Issue 1‎ > ‎

The Spirit Level

by Sarah Hilary

From overhead a skitter of chair legs says morning more reliably than the clock he fixed to the wall.

He’s redecorating the bathroom, orange. He has a hammer to break up the old tiles, working to a rhythm, swinging, bringing it down. She likes the pattern, pulse, a noise like living.

When he goes away she’s frantic. For the children there’s no change; they cannot understand her pacing, snapping fingers, counting the bricks from one end of the room to the other. The new line of orange tiles isn’t even; he left the spirit level behind. She gets into the habit of placing it everywhere, along the door jamb, on the floor, across the tops of shelves.

She stands on tiptoe and holds it on the ends of her fingers flush to the ceiling, watching its long eye empty and fill with green spirit, seesawing until it stops. Nothing in the cellar is straight.

The children sit in front of the television, moon-faced, tongues worrying at the hollows in their teeth.

She worries the food will not last until he returns. She sets the spirit level on the lid of the chest freezer then places it inside, where ice has formed a scummy shelf. The green eye runs away, blinking, winking from the glacier polythene of pork chops.

She thinks, What if the floor isn’t the floor but the ceiling? What if I’m living on my side? She pushes her ear to the wall and fills her head with the thwapping of her blood.

One of the children tries to take the spirit level off her and she yells, clutching the thing to her breast as if it’s the child, not the big-eyed rot-toothed thing grabbing at her.

The spirit is strange, a beautiful bubble shaped like a heart being squeezed, being swallowed and blown back out, bursting back and forth, boiling, smoothing flat and low in the level. She could watch it for hours.

The idea of smashing it comes and goes, exciting her. At night she sleeps with it against her sternum, feeling her lungs inflate, deflate, chasing the spirit to and fro. She dreams she cracks the glass but the spirit keeps its shape, filling the cup of her hand, a fluorescent globe.

In the morning she thinks of falling on the level, like a Samurai. Of driving – hiding it – up inside her body. She would walk stiffly but always find her balance.

He comes back, bringing the sharp stink of outside, bitumen and burning leaves. Autumn, already? He’s brown, there’s sand between his long toes, loose skin below his ribs, whole handfuls of it. He’s old, she remembers, was old before she was born. Pouches under his eyes, presents for the children, garlands of plastic flowers.

She hated him for a long time, feared him for longer, but he comes back smelling of outside, bringing the familiar beat of his feet on the cellar floor, and she reaches for him with something like love.

Sarah Hilary
won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892, and has two stories in the Fish anthology 2008. She was a highly commended runner-up in the Biscuit Short Story Contest 2008. MO: Crimes of Practice, the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features Sarah's story, One Last Pick-Up. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee. Sarah blogs at