The other house in the room


by Maria Barnas

She drew the head of Donald Duck in the corner of the newspaper, just above the photo of a blindfolded man. When her boyfriend had gone to war, she'd started to draw again. Donald Duck on a bicycle, on a mountainbike. On roller skates. In the last few weeks Donald Duck stood upright. Hands against his side.

He was coming home today. He'd been away for a long time. Now and again she received a mail, in which he wrote how it was. It was always fine. Even when he'd been imprisoned and sent small crumpled letters. Only when he had been released did he write about how he'd had to beg for a pencil. They'd given him a stump, and nothing to sharpen the point. Every word could have been the last. Why hadn't he written that? He kept insisting that everything was all right. While hungry cats sharpened their nails on the inside of his stomach, he wrote that everything was fine. A tooth fell out of his mouth, he had swellings in shades of deep purple on his body, and he wrote: don't forget to put on a hat if you go outside and make sure you look both ways before you cross the road. And don't leave the back door open any more. We don't live in the countryside.

He put a bag full of shopping on the table in the living room. He asked himself how she had managed without him. If she went shopping she always came home with things they didn't need, or already had. He'd entered the house through the back door. That the door was still open put him at ease. He called out her name. He saw that she'd changed everything. She'd painted the walls yellow. She had even changed the furnishing. He couldn't remember the sofa. And she'd got completely new lamps. And it looked like she had bought new cups. She hadn't done the washing up yet. He wondered if she'd actually done any washing up at all since his departure. My god, he thought and tried not to picture how every morning she'd had to dig into the mountain to find a clean cup. He opened the door of the fridge. A stench of rotting fish hit him in the face. He slammed the door shut and squirted a large amount of Fairy Liquid over the scrap-heap of aluminium and porcelain in the sink.

He looked outside, at the little patch of garden, between the house and the blank wall of the neighbour's house that kept all the light out of the garden. He saw that she had hung up peanuts for the birds. Was he mistaken, or was there a skinny young man sitting on the branch of the elderberry tree, in the corner of the garden? It was as if the tree stood further away from the house than before. As if to focus, he squinted and saw how the young man clumsily let himself drop from the tree. With a little jump from the last branch onto the ground, he sprained his ankle. He limped towards the bag of peanuts, tore it from the tree and sunk his teeth into the net to tear an opening. He was wearing a sky blue t-shirt and trousers with narrow legs, pulled high in his crotch and a belt tight round the high waist. His face was ash grey, with sharp cheekbones. The boy sneaked back to the tree and lifted himself up onto his branch, to munch on the peanuts.

She coloured Donald Duck's webbed feet in black. She hoped that he would see how clean the house was. She had begun cleaning up three days ago. Sorted the socks by the socks, the underpants by the underpants. She had even put the nice underpants in a pile and the tatty underpants in another. She had bought a new 1800 watt vacuum cleaner, that sucked up the dust from the cracks in the floor. She had cleaned the windows, for the first time. Inside and outside. She had washed the curtains and waxed the dull furnishings and rubbed them with a soft cloth until she they shone. She had bought music. Dido and Aeneas by Purcell, and the new cd by Peaches. She was prepared for everything.

She saw that threads of dust were clinging to the ceiling and fetched the vacuum cleaner to remove the last bits of dust from the house. When she pointed the hose to the ceiling, the house tilted. She thought that she heard the telephone ring, but she had to concentrate to keep her balance. Carefully she vacuumed around the lamp that stuck out of the empty white floor like a mushroom.

Where had she left all his clothes? He would call her again tomorrow to ask where she was, he decided, whilst he lay down in a bed that he didn't recognize. He found it an unpleasant idea that she had thought it necessary to change the house in his absence. It was fine as it was, he felt.

She coloured the head of Donald Duck totally in black. A silhouette, that stood up a little too straight. From the front, it was difficult to recognize the figure as Donald Duck. Without his beak it could have been anyone else.

She couldn't believe that he wouldn't let her know tha he was coming home a day later. Would he really have changed? Her mother had taken every opportunity to say: 'Men change at war, be careful. Don't expect too much when he comes back.'

This was it then. He'd probably have a hard time being homely after the long, exciting time in the war. She put on a nice pair of underwear. She thought about a blue lake that someone had painted on the floor. The bed was cold.