The Nightingale

by Erika Byrne-Ludwig

ROSE was on her own waiting for the door bell to ring. She was 12. Summer holidays were on. A drawing to water-colour, a letter to write, a few pages to read; and if she'd had her piano, she would have played and sung along. She smiled: they called her "The Nightingale" at her singing classes ... She took out her paint brushes and hummed a song just to pass the time. Still, it was only morning.

On that day she was aware that the electrician would come to fix the heater. It would be the only interruption to her routine during the long hours of quiet. The heater's defect had been pointed out to her, so she didn't expect any problem as she would just direct him to the spot and stand by while he fixed it.

As anticipated, the electrician arrived, pulled his tools out and got to work. Rose felt a bit useless standing there but didn't know what else to do. She was by nature very shy, never liked arguments or awkward moments. She wished her sisters were there just to take over the responsibility of having to deal with him. She walked away a while, looked out the window and watched the traffic go by. Later on, she would follow the avenue to the lake and buy herself an ice cream.

Placing the tools back he told Rose what had been the problem and that the heater was now working. It seemed all so simple; she could cope now with him; in a minute he'd be out. He was in his thirties, tall, slim and blond, wearing his business overalls. He started chatting with her about school, about her holidays, and asked for her name. He smiled at her timid reply and said it was also his wife's name.
Looking back at the scene, she doesn't think he had planned any diversion right from the start. She certainly hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. He seemed just like any tradesman going about his work. But then, would she have recognised the signs in his demeanour if they had been there, she questions herself. Would she have been all that observant in those days. It had been so many years now ... Memory is not a total replica of actual events, she thinks, there is always some fading along the way.

Suddenly, she was in his arms. He was holding her tight. Rose didn't know what to do. It was all quite unexpected and strange. A tall man in overalls, pressing her short girlish body ... Her innocent mind knew that it was somehow irregular. Yet she didn't know what to do. She remembered feeling uncomfortable with her arms down and unable to move. His body was warm with a whiff of sweat and oil. His breathing noisy. He smiled at her and kissed her forehead gently, asked her if she would like him to come back. She nodded yes because she didn't want to upset him. He let her go and walked out with his tools.

It was one of these instants when everything became dim in her mind. Standing helplessly in the room, she tried hard to shift her thoughts away from the incident. Hadn't it simply been a clip from a movie? Had he really come? Could she be fantasising? No, she couldn't be. She could still feel, all over her body, an invisible presence embracing her. She tried to detach it from her like an old dirty frock. At the same time, she couldn't feel any pain. Her body, deep inside, had not been stirred, apart from the pounding of her heart. It was her head that was in turmoil. And it was throbbing.

Fear took really hold of her moments after he had left the room. She ran into the kitchen, away from the door and sat on the floor against the wall. Like a trapped small bird, she trembled. She vaguely heard him say before he left that he would come back. When would that be? How long would she have to wait all cramped up? She would have liked to go for a walk, a run, fast, fast, through the streets she knew, the shops she knew. But she might cross paths with him. A few tears trickled out and fell on her knees. Even here, all safely locked in, she believed danger, in whatever shape it might be, could pass through the walls.

The clock above her was going tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, in its usual detached way. Rose concentrated on its sound, preempting the next tick, the next tock, when, suddenly, the bell rang. It rang again, and again. She didn't move. Her heart beat a bit louder. She pressed her knees firmly against her chest. The lino under her felt warm and moist. The bell rang a fourth time. Her face in her hands, with her eyes closed, she hoped to obscure the image of the man standing behind the door.

After the last ring, she heard some faint shuffling and rummaging before something fell out of the mail slot on to the mat inside. It was a chocolate bar.