to what was not there. Outside, the wind still roared, dashing pellets of rain against the windows; inside it was too silent, not a breath or a heartbeat save hers. The darkness felt uninhabited. Before she reached out her hand, groping past the water jug and the vase of dying flowers to touch the bed and find it empty, the blanket thrown back and the pillow dislodged, she knew she was alone. She let fear seep through her, into every space in her body. She could taste the muddy, metal ache of it in her mouth; feel it in the palms of her hands and the base of her spine and in her throat like a rippling, oily snake; she could smell it on her skin, sour as spoilt milk.

She was awkwardly curled up in a chair and her left foot was numb, her cheek creased from where it had rested against the wood. When she moved, her skirt rustled and she remembered that she had not undressed the night before, only loosened her hair and kicked off her shoes. Too tired and full of confusion, she had sat down in this chair in the darkness and let sleep end the dreadful day.

For a few seconds, she stayed quite still, listening to the erratic thump of her heart, waiting to know what she should do, and then she pushed herself out of the chair with a violence that made her stumble. Her cramped foot caught against a mug and tipped it and she felt her ankle give; she heard herself let out a whimper of pain. She could barely remember the shape of the room and held her hands out blindly to find her way to the door, knocking against the end of the bed, the corner of the chest of drawers, feeling around for the door knob, the banisters that would lead her down the narrow, creaking stairs. Pitch darkness everywhere, however much she strained her eyes to catch a chink of light through the blackout curtains, until she stumbled into the kitchen and saw the dull glow of the dying embers in the hearth.

There was a pair of boots by the settle, and she fumbled her feet into them and opened the front door. The wind met her full on, slapping her wetly in the face, whipping her hair around her cheeks, taking her breath away. Even from the shelter of the porch, the sound of hundreds of thousands of leaves in rippling motion was extraordinary, like a sea in a storm or a train bearing down on her. No one should be out on such a night as this, not a stray dog or a flung bird. She didn’t give herself time to consider, but stepped out into the streaming wildness and clumsily started to run. The boots were much too big for her; she could feel their thick rubber chafing her shins. The wind gusted against her as if trying to force her back. Lifted twigs scraped her skin and out on the lane a branch bounced past her, then a dustbin lid in a hurtling clatter. She was soon soaked to the skin, her shirt clinging to her ribs and her damp skirt tangling in her legs. She tried to call out, but the wind snatched the name from her mouth before it made a sound and gulped it up.

The houses on either side of her were unlit, huddled shapes. She ran on. There was a pain in her side, and her ankle where she had turned it sent pinches of pain up her leg; her toes slammed against the end of the boots. She had painted her toenails red two nights before, while he watched her. Burning eyes. She could feel the bruise he had left on her arm; the love bite she had wrapped a scarf around to conceal throbbed on her neck. He had pressed his fingers into her flesh and ground his mouth against hers until she tasted blood, and he had said that she could never leave him. Not now. They had gone too far.

She sensed rather than saw the path and turned off the road. Overhanging branches clawed at her hair; there were brambles in the hedgerow that tore at her wet clothes. The wind thundered. There was a smell of ploughed earth and wet bracken. Then she was out on to the open meadow and running down the slope. The sound of the rushing waters met the sound of the leaves and the rupturing sky. At last she came to a halt and stared wildly around, making out the massed shapes of trees, the brown surge of foam. A blind certainty had impelled her here, and now what?

Even as she stood there, at a loss, the rain stopped and the moon flew clear out from the clouds for an instant – and in that instant she saw, she thought she saw, a face. A white face in the dark waters, like a petal, like a broken reflection of the light. Then the moon was swallowed back into the clouds and the face, or the phantom, was gone and all that remained was the roiling blackness.

Eleanor kicked off the boots and then pulled off her skirt, feeling it rip. Even now, at this moment of extremity, she recollected how he had unhooked it, very slowly, crouching at her feet, his hand between her legs, his eyes fixed on her, looking into her. Memories have their own pace; they exist in their own world where the rules of time do not operate. For as she ran downstream and then – arms spread wide and hair streaming out behind her in a banner – as she jumped high and wide towards the water, she found herself remembering the first time she had laid eyes on him and it was as if she was seeing him again with that stab of terrible desire. And she found herself thinking, almost with rueful amusement, that this was really a very stupid thing to do. She wondered if she was about to die, but felt no fear, only a sense that she had not had the life she had planned. What would people think? What would they say? Shaking their heads: poor them. Who would have thought, who would have guessed, how did it all come to this?

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