Short stories


The cold: that is how she knows. The cold and the pressure against the door as she tries to force it wide, as though a body were leant against it on the inside, slumped on the doormat with hunched back and drawn-up knees, shaking head and muffled voice saying don’t come in, you don’t want to see, you really do not want to see. And when the door finally gives, unseen hands begrudging every inch, the cold: sharper than on the outside for being so unexpected; more spiteful too, and gleeful. The last of the lingering warmth jostles her shopping bags as it darts past her, frantic for some escape from the swirling pursuit within.

The door slams. She drops a bag as she turns too late to try and catch it. A can of peeled tomatoes spills on to the chessboard tiles, a cabbage too. There is the sound of apples bruising. She places the other two bags on the floor as though lowering something heavy on to ice. She is not looking at the bags, she is looking ahead, but she does not let go of their handles until she feels the floor accept their weight. She straightens her knees and tugs at her scarf. It resists. It comes only halfway free, one end caught under the collar of her overcoat, the other trailing beside her ankles. She takes a step forwards and treads on tassels but she lets the scarf hang and keeps moving.

The mirror is broken. The one opposite the coat rack. Which gives her pause because before the mirror she could allow herself to doubt.

She should turn. She knows she should. She should turn and leave the house and leave the street and find someone, call someone, tell someone.

Instead she edges further along the hallway. She draws level with the umbrella stand and considers reaching for an umbrella. The long one. Frank’s golfing one. Then she’s thinking, please. I mean, really. So she stops considering the umbrella and focuses on the umbrella stand instead. It is china, splattered with poppies, and it is intact. They could have smashed that, she thinks. The one thing I would have paid them to smash.

Glass crackles under her rubber soles. Her scarf almost trips her again and this time she yanks it free and allows it to fall in her wake.

There is a choice now: up or along or left into the lounge. She listens before deciding but all she hears is the draft around her. And tapping: a single tap, then two, then nothing for a moment, then two again. The bathroom blind, she decides. The plastic handle on the cord. Which means whatever is open is open upstairs.

She goes left.

In the lounge, the television is the first thing she notices. She notices the television because it is still there. Who would want it though? It is big and heavy and it is old. It has laminate-wood side panels and no remote control and only three channels that work. So they did not take it but they toppled it. She cannot tell whether the screen is broken but she has her doubts that it survived the fall.

On the floor beside the television are cushions from the sofa. They have been slashed – for no reason, as far as she can tell. Just slashed. They are repairable probably because the cuts are not ragged, although tears, sometimes, are easier to mend. They are easier to conceal.

The other electricals are gone: the video player, the radio, the Sky box Frank insisted on getting, her reading lamp. Wires dangle from the sockets in the wall, like entrails, she thinks. She turns away and spots her book. It is on the side table, where she left it, her bookmark still in place. She takes heart from this – a minor victory – until she notices her reading glasses, crumpled and cracked at her feet.

In the hall again she glances up the stairs but moves the other way, towards the kitchen. Towards her kitchen. She does not want to see it, to see what they have done to it, but she does not want to go upstairs either. The tapping is only tapping but it sounds ominous somehow. It sounds like someone is waiting.

At the door to the kitchen she gasps. She does not mean to; the sound escapes her. She cannot tell what is missing because nothing is in its place. The cupboards are open, their contents spilled – cereal boxes, jars of pickles, of preserve, cartons of tea, of coffee, packets of flour and sugar: all spilled. Ripped and smashed. There is a squeezy bottle of ketchup, open lid encrusted with month-old sauce, balanced on the edge of the worktop. The bottle is empty, just about. There is ketchup on the walls, on the splashback, on the ceiling, on the draining board. Someone had fun, it looks like. Someone was having their idea of fun.

She takes a step. Just one, because an overturned chair blocks the path ahead and to one side there is a mess of mayonnaise and to the other a broken jug. Her weight is on her right foot; the left is poised, toes curled. For a moment she just stands.

The sound of movement startles her. Something shifts in the pantry beyond and she is sure, suddenly, that they are still here, out back, lurking, whispering, waiting. They have drawn her in, far enough that she has no time any more to get out, and close enough that they might pounce on her, pound her, pin her to the floor and… and… She does not want to think about and. She tenses to retreat but before she can move she sees the cat. That cursed cat. Frank’s cat. Slinking from the pantry and stopping with one paw raised to address its nose to a puddle of milk. Then hoisting its nose aloft and moving on, step by noiseless step, through the carnage and past her legs and out into the hallway.

‘Shoo,’ she says, ‘get away,’ and her voice is a whisper, it is a hiss.

She turns her back on the kitchen. The cat is out of sight somewhere but she follows the path it took until she is once again standing at the foot of the stairs. Frank’s golfing umbrella is within her reach. This time she draws the umbrella from the stand and brandishes it like a sword. It is surprisingly heavy. She turns the umbrella over and shifts her grip so that she is holding it two-handed, as she would an axe: her fingers around the tightly rolled canvas and the wooden handle transformed into the business end. She places a shoe on the bottom stair.

‘Hello?’ she says and thinks, what a stupid thing to say.

She takes another step.

‘I’m coming up.’

No answer but the taptaptap of the blind.

‘I’m coming up and you’d better be gone.’

She has never really noticed that the stairs creak but they do. They whimper, every one. And the pace at which she climbs seems only to draw out their protest further.

By the time she nears the top, her shoulders are backed against the wall. There is no one up here. She knows there is no one up here. Yet she wrings the umbrella as though it were a neck and pauses to listen and to look as her eyes draw level with the landing.

There is no movement. There is no sound except for the tapping and the wind and the groan beneath her feet. To her right is the box room: Harvey’s room. Opposite is Zak’s room and, next to that, the main bedroom: hers and Frank’s, when Frank is here. The doors are closed. What light there is on the landing comes through the open door of the bathroom and from the letterbox skylight above her head.

It is only three steps to cross the landing and she takes them quickly, half expecting one of the doors to fly open as she passes. They stay shut. She will open them one by one but first she will close the window in the bathroom and shut out that draft, stop that infernal tapping.

She almost forgets. At the threshold to the bathroom, the window goes out of her mind. Her attention, instead, is on the toilet. Its lid is up and it is overflowing but not with water. It has been stuffed with whatever was to hand. The roll of tissue, the plastic soap dispenser, a sponge, her flannel, a tube of Asda whitening paste, all four toothbrushes that were in the holder. The holder too. She drifts into the room and places a hand on the windowsill and allows the umbrella to hang at her side. She stares at the toilet. She stares at Harvey’s toothbrush.

And then she notices the window. It is shut. It was never open. And the blind: it is motionless, hanging slightly crooked, the sun-bleached plastic slats open wide and lightly coated in dust. The tapping is not coming from in here. The noise, she finally registers, is behind her. It is coming from a different room. One of the boys’ rooms, it sounds like. They came in from the back, then. Probably hauled themselves up from the roof of the pantry. Harvey: he must have left his window open in his hurry to be late for school. Or Zak. He has not been home for days but possibly he came back while she was out. It wasn’t the bathroom window so it can’t have been her so it must have been one of the boys. She turns and she can hear the draft still but standing in the bathroom she can no longer feel it.

She checks in the main bedroom as she passes. It is a mess but it is just clothes. A wonky picture, a tipped up mattress but mainly clothes from the drawers and from the wardrobe. She does not check the dresser because what jewellery she has is worth pennies. They have no safe or strongbox, no hidden cash, no stash of treasures. Nothing of any value that cannot be reckoned in sentiment.

On the landing again, and with her fingertips on the handle of Zak’s door, she hesitates. She is unsure why. The umbrella is still in her hand but it is not about the umbrella, about whether she might have to use it. She knows now that she will not so she sets it aside, propping it against the wall. She reaches for the doorknob once more. She twists. She breathes. She looks at the floor and only raises her head when the door is open wide.

Turmoil. The room is in a worse state than her own. She feels relief and the feeling startles her. Where did that come from?

Zak’s posters – of rock bands and of cars and of women in swimsuits and out of them – are ripped and scattered. A shaven-headed guitarist is still tacked by his feet to the wall, so that he is frozen mid-tumble, his eyes bulging and his tongue protruding and pointing, so it seems, at her. As in the main bedroom, clothes are strewn across the floor, although, to be fair, clothes are always strewn across Zak’s floor. Her son’s mattress has been upended too, and the cups and glasses and plates that had accumulated on the night-table have been swept to the floor, crumbs and cold tea and all. But the curtains, half drawn across the frame, do not flicker. The window behind them is closed.

Which leaves Harvey’s room. Standing outside it now, she can hear the tapping more clearly. She can feel the breeze across her nylon-covered shins coming through the two-inch gap under the door. She twists the handle and at first the door opens but then it fights her, just as the front door did. It wants to keep her out, to slam itself in her face. She presses hard and the door resists. She presses harder and the resistance drops and before she realises she has done it she has hurled the door against the wall behind it.

There is something dead, strung up in front of the shattered window. She thinks it is a bird but it is not a bird. It is an animal of some kind, caked in blood. The noose has been fashioned from the light cord she had not noticed was missing in the bathroom. The cord pull, still attached, is what taps against the sill.

Oh, she says but her voice has fled. Her hand drifts to cover her mouth. ‘Oh,’ she says again and this time she hears herself out loud.

She slumps. The dead thing swings. There is blood in a line across the pale carpet beneath it, a line of drops that traces the pendulum’s arc.

She is seated now on the floor, her lower back pressed against the doorframe and her knees drawn up against her chest. She watches the dead thing. There is a smell, she realises. It is sweet, like fruit festering in an unemptied bin.

And then it strikes her. Worse than the animal. Worse than Harvey’s toothbrush in the toilet and the ketchup graffiti in the kitchen.

She begins to crawl towards the window. She is shaking her head and saying no. She is on her palms and her knees and she knows as she moves across the carpet that she should not be. Because with the blood and the muddy trainer-prints and Harvey’s toys and comics on the floor there should be glass. From the window. There should be glass from the window on the floor. And she thinks again of the relief she felt as she entered her other son’s bedroom and out of nowhere, it seems, she begins to cry.

She does not want to look. She is at the window now but she does not want to see out. The tears cloud her vision and anyway she would rather not know. Yet she reaches for the sill and recoils as though from a bite and then reaches more carefully and struggles upright. She tastes blood from her sliced finger as she peers out. The overgrown garden is below her, and the alleyway, and the rubbish bins, and the rubbish too big to fit in them but dumped beside them by her neighbours nonetheless. No glass though. Nothing to confirm that the window was punched out, not in; broken from the inside, not the outside. And she almost allows herself to breathe and an explanation begins to suggest itself, something to do with the wind perhaps because it really is blowing quite hard now and maybe when they broke in, the wind somehow –

The glass is below her. On the roof of the pantry. Small chips and great shards. Winking at her; glinting, like a wicked smile. Saying, come on now. Stop pretending. You know it was him. You knew it was him the moment you stepped into the hall.

And she did. It is the thing that hurts most. She did.

© Simon Lelic, 2009