Home for Christmas

Charlotte woke clammy with sweat, her heart racing. The dream again. She squeezed her eyes tight to remove the pictures and screaming in her head, then lay quietly, waiting for the hammering of blood in her ears to stop. Her brothers’ whistling breaths alongside her showed they were undisturbed. In the weak yellow light of the streetlamp, illuminating the room through the thin curtains, she could just make out her shadowy surroundings. Turning her head slightly, she could see the hump of her Mum in the corner, huddled asleep under a pile of coats. She had stayed in the armchair again that night then, to give them more room in the bed. Charlotte sighed deeply. She wanted to pee but that would mean waking Mum up as she was not allowed to go to the bathroom alone. She slid soundlessly out from the covers and tiptoed across the cold floorboards to the window. Checking her brothers and Mum were still sleeping, she quickly popped her head under the curtain.

Outside, the sickly lamplight lit up an icy, deserted city street. Once grand houses lined up in shabby rows of bedsits and cheap rentals. In the boarded-up building opposite, steps led up to a wide, deep doorway guarded by two moulded pillars. Charlotte imagined posh ladies in beautiful ball gowns, returning from a night at the opera, stepping down from horse drawn carriages and trotting up the steps to enter the fancy house. Now, the doorway was dirty and dark but she could just make out the huddled figure folded against the wall, away from the wind’s chill fingers. He was still there. Charlotte had watched the man move in a week or so ago; making a bed for himself out of cardboard and setting out his meagre possessions – a carrier bag, a rucksack, a blanket. Every day when she passed him on the way to school, she gave him a smile and a little wave, her Mum hurrying her along the street.

“Come on Charlotte, don’t drag your feet, we’ll be late!” Mum was always hurrying them. She said they mustn’t be late but Charlotte knew it wasn’t that. She knew Mum was afraid. Afraid to be out of the bedsit, afraid to be on the street, afraid in case Dad found them. The man in the doorway never smiled or waved back at Charlotte. He just looked at her with his sad, shiny brown eyes. He was afraid too. Charlotte saw that look in her Mum’s eyes. She saw that look in her brothers’ eyes. She saw that look whenever she caught her face in the cracked mirror hanging in the grubby bathroom they shared with three other families.

A freezing draught cut through Charlotte’s fleecy onesie and she shivered. The bedsit was so cold she could see her breath like smoke rising from a dragon’s nostrils. Imagine how much colder it must be for him, sleeping outside in the filthy doorway. Charlotte wondered who the man was and where he had come from. He was not old but his face was not young. It was hollowed out and lined with tiredness and worry. He was straight and tall, though he bent his body away from the biting cold. His hair was glossy black and his skin reminded her of an olive her Grandma had once given her to try. She had spat it onto her hand as it tasted so yucky and Dad slapped her arm, telling her not to be rude and disgusting. Charlotte thought the man might be a Prince who had run away from an evil King who wanted to murder him.

“Charlotte, what are you doing?” Mum’s voice hissed in her ear, “Get back to bed, you’ll freeze!”

“He’s still there.” Charlotte whispered back.

“Who’s still there?” Mum asked.

“The man living in the doorway. Will he live there forever, Mum?”

“I don’t know. Depends why he’s homeless…he might be an old drunk or on drugs…” Mum’s head joined Charlotte’s under the curtain.

“He isn’t old or drunk. He’s just thin and tired.” Charlotte explained sadly.

“I expect someone from the local church will help him soon. They help homeless people, especially at Christmas.” Mum put her arm around Charlotte, “Get back to bed. Stop worrying yourself.”

“Will they find him a home, like us?”

“Oh Charlotte, call this a home!” Mum kissed her head.

“Are we homeless, mum?” Jack’s sleepy voice came from the bed, “Dylan at school said we’re smelly old tramps because we haven’t got a home and we go to the food bank instead of Tesco.”

“Well, Dylan sounds like a very naughty boy who Santa won’t be visiting this year!” Mum snapped, then said more gently, “Of course, we’re not homeless Jack. This is temporary. We won’t be here forever. Just until I’m back on my feet. Just until the court case is over, then we can get the old house sold…we’ll have money.”

“We have a roof over our heads, Jack.” Charlotte cuddled up to her brother, “It’s dry and we have a bed. That poor man is out in the rain and wind and cold. And he only has cardboard to sleep on. We are much luckier than him.”

“Oh Charlie, only you could say we are lucky!” Mum shook her head in disbelief.

“I feel sad about that man!” Jack began to sniffle, waking up little Lewis who joined in.

“Now look what you’ve started.” Mum sighed gathering all three of her children in a big embrace. “I think that man looks like he’s from Syria or somewhere. One of those refugees. The Government has got enough to do looking after its own, let alone people coming from abroad.”

“But that’s not fair, Mum. Mrs Thomas told us that refugees are running away from war. He couldn’t stay in his country or he would die!”

“I know Charlotte, it’s sad and unfair but there’s nothing we can do about it. Look at us. If I can’t get this sorted, we’ll be joining him!”

“Are we leaving here?” Jack’s brow furrowed with worry.

“Do we have to live on the street?” Lewis wailed.

“No, no, not at all…” Mum soothed, “Don’t you worry. I told you. Our house will be sold and Mummy will buy us a new one. No more talking about homeless people and refugees, Charlie…it upsets everyone.”

 

The next day, the family were up early to get ready for school. Sharing a bathroom with three families meant it could be quite a wait for your turn. Mum needed to spend extra time doing Charlotte’s hair in a French plait, twisted with tinsel, as she was Angel Gabrielle in the nativity play that afternoon; her first time with a speaking role. Mum had managed to make her costume from an old party dress she found in a charity shop and Charlotte was proud of it.  Her brothers were both sheep and had made masks in school from cotton wool and cereal boxes. The three children had only been at the school for a term and Mum was especially pleased they were in the play.

Before leaving the bedsit, Charlotte grabbed her cuddly pony. She never went anywhere without Dobbin. He was the only toy she had managed to fit in the small suitcase the day they had run from home. Although he was not her favourite cuddly, he had become very special to her. He was soft with a velvety muzzle she liked to rub between her fingers and he smelt of her old room. Then, they were out in the icy cold wind and Mum was rushing them along the street. Charlotte looked across at the doorway, ready to wave and smile but the man was not there.

“Come on Charlotte, no dawdling, we haven’t got time.” Mum pulled at her hand.

Charlotte dragged along after her, anxious about where the man could be. She wondered if the evil King had found him and taken him back to his castle. He might be lying in a damp dungeon. She did not think about or look where she was going. All she could see was the man in chains sitting in a dark, miserable prison.

“Charlotte, watch out!” Mum shouted, but it was too late, Charlotte collided with somebody and fell on her bottom with a bump.

“Ow, ow…” Charlotte began to cry.

“I am so sorry.” said a soft, rich voice, “I did not mean…”

Charlotte looked up into two shiny, sad brown eyes. It was the man. She smiled at him, quickly wiping away her tears, “It’s all right, I’m OK.”

“Just an accident.” Mum said, helping her up and brushing her down. “No worry. We need to be going.”

As Mum hurried them on, the man called out, “One moment please, you forgot this.”

He handed Dobbin to Charlotte.

“Thank you.” Charlotte tucked him in her rucksack as Mum pulled her away again.

The man turned and walked on to his doorway.

 

After the nativity play, Mum explained they had to visit the food bank to get their Christmas shopping.

“I was so proud of you all!” Mum said as they walked to the community centre, “You were brilliant. I could hear every word you said Charlie. I think Santa might have left some special things for you at the food bank today because you are such good children.”

“Has Santa left us a present?” Lewis skipped along in excitement.

“We might not get presents this year,” Charlotte warned.

“Is it because he doesn’t know where we live?” Jack asked.

“Of course you’ll get presents this year.” Mum said, “I just told you. He’s left you all something at the food bank. He told me himself. You have all been really good this year, he said, and deserve a present.”

“You talked to Santa?” Lewis exclaimed in surprise.

“Yes, he rang me up this afternoon.”

“How did he get your number?” Jack asked.

“Santa is magic. He knows everyone’s numbers!” Mum said.

They entered the community centre in a state of anticipation. Mum led the way to the food bank at the back of the building, fumbling in her bag for the vouchers she used to buy items they needed.

“Wow!” Charlotte said.

She could not believe the change in the food bank. It was decorated with tinsel and twinkling lights, Christmas music played from a CD player in the corner, the volunteers all wore Santa hats and Christmas jumpers and were singing along merrily. In one corner, there were big sacks full of wrapped presents. The sacks were labelled Boy or Girl and with different ages.

“Look what Santa has brought!” Jack shouted.

“Shall we do food or presents first?” Mum asked.

“Presents!” the three children agreed at once.

Charlotte chose a present from the sack which said ‘Girl aged 7-10 years’. Her brothers had presents from the sack which said ‘Boy aged 4-7 years’. She wondered if Santa really left gifts at the food bank or whether it was kind people who felt sorry for them at Christmas. Surely, if Santa was real, he would bring presents to them at the bedsit. He was magic and would always know where they lived. Her brothers seemed convinced though, and even if it wasn’t Santa, Charlotte thought those people were very kind indeed. She told them thank you in her head.

After the present choosing, Mum took them over to the food.

“I’ve saved extra vouchers so we can treat ourselves.” she explained.

They all enjoyed picking out Christmas treats. There were mince pies, a Christmas cake, a box of chocolates and a multi-pack of crisps to go with the usual essentials.

As they were leaving, one of the volunteer ladies called out, “Wait a minute, me dears!” she ran over with three selection boxes for the children and a box of Christmas crackers, “Merry Christmas!”

 

On Christmas Eve, Charlotte looked out of the window at the man huddled in the doorway. It was bitterly cold. The weather woman on the radio said it might snow that night.

“He’s still there,” Charlotte said, “he hasn’t gone to the church, Mum.”

“Oh Charlie, what did I say to you, please? It’s not helpful and it upsets everyone. Come on now, it’s Christmas Eve and we’ve got to decorate the room.”

Mum had been to the charity shop again and found some tinsel and a Christmas angel. All four of them helped stick the tinsel around the walls with Sellotape. Mum put the angel on top of the chest of drawers. Charlotte and her brothers arranged the crackers around the room and stuck them with tape too. Then they put out their treats and presents on the shelf next to the bed.

That night, Mum said they could eat later, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. She heated up tinned tomato soup in the microwave and served it with slices of bread and cheese. For a special pudding, they had a mince pie and a chocolate each.

“What’s Dad doing for Christmas?” Lewis asked out of the blue.

Charlotte noticed her Mum’s face go pale, “I don’t know, lovely.”

“Probably in the pub…” Charlotte said.

“He won’t ever find us, will he?” Jack asked.

“No, now stop worrying about things like that! It’s Christmas!” Mum smiled, “Let’s sing some Christmas songs, come on, what shall we start with?”

 

Later, Charlotte lay awake thinking about Dad and whether he would ever find them. He had shouted at Mum that she could never leave him. Charlotte tried not to think about the night they left the house, but the image of Dad dragging Mum by the hair out of the room was stuck in her brain. She and her brothers hammered on the door but Dad had locked it. They couldn’t help Mum. All they could do was listen to the smashing and banging and screaming. Charlotte knew she couldn’t go to sleep because she would have the dream again and she didn’t want the dream on Christmas Eve. She thought about the man in the doorway instead and how it was horrible for him to spend Christmas outside and alone. They were luckier than him. They had a home and each other. They had presents and food to eat. He had no one and nothing. They had left their old house but he had left his country. Then, Charlotte knew what to do. Carefully, she crept out of bed and put on her coat and boots, checking every so often that everyone was sound asleep. She picked her selection box from the shelf, unpeeled a cracker from the wall and removed a mince pie, slowly and gently from its wrapper. She bundled them in her scarf, picked up Dobbin and went to the door. Checking again that nobody was stirring, she opened it soundlessly, setting the catch so she could get back in.

On the landing, it was pitch black. The bulb has blown weeks ago and the landlord never replaced it. Charlotte felt her way along the wall to the stairs, then edged her way down one at a time. It was a bit brighter in the hall, a blood red pooled on the floor where the streetlight shone through the stained glass above the front door. She put down her parcel to struggle with the old, stiff door handle, then pulled back the door with all her strength. Picking up her things, she went out into the night. The weather woman was right. It had snowed. A thick carpet, golden under the artificial lights, shone untouched and pure. The grim city street had been transformed into a fairy-tale land. Charlotte looked across at the imposing house opposite. The wide doorway was in shadow but she could just see the outline of a blanketed figure tucked into a corner. Bravely, Charlotte crossed the street and began to climb the steps up to the homeless man. Her feet scuffed the snow.

“Who’s there, please?” the soft, rich voice called, afraid.

“Hello,” said Charlotte, “It’s OK. It’s me, Charlotte, I live over the street. I’ve brought you something for Christmas.”

The man stood up and walked out of his dark corner, “It’s you, the little girl who fell in the street. I have seen you in the window. Go home, it is not safe for you out here at night. Your mother will be worried.”

“I want to give you this then I’ll go home.” Charlotte held out her bundle.

“I cannot take this from you.” said the man, “It is not right. You do not have much. I see. You and your family are struggling.”

“Please.” Charlotte said and their eyes met under the yellow streetlight. The man saw the pain in Charlotte’s eyes and Charlotte saw the pain in the man’s eyes.

He took the gift, “Thank you.”

Charlotte cuddled her Dobbin and walked back home. The man watched her until she was safely inside.

 

The next morning, the boys woke early, excited about Christmas presents. Charlotte was groggy from a sleepless night. They sat on the bed as Mum gave out their parcels. Jack had a Lego tractor. Lewis had play dough. Charlotte had a sketchpad, paints and watercolour pencils. Mum said they could finish the mince pies for breakfast.

“One’s missing!” she exclaimed when she opened the box.

“Sorry Mum, I ate mine in the night. I got hungry.” Charlotte apologised.

“Oh well, you’ll have to have a satsuma.” Mum smiled. It was Christmas after all and she wouldn’t get cross with them today.

“A selection box has gone too…” Jack piped up. Charlotte gave him a stern look.

“Charlotte, you didn’t pig out on all your chocolate?” Mum raised her eyebrows.

“I wonder if it’s been snowing?” Charlotte changed the subject. The brothers ran to the window and pulled the curtain back.

“It has!”

Mum and Charlotte joined them at the window. It looked beautiful outside, crisp and clean and bright.

“He’s not there.” Charlotte said, “He’s gone. Everything’s gone. Even his cardboard bed.”

“I told you the local church would come and get him. They’ll see he’s all right for Christmas,” Mum gave her a hug.

 

After breakfast, it was time to go to the bathroom to get ready for the day. They always went together because Mum didn’t like them being alone in the bedsit.

“Oh, your scarf is lying out here, Charlotte. You must have dropped it yesterday.” Mum said when she opened the door. She picked it up, “There’s something in it.”

“What is it Mum?” Charlotte took the scarf and unwrapped it. Inside, there was a piece of cardboard. On the cardboard was a beautiful drawing. It showed Charlotte riding a glossy horse with a velvety muzzle. She was dressed in a flowing gown with tinsel in her hair.

“That’s wonderful.” Mum said.

“I look like a Princess.” Charlotte smiled.

“There’s writing on the back.” Mum said.

Charlotte turned the drawing over. She read out, “Dear Charlotte, thank you for being my only friend in this strange, grey land. Once, in my own country, I had friends and family. I had a job, a home and money. I had a life. Last night, you made me see I can have friends here too. I can be brave, like you, and go and make a new life for myself. Goodbye, little Princess. Karam.”

“Last night?” Mum raised her eyebrows.

Charlotte looked apologetic, “Well, I can explain everything Mum but, just remember, it’s Christmas…”

 

 

If you would like to support refugees or food banks this Christmas, then here are two great charities:

Refugee Action

The Trussell Trust

A very Merry Christmas to you all!

Christmas is a drag

“Nadolig Llawen!” the chubby chip shop lady called as Jon left the steamy atmosphere and went out into the crisp, wet darkness of a typical December in West Wales. He didn’t reply. Christmas was not on his agenda this year. Having lost his job and the love of his life, his Spotify had been playing Joni Mitchell’s River on repeat for the last fortnight.

Jon splashed through puddles slick with oily rainbows reflecting twinkling lights from the bedecked terraced houses. He arrived at his grey, unlit door and fumbled with his keys. There were advantages to adorning your home with glowing decorations, he thought as he struggled to find the lock. The door swung open and he entered his cold, bare hallway. Since losing his job, he had skimped on the heating. The last thing he needed was an enormous bill this quarter. Lying on the mat, Jon noticed four envelopes stamped with his muddy boot prints. He picked them up and put them in the bin. His mood was too low for jolly, holly seasonal messages.

Jon sat at the kitchen table munching salty, soggy chips and sipping a large glass of brandy. A steady rain pattered the skylight above. He pulled his jacket closer. This had to be the worst Christmas Eve ever. His friends would be out by now, doing the rounds of the village pubs, laughing, hugging, sharing bad festive jokes, gathering later at Twm’s house for the party, cheering and kissing at midnight to welcome in the big day. Jon shivered and pushed the thoughts from his head. He didn’t want to think about Twm. His tinkling laugh, like sleigh bells on a wintry night. His bright eyes, as dazzling as a string of fairy lights.

Jon’s mobile phone vibrated on the worktop. He glanced at the screen; a bad habit he was trying to resolve. He wanted to ignore the messages but read every one despite himself. WHERE R U? WE MISS U. FIND US IN THE 3 COMPASSES. ROB X. What was Rob thinking? He couldn’t go to the pub. Twm would be there. He could not face Twm yet. Not tonight. Not at Christmas, a time for being with loved ones. Twm had made it perfectly clear he didn’t love Jon. Better to forget Christmas this year. To hide away at home. To climb under the duvet and stay there until it was all over. He had his bottle of brandy, another couple of glasses should put him to sleep for a while.

The phone hummed again. Before Jon could stop himself, he looked at the screen. ARE YOU COMING TO THE PARTY LATER? YOU DON’T NEED TO STAY AWAY. I’VE GOT SOMETHING TO TELL YOU. TWM X. Jon shook his head in disbelief. How could Twm torture him like this? Surely, he understood how much hurt he’d caused? Three years they had been together. Three happy years, Jon thought they were. Running a business together and being in love wasn’t always easy. There had been stresses, disagreements and rows. Bound to be with a passionate man like Twm. His temper was fiery at times but it was his energy and life that had drawn Jon. Twm was the complete opposite of him. Jon’s quiet and thoughtful personality settled Twm down. Everyone said they complimented each other perfectly. The vegan café was becoming a success. The TripAdvisor reviews were fantastic. Everything had been going great. Or so Jon believed. But he’d been mistaken. Absolutely wrong. He’d made a fool of himself or Twm had made a fool of him.

 

Jon snuggled into the pillows and pulled the covers up over his head. The brandy had left a warm, soothing glow over his body and his lids were heavy. He closed his eyes and was soon deep in sleep. A glimmer of light played on the ceiling and a faint beat of disco music hung in the air. Jon stirred awake, rubbed his eyes and slowly sat up. He glanced at the alarm clock. Midnight. He’d been asleep for three hours or so. He scratched his head. For a moment, he couldn’t think where the light and sound were coming from, then he realised there must be a party going on across the street. He clambered out of bed to the window and pulled back the curtains.

Outside, every Christmas light and street lamp had gone out. His terrace was silent and black, as if in a power cut, but his clock clearly shone the time. And the room still filled with twinkling light, getting brighter by the second. Jon rubbed his eyes again. This was a hangover of monumental proportions. He started towards the door to fetch a paracetamol but a blazing flash and a deafening bang stopped him. Jon steadied himself against the wall as a glamorous woman materialised in the middle of the room. She was dressed in figure-hugging pink satin with platinum blonde hair piled up in curls and a diamante tiara placed precariously on top.

“What the…” Jon stuttered.

“Do not be afraid. My name is Letitia Splenditia and I am your magical Fairy Drag Queen, Girl.” She sashayed forward, placing a shapely leg in thigh-high silver stiletto boots upon Jon’s bedroom chair, “I’ve been watching you and I know how sad you are tonight. Nobody should be sad at Christmas so I’m here to help.”

John stared aghast at the apparition that had appeared on his cream carpet, “How did you get in here?”

Letitia smiled, showing large white teeth in her lovely, perfectly made-up face, marred only slightly by a shadow of stubble, “Now, now, you don’t need to worry your pretty head with things like that, darling.” She pointed a glossy, manicured fingernail at Jon, “I’m going to mend your little broken heart.”

“That’s impossible.” Jon pouted and folded his arms.

“Oh Girl, never say impossible to a Fairy Drag Queen. I know how much you are hurting. That naughty Twm did a silly thing but you can find it in your heart to forgive him. He wants you to go to the party tonight. And so, you will.”

“A silly thing, that’s what you call it, is it? A fling with his ex? I call it unfaithfulness…disloyalty…betrayal…” Jon’s voice cracked.

“He made a mistake. He was stupid. He drank too much and allowed himself to be flattered by that sweet-talking charmer,” Letitia put her arms around Jon and squeezed him tight. He was engulfed in voluminous bosom and heady fragrance, “but he is sorry. He is heartbroken like you. This party is an attempt to make things better. To put things right. He is waiting for you to turn up.”

Jon shook his head, “Well, he’ll be disappointed then. Anyway, I don’t believe you.”

“Take a look at your phone, Girl. You’ll find many messages there.”

Jon took his mobile from the bedside cabinet. Sure enough, Twm had sent text after text, each one more pleading than the last. The final message read: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE COME. I MISS YOU. TWM X.

Jon sighed, “I don’t know…He’s hurt me so badly.”

“I know he has, darling. But you love him, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will sort everything. You shall go to the party!” Letitia squealed in delight.

“Oh yes, and just how can you do that? I’m a mess. I’ve let myself go these last few weeks. I look and smell awful…” Jon shuddered at his reflection in the mirror.

“Girl, I’m a magical Fairy Drag Queen, how can you even ask?” Letitia twirled her wand and, with another flash and bang, Jon was standing in a sharp suit, hair cut and styled to perfection, swathed in the fresh tang of citrus cologne and mint toothpaste.

“Your carriage awaits…” Letitia pointed to the window.

Under a single street lamp, Jon saw a taxi cab, clouds of exhaust fumes billowing. The driver leant against the bonnet, puffing on a quick cigarette.

“Go slay him, Girl!” Letitia winked, blew a kiss and disappeared.

Jon took a deep breath, appraised himself with pride in the mirror and skipped downstairs.

 

Twm’s house throbbed with loud music and lights pulsed in every window. Jon thanked the taxi driver and climbed out onto the shiny, wet pavement. With a pop, the cab disappeared. Jon pinched himself to check he was awake then darted inside the house, out of the rain. Everywhere he looked, people were dancing, cuddling or snogging in the warm radiance. Drink and food flowed in greedy Christmas excess. Jon searched each room for Twm but no one had seen him.

“That’s great.” Jon said to himself, “All this effort and he’s not even here.”

“Jon, is that you mate?” Rob came bowling out of the downstairs loo, followed by an attractive dark-haired woman Jon recognised as a nurse from the hospital where Rob portered, “Brilliant you turned up! Are you looking for Twm?”

“Yeah but it seems he’s cleared off.” Jon shrugged.

“He’s in the garden. Been there hours in the freezing, bloody rain. Tried to get him in but he said he’s in no mood for a party.” Rob shook his head as the dark-haired woman pulled him back towards the loo, “Sorry mate, things to do. Good luck!”

Outside, the rain fell heavier than ever. Twm hunched on a bench, a coat pulled up around his ears, his normally soft, curly hair plastered to his skull and dripping.

“What are you doing out here? You’ll catch your death.” Jon said.

Twm looked up, “Jon, you came after all.”

“Looks like I did. In the nick of time. Come on, let’s go in and get a drink. Warm you up. It’s Christmas.”

“One moment.” Twm looked serious, “Please sit down. I want to tell you something.”

“It’s wet and cold.” Jon shuddered.

Twm took Jon’s hand, “That doesn’t matter. You’re here. I’m here. We’re together again. Please sit.”

Jon sat on the sopping seat. Water seeped into his smart new trousers.

“You look beautiful.” Twm smiled sadly, “You always do. I’m so sorry I hurt you, Jon. I was a drunken fool. I behaved appallingly. I…I don’t deserve your forgiveness but…I really want it because…I love you so much and I don’t think I can carry on without you. Nothing is the same. I’ve been so miserable…I shut up the café…I haven’t seen anyone until tonight. I only agreed to the party because I…I hoped you’d show up and maybe it would be all right again. Things are bad, Jon. They’re really bad without you.”

Jon held both of Twm’s hands, “I know Twm. I’ve been miserable too. Things are bad without you.”

Twm looked into Jon’s eyes. Jon thought Twm’s eyes were dazzling, bright as a string of fairy lights, though a little fogged with tears.

“Can you ever forgive me?” Twm bit his lip with anxiety.

“I think so…” Jon said, “I’m going to try.”

Twm smiled, “Thank you. That’s the best Christmas present I could wish for.”

Jon pulled Twm closer and kissed him tenderly on his cold lips, “Now let’s go inside, you idiot, before we die out here in this rain!”

Twm laughed, like sleigh bells on a wintry night, “Yes, let’s.”

Jon heard the faint sound of disco music and caught a whiff of heady fragrance on the wind.

 

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone who reads my blog.

Enjoy this night

 

Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.

Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.

Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.

Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.

Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.

“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.

“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.

“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.”  He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”

She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.

Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.

 

Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.

A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.

“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.

Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.

“Nat?”

“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.

“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.

Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.

“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”

She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.

As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.

“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”

“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”

From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.

“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.

“Daughter…” Nat repeated.

“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”

“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.

Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”

He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.

“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”

“An angel.” he said.

“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”

“An angel…” he said again.

“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.

“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”

She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.

“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.

“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”

Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.

“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”

She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.

“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”

When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.

“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”

Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.

 

The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.

Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.

Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.

“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”

There was a brisk knock at the door.

“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”

Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.

Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.

Happily ever after

“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”

“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”

“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.

“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.

“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”

“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.

I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”

“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.

“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”

We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.

“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.

By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.

With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.

“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.

“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.

He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.

“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”

“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”

“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”

“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”

“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”

“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”

“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”

 

The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.

Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”

On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.

“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.

“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”

“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.

Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.

“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”

“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.

“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.

“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”

She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”

“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.

 

Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.

“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”

I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped.  Emily stirred beside me.

“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.

 

I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.

“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”

“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.

We lay together as the scurrying began again.

“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”

 

After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.

“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”

“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”

It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.

I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.

Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.

“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.

“I thought that could be your job.” I said.

“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”

“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”

Emily laughed for the first time in days.

 

Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.

“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.

She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.

 

On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.

“I love you.” she whispered.

Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.

“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”

“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”

“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.

 

After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.

“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”

Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.

“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”

“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.

Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.

“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.

She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.

“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”

“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.

I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a few hours.

“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.

Phil bent down and picked up Princess.

“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”

Emily nodded and began to sob again.

I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.

Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had covered Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.

“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”

“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.

“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”

Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”

“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.

“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.

“And what? Tell me, Phil.”

“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”

“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.

“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.

“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”

“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”

“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.

“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”

“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”

“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”

“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.

“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.

“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”

 

Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.

“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.

“What about school?”

“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”

“Maybe.” Phil said.

“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”

“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.

That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.

 

When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.

“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.

“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”

“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”

“I know.”

“How was she when you left?”

“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”

“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”

“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”

“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”

I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”

“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”

 

The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.

On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.

I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.

It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.

“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”

The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.

“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.

I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”

“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”

“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”

“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”

A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.

 

The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.

After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.

 

When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.

“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”

“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”

“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”

“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.

“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat.  They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”

“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”

“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”

“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”

“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.

Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”

“Go now, Phil.”

“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.

“Go.”

He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.

 

After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.

Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.

In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.

“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”

Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.

In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.

Memories of summer

This is my microfiction story Oxford Summer as featured in The Simple Things magazine in June 2018.

 

The long, hot summer before you left, days stretched like elastic; tense with waiting. Too tired to move, we lay naked on the floor; limbs outstretched, fingertips touching. Mouths parched, the awkward words stuck in our throats. Your bedsit tidied into neat boxes, there was nothing to drink. And I hated the tap water, stale on my tongue. We stole powdered milk; mixed it with guilt in the tiny kitchen. Barely palatable, we gulped it down along with our foreboding.

The last goodbye arrived; a hurried kiss under burning sun, engine running. And I noticed your hands were shaking.

 

The wardrobe

The wardrobe towered over the cheap hotel room; a citadel keeping watch on those below. Elaine felt uncomfortable under its scrutiny. A grand piece of furniture like that – imposing in its finery of polished walnut, carved lintels and shiny brass handles – had no place in such a small, shabby room; the best she could afford in her haste to escape their disapproving faces. She fidgeted on the pillows wondering how anyone managed to manoeuvre the wardrobe through the narrow doorway. It must have been an exhausting feat of strength and endurance. She was certain the wardrobe must have done its best to prevent its arrival into this unsavoury situation.

Now, it commandeered the back wall encroaching an intimidating distance across the drab and grubby carpet. Elaine could not settle under its reproachful gaze. The wardrobe stood, austere and unfriendly, in admonishment; it was clear it did not belong in that room. She, tiny and unimportant, fitted perfectly in the miserable gloom of the place but the wardrobe, oh no, it was too good for its surroundings; beautifully crafted, made for higher purpose.

Elaine turned her back to it and switched off the lamp. Sleep would be difficult with the monstrous wardrobe mocking her from the shadows. In the dim light, she was aware it looked down on her in a superior, knowing fashion. She closed her eyes tight, tried to forget its presence. The flesh on her back began to creep. It was worse with the huge thing leering behind her. Elaine turned again; she would meet it face to face. It would not beat her into supplication.

In the darkness, the wardrobe sneered. It recognized she was unworthy of its attention, a nothing, a disappointment. It knew everyone expected more and she had let them down. It was no surprise she had ended up in this dismal place. The wardrobe wanted nothing to do with her. To be crammed into a lowly hovel was insult enough, it would stoop no lower. It would not share space with a pathetic individual. The wardrobe seemed to grow larger. It pressed against the walls and ceiling. Elaine slid to the far side of the bed until she reached the cool, far edge. She pulled the covers tighter, making herself a small ball; giving the wardrobe further territory. It was going to crush her, suffocate her; it would be master.

In panic, Elaine lunged for the light switch. The wardrobe loomed above her in the dusty glow. Its polished surface reflected loathing and disgust. It knew she had failed. Failed to get a degree. Failed to be a good wife. Failed to make her parents proud. The wardrobe filled the room, squeezing out the air. Elaine’s chest constricted. She tried to catch her breath but only managed quick, rasping gasps. She could no longer bear to see the wardrobe; to feel the weight of its scorn. In desperation, she covered her face with shaking hands and submitted to the cold, hard wood, smooth against skin as it smothered her.

 

 

 

This story is what my imagination does when I spend the night in an unfamiliar room with a large piece of furniture! Have you ever slept in a room where you have felt unsettled?

 

 

 

Like strangers do

This quirky piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a true story.

 

“Well, you know what men are like.” Mum turned to me, broad smile on her wrinkled face.

After half an hour of silence, the remark made me slurp my tea. Somewhat bemused, I scratched at my greying beard, “Do I?”

She nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course you do. They have needs…”

“Mum.” I put my cup down, picked up a newspaper from the shiny coffee table, flicked through it trying to think of a response.

“Take my Tom…” she giggled, eyes twinkling with mischief.

“What…Dad?” I squeaked in surprise.

“My Tom, I said.” Mum’s eyebrows knitted in exasperation, “He has needs…”

“I really don’t think…” I breathed deeply, taking the smell of wax polish into my lungs.

She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “He always likes me to tie his hands together. You know, when we’re in bed.”

The walls of the communal lounge crowded inwards. The chatter of other residents and their visitors hushed. My neck flushed with heat.

“What are you saying, Mum? You’re not talking about Dad, are you?” I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, balding and plump, working on The Times crossword puzzle, “He’s not here anymore, is he? You must be confused.”

“I’m fed up of people telling me I’m confused. I know what I’m talking about.” Mum shouted, “Who are you to say I don’t?”

She pushed her cup of tea away, milky brown liquid slopping onto the saucer and perfectly vacuumed floral carpet. Embarrassed, I looked down, noticed the pale band of skin on my newly naked ring finger.

“It’s all right, Mum. Don’t get upset.” I reached across to pat her veined hand but she withdrew it in disgust.

“Don’t touch me…” she spat, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s strangers touching me.”

“I know, Mum.”

I sipped at my cold tea. Perhaps I should shave this beard off, I thought, it might make me look younger.

 

 

Twenty-four hours from Tumble

His hands slide around my waist…

Don’t. Don’t think about it…concentrate on driving. Hands gripping steering wheel, foot on accelerator, wipers cutting through rain thick like treacle down glass.

His skin smells bitter-sweet in my hair, on my body; cologne and sweat…

Rhys will notice. Shower soon as I’m home. Pizza night. Half an hour with a gin and tonic selecting toppings…another half hour deciding which film to watch.

His voice whispers in my ear, lips touching lobe, tingle reaching to toes…

Think about mundane stuff. Rubbish needs putting out. Is it black bag week? Rotten job in this weather. Do it before my shower…bound to get drips down back of my neck…bloody trees. Still waiting for Rhys to get his chainsaw out.

P1010328

It’s hammering down…curtain of rain hiding the road…What’s he playing at? Idiot! Showing off in his fancy car. Overtaking in this…must have a death wish. Rhys will be worrying. Long drive in a downpour. Not used to me being away…coping alone. Hope he managed to feed himself. Did I remind him to defrost his lasagne? Must have…gave him a list as long as his arm.

‘You’re beautiful…don’t go home yet.’

Don’t want to go home. To face Rhys with this knowledge festering away inside me like a wound…What’s going on? Bright lights a few cars behind me. Pulling over…let it come past. Flashing, piercing blue…that noise goes right through me…pounding behind my eyes. Giving me a headache. Guilt that is. Deserve a headache…gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing migraine.

Wonder what poor bugger needs an ambulance? Maybe that guy in the sports car…that nightmare junction up ahead. There’ll be a hold up if it’s an accident. Must get in the shower before Rhys gets home. Put my clothes on a hot wash. Get rid of this stink.

Rhys was so pleased for me. Getting my place on the conference…posh hotel in Cardiff…encouraged me to go. Something I’d always wanted to do. This is your time, he said, all those years looking after me and Eleri. You go for it. One trip, one flattering remark and my head turns. From faithful wife to push-over fling in the time it took to down two bottles of wine. Nasty crossroad’s just coming up now…no ambulance, no hold up. Not far to go…I’ll be in good time.

Rhys will know. Never could hide a thing from him. Can read you like a book, he says. He saw through me when I pretended some fool had backed into the car while I did the weekly shop. How can I hide an enormous betrayal like this? It’ll be a cancer eating me away.

His kisses burn on my neck…

Heart’s escaping through my throat. Only a couple of miles to go…Think I’m going to be sick. Find a lay-by. Got to park up. Get out of this car…need air…Breathe. Like when I was giving birth. Deep breaths in, count to ten, slowly breathe out. I’m shaking…knees turned to liquid.

Eleri was such a sweet baby. Round and cuddly. I just watched her…sleeping…couldn’t take my eyes off her. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. So proud of her…getting her place at Oxford. Never imagined she’d grow up to be a mathematician. Rhys’s influence. I’m all airy-fairy natural therapies and herbal remedies. Old hippy, he calls me. Don’t half miss her…her easy conversation and funny ways. It’s like I’ve had an arm cut off…no longer complete. Lost my purpose, I suppose. This was the beginning of my new life; career as an alternative practitioner. What a joke…me helping others find peace amongst the chaos of their lives…can’t even keep my own life in order.

His eyes take a last, longing look…

Stop. Just stop…Haven’t felt longed for in ages…not desired or wanted. I’ve felt comfortable and safe. Nothing wrong with that. We’re happy. Our silver wedding last summer. Barbeque and drinks in the garden. Friends and family, presents and laughter. Lovely day amongst the pretty flower borders. Spent years nurturing those.

Rhys made me promise, we’d never keep secrets. Father was a serial adulterer…watched it destroy his Mam. We agreed we’d always be honest. Well, if we felt the need for an affair, something was seriously wrong with our marriage. Except, it wasn’t…isn’t. We’re doing fine. So, why spend the night with a stranger? Why derail our marriage, send my cosy existence hurtling down some unknown path? Risk everything for a moment of…what…passion or madness? Stupid fool.

He smiles; lopsided like some cad in a Victorian melodrama…

I can’t act as if everything’s normal. As if nothing’s happened. Won’t be able to live happily with a lie between us. I’ll have to tell him. Before he realizes for himself. God…oh, God…just this corner and I’m home. Skull’s squeezing my brain…I’m going to pass out. I can’t do this…This will be the end. Rhys will never forgive me. I’ll turn around…drive away…keep going and never come back.

What’s this now? People in the road…gathered round…the ambulance is here. Not poor Mrs Thomas again, I hope. Another stroke would be the end of her. No…not her…I think…no, it can’t be…the ambulance…it’s outside our house…

Death by chocolate

Some time ago, I wrote this odd little story for a competition in a local free paper. We had to include three random words: dream, chocolate and glasses. The competition was cancelled, so I thought I’d share it here:

 

Two glasses sat smeared and grimy on the coffee table; dregs of cheap red wine congealing. Greasy entrails of foil tubs spilt over the chipped woodwork. Stale aromas of spice mingled with cigarette smoke. An alcoholic fug filled the room. Weak sunlight struggled to reach dusty corners. A low moan rumbled from the tatty sofa.

‘Oh…’ a deep voice rasped,’…my head…’

A shadowy hump rose slowly from its resting place.

‘What a night…think we overdid it…’ the hump said staggering across the floor transforming into a man.

The man stared into a smudgy mirror. He rubbed his stubbly cheeks vigorously.

‘Ugh…’ he said to his dishevelled reflection.

He looked around the unkempt room.

‘Sandy!’ he called gruffly. No reply. Where was his wife?

The man picked his way gingerly out of the lounge, through the cluttered hallway and into the musty, dark bedroom. Sandy liked a lay-in on Saturdays. Her only chance for one. The rumpled bed was empty. He sat heavily on the lumpy mattress. Was Sandy there last night? It wasn’t her late shift at the factory. Yes, he remembered her coming home from her cleaning job at the hospital. She’d found him asleep in the kitchen. He’d woken with a start when she banged her bag down on the table. She’d glared with contempt at the sink full of oily dishes, the grubby work surfaces and basket of dirty laundry sitting shamefully by the washing machine. All as she had left them.

‘I see you’ve been busy,’ she’d said; voice quiet and hard.

He hadn’t been shopping or prepared the evening meal either. Since being made redundant two years ago, a dull laziness had seeped into his bones. Lethargy he could not shift.

‘Sorry love…’ he’d simpered, ‘We can go to the supermarket now…get some bottles…a takeaway…treat for you…’

Sandy had driven them to the supermarket. She’d tutted as he put two extra wine bottles in the trolley. They had picked up a Chinese then come back to the flat in bitter silence. The rest of the evening was blurred.

The man rubbed his hands over his distended stomach. His skin taut, firm and tender to the touch. They – well he – had overdone it last night. He let out a bilious belch which left a bitter sweet tang at the back of his throat. Chocolate; rich and dark. The sensation relit a memory. Something odd. A dream. Last night…

He was sitting on the sofa with Sandy. She was quiet; still angry with him. The air simmered with rage. He turned to speak to her, to apologize. He couldn’t bear the atmosphere any longer. Sandy sat immobile. Glossy, brilliantly tempered. A perfect impression made from delicious, luscious chocolate. He touched her gently. She felt cool and smooth. He breathed in the exotic, sweet smell. His mouth watered, taste buds tingling. He put out his tongue and licked her statuesque face. She tasted good. A high quality chocolate from a posh shop. He wondered if he could risk a nibble. A small bite. Of her ear. He couldn’t resist. The flavour was divine. He began to gobble greedily. Gorging himself on the chocolate. It melted and dripped from his lips. Soon he had devoured his wife with big, hungry mouthfuls. He felt a sickly burn in his throat. His stomach felt swollen and sore. He slept.

The man looked down at his enormous belly.

‘Oh my God…’ he moaned, panic fluttering in his chest, ’I can’t have…it’s not possible…’

He rose from the bed and stumbled into the hall. Frantically, he began to search the house. Pushing, smashing and renting furniture, ornaments and clothing as he went. He shouted and wailed for his wife, his voice tense and hoarse. He tore at his hair in desperation. Silence surrounded him. Fear filling his lungs so he could hardly breath, he surveyed the wreckage of his home. He collapsed on a kitchen chair and swept the table free of clutter in frustration. Putting his head in his hands, he sobbed convulsively.

‘No…What have I done?’ he wept.

Underneath the table, hidden amongst the carnage, sat a pristine square of paper. On it, in neat script, was written:

Dear Rob,

I can’t stand living like this any longer. I want something better and I’ve gone to find it. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,

Sandra