Writer’s Note: This piece started with a voice, and a feeling: I am looking for the key to the drawer with nothing in it.
I heard that voice in my head and I knew that the person saying those words is unravelling. When I wrote this, I had in mind The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilmor, To Room 19 by Doris Lessing and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, all of which deal with mental disintegration. What particularly struck me about those stories is how the people in them are held hostage by their environments.
The story’s narrator is searching for a key, but their mind has become unmoored by the gravity of their situation. They desperately want access to the one empty space in their home, the one place that remains free of detritus. Having come into this home and never quite established themselves in it, they are taunted by everything: the belongings of a child that wasn’t theirs, the evidence of a love that will never feel enough. I chose to punctuate the story with lists of things unearthed during the search, to evoke the character’s sensory overload. Through those objects, I hoped to reveal why this person feels like a stranger in this home, and how this drives them towards that final moment of crisis.
I am looking for the key to the drawer with nothing in it, he says, voice stretched tight as clingfilm over half-eaten peaches, stretched tight as the strings of the mute banjo that leans against the wall, stretched tight as the cannula clamped to her too-young-for-this hand.
Thimbles, bobby pins, used stamps, pocket combs, school reports for the child that wasn’t his.
The drawer with nothing in it contains dampened ambition, contains blighted dreams of fatherhood, contains the only space she hasn’t filled. He takes the stairs two at a time, wrenches open cupboards of empty jam jars, wrenches open boxes of photographs of years ago, wrenches open a throbbing pulsing pain behind the yellowing skin of her left temple. He stands over her and tells her that he cannot find anything in this house of hers, cannot find his way in to the only space that exists to soothe the mess that is his head, cannot find the words to match the desperate state of the almost-wife who has never uttered an unqualified yes.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday pills, apples gone ripe in the bag, bicycle parts, writing paper with the ghosts of long-gone sentences.
He crashes past the bicycle in the hallway and pulls out tins of beans and pulses, pulls out unmatching knives and forks, pulls out the tube that connects the medicine that keeps her alive. Everything slows, except her heart. Her heart beats faster, faster, faster. Her eyes cloud into stars. The doorbell buzzes – her boy, her boy, her boy! – but he ignores the intrusion, ignores her rasping attempt to say I love you, I love you, I love you, ignores the sirens echoing outside the house in which her life is drifting, drifting, drifting.
Recipes torn from magazines, shells pocketed at a long-forgotten beach, sketches of a sleeping baby’s head, letters received, love departed once, twice, forever.
And as she lies there, consciousness buried beneath a thickening mist, he unravels her belongings like displaced flotsam, unravels her secrets in letters and mementoes, unravels the truth that lies at the heart of things: she loves him less, she loves him less, she’s always, always loved him less.
Emily Devane is a writer, teacher and editor from Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Recent publications include Smokelong Quarterly, Best Microfiction 2021 and Ambit. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Northern Writers’ Award, a Word Factory apprenticeship, and was recently shortlisted for the Mogford Prize. Emily teaches creative writing and co-hosts Word Factory’s Strike! Short Story Club. She is judging the next round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award.