George Dunbury walks through his garden towards his workshop. It is is a large workshop, well-equipped. This is where George makes all manner of things from wood. This has always been his hobby, his passion; George is extremely good at it, and the things he designs and produces sell very well.
He keeps the workshop locked, for all of his precious possessions are here. He takes the key from his pocket. The key is attached to a short chain which is also attached to his belt. He turns the key in the lock and opens the door, reaches to the light-switch beside the door and presses the switch: the workshop is flooded with light from an array of strip-lights suspended over the bench in the centre of the workshop.
At the northern end of the workshop there is a small room, and he enters it immediately. There is a window at one end of the room. George calls this his clean room, and in it he has a desk, a draughting table, a sink and a narrow bench which he calls his kitchen. Beneath part of the bench is a small refrigerator. On the bench is a camping stove with two burners, fuelled by a cylinder of gas which stands outside the workshop.
George fills the kettle which sits on the stove, and lights the gas with a piezo device which looks like a pistol. While the kettle boils he takes a mug from the draining board and sets it beside the tea-pot. He opens the refrigerator and takes a cardboard container of light milk, adding a dash of this to the mug. There is a bowl on the draining board, too, and he takes this and reaches for a packet of cereal from the cupboard under the bench. He pours a liberal amount of cereal into the bowl, adds a tea-spoonful of sugar from a screw-top bottle which he keeps on a shelf over the bench, and pours milk slowly over the cereal—Sultana Bran this morning—taking care not to splash the milk.
By then the kettle has boiled, and he warms the pot with a little boiling water. He swirls the pot a time or two, then empties it into the sink. He carefully measures two large spoonsful of tea from a second screw-top bottle—Lanchoo, their favourite—and fills the pot with boiling water. He stirs it, then puts the lid on the pot.
George puts the mug, the bowl and the tea-pot on a small wooden tray of his own design, and leaves his clean room. He puts the tray on the bench beside the drill press and moves to the main work bench, stooping to pull a small lever which locks the bench in place. He leans against the bench which glides smoothly to one side, revealing a staircase. He descends, flicking a switch on the wall as he does so.
At the bottom of the stairs is a door, and he uses the same key to unlock it. He can hear voices, as usual. He enters a brightly-lit room and carefully locks the door behind him. Immediately before him is a wall of bars, and beyond that a pleasant bed-sitting room. He checks carefully that all is well before using the same key to open a small barred door in the centre of the wall of bars. It clangs unpleasantly as it swings back on its hinges.
Good morning, he says quietly.
Morning George, his wife booms cheerfully. She is sitting in a wing-backed chair, heavily brocaded. Her feet are raised on a matching foot stool. How did you sleep? she asks. A large television set is playing in front of her, several people talking in some sort of studio. The sound is turned up rather loud.
George smiles and nods. Not badly, he says.
He puts the tray on a side table beside the chair, then looks around the room. Everything seems to be in order. Apart from the bars at the other end of the room, it could be any bed-sitting room in the country: warm, well-lit, comfortably furnished and thickly carpeted from wall to wall. There is no window, of course, but fixed to the longest wall is a large canvas, painted to resemble the frame of a window looking out onto a sunny garden filled with flowers and bushes. There are birds in the sky, and rolling countryside is depicted beyond the garden. So cleverly is this painted that it deceives completely. One would believe absolutely that one was looking from a window.
In front of the canvas is a low table, and covering the surface
of the table is the collected paraphernalia of a well-equipped artist. There is the faint odour of turpentine, but George has become used to that.
What’s the weather like today, he asks.
His wife looks towards the painting on the wall, craning her neck as though getting a better view of the sky. Looks like rain. Huge black clouds building over the hills. Wouldn’t surprise me if we got a bit of lightning this afternoon.
George looks at the sundrenched picture expressionlessly. Got everything you need for that? he asks.
His wife looks over to the table where the paints are, and seems to be carrying out an audit of her materials. Mmm, she mutters. A bit low on the turps. And maybe some Thalo blue. You know, the Grumbacher?
We’ve got loads of turps in the drum upstairs. I’ll fill your bottle in a minute. Are you okay for the blue until this afternoon?
Oh yes, this afternoon’ll be fine. She pours tea into her mug, and starts on her cereal.
Anything else I can get?
Just the turps, Love, she tells him.
George takes the turpentine bottle from the painting table, turns and walks to the barred wall. He unlocks the door, leaves the room and locks the door behind him, then unlocks the wooden door beyond, walks through and locks it behind him. He is sick and tired of all these locks. He climbs the steps to his workshop. He leaves the staircase open and goes to the shelves that line the southern wall, where a small drum of turpentine lies on its side, wedged in place, the tap conveniently placed. He fills Madelaine’s bottle to just below the top, and screws the top on tightly. He checks that he has securely closed the tap on the drum, then returns to the staircase and goes through the whole unlocking and locking process once more.
His wife smiles her thanks for the turpentine as he places it once more on the table. Have a nice day, she tells him, and he bends and kisses her cheek.
When he reaches the top of the stairs he pushes his main bench back into place, and goes to his clean room and shuts the door behind him. He uses a small caffettiera to make himself a strong mug of coffee, then settles himself in his chair, the big, high-backed chair at his desk, and opens the morning paper. He starts to read
the letters to the editor, his favourite part of the paper, but finds his attention drifting away. He puts down the paper and looks through the window at his garden, little more than a badly-mown lawn with a few dead things still standing and brown in the borders on the two long sides. How did it come to this? he asks himself, not for the first time. He has no answer. He sips his coffee.
By eleven o’clock George is in a much better frame of mind. He has thrown up the two big roller doors to his workshop, and the sunlight is streaming in. He is working on a set of dining-room chairs, a set of ten. These have been commissioned by a Mister R. Soomon, of Paddington. He has never met Mister Soomon, but received the commission by telephone, together with a large deposit.
The design has been approved, and he is working on the seats. He has roughed them out, all ten of them, on the bandsaw, and he is shaping the tops of the seats with chisels. At one end of the workbench is the pile of nine seat blanks, and the one he is working on is held firmly by a series of dogs inserted in the surface of the bench, the required tension being provided by the large vice. The overhead strip lights are augmented by an Anglepoise lamp. From a shelf on the wall above the drill press the sound of Radio National occupies a quarter of his attention. He is finding the discussion on the values of Tasmanian swamps absorbing, particularly because much of the finest timbers he uses are sourced from those very areas.
He handles the chisel, a wide, shallow gouge, and the woodcarver’s mallet, with an ease born of a lifetime of familiarity. There are very few hand tools available with which George is not equally familiar. The excess timber is removed smoothly and evenly, leaving the shallow indentations in the seat that make all of his chairs remarkably comfortable. He will use a curved scraper to smooth the finished seat, and a light application of sandpaper will leave the surface as soft as silk. He hums to himself as he works.
There is a large clock on the wall, and he keeps an eye on the time. At twelve fifteen he places the chisel and mallet on the bench, reaches behind him to undo his apron and hangs it on the hook behind the workshop door. He looks out at the sky, and notes that there is not a single cloud in view. He leaves the workshop roller doors open and walks through the garden to the house, removing his shoes at the back door before entering. The house is mostly silent and dark.
The kitchen is flooded with sunlight, though, and he opens the large refrigerator and looks inside. What would she like for lunch? he wonders. There is a tin of tongue in the cupboard, her favourite; he takes bread, butter and a selection of salad materials—lettuce, tomato and cucumber—to the bench beside the sink. He butters four slices of bread and returns the loaf to the fridge. From the cupboard he takes the tin of tongue and uses the clumsy key to open the tin. He slices the tongue quite thickly, and adds mustard before laying a layer of lettuce leaves followed by thinly sliced tomato and cucumber. He cuts the two sandwiches diagonally and places each sandwich on a small plate, covering them with Cling Wrap.
He sets them aside as he clears the bench, returning everything to the refrigerator. He puts the two plates on a large tray, fills two glasses with a strong mixture of lime cordial and places them, too, on the tray. He checks that all is clean and tidy in the kitchen, then takes the tray back through the garden to the workshop. In his clean room he leaves one plate and one glass of cordial, replacing them on the tray with the neatly folded newspaper. Then he slides aside his workbench and descends the stairs. As he does so he notes with satisfaction that the time is exactly twelve thirty.
Unlock, lock, unlock, lock.
Madelaine turns and sees him. Oh, she says, is it that time already? She has her apron on and is standing with her palette and her brushes on a small set of steps, applying a little white to the upper edges of a thunderous sky, the clouds boiling in fury. She descends from her steps, places the palette on the painting table and carefully wipes her brushes on a piece of turpentine-wetted towelling that she keeps for that purpose. She wraps them in the damp towelling, confident that the remaining paint will not harden while she eats her lunch. She removes her apron and excuses herself as she enters the tiny shower room George has built into one corner of her prison. She is only washing her hands, and emerges after a minute or two.
George has placed the tray on the side table beside her chair, and when she emerges he is peering at the painting. You have been busy, he says. I see you’ve built a pond over by the fence.
Yes, isn’t it sweet? she replies. I love the sound of the waterfall. Look, there’s a small pump under the apple tree, and it pumps the water from the bottom pond to the top one. It’s a bit noisy, I’m afraid. The birds love the waterfall, though. There were some blue faced honey eaters splashing in the pool just before you came in. I think you must have frightened them.
It’s tongue today, George says. Tongue and salad. Lots of mustard.
Oh you’re so good to me, darling. Have you had a nice morning?
Not bad. I felt a bit gloomy at first, but I soon bucked up.
Madelaine smiles at him, and sits in her chair. There is music coming from her hi-fi, some sort of classical stuff. Mahler, George thinks. He doesn’t enjoy that sort of music, but Madelaine plays it all the time.
She sips her cordial and reaches for her sandwich. George waits, uncertain. She takes a big bite and her eyes sparkle with pleasure.
Maddy, George starts, Maddy, don’t you think you should come up for a while this afternoon?
Madelaine looks at him, surprised, but her mouth is full. He waits while she chews and eventually swallows. Oh no, George, she says. I’m terribly busy. There’s that storm coming, for a start.
George had known in his heart what her answer would be, but he feels his shoulders slump anyway. How about leaving the stair door unlocked, then? Just the one? For an hour or two?
Madelaine shudders and closes her eyes. George, she exclaims, how could you? You know how... insecure I feel. Don’t be beastly to me when we’ve been getting along so well.
George shakes his head sadly and looks at the floor. He finds it so hard to deny her anything.
Madelaine reaches out and touches his arm. Why don’t you go and have your lunch, Darling, she says. I’ll be fine. It’s delicious. He can tell from the sparkle in her eyes that she has already forgotten his suggestions. As he opens and re-locks the doors, he sees that she has opened the newspaper and is reading while she eats.
He has finished five of the seats before he finishes work for the day, better progress than he had hoped for, especially as he had taken half an hour off to get the paint Madelaine had asked for. He removes his apron and goes to his clean room, where he makes a pot of tea and takes it down to his wife. Madelaine is just clearing up after her day’s work when he unlocks the doors. Forgetting, he walks towards her.
Madelaine’s head shoots up and stares at him in alarm. The doors, she screams in horror, and he turns and looks behind him. He realises that he has forgotten to lock the stair door, and even left
the barred door swinging open. He rushes back, reaching for the key, Madelaine’s high-pitched moan filling the air. As quickly as he can he locks the stair door and then pulls the barred door closed and locks it, clumsy in his haste.
He hurries to his wife, hastily placing the tray on the side table. He takes her shoulders and pulls her to him. Her head is buried in his shoulder, and from her mouth comes a muffled, high-pitched keening. She is shaking, and it takes George some time to calm her. He holds her tight and sways back and forth, and gradually her panic subsides, her breathing calms.
I must have been thinking about something else, he tells her. I’m so sorry. Oh Lord, I’m so sorry. He knows he can’t entirely convince her. He knows he can only do his best.
She sits, though she is still holding his hand as she pours her tea and sips it. He can tell from her breathing that she is nearly over it. He moves away from her towards the painting of the window. He puts the two tubes of Thalo Blue on the painting table. God, he says, it’s really pelting down. Water runs down the cobbled path from the painting of the pond, between the flower beds towards the house. The light has a threatening air to it, and the heavy clouds, a deep purpley black with only the slightest lightness at their upper edges seem to roll and boil across the sky under a powerful wind. A small tree high on the hillside has been hit by lightning, and smoke is streaming from it. It looks incredibly real. His wife is a genius, he realises, not for the first time.
I’ll have a lot to do in the garden tomorrow, she says, after all this rain and wind. Look, see that branch broken in the apple tree? I hope this storm has gone by then.
What’s the forecast? he asks her.
Should be a lovely day, with any luck. That depression is moving away into the Tasman. Warm breezes from the north tomorrow.
Make sure you let me know what you need, he says. He unlocks and locks, unlocks and locks.
He wakes in the morning heavy with apprehension. He can’t work out what is wrong. He feels very strongly that something is going to happen. He rolls out of bed and heads for the shower, hoping that he’ll feel more rational once he has bathed. The hot water spraying his face helps, and he turns to allow the powerful jets of water to ease the tension from his shoulders. His eyes are closed as one foot shoots out from under him and he falls heavily in the shower cubicle, his head crashing against the tiled rim beneath the wall of glass.
By the time he recovers consciousness the water in the tank has run cold, and he is shivering. He finds it impossible to move, though he knows he must. Eventually he gets his hand to his head and feels a very large bump growing over the back of his head, presumably where his head struck the tiled rim. He struggles, but all he can manage is a wriggle. His legs won’t respond properly. Maddy, he thinks. I have to get out of here.
He is growing colder and colder in the shower, the freezing water cascading down upon him in what seems like an icy blast. He knows he must move, but something is wrong and he can only move one arm, and there is no strength in it anyway. He tries to shake his head to clear it, but the pain is more than he can stand, and he stops. If I can grab the corner of the glass, he thinks, and edges his one movable arm towards it. The fingers on that hand all work properly, but there is nothing to grip unless he can force the arm to the edge of the doorway. He tries again and again, but he is being weakened by the effort and by the coldness of the water that seems to be paralysing his muscles.
He rests for a while, then makes one last effort. His body rolls slightly, and the arm shoots forward, and from there he can make his arm slowly respond and climb over the tiled rim to the edge of the glass. He can hardly believe it. He grasps the glass and pulls, and his body slides slowly towards the door and out of the hammering flow of freezing water. He pauses for a moment, then makes another huge effort. He slides out of the shower onto the floor of the bathroom. He rolls, and gets the bathmat, far too small, to cover his shoulders. Slowly, very slowly, he begins to warm.
His head is throbbing, drumming; but other than that he feels no pain anywhere. As he warms he tries all his extremities. He tries wriggling his toes. He gets no response from his right foot, but the toes on his left foot do seem to move. He tries to bend his leg, and feels his left knee rising towards his chest. With his one good arm he rolls himself over so that he is lying on his left side, and pushes down with his leg. There is nothing to get a purchase on, but still he moves slightly over the tiles of the bathroom floor, and bit by bit he inches his way towards the door, until in time he reaches the doorframe with his fingers. He pulls himself agonisingly through
into the bedroom.
There is a telephone beside the bed, and a mobile phone in the pocket of his trousers which are draped over the back of a chair on the other side of the room. He slithers and rolls himself towards the telephone beside the bed, but cannot reach high enough to grab the telephone. He is sobbing in frustration and pain, and all the time Madelaine is uppermost in his mind.
There is a drawer in the bedside cabinet on which the telephone stands. After resting for a few minutes he manages to pull the drawer half way out of the cabinet, and then, pulling down as strongly as he can he drags the cabinet forward until it overbalances on top of him. The phone clatters under the bed. It takes him a minute or two to disentangle himself from the cabinet, then sends his hand searching for the cordless handpiece. He cries out in relief when his hand hits the rounded plastic. He grasps it and pulls it out from under the bed.
A police car is waiting at the house when the second ambulance arrives. A crowd of neighbours has collected, intrigued at the unusual goings-on. A uniformed policeman invites them to move on. Just a fall in a bathroom he tells them. Nothing to see. Move along, please. A few move on, but several people have gathered on the other side of the road, watching patiently.
There seems to be no emergency. The two ambulance men leave the vehicle, one with a clipboard, the other with a large bag. What’s the go? they ask the policeman.
Don’t really know, he tells them. I’ve got this key, and apparently there’s someone locked in the shed. You’d better come with me. They follow through the side gate and through the garden. The policeman knocks loudly on the workshop door, but there is no answer. He tries the key attached to the short chain, and it turns smoothly. They enter the workshop, and a hand gropes automatically to find a light-switch. They are impressed by the brightness of the lights, the cleanliness of the workshop. They move around the central bench. Quite a place, one of the ambulance men says. The others agree.
There’s nothing here, Sarge, the policeman says into his radio. Yes, I’m in the shed with a couple of ambos. It’s just a workshop. There’s nothing here.
They wait. One of the ambulance men, who does a bit of joinery himself, is inspecting the freshly-carved seats and finds himself mightily impressed. Mind you, he tells himself, if I had a shed
equipped like this, maybe I could do this sort of stuff, too. He knows he is kidding himself.
The radio crackles into life. The Doc says you’ve got to slide the bench to one side and you’ll find a staircase going down to a cellar of some sort, the Sergeant tells them.
Bloody Enid Blyton stuff, the policeman says, though not into his radio. One of the ambulance men, the shorter of the two, smothers a laugh.
They push at the bench, but it doesn’t budge. The tallest ambulance man reaches down and moves a lever aside, and the bench glides an inch or two to the side. More like James Bond, he comments, and the other two nod. This is looking pretty screwy, they think.
They push the bench the rest of the way and cautiously descend the stairs. From behind the wooden door they can hear the faint sounds of music. The policeman turns the doorknob, but the door is locked. He uses the key on the chain, and pushes it open.
The three of them stand at the barred wall, mouths agape.
Madelaine is on her steps, sketching the outline of a light and fluffy cloud in a clear blue sky. She turns and sees the three men standing in a line behind the bars.
Hello, she calls brightly, stepping down from her steps and wiping a wisp of hair from her face. Have you come about the noise of the waterfall pump? Has someone complained? She puts her palette and her brushes down on the painting table. Is George with you? He’s terribly late with my breakfast. Be a darling and just lock that door behind you? Yes, lock it, please.