- Author : Angela Slatter
- Narrator : Robin McLeavy
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
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“Home and Hearth” was originally published in the Spectral Press Chapbook Series, March 2014 and the story won the Aurealis Award for Best Short Horror Story 2014.
Violence against children, psychological trauma
Episode 52. The Dark Side of Oz: Wolf Creek (2005) and The Loved Ones (2009)
Hearth and Home
by Angela Slatter
Caroline held the door open, listening to the keys make that gentle clink-clank as they hung from the lock. He pushed past her and she could smell the peculiar odour he gave off now: puberty and a state institution. As he crossed the threshold, his too-small shoes leaving mud on the new welcome mat (she’d thrown out the one exhorting a universal power to ‘Bless this mess’), the house seemed to sigh.
Then again, maybe it was her, but she couldn’t remember the air leaving her lungs.
Then again it might have been the heating system as it puffed out warmth.
‘Coke?’ she asked, following him down the long hallway. ‘Or hot chocolate? Crisps? Marshmallows? I baked your favourite biscuits. They’re not hot but I can warm them in the microwave. There’s a cake, too. Banana. Or—or—what would you like?’
She knew she was overcompensating, had schooled herself not to during the weeks and months, but he was back in the house not five minutes and already she was failing. She reached out and touched his face.
It was a mistake. The feeling against her palm, the slight sweatiness, the burgeoning pimples beneath the skin, combined to make her shudder. She hoped he didn’t notice.
‘It’s fine, Mum. I’m going to my room.’
Simon hadn’t called her that in months, not since the trial started. Not since Geoffrey had his heart attack and told her as she sat by his hospital bed that he didn’t think he could continue with, well, everything. Turning up at the court every day, dodging and weaving reporters and cameras, listening to their son’s legal reps talk and excuse and obfuscate. It was all lies, he’d said. They both knew it.
She could have the house. And the money.
(It’s mine anyway, she wanted to say, but didn’t. It always was.)
He had to go, he’d said. For his health.
Then she had to tell their son what his father had decided—that he was opting out of the family. Men never like to clean up their own mess, she’d thought at the time as she’d watched a light go out in him. His answers had whittled themselves down to monosyllables. He stopped referring to his father. Stopped calling her ‘Mum’, or indeed anything but ‘her.’
Ask her, he’d say to the barrister. Avoiding her gaze.
Caroline thought her eyes should probably be misty, a little heated with some kind of emotional response, but there was nothing. Oh well. Perhaps it would come later, when they got used to each other once more.
‘Okay,’ she said belatedly. He was already gone, disappeared up the stairs, closing the door. She walked into the sitting room, which was directly beneath his room and listened.
A few steps as he walked from one wall to the next, stopped at the desk, the book shelves, the wardrobe (she heard the creak of its hinges), then to his bed. She’d left his presents on the duvet, neatly stacked—he’d missed his thirteenth birthday in all the chaos. There was the whump as he sat down, then the double thud of his shoes hitting the floor. Then a steady series of noises as each carefully wrapped gift followed the footwear. Finally, silence.
She stood beneath him for a while, then turned to one of the front windows and tweaked back the edge of the long cream-coloured curtains. Through the wrought bars of the fence she couldn’t see anything but cars parked in the street, the houses opposite, each like hers, tidy, fenced, tall, manicured gardens, quietly comfortable. No one. No reporters. No yelling at the house, no trying to get into the yard, no knocking at the door, no flashbulbs blinding Caroline before she learned not to open it for them. In a deep, damned part of her soul she was grateful for the bombings that had made her son old news.
She took a deep breath and headed towards the kitchen.
The frozen foods aisle seemed colder than usual. Or maybe it was the collection of eyes boring into her back that were giving Caroline the chills. She reached into the freezer and pulled out ice cream (vanilla), a chicken (medium), then packets of peas, beans, carrots and chips. They all made a metallic sound as they hit the bottom of the trolley.
She’d left Simon sleeping; a note on the table gave him strict instructions not to leave the house and not to open the door to anyone. But she’d had to go out, had to stock up—two days home and he’d eaten most everything she had. That was what he did now: eat and play computer games in his room. Soon she would have to talk to him about school. He’d have to return to the world, but that was fraught with complications. They would have to move, she thought. A new house, a new town, a new life. Maybe she’d dye his hair, have it cut so he didn’t look like the boy on the news reports. Mind you, if he kept eating this way, it wouldn’t be an issue. Her son would disappear beneath layers of fat and be cleverly camouflaged by his own body.
She couldn’t think about all those details now, so she did what she could, which was to reach out and load up on cheeses, yoghurt, custard and milk. As she turned, fighting the trolley’s recalcitrant wheels, she looked up and saw them. The herd.
Twelve housewives, nearly identical: corduroy trousers in greens and browns, sharply pressed collared shirts under v-neck sweaters in various hues, with barely-worn Barbour jackets and scarves hanging loose around necks that showed signs of wrinkling. Caroline knew them—she’d been one of them herself, once.
It wasn’t hatred, precisely, that they were staring at her, nothing so strong, nothing so moral. It was just a kind of intense distaste: her dirty laundry had been aired very publicly. All the nasty domestic worms had poked their heads out of the shit-stirred soil of her home. They could look down on her … but it was something more. She made them nervous. She’d been a carbon copy—her fall made them feel exposed, vulnerable. There but for the grace of God go I and so on. Caroline’s son had made them afraid of their own children.
Now, people stared at them and associated them with her. Their neat, tidy houses, highly financial husbands, over-achieving children, all held up to scrutiny by the lower orders. Caroline almost smiled; then did. Waved and resisted the urge to walk up to them and chatter inanely about scone recipes or some such. She knew she looked manic, the smile pinned to her lips, eyes fever-bright.
She made her way to the junk food aisle and began to stack brightly packaged carbohydrates and preservatives into the trolley. The more she bought now, she reasoned, the less often she’d have to come back.
At the checkout, the spotty teen ignored her for a while, grabbing items in a podgy hand with chewed nails and chipped pink polish and dragging them over the scanner, then tossing them behind where an equally spotty boy jammed the items into bags. Eggs beneath tins of ham and tomatoes, bread beneath frozen things. When the girl finally looked up to mumble the total, Caroline could almost see the cogs in the brain wake and haltingly turn themselves; could almost hear the grinding. She watched as the blood-shot eyes widened and the lips trembled, the bottom one dropping open like a draw bridge on a slow timer. The girl stammered; she fumbled with Caroline’s credit card; dropped the docket; stared and stared and stared.
The bag boy didn’t look up.
As Caroline packed the food into the back of the Land Rover, she felt as if she was being watched. Expecting one of the mums brigade, she straightened and looked around.
A dishevelled figure stood motionless in the corner of the parking lot. Scuffed boots, thick trousers; bulked up by a couple of men’s coats and a disreputable sweater, the figure removed its bright pink beanie only when it met Caroline’s eyes.
It was the woman. The other mother.
Caroline didn’t—couldn’t—budge. She and the Traveller watched each other forever until the woman shoved her hat back over the dark tangled hair and shuffled off. The spell broken, Caroline could shift again, but her joints ached. It seemed every move she made hurt, every bag she heaved was filled with wet sand.
It was a long time before her hands stopped shaking enough for her put the keys in the ignition. She was dripping with sweat in the cold, cold car.
Simon’s voice in Caroline’s ear and his hands on her shoulder shocked her awake. She’d been dreaming somewhere dark, somewhere the blackness was deathly-thick.
‘Mum!! Wake up!’ He was yelling, her son. She could smell fear on him; it came off his skin in waves, mixed with the scent of adolescence. He stank.
Caroline recoiled, trying not to do so, managing to shuffle herself across the sheets without actually seeming to move. Her head felt full of cement. Only the sheer terror of having Simon’s fingers anywhere near her had the power to shock her awake as surely as an icy bath.
She cursed herself for having taken a sleeping tablet—what was she thinking making herself vulnerable?—but there were so many in the bathroom, hers, Geoffrey’s, all the enthusiastically doled-out tranquilisers the doctor had heaped upon them early in the piece. And she hadn’t slept properly in…
She so needed to sleep.
And now her son had crept into her room and gotten close enough to touch her with hands that had—
‘Mum, there’s someone downstairs.’
‘What’s the time?’ She struggled into a sitting position and squinted at the shining digital face on her bedside table. She could hear someone battering at the front door. It was two a.m. Surely not reporters. Surely not at this hour. Nor the police—double jeopardy and all, and he hadn’t been out of the house since he’d been given back to her. He couldn’t have done anything else, not yet.
Simon’s face was white, his eyes huge. My child is afraid, she thought, admonished. His blond hair stuck up at all angles; coupled with his terrified stare it made him look very, very young.
Caroline felt a deep stab of shame. He needed his mum. She wrapped a thick chenille dressing gown around herself and tied it tight.
She crept along the hallway, past the grandfather clock with its regular rhythmic tick-tock, and down the stairs, Simon behind her, his hands holding onto the train of her gown just like he did when little and she was in the kitchen making his buttery toast. Back when he couldn’t bear to be parted from her.
The door was shuddering and shaking under the force of the blows—she thought she could see periodic slivers of the world outside as the wood warped inwards with each hit. She wondered if the leadlight panels would break, but they seemed to bend and curve like rubber. She opened the hall cupboard and pulled out a cricket bat—Simon’s when he was eight. It wasn’t huge but it was hefty and she’d get in a good swing, by God. Caroline pushed her son away so she could have space. As she took the last two steps forward there was one final slam and the door vibrated on its hinges, then all was still.
She flicked on the porch light, wrenching on the doorhandle and pulling at the same time.
Nothing. A pool of yellow light trickled down into the garden like something spilled, and beyond its reach there was the moonlight, giving everything a strange blue tint. The front yard was empty as was the street beyond and there was nowhere for anyone to hide. There weren’t even any desperate reporters staked out in battered Vauxhalls, snoring or smoking or mainlining bad coffee from the all-night service station fifteen minutes away. The cars sparkled with the night’s frost as if someone had scattered diamond chips over them.
Caroline stepped out, her feet cold. A few more paces and something stuck to the sole of her left foot. She bent down and picked it up, glanced briefly at the piece of faded photographic paper.
‘What is it?’ Simon’s voice quavered from well back in the hallway and she couldn’t help, was devastated by, the wave of contempt that washed over her.
‘Nothing. Just some rubbish.’ She pocketed the photo before she turned and went inside. ‘Hot chocolate?’
He surprised her by nodding, by choosing her company instead of retreating to his cave yet again. Instead of making her feel that she was alone in the house despite his presence.
The kitchen was bright and warm and for a while she could pretend everything was normal.
The ground was hard-frosted and the grass crunched and crackled like broken glass beneath her boots. Far behind her were the house and its rear garden backing onto the common, the drunken fence and the squeaky gate that led out.
White mist hung in front of her face and she struggled to breathe in the cold air. Sweat ran its way down her spine. Caroline chided herself: she hadn’t been to the gym in months; her thighs felt like jelly and she couldn’t even manage a brisk walk without puffing. As she reached the top of the incline, she stopped, trying not to gasp for breath, and surveyed the land below.
A curious combination of painted wagons, battered four-wheel drives and campervans were scattered in a loose configuration someone might mistake for a circle. In what passed for the centre was a fire pit, with smoke still rising from last night’s embers. There was a bustle of activity: the Travellers were preparing to move on. This was probably the longest they’d stayed in any one place, she thought, then tried to unthink the reason why.
She took a deep gulp of icy air that made her lungs burn in protest, and started down the slope.
It took them a while to notice her as they packed up like efficient little ants, but she stood at the edge of their campsite and eventually someone spotted her. Looked closer. Recognised her features. Nudged the person next to them. And so on.
Eventually they all gathered around, so many of them, but kept a few metres between her and them, as if she might be contaminated and this was judged the safe distance. Pinned beneath their collective gaze, Caroline felt thin—no, not just thin, but starving, soul-famished, as if nothing good had ever come from or gone into her.
The men looked at her hard, although some seemed to pity her, but the women … the women judged. They peered at her as if they knew what she suspected, that somehow her son’s rot had started with her, begun in the womb and come to fruition months and months ago. She felt as if she were a specimen, an experiment that had gone horribly, openly wrong. Just when she thought she couldn’t take anymore and was about to turn tail and run, the crowd parted, split by a knife of a woman.
Caroline opened her mouth but no words came. Instead she stood there for the longest time, lips parted, tongue wetly visible but mute. Then the other nodded and turned, gliding through the press of bodies. Caroline followed and the Travellers shifted, maintaining the safe corridor as she passed between them.
Without the layers of clothes, she was tall and thin. Her hair, pulled into a black plait, hung down below the waist of a long green skirt. As she walked, Caroline could hear bells and she remembered from all the days of the trial that the Traveller was weighted down with jewellery: bracelets, earrings, necklaces, anklets; her fingers were swollen with rings, silver, gold, with stones of every colour. She led Caroline to one of the painted wagons, up the wooden steps of faded red and into a warm, dark, musty space. The door closed behind them without either of them drawing it shut.
The space stretched forward but seemed smaller than it should have, a dim tunnel stuffed with boxes and books and stray items of clothing. The built-in bed was piled high with blankets and newspapers. An unlikely chaise longue took up space, lying on an angle as uncomfortable as a lizard in a too-small container. The walls were hung with paintings and tapestries, some things that looked like pages from illuminated manuscripts, pendants, misplaced wind-chimes, strands of crystals, strings of dried garlic and flowers and, in one instance, what looked like animal paws.
Caroline glanced away.
A pot of tea sat in the centre of a small table, neatly placed within the edges of an embroidered circle of birds and horses. Two cups. Like the teapot they were once fine porcelain, now crackle-glazed, their floral pattern faded. Caroline thought her grandmother might have had the same set once upon a time. Her hostess sat and waved that she should do the same. Caroline hoped the woman—her name was Aishe, Caroline reminded herself—would speak first but she knew it was her place to do so. She, Caroline, even if not the sinner, bore the sins of her child.
Finding her throat closed, she put a hand in her coat pocket and pulled out the photo, laying it on the cloth between them.
Aishe ignored it, instead pouring tea. The liquorice aroma was strong, the liquid deepest black. Only when she had pushed the cup across the cloth to Caroline’s side of the table did the woman let her eyes stray to the small, sad square of paper.
A little boy smiled up at them. He had black eyes and coal-scuttle curls; his skin was olive and he wore a patched red sweater, worn cord trousers too large for him and boots. He held the reins of a shaggy-looking pony and his joy was like a bolt of sunshine. Aishe’s hand hovered over the snapshot, one finger lowered tantalisingly close to the boy’s face, but at the last minute not touching it. She sat back, resigned, weary, and looked expectantly at her guest. Still she did not speak.
Caroline, never good with silence, scootched forward. She pushed the edges of the photo with the tips of her nails, as if to draw the woman’s attention to it—to make her consider it more seriously.
‘Yours,’ she pushed out of her mouth. ‘This is yours.’
Aishe shook her head, lids dropping heavily.
‘Yes, it’s your son.’ Caroline’s tone was sharp, a touch of desperation, a need to convince the other of what she was saying.
‘No.’ The word, when it rumbled out, showcased how deep her voice was. Caroline sat back; she couldn’t recall ever hearing her speak, not during the whole of the trial. But surely … surely she must have. The no-longer-mother had given evidence, hadn’t she?
‘No?’ she asked.
‘No,’ repeated Aishe. ‘Not mine. Not anymore.’
Caroline shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what happened. I’m sorry for your son, but this photograph is yours. Please, please don’t bother us again.’
‘Drink. It will help.’
Against her will, Caroline did, sipping at the black brew.
‘Your son,’ said Aishe, ‘has something inside him. Something wrong.’
‘You think he’s possessed?’ Caroline scoffed. She’d been brought up in a home where religion was politely ignored except at Easter and Christmas, and she’d raised Simon the same way. Geoffrey was an atheist.
‘So are all who do such things. The thing inside makes them so.’ Aishe wrapped her hands around her own cup, ignoring its handle and drinking deeply.
‘So … so you say it’s not Simon’s fault?’ As Caroline wondered at this offer of absolution, the other woman laughed.
‘We still have a choice—free will. We always have the power to say yes or no. Your son has something inside him, yes; but he chose to give in to it.’
Caroline felt the words like a slap. She put the teacup down, her shaking hands clattered it on the saucer. She stood.
‘I am sorry. Sorry about your son.’ She made her way to the door, fumbled with the handle until it gave and let the cold sunlight in. She had her feet on the top step before she heard Aishe’s last words.
‘He’s not mine anymore.’
Caroline stumbled but kept her balance. She tried to leave the rapidly shrinking laager with dignity, but the weight of eyes returning to her and the ringing of the woman’s voice in her ears was a goad. In the end she ran. Ran out of the camp, up the hill and then started down the other side, losing her footing and slipping and sliding on her arse to the bottom. She was up again in a second, running with a limp this time, tears freezing on her cheeks as she hurried towards the rickety gate and the drunken fence and what seemed like safety only in the vaguest of ways.
She’d made it to the entry to the back garden but found she couldn’t go in. Found her hand wouldn’t move to push the gate open, that her feet refused to turn. So, she’d kept going, wandered a while, tried to lose herself in the woods. Stumbling through a stream that sluggishly dribbled along its wintery path, she’d fallen, torn the left knee of her trousers and the skin beneath. Eventually, she’d come out near the local shop and made her limping way home until her front door loomed large. Just as she pushed the wrought iron front gate (unlike the back gate the one in the front yard was respectable—it could be seen), that voice called softly from a car she hadn’t recognised.
‘Hello, Caroline,’ he said again as he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.
Geoffrey was still tall, but he’d become very thin. And not been-to-the-gym-got-himself-in-shape-thin either. Skeletal thin; not eating thin; heartsick thin and it was almost enough to give her a little thrill of pleasure, to see he was still suffering.
‘What the hell do you want?’ She felt suddenly focused. The pain in her knee, which had been dull at best, burst into vibrant throbbing life. Anger flowed through her veins like molten silver. She was very much alert, alive and she owed it all to the rage Geoffrey conjured in her.
He seemed to realise it and his steps faltered. ‘I … I came to see you. And Simon.’
‘I’m surprised you haven’t let yourself in, made yourself at home,’ she snarled, gloved hands clutching at the gate.
‘You took my key away.’
She’d forgotten that. It had been the same day she’d taken his name off the joint accounts, and cut up his credit card. The same day she’d watched him stuff as many clothes as he could into a big bag on wheels and listened to it thump down the stairs. The same day he’d come home from the hospital and spent a grand total of forty-five minutes packing up the bits of his fifteen year marriage he wanted to keep. He took no photos, no keepsakes; just his thirty-two pairs of argyle socks and his collection of cotton boxers, his jeans, sneakers and sweaters and polo shirts. He’d left his suits and his business shirts and the three pairs of leather shoes, which had given off a stench when Caroline burned them all in the back yard later that afternoon, watching the flames flare and glare and crackle and burst.
Now he was back with a ‘Hello, Caroline’ as if they were meeting for coffee.
‘And anyway, I knocked. I knocked a lot. I could hear music and someone moving around inside— is it Simon? It must be Simon—I kept up with the coverage, so I know he’s home—but no one answered the door. So I thought I’d wait.’
‘Simon doesn’t answer the door. He doesn’t go out anymore, Geoffrey,’ she said in a tone that told him these were important things to know. ‘Our son doesn’t have a life anymore.’
She bit her tongue and stopped herself from adding: We don’t have a son anymore.
‘I thought … I thought I’d like to see him.’
‘You thought? You thought?’ Her voice began to rise. Soon only dogs will be able to hear me. She had to bite down on the giggles that threatened. ‘When did you start thinking, Geoffrey, about anyone but yourself?’
‘Caroline, I’m sorry— I know I did the wrong thing. It was just so hard—‘
‘Yes, it fucking was! It was very fucking hard— for me! You just gave up. You just left, you shit!’
‘Now there’s no need for that sort of language…’
‘You fuck! Fuck you! You leave me to clean up this mess and you’re telling me to mind my language? What!? Do you think I’ll be a bad influence on Simon?’ She let the gate go and turned to fully face him, taking deliberate steps towards him as he backed away.
He paled and she knew he was terrified of her, of this strange new woman who was walking about in her skin. She wondered what he saw in her that made him know she was something different now. She idly wondered if it was the same thing that showed in Simon’s face when he—
‘I’m sorry, Caroline, this was a bad idea.’ She could barely hear him over the sound his keys made as he tried to get them into the car door. She noticed that his vehicle was old, no central locking, no blipping noises from electronic entry—no heated seats either, she imagined. A far cry from the Merc he’d driven away in. She wondered what had happened to it, but guessed that if he was trying to visit, he was trying to come back to the comfort of her money. Caroline smiled at him.
He got the door open and put it between them as if it might keep him safe. But he didn’t get into the car, he seemed to be about to say something else, and that was his mistake.
Caroline gathered herself, drew upon all the saliva she could muster and spat in his face. Pity it’s not acid, she thought, but for his expression it may as well have been. It dripped from the tip of his sharp nose, and slid lazily down his left cheek.
‘Don’t come back, Geoffrey.’
Simon dropped the item in question, startled by his mother’s sudden appearance. Caroline caught sight of herself in the mirror above his desk. She looked wild, angry and sick. She stalked into the room. He hunched down and swept the thing up, trying to hide it.
‘Nothing,’ he grunted. It was the same tone he had used for the last year and she’d thought herself inured to it, but this time she snapped. She swooped on him, shrieking, pushing her face into his until he was almost flat on his mattress as she screamed.
Whatisit, whatisit, whatisit, whatisit?
He threw it on the floor and she stepped back, his movement breaking her tirade. It was a knife. A pocket knife. The one Geoffrey had given him the Christmas before in spite of her objections. The one the police had been unable to find. The one that still had thin brown stains where the blade met the casing.
Time seemed to freeze around them as they stared down at the thing on the blue carpet.
Caroline had steadfastly lied for her son. Yes, he was home that afternoon. No, he had not left his room. They’d had hot chocolate at precisely three o’clock and they had watched cartoons together. No amount of nitpicking or white-anting by the Prosecution had shifted or shaken her, and she’d taken a kind of perverse pride in that.
In truth, Caroline didn’t really know why she’d lied.
To protect her child, yes, but she didn’t understand why she did it when she knew deep down he was guilty. She’d had hope, of course, all mothers have hope beyond hope, a deep abiding belief that a miracle will occur and their child will be proven innocent—because when the guilt is beyond doubt, is known, the world changes irrevocably.
And here it was. Undeniable proof of what he’d done.
Caroline felt something somewhere in her chest give way, cave in and leave a pile of rubble in its wake. Inside, an already hobbling part of her died.
But it didn’t matter. They couldn’t charge him again, couldn’t re-try him. He was out and he’d got away with it. And he was in her house. He’d come out of her. Whatever was in him had come from her.
Slowly she bent down, the cut in her knee reopening, and picked up the knife. Her knuckles turned bone-white around it and she could feel the metal cutting. She squeezed her hand tighter, felt satisfied as the blade cut further and blood began to pool in her palm, then drip out between her fingers. In the cup of her hand, the new blood liquefied the old, mixed with it.
Caroline lifted her fist and shook it at Simon. Red spattered across his shirt, face and the blue duvet. Behind his eyes she saw something stir; something that wasn’t afraid of her. Not yet.
She moved towards him and the thing inside him began to shift, to squirm. Ah! At last.
Then the window shattered, showering them both with glass, and the spell was broken. Time stumbled forward again. She became aware of the clock in the upstairs hallway, ticking and tocking, reliable as ever. On the bed lay half a brick. Tied to it with a piece of twine was a familiar crumpled square of off-white.
Simon didn’t even twitch, still paralysed. Still frozen. Only his eyes swept around, as if looking for escape. Caroline collected the brick, and untied the twine. Resignedly, she pulled the photo away from the rough surface of the concrete carrier pigeon and put it into the pocket of her Barbour. She felt the blood from her hand oozing across the surface smoothly melting away the emulsion. Caroline straightened, cleared her throat.
‘Lunch in ten minutes. If you want food you’ll come downstairs like a human being. No more skulking up here. I’m not a zookeeper to keep bringing meals to your door.’
She turned to leave.
‘It wasn’t anyone important!’
His voice, his words, made her nauseous. She felt hot waves of sick rising, lapping at the back of her throat. She swallowed it down. He wouldn’t see—couldn’t see—any weakness. Caroline kept moving, towards the door, was almost into the hallway.
‘Just a filthy little Rom. Filthy Traveller. Who’d miss him? Mum? Who’d miss him?’
She locked the door of her bedroom that night; thought about pushing a set of drawers in front of it, then decided she was being silly. The rage-invigorated woman who had so scared her husband and son seemed to have disappeared. She couldn’t, she supposed, burn that brightly for too long. She went to sleep quickly, though, as if all her energy had evaporated. She didn’t even take a tablet.
Something woke her in the dark watches.
At first she thought it was Simon and cried out, then remembered he couldn’t get in. Anyway, what woke her was a weeping, a whimpering Simon had never made, not even when he was small.
Her heart clenched when she saw the figure standing solidly black silhouetted on the pale curtains, back-lit by the streetlights.
But she realised the shape, the shadow, was too small.
Caroline sat up slowly and squinted hard into the dimness. Slowly details made themselves known: a patched red sweater, coal-scuttle curls, the dirty marks on his face cut by lines of clean where tears had fallen. She didn’t turn on the bedside lamp for fear he would disappear. She didn’t speak for the same reason.
She offered her hand and held her breath.
He settled beside her under the sheets, beneath the blankets, snuggling into the curve of her as if he belonged there. His skin was so cold she shivered. But she welcomed the sensation—any sensation, any feeling at all that was not despair or contempt or fear or hatred or grief.
The thin little back pressed against her stomach; the little knuckles of the spine stood out and she ran her fingers down them, almost expecting the sound of a xylophone. And he stopped crying. She brushed a hand across his face, felt the still-wet tears and put her fingers to her tongue. They burned, salt and ice, stung her mouth like lemon juice poured into a wound, but she didn’t care.
‘Mum?’ Simon was scratching at the door. ‘Mum, are you okay?’ he paused. ‘It’s just I thought I heard you yell…’
The child beside her stilled like a small animal trying to escape notice and then she smelled ammonia. She gathered her breath, kept her voice steady and said, ‘Yes, I’m fine. A dream is all. Go back to bed.’
She listened as his heavy footsteps receded and his bedroom door closed. She could feel the little boy relaxing.
‘It’s all right,’ she whispered. ‘It’s all right.’
Ignoring the wet stink, the warm damp that was rapidly turning cold, Caroline wrapped her arms around the child and slept soundly.
‘I want to go outside,’ Simon mumbled through his food.
He wasn’t using a knife—she hadn’t put one out—and hacked away great chunks of French toast with the edge of his fork, then shovelled each one loaded with disks of banana into his mouth. Syrup dripped down his chin.
Caroline turned back to the stove and deftly flipped over another piece of bread dipped in egg mix. It sizzled as it hit the pan and the smell of heated butter filled her nostrils. She nodded, as if buying herself a few moments. In truth she felt guilty, guiltier than at any other time in her life. She told herself it was because she’d been a bad mother, because she’d feared him, and because of that fear she’d hated him. But it was worse and she knew it.
She hadn’t simply hated him. She’d forgotten him. For the briefest of hours she had forgotten him altogether and she had loved another child. Another child who was everything Simon no longer was: vulnerable, innocent. A child who’d filled her need for such a short time. But had done so nevertheless, and in doing so had widened the fractures between Caroline and her son.
So she nodded again and said, ‘Where would you like to go?’
‘The park? Just out, Mum. Just… out.’
‘The park it is, when I finish the dishes. Wrap up, it’s cold.’
She could feel, tight by her left leg, the cold weight of the ghost child leaning on her. The small frozen hands gripped her mid-thigh, hampering any movement, but she didn’t shift; didn’t want to dislodge him, just stayed in place revelling in the sensation of being essential.
When Simon finished jamming breakfast into his maw and brought his plate over to the sink, she felt the ghost child dissolve, his presence melt away, leaving only his fear of Simon and a disturbing sense of resentment in Caroline’s chest.
It was okay, she thought. It was going to be okay.
The bench was warm beneath her; an unseasonal burst of sun had burned away the chill and the damp and she was toasty in a bubble of light, hidden from the wind by a stand of trees and the toilet block not far behind her. She snuggled down in her coat and closed her eyes for a moment.
The park had been a good idea. Stiff and formal at first, they’d eventually relaxed. Simon had scraped together a tiny, wet ball from remnants of snow (but mostly mud) and thrown it at her. The mark was still visible on her coat; any other time she would have lost her temper, seen it as mean, but there was a kind of relief in seeing him behave like a child for the first time in what seemed an age.
It made her remember how it had been when he was small. When loving him wasn’t something she thought about, wasn’t something she resented, but something she simply did; something she did not question. So she laughed and made snow-mud pies of her own and threw them until they were both breathless with laughter and covered with cold, dripping brown.
When she sat to catch her breath, Simon played on the swings. The park started to fill up with other children but he didn’t seem to notice them. More importantly, they didn’t appear to notice him. The few parents standing around smoking and watching their own offspring didn’t recognise her son either. He took to the slides, then the roundabout, climbed the tree fort, then told her he needed to go to the loo.
She’d smiled and nodded, touched his arm and squeezed to let him know it was going to be okay.
Now she sat, warm and drowsing, as close to happy as she’d been in … she didn’t know. They would move, yes. Up north, somewhere with a small school, but close enough to a city with good psychologists; Simon would need help. He would need someone to talk to—as she would, let’s face it—someone who could get him to speak about what made him do what he did. Someone who could make him face what he had done, look at it and see it for what it was, and then turn away in disgust—aversion therapy, she thought. He would realise that his choices in future must always turn away from whatever the voice inside him advised. He would recognise his action had been an aberration. He’d acted on a whim, a curiosity. It was hideous, terrible, but he had to be allowed to move on. If he didn’t, her son would be tied to that awful, awful thing forever.
And so would she.
But they could get past it.
They could work together.
Everything would be okay.
The hand was small and frigid on her face. At first she thought it was Simon, but the hand was too small. Too tender. The touch was sad, tentative, but somehow determined. She moaned no, but it didn’t help. Caroline didn’t want to, but the tiny fingers brushed across her lids, made her blink, let the smallest sliver of daylight in and she had to come back to the world.
When she opened her eyes, the ghost child was a few feet away. He wasn’t looking at her, but staring towards the toilet block. She felt as heavy as she ever had, cemented to the wooden bench, but she heaved herself upwards. Every step was leaden, and she couldn’t make herself run. Her legs operated independently of her will and resolutely brought her to the entrance to the male toilets.
The smell of urine assailed her. The floor was tiled and damp. She rounded the corner and peered into the dim-lit rectangular room.
Stalls to the right. A urinal against the far wall. A row of sinks to the left. And in the far corner, her son just visible in the doorway of the furthest stall. Caroline approached quietly, oh so quietly. Behind her she could feel the arctic presence of the ghost child, his little hands holding onto the bottom of her coat. In the moment before Simon sensed her and turned around, she saw into the stall.
An elfin girl this time.
Caroline felt her heart stop, leap, thud like a drum.
The child’s face was pinched and pale but she seemed otherwise unhurt. She was crouched on top of the closed lid of the toilet, curled in on herself like a terrified hedgehog. She looked clean and cared for in jeans with sequins along the line of the pockets, a pink, puffed jacket, and purple gumboots decorated with flower-shaped raindrops and umbrellas held by black and white cows. Not a Traveller’s child this time, not a child Simon might think no one would care about. Caroline couldn’t help the flare of irritation that after everything that had happened he could be so stupid.
The little girl caught sight of Caroline and her mouth opened in a wail of relief and fear.
That was when Simon turned, his eyes widening, pupils dilating, his mouth working like a fish trying to gather breath on land.
‘I wasn’t! I wasn’t doing anything!’ He cowered. ‘I wasn’t going to…’
Caroline had thought her son’s lies had no more power to hurt her. The moment her hand grasped the collar of his jacket and began to shake him, the girl used the chance to dart out, haring through the tight space between their bodies and the stall door. She let loose a steam train squeal as she passed them by.
Caroline had enough presence of mind to drag him outside and to the car before the shouting started, her own and that of the outraged parents gathering around the little girl who’d made her way to the far side of the park with amazing speed.
In her bathroom, everything was arrayed tidily, in the order she needed.
They had to be ground down, she decided; one simply couldn’t swallow so many any other way. Caroline had taken the boxes from the medicine cabinet, popped the pills out of the blister packs, each one making a satisfying metallic crackle as they broke through the silvery packaging. She’d brought the small mortar and pestle up from the kitchen, the one she kept for dry ingredients, and stood it on the white marble of the vanity unit. She dropped the tablets in, absently counting them as if it mattered, then began the painstaking process of turning them into dust.
In the end, the small mound of white powder wasn’t enough. Or perhaps it was, but she didn’t really believe it. She wanted to be certain; didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Next came the bottles—so many bottles!—the pills larger, harder to crush, but she managed it. She could do it. She could do anything, as long as she concentrated on one task at a time. Behind her, cold radiated, a frigid comfort.
Then the stairs, one at a time, carefully cupping the mortar with both hands. Easy. Down was easiest. One thing at a time.
In the kitchen, she poured milk into a saucepan and put it on the stove, the click of the lighter making her flinch until the gas caught with a blue sigh. From the pantry, the canister and the sugar bowl. From the cupboard over the sink, a mug, the biggest, his favourite.
The powders, the mixing of white and brown, until no one could tell the difference; the sound of the milk as it heated, simmered, threatened to boil over.
And finally, she stood at the bottom of the stairs, took a breath, kept her voice steady and called upwards.
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