This week, as the mercury plummets and the nights are at their longest, Killings is revisiting some of the best fiction from the past six years of Kill Your Darlings to warm the cockles of your heart. For more winter warming stories, join us around the fire tonight for a Midwinter Nocturne, part of this year’s Emerging Writers Festival.
Jon Bauer’s ‘Cold Patch’ originally appeared in Kill Your Darlings Issue 10, July 2012. For more great fiction, subscribe today.
She lay there listening to the rain and thinking about her washing. It’d been on the line since that sunny Thursday. Now it was Friday night and she was in bed, the downpour dirtying her sheets and her husband blowing his nose in the sink.
She pulled the doona more tightly around her, sausage-rolling herself in some warmth. His footfalls stopped halfway along the corridor. ‘Did you turn the heating up again?’ he said. She was facing the wall, a grimy area on it where he rubbed against it during sleep – coming to bed filthy. She looked at that smudge, the shape of it.
‘Did you?’ he said, arriving in the bedroom.
‘Can’t you put some warm clothes on rather than heating the whole house?’
He was undressing with his back to her, knick-knacks wobbling on the chest of drawers as he balanced on one leg to get a sock off. Then again for the other.
‘I put the machine on,’ he said, his voice still showing the strain of balancing.
He crawled up from the foot of the bed to slide in between her and the wall. She sat straight up and swung her legs round, put her feet in her slippers and went off down the corridor.
‘Forgot to floss.’
The wind gusted rain hard against the window, as if it were suddenly falling more heavily. The downpour drumming on the roof.
She was coming back, her footsteps pausing.
‘Coming,’ she said.
She sat on the bed, deposited her slippers, then lay down and flung the covers over herself, banging her heels up and down on the mattress and blowing out her cheeks.
‘Cold one tonight,’ he said.
‘When I said we needed rain, I didn’t mean this much.’
‘This bed’s freezing!’
‘It’ll get there.’
They listened to the rain.
‘Lights out?’ he said.
She leaned over and turned out the lamp, but the security light blinked on outside – light coming in through the curtains. Over and over she had begged him to adjust the sensor. ‘It’s your sensor that needs adjusting,’ he had replied. Which she took to mean he didn’t know how to fix it.
The security light blinked off, the rain beat down. They lay in the dark, looking up at the sound.
‘There’s a cold patch,’ she said, her hand on the space between them. He turned over to face his grimy wall. ‘It’ll warm,’ he said, his voice already softening in sleep’s shadow.
She plonked her body over the cold like a broody hen. She hated it when he fell asleep before her; the sense of abandonment you could feel lying right beside someone. People were never further away than when they were sleeping right beside you. Like her father laid out in state. The smell of rosewater.
‘It’s still there,’ she said in a loud whisper, as if not to wake him.
‘What?’ he said, his voice coming long distance.
‘The cold patch. I’ve been on it and it’s still there.’
She had to speak over the rain intensifying on the roof. It sounded like cattle feed landing in a metal trough, her father holding the weight of the sack but her steering it – feeling like she was pouring. The feed powder coming up. She’d adored that smell.
He snorted. ‘What?’ He sat up, turned the wrong way to face her in the dark. ‘It’s really raining,’ he said, his voice a little singsong with sleep. The security light blinked on again, etching the room with light and shadow.
He reached out and she found his hand, directing it. ‘See?’ she said. ‘I’ve been lying on it and it’s still like that.’
‘P’raps it’s wet. Is it wet? Maybe the roof ’s leaking again.’
She turned the lamp on and they squinted, looking down at the spot on the bed where their hands had been, then up at the dry ceiling.
He shuffled down the bed and got out.
‘Where you going!’
‘Water bottle’ll fix that,’ he said. ‘Cuppa?’
‘No thanks,’ she said, looking from him – naked from the waist down – to the spot on the bed. ‘Don’t be long.’
When he’d gone she positioned herself on the cold again, looking up at the architrave to help her sense the temperature better.
‘You did turn it up, godammit!’
She pulled a corner of lip into her mouth. He huffed on down the corridor to the kitchen. Eventually she heard the faint growl of the kettle.
They were both in bed now, the hot-water bottle in place, the lamp too bright. She reached over and snatched up his dressing gown from the floor. The lamp giving off a tainted green light after she’d flung his prized garment over it as an extra shade.
‘Careful with that,’ he said.
‘This is ridiculous. It’s you and that bloody thermostat.’
‘Wear more round the house.’
‘Some husbands would appreciate their wife uncovered.’
‘Maybe husbands that like to look at a dish they can’t eat.’ He turned over in bed.
‘You’re going to sleep?’
‘It’s night time. People traditionally sleep then.’
She got up and peeked between the bedroom curtains, the water pooling on the flowerbeds, his dressing gown starting to smell warm on the light bulb. She had begged him to throw it away for years, the polyester polished grotesquely smooth. She glanced across to see if he could smell it but he’d put a pillow over his face.
‘Lights out, please,’ he said through the old pillow feathers.
‘Your roses are getting a drowning.’
‘What about the cold patch?’ He growled a sigh. ‘You’re imagining it. Besides, the hotty’s on it. It’s a hot patch.’ The faintest smoke rising from the dressing gown.
She lifted the hot-water bottle and felt the bed. She thought about how her dad had touched her with two spoons at once, one from his tea, one from his ice-cream, and she’d not been able to tell the difference. She thought about how not knowing the difference had been exciting back then. She thought about all this rain pooling on his grave. They said she wouldn’t be allowed to put in the stone for weeks, until the ground had settled. Her reflection looked at her from the wet window glass, a drear picture of the passing of life – time’s teeth marks all over her face, and her father in an unmarked grave in the rain.
She stared down at the dressing gown, the room smelling of sweat and singed fabric, a slight burn forming. She lifted the gown, all the time checking for the pillow still over his face, his breathing evening out. The gown was stuck. She lifted harder, panicking a little, trying to tease it from the hot bulb without tearing it. He fidgeted and she dropped it – turned the light off, opening the door a little to let the smell out.
She got into bed, her face turned to the lamp, worrying about fire. The rain had almost stopped, his breathing starting towards the first gurgle of snores. The light from the bulb now a remnant splodge in her eyes, floating between her and the darkness, her brain trying to make meaning out of it.
‘What if we can’t tell anymore?’ she whispered to him in the darkness. ‘What if we can’t tell how cold it’s got?’
She reached for his hand and he gave her a little squeeze, even in his sleep. A sign of cold habit, or of warmth beautifully engrained. She worried which.
While he drifted off she lay there looking at the darkness, his dressing gown still stuck, smelling, to the cooling bulb. The rain gone elsewhere. Her hand too nervous to check the cold patch now. The hair-trigger security light coming on again.
Rosewater, she thought, picturing her washing sagging in the Friday night weather, and thinking about that sunny day when she’d hung it all out there, clean and fresh and bright.
She sighed and got up, unplugged the lamp, crept with it out into the corridor and closed the bedroom door to, the porch light shining in through the window over the front door – the corridor freezing.
The light went out, her body rigid in the cold and the black, the house especially sombre with the downpour gone, the eaves dripping water, his snoring percolating through their bedroom door. She wrapped her arms round herself, wondering why it was that women had to feel more than their fair share of the cold. And yet she remained in the corridor, stuck between not wanting to stay up alone, and not wanting to slide in next to somebody who wasn’t there.
She waved at the sensor, hoping it would take pity on her through the window, but it was the thermostat that clicked.