New Writing

The Suitcase

Aleksandra Stepmanns

The suitcase was not the first thing the girl saw that morning. She woke to the drawings and photographs of dogs, particularly border collies, that danced precariously on her walls. They were held by globs of blue tack, warmed in the soft light that trickled through her wooden blinds and would never let her sleep in past seven. This is what she saw from the corner of her room where her head lay tucked between wall and pillow. She contemplated their black and white elegance until she heard the back fly screen slap shut on its hinges and the footsteps make their way across the floorboards. They paused at the counter as they always did and it would be silence for a minute or two while Wagner sipped his cold coffee and stared out into the frosty fields he had just come from.

Some mornings his reflection was too clear in the glass, the day too dark, and he would rub a hand over his tired eyes and through his scraggly, too-long hair. He would forget to cut it again. But this was after.

That morning the girl heard him pause. But she didn’t hear the thud of the coffee cup back onto the counter. She didn’t hear the footsteps shortly after that would mark her time being up. Or the soft knock on the door wiping more flakes of paint to the ground. All these things, the precursors to her morning, where she would then shut her eyes against the brush of the fresh light and wait, precious as a dove, they did not come.

On every other morning her eyes would blink shut at the knock on her door. She would wait and listen. Slowly the door handle would squeak and the door would scuff on the corner of her thick rug. The footsteps were soft then, across the small space, before she would hear his breath right up close and comforting. Then she would feel his weathered palm rest on her forehead and across her cheek and still she would not move. Still waiting until he would breathe out once more and softly whistle a four note tune, the third note high and the fourth falling low. Only then would she turn her face into his palm and mumble, her own breath tickling her nose.

“Come on,” he’d say. “It’s already past morning.” And she’d open up towards his welcoming promise of day. He would tap the tip of her nose with one finger, then rise, patting across the carpet once more. By the time he’d reach the door her eyes would be wide open, ready to catch the smile he sent as he turned.

She would get up then, having already been awake for half an hour and pad out into the kitchen in her white fleece onesie where mum would already have her hot chocolate ready, next to dad’s empty mug. That is how it had always been.

She had to wait to be woken up, you see, to be sure they could not forget her.

But on the morning of the funeral Wagner did not come.

When the silence had grown too loud for her the girl sat up in bed, covers clutched in her little fists. She’d heard him come in. But now nothing. She hadn’t heard the woman turn the coffee machine on either. Or the hard and fast splatter of her shower. Cocking her head she listened harder, through the closed, peeling door. Nothing.

She shifted her weight in bed and peeked her feet out from under the covers, touching one down to the rug warily, big toe first. The morning seemed colder than usual. She tiptoed across her dimmed room past desk and bookshelf, shaded windows behind her. Turning the door handle slowly in a vice grip, so as not to make a noise, she ventured out into the hallway.

Down she treaded on the balls of her feet. Past the silence. The door to the woman’s room was closed like it had been for the past three mornings, like it hadn’t been before that, ever. She stopped, bare feet on the hard floorboards at the entrance to the kitchen.

He hung erect before her. Hands resting, no, gripping, the edge of the bench. Overpoweringly tall and strong, her daddy. He could carry her on one shoulder and the boy on the other. But he was not in his blue flannel shirt, the one with the big checks and the threads hanging from the elbow. He stood looking out through the window wall of the kitchen without moving at all. Not an inch. Not even to lift the mug of coffee to his lips. There was no mug of coffee.

Looking at the machine the girl could see that it was completely empty. It hadn’t been turned on. And there was no hot chocolate either. The woman must have overslept, her door was still closed. Or maybe the girl herself was early. She’d gotten up before he’d woken her. It was wrong. The whole morning was wrong. She should sneak back to bed and wait for him to come. He always woke her up. That was what he did.

But she was wrong, he was moving. Just a little bit. Her feet were cold on the floorboards. She wriggled her toes and watched his shoulders rise and fall. Just an inch, up and down and forward and backward. Shaking like he was laughing. It was a trick! She knew it! He was going to catch her out of bed and know that she was already awake, had been every single time. Any moment he would turn and catch her. Laughing and lunging, lifting her above his head. Heart quickening she was ready to tiptoe back as quickly as she could without creaking the floorboards.

But he stopped her again as a chunk of air caught in his throat. He wheezed around it, shoulders laughing deeper now. He coughed and shuddered and all of him fell though he stayed on his feet. He leaned back, pushing, arms strong against the bench, head down, shaking, shaking. But he wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t move.

She didn’t think he was trying to push the bench, she didn’t know what he was trying to push, or what was pushing him. But something was. It was big and strong and crushing, stronger than her daddy. It made the cold spread up from her feet into her body. He was not strong. He was small and short and shaking and it wasn’t laughing.

It was crying.

He was dressed all in black and he was crying.

‘Daddy?’ She whispered.

The door in the hallway behind her clicked shut then. An accidental sound. They both looked, having missed its opening. It was the same, cold, hard and white with paint peeling at the edges. The same as hers. But it meant a lot more now. Beside it standing proud and taller than her father was a big black bag, handle still clipped at full height. It didn’t lean on a bench or on the wall but stood alone, imposing its fullness and blackness on the hallway and on the two people still standing in the kitchen, in another world.

She didn’t want to be out of bed anymore, in this place where everything was black and dads cried and forgot their daughters and mums hid and forgot their hot chocolates and suitcases stood and laughed and laughed and floorboards were cold but the sun didn’t warm them.

She didn’t want it.

She wanted her dad to hurry up and come in from outside. For the door to slap shut and bring her out of this wrongness. She wanted to wait in bed while he drank his cold coffee and then he’d come for her and she’d tell him all about it and he’d kneel by her pillow and tell her it was okay, just a dream. That there was no suitcase. That the door was not shut. The hot chocolate was ready. The crib was not empty.

And then he’d give her a big kiss and maybe even they’d go to the farm and get a puppy because that would make her happy, she’d say, and he would smile and rub her head and they would come back home and live like normal, all five of them with the puppy.

But instead his hand found her tiny shoulder and rested there, less of a comfort than in need of some itself, as they both stared at the abomination in the hallway taking up their lives.