A Tale of Two Books
With acknowledgements to the great Alan Garner and Shirley Hughes.
‘Worst. Christmas. Ever.’
‘Don’t start, Lucy,’ said dad softly from the driver’s seat.
‘Could be worse… they could be saying “are we there yet?” every five minutes.’
‘The only reason we’re not saying that is because we don’t want to get there at all,’ hissed Tom.
It’s fair to say that there’s no love lost between Tom and Delyth. Delyth is dad’s girlfriend. I was going to say new girlfriend, but as he’d been seeing her for about a year before he left mum, I don’t think she counts as that new. I’m not keen on her either, mind, but I’m not like Tom. He’s either silent or vicious to her, nothing in between. He hates her and I think he hates dad now too.
‘Tom, please don’t speak like that. I know this Christmas is going to be… tough. Let’s try and make the best of…’
‘A bad job?’ snapped Delyth, clicking on her phone.
‘That’s not what I meant…’ stuttered dad.
Delyth scanned her phone. ‘I could be out with me mates now. The book club are going on a pub crawl tonight followed by the theatre. It’s my work Christmas party. My best friend for college is over from the US, I could be having cocktails with her. But no, I’ve been stuck in a car with you and your… children for the last six sodding hours.’
‘It’s not my fault about the traffic on the M4. And anyway. It was your idea for us all to go to your family cottage in Wales…’
‘I had pictured the two of us, you know, a roaring log fire, cut off from the world. And seeing as my sister had to cancel…’
‘Again, not my fault.’
‘No. Your bloody wife’s fault. Dropping everything. Taking off like that.’
‘She’s… still upset.’
‘If you hadn’t paid for it, she couldn’t have gone. Guilty conscience.’
‘Of course I feel bad. She’s always wanted to go to Savannah. I wasn’t going to stop her, in the circumstances.’
‘Christ,’ whispered Delyth, furiously tapping at her phone.
I guess I felt a bit sorry for dad. He and mum had sat us down and explained to us that they weren’t getting on (like we needed telling) and how they both had had enough of the rows, they had decided it was best for everyone if he left. But I couldn’t see what had changed. He used to argue all the time with mum, and now he was constantly bickering with his girlfriend. What had it achieved, apart from making mum so sad she hardly ever stopped crying? And drinking.
Tom put his headphones back on and I could hear fuzzy guitar music leaking out. Delyth’s face was lit by the glow of her iPhone, dad’s by the faint green luminescence of the dashboard, It was utterly dark outside, hardly any other cars on the road, weird after the interminable traffic jams getting out of London, the odd sense of looming hills in the distance. Silence in the car. Silence so painful I wanted to scream.
Tom fell asleep, and so did Delyth. I waited. And waited.
‘Are we there yet?’
I saw Dad smile at me in the rear view mirror.
It was gone midnight when we got to the cottage, and so dark I didn’t take in what the place was really like. I just remember dad bundling us into the house, telling Delyth to leave all the food except the wine and it being so, so cold. I fell asleep curled up in a sleeping back on top of an old bed in a room slightly bigger than the one I had at home.
I woke up utterly disorientated. My phone said 8.37. No signal. I badly needed a pee. I had no idea where the bathroom was. Mum always used to joke about that. ‘They never need the loo in films and stories, do they?’ I wondered where she was now, if someone was looking after her, of if she was still crying into a drink in a departure lounge somewhere. Maybe a rich, handsome American would take pity on her and whisk her away. Or maybe someone would break her heart again.
I staggered along the landing and opened the first door. It was a dark box room and at first I thought it was empty, but I then I saw Tom. Well, I smelled him before I saw him. Fifteen year old boy smell. Rank.
I tiptoed downstairs and into the living room. There were embers from a dying fire and two empty wine bottles. Dad and Delyth were asleep on the sofa in each other’s arms. So I suppose they must have made up. I crept into the tiny kitchen and found a wooden door with a latch opening off it. Toilet! Bliss. It was so fricking cold, though. Even colder than the kitchen, I thought my feet were going to freeze to the rough concrete floor. I couldn’t decide if the glass in the window was frosted or frozen, so I ran my hand over it. Turned out it was both. A line of sugary ice outlined my fingers. I pulled the chain, and nothing happened. Great. Steam rose from the bowl.
Worst. Christmas. Ever.
‘You coming out for a walk?’ asked dad, startling me as he stuck his head round my bedroom door.
‘I fell back to sleep.’
‘So’s Tom. Can’t rouse him. Come for a walk with me and Delyth. Blow away some cobwebs.’
‘No I’m all right. You go.’
‘There’s bread on the kitchen table, and some eggs and bacon in the fridge if you fancy a fry-up. The smell might wake Tom up.’
I heard him go back downstairs and some low muttering between him and Delyth. I leant over to the window and pulled the curtain to one side. The glass was iced up in here too. I rubbed at it and saw dad kiss Delyth on the lips and lift her off her feet slightly. She wrapped her arms round him. She looked tiny, even in her chunky walking boots and thick clothes. Not much bigger than me. I had no idea what he saw in her. She wasn’t even pretty.
They walked off hand-in-hand. I wondered where they were going. All I could see was the steep valley side opposite, and low, dark clouds. Aside from the distant sound of running water, it was utterly silent.
My phone said it was nearly midday, but it seemed to be going dark already. Still no signal. No TV, no wifi and no phone signal. Couldn’t even send a distress text to Nan or Edie. Edie’s my best friend. Her parents split up last year, but it wasn’t like this. Far more normal. She did have to move house, though. I suppose I’m lucky on that score.
I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling. What was I going to do for a whole week of the holidays, stuck in this dump? Not even the middle of nowhere, this was way outside nowhere, beyond the suburbs of Nowheresville, the back and beyond of Zilch. I had a pile of books on the bedside table that I was supposed to read: secondary school reading list plus a couple that Delyth had bought me. I flicked through a couple of them. I Capture the Castle. Something by Alan Garner, inscribed ‘to Lucy, these books meant a lot to me when I was a teenager, I hope you grow to love them too.’ Yeah, grow to love me, more like. She’s an English teacher. Not at the school I’m going to, thank god. That would be unbearable.
I’d also brought my comfort books. I have a stash of books, mostly Christmas ones, that I bundle up in bed at this time of year. They’re like a security blanket, picture books and story books I’ve had as long as I can remember. They remind me of when dad had time to sit and read to me every night and Tom would stand in the doorway thinking we didn’t know he was there, listening. Lucy and Tom’s Christmas was my favourite. Not just because of the names, but the familiar comfort of a happy family, the safety of knowing that the story would unfold in exactly the same way every single time I read it. They would never decorate the tree until Christmas Eve. Mum and dad would be asleep when the children awoke. Tom would always get over-tired in the evening and go for a walk with grand dad.
I suppose I must have started to drift off again when I heard something. Like a scratching noise. Coming from the ceiling. Getting louder. It was really dark now and I fumbled for the light switch on the bedside lamp. It fell over and the bulb shattered. ‘Shit!’ I cried. Then felt bad for swearing.
No answer. Scratching again. Scurrying across the ceiling, Must be mice.
Silence. Then the noise again, seeming to come from every corner of the ceiling at once.
I jumped up in the bed as Tom came in and turned the main light on.
‘I heard noises.’
‘Scratching. In the roof.’
‘Your imagination, Luce. Reading too many spooky books.’
‘No, it’s real. Listen!’
‘What on earth have you done to the lamp?’
‘It fell over.’
The scratching noise came again, louder and deeper.
‘Do you think it’s mice, Tom?’
‘Bloody big mice. Rats more like. Or squirrels. I wonder if we can get up there…’
‘There’s a loft hatch in the corner.’
‘So there is. I think I saw some stairs as well, though. Come on, let’s investigate.’
Out on the landing between our two rooms there was a white door that I’d hardly noticed, covered with the same kind of wood panelling as the walls. The latch was stiff and Tom had to bash it hard to open it. Inside was a narrow staircase, so dim we could hardly find our feet as we ascended.
‘Locked,’ said Tom as he tried the handle.
‘Probably just as well.’
‘I can’t see anything through the keyhole either. It’s like there’s a key on the inside.’
‘Impossible – unless there’s someone in there,’ Tom whispered in a ghoulish voice.
‘STOP. IT. NOW!’ I yelled, running back to my room.
Tom followed me and pulled an old dresser across the floor so it lined up with the loft hatch.
‘You’re not going up there.’
‘Yes I am.’
‘That thing’s on its last legs, it’ll never hold your weight. You’ll fall and I can’t call an ambulance, there’s no phone here and no mobile signal and…’
‘Hush, sis. Hush.’
The scrabbling noise came again, seeming to circle the area around the loft hatch. Tom jumped up and pulled the bolt. The door didn’t budge. He banged on it three times. The scrabbling stopped and then came back, almost repeating the rhythm of Tom’s fists.
‘Tom, get down. I really don’t like this.’
‘It doesn’t open downwards, so maybe it folds up.’
Tom shoved the hatch and it moved a fraction. Dust fell down and he started to cough.
‘I think there’s something on top of the door. If I can push it harder, I might be able to dislodge it…’
He gave it a huge shove. There was a sliding noise and an almighty crash, like breaking glass.
The hatch flung open and Tom lifted himself inside.
‘Well, I don’t see any rats…’
‘What is there? Tom?’
‘Come and look for yourself.’
His disembodied arm appeared and pulled me up. In the twilight I could make out a tiny attic room with an old iron bedstead in one corner. Shapes fluttered and flickered round the room. I screamed.
Tom turned the light on.
‘Only paper, Luce. Calm yourself.’
He was right. The room was filled with paper cutouts, pinned up, some folded and standing up on their own. They were faded, yellow and curling, cobwebs appearing to support their fragile forms.
‘Owls,’ I said.
‘More likely squirrels. I probably frightened them away.’
‘No, the paper. They’re owls. Made out of flowers. Look closely, there are pencil patterns.’
‘Oh my god, you’re right. I’d never have seen that.’
‘I’ve seen this design before. In a book, a book Delyth got me.’
‘Don’t mention her.’
‘Kind of hard not to. And this is her house.’
Tom was examining the large tea chest that had been covering the loft hatch.
‘Crockery. Or was. I think I broke most of it.’
He pulled out some shards of a white plate with a green and gold pattern.
‘Shit, Tom, we’re going to get into trouble.’
‘Let’s just put everything back where it was. They’ll never know we were up here.’
‘But we can’t.’
‘God Tom, are all boys born stupid?’
I pointed to the door. ‘The room is locked on the inside. There’s no-one in here, looks like there hasn’t been anyone in here for years. And the crate of crockery was covering the hatch.’
‘Oh my god. So how did anyone get out of here? Oooh, Luce, this is a real locked room mystery!’
‘Let’s get out of here before dad and Delyth get back.’
‘Where are they?’
‘They said they were going for a walk.’
‘It’s pitch black out there. Maybe they went to the pub.’
‘Delyth said the nearest pub was five miles away.’
‘Perhaps they fell into a ditch and she drowned.’
‘Sorry. Can’t say I’d be sorry though. Like you said, would be a nightmare getting an ambulance out here.’
‘I think I can hear someone!’
The front door slammed and I could hear dad calling.
Tom closed the hatch and between us we dragged the tea chest back to where we assumed it must have been. I grabbed the key from the door and we tiptoed out, locking the door on the outside. We crept back to our respective rooms.
‘Lucy! Tom! We’re back! Do you fancy some stew for dinner? Or pizza?’
‘Whatever, dad,’ I yelled.
He burst into my room. I could smell the fresh winter air on his clothes. And Delyth’s pungent perfume on his skin. Mum said it was ‘cheap scent’.
‘How’s my Lucy-Goosey?’
‘Sorry. Been up to much?’ he asked, sitting on the bed.
‘Oh yeah, loads, I’ve been watching TV, Tom’s been on the XBox, I Facetimed my mates… oh, no, hang on…’
‘Look, it’s good for us all to be away from gadgets for a week. Unwind. Reconnect with nature… and each other.’
‘It’s so unfair. There’s no phone signal at all. I can’t even text Edie. Or mum. Have you heard from her?’
‘No, my phone’s not working either. We’ll go to the pub for lunch tomorrow, I’m sure one of our phones will work in the village.’
Dad ruffled my hair and kissed the top of my head.
‘What happened to the light?’
‘I knocked it over. Sorry.’
‘I’ll clear that up. Broken glass is dangerous.’
The shards of the bulb were strewn all over Lucy and Tom at Christmas. Dad brushed them aside and started flicking through the book.
‘Good lord. I still remember the day I bought you this book. Must be 10 years ago now. Burst out laughing when I saw the title, bookseller thought I was daft…’
‘Will you read it to me dad?’
‘Aren’t you a bit old for a bedtime story?’
He turned back to the first page and was about to start reading when the bedroom door flung open. It was Delyth. The moment was ruined. I could have killed her.
‘Do you want a glass of wine?’
‘Yes. Thank you, darling, in a moment. I’m just…’
‘What’s that dresser doing in the middle of the floor? My god, it’s covered in dust. And why’s the lamp broken? What on earth have you been doing in here?’
I couldn’t tell if she was flushed with anger or the cold, but it sounded like the former.
‘I heard a noise, got scared…’
‘Yes well, young lady, this is not your house, this is my family’s house, and you need to treat it with a little more respect…’
‘I’m sure Lucy didn’t mean any harm, it was an accident.’
Delyth shoved the dresser but it caught on a loose floorboard.
‘Don’t just sit there. Come and help me!’
Dad looked utterly helpless.
‘For god’s sake!’ she hissed and gave the dresser an almighty shove, lifting it off its feet. The force caused it drop back to the floor with a bang.
At which point the loft hatch opened.
It seemed like it took hours to happen. The door fell out of the opening and slowly, as if supported by a parachute, the crate of crockery descended, Delyth all the time glaring at my father with eyes filled with hatred. Dad and I were both paralysed. I swear to god I tried to call out, but I couldn’t. I was frozen in time.
I think it’s fair to say that she never knew what hit her.
I looked at my phone.
‘No service, dad.’
© 2014 Giles Booth, all rights reserved.