An Extract from:

Vertigo

A micro-autobiography, constructed in real-time, all events actually occurring

over the weekend in which the story was simultaneously written

 

 by Dennison Smith

 

My mother-in-law phoned to say, ‘Tomorrow's your birthday! How are you celebrating? How are you getting on without Matthew? When is he back? What is he doing? How is he? How are you?’ 

            ‘I don't know,’ I said, answering any one of her questions. Floored by an unexpected wave of nausea, I lay down on my bed. The room kept swinging. My cat climbed onto my breasts and brought up a fur ball. ‘I have to go,’ I said. My birthday is today not tomorrow.

            How am I? I ask that too sometimes.

            Yesterday, the front door didn’t open when I punched in the code on the keypad. I was stranded in what the weathermen call mixed precipitation, or indecipherably foul weather. When I found the two keys hidden in the garden, one by the electricity meter and the other under a pot, the first appeared to be a car key, and neither fit the door. So, being thin and light, I stood on the slush-covered plastic pots in which annuals were transported to my garden only to languish in the shade all summer and die in the fickle temperate zone when an arctic wind swept down on the city of Toronto. Though I'd break my ankle if the pots collapsed, they gave me the leg-up I needed to crawl in the kitchen window. I threw my gloves, my umbrella, and my scarf past the stove, to the floor. My ribs rubbed along the burners, and I jostled a knob with my hip, and heard the gas pour out. My knee landed in the wok. The dregs of a slimy okra stir-fry, which my husband had cooked before his departing, oozed through my stockings.

            Safely inside, I found the front door bolted from within. Holding my umbrella and staring at the lock, I started to call ‘Honey’ up the stairs, but I never got past the Ho. No sign of my husband's boots in the hallway. I had seen him drive away that morning, and he was by now either in a monastery in St. Benoit du Lac, researching whatever he researches, or paying for a lap dance off the highway. But whatever my husband was doing, there was somebody in my house.

            According to the society that offers walking tours every Halloween, there are several haunted houses in my neighborhood, but mine isn't on the list. Though the Victorians built it as a doll's house factory (and though I am doll-phobic), now modernized, there’s no dusty corner for even a Barbie to haunt. The house is long, low, thin and open-planned with a row of large windows and French doors, on the street side, overlooking a bricked yard with a high bamboo fence.

            I came to the obvious conclusion that I was being robbed, and leading with the tip of my black umbrella, I climbed the stairs to face the man. I'm prejudiced enough to assume all criminals are men, but on the third floor I found a mousy-haired bony thing, squinting through her bangs. Clutching her phone, she was hiding behind a pile of books in my husband's office.

            She was, she said, one of Matthew’s students – notably, she didn't call him Professor –  and he had given her the code to let herself into the house. ‘To do energy-exchange,’ she stammered. ‘Work-exchange,’ she added, clearly afraid I'd get the wrong idea. Then, as if she thought the dead Sanskrit language could prompt me to lay down my umbrella, she whimpered, ‘Karma yoga?’ Alone and uneasy in a strange house, she had bolted the front door. She'd been on the verge of calling the police on the intruder ascending the stairs. Strangely, she told me all of this before asking me, ‘Who are you?’ She hadn't known there was a wife. 

            It is a silly conceit to say, ‘There are two kinds of people.’ There is the brave stupid kind of person who faces the robber, and the cowering intelligent kind who phones the police, and there is a teaming world of uncertainty between them. Feeling alienated from the Canadian girl in my Canadian husband's office, I felt woefully American. Growing up in the Green Mountains, my neighbours sold crafty things and had a sign for ‘hand-made art’ flapping off a four-by-four post hammered into the lawn. Nailed to their screen door was another sign: ‘We don't call 911,’ accompanied by a silkscreen of a handgun. Born in the USA, I am doomed for eternity to walk up my stairs clutching a sharp umbrella. 

            All afternoon, after the mousy girl tiptoed away, I sang Maxwell's Silver Hammer to myself and merged it with She Came In Through the Bathroom Window and tried to work both into a short story, which I have. But last night lacked believability even for a true story: the synchronism seemed canned. Last night, a real intruder mistook my house for a crack den.

            It's an absurd mistake, with the contemporary eco-friendly bamboo fence offset by the cast iron Victorian planters out of which sprout willow branches ornamented for the Christmas season with little silver balls. My husband on retreat in rural Quebec, I myself had retired early with cat, book, log in the bedroom fireplace, and sound track of Tous les Matins du Monde. It's impossible to explain why my house is, by most standards, upside down: my bedroom is arranged on the long stretch of the first floor, overlooking the courtyard. Outside a gale was blowing as the first wave of honest winter bellowed down from the far north and lashed the ghosts of seasonal yachts in the nesting harbors of Toronto. The steel wind chimes in the yard sounded like an awful Stravinsky rape scene, and the wooden toggle kathumped atonally against the wall. 

            The front gate opening was audible under the cello. The unwelcome visitor rang the doorbell (he wasn't yet an intruder) and I ignored the bell (I was after all in bed). But when I heard him trying variations on the keypad, I placed my finger in my mouth uncertainly. I peered into the adjacent hallway. Through the stained glass windows on the front door, I saw a man with dark glasses straining to see inside. I stepped back into the bedroom. But when the man entered the courtyard and fought to open the French doors, I couldn't retreat from the windows, unless I wanted to climb under the bed. And I'm not that kind of person.

            I don't know what leads Americans so easily into war. I could spin a historical theory about ramshackle dwellings in lifeless stretches with nothing but a rifle and cellar full of potatoes while, beyond the barn, a drop-off cliff plunging into a dried-out arroyo where old dogs go to die. But Canada has its version of the same story, and the truth is, though I braved the front door, there was no weapon in my hand. There I was in my nightie with my sheepskin slippers and my cat at my feet, but if frumpiness sounds like my one defense, to make matters worse – if my friend Luciano is to be believed – I am ‘a shockingly beautiful woman.’ I think I felt responsible for this man caught in the vortex of my house, circling between the bamboo fence and the frozen rosehips and the recycling bins. Or perhaps I'd become some evolutionarily non-competitive hybrid of Yank and Canuck, who doesn't call 911, just opens the damn door...

 

The complete story can be found in Dennison's UEA Special Edition pamphlet.

Dennison Smith is a novelist, poet and playwright whose work has been performed and published in England, Canada and the U.S. Her recent novel, The Eye of the Day, was released by Harper Collins Canada February 2014 and will be published in the UK by Periscope in May 2015. Her first novel, Scavenger, was published by Insomniac Press and presented in play form as Desert Story. Smith is the author of two books of poetry: Anon Necessity and Fermata. Originally from Chicago, she now splits her time between a small island in Canada and her home in London, England. She is completing her PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

www.dennisonsmith.ca