THE BUNNY by Roberto Pastore ... 07
by Fay Franklin ... 14
CONFESSION by Christina Thatcher ... 18
MY MOTHER COUNTS DOWN by Marged Parry ... 20
by Marged Parry ... 23
KNOCK KNOCK by Storm Jones ... 28
UNEXPLAINED by Amber Massie-Blomfield ... 32
by Carly Holmes ... 36
by Paul O’Connell ... 38
PRECIOUS LITTLE THING by Paul O’Connell ... 40
WORKHOUSE GHOST by Linda Clark ... 42
by Michael Young ... 46
E DI T OR Rebecca Parfitt A RT D I R E CT OR Nathaniel Winter-Hébert — C ON TACT Editor@theghastling.com theghastling.com Copyright© remains with the individual authors and artists. No part of this magazine may be reproduced, except for the purposes of review, without the prior permission of the publisher.
SPE C I A L T H A N K S T O Nathaniel Winter-Hébert Paul O’Connell Anthony Rhys Dafydd Prys Carrie Clark C OV E R I M AGE “Hannah” by Anthony Rhys D E SIGN BY Winter-Hébert Studio winterhebert.com
UR fears take on many shapes and forms: from the intangible – the lurking shadows in the periphery of the mind; to our own mortality and fear of what comes after and will it come back for us...? Whether they occupy our real or imaginary space, they manifest and structure our everyday lives – this is what it feels like to exist. And mostly we try to forget they are there, waiting to catch us in a lonely or vulnerable moment. The Victorians were particularly good at depicting fear, both rational and irrational: Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens (to scratch the surface). We all love a good ghost story, dark and menacing, and every family has at least one of its own... Susan Hill’s ghost stories: in particular, The Woman in Black, set in the anxiety and anguish of the Victorian psyche, where childhood mortality was rife and, without healthcare as we know it today, Death was never very far away from anyone’s door. With M.R. James – the master of the ghost story and the macabre, in my view - the ghost is not just a spectre, visible to the haunted but unable to harm the mortal world. These hauntings are all the more terrible because the ghouls, if you will, step right into our world and are relentless in their pursuit of the living; masquerading as something ordinary at first, then becoming something horrifying which often consumes its victim with terror as to leave them unalterably disturbed – or at best, (and in some
cases it is best) dead. And with much recent celebration of late of these classics – antiquated and contemporary – the ghost story and the macabre is enjoying a revival. The Ghastling aims to create a space for our ghosts and ghouls of old and new; a space for our very human delight in fear and the macabre by presenting some of the best in new contemporary writing of the genre. Whether, like Roberto Pastore, Fay Franklin and Michael Young, it is monstrous; or, like Christina Thatcher’s Confession set very much in the real world – concerned with ritual habits and hauntings of a very human kind; or seated in deep psychological anxiety such as Marged Parry and Amber Massie-Blomfield’s stories; or of the tormenting and restless spirit, such as Linda Clark and Storm Jones’s stories; or the ghouls that manifest in the deeply macabre tales of Carly Holmes and Paul O’Connell. All of the stories included cleverly draw out and construct an element of the darkness we all have inside us. The Ghastling aims to fill a too long empty gap, and I am sure, will not fail to disappoint or, keep you awake at night, watching for shadows, turning those demons over in your mind. Reader be warned: take caution as you turn these pages, something unsuspected may be unleashed... Rebecca Parfitt Editor The Ghastling
H A LL I tell you about the saints, or are you sick of them too? The old faith that lingers like a bad haircut, and those saints, lying so smug in their graves. Look, if you carry on along this path for a bit you’ll see the river and how the river looks as the rain whacks the rippling moon. Is it dark? Listen a sec with those cute sceptical ears of yours, while the locals tell you about the miracles we had here. Once, some time ago. You can read about them for yourselves if you ever came for a visit, stayed for a few days and did the rounds of the libraries. We have two. And stay for some tea why don’t you, try our delicious cardamom cakes. In
the otherwise drab living rooms you’re bound to find the portrait of some pale malnourished martyr or other, hung up for posterity, not taken down except for that once a year spring clean, and even then somewhat fearfully. They were probably not much different from you or I, the old geezers of the cloth. Except they had a raw fucking nerve. Drinking all the good wine. Sniffing around the unripe cherries of the now rotting daughters of Little Gowtlee. Sniffing around like hungry old dogs, those saints and martyrs and clergymen. Sniffing and stinking. Even still. Ok, forget the saints. I’ll tell you about
Dolly. Because she is the least sterile thing about this place. And you won’t find any laurels on her head. Though she is partial to a well made crown of daisies if you wanted to give that a bash. Not that there were any daisies about the day I met her. It was one of those meek November mornings which seem harmless enough until you come down with the raging sniffles, in need of a dose of good hot brandy. It was on the pleasantly ratty old green at the end of my road that I first saw her. She was knelt over what appeared to be the corpse of a bunny, or perhaps a pussy. I couldn’t tell from where I was standing. I was new to the place then, and had accustomed myself to taking long solitary walks of a morning. Leaving my room at about half 5, tugging on the old woolly hat and breathing in the sharp air of Little Gowtlee, which is almost unearthly quiet at that time of morning, creepily so you might say. I often found it faintly amusing trying to convince myself I was the only chump alive in this desolate shit heap, until I heard the chiming of the church bell and that particular illusion went to the dogs. There she was anyway, poking at the dead thing with a stick. The matted fur with its torn skin, crimson and sticky and dewy in that still-nocturnal dawn. And Dolly’s hair is quite something too, so long and tawny, in the soft drizzle, framed as it was with the deep green leafage and set off with a bright red ribbon tied in an adorable little bow on top. Not wishing to disturb her I crept up as unrapily as I possibly could behind her, aware that any utterance might provoke a flapping scene. Now I’ll come out and say it, she was playing with the thing. She held a lifeless paw in each hand, had stood the poor animal on its hind legs, and was performing some kind of grotesque puppetry. Waltzing around with the horrible meat jacket, the odd fog-snort escaping from her pretty nostrils. The sight of this brought me out of myself and my usual compulsive anxieties
for a moment. I had come to Little Gowtlee for this very reason. Hypochondria, I suppose you’d call it that. Or something worse, I suppose. Either way I had become the kind of character you usually only associate with bad comedy sketches. Incessantly checking my testicles and armpits for growths, convinced my heart was about to explode in the middle of the night, terrified of respiratory afflictions, brain tumours, death, y’know. All around me omens piled up. In the newspaper, people my own age were dropping like flies. The cheeky bastards would cram flyers through my letterbox about coping with terminal illness. The cosmos was continuously dropping hints of my impending demise. As if I should be able to prepare myself, to begin to say goodbye. The crunch of my boots on the fallen leaves made Dolly jump, dropping the animal down on the grass. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.’ I said. ‘I was just out for a walk. My name is Ashley.’ ‘I’m Dolly. She replied.’ ‘Well. Hello Dolly.’ We both stared at the thing on the ground. The drizzle had stopped and a feeble sun now cast its wan light over the bare trees and the green and auburn earth. The scratchy caw of crows hovering above us, eyeing up the poor dead creature for their breakfast. It had once been a bunny. Perhaps it still was a bunny. At what point does death turn us into something more abstract? As the shoots come out of our fingers and the spores cover up our eyes, do we become one determinate thing, consisting of many, something amorphous like, or do we lose ourselves completely, break apart, forget what it felt like to wake up each day in this world, read a newspaper, fall in love, fret over the squirming fetid nature of things. We strolled along the path, away from death, turning onto the pavement, the telephone box and paint chipped railings. Dolly paused at the corner. ‘Do you smell
that?’ she asked, grabbing my sleeve and sniffing the air around her. ‘Not very pleasant whatever it is.’ I replied. ‘I’ve been smelling it on and off for weeks. I keep thinking it’s me. I’ve had all my dresses dry-cleaned.’ Then she whispered, ‘I even went through a phase of bathing three times a day. Now I’m convinced there’s something following me around.’ I took another whiff. ‘Perhaps a hawthorn bush?’ She cast a disparaging glance my way. ‘Ashley, does it smell at all familiar to you? Maybe even a little...Ugh, god are you actually going to make me say it?’ ‘Say what?’ I said. ‘Semen! Damn it. It smells like semen.’ — Dolly pours the pot so daintily it lends some occasion to the otherwise dull lunch hour. The tea at Dolly’s is especially good. A slice of lemon floating around in it. Sometimes I get the feeling of floating. Green winter light comes through net curtains into Dolly’s room, where we have been having tea for several weeks now. And Dolly has become increasingly edgy. ‘I’m frightened,’ she keeps saying. I reassure her, tell her it’s all in her mind, but I do know what she means. The air around her does at times seem bittersweet. We’ve been through all her cosmetics and though a little geraniumheavy for my tastes, we could find nothing remotely malodorous. We listen to the radio and drink tea in our sweaters, almost as if we had known each other all our lives. Dolly grew up here, knows a little of the villages’ history, tells me tales she’s not sure are true. Village legends littered with fallen Clergymen, demons disguised as seductive young wenches, children possessed by some demon or other, the usual. Some vague mothers push prams past the window on their way to the grocers and the rain falls, and when the school bell
rings the little scruffleheads scramble home for supper, yelling and tripping and laughing. Dolly grimaces and sips her tea. Her dark brown hair catching the red of the late afternoon sun going down. And it feels nice being able to comfort her, to be able to dismiss such farfetched stories as utter balls, and in doing so, to feel a sense of coming back to myself. Of being for once on the right side of sanity. ‘It’s just us two that can smell it you know.’ She says ‘How do you know? I mean, why would that be the case?’ ‘I don’t know. All I know is that no one else admits to smelling it. You see those?’ She points to the plant on the window sill. ‘That’s what’s called Arabian Jasmine. I bought them to cover up the scent. I asked the florist for something with a strong scent, something to overpower the horrible perfume going around the village. That’s what I called it, a horrible perfume. She said she hadn’t been aware of any perfume, horrible or otherwise, but that Arabian Jasmine would do the trick.’ ‘Now that you mention it, it does have a powerful aroma.’ ‘Pungent.’ ‘Yes, extremely pungent.’ We both sniff the air a while. ‘Well the florist was right. I can’t smell semen anymore.’ Bach’s Air on a G String is playing on the radio, which momentarily makes me think of g-strings. The high-pitch moan of the violin interrupts these musings, visibly making me shiver. A profound piece of music. ‘The Arabian Jasmine smells exactly like shit.’ Says Dolly. ‘Just like shit.’ I reply. — We stop in at Gracie’s Teashop this morning for some tea and a slice of cardamon cake on our way to the Rectory, where Dolly intends to consult with Father Cantely. Did I mention the cardamon cakes already?
They’re especially good here. Do you like cardamon? Father Cantely is out so we take a walk around the grounds of the Church instead. I catch Dolly having a little sniff of the air, but all I can smell is that slightly mulchy dampness one usually associates with graveyards. It is a smell so instilled in our collective psyches that I think somehow it immediately conjures up that distinctive deep mossy green that grows on gravestones. I’ll let you in on another observation, it is a specific type of person that gets a kick out of reading gravestones. Something a bit off about that habit in my opinion, a bit suspicious. I of course avoid reading gravestones at all costs. I’d only fixate on the dates after all. And what’s the use in provoking the fickle bloody muses. But Dolly finds the names of the dead hilarious. ‘Olive!’ By the time we hear his holiness trudging up the path we are shivering from the bloody cold and Dolly is still wiping tears of laughter from her face. She goes inside with him by herself, leaving me outside with my runny nose, listening to the slightly dodgy songbirds and over there inside the church the organ is parping away at some old hymn. I find a bench to sit on, pick my nose while I wait. A single brittle leaf hangs suspended on a spider’s thread, vibrating in the wind. Some vague thought about mortality takes seed at the back of my mind, but I actively avoid the analogy. I think instead of Carolyn from sixth form. Who used to smell so nice in form room, sat at that desk in front of me with her sweetcorn hair perpetually forming a question mark down her shirt collar and along the back of her tanktop, and maybe it was just her hair, which was really all I could see of her from my desk, but she always smelled clovey and outdoorsy, and a bit cigarettey and so good. So heartstoppingly good. ‘Breathe On Me.’ Says Father Cantely, rather enigmatically, snapping me out of my reverie. He is grinning malevolently and rubbing his hands together. I can see no sign
of Dolly. I am so startled by his sudden presence, to say nothing of his bewildering proposition, that I can find no appropriate response. I look around for Dolly in a panic, hyper-aware of my blood pressure and my slight erection. The sod laughs at me. ‘The hymn you were listening to.’ He says, nodding to the church. ‘Breathe On Me Breath Of God.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘One of my favourites too. I could see you were in something of a rapture.’ He winks at me. ‘I wonder what that would smell of.’ I say. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘The breath of God. I wonder how that would smell.’ For no good reason the Father turns an enraged pink, similar to a radish. Thankfully Dolly bursts on the scene just in time. ‘Gosh.’ She says as we are making our way back to hers. ‘What the hell did you say to him?’ ‘Nothing much. What did you want to see him about anyway?’ ‘Ghosts.’ — Some weeks later we are in The Virgin’s Armpit knocking back a few local ales when some squinty-eyed old codger starts mouthing off about one of the local legends. ‘Lewd Harold, he was.’ He slurs in our direction. A name at once so fitting to our storyteller that in my mind the only possible explanation is that he is talking to us about himself. ‘He was an Abbott around these parts. A lecherous, blue-minded bastard he was too, always on the pull, you know the sort, only he would use his standing as a man of the cloth to lure the birds to bed, ‘scuse me language Miss.’ He nods nearly slipping off his chair. Dolly, who is clearly enjoying every second of this, nods back all ladylike. ‘He’d tell ‘em they’d be punished by eternal damnation if they didn’t submit to his er, unholy desires. Maybe you’ve used that one yourself, I don’t know!’ He laughs
at his own joke, sputtering then coughing., wiping the spit off his chin. ‘Anyway, so one day he gets the fear, begins to repent for his sins. He’s terrified he won’t get into heaven see, starts praying for forgiveness. He locks himself up in his room. Anyway, ‘scuse me, it’s told that he mutilated his, y’know, down below, as an act of repentance. Well, God says to himself I don’t trust this abbott, he’s after salvation but maybe he’s just saving his skin. So he decides to tempt Lewd Harold, that’s what the people called him, Lewd Harold, by sending him a beautiful peasant girl who practically guarantees him the screw of his life, no strings attached, consensual like. ‘Scuse me. Well Harold, he begs the girl to leave, please leave he keeps telling her, weeping all down his face, banging on the walls, please leave me alone he keeps begging her all melodramatic like, as this girls’ dress falls to the floor.’ He wipes his nose on his sleeve, takes a pull on his drink, empties it, zips up his coat. ‘Well Charles, I’ll be off then, thanks for the brew.’ ‘Wait,’ says an exasperated Dolly, ‘then what happened?’ ‘What’s that Miss?’ ‘What happened next?’ ‘Oh...er...I can’t rightly remember Miss. Probably screwed her, I would’ve!’ I send a spray of ale across the table and convulse into my glass. Dolly, I can see, is flaring her little nostrils. The man leaves
and we are the only punters left in the pub. Dolly has gone white and her eyes have the look of pure terror in them. I too begin to recognise the smell. A ripe and intense waft of semen passes through the room. We look at each other disbelievingly, did the old man’s tale of Lewd Harold provoke something? ‘Has something gone off in your fridge?’ I ask Charles, the landlord. ‘I can’t smell nothing.’ He says. That night I lay in bed unable to sleep. It was an usually humid night for the time of year and I lay there convinced that my dizziness and thudding heart were herald of my last night on Earth, at the same time feeling hopelessly despondent that I should allow myself to become victim to such perverse reasoning. A grown man, terrified of death. The full moon seemed to swell, a great big blockage in the sky, threatening to choke all us poor helpless bastards. — Little Gowtlee is well known for its miracles. Like I said, both the local libraries are full of them. Though, from what I can tell, not much in that line has happened here in the last hundred years, give or take some. Unsubstantiated though they might be, or perhaps unsubstantiatable would be more charitable, mostly these miracles were your standard Christ-like fair, birds and mice and such coming back to life after some plague
had knocked them all off, the river catching fire, you might say these tales have a certain charm. Especially if you’ve spent a pleasant hour or two paddling and chucking stones as I have in the wonderfully yonic waters of said river. On the other hand, their legacy can be felt in the rather conceited attitude of the townsfolk, and a general distrust of syllogism, something you’ll discover if you ever try and borrow a couple of quid from any of them, or try to chat up the unusually pretty femmes. Dolly has taken to wearing dried lavender in her lapel these last few weeks. She has grown pale and wispy, which I must admit to finding unfeasibly sexual. Probably just a symptom of some imbalance, psychological or glandular. I have taken to checking my pulse obsessively, at times it is improbably fast. I am doing it now as Dolly gives me her strained look of objection. She at least knows that my condition is pathetically ordinary. Still I feel like I am sinking more than ever. She pours the tea and drops in a slice of lemon. It adds a citrussy zing to the cum smell. ‘I’m frightened’ she says. ‘Last night I had a terrible dream. You were making love to me.’ The tea burns the back of my throat as I attempt to swallow it too soon. ‘Listen to me Ashley.’ She says. ‘We must stop seeing each other.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ I say ‘Something awful is happening, can’t you see? We have to prevent it, whatever it is.’ I am flabbergasted, I check my pulse which is either too slow or too fast, depending on my judgement of time. ‘How long have you been in Little Gowtlee?’ She asks. ‘Three and a half months.’ I say. ‘That’s when the smell started.’
‘Well I never smelled it until −’ ‘Until the day you met me.’ — The next morning I take my usual stroll up past the green. The grass is flat with the damp and little floating specks of rain coat my face and duffel. That unearthly quiet for once feels not in the least bit oppressive, instead it offers a much needed lucidity in the midst of all this kerfuffle. It had been another sleepless night, full of the blackest, most revolting terror. In a daze I stumble through the dank hedgerows, catching my sleeve on a bramble. You can just about make out the trickle of water where the water pipe pokes out of the river bank, and the trill of chaffinches, jackdaws and rooks pootling around in the dirt. And a bunny, sitting stone-still in the wild grass. An isolated place, some brief clarity to soothe these frayed nerves of mine. I could sleep peacefully. Let the caterpillars snuggle my eyebrows, nibble nibble. All the trees are shimmering. Dolly lies naked on the wet earth, her body is so pale, and her small breasts and pastel pink nipples are covered in dew. They are so beautiful. Her thighs are mottled with soft blonde hairs, purple veins like seaweed swim beneath the surface of her thighs, the darker hairs all in a tangled mess, I want to sink my fingers in them where her legs open to let me in. She is shouting now. I wake up there on the riverbank, soaked through and dirty. The rain has picked up. I don’t feel as though I have slept, nor did it feel like I had been dreaming. Perhaps I simply passed out, from the strain. Dolly’s last words reverberate in my ears. ‘Keep going!’
It is nearly midnight. In my little candle-lit room the hands of the clock tremble and the rain crashes against the window, its warped glass fracturing the moon into something inchoate and repulsive. I know Dolly is waiting for me, despite what she said. I must remain here, so I keep slogging the brandy, until my throat burns and my eyes fog up and I am unable to walk that short distance to Dolly’s house. Keep refilling and knocking them back until I forget about Dolly and how she looked coshed by the morning dew, with those nipples tightening in anticipation. But there is something else I need to know. I reach for my wrist, to feel my pulse beating. Before I know it I am outside and I can hardly feel the rain or focus my eyes on anything beyond the prism of street light through the falling rain, nor had it even occurred to me to put on my duffel or hat. The houses tilt in around me, a swirling tunnel leading the way to Dolly’s, making me feel sick and nauseous. ‘That bunny.’ I slur. She holds the door open for me. ‘I need to know.’ She pulls me in, soaked through and dripping all over her carpet. ‘What about it.’ She says. ‘That day on the green. What were you doing with that bunny?’ ‘It was dead.’ ‘But-’ It is a struggle to make myself coherent. I sit down, defeated. Dolly bends down to switch on her heater for me. The smell of burnt dust as the orange lamp begins to glow behind the grate. She brings a chair over to me. Asks me to hang my clothes over it. I peel my shirt off and my trousers. ‘It was dead.’ She repeats. ‘I was trying... to remind it what life feels like. I don’t know how else to explain it. I thought that if I could force the memory of life back in...’ ‘But it was dead.’ ‘Do you even know what that means?’ ‘Dead.’ As though it is the only word I can find. A buffer word, like Dolly says, a word with no real meaning at all. ‘You were trying
to make it remember? Remember what?’ She is standing now. Her face is lit up orange from the heater, as she steps over to me and runs her hand over my chest, and lifts her blouse over her head and undoes her bra. And I am still rain soaked but now I am warm. ‘I collapsed by the river.’ I say as she kisses me, and keeps kissing me, climbing on top of me as the room spins. Now with our clothes strewn around us, I push myself inside her and the room fills with that sickening perfume. The air is thick with it. We move against each other while the smell encompasses us, and we move and we move. Despite the brandy I am almost painfully stiff, I can feel the blood pumping through me. ‘I had the dream again.’ Says Dolly. ‘We were like this. We were like this, oh keep going.’ It feels like someone is stabbing my chest. I can’t even feel Dolly anymore, just this machinery. I keep moving, as the pain reaches my forehead, my arms, my legs. The stench becoming unbearable. ‘Keep going!’ My stomach clenches. I can feel it now, I can feel myself letting go. — All these years I’d been led to believe that I was in some way deficient. Hypochondriac, that’s what they called me. Neurotic, compulsive, flaky, somehow less than a man. When I was only paying attention to the signs. Somehow I knew it all along, knew what the doctors and the psychiatrists didn’t. That something was actually wrong with me, with my heart as it turns out. And Dolly knew it too, somewhere deep down in herself, knew the end before it happened. Poor Dolly though, no one needs that. Phoning for an ambulance at 2 in the morning, telling them he died mid orgasm. Knowing that she’ll never get shot of it, that smell. That smell inside her now. Having to explain why she moved the body. Like that dead bunny, making me dance and hop about, trying to make my exploded heart beat again. Trying to remind me what life felt like.
AV E you ever met a ghoul? Well, no, of course you haven’t. But it’s a term we use so loosely these days that we think we know what it means. Those faces, the ones in the cars crawling past a recent road accident, peering out, goggle-eyed, at the scene of death and devastation on the other side of the road. They’re the ghouls of our modern world. But I have met a ghoul. Can I tell you about it? Because I have to tell someone. I really do.
I was at the cemetery, clearing away the dead flowers on my Aunt Elsa’s grave. She is – was – actually my great aunt, and she took me in when my parents died. She was, as they say, like a mother to me, and I was, as she said, the son she never had. When she died, two years ago, the main thing she left me was the house. It’s there I go home to every night, after work at the call centre. I sell insurance – cold calling, they call it. It’s a very dispiriting job, to be honest. So, anyway, I was at the cemetery. I like it
there. I imagine all the little ghosts flitting about the place. Aunt Elsa’s too. She perches on top of her gravestone, cup of tea in one hand, cigarette in the other. I tell her about my day, such as it is. It’s an interesting place too because, as well as the usual headstones, there are these big old tombs and mausoleums round the edge. Just like the ones in Buffy. I love Buffy. I could watch it over and over. In fact that’s what I do most evenings at home, watch my boxed sets. I don’t have much of a life, frankly. Can you tell? This particular afternoon, I was there, as I say, tidying the dead flowers and potting up a nice chrysanthemum I’d bought. Reckoned it would last through the frosts as far as Christmas. The sun was really low and the gravestones were casting long, long shadows over the grass between the graves. And then one of them moved. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I looked round, and there she was. Well, I thought she was a she, it was hard to tell. Hunched to the ground, a little way behind me. So pale and small, that’s why I mistook her for a headstone shadow. I straightened up and walked over to her. I didn’t realise then what she was. Fragile and thin, with fine, colourless hair, she stared up at me with huge eyes like milky opals. But she wasn’t scared. She just kept gnawing away at something that looked very much like a human metatarsal, like we would a KFC wing. Her fingernails (if you could call them that, it isn’t quite the right word) were filthy, and that made me rather think it was. She was wearing an odd assortment of tattered, filthy clothes – a man’s pinstriped suit jacket, a stained gingham blouse, some kind of lacy ballet skirt – but her feet were bare and very thin and long. Her eyes never left mine as she spat a knob of cartilage from the corner of her mouth. It ricocheted off a copper urn of faded silk flowers on the next grave. I knelt down beside her.‘Who are you? What are
you doing here?’ I said. She said, ‘Gaarngruisheckle,’ or something like that. Her voice was very high and faint, and kind of rasping. I pointed at myself and said, ‘Kevin. KEVIN.’ She looked blankly at me, with those pale eyes. I tried again, ‘Me’ (point) ‘Kevin. You?’ (point). ‘Laarnazlaaargiiiibret.’ I don’t know if she meant that was her name. But I decided to run with it. ‘Me’ (point) ‘Kevin. You’ (point) ‘Laarna. Where. Are. You. From? Me - from here.’ I gestured around me. And then, to my surprise, she pointed upwards. I hadn’t noticed until then that the sun had set. I could see the faint constellation she was pointing to. ‘Aaaal-goool-zet.’ I had no real frame of reference for how to deal with what I kind of knew she was. They don’t have ghouls in Buffy. (I think they are in some computer games, but not the ones I have.) So I was still pondering what to do when, next thing I knew, she was off, bounding on those long feet, and had vanished into the woods on the edge of the cemetery leaving me on my own in the darkness. I went home and did a bit of Googling. I was worried about her. Does that sound strange? I wasn’t thrilled when I read about her diet, because it was pretty much what I thought. I went back the next day and she was there again, emerging from the trees as soon as she saw me. I won’t tell you what she was carrying because you wouldn’t want to know. And so it went on like that, for some time. I began buying the cheapest chickens I could find in the supermarket and leaving them in the house for days so that they started to, well, get to a state where she might like them. I can’t describe the smell, and the flies were a bit of a problem. First time I took her a couple of them, she didn’t look best pleased. Picked at them, frankly.
But she got used to them. Pretty much wolfed them down after a while. I was glad, because I didn’t want her looking hungrily at Aunt Elsa’s plot, or anybody else’s. We communicated, talked, as best we could. She seemed to make out more of what I was saying than vice versa. I just chatted away to her, really, told her about me and my life, because it was nice to have someone who listened. I never did work out how she got here, or why, or if there were more like her around, though I think she tried to tell me. Here’s how it ended. It was winter and I was already tucked up in bed when I was woken by a horrendous noise from out the front of the house. I pulled back the curtain and looked out. There she was, Laarna, crouching on the lawn looking up at me. And she raised her head, stretched open her mouth so, so wide and gave this immense, long, deafening howl. Right at me, her breath billowing up at me on the frosty air. Quite a different kind of cold calling from what I’m used to, I can tell you. I saw lights go on in nearby houses. Mr Wheatley leaned out from opposite, but he didn’t see her. He looked across at me and called out ‘Bloody foxes!’ waved cheerily and shut the window. I looked down at Laarna. She looked up at me. I know, I think, what she wanted. I
think she wanted me to go with her. I think she might have fallen a little bit in love with me. That’s what her howl told me anyway. Just my luck, first time someone shows any interest, it’s a ghoul. She raised her head and called again but it was a more querulous howl this time. And I’m ashamed to say that I was scared. I pulled the curtains closed, got back into bed and turned out the light. Lay there staring into the darkness, hating myself, to be honest. Hours later, when I crept back over to the window, she was gone. I went back to the cemetery the next day but she wasn’t there or, if she was, she didn’t show herself. I went again and again, but I knew really that she had gone for good. I don’t know where. Home, I hope. If not, then I hope she found someone else to give her chickens. Because it’s not good, that eating dead people thing. So my life is back to normal now. The smell has gone from the house. I bought the West Wing boxed set – I’d had enough of Buffy and all that stuff. I’ve taken in a rescue kitten, a white one, with pale blue eyes. I call her Laarna. She likes tuna. Which is good. Oh, and, I got a promotion at work. So now I’m not cold calling any more.
E has a knack for uncovering things,’ my mother said to everyone throughout my childhood. When I was 8, I brought her a dead robin that had started decomposing beneath one of our pine trees in the yard; it had some needles stuck to its eyes, chest, and feet and it looked like it had bled out all of its blood. When I was 12, I brought her a snake skin, a copperhead, with two dead beetles stuck inside. And, when I was 15, I brought her a baby rabbit whose left ear had been bitten clean off by a fox or a dog; it was still alive and shivering. She had complimented my knack each of
these times, and others. At 23, when I moved out of my mother’s place and into the grimy room of a twin on the outskirts of town, I began to uncover more. By day I worked quietly, supplying paper and paper products from a small Bucks County based company. But, by night, I walked and discovered. At 5:15 every day, after I got home from work, I’d unravel my gray tie, unbutton my blue-grey shirt, full of ink and sweat from the grind of the day, and drop my pants, uncreased, to the floor. Usually before heading out I’d stand in my boxers for a bit by the mirror; I
was, and still am, all collarbones, ribs, and femurs. Once I felt satisfied with the time and my angles I’d walk over to my dresser, tug open the bottom drawer, and pull out the rough, cakey T-shirt and jeans from inside. Flecks of mud always fell, mixing with the eggshell carpet fibers; the space under that drawer, even in the shadow cast by the lamp, looked tawny. I didn’t, under any condition, wash these clothes because I wanted them to stay lucky; I had never come back emptyhanded, not once, and I know the clingy, crumply, earth on that fabric had something to do with it. Once dressed in these muddied charms, I would leave, sack in hand, unlit and undetected. The night became my exhibitor. Although I could have stayed out longer, I was always back by 3am to check my bounty. I’d slip in, just as undetected and unlit as I went out, and climb up to my room on the second floor. I’d put my sack down quietly, take off my lucky clothes, now damp with sweat, grassy dew, and stream water, fold them up and place them, stiffly, into the bottom drawer where they belonged. In my boxers I’d stand for a few moments again by the mirror, longer if there was any mud caked onto my cheeks, elbows, or hands. Most of the time there was and I’d spend some minutes peeling it off and watching it fall to the floor; sometimes I’d rub it until I was ruddy and pink, but most of the time I wouldn’t. Once satisfied with the standing and peeling I would pick up my sack from the ground and dump its contents onto the worn, cushioned down of my comforter: craniums, scapulas, spines, fibulas, tibias, cervical vertebrae, atlases, mandibles and
maxillas clanked and clashed together, making indents along the blanket as they settled. Many of the bones were from small animals, squirrels, robins, lizards, but sometimes I’d get lucky and find some from groundhogs, large fish (by the river or stream), or some from the pièce de résistance, deer. Most of the time though, I used rabbit bones for my bases; 51 percent of a rabbit's skeleton is marrow, with 2/3 in the flat bones and 1/3 in the long bones, so they were perfect. After admiring the bones as a whole I would always sift through them, one by one, separating those that had been picked clean by the vultures or worn down by the stream from those that still had sinews, muscles, and fur attached. On a good night, I’d have all the bones cleaned, using a combination of stopped sink, mild soap, wire brush, and sponge, by 4am. Once the bones were clean I would begin arranging them, using rabbit as a base, then some squirrel (everything has a little rabbit and squirrel in it really), then keep at it with whatever inspired me. If it was a very special piece, I’d use some deer I kept in the closet. Of all of my creations the one I felt most tender towards was, unsurprisingly, called ‘Symmetry.’ Bones of cat, squirrel, rabbit, bat, and deer combined to create two figures, one taller than the other, whose bodies came together to form a longwise heart. The heart was formed with their closed clavicles while their eye sockets faced each other; they were almost nose to nose, bone to bone. It was love, and I cried when it was finished. There I was, uncovered.
Y footsteps squelch along the
me, in the same way she punished me for
hospital corridor like a pulsat-
years and years…. She is my mother. Her
ing headache, spreading me like a virus
Alzheimer’s is hungrily killing the last of
from one department to the next. I need to
her but mine has only just unpacked its
get home. I need to leave this place. But
cutlery. And the ticking ticks on.
home is an even keener reminder.
So I was lying in bed and it ticked just the
Since she began dying, a hidden clock has
once… like a radiator changing its mind. A
started ticking in my house. I was lying in
noise I’m accustomed to so I was not alarmed. Then a tock – a noise familiar
bed thinking what the world will be like without her – mine in particular
in its absolute opposition to the last –
– when the tick-tock started. I dis-
a recognisable tick-tock despite the
missed it at first, just like any other
gap between the tick and the tock.
human would. After all, that’s what I am
Then together – tick-tock… and a gap. A gap big enough to put my mind
– just another human, as dispos-
at rest once more. Then a
able and fallible as the rest
of them. And indeed, I
am already broken,
ready for the pile: the
slowly but firmly. It
scared me. It calmed
forgot or, thanks to
me. Tick…. Tock...
my Alzheimer’s, the
Tick... Tock. Discon-
certingly, it lulled me to
people who forgot about
time. The tick-tock is a
That was two weeks ago and
countdown… it dooms me, it
she’s still breathing – be it with the
mocks me, and it begs excuses from me for its existence: it’s a boiler, something’s
help of a machine. And the ticking in the
leaking, it’s a trap. It’s a countdown to
house persists. I’ve followed the ticking.
death. But how would my house know that
my mother is dying? But if my house does
kitchen…somewhere. I can’t pinpoint the
this, then it must also know that I can’t be
exact place. There must be a logical expla-
with her. I said goodbye to her a long time
nation. I’ll call a plumber tomorrow.
ago. Her poisonous genes are still punishing
Is the countdown for her or for me?
H E was knitting and nothing but the clackety-clack of the needles accompanied her thoughts. She had always been a fan of indoor silence until a year ago. That is when the running started. Every night at eleven sharp, just at the time when you can be more than comfortable using the phrase ‘it’s getting a bit late’, she would hear the footsteps, distant and faint at first but they grew louder and quicker and harder until whoever it was ran straight past her window, disturbing the curtains with a staccato draft as they passed. Angela Wickham, old before her time, sat in her armchair, in a room that was as clean as it was comfortable in a crooked, misaligned mid-terrace house. She had plenty of knick-knacks but there was not a glimmer of dust in sight. Not that the two things necessarily go hand in hand but the mind tends to make assumptions. Her hair hadn’t been brushed but did not yet resemble a dreadlock. Her hygiene had been kept to an acceptable level, her clothes
were comfortable but creased. She was clean but would have turned heads in a business meeting. It was ten forty five so she was getting edgy. You’d think she was used to the runner by now and to be fair, she was. But tonight would be different to the other night. Tonight she would open the crack in the curtains and see who ran. She had tried before but the flash of white ran past her window so quickly that it was impossible to make out anything except, of course, for the fact that the figure… was translucent. She had never seen its face but she knew who it was. Angela’s mother, Josie Rose Wickham had been a good old lass, a no nonsense straight talker who always knew what to do in a crisis. She was the party arranger, the handkerchiefs provider and everyone’s friend despite the fact that she was definitely, the family boss. Angela winced at the thought of her in the hospital bed, looking afraid. Nobody wants to die, do they?
Because… well we just don’t know what comes afterwards. But what makes things worse is Josie Rose was attacked. She was walking home in broad daylight when a tall man, dressed in green stepped out of the nettles and began chasing her. She ran, for the first time in years and he was put through his paces to catch up with her. She came out of it surprisingly ok – a bit battered and bruised but the mugger had made off with her wallet, phone, self confidence and following a heart attack three days later, her life. The doctors thought that it was the running that had got her. The doorbell rang. Angela flinched as the little hairs on her neck stood to attention. Slowly, she rose from her seat and poked her dotty eyeball through a gap in the blinds. A tall man with black hair stood on the path holding a large sack. She jumped back from the window as his head turned towards her – she wasn’t seen. The bell rang again… she took her cane in her young fingers, held it aloft like a weapon and made her way towards the letter box. ‘Won’t it fit?’ she whispered through it as the cloaked man turned to leave. ‘No it’s a big one, this,’ he replies ‘wouldn’t ‘ave rung the door would I? You want me to leave it on the mat so you can open the door when I’ve left?’ She nodded a reply before realising her error and whispering a confirmation that she would very much like that. The postman deposited her package and left. Ten minutes later, she emerged. She rushed back inside with her package and ripped off the paper with a Stanley knife in a manner that did not befit her hypochondria. The package contained two
separate purchases. Both had been made online just like all her shopping was. Safer that way. One was a small wind up radio – she giggled with glee at the prospect of listening to Radio 4 in the bath. The second was a pair of lily white pyjamas for a five year old. Esther would grow into them. The appearance of the pyjamas and the fact that the front door had just been open, albeit for just a few seconds, prompted Angela to check on her daughter upstairs. She often enjoyed sitting in Esther’s room for hours watching the breath enter and escape her body, reassured by the movement of her chest. She did not enjoy feeling the beating of her heart through her chest when she excited because it reminded her of her little girl’s mortality. Angela should have learnt by now to open the nursery door quickly to avoid being tempted to interpret shadows or to feed the expectation each time she went to the room that she would open the door and Esther would be gone. What if a fox came through the window and ate her? What if a ghost stepped out of the wardrobe and took her soul. Angela sat next to her baby’s (occupied) cot and breathed a sigh of relief. She gave birth to Esther at home six months ago and the baby was yet to leave the house. She had been in the back garden. It was enclosed and Angela was keen for her to get the Vitamin D. But she had never been out of the front door. Not even for her injections, Angela was embarrassed to recall. She made her way downstairs, wound up the radio for company and to take the edge off the operation before preparing herself for eleven to arrive. She set up two separate
cameras on the tripods – one set to go off on a timer and another that she would operate herself. The program on Radio 4 was discussing the science of anaerobic breathing which caused a stitch when exercising. She looked through both lenses to check everything was as it should be when she noticed something a little strange. It was hard to make out at first but there was something in the overgrowth in the front garden. Something that wasn’t there last night or even when she went out to get the package. She looked closer, this time without looking through the lens. She jumped away, her pulse all over the place. She stumbled across the room to the package. It was empty. This confirmed her fear. The abnormality in the overgrowth, were Esther’s new pyjamas. Angela ran upstairs once more. It was three minutes to eleven but she needed to check on her baby. She was there, sleeping soundly – a little pale perhaps. What if this was a sign? She was sure of one thing – that staying indoors as she had done for so long was the correct choice but she needed to up her security. Perhaps she could get an alarm, have some cameras fitted. That reminded her! The cameras! She ran back downstairs just in time to place herself behind the camera as the footsteps began to echo in the darkness. The pyjamas had caught in the breeze and were blowing around the garden – as the steps drew nearer, the pyjamas whipped themselves into a twisted frenzy in the overgrowth, caught on some brambles, victims to what was now a gusty gale. The white figure drew closer but today, it did something strange. It slowed down. Indeed, when it came as close as it could get to her house, the figure stopped… she was wearing a hood. Angela shuddered as she looked at the figure, existing before her in the night despite her better knowledge. When she looked through the cameras, the street was bare. She waited for the hood to be pulled down so that she could see her
mother’s face once again, so that she could understand why this night was different to every other. Why had she run past her window before but had found the courage tonight to stop? The figure lowered the hood just as a distinct voice on the radio – same item – said ‘the best thing to do to stop a stich, is to breathe deeply and when you can, take your exercise outdoors’. The face Angela stared at was not her mother’s at all. It was her own. The hooded her, extended an arm and gestured for the inside her to join her in the street. The pajamas fluttered free of the garden and flew into the air as the radio program finished with a fanfare. Angela shut the curtain with a jerk before turning around into the light and safety of the room. The silenced radio, which now needed winding, had a handkerchief draped over it with the initials JRW sewn on the side in pink stitching. Angela had been expecting her mother but… she was terrified. At first, she thought she heard the voice through the radio static but it was coming from somewhere else in the room. It was unmistakably, her mother’s voice and it repeated the same words over and over, ‘I am well. You could be too’. It was coming through the baby monitor. For the third time that night, she ran upstairs and opened the nursery door without thinking twice. The window in the nursery was open. The rain had begun to fall and pick pocketed her fear with comfort. Esther, with a flush in her cheeks, turned onto her side with a little snort and her mother’s ghostly shadow slowly disappeared from the cot-side chair. Her words still echoed ‘I am well. You could be too.’ Josie didn’t seem scared and as she had at the hospital, she had returned with confidence to teach a lesson and to reassure her family. Angela breathed a sigh of relief. Tomorrow, perhaps she would tidy the front garden.
S I reached the front door, a singlecarriage train rattled past and stopped. No-one got off and no-one got on. This was not the sort of place anybody would head to deliberately. I turned the door-handle and stepped into the entrance hall. My body remembered this place, I could smell the oak panels, the flowers on the table, a hint of breakfast in the air. If I had been blindfolded, I would have known where I was just by the feeling of the worn stone floor underfoot. I still knew this building inside-out. My memories began to fill the rooms with the people I once knew – their ghosts still here so that if I walked the corridors I would meet them: Annie in room 9, situated just above where I was standing, an elderly spinster of 93. She was tall as a beanpole and still beautiful. She never married. ‘Men were never my forté’ she would say with a wink. A door suddenly opened, ‘And you must be Evie.’ A lady with frizzy grey hair and pale blue eyes greeted me with an extended hand. ‘Yes.’ I said. I did not take her hand. ‘I’m Maggie. Good journey?’ she asked, placing her hand on her hip. Her eyes traced my outline from head to foot. I could tell from her accent that she was not local, Shropshire, perhaps. I didn’t ask. ‘Long.’ I said. ‘I’d forgotten how remote it was out here.’ ‘Yes. It’s tucked away from the world.’ She noticed me looking around. ‘Your parents ran this place, yes?’ She asked.
‘A long time ago. I had to see it before... well, you know.’ She smiled, ‘Come this way.’ I followed her up the stairs, they creaked in all the same places. ‘I’ve given you the attic room, as requested.’ My heart quickened: the room that haunted me. She had no idea how much this place still occupied me and how I, still, occupied it. Now I was here for the last attempt to end my perpetual sleeplessness, to find peace. I stood behind her on the landing as she unlocked the door and pushed it open. I could hardly move at the sight of it, it was unchanged. The walls were still sage green, the dark wooden floorboards still bare, the bed, as ever, positioned underneath the window that seemed so low down. The last time I had been in this room I was too small to see out – I could only see the sky. ‘What time would you like dinner?’ ‘Thank you, but I’ve already eaten.’ ‘Well, is there anything else I can do for you?’ ‘No. I have everything I need.’ I managed a weak smile to reassure her, then she said, ‘Well, goodnight then. And I hope you sleep well.’ I heard her footsteps disappearing behind me, echoing through the belly of the house. I stood at the threshold of the door, afraid to cross into the room. After a short while I stepped in and put my bag down, though I brought nothing but myself here. I had no need for anything but this room. As I scanned it I noticed a small table in the
corner laid out with a pack of cards, a couple of puzzles, some crossword books and an old box of dominoes. I recognised the dominoes. This would make my task much easier. I had not played dominoes since the day he took me. The last day I saw my sister, Alys. But the history of this house had been swept away by the silent tide of absence and I was sure that Maggie was quite ignorant. I settled in, read a little from a book on the shelf but it did not quite hold my interest. I wrote a letter, knowing I could never send it, tucked it away inside my dress. Then my gaze set on the table, and at the box of dominoes. The game that needed finishing. I carefully slid open the lid of the box, as though all my secrets would fly out at once. I saw the black dots, the pupils against the mother-of-pearl finish. They were exquisite and exactly as I remembered them. I flipped one over onto its ebony side. Then I tipped them all out onto the table and laid them out, set apart nine and then divided the rest into two piles: one for me and one for Alys. I played by myself until I could no longer go. I needed to remember the number, the last number we had before we were separated, before the game was abandoned. I lightly knocked on the table. The dominoes remained as they were. I sat in the chair and waited. About an hour later something seemed to stir, but it was unwelcome, it was not what I’d hoped for. A faint smell of something familiar, something unpleasant began to stifle the air and the room became muggy. I could smell stale garlic and sweat. I didn’t move from my seat and the lamplight seemed to dull slightly. I remained with my back to the door. I was not going to greet him here, though I knew he was coming. Every soul returns to their home at least once. I waited and waited, the scent intensified, it was repulsive, it was how I remembered it, all those years ago as he pushed his mouth over mine. I knocked on the table again and whispered, ‘Alys, can we finish the game?’ The scent suddenly disappeared. Something in the corner of my eye
moved, the bed-covers lifted, a young girl rose from my bed wearing a floor-length white nightgown. ‘Alys?’ She did not seem troubled by my presence but sat down opposite me. ‘Evie,’ she said, rubbing her eyes. ‘I waited for you. I thought you’d gone forever. We haven’t finished the game,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to play hide and seek any more.’ ‘Neither do I.’ I said. My appearance seemingly hadn’t altered to her. I was still a girl, not an old woman, as I saw now in the mirror. ‘Let’s finish the game,’ I said. ‘I’m tired. I waited all day for you.’ ‘I know. I’m sorry.’ I started to divide the dominoes again. ‘Alys. Do you remember what the number was when you couldn’t take your turn? When we stopped the game, when we were interrupted?’ She looked at me. ‘That man’ – I laid down a double six. ‘What man?’ ‘The one in room number 8. Why did you play with him? He smelled funny.’ ‘Don’t you remember?’ I said. ‘He told us that every time one of us lost, we’d have to play hide and seek with him.’ ‘That’s not the rules.’ Alys said. ‘I know but it seemed like a good idea.’ I became impatient with her. ‘It’s your turn.’ She laid a six and three. I looked at my dominoes. I had neither of those, I knocked on the table. ‘There’s a funny smell.’ She said. I couldn’t smell anything this time. ‘Just go – Alys, please. We need to finish the game.’ ‘But it stinks.’ ‘Look, I’ll open the window. Please, just go, will you.’ I pushed open the sash window. Cold air flooded in. The door was locked but I knew it was no good. He was already on his way. I had known this would be risky, but I needed to try, at least. She put her domino down and I quickly placed mine, relieved there was no
knocking this time. ‘Mum and Dad were looking for you.’ She said. I wanted to cry but could not. ‘Well, they’ve found me now.’ I lied. ‘They think you’re dead.’ She said, looking straight at me. ‘Don’t be so dramatic.’ I said. ‘I haven’t even been gone a day.’ ‘It feels like forever.’ She laid her domino down. I looked at mine. There was nothing I could do. I knocked on the table. Alys laughed, ‘You’re losing,’ she said. I could feel the air getting muggy again. ‘That stinky man will want to play hide and seek with you again.’ ‘Nobody is coming for me – it’s too dark for hide and seek.’ I could smell the odour, stronger now than before. The air from the window did nothing to mask it, I realised it was coming through. Despite the heat, I realised I had to shut the window, just to be sure. As though she had read my mind, she said, ‘I think he is already in here. He knows you’re losing the game.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘Can you see him?’ ‘He doesn’t want me to tell you where he is.’ ‘Alys, I said. We need to finish the game. Do you understand? It’s your turn.’ ‘He doesn’t mind,’ she said. ‘He’s waiting now. ‘Alys, just go. It’s your turn. We have to finish. He’ll go away if we finish.’ ‘He says it doesn’t matter.’ I slammed my hand down on the table, ‘Alys, please, I don’t want to go with him again.’ Alys began to cry, ‘Don’t shout at me. I’m tired, I waited all day for you. They told me you weren’t coming back, they think you’re not coming back.’
How could I tell her? She wouldn’t understand, she was still a child. I looked at the table, I had four dominoes left, she only had two, ‘Alys,’ I said gently. ‘The sooner we finish the game, the sooner you can go back to bed.’ The dawn was arriving, the birds sang with an urgency I had never heard before. Alys just stared at me, she seemed paler in the dawn light. I realised she hadn’t heard me. ‘Alys?’ I said. ‘Please, Alys, help me to finish the game – I can’t sleep until I do.’ Her eyes moved, something behind me had caught her eye. I could smell the fetid breath, the sweat. Alys looked back at me and shook her head, she was giving up, she lifted her right fist and knocked on the table. I cried out, leaning across the table I grabbed at her but somehow she was just out of reach. She couldn’t see me anymore, she had given up hope, all those years ago, she knew she would never see me again, that I was gone for good. My last attempt at returning had failed, I would never sleep. I watched her climb down from the chair and walk across to the bed. In the dawn light she seemed black and white, her child’s body lost under the white nightdress. There was no colour to her. She climbed into the bed, and pulled the covers over her, disappearing into the sheets. I went to the bed, it was untouched, as though it had never been slept in. The game lay on the table – unfinished, the mother-of-pearl, bright – luminous. They were the stepping stones to my death. They counted time until he came for me and my time had run out, he had found me again. I heard his voice behind me, ‘It’s time to go now.’ He said.
The first time, no one says a word. It’s a shudder. A wave passing through the air. As if somewhere far beneath them, tectonic plates are shifting. Her sister’s knuckles go white. The water in her glass moves, like that scene in Jurassic Park, the one where the dinosaurs are coming, except there aren’t any dinosaurs. The spilt sugar forms in patterns on the tabletop. Silence fills the room.
Her mum stands up and takes the plates, food half eaten, as if there’s been an argument, drops them in the sink so as they threaten to smash. She bows her head and puts her fingers to her temples; that way she has when she’s getting one of her migraines. Outside, the sky swells with thunder. Robin pushes back her chair and runs down the hall. In her bedroom, she climbs into the wardrobe and presses herself
against the back wall, as far from the others as it is possible to get. The clothes fall down around her, muffling the sounds that start to rise in the building. She buries her face in the fabric and lets the smell of the laundry powder remind her of something else. She waits for the lights to go out. After that, things begin to happen round the flat. The umbrellas are removed from the stand and hidden. Her sister’s picture, the one in the silver frame, shatters, and for weeks shards of glass turn up where they shouldn’t, in people’s beds, in the cutlery drawer. Her mum’s windows are left wide open in the middle of winter, her expensive perfume bottles found in pieces on the concrete far below. When Robin first sees it she thinks she’s imagined it. She blinks, and it disappears. But with time a dark shape starts to harden on the edge of her sightline. It lingers just outside the circle of light from her desk lamp when she’s trying to do her schoolwork, makes it hard to concentrate, makes her eyes go blurry. She looks it up on Google: ‘Paranormal Phenomena’. A poltergeist, she learns, is ‘the manifestation of an imperceptible entity’. She reads reports of inanimate objects being picked up and thrown, noises such as knocking, scratching or even human voices. Poltergeist activity is often believed to be the work of malicious ghosts. She is transfixed by photographs of people being thrown from their beds six feet into the air, mysterious shadows, ectoplasm. The phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the homes of teenage girls. Someone has written on one of the sites that it’s because they are the spirits of paedophiles. Even in the afterlife, they can’t resist. But it’s strange because this one doesn’t seem that way to her at all. Not predatory, more frightened, or hurt. And it is a girl, she’s sure of that. She catches fleeting glimpses of Her in the mirror as she applies her mascara. As she dresses she’s somehow
aware of the weight of Her nearby, somehow wants Her approval, trying out colours and patterns, digging out things she hasn’t worn in months. She forgives the clumsiness, she can understand it, and the broken things so rarely belong to her. Still, no one mentions it. At night, when the tower block is quiet like a huge forgotten tombstone, she lies awake and imagines what it would be like, to be a ghost. Fading in and out of walls, coming and going as you pleased, being young forever. That if someone touched you, their hand would go right through, and what would they be left holding but thin air? She imagines the ghost sitting in the dark and smiling. She falls asleep and dreams about Her. Then, her mum’s purse goes missing. Robin is in the living room, curled up with the Reader’s Digest Tales of the Unexplained, and she feels her mum’s anger pour into the room in front of her, making her skin bristle. ‘Robin,’ her mum says, and she says it quietly, like her voice is coming from somewhere far away, from somewhere very deep inside of her. ‘Robin. My purse.’ She’s not used to hearing her mum say her name, so it takes her a moment to reply. ‘A ghost,’ she says. There’s a long time when her mum’s face is that word: inscrutable. Robin almost gets to think that she’s not going to say anything at all. ‘Why would a ghost haunt a tenth storey flat?’ ‘Perhaps,’ she says, ‘it is that She’s scared, or sad. Maybe something bad happened to Her. That’s what happens with ghosts. They get stuck here, until things get sorted out. There were gangs in the past, weren’t there, in this part of the city? She could have got involved with one of those. Something violent happened to Her. Something She could never tell anyone. She would have lost Her friends. She wouldn’t know who to trust. She’d have felt very alone.’
Her mum doesn’t like her talking about gangs. She rolls her eyes and almost looks like she’s going to cry. She thinks that Robin is part of the trouble she’s read about. She never asks what Robin does when she goes out: perhaps it’s easier to make her own mind up. The truth is she mostly just kicks about, loiters in museum exhibitions, rides shopping centre elevators up and down. She can waste hours in bookshops without buying a single thing. She’s learnt how to go unnoticed. Her mum crosses the living room in three long steps, stretching out her arms towards her, as if to hug her, or as if to grab her and shake her, but then when she gets very close she stops and her hands drop. Robin can hear her teeth grinding together inside her head. ‘I don’t believe you,’ her mum says. ‘I don’t believe you.’ She rushes from the room, slams the door, and the flat is still again. Belief. This is the thing. And people do believe in the strangest things: God, love, aeroplanes. Financial systems that no one understands. What is belief, anyway? Having faith in something you cannot see. Her mum does not believe her. Perhaps there’s no space for things like that in a home this small. Robin goes to the French window, opens it, and steps out on to the cold balcony. The ghost is in the corner, so black and patient She might be her own shadow. She moves away and gazes out over the city, to the place in the distance where the light from
all the streets and buildings fades, imagines herself in that empty place. Perhaps she’s going mad. She wonders if she turns around and looks at the ghost straight on, She’ll disappear forever. At last there comes a feeling clutching up from inside her, something grabbing at her windpipe, and she spins around, growing big with her rage. The ghost cowers as if She wants to get away but there’s nowhere for Her to go and suddenly Robin understands it, how it feels to be stronger than someone, to make them scared, how it can make your heart beat. Then she’s actually reaching out, opening her fingers like she will take hold of Her. She throws herself towards Her, intending to tip Her over the edge, to topple Her. The ghost catches Robin’s eye, opens Her mouth as if to ask for help, but the words are snatched away in a gasp. When finally they make contact the surprising thing is that She’s solid to the touch. Robin can feel the pulse beneath the skin, the blood, the warmth of it. Robin grasps at Her, and instead of shoving Her away, she finds herself pulling towards Her, their limbs tangling, a mess of human forms when they come close. Robin places her head on Her shoulder. She rests all of her weight against Her, something even more than that. There’s a small cracking sound in her ribs and all of the air goes out of her, as if it were her last breath. She is letting herself be held. She holds her.
didn’t see them for a while, at the beginning. I just heard them. And for the first couple of times at least I assumed they were a passing noise from outside, so I ignored them. Then, when I realised the sound was more immediate, much closer, I made an appointment with the doctor to get my hearing checked. I never kept the appointment. The first time I saw them was brief, and in my peripheral vision. I put them down to damselflies or dust motes dancing on the sunbeams. I didn’t think beyond the obvious because at that time I couldn’t. My mind had become bordered thanks to the modern magics contained in the many bottles on my dresser. The second time was just as brief, but more revealing. A ragged flutter of wings, a suggestion of humanity. When I turned my head they were gone but their shadows remained, faint and sweet. They left me for a while and I almost forgot them, except in those vulnerable
moments when first waking or slipping out into sleep. In the quiet of my rooms, in the quiet of the night, I would lie still, body tense, ears straining to recapture their almost presence, but find only absence. They’d needed time to watch me, to learn to trust me. I think also to judge me. And they must have found me worthy of the gift of them because they returned one night while I slept and crept through my dreams, leaving trails of glitter and sparkle. Little explosions of beauty that made my slack mouth twitch and my eyes jitter beneath their lids. I woke without hunger, without need, and felt held, emptied of loneliness. They were scattered across my pillows, vulnerable and still. We watched each other silently for a few moments and then I blinked a slow hello and curved just the very corner of my mouth upwards, so as not to frighten them, and they rose all together in one flick of movement and settled on my face. They rested their fragility on my cheeks, my
eyes, my lips, inside my mouth, and suddenly they were breathing for me, or I was breathing through them, and the world shimmered and divided into rainbow fragments. Then they were away from me again and I could suddenly feel the trudge of my heart, the gurgle and suck of my organs, the whisper of my lungs, and it was all too awful. The weight and processes of my human body too real. While I wept I watched them and they waited for me to recover my composure, gathered above and around me like vapour trails, close enough to bathe in my tears yet keeping a sliver of air between us. They whispered a name that I knew to be mine, their name for me, my rightful name, and I echoed the word, let it emerge like incense from my mouth and slip back into my ears. I had been claimed. As I got ready for the day they stayed with me, weaving and cascading to form a veil against my head, a bouquet in front of my hands, a train behind my feet. But they didn’t touch me again and I knew they were denying us all the repeat kiss of our souls merging, until I had made up my mind whether to join them. That decision had to be mine alone. When I left the flat they stayed behind. I heaved my human body out of the door and walked away from them, my spine grinding and creaking with every step I took. I didn’t look back because I didn’t need to. I knew they were still there. Through the time that followed I learnt stillness. By slowing my breath and not moving my limbs I was able to slow my heart and escape the worst of the noise of its beat, the resultant rush and rumble of my circulating blood. By not eating, I was spared the horrors of my digestive system crashing through me. I lived for those infini-
tesimal seconds between the beating of my heart, between breaths, when I was less human and more like them. I lived and I died, and it took so much longer than I would have expected. The end came with jolting suddenness. The unanswered phone. The missed appointments. There crackled into being a tentative disquiet, a narrow point of concern widening and spreading to encircle me and turn me away from the awful beauty of my gift. As I lay on my bed, surrounded by my future, I could sense the encroaching march of my saviours. I knew I could no longer submit to embrace, but must instead reach out myself and embrace my gift in turn. Their urgency was transmitted through the tattoo of wings colliding with wings as they arced and spun above my face and shivered against my skin. The effort it took me to leave my bed and cross the room was as much spiritual as physical. Every movement provided a backlash of horror and disgust at the rampant orchestra of my human body and its toil. I pushed aside the bottles of untouched tablets at the front of my dressing table; several weeks’ accumulation of untwisted screw caps and bridled thought, and reached for the bottle at the back. My Sleeping Beauty tablets. My poisoned apple. I swallowed and shuddered my way through the bitter task, until the bottle was empty and returned to its place. We lay together and waited for the pills to purge the mortality from me and accelerate my progression towards forever, but even that took so long. At the instant of my last breath in, and my last conscious thought, they settled around my mouth and allowed the tiny channel of air to draw them inside. They floated, and penetrated, and then it was over.
THE grandfather clock in the hallway chimes quarter past the hour. Of which particular hour I could not say, but at some point between the previous day and the next. Not quite today. ‘In times such as these, where such very real horrors routinely present themselves to us in daily pageant, it is still our fear of the unknown that terrifies us the most deeply. We cannot be certain that the next few moments will meet neatly with our hopes and expectations, let alone the coming days, months or years. We cannot sanely live out our lives alone, yet can we really trust that other’s intentions toward us are respectable? And what of events that might simply catch us unawares? Tragedies happen, we know.’ As Hinkle was steadied by the sound of his own voice, so too was I. Confidently he paused and not wishing to meet his eye I glanced down at the knife I held in my hand. When I looked up again Hinkle’s gaze held the blade still. Meanwhile, articulating himself tacitly in situ, the heroic Mr Chalk. Mr.Chalk, whose hair was not white as may be imagined but a youthful chestnut brown. Mr Chalk who now lay supine with his face to the floor. Mr Chalk who had had a great deal to say on many esoteric subjects worth discussing but who would now forever be mute. Mr Chalk who was, it was fact, quite dead. Of that we were certain. ‘We’ll get him good and drunk,’ Hinkle had proposed the previous Tuesday evening when we had met, as was our custom, ‘and then you’ll suggest a game of ‘Are you there,
Moriarty?’’ An invitation was made and Mr Chalk obliged unawares. Brandy was consumed. The game was begun. Mr Chalk and myself, both blindfolded and standing six feet apart, the chairs pushed back to create a stage. A moments darkness before Hinkle silently taps me on the shoulder. I raise my blindfold and he hands me the knife. Mr Chalk waits patiently unenlightened, a rolled up copy of yesterday’s Times grasped tightly in his fist. Hinkle says to begin. Mr Chalk: ‘Are you there Moriarty?’ Myself: ‘Yes.’ Mr Chalk again, head turned to the sound of my voice, paper truncheon raised aloft: ‘Are you there Moriarty?’ ‘Yes.’ I answer for the final time and present, between us, the blade. Valiantly smiting the air with his sabre of day old newsprint, Mr Chalk is well met. Anatomical charts were consulted. With a gasp, he sinks to his knees. He takes longer to die than we expect. Afterwards Hinkle appears impressed. My hands start to tremble. Hinkle begins his diatribe. The grandfather clock chimes quarter past the hour and Hinkle raises his eyes from the blade to mine: ‘In life there is nowhere to hide. Our existence alone is sufficient cause for unease. There will be repercussions.’ Pains to prove a point notwithstanding, he is impossibly right as always. I’m sure Mr Chalk would have agreed.
T H E DEV I L invited me over for tea: English Breakfast, Earl Grey or Chai. French Fancy? He asked. Just the one. I wondered how his collection of souls was coming along. He grinned and showed me his favourites. Very impressive. He gave me one to take home as a memento. A precious little thing. Cries if I forget to tuck it in at night. Laughs if I tell it a funny story. So simple. So human. I suppose that’s the attraction for him. His house was full of them. Gathering dust on mantelpieces, stacked up in corners like old newspapers, filed away in countless collations of creaking red leather. The best ones he had displayed in a glass cabinet, specially lit to show off their most attractive features. This one here, he said, is yours. He wouldn’t let me take it away with me. But he didn’t want me to leave empty handed either. So he gave me someone else’s. They won’t miss it, he said.
Letter to the Workhouse Committee of Guardians As a loyal and grateful employee of the Committee I feel honour bound to submit to your attention the enclosed manuscript. At the time of writing, sundry building works being undertaken to expand the accommodation for the female indigent poor, at the removal of a subsidiary wall a small space was revealed where surreptitious bricks had been removed to provide a hiding place. The aforementioned manuscript - seemingly an old diary - was discovered in a small casket. Though doubtless apocryphal, I feel it my
duty to pass on to a more discriminating authority the wild impressions of Mrs Letitia Tightweld, who I know from the Parish Register to have been a former workhouse superintendent of some 100 years ago. Though fantastical and delusional, I am in hope that the strange ramblings described may be of some historical interest to those on the Committee who have an academic interest in the background of this august and benevolent institution. Sincerely, Mrs B. Thoroughgood Pauper Guardian 26 th April 1903
Diary of Mrs Letitia Tightweld 25 th October 1803 T’es Wednesday, and despite many repetitious warnings of the imminent visit of The Squire, Mrs Ffinche-Ffrenche and her sweet daughters, it has taxed all my resources to render them female residents seemly to receive such honourable wellwishers! I did perforce divest Olde Mrs Twentymen of her nighte shifte and into a decent stuffe gowne. Olde Mrs Parkins I myself locked in her roome, she being mighty vociferous as to the giant weasels under her bedde, and likely to outrage delicate sensibilities! Mrs F/Frenche attempted to converse rationally with our rag-tag of unfortunates. However, I feare her kind enquiries of Goody Trollope as to whether she had learned much from that improving tract ‘The Iniquities of the Washerwoman of Kensal Green’ did fall only upon deafe ears! ‘Why’, says Goody Trollope, ‘I could tell ‘ee a better’un. In the village was this laundress came ‘ome and found her ‘usband in bed with the neighbour woman and what does she but catches up the pig stickin’ knife an slices orf is manhood! ‘Fore long her sees as he’s a bleedin on the goode linen sheets an’ runs orf to bring in the constable (sheets bein hard to come by). Straightway them honest orficers swep’ im off to the ‘orspital, - only one had to run back to seek under the bed for the missin’ bit. ‘Ho!’ I says to ‘er, ‘I opes they be good at needlework’ an I laughs fit to bust!’ At that the ladies, nostrils quivering, turned away and conversed amongst theirselves as to property prices in the town. Says I to Goody Trollope ‘You’ll come to regret that there vulgar discourse, t’es flyin in the face o’decency’ 1st October 1803 Goody Hodges birthday this day. Now let ‘em say as I don’t spoil them olde women for tonite I did serve em sossidges and onion
rings, and I ‘opes them poor unfortunates appreciates the guardian’s benevolence in the provision of annual parish sossidge! All are bent over their plates and little to be heard at first save for the smacking of jaws. Then begins a titterin’ and what does I see but that troublesome Trollope a grinning and winking as she pushes her sossidge back and forth through ‘er onion ring! ‘I a got a big’un,’ says she. ‘Reminds me of old Whopper Bailey!’ Well, I be a Christian woman and brought up in the church! My cheeks a burnin’, I stifle a shriek and goes into the kitchen to tidy my tea-cloth drawer quite lorst fer words at the shame of it. 15 th November 1803 Mighty cold and inclement this day. The female paupers be all betwixt and between. I blames Goody Trollope who have been tellin ‘em lewd jokes. Findin’ myself perplexed at the nature of the ungratefulness of them hussies I seeks the advice of our Beedle - him bein’ a well set up and knowin’ man. He enquires of the nature of their feedin’ and when I tells im of the recent indulgence in parish sossidge says he, ‘There be your answer, for high feedin’ be to blame! High feedin’ and red meate do only inflame the bludde of paupers! Had you but kepte to the Committee’s advice and give ‘em gruel t’would be no such goins on.’ As I escorts Beedle to the door, with confidential talk of grave and sober business and he is turning to look for his stick, here comes a goblin figure, that reckless Goody Trollope wearin’ Beedle’s hat and dancing back and forth, twitchin’ her skirts and singin’ ungodly songs! Beedle chases after her puffin’ and using wordes. He snatches his hat, but though 98 she is nimble as a nanny goat! I be afeared that my wits are scattered, and although Beedle promises retribution shall fall heavily upon that unruly Trollope I fear that the Devil hisself inhabits the old beldame!
20 th November 1803 As was my duty I did again lecture Goody Trollope about her lewd goings on, but I confess that there is a hellish glitter in her little winkin’ eyes which makes me shiver. When mid-day gruel was served I observes her join her hands and meekly give grace to all. Redemption of the heathen bein’ not inconceivable, I nervously pats her shoulder, but just as I turns away, ‘Load of old rubbidge!’ she shouts. She commences to beat upon the table with her spoon and fork as upon a drum and again running from the room to seek the quiet comfort of my tea-cloths, ‘Take care Goody Trollope,’ I says. ‘For my own brother used to do the like, and HE ended up as bass-viol player in a dance band!’ She beats the louder leading the other inmates in singing nursery rhymes, but not them as is fit for children’s ears. Ungodly ditties about Little Boy Blue and his horn! Tinies be not to know what Jack got up to at the top of the hill and Jill coming down with half a crown! 28 th
November 1803 Justice will be done as says the Good Book and the Lord moves in mysterious ways. That affliction of my soul, that plaguey Trollope was stiff and stark this morn! Full ‘o years and wickedness, God (or t’other ‘un!) took ‘er in the night. Bolt upright in ‘er chair she was with a cheerful grin on ‘er face! 30 th November 1803 I layed out Granny Trollope in decent state and a merciful peace seems to have descended upon the workhouse. The parish carte came round to take her coffin alongside some others to the cemetery. T’was not what I would call a seemly assembly as all what knowed ‘er and other dribs and drabs was sitting on the coffins, laughing and passing the gin bottle round! I stood in the road with folded hands, but with all of the
singin’ and shoutin’ the horse stumbled at the gate and her coffin slid off the cart and into the road. They gets it back on the cart, but not before her cronies did shout out, ‘Her was a live’un and she’ll be back- see if her don’t!’ A mortal shiver run through me, but, ‘Good riddance,’ says I. ‘Such a thorn in the flesh won’t be much missed!’ 5th December 1803 The nights draw in. The wind howls and branches knock against the shutters at supper time. I finish clearing Goody Trollope’s room and stand outside a moment listening to the buffeting of the branches. ‘Clikkety-click, clikkety-click’. I know that sound and it ain’t branches! With awful certainty I know it’s knitting needles! I opens the door again and the sound stops, but as I close it the clicking is louder. A horrible memory comes back of that old woman shouting, ‘Winter drawers on!’ an’ holdin’ up them she was knitting and waving ‘em at me! 12 th December 1803 I fear that my nerves do betray me. At every meal-time now I seem to see a misty moisty apparition, a dreadful peering old heathen beating on the table with a spoon, louder, and now louder. A cracked old voice is chanting, ‘In days of old when knights were bold, and lavatories weren’t invented. They dug a hole, and ...’ The dear old people seem not to notice anything amiss and are waiting for their gruel, but I durst not leave the kitchen where kettles and mops betray no obsession with lewdness. What do a 98 year old female have to do with such? Let alone one what have been dead 2 weeks! The gates of the lunatic asylum loom before me, gaping a hideous welcome. 18 th December 1803 Very shaky and disturbed this day. The
outline is clearer now, as I prepare tremblingly a tray of barley cakes each delicately topped with a preserved cherry. I know as surely as that Christmas will come that when I put them on the long table, a phantom voice will crow, ‘Why, them looks just like women’s bosoms!’ Just as yesterday when I served crumpets the same triumphant voice called out, ‘Who wants a crumpet? I know the Beedle likes a nice bit of crumpet!’ 24th December 1803 I hesitantly confided my ghostly experiences to the vicar, although I had not the words to describe the coarse nature of the phantom’s utterances. Although he regarded me dubiously, still he last night performed a ceremony of exorcism. My last hope is gone! - for as he pronounced the solemn incantation he seemed not to see the capering spectral form which danced about him, ever and anon lifting up its skirts to reveal several acres of supernatural, workhouse knicker! 25 th December 1803 The strict principles laid down by dear Pa, The Reverend A. Tightweld, did always serve me as a shining armour against the corruptions of this Vale of Tears. Howsomever Pa never found hisself haunted by a vindictive old Methuselah of a ghost what can see obscenity in any honest pronged vegetable! I hovers at the stove my imagination full of fearful possibilities. Christmas pudding surely can’t be accused of vulgarity with its decent English links with our own dear Royal family? But wait, could custard betray by a warm liquid mobility something akin to...? No, no, such thoughts must be put away! Never did I imagine that such indelicate fancies would cross my mind. Pa would shudder! The table is respectfully quiet; the appearance of bread crumbed rabbit fillets, smiling up in quiet innocence from the dear
old people’s dishes gives rise to nods and smiles. But what is this lurking, grinning spectre at the feast, gradually becoming more distinct and brighter? Sole observer of the supernatural, I fall back as the monstrous phantom of Goody Trollope lifts up a ghostly rabbit fillet. Leaning forward, unseen to all but my eyes, it shrieks, ‘Looks just like a man with ‘is willy out, hehe-he!’ It is too much! Almost fainting I run babbling from the workhouse. Mrs Ffinch-Ffrenche is just smilingly descending from her carriage with Christmas presents for all. She presses a gaily wrapped long package into my nerveless hands - doubtless a new umbrella. All my senses are reeling and disordered and as if from very far away I can hear myself saying, ‘Looks just like a man with ‘is willy out, he-he-he!’ After the coachman had carefully put the senseless and seemin’ lifeless figure of Mrs F.F. Back into the carriage I was took away by the constabulary and roughly bundled into a straight jacket. Howsomever, they tells me that it be very peaceful here and that carrots and sossidges be unlikely to appear on the asylum menu for quite some time!
OR the first time she can remember she hasn’t blown out all of the candles. Three remain. She forces a nonchalant chuckle, ‘I guess I’m getting old.’ The joke is received with laughter, too enthusiastic, over compensating. Bailey is the centre of attention as she blows the rest out and the room fills with delicious waxy smoke. ‘No you’re not!’ Abby reassures. The knife presses through the moist cake as Bailey dishes up 8 slices, ‘Just a sliver,’for
Maggie. ‘I ate so much over the holidays.’ She is thin as a rake and obsessed with calories. She calls them sins. ‘I don’t even want to know how many sins are in this.’ The birthday girl grips the knife and cuts off one more for herself, scrapes the icing off and licks her finger. The party is at Abby’s flat, a stage to flaunt her generosity welcoming Bailey to her new city and new job and new friends. More so it’s a chance to unveil her new internet romance: a certified hunk from the
pictures. Abby is nervous. He’s late. ‘This is a great flat Abby,’ says Tom. He is skilled at lying on the phone but in person he lacks finesse and his burley figure betrays him. They’re all gathered around the kitchen island where Bailey instinctively placed herself at the cue of the singing. Reacting to Happy Birthday is a learned skill. The idea is to feign surprise, even embarrassment and yet gravitate skilfully to a place where the cake can easily be placed in front of you. Tom surveys the flat holding his slice on a union jack napkin left over from Abby’s jubilee party. He finds the remote control and tries to turn the tennis on without anyone noticing but the TV comes on too loud. He acts like he has never seen this remote control in his life and has no idea how it got into his sticky paws. Still he manages to press mute and returns it to the sofa without turning the picture off. He stupidly shrugs and resumes his survey. Abby ignores his oafish masquerade as he pretends to show an interest in her life outside of work concealing his blunder with thickly sliced compliments about framed pictures. He is a mama’s boy and time spent in the company of women is a sort of negotiation where plutonic or not his ultimate motive is to be fed. A buzzer cuts through the din and Abby flutters across the floor to the intercom lifts the receiver and sings hello into it with smooth vibrato. ‘Ooooo, the mystery man is fashionably late.’ Maggie is trying to cut the tension. Abby repeats, ‘elloooo?’ less musically this time. ‘Hello? Hellll-o? Dan? I think there’s a bad connection I’ll just come down and let you in.’ She excuses herself and the chit-chat resumes. Abby opens the door swiftly expecting a tall handsome man with flowers but he is not there. She steps out and looks around. Seagulls swoop, beaks stuffed with fragments of trash. There is a smell of rotting flesh. She lights a cigarette putting the door on the latch. The pavement is still hot on her bare feet. She looks up and down the street. No
Dan. She paces the footpath from her door to the sidewalk, feeling exposed. In her mind neighbours are looking out at the crazy woman. Abby is the centre of her own world and her peripheral characters have nothing better to do than watch and judge her every move and they are watching her now as she smothers her ovaries with tar. A jogger passes. ‘Ugh,’ she grunts, flicks her butt and returns to the party. As she ascends the stairs she hears laughter and squeals. Her party has picked up some momentum in her absence. She opens the door to see Dan holding court in her kitchen. He is doing amateurish tricks, guessing cards, pulling coins from behind ears, but the showmanship draws everyone in and sparks wonder in them. She slinks up to him and puts her arm around his waist. ‘Hello Mister.’ She coos, dreamily taking him in. He’s even better in person. ‘How did you sneak past me?’ Tricks of the trade, my dear, tricks of the trade.’ He is a handsome devil. ‘Did I tell you all he’s a magician? Has anyone offered you some cake?’ Abby looks around at her other guests. Bailey gets the knife ready. ‘Which slice would you like, Dan?’ ‘I am gluten intolerant, Bailey’ Dan announces. ‘But what the hell, I’ll be naughty since it’s your birthday, I’ll have this one.’ They watch as he takes his first bite. ‘Mmmm-mmmm, Yummy.’ ‘That’s Bailey’s doing. She’s a real catch, Dan.’ Maggie pipes up. ‘Sexy and a good cook.’ It’s not really her intention to complement Abby but to draw Dan’s attention to her own figure which is much slimmer and youthful. He forks another into his mouth. Chews a little, nodding. ‘Mmmmm-’ his face goes serious. He puts his hand up to his lips as the room becomes quiet. ‘Oh no, you found a pube!’ Tom blurts trying desperately to impress Dan with what he believes to be wit. ‘Abby really does
throw herself into her work.’ Dan sticks his fingers in, reaches around a little, going, ‘unnn unn’. Abby gasps. He pulls out a toe, a baby’s toe. There it sits in his palm, no bigger than a raisin, covered in crumbs of carrot cake and saliva. ‘What is it?’ Abby is mortified. She’s craning her neck over his outstretched hand trying to make out what it is. Abby, this isn’t funny.’ Dan says as he puts it onto a napkin next to the extinguished candles. ‘Wha-I didn’t, what is it?’ Everyone crowds in to get a better look at the spit drenched baby toe. Tom loses his cookies, putting his hand up to cover his mouth but instead of containing the puke, sprays it all over the counter, bystanders and turning to run for the sink hits Maggie directly in the face. Her bangs drip. Bailey picks up the toe unphased by the dripping barf pasted across her neck and breasts. She picks it up and checks it for authenticity, examining the white bone, gently squeezing it and closing one eye to look at the toe print. She lost her own during birth. She was born backwards and the doctor ripped it clean off trying to get her out. She wears special shoes. Dan watches her examine the raisin sized morsel. There is a twinkle in her eye. She is being transported through time, through swimming lessons, ballet, locker rooms where she overcame the stigma and learned to wear her disfigurement as a badge of honour, and she swells. She takes a deep breath and the tears gather but don’t quite drop. Dan watches her soiled bosom heave. She looks at him with welled up eyes and releases a pent up laugh, smiling widely
then finally the tears flow as she doubles over. She catches her breath again and straightens. Dan steps closer, to where he can smell the humid fumes of Tom’s lunch. ‘Happy Birthday, Bailey.’ He smiles as if he knows everything about her. ‘Don’t you want to try it on?’ His query pulls her jaw down and dilates her pupils. She looks at the toe, then to him and so on. Maggie returns from the bathroom, she got it particularly bad and is now in speckled white jeans and a damp peach blouse. Her hair is soaked and smells of tangerine and bergamot. They gather now around the birthday girl and the mystery man. ‘I am so sorry everybody.’ Abby says between sobs. She is in her bathrobe now. ‘It’s not your fault, Abby.’ Dan smiles warmly and winks at her. Tom catches the exchange. ‘Oh you bastard! Ha ha!’ Tom is now completely in love with Dan and his moustache hairs stand on end to prove it. ‘What a trickster!’ he mutters to himself. ‘So, Bailey,’ She looks at him like he’s crazy for a second but his eyes direct her movements and she obediently removes her shoe and sock. Dan takes her by the waist and helps her onto the counter. ‘Up you get.’ He lifts her foot up and it’s white skin glows under the halogen bulbs. The others orbit around to see the small gap where her big toe should be. ‘What is that smell?’ Says Maggie. She’s not trying to make a joke about Bailey’s feet but the others take it as such and again force themselves to laugh. Then one by one they too start to smell it. ‘Yeah actually, what is that?’ asks Abby. ‘It smells like compost or something.’
‘It smells more like a hospital.’ Maggie says. ‘That’s weird, I smell lilies.’ Tom hates lilies. They remind him of funeral homes. ‘What do you smell, Dan?’ ‘Fear.’ Dan answers, making no eye contact. He takes the toe from Bailey. ‘Watch closely. I’ll only do this once.’ He puts his hand on Bailey’s foot. It’s cold. He inserts the toe into the space and cups his hand around it closes his eyes and babbles some incoherence. The smells grow stronger until everyone is once again queasy but they don’t dare look away. Tom tries to hold his breath. Bailey screams out once. Her shrill cry causes great alarm in the onlookers. ‘Ok Dan, I think that’s enough.’ Abby has become jealous of the attention he is paying to Bailey and begins to think this has all been part of Dan’s scheme. She is right. Abby lunges forward pulling at Dan’s hands which seem glued to Bailey’s foot. ‘I’ll let you know when it’s enough.’ He is laughing vile breath into her face choking her. It’s the rotting meat she smelled on the step. She stumbles back. ‘You’re not a real man.’ She is right again. He releases the foot. ‘Oh, and what do you know about real men Abigail? Is the internet where you tend to find them? Is that real life?’ Bailey is pale, almost green. Her eyes are sinking into her sweaty skull. ‘What have you done to her?’ ‘I’ve released her.’ ‘She looks like death!’ ‘I don’t expect you to understand.’ ‘You’re a monster’ ‘You have no idea what I am!’ He roars. ‘No idea at all.’ Tom and Maggie rush over to Bailey helping her to sit up. She is cold and damp. If one of them were to check her pulse they would discover she doesn’t have one. She is however alert. She smells like lilies and hospitals. Tom’s moustache is not standing on end anymore. He notices the toe has
attached to Bailey’s foot. Maggie follows his eyes. ‘It worked.’ She’s confused. This is normal. The toe is making her sick. It all makes perfect sense to Tom. He grabs it and yanks. Dan tries to stop him. ‘Wait!’ he shouts but it’s too late. Tom has ripped the offending toe away. He collapses onto the kitchen floor holding it aloft. He looks up to see Bailey now. She looks no better, clammy and grey, her eyes sunken and bloodshot. ‘You try to do something nice,’ Dan is visibly shaken now. His sharp features are softened. He scuffs past Bailey, deflated and solemn. She recognizes him now, a long forgotten lover. She calls to him before he reaches the window. He stops, turns, smiles. ‘There’s my girl.’ She hobbles to him and they embrace. Their skin is practically hanging off now as he leans out of the window with her in his arms. ‘How long has it been?’ She whispers in his ear. Her breath smells like snow. ‘Don’t worry about it. None of this matters anymore.’ They heave their useless flesh through the window. It drops and splats on the pavement below. The others just watch as the curtain flaps in the breeze. Tom is holding a raisin aloft. Three candles lie alight on a jubilee napkin. First the napkin catches, then the tablecloth. Maggie shudders suddenly and looks around at the bubbling wallpaper. She grabs Abby and Tom and gets everyone out into the street. Flames reflect in a puddle outside Abby’s window. A crowd gathers and stares with them. ‘I hope there’s nobody in there,’ Tom says. Maggie nods. ‘It looks abandoned,’ says Abby. Tom shrugs and puts a raisin into his mouth as the sirens wail and the crowd disperses.
L I N DA CL A R K has been saddened by a growing realisation that it is now unlikely she will ever write the great and ‘serious’ novel. Her every attempt is sabotaged by a disposition heavily welded to the comic! She remains a lady of uncertain age with own pork pie seeking a gentleman of independent means with knife and fork. Object: Friendly co-operation. A N T HON Y R H YS lives in the Welsh Valleys, so the Glamorgan County Asylum which opened in 1864, would have been his local establishment. Anthony paints in oils imitating Victorian ‘cartes-de-visites’ the early form of photography that began in the 1860s and gave rise to the first generation of people in history, rich and poor, to have their images documented. ‘After researching into the social history of the time, how these people actually lived, I felt that the photographs were lying to us. This was a time of great poverty where atrocious working conditions, poor housing and the virtual absence of social welfare led many people to live short and brutal lives. I decided to give these people their lives back in a way – to show them at their most emotional state. I wanted them to scream at us, to shout out their stories, their pains
and frustrations. Women in the 19th century were under immense pressures and were in many ways treated as second class citizens without a voice of their own. Post natal depression, questioning the male establishment, ‘aggressive’ displays of independence and an appreciation of sexual pleasure were enough in those days to have you committed and spend the rest of your life locked away, which is a very, very scary thought.’ Anthony’s paintings won the Ifor Davies Award at the National Eisteddfod 2012 and he is currently preparing for a solo show at Penarth Pavilion in April 2014 titled ‘Born of Pain and Iron’. More paintings can be seen at www.anthonyrhys.com. FAY F R A N K L I N is a professional travel guidebook editor and writer. However, she regularly strays away from the world of non-fiction as a participant in a literary flash fiction writing challenge at www.showmeyourlits.com, where this story originated. Her short stories have been published by The Legendary, HazardCat, Fiction365, Cuento and Litro, who made her one of their ‘Ones to Watch’. She lives by the water on each side of the English Channel, but not both at the same time.
R OBE RT O PA ST OR E is the acclaimed author of several unfinished novels, and suffers from night terrors... C H R I ST I NA T H AT C H E R is an American graduate of the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing MA program at Cardiff University. While studying, she fell in love with Wales and now runs creative writing workshops for at-risk youth and vulnerable community members across the Valleys. Her poetry has recently been published in The London Magazine, Neon Literary Magazine, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, among others, and is forthcoming in Dream Catcher Magazine. To learn more about her work please visit her website: collectingwords.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @writetoempower. PAU L O ’ C ON N E L L is a writer and graphic artist whose work has appeared in a variety of international books, magazines, zines and comic anthologies. As well as self-publishing collections of his own solo and collaborative work under the title of The Sound of Drowning, Paul’s work has also been published and exhibited in the UK, Australia, New York and Europe. Publications include Dazed and Confused, Design Week, The British Journal of Photography, The Guardian, Scottish Sunday Telegraph, Torpedo Fiction Quarterly, Time Out, The Stool Pigeon, CTRL+ALT+SHIFT ‘Unmasks Corruption’ anthology, Advanced Photoshop Magazine, Bizarre, Meat magazine, Stripburger, The Comix Reader, HIVE Quarterly, Trespass magazine, Milk & Wodka, Blurred Vision, Lazlo Magazine, Italian Cosmopolitan (!), Fat Chunk and Komikaz. Find him here: www.soundofdrowning.com ST OR M JON E S’ work has appeared in largely unknown and obscure publications. She is a retired circus performer and lives on a boat.
A M BE R M A SSI E -BL OM F I E L D started writing for theatre, and as a playwright had work produced at Theatre Royal Bath, Tricycle, ICA, Camden People’s Theatre and internationally. As a short story writer she’s had work selected by Are You Sitting Comfortably? and Story Tails. She is an associate artist with Annexe Magazine, who published her short story pamphlet The Audience Member. She has performed stories at festivals including Leefest, Beaconsfest and Interrobang?! By day she is the Head of Communications for the Albany, Deptford. ducksonandpinker.tumblr.com CA R LY HOL M E S lives on the west coast of Wales and has had a number of short stories published in journals and placed in competitions. Her debut novel, The Scrapbook, will be published by Parthian in April 2014. Carly organises The Cellar Bards, a group of writers who meet monthly to share their words. She’s delighted to be included in the Ghastling’s first issue. M IC H A E L YOU NG grew up in the sticks near the Bay of Fundy where he listened to ghost stories around camp fires. He is currently in London working on a collection of bizarre tales over a pint of something refreshing. M A R GE D PA R RY is an Assistant Producer at the BBC. She is a writer, poet and playwright, her plays have been performed at Latitude festival and Agent 160 Theatre Company– an all female organisation that put on work across the UK. NAT H A N I E L WI N T E R -H É BE RT is the creative director of a design studio, WinterHébert, working remotely alongside his wife from the wilds of rural Quebec. He appears to be preoccupied with typefaces and can be found in his forest abode crafting works of design brilliance whilst his sparrow children sit upon his shoulders. winterhebert.com