Ian Stanley was beginning to become lost in his father’s house. In many ways, he supposed he’d been feeling that way for years. He’d just been able to ignore the sensation since he’d moved away and spent most of his adult life trying to make sure he didn’t end up back here again. He’d tried his damnedest to stay away from the house that had taught him distance was the strongest form of safety. Any sort of return felt as if he was squandering the lesson.
Of course, as much as it riled him, he hadn’t been given a choice this time. There had been no avoiding it when a different sort of personal gravity had dragged him back through the all too familiar front door and commanded him to stay.
He loathed this place. it was the house where he’d sat and watched his mother sneak out the front door, with a bag in her hand and a hopeful smile on her lips. He’d only been two and a half at the time, but his sharp-tongued lizard brain had worked overtime to make sure he never let that vague memory go. It was bound at the centre of his thoughts, kept there as a biological imperative. A lodestone for all the decision making processes he’d developed since that fateful day.
He’d been sitting in the lounge that was now full of mourners, crossed legged at the low coffee table. Scrawling on a crisp, clean sheet of paper with a large and pleasing crayon. He had looked up from the spreading, nebulous, waxy web he was creating to see her unlock the door. A car horn had given a single, harsh beep from the street and then she had put her fingers to her lips to shush him.
As if it was a game. Hide and seek with Mummy. A game she’d been winning for over thirty years so far. Not that he had ever gone looking for her. When it came to his mother, Ian was happy to cover his eyes and count away her absence.
Not that life without her had been any sort of paradise. It had mainly centred around the hole she’d left in his father’s plucked and skewered heart. Charles Stanley had never really been a father in anything but title. He tried his best where he could, but he was a scholar and historian at his core. He didn’t understand the chaotic tides of the present and was completely baffled by any thought of the unwritten future. He felt safest in the past of others, so that’s where he buried himself after the love of his life bolted from his arms. He hid in the spines of books and the loose leaves of manuscripts. Most of the time, his friends and family stepped in to raise Ian for him. Charles’ own attempts at understanding his child had led him to look at how people in the past raised their offspring. He had picked up on the stern morale fortitude of the Victorians. The early employment opportunities and expected respect of the Tudors. The stiff upper lip and dutybound stare of those who’d come through a world war or two.
He looked further afield when it came to making his boy behave. He looked to the bogeymen who lurked in the pages of dusty old folklore. He took their lessons and parroted them to his son. Ian spent his formative years with Italian monsters knocking under the table if he didn’t eat his vegetables, politely coming to claim him for their own pot. Blue faced, iron clawed women who dwelt in dark caves would wait outside his window if he refused to go sleep and tap their talons against the glass. The bogeymen of Africa and Afghanistan made sure he respected his elders, whilst a certain Germanic tormentor was ready to cut off his thumbs if he kept trying to suck one. Ian had been threatened and besieged by them, as if his upbringing was some collective crossover of bogey people. Their first international convention had been held in honour of his developing morality. It had all led to some truly spectacular nightmares and some fairly sweaty palms when he first dared to travel abroad.
University had given him the chance to leave and Ian rarely returned after that. He would call on his father’s birthday and try to make an appearance around Christmas, but that was all the contact his uneasy heart would allow. In fairness to his father, it hadn’t necessarily been a bad childhood; it had just been a very cold one. Just the thought of some of those mandatorily quiet nights and strained mornings was enough to freeze his heart for a week or two.
It had taken Ian years to be able to trust people who claimed to love him and, as much as he hated to admit it, it had taken him even longer to learn how to treat them properly. He had spent so many years fleeing from compassion and empathy. For a long time, it had simply become habit to be suspicious of it. Besides, his own monstrous sense of self-destruction had always been on hand to push any care or consideration away if got too close. In the end, it had taken a woman named Tricia Collins to teach him how to live a normal life, not some phantom and formless beast lurking beneath his bed. She had been patient enough to help him past the old scars and kind enough to know their importance.
Still, for all the security and warmth of his new life, coming back here felt dangerously like a defeat.
His aunt had called him two days ago with the news that Charles Winston Stanley had passed away. Ian had known he’d needed to come back for the funeral, but he wouldn’t let these walls taint his own family. That was why he’d told Tricia he had a work thing to attend for a week and promised he’d be back by the weekend to see the boys play in their first Rugby match.
He had driven up here in silence, no music really capable of distracting him from the nameless uneasy undertow that was already boiling beneath his skin. As his fingers had fidgeted on the wheel, he’d supposed it was grief. He’d never had to grieve for his other parent. He’d only ever resented her, regardless of whether or not her heart was still beating.
The following few days had been full of paperwork and uncomfortable hugs. Older, smiling faces had told him that he’d grown so much, while faces closer his own age had tried to empathise with him, but he knew they all still saw him as the outsider in their little pack. Even now. He’d always been the odd one out to them. Their parents hadn’t put them in the dining room and closed the door, so they could focus on a documentary their friend had made. Their fathers hadn’t ever suggested they stay somewhere else for the weekend to let him get some work done, packing their bags while he said it. No, his cousins had all grown in sunlight and rain. They had bloomed as nature intended. Whereas he had grown in the dark and chased whatever pale light he could find creeping through the cracks of his father’s unique brand of love.
The funeral had been short but rarely sweet. The emotional edge had been dulled by a handful of sombre readings in Middle English and hymns that probably hadn’t been sung in a century or more. It all reminded him of Charles. The ancient to the point of alien tone. The religious songs where Pagan and Christian beliefs had been blurred and Christ was nailed to a tree trunk instead of a cross.
After the coffin was in the ground, they had returned to the house and everyone else had started working very hard to only talk about small and comfortable subjects. They had turned away from the vacant chair that death had left behind and focused very hard on the minutiae of life, the fractal loops of polite reunion conversation.
Ian left them to it. He drank wine and avoided the nibbles. He talked when he was left with no choice and some close family friend or an uncle in a loosened tie managed to corner him. He was desperate to leave, but there was no way he could get to the front door without some blood relative running interference. Not that he could stay in the lounge long to plan his escape. He just kept looking at that closed front door. He kept seeing his mother flee from the responsibility of having to love him.
As the reception thinned out, Ian carried a recently refilled glass of red upstairs. The familiar pattern of creaks from the rising steps made him feel weak with memories. The wallpaper up there hadn’t changed since he’d lived here. The pattern, much like the few photos his father hung on display, had just been left to fade down to a sepia ghost tone of itself.
Ian’s feet took him to the room at the end of the landing, opposite the bathroom. His old room. When he turned the handle, it felt so small in his hand. So cold. Like so much of this house, it was speckled in absentminded neglect.
The door opened to reveal a room crammed with boxes of all shapes and sizes. His heart sank at the sight. He’d always pictured his dad keeping his room as he’d left it. Perhaps it had been one way he could imagine his dad expressing some love for him. Once he left and became history, then his dad could treat the room as an archaeological site. A museum to the son he couldn’t handle as a present entity in his life.
Ian had always enjoyed the thought of his father refusing to throw anything out or move so much as a single toy or poster now that it had some historic significance to him. He would think of him occasionally poking his head in to reinforce the memories of the son he’d sent up here for walking over the maps he’d had all over the lounge floor when he was tracing the route of some forgotten pilgrim trail.
It felt childish when Ian tried to reconjure the fantasy in front of the far harsher truth of reality. He had fully expected to see collectible toy robots and soldiers going to seed along his old shelves. Cobwebs dangling from the old model planes he’d hung from his ceiling. Now there were only tiny pinholes in the vinyl ceiling tiles to mark where they had once flown before they were finally grounded in his absence.
The walls had been stripped bare. The furniture had all been thrown out. The carpet was still the same, but there it was hidden beneath a forest of stacked boxes now. He couldn’t even get to the window to see his old view one last time.
“Cheers, Charlie,” Ian muttered before giving a salute with his glass and taking a swig. “Love you too.”
He set the glass down on a box marked ‘Jumpers and Ties’ and went to the stack in front of him. He worked his way down it, setting each box to the side after reading the label. Some held textbooks, others were heavy with old photos. Some held old records and magazines. Another was labelled ‘Miscellaneous and Video Tapes’. As far as he could tell, none of it was his. Charles had obviously thrown it all out in a quiet fit of rebellion against yet another desertion in his life.
As he moved box after box, dirt clung to his white shirt, fingers and face. His neatly arranged hair began to creep out of place. It was only worth it when the bottom box revealed itself. That one looked interesting.
“Notebooks and journals,” he said to the empty room, reading the handwritten label.
He pulled his keys out of his pocket and used the teeth of his house key to cut the tape. Then he popped the sturdy cardboard flaps open and found himself looking in at an ecosystem of disorganised old diaries, calendars and notepads. A landslide of reminders and notes.
Ian knelt over the box and carefully sifted through his find. The diaries were tricky to decipher. The short, crumpled pages were lined with his father’s scrawl, but it was all in some sort of shorthand that he’d not seen him use before. The calendars were dotted with reminders for events to remember, lectures and tours. In all three Ian looked at, Charles had got his birthday wrong. He hadn’t even managed to get the right month.
The notepads looked more interesting. There were books full of notes for articles Charles was working on and ideas for historic novels he was planning to write. One small, red covered book was stocked to the gills with the different moral, paranormal guardians that Charles had recorded over the years. Ian recognised some of the names and the threats they brought with them all too easily. These were the creatures his father had used to shepherd his behaviour all through his childhood.
The sight of those names made him feel a little cold under his stained suit and clammy skin. The room fell into sharp silence around him. The dust stirred in the thin winter sunlight. Downstairs, he could hear voices. Soft, awkward laughter accompanied by the gentle clattering of fine china plates and clinking, raised glasses. The names in this little, leather bound book felt more like family to him than the people down there. He had known them all so well when he’d grown up in this room. They had never shown their faces, but they were always close at hand. Lurking in the cupboard or whispering beneath the floorboards. Tapping at his window or scratching at the foot of his bed. The were there to make sure he brushed his teeth or resisted any young teenage urges for fear of having his eyes scooped messily out of his head with long, rusty spoon.
A gentle, vaguely lazy tear traced a path down his cheek and landed on a page of the open notebook with a mute and soggy tap. He watched his father’s writing wash away within the confines of the small, salty splash it left behind before he dragged a sleeve roughly across his raw eyes.
He flicked to the front of the book. Charles, in classic form, had written an introduction to his own notes.
There’s no real rhyme nor reason to these creatures, he had written. These are not similar to the cases of country spanning myths, where the patterns and appearance are the same from the one set of natives to the next. I suppose it would be incredibly easy to believe that they were all simply figments of a struggling parent’s coping mechanism. Figments had been sown into the fabric of fledgling societies and grown over the decades into tall, heavily thorn laded hedges. A way to shock a little discipline into their offspring using whatever means were necessary, lurking in the shadows outside their homes. Guiding them to a better adult life. However, for all their many different shapes and sizes (and punishments), I feel there is more to these nannying beasts than just a bit of parental scheming. After all, doesn’t the predator prey on the weak and young for ease? And wouldn’t a family fight less for the child who doesn’t behave or follow the rest of the pack?
If you think of them as predator, then their evolution is quite intriguing. Granted, you could take their prehistoric beginnings as whispered fable and nothing more, but I wonder if they are born from our needs and fed by our fears and failures. When you think of them as summoned beings, it almost makes one wonder if you could conjure your own. Invited it into existence through nothing but a bit of your belief and a dash of…
Ian shook his head. His father really should never have had children. He wasn’t made for the mess and the tantrums. For the unpredictable nature of a developing self. He belonged in a library, tucked away in some quiet corner, sleeping on a shelf whenever his eyes grew tired from too much research. Maybe that was where they should have buried him today. He would’ve liked that.
Flicking towards the back of the book, Ian was surprised to find his father had been working on a bogeyman of his own after all. Well, it was a bogeywoman in fact. He had borrowed from all the classics to stitch her together. She came to punish children for their weak moral judgement and bad decisions. She had long, black hair and lived in a dark and stagnant pool at the back of a crooked cave only she knew how to find. She came and claimed her victims for a year. She would carry them away in a sack over her back and make them write apologies for their sins that she would deliver daily herself as she left her captives trapped in some nameless, living torment.
Ian smiled at his father’s imagination. It wasn’t actually a bad idea. Charles’ monster could easily stand go toe to toe with any the rest of the world had to offer. I should know, Ian told himself, I spent long enough being afraid of the current reigning champions.
Charles had called his creature Mother Maggie Sable. His thorough description of her modus operandi said she could slip through any open window, vent or door whether it was locked or not. Such was her hunger for those who would misbehave. When she took them away, the world would forget them. They would only remember them when she deemed them fit to be returned.
Maggie? Ian thought as a bitter smile twisted across his wine stained lips. Maggie with long black hair, who can slip through any locked door.
It took him a moment to see what his father had done. He had turned his runaway wife into a monster to scare his son with. Only Charles Stanley would think of that particular course of action when it came to a little revenge on the ex.
Ian supposed it was no different to some of the songs he’d heard people sing about the one who had broken their heart. Or the long string of jokes his best mate had up his sleeve on the subject of the girl who had dumped him for his old boss. His father had just expressed his feelings through a scholarly exercise.
Looking to the bottom of the page, past the description of the wet footprints Mother Maggie Sable left in her wake, Ian noticed his father had left his work unfinished. That was unlike him. The final sentence read ‘Only once her victims are returned to their families, with their lessons learnt, can Mother Sable allow herself to sink to the bottom of her murky, stagnant pool and slum…’
Something must have distracted him from finishing it.
Ian reached into his jacket pocket, his knees beginning to cramp under him. He found the pen in his inside pocket, took it out and clicked the nib down. He finished the word ‘slumber’ in his own handwriting. The cheap blue ink stood out against his father’s black, slanted, academically honed letters.
He dotted the full stop and shut the book with a snap.
Outside the wind stirred dead leaves from the gutters. The roof tiles rattled over his head like shivering teeth.
“It’s a shame he never got around to clearing this room.”
Ian looked back to see his Aunt Kay leaning in the doorway.
“What was he planning to do with it?”
“Ah, you know your dad. He never told us much. I always suspected he was planning a library, only I don’t think he could bring himself to ever stay in here for that long. Too many memories and regrets.” She produced a half empty bottle of red wine from behind her back and gave it a shake. “Speaking of which, came to see if you fancied a top up.”
“That sounds good.”
As Ian stood up, he felt surprisingly cold. He had a sudden urge to wrap his jacket a little closer around his chest. It was probably just another symptom of the grief sinking in. Or that’s what he tried to tell himself as he sat and talked the rest of the bottle away with Kay. All the time, he felt aware of the weight of the pen in his jacket pocket. He was certain it hadn’t been so noticeable before.
That night, he got a taxi back to his hotel and scanned in through the automatic doors with every intention of going straight to his room. It had been the last long day in a string of long days. He was on the home stretch. Tomorrow he could put this town in his rear-view mirror and go back to Tricia and the boys. He could pretend this had never happened and settle back into the life he and Trish had worked so hard to build for him, happy in the knowledge that his father could no longer bring it all tumbling down around him at any moment.
The hotel bar was off to the side of reception. He’d expected it to be closed at this time of night, but it was still open. A bartender who looked about thirteen at most was serving a tired looking woman in a business suit. She saw Ian and smiled as he walked past. They’d queued together a few days ago when they’d both checked in and she’d made some joke about Fawlty Towers. They’d shared a laugh then and ran into each other a couple of times during breakfast or as they headed out. Tonight, feeling too tired to do anything else, he smiled back at her.
“Hey,” she had called after him. “Don’t leave a girl to drink alone. Where’re your manners?”
He internally cringed at how easily her playful tone stopped him in his tracks. The day had worn him down to the barest of bones. His willpower and resistance to his old, stupid self had been stripped away. He turned around and walk into the bar. He listened to himself order a whiskey mac, Charles’ favourite tipple. He knew he had no business doing this, but it felt like a little temptation in the midst of bleak, blinkering grief. At first, he told himself he was just lonely and looking for a little friendship before turning in for the night. It wasn’t like he could really call Tricia. She thought he was at a conference.
Not that he flinched or panicked when a little friendship became something else as they talked and drank until the bar closed. By then, they had turned their chairs to face each other. She had touched his arm and rested a hand on his knee to steady herself when she laughed a little too hard at his jokes. There had also been a few silences where the unspoken words had been pretty damn loud.
As the kid behind the bar began to switch off the lights and stack the chairs on the tables, his new friend had suggested they head up to her room.
“I’ve got a few drinks up there and the ticket price is pretty cheap.”
Ian hadn’t fought against the idea too hard. He hadn’t even feigned a no before offering a yes.
She stood close to him in the lift and smiled when he looked at her. They didn’t kiss until they were in her room and she had shut the door behind them.
Ian felt weak and pathetic as he obeyed her searching hands without question and tried to slip his wedding ring into his pocket without her noticing. Things swam into gasping, grinning suggestions and the knowledge they were letting their guard down for a stranger.
She poured him them both a glass of gin and tonic and even as she came over and kissed him again, Ian tried to tell himself that this was nothing. At most, it was a very human mistake. A necessary mistake for a man spiralling in his own lies and uncomfortable memories.
He watched her slipped off into the en suite to get undressed. The mix of drinks in his blood whispered to him. It told him it was too late to turn back now, so he might as well enjoy it. After all he didn’t want to hurt her feelings and where was the harm in having a little fun on the day he buried Charles? Yes, it was cheating; but it was understandable cheating. He needed to feel alive tonight. He needed to do something to break the sombre pretence of the past twenty four hours. It was no different to pressing a pillow over his face to scream or punching a wall. This was a way of acting out and he needed that release. Besides, no one was forcing anyone here. He was choosing to make this mistake. He was sure he could live with that.
As he sat on the bed, his pen jabbed him in the ribs again. He ignored it. He had spent a week trying to keep this town separate from his real life. Of course, something like this could happen in the bubble he’d willed into existence. His actual life had no bearing on what happened in this hotel room tonight. That’s what he told himself as he heard her singing softly in the bathroom and giggling to herself as she struggled to open the vent for a little air. Ian smiled at the sound of her giddy, drunken commentary. She was different to Tricia. She was a little older and liked to lead. She smelt different, kissed different. Her underwear, from what he’d seen, was slightly more exciting. It was, at the very least, different. Maybe she’d been planning this. Maybe she’d been waiting for him tonight. He was a little ashamed at how excited that made him feel.
He lay back on the bed, setting his drink on the bedside table. He switched on the lamp and switched off the main light, before loosening his tie and kicking off his shoes. He thought about taking off his jacket and shirt, but realised that was how things happened at home. Normally they were in bed and quietly trying to fumble through each other’s pyjamas without waking the boys. Tonight, things could be different. He was misbehaving, playing at being someone else. It made sense to do things differently, to let the fantasy abide by its own rules.
He was lying bed and trying to settle the skipping nerves in his stomach when he heard her scream. Ian sat bolt upright, panic snapping through the drink. His first thought was that she must have fallen. She was pretty drunk.
His drink spilt over the covers.
“Are you okay in there…?”
He faltered on her name. He didn’t know her name. Shame slipped swiftly past his defences.
Past the bathroom door, he could hear her whimpering. Pleading and whispering.
…was that her voice whispering?
He was off the bed in lumbering shot and heading towards the bathroom. The room felt too dark as he moved past the glow of the bedside lights. The shadows felt cold enough to make him glad he’d kept his jacket on.
He heard something like a sheet being pulled up. Was she struggling to hang onto the shower curtain? She had been pretty drunk.
There was that whispering again.
Her voice became muffled. He heard the sounds of a struggle as he tried the door. It was locked.
Ian cursed and put his shoulder to it. He was caught off guard when it gave in one and popped open, part of the lock pinging across the tiled floor.
He looked up to see a shape in the window. Small and wreathed in deep shadow. Its frame thinly written and pale as cherished ivory. It had a sack over its shoulder. A tangle of long wet hair covered a gaunt, sallow face.
Ian could only watch, a rabbit in the headlights, as a thin, crooked finger raised to a wet, rotten pair of lips.
Then she was gone, leaving only a trail of wet, thin footprints behind her on the cold floor.
When Ian tried to report what had happened in Room 12, the receptionist said there was no one booked in that room. When they followed him to investigate, the bathroom door was fixed and there was no sign of the woman’s belongings in there. The lad behind the bar said he remembered serving Ian, but no one else. Although Ian was convinced he kept catching a confused frown on the bartender’s face.
Later, as he went back to his room, he felt as he’d been made complicit in a crime where he should surely be a victim. Although he had known the face beneath that wet hair. Or he had known another version of it. He had seen it slip away from him before, nearly thirty years ago. Of course, now it was starved of sunlight and rotted down by stone and gloom. It was framed in the context of his father’s carefully chosen words.
What was it he’d written in the front of that little red book?
When you think of them as summoned beings, it almost makes one wonder if you could conjure your own. Invited it into existence through nothing but a bit of your belief
The next morning, Ian found the first note. It was under his pillow. His hand had moved and felt something soggy lying on the sheet. The paper was damp, the writing streaked with dirty water. The words were spelt out in shaky, spidery letters.
I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.
He gets one every day now. Not always under his pillow. Some are in his desk drawer at work. Others are tucked inside the newspapers he buys before he gets on the train. Some are even in his boys’ homework journals. They are always soggy, they always say the same thing.
I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.
Sometimes, if he’s quick enough, he’ll see wet footprints leading away from his desk or outside his lounge window.
Ian has never been tempted to follow them. He knows exactly where they lead. He’s not tempted by a lot of things these days. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t lie. He’s a good boy, just like his father always wanted.
This morning, in the office, he caught a colleague looking worried.
“My little boy,” he said quietly, clutching at the empty photo frame he had always kept on his desk. “He wouldn’t go to bed and we warned him what would happen if he didn’t behave.”
He looked up at Ian, his eyes ringed with deep, storm stung bags.
“Why doesn’t anyone remember my boy?”
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