One side of my body is full of toothache. Right in the middle of the bones. While the skin and muscles have a chilly pins-and-needles tingle that won’t ever turn back into the warmth of a healthy arm and leg. Which is why Nanna Alice is here; sitting on the chair at the foot of my bed, her crumpled face in shadow. But the milky light that comes through the net curtains finds a sparkle in her quick eyes and gleams on the yellowish grin that hasn’t changed since my Mother let her into the house, made her a cup of tea, and showed her into my room. Nanna Alice smells like the inside of overflow pipes at the back of the council houses.
“Least you still got one ’alf,” she says. She has a metal brace on her thin leg. The foot at the end of the calliper is inside a baby’s shoe. Even though it’s rude, I can’t stop staring. Her normal leg is fat. “They took me leg and one arm.” Using her normal fingers, she picks the dead hand from a pocket in her cardigan and plops it on to her lap. Small and grey, it reminds me of a doll’s hand. I don’t look for long.
She leans forward in her chair so I can smell the tea on her breath. “Show me where you was touched, luv.”
I unbutton my pyjama top and roll on to my good side. Podgy fingertips press around the shrivelled skin at the top of my arm, but she doesn’t touch the see-through parts where the fingertips and thumb once held me. Her eyes go big and her lips pull back to show gums more black than purple. Against her thigh, the doll hand shakes. She coughs, sits back in her chair. Cradles the tiny hand and rubs it with living fingers. When I cover my shoulder, she watches that part of me without blinking. Seems disappointed to see it covered so soon. Wets her lips. “Tell us what ‘appened, luv.”
Propping myself up in the pillows, I peer out the window and swallow the big lump in my throat. Dizzy and a bit sickish, I don’t want to remember what happened. Not ever.
Across the street, inside the spiky metal fence built around the park, I can see the usual circle of mothers. Huddled into their coats and sitting on benches beside pushchairs, or holding the leads of tugging dogs, they watch the children play. Upon the climbing frames and on the wet grass, the kids race about and shriek and laugh and fall and cry. Wrapped up in scarves and padded coats, they swarm among hungry pigeons and seagulls; thousands of small white and grey shapes, pecking around the little stamping feet. Sometimes the birds panic and rise in curving squadrons, trying to get their plump bodies into the air with flap-cracky wings. And the children are blind with their own fear and excitement in brief tornadoes of dusty feathers, red feet, cruel beaks and startled eyes. But they are safe here—the children and the birds—closely watched by tense mothers and kept inside the stockade of iron railings: the only place outdoors the children are allowed to play since I came back, alone.
A lot of things go missing in our town: cats, dogs, children. And they never come back. Except for me and Nanna Alice. We came home, or at least half of us did.
Lying in my sick bed, pale in the face and weak in the heart, I drink medicines, read books, and watch the children play from my bedroom window. Sometimes I sleep. But only when I have to. Because when I sink away from the safety of home and a watching parent, I go back to the white house on the hill.
For Nanna Alice, the time she went inside the big white place as a little girl is a special occasion; like she’s grateful. Our dad calls her a “silly old fool” and doesn’t want her in our house. He doesn’t know she’s here today. But when a child vanishes, or someone dies, lots of the mothers ask the Nanna to visit them. “She can see things and feel things the rest of us don’t,” my mom says. Like the two police ladies, and the mothers of the two girls who went missing last winter, and Pickering’s parents, my mom just wants to know what happened to me.
At least when I’m awake, I can read, watch television, and listen to my Mom and sisters downstairs. But in dreams I have no choice: I go back to the white house on the hill, where old things with skipping feet circle me, then rush in close to show their faces.
“Tell us, luv. Tell us about the ‘ouse,” Nanna Alice says. Can’t think why she’s smiling like that. No adult likes to talk about the beautiful, tall house on the hill. Even our dads who come home from the industry, smelling of plastic and beer, look uncomfortable if their kids say they can hear the ladies crying again: above their heads, but deep inside their ears at the same time, calling from the distance, from the hill, from inside us. Our parents can’t hear it anymore, but they remember the sound from when they were small. It’s like people are trapped and calling out for help. And when no one comes, they get real angry. “Foxes,” the parents tell us, but don’t look you in the eye when they say it.
For a long time after what people call “my accident” I was unconscious in the hospital. After I woke up, I was so weak I stayed there for another three months. Gradually, one half of my body got stronger and I was allowed home. That’s when the questions began. Not just about my injuries, but about my mate Pickering, who they never found. And now crazy Nanna Alice wants to know every single thing I can remember, and all of the dreams too. Only I never know what is real and what came out of the coma with me.
For years, we talked about going up there. All the kids do. Pickering, Ritchie, and me wanted to be the bravest boys in our school. We wanted to break in there and come out with treasure to use as proof that we’d been inside, and not just looked in through the gate like all the others we knew.
Some people say the house and its grounds was once a place where old, rich people lived after they retired from owning the industry, the land, the laws, our houses, our town, us. Others say it was built on an old well and the ground is contaminated. A teacher told us it used to be a hospital and is still full of germs. Our dad said it was an asylum for lunatics that closed down over a hundred years ago and has stayed empty ever since because it’s falling to pieces and is too expensive to repair. That’s why kids should never go there: you could be crushed by bricks or fall through a floor. Nanna Alice says it’s a place “where angels come in.” But we all know it’s the place where the missing things are. Every street in the miles of our town has lost a pet or knows a family who’s lost a child. And every time the police search the big house, they find nothing. No one remembers the big gate being open.
So on a Friday morning when all the kids in our area were walking to school, me, Ritchie, and Pickering sneaked off, the other way. Through the allotments, where me and Pickering were once caught smashing deck chairs and bean poles; through the woods full of broken glass and dog shit; over the canal bridge; across the potato fields with our heads down so the farmer wouldn’t see us; and over the railway tracks until we couldn’t even see the roofs of the last houses in our town. Talking about the hidden treasure, we stopped by the old ice-cream van with four flat tyres, to throw rocks and stare at the faded menu on the little counter, our mouths watering as we made selections that would never be served. On the other side of the woods that surround the estate, we could see the chimneys of the big, white mansion above the trees.
Although Pickering had been walking out front the whole time telling us he wasn’t scared of security guards or watch dogs, or even ghosts—“’cus you can just put your hand froo ’em” — when we reached the bottom of the wooded hill, no one said anything or even looked at each other. Part of me always believed we would turn back at the black gate, because the fun part was telling stories about the house and planning the expedition and imagining terrible things. Going inside was different, because lots of the missing kids had talked about the house before they disappeared. And some of the young men who broke in there for a laugh came away a bit funny in the head, but our dad said that was because of drugs.
Even the trees around the estate were different, like they were too still and silent and the air between them real cold. But we still went up through the trees and found the high brick wall that surrounds the grounds. There was barbed wire and broken glass set into concrete on top of it. We followed the wall until we reached the black iron gate. Seeing the PRIVATE PROPERTY: TRESSPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED sign made shivers go up my neck and under my hair. The gate is higher than a house with a curved top made from iron spikes, set between two pillars with big stone balls on top.
“I heard them balls roll off and kill trespassers,” Ritchie said. I’d heard the same thing, but when Ritchie said that, I just knew he wasn’t going in with us.
We wrapped our hands around the cold black bars of the gate and peered through at the long flagstone path that goes up the hill, between avenues of trees and old statues hidden by branches and weeds. All the uncut grass of the lawns was as high as my waist and the old flower beds were wild with colour. At the summit was the tall, white house with big windows. Sunlight glinted off the glass. Above all the chimneys, the sky was blue. “Princesses lived there,” Pickering whispered.
“Can you see anyone?” Ritchie asked. He was shivering with excitement and had to take a pee. He tried to rush it over some nettles—we were fighting a war against nettles and wasps that summer—but got half of it down his legs.
“It’s empty,” Pickering whispered. “‘Cept for ’idden treasure. Darren’s brother got this owl inside a big glass. I seen it. Looks like it’s still alive. At night, it moves its ’ead.”
Ritchie and I looked at each other; everyone knows the stories about the animals or birds inside the glass that people find up there. There’s one about a lamb with no fur, inside a tank of green water that someone’s uncle found when he was a boy. It still blinks its little black eyes. And someone said they found skeletons of children all dressed up in old clothes, holding hands.
All rubbish; because I know what’s really inside there. Pickering had seen nothing, but if we challenged him he’d start yelling, “Have so! Have so!” and me and Ritchie weren’t happy with anything but whispering near the gate.
“Let’s just watch and see what happens. We can go in another day,” Ritchie couldn’t help himself saying.
“You’re chickening out,” Pickering said, kicking at Ritchie’s legs. “I’ll tell everyone Ritchie pissed his pants.”
Ritchie’s face went white, his bottom lip quivered. Like me, he was imagining crowds of swooping kids shouting, “Piss pot. Piss pot.” Once the crowds find a coward, they’ll hunt him every day until he’s pushed out to the edges of the playground where the failures stand and watch. Every kid in town knows this place takes away brothers, sisters, cats and dogs, but when we hear the cries from the hill, it’s our duty to force one another out here. It’s a part of our town and always has been. Pickering is one of the toughest kids in school; he had to go.
“I’m going in first,” Pick said, standing back and sizing up the gate. “Watch where I put my hands and feet.” And it didn’t take him long to get over. There was a little wobble at the top when he swung a leg between two spikes, but not long after he was standing on the other side, grinning at us. To me, it now looked like there was a little ladder built into the gate—where the metal vines and thorns curved between the long poles, you could see the pattern of steps for small hands and feet. I’d heard that little girls always found a secret wooden door in the brick wall that no one else can find when they look for it. But that might just be another story.
If I didn’t go over and the raid was a success, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being a piss pot and wishing I’d gone with Pick. We could be heroes together. And I was full of the same crazy feeling that makes me climb oak trees to the very top branches, stare up at the sky and let go with my hands for a few seconds knowing that if I fall, I will die.
When I climbed away from whispering Ritchie on the ground, the squeaks and groans of the gate were so loud I was sure I could be heard all the way up the hill and inside the house. When I got to the top and was getting ready to swing a leg over, Pick said, “Don’t cut your balls off.” But I couldn’t smile, or even breathe. My arms and legs started to shake. It was much higher up there than it looked from the ground. With one leg over, between the spikes, panic came up my throat. If one hand slipped off the worn metal, I imagined my whole weight forcing the spike through my thigh, and how I would hang there, dripping. Then I looked up toward the house and I felt there was a face behind every window, watching me.
Many of the stories about the white place on the hill suddenly filled my head: how you only see the red eyes of the thing that drains your blood; how it’s kiddy-fiddlers that hide in there and torture captives for days before burying them alive, which is why no one ever finds the missing children; and some say the thing that makes the crying noise might look like a beautiful lady when you first see her, but she soon changes once she’s holding you.
“Hurry up. It’s easy,” Pick said from way down below. Ever so slowly, I lifted my second leg over, then lowered myself down the other side. He was right; it wasn’t a hard climb at all; kids could do it.
I stood in hot sunshine on the other side of the gate, smiling. The light was brighter over there too; glinting off all the white stone and glass up on the hill. And the air seemed weird—real thick and warm. When I looked back through the gate, the world around Ritchie—who stood alone biting his bottom lip—looked grey and dull, like it was November or something. Around us, the overgrown grass was so glossy it hurt your eyes to look at it. Reds, yellows, purples, oranges and lemons of the flowers flowed inside my head and I could taste hot summer in my mouth. Around the trees, statues and flagstone path, the air was a bit wavy and my skin felt so good and warm I shivered. Closed my eyes. “Beautiful,” I said; a word I wouldn’t usually use around Pick. “This is where I want to live,” he said, his eyes and face one big smile. Then we both started to laugh. We hugged each other, which we’d never done before. Anything I ever worried about seemed silly now. I felt taller. Could go anywhere, do anything I liked. I know Pick felt the same.
Protected by the overhanging tree branches and long grasses, we kept to the side of the path and began walking up the hill. But after a while, I started to feel a bit nervous as we got closer to the top. The house looked bigger than I thought it was, down by the gate. Even though we could see no one and hear nothing, I also felt like I’d walked into this big, crowded, but silent place where lots of eyes were watching me. Following me.
We stopped walking by the first statue that wasn’t totally covered in green moss and dead leaves. Through the low branches of a tree, we could still see the two naked children, standing together on the stone block. One boy and one girl. They were both smiling, but not in a nice way, because we could see too much of their teeth. “They’s all open on the chest,” Pickering said. And he was right; their dry stone skin was peeled back on the breastbone and in their outstretched hands they held small lumps of stone with veins carved into them — their own little hearts. The good feeling I had down by the gate was completely gone now.
Sunlight shone through the trees and striped us with shadows and bright slashes. Eyes big and mouths dry, we walked on and checked some of the other statues we passed. You couldn’t help it; it’s like they made you stare at them to work out what was sticking through the leaves and branches and ivy. There was one horrible cloth thing that seemed too real to be made from stone. Its face was so nasty, I couldn’t look for long. Standing under it gave me the queer feeling that it was swaying from side to side, ready to jump off the stone block and come at us.
Pick walked ahead of me a little bit, but soon stopped to see another. He shrunk in its shadow, then peered at his shoes. I caught up with him but didn’t look too long either. Beside the statue of the ugly man in a cloak and big hat, was a smaller shape covered in a robe and hood, with something coming out of a sleeve that reminded me of snakes.
I didn’t want to go any further and knew I’d be seeing these statues in my sleep for a long time. Looking down the hill at the gate, I was surprised to see how far away it was now. “Think I’m going back,” I said to Pick.
Pickering looked at me, but never called me a chicken; he didn’t want to start a fight and be on his own in here. “Let’s just go into the house quick,” he said. “And get something. Otherwise no one will believe us.”
But being just a bit closer to the white house with all the staring windows made me sick with nerves. It was four storeys high and must have had hundreds of rooms inside. All the windows upstairs were dark, so we couldn’t see beyond the glass. Downstairs, they were all boarded up against trespassers. “They’s all empty, I bet,” Pickering said to try and make us feel better. But it didn’t do much for me; he didn’t seem so smart or hard now; just a stupid kid who hadn’t got a clue.
“Nah,” I said.
He walked away from me. “Well I am. I’ll say you waited outside.” His voice was too soft to carry the usual threat. But all the same, I suddenly couldn’t stand the thought of his grinning, triumphant face while Ritchie and I were considered piss pots, especially after I’d climbed the gate and come this far. My part would mean nothing if he went further than me.
We never looked at any more of the statues. If we had, I don’t think we’d have ever got to the wide stone steps that went up to the big iron doors of the house. Didn’t seem to take us long to reach the house either. Even taking small, slow, reluctant steps got us there real quick. On legs full of warm water, I followed Pickering up to the doors.
“Why is they made of metal?” he asked me. I never had an answer. He pressed both hands against the doors. One of them creaked but never opened. “They’s locked,” he said.
Secretly relieved, I took a step away from the doors. As all the ground floor windows were boarded over too, it looked like we could go home. Then, as Pickering shoved at the creaky door again, this time with his shoulder and his body at an angle, I’m sure I saw movement in a window on the second floor. Something whitish. Behind the glass, it was like a shape appeared out of the darkness and then sank back into it, quick but graceful. I thought of a carp surfacing in a cloudy pond before vanishing the same moment you saw its pale back. “Pick!” I hissed at him.
There was a clunk inside the door Pickering was straining his body against. “It’s open,” he cried out, and stared into the narrow gap between the two iron doors. But I couldn’t help thinking the door had been opened from inside.
“I wouldn’t,” I said to him. He just smiled and waved at me to come over and help as he pushed to make a bigger space. I stood still and watched the windows upstairs. The widening door made a grinding sound against the floor. Without another word, he walked inside the big white house.
Silence hummed in my ears. Sweat trickled down my face. I wanted to run down to the gate.
After a few seconds, Pickering’s face appeared in the doorway. “Quick. Come an’ look at all the birds.” He was breathless with excitement.
I peered through the gap at a big, empty hallway and could see a staircase going up to the next floor. Pickering was standing in the middle of the hall, not moving. He was looking at the ground. At all the dried-up birds on the wooden floorboards. Hundreds of dead pigeons. I went in.
No carpets, or curtains, or light bulbs, just bare floorboards, white walls, and two closed doors on either side of the hall. On the floor, most of the birds still had feathers but looked real thin. Some were just bones. Others were dust. “They get in and they got nuffin’ to eat.” Pickering said. “We should collect all the skulls.” He crunched across the floor and tried the doors at either side of the hall, yanking the handles up and down. “Locked,” he said. “Both of ‘em locked. Let’s go up them stairs. See if there’s summat in the rooms.”
I flinched at every creak caused by our feet on the stairs. I told him to walk at the sides like me. He wasn’t listening, just going up fast on his plumpish legs. I caught up with him at the first turn in the stairs and began to feel real strange again. The air was weird; hot and thin like we were in a tiny space. We were both all sweaty under our school uniforms from just walking up one flight of stairs. I had to lean against a wall while he shone his torch up at the next floor. All we could see were the plain walls of a dusty corridor. A bit of sunlight was getting in from somewhere upstairs, but not much. “Come on,” he said, without turning his head to look at me.
“I’m going outside,” I said. “I can’t breathe.” But as I moved to go back down the first flight of stairs, I heard a door creak open and then close, below us. I stopped still and heard my heart banging against my ear drums from the inside. The sweat turned to frost on my face and neck and under my hair. Real quick, and sideways, something moved across the shaft of light falling through the open front door. My eyeballs went cold and I felt dizzy. Out the corner of my eye, I could see Pickering’s white face, watching me from above on the next flight of stairs. He turned the torch off with a loud click.
It moved again, back the way it had come, but paused this time at the edge of the long rectangle of white light on the hall floor. And started to sniff at the dirty ground. It was the way she moved down there that made me feel light as a feather and ready to faint. Least I think it was a she. But when people get that old you can’t always tell. There wasn’t much hair on the head and the skin was yellow. She looked more like a puppet made of bones and dressed in a grubby nighty than an old lady. And could old ladies move so fast? Sideways like a crab, looking backwards at the open door, so I couldn’t see the face properly, which I was glad of.
If I moved too quick, I’m sure it would look up and see me. I took two slow side-steps to get behind the wall of the next staircase where Pickering was hiding. He looked like he was about to cry. Like me, I knew all he could hear was his own heartbeat.
Then we heard the sound of another door open from somewhere downstairs, out of sight. We knelt down, trembling against each other and peered around the corner of the staircase to make sure the old thing wasn’t coming up the stairs, sideways. But a second figure had now appeared down there. I nearly cried when I saw it skittering around by the door. It moved quicker than the first one, with the help of two black sticks. Bent right over with a hump for a back, it was covered in a dusty black dress that swished over the floor. What I could see of the face through the veil was all pinched and as sickly-white as grubs under wet bark. When she made the whistling sound, it hurt my ears deep inside and made my bones feel cold.
Pickering’s face was wild with fear. I was seeing too much of his eyes. “Is they old ladies?” he said in a voice that sounded all broken.
I grabbed his arm. “We got to get out. Maybe there’s a window, or another door ‘round the back.” Which meant we had to go up these stairs, run through the building to find another way down to the ground-floor, before breaking our way out.
I took another peek down the stairs to see what they were doing, but wished I hadn’t. There were two more of them. A tall man with legs like sticks was looking up at us with a face that never changed because it had no lips or eyelids or nose. He wore a creased suit with a gold watch chain on the waistcoat, and was standing behind a wicker chair. In the chair was a bundle wrapped in tartan blankets. Above the coverings I could see a small head inside a cloth cap. The face was yellow as corn in a tin. The first two were standing by the open door so we couldn’t get out.
Running up the stairs into an even hotter darkness on the next floor, my whole body felt baggy and clumsy and my knees chipped together. Pickering went first with the torch and used his elbows so I couldn’t overtake him. I bumped into his back and kicked his heels. Inside his fast breathing, I could hear him sniffing at tears. “Is they comin’?” he kept saying. I didn’t have the breath to answer and kept running through the long corridor, between dozens of closed doors, to get to the end. I looked straight ahead and was sure I would freeze-up if one of the doors suddenly opened. And with our feet making such a bumping on the floorboards, I can’t say I was surprised when I heard the click of a lock behind us. We both made the mistake of looking back.
At first we thought it was waving at us, but then realised the skinny figure in the dirty night-dress was moving its long arms through the air to attract the attention of the others that had followed us up the stairwell. We could hear the scuffle and swish as they came through the dark behind us. But how could this one see us, I thought, with all those rusty bandages around its head? Then we heard another of those horrible whistles, followed by more doors opening real quick, like things were in a hurry to get out of the rooms.
At the end of the corridor, there was another stairwell with more light in it that fell from a high window three floors up. But the glass must have been dirty and greenish, because everything around us on the stairs looked like it was underwater. When he turned to bolt down them stairs, I saw Pick’s face was all shiny with tears and the front of his trousers had a dark patch spreading down one leg.
It was real hard to get down them stairs and back to the ground. It was like we had no strength left in our bodies, as if the fear was draining it through the slappy, tripping soles of our feet. But it was more than the terror slowing us down; the air was so thin and dry, it was hard to get our breath in and out of our lungs fast enough. My shirt was stuck to my back and I was dripping under the arms. Pick’s hair was wet and he was slowing right down, so I overtook him.
At the bottom of the stairs I ran into another long, empty corridor of closed doors and greyish light that ran through the back of the building. Just looking all the way down it, made me bend over with my hands on my knees to rest. But Pickering just ploughed right into me from behind and knocked me over. He ran across my body and stamped on my hand. “They’s comin,’” he whined in a tearful voice, and went stumbling down the passage. I got back to my feet and started down the corridor after him. Which never felt like a good idea to me; if some of them things were waiting in the hall by the front doors, while others were coming up fast behind us, we’d get ourselves trapped. I thought about opening a door and trying to kick out the boards over a window in one of the ground-floor rooms. Plenty of them old things seemed to come out of rooms when we ran past them, like we were waking them up, but they never came out of every room. So we would just have to take a chance. I called out to Pick to stop. I was wheezing like Billy Skid at school who’s got asthma, so maybe Pickering never heard me, because he kept on running toward the end. I looked back at the stairwell we’d just come out of, then looked about at the doors in the passage. As I was wondering which one to pick, a little voice said, “Do you want to hide in here?”
I jumped into the air and cried out like I’d trod on a snake. Stared at where the voice came from. I could see a crack between this big brownish door and the doorframe. Part of a little girl’s face peeked out. “They won’t see you. We can play with my dolls.” She smiled and opened the door wider. She had a really white face inside a black bonnet all covered in ribbons. The rims of her dark eyes were bright red like she’d been crying for a long time.
My chest was hurting and my eyes were stinging with sweat. Pickering was too far ahead of me to catch him up. I could hear his feet banging away on loose floorboards, way off in the darkness and I didn’t think I could run any further. I nodded at the girl. She stood aside and opened the door wider. The bottom of her black dress swept through the dust. “Quickly,” she said with an excited smile, and then looked down the corridor, to see if anything was coming. “Most of them are blind, but they can hear things.”
I moved through the doorway. Brushed past her. Smelled something gone bad. Put a picture in my head of the dead cat, squashed flat in the woods, that I found one time on a hot day. But over that smell was something like the bottom of my granny’s old wardrobe, with the one broken door and little iron keys in the locks that don’t work any more.
Softly, the little girl closed the door behind us, and walked off across the wooden floor with her head held high, like a “little Madam” my dad would say. Light was getting into this room from some red and green windows up near the high ceiling. Two big chains hung down holding lights with no bulbs, and there was a stage at one end with a thick greenish curtain pulled across the front. Little footlights stuck up at the front of the stage. It must have been a ballroom once.
Looking for a way out—behind me, to the side, up ahead, everywhere—I followed the little girl in the black bonnet over to the stage and up the stairs at the side. She disappeared through the curtains without making a sound, and I followed because I could think of nowhere else to go and I wanted a friend in here. The long curtains smelled so bad around my face, I put a hand over my mouth.
She asked my name and where I lived. I told her like I was talking to a teacher who’s just caught me doing something wrong, even giving her my house number. “We didn’t mean to trespass,” I said. “We never stole nothing.” She cocked her head to one side and frowned, like she was trying to remember something. Then she smiled and said, “All of these are mine. I found them.” She drew my attention to the dolls on the floor; little shapes of people I couldn’t see properly in the dark. She sat down among them and started to pick them up one at a time to show me, but I was too nervous to pay much attention and I didn’t like the look of the cloth animal with its fur worn down to the grubby material. It had stitched up eyes and no ears; the arms and legs were too long for its body. And I didn’t like the way the little, dirty head was stiff and upright like it was watching me.
Behind us, the rest of the stage was in darkness with a faint glow of white wall in the distance. Peering from the stage at the boarded-up windows down the right side of the dance floor, I could see some bright daylight around the edge of two big hardboard sheets nailed over patio doors. There was a breeze coming through. Must have been a place where someone got in before. “I got to go,” I said to the girl behind me, who was whispering to her animals and dolls. I was about to step through the curtains and head for the daylight when I heard the rushing of a crowd in the corridor that me and Pickering had just run through — feet shuffling, canes tapping, wheels squeaking and two hooting sounds. It all seemed to go on for ages. A long parade I didn’t want to see.
As it went past, the main door clicked open and something glided into the ballroom. I pulled back from the curtains and held my breath. The little girl kept mumbling to the nasty toys. I wanted to cover my ears. Another crazy part of me wanted it all to end; wanted me to step out from behind the curtains and offer myself to the tall figure down there on the dance-floor, holding the tatty parasol over its head. It spun around quickly like it was moving on tiny, silent wheels under its long musty skirts. Sniffing at the air. For me. Under the white net attached to the brim of the rotten hat and tucked into the high collars of the dress, I saw a bit of face that looked like skin on a rice pudding. I would have screamed but there was no air inside me.
I looked down to where the little girl had been sitting. She had gone, but something was moving on the floor. Squirming. For a moment, it looked like all her toys were trembling, but when I squinted at the Golly with bits of curly white hair on its head, it was lying perfectly still where she had dropped it. The little girl may have hidden me, but I was glad she had gone.
Way off in the stifling distance of the big house, I heard a scream; full of all the panic and terror and woe in the whole world. The figure with the little umbrella spun right around on the dance-floor and then rushed out of the ballroom toward the sound.
I slipped out from behind the curtains. A busy chattering sound came from the distance. It got louder until it echoed through the corridor and ballroom and almost covered the sounds of the wailing boy. It sounded like his cries were swirling round and round, bouncing off walls and closed doors, like he was running somewhere far off inside the house, in a circle that he couldn’t get out of.
I crept down the stairs at the side of the stage and ran across to the long strip of burning sunlight I could see shining through one side of the patio doors. I pulled at the big rectangle of wood until it splintered and I could see broken glass in a doorframe and lots of thick grass outside.
For the first time since I’d seen the first figure scratching about the front entrance, I truly believed I could escape. I could climb through the gap I was making, run around the outside of the house and then go down the hill to the gate, while they were all busy inside with the crying boy. But just as my breathing went all quick and shaky with the glee of escape, I heard a whump sound on the floor behind me, like something had just dropped to the floor from the stage. Teeny vibrations tickled the soles of my feet. Then I heard something coming across the floor toward me—a shuffle, like a body dragging itself real quick.
Couldn’t bear to look behind me and see another one close up. I snatched at the board and pulled with all my strength at the bit not nailed down, so the whole thing bent and made a gap. Sideways, I squeezed a leg, hip, arm and shoulder out. Then my head was suddenly bathed in warm sunlight and fresh air.
It must have reached out then and grabbed my left arm under the shoulder. The fingers and thumb were so cold they burned my skin. And even though my face was in daylight, everything went dark in my eyes except for little white flashes, like when you stand up too quick. I wanted to be sick. Tried to pull away, but one side of my body was all slow and heavy and full of pins and needles.
I let go off the hardboard sheet. It slapped shut like a mouse trap. I fell through the gap and into the grass outside. Behind my head, I heard a sound like celery snapping. Something shrieked into my ear which made me go deaf-ish for a week.
Sitting down in the grass outside, I was sick down my jumper. Mucus and bits of spaghetti hoops that looked all white and smelled real bad. I looked at the door I had fallen out of. Through my bleary eyes I saw an arm that was mostly bone, stuck between the wood and door-frame. I made myself roll away and then get to my feet on the grass that was flattened down.
Moving around the outside of the house, back toward the front of the building and the path that would take me down to the gate, I wondered if I’d bashed my left side. The shoulder and hip were achy and cold and stiff. It was hard to move. I wondered if that’s what broken bones felt like. All my skin was wet with sweat too, but I was shivery and cold. I just wanted to lie down in the long grass. Twice I stopped to be sick. Only spit came out with burping sounds.
Near the front of the house, I got down on my good side and started to crawl, real slow, through the long grass, down the hill, making sure the path was on my left so I didn’t get lost in the meadow. I only took one look back at the house and will wish forever that I never did.
One side of the front door was still open from where we went in. I could see a crowd, bustling in the sunlight that fell on their raggedy clothes. They were making a hooting sound and fighting over something; a small shape that looked dark and wet. It was all limp. Between the thin, snatching hands, it came apart, piece by piece.
In my room, at the end of my bed, Nanna Alice has closed her eyes. But she’s not sleeping. She’s just sitting quietly and rubbing her doll hand like she’s polishing treasure.
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