The Last Resort
Madeline Bignill (University of Newcastle, Australia)
Number four of Perry Road is a sanctuary – and a last resort. Its door is never locked and at night a light glows above the entrance, a signal of safe port to all those who find themselves at storm. But, to step through its door is to give up the world. Once the threshold has been crossed there is no hope of return. There is safety for those desperate enough to seek it. There is safety, but little else.
Home was a term Sonya did not give consideration. Having grown up in number four Perry Road, slid through the door as a child like a parcel, she had nothing to compare it with. She had never stood on strange ground or walked unfamiliar paths. She had never felt the discomfort of the unknown and so could not appreciate the intimate familiarity she had with her surroundings. She could never come home or long for home, for she had never left it. She was where she stood, and there was no sentimentality about it.
Sonya’s room was at the front of the house, on the second storey. Her first window she could open, only a fraction, just enough to squeeze her hand and forearm through. The view from her first window was obscured by a cherry tree. In the winter, its bare limbs blocked little. But in the summer, blossoms pressed against the window, painting the glass white. Their scent saturated the air. Her favourite time was autumn, when the flowers began to wilt. She would reach one arm through the slither of open space to touch the cherry blossoms. The petals, already dying, would tumble into her palm at the lightest touch. She would feel them, soft and silken, and smell them. Their perfume was so much stronger as they died. Then, she would reach her hand out the window once again, open her fist, and let the wind pluck the petals from her palm. She would imagine particles of herself sticking to the petals she had touched. And as the pieces of the flower raced through the city air, she could imagine she too had left, and that a part of her, a small part at least, was free.
From the second of her windows she could observe the length of the street. It was a quiet street, residential and affluent, in which people practiced their lives with comforting routine. There was much to be seen for those who knew how to see and Sonya had little to do but train this skill.
She had her favourites, foremost of whom was the man who walked his dog every evening. He spoke to himself, but addressed his dog, as if this made him less strange. He spoke so honestly Sonya wondered if he knew he spoke aloud.
Late in autumn, when the trees were bare and the air was chilled, she observed him walk along the street. He stooped forward and muttered to himself, spitting words and shaking his head. His dog walked close to his side, not paying strict attention to all his owner said, but keeping him company. His low words fell to the pavement and she was frustrated not to hear him.
If anyone took the care to notice number four, they would notice only how unremarkable it appeared. On a road of grand old properties, squeezed in side by side, number four stood clean, well maintained and in keeping with the period of the street, though less ornate than its neighbours. While the other houses seemed to leer forward, fluttering their baroque railings and original artisan stonework in an attempt to distinguish themselves, number four shrank away from the road, quiet and subdued, relishing in its invisibility.
Erasmus Turn was a man who did what was expected of him. And so, every evening when he walked the dog down Perry Road, his eyes would slide from number six to number two, without an inkling he had missed a trick. The dog, however, though not particularly intelligent, noticed in a city in which all space was occupied by something, this peculiar space that so determinedly smelt of nothing. He would try to linger, but Turn would impatiently tug him on.
Turn felt conflicted about his ownership of the dog. He, the dog, was a souvenir of a recent and reasonably vicious break up, left along with three pairs of underwear and one shirt, which had been forgotten in the laundry, a now out of date tub of ricotta cheese, which still rested at the back of Turn’s fridge, and a vast collection of half-empty bottles of designer shampoo. He had found that while he could ignore the tub of ricotta and box up all other assorted possessions, the dog was something he could neither ignore nor box up.
He did not want a dog. He hadn’t wanted it when Katie had first brought it home. He didn’t like its mournful eyes, its smell or the light layer of fur it left in its wake. He thought it was ridiculous to name a dog Noodle and so never addressed it by name, referring to it only as ‘the dog.’ He wasn’t even sure if he was allowed to have a dog in his flat. And now he couldn’t ask. Now he was the owner of a potentially illicit dog. But it had only been two weeks. She might come back for the dog. And the clothing. She might come back.
For now, the dog served as a living, breathing reminder of Turn’s most significant emotional trauma to date. However, he could not help but feel a kind of camaraderie with it. It too had been abandoned by Katie, left behind like so much ricotta cheese. The dog had taken little notice of her departure. His indifference was something Turn admired and sought to emulate.
The night was cold and chased away the drowsiness that had settled on Turn in his stuffy and still flat. Despite his dislike of the dog, he enjoyed the requisite of walking him and opportunity it gave him to get out. The flat, large and frankly too expensive for just himself, was too quiet without Katie.
‘Too loud with her,’ he mused, tugging the dog up the street. ‘And what’s the point? As far as I could tell she never liked me. I’m not sure she ever liked anyone. She approved or disapproved. She sought to improve. And neither you nor I would be improved, would we? So here we are, two old dogs.’
He paused as the dog stopped again, sniffing at the empty, flavourless air outside number four.
‘She wasn’t satisfied with you either. You were a project like I was a project.’ The dog spared him a look and pulled against his lead to get closer to the house. ‘And I am talking to a dog.’ Turn tilted his head back and sighed. The warm cloud of his breath dissipated in the cool night air and, as it cleared, he spotted a white piece of paper fluttering down from above. He held out his hand to catch it, but it twisted and cut through the air and landed in the folds of his jacket at the crease of his elbow.
The paper was thick, as though torn from a book. It was folded over four times and when he opened it he found a message, written in a heavy, measured hand.
Speak up. I cannot hear you.
Sonya’s heart was loud when he caught the note. Louder than when she dropped it, louder than when she watched it flutter down to him. She had thought of him catching it. That was the point. But she had also thought of it falling to the ground, being kicked and crushed by strangers’ feet and ending up amongst the leaf litter.
She watched him pluck the note from his arm and unfold it with care. He read her words then looked to the sky, seeking the paper’s origin. When he tilted his head back, Sonya was able to look fully upon his face for the first time. It was a round, pale face. His eyes were blue and circular, giving him the appearance of a surprised child. His eyebrows were dark and gently arched. His lips were bowed and strangely full.
He seemed to look to her window and meet her eye. Startled, Sonya pulled away from the glass instinctively before remembering her room was dark and he wouldn’t be able to see her. No: for the first time, he saw the house.
Turn was unsettled. It was a disturbance that could easily be remedied with reason. He had not noticed this house before, which was strange given how often he walked this road. He knew all the other houses like the notes of a song. He knew their outward condition and architectural distinctions. This house was not distinctive.
Which is why I haven’t noticed it before, he reasoned. Still…
Still, the feeling would not be dismissed. The sudden appearance of the house, as though it had grown between number six and number two, finding a space between them as a weed squeezes through pavement, would not be reasoned away.
And the note.
He looked down at the note and read it again.
It’s probably rubbish. Picked up by the wind and caught on my sleeve by chance.
A solitary light shone over the door of number four. There were no lights in its windows. No noise from within. It didn’t look like anyone was at home.
He folded the note up, tucked it into his pocket and walked home. When Turn got home he took out the note, read it again, placed it on his kitchen counter and went to bed. When he got up in the morning, he got dressed, ate breakfast, and as he was about to walk out the door, turned back to the kitchen, picked up the note, placed it in his shirt pocket and went to work.
If he were asked, Turn would find it difficult to describe the purpose of his job. He sat through the mid-week meeting, diligently appearing interested, and spent the remainder of the morning trapped by the printer, listening to Keith’s various medical complaints. Officially Turn’s title was Senior Associate of Client Research. He wasn’t sure what that meant. Nobody ever seemed to check in on him or require anything of him. In lieu of other tasks he considered listening to Keith one of his primary duties. That and his willingness to restock the printer with paper made him a quietly popular figure at work.
Alone in his office, he read the note again. The slanted words made his stomach lift: an odd feeling he wasn’t totally sure he enjoyed, but he chased it all the same. It was something different.
Distracting? No, nothing so superficial.
He felt pressed into action. Unfamiliar with this sensation, he was unsure how to proceed. On his desk sat a notepad. It was a creamy textured paper with his details in a glossy print across the top: a gift from Katie when they were in their prime. He’d never used it. Tugging the notepad closer, he pressed a pen to the page, then hesitated. He shook his head, laughing lightly at his own nervousness, and scrawled his message across the paper. Tearing the note free, he folded it firmly, tucked it into his pocket and waited impatiently for his workday to end.
Sonya had resolved to spend her day with purpose and action. This was a greater challenge than it sounded for the residents of number four, and one that mostly resulted in Sonya cleaning the kitchen to a level her housemates found intrusive, redundant and slightly pathological. The house had a tendency to maintain itself. The kitchen always had food, not an abundance, but enough. When new clothes were needed, they were found in the wardrobe or the laundry. Sonya constantly discovered new books in every room of the house: on shelves, on chairs, on tables and once, oddly, in the cutlery drawer. When Sonya was a small girl she would stay up all night, perched on the kitchen table, waiting to catch the Provider. She imagined a curious old man in a green apron and a cap, or a group of fairy creatures. She saw neither. Mostly she fell asleep on the table.
‘What are you doing?’ Constance asked.
Sonya started, and the plate she was holding slipped through her fingers into the kitchen sink.
‘Just cleaning up the lunch things.’ Even as she said it, she realised she had been standing without washing for some time. The water in the sink was tepid and murky. She retrieved the plate, balanced it on the drying rack and pulled the plug.
Constance’s mouth stretched across her face in a toothless smile. ‘Not in a rush, are you?’
‘Are we ever in a rush?’ Sonya muttered, shaking the suds from her hands.
‘No.’ Constance folded her hands in front of her and rocked from her heels to her toes and back again. ‘Aren’t we lucky?’
‘Very. As I’ve been told.’
‘Don’t be ungrateful.’ Constance’s voice turned cool and she spoke her words carefully, as one determined to not be ignored. ‘It does no good to wish to be other than where you are.’
‘Is it strange to wish for something bad to happen?’ Sonya said quietly into the sink.
‘It’s not strange,’ replied Constance and Sonya turned to stare at her, surprised by her answer. ‘It’s not strange,’ Constance repeated. ‘It is foolish and evil.’
Sonya laughed lightly.
‘Why ask me if you’re only going to laugh at my answer?’ Constance snapped.
‘I wasn’t asking you. You were just here.’ Sonya leaned back against the sink. ‘You’re always here,’ she sighed.
When Turn arrived home he moved through his daily duties in an uncharacteristically harassed manner. He fed the dog and then, feeling equally guilty and irritated, took the dog across the road to relieve himself in the park. When he returned to his flat he noticed his mobile sitting on the kitchen bench, where he had forgotten it that morning. It flashed at him, demanding attention. He had three missed calls and one message, all from Katie. Her voice was exasperated from the outset. Why doesn’t he have his phone on him? When was he going to outgrow this habit? How could he accept any level of responsibility when he made himself so impossible to reach?
‘It’s not your problem anymore, is it?’ he muttered, but kept listening.
She had forgotten some things and needed to pick them up. Would he be around Saturday evening at six? She’d be around then. If that was not convenient then he would need to call her and change it. And she wanted the dog. It was hers and he never liked it anyway.
Turn considered retrieving the ricotta cheese from the fridge and stowing it in the box with her other possessions. He looked to the dog, already asleep on his mat, seemingly aware from his run in the park and Turn’s manner that he would get no walk that evening. Turn felt a rush of fondness at the dog’s undemanding manner and then a rush of melancholy at the thought of returning him to Katie. Patting his pocket for the note, Turn picked up his mobile and walked out the door.
Abandoning all pretence of pride, as there was no one to judge her but herself, Sonya returned to her window. He did not arrive at seven, as was his habit, but at six. He walked carefully and deliberately towards her building, his round eyes trained upon it as though afraid it might waver and disappear like a mirage. No dog by his side, he approached the front door. He pulled a note from his pocket and slipped it through the slot.
Sonya flew downstairs. A small piece of paper sat on the doormat. She snatched it up, unfolded it and read.
Eavesdropping is impolite.
She smiled and traced her finger over the thin scrawl of the writing. Slipping into the next room, she grabbed paper and a pencil. She scratched out a message and slid it under the front door. The gap was slim and her paper jammed several times.
Forgive the bored; they are easily led astray.
A long minute passed and she gained a reply.
Hello, Sonya. Do you often throw notes into the street?
No. Do you often respond to notes from strange women?
Every time I receive them.
You’re the first.
Sonya and Erasmus fell into an easy, if slow, conversation. She sat on the floor inside, her knees pulled to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs, waiting for the hinged door of the mailbox to squeak and a note to drop to the floor. Erasmus sat on the steps outside, rubbing his hands together against the cold and waiting for a corner of paper to poke beneath the door, so he could grab it and tug it through. Then he would balance his scrap of paper on his knee—a receipt, an old grocery list or a napkin, whatever littered his person—and he would write his reply.
They continued until Sonya heard someone coming down the stairs. She was filled with panic and strong instinct to keep Erasmus to herself. She dispatched a note of farewell with instructions for him to return the next evening. Then she gathered all of Erasmus’s scribblings, shoved them in her pocket, scrambled to her feet and slid into the room next door.
‘Sonya?’ It was Roger. Roger had been here all her life and had been the first to find her when she was pushed through the door in her basket.
Sonya waited a moment, then walked back into the hall. Roger was still making his way down the stairs. His head was bowed forward, eyes fixed on his feet, and she could see the large circle of pink skin at the top of his head. He moved with heartbreaking caution. Sonya sometimes wondered what would happen if he fell, whether the house would provide for them then. She met him at the bottom of the stairs and lent him her arm as he struggled with the last step.
‘There’s a man sitting by the door,’ he told her. ‘Right on the steps he is. Haven’t had anyone come that close in donkey’s years.’
‘You think he’s going to come inside?’ Sonya asked with dread, and to her shame, excitement. Roger was slow to answer, focused on getting into the sitting room by the fire.
‘Couldn’t say. He hasn’t tried the handle at all. Doesn’t look like he’s in a panic.’
‘Has anyone ever come in before by accident? I mean, has anyone ever come inside without knowing what it means?’ Sonya helped him settle into his chair. It was far too low for him now, but he never took another.
‘House only shows itself to those in need. And those who see it always seem to understand the gravity of their choice. Push the fire around a bit, would you, dear? It’s looking sleepy.’
Sonya did as he asked, then knelt on the floor beside his chair. ‘How would they know? How did you know?’
‘It was a fair while ago now, love,’ he chuckled, then paused, his eyes searching her face. ‘But I do remember … there was a feeling in my stomach. I didn’t give it words at the time, but I knew. I knew, without knowing, there was no coming back.’
Sonya sat back on her heels, her mind, recently light with her secret, her new friend, was now heavy and dark.
‘Would be nice, wouldn’t it? To have someone new,’ Roger mused.
Sonya laid her hand on his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. ‘A bit selfish though, that wanting.’
The next evening was colder and dark so much sooner. Erasmus had dressed warmer but he shivered. The cold from the concrete seeped up through his trousers and into his bones. The dog was sprawled across his lap, devoted enough to stay with him, but not so much that he would wait on the icy steps. Turn held no resentment, instead appreciating the heat that the dog’s furry body gave his legs. He had bought a notepad with a spiral top and cardboard backing. It made writing easier and the conversation faster, but he was already two-thirds of the way through his paper.
He had just tucked his hands into his armpits when a slip of paper slid out from under the door. He untucked his hands without hesitation and unfolded the note with stiff purple fingers.
Tell me, Erasmus Turn, is it strange to want something bad to happen?
A little. But I understand. You are a pessimist and don’t believe any change can be good, but you are desperate for change all the same.
This is different and not so bad.
Try not to let it go to your head.
Will you come outside?
Literally or metaphorically?
Not really. Very little to do in here.
Have you ever read Rapunzel?
Don’t get any ideas. I cut my hair at my shoulders and this door is a one way ticket.
Once you come inside you can never leave.
So you won’t be inviting me in for tea?
I’m not so selfish.
Why would anyone agree to that?
Extreme circumstances breed extreme decisions.
But willingly choosing life imprisonment? How bad can your situation be?
I take it your life has been fairly calm.
I take it yours hasn’t.
It has, actually. I was brought here as a child.
You really won’t come outside?
You don’t believe me.
Ah, no. Sorry.
It’s alright. I’d think you odd if you did.
I’ll have to go. Temperature is dropping and I’m running out of paper.
Never. Tomorrow. Promise.
Pulling out his phone as he walked down the street, Turn called Katie. He got her voicemail and left her a message. Saturday evening was not convenient, but he could leave the box of her belongings by his door for her to retrieve. The dog would stay with him, as it never cared for her much anyway.
She called back within five minutes.
‘Don’t be spiteful, Era,’ she sighed. ‘I know it hurt you when I left, but it’s not like you to be spiteful.’
‘I’m fine. As is the dog. We’re getting along quite well.’
‘He’s my dog.’
‘Hasn’t been for the last couple of weeks. He’s not a shirt. It’s not like you forgot him. You left him.’
‘We’re not really talking about the dog are we?’
‘I am. What are you talking about?’
‘I know it was sudden. I know it must have messed you around a bit. But I couldn’t do it anymore. You never wanted to talk to anyone or do anything.’
‘That’s not true. I just didn’t want to talk to you.’
‘That’s nice, Era. Really very nice.’
‘It was good. That you left. It was the right thing to do. Could’ve been done better and with less throwing. But, overall, a good decision.’ He heard her start to say something, but he kept going. It felt good—the kind of elation that comes from burning a dangerous and rotting bridge. ‘And look, you never walked the dog anyway and you always forgot to feed him. You don’t want him. I know it’s in you to be spiteful, but just let him be. Let us both be.’
‘What’s wrong with you? You sound weird.’
‘I feel great,’ he said cheerfully.
She paused, stilted.
‘You know, you can’t afford that flat by yourself,’ she said waspishly.
‘I know,’ he responded calmly.
‘What are you going to do?’
He tucked his chin into his chest against the cold and smiled. ‘Not your concern.’
Will you go to the window in the next room?
I want to see you.
I’d rather not.
Hardly fair. You’ve seen me.
That was from a distance. And besides, you didn’t know you were being watched.
Are you ever comfortable when you are aware someone is watching you? It’s unpleasant.
How would you know if you’ve never left the house? Who is there to look at you?
I’m not the only one in here. I have housemates.
It is difficult to find a decent place in the city without sharing.
Come to the window.
I’m not pretty. I’m not hideous, but I’m not pretty.
I won’t mind.
Her eyes were large and her cheekbones high. Her lips were full, but turned down in the corners, and her eyebrows were heavy and dark, making her countenance appear solemn and serious. She hadn’t lied, she was not pretty. Her features were too strong to be pretty. But she looked interesting, possibly striking, and Turn decided that was better.
Who are they, your housemates?
People who made the choice to come through the door. Or perhaps they are figments of my delusion.
I never thought you were deluded.
Lying, perhaps. But not deluded.
Turn waited for a response, but as the silence stretched, he panicked and wrote to her again.
I don’t know. I wish you would come outside. Or let me in. Something.
Erasmus scrubbed his hands over his face, took an icy breath in and let it slowly out.
Okay. I’ll play. Have you tried opening the door? Is it locked? Have you tried picking the lock?
There’s no doorknob. Just solid wood. And the windows don’t open. Except for one in my bedroom and even then it’s only a little.
Have you tried throwing something through the window?
A brick. A lamp. A microwave.
What if I open the door?
Don’t come inside, Erasmus!
I won’t. But what’s to stop you walking out if someone else opens the door? What happened when other people came in?
I’ve never been at the door when people arrive. None of us have. We never see the door open. We only meet them when they’re inside and the door has closed.
But I’m by the door now! And so are you! Get ready, I’m going to open it. Are you ready?
This can’t possibly work.
Do you need to grab anything? Get a coat and a scarf. It’s freezing out here.
It won’t work.
Are you ready?
Turn reached for the door.
Madeline Bignill completed her Bachelor of Creative Writing and Honours in Arts and Design at the University of Canberra. She is currently undertaking her PhD in English at the University of Newcastle. Her areas of research include children’s literature, fantasy and gender studies. She is a Newcastle native, loves the ocean, high-waisted trousers and enjoys lying in the sun like a cat, but does not enjoy cats.