Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 6

The next day, I woke with a start. I had been having the same dream for a couple of nights. I was kneeling at a pool of water and staring into the depths. I could feel cold earth beneath my fingers and between my toes. I was still wearing my favourite patterned pyjamas. I saw them in my reflection, light pink with a rose print. Except they looked almost grey in the gloom of my dreamscape. It wasn’t the kind of darkness which appeared to have been caused by lack of light, but rather as if all colour and definition had been drained instead. I didn’t know exactly where I was because I couldn’t look up. I remained transfixed on my reflection. I had the urge to pull away yet I was powerless as blank terror started crawling up my spine. I was frozen to the spot, watching slow, shiny ripples distort my reflection. The water seemed unnaturally thick. A strange certainty came over me, that if I could put my hand in the pool, it would stick to me like black treacle and I would never be able to pull my hand free. It would suck me down and swallow me whole. I was cold, the kind of cold that makes your bones ache. Time moves differently in dreams. It stutters, staggers, drags itself backwards or forwards or stops at will. I had no idea how long I was stuck there, fingernails clawing the frigid earth. It could have been minutes, or hours. A chasm opened up in my mind, a deep black hole waiting to absorb all meaning and joy. I felt it pressing up against my consciousness, looking for a way in. My reflection then shivered. Slowly, its expression changed although I was sure my own face was still frozen in fear. I watched it gather itself and stretch its pale fingers towards me whilst I was helpless and on the brink of overbalancing and falling into that undulating dark pool. That’s when I woke up.

I was drenched with sweat. My fringe was plastered to my forehead. I looked down and realised I was wearing those pink-patterned pyjamas. Was that normal? My mind was clouded with lethargy. I couldn’t remember if it was normal. What was going on? I had never been one to suffer from nightmares. Even in the depths of my last depression, sleep had felt like a welcome release. I grabbed the mattress to stop my hands from shaking as I slid out of bed. My mouth was bone dry and I needed water, then coffee. I caught sight of myself in the mirror at the bottom of the stairs. I looked dishevelled- what would usually pass as good bone structure made my face look gaunt in the weak light filtering through the small window in the hallway, and my skin had a pallid sheen. My eyes stared back at me through the lenses of my glasses, frantic and wild. Thank God nobody has to see me like this, I thought. I shook my head and tore my eyes away from my reflection, but in a split second my heart leaped back into the back of my throat and another shot of adrenaline coursed through me. I stumbled back a couple of steps, out of view of my reflection. My skin crawled, and my bare feet seemed rooted to the icy floor tiles. It had turned away a split second after me. I was sure of it. Or was I? How could I be sure of anything right now? I must still be half asleep and impressionable, I told myself. I sank onto the bottom step, desperately trying to rationalise the situation. Thoughts were ticking through my brain. It could have been a trick of the light, or just my nightmare bleeding into reality. I took a deep breath and told myself there was nothing to be afraid of. I had never been superstitious, and this was no time to start. Besides, I knew what a breakdown felt like and this wasn’t it.

An hour later, I was stood in my usual spot at the kitchen window, staring out into the garden and hugging a mug like it was an old friend. It turned out I had overslept, as if the nightmares had taken their time with me. It was already ten in the morning, but I had had a shower and my hair was still damp and smelled faintly of coconut. By this point, I was feeling much more human and the memories of the previous hours were already being compartmentalised. A thick autumn mist stull hung low over the trees beyond the garden. I shared an inside joke with myself over the pathetic fallacy of the situation. Nobody had woken me up that morning. Strange, I thought. James had such ponderous footsteps it was almost unheard of for me to sleep through his morning routine, and I almost always came down for at least a slice of toast before they went off to work or school. Luckily, Freya already took pride in fending for herself, and had in fact recently called my packed lunches patronising. Maybe that academy was doing something after all. The wisps of mist thread themselves between the treetops as I looked for the edge of the garden. It stretched like a soft, green blanket towards the tree line. It looked like a blank canvas. I didn’t have particularly green fingers, and James often came home too exhausted to do anything about it. Besides, nobody was looking over the garden fence. Our nearest neighbour was over a hundred metres behind our house, and the town was over a mile beyond that, something James had pronounced idyllic. I wasn’t so sure.

The weather had turned from mild to unforgiving in the space of a few short days. On Friday I had sweated in my new winter coat, and today the cold was seeping in through the many cracks in our new old house. The doors had seemingly all been hung with an inch to spare, and the windows were a single pane of latticed glass. Since it was a listed building, we couldn’t change a thing. I scowled as my thoughts wandered. There was something cosy about an old house, but something disconcerting, too. I wondered about all it must have seen over the centuries. Ladies taking tea in the parlour, whispering over their cups. Gossip, intrigue? Tucked away in this green and pleasant land, with no occupation other than learning schoolgirl French, singing, playing the piano, and talking about the neighbours. Regency waistlines and starched collars. Fortuitous marriages and fallen women. Dark, brooding gentlemen who rode out onto the moors. At least the years had brought with it the blessing of central heating, I thought, and turned the dial on the boiler with a theatrical flourish until it clicked into place. There was a sudden whoosh and various pipes in various walls started creaking. I slunk upstairs. I was already behind on my deadline, and my mental soliloquising wasn’t the kind of productivity I needed.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 5

I was sat in the conservatory with James, feet up on the coffee table. It was nearly midnight. Mabel’s snoring filtered through from under my legs. Freya was in her room but her light was still on. I could see it through the conservatory roof. I considered going up there, but then thought about how she was growing up and didn’t want me breathing down her neck. If she was tired the next day, it would prove my point anyway. I decided to stay put and give it another hour. 

There were only a few sips of wine left in my glass and the bottle was empty. Too bad the shops here close at eight, I thought. Empty takeaway cartons were still stacked up on the dining room table. I was meaning to take them to the bin at the end of the driveway, but it was a cold night and I was feeling lazy. As if it had just read my mind, the space heater clicked on. 

“Do you think Freya likes it here?” I asked suddenly.

“Why do you say that?” 

“I don’t know. She says school is fine but I don’t think she’s made many friends yet. At least, I don’t see them at the weekend. But I don’t want to pry, so I haven’t asked. She wouldn’t tell me the truth anyway.” I let a wave of ennui wash over me. Ever since she had become a teenager, I had felt more and more unsure about how to approach her. I felt awkward treating her like a child, but I couldn’t yet bring myself to speak to her like any other adult. 

“I’m sure you’re overthinking it. We’ve only been here a couple of months. Give her time.” his brown curls tickled my cheek as he kissed me on the forehead.

“Well it’s alright for you,” I pouted, “your parents live ten minutes down the road. Freya and I grew up in the city. It’s all we’ve ever known” I wrinkled my nose petulantly. I was being childish and I didn’t care.

James raised an eyebrow. “We got a great deal on this house. We can afford so much more space here. And I thought we both agreed it would be better for you to get out of the city” he said knowingly. As if this were ever about my wellbeing. James just wanted a reason to feel good about moving back to his hometown and taking us with him.

I narrowed my eyes at him but dropped it. I didn’t want to destroy the cosy atmosphere. It wasn’t so bad here, there was just a distinct lack of early middle-aged translators to connect with. There’s probably an app for that, I thought. There’s an app for everything these days.

“It’ll get better”, I acquiesced, “but I wanted to go back to London next weekend anyway. Lucille’s invited me. There’s an exhibition at the Barbican we have to see.”

“Oh you have to see it, or else you’ll wither away into a veritable husk of your former self?” he gasped with mock anguish, clearly enjoying hamming it up a little.

“Oh shut up,” I said a little too quickly. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” he grinned, and this time his voice was sincere. He had always made jokes about what he called my ‘two-week itch’. If I didn’t go somewhere new or see something interesting every few weeks, I got cranky. He had long since learned to accommodate my excursions, especially since moving to the Shire. I liked to think we were a modern couple. I had my friend, he had his. I had my interests, he had bonsais.

“Besides, Freya is fourteen now. You don’t need to worry about being home from work early for her sake.” I knew I was labouring my point to assuage my guilty conscience, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Yes, I know. She’s very independent,” he glanced at me, then added “I know where she got that from.”

Within the hour, we had gone to bed. I had to stick my head in the door and remind Freya that she wasn’t allowed to stay up later than her parents, it was embarrassing for us and made us feel old. 

The house seemed to be sleeping, too. Its old timber frame expanding, contracting, creaking. Just before I fell asleep, I realised I had forgotten to tell James about the antiques in the understairs cupboard. He hadn’t noticed any of the new additions to the decor, either. Typical, I thought.

On Sunday morning, I woke up when I could already hear rummaging in the kitchen downstairs. Cupboard doors were opening and, as I lay there silently, I even thought I could hear the dog’s tiny nails tap-tap-tapping on the floor tiles. I looked at the time. 8:16. I never had to set an alarm, but I rarely slept past eight thirty anyway. Just one more perk of getting older, I thought.

I slid my feet into my well-worn slippers and shuffled out of the bedroom and down the stairs. As I descended, the mirror came into view. It certainly commanded attention. It was ornate, looked old, and had a deep-set frame bordered by twisting vines. It was an oval shape and although I had thought it baroque and charming at first sight, there was also something distinctly overelaborate and unappealing about it. I debated whether I should have stuffed it into the SELL box along with almost everything else, but then decided to give it a week. Maybe I would get used to it. I had hung it in the hallway close to the front door, with the intention of checking my face for smudges of chocolate or ketchup before walking to the shops. I hadn’t worn makeup in decades. My mum had been a flower child of the sixties and imbued me with the same distaste for fakery. Now I realised I would have to walk past it first thing every morning on the way to the kitchen, and hope I didn’t snag something on one of the leaves.

Naturally, I caught my own eye at the bottom of the stairs. Middle age was rapidly catching up with me, I thought, examining the grey streaks at my roots and crow’s feet. I quickly added henna to my mental shopping list, knowing I’d forget it anyway. I took comfort in the fact that at least my eyes were still recognisable. They were a pale grey colour, which James called ‘mysterious’, and I had always taken to be my best feature. They were rare, and I liked that.

Delicious smells were wafting from the kitchen, coffee mixed with a heavy, toasted sweetness, and I grinned despite my waves of self-pitying nostalgia as I stepped into the kitchen. Mabel dutifully greeted me with a lick, this time on my hand as my toes weren’t visible. Freya was curled up in the antique rocking chair in the corner of the dining room with her brand new iPad. The school she went to was one of those newfangled academies which decided that giving every student an iPad would not only make them look progressive but also push them up the league tables. I still wasn’t convinced she did any homework on it, but at any rate I was pleased she wasn’t crazing me for one.

“Good morning, sunshine”, James was grinning like the Cheshire cat as he ladled blueberry pancake batter into a frying pan. I suspected there was something performative about his breezy demeanour that morning. But I pushed this thought aside and decided to enjoy the moment. James was a damn good cook when he felt like it.

“Thick and fluffy please, you know the rules”, I announced with mock severity. I poured a cup of coffee from the cafetiere, sidled up behind him and said “I miss the days when you would do that in just an apron” in a stage whisper.

Immediately, Freya piped up with an “I can hear you” from the dining room.

“Oh, so you aren’t as absorbed in that device as I thought”, I giggled, “and anyway, you’re up early. What’s wrong?”

“Very funny”, she pouted, but it was hiding a smile. “I don’t know, I just couldn’t sleep very well. And then I heard Dad banging around in the kitchen and gave up.”

The breakfast was served and we must have looked like a picture of domestic harmony. Eventually, James put his fork down and suggested we go to see his parents for Sunday dinner. I was wondering when he’d get to the point.

“So now I know why you put so much effort into breakfast”, I sniffed.

“Oh, don’t be like that.”

“I’m kidding. Don’t take everything so personally. They aren’t so bad. And we can bring Mabel. They can finally get some use out of their enormous garden.”

James gave me a long-suffering look. He was well aware of the long-standing chip on my shoulder about being the commoner in the marriage, and being subtly reminded of that every time we went to see his parents. James had studied at Durham, worked in the City for a few years, where we met, and then decided overnight to give it all up and retrain as a landscape gardener. It came as just as much of a shock to me as it did for them, but they blamed me for it anyway. I had always been suspect, a comprehensive school nobody from Newham who had somehow gotten into King’s College to fill some quota, no doubt. As both of my parents were already dead, we saw far too much of them for my liking, but I gritted my teeth for Freya’s sake. They adored their only grandchild, that much I could give them.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 4

By noon, we had gone through the contents of every musty box and sorted into three piles: keep, chuck and sell. A cloying smell of mould, decay and lavender mothballs had settled over the living room. I opened a window. It was much colder today but it was the lesser of two evils. The ‘keep’ pile was small – just a fruit bowl, a candelabra and a mirror. They may have all been from some kind of famous manufacturer, but I didn’t care. I didn’t usually go for really old things, on account of them giving me the creeps, but these had their own charms. The blue floral patterns on the fruit bowl would go nicely with the colour scheme in the dining room, the candelabra would be a good reason to finally start using all the nice smelly candles I got for Christmas and then promptly forgot about, and the mirror was practically begging me to keep it. I needed a new one to fix my hair in the hallway anyway. This was the kind of town where you didn’t even look scruffy going to fetch bread, eggs and milk.

“What do you think, Freya?” I sat back on my knees.

“Well it’s all ugly, so I wouldn’t keep anything else” she mumbled, barely looking up from scrolling.

“Charming.”

Carefully, I pushed myself to my feet. I had recently turned forty and all of a sudden I felt every year.

Freya begrudgingly helped me clear the unwanted things back into their respective boxes. I scrawled CHUCK or SELL in thick black letters on each one. My ‘late’ Aunt Isabel seemed even more of a tragic figure than ever. There were some old, yellowed papers in the box, covered in a faded scrawl of tiny black letters, but there was no way I could read it. The letters were just too small and close. I had no idea just how old they could really be. I had decided in the end to put them in the SELL box. Maybe there would be an expert I could ask when I sold the other things. There were probably regular auctions populated by shuffling retirees with a paperweight addiction around here. There were probably also pretty little antique shops with twee names full of twee things nobody ever needed. I had never been to either. I bet they smelled bad too.

It was a dark autumn afternoon and I was staring out of the back window, procrastinating the commission I had been finalising for weeks, when I heard the front door go. James stomped in.

“I thought we agreed that muddy boots go in that silly porch thing” I yelled, scowling at my own reflection in the glass.

“Yeah, these are just my heavy duty socks” I could hear the grin in his voice.

I decided to willingly suspend my disbelief. Annoyingly, I had forgotten the word the chattering classes used to designate that half-porch on the front of the house. Wellies room? Mud room? Freezing cold dust room? I gave up. Over the years, I had become increasingly convinced that acquiring new languages pushed obscure words in your own language out of the other ear.

James scooted into the kitchen and hugged me from behind. It always felt a bit silly when he did that because he was barely a centimetre taller than me. I grinned. A gust of cold air followed him in from the door.

“Been working hard today, I see” he murmured knowingly into my ear.

“Yeah, I know. It’s children’s literature this time,” I sighed, “the publisher wants it by Thursday. He seems to think the amount of words is directly related to the level of work involved. But it always takes me far longer to write for children. I don’t know how they think, and I don’t know how they speak anymore. Freya’s too old and moody to help me.”

I could tell James was only half listening already. He worked outside, I worked upstairs. It was day and night.

“Sounds delightful. I was cutting bonsais all day for some fancy couple down the road. The Harmans. I feel like a pillar of the community already. Just imagine if their perfectly trimmed balls got out of shape! Just what would the neighbours say,” by this point we were both giggling uncontrollably. I had a mental image of him perched at the top of a ladder, trimming a bonsai ball with nail scissors, tongue sticking out with the utmost concentration. My giggling turned into a breathless cackle.

“Alright, there’s no need to flatter me. Anyway, where’s Freya? And fancy a takeaway? I’m starving.”

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 3

It was Saturday morning. James was out at work already, doing the extra cash-in-hand jobs which helped to pay for the food shop. I luxuriated in bed a little, spreading my arms and legs out to form a starfish. The house was still, so Freya was probably sleeping in too. It often seemed too quiet here. This was supposed to be our dream house, our big move. I kept telling myself I would get used to it, that it would get better for our family in the countryside, but sometimes I was still terrified we’d made the wrong decision. I padded downstairs and turned on the coffee machine. I put enough water in for two cups. Freya liked to think she already had very grown-up tastes.

Mabel slunk out of her bed to greet me, giving me a long stare in the process. She could sleep for most of the day, but that didn’t stop her from judging me when I had a lay-in. Less attention for her.

After I’d finished my second cup and a slightly stale bagel, I was considering why anyone had invented a bread which was inedible unless toasted when the doorbell rang. By the time I’d slipped on a dressing gown (I didn’t like to wear a bra in bed, and I also didn’t like the thought of delivery men ogling me in my pyjama vest) and slapped over to the front door in my slip-on slippers, they’d already driven off. Or vanished, more like. There were three large cardboard boxes on my front porch, emitting a musty odour. I was beginning to regret ever saying I would take them.

I hoped they weren’t heavy, but I had no such luck. Lifting with my knees, I managed to heave them, one at a time, into the living room. Working from home had done nothing for my muscle definition. Just when I was finished, Freya showed up, bobbing her blonde head over the stair rail in that nosy way of hers. 

“You timed that well,” I said, arching an eyebrow.

“Are those from Aunt Isabel? I can smell coffee.” She took the last steps two at a time and half-jogged into the kitchen. Very good at evading a subject too, I thought. Definite lawyer or politician.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 2

An hour later, I pulled up our driveway a few towns over, the gravel crunching beneath the wheels of my car. Except it still didn’t really feel like ‘our’ driveway yet. I stared at the front windows of the house a while, lost in my thoughts. They stared back. My aunt was never a particularly likeable woman, judging by the way my mother had spoken about her, but now I wished I had known more about her, made an effort. It must have been lonely after her husband had died. All alone in that house. And then to just disappear off the face of the Earth, no more Christmas cards, no more of her sad, stooped figure at family gatherings. My dog’s face appeared in the living room window, a couple of minutes too late. She was getting on in years, so I had probably caught her napping. As mum had always told me, It’s impossible to think sad thoughts when you’re looking at a dog. Even the thought of attempting to wipe her eager nose juice off the windowpane later couldn’t suppress the wave of affection I still felt every time I came home.

When I got in the door, I knew Freya was home. I could see her schoolbag dumped on the stairs. Sometimes I still forgot which days she stayed for netball club. I tried to remember if she still went because she hadn’t mentioned any matches recently. I fended off Mabel’s amorous greeting and hung my coat on the stair rail. Despite my best efforts her breath still consistently smelled like old herring. It was autumn but still warm, and I was sweating under my layers.

“How was school today?” I yelled down the hallway, half-expecting her to be installed in front of the TV.

A few seconds later, a white-socked pair of feet appeared at the top of the stairs. One of her toes was sticking out through a frayed hole.

“It was fine, I guess. I had maths with Mr Harcourt though. He stinks.” Freya was fourteen and already very eloquent. “Where were you? I thought you’d be in your office. I had to walk Mabel before it gets dark.” Freya was pouting. Mabel was busy sniffing my boots.

“Thanks for your willing contributions to this household,” I said with mock grandeur, “but I was out. You know your Great Aunt Isabel has been declared legally dead. Well, it turns out everything now goes to me and your Uncle.” My scarf slid off the stair rail. I repositioned it, this time more central. It stayed put.

“Oh, yeah. Should I feel sad? I tried to feel sad, but I don’t.” Her socked feet wriggled uncomfortably on the step. “What did she leave you anyway?”

“You don’t have to feel sad, honey. You only met her once or twice and you were so young. Do you even remember her? She left me a few premium bonds and some antiques from her attic. Lord knows what’s in those boxes. Chris got her savings.”

“No, I can’t picture her face. Uncle Chris got a better deal, then” Freya said matter-of-factly. What a cynic. She should be a lawyer herself.

“That’s a harsh way of looking at it, but you might be right. The solicitors said it was divvied up equally, but I can’t see how they’re right. I have a feeling Chris just got there first.” there was a bitter edge to my voice. Chris had always been a charmer, in the right place at the right time. I was under no illusions about why he had wanted her declared legally dead. “And you need new socks again. Do you have razor blades for toes or something?”

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 1

Before this year, I hadn’t done any creative writing for a long time. I mean a long time. I had always been an avid writer at school and then somehow lost the confidence. I tried once to re-start a short story whilst at university, but anything I wrote felt hammy and wrong. My degree in German and History wasn’t particularly creative although it did keep my interest. Since I’m now doing MA Literary Translation at UEA, I’ve kind of come full circle. Suddenly, most or all of my coursemates and tutors are writers. Translating literature is an art form, and it has inspired me to have another attempt at creative writing. I’ve always loved horror stories, and writers like M.R James and Stephen King have often kept me up long into the night. So without further ado, here’s the first section of my current work in progress:

“Now, there’s just one more thing to clear up.”

My eyes wandered to the clock ticking softly on the wall. Outside, a family and dog wandered past the bay window and the sun shone. Inside, it smelled like furniture polish and instant coffee.

“Which other thing?”, I tried to yawn without opening my mouth, which was only half successful. The air seemed thick with dust, and my nose itched.

The owlish old man shifted in his chair, making the leather creak.

“There’s one more item in her will. It’s listed here under ‘antiques’. It seems Ms Coleridge had quite a collection in her attic all this time.”

“Oh, right. I never knew about that”. I suppressed the urge to chew a thumbnail. 

“Well, do you want the boxes? I could organise a delivery. If not, it can all go when the house is cleared. It’s up to you.” The solicitor bent over the paperwork. In response, his thick glasses slid a centimetre or two down his long nose. I started counting the liver spots on his bald skull. There might be something worth keeping in there. There might be something I could auction. Who knows.

“Yeah, okay. Why not?”

“Wonderful. We have your address. They should be there by the weekend.” The liver-spotted skull bobbed back up and he closed the folder with a flourish, and I briefly lost track of the clock’s steady heartbeat. He proffered me a soft, wrinkled hand and I took it. It was five to one. I hadn’t eaten anything apart from a banana in the car that morning. My stomach rumbled under my dress. I smiled, said goodbye, trotted gladly back out onto the street and breathed a sigh of relief. I put my hands on my hips and did a weird bow to try to stretch out my stiff back. It really was stifling in there. I almost skipped back down the street, vowing to sniff out a bakery before I went back to the car. 

I had barely known my aunt, yet here I was in her hometown, talking through her will with her solicitor. She had been missing for almost ten years now. She had had no children, she had not owned her home. My brother and I were her closest living relatives. Last year, he had started applying for her to be declared legally dead. A bit of closure, he said. Let’s turn the page. I hadn’t resisted. I wasn’t invested enough, hadn’t known her well enough. A life reduced to a few bonds and boxes, handed over to a near stranger. What an inheritance.