Awake

Anxious, early hours,

wind throws rain against panes,

breath wrestled from chest,

stomach somersaults while heart quick steps,

mind kicks brain awake,

paces vast halls of thought,

up, down, up, down,

potential failures grow loud,

footsteps pound and rebound,

resounding, echo, echo, echo.

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.

 

Goodbye old friend

Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.

Rest in peace, Samwise.

Blocked

An enormous tree, branches gnarled and clawed, lies in the road like a fallen dragon. I stop the car; my journey in this direction is at an end. Uncertain what to do, where to go next, I sit admiring the felled beast. It is a handsome giant; an old ash, probably wracked with dieback, unable to withstand the power of the morning’s stormy winds. A few minutes earlier and perhaps it would have come crashing down on the top of the car, crushing me under metal and glass. I breathe a sigh of relief at my lucky escape. How many near misses do we experience in our lives? I am reminded of how fragile and precious life is. We don’t know how much time we have so we should make the most of every moment.

The tree in the road reflects my current mind state. I am blocked; unable to decide in which direction to go. Should I continue with the new job I’ve started, it’s worthwhile working with vulnerable adults but limited in scope, or pursue the teaching career I worked hard to qualify for, and am good at, but left behind long ago to home educate? Should I give up work altogether to focus on my writing and creativity (currently struggling under the weight of fresh responsibility and doubt)? Or is there some way to manage all the options? I’ve said we should make the most of every moment, but at what cost? I want to enjoy stillness too; quiet periods in the place I’m in, room to breathe, space to appreciate beautiful things.

An impatient blast of a horn jolts me from my reverie. In the rear-view mirror, a cross-faced man directs me to move my car out his way so he can reverse and turn around. My journey must carry on. I have to decide which road to take. Where will I go?

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?

 

 

 

Remember your inner child

I wanted to share part of a letter from the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) to his 24-year-old son, Nicholas.  This letter speaks to my heart. It is a long extract but worth reading. The final lines are a lesson for us all and a statement to live by.

 

“Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

A walk in Seville

I walk under an azure sky in sandy, crumbling heat. A round, fierce sun beats on my neck; burns like standing too close to fiery flames. The light is bright; clear, bold, everything sharply defined. Colours shine; shades of gold, red, orange and blue. Tiled surfaces glint in jewelled patterns; mirrors reflecting. Smells of garlic and frying fish, of dry, dusty earth, of sour, cloying drains catch in my nostrils. Here, no fresh, cooling rain washes away dirt and odours.

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Everything is alive, vibrant, noisy. Musical chatter of Latin voices lisps and slides through the air. Cars beep and roar, mopeds hum and mew. In market displays, baskets of cherries, peaches and pineapples topple and overflow; a painter’s palette. Sweet, ripe smells mix with metallic rust of bloody sheep heads, eyes glazed and sightless. A string of rabbits hangs, sad and lifeless. Here, life and death coincide.

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In the gardens, spiky palms, aloe, and agapanthus stand in symmetrical rows. Orange trees drop plump fruits. Strange, enormous trees offer shade; pods drooping like alien lifeforms. Above my head, emerald parakeets squawk and argue. Eurasian swifts dance and sweep through towers and turrets. Here, I am many miles from the soft, green of Welsh countryside.

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Exotic buildings hide in narrow, shadowy streets; graffiti artists have been busy sprawling works of art. Faiths and cultures intermingle – Moorish, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Spanish. Melding together to create awe-inspiring architecture. Domes, carvings, arches, bright ceramics and rounded terracotta roofs rise into fresh blue. Here, I am a wanderer in a different land.

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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.