This is another of the stories I’ve recently revised and republished. If you’ve not had a chance to read this one, I’m hoping it will entertain.
Doll House, by Ashley Lister
Following the death of his best friend, author Ben Haversham is crippled by a terminal case of writer’s block. The isolation of his agent’s remote cottage, nestled in an out-of-the-way village, seems like the ideal location for him to rekindle his creativity.
Except, Sandalwood village, with its curious museum the ‘Doll House’, is not as idyllic as it first appears.
There is a history to Sandalwood. There are nefarious plots and dark secrets held by the sinister souls who reside in Sandalwood. And there are dark and dangerous characters determined to keep those secrets.
Even if his ghosts hadn’t followed him to Sandalwood, Ben discovers that he would still have been haunted by the many malevolent spirits that reside in the village beneath the shadow of the Doll House.
The doll stared at Tina.
From the moment she awoke in the morning, until she finally managed to creep out of the bedroom and escape its insistent glare, the doll fixed Tina with its sightless open-eyed gaze.
The doll stared at her whenever she revisited the bedroom in the day, either to find a change of clothes for a dinner engagement, or simply to collect a thicker jumper to stave any early evening chill that gripped the cottage. The doll stared at her when she returned to the bedside cabinet to retrieve whichever book she’d fallen asleep reading the previous night. The doll stared at her as she drifted uneasily to sleep on the lumpy comfort of the sagging mattress.
One eye was a muddy brown. The other, the one that always drew her attention, was impossibly blue. On a human child it would have been described as the blue eye of a cherubic angel. Poets would have called it the blue of an unpolluted ocean or the blue of an idyllic summer sky. Tina had started to think of the eye as satanic-blue. She had started to think of it as satanic-evil-blue with a slight hint of psychotic malevolence. Compared to the acrylics she was currently using, Tina thought the closest colour on her palette was manganese-blue, although that seemed less disquieting than the shade she saw in the doll’s eye. She would have agreed it was impossibly blue, but she would never have said it was a blue that could be associated with something pleasant like an ocean or a summer sky.
She awoke just after three in the morning to find the doll glaring at her. The satanic-blue eye was sharpened by a red glow. Tina told herself that the additional colour was nothing more than the reflection from the LED on her bedside clock. The doll’s eyes were glassy and round and she figured the orbs were likely to collect and reflect any light in the room.
It was a conversation she had often had since moving into the cottage.
She told herself there was nothing creepy or supernatural about the way the doll glared at her. She told herself the doll wasn’t really glaring. It was only a doll, and dolls didn’t have the ability to glare. That was a humanising talent she had bestowed on the thing with her own hyperactive imagination. Her agent, John, had said as much when she told him about the way the doll glared.
“Are you doing too many pills?” he’d asked. “Or not enough?”
“It’s creepy,” Tina insisted. “It glares at me.”
“It doesn’t glare at you,” John said. “It’s a doll. It’s inanimate. It can’t glare.”
But John had said those words in daylight. He had said those words downstairs at the kitchen table, away from the doll, where it was easy to believe such plausible truths. Now, it was the middle of the night and she was alone with the thing. The darkness in the bedroom was broken only by a sliver of errant moonlight and the red glow from the bedside clock with its figures showing 3:10AM. Despite everything John had said to her, Tina knew the doll was glaring.
“If it disturbs you so much, why don’t you get rid of it?” John had asked.
“It was a gift. I can’t get rid of a gift.”
“My first secretary gave me the gift of herpes,” John said. “I’ve been trying to get rid of that for the past sixteen years.”
“It was a gift from Marion,” Tina told him. “I couldn’t get rid of a gift from her.”
“I’m not suggesting you throw it in the bin,” John back-pedalled. Hearing the defensive tone in his voice, she knew he would never have suggested such a radical response if he’d realised Marion Papusa was the giver of the gift. “But you could stuff it in a drawer or lock it in a wardrobe, couldn’t you?”
“She’d know,” Tina said glumly.
John had nodded in agreement. Marion would know.
Tina had considered various solutions but none of them seemed quite right. She had thought about ‘displaying’ the doll in one of the downstairs rooms but that would’ve meant having to suffer its glare throughout the day whilst she was painting. Worse, she could imagine on a night, rather than being woken by the glare of its sightless eyes staring at her slumbering form, she would instead be roused from sleep by the rumbling patter of the doll’s little wooden shoes scurrying across the polished floorboards in the rooms below. Even worse than that idea, she might have heard the heavy tromp of the doll’s shoes climbing the cottage’s stairs as it made its way towards her bedroom.
The idea made goosebumps prickle down her spine.
“Put a cloth over it,” John had suggested.
Tina had tried variations on that idea several times.
The doll seemed able to shrug the fabric away.
Coincidentally, on those evenings when Tina had ‘accidentally’ covered the doll with a discarded blouse, she had found it easy to fall into a comfortable sleep. She had found no difficulty in dropping off, and the first half of her night had been untroubled by any suggestion of nightmare or disturbance. But the second half of the evening, usually a little after three o’clock in the morning, she had woken to find the satanic-blue eye with the flecks of red glaring at her. Inevitably on those nights, she clawed her way back to sleep whilst cowering beneath her quilt. And yet, even then, her rest was made grim with diabolical dreams of disembowelment and stomach-churning notions of graphic and miserable suffering.
“Can you just put up with it?” John had asked.
Tina had shrugged and said that was what she was trying to do. But it wasn’t a perfect solution. She constantly felt as though she was being watched. She constantly felt as though she was being judged. The presence of the doll meant she couldn’t invite a lover to join her in the bedroom. It was like being the centre of attention for a sinister voyeur. In truth, the presence of the doll had put her off masturbating since she moved into the village of Sandalwood. Not that she was a habitual bean-flicker, but everyone needed some form of release. The doll made her feel as though she was being watched in her most intimate moments by a small and malevolent stranger. The idea of meeting that satanic-blue eye whilst she buzzed out a happy was enough to make Tina feel dirty and shameful.
Since moving into the cottage she didn’t know whether it was safer to go to sleep drunk, so she could no longer focus on the glare of the doll, or if it would be better to stay sober so that her imagination didn’t trick her into believing that anything unnatural could possibly occur. Some nights she worked as long as she could on her paintings in the conservatory. It didn’t matter that all natural light had been bleached from the sky, or that she was exhausted and unable to focus properly on what she was doing. All that mattered on those nights was that she spent as long as possible downstairs in the cottage and away from the glaring eyes of the doll. She worked until she was falling asleep, sometimes she worked after she had fallen asleep. She remembered jolting awake one night and had almost completed a particularly difficult piece of shading on the partial study of a clown’s face she was painting. She had been standing up, in the conservatory, facing her easel and completing a painting. Asleep. It had unsettled her to discover she could carry on painting when her consciousness had gone. The idea seemed an affront to the notion of being an artist. Surely she needed to be conscious to do something artistic?
Staring into the doll’s eyes now, she wished she’d spent longer in the conservatory this evening working on her current painting. She wished she’d maybe had a drink. Or several. And she wished she’d fallen asleep whilst painting downstairs. It wouldn’t have mattered if she was painting or simply curled up in one of the conservatory’s armchairs. All that mattered was the idea of being away from the doll’s mesmerising stare.
The eyes seemed larger than she remembered.
Were they larger or was the doll closer?
That idea made her bowels ripple as though they were filled with loose water. She sat up in bed and squinted into the shadows. She was suddenly sure that she knew what to do. She had to get rid of the doll. She could put it in a suitcase and then lock the suitcase shut. That would stop the damned thing from glaring at her and it would mean she was able to get a proper night’s rest. She could maybe take it back to Marion and say, “It’s very kind of you to give me this gift, but I’m not a dolly-person. Being honest, I’m a little bit scared of dollies.”
As ideas went, she knew it was a brave notion. She suspected it would be one of those ideas she wouldn’t dare to carry out in the light of day. The prospect of telling Marion Papusa that her doll wasn’t wanted was frightening, because no one ever refused Marion Papusa.
But Tina told herself that was what had to be done. And before she did that, she needed to stop the doll from glaring at her whilst she tried to sleep.
Tina tossed back the quilt and threw on the bedside light. Climbing easily out of the bed, marching with an authoritative confidence she didn’t feel, Tina stamped over to the chest of the drawers where the doll sat. She reached for one of the doll’s bare arms and lifted it in the air.
“Mama?” cooed the doll.
Tina dropped the doll and shrieked. She stepped quickly back, conscious that her bare feet were exposed on the bedroom’s cold floorboards.
“Mama?” the doll repeated.
“I’m not your Mama,” Tina hissed.
She knew she was overreacting. It was just a voice-box in the doll. Lifting it up by its arm had activated those sensors that made it speak. It was insane to think there was any other reason as to why it was talking. Angry that it had made her react in such an irrational way, she drew her foot back to kick the doll across the room.
“Don’t kick me, Mama,” the doll insisted. “Please don’t kick me, Mama.”
High atop a hill in the centre of Sandalwood village, visible from every twist and turn that John’s car took, there stood a decrepit, gothic building. With the fading twilight behind it, the house looked like something where the Addams Familywould live, or the home of Norman Bates. It was tall, dark and so obviously spooky, Ben thought it could have been snatched from the opening credits of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. It was easy to imagine a flutter of black bats or a white-sheet ghost flapping from the high-arched doorway or one of the sinister upper windows. Ben didn’t want to be intrigued but he couldn’t help wonder about the building.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You sound like a fucking kidnap victim,” John yawned.
“It worries me that you know what kidnap victims sound like. Where are you taking me?”
“I told you where I’m taking you,” John spoke with weary resignation. “For the next three months I’ll be giving you what every lazy writer needs. I’m putting you in my personal country cottage. You’ll have the solitude and the isolation necessary to finish your latest novel. I’m taking you back to your writing career.”
Ben stared out of the window. He scowled at the sign saying ‘WELCOME TO SANDALWOOD.’ They drove past a cemetery-fringed churchyard, a police station and a pub. He saw a library and a pair of shops that were closed at this late hour of a Sunday evening. The houses they passed, all yellow stone beneath slick slate roofs, were packed tight together and lurked behind prettily floral front gardens. As the darkness took hold, the streets were lit by the archaic yellow glow of mock-Victorian street lamps. Ben thought it was the sort of location that would likely have village fetes, a secret history of animal sacrifice and some sort of deserved reputation for bestiality or inbreeding. Or maybe both.
“I don’t want solitude and isolation,” Ben grumbled. “I want alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and maybe some class B drugs. Those are the things that help me write.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. “You’ve had those for the last year and we’re still no closer to seeing the final book in your trilogy, are we?”
Ben continued to stare out of the window. Sandalwood looked like it was in the middle of nowhere. He could see none of the familiar signs he would have expected, telling him there was either a bank, a McDonalds, an ASDA or a Carphone Warehouse lurking on the high street. He was beginning to suspect that the two shops, as well as the library and the police station, might well have been all of Sandalwood’s high street. It was, he thought, something akin to Third World deprivation. With his heart racing he peered more furiously out of the window and tried to see something that suggested they were still in the twenty-first century.
“Where is this place?”
“This is Sandalwood,” John said. “You head up north for a couple of hours past Birmingham and then you turn left for a bit. What does it matter where it is?”
Ben shrugged. He stopped himself from saying that it mattered if he was going to try and escape. He was still staring out of the window but the light had faded so much now he was treated only to glimpses of his own unkempt reflection.
There was a week-old beard dirtying his jaw. His hair was an untidy tangle beneath the cowl of his oversized hoodie. His eyes were hidden in deep shadows borne from too many late nights and too much excess alcohol. With high cheekbones and an unlined brow, it had once been a handsome face but now it looked like the reflection of an ailing party animal.
An ailing party animal that needed a kindly vet to end its suffering.
He pushed that thought aside. Not only was it depressing but it was a cheesily extended metaphor that made no sense.
John pulled the car to a halt outside a pair of tall, imposing gates. He stepped out of the vehicle and stood illuminated in the headlights as he fumbled with a lock and chain. He was an angular man: tall and slender and unnatural in his gait. In his corduroy slacks, sports jacket and a Harris tweed flat cap, he looked like a man who knew how to dress for the countryside even if the environment seemed not quite right for him.
The Daimler’s engine continued to purr softly.
The chill of the encroaching night crept into the vehicle and began to caress Ben’s cheeks and hands. He hadn’t realised how warm and comfortable the journey had been, the sinister chill of the evening was unnerving.
This is your last chance, Ben thought to himself. If you want to get back to the city, and escape from this three-month exile to the middle-of-fucking-nowhere, this is your last opportunity to steal John’s car and drive away from here.
He didn’t act on the idea.
He had nowhere to go and no reason to escape. If he didn’t write the final book in the trilogy he knew he could give up on any hope of ever writing again for publication. If he stole his agent’s car it would likely put an end to their working relationship and Ben knew, afterwards, he would be lucky to be left with the option to self-publish on Amazon.
John climbed back into the car, shivering a little as he settled himself into the driver’s seat. “It’s nippy out there,” he grumbled. He slammed the door shut and then drove the car slowly up the driveway. “I’m hoping it will be warmer in the house.”
Overhanging trees made the route a dark tunnel. Ben could hear the scratch of talon-like branches snatching at the paintwork of the car. The tyres crunched at loose gravel. Noisy shards of the road were ripped from the ground and spat up at the metalwork beneath his feet.
“You’ve got property with a driveway?” Ben muttered. “You must be loaded.”
John laughed. “We’re up north. You could buy this entire village for the same price as some garden flat in London with an attractive postcode. If this place was really valuable do you think I’d be using it as a dumping ground for fuck-up writers who can’t honour a simple contract?”
“Don’t bother sugar-coating those thoughts. Tell me how you really feel.”
John parked outside the cottage. The building had only been visible in glimpses of headlamp beams as they approached, but he could now see it was a majestic brownstone structure, set in its own grounds, with lights on in a handful of the windows. At one of the upper windows he thought he saw the movement of a figure, although he wasn’t sure if that was simply a trick of his imagination or a passing leaf shed in the early autumn fall.
As though reading the unease in his expression, John said, “The lights are on because Mrs Scum has been in there cleaning all day.”
John shrugged as he made his way to the rear of the vehicle and retrieved Ben’s suitcase. “That’s probably not her real name,” he called. “She’s the cleaner. I never bothered learning her real name. I figured ‘Mrs Scum’ worked as a suitable nom de guerre.”
“Classy,” Ben muttered.
John made a sound of indifference as he hefted a suitcase and a rucksack from the boot of the car and dropped them by Ben’s feet. “Grab those and follow me,” he said, climbing the stairs that led up to the door. “Let’s get you settled in.”
Ben did as he was instructed and followed.
He watched John slip a key into the main door and then push it open. The scent of home-cooked food struck him as soon as he stepped inside. The fragrance was so strong and appetising he felt weak with hunger and angry at himself for being so easily won over by a mere aroma. He was salivating like a Pavlovian dog in a doorbell factory.
“Step inside,” John encouraged. He seemed either oblivious to the smell or spectacularly unimpressed. “Step inside and make yourself comfortable. You’re going to be here for a while.”
Ben closed the door behind himself.
The opulence of the house was inarguable. The walls were a rich and bloody vermilion. The floors were original boards polished to a glossy lustre and occasionally covered by stylish rugs. A large grandfather clock, glistening as though it had only just been polished, ticked a sonorous welcome as they entered the building. The hall was lit by glittering chandeliers hanging miles overhead. In his tatty trainers, comfortable dark jeans and cuff-frayed black hoodie, Ben felt grubby and out of place.
“This is the hall,” John explained. “The stairs lead up to your main bedroom, the spare bedroom and the bathroom. I think there’s also a linen closet up there and maybe access to the loft. Down here you have a study to your right, a dining room to your left and a kitchen at the rear of the building. There’s a conservatory leading off the kitchen and there’s also a door that leads down to the cellar.”
“Where’s the toilet?”
“That would be in the bathroom I mentioned before,” John said, pointing up the stairs. “Try to follow what I’m saying here. It’s not exactly rocket science.”
Ben left his case and rucksack at the base of the grandfather clock and climbed up the stairs. The stairs creaked beneath each step, but the sound didn’t make him think of antiquity or disrepair. It simply sounded like part of the house’s welcoming repertoire. As much as it galled him to admit the fact, Ben found he was looking forward to living in the house.
All the doors on the landing were open save for one. He saw a large, sumptuous four-poster bed in the first room. Knowing there would be time to explore the bedroom later, he walked on to the second open doorway. This one was all white tiles with black trim, a showerhead over the stand-alone bath, and a large and somewhat imposing lavatory.
He closed the door behind himself and peed.
The tiles sparkled as though they had recently been polished. The sink was laid out with a full bar of virginal, untouched soap and a highball tumbler holding a safety razor and a blue toothbrush. With scarlet flannels by the side of the sink, and a matching scarlet hand towel draped over the radiator, Ben thought that Mrs Scum was clearly being undervalued by John.
He was trying not to be impressed by the appearance of the house, but it was difficult. The place was stylish. He washed his hands on the bar of Imperial Leather soap and dried them on the scarlet towel from the radiator.
The bathroom window, over the lavatory, looked out towards the centre of the village. He could see the creepy old house he had noticed when they first entered Sandalwood. Against the backdrop of a velvet blue sky it was now a black silhouette. The shapes of its high roof and turreted chimneys were striking. It no longer looked as childish as he had thought on his first glance. Now it made him think of the homes that had housed real-life lunatics like Ed Gein or Jeffrey Dahmer. He suspected it might have a basement worthy of Josef Fritzl. There was a yellow light in one of the upper windows. It chilled him to think that someone was actually living in the old place.
“Have you fallen in?” John called.
“I’m on my way,” Ben said, flushing the toilet and heading down the stairs.
“Mrs Scum’s prepared a meal for us,” John called from the kitchen.
Ben followed the sound of his agent’s voice. His footsteps creaked on each step. The clock tocked every passing second. And the welcoming repertoire of noises continued to make him feel as though he was going to enjoy living in the cottage.
“I don’t know why the crazy old bitch has prepared a meal,” John complained. “The woman’s employed to clean the shitter so why she’d think anyone would want to eat food that she’s touched is a mystery to me. But there’s a simmering beef joint sitting in the slow cooker if you want to experience the taste of dysentery for yourself.”
Ben glanced around the kitchen.
Like the bathroom it was meticulous. The tiled walls shone beneath the muted glow of kitchen lights. The work surfaces had the sort of glossy lustre that he would have expected to see in designer catalogues and other expensive product brochures. The entire room looked clean, welcoming and wonderful. Coupled with the scent of the food, Ben didn’t think he’d been anywhere that seemed more like a home in the past decade.
It was a strain not to show interest in the slow cooker. He’d had a roadside burger on the drive up and it had tasted processed and unpleasant. The fries that had come with the burger had been cold and brittle. The whole meal had felt less like food and more like punishment. It was a huge contrast to the splendour of the roast he could now smell.
John stood before the large double-doors of the fridge-freezer and talked Ben through the contents. The right-hand side was all frozen goods. The upper half of the left-hand side was given over to milk, eggs, vegetables and cold cuts of meat. Beneath the cold cuts were chilling bottles of beer.
John pulled out two bottles and passed one to Ben. “I should show you a couple of small details before I leave,” he said as he opened his drink.
“You’re not staying?”
“I’ll be back at the weekend,” John said. “I’ll be back every fucking weekend until you’ve finished this book.”
“For the next three months?”
“Unless you finish it early.”
Ben closed his mouth tight. There was no point going through the argument again. He unscrewed the cap on his bottle of beer and took a slow swig. It tasted cool and satisfying and reminded him that he was hungry. He glanced towards the dull red glow of the slow cooker’s light and wondered if he could find a way to mention his need for food.
John gestured with his bottle of beer and led the way through to the study.
Reluctantly, Ben followed.
The study was a magnificent room dominated by a large wooden desk. In the centre of the desk there sat a huge, bulky typewriter. The words ‘SILVER REED’were written in worn white on its black lacquered surface.
“It’s a typewriter. It’s like a computer only with less internet porn.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“You’re here to write for three months. I don’t want you getting waylaid by any distractions.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“There’s no PC in this house. You’ve got no TV. There’s a small library of books there,” he said, nodding at a meagre shelf on the study wall. “But most of the texts are references. The sum distractions here in Sandalwood are the village pub and whatever local trollops you can get to suck your dick.”
“For fuck’s sake, John. You can’t seriously expect me to-”
“No,” John broke in. He spoke with a forceful authority. “This book needs finishing. If this was your first title, if you’d simply let me down with your first book, I’d let it pass. If you had a reputation for being a diva or a tantrum-thrower, I’d strike up the missing book to your inexperience and we’d rake in publicity from you pretending you’ve got writer’s block. But you’re a solid writer, Ben. You’re a solid writer and I’m not letting you fuck up your career by producing a trilogy of two books.”
Ben silently glowered.
“Victor Hugo followed a similar regime when he wrote Hunchback of Notre Dame,” John spoke in a coaxing tone of voice. “He managed without clothes, so he couldn’t go out even if he wanted.”
“Yes. But did Victor Hugo write Hunchback of Notre Dame without any internet access?”
John considered him in silence until Ben realised the question was pretty stupid. He chugged his beer sullenly.
“I bought you a mobile,” John said, pointing to an unopened box atop a locked cabinet.
On top of the cabinet was an empty crystal decanter, half a dozen highball glasses and a series of stained rings that now looked to be polished into the woodwork. Ben guessed the locked doors of the cabinet housed John’s stash of quality drinks. He made a mental note to find the key to the drinks cabinet as soon as his agent had left for the night. If he couldn’t find the key he figured he could spend a happy evening picking the lock. He wasn’t much of an expert when it came to picking locks but, with enough time and appropriate motivation, he figured he would be able to get a result.
“Focus,” John said, snapping his fingers and pointing at the box on top of the cabinet. “This is your new mobile.”
Ben scowled at the picture on the package. “It’s pretty basic, isn’t it?”
“It does phone calls and text messages. There might even be a camera on it, but it does no more than that. I didn’t want you getting distracted by the internet, gaming apps, Faceook or anything else. Once it’s charged and set up I want you to put my number in there as the number one speed dial.”
“What happens if I just walk?” Ben asked. “What happens if later tonight I get pissed and decide I don’t like being held prisoner in the middle of nowhere? What happens if I decide to walk out of this house and then catch a bus back to London and quit being a writer?”
“Ben,” John said quietly.
He paused and, in that pause, Ben could hear the constant tick-tock of the grandfather clock. It was an impressive sound that added gravitas to the moment.
“I’ve kissed a lot of publisher arse to get you this reprieve,” John explained. “You’ve got three months to finish the script and, if you manage that, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief and move on with your life. The publishers will allow you to keep the advance you took from them for a trilogy of books. The editors I work with on a regular basis will no longer think I deal with writers who are a bunch of fucktards. And we’ll all live happily ever after.”
“But,” Ben insisted. “What happens if I walk?”
John studied him with an unflinching gaze. “If you walk, and it puts my reputation in jeopardy, I have friends who can cure you of that walking habit. Do you understand?”
Ben understood. He struggled not to shiver.
“Any more questions?” asked John.
Ben glanced at the study’s main window. He could still make out the shape of the old house. Its upper window remained brightly lit, shining like gold against the darkness of the night. More than anything else, he wanted to ask John what he knew about that house. But he shook his head and told John he had no further questions.
Half an hour later, John had taken Ben through the house giving him a cursory explanation of each room and outlining what would be expected of him whilst he was residing in the cottage. Now, sitting in the kitchen, Ben swigged thoughtfully at his beer whilst he helped himself to a generous portion of the slow-roasted beef. John declined the offer to share the food, scowling at the slices of meat Ben was placing on his plate at the kitchen table.
“Mrs Scum will be here in the morning,” John said. “She’ll be here every day to clean the house and do any shopping you need. She’s also paid to sort out your laundry. Do me a favour and try not to fuck her.”
Ben cut himself a small piece of the beef and savoured its rich, meaty taste. He had no idea how long it had been cooking but the piece was so tender it all but melted in his mouth.
“Don’t fuck her?” he repeated. “Is she fuckable?”
John shrugged. “Not in my opinion but I’m not a writer. From my experience writers do two things: they wear black and they fuck anything with a pulse.”
Ben glanced at his dark jeans and black hoodie. He suspected John might have a point. Frowning he asked, “Don’t writers usually write as well?”
“If you wrote, I wouldn’t be dumping you up here for three months isolation.”
Ben winced. It had been a low blow but he should have expected it. After chewing another mouthful of meat he said, “You never answered my question. Is Mrs Scum fuckable?”
John shrugged. “I’m never going to fuck a northern cleaning woman. You’re a writer and I know you writers will fuck anything. Just don’t fuck Mrs Scum.”
“Does she live here?”
Ben asked the question when he remembered the shadowy figure he’d seen in an upper window when they pulled up at the house. John hadn’t mentioned anything when they’d been touring the property but Ben got the impression there were lots of things John wasn’t mentioning. Was he expected to share a house with a stranger for the next three months? That was an idea that he didn’t particularly care to entertain.
“No. Mrs Scum has a hobbit hole in the middle of the village. She’ll be here early tomorrow morning so don’t go trying to fuck her when she does get here and don’t try and get her to deal weed.”
Ben forced himself not to raise to the bait of John’s taunting. He didn’t think he was so dissolute he would really try and get the cleaner into bed. Nor did he believe he was so involved in substance misuse he would try and get the woman to deal weed.
“You’re back here next weekend?” Ben asked the question around another mouthful of beef. The flavour was delicious. If Mrs Scum was responsible for this food, he knew he would have to say a proper thank you in the morning.
“I’ll be here around Saturday lunchtime. I’d try and get here earlier but there’s a ceremony on the Friday evening and one of my competent writers is expected to receive an award.”
Ben tilted his half-drained bottle of beer in salute. He was impressed by John’s casual use of the ‘competent writer’ remark. Given the way he had let his agent down by repeatedly missing deadlines on this latest title, Ben figured he was in no position to argue with John. He could be called many things but ‘competent writer’ was not an accolade he was ever likely to receive from John’s agency.
“I’ll see you on Saturday,” Ben said softly.
John lingered in the doorway. His gaze flitted around the tiled walls and he frowned as he studied the counter that housed the kettle and the sink. His expression was so intense Ben wondered if John was remembering something important that he’d once seen there. He was about to ask if that was the case when John wiped a hand across his face and abruptly spoke.
“I’m expecting ten thousand words a week out of you, every week for the next three months. I know you can do it. I know you could manage way more than that if you try. This place is useful for the isolation and the solitude and I’d advise you to take advantage of that.” His expression turned solemn as he added, “But there’s three things you need to be wary of. Don’t try and befriend the locals. Don’t take an interest in the history and heritage around here. And, above all, don’t get taken in by the superstitions around these parts.”
He gave a final nod and then disappeared out of the kitchen.
A moment later Ben heard the front door slam closed and he figured he was alone in the house. From faraway he heard the sound of John’s Daimler starting up and then growling down the driveway.
Brilliant, thought Ben. He blurts out some clichéd horror story hook and then leaves me here to brood in my solitude. Ben wondered if John expected such a plot development to occur in the novel he was supposed to write. Considering he was still bereft of ideas for how to finish the story, and not drowning in ideas for how to properly start the story, Ben figured he was in a position where he could steal any story-worthy crumbs that were thrown in his direction.
Lazily, he sipped a mouthful of the beer and then ate a little more beef. According to his wristwatch it was nearing nine-thirty pm. It was automatic to yawn when he saw the time, but he didn’t feel tired. Slowly he ate as much of the beef as he could manage and then washed up his plate, knife and fork.
Alone, he was almost tempted to dwell on the fact that his life was of such little importance he could take three months away from his usual routine and no one was even going to notice that he was missing. He had no living parents. His only sibling lived half a world away and communicated on the necessity of birthdays and Christmas. His last two girlfriends had found out about each other and decided they wanted nothing to do with him.
The only other person he had ever cared about was dead.
His social circle had dwindled over the last few years to nothing more than a couple of local barmen and a pair of dependable dealers. Draining the remnants of his beer bottle he tried to think of anyone in his social circle from the past five years who wasn’t a person he’d used for drugs, sex, alcohol or money.
The sound of footsteps drummed loudly in a room above his head.
He ignored the noise at first, sure that he was on the verge of some alcohol-induced revelation about his personality type. It was only when he remembered he was supposed to be alone in the house that Ben’s stomach folded with quiet unease.
He slid himself slowly from his seat at the kitchen table and went to the cutlery drawer. Selecting a sturdy butcher’s knife from the tray, constantly watching the ceiling in case it gave up a secret whilst under his scrutiny, Ben tested the weight of the weapon in his palm.
It had an aged wooden handle. The flat of the blade was dull from time and too many washes. But the edge looked keen. The word ‘Sheffield’ was stamped onto the hilt in lettering that had turned black with ingrained dirt. It wasn’t a perfect weapon, but it would work to help him deal with whatever unknown lurked in the room above.
“Hello?” he ventured warily.
“Hello… hello… hello…”
Echoing weakly from the kitchen walls, his voice sounded ridiculous to his own ears. Gingerly, he made his way out of the kitchen, into the hall and up the stairs. If it was a burglar, were they likely to shout ‘hello’ back to him? If it was someone who believed they had a right to be in the cottage, weren’t they going to think he was a dick for shouting a greeting? He opened his mouth to call out again but this time he couldn’t bring himself to shout ‘hello’.
“Who’s up there?”
The only things he could hear were the sounds of his own accelerated heartbeat and the creaking of the stairs beneath his feet. Had he imagined the footsteps? Was he going to be walking around an empty cottage all evening, looking for the source of a noise that hadn’t really happened?
At the top of the staircase he glanced along the landing.
The place was brightly lit from the chandelier above the hall, but that only made the shadows darker and deeper. The doors to the spare bedroom and the linen closet were both closed. Ben hadn’t bothered glancing behind either door on the brief tour of the house and he thought he remembered his agent closing all the doors. But now he was no longer certain.
The door to the bathroom was ajar.
The door to the master bedroom was wide open.
“Is there anyone there?”
He stepped into the master bedroom and glanced briefly around. His suitcase now sat at the bottom of the bed. His rucksack was in the chair beneath the window. He could see that the room looked exactly as it had when John showed it to him. There was a painting on one wall, a sinister looking thing that showed a clown’s eye staring morosely into the room. The shelf opposite housed a collection of teddy bears and disturbingly lifelike dolls. Ben had decided he would need to make some cosmetic arrangements to the décor. There was no way he could sleep with those creepy eyes glaring at him throughout the night.
The scuttering of heavy feet on wooden boards made him turn towards the doorway. He wasn’t sure the sound had come from behind him but he knew the noise wasn’t in the room with him. It could have been in the loft or on the landing. He twisted on his heels, expecting to find some lunatic bearing down on him wielding a weapon far more capable than his own kitchen-drawer knife.
His heartbeat quickened and he heard himself whimper with fear.
There was no one there.
He hurried out to the landing and saw that everything was the same as it had been before. The bathroom door was ajar. The other two doorways were both closed. He shut the master bedroom door firmly behind himself and glanced in the bathroom.
It remained a bastion of glossy tiles and polished surfaces. John had clearly used the bathroom before leaving and he had left the scarlet towel balled in the sink. Other than that, with its liquid black windows and daunting white porcelain, it was exactly the same as when Ben had last seen the room.
“Scruffy fucker,” he muttered, unhappy with the untidiness of the towel. He folded it neatly, placed it over the rail, closed the bathroom door and studied the upper landing again.
He tried the spare bedroom. It was empty. This was the room that John would be using when he returned the following Saturday. There was a large, functional double bed. The décor was more modern than anywhere else in the house. The painting in this room was another large oil on canvas similar to the glowering clown in the master bedroom. This one showed a shovel in a midnight forest. The silver-metal blade of the shovel glinted in the moonlight.
“Artwork from the Horror Channel,” Ben grumbled.
He had expected his nervousness to dwindle a little as he searched one room and then another. But, instead of abating, his anticipation remained keen. His anxiety left an acidic flavour sitting tight at the back of his throat. He could feel the beef and beer shifting uneasily in his stomach as he opened the door to the linen closet.
His fingers fell on the door handle. He eased it slowly downward. With a sudden rush of energy, he pulled the door open.
A pair of bright yellow eyes glared at him.
Too shocked to move, Ben stared in horror as a cat, black as an oil slick, bolted out of the room and hurried past him, along the landing and down the stairs.
He only shrieked a little.
The sound was enough to make him feel unmanly when he replayed the moment in his mind later in the evening. Then he was trembling with relief and staggering down the stairs to see where the cat had disappeared to. His heart was beating fast enough to make him sober. His hands shook on the bannister as he tried to support himself down the stairs.
“A bloody cat?” he chuckled.
He couldn’t see it in the hall or the study. It wasn’t visible in the kitchen but, when he got himself a fresh beer, he poured a saucer of milk and placed that on the floor near the sink. If the cat was still lurking around the house, he figured it would find the drink.
Sure enough, a moment later, the creature came stealthily padding into the room. It glanced at Ben with suspicious yellow eyes and then warily stalked to the milk. Delicately, it lapped at the liquid.
“Cool,” said Ben. “I’m a writer with a cat.”
The thought was empowering. Etta had always wanted a cat. He knew that Hemmingway, Twain, Bukowski and Poe were all renowned cat lovers. He tried to tell himself that the presence of a cat would add literary gravitas to whatever shite he managed to spew out with the typewriter. He was now a writer with a cat and his work would get completed this time, he told himself, this development would help his writing receive the critical acclaim that he knew he deserved.
The cat farted.
Ben sipped at his beer and glanced at the cat-flap in the kitchen door. He didn’t know if the creature belonged to the house but he could see there would be no advantage in putting it out for the evening, or whatever the hell cat-owners were supposed to do with cats. Resigning himself to the idea of sharing his accommodation with the creature, secretly pleased about this development, Ben found a second saucer and then pared off small pieces of the beef from the slow cooker. Placing the food beside the saucer of milk he stroked the creature lightly on the head. Etta had always said, if they ever did get a cat, she would name it after her favourite literary heroine of all time.
“Enjoy your supper, Anastasia,” Ben told the cat.
The yellow eyes considered him coolly before the creature returned to its feast of milk. Deliberately, it ignored the beef.
He visited the study and played briefly with the typewriter. He was used to working only with a computer. The stiff weight of the typewriter keys was cumbersome and ungainly. He rolled a sheet of blank copier paper behind the platen and typed out a handful of words to make sure everything was working properly. After two minutes he decided the only things not working properly were his imagination and his fingers. Because of the few words he had typed, the muscles in his hands felt as though they had been subjected to an Olympian workout.
Anastasia slipped into the room to watch him whilst he typed. The cat jumped easily on the table and sat unperturbed as he slammed down one noisy key after another. Eventually, it lost interest in him and Ben noticed it was licking itself.
“I might not be able to write like Hemmingway,” he grumbled. “But I can follow his other example and sit at a typewriter whilst watching a cat lick its arsehole.”
He yawned, finished his beer, and decided he had endured enough excitement for one day. He’d abandoned London for the season. He’d committed to finishing the trilogy. He’d travelled to the back end of nowhere. And now, it seemed, he had adopted a cat. It made sense to go to bed, get some sleep, and make a proper start on the writing in the morning.
Anastasia joined him as he settled beneath an unfamiliar cover and rested his head on a too-soft pillow. The cat purred. He closed his eyes and stroked the creature as it walked within his reach. It was only as he began to drift off to sleep that it occurred to Ben that the cat was relatively stealthy, yet the thing that had alerted him to a presence in the house had been the stomping of heavy, hefty footfalls.
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