The house is different to how it was when she lived here with Norman, and Shirley feels obscurely resentful of that fact. She knows she has no reason to be. Everyone has their different tastes, and it would have been odd if Mike and Bess, whose combined ages, Shirley guesses, must barely equal her own, had not updated the décor and modernized the amenities.
She ought instead to be grateful that the house is not a keen reminder of her blissful marriage, or rather of how losing Norman brought their happy years together—over four decades of them—to an abrupt end. And she is grateful. She truly is. The last thing she needs as she steps out of the cold and in through the front door is a stab of remembrance to reawaken the now mostly dormant ache of grief inside her.
There’s grief enough in Mike’s eyes as he says, as if reading her mind, “I expect the house has changed a bit since you were last here?”
You know it has, Shirley thinks. You’re the one that changed it. But barely has the thought formed before she is appalled by her own lack of charity, of compassion, and so she graces Mike with her warmest smile.
“It’s lovely what you’ve done,” she says. “You’ve given the old place a new lease of life.”
He winces, and instantly Shirley admonishes herself for her choice of phrase. She’s wondering whether to apologise when Mike turns away.
“Come through. Heidi’s dying to see you. She’s been bouncing off the walls with excitement.”
The colours of the hallway along which he leads her are muted now, like the mood of the house, the carpets pale; Shirley wonders how Mike and Bess manage to keep it all clean. When she and Norman lived here, the carpet was thick and heavily patterned, the vinyl wallpaper a riot of red and gold swirls. Her beloved chandelier, which used to cast light as though scattering a universe of stars across every surface, has been replaced by inset ceiling lights.
“Thanks for agreeing to babysit at such short notice,” he says, half-glancing over his shoulder. “Bess and I are ever so grateful.”
“How is Bess?” Shirley asks.
Mike grimaces. “ . . . you know.”
“Is this the first time you’ve been out since it happened?”
She’s glad she manages to ask the question without pausing after the word ‘since.’ He nods unhappily.
“Tell you the truth, Bess didn’t really want to go, but we’ve had the tickets for ages, and I thought it would do her some good . . . do us both some good, to get out.”
“How long has it been now? Six months?”
“Terrible,” she says. “It’s a terrible thing. How have you been coping?”
He doesn’t actually squirm, but it’s clear from his body language that he doesn’t want to have this conversation. “You just do, don’t you? You live from day to day—minute to minute sometimes. You just carry on because you’ve got no choice.”
She nods in agreement and understanding, and he opens the door on his left and says, “Shirley’s here.”
There’s a squeal of delight from inside the room that Shirley feels unworthy of. This is followed by a rapid patter of movement, and next moment Heidi hurtles past her father and collides with Shirley forcefully enough to knock her back a couple of steps.
“Hey, be careful, heffalump,” Mike warns, but there’s affection in his voice and when he raises his eyebrows at Shirley there’s a spark there that was absent before.
Shirley laughs, even though she feels mildly claustrophobic at how tightly the small girl with the chestnut ringlets is clinging to her.
“Well, this is a mighty fine greeting,” she says. “What have I done to deserve this?”
Mike tells his daughter to take Shirley into the front room, and Shirley is relieved when Heidi unclamps her thin arms from around Shirley’s waist to comply. As Heidi tugs at Shirley’s hand, Mike asks, “Tea? Coffee?”
“You get on,” Shirley says. “I can see to myself.”
Barely has Mike nodded and slipped away when Heidi says, “Look at this, Shirley.”
The little girl releases Shirley’s hand and bustles across to where a selection of mismatched toys is having a tea party. There’s a fluffy pink elephant, a stiff-limbed plastic Spiderman, a rag doll with a rust-coloured tangle of hair, and a long-lashed yellow pony wearing a tiara. Heidi grabs the rag doll by its stripy leg and snatches it from the tiny red plastic chair it’s slumped in. She swings it through the air and into Shirley’s lap, just as Shirley is lowering herself onto a pale grey sofa facing a widescreen TV on ‘Mute’, on which a group of cartoon penguins appear to be falling from an aeroplane and hurtling towards the earth.
“Who’s this then?” Shirley asks, examining the rag doll’s vacant, wide-eyed smile.
“It’s Emily,” says Heidi, as if the answer’s obvious.
“She’s very pretty,” Shirley says.
“She’s my best friend now that Jonty’s gone away.”
Shirley doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know how much Heidi has been told of her three year old brother’s death from meningitis. She doesn’t know how much Heidi witnessed of her brother’s illness, or of her parents’ subsequent grief.
She does know that Heidi wasn’t at the funeral. That was the last time Shirley had seen Mike and Bess before tonight.
Eventually she asks, “Does Emily sleep with you in your bed at night? Does she keep you warm?”
Heidi nods, her face serious. “Yes, and sometimes she talks to me. She whispers so that Mummy and Daddy can’t hear.”
“What does she say?”
“She says that Jonty hasn’t really gone away. She says he’s still here, but we can’t see him.”
Although Shirley doesn’t shiver, she has to fight an urge to look over her shoulder. “He’ll be with you forever,” she says, and touches the little girl’s chest very gently with the tip of a bony finger. “Right there. In your heart.”
Heidi wrinkles up her nose and rolls her brown eyes. “He’s not in my heart, silly. He’s in the house.”
There’s a creak on the stairs. Then another. Then descending footsteps accompanied by the murmur of voices. Although their tone is soft, the voices sound agitated. One of them hisses something that silences the other, following which is a moment of silence.
“That’s Mummy and Daddy,” Heidi says mournfully. “They’re always arguing. It’s so boring.”
“I expect they’re—” Shirley begins, but then the door to the front room opens abruptly as if the person on the other side is trying to catch her out.
“We’re off in a sec,” Mike says mock cheerfully. “But Bess just wanted to say hi before we left.”
Bess ghosts into view behind her husband’s shoulder, and Shirley knows immediately that saying hi was the last thing she wanted to do. Shirley beams as though teaching Bess how and says, “Hello, Bess. You look lovely.”
In fact, she looks startled and too thin, despite the make-up and the carefully sculpted hair and the beautiful turquoise dress with matching jewellery. She murmurs what Shirley assumes to be thanks and her gaze flickers from the older woman to the little girl.
“Now you be good for Shirley, sweetheart, and go to bed when she tells you to.”
Her voice is brittle, like a glass window crazed with cracks. She looks on the verge of shattering.
“Heidi’s bedtime is at eight, Shirley, whatever she may tell you,” Mike says. “She has hot chocolate and a biscuit before bed and we usually read her a story.”
“Two stories,” Heidi protests.
Mike smiles. “That depends on how long they are. Now, no playing Shirley up, you little scamp. You need your beauty sleep. You’ve got school in the morning.”
“Not fair,” Heidi pouts. “Jonty doesn’t go to school, so why should I?”
Bess gasps, and jerks out of sight so sharply that Shirley half-imagines she’s been grabbed from behind. Mike’s face reddens with anger. “Now, you know that’s not a nice thing to say! Do you want to go to bed immediately?”
Heidi looks sullenly at the floor. “No.”
“Well, then. What do you say?”
“Sorry,” Heidi mutters.
Quickly, soothingly, Shirley says, “You two go and enjoy yourselves. You deserve it. Heidi and I will be fine.”
Mike looks uncertain; Bess is nowhere to be seen. “Go on,” Shirley urges, and eventually he nods.
“We’ll only be a few hours. Back by ten-thirty at the latest. You know where everything is.”
Shirley smiles. “I think I know my way around.”
Two minutes later she feels her tight shoulders relax as she hears the car start up and then draw away, the rumble of the engine growing fainter before fading altogether.
“Right then,” she says, placing aside Emily, who she realises is still lying across her lap. “What shall we do?”
Heidi points at the TV. “Shall we watch Penguins?”
“Why don’t we play a game instead?”
“Yay!” Heidi shouts and runs across to a toy box painted in bright harlequin diamonds, which is almost as long as she is tall, and whose lid is as high as her chest. Although the lid looks heavy the little girl lifts it easily and shoves it back so hard that it clatters against the wall. Shirley winces and says, “Careful,” though she knows it’s already too late to save the wall from damage.
Heidi leans into the toy box and emerges with a smaller box in her hands. “Operation!” she yells.
Shirley remembers this game if not from her own youth then certainly from her daughter’s. For the next thirty minutes she and Heidi pluck wish bones and funny bones and broken hearts and spare ribs from cavities in the chubby pink body of the alarmed-looking (and very conscious) man on the ‘operating table.’ Whenever the tiny tweezers they use touch the sides of the cavity a buzzer sounds and the patient’s red nose lights up.
Shirley sets the buzzer off on almost every turn. Heidi hoots and crows.
“You’re rubbish, Shirley! Your hands are very shaky. Is it because you’re old?”
“Hey, less of the rudeness, young lady,” Shirley says, laughing. “I’m not quite dead yet, you know. I’ve got a few more years left in me.”
Heidi hoots even louder, as though Shirley’s said something hilarious. Then, still laughing, she says, “Jonty’s dead.”
Shirley feels as if she’s been thumped in the chest. For a moment she can’t draw breath. Recovering, she says tightly, “Yes he is. It’s very sad. Do you know what being dead means?”
“It means going to sleep for ever and not having any dreams.”
“It does, yes. Which doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”
Heidi wrinkles her nose. “It also means sleeping all through Christmas, and all through your birthday.”
“But if you’re asleep and you don’t know about it, then that wouldn’t matter, would it?” Shirley says a little desperately.
Heidi thinks about it for a moment. Then she says, “Your husband’s dead, isn’t he, Shirley?”
Shirley wonders how Heidi knows this. Have her parents mentioned it? Or is it a lucky guess? Does she merely assume that because Shirley hasn’t a husband he must be dead?
“Yes,” she says a little faintly. “His name was Norman.”
“I know his name was Norman,” Heidi retorts as if Shirley is stating the obvious.
Shirley pauses. She wants to ask the girl who told her, but she’s oddly fearful of what the answer might be. Before she can change the subject, Heidi asks, “Was he very old?”
“He was seventy,” says Shirley. “So he was quite old. Much older than Jonty.”
But not old enough, she thinks. Nowhere near old enough to leave me on my own.
Heidi nods, her little face serious. “And you were sad when he died. And Mummy and Daddy were sad when Jonty died. The whole house is full up of sadness.”
Shirley swallows. Everything Heidi says is like a further blow to her chest. They’re not hard, the blows, but they keep coming, one after another, so quickly that she’s finding it hard to cope with them.
She drops the little tweezers on the floor and stands up so quickly that her right knee cracks, sending a lance of pain into the joint.
Heidi giggles. “You made a noise like Rice Krispies, Shirley!”
Shirley wants to cry out with the pain, but she clenches her teeth in a smile. “Yes I did,” she manages to say without too much of a gasp. “Aren’t I silly? Shall we have a drink?”
Heidi wrinkles her nose. “It isn’t bedtime yet.”
Shirley glances at the clock on the DVD player, which reads 19:19. “No it isn’t quite, but I’m parched. I’m going to make a cup of tea. Do you want anything?”
Though her knee is still throbbing, Shirley keeps her smile in place. “You don’t have to have tea. Would you like a glass of milk?”
Heidi shakes her head, and is pursing her lips to speak when they hear a loud, drawn-out creak from upstairs.
Cold prickles break out across Shirley’s shoulders. Heidi looks at her wide-eyed.
“Is it a burglar?”
“Of course not!” Shirley’s voice is sharper than she intended, and she pauses to draw a breath. “It’s the house settling, that’s all. The timbers creaking as the temperature changes.”
“Is it Norman?”
“Don’t be stupid!” This time Shirley’s voice is so sharp that Heidi looks startled. Again she forces herself to calm down. “It’s not Norman. And it’s not Jonty either, so don’t be thinking so. It’s just the house like I told you.”
“Is it because the house is sad?”
“Yes, because Norman and Jonty are dead. I think the house is crying.”
Shirley stares at Heidi, who looks back at her innocently. Finally she says, “Why don’t you watch the penguins while I make a cup of tea? You can put the sound on. Then you won’t hear any more silly noises.”
Heidi shrugs, picks up the remote and un-mutes the TV. Almost immediately she’s engrossed in the film.
Shirley exits the room and walks down the hallway to the kitchen. This room is unrecognisable from how it was when she and Norman lived here. It’s not just the décor and the contents that have changed—the blue and white lino replaced by a polished wooden floor, the tiled work surfaces replaced by black marble—it’s the entire layout. Gone is the breakfast bar, which used to dominate the centre of the room, and around which she used to have to walk to reach the cooker. And on the back wall opposite the sink beneath the kitchen window an arched alcove has been created, somewhere more comfortable to sit and chat than the hard wooden chairs around the kitchen table.
It’s nice, but Shirley can’t help feeling that the life she and Norman spent together—or at least, the environment in which they lived it—has, in the space of less than two years, been systematically eradicated. At least the sink is still in the same place beneath the window, even if it’s changed from the metal one she used to wash up in to a big, old-fashioned thing of white porcelain.
She’s looking over at the window when a shape passes across it. It’s a dark, hunched figure, blacker than the night in which it’s framed. Shirley jumps and gasps, watching the figure move from the left of the frame to the right, as if heading towards the back door. She only glimpses the figure for a second, and it’s nothing but a blurred silhouette, yet she recognises the loping stride, the way the head bobs forward with each step, and she knows instinctively that it’s Norman.
Before she can think, she’s crossing the room to the back door, fumbling with the key, and with the bolts both top and bottom. The bottom bolt is stiff and she lets loose a rare swear word, panic clenching in her belly. At last, though, the door is unlocked and she wrenches it open.
A swirl of cold autumn air, smelling faintly of smoke and leaf-mould, coils over and around her. Her heart thumps eagerly, but there’s no one outside the back door. As far as she can tell, the dark, leaf-strewn garden is empty.
She almost calls her husband’s name, but at the last moment her voice becomes choked with emotion and what emerges is a kind of sob. She shuts the door and locks it again, and suddenly she feels very tired.
Stupid, she tells herself. Stupid old woman.
She sees Norman raking autumn leaves and rotting apples from the lawn, sees him grinning in at her through the kitchen window, his long, bony face framed by his silly checked balaclava, his raised hand tilting towards his mouth in a hopeful ‘any-chance-of-a-cuppa?’ motion.
But it’s not real. Norman’s not really out there, and he never will be again. The image is only in her mind.
She makes herself a cup of tea and carries it through to the front room. When she enters, Heidi turns round from where she’s sitting in front of the TV and says, “I heard more noises.”
Shirley frowns. She’s weary. She doesn’t need this. “What sorts of noises?”
“Like before. From upstairs. Like there’s someone walking about.”
“There’s no one walking about,” Shirley says firmly. She nods at the TV. “I’m surprised you can hear anything with that blaring out.”
“I did, though,” Heidi insists. “I did hear it. It was really loud.”
Shirley cocks her head. “Well, I can’t hear anything.”
“It’s not doing it now. What if it’s a ghost?”
“There’s no such things as ghosts.”
“What if it’s a murderer then?”
Don’t say that! Shirley thinks angrily. Don’t even think it! “You’re being silly,” she says. “You’re working yourself into a tizzy.”
“Should we call the police just in case?”
“No. Because there’s nothing up there. And the police will think we’re wasting their time, and then they’ll get very cross.”
Heidi contemplates Shirley’s words. “Why don’t we check then? Just in case. We could take a knife. And if it’s a ghost or a murderer we could stab them.”
“Goodness gracious,” says Shirley, trying to make a joke of it. “Aren’t you a bloodthirsty little madam!”
“My daddy says it’s always better to be safe than sorry.”
“Tell you what, we’ll check when I take you up to bed. Which will be quite soon now.”
“Will we take a knife?”
“No,” says Shirley firmly. “No knife.”
She drinks her tea and Heidi continues watching the film. Despite herself, Shirley realizes she is tilting her head towards the ceiling, alert for the slightest sound from above. At one point she thinks she hears something. A scraping, or perhaps a dragging.
“Can you turn that down a bit?” she asks Heidi.
The little girl thumbs the volume control and the blaring din from the TV lessens a little.
“What’s the matter?” Heidi asks. “Did you hear the ghost?”
“There is no ghost,” snaps Shirley. She raises her hand and touches her finger to the centre of her temple, as though pushing her rising irritation back inside. “I’ve got a headache, that’s all,” she mutters.
When she’s finished her tea she takes her mug back to the kitchen and pours milk into a pan to make Heidi’s hot chocolate. She studiously avoids looking at the window above the sink, against which the night presses. Ten minutes ago she would have welcomed seeing Norman’s grinning face peering in, but now the idea distresses, even frightens, her.
Only moments after turning her back on the window to spoon chocolate powder into a mug, she feels an itch between her shoulder blades. She ignores it at first, but the itch becomes more pronounced until, quite suddenly, she becomes convinced that someone is standing behind her. She whirls in sudden panic, but there’s no one. The night on the other side of the window is as dark as a sheet of black paper.
She shudders as she exits the kitchen, and vows not to go in there again before Mike and Jess get home. Halfway along the hallway back to the front room she hears a low, stealthy scraping sound from upstairs. She stops and listens, the mug of hot chocolate warming her hands. There’s a moment of silence, and then the scraping comes again.
A tree branch, she thinks, scraping against the roof.
She hurries along the hallway to the front room, as though in an effort to outrun her own imagination. Her right knee is still throbbing a little.
“Right, madam,” she says. “Time for bed.”
Heidi is sitting cross-legged in front of the television, Emily spread-eagled in her lap. Her eyes are riveted on the screen. She doesn’t respond.
“Did you hear me?” Shirley says. “If we don’t go now, your hot chocolate will get cold and there won’t be time for a story.”
Heidi rouses herself and languidly stands up. In one hand she holds Emily, the doll dangling by its leg, and in the other she holds the remote control for the TV. She presses a button on the remote, then tosses it onto the settee as the screen abruptly turns black.
“What story would you like?” Shirley asks to fill the sudden silence.
“Where the Wild Things Are,” says Heidi.
“Oh, I know that one. I used to read that one to my own daughter, Judith. Come along then.”
She holds out her hand and Heidi takes it. The two of them exit the front room and begin to trudge up the stairs. Shirley listens, but there’s now no sound from the floor above. The wind must have died down, she thinks. She considers asking Heidi whether there’s a tree close enough to the house for its branches to scrape the roof, but she doesn’t.
Climbing up the stairs makes her knee start to throb, and she pauses, wincing, between each step. Heidi starts to pull ahead, causing Shirley to stretch out her arm as the girl moves first one step higher, and then another.
Shirley feels as if she’s being tugged along. She almost spills the hot chocolate and opens her mouth to ask Heidi to slow down. Then, all at once, an unexpected wave of melancholy—even despair—washes over her.
“Oh,” she whispers, fighting back tears. “Oh.”
“What is it?” asks Heidi.
“I feel . . . I feel so . . . ” But she can no longer speak, she can’t go on. It is as if her throat, mind and heart have been suddenly overwhelmed by a crushing weight of grief.
“The house is full up with sadness,” Heidi whispers. “Full right up.”
Shirley looks at her. She wants to flee. Wants to leave this place. But she can’t move.
She opens her mouth in the hope it will enable her to find her voice, but then a noise reverberates through the house. It comes not from upstairs this time, but from the ground floor, from the room she and Heidi have just left. It is a frenzied, persistent thumping. As if someone is pounding on a wooden door.
Still gripping Heidi’s hand, Shirley turns on the stairs—twists so violently that hot chocolate slops out of the mug she’s holding on to the pale stair carpet, and a white, searing pain flares in her knee. She blinks back tears and focuses on the door to the front room, the one from which she and Heidi emerged just a minute before.
The pounding continues. Then stops. Then there is a sort of crack or clatter that reminds Shirley of a sound she is sure she has heard already tonight. After a pause the door to the front room opens. Shirley holds her breath. There is a scrabble of movement and something emerges from the front room and staggers into the hallway. A figure. A human figure. It looks up at Shirley.
It is Heidi.
Shirley drops the mug, hot chocolate spattering down the stairs. Heidi looks disheveled, frightened. Tears shine on her face.
“I heard it coming,” she sobs. “I heard it coming, so I hid from it. I hid in the toy box.”
Shirley’s mouth gapes open. What? She wants to whisper. What did you hear?
Then she sees Heidi look beyond her, behind her. She sees the little girl’s face contort with terror.
And the hand still gripping Shirley’s hand tightens. And the fingers that are curled around her own suddenly don’t feel like fingers any more.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 51, March/April 2016.