strange

Aunt Celia

Aunt-Celia

 

The text message said, “Hi Molly, I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you at work. I know you’re busy. The thing is, I don’t know if it’s night or day at the moment. I can’t see either way. It’s awfully dark in here, and getting quite smelly, if I’m honest. Dear, I think I’ve been buried in the ground, as if I’m dead! I woke up and found myself in what appears to be a silk lined box just big enough for my length, and no more. I can’t find an opening anywhere, and I can’t hear anything about, not even Ethel’s dog barking next door. My mobile phone is with me, of course, and what feels like a rose, I think. But nothing else. Is there any possibility you could shed some light on my predicament, literally?”

Molly, quite understandably, read this text more than a few times, possibly hoping the words would rearrange themselves, or disappear. But mostly she read it through again and again and again because she needed time to process the fact that her Aunt Celia had texted, apparently from her grave.

The funeral had been very dignified, but not too fussy. Aunt Celia didn’t like fussy. She didn’t like to feel a nuisance to anyone. Of course, she liked to keep up with her correspondence. A letter to her favourite chat show, at least once a week. Her fortnightly four page gossip to her Australian cousin. And she never missed a day without calling her friends or paying them a visit. And now there was text messaging. A marvellous way of keeping in touch with her favourite niece throughout the day. Molly had bought Aunt Celia the mobile phone to keep with her at all times since her husband, Frank, passed and she was living alone. Aunt Celia had no children of her own, and living only a street away Molly felt she needed to keep an eye on her. It turned out to be the other way round, however. Aunt Celia doted on Molly, whether from gratitude, validation, or boredom, she wasn’t sure. But, inconvenient as it sometimes was, Molly felt she was doing the right thing. It made her feel good that Aunt Celia felt good about making Molly feel good. Which was good.

But this, THIS…made her feel bad. Very bad. Was this a cruel trick, or had she actually buried her Aunt alive? She’d placed the phone in the casket, as she knew how attached Aunt Celia had become to it. Instant communication in writing! “A marvel,” Aunt Celia had called it. With comprehensive support from Molly, she had filled it with the numbers of her friends who had also been given mobile phones by their loved ones, just in case, and had also found it a most convenient way to communicate the smallest of observations to whoever they fancied, day and night. And now, it turned out, alive or dead!

Molly, managed to coerce her shaking hands into dialling her husband’s work number on her mobile phone, which connected and rang.
“Hello? Molly? What’s wrong?”
Her husband’s tone conveyed the type of worrisome curiosity that an unexpected and unusual phone call does from a spouse on a week day when such communication during the grey and grinding not-to-be-disturbed working day can only mean disaster. A text message was for orders of milk or toilet roll, which can be picked up during the walk from office to car park; a part of the transition from hard-work-head to soft-relaxed-at-home-head. But a phone call meant serious business. As did the muffled silence at the other end of the line.
“Molly?” he repeated.
Molly found out very quickly just how incomprehensible a shock she found herself in. The words would not form. How could they? In what order could they be arranged to convey such….such….terrible and…bizarre news?
“Er…” she managed. Then, “Dave…”
“What’s wrong, Molly, for god’s sake!”
“I think,” Molly quivered, “We’ve made a terrible mistake with Aunt Celia.”

Dave managed good time in the light and lazy afternoon traffic. Tea had been ceremoniously brewed, and the dining table took the weight of stoic elbows. A decision must be made. Firstly, was one of them losing it? Secondly, were both of them losing it? Thirdly, were both of them fine and this was actually happening? Fourthly, what the hell did they do now? Dave went through the various stages at which it should have been picked up that Aunt Celia was still alive. The paramedics when they examined her still in her bed on a Tuesday lunchtime. The pathologist when he opened her up to confirm she’d died of a ‘cerebrovascular accident’ in her sleep. The funeral home when they made her up before placing her in her silk lined casket and drove her to the church. All logical places encompassing qualified people who had all, seemingly, concluded it was a corpse they were dealing with, not just someone having a nap for a week. The facts were: Aunt Celia had died seven days ago; Aunt Celia had been buried with her mobile phone; Unless the grave had been robbed, Aunt Celia was indeed texting them from her very own mobile phone, from within her grave.

Molly and Dave pulled up in the unusually busy car park near the church, having not uttered a word to each other since they’d made the decision to check Aunt Celia’s grave for themselves – to check the reality of the situation as well as the state of the grave. They wanted to find the coffin exposed to the air with crowbar marks on the rim. They wanted to find poor DECEASED Aunt Celia lying there, bereft of her beloved mobile phone. This sick, sadistic world was capable of such horrors, they hoped.

The first thing they noticed were the people hovering about the vast graveyard, gathering in clusters. They seemed upset, which of course is not unusual in such a place, but they also seemed a bit sort of worried? Paranoid? Freaked out? Aunt Celia’s grave lay undisturbed. Molly and Dave stared at it, trying to hide the monster of fear creeping inside their heads. Then, in the distance someone shouted, “We have to get them out! Now!” A stick-like balding man with unruly side hair was running as fast as he could across the slippy grass. He lost the battle and fell just short of the gravel path, leaving a damp, greenish stain across the knee of his beige slacks. The clusters of people turned as one to the scene. He scrambled to the path and dashed into the church, yelling for some…any kind of assistance, divine or otherwise.

The media arrived within minutes of an army of diggers, ordered by, firstly, the rich, eager to prove having money is worth it in a crisis, and then the local council, who, bombarded by such horrific pleads, tears, insults and threats, felt it wise to help their voting citizens by enabling them to dig up their dead. Designated individuals within each cluster were frantically texting on their mobile phones, informing their interred loved ones of the latest of news from above, reassuring and smiley-faced. Molly had already sent hers. Aunt Celia was busy texting Margaret, who had died within a day of Celia and now found herself in a similar situation. Margaret, however, had a news app on her mobile phone and had become quite the hub of undead interaction within the subterranean network. She’d set up a Facebook page too, which was thriving! But her closest friends hadn’t entered that social media world yet and required the more intimate yet slightly formal text message. Burying loved ones with their mobile phones was a relatively new fad, but it seemed to be turning into quite popular tradition. The modern equivalent to the Victorian grave bell to some (who were now quite smugly correct in their thinking), but mostly for sentimental reasons, or so they could continue to grow their small holding on FarmVille in the afterlife.

That evening, Tesco One Stop shops reported a rise in tea bag sales. The clusters had moved to their respective dining tables, bringing in the occasional chair from the hallway to accommodate the extra ‘body’ at the table, just like at Christmas, and the healing process began. Aunt Celia was still a bit shaken by events. The pink wafer finger was helping though, and the second round of tea in her familiar porcelain flowered cup was definitely hitting the spot.
“Hundreds of loved ones presumed dead have risen from their graves in an unexplained phenomenon sweeping the globe,” the Six O’clock News reported. “Thanks only to modern technology via mobile phones buried with them did these ‘undead’ manage to alert their family and friends.”
“It was lucky I could get a signal,” squawked Maureen from Telford, gaunt yet perky, “It’s usually terrible round my way. I mean, HEAVEN KNOWS what would have happened! You know. Mm.”
Cut to shot of Maureen surrounded by wide eyed, brave faced, stiff upper lipped family, the father of which staunchly declared it to be an awful shock all round. The twitch in his usually solid left eyelid confirmed this to be true. A contrived image filled the screen, the family, all together again, tea in hand, squashed into an inadequate cream leather settee, watching Pointless. Aunt Celia beeped in an early noughties Nokia way. “Ooh, a text message from Sylvia,” she peeped, and got on to it straight away. Molly was in a self-sustaining cycle of tea making, drinking, and expelling. Dave was asleep, in his fantasies. He drank the tea, stared at the TV, and avoided thinking.

As the weeks trundled by Aunt Celia was living life to the full. Fuller than ever before, in fact. She’d bought herself a smartphone, on Maureen’s recommendation, and had downloaded the Facebook app. She had 24 friends, and was now an admin on the ‘Buried Alive and Survived!’ page. They began to meet on Thursday mornings at Clayton’s Cafe on Shriver Street for tea and iced buns. The younger ones met elsewhere, but cordially communicated online via the page. They were unequivocally connected now, young and old, rich and poor, male and female. A commonality between generations, genres, and gender. The undead dead consoled those who had been nearly dead. Those who wanted to be dead whinged about their inability to be dead to those who wished they were dead. Death was extinct. The earth mourned its ally.

Experiences were shared and recognised, stories were told and printed, books were written, gimmicky chat-shows made a comeback with double the amount of mailbags. Various officials were conveyed across the news broadcasts speaking in solemn tones regarding their inability to fathom this event. Politicians squirmed within their grim suits giving contrived statements, being probed by media trained journalists. Medical professionals postulated unsubstantiated theories and carried out tests, and tests on the tests. Philosophers wrote papers, then had breakdowns realising that they couldn’t even end the pointlessness of existence with suicide. Mental health services cried out for more funding to meet the demand. Social workers begged for more houses to be built and for hotels to open themselves up to accommodate the growing undead.

Then, on Thursday 27th of June, two months, three days, sixteen hours, and thirty three minutes after that first text message from the grave had been sent, nine million, seven hundred and ninety-two thousand, four hundred and fifty-three people died, all at once, across the globe. This, sadly, included Aunt Celia. Happily, she was at her Thursday morning gathering in Clayton’s when it happened, so she wasn’t alone. This, of course, meant a logistical nightmare for the funeral industry. Thankful for something vote-winningly heroic to do requiring ‘large scale coordination’ and ‘mobilisation of various government resources’, UK politicians charged to the nearest news bulletin to make clear their plans to aid the electorate at this difficult time, and that therefore there was no need for families to take matters into their own hands and fill that space between beloved Jake the Jack Russell and the buddleia bush.

The diggers were deployed, funeral parlours were put on 24 hour duty, as were priests, registrars, and florists. Employers were subsidised for authorised absences as the whole world took bereavement days within the space of a fortnight. Mass mourning gripped those who lived, iced in sickly-sweet melancholy by the media. The Facebook page was closed, but preserved. The last chapter of the book was written. The uncanny incident was over.

Molly and Dave sat watching Pointless with a cup of tea and an iced bun. The funeral had been nice. Not too fussy. There was a queue after all. Aunt Celia would have approved. She looked peaceful as she lay there, smartphone next to her right hand. Molly picked up her phone and checked for any red bubbles loitering around her messages app. Dave put his arm round his wife and held her safe.
Funnily enough, everyone from then on requested they be buried with their mobile phone. Coffin makers were offering wind up phone chargers and signal boosters as added extras. And all those still living, especially those recently bereaved, checked their mobile phones a little more often.

Death brushed a biscuit crumb from his infinitely dark robe and stared at the empty in-trays, the shelves full of completed paperwork. He sipped his cup of tea with satisfaction.
“Holidays,” he said, “Are all very good, but the backlog it creates just isn’t worth it.”

https://www.facebook.com/buriedaliveandsurvived

 

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Nothing

Nothing

The slate stones cracked underfoot, unstable yet unbreakable. The dirt in between disturbed with every footstep, but stuck in its submitted state as it had been for centuries. The occasional dandelion poked through with strong roots. A weed to some, a strong and hardy plant to others. The wild bushes watched all who dared to enter the unkempt sanctuary, their derogatory stares as they took in the wild front garden, made of neglect and lack of pride. Seemingly, anyway. Brambles grasped with thorny arms, taking pleasure in their triumph over the remaining colourful blooms. Their scent overwhelmed by soil and worms and subterranean power.

The last of the feathers on the dead blackbird’s carcass wavered delicately in a breeze that wasn’t there. There was a calmness to its stillness that betrayed its moment of death. The perpetrator long gone, only the piercings from its claws remained. The body lay just before the filthy step, overlooked by a sturdy black door with layer upon layer of peeling paint, the lacquer of lives past peeping through the blackness. Once it was a rosy red. But that was a time long forgotten.

The spider crossed the mosaic tiles comfortably and without worry, stopping at the curled foot of the small rusting table and considering the climb. It had already made a home within the intricate swirls that held the thick glass on which sat a sturdy telephone. The numbers were obscured by the thick dust collected in the nooks and holes on the dial. The spider had never felt its sound. The spider had never felt any sound in that hallway. The shredded corners of a brown leather address book fanned its pages at the stagnant air. The yellowing edges held the story of a well-used life, keeping dried up ghosts of the fingertips that once held it dear. It kept the names of those souls who were needed. Souls long since moved on from this life. Except one.

The door was ajar. As always. The once glossy floorboards creaked and groaned, bereft of feet to bare. The last tracks that dared to seek were still visible, disappearing through the doorway, into the cupboard’s undiscovered secrets. Blackness still held power inside. Reigning over the creatures it kept, the memories of the last souls to breathe its musty air, and hiding the crippled chair that still crawled with life. A life not quite human, not quite animal, and not quite alive. The wooden legs bristled with longing, sat amongst the offerings of decaying flies and moth wings. It’s high back stood proud within the blaze of darkness, holding onto the last of its leather waistcoat, dirty red and flaking like scorched dead skin. The brass rivets grasped desperately at this skin, holding on, blackened and weak with the effort. And the chair took strength from their effort, from the worship of its creatures and the death they brought to its feet. But it still needed. It still craved. It still had a purpose unachieved. The echoes of its roots demanded it. In the silence of its own making it screamed into the ears of nothing. And the nothing heard.

[127 years earlier]

They hadn’t known what to do when they’d found it. The builders had seemed unsure when they were given their answer by the foreman. The foreman had seemed unsure when he was delivering it. The words given to him by the owner…
“Leave the bones where they are. The house will need them.”

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The Woman Who Will Always be There

The-woman-that-will-always-be-there

 
The scarf, faded peach. Delicately worn and straining at its near nonexistence. Hunched at your door in your grey woollen coat, bought to last. It has proved itself. The key seems too big for the lock, to small for your crumpled fingers. The old red shopping bag laughs against you until the relief of your bundled body pushes through the damp wooden door. Behind the nets you go. Somewhere, in your world. For that moment, though, I shared your life with you. Each day, I did my thing, you did yours. And we saw each other, and remembered. I could not tell you your face. I don’t know the colour of your pinched eyes, or the shape of your smile. But still I remember you. Even now the nets are gone and the faded peach scarf can finally find rest. The woman that will always be there.
I remember.

 

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The Mound of Pluck

the-mound-of-pluck

Pluck loved his mound. He’d made it himself over the years, adding bits of skin here and there and laying Matilda’s babies safely inside when her time came. Flies aren’t that fussy where their babies hatch, as long as it’s warm and moist, with some form of breakfast nearby. Pluck always saved a bit of meat from the dinner table to put in his skin mound. Mother usually liked everything from a human carcass but she wasn’t that fond of elbow meat, so father didn’t mind if a few bits went missing while he was cooking. He even gave Pluck scraps of skin before crisping the rest up in the fire. Mother’s favourite!

One piece of skin had been taken from the forehead of the great crustie warrior Fionn MacCumhaill, so his father had told him. It had the dark shiny patch from the burns of his own spear, a technique used to keep himself awake to protect the citizens of Tara from the fire breathing man of Sidhe, which proved it was the genuine forehead, said his father. True or not, it did look pretty in pride of place at the top of his fleshy mound. Until he’d had to remove it to make a choker for a girl he’d liked at the Bodyarium. She was a trainee doctor and he’d served her some toe gruel in the staff canteen. She came over before she left to thank him for the lovely meal, which was unusual in itself. The staff canteen wasn’t renowned for its culinary prowess (blamed by the head chef on the doctors stealing leg, hand and feet ingredients from the cool tunnel). But it was the way she smiled at him, the way her eyes flickered slightly as she gazed gently upon him, and how she had touched his fingers like a whisper as she’d left that made Pluck sure she would pick him as a potential suitor, IF he got the gift EXACTLY right. He crafted the choker out of dried gut and hairhemp and prepared the story from the crust of the legendary MacCumhaill. He waited for ages until she finished work and gave it to her on the Bodyarium steps. She didn’t say much, and he didn’t see her or the choker again. At home his father had given him a large cut of shoulder skin, saying that Mother hadn’t fancied her human crispy that night. Unusual.

Anyhow, Pluck covered his mound entirely with that skin and vowed never to forsake his fleshy friend for a girl (or any subterranean for that matter) ever again. As he drifted off to sleep, Pluck caressed his clammy friend, and, in a way, subtle but affectionately, his mound snuggled him back.

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Inspired by Russel Cameron’s Fleshy Mounds, which you can find here…
http://russelcameron.blogspot.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/RusselCameronArt/home
https://www.instagram.com/russelcameron/

23 Sycamore Street

Street-sign

Her father had died inside the spindles of a threshing machine. It was sudden, they said, like that was some sort of comfort. Molly didn’t want to leave her home, but her mother said they had no choice. The house had come with her father’s labouring job, and the land owners had to replace him which meant they had to leave. The small terrace house on Sycamore Street was waiting patiently for them as they pulled up. They entered through the green door of number 23 and Molly quickly marked her new home as “dark, dull, and depressing,” and she certainly didn’t want to be there. The long ride from the fresh, open countryside into the murky, claustrophobic city had worn them both out, and then they had to unpack the cart. Sleep that night was made more than welcome.

The next afternoon there were still cloth bags and chests blocking the scant hallway as Molly climbed the creaky wooden staircase to her bedroom. Her mother was still frantically cleaning every crevice of the house, almost oblivious to her surroundings. Molly spent the day putting together her toy theatre made of paper and card that her Aunt Sal had got her last Christmas. She played with the paper figures, defining their characters and imagining new scenes until she was called for supper. Her mother looked tired as they sat down to bread, butter, jam and a full pot of tea in front of the freshly blackened stove. Molly piled her slice of bread with homemade blackcurrant jam and couldn’t fit enough of it in her mouth at once. Her mother told her to wipe her jam encrusted face, and handed Molly one of her hand embroidered napkins. It smelled of tea chests and past times.

Tucked up in her bed that night, Molly shut her eyes and imagined herself back in her old room, small and cosy, with the smell of open fields outside. She drifted off as she remembered the old barn down the track, how she used to help her dad pile up the hay, then leap into its soft, crackly bosom. Her dad laughing at her, trying to maintain his authority whist secretly wishing he could do the same. She leapt into his arms and hugged him so tightly, enough so he wouldn’t leave her again. But then his grip loosened. She held on. What was he doing? She opened her eyes, looking for his smiling face. But it wasn’t there. It was ridged, cold, lifeless. She was on the cold floor of a white room, her father lying there, limp. A jolt went through her making her arms fling themselves away from this body, pulling her further and further away. The dark stranger lay there. Molly sobbed. That wasn’t her father! It wasn’t! She woke bolt upright, sobbing as she was in her dream. Her mother rushed to her side and cradled her within her soft shawl.
“It’s okay, Molly, I’m here,” she whispered.

The next morning Molly was wrapped up in her best coat and made to put on her black gloves.
“It’s getting cold out there, love. Warm hands, warm heart.”
Molly held her mother’s hand very tightly as they walked across the road to the bustling open market. They stopped at the fruit stall for a pound of apples.
“Sweet enough for the best apple pie in the county, ma’am,” said the round man as he poured the autumn gems into her mother’s bag. “I’m sure the young lady will test my claim, won’t you miss?” Molly gingerly looked at the flushed stallholder and wrapped herself round her mother’s arm. They walked through the market, stopping occasionally as her mother eyed the local produce. Molly wasn’t interested. She felt dizzy, her eyes kept open by the bitter breeze that whipped at the stall covers every now and then. She heard a rasping voice, children laughing, then a huge cheer. The colours bounced off her eyes like a bright sunrise. Mr Punch was cracking his truncheon, warning the alligator to keep away.
“That’s the way to do it!” bellowed the raspy voice.
There were a dozen or so children gathered in front of the makeshift theatre with rosy smiles. They cheered as Mr Punch waged a final blow to the alligator which bounced off the stripy stage. Molly laughed. The breeze whipped at her elbow, then she realised her mother wasn’t there. Panic began to rise in her gut. She turned, wide eyed, looking for the familiar figure…
“Hello, my name’s Arabella. What’s yours?”
A girl in a white pinafore with pink flowers stood in front of Molly. She had long black hair and the biggest blue eyes Molly had ever seen. A pink ribbon held her hair away from her face, the breeze trying it’s hardest to dislodge as many wisps as possible. Molly realised her mouth was gaping and forced herself into a kind smile. “I’m Molly. We’ve just moved here.”
“Thought I hadn’t seen you before.” said Arabella, her eyes perusing every detail of this new girl.
Molly looked down at her old grey coat that her dad had bought her last year for her birthday. It was grey and warm, and reached her knees. “Do you live round here then?”
“My dad owns the bakery on Compton Road, just round the back there.” She directed Molly’s gaze with her eyes. “I’ve been told to fetch salt, but I do love Mr Punch, don’t you?”
Molly smiled. “Yes, I love the theatre. My Aunt Sal took me at Christmas last year. I’ve got my own theatre at home.”
“Your own theatre! How do you fit it into your house?” Arabella’s cheeky face warmed Molly as they both giggled at the silly thought.
“You can come and see it if you like. I live over there, number 23,” Molly pointed at the house with the green door. “My mother won’t mind.”
“Number 23?” Arabella exclaimed with such disbelief that Molly’s brow wrinkled quizzically.
“Yes. Why? Don’t you believe me?”
Arabella realised her expression and smiled broadly, almost too broadly. “Oh no, of course I do, silly. It’s just it’s been empty for a while. Didn’t think anyone was ever going to take it.”
“Why wouldn’t they?” said Molly apprehensively.
“Oh, no reason.” Arabella paused, like she was weighing up something in her mind. “It’s just the man that was there before, he … well, he was a bit of a … my mother said he drank too much and I was to keep away from him. Something about war. I don’t know really.”
“Did he live there on his own?” asked Molly.
“No, he had a wife, but I only saw her once, on the market buying a big bunch of comfrey leaves. She must have left him ‘cos she wasn’t with him on the cart when he left. Just him. No one’s lived there since. Must be nearly a whole year now.”
Molly took in the information, but didn’t respond.
“Oh,” Arabella said, breaking the silence, “I’d better get back to the shop. Dad will be annoyed I’ve taken so long.”
“Oh, yes,” stuttered Molly, breaking her thoughts. “It was really nice to meet you. Will you come over to see my paper theatre? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I’d love to. I have to work until four. My dad says I’m the only one who can sweep the floor properly,” Arabella said proudly. “But I could come over after tea if you like.”
“See you then.” Molly’s eyes smiled as Arabella ran towards her shop waving. Had she just made her first friend? A hand on her shoulder made her jump and she whipped round to see her mother’s relieved eyes.
“I thought I’d lost you,” she sighed.
Molly swung on her mother’s hand as they made their way across the street to number 23. She felt warm. The breeze didn’t bother her any more.

Through the green door the smell of the unfamiliar house greeted them.
“Now, go and find me the pie dish,” said her mother, “I’ve got an apple pie to make for tea. It’s in the cellar in one of the tea chests.” Molly smiled at the thought of her mum’s apple pie. She slipped off her coat and took a candle from the mantle. Her mother lit it for her. Molly opened the old wooden cellar door. The black patchy latch was cold. The musty smell filled her nostrils and the damp air settled on her face. She walked into the gloomy darkness, the candle lighting a hazy circle of mottled bricks and spider webs as she turned the corner and felt for the stairs. Her hand passed over the coarse brickwork, prickling at her fingers. She descended the stone steps, her shoes crushing the sand like dust with each step. As she got further down something felt different. She stopped and held the candle upwards into the emerging room. The dark space glimmered dully in the circle of light. There was nothing there, just the old tea chests. She got to the bottom of the steps and shivered. It made her spine rattle, like all the nerves had jumped inside her at once. She walked over to the tea chests and put her hand inside one, scrabbling around in the inky newspapers.

Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Her body went numb, and her knees left her. She fell, crumpled to the floor, the candle clunked to the ground and she was in darkness. She tried to shout out but no sound would emerge. She pushed at the floor but she couldn’t stand. Something was holding her there, holding her down. Her ears were screaming at her, a desperate, begging scream. She closed her eyes trying to block out the sound. The weight round her throat constricted further. Her eyes bulged open with fear. She wanted so desperately to scream, just scream. The wailing in her ears pierced the darkness; she pleaded with herself to do the same. Frantic, her voice escaped in explosive terror.
“No!”
She lurched up, springing through the black air. Away. Away from there. Her feet found the stairs – she didn’t know how – and she scrambled up, feeling the gritty ground beneath her splayed hands, grasping for the top, for the door, the latch, away from the pursuing dark.
“Mum!”
The cellar door burst open into the kitchen. Molly hung there holding the latch, breathing hard, gasping at the stewed apple air. Throwing down the cutlery in her hands, her mother rushed to her. Molly could feel her mother’s tight grip on her shoulders, but it was like they weren’t really there. No. It was like she wasn’t really here. She sobbed hard as her mother guided her to a chair and sat her down, unable to answer the questions through her uncontrolled breath. Eventually her mother held Molly’s blotchy cheeks in her warm hands, feeling the cold sweat on her terrified daughter’s face.
“Tell me!” her mother urged.
Molly sobbed as she spoke. “Something grabbed me, mother. Something’s down there. It held onto me. It screamed in my ears. I couldn’t breathe. Something’s down there.” She sobbed into her mother’s neck, her body convulsing with fear and relief.

That night Molly got into bed. As her mother drew the curtains in her bedroom, Molly slipped into her cold bed and drew the covers round her shoulders. Her mother sat beside her and stroked her mousey fringe.
“My beautiful girl,” said her mum, as her eyes searched Molly’s face. “We’ll be all right here, you know,” she said reassuringly. “Just you and me.” Her mother’s kiss was warm on her forehead. She smelled of apple pie, cosy and safe. Sleep took over quickly.

Molly woke again to the sound of the dark groaning house, cracking and creeping with corner of your eye noises. Alone. Only the street lamp shadow of her room was watching her. She hid under her covers until morning peeped through the drapes.

At four o’clock the next day Arabella was standing on the doorstep of number 23, the house she was always told to keep away from. Molly let her in and introduced her to her mother. They went up to Molly’s bedroom and set up the toy theatre.
“Where did you live before?” said Arabella.
Molly placed the main character into one of the side slots of the tiny theatre. “On a farm. My dad worked there.” She stopped. She had to. “Let’s do The Miller’s Maid. Do you know it?”
“Not really. But you can direct me, like I’m a proper actress.” Arabella knelt closer to the side of the theatre and picked up a stick with a paper lady stuck on the end. “Can I be this one?” she asked.
“You’re the leading lady then. I’ll be the man.” Arabella giggled at the thought. Molly smiled as she pulled the red curtain up from the front slot of the theatre making the sounds of a triumphant fanfare as she did so. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Molly in her grandest voice, “Welcome to this evening’s performance of The Miller’s Maid.” Molly positioned her leading man centre stage. “My Lords,” said Molly in gruff voice, which made Arabella giggle again. “I welcome you to my humble home here in the land of…” Molly broke off in fits of laughter, mirroring Arabella. They enacted a play far from any ever seen before and made their paper people take a bow as the stiff red screen lowered.
“I know,” said Arabella, “let’s make a den.” “Yes!” said Molly excitedly, grabbing the covers off her bed. “Have you got any boxes we can use?” asked Arabella. “Only ones in the cellar,” said Molly, “but …”
“Well let’s go get them then.” Arabella said as she got up. Molly hesitated. She looked at Arabella, stuck between wanting to please her new friend and not wanting to go into that cellar again.
“What’s wrong?” said Arabella, looking into Molly’s worried face. “Nothing. I just don’t like it down there,” said Molly. “Why? It’s only a dusty old cellar with a few spiders. You’re not afraid of tiny spiders are you?” Arabella’s eyes smiled and she held out her hand to Molly, eager to get going. “Come on.”
Molly felt silly. She couldn’t tell Arabella what had happened, it would make her look like a baby. She got up and took Arabella’s hand. They clambered down the stairs into the kitchen. Her mother was hanging washing in the back yard. Molly stopped at the cellar door, unsure.
“Silly,” said Arabella, who pushed past her and undid the latch. The cold air hit Molly in the face as she watched her friend descend the steps. “Got a candle? It’s dark down here,” Arabella’s voice floated from nowhere. Molly grabbed a candle from the mantelpiece and lit it from the embers of the stove. She followed Arabella’s footsteps and found her in the middle of the stone stairs, the candle flickering at her pale features. They tiptoed down to the dark expanse of the cellar, lighting up the boxes as before. Something wisped at Molly’s neck and she turned abruptly, holding back a squeak as she did so.
“You really don’t like it down here do you?” said Arabella. “It is a bit spooky I suppose.”
“Something strange happened down here yesterday, that’s all. It was nothing though,” said Molly unconvincingly while she drew the dust covers off some of the old tea chests, hunting for a suitable box for their den.
“Look, what’s that?” said Arabella stood by the far wall staring at the brickwork. Molly brought the candle closer and looked where Arabella’s gaze was locked. Within the mess of cement encasing the red bricks there was a hole.
“Looks like the brick’s broken in half or crumbled,” said Arabella as she crouched to the floor. “But there’s nothing down here.” Arabella stood and ran her hand over the rough mortar. “Strange. Give me the candle.”
Molly handed the candle over, glad to let her friend investigate. Arabella held the candle to the hole and stood on her toes, straining for a better view. “It’s a hole!” she cried. “There’s a big cave on the other side.” Arabella poked the candle into the small hole trying to light up whatever was beyond it. “I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Here, take this.”
Molly took the candle back. “Just leave it, come on, let’s go,” she said.
“No, I want to see what’s behind here.” Arabella stuck her small hand through the hole and into the dense blackness beyond. “Ooh, it’s cold,” she giggled. Then, suddenly, eyes wide, Arabella grabbed at her own hand. “Molly, help!” she cried, “help me!”
Molly pulled at her friend’s arm. It was stuck. They both pulled and pulled, but something pulled back. “Help me!” cried Arabella, tears streaming down her pale face.
“Push away, Arabella. Push!” Molly kept on pulling, unsure what to do. She was about to run for her mother when Arabella was freed. They both landed in a heap on the cold cellar floor. They shared a shocked look and both jumped up and scrambled to the top of the stairs. Molly pulled at the latch but it wouldn’t budge. Arabella joined in, they pulled and pulled. Molly screamed for her mother, but nothing. Something was coming at them from the stairs. It was dark. The candle extinguished in the flurry to escape. Something was there, getting closer.
“Mum! Mum!” screamed Molly at the locked door. Arabella clung to Molly, shaking, sobbing. The thick blackness was nearly to them. Just another step and it would be on them. The girls backed further into the corner of the door frame, willing there to be more room for them to escape, both scraping breath from the musty air. It was there! In front of them. It was there!
The door opened and the girls fell into the kitchen. Molly’s mother stared in disbelief at the heap of sweaty sobbing piles of dirty clothes at her feet. “What on earth are you both doing?”
“Mum, it’s down there, something, that thing, whatever it is. I don’t know. Something behind the wall. There’s something there. Mum, please.” Molly garbled. Arabella was clinging to Molly’s dress, her face buried in the dirty white cloth, shuddering shoulders and cobwebbed hair.
Molly’s mum shut the cellar door. “From now on you’re not to go down there, do you hear?”
“But mum, there’s something down there. We can’t stay here. Please get it out!” Then she noticed it, the black figure in the kitchen door. Slowly it turned as it entered the room. Molly got up from the floor ridged with fear. Arabella, still attached to Molly’s dress, followed her ascent. They both stared.
“Well, I’m sure I’ve never heard of such a fuss,” said the figure.
“Molly, this is Mrs Aston, our neighbour.” Molly’s mum shot a look that said ‘be polite.’ Molly didn’t say anything, but wiped her face with the cuff of her dusty dress. Arabella stood, staring at the kitchen floor where she’d just been.
Mrs Aston’s crumpled face studied Molly. “Well child, pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.” Molly remembered herself, partly due to her mother’s look which said everything.
“Pleased to meet you Mrs Aston,” said Molly, curtsying. She’d never curtseyed before, but she felt this looming presence warranted it. Mrs Aston’s face crawled into a smile, her wrinkles making way for her yellowing teeth. She walked further into the kitchen, her stiff dress crinkling as she whooshed with every slow step. She sniffed the air, like there was something there, but she wasn’t sure what. “I just wanted to introduce myself, seeing as we’re neighbours now. It’s nice to have someone next door at last.”
Molly’s mum fussed into action.
“Can I offer you some tea, Mrs Aston? Please, sit down.” Mrs Aston gracefully took to a seat while Molly’s mum sorted the tea things.
“I do hope I’m not imposing,” said the old woman as she leaned her black gilded walking stick against the kitchen table. “I saw you in the yard and thought it a good opportunity.”
“Of course,” Molly’s mother said graciously. “We are neighbours after all, you should call any time.”
“You are kind. It is hard sometimes, on my own for so long in that house, since my husband died. Not much to do nowadays. Not much I can do,” the old woman smiled, then turned to Molly. “And you, young lady, and your friend there,” Arabella was still staring at the kitchen floor. Molly was stuck rigidly, not knowing if she was allowed to move, or if she dare. “What game has got you in such a tiz, hmm?”
“Oh,” Molly hid a shiver. She saw her mother’s monitory glance towards her. “Nothing. We just … saw a spider is all.”
“Oh, spiders won’t hurt you. More scared of you than you are of them.” The old woman chuckled once, like it was stuck in her throat.
“How long have you lived her, Mrs Austin?” asked Molly’s mother.
“Oh, for as long as is long,” replied Mrs Austin. “I moved here when I married. My husband has been gone for ten years now. But we still talk.”
Molly caught her mother’s gaze as the tea things were placed on the table with precision. “Sit down, both of you.” She said. Both girls obeyed.
“You still talk to your dead husband?” said Molly. “How?”
“Molly!” said her mother.
“No, no, it’s all right dear. No, we still talk. He visits me every so often and we catch up round the table.”
“Oh.” Molly said, unsure how to respond to such an explanation.
“Yes, my gift has spared some of my grief, for which I am grateful. You must attend one of my evenings, dear.”
Molly’s mother shifted uneasily, but busied herself with pouring tea. “Oh, thank you. I’m not sure …”
“Oh nonsense, dear. It’s nothing to be scared of. Spirits are just echoes of the past. You should see them as comforting.”
Molly could see her mother’s eyes glisten as she drew a napkin to her face. “My husband is not long passed and I don’t think it best to …” she stopped abruptly, hiding her face in her napkin. Molly went to her and cradled her shoulders.
“I’m so sorry, my dear. I didn’t realise. How terribly insensitive of me. And I claim to be a psychic! Ha!”
“No, please, you weren’t to know,” said her mother, stroking Molly’s arm. “We are getting on aren’t we Mol?”
Molly nodded, then stared at the old woman who’d upset her mother.
“It’s okay,” said her mother.
“Did you know your previous neighbours well, Mrs Austin?”
“Oh no. Well, not really. Not like this. They never had anyone in to entertain. No children. Hardly saw them. My husband used to see him stumbling back from the ale house, The Alma down the road there, every night. Hardly saw his wife, except at the market sometimes. Timid girl. Didn’t say much. You heard her at night though. My God, you heard her.” The old woman stopped, lost in a memory, her eyes saddened by the thought. “Anyway, he left on a cart a few months ago. She must have gone ahead of him. Or she left him. I didn’t see her to say goodbye either way.”

Mrs Austin finished her tea and collected her walking stick before rising. Molly’s mother followed. “I mustn’t hold you up any longer, dear. Thank you so much for the tea, and you really must visit whenever you like.” The woman moved towards the back door. Molly stood in front of her mother. “And you, girl, keep out of that cellar, away from those spiders.” She bent forward to Molly’s ear, her musty smell intensifying as she got closer, and whispered “Some things are best left unexplained to those that believe, child.” Molly’s nerves shivered. Mrs Austin’s foreboding eyes told more than her words. The dark figure turned and left for the gate in the back yard.
“What a nice woman,” said her mother.

Molly shuffled down the pavement, slowly but determined. Her old feet hadn’t given up on her yet and she was adamant they wouldn’t either. Her daily walk to the Compton Road shops kept them in check, and the steps in her modern apartment block made sure they worked hard. She walked past the market hall and remembered when it was all open air, no fancy roof, and the Punch and Judy shows she so used to enjoy when she was a girl. Her primary school class weren’t as impressed when she’d taken them to Blackpool for the day. Still, they’d all be in their 30s now and might appreciate it if only for historical reference. As she approached the newsagents on the corner she spied her old street, Sycamore Street, marked for demolition three years ago. Finally they were reducing it to rubble in front of her eyes. She remembered her mother always cleaning that step below the green door, proud as she was. In the newsagents Molly picked up a pint of milk and a local paper and stepped towards Mr Singh. “Morning Mrs Brown, lovely day.”
“Oh yes. It seems to cheer the pigeons anyway. Had one on my windowsill this morning, pure white he was, looking for crumbs.”
“Cheeky beggar!” said Mr Singh. “I hope you told him where to go, young miss.”
Molly brushed off the shop keeper’s sly blandishment with her hand. “Oh I don’t mind. He was quite beautiful actually. Had a story in his eyes, I could tell.”
Mr Singh fed the cash register some numbers and it rang out in a song of fiscal pride. “Not much in there,” he pointed to the Star Gazette on the counter. “All doom and gloom. Best not to bother with it if you want to keep that rosy smile.”
“I don’t really read it. I only get it for the crossword, and that usually takes me all week!”
Molly bid her local friend good morning. Leaving the shop, milk and newspaper safely in her red shopping bag, she gazed one last time at old Sycamore Street, nearly all gone. “Things move on I suppose.”

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No Brainer

No-Brainer

A dribble of spit hung between the corner of his mouth and the t-shirt he’d dressed himself in yesterday.

Yesterday.

The day before his brain fell out.

Julie remembered him yesterday, all words, facial expressions and functioning. When movements were second nature and there was no need to worry if he needed the loo.

The ambulance people, one woman, one overly tall man, had wanted to take him to the morgue. “He’s dead,” the woman had said, “Technically.” But even they couldn’t quite convince themselves. His heart still pumped. His lungs still drew breath. His eyes still portrayed some kind of soul within them, even if they didn’t seem to focus fully. But there was no denying the fact that his brain, like a washed up jellyfish on a rainy Blackpool beach, was lying on the bathroom floor. The overly tall man had scooped it up in his rubber gloved hands and put it into some freshly dishwashed Tupperware. Julie appreciated this. She wouldn’t have liked to do it herself. And they could have called the police, reporting a mentally disturbed wife who couldn’t accept her husband’s bizarre not-quite-death, asking them to please just leave him where he was and she’d decide what to do with him. But they didn’t. Instead they helped her move him onto the sofa, positioning his occasionally lolling head on a cushion and propping the rest of him between the arm of the sofa and a pile of nearly new fluffed up pillows from what was once her father’s room, now the spare bedroom. They’d advised her to call his GP before they left. An attempt on their part to feel they’d passed responsibility in a professional manner, thought Julie. Whatever made them feel better. They left in a baffled hurry, glad for another urgent call to attend.

Since then Julie had run a cycle of puréed food administration, awkward bed pan positioning, and dribble wiping. She’d thought her carer days were over when her father passed, and never considered it was to be good training for emergency husband-sans-brain care. She’d managed to find an endless supply of Top Gear on the telly, and even though he was mostly unresponsive, her husband developed a subtle twitch every time Jeremy Clarkson put his foot down. The faster the car, the bigger the twitch. So Julie decided anyway. For breakfast he’d had puréed marmite on toast. She had to tilt his head backwards slightly to make sure it went down okay. He could swallow, at least. His eyes didn’t move from the TV either. At lunchtime she puréed some beans. Her husband liked beans usually, although the aftermath from the other end was never pleasant. But needs must, thought Julie. She ladled a small amount onto a spoon and held it to her husband’s mouth. But he refused to open.

She tried scrambled eggs, mushroom soup, spaghetti with tinned meatballs, various cereals, even bacon sandwiches, all blended to a paste, none of which her husband would allow into his mouth. By tea time she’d run out of ideas. It was clear he didn’t want anything she offered. She stood in front of the dim light of the fridge and sobbed. Her husband’s brain sat on the top shelf in its Tupperware home. If he wouldn’t eat, how could she keep him like this? Maybe he didn’t want to be like this. Maybe he didn’t want to be alive. Half alive. Whatever it was that he is. Her thought process was interrupted by a gurgling sound coming from the front room and she rushed from the kitchen, leaving the fridge door wide open.

Half sat, half crumpled, her husband had somehow managed to get himself right in front of the TV. He seemed to be transfixed by the screen, and occasionally he issued a delighted grunt. Julie was amazed. He hadn’t moved an inch by himself since she’d found him in the bathroom yesterday. She didn’t think he could. She crouched next to him on the floor and said his name, looking for movement in his face. But there wasn’t any. Just a fixed stare, directed at the screen. A long gurgle, then a grunt. Almost excited, Julie thought. The screen’s contents had replaced Top Gear with some generic cookery programme. A stressed looking chef was dealing competently with a large plate of offal, handling the slimy blubber proficiently and chopping it into small strips which she then placed into a heated frying pan. The dark liver smoked as she did so. Then some bloodied heart. Some rubbery kidney. Then a slice of brain. Julie’s husband let out an excited gurgle again. The corner of his usually dormant mouth twitched.
“You can’t be serious?” said Julie, to no response.
The two of them watched the offal sizzling on the screen, trembling and popping within the hot fat. He didn’t react to the liver or the kidneys or the heart. Only to the brains. Julie didn’t need much more evidence of what her husband was thinking, and, without hesitation, and in some kind of manic haze, she collected her husband’s brain from the Tupperware in the fridge and heated a large frying pan on the stove top.

As consciousness came to her she recalled her last feelings of satisfied comfort at having got her husband to eat something before she fell asleep on the sofa next to him. The exhaustion had hit her almost as soon as he’d finished the last mouthful she’d fed him. She remembered how his arm had felt just as it did before, when she’d snuggle up to him in front of the telly, as if he was still normal, as if he was still the husband she’d married. The comfort of this must have sent her into a deep sleep, she thought. The low hum of a familiar tune brought a smile to her face in her dazy half-awake state. Her eyes were still heavy, but the smell of bacon and eggs tickled her nose, nudging at the sleepiness. As her brain kicked into full consciousness it started dealing with the facts it had been presented in its hazy waking. The humming was still there, ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’, she believed. One of her husband’s secret playlist tunes. The smell of bacon was still there, with overtones of frying egg whites, just about crispy, not burnt. Like her husband used to make. Her eyes snapped open, but before they could take in any more information to give to her poor confused brain, the living room door opened and in bustled her husband.

Her husband.

All standing up and walking.

All coordinated and not dribbling.

Carrying a tray.

“Good morning, my love,” he said, coherently. Julie couldn’t reply. It was all she could do to sit upright to get a better look at this phenomenal occurrence standing in front of her, smiling brightly.
“You looked so exhausted there on the sofa this morning I thought I’d make you breakfast. Not as much bacon as I thought we had, so you’ve only got two slices. Sorry.” He placed the tray on Julie’s thighs. “I’ve made you extra toast instead, and there’s some of that thick cut marmalade you like there too. Do you want coffee or tea?”
Her husband seemed confused at the lack of response from his wife, especially with the expression of disbelief she seemed to have on her face. Not one he’d seen of a morning before.
“Julie, coffee or tea?”
Julie stuttered an answer, but immediately couldn’t remember what she’d said. Then she said, “How are you feeling today?”
Her husband looked quizzically at her. “Well, I’m fine, thank you for asking.” He giggled slightly and kissed her forehead, then began rearranging the cushions on the sofa and moving the blanket he’d tucked his wife up in earlier that morning. “Bit of a headache actually, but some breakfast will probably sort that out. Are you all right, Julie?”
“Er, yes. I’m…” She wasn’t, but she said it anyway. “Fine.”
“You seem concerned about something.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said, adjusting the tray on her lap. “I just wonder sometimes whether we know everything there really is to know.”
“Bit philosophical for this time in the morning,” laughed her husband as he left the room to finish the drinks in the kitchen, from where he shouted…
“You know, if you think like that too much your brain will fall out.”

 

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Walk On

Walk-On

She was still where she’d fallen, all that time ago. Such a time that she had no memory of ever being anywhere else. The pain blinded her. It stabbed and ripped. Invisible, yet the only thing in existence. It left no marks, nothing to display its might to the world, yet the torture it was busy making filled her so completely that others could surely see its ghost. Couldn’t they?

The figure wasn’t there. Then it was. She didn’t care either way. Somewhere she recognised a stranger. But it didn’t matter. The figure moved around her like a warm breeze looking for a draft to fill. Then, on the air that it carried, it left these words…

walk-on-text

As the last of her tears fell and the silence of the tempting end filled her mind, the figure reached with soft arms. Something forged within the smelting pot of her body, of a strength never felt. A new something. Something unexplainable. Something raw with reality. Something that took hold of her bones and her muscles and her tendons and pulsing bloody flesh, and made motion of them. And so she walked on…

 

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