Low Pressure by Martin Toman
Phillip drove without thinking. He looked squarely ahead at the strip of bitumen, a single carriageway heading away from the small town where he worked as the senior engineer at the paper mill. The trees that bordered each side of the road waved their limbs in distress, the blasting gale that preceded an imminent storm whipping their bare forms. Every time Phillip passed a break in the trees, he felt his truck veer across the centre line, buffeted by the blunt fists of air that compressed through the gaps. All the while vehicles driving in the opposite direction barreled down against him. At their passing Phillip could feel their speed as his truck struck the low pressure pocket left in their wake.
All day the approaching storm front had framed the horizon. The weather bureau had forecast it would come down in the late afternoon, but as Phillip pulled off the road and onto his property it had yet to fall. In the last moments of daylight grey clouds scudded across the blue black sky. The horizon was all darkness, and no stars would peep through.
When Phillip pulled into the shed he turned off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition. Through the closed windows he could hear the wind pushing at the sides of the car port. He opened and closed the truck door without bothering to lock it, and walked to the adjacent side entrance to his house. As he put his key into the lock the wind abated for a moment, as if holding its breath. He paused, the pinging sound of the engine popping in the shed as it cooled, the air cold even through his thick coat. And then the rain came, at first individual drops on the tin roof, and then merging to a steady din. The day long wind made a return, the gusts too lazy to go around him. Phillip opened the door.
His first thought upon entering was: This isn’t how I left it.
Every workday morning when Phillip left his house he had the habit of leaving it in a certain way: the toilet seat down, the bed made, books stacked neatly on the coffee table. Years ago when he had first arrived in town he had entertained the idea that he would bring women home with him. They’d walk in after he’d met them somewhere, the instant chemistry guiding them to the bedroom, where everything would be prepared for him to show off the way he lived, how female friendly he was. Eventually it became a habit, a check list of things he would do before he went out. But in a town as small as the one where he worked there were few single women, and most of them were attached to his workplace. Phillip knew better than to mix his personal and work spheres. And as the local women were all paired off with local men, there had been no ladies to seduce in his well-kept bachelor pad, no spontaneous moments of attraction to turn his fantasies into reality. The closest he got to available female company was Kelly, the hairdresser in town.
Despite his aspirations, loneliness was a natural state to Phillip. When he was a child he lived with his mother. He had no brothers or sisters, and had no memory of his father, who had left when he was a baby. His mother would walk him to the school gate, and collect him from the same spot in the afternoon. Phillip spent long afternoons in his room, school holidays in the park. He spoke to himself. He invented friends in his head for company.
Sometime since he had left this morning there had been violence in his house. The sofa was overturned, a side table and lamp upset. The lamp was turned on, the naked globe exposed by the bent angle of the lampshade. Phillip paused at the front door, unmoving. The storm, metastasizing through the day, hammered on the roof. He tracked his eyes across the room. A picture on the wall had been shifted and hung evenly. Near the sink in the adjoining kitchen there was a dinner plate pool of blood, and leading from it were more blood marks: boot prints, a trail leading to the corridor, a hand print on a wall.
Phillip followed the blood down the hall. He concentrated upon his senses: what he could see, what he could hear. The foot marks faded the further he walked from the kitchen, but the consistent trail showed him the way. The dark lines and drops curved around the corner to the bathroom. There was another pooling at the foot of the door. The handle was smeared with blood. He touched it with his finger. It came away tacky. He put his ear to the door, but he couldn’t hear anything above the sound of the rain beating on the roof.
He opened it. A naked woman submerged in the bath. The bathwater a bled out red. The woman’s face unrecognisable in the murk, her shape amorphous in the semi-opaque water. Phillip walked towards her on legs that suddenly felt as if they controlled by someone else. He dipped his hand into the bath and thought, lukewarm. The ground rushed up to meet him. Darkness.
Phillip awoke in the midst of a dream. The room was still winter dark, but it felt like it was almost morning. He reached out to the side table where he normally kept his mobile, and found it plugged into its charger cable. He looked at the screen. Half of five. The wind that had excoriated the countryside yesterday had blown away. It was silent. In his mind’s eye the remnants of his dream had already started to fade, but he could still remember what it had been about, even if those visions would soon disappear as most dreams do. Phillip had dreamt of his childhood cat.
When Phillip was twelve his mother bought him the animal. A simple desexed male, grey and white. Denied the company of other children he poured his affection into the feline, projecting himself onto his soulless form. When the cat was seven he escaped the house when Phillip was putting out the garbage bins. Out of his usual environment, bewildered by the bright street lights and traffic noise, the cat ran out onto the road and was struck by a car. Phillip gathered the body from the gutter. Sharp teeth drawn back in grimace, a crescent spray of blood across the bitumen. Phillip buried the animal in the backyard in the darkness, wiping the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand as he shoveled the dirt. His face became streaked with earth and cat blood, like war paint. Afterwards he went inside and ran himself a scalding hot shower. Under the water he wept.
And then as the thoughts of the cat washed away, Phillip remembered. The body. The blood. Immediately his skin felt overly sensitive, prickly. His clothes and sheets scratchy. He lay in the silence, desperately attuned to the noises of the house. Nothing. The rain had passed, and he could detect nothing in the still. He pulled back the covers and swung his legs out of the bed. He had to find out.
The bathroom was spotless. Everything was as he would normally leave it. He ran his fingers around the bath, it was dry and clean. The door handle shone its normal dull chrome. Phillip walked down the hall. The floor was clean, no marks visible on the wall. A stack of clean dishes from a meal sat in the drainer next to the sink, the white tiles blemish free. He bent down. Even the colour of the grout was consistent. His lounge was as normal, the furniture in its regular place, the lamp upright and in the centre of its side table, the picture straight.
Phillip took a glass out of a cupboard, filled it with tap water. He closed his eyes. I must be losing my fucking mind.
Two hours later as Phillip drove to work there was standing water on the edges of the bitumen. It must have rained through most of the night. Washed out gravel from driveways had run into the roadway.
Phillip was first into the mill. He went to the office, checked his emails. There were more than usual, a few backed up from yesterday. Sometimes the local server dropped out and there was a delay in correspondence getting through. He wrote his replies, and went down to the factory floor, started the machines, ran the safety checks, filled out the compliance ledger. The first shift arrived and he went back to the office, looked out the window. His staff were on board, machines ticking over, cutting and sorting. Jenny, the second plant engineer and his understudy, was looking at him.
You feeling ok, Phill?
He glanced at her.
Why do you ask?
Yesterday, you know, when you left work you said you weren’t feeling well.
Yes, you did. Are you ok now?
Phillip ran his hand through his hair. His scalp felt sore, like every hair follicle was irritated.
I had the strangest dream, well actually two dreams. The second was about the cat I had when I was kid. The first was so real I dunno, but it turned out to be nothing.
I’m not surprised your dreams were freaky. When you left yesterday you said you had a migraine and were just going home to sleep it off. You looked out of it. I covered for you when you left. Nothing happened, it’s all good.
You covered for me?
Yes. You left early. You weren’t well. But you’re better now, yeah? Or do you want to take the day?
No, I’m fine, really. Just fine. Let’s get about the day, eh? Paper and all that. Pressing, folding, cutting. Jenny turned away. She bent over, put her lunch in the office bar fridge. Phillip thought to himself, I’d rather take you home and press you up against something.
The rest of the day passed without incident. The events of the night before seemed to take on more of a dream like quality as the day stretched out, the sharpness of the images blurring into a fog of unreality. By the time he finished up he was sure that he had imagined it. That he had driven home from work yesterday with a blinding headache, had an early dinner and went to bed to sleep it off. Except he couldn’t remember doing any of that, and when he tried to recall anything of the previous evening he felt queasy and hot, like he was nursing a brooding fever.
Phillip arrived home from work in the deepening dusk. After the storm front of the day before, the sky patched out between isolated clouds and a bleary blue, as if it couldn’t decide what mood it was in.
He stood at the side entrance, inserted his key into the lock and waited. He held his breath, and opened the door. It was as he left it this morning. The air locked in his lungs escaped like an explosion. He leant against the doorframe, closed his eyes, Some dreams are just dreams. The rest of his night was unremarkable. The last thing he did before turning out the light was plug his phone into the charging cable. Outside the night was silent. All Phillip could hear was his own breath sliding in and out.
Phillip woke under the brightening sky. His first sensation was of cold, and then the discomfort of the surface beneath his back. He propped up on his elbows and tried to get his bearings. He was lying in the tray of his truck. It was nearly light. He was parked down near the river, at the far end of his property. He could hear the sliding sound of the water passing through the river stones. He looked up. The fading stars stared down on him coldly. What the fuck is going on?
It was then that Phillip noticed the grey tarpaulin next to him. It was covering something about his size. The shovel from his shed was lying between him and the sheet of material, the lump.
Phillip leapt from the truck without thought, landing on the muddy grass of his paddock. He noticed that he was fully dressed. Whatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuck. Phillip stared at the tarp. Even in the half-light it was unmistakable. A person shaped lump under the sheet. He undid the latches at the back of the truck, lowered the rear, and flipped over the edge of the tarp. An exposed naked foot, shin, calf muscle. Chipped blue green nail polish on the toenails. White skin, almost luminous in the dim.
Phillip grasped the tarp and flung it over, the material landing on the grass. A naked woman. Beautiful. Voluptuous. She lay on her back, arms by her sides, palms down. A deep gash under her chin to her ear, but no signs of bleeding. He walked around the side of his vehicle, looked at her face. He knew her. It was Kelly, the hairdresser. She was the woman in the bath. It was her blood on the door handle, carpet, walls, kitchen floor. Dead in the back of his truck, under his tarpaulin, with his shovel resting next to her, on his property. And then he realised it was no dream. He must have murdered her. He had done this. He had no memory of it, just a series of blanks spaces over the last two days.
Phillip bulled his truck down the road away from town. He was making every effort not to think. As the engine droned away under him he concentrated on his breathing, searching for the point where one breath stopped and another started, but never finding that moment of stillness. The emptiness. He look at his hands. There were traces of dirt under his fingernails, still there no matter how hard he had scrubbed. It was nearly dusk. He had spent the much of the day burying Kelly near the river. He chose the nicest spot he could find. He had placed river stones on top of the disturbed dirt, but was under no illusions that the grave would conceal her body permanently, but he felt he owed her the effort nonetheless. When he returned the shovel to his shed he found a bag with her clothing and shoes, and a pile of bloody rags and cleaning products. His vacuum cleaner was also in there, the dirt canister full of dark fibers and dust. His phone had rung three times while he was digging, two calls from Jenny’s extension at work, one from his own. He expected that he had maybe two days at most before Jenny or someone else made their way to his property to check on him. Phillip also assumed that people were searching for Kelly, and that it wouldn’t be long before someone made the connection.
So Phillip drove. He harbored no hope of escape, but the thought of telling the police his story was unbearable. And then the shame of facing Kelly’s family in court, admitting his guilt to the world.
There was no explanation that he could find. It was utterly inexplicable. He searched his mind for a memory, any recollection that would tell him the story of his actions. There was only the suspicion that there was another voice within him that knew what had happened. Another version of Phillip sleeping restlessly within the dark fugues of his existence, that was as much a part of him as any of his memories, any moment of his past. An imaginary friend that dreamt his own dreams. He hoped that there was only one story to tell, that there were no other graves scattered across his land, runaways and hitch hikers and prostitutes long since missing, now under his earth.
Phillip thought of the cat he had loved when he was a child, struck by a car and killed in an instant. The split second of fear the cat had felt before impact, and then the immediate darkness. He hoped that he would share such a moment when it came.
The truck chased its headlights into the dark. If Phillip had the eyes of a cat he could have seen another winter storm gathering on the horizon, a cell of low pressure, soon to break.
Martin Toman lives with his people in a tree house overlooking Melbourne, Australia. He has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Across the Margin, Fresh Ink and Literally Stories.