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Before You Sleep: Three Horrors

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Before You Sleep

by Adam L. G. Nevill

Published by

Ritual Limited

Devon, England

MMXVI

[email protected]

www.adamlgnevill.com

Stories © Adam L. G. Nevill

This Edition © Ritual Limited

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address above.

Cover design by ClarkevanMeurs Design Ltd

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Before You Sleep

Adam L.G.Nevill. —1st ed.

[]Foreword

These three horror stories are an hors d’oeuvre before the main course that is Some Will Not Sleep: Selected Horrors, my first collection of horror short stories, written between 1995 and 2011, and published in September 2016. These three terrors offer an insight into the other ghost stories, supernatural and occult horror stories, weird tales, and folk horror themes that abound in the Some Will Not Sleep anthology.

A list of my horror novels is included at the back of this book, and there is an offer front and back for horror readers to collect a second free book from me, Cries from the Crypt: Selected Writings. This is a full, seventy thousand word book compiled from my rare and uncollected short fiction, various articles featuring advice for writers of horror, some of my favourite interviews that I have given about horror and my own novels, features on horror, and unpublished scenes and chapters from many of my novels. It’s absolutely free and a companion piece to both my work and modern horror culture. Register and grab your copy at my home page www.adamlgnevill.com. Meanwhile, thank you for checking out Before You Sleep and I hope that you enjoy these stories.

Manes exite paterni

Adam L. G. Nevill

June, 2016.

[]Where Angels Come In

One side of my body is full of toothache. Right in the middle of the bones. The skin and muscles of one arm and one leg have a chilly pins-and-needles tingle. They’ll never be warm again. That’s why Nana Alice is here; sitting on the chair at the foot of my bed, her crumpled face in shadow. But the milky light that comes through the net curtains still finds a sparkle in her quick eyes, and gleams on the yellowish grin that hasn’t changed since my mother let her into the house, made her a cup of tea and showed her into my room. Nana Alice smells like the inside of overflow pipes at the back of the council houses.

‘Least you still got one half,’ she says. She has a metal brace on her thin leg. The foot at the end of the caliper is inside a baby’s shoe. Even though it’s rude, I can’t stop staring. Her normal leg is fat. ‘They took me leg and one arm too.’ Using her normal fingers, she picks the dead hand from a pocket in her cardigan and plops it onto her lap. Small and grey, the hand reminds me of a doll’s hand. I don’t look for long.

She leans forward in her chair, and I can smell the tea on her breath as she says, ‘Show me where you was touched, luv.’

I unbutton my pyjama top and roll onto my good side. At the sight of the scar, Nana Alice wastes no time and her podgy fingertips press around the shrivelled skin at the top of my arm, but she doesn’t touch the see-through parts where the hand once held me. Nana Alice’s eyes go big and her lips pull back to show gums more black than purple. Against her thigh, her doll hand shakes. Cradling the tiny hand and rubbing it with living fingers, she coughs and sits back in the chair. When I’ve covered my shoulder, Nana Alice still watches that part of me without blinking and seems disappointed to see it covered so soon. She wets her lips. ‘Tell us what happened, luv.’

Propping myself up in the pillows, I peer out the window and swallow the big lump in my throat. Feeling a bit sickish, I don’t want to remember what happened. Not ever.

Across the street, inside the spiky metal fence built around the park, I can see the usual circle of mothers. Huddled into their coats and sitting on benches beside pushchairs, or holding the leads of tugging dogs, they watch the children play. Upon the climbing frames and on the wet grass, the kids race about and shriek and laugh and fall and cry. Wrapped up in scarves and padded coats, they swarm among hungry pigeons and seagulls; thousands of small white and grey shapes, pecking around their stamping feet. Eventually, the birds all panic and rise in a curving squadron, raising their plump bodies into the air with flap-cracky wings. And the children are blind with their own fear and excitement in brief tornadoes of dusty feathers, red feet, cruel beaks and startled eyes. But they are safe here – the children and the birds – and closely watched by their tense mothers, and are kept inside the stockade of iron railings: the only place outdoors the children are allowed to play since I came back, alone. A lot of things go missing in our town: cats, dogs, children. And they never come back. Except for me and Nana Alice. We came home, or at least half of us did.

Lying in my sickbed every day now, so pale in the face and weak in the heart, I drink medicines, read books and watch the children play from my bedroom window. Sometimes I sleep, but only when I have to. At least, when I’m awake, I can read, watch television and listen to my mom and sisters downstairs. But in dreams, I go back to the big white house on the hill, where old things with skipping feet circle me, then rush in close to show their faces.

For Nana Alice, she thinks that the time she went inside the big white place, as a little girl, was a special occasion. She’s still grateful for being allowed inside. Our dad calls her a silly old fool and doesn’t want her in our house. He doesn’t know she’s here today. But when a child vanishes, or someone dies, lots of the mothers ask Nana to visit them. ‘She can see things and feel things that the rest of us can’t,’ my mom says. Like the two police ladies, and the mothers of the two girls who went missing last winter, and Pickering’s parents, my mom just wants to know what happened to me.

‘Tell us, luv. Tell us about the house,’ Nana Alice says, smiling. No adult likes to talk about the beautiful, tall house on the hill. Even our dads who come home from the industry, smelling of plastic and beer, look uncomfortable if their kids say they can hear the ladies crying again, above their heads, but deep inside their ears at the same time, calling from the distance, from the hill, and from inside us. Our parents can’t hear it any more, but they remember the sound from when they were small. It’s like people are trapped up on that hill and are calling out for help. And when no one comes, they get real angry. ‘Foxes,’ the parents tell us, but they don’t look you in the eye when they say it.

For a long time after ‘my accident’ I was unconscious in the hospital. When I woke up, I was so weak I stayed there for another three months. Gradually, one half of my body got stronger and I was allowed home. That’s when the questions began about my mate, Pickering, whom they never found. And now Nana Alice wants to know every single thing that I can remember, and about all of the dreams too. Only I never know what is real and what came out of the coma with me.

For years, we talked about going up there. All the kids do, and Pickering, Ritchie and me wanted to be the bravest boys in our school. We wanted to break in there and come out with treasure for proof that we’d been inside, and not just looked in through the gate like all the others we knew. Some people say the white house on the hill was once a place where old, rich people lived after they retired from owning the industry, the land, the laws, our houses, our town, us. Others say the building was built on an old well and that the ground is contaminated. A teacher told us the mansion used to be a hospital and is still full of germs. Our dad said the house was an asylum for lunatics that closed down over a hundred years ago, and has stayed empty ever since, because it’s falling to pieces and is too expensive to repair. That’s why kids should never go there: you could be crushed by bricks or fall through a floor. Nana Alice says it’s a place ‘where angels come in’. But we all know that it’s the place where the missing things are. Every street in our town has lost pets and knows a family who’s lost a child. And every time the police search the big house they find nothing. No one remembers the big gate being open.

So on a Friday morning when all the kids in our area were walking to school, me, Ritchie and Pickering sneaked off the other way. Through the allotments, where me and Pickering were once caught smashing deckchairs and beanpoles; through the woods full of broken glass and dogshit; over the canal bridge; across the potato fields with our heads down so the farmer wouldn’t see us; and over the railway tracks until we couldn’t even see the roofs of the last houses in our town. Talking about hidden treasure, we stopped by the old ice-cream van with four flat tyres, to throw rocks and stare at the faded menu on the little counter, our mouths watering as we made selections that would never be served. On the other side of the woods that surround the estate, we could see the chimneys of the big white mansion above the trees.

Although Pickering had been walking out front the whole time telling us he wasn’t scared of security guards or watchdogs or even ghosts – Cus you can just put your hand froo them – when we reached the bottom of the wooded hill no one said anything, and we never looked at each other. Part of me always believed that we would turn back at the black gate, because the fun part was telling stories about the house and planning the expedition and imagining terrible things. Going inside was different because lots of the missing kids had talked about the house before they disappeared. And some of the young men who broke in there, for a laugh, always came away a bit funny in the head. Our dad said that was because of drugs.

Even the trees near the estate were different, like they were too still and silent and the air between them was real cold. But we went up through the trees and found the high brick wall that surrounds the grounds. There was barbed wire and broken glass set into concrete on top of the wall. We followed the wall until we reached the black iron gate. The gate is higher than a house, and it has a curved top made from iron spikes, fixed between two pillars with big stone balls on top. Seeing the PRIVATE PROPERTY: TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED sign made shivers go up my neck and under my hair.

‘I heard them balls roll off and kill trespassers,’ Ritchie said. I’d heard the same thing, but when Ritchie said that, I knew that he wasn’t going inside with us.

We wrapped our hands around the cold black bars of the gate and peered through at the long flagstone path that goes up the hill, between avenues of trees and old statues hidden by branches and weeds. All the uncut grass of the lawns was waist-deep and the flower beds were wild with colour. At the summit was the tall white house with the big windows. Sunlight glinted off the glass. Above all the chimneys, the sky was blue. ‘Princesses lived there,’ Pickering whispered.

‘Can you see anyone?’ Ritchie asked. He was shivering with excitement and had to take a pee. He tried to rush it over some nettles – we were fighting a war against nettles and wasps that summer – but got half of the piss down his legs.

‘It’s empty,’ Pickering whispered. ‘Except for hidden treasure. Darren’s brother got this owl inside a big glass. I seen it. Looks like it’s still alive. At night, it moves its head.’

Ritchie and I looked at each other; everyone knows the stories about the animals or birds inside the glass cases that people find up there. There’s one about a lamb with no fur, inside a tank of green water that someone’s uncle found when he was a boy. It still blinks its little black eyes. And someone said they found skeletons of children all dressed up in old clothes, holding hands.

All rubbish; because I know what’s really inside there. Pickering had seen nothing, but if we challenged him he’d start yelling, ‘Have so! Have so!’ and me and Ritchie weren’t happy with anything but whispering near the gate.

‘Let’s just watch and see what happens. We can go in another day,’ Ritchie said.

‘You’re chickening out!’ Pickering kicked at Ritchie’s legs. ‘I’ll tell everyone Ritchie pissed his pants.’

Ritchie’s face went white and his bottom lip quivered. Like me, he was imagining crowds of swooping kids shouting, ‘Piss pot! Piss pot!’ Once the crowds find a coward, they’ll hunt him every day until he’s pushed out to the edges of the playground where the failures stand and watch. Every kid in town knows this place takes away brothers, sisters, cats and dogs, but when we hear the cries from the hill, it’s our duty to force one another out here. It’s a part of our town and always has been. Pickering is one of the toughest kids in school and he had to go.

Standing back and sizing up the gate, Pickering said, ‘I’m going in first. Watch where I put me hands and feet.’ And it didn’t take him long to get over. There was a little wobble at the top when he swung a leg between two spikes, but not long after that he was standing on the other side, grinning at us. To me, it now looked like there was a little ladder built into the gate; where the metal vines and thorns curved between the long poles, you could see the pattern of steps for small hands and feet. I’d heard that little girls always found a secret wooden door in the brick wall that no one else can find when they look for it. But that might just be another story.

If I didn’t go over and the raid was a success, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being a piss pot and wishing I’d gone in with Pickering. We could be heroes together, and I was full of the same crazy feeling that makes me climb oak trees to the very top branches, stare up at the sky and let go with my hands for a few seconds knowing that if I fall I will die.

When I climbed away from whispering Ritchie on the ground, the squeaks and groans of the gate were so loud that I was sure I could be heard all the way up the hill and inside the house too. When I got to the top and was getting ready to swing a leg over, Pickering said, ‘Don’t cut your balls off.’ But I couldn’t smile, or even breathe. It was much higher up there than it looked from the ground. My arms and legs started to shake. With one leg over, between the spikes, panic came up my throat. If one hand slipped off the worn metal I imagined my whole weight forcing the spike through my thigh, and how I would hang there, dripping. I looked at the house and I felt that there was a face behind every window, watching me.

Many of the stories about the white place on the hill came into my head at the same time too: how you only see the red eyes of the thing that drains your blood; how it’s kiddie-fiddlers that hide in there and torture captives for days before burying them alive, which is why no one ever finds the missing children; and some say that the thing that makes the crying noise might look like a beautiful lady when you first see it, but soon changes once it’s holding you.

‘Hurry up. It’s easy,’ Pickering said, from way down below.

Ever so slowly, I lifted my second leg over, then lowered myself down the other side. He was right; it wasn’t a hard climb at all; kids could do it.

I stood in hot sunshine on the other side of the gate, smiling. The light was brighter over there; glinting off all the white stone and glass on the hill. And the air seemed weird, real thick and warm. When I looked back through the gate, the world around Ritchie seemed grey and dull like it was November or something. He stood on his own, biting his bottom lip. Around us, the overgrown grass was so glossy it hurt my eyes to look at it. Reds, yellows, purples, oranges and lemons of the flowers flowed inside my head and I could taste hot summer inside my mouth. Around the trees, the statues and the flagstone path, the air was wavy and my skin felt so warm that I shivered. Closing my eyes, I said, ‘Beautiful.’ A word that I wouldn’t usually use around Pickering.

‘This is where I want to live,’ he said, his eyes and face one big smile.

We both started to laugh and hugged each other, which we’d never done before. Anything I ever worried about seemed silly now. I felt taller, and could go anywhere, and do anything that I liked. I know Pickering felt the same. Anything Ritchie said sounded stupid to us, and I don’t even remember it now.

Protected by the overhanging tree branches and long grasses, we kept to the side of the path and began walking up the hill. But after a while, I started to feel a bit nervous. The house looked even bigger than I’d thought it was, down by the gate. Even though we could see no one and hear nothing, I felt like we’d walked into a crowded but silent place where lots of eyes were watching us. Following us.

We stopped walking by the first statue that wasn’t totally covered in green moss and dead leaves. Through the low branches of a tree, we could still see the two stone children, naked and standing together on the marble block. One boy and one girl. They were both smiling, but not in a nice way, because we could see too much of their teeth.

‘They’s all open on the chest,’ Pickering said. And he was right. Their stone skin was peeled back on the breastbone, and cupped in their outstretched hands were small lumps with veins carved into the marble – their own little hearts. The good feeling I had down by the gate went.

Sunlight shone through the trees and striped us with shadows and bright slashes. Eyes big and mouths dry, we walked on and checked some of the other statues that we passed. We couldn’t stop ourselves; it was like the sculptures made you stare at them so that you could work out what was sticking through the leaves, branches and ivy. There was one horrible cloth-thing that seemed too real to be made from stone. Its face was so nasty that I couldn’t look at it for long. Standing under that thing gave me the queer feeling that it was swaying from side to side, and ready to jump off the block and come at us.

Pickering was walking ahead of me, but he stopped to look at another statue. I remember he seemed to shrink into the shadow that the figure made on the ground, and he peered at his shoes like he didn’t want to see the statue. I caught up with him, but didn’t look too long either. Beside the statue of the ugly man in a cloak and big hat was a smaller shape covered in a robe and hood with something coming out of a sleeve that reminded me of snakes.

I didn’t want to go any further and knew that I’d be seeing these statues in my sleep for a long time. Looking down the hill at the gate, I was surprised to see how far away it was now. ‘Think I’m going back,’ I said to Pickering.

Pickering never called me a chicken. He didn’t want to start a fight and be on his own. ‘Let’s just go into the house quick,’ he said. ‘And get something. Otherwise no one will believe us.’

The thought of getting any closer to the white house, and the staring windows, made me feel sick with nerves. It was four storeys high and must have had hundreds of rooms. All the windows upstairs were dark, so we couldn’t see beyond the glass. Downstairs, they were all boarded up against trespassers.

‘It’s empty, I bet,’ Pickering said, to try and make us feel better. But it didn’t do much for me. He didn’t seem so smart or hard any more. He was just a stupid kid who hadn’t got a clue.

‘Nah,’ I said.

He walked away from me. ‘Well, I am. I’ll say you waited outside.’ His voice was too soft to carry the usual threat. But all the same, I imagined his triumphant face while Ritchie and I were the piss pots. I’d even climbed the gate and come this far, but my part would mean nothing if Pickering went further than me.

We never looked at any more of the statues. If we had, I don’t think we’d have reached the steps that went up to the big iron doors of the house. Didn’t seem to take us long to reach the house either. Even taking slow, reluctant steps got us there real quick. And on legs full of warm water I followed Pickering up to the doors.

‘Why is they made of metal?’ he asked me.

I never had an answer.

He pressed both hands against the doors. One of them creaked but never opened. ‘They’s locked,’ he said.

But as Pickering shoved at the creaky door again, and with his shoulder and his body at an angle, I’m sure that I saw movement in a window on the second floor. Something whitish, behind the glass. It was like a shape had appeared out of the darkness and then sunk back into it, quick but graceful. It made me think of a carp surfacing in a cloudy pond before vanishing as soon as you saw its pale back. ‘Pick!’ I hissed.

There was a clunk inside the door that Pickering was straining his body against. ‘It’s open,’ he cried out, and he stared into the narrow gap between the two iron doors.

I couldn’t help thinking that the door had been opened from inside. ‘I wouldn’t,’ I said. He smiled and waved for me to come over and to help him make a bigger gap. I stayed where I was and watched the windows upstairs as the widening door made a grinding sound against the floor. Without another word, Pickering walked inside the big white house.

Silence hummed in my ears. Sweat trickled down my face. I wanted to run to the gate.

Pickering’s face reappeared in the doorway. ‘Quick. Come and look at the birds.’ He was breathless with excitement, and then he disappeared again.

I peered through the gap at a big, empty hallway. I saw a staircase going up to the next floor. Pickering was standing in the middle of the hall, looking at the ground, and at all of the dried-up birds on the wooden floorboards. Hundreds of dead pigeons. I went inside.

No carpets, or curtains, or light bulbs, just bare floorboards, white walls and two closed doors on either side of the hall. On the floor, most of the birds still had feathers but looked real thin. Some were just bones. Others were dust.

‘They get in and they got nothin’ to eat,’ Pickering said. ‘We should collect the skulls.’ He crunched across the floor and tried the doors at either side of the hall, yanking the handles up and down. ‘Locked,’ he said. ‘Both locked. Let’s go up them stairs. See if there’s somefing in the rooms.’

I flinched at every creak our feet made on the stairs, and I told Pickering to walk at the sides like me. But he wasn’t listening and was just going up fast on his plump legs. When I caught up with him, at the first turn in the stairs, I started to feel real strange again. The air was weird, hot and thin like we were in a tiny space. We were both sweaty under our school uniforms too, from just walking up one flight of stairs. I had to lean against a wall.

Pickering shone his torch at the next floor. All we could see up there were plain walls in a dusty corridor. A bit of sunlight was getting in from somewhere upstairs, but not much. ‘Come on,’ he said, without turning his head to look at me.

‘I’m going outside,’ I said. ‘I can’t breathe.’ But as I moved to go back down the first flight of stairs, I heard a door creak open and then close, below us. I stopped still and heard my heart bang against my eardrums from the inside. The sweat turned to frost on my face and neck and under my hair. And real quick, and sideways, something moved across the shaft of light falling through the open front door.

My eyeballs went cold and I felt dizzy. From the corner of my eye, I could see Pickering’s face too, watching me from above, on the next flight of stairs. He turned the torch off with a loud click.

The thing in the hall moved again, back the way it had come, but it paused at the edge of the rectangle of light on the floorboards. And started to sniff at the dirty ground. It was mostly the way that she moved down there that made me feel as light as a feather and ready to faint. Least I think it was a she, but when people get that old you can’t always tell. There wasn’t much hair on the head and the skin was yellow. She looked more like a puppet made of bones and dressed in a grubby nightie than an old lady. And could old ladies move that fast? Sideways like a crab she went, looking backwards at the open door, so I couldn’t see the face properly, which I was glad of.

If I moved too quick, I’m sure that she would have looked up and seen me, so I took two slow steps to get behind the wall of the next staircase, where Pickering was already hiding. He looked like he was trying not to cry. I thought about them stone kids outside, and what they held in their little hands, and I tried not to cry too.

Then we heard the sound of another door opening downstairs. We huddled on a step together, trembling, and we peered round the corner of the staircase to make sure that the old thing wasn’t coming up the stairs, sideways. But another one was down there. I saw it skittering around by the door like a chicken, and all the air leaked out of me before I could scream.

That one moved quicker than the first one, with the help of two black sticks. Bent over with a hump for a back, it was covered in a dusty black dress that swished over the floor. What I could see of the face, through the veil, was all pinched and was sickly-white as the grubs you find under wet bark. And when she made the whistling sound, it hurt my ears deep inside and made my bones feel cold.

Pickering’s face was wild with fear and it was like there was no blood left inside his head and I was seeing too much of his eyes. ‘Is they old ladies?’ he said in a voice all broken.

I grabbed his arm. ‘We got to get out. Maybe there’s a window, or another door round the back.’ Which meant that we had to go up the stairs, run through the building and find another way down to the ground floor, before breaking our way out.

I took another peek down the stairs to see what they were doing, but wished I hadn’t. There were two more of them. A tall man with legs like sticks was looking up at us with a face that never changed, because it had no lips or eyelids or nose. He wore a creased suit with a gold watch chain on the waistcoat, and was standing behind a wicker chair. In the chair was a bundle wrapped in tartan blankets. Peeking above the coverings was a small head inside a cloth cap. The face was yellow as corn in a tin. The first two were standing by the open door so that we couldn’t get out through the front.

Running up the stairs into a hotter darkness, my whole body felt baggy and clumsy and my knees chipped together. Pickering went first with the torch and used his elbows so that I couldn’t overtake him. I bumped into his back, and kicked his heels, and inside his fast breathing I could hear him sniffing at tears. ‘Is they comin’?’ he kept asking. I didn’t have the breath to answer and kept running through the long corridor, between dozens of closed doors, to get to the end. I just looked straight ahead and knew that I would freeze if one of the doors opened. And with our feet making such a bumping on the floorboards, I can’t say that I was surprised when I heard the click of a lock behind us. We both made the mistake of looking back.

At first, we thought it was waving at us. But then we realised that the skinny lady in the dirty nightdress was moving her long arms through the air to attract the attention of the others that had followed us up the stairwell. We could hear the scuffle and swish as they came through the dark behind us. But how could this one see us, I thought, with all those rusty bandages around her head? Then we heard another of those horrible whistles, followed by more doors opening real quick, like them things were in a hurry to get out of the rooms.

At the end of the corridor, there was another stairwell with more light in it, which fell from a high window three floors up. But the glass must have been dirty and greenish, because everything around us on the stairs looked like it was under water. When he turned to bolt down the stairs, I saw that Pickering’s face was all shiny with tears and the front of his trousers had a dark patch spreading down one leg.

It was real hard to get down to the ground. It was like we had no strength left in our bodies, as if our fear was draining us through the slappy, tripping soles of our feet. But it was more than terror slowing us down; the air was so thin and dry, and it was hard to get our breath in and out of our lungs fast enough. My shirt was stuck to my back and I was dripping under the arms. Pickering’s hair was wet and he’d almost stopped moving, so I overtook him.

At the bottom of the stairs, I ran into another long, empty corridor of closed doors and greyish light that ran along the back of the building. Just looking all the way down it made me bend over with my hands on my knees to rest. But Pickering just ploughed right into me from behind and knocked me over. He ran across my body and stamped on my hand. ‘They’s comin’,’ he whined in a tearful voice, and stumbled off, down that passage.

When I got back to my feet I followed him, which never felt like a good idea to me, because if some of them things were waiting in the hall by the front doors, while others were coming up fast behind us, we’d get ourselves trapped. I even thought about opening the door of a ground-floor room and trying to kick out the boards over a window. Plenty of them old things seemed to come out of rooms when we ran past them, like we were waking them up, but they never came out of every room. So maybe we would have to take a chance on one of the doors.

I called out to Pick to stop. I was wheezing like Billy Skid at school who’s got asthma, so maybe Pickering never heard me, because he kept on running. As I was wondering which door to pick, a little voice said, ‘Do you want to hide in here?’

I jumped into the air and cried out like I’d trod on a snake, and stared at where the voice had come from. There was a crack between a door and the door-frame, and part of a little girl’s face was peeking out. She smiled and opened the door wider. ‘They won’t see you. We can play with my dolls.’ She had a really white face inside a black bonnet all covered in ribbons. The rims of her eyes were red like she’d been crying for a long time.

My chest was hurting and my eyes were stinging with sweat. Pickering was too far ahead for me to catch him up. I could hear his feet banging away on loose floorboards, way off in the darkness, and I didn’t think I could run any further. So I nodded at the girl. She stood aside and opened the door wider. The bottom of her black dress swept through the dust. ‘Quickly,’ she said with an excited smile, and then looked down the corridor, to see if anything was coming. ‘Most of them are blind, but they can hear things.’

I moved through the doorway. Brushed past her and smelled something gone bad. It put a picture in my head of the dead cat, squashed flat in the woods, that I found one time on a hot day. But over that smell was something like the bottom of my granny’s old wardrobe, with the one broken door and little iron keys in the locks that don’t work.

Softly, the little girl closed the door behind us, and walked off across the wooden floor with her head held high, like a ‘little Madam’, my dad would have said. Light was getting into this room from some red and green windows up near the high ceiling. Two big chains were hanging down and holding lights with no bulbs, and there was a stage at one end, with a heavy green curtain pulled across the front. Footlights stuck up at the front of the stage. It must have been a ballroom once.

Looking for a way out, behind me, to the side, up ahead, everywhere, I followed the little girl in the black bonnet to the stage, and went up the stairs at the side. She disappeared through the curtains without making a sound, and I followed because I could think of nowhere else to go and I wanted a friend. But the long curtains smelled so bad around my face that I put a hand over my mouth.

She asked me for my name and where I lived, and I told her like I was talking to a teacher who’d just caught me doing something wrong. I even gave her my house number. ‘We didn’t mean to trespass,’ I also said. ‘We never stole nothing.’

She cocked her head to one side and frowned like she was trying to remember something. Then she smiled and said, ‘All of these are mine. I found them.’ She drew my attention to the dolls on the floor; little shapes of people that I couldn’t see properly in the dark. She sat down among them and started to pick them up one at a time, to show me. But I was too nervous to pay much attention and I didn’t like the look of the cloth animal with its fur worn to the grubby material. It had stitched up eyes and no ears; the arms and legs were too long for its body too, and I didn’t like the way the dirty head was stiff and upright like it was watching me.

Behind us, the rest of the stage was in darkness, with only the faint glow of a white wall in the distance. Peering from the stage at the boarded-up windows along the right side of the dancefloor, I could see some bright daylight around the edge of two big hardboard sheets, nailed over patio doors. There was a draught coming through the gaps too. Must have been a place where someone got in before.

‘I got to go,’ I said to the girl behind me, who was whispering to her toys. And I was about to step through the curtains and head for the daylight when I heard the rushing of a crowd in the corridor that me and Pickering had just run through; feet shuffling, canes tapping, wheels squeaking and two hooting sounds. It all seemed to go on for ages; a long parade I didn’t want to see.

As the crowd rushed past the ballroom, the main door clicked open and something glided inside. I pulled back from the curtains and held my breath while the little girl kept mumbling to the nasty toys. I wanted to cover my ears. A crazy part of me wanted it all to end; wanted me to step out from behind the curtains and offer myself to the tall figure down there on the dancefloor. Holding the tatty parasol over its head, it spun around quickly like it was moving on tiny, silent wheels under its long musty skirts, while sniffing at the air for me. Under the white net attached to the brim of the rotten hat and tucked into the high collars of the dress, I saw a bit of face that looked like the skin on a rice pudding. I would have screamed but there was no air inside me.

I looked over to where the little girl had been sitting. She had gone, but something was moving on the floor. Squirming. I blinked my eyes fast, and for a moment, it looked like all of her toys were trembling. But when I squinted at the Golly, with the bits of curly white hair on its head, the doll lay perfectly still where she had dropped it. The little girl may have hidden me, but I was glad that she had gone.

Way off in the stifling distance of the big house, I then heard a scream; a cry full of all the panic and terror and woe in the whole world. The figure with the umbrella spun around on the dancefloor and then rushed out of the ballroom towards the sound.

I slipped out from behind the curtains. A busy chattering sound came from the distance. It got louder until it echoed through the corridor, and the ballroom, and almost covered the sounds of the wailing boy. His cries were swirling round and round, bouncing off walls and closed doors, like he was running far off inside the house, and in a circle that he couldn’t get out of.

I crept down the stairs at the side of the stage and ran to the long strip of burning sunlight that I could see shining through one side of the patio doors. I pulled at the big rectangle of wood until it splintered and revealed broken glass in a door-frame and lots of thick grass outside.

For the first time since I’d seen the old woman, scratching about the front entrance, I truly believed that I could escape. I imagined myself climbing through the gap that I was making, and running down the hill to the gate, while they were all busy inside with the crying boy. But just as my breathing went all quick and shaky with the glee of escape, I heard a whump sound on the floor behind me, like something had just dropped to the floor from the stage. Teeny vibrations tickled the soles of my feet. Then I heard something coming across the floor toward me, with a shuffle, like a body was dragging itself real quick.

I couldn’t bear to look behind and see another one close up, so I snatched at the board and I pulled with all my strength at the bit not nailed down. The whole thing bent and made a gap. Sideways, I squeezed a leg, hip, arm and a shoulder out. My head was suddenly bathed in warm sunlight and fresh air.

One of them must have reached out right then, and grabbed my left arm under the shoulder at the moment I had made it outside. The fingers and thumb were so cold that they burned my skin. And even though my face was in daylight, everything went dark in my eyes except for the little white flashes that you get when you stand up too fast.

I wanted to be sick. I tried to pull away, but one side of my body was all slow and heavy and full of pins and needles. I let go of the hardboard sheet and it slapped shut like a mouse trap. Behind my head, I heard a sound like celery snapping and something shrieked into my ear, which made me go deafish for a week.

Sitting down in the grass outside, I was sick down my jumper. Mucus and bits of spaghetti hoops that looked all white and smelled real bad. I looked back at the place that I had climbed through and my bleary eyes saw an arm that was mostly bone, stuck between the wood and door-frame. I made myself roll away and then get to my knees on the grass that was flattened down.

Moving around the outside of the house, back toward the front of the building and the path that would take me down to the gate, I wondered if I’d bashed my left side. The shoulder and hip had stopped tingling but were achy and cold and stiff. I found it hard to move and wondered if that was what broken bones felt like. My skin was wet with sweat too, and I was shivery and cold. I just wanted to lie down in the long grass. Twice I stopped to be sick. Only spit came out with burping sounds.

Near the front of the house, I got down on my good side and I started to crawl, real slow, through the long grass, down the hill, making sure that the path was on my left, so that I didn’t get lost in the meadow. I only took one look back at the house and will wish for ever that I never did.

One side of the front door was still open from where we went in. And I could see a crowd in the doorway, all bustling in the sunlight that fell on their raggedy clothes. They were making a hooting sound and fighting over something; a small shape that looked dark and wet. It was all limp too and between the thin, snatching hands it came apart, piece by piece.

In my room, at the end of my bed, Nana Alice has closed her eyes. But she’s not sleeping. She’s just sitting quietly and rubbing her doll hand like she’s polishing treasure.

[]The Ancestors

It never stops raining at the new house. When you are upstairs it sounds like hundreds of pebbles thrown by as many little hands onto the pointy roof. We can’t go outside to play so we stay indoors and amuse ourselves with the toys. They belong to Maho, but she is happy to share them with me. My parents never knew about Maho, but she is my best friend and she lives in the house too. Maho has been here a long time.

When Mama used to come upstairs to put clean clothes in my drawers, or Papa knocked on the door to tell me that dinner was ready, Maho would hide and wait in my room until I could play with the toys again. Maho sleeps in my bed too, every night. I wish I had hair like her. Maho’s hair is long and silky. When she puts her arms around me and hugs me, I am covered by her hair. Tucking itself under my arms and winding around my neck, her hair is so warm that I never need the blankets on my bed. I think her hair feels like black fur too, and like big curtains she pulls her hair across her face so all that I can see is her little square teeth. ‘How can you see through your hair, Maho?’ I once asked her. ‘It looks so funny.’ She just giggled. And with their teeny fingers the toys like to touch her hair too. They stand and sway on the bed and stroke it.

In the daytimes the toys never do much, but we still go looking for them in the empty rooms and in the secret places that Mama and Papa never knew about. When we find a toy sitting upright in a corner, or standing still after stopping dancing on those tiny fast feet, we talk to them. The toys just listen. They can hear everything you say. Sometimes they smile.

But at night the toys do most of the playing. They always have things to show us. New tricks and dances all around the bed. I’ll be fast asleep but their little hard fingers will touch my face. Cold breath will brush my ears as they say, ‘Hello. Hello,’ until I wake up. At first I was scared of the tiny figures on the bed, all climbing and tugging at the sheets, and I would run and get into bed with Mama and Papa. But Maho told me that the toys just want to be my friends and play. Maho says you don’t need a mama and papa when you have so many friends and I guess she is right. Parents don’t understand. Most of the time they think about other things. That’s why they weren’t needed for the playing.

Maho told me that when the other children who lived here grew up and left the house all of their toys stayed behind. And it’s an old house so there are lots of toys. Maho never left either. She never left her friends. Like I did when we moved out here. I told Maho my parents made me move. ‘See,’ she said. ‘Parents don’t understand about friends. About how much we love our friends, and how special secret places are to us. You can’t just leave them because papas get new jobs or are sick. It’s not fair. Who says things have to change and you have to go to new places when you’re happy where you are?’

I didn’t want to move here and I was scared of the new school. But since I made friends with Maho and the toys it isn’t so bad. I like it here now and I will never go to that school. Maho knows a way around that. She’ll show me soon and the toys will help.

There are so many toys. We find them everywhere: beneath the stairs and under the beds, in the bottom of trunks and behind the doors, up in the attic and looking through holes. You never know where they’re going to show up. Most of the time you have to wait for them to come to you. And sometimes you can only hear them moving about. Mama thought we had mice in the house and Papa put traps down. Maho was angry when she showed me the traps in the kitchen and in the cellar. Toys don’t eat coloured seeds, she said, pointing at the blue poisonous oats, but sometimes they dance too close to the snapping traps. Twice we had to rescue them before the morning. A dolly with a china face got one of her long arms stuck in a trap in the pantry. She was squealing and the thin arm covered in black hair had snapped. When we freed her, Maho picked her up and kissed her cold face. When she put the dolly down the dolly ran behind some bottles and we didn’t see her again for three nights. Then the old thing with the black face and whitish beard got his pinky tail all smashed in the trap by the mop and dustpan in the cellar. When we let him loose, he showed us teeth as thin as needles and then he crawled away.

Three nights back, when Mama and Papa were supposed to be sleeping, I know Papa saw a toy. There were plenty of them out that night, skipping mostly. The first of them came out of the fireplace. ‘Hello,’ a little voice said to me. I was only dozing because I was too excited about the playing, so I wound Maho’s silky hair off my face – it goes in my ears and up my nose too – and I sat up in bed. ‘Hello,’ I said to the little thing down on the rug. They don’t like lights, so you only see them properly when they get real close, but even in the shadows I knew I’d seen this one before. He was the one with the top hat and little suit. His shirt is white, but his face is all red and his eyes are black and shiny like marbles. He went round and round in a circle on skipping feet and in the room I could smell sneezes and old clothes. But Maho’s right: you get used to the smell of the toys.

She sat up beside me and said, ‘Hello.’

The toy stopped his dancing and said, ‘Hello.’

Then we heard the drum, but we couldn’t see the musician. He was in the room with us. Under the bed, I think, and playing his leather drum. He shines like the brown shoes that I once saw made from alligator and he creaks like old gloves when he moves. As usual, when he played the drum, the clown in the dirty blue and white pyjamas came out to dance also. All around the bed he went with his shabby arms thrown up towards the ceiling and his head flopping back. His mouth is all stitched up and his eyes are white and bobble on his cloth face.

I leaned over the bed to get a better look.

‘Best not to touch him,’ Maho whispered into my ear and her coldish breath made me shiver inside. ‘He’s very old. He once belonged to a boy whom he loved very much, but he was taken away from the boy by parents. So he climbed inside the boy’s mouth to fix the broken heart.’

I wanted to ask what happened to the boy, but Maho turned her head to the door so that I couldn’t see her face. ‘Your papa is coming.’ But I couldn’t hear a thing. I looked at her and frowned. ‘Listen,’ she said, and she took hold of my hands. Then I heard a floorboard moan. Papa was outside in the hallway, going to the toilet. Papa was not well at that time. That’s why we came here, so that he could rest his head. He never slept very much at night and we had to be careful when we played with the toys. ‘Some toys are out there,’ Maho whispered. ‘He might see them again.’ She was smiling through her hair when she said this, but I didn’t know why.

The man with the top hat skipped back inside the chimney. Under the bed the drumming stopped.

The next morning my family sat at the kitchen table. We never ate in the dining room because Mama couldn’t get rid of the smell. She tried to find cheerful music on the radio, but it sounded all fuzzy so she turned it off. Her mouth was very tight so I knew she was angry and worried too. She gave up on the radio and pointed at my bowl. ‘Eat up, Yuki,’ she said, then looked at the window. Rain smacked against the glass. Watching the water run down made me feel all cold inside.

Papa said nothing. He just looked at the table next to his bowl. His eyes were red and his chin was bristly. When he kissed me that morning I shouted out for him to stop. All night I’d been wrapped in soft black hair and his chin felt like it was covered in pins. And he still wasn’t looking any better, even though he didn’t have to go to work any more.

‘Taichi,’ Mama said. She was upset with him. Slowly, Papa lifted his head and looked at her.

‘Eat or it will go cold,’ Mama had said. She had fried the rice with eggs the way that he liked, with salmon on top that gets warm from the steam. Papa tried to smile but he was just too tired. He looked at me instead. ‘Finished?’ he asked.

As my spoon clunked in the empty bowl his eyelids flickered. I nodded.

‘You can go.’

I climbed down from my chair and ran into the hall.

‘Sit still for a while,’ Mama cried out. ‘Or you’ll be sick.’

I walked down the hall, then took my shoes off and sneaked back to the kitchen door that Mama closed behind me. My parents wanted to talk. First thing in the morning they would talk to each other, but they would stay in different rooms for the rest of the day. Papa would mostly sit in a chair and stare at nothing, while Mama kept busy with washing and cooking and cleaning. One day she was crying in the kitchen by the cookbooks, which made me cry too. She stopped when she saw me and said that she was ‘just being silly’. But at night I often heard Mama shouting at Papa. When this happened Maho always held me tighter and put her silky hair over my ears until I fell asleep.

‘What is it? Tell me, Taichi. I can’t help if you don’t tell me,’ Mama said in the kitchen that morning, and in a voice that was quiet but also sharp enough for me to hear through the door.

‘Nothing.’

‘It can’t be nothing. You haven’t slept again.’

‘It’s nothing. When it stops raining I’ll go out.’

A bowl hit the side of the sink. Mama then had a voice full of tears. ‘I can’t stand this any more. This isn’t working. It’s making you worse.’

‘Mai, please. I can’t . . . I can’t tell you.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you would think I’m crazy.’

‘Crazy? You’re making yourself crazy. You’re making me crazy. This was a mistake. I knew it.’

‘Maybe. The house . . . I don’t know.’

A chair scraped against the floor. Mama must have sat down. Her voice went soft and I guessed that she was holding his hand.

‘Yuki.’ It was Maho calling me. Standing at the top of the stairs, she waved at me to join her. Because I wanted to hear what Papa was saying, I smiled at her but put a finger against my lips. Maho shook her head and her hair moved across her face to cover all of the white bits. ‘No. Come and play,’ she said. But I turned my head back to the kitchen because Papa was talking again.

‘I saw something again.’

‘What, Taichi? What did you see?’

His voice was all shaky. ‘I have to go to the doctor again. I’m going crazy.’

‘What? What did you see?’ Mama’s voice was going high and I could tell that she was trying not to cry again.

‘I . . . I went to the toilet. Last night. And it was there again.’

‘What, Taichi? What?’

‘Sitting on the window sill. I told myself that I was still dreaming. I stopped and I closed my eyes and made sure that I was awake. Look at the bruise on my arm where I pinched myself. Then I opened my eyes and it was still there. So I pretended that it wasn’t. That it was just a bad dream. I ignored it. But when I came out of the bathroom, it was still just sitting there. Watching me.’ In the kitchen they stopped talking, and all I could hear was the rain. Thousands of little drops hitting the wood and tiles and glass all around us.

‘You were dreaming,’ Mama said after a while. ‘It’s the medicine, Taichi. The side-effects.’

‘No. I stopped taking the medicine.’

‘What?’

‘Just for a while to see if they would go.’

‘They?’

‘Yuki. Yuki. Come and play. Come,’ Maho whispered from behind me. She was coming down the stairs on silent feet.

‘I don’t know,’ My Papa said. ‘A little thing . . . with long legs that hang over the window sill. And its face, Mai. I can’t sleep after I see its face.’

‘Yuki, look what I found. In a cupboard. Come and see,’ Maho said from behind me and reached out to take my hand. When I turned around to tell her to be quiet, I saw that her dolly eyes were wet. So I went up the stairs with her. I can’t stand to see Maho cry. ‘What’s wrong, Maho? Please don’t be sad.’

She led me into the empty room upstairs, at the end of the hall, and we sat on the wooden floor. In there it’s always cold. There is only one window. Water ran down the outside and made the trees in the garden all blurry. Maho’s head was bowed. Her hair fell over her white gown all the way down to her lap. We held hands. ‘Why are you crying, Maho?’

‘Your papa.’

‘He’s sick, Maho. But he’ll get better. He told me.’

She shook her head, then lifted it. Tears ran down from the one wet eye that I could see through her hair. ‘Your mama and papa want to leave. And I don’t want you to go. Not ever.’

‘I’ll never leave you, Maho.’ Now she was making me sad and I could taste the sea at the back of my throat.

She sniffed inside her hair. The rain was very loud on the roof and it sounded like it was raining inside the room. ‘You promise?’ she said.

I nodded. ‘I promise. You are my best friend, Maho.’

‘Your parents don’t understand the toys.’

‘I know.’

‘They just want to play. Your papa should sleep and let them play. If he finds out about me and the toys then he will take you away from us.’

‘No. Never.’ We hugged each other and Maho told me she loved me, and told me that the toys loved me. I kissed her silky hair and against my lips I felt her cold ear.

Downstairs, I heard the kitchen door open and then close. Maho took her arms away and uncurled her hair from around my neck. ‘Your mama wants you.’ Tears were still running down her white face.

She was right because I heard feet coming up the stairs. ‘Yuki?’ Mama called out. ‘Yuki?’

‘I have to go,’ I told Maho and stood up. ‘I’ll come right back and we can play.’

She didn’t answer me. Her head was bowed so that I couldn’t see her face.

‘Yuki, what would you say if I told you we might be moving? Going back to the city?’ Mama looked at me, smiling. She thought this news would make me happy, but I couldn’t stop my face feeling all long and heavy. Mama was sitting on the floor next to me in the cold room where she found me. Even though Maho had hidden I knew that she was still listening. ‘Wouldn’t you like that?’ Mama asked me, ‘You’ll see all of your friends again. And go to the same school.’ She looked surprised that I was not smiling. ‘What is wrong, Yuki?’

‘I don’t want to.’

She frowned. ‘But you were so upset when we moved here.’

‘But I like it now.’

‘You’re all alone. You need your friends, my darling. Don’t you want to play with Sachi and Hiro again?’

I shook my head. ‘I can play here. I like it.’

‘On your own in this big house? With all this rain? You are being silly, Yuki.’

‘No, I’m not.’

‘You will get tired of this. You can’t even go outside and use the swing.’

‘I don’t want to go outside.’

She looked at the floor. Her fingers were very white and thin where they held my arms. Mama sniffed back her tears before they could come out. She put the back of one hand to her eyes and I heard her swallow. ‘Come out of here. It’s dirty.’

I was going to say, I like it in here, but I knew that she would get angry if I said that. So I stayed quiet and followed her to the door. In the corner, in the shadow, I saw a bit of Maho’s white face as she watched us leave. And above us, in the attic, little feet suddenly went pattering. Mama looked up, then hurried me out of the room and closed the door.

That night, after Papa finished my bedtime story, he kissed my forehead. He still hadn’t shaved and his lips felt spiky. He pulled the blankets up to my chin. ‘Try and keep these on the bed tonight, Yuki. Every morning they are on the floor and you feel as cold as ice.’

‘Yes, Papa.’

‘Maybe tomorrow the rain will stop. We can go and look at the river.’

‘I don’t mind the rain, Papa. I like to play inside the house.’

Frowning and looking down at my blankets, Papa thought about what I had said. ‘Sometimes in old houses little girls have bad dreams. Do you have bad dreams, Yuki? Is that why you kick the sheets off?’

‘No.’

He smiled at me. ‘That’s good.’

‘Do you have bad dreams, Papa?’

‘No, no,’ he said, but the look in his eyes said yes. ‘The medicine makes it hard for me to sleep. That’s all.’

‘I’m not scared. The house is very friendly.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because it is. It just wants to make friends. It’s so happy we’re here.’

Papa laughed. ‘But the rain. And all the mice here, Yuki. It’s not much of a welcome.’

I smiled. ‘There are no mice here, Papa. The toys don’t like mice. They ate them all up.’

Papa stopped laughing. In his throat I watched a lump move up and down.

‘You don’t have to worry about them, Papa. They’re my friends.’

‘Friends?’ His voice was very quiet. ‘Toys? You’ve seen them?’ His voice was so tiny that I could hardly hear him.

I nodded, and smiled to make him stop worrying. ‘When all the children left, they stayed behind.’

‘Where . . . where do you see them?’

‘Oh, everywhere. But mostly at night. That’s when they come out to play. They usually come out of the fireplace.’ I pointed at the dark place in the corner of my room. Papa stood up quickly and turned around to stare at the fireplace. Outside my window the rain stopped falling on the world that it had made so soft and wet.

The next morning, Papa found something inside the chimney in my room. He started the search in my bedroom with the broom handle and the torch, poking around up there and knocking all the soot down, which clouded across the floor. Mama wasn’t happy, but when she saw the little parcel that dropped down from the chimney, she went quiet.

‘Look,’ Papa said. He held his arm out with the package on the palm of his hand. They took it into the kitchen and I followed.

Papa blew on it and then wiped it clean of ash with the paint brush from under the kitchen sink. On the table Mama put a piece of newspaper under the parcel. I stood on a chair and we all looked at the bundle of dirty cloth. Then Papa told Mama to get her little scissors from her sewing box. When Mama came back with the scissors, Papa carefully cut into the dry wrappings. Then he peeled them away from the tiny hand inside.

Mama spread her fingers over her mouth. Papa just sat back and looked at it, like he didn’t want to touch it. All around us we could hear the rain hitting the windows and rattling on the roof. It sounded louder than ever before. Then I knelt on the table and Mama scolded me for getting too close. ‘It could have germs.’

I thought it was a chicken’s foot, cut from a yellow leg, like the ones you see in the windows of restaurants in the city. But it had five curly fingers with long nails. Before I could touch it, Mama wrapped it up in newspaper and stuffed it deep inside the kitchen bin.

But there were others. In the empty room at the end of the hallway, Papa knocked another parcel out of the chimney and took it down to the kitchen again. At first, my Mama wouldn’t even look at the tiny shoe, even before we found the bone foot inside. She stood by the window and watched the wet garden. Leafy branches moved out there in the heavy rain, like they were waving at the house.

The shoe was made of pinky silk and my Papa untied the little ribbons. It opened with a puff of dust and he emptied the teeny foot on to the table. The rattle sound made Mama look over shoulder. ‘Throw it away, Taichi. I don’t want it in the house,’ she said.

Papa looked at me and raised his eyebrows. We went off looking for more. In the big parlour downstairs while he was poking up inside the chimney, he told me the little parcels belonged to ancestors. ‘This is a very old house. And when it was built, the people put little charms in secret places. Under the floors, in the cellars and up inside the chimneys to protect the house from bad spirits.’

‘But why are they so small?’ I asked Papa. ‘Was it a baby’s foot in the shoe?’

He never answered me and just kept poking around, up inside the chimney with the broom handle. Papa was very clever, but I don’t think he knew the answers to my questions. These things he was finding had something to do with the toys, I was sure, so I decided I would ask Maho when I saw her later. She disappeared while I was eating breakfast and was still hiding because Papa was going into every room and searching about.

The next parcel we found was a tiny white sack, tied up with string, with brownish stains at the bottom. But right after Papa opened it and poured the hard black lumps onto the kitchen table, he quickly wrapped them up in newspaper and put them inside the kitchen bin with the hand and the foot. ‘What are they?’ I asked him.

‘Just some old stones,’ he said.

But they didn’t look like stones. They were very light and black and reminded me of dried salt fish.

Papa stopped looking after that and swept up the soot from the floorboards instead. While he did this, Mama stood on a chair in their bedroom to get the suitcases down from the wardrobe. And I couldn’t find Maho anywhere. She never came out all day. I looked everywhere, in all of our secret places, but I never found her or saw any of the toys either. I whispered her name into all of the tiny holes but she never answered. But when I was checking inside the attic, I heard Mama and Papa talking underneath the loft hatch. ‘A heart,’ Papa whispered to Mama. ‘A tiny heart’ was all I heard before they moved away and went downstairs.

That night, when Maho climbed into bed with me, she held me tighter than ever before and wrapped me up in her silky hair so that I could hardly move. It was so dark inside her hair that I couldn’t see anything and I told her to let me go. I couldn’t breathe, but she was in a strange sulky mood and she just squeezed me with her cold hands until I felt sleepy.

Outside, the rain stopped and the house started to creak like the old ship that we went on one summer. Eventually Maho spoke. She said that she had missed me. In a yawny voice, I asked her about the shoe, the foot and the little bag with the lumps inside that Papa had found in the chimneys.

‘They belong to the toys,’ Maho said. ‘Your papa shouldn’t have taken away things that belong to the toys. It was a mistake. It was wrong.’

‘But they were old and dirty and nasty,’ I told her.

‘No,’ she said. ‘They belong to the toys. They put them up there a long time ago, and they shouldn’t be removed by parents. They’re like happy memories to the toys. Now sleep, Yuki. Sleep.’

I couldn’t understand this. While I was thinking about what Maho said, I started to fall asleep. It was so warm inside all of that hair. And she sang a little song into my ear and rubbed her cold nose against my cheek like a puppy dog.

Outside my bedroom in the hallway I heard the toys gathering. More toys than ever before had come out to play. All at the same time, and all in the same place. This had never happened before. It must have been a special occasion, like a parade. They had a parade when Maho’s parents left. ‘Toys. Can you hear the toys?’ I whispered into the black fur around my face, and then I dropped further into the deep hole of sleepiness.

Maho didn’t answer me, so I just listened to the toys moving through the dark. Little feet shuffled; pinkish tails whisked on wood; bells jingled on hats and from the curly toes of thin feet; tap tappity tap went the wooden sticks of the old apes; twik twik twik went the lady with knitting needle legs; clackety clack sounded the hooves of the black horsy with yellow teeth; tisker tisker tisker went the cymbal of the dolly with the sharp fingers; dum dum dum went the drum; and on and on they marched through the house. Down, down and down the hall.

Shouting woke me up. Through my sleep and all the dark softness around my body, I heard a loud voice. I thought it was Papa. But when my eyes opened the house was silent. I tried to sit up, but couldn’t move my arms and my feet. Rolling from side to side, I made some space in Maho’s hair. It was everywhere and all around me. ‘Maho? Maho?’ I said. ‘Wake up, Maho.’

But she just held me tighter with her thin arms. Blowing the hair out of my mouth, I tried to move a hand so that I could take the long strands from out of my eyes. I couldn’t see anything. Maho wouldn’t help me either, and it took me a long time to unwind the silky ropes from around my neck and off my face, and to shake them from my arms and from between my fingers and toes where they tugged and pulled. In the end, I had to flop onto my tummy and then wriggle backwards through the funnel of her black hair. She was fast asleep and very still and wouldn’t wake up when I shook her.

I could only sit up properly when I reached the bottom of the bed. All the sheets and blankets were on the floor again. I climbed off the bed and ran into the unlit hall. I couldn’t see the cold floorboards and could only hear the patter of my bare feet on the wood as I moved down to Mama and Papa’s room. The door to their room was open. Maybe Papa was having a bad dream and was awake, so I stood outside and looked in.

It was very dark inside their room, but something was moving. I screwed up my eyes and stared at where the thin light coming around the curtains had fallen, and then I saw that the whole bed was moving. ‘Mama,’ I said.

It looked like Mama and Papa were trying to sit up but couldn’t. And all the sheets around them were rustling. Someone was making a moaning sound, but it didn’t sound like Mama or Papa. It sounded like someone was trying to speak with their mouth full. And there was another sound coming from the bed too, and getting louder as I stood there. A wet sound. Like lots of busy people eating noodles in a Tokyo diner.

The door closed and I turned around to look behind me. I knew Maho was there before I even saw her.

Maho looked at me through her hair. ‘The toys are only playing,’ she said.

She took my hand and led me back to our bed. I climbed in after her and she wrapped me up in all that hair. And together we listened to the sounds of the toys putting things into the secret places, behind the walls, where they belonged.

[]Florrie

Frank remembered his mother once saying, ‘Houses give off a feeling’, and that she could ‘sense things’ inside them. At the time, he’d been a boy and his family had been drifting around prospective homes with an estate agent. He only remembered the occasion because his mother was distressed by a house that they had viewed and had hurried away from to get back to the car. As an adult, all he could recall of that particular property was a print of a blue-faced Christ, within a gilt frame, hanging on the wall of a scruffy living room; the only picture on any of the walls. And the beds had been unmade, which had also shocked his mother. His father had never contradicted his mother on these occasional matters of a psychic nature, though his father had never encouraged her to hold forth on them either. ‘Something terrible happened there’ was his mother’s final remark once the car doors were shut, and the house was never mentioned again. But Frank had been perplexed by the incongruity of both the blue skin of the Christ and a house belonging to Christians that issued an unpleasant ‘feeling’ to his mother, when she should, surely, have detected the opposite effect.

Frank amused himself trying to second-guess what her intuition would be about the first home that he’d ever owned. He knew what his dad would say about the 120 per cent mortgage that he’d arranged to purchase the two-bedroomed terraced house. But once the house was fixed up, he’d have them down to ‘his place’: his own home after ten years of cohabitation and tenancy agreements.

The narrow frontage of the house’s grubby bricks faced a drab street, cramped with identical houses that leaned over a road so narrow that two cars driving from opposing ends struggled to pass each other. But a final jiggle of the Yale key moved him out of the weak rainy light and into an unlit hallway where the air was thick with trapped warmth. A cloud of stale upholstery, cauliflower thoroughly boiled, and a trace of floral perfume descended about him.

He assured himself that the house would soon exude the scents of his world: the single professional who could cook a bit of Thai, liked entertaining and used Hugo Boss toiletries. Once he’d ripped out the old carpets, stripped the walls and generally ‘torn the shit out of it’, as his best friend Marcus had remarked with a decisive relish, the house would quickly lose the malodour of the wrong decade, age group and gender.

Enshrouded by a thin illumination that wafted through ground-floor windows begrimed with silt and the silvery nets, he quickly realised that there had been a mistake and that the place had not been cleared of the former owner’s furniture. It was as if he’d mixed up the exchange dates and stepped into what remained of the vendor’s home. ‘Pure 70s, Nan,’ Marcus had remarked, with a grin on his face, during the evening when he’d visited to assist Frank’s purchasing decision between this two-up, two-down and an ex-council property in Weoley Castle that had needed an airstrike more than a first-time buyer.

Poking from a Bakelite fitting on the wall of the front room was a chunky light switch, the same colour as the skirting boards, kitchen cupboards and fittings: the plastic of artificial limbs used until the 1950s. But the switch was stiff and, when he’d forced it down, the ceiling fixture only emitted a smoky glow from inside its plastic shade, a shade patterned with all the colours of a tin of fruit cocktail.

He stared at the cluttered room and his distaste and irritation fashioned fantasies of destruction about everything inside it: the rosewood sideboard; the gas fire grille with its plastic coals and concealed light bulbs that would glow in the hearth; the ancient television in a wooden cabinet, the small screen concave like a poorly ground lens in a pair of NHS spectacles; the tufted sofa, exhausted and faded and reduced from an article once plush and dark but now sagging into the suggestion of a shabby velour glove dropped from a giant’s hand. All of it was an affront to his taste. The furniture and appliances also made him morose, though glad that he’d been born in the mid-70s so that he’d not had long to wait for styles to dramatically change and appear modern over the next decade.

Beneath his feet a red carpet swirled with green fronds and made him think of chameleons’ tongues licking fire. He looked down at the weave and his focus was drawn into the pattern. The carpet absorbed most of the dim electric light too, and drained the last of his optimism.

As if he’d just uttered an inappropriate remark in polite company, from the dusty gloom of the sitting room an odd chastening quality descended upon his spirits.

Frank reached out and touched a wall, without really understanding why he felt the need to. The paper was old and fuzzy against his fingertips, the vine pattern no longer lilac on cream but sepia on parchment. About him the warmth and powerful fragrance of the room intensified in tandem with his curious guilt.

Momentarily, his thoughts were weighted with remorse, as if he was being forced to observe the additional distress that his spiteful thoughts about the decor had inflicted upon someone already frightened and . . . bullied. He even felt an urge to apologise to the room out loud.

Only the sound of a delivery truck reversing and beeping outside stirred Frank from his inexplicable shame. The unpleasant feelings passed and he surveyed the room again.

Where to start? Before he could pull up a single carpet tack, the furniture would have to be removed. All of it.

He reached for his phone. This also meant that the terrible Formica dining table with extendable flaps would still be crowding the second downstairs room, along with the hideous quilted chairs. He checked and confirmed that all of the vendor’s furniture remained in place. ‘Fuck’s sake,’ he whispered, and wondered why he’d kept his voice down.

Frank jogged up the narrow stairwell to expel a sense of fatigue, presumably caused by the stifling air or the anticipation of renovating the house.

The master bedroom was still choked by the immense veneered walnut wardrobe that he’d seen during his two viewings of the property. Beside it a teak dresser stood before him in defiance. A bed that had probably survived the Luftwaffe’s bombing of munitions factories on the nearby Grand Union Canal appeared implacable and vast enough to fill what remained of the floor-space.

One quick look around the door of the second bedroom revealed that it was also being used [_in absentia _]by the previous owner, as a depository for cardboard suitcases, dated Christmas decorations, candlewick bedspreads, candy-striped linen and knitting paraphernalia.

On the tiny landing, while standing beneath the white hardboard loft hatch, Frank wondered if the old woman had even moved out, or perhaps come back home. ‘She’s in a retirement home, I think. Couldn’t cope. Went a bit funny. Dementia or something,’ the wanker that was the estate agent, Justin, at Watkins, Perch and Manly, had said when Frank had asked about the former occupant’s history. So why hadn’t her relatives collected her things?

Maybe she had no one at the end.

Frank was overwhelmed by an unwelcome notion of age, its indignities, its steady erasure of who you had once been and the recycling of your tiny former position in the world. The same tragic end might befall him one day. Right here too.

He was disoriented by a sudden acute empathy with a loneliness that might have been absolute. It took a conscious effort for him to suppress the awful feeling. Wiping his eyes, he went back downstairs.

He listened to an answering machine at the estate agents and left a curt message for Justin. Then turned about in the living room and forced a change of tack in his thoughts. He visualised the transformation of the house that he and Marcus would effect: wooden floors, white walls, wooden blinds, minimalist light fittings, dimmers, a wall-mounted TV, black and white movie stills in steel frames on the walls, leather furniture, a stainless-steel kitchen, a paved yard for outside dining, a spare room for his gadgets and guests, fitted closet space and nothing in the master bedroom but his new bed and a standing lamp. Clean lines, simple colours. Space, light, peace, modernity, protection.

He had his work cut out.

On the Friday of Frank’s first week in the house, the former resident’s furniture was still in place, as it had been for long enough to leave the carpet dark beneath the sofa and the solitary armchair in the living room. This had prevented him stripping the walls. Until the furniture was hauled away, the kitchen was the only part of the house that he could dismantle, even though he had become fond of using it to make egg and chips, which he’d not eaten since he was at school. He also liked to listen to the radio in that room, and BBC Radio Two, which he couldn’t recall ever hearing since childhood. As a result, he’d staved off pulling down the old wooden cabinets with their frosted-glass doors. There was also something cosy and reassuring about the cupboards and the little white stove. And anyway, as Marcus was due to arrive with his tools the following morning, Saturday, Frank was able to postpone the destruction until that time.

He needed groceries too for the weekend and hadn’t organised himself sufficiently to shop at a supermarket, so he’d been dipping in and out of the local shop to feed himself. The store was called Happy Shop, and was conveniently situated at the end of the road. A strip-lit cave run by a smiling Hindu man. This would be his fourth trip to the store in a week. Or had it been more than that? Didn’t matter and he was due a treat, which might just be the Arctic Roll that he’d been eyeing up the day before. Or had that been Wednesday? Nothing had seemed to define the days of his first week in the house; they had all been slow and pleasant.

Frank hadn’t been out much that week either, and now found himself craving human company. Going round the local shops was the furthest he’d ventured all week, because the house was immensely warm and cosy and it had made him consider the world outside the front door as not being either of those things.

On leave for the first time in six months, he’d quickly slumped into a routine of slouching on the sofa each morning to watch the greenish TV screen. This had been his first opportunity for ages to relax, which must have accounted for his torpor. But the house untied his knots wonderfully; he’d slept as if he was in a coma for an hour after lunch too, until his shows came on. Not that he’d ever seen any of the television programmes before, due to work, but he’d quickly discovered preferences on the five terrestrial channels available to him.

In the cupboard under the stairs he’d found a tartan shopping trolley on wheels. It had been parked beside a carpet sweeper that he was sure he could flog on eBay to a retro nut. Having to fetch and carry so many tins all week from Happy Shop had made the idea of using the trolley gradually less of a joke as the week progressed. And before he left the house on Friday he even paused outside the cupboard and wondered if anyone young might laugh at him in the street if he went out with the trolley. But if they did, he wasn’t sure he’d care.

Inside Happy Shop his usual tastes deserted him. The idea of sushi, or stir-fries, or anything with rice and coconut milk, or anything that had been messed about with, like the curries and chillies that he often ate, all running with sauce . . . turned his stomach. Revolted him, in fact. The store hoarded forgotten treasures from any 70s childhood and he’d spent his first week eating tinned pink salmon with a brand of white bread that he hadn’t known was still baked. There had been lots of tinned rice pudding in his new diet too, a Victoria sponge, ice-cream packaged in cardboard, and Mr Kipling French Fancies for pudding. He had rediscovered his enjoyment of condensed milk and individual frozen chicken pies. And he’d bought, for the first time in his life, a round English lettuce.

Up in Happy Shop, within minutes, a packet of Birds Eye fish fingers and a tiny bag of minted peas rustled in his basket. There were four baskets at the front of the shop that smelled of newspaper and tobacco. A tin of mandarin segments, strawberry-flavoured Angel Delight – they still sold it in sachets! – a box of PG Tips and a jar of Mellow Bird’s coffee went into the basket next. He avoided anything with onions as he’d recently gone off them.

To his growing haul, and because he missed its fragrance, he added some Pledge furniture polish that he remembered being stored under a sink in his family home; once he got busy with a duster and some Pledge, the veneered finish on the wardrobe would come up a treat, as would the rosewood sideboard and the teak dresser.

Frank had become fond of using the cupboard above the cooker as a space for treats, and had often found himself dipping into it before he watched telly in the afternoon. Inexplicably, the true purpose of the cupboard had suggested itself to him. So, in Happy Shop, he bought a bag of Murray Mints and a Fry’s Turkish Delight.

Almost done. What else did he need? Washing-up liquid. He seized one of the green and white plastic bottles of Fairy Liquid. He hadn’t seen that packaging in years. When he smelled the red nozzle, the fragrance of his childhood summers made him giddy. Overexposed images turned in his memory: running in swimming trunks, grass blades floating in a paddling pool, the plastic bottom blue, the water warm, suffocating with laughter as he was chased by his brother, who squirted him with water from a Fairy Liquid bottle, trying to swim in the paddling pool – though the water was never deep enough and his knees bumped the bottom – but then lying face-down in the warm water for five seconds before springing up to see if his mum was worried that he’d drowned. And he saw deckchairs in his mind too, with his mom and nan in them, watching him and smiling. He was rewound to such an extent that he even thought he’d detected a trace of creosote on a garden fence, that tang of burned oil and timber.

Frank walked back to the house, dreamy and taking short steps with his head down, as if wary of hazards underfoot, until he snapped out of the new habit and walked normally.

When Marcus knocked at ten on Saturday morning, Frank jumped up from the kitchen stool but couldn’t account for why he was so nervous. He was being silly, but opening the front door was suddenly a cause of great anxiety. So he hovered, scarcely breathing, inside the hall beside the thermostat that looked like something from an instrument panel at the dawn of space travel. When Marcus peered through the letter flap, Frank was forced to open up.

‘Fuck’s going on?’ Marcus said, when he saw the kitchen. ‘I brought the tiles and units with me. This shit should be long gone by now. Your stuff can’t stay in my garage for ever, mate.’

But, despite his friend’s disappointment, Frank craved a stay of execution for the kitchen, and hoped that he could somehow delay Marcus or persuade him not to engage in the splintering of wood and the crowbarring of those kitchen cabinets from the walls. They must have been up for decades and were still in good nick. Nothing wrong with them, in fact, so it seemed such a waste. And Frank also wanted them left alone for another reason and this motive had been nagging at him as Saturday had approached: gutting the kitchen just felt wrong. Bad, like violence. Like bullying.

Too embarrassed by his own sentimentality to defend them, and with a heavy heart, he helped Marcus break the cupboards away from the walls, and he’d felt like crying as they did their worst with the crowbars.

When they found the handwriting behind the first cabinet – Len and Florrie, 1964 – Frank went into the bathroom with moist eyes and smothered his face inside one of the big lemon-yellow towels that he’d found in the airing cupboard.

The three wall cabinets and the row of cupboards were soon piled like earthquake wreckage in the yard. The sight of the pale, unpainted wood that had been facing the kitchen wall since 1964 hit him as hard as the sight of a dead pet had once done: a rabbit rigid with the terrible permanence and unfairness of its final sleep, when it had still been loved.

Indifferent to the inscriptions left by Len and Florrie – they had found four – Marcus cracked open tins of white emulsion and began painting the bare walls. As Marcus worked, Frank recognised that he despised his best friend.

They didn’t have time to vandalise another room that weekend, and it was just as well, because Frank’s relationship with the house changed during the night after the desecration of the little kitchen.

The following morning, while Frank sat doleful over toast and a mug of tea in the newly painted starkness of the kitchen, with his stainless-steel units piled up in the middle of the room, he mused that during the preceding night it was as if he’d entertained someone else’s dreams.

All night he’d passed through a dark muddle of images that were mostly lost to him in the morning. But he did retain partial impressions of a room filled with the smoke of Silk Cut cigarettes, the clack of Scrabble tiles, and the Matt Monro song playing on a continuous loop from a black tape recorder, a device he’d seen in vivid detail with spatters of white paint upon the speakers. ‘Born Free’: that had been the song. He hadn’t heard it in years. He’d also been a guest on The Price Is Right; had somehow been inside the show while also watching himself from the sofa. It had been his goal to win a small caravan. The contest had been compelling. Just before he’d woken, he’d been standing upon the yellow lino of the kitchen floor, counting pages of Green Shield stamps. Or once he’d thought he’d awoken, because there had been someone in the bedroom with him. Talking to him between sharp intakes of breath. A small indistinct figure had also been standing at the foot of the bed.

In the second, more vivid dream – because it must have been a dream – the standing figure had left the room quickly with its hands clutched over its face. The presence had then reappeared in the doorway as a hunched silhouette, lit by ambient light rising up the stairwell. The silhouette had taken to crouching as if in pain, and, when the figure had turned towards him, the face had remained in darkness. He was sure the person had been a woman, for whom he felt a rush of tenderness and affection and remorse, despite the shock that she had given him by appearing at the foot of his bed. When he encountered her in his sleep, he had been stricken with the same feeling of abandonment that he remembered on his first day at school.

The dream had continued and he had found himself standing behind the small figure in the spare room. In that part of the dream, she had been bent over and was mooching through a collection of plastic bags. ‘You need to get ready. And I can’t go without it,’ she’d said to Frank, without once turning around to face him.

He’d woken at seven and discovered that his face was briny with dried tears. He’d gone downstairs to the smell of fried sausages that competed with the stink of new paint, though he hadn’t cooked a single sausage in the house.

The dreams turned nasty on Sunday and Monday night and were caused by the kitchen cupboards being left outside in the rain. Like his mother’s vibes about other people’s houses, Frank instinctively knew that the kitchen wreckage was the cause of his troubled sleep.

On Sunday night, the small female figure had returned to his bedroom. But her agitation and grief had intensified and he’d woken to find her leaning over his face with her hands clasped across her mouth. He’d suspected that the glimmer of a solitary eye had been visible, but he’d seen no other features on the face of the woman of his dreams. From behind her fingers she’d muffled a horrible grunt.

Frank had sat up in bed, his heart hammering, convinced there was an actual intruder inside his room, but then watched the figure of the small woman fade into the dark centre of the wardrobe.

He’d quickly put lights on and conducted a search of the entire house, but there had been no one inside with him.

On Monday night, what might have been the figure of the elderly woman was inside his room again, but on her hands and knees. He might also have dreamed about a wounded animal, because he awoke to hear something mewling and fumbling about beneath the curtains that didn’t sound like a person. Round and round the thing had gone on all fours, for a few seconds, bumping the walls in distress. He never saw anything and had just remained stiff with fright in the bed.

The intruder eventually left the bedroom and scurried across the landing; Frank only saw the last of it go and suspected it had been a dog because no human could move that fast on all fours. Terrified, but compelled to follow, Frank had peered inside the spare bedroom and seen the figure of the old woman, her small body covered in a grubby housecoat, with her back to him. She had been searching amongst boxes of photograph albums with vinyl jackets until she found what she’d been looking for. She’d held it before her lowered face and gave Frank the impression that she was either struggling to read in bad light or putting something inside her mouth. Frank didn’t know, but could hear the woman’s heavy breathing, betwixt a series of animal grunts.

When he spoke to her, the figure turned quickly and showed him a pair of milky eyes, like he’d once seen in the head of a dead sheep, and bared teeth that didn’t belong inside a human mouth.

Frank had woken underneath the eiderdown in his room with his fingers stuffed down his own throat.

On Tuesday morning, he carried the broken kitchen furniture back inside the house and dried the wreckage with a tea towel. The very act of reclamation felt as necessary as rescuing a drowning cat from a canal.

Mail from Macmillan Nurses and a council mobility service arrived on Wednesday morning addressed to Mrs Florrie White. He put the letters in a neat stack beside the small toaster on the kitchen counter; he’d repaired that unit as much as possible, and then placed it leaning against the wall, set at a tilt, which didn’t help the house much, but he couldn’t bear another night of the broken wood being outside in the cold. The new steel kitchen units went outside and into the yard. Of course it would not be a permanent arrangement, but he couldn’t settle his nerves until the swap had been made.

He spent Tuesday to Thursday on the sofa, listless and melancholy, drifting through afternoon television shows for the modicum of comfort that they provided. He also took long naps with the gas fire on; its glow and little clicking sounds reassured him more than anything he could remember. But he would often awake from these naps, because the little figure from his dreams would mutter to itself at the top of the stairs. When he awoke, Frank could never remember what it said, and there was no one up there when he looked.

Frank also spent a lot of his time staring at the pattern on the kitchen table and thinking of the rooms he’d occupied as a student: cohabits through his twenties with two girlfriends long gone; house-shares with strangers with whom he had no contact now. In the increasingly indistinct crowds of his memories, there had been an alcoholic who only consumed extra strong cider and Cup-a-Soup, and an obese girl who had eaten like a child at a tenth birthday party and spent hours locked in the bathroom. He could no longer remember their names, or the faces of the girlfriends. He tried for a while until he moved to the living room and fell asleep in front of Countdown.

On Thursday evening, he refused to take a call from Marcus. There had been four since the previous weekend too. All unanswered. For some reason Marcus and his calls were irritating Frank to such a degree that he put his iPhone in the cupboard under the stairs, deep inside a box of wooden clothes pegs. He hadn’t had enough time to think through the changes that he’d once planned to make to the house, and he could not abide being rushed.

His sleep went undisturbed until the weekend and he found himself watching ITV from seven to nine before going up to bed. Happy Shop kept him fed with its inexhaustible variety of memory and flavour. And when Marcus arrived on Saturday morning, Frank never answered the door. Instead, he lay on the floor of the living room with the curtains closed.

At the end of his second week off work, he called the office from the public phone outside Happy Shop to tell them that he wasn’t coming back.

On the Monday of his fourth week in the house, Frank finally went out for tools. Not to renovate the property, but to try and repair the kitchen. That task could not be put off any longer.

The act of leaving the house was excruciating.

Twice the previous week, when he’d been cooking in the wrecked kitchen, he’d looked up because he was convinced that he was being watched from the doorway, as if caught doing something wrong, or eating something he had been told not to. The imagined presence had been seething with a surly disappointment and dark with hostility. That room had become the focus of an intensification of the restlessness growing since the Saturday when he and Marcus had assaulted the cabinets. The kitchen was the heart of the house and he had broken it.

There was no one physically inside the house with him, and there could not possibly have been. But the repeated sounds of small feet padding about the lino, while he napped in the lounge during the afternoons, suggested, to a region of his imagination that he little used, that a bereft presence was repeatedly examining the kitchen. The first time he’d heard the shuffle of feet, he’d actually worried that the former owner of the house had escaped from her retirement community, or worse, and let herself back inside what she believed was still her own home.

Frank recovered quickly from the sudden frights, and within the confines of the comfortable womb of the terraced house he eventually found the supervising presence acceptable, even deserved. Nor could he think of a single reason to doubt his instincts that amends had to be made. Within the house such things were possible.

But navigating his way through the world outside the house, which no longer felt so familiar, defeated him. When he went out for tools, his attempts to move on the Pershore Road wasted him before he’d reached the bus stop in front of the bowling alley.

Unpredictable tides of energy, and the staring eyes of pedestrians and motorists, had seemed to pull his thoughts apart and then compress him into a muttering standstill. He was thinking of too many things at the same time, but then forgetting one train of thought at the same time as another began.

The pressure the city exerted upon him was tangible. Uncomfortable, like a head-slappy wind on a hilltop, or a coat pocket caught on a door handle. Unless he was inside the house, or Happy Shop, he didn’t fit in anywhere and was in everyone’s way. And so his recent life had been reduced to quick forays outside the house, because he was unable to cope with anything else and wasn’t wanted anywhere. Never had been. The house had opened his eyes. And there was now something wrong with one of his legs; a pain that started inside a hip. So he should keep off it.

On the day he went out to buy the tools, the further he ventured from the house, the greater was his physical discomfort and his confusion. Frank lit endless cigarettes for the slight comfort they promised. Silk Cut. He’d started smoking again at the weekend after being driven by an unstoppable urge to light up during the National Lottery. At the bus stop, fat pigeons had scurried around his feet and watched him with amber eyes.

After boarding a bus, he’d made his way upstairs. With his bad hip it had been similar to standing upright in a rowing boat. Sitting by the window as the bus trundled toward Selly Oak, where he knew there was a DIY store, he’d looked down at the streets for women wearing tight skirts and leather boots; such a sight usually made him dizzy with longing. Now the women and their clothes just appeared ordinary, and he felt dead to the previously strong images. This impotence led to an incredulity that such a part of himself had ever existed.

From a seat in front of him, a mobile phone began to ring in a girl’s handbag. The noise distracted Frank from what had seemed like important, meaningful thoughts that he could barely remember a few moments later. He’d groaned aloud. The girl spoke in a loud voice. ‘Oh, Jesus,’ he’d said, wanting to take the phone from her hand and drop it out of the window. He’d wanted to hear it smash on the asphalt below.

Muttering under his breath to prevent himself swearing aloud, he was forced to listen to the stranger’s conversation. The girl’s voice was controlled and sounded too much like a prepared speech to be part of a natural discourse. There were no pauses, or repetitions, or silences; just her going blah, blah, blah, and addressing everyone on the bus. It was not a phone that she was holding, but a microphone. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about getting older, he’d mused, was to still be confronted by childish actions and behaviour, these increments of self-importance and vanity that he now observed all about him whenever he left home.

By the time he reached the Bristol Road, Frank had felt sickened by his aversion to everything around him. A hot loathing, but a fascination too, and a pitiful desperation to be included. In one mercifully brief moment, he’d also wished to be burned to ash and to have his name erased from every record in existence. He was rubbish. No one wanted him around. He’d dabbed the corner of one eye with a tissue and had wanted to go home, back to the house.

As the bus brushed the edge of Selly Oak he’d fallen asleep. And awoken to find the vehicle had trundled and wheezed into streets he didn’t recognise. He’d slept through his stop and found himself in a bleak part of Birmingham that he had never seen before. Somewhere behind Longbridge maybe? In a panic, he’d fled down the stairs, alighted and then stood beside a closed factory and a wholesaler of saris.

Everything there was inhospitable. Self-loathing had choked him. [_Can I not leave the house without a map? _]He’d lived in the city for ten years, but he recognised none of this. It was as if the streets and buildings had actually moved to disorient him while he’d slept on the bus.

He’d followed a main road in the opposite direction the bus had taken, but grown tired and eventually turned his face to a wooden fence surrounding a building site and there suffered a paroxysm of such contained rage that it had left him with a broken tooth and cuts on the palms of his hands. Clenching his jaws together and grinding his teeth, he’d felt the enamel snap on a tooth at the side of his mouth. His cheeks had filled with grit. But when the tooth snapped the tension had passed from his body, leaving him confused and expecting shockwaves of agony. But there was no pain and he’d decided against going to a dentist. He didn’t know where the dentists were in the city. He’d then noticed the little half-moons of blood on the inside of his palms, made by his own nails. It had been so long since he’d bitten them; his nails were like unpleasant, feminine claws. How could they have grown so much and he not noticed?

Trying to retrace the bus route and find a landmark, Frank became hopelessly disoriented. He went into a tacky women’s hairdressers, which was the only place that he’d been able to find that offered him any sense of familiarity, to ask for directions. Girls in heavy make-up had exchanged glances when he found himself unable to speak. He’d just stood and trembled before them. After throwing his arms into the air in silent exasperation, he’d left the shop, crimson with shame. Speech only returned to him at the kerb where he’d stood muttering. Some people had stared. A taxi had taken him home.

These things never used to happen to him, but he had a notion that the potential for such a slide had always been in place. In the back of the taxi he’d hidden his face inside the lapel of his overcoat and bitten his bottom lip until his eyes had brimmed with water.

Two days later, or it might have been three or even four, someone knocked on the front door, and for a long time too. So Frank had hidden by lying on the floor of the spare room. He’d heard voices outside, talking in the neighbour’s garden, and he’d known that they were trying to look through the back windows of the house.

For the rest of that afternoon he’d chain-smoked Silk Cut cigarettes and didn’t relax until it was dark outside and Coronation Street’s theme tune was booming through the living room. The thought of going out to buy food had made him feel nauseous, so he’d stopped tormenting himself with the idea of leaving the house.

He tried again to fix the broken cabinets to the kitchen walls, but only succeeded in making his fingers bleed. He’d gone upstairs to wash them, but when he arrived on the landing he couldn’t remember why he had gone upstairs. He went and lay down on the bed instead. And around him clouded the smell of perfume, old furniture, stale carpets and chip fat. The radiators had come on with a gurgle. He’d felt safe and closed his eyes.

Sometime in the night, Florrie came into the room on all fours and climbed onto the bed. She sat on Frank’s chest and pushed a thin, cold hand inside his mouth.

[]More Horror Fiction from Adam L. G. Nevill

Available in print and eBook at major book retailers.

Some Will Not Sleep

Selected Horrors

A bestial face appears at windows in the night.

In the big white house on the hill angels are said to appear.

A forgotten tenant in an isolated building becomes addicted to milk.

A strange goddess is worshipped by a home-invading disciple.

The least remembered gods still haunt the oldest forests.

Cannibalism occurs in high society at the end of the world.

The sainted undead follow their prophet to the Great Dead Sea.

A confused and vengeful presence occupies the home of a first-time buyer . . .

In ghastly harmony with the nightmarish visions of the award-winning writer’s novels, these stories blend a lifelong appreciation of horror culture with the grotesque fascinations and childlike terrors that are the author’s own.

Adam L. G. Nevill’s best early horror stories are collected here for the first time.

Limited edition signed hardback bundle, including the Ritual Limited Black Metal T Shirt, is available from www.adamlgnevill.com – ISBN: 978-0-9954630-0-4

Novels

Banquet for the Damned

Few believed Professor Coldwell could commune with spirits. But in Scot-land’s oldest university town something has passed from darkness into light. Now, the young are being haunted by night terrors and those who are visited disappear. This is certainly not a place for outsiders, especially at night. So what chance do a rootless musician and burned-out explorer have of surviv-ing their entanglement with an ageless supernatural evil and the ruthless cult that worships it? A chilling occult thriller from award-winning author Adam Nevill, [_Banquet for the Damned _]is both a homage to the great age of British ghost stories and a pacey modern thriller.

ISBN: 978-1447240921

Apartment 16

Some doors are better left closed . . .

In Barrington House, an upmarket block in London, there is an empty apartment. No one goes in, no one comes out. And it has been that way for 50 years. Until the night-watchman hears a disturbance after midnight and investigates. What he experiences is enough to change his life for ever.

A young American woman, Apryl, arrives at Barrington House. She’s been left an apartment by her mysterious Great Aunt Lillian, who died in strange circumstances. Rumours claim Lillian was mad. But her diary sug-gests she was implicated in a horrific and inexplicable event decades before.

Determined to learn something of this eccentric woman, Apryl begins to unravel the hidden story of Barrington House. She discovers that a transforming force still inhabits the building. And the doorway to Apartment 16 is a gateway to something altogether more terrifying . . .

ISBN: 978-1447263395

The Ritual

When four old university friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise. With limited experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse. But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artefacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. And as the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn that death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees . . .

Winner of the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel and voted Best in Category: Horror by R.U.S.A.

ISBN: 978-1447263418

Last Days

Last Days is a Blair Witch style novel in which a documentary film-maker undertakes the investigation of a dangerous cult―with creepy consequences.

When guerrilla documentary maker Kyle Freeman is asked to shoot a film on the notorious cult known as the Temple of the Last Days, it appears his prayers have been answered. The cult became a worldwide phenomenon in 1975 when there was a massacre including the death of its infamous leader, Sister Katherine. Kyle’s brief is to explore the paranormal myths surrounding an organisation that became a testament to paranoia, murderous rage and occult rituals. The shoot’s locations take him to the cult’s first temple in London, an abandoned farm in France and a derelict copper mine in the Arizonan desert where the Temple of the Last Days met its bloody end. But when he interviews those involved in the case, those who haven’t broken silence in decades, a series of uncanny events plague the shoots. Troubling out-of-body experiences, nocturnal visitations, the sudden demise of their interviewees and the discovery of ghastly artefacts in their room make Kyle question what exactly it is the cult managed to awaken – and what is its interest in him?

Winner of the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel and voted Best in Category: Horror by R.U.S.A.

ISBN: 978-1447263401

House of Small Shadows

Catherine’s last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top TV network saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back. A new job and a few therapists later, things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself – to catalogue the late M. H. Mason’s wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she’ll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting bloody scenes from the Great War. Catherine can’t believe her luck when Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at Red House itself, where she maintains the collection until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle’s ‘art’. Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but Mason’s damaged visions begin to raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she’d hoped therapy had finally erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge and some truths seem too terrible to be real . . .

ISBN: 978-0330544245

No One Gets Out Alive

Darkness lives within . . .

Cash-strapped, working for agencies and living in shared accommodation, Stephanie Booth feels she can fall no further. So when she takes a new room at the right price, she believes her luck has finally turned. But 82 Edgware Road is not what it appears to be.

It’s not only the eerie atmosphere of the vast, neglected house, or the disturbing attitude of her new landlord, Knacker McGuire, that makes her un-easy – it’s the whispers behind the fireplace, the scratching beneath floors, the footsteps in the dark and the young women weeping in neighbouring rooms. And when Knacker’s cousin Fergal arrives, the danger goes vertical. It’s clear that something very bad has happened in this house. And something even worse is happening now. Stephanie has to find a way out, before whatever’s going on in the house finds her first.

Winner of the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel.

ISBN: 978-1447240907

Lost Girl

It’s 2053 and climate change has left billions homeless and starving – easy prey for the pandemics that sweep across the globe, scything through the refugee populations. Easy prey, too, for the violent gangs and people-smugglers who thrive in the crumbling world where ‘King Death’ reigns supreme.

The father’s world went to hell two years ago. His four-year-old daughter was snatched from his garden when he should have been watching. The moments before her disappearance play in a perpetual loop in his mind. But the police aren’t interested; amidst floods, hurricanes and global chaos, who cares about one more missing child? Now it’s all down to him to find her . . .

ISBN: 978-1447240914

(Coming in 2017)

Under a Watchful Eye

Seb Logan is being watched. He just doesn’t know by whom.

When the sudden appearance of a dark figure shatters his idyllic coastal life, he soon realizes that the murky past he thought he’d left behind has far from forgotten him. What’s more unsettling is the strange atmosphere that engulfs him at every sighting, plunging his mind into a terrifying paranoia.

To be a victim without knowing the tormentor. To be despised without knowing the offence caused. To be seen by what nobody else can see. These are the thoughts which plague his every waking moment.

Imprisoned by despair, Seb fears his stalker is not working alone, but rather is involved in a wider conspiracy that threatens everything he has worked for. For there are doors in this world that open into unknown places with their own rules. Places used by the worse kind of people to achieve their own ends. And once his investigation leads him to stray across the line and into mortal danger he risks becoming another fatality in a long line of victims . . .

Making Monsters, Unleashing Ghosts, Raising Hell

If you like the fiction of fear, short stories, unreleased chapters from award-winning novels, advice for writers, film and book recommendations, interviews and insights into creating horror, just click the link below and register on the next page to seize your next Free Book today.

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[]

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Before You Sleep: Three Horrors

A trilogy of horror stories from the award-winning writer's first collection of short stories – SOME WILL NOT SLEEP – and an introduction to the nightmarish visions and ghastly spectres that have been disturbing the sleep of readers for years. In this book you'll find two ghost stories and a tale of ancestral demoniac horror. In the big white house on the hill angels are said to appear . . . When the children left the house, their toys remained . . . A confused and vengeful presence occupies the home of a first-time buyer . . . "The images just won’t go away. You’ll find yourself replaying scenes in your mind for days” - Fangoria "Modern storytelling ... and old school terror. Very scary, highly recommended" - Jonathan Maberry, NYT bestselling author "One of the most subtle and powerful writers of dark fiction - a unique voice" - Michael Marshall Smith, NYT Bestselling author) "Adam Nevill is a spine-chiller in the classic tradition, a writer who draws you in from the world of the familiar, eases you into the world of terror, and then locks the door behind you" - Michael Koryta, NYT Bestselling author "Readers will lose all hope of peaceful, undisturbed sleep. Highly recommended” - Library Journal - Starred Review "Haunted-house maestros Shirley Jackson, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and Peter Straub would approve" - Booklist (Starred review) "Nevill's talent for horror resonates ominously in every scene, almost as if the theme from Jaws echoes when a page is turned" - (Kirkus) "This is what a horror book should be” - Suspense Magazine "He has the rare ability to craft a nebulous atmosphere of terror, as well as to capture cinematic slasherpunk in the written word. Both are incredibly rare talents" Pornokitsch "The sense of dread is immediate, with the reader’s sense of foreboding increasing with every new page" Irish Examiner "Readers will lose all hope of peaceful, undisturbed sleep. Highly recommended" Library Journal - Starred Review

  • Author: Adam L G Nevill
  • Published: 2016-08-26 13:00:15
  • Words: 20274
Before You Sleep: Three Horrors Before You Sleep: Three Horrors