Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 12 (Final Chapter)

I sunk back into the sofa, clutching the mug with both hands and mentally steeling myself. I sat upright and focused on the television. I would not fall asleep. I knew how ridiculous that sounds, because I was aware that sooner or later you either sleep or you die, but, like a wiry mule come to the end of its useful working life, I focused my remaining willpower on plodding forwards and delaying the inevitable. I didn’t even think about leaving. Why didn’t I think about leaving? Maybe it would have followed me, maybe it couldn’t have. It’s a grey area, a question mark, a scab to pick at. I was in its thrall, a Desdemona waiting to be smothered in her bridal sheets. I couldn’t remember the last time I had left the house. It must have been days, at least. Why hadn’t it occurred to me how strange that was? Why had nobody else noticed? I suppose they expected me to be there when they came home, just like the worn-out rug in the hallway. 

I was staring into the pool. No, no, how could this have happened? I couldn’t remember dozing, I remembered watching teleshopping. By that time, I had switched to Coke because my teeth felt furry. I wanted to scream, to cry for help, but I couldn’t. I had to watch, forced into passivity. How did this happen? I should have run, smashed the mirror, taken Freya and Mabel and James and fled. Maybe James wouldn’t have come. I knew he was still sceptical, I knew he still thought it was me up to my old tricks again. The endearing, slightly shameful family nutter. Looking for attention, maybe? Lashing out after our move? I imagined him as an amateur psychologist, nestled in an armchair swirling a brandy and expounding on ‘trauma’ and ‘the subconscious’. My reflection stared back, cocked its head, reading my thoughts. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was it.

I couldn’t even close my eyes to blot out the arm reaching for me. I felt its slimy chill brush my cheek as it wound its fingers through my hair. I didn’t resist when it pulled me downwards, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was the object, I had lost the war. Well, you couldn’t really call it a war, more like a minor skirmish. 

By the time I broke the surface of the water, I was almost curious about where it was all going. I had once heard that when you have a dream of falling off a cliff, if you don’t wake up just before you hit the ground you would die for real. Did that mean it’s possible to drown in a dream? It was probably just an old wive’s tale. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. Was there anyone alive who could verify that, yes, they had hit the ground under the cliff whilst dreaming and, yes, they had lived to tell the tale?

The water kissed me with its cold embrace. It felt thick, syrupy and strangely resistant. So I had been right all along. It reminded me of those quasi-scientific documentaries I had watched as a child where they had turned custard from a liquid into a solid by walking on it. So this was it. This was my ignominious end. I felt numb, fatalistic, and only slightly annoyed that it was gripping my hair far too hard. I could only see its arm, the water was that dark. What if it ripped some out?

I wish I could tell you that I’m still here, but I can’t. I see you from the other side. Of the mirror, that is. I don’t think I’m dead. Maybe this is worse than being dead. The glass won’t break. I see you both come downstairs in the morning, put on your shoes, go to school and work. I see the thing that is and isn’t me follow you downstairs in the morning, make your sandwiches, feed the dog. I see her drift around the house. I wonder if you sleep with her. I wonder if she smells weird. I don’t think she does any work, because I never see her with the laptop. She’s the only one who looks at me, who sees me at all. She smiles at me as if she’s grateful that I took her place. It must be so liberating for her, like a veal calf let out of the crate, blinking into the sunlight. Maybe she’s not me, after all. Maybe she’s something else entirely. Or maybe I’m not me. I wonder if you’ll notice.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 11

I was in our ensuite studying the purple bruises covering my ribcage when James stormed in behind me.

“What the hell is going on? That carpet cost a fortu-” he stopped when he saw my reflection. I could see his jaw slacken in the mirror, over my right shoulder.

“Don’t ask. I don’t know.” I looked and felt terrible. There was nothing more to say.

His expression softened. Whatever vestiges of husbandliness were still there caused him to hug me from behind and rest his chin on the top of my head.

The purple lesions started around my neck and bloomed over my chest like a livid orchid. I buttoned my pyjama shirt back up. What you can’t see doesn’t exist.

“I’ll stay home from work today and we can talk this through. Just let me call them up. Don’t worry about Freya, I’ll make sure she’s up and make some sandwiches. Just go and have a lie down.”

Curled in the foetal position in bed, I briefly wondered whether Freya called James’ sandwiches patronising, too.

An hour later, and we were still laying in bed facing each other. I had told him everything, filled in all the gaps he hadn’t seen. I had told him about my nightmares, the bare feet in the hallway, and my experience in what I assumed had been the early hours of the morning. I had the slow realisation that maybe I had half an ally in whatever the situation was.

“I thought I must have been dreaming, but then I saw the footprints” I frowned.

He had the grace to look guilty that he hadn’t woken up.

“But I still don’t understand. Who could it have been? How could I not have heard a thing? I’m not usually such a deep sleeper. Should we call the police? Maybe someone broke in.”

“I stopped asking myself questions when I realised I won’t get any answers. Or the truth is scarier than telling ourselves that it was me,” my voice felt flat, emotionless, “but I don’t think this is something the police could solve. They’d just laugh at us or section me.” I frowned, “And besides, an intruder doesn’t explain why there’s only one set of footsteps leading away from the bed. How did they get in?” Thinking about it tightened the cold knot of fear in my stomach. 

James ran his hand through his hair. “This just doesn’t make any sense,” was his captivating and insightful conclusion on the subject. I went to run a bath and he went to make coffee. I don’t know whether he was afraid of me by that point.

I was watching the flickering light of the TV through narrowed eyes. James was dozing next to me. I had laid my head on his chest like back when we were dating. A slight doggy waft reached me, and I realised that Mabel was on the sofa with us too. I closed my eyes for a second, just to rest them. It felt late, and I didn’t want to go to sleep. Not tonight. Not ever. 

I jolted. I must have been dozing, slipping out of consciousness and then hurtling back. It was called sleep drunkenness, I remembered that from somewhere. Maybe a quiz show. What a funny name. I remembered a particularly vivid episode from when I was a child. I was on a caravan holiday with my grandparents, and fell asleep after dinner in the double bed at the back of the van. It was still light outside. I had had a brief but vivid dream of riding my small pink bike with streamers coming out of either handlebar down their pebbled drive, then suddenly going over the front of the handlebars and jolting myself awake in the caravan, smacking my forehead on the underside of a low shelf. For a few seconds, I felt scared, confused and alone until I realised my grandparents were there, quietly watching TV in the front. The same brief panic washed over me now, but within a few seconds I could see that all was well, at least on the surface. Even Freya was there, sunk into the armchair on the other side of the room, scrolling on her phone. Her face was bathed in blue light.

“What time is it?”

“Uhmmmm….”, as if she couldn’t see it right in front of her eyes, “half eleven.”

“Bed”, I managed to mumble.

She looked at me as if I’d just told her to delete her Snapchat. She pushed herself up from the chair and stalked out of the room. How was I supposed to know that would be the last time I’d be able to see her as she could see me? The last time I was in the same room with her, able to touch her, had I just reached out my arm. I should have hugged her then, I should have held her close and told her how much she meant to me. But I had no idea what was coming. 

James was still asleep, his chest rising and falling underneath my cheek. I was jealous, then, of his ability to fall asleep on cue, to slip effortlessly into his dream-world and forget everything else. He never seemed to have anything weighing on him. His face was smooth and slack, no nightmares.

I changed the channel. It was a loud talkshow. Celebrities throwing their heads back, revealing rows of bleached teeth. I wondered if, like sharks, there were lines and lines of huge, perfect replacements waiting behind them in ever-decreasing concentric circles. I turned up the volume, enough to keep me awake, but not enough to disturb James. I crept to the kitchen to make coffee, pressing the button and waiting for the machine to warm up. It looked like a huge, green eye in the half-light. Detritus from oven pizzas littered the kitchen. I tried my best to remember what I had done that day, but drew a blank. No work, that was for sure. No housework either, and no cooking. It felt like a crevasse I had just stepped over, unaware of its existence. I had survived. I listened to the soothing whir of the machine breaking the silence.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 10

I was staring into the pool again. The inky black darkness heaved and sighed, and I could feel the tendrils of another blurred consciousness reaching out, pressing against mine, looking for a fissure to seep into. I could see my own reflection, twisting and distorting itself over the undulating surface as I knelt there, rooted to the spot. It was me, I knew it was me, but it was also apart from me, a foreign body. She was staring at me with a shining intensity. I couldn’t recognise the blacklight in her eyes. I was aware of my surroundings although I couldn’t look up. A row of trees behind me, standing guard. Trunks at regular intervals, fading backwards into the night. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did. Just as I knew it was a clear night, I felt its starlight as clearly as I felt its icy chill. Already it felt rehearsed, as if I was going through the motions of terror, waiting for something different to happen. Like a director at his own performance, watching whether one of the actors would stumble over their lines, reminding the audience that it’s all just a show, really. And we are just waiting for the end.

I could see my reflection reaching towards me, just like last time. There was the slow spread of horror when I realised my hands were still rooted to the banks of the pond, fingernails digging into the frigid earth. This time, I didn’t wake up before her hand broke the surface. My hand? Her hand? Its hand? Dirty fingernails first, then an ivory wrist traced with pondweed and slime inching towards my face. I held my breath, and fleetingly wondered whether that made any sense at all while dreaming. The hand snapped around a loose tendril of my hair, pulling me off balance and breaking whatever had transfixed me. I opened my mouth to scream but only managed a pitiful croak. I was hurtling towards the surface, arms outstretched in a futile attempt to recapture my balance, convinced she would hold me under in her cold embrace until the putrid black treacle filled my ears, nose, eyes and mouth. My hand was first. Darkness, a scream. My scream? How could it be?

I gasped myself awake. The light was all wrong, or lack of it. It was far too dark. But then the darkness moved. Something was squatting over me, black eyes shining. Hands on my chest, pressing downwards. Frozen fingers hooked around my collar bones. The knot of fear in my gut turned to rage. I roared, focusing my entire force of will on one movement, and managed to inch myself upright. The figure leapt off, as if jolted by my sudden reserves of strength. Catlike, it crept backwards, slithered off the bed. It was still in shadow, and avoided the patch of moonlight cast on the floor through the bay window. The bedroom door was ajar, and it slid through in one long, agile movement. It was gone before I could find the switch for my bedside lamp. My hands were frozen numb. Whatever it was had left behind its cloying, stagnant reek. I reached for my chest and realised my pyjamas were damp. It had been dripping on me. I finally found the switch and sank back into my pillow, its warm glow damming my terror. The whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. I started to catch my breath and take my first tentative steps towards rationalisation. Maybe it was a bad case of sleep paralysis. I had had it before, but never like this. People experienced these kinds of things all the time though, didn’t they? Hallucinations, dread, it was all tucked away in the subconscious. It must have been the subconscious, that mystical playground of stored trauma. I could almost have laughed. I fumbled in my bedside draw, took out a box of tablets I hadn’t touched for a few months. If any occasion warranted a relapse into using drugs to sort out my brain, this was it. There was no glass of water by my bed so I swallowed them dry. I turned over and realised James had slept through the whole thing. It must have been in my head, I told myself, or he would have woken up.

Before the darkness pulled me back, I realised my shirt was still damp.

Grey dawn light filtered through the windows. James was still sleeping. I tried to remember the events of the last few hours, but they already felt hazily distant. I didn’t know whether it was the sleeping pills or my consciousness swiftly stowing away evidence of my madness into little draws upstairs. It was easier that way. 

My throat was parched and my lips felt dry and cracked. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed. All I wanted was to get into my dressing gown, go downstairs, pour myself a glass of water and stare out of the kitchen window but I stopped in my tracks. There were footprints in the carpet. Muddy footprints from small, bare feet. Gingerly, I reached down to touch one. Still damp. An awful thought came to me. I laid my foot on top of it, and it matched mine perfectly. What would have been worse, if it did match mine, or if it didn’t? I didn’t know whether or not to breathe a sigh of relief. Reluctantly, I did the inevitable and started following them. As expected, they lead me downstairs. But there was only one set, leading away from the bed. Nothing made sense any more. I think that’s the moment I gave up. They looked small and almost fragile on that expanse of plush cream carpet running through our bedroom all the way down the stairs. But then I noticed something unexpected. They didn’t lead out into the back garden and the trees beyond. They stopped in front of the mirror.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 9

Before dinner, we were lounging in the living room with some kind of light entertainment on a low volume. Jame’s face suddenly darkened, as if something else had just occurred to him that he’d rather not think about.

“What’s up?” You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He laughed nervously.

“Have you ever sleepwalked?”

Not an entirely unexpected question, given recent events. But my defences went up anyway.

“Where is this going?”

“I couldn’t get to sleep last night, so I went downstairs to watch TV. I thought you were sleeping when I left. But a few minutes later, I saw, or rather felt, someone going into the kitchen. But it was weird, because I hadn’t heard anyone come down the stairs. But it must have been you or Freya. So I stayed put and didn’t think much of it. Then, on the way back, you stopped in the living room doorway.”

“Did I?” slow dread was creeping up my knees. 

“Yeah. It was definitely you. But you looked funny.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I had never seen those pyjamas before.”

“You never were very observant” I managed to choke out. It was now at my throat.

He smiled weakly, “and then I didn’t hear you go back upstairs either. And I had forgotten about it this morning, but it just came back,” he blinked as if dazed, “so I have come to the conclusion that you’re a light-footed sleepwalker.”

By this point, I had managed to swallow once or twice and look him in the face. The thought had already occurred to me too. 

“You might be right” was all I could add to that. My thoughts turned to the last evening. I had been so screen-weary that I’d gone upstairs only an hour or two after dinner. I had done some perfunctory housework and snuck into bed, and the last thing I could remember was James half-waking me when he slid into his side. I thought I had slept like a log until early the next morning. Maybe I was wrong.

“You’re sure it was me?”

James frowned and his eyes glazed over. He was slowly starting to look unsure of himself.

“Yeah, who else could it have been? Freya looks almost nothing like you.” That was true. When we saw her blonde curls and dark eyes, we sometimes used to joke that she must have been swapped in the hospital. But since her temper started to develop, James changed his mind about that. 

“What did my pyjamas look like?” I murmured.

“I’m forgetting already. But long, loose and pale. You looked like an inpatient” he smiled, but it was tight-lipped. 

“I don’t have any pyjamas like that. Don’t you remember what I was wearing when I went to bed?”

“Actually, no. I turned around and you were gone. I thought, finally, I can watch a regency drama without feeling judged,” he rolled his eyes, trying to lighten the mood, but I could tell he was fronting, “but now I know I must have been mistaken. It already feels a little hazy.” Now he was hedging, minimalising, like usual. 

“Hypothetically, If I have been sleepwalking, it could explain last night, and the boots,” I frowned. I still didn’t think I was the sleepwalking type. “But there’s one thing it can’t explain.” I drifted off into a pregnant silence. The gravity of my tone didn’t match the ridiculousness of the subject.

“What?” James was absentmindedly ruffling my hair again. 

“How did the glasses get in the fridge? I had been wearing them that same morning.”

“Aren’t you going to finally admit it was a pretty lame joke?” James nudged me with his elbow but his smile faded when he saw the look on my face.

What other secrets did this house have in store for me? Or was just me? Had I literally become a sleep-walker overnight? Or was it James, trying to rattle me? But why would he? I rubbed my temples. I didn’t believe in ghosts, or omens. There was no need to make life more complicated than it already was. I debated registering at the doctor’s to get a refill on my old prescription, although I hadn’t for the past year. But they probably knew James or his parents. For the first time since my move, the creeping loneliness inside me burst into a jagged blossom of pain. My husband put his arm around me, but his hand felt cold to the touch. 

He cleared his throat quietly. 

“Where’s Freya?”

Shit. Netball club.

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 8

It was late afternoon again. Mabel was snoring peacefully beside me. There were some perks to having an old dog, including being able to work almost uninterrupted whilst enjoying their company. The dusk was settling on the diagonal panes of glass in the living room windows. It was cold outside, so condensation was clinging in half-moons to the frames. I had decided to switch things up a little by putting my feet up in the living room to work instead of in the draughty office upstairs. We had a wood stove in the living room, and my feet were comfortably close to the glowing embers. The problem with wood stoves, however, was that you had to keep getting up every so often to pile more wood into them. I also had another problem. There wasn’t enough space in my lap for both my laptop and the book I was translating. I made a mental note to add both a lap desk to my Christmas list and to request an electronic copy of my next project. 

My phone rang upstairs, upsetting the thick silence, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Why wasn’t it on silent? I weighed up the options in my head over the next few seconds. Go upstairs into the chilly bedroom, disturb my sofa nest, and what if it was a cold call, someone asking if I’d had a road accident in the last six months? What if it was a friend? What if it was my mother-in-law?

Having hesitated a moment too long, I leapt up the stairs two at a time and picked up on what must have been the final ring.

“Hey, stranger!” it was Lucille.

“Oh hey, Lucille”, I tried and failed to conceal my panting, “I’m so glad you’re not my mother-in-law.”

“Me too. So are you coming this weekend or not? I need to know whether to take the kids to my own mother-in-law. She looks at me every time like I’ve failed in that department, but if this was a job, I’d already have earned two week’s overtime.”
Her voice did sound exhausted, but it was still flavoured with her slight French accent. Even after twenty years in London, she still hadn’t lost it.

“Yes! Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, I don’t know, we’ve barely spoken for a week. Since you moved en provence it’s like you fell off the face of the Earth.”

I sighed. She was right. Anytime I was having a stressed-out period, I withdrew. Some people loved to talk things through, I always felt like a burden.

“I know, I’m sorry. I’ve just had a lot on my plate here, settling in, mothering Freya whether she likes it or not, taking on extra projects to cover the moving costs and mortgage while James digs holes all day…”

Lucille giggles “Don’t be too hard on him. One of you has to enjoy their job!”

I smile down the phone, as if Lucille can hear it. “You know I love my job, just not fifty hours a week.”

“Who would?” Lucille had always worked part-time as a French tutor. Her husband was a lawyer, so her work was basically window-dressing when it came to the family finances.

“So I’ll drive down for Saturday afternoon? What are you cooking?” That was another joke. Lucille could burn water.

“Tea. And then we’ll go somewhere nice.”

“Yes, sure. See you then. I miss you” that was only the tip of the iceberg really.

“You too. Are you doing okay up there?” she was perceptive, always.

“Not really. I’m worried I’m not normal. Something put my glasses in the fridge and James thinks it’s a bad joke. I’ll tell you all about it when I get there”

Lucille never missed a beat with my weirdness. She had her own eccentricities, whereas James had always preferred to put my problems in the same category as the sleeping pills in my bedside drawer and pretend they didn’t exist. “Well that’s certainly not normal. Colour me intrigued.”

“Thank you for your warm and comforting words, Lucille”, I couldn’t help laughing down the phone.

“I’ll have a bottle of wine waiting for you when you get here. He’s my therapist too”, I didn’t know if she was joking. As with all good female friendships, the conversation meandered long after the first goodbye, but I finally hung up when I heard James stomping through the front door.

“Shoes off!” I yelled for the hundredth time.

“Sorry, I forgot they were on my feet!” he lied. “Speaking of which- why were my work boots outside the front door this morning? Is this another one of your silly little jokes?”

“What?” I was genuinely baffled.

“I couldn’t find them this morning before heading off. I had to put my walking boots on instead. Then, when I open the front door, lo and behold, there they are. It had been raining all night and they were soaked.” he fixed me with a wounded glare, like a schoolboy who’s just had his sweets confiscated mid-lesson.

“Why do you think it must have been me?” I asked, equally wounded.

“I don’t know. It seems to be your thing lately, playing little jokes and putting things where they shouldn’t be. Maybe out of boredom, maybe out of spite, I don’t know” he narrowed his eyes at me. This was all a bit much.

“Don’t you think you could have just left them there and forgotten about them, as a mistake? Maybe Freya thought it would be funny? Don’t jump down my throat about it” I bit back. Inside, I was shaken. Was I now putting boots out in my sleep? What was the next step, milk in the kettle? Spaghetti hoops in the bath? It felt like this house was playing tricks on me.

I must have been broadcasting bewildered innocence, because he visibly mellowed. “Look, I don’t want to argue about this. There was no harm done, I suppose. Nothing fell on my toe today, and they should be dry by now, because I put them upside down on the radiator this morning,” he pointed to them- I hadn’t actually noticed them until now “so we can we kiss and make up?”

“Charming and refined, as ever” I joked, kissing him on the cold cheek.

“How was your day?”

“Cold. Can you look at the radiator in the study? I had to migrate to the living room” I pouted. 

He rolled his eyes. “There’s probably just some air trapped in it.”
“Well if it’s so easy, you’ll get it done in no time!” I breezed. 

Categories
Prose

The Inheritance: Part 7

It had started raining. Round, ripe teardrops signalled the change in weather coming into full swing. I was looking for fleeting distractions from the mental fatigue that sets in after spending too many hours staring at a screen, watching the drops slowly collect together in rivulets on the outside of the glass, the way that children do on long car journeys, cheering for their favourites. I watched them converge as gravity forced them downwards. All rivers lead to the sea. I heard the front door open with a creak and then slam shut. Bare footsteps softly slapped down the tiled hallway. Freya must have taken her shoes and socks off in the porch, which was strange for November but, hey, maybe it was part and parcel of her newfound vegetarianism. Grounding, or whatever. I was still trying to decide whether it would turn out to be a phase.

“Hey, how was school?” I yelled down the stairs. I was adding a final polish to my project and didn’t want to lose the flow by trudging downstairs to give Freya a hug that would probably be brushed off. The study was cooling despite the best efforts of the ancient radiator, and I had spread a shawl over my lap. I felt like one of the babushkas I had seen on the side of the road in Kiev, proffering their wares with gnarled and calloused hands. I was nestled in my ancient armchair. It had followed me ever since my university days, and now I was convinced I couldn’t write without it. I had always hated office chairs. When I moved into student accommodation at the age of eighteen, my second big move was to push the standard-issue swivel chair into the corner and go hunting for a secondhand replacement. It even had a reclining function for my fallow periods. Roping my flatmates in with the hauling hadn’t earned me any favours. I smiled at the memory before I realised that my greeting had been met with stony silence. Shrugging, I turned back to my work. If Freya wanted to be sullen, I wasn’t going to chase her. 

An hour or two later, I had switched my desk lamp on and could barely see a thing outside. I clicked ‘send’ and closed the window I had finally finished, and a familiar feeling rushed through me. Elation, fatigue, a vague sense of dread about when they were actually going to pay me. I closed my eyes and leaned back. On paper, the wolf had been kept from the door, for another couple of months at least. I decided to leave it until the next day to go hunting for a new commission, and when I went to stand up, I realised how long I must have been sitting fixed in the same position. My bones felt frozen in place and it took a couple of seconds to get them creaking into action. I cursed my laziness about enrolling in those Hatha yoga classes at the local leisure centre. To me, there was something undignified about being middle-aged and sitting there in yoga pants in a draughty auditorium making small talk with other middle-aged women until the middle-aged instructor gets her CD player out.

I reached for my glasses, which I had laid on the desk next to my laptop. I was short-sighted, meaning I was blind only when it came to looking more than a metre in front of me. I only tended to put on my glasses whilst driving or walking around the house to avoid any head-on collisions. My hand hit bare wood. They were gone. I found myself frantically slapping the desk in a pathetic parody of patting yourself down when you realise you’ve left your purse on the train. I couldn’t be mistaken. I had definitely come into my office earlier wearing them. They weren’t expensive and I could easily replace them, but it was more the thought of being so mistaken in my short-term memory that unsettled me. I pulled the desk slightly towards me and searched frantically behind it, to see if they had slid down the back somewhere. Still nothing. All I could see was a dusty stretch of carpet with a few hairs and old bits of paper squashed into it. I slid the desk back into position. Dirt you can’t see doesn’t exist. I was still in a daze about my glasses, wondering how I was going to get to the opticians with illegally compromised vision. 

I had just reached the top of the stairs and was, literally and figuratively, debating my next step when I heard the door go again. Like everything in the house and two thirds of its residents, it was old and stiff and needed a shake before it would function. James barrelled through the threshold having put a little too much elbow grease into the jiggling.

“Hiya,” he breathed and busied himself unloading his scarf onto the already overloaded stair rail. 

“Hey. Have you seen my glasses today? I can’t find them” I was descending the stairs one at a time, gingerly as a retiree after a hip replacement.

“No, I haven’t actually. Are you sure you just haven’t left them somewhere random again?”

“I swear I took them with me to the study today, but they weren’t where I left them when I got up.” Early-onset Alzheimers?

“They must be up there somewhere” he shrugged.

“Well, they must. I don’t like going up the stairs without them. Do you think the opticians is still open? Maybe we could go before dinner? I need a spare pair anyway.”

“Can’t you just hang on until tomorrow? I could take you after work. Maybe they’ll show up by then. Maybe you just need to have a good look for them”

“James, I can’t look for them if I can’t see. They’re a common prescription. I could probably get some on the spot.”

I could see him groan inwardly. He pinched between his eyes, making a show of having just had a really long, tough day. “Yeah, I guess we have about an hour until they shut.”

“Well I can’t drive myself. Otherwise I wouldn’t have asked” he loved playing the martyr.

“It’s fine. Check the fridge first, though, and see if we need to get anything for dinner from the supermarket on the way back. It’s just the two of us, so we can have something meaty” he feigned a playful wink.

My blood ran cold.

“What do you mean ‘just the two of us’?” my voice was somewhere between a whisper and a squeak. 

“Freya’s gone round a friend’s house for dinner. I’m going to pick her up later. Didn’t she text you? She texted me” James’ innocent confusion added to my deep thrum of foreboding. His face was a blur which slowly came into focus as I reached the bottom of the stairs, looking at me with concern. Should I tell him? Probably not, he’d laugh it off or tell me I need to stop sitting in this house alone, losing my glasses and imagining noises. My phone was always on silent, and I always kept it somewhere else when I was working. I was far too easily distracted. It was probably sitting on my bedside table at that moment, but I couldn’t be sure.

“I haven’t looked at my phone since lunchtime, actually!” I faked a sheepish grin whilst my mind was running, desperately trying to rationalise what I knew I had heard that afternoon.

“You don’t have to remind me what you’re like” he shot back. James was an instant replier. I found it hard to fathom how anyone could put up with being disturbed several times a day by something as jarring as a ringtone.

I still felt slightly queasy, so I bought myself time by slipping into the kitchen and opening the fridge, obscuring myself behind its door. I stared into it as if willing it to give up its secrets, some inspiration for dinner and advice on whether I was actually going insane. 

“There’s chicken breasts. I could do a curry. Is that meaty enough for you?”

“Why don’t you let me do the curry?” he ruffled my hair, one of his habits. I didn’t usually mind it, but just then it took on a patronising tinge.

“You don’t like my cooking?”
“It’s not that I don’t like your cooking,” If I could see him at that moment, he would have been clasping his hands in front of himself in a gesture of mock sincerity, “It’s just that I have the time and inclination this evening to do something fit for human consumption.”

Absentmindedly, I looked at the space in the fridge which had until moments ago been obscured by the chicken breasts. It was in crystal clear high definition since I had stuck my head so far in, avoiding James’ perceptively gauging my emotions that I had, apparently, been alone in the house for the couple of hours since whatever it was had walked in through the front door on bare feet. 

My glasses were in the fridge.

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.