Steve Kirkwood

An Empty House

The scanning flashlight gives a stage presence to each object. A small photo frame with a baby’s face in black and white. A silver trophy with a man perched on top, his golf club in full swing. A framed doctorate on the wall. A stain on the carpet that looks like blood. There’s a lingering smell of dog in this house. The lounge is so tidy as to suggest that it is never used and the dust is so thick that Chris has to stop himself from sneezing. The window panes are rattling from the gale outside and the clock carved in the shape of Australia ticks the seconds towards midnight.

The sweeping light illuminates bottles in a row—Jameson’s, Bacardi, Galleano, each less than half full. Chris eases open the liquor cabinet and removes an unopened bottle of Veuve. It goes into the bag.

As Chris edges his way up the staircase his shoulder bumps against a family portrait. There’s the dog, tongue out and gold in the foreground, an accountant-looking dad, three mulletted children, and a pretty mum with watery eyes that seem to gaze far off towards something unseen. Chris takes hold of the frame between gloved fingers, straightens it, and continues up the stairs.

The bedroom is in disarray. Sheets are heaped up onto the bed, clothes are strewn across the carpet. A pair of hiking boots lie thickly caked in mud by the door. Chris starts going through the drawers and over the table tops. Among lawyers’ bills and unopened mail, he finds four pairs of silver cuff-links, one gold watch, a cheque book, a credit card, £160 in notes and another £10 in coins, a digital camera, a cell phone, three silk ties, a silver wedding band, a Swiss Army knife, twelve cigarettes, an unopened box of nicotine patches, three doses of Viagra and a small amount of Prozac. They all go into the bag.

Chris moves on to the bathroom. The smell of bath salts mixed with a sharp metallic scent like rust wafts out as he pushes open the door. The torch brings a weak illumination to the room, and Chris pauses as he notices a shape in the middle of the floor. He focuses the light. It’s a man. He’s naked, twisted and hairy. His knees are hooked over the edge of the bath, his hands and elbows clasped together in front of his face as if keeping a tiny butterfly captive. His mouth lies open and Chris can see one eye facing upwards in resigned shock, the look of someone who’s just seen the traffic tearing towards them but can’t muster the will-power to get out of the way. Blood mixed with water pools around him, filling the gaps between the tiles. Suddenly the wind hushes, as if stifled by a hand clasped over the mouth. The silence is disarming. It’s the silence of a demolition site on a Sunday, a building half torn down, the dissection of a life in collapse.

Chris takes a step back, removing his foot from the pink puddle under his shoe. He stares for a moment at the single gazing eye from the man’s puffed pale face. The only sound belongs to the revellers in the chill night air, bringing in the new year. As the clock in the lounge chimes midnight, Chris creaks back down the stairs, a heavy bag slung over his shoulder.