The flat was art deco, with arched windows, moulded ceilings and original carpet with maroon and indigo swirls. Glass panels in the doors were lead-lighted maritime scenes, casting refracted patterns of coloured light. It was on the top floor of the apartment block, the exterior curved like the bow of an ocean liner. The stone building was painted charcoal in a misguided effort to force it into the twenty-first century. Bauhaus lettering extruded over the entrance portico in bright blue—Mauritania.
Adrian was delighted—an art deco aficionado since boyhood, he had stumbled across the place. The estate agent boasted it was the last unrenovated art deco apartment in the area.
He lugged his new mop and bucket up the stairwell, pausing to catch his breath on the landing. A door creaked open and a stooped woman with silver hair peeked out wearing a dressing gown.
‘Welcome to the building,’ she croaked. ‘I’m Imelda. Haven’t had a tenant up there for a while. Would you like to pop in for a sherry?’
‘Ah, no thanks. Kind of you to ask. I’m Adrian.’ He put down the bucket and stretched out his hand.
Imelda drew her dressing gown around her middle and stared at his fingers, cocking her head.
‘Don’t mind the noises,’ she muttered and shut the door. It shuddered in its frame.
Adrian frowned and hefted the bucket and mop to the top floor. The faint odour of mould and aged dust tickled his nose and he rubbed it with the back of his hand.
He polished the leadlight, painted over scuffs on the walls, vacuumed the threadbare carpet, and cleaned the five rooms until they felt almost new. He inhaled the lemon scent of the cleaning fluids. Yet still, there was the feeling. Adrian had experienced the feeling since he was a child, when visiting old homes. A sense of other energies, other times, the dramas of people long gone.
On the second day the furniture arrived. Modernist grey sofas, a Le Corbusier chaise longue, Turkish rugs and a shagreen secretaire stood at odd angles in the lounge room. He shifted them into place, sat at the kitchen table and cradled a herbal tea. Above him a thick steel chain hung from the ceiling, a glass light fitting at the bottom. He started. It was the first non-original feature he’d noticed in the place, most likely post-war and a garish acid yellow with a gold rim. The sturdiness of the chain was incongruous with the small fitting, attached like an afterthought. Adrian sipped his tea and mulled over his next steps. Send the box back to Lucas, he thought, wondering where he’d put the gaffer tape. He was sure his ex had left the items to ensure further contact—the well-thumbed editions of Sartre, the shirts smelling of his cologne, the albums of their travels. They had been chosen with care, to tug at his emotions. I won’t see him. Adrian did not mind how much it cost, the box would be sent with a courier.
That night he lay on his back. Waves of unwanted energy coursed through him. The bed had a dip in the middle and he rolled into it, punching the pillow. Traffic droned outside and a streetlight illuminated the edges of the roller blind.
A metallic creak, then a thud as something hit the ground. The high-pitched squeak was followed by a lower tone, the two sounds alternated in a rapid beat. He sat up and listened. The sounds slowed but persisted. Lifting the covers he pushed himself to his feet and padded out towards the disturbance. His heart galloped as he approached the kitchen door, lit by a red glow. He considered turning around but edged forward. The light swung in a lethargic circle, a perfect arc. Its sluggish creak was dissonant with his staccato heartbeat. Adrian’s hand flew to his mouth—his kitchen table was on its side.
Stepping back he turned, ran to his bedroom and slammed the door. He leaned his back against it and panted, clammy and breathless.
Climbing into bed he watched the digital numerals of the bedside clock, his body rigid under the sheets.
A car alarm woke him at dawn. He groaned, turned on his side and buried his head in the feather pillow.
In the kitchen he opened every cupboard, scanned the shelves for electrical devices and craned his neck at the light fitting, now lifeless. A film of dust coated the glass.
He found the gaffer tape in one of the boxes near the door and taped up Lucas’s box, writing his name in black marker on the side. Picking up the phone he dialled the number of the courier and arranged for collection the following week.
At the edge of his consciousness he heard whispering, the hushed voices of a man and a woman. He struck his forehead with the heel of his palm, flicked the levers on the window and opened it wide. The air hit his face and he breathed it in, laced with petrol fumes and spices from the Indian restaurant across the road.
Late in the afternoon he sat at the secretaire, running his fingers over the grained surface. Lucas had said it was a curiosity, not for practical use. Everything can be used, he had replied. He wrote several paragraphs of an article, closed his laptop and glanced out at the sunset, streaking the sky with mauve and coral above the building block cutout of the city.
Once again he lay in bed, on a diagonal, the sheet pulled up to his chest. To his surprise he craved Lucas, the broadness and solidity of his chest, his lips open against his. Even his biting sarcasm.
It was then he saw her, a full-figured brunette, her hair set in waves with heavy-lidded eyes. She wore a burgundy chemise and seemed unaware of him as she sat on the corner of the bed.
Adrian held his breath and clutched the sheet.
‘Where is he?’ she asked, wringing her hands.
As she raised her hands to her face he noticed her arm was transparent in the muted light. She sobbed, her chest shook as she curled into herself.
Her face was in her palms as she faded, the space where she sat absorbed her form.
The light fitting creaked that night and the next. Adrian was a husk of sleeplessness. He touched the walls as he moved around the apartment and ignored the ring of the doorbell.
‘Mr Golinsky? Are you there?’ It was Imelda.
He opened the door a crack. ‘What do you know?’ he rasped. ‘About the people who lived here?’
‘Will you let me in? I’ve brought some sherry.’
Adrian nodded and waved her inside. He arranged the tie of his dressing gown in a bow. In the kitchen he found some small etched glasses and passed them to her in silence.
Imelda’s face was a map of interconnected lines. He stared at them and waited for them to tell him a story. There was suffering—her large black eyes spoke of betrayal and loss. She was a little too eager with the sherry, hustling over to the nearest table and sloshing it into the glasses.
‘Are you settling in all right?’
He drained his glass and ran his fingers through his cropped pale hair. ‘No, not really. You were right about the noises. They’re from the light fitting in the kitchen. There is a woman here, who was she?’
‘Elaine Hartford. I knew her.’
Adrian let out a huff of breath. ‘And? What happened to her?
‘She died.’ Imelda tipped back her head as she finished her drink. ‘American serviceman took her out for a while, seduced her. All I could hear was laughter and the rise and fall of voices. Then there was a horrible silence. I came up here and she had this discordant look on her face. As if she wasn’t here anymore. Broken. I tried to convince her to see the doctor. She refused. Anyway, thanks for the chat, I’ll be off now. I nap in the afternoons.’
Adrian grasped her forearm. ‘But you haven’t told me what happened to her?’
Imelda shook off his hand. ‘I need to go.’
Adrian sat near the arched window, the warmth of the sherry blossoming in his chest. The look Imelda had described was as he had observed on the woman’s face. As if there was nothing inside but ruin.
He could not finish the article. As he cooked pasta in the kitchen the whispered voices swirled around him. He dropped the wooden spoon and clamped his hands over his ears.
‘Stop! Stop that.’
There was no question of sleep. He stared at the corner of the bed, expecting her arrival. She did not come. Instead, the creaking pierced the silence, increasing in volume, the two-tone sound whirring and pulsing.
Adrian swung his feet over the edge of the bed, the chilled air making the hairs on his chest stand up. He steeled himself, stood and walked to the kitchen. Pools of moonlight spliced the wood floor.
The red glow bled through the doorway. He pressed forward, his heart hammering. Vertigo made him grip the doorframe. The woman hung from the chain, her head dipped forward and tongue lolling. He stared at her face—grey-green tinged with red. Her legs were splayed, her palms facing outwards in acceptance of her fate. The rope was tied in perfect loops. On the floor, the multi-coloured remains of the glass fitting were spread like a macabre jigsaw puzzle. A mahogany table lay haphazard on its side.
The buzzer addled his head, the box heavy in his arms. Cars roared behind him and his mouth was dry as he pressed the button.
‘Lucas, it’s me, Adrian. I have your things.’
Adrian stood pale, his eyes darted left and right. Lucas burst from the lift and eased the box from his hands to the ground. He folded him into his arms.
‘I knew you’d come.’