A little cuckoo
At the tiny broken gate, she pulls her hood further over her face, looks quickly up and down the street then crosses the short path to the stoop. She reaches up to the top of the fuse box and feels around before locating the key. She unlocks the old door and opens it into the dark, damp downstairs entrance of the flat. The heavy, glass-panelled door shuts with a click. She places her leather satchel on the hat stand, and climbs the carpeted staircase in her stealth-sneakers.
She rounds the corner at the top of the stairs to enter the lounge, the walls painted a dark but luminous red, reassuringly familiar. Then she freezes, listening. There’s music coming from behind the closed door of their old bedroom down the hall. She chews on her lip. She checks her watch.
Unfreezing, she turns back to the task at hand, creeping through the lounge to the tiny kitchen. She puts a hand over her mouth when she sees it. She runs a finger along the top of the cupboards and inspects it. Clean. She flips the bird in the direction of the bedroom.
She smiles at the small cuckoo clock hanging beside the fridge.
As she’s unhooking it, she hears the bedroom door open and footsteps padding down the hall. She presses herself to the wall, blood gushing in her ears like she’s underwater. The bathroom door shuts. With shaking fingers, she finishes taking down the clock and creeps back the way she came, gritting her teeth in a twisted smile. Don’t look back.
She’s near the bottom of the carpeted stairs when the voice comes from directly above her.
‘Hey! Who are you?’
She gasps and stops; staring straight ahead at the door only five or so steps away, and then looks up at the woman leaning over the railing staring down at her – fright in her face. The woman has lovely long brown hair with a reddish tinge, and is wearing Dan’s bathrobe, too big and sloppily tied.
‘Shhhh . . . It’s OK. I just came to get –’
‘Dan!’ the woman yells. ‘Quick!’
Dan steps out of the bathroom with only a towel around his waist – muscular, solid. His eyes follow the woman’s pointed finger down the stairwell to her, frozen in place, clutching the damn cuckoo clock in her arms like a baby.
‘What the fuck?’ He takes two steps to the top of the stairs. ‘How did you get in here?’
She gapes, her back pressed against the wall, her feet on two different steps. Her heart hammers, her mouth set in a wide ‘O’ as she tries to breathe.
‘Oh . . .’
He’s coming down the stairs, one by one – hesitantly – as if she’s got an infectious disease, or is a wild cat about to attack – his arm reaching out to her. He stops.
‘Hey! That’s my clock!’ His face is puzzled, not angry. He holds out both hands now, as if she’s just going to hand it over. She pulls it closer to her chest, careful not to squeeze it too hard in case the little balcony snaps off.
‘Zara, can we talk about this?’ His voice is reasonable, the tone even, his face calm again – the surprise worn off. Now he just looks tired. She pauses, then nods, and follows him back up the stairs. The woman raises her neat eyebrows at her, then disappears back into the bedroom and slams the door.
He gestures for her to sit on the long fake-leather couch that clashes wildly with the red painted walls. There’s nothing on the walls except a huge photo of a plane – a Dash 8, his favourite.
‘I hate this couch,’ she says.
He sits down in an armchair made of the same material, his towel squelching against the fabric.
‘You can’t just come in here like this, Zara, you don’t live here any more.’ He’s quiet, unemotional – as if he’s talking to a child, which makes her squirm. But it’s the second time he’s said her name. He always does that when he’s angry.
‘Don’t talk to me like that,’ she says, moving to the edge of the couch and perching there, still clutching the clock, the clock still ticking. ‘Who is she anyway? Are you fucking?’ The last bit comes out too high, too loud; that rusted edge of hysteria.
He leans forward, puts his elbows on his knees, double fists under his chin, and studies her. She squirms even more in his gaze, jiggles her legs, frowns and looks down at the clock. Then back at the plane on the wall. Then back at his concerned face.
‘You can’t take the clock,’ he says.
‘Uh, yes I can, for your information,’ she says, pulling her chin back, sitting straighter. ‘This is my clock too, and besides, you always complained about the damn cuckoo.’
He sighs and keeps staring at her, his eyes narrowing. His jaw looks tight as a clam.
‘I may have complained, but I love that clock. You can’t just break in here and steal my fucking clock, Zara.’
‘Well, we have a problem then, don’t we?’ she says, raising her eyebrows and smiling a little. ‘So, I’m gonna go, unless you’re gonna keep me hostage or something.’ She chuckles at herself as she stands and starts for the door.
Dan jumps up and moves between her and the doorway. They’re close now, just standing and glaring at each other, staring each other down. Silent. Then she notices his loud breathing, the hairs on his chest rising and falling. He’s got a pimple growing just next to his eyebrow, she can see it now.
‘We bought that clock together,’ he says, finally. ‘It reminds me of you.’
‘Pah!’ she laughs at him. ‘I love the cuckoo. Besides, you got to keep the fucking stereo, which you love. And the flat, might I add.’
He lunges toward her, grabs her roughly by the shoulders and stares directly into her eyes. She giggles. He squeezes harder.
‘Give me the fucking clock,’ he says, face serious, his fingers digging into her shoulders.
‘Ow!’ She tries to wriggle out from under them. ‘Get off me, you big oaf!’
He lets go, sighs, and watches as she sidesteps him, racing out and down the stairs. Gazelle-like, she thinks. Swift.
‘You won’t even notice it’s gone,’ she calls over her shoulder as she grabs her satchel and slams the door behind her.