Crow

There’s a crow on the horizon and it’s calling for you,

Can you hear its black wings flapping as it flies the whole night through?

You know it’s going to find you and there’s nothing you can do.

Just lie awake and wait until your time.

 

There’s a crow heading inland and it’s calling your name.

It’s burdened with a problem and it’s giving you the blame.

And when it tracks you down your life will never be the same.

Just lie awake and wait until your time.

 

There’s a crow upon your pillow and it’s laughing at your pain.

Its powerful unblinking stare is driving you insane.

You really want to run but know you never will again.

Just lie awake and wait until your time.

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Nobody’s favourite

Row upon row:
Ordinary people,
Destined to be the last choice.
Nobody’s favourite,
Nobody’s prize.
Struggling to find their own voice.

One at a time:
Ordinary people,
Coming to terms with what’s real.
Nobody’s favourite,
Nobody’s prize.
Almost too frightened to feel.

Day upon day:
Ordinary people,
Never achieve what they should.
Nobody’s favourite,
Nobody’s prize.
They’d love to speak out if they could.

Sat at the back:
Ordinary people,
Afraid to step into the light.
Nobody’s favourite,
Nobody’s prize.
Just not equipped for the fight.

Never too late:
Ordinary people,
To show what you know you can do.
Be your own favourite,
Be your own prize.
The saviour you need can be you.

Invitation

Let me invite you to play in my mind,

To peer through the books and the boxes you find.

But may I request that you leave them behind

And turn the lights off when you leave?

 

Let me invite you to play in my head,

To hear all the words that I’ve ever heard said.

But don’t throw my thoughts out and leave yours instead

And turn the lights off when you leave.

 

Let me invite you to play in my dreams,

To float through my consciousness, follow its streams.

But know that it’s not always quite how it seems

And turn the lights off when you leave.

 

Let me invite you to play in my fear,

To watch as the shades of my terror appear.

But don’t tell a soul of the things you might hear

And leave the lights on when you leave.

Something Wicked

‘By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.’

Macbeth. Act 4, scene 1. William Shakespeare

 

The trees were loathe to look his way,

The birds afraid to tweet.

The wind grew hushed and tiptoed by,

The grasses feared his feet.

His eyes as dark as nameless sin,

His step was full and slow.

His progress was relentless and

His words were harsh and low.

As warmth gives way to creeping cold,

As joy withdraws from hate,

As I beheld his presence there

As he approached the gate,

I felt my cares come flooding back.

I knew beyond all doubt

I’d never see the sun rise but

I’d seen my luck run out.

Cat

“Look!  Quick!  Look now!  It’s doing it now!”

She turned to see what her husband was shouting about, drying her hands on a tea-towel.

“What?” she looked at the mess in the living room.  “What’s doing what?”

“That bloody cat!  It’s watching me again.  It wants to do something to me!”

“She’s just looking at you.  She probably wants some food.”

“Well it’s going to be disappointed then, isn’t it!”  He picked up a newspaper and brandished it in the direction of the motionless cat, laughing as it jumped from the arm of the chair and scrambled to hide under it instead.

He shot his wife a challenging look, daring her to criticise or to comfort the scared animal.  She turned back to the sink, shaking her head as she heard him stomp up the stairs.  It wouldn’t have killed him to take the some of the pile of ironing upstairs to put away; even if he just left it on the bed.

As she reached up to put the dishes away in the cupboard, she could see the cat, now curled up in a lazy ball on the back of the couch, her tail draped across her nose like a separate entity.  Walking into the room, she sighed and began to clear away the papers and empty cans that charted the progress of her husband’s day.  Wiping up the numerous spills that adorned the floor and surfaces, she could hear the noise of the Xbox upstairs.

Eventually, she was happy with the state of the room and shouted up the stairs “Tea?”

“Yeah.  And biscuits!” came the reply, followed by a burst of gunfire and curses as he dropped a life in his game.

“I’ll look.” She muttered.

While the kettle boiled, she searched through the cupboard but drew a blank; as she closed the door, the cat appeared on the worktop and she stroked its ear, enjoying the sensation of a loving being nudging against her hand for greater contact.

“You’re lovely aren’t you?” she murmured as the cat purred more and more loudly.  “Let’s find you something nice.”

She rummaged through the fridge and found a slice of ham to toss into the cat’s bowl, then watched as it finished it off in seconds.

“Where’s that tea?”

She jumped.  She had been so engrossed by the cat’s company that she hadn’t heard him come down.

“You feed that fat moggy more than you feed me.  Where are the biscuits?”

“You’ve eaten them all.”

“Just bring me some toast then!” he said as he headed back upstairs.  “With jam.”

As she watched the television alone, later, she stroked the head of the cat as it snuggled on her lap.  The film was an old one she could remember watching with her sisters and parents many years earlier, when she had still been happy.  There were some jumpy moments, but she felt safe as she exchanged warmth with the ball of fur on her knee.  “You wouldn’t treat me like dirt, would you?  No, you wouldn’t!” she crooned, as the rhythmic stroking stripped the layers of tension from her day.

During the night, she felt the bed bounce as her husband came back from the bathroom, yet he seemed to be asleep in seconds, while she lay awake for hours, listening to him snore, with the stink of his sweat pervading the room.  It was almost morning before she managed to doze off, so when the alarm rang, she felt as though she hadn’t slept, and her first thought was “I hate my life.”

As her husband slept on, she washed, dressed and headed for the bus-stop, carrying her uniform in a bag.  At the hospital, she slipped into the changing room and dragged on her work clothes, before heading for the kitchen, where she spent the day preparing food, washing dishes, cleaning the surfaces.  It was almost like being at home, except here she wasn’t expected to fetch and carry for him as well.  Her feet throbbed by lunchtime, but she barely had time to sit and wolf down her lunch before she was back on them again.

On the bus home, she rested her head against the window and the drone of the engine filtered through her skull, soothing her until she drifted into a deep sleep.  She woke with a jolt, hearing the hiss of brakes.  In a panic, she looked out of the window and, realising she had missed her stop by quite a distance, she leapt from the seat and hurried to the front of the bus to the exit.  It was raining.

“Oh God, Oh God, he’ll go mad!”

She hurried as fast as she could through the wet streets, but it seemed as though every road had gained extra traffic, specifically to stop her from reaching the house, so when she finally did … she was really late, soaked through and panting.

“What the hell are you playing at?” he roared as she pushed open the door?

“I’ve been sitting here starving and you’ve been gallivanting about for hours!  Where were you?”

“I missed my stop …” she began, but he cut her off with a slap.

“You missed nothing, you lying bitch!  It’s a bus.  It’s not rocket science!”

With stinging eyes and a sore throat, she stayed in the kitchen until his food was ready, leaving briefly just to carry in his tea.  She looked down as the cat rubbed against the side of her leg and looked up with bright, sympathetic eyes.  She knew.  She always knew.

Throughout the next hours, she didn’t once look at him, afraid that he might find some reason to start on her again and thankful that he seemed distracted by the football and his evening beers.  Eventually, without saying a word, he went upstairs to spend the last couple of hours playing his game from the comfort of their bed.  She waited until she could hear his sleeping rasps before heading after him.  As she left the living room, she stooped to where the black cat lay on her blanket and whispered “It’s time!’

In the morning, she stepped nimbly over her husband’s crumpled body at the foot of the stairs.  She picked up the phone, dialled 999 and said “Ambulance.  My husband’s had an accident.  I think he must have tripped on the stairs.  I think he’s dead.”  At her feet, the cat leant against her, flicking her tail and purring.

Sensitive

I’ve always been sensitive.  Not ‘can’t use soap’ sensitive or ‘cry at Christmas adverts’ sensitive.  Just ‘knowing things without a proper explanation’ sensitive.  Don’t get me wrong; I can’t tell you what the lottery numbers will be.  Do you think I’d be here if I could?  As if! I’d be lying in a hammock on my own island with an endless supply of fresh fruit and the occasional pizza.  I’ll tell you the kinds of things I know: what sex the baby will be, the fact that there will be a baby (before the bump appears or else it wouldn’t be ‘knowing’ so much as ‘seeing’), what clothes people will have on, even if I’ve never seen them before, who’s calling when the phone rings.  Boring stuff, mostly.   Occasionally I know weirder stuff, like when somebody is going to get hurt or die or when they’ve done something terrible.  That’s the stuff I hate because there’s nothing I can do about it, except … know.

The reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand why I instantly knew I was being followed.  There was no doubt in my mind; it started when I was on my way home.  I was tired, wet and hungry; I had no hope of a hot meal or a warm bed for several hours and I was in my own little world of irritation, but I felt that buzz … maybe you’ve felt it too … it’s the unmistakable touch of another person’s gaze.  When someone is looking right at you, it can be as though they reach across and lay their unwelcome fingers right onto your skin.  It creeps me out.

Whenever this happens, I try not to be too obvious about looking for whoever’s watching me.  There are some bad types out there and if they know you’ve spotted them, well … that could end very badly.  So, I was discreet and just stopped to look in a couple of windows to check out the reflection of the street behind me.  It didn’t help, to be honest; I couldn’t see anybody who looked dodgy, so I tried that thing where you stop as though you’ve forgotten something and turn around as though you might be planning on retracing your steps.  That tactic bore fruit immediately.  As I turned, I clearly saw a figure come to an abrupt halt and step back into the shadow of a hedge – very suspicious behaviour.  Definitely my follower!  I rummaged in my bag for a moment, watching the shadowy figure from under my dripping hood and then acted as though I’d found what I thought I’d forgotten and resumed walking in my original direction.

You’ll probably understand why I didn’t want to lead this character to my home, yet they showed no sign of dropping back, always close to the shadows, always stopping to wait if I went into a shop or stooped to ‘fasten a shoe’.  What was worrying me most of all was that we were coming to a place where I’d almost certainly be alone for five minutes or more if I continued towards home and I didn’t want that to happen if I could avoid it.  There was a brightly lit road with a steady flow of foot traffic just around the corner and I could head in that direction rather than back myself into the corner of isolation, but it would mean going much closer to the dark figure and I didn’t really feel comfortable about that.  I knew for certain that something really bad would happen if I confronted this disturbing admirer: I could feel it as surely as I could feel my feet making contact with the hard pavement.

Looking ahead, I could see the turn-off that led to the dark little bridge over the railway, which would then lead to a series of small, quiet roads which housed an empty old schoolhouse, some abandoned shops and some severely neglected houses that rarely betrayed any signs of life within.  At the rate I was walking now, I would reach the opening in two minutes at the most and the follower could be across the road and at my side thirty seconds later.  On the other hand, I could veer towards them right now, in full view of other people and cars that were passing by.  There were few areas of shadow as the shop fronts on both sides of the road spewed their lights into the world.  In a way, I felt tempted to risk passing the person more closely for a better look; at no point had I had a clear look at a face and I couldn’t even see clearly enough to say if it was a man or a woman.  Or neither, I suppose.

In a split second, my feet made the decision for me and I swerved toward the bright lights and the shadowy figure at their edge.  Making a point of looking up and down the road, I crossed at an angle that would leave me ahead of him or her by at least ten yards; the largest distance possible.  I didn’t want to get too close.  I could sense the malicious intent building now and as I swept my eyes across the figure’s face, I caught a glimpse of light, reflecting from dark eyes and it sent a deep shudder down my spine.  My reaction would pass for the effects of the cold, I was sure, if it had been noticed at all.  But now, we were on the same side of the road and I didn’t like that; it made me feel weak, vulnerable, controlled.  No!  I didn’t like it at all.

The feeling of being watched was now so much more than a buzz … it was a weight, a heat, a force and I could tell without looking that the distance between us was decreasing steadily.  There was no way I could turn around now that we were on the same side; it would be too obvious and I just didn’t want to look into the glinting eyes of this being who meant me harm.  In a panic, I veered into a cafe and stumbled to the counter.  I bought some tea and sat at the back of the shop, looking towards the street.  I couldn’t see the figure now but I knew they would be out there … waiting.  I could feel a draught on my cheek that seemed to come from behind me and I turned to look at the toilet door.  Next to it, was an open door that led into the kitchen … the empty kitchen.  Could I get out that way?  Even if I couldn’t … I had to try!

Heading towards the toilet, I walked steadily, swerving into the kitchen at the last minute and went straight for the back door.  I glanced over my shoulder to see the back of one of the women who was behind the counter; she was talking and unaware of my actions.  The door was unlocked and I was able to close it quietly behind me, but when I tried to leave the small yard I found the outer door was bolted and padlocked.  I looked around for inspiration and saw a large wooden planter, but it was too far from the wall to be of any use.  Pulling at it, I was surprised at how heavy it was, but in my desperation, I was able to drag it close enough to use as a boost to climb up onto the wall.  Unfortunately, the noise it had made as I had dragged it had attracted the attention of one of the coffee shop workers, who opened the door and began shouting and screeching.  I could hear footsteps running through the shop so I launched myself from the wall into the darkness of the alley, jarring my knee as I landed.

Blindly, I ran along the alley, heading back towards where I had come from, hoping to find a way back onto the street and into the light and, hopefully, far behind wherever my pursuer was now waiting.  But I quickly realised that wasn’t going to happen!  I felt his presence before I ran into him.  Definitely a ‘him’.  Strong hands grabbed me and rotten breath drove into my face as I saw in sickening HD everything he wanted to do to me … had done to the others … but as my twitching claws shredded his stubbled face and my growing fangs sank into his bitter-tasting throat, the tears of shame poured from my eyes and onto my fur before I lost all sense of self … again.

The girl.

The first time I remember seeing her, I was probably about four or five.  I was playing in the hallway, tracing the Greek key patterns of the carpet with my toes; I was so engrossed in this game that I didn’t even notice her until she was halfway up the stairs.  I thought she was my little sister.  She was small and her blonde hair was straight and long, just like my sister’s.  Much as I had been enjoying my obsessive pattern tracing, I liked the idea of playing with somebody else, so I followed her. 

She walked into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister and an older one; we weren’t rich and as we were still relatively small, two of us shared a bed, sleeping top to toe in surprising harmony.  I wasn’t far behind the girl so I entered the room a few seconds after she did.  She was gone.  Of course, thinking she was my little sister, I presumed she was hiding and began to search, calling her name in case she would do me a favour and come out.  My sister was great at hiding because she was really small; not just ‘young small’, she was ‘small small’.  With very little between us in age, I towered over her and she could fit into places I wouldn’t even attempt to get into.  One time, she hid behind a sewing machine and it took me ten minutes to find her – that’s how good she was … and how little.

But she wasn’t hiding, because two or three minutes into my exhaustive search, she came up the stairs and asked ‘What?’  She had heard me saying her name and come to find out what I wanted.  I told everybody about the girl: what she looked like, where I had seen her, how she had just vanished.  Mostly that!  How she’d just vanished. 

I watched out for her for ages and didn’t see her, but my bedroom didn’t feel like a good place to be in anymore and I couldn’t get to sleep if I faced the wall.  I would read for hours using the light from the landing to avoid the darkness of closed eyes.  My reading improved in leaps and bounds; my ability to sleep soundly was destroyed permanently.

Yet there had been nothing sinister about the little girl, other than the mysterious vanishing act.  If I hadn’t followed her, I probably would always have assumed she was my sister and just forgotten seeing her go up the stairs.  As it is, I know I’ll never forget her.

Years later, perhaps when I was 10 or 11, I was sleeping in a different room, with two different sisters.  One night we heard the unmistakeable sound of a ball bouncing against the wall.  It was the adjoining wall to our new neighbours, who had a young boy and girl.  They were younger than me by a little and didn’t play out.  Certainly not with us, at any rate.  The noise kept us awake for ages and sounded really loud, with the hollow of the chimney breast magnifying every bounce and we grumbled about the terrible mother who couldn’t get her children to go to bed and sleep when they were of no age at all.  We had no room to talk, since we were more likely to read or secretly listen to a tiny portable radio that one of my big sisters had smuggled into the bedroom than we were to go to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Still!  At least we weren’t actually out of bed playing ball.

The bouncing went on for days and seemed louder than ever.  Our parents heard it and also grumbled about the new kids next door, right up until the day they were leaving the house for work at the same time as the woman next door had come out to do the school run.  She asked my mum if she could have a word with us, because the ball games were keeping her awake.  The bouncing sound was actually coming from our room.  To bounce a ball against that wall, someone would have to be standing at the end of the bed, just next to where my head would be.

The bouncing didn’t stop, but it didn’t happen all the time and sometimes it came from different places in the house but always upstairs. 

Still, I didn’t see the girl again until one night when I was about 15.  Only me and my little sister were in the house.  She was watching the telly and I was in another room, drawing.  The door to the hallway was open and something made me look up, just in time to see the girl walk past, as though she were heading for the stairs or for the room where my sister was laughing at some comedy programme.  She still looked like my sister, but she had aged.  I didn’t know what to do.  I actually felt too scared to look where she had gone; I couldn’t even get out of my seat.  She was just a girl, who’d never so much as looked at me or said a word.  Maybe she’d kept me awake with her ball games, maybe not.  Eventually I got up the courage to look out of the room and was very relieved to see nobody.  I went and spent the rest of the evening in the same room as my sister, leaving every light lit up and casting little glances to the hall every couple of minutes.

I saw her one more time.  I was an adult, with three children and fast asleep in my bed.  The insomnia she had caused had continued to plague me, but I’d had a busy day, visiting my sick brother amongst other things, and had fallen into bed, exhausted.  A single word woke me up.  Just my name in a voice that sounded like family, but I knew I’d never heard it before.  I knew it was her even before I saw her.  Still blonde, still looking as though she could be my sister, but grown up.  She didn’t say another word, but I knew that she had come to bring me bad news about my brother and she had.  The news came by phone in the morning, but it was just confirmation.  I don’t know how she told me, but she did.

I think I’ll see her again.  I don’t know when or where and I don’t look out for her, but I know it will happen.  One day … and I wonder if she’ll still be blonde or will she be grey, like I am, like my sister is.  I’m not afraid any more, but I am curious.  I just want to know who she is.

Doorstep

I noticed the figure out of the corner of my eye as I went to the bathroom.  I’m not at my best first thing in the morning and my eyesight hasn’t been great for some years now.  But, as I glanced down the stairs at the front door, there was clearly someone there: outside.  “Milkman?” I wondered.  Ten seconds, twenty seconds … no movement.  “Not the milkman, then.”  Although not usually a timid person, I felt a bit uneasy.   Why would anybody be standing on my step at six in the morning?  There’d been no knock and I hadn’t heard a car pull up or any footsteps on the gravel as I’d lain awake for the previous half hour.  I’d been feeling a bit under the weather and had hardly slept a wink, but a full bladder had woken me from a brief sleep and I’d just had to get up.

And now I couldn’t hang on any longer, though, so I slid into the bathroom as quietly as I could and shut the door, controlling the handle to keep the noise as low as possible.  “Stupid!” I told myself.  “The front door has a heavy bolt, there’s no need to worry.”  But my skin was clammy and tingling at the knowledge that somebody was on the step.

Living alone can be difficult at times, especially when you get to my age.  My children have moved far away and my husband died nearly 25 years ago, when he was 53, from a massive heart attack.  The internet is my main connection to the world, although I’m not housebound or anything; I just keep myself to myself, like I always did, so I don’t really talk to the neighbours.  My arthritis has been getting worse and when I go to the shops, I’m becoming painfully aware that it’s taking me longer and longer.  But I don’t usually scare easily.  At least … I didn’t.

As I opened the bathroom door again, I realised that I was holding my breath and I let it escape through pinpoint lips, with almost a whistle.

“Still there!!”

The words in my head were the loudest sound in the house.  As I stepped back onto the landing, it occurred to me that the person might be able to see me, too, and I froze, staring at the still, dark figure.  The blue, frosted glass of the door didn’t give a clear view – just an impression.  It was no good – there was no way I could tell which way they were looking.  When I moved again, it was toward the wall, hugging it in an attempt to blend with the shadow and I tried to picture the view through my front door from the outside.

Having stood on that step thousands of times, you’d think I’d have a perfect mental image of what could and couldn’t be seen by somebody looking in, yet I couldn’t work out whether the top of the stairs would be visible from the step.  Glancing behind me, I considered the bathroom window.  It’s quite high up … small and covered by a dark roller blind!  They wouldn’t be able to see me because the background would be too dark to make me stand out!!  Thank God.  But what should I do?  I couldn’t stay there, watching.  I would have to go and dress.

Cursing my own procrastination, I opened the wardrobe door a fraction; knowing that it would send out a raucous screech if I opened it any further.  For at least three months, I had been intending to oil it.  But at least I could reach some clothes, which I put on as quickly as I could whilst keeping up the silence.  All the time, listening for anything that might suggest that the person on the step was moving, trying the door, leaving me alone, going around the back.  Going around the back!!  The doors and windows were all locked – a habit I’d developed after a burglary many years before – but they would have a clear view into the house from the back.  I’d come up to bed while it was still light; spent a couple of hours reading in bed.  So, even though my bedroom curtains were closed, the ones downstairs would all be open.

Of course, I couldn’t even get downstairs without having to walk really close to the front door and there were at least two stairs that would draw attention to my presence.  I was trapped.  Slowly, I twitched aside the corner of my curtain and strained to see the area in front of the step, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the person properly, but perhaps I could catch a glimpse.  No.  Nothing.  Not even a hint of a shoulder.

Creeping to the top of the stairs, I peered around the banister and instantly saw that the figure was still there – dark, large, menacing.  “Why?” I wondered.  “What does he want?”  This last thought fell like a thud.  “He?  Why did I think that?”  There was nothing to indicate that this was a man … it was certainly somebody tall, but so am I, and the clothes were too blurred to be distinguishable.  All I could tell was that the person on my step was tall, very good at standing still, and wearing something dark.  It seemed that the whole figure was of one colour, so could this mean that they had their back to me?  That they were wearing a hood?

I ventured onto the top step and, holding the handrail tightly, I eased myself into a seated position close against the wall.  The very creaky stairs were three steps down and then seven steps down but there was another temperamental one four down.  I didn’t believe I would be able to step over the worst one, without setting off the other one.  I definitely couldn’t step over two; my hips wouldn’t let me.  If I hugged the wall and only stood at the very edge of each step, I might make it down, but I was pretty certain that once I got halfway, if this person turned around then I would be totally visible.  My nerves were strained beyond anything I had felt for years and I wanted to cry.  If I cried now, I might not be able to stop my sobs from becoming louder and I was just too terrified to take a chance on drawing attention to myself.

If I made it to the living room, I would be able to take the phone into the kitchen, out of earshot, and call the police.  I would close the curtains, too, if I made it that far.  In all this time, I hadn’t seen the figure move a muscle.  The light was brighter now and I was sure they were turned away, standing like a guard on my step.  Not looking inwards, but out at the world.  “Why?”  Again the question reared its head.  But I didn’t want to think about that too deeply.  I just wanted to get help.

As I shifted my weight to pull myself up using the handrail, I felt a pain in my neck and into my jaw.  My vision swam and I felt the sweat pouring from my forehead and the palms of my hands.  I sank back against the wall and screwed my eyes tightly shut.  My heart felt as though it had swelled to fill my chest and the worst nausea I had ever imagined gripped me and held me pinned.  I was so frightened.  So frightened that I shuffled onto the next step on my bottom, and then the next.  The stair made its customary blackboard screech and I looked at the door, afraid of what I would see.  The figure didn’t move and I shuffled again, wanting only to get to the phone.  More in need of an ambulance than the police.

I don’t even know how I got to the living room, but that’s where I first opened my eyes.  I could feel my head being lifted and felt the hands on my shoulders and my neck.  Something was on my face, but nothing made sense and then I was just floating and jolting.  Noises … talking … I couldn’t move.  My arms were trapped … and then there was nothing.

Waking in the hospital, I felt the cold smoothness of the sheet and smelt the clinical smell so particular to such places.  My tongue was like an emery board and I looked around for a drink.  In the next bed, a woman in her forties or fifties was watching me.

“So, you’re awake at last!”  She seemed surprised.  “You’ve been talking in your sleep, you know.”

I cleared my throat.  “Is there anything to drink?”

She got out of bed and shuffled over in sponge slippers.  She poured me a glass of water from a large jug and watched as I struggled onto my elbows and then to an upright position.  The water tasted horrible, like an old metal spoon, but I needed it too much to care.

“Who’s Bob?” she asked.

I nearly choked on the mouthful of water I’d just taken.

“Bob’s my husband.  Why?  Did I talk about him in my sleep?”

“A little bit” she replied, “but I was wondering because I heard the nurses talking.  They said that if he hadn’t been there, you would have died.  He called the ambulance.  Weird that he didn’t wait around once they came.  They said he just stood on the step until the paramedics went in and was gone when they came out.  They said he went so quickly, it was like he’d vanished.”

In the quiet of the house

I remember the first time it woke me; I didn’t know what had happened.  My head was aching and I was really thirsty, so I thought it was probably that that had woken me.  According to the clock, it was 3:18.  I lay for a minute, hoping for some miracle to take away the headache and the thirst without me having to get out of bed.  There was no miracle.  I slid my feet to the freezing floor and pushed myself from the bed with a wince as my arthritic knee squeaked in protest.  From the bedroom, to the kitchen.  Two painkillers, a bottle of water.  Better go to the toilet to save having to face the stairs again later.  Back up the stairs.  Bed!

But I just lay there with something poking at me.  Some little thought that danced in and out of focus.  Had there been a noise?  A last look at the clock.  4:22!  How could more than an hour have gone by?  I didn’t need to be up early, but I knew I would be, so I closed my eyes and listened to my own breathing until sleep came.

All day, as I went about my routine, I felt jumpy.  There was nothing I could put my finger on; no specific thing that I could identify as the cause of my nervousness.  But it wore me out.  By mid-afternoon, I was struggling to keep my eyes open and since I couldn’t think straight, I decided to take a nap.

I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down, but my dreams were disturbing visions of everlasting staircases, chasms that opened up in the floor of my bedroom and doors slamming.  I opened my eyes.  Was that a dream or had a door just slammed?  I was soaked with sweat and there was a humming in my ears.  I swallowed and my mouth felt like sandpaper.  I sat up slowly, feeling sure I’d be dizzy, but I wasn’t; I just felt weak, washed out.  I opened my window and the autumn air dried the sweat on my face as I stood there.  I listened for sounds of movement, but hearing nothing apart from distant traffic and the scratch of leaves along the pavement, I went downstairs.

Everything seemed normal.  The doors were all open, so if the slam had been real, it had been outside, which was a relief.  I went to make myself some tea and was surprised to find I’d already laid out the tea things: my favourite cup, a present for Mother’s Day with ‘World’s Best Grandma’ in childish writing; the 2-person tea pot I use when I’m sure I’ll want seconds, and a tea spoon.  “I must have been more tired than I realised!”  My words bounced around the room, the only noise in a vast silence.  No, not the only noise.  There was a rapid clicking that I recognised with a sinking feeling.  It was the noise the kettle makes when it has recently boiled and switched off. Praying that I was wrong I tentatively laid a finger on the side of the kettle, but almost before it had reached the hot metal I was pulling it back to watch the red spot turn into a blister.  But I had been asleep for at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, so who had boiled the kettle?

I didn’t feel safe.  My chest felt tight and I could feel the pounding of blood in my ears.  I walked into the living-room to find my keys.  They were nowhere to be seen, but if I left the house without them, I’d be locked out.  And then I remembered where they were; I had left them on the bedside table when I went to lie down.  I’ve always taken my keys upstairs with me when I went to bed and it had been an almost unconscious action when I’d gone up for a nap.

I didn’t think I could stand to go up those stairs right now.  The pounding in my ears was faster and I could hear my own breath, coming in short, wheezy puffs of panic; I had to do something!  Then I remembered something from years before.  When my children had been young and prone to messing about after bedtime, I would go into their room, see them unconvincingly pretending to be asleep and I would close their bedroom door as though I had left the room.  I would stand there not breathing and they would open their eyes to see me still watching them.  More often than not, they’d laugh. So it didn’t help them get to sleep, really; it just let them know they couldn’t pull the wool over my eyes.  I caught them out like that many times before they’d cottoned on to my trick.  Whoever was in my house right now, if there was anybody, didn’t know it, though.  I could at least be sure whether there was somebody there.  If I stood by the front door after I had closed it and somebody came out of hiding, at least I would be close to the door to get away and if nobody moved, I should probably consider the possibility that I’d sleep-walked or that I might finally be succumbing to the dementia that had stalked the women in my family for generations.

I made a lot of noise ‘leaving’ the house.  I banged into the living room door, swished my coat around as I put it on, said to myself, “I’d better get some bread while I’m out!” in a voice much louder than my usual voice.  It didn’t sound like me.  It sounded like somebody brave.  And then I opened the door and slammed it.  And waited.  I held my breath for half a minute …nothing!  I slowly and quietly let my breath leave through barely parted lips and then I heard the first noise … a creaking, perhaps …maybe a cupboard door.  It was upstairs.  And then a second noise, which I instantly recognised as the loose floorboard in the back bedroom.  As I took hold of the front door handle I heard another noise, and another and another.  And then all the noises happened at once, as, from top to bottom, the house came alive around me.

Blacklight

“What just happened?” she asked, looking at the lamp.  There was no answer.

“What just happened to the light?” she said, louder.

“Nothing.  What are you talking about?”  She looked at her husband: his head barely visible behind his laptop.

“The light did something.  It went out.  Or something went in front of it.  The room went black for a moment; didn’t you see?”  He looked up at the lamp and then at her.

“It didn’t do anything.  I would have noticed if the room had gone black.  You probably blinked or something.”

“For God’s sake, Ben, I blink all the time.  Do you think I don’t know what blinking is like?  You don’t even notice a blink!”  Frustrated, she threw the newspaper onto the couch beside her and got up.  She went over to the light and poked the bulb.  “Ow!” she breathed.  She shook the base.

“It’s gone a bit black now your fat arse is in the way!” laughed Ben.  She spun around and frowned at him.

“I’m going to bed!”  She strode to the bathroom, slammed the door and sat on the closed lid of the toilet.  She realised her hands were shaking a little.  Fury?  Fear?  Something else?  If the light didn’t do anything, perhaps she had a brain tumour.  Perhaps there was something pressing on the back of her eye, creating vision problems and making her temper short.  No.  Not the temper thing.  That was all Ben!!  No …something had got in the way of the light; he didn’t notice because he was looking at a brightly lit laptop screen.  He wouldn’t have noticed if she’d done a fan dance in front of the lamp.  He never noticed anything she did.

As the water ran into the sink, she watched her reflection blur and fade in the bathroom mirror.  She looked better in the steam.  The water was a little too hot as she stood with her hands pressed flat and her wrists smarting.  They didn’t look like her hands in the water; they looked like a stranger’s hands.

By the time Ben came up to bed, she’d been asleep for an hour, but he turned on the light, walked over to his side of the bed, turned on his lamp and yawned, “Turn that light off for me!”.  She did.  Then she lay on her side with her back to him as he opened a book and began to read.  The flowers on the wallpaper looked like giant moths in the gloom, and the shadow cast by her own body made it seem as though they were struggling to crawl from the earth, to free themselves from a two dimensional chrysalis: but failing!

When she woke, it was as though she had been shaken and for a moment she thought one of the children had come into the room.  Her head was fuzzy and her tongue so dry it clicked as she tried to swallow.  “What’s up?” she heard herself mumble before realising there was nobody there.  Her head felt so much heavier than it should, but even so, the last of their children had left 2 years before and had already been long past the age when you come looking for your mum after a bad dream.  According to the clock, it was 04:11, but it wasn’t reliable.  She felt for her phone and checked the time on that.  04:11. Holding her breath, she listened for anything that might have woken her, knowing that it wouldn’t take much: the sounds of the fridge, the central-heating turning on or off or just being old, a rattling door, nothing at all.  There was nothing to be heard, but she couldn’t get over the feeling that she had been shaken.  She shuddered and her breath came in a burst and shocked her with its loudness.  It took more than an hour for her to get back to sleep and when the alarm rang at 7, she felt as though she hadn’t slept at all.

In work, the hum of the library was a comfort for her twanging nerves.  Her back hurt as she pushed the trolley to the far end, where she would begin the ritual of replacement: checking the other books on the shelves as she went, using a sixth-sense to find out-of-place books, carelessly used by people who didn’t have respect for the knowledge stored here.

It was while she was moving a copy of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ from ‘J’ to ‘P’ that the lights went out at the end of the stack …for a moment.  She felt so vulnerable.  She turned to one end and then to the other, then pushed her back against the shelf, her hands shaking wildly and her chest feeling so tight it could have been encircled by invisible arms.  She forced herself to walk to the end of the stack.  To where she could see other people.  It calmed her a little and she walked to the desk.

“Did you have a problem with the lights over here?”  She tried to keep her voice casual but wasn’t sure if she had managed.  Laura looked at her with a frown.

“Are you alright?  You don’t look well.  Sit down before you fall down!”  She did.  “You’re a funny colour!  Do you want a drink of water?”

“I’m alright.  I didn’t sleep well.  I just wondered if you saw the lights flicker.  They did up by the children’s stacks.  Just for a second.”

“No.  They were alright down here.”

She realised she still had ‘Peter Rabbit’ in her hand but she gave it to Laura.  She didn’t want to go back into the stacks.

As she ate her dinner that night she watched a programme about why the bees are vanishing.  She had the main light on and the lamp as well as the hall light.  She felt uneasy alone here now, and Ben had texted to say he would be going straight to the club after work.  She wished they had a dog.  Or a cat.  Or a budgie.  Something with a heartbeat, however small.  The bee programme was over and somebody was explaining how Stonehenge had been built.  And why, apparently!  She pushed a piece of cold fish across her plate with the point of her knife and realised she’d sat for an hour and had barely eaten a mouthful.  She had tasted none of it.

Scraping the food into the bin, she felt as though she had somehow lost a chunk of time and wondered if she should see a doctor.  Maybe, in the morning, she could make an appointment to put her mind at rest …or not.  That’s what she’d do.  Making the decision helped her to relax a little and she decided a warm bath and an early night might start making up for lack of sleep and stress.

In the bathroom cupboard she found some bubble bath that had been a Christmas present and poured it onto the torrent of hot water, filling the bath.  The smell of strawberries filled the room and for a moment she was 7 again and sitting, surrounded by bubbles and playing with her dolls.  Washing their hair.  Making them swim.  She shook her head and straightened up, withdrawing her hand from the swirling water.  Something was pushing for attention.

“What?”  The stark, sudden question made her jump, even though it was her own voice.

She stepped into the bath; the hot water turning her leg lobster coloured in seconds.  She sat down and leant back into the crackling bubbles, relishing the borderline pain.  She closed her eyes and the dolls came back into her mind; they had been called Jenny and Lulu and she couldn’t remember what had happened to them.  They had been there all the time for years and then …where?  She was 7 again.  In the bath.  Playing.  With the dolls.  And then …then …the light had gone out.  No, not gone out …was blocked.  Mum’s friend, Joe was there.

Back in the present, she pulled her knees into her chest and began to sob.