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romantic writing
DEMISE OF A REALIST

   Siobhan told herself that this was the most bizarre thing she had ever had encountered.

   Breathing in deeply, she approached the antique dresser nervously, enveloped in the red, white and blue apron she always used for the dirtiest of her household tasks.

   Her hands, like a surgeon's, were protected from the caustic fluid by pink rubber gloves. She firmly held on to the rough cleaning cloth, soaked in stinging green. Drawing a deep breath, Siobhan thrust it at the mirror and smothered him.

   She concentrated, rubbing as carefully as she could but, to her utter surprise, she found herself stopping to check if she had damaged his eyes. This provoked a feeling of some panic within her.

   Was she allowing herself to believe that the apparition was more than some strange phenomenon, due to atmospheric conditions or optical illusion? Her behaviour was becoming quite ridiculously out-of-character! She intended to look for any scientific explanation as soon as possible - even if she had to use the Web, which was, for her, out of bounds on a sacred, leisurely Saturday morning.

   She knew she had to understand properly why the image had appeared in the corner of the mirror of her new antique dresser. But, at present, the most important thing was to get rid of it.

   She concentrated on the task thinking how she had always been able to control her emotions. She admitted that uncharacteristic frisson of panic she had felt, had been perfectly understandable, given the odd event.

   Of course she knew all about loving herself. Most of the text books she'd read had advised it and warned not to be too hard on oneself. It had been suggested by the international company, which employed her, that senior management took time out for personal psychological counselling.

   She'd tried it and given up the sessions just as quickly; it had to be seen to be done. Personally Siobhan thought it was all mumbo-jumbo and she had to pretend she was putting herself through rigorous self-analysis. It was a total waste of time. She had her own life compartmentalised nicely thank you.

   What the counsellor didn't know was that Siobhan's one and only interest lay in making it to the top. She'd worked extremely hard to get where she was and, under no circumstances, was she going to allow anyone or anything to obstruct her ambitions... She paused to reflect. Then looked down at what her cloth was eliminating. Anything eh? Certainly not something like this!

   Siobhan decided not to examine her efforts just yet. She supposed she could spare a few minutes out of the usual rituals of her Saturday morning to observe the reflection of the forsythia bushes, yellow and green bending with the wind, iridescent clouds of beauty reflected in the bevelled edges of the dresser's square mirror.

    A few moments later she was gingerly lifting the cloth, warm from the friction.

   It hadn't worked. She frowned. It hadn't moved. It was still there! She couldn't understand it. And Siobhan didn't like things she couldn't understand.

   She tried moistening her lips with her tongue, but found her mouth painfully dry. Her own pale face stared back at her through the mirror.

   She hardly recognised herself. This was not her usual expression. Very rarely was she ever at a loss. The image of elegant executive, Siobhan McKiernan, senior adviser in Economic Practice to the Ku-Lung Bank, had disappeared. Instead, a confused young woman was staring back at her in the mirror, feeling something like she had felt when she first moved to London.

   Whatever is the matter with you? she asked herself. It's only a face, after all. Pull yourself together. It can't do you any harm, can it? And you are not imagining it. It's there in the corner. You can see it. When did you ever imagine anything anyway? Not for years!

   But, certainly, Siobhan was not herself that Saturday morning. Behind the paleness of her distress, his clear-cut lines were boldly defiant. And he was smiling now!

   The image, which had appeared on the left-hand corner of the mirror, was smiling! She'd seen it dimly first when she'd looked up from reading the newspaper. It had been such a shock! It hadn't been smiling then either! Not the slightest contour of cheek, nose (it was his least handsome feature), chin, hair had been erased by the cleaning fluid... All still there...

   Until that moment, Siobhan had always considered herself completely rational and quite unflappable. Suddenly she found herself controlling an impulse to scream, rather from surprise than frustration.

   At first she had suspected he was a greasy figment of her imagination, forgotten like the ash castles in the real fire she remembered from her Irish childhood, or the hidden dragons one could concoct from a wall covered in Laura Ashley chrysanthemums.

   Her violent treatment should have consigned him to certain death; but he was still smiling. What kind of man was he?

   A hint of panic made her fingers tremble. Siobhan knew she was being forced to consider now more than any rational explanation afforded. If it had been a laughing matter, she would have.

   It had been an ordinary Saturday morning to begin with. The sixth of April. The small garden of her flat was alive with flowering forsythia; her sex life was satisfactory - for a change - she had recently been promoted and - so she was told - her future was extremely bright when, paradoxically, the image of a human face had appeared in the left-hand corner of her recently-acquired Edwardian dresser.

   That was all! She told herself grimly that if she was to face what had happened she ought to be wearing caftan and the gee-gaws of chicanery! Siobhan shook her head and swallowed. The Siobhan of weekdays could not be reconciled with this - this phenomenon!

   She breathed in deeply to calm herself. Siobhan had been looking for a good piece of antique Cuban mahogany for a long time. It had to be the right piece in several senses.

   Her father used to say Siobhan would have fitted perfectly into the ethos of eighteenth century order. Now he had been a real collector. In fact, it was one of the only things she did remember about him. She hadn't given him a thought for ages. She shrugged as she thought what he would have made of the events of this Saturday morning. But he was a romantic Irishman, after all... And not a penny to his name...

   She went over the piece's discovery. She'd been wandering about upstairs in a small antique shop off Mayfair when she'd caught sight of warm red between two ghastly Victorian monstrosities of wardrobes - a dainty, female piece of furniture, its carved arched back crenellated and bending under wooden berries, flowers and scrolls.

   In the small, square mirror each side of the larger, Siobhan could immediately picture her finest pieces of Aynsley china, poised delicately; as if ready to fly from the small polished stands beneath those mirrors. That was the nearest Siobhan, the first-class Trinity graduate, could get to imagination these days! She had no time!

   And the glass was excellent - she peered at it - hardly flawed. To complete the piece, a highly polished body - only one slight crack - then two good drawers ornamented in the same style, complemented with original brass handles. Siobhan could never resist a bargain, nor an investment ...

   Later, she marvelled at the maker's skill as she screwed down the stands and, later, placed her long-stemmed wineglasses into the carefully-cleaned dark recesses of the lower cupboard.

   Then, Julian and she had enjoyed a leisurely Friday evening dinner. Now, if his department hadn't insisted he flew out to Frankfurt early on Saturday morning for the science conference, he would have been with her to discuss her discovery, although she did suspect he'd be pompous about anything he couldn't understand!

   She had been putting her silver cutlery into one of the drawers when she'd noticed the first sign - rather like an oily film on the left-hand side of the mirror. But she was going to point that out to Mrs O'Hanlon, her cleaner. Siobhan, herself, had time only for light housework. Ten minutes later, the film had spread and developed into a perfect image! Her first feeling of shock was rather unpleasant. It was not a frightening face, not threatening in any way. In fact, it was quite attractive!

   When she trusted herself to look at it closely, she was ready to believe it was a hidden engraving. The craftsman had been cunning enough evidently to cut an image which could only be seen from a particular point of stance - so Siobhan swayed from side to side, trying to deduce the trick of it. But it was clearly apparent from every angle!

   It took her about twenty minutes to inspire the courage to touch it. The glass was smooth, unscratched, uncut, unworn. She had known so - in her heart. The face was within the glass. It would be cut into the mirror's coating!

   It took twenty minutes to dismantle the back. The screws were original and difficult. She wasn't strong enough as she'd suspected, but she still managed to unscrew the protective cover of the mirror. There was a musty green-baize smell about everything and copious cobwebs.

    To add to her discomfort, she had to stand on steps as her height of five feet five was as much a disadvantage in this case as when trying to create a power image in a man's world and being fluffy blonde as well! It was a fruitless exercise as the mirror's back was dusty but quite untouched!

   She almost phoned Julian's hotel in Frankfurt but imagining his opening gambit was enough:

   "Ummm,darling - there's a face in the mirror. Of your dresser? Yes, of course, there is... Yes, I do believe you but - are you sure you're all right?" No, Julian wouldn't understand. Who would?

   Then she'd tried the shop. The man was as helpful as he could be after she'd found the knack of a white lie and he had realised she didn't want to return the dresser. No, there was no history to the piece that he knew anyway. Just early Edwardian. The former owner had picked it up in a sale. Where? Sorry! The man had taken over the shop from someone else.

   Siobhan was nodding to herself throughout, incredulous at her own naiveté. Of course the man didn't know! It wasn't that special. The enormity of the last unuttered sentence shocked her mentally. What could be more special?

   The image had a cloudy, glorious head of curls flowing and merging with the glass. There were fine lines etched in all the places lines would be on the face of a handsome man, past youth, but only just; a wise sophisticate, knowledgeable in the ways of the world. But what world?

   His nose wasn't pleasant. Siobhan thought it must have been so irritating for him to have a nose so slightly spoil his beauty - but it gave him character. One couldn't have everything. She concluded she wouldn't mind her man having a nose like that because the rest of his face was so attractive and, also, it probably would prevent him from being too conceited.

   Just what was the face in the mirror? And, undeniably, the worst moment was to come. He began to smile!

   It was in the cramped confinement of her utility room that Siobhan had made the decision to erase him. She collected a bottle of thick bleach, washing and cleaning powder, liquid tile and mirror cleaner as well as window polish. The bright hype slogans did nothing to cheer her. She had a job to do.

   It took an hour on and off, punctuated by misgivings and the mistaken imaginings Siobhan had not experienced for years. Every squeak of the cloth represented a muffled scream. Finally, a perspiring and frightened Siobhan realised he would not die and that, unbelievable as it was, she had tried to avoid getting the fluid in his eyes which were exceedingly beautiful and wide-spaced. Julian's were rather too close together.

   A tear fell upon the polished mahogany. She sniffed, still calm enough to realise the slightest drop of water would mark it. When was the last time she'd cried? Dada's funeral?

   They had not been close but he'd been her only parent. Siobhan had been brought up by his sister, Maura, after her mother died. He'd always been away on business - but he'd never made any money.

   It wasn't his death - just the beauty of that small Irish churchyard so near the sea. Anyone would cry at a burial there - about never knowing a parent - having no wisdom to draw on - making it on one's own - having to change one's nature to do so!

   She sniffed. It had been a long time since Siobhan McKiernan had been faced with any problem she couldn't overcome.

   That gave her the courage to use the bleach. The smell made her cough. She'd only recently got over a bout of Spring flu and had gone into work regardless. It had done her no good; she was quite exhausted. And he was smiling still.

   She was glad she had not followed the next uncharacteristic impulse - to smash the mirror! She almost had; his wise eyes seemed to be looking into her soul. He remained, enduring his mirror prison...

   She left him and went into the bedroom, imagining his fine eyebrows arched in surprise at the disordered array from last night's lovemaking. She was quite alone! No Julian to help her.

   But she was not... He was in there, watching her from the dresser. Through bright tears she could see her camera, crouching like a black, squat spider with one enormous eye. For a self-confessed realist, even the mental use of such a simile was quite unnerving.

   Of course! She would take a photograph! The idea brought her smartly back to reality. Was there a film? Yes. Six shots left!

   It was an excellent apparatus. Julian had brought it back from Singapore. She had paid for it though. Anyway, he had done something right for once! She was surprised at her renewed confidence. The camera felt as efficient in her hand as a gun might have to an assassin. It would exonerate her.

   Entering the dining room, she ignored her former pathetic attempts - the price of failure - a cloth soaked in foul-smelling green liquid and numerous cans.

   The room was full of midday light. The yellow stars of forsythia fluttered and fibrillated in the faceted glass. Their green growth swayed, captured in unreality. Another star of white appeared among them, crowned by a fluffy blonde aureole of hair.

   Siobhan's reflection melted behind his smiling face as she crouched to ground level to steady her hand. Their reflections merged lovingly - she hadn't counted on getting herself in the picture, but how else could she do it? He was still smiling as the flash bulb exploded, uniting them for ever.

   Julian sat downsmugly. He had to admit her was sorry for his girl friend. His double-breasted beige suit was complemented perfectly by the onyx cufflinks. Slowly he withdrew the black packet. Siobhan had felt unable to fetch the prints herself. It was as if the whole of her truthful life was to be encapsulated with their collection.

   Julian's expression annoyed her immensely. He had no interest in what he referred to snidely as "your Saturday morning experience". He held the proof in his hand; the image had disappeared after the bombing with the Pentax, but the shock had remained.

   "You haven't looked, I hope," she asked.

   "I agreed not to," he lied smugly.

   "And I believe you." He blinked. She took the packet and opened it. His impatience growing, he watched her fluffy, blonde head bent intently over the films. She was not as well groomed as usual. And what was she wearing? A caftan with dragons?

   Also she had taken the same photograph over and over again. Strange! He was not going to repeat his fellow chemist's words, when they'd joked about the prints. Too much light. Over exposure. Let her find out for herself.

   Then she was holding out a glossy fan of prints to him, like a pack of cards. He took them, trying not to look surprised.

   "Well? There now. There now!" she said. "Look now." He felt embarrassed by the pronounced Irish accent. She had managed to get rid of it so successfully. "What did I tell you?"

   Julian hesitated, playing for time. He straightened his tie, put on his reading glasses, stared down at the prints with his near-set eyes. He squinted, avoiding her candid gaze: "So? I can only see one face! Yours!"

   "So can I!" Siobhan McKiernan opened her caftaned arms in a truly characteristic gesture that encompassed the whole of the universe. Julian's expression was blank. The mask of its duplicity was all she had expected. There was neither wit nor wisdom there; no beautiful, expressive eyes, nor kindly lines, just rubbed-out emptiness!

   Siobhan was positively triumphant. He pitied her. She was quite unhinged.

   "What can you see then?" he asked. "Except yourself?" He stared at the prints again, then at her reflection where she stood, her back to him, staring at him through the mirror with the yellow flower faces nodding in collusion.

   "That's it, isn't it? Myself. I can see the real me. At last!" she said. "You have never understood anything about me, Julian Leaverhouse, have you? Just typical!" He was nonplussed; he hadn't realised she was having a breakdown. And she had been the supreme realist. That had been her attraction.

   He was glad to get out. And Siobhan was happy to see him go. It had taken such a long time to recapture herself and understand truly what had been behind that quizzical face in the mirror.

THE END

Piper
The Piercing