Helen Forsyth tossed and turned in her bed. Usually she didn’t have any trouble dropping off. She had the choice of the top bunk bed, or the bottom, since her older sister, Moira, had left home to live with Danny Porter. Danny was all plastic smiles with Helen, when anyone watched them together, but the laugh was he thought he looked like Marc Bolan. That was the one good thing about Moira leaving; she’d left all her old NME posters on the wall. One thing was for sure Danny Porter didn’t look anything like Marc Bolan, unless it was a faded newspaper cutting of him after crashing into a tree. Her dad called him ‘Danny fuck-face’ when he thought his daughters were out of earshot and her mum tried to defend him, but not very hard. Nobody ever asked Helen’s opinion, but if anybody asked, she was ready: Danny Porter gave her the hives.
Helen knew it was late when she trekked down their hallway, her broad size five feet slapping on the cold linoleum floor, because mum and dad were in bed. It was dark, but not that dark, one of those still nights when the North Star made an appearance and the moon elbowed it out of the way and then like a light switch the birds were singing and it was sunshine and daylight again. Moira sat drowning in the familiar smell of Domestos and tinkled a little urine into the toilet pan to dilute it. She was restless and her mind was filled with static noise that made sleep seem like a distant dream. Her head was bent with unfamiliar tiredness and her feet echoed up the hallway as she returned to her room. She put her arm up to automatically push open her bedroom door. She stopped, perched between doing one thing and thinking about another, unsure if she’d seen something a few steps before.
She carefully retraced her steps, her hand out like a blind girl, palm against the rough swirls of the woodchip wallpaper to her mum’s and dad’s room, but not quite touching, in case it made a scraping noise and they heard her. Hand spliced against the wall like a starfish, she peeked around the corner, ready to chap on the wall if she needed help. The hallway ran in an L shape to the front door. There was a shelf-sized window above the front door to let in daylight. The thing she’d seen might have been someone standing on the external stair wall, pulling themselves up using the metal struts of the canopy and looking in at her. She frowned. That didn’t make sense. It seemed to be luminous and floating. She was also sure that it didn’t have a face, just eyes. She yawned. There was nothing to see now, just a flash bulb after- image. Other thoughts bubbled up into her head: that it needed to be invited in, making her heart race and she panicked and almost shouted out loud, ‘you can’t come in.’ It all seemed foreign to her, none of it felt like her own thoughts, or words. She almost pushed open the door to her mum’s and dad’s room and asked, she wasn’t sure what, to sleep in their room? She hesitated, her hot forehead against their cold bedroom door. A clicking noise from the living room made her scamper up the hall, put the light in her room firmly on, loop the blankets over her head like a hat and pray for sleep.
There was something pulling at her, tugging her underwater. She cried out for help, but no one could hear her because they held her down, pulled her tongue out, with what seemed like a big pair of metal tongs and cut it off with silver shears. Blood had filled her mouth and made her gag and choke for breath. Her head was filled with star- bolts, forcing their way out of her eyes and nose and made her want to scream like she was birthing a universe. That was when they’d pushed her head into the Nile River, whether to clean out her mouth or drown her, she wasn’t quite sure.
Her eyes sprang open. It was the worst nightmare she’d ever remembered having, her hands wringing and clutching onto her blankets wrapping them around herself like a rope. She was glad to see Marc Bolan looking down at her, and would even have kissed his ugly mugshot in gratitude. The birds were hanging about in gangs outside, cawing and caterwauling street songs at each other to mark their territory, so she knew it was still too early to get up. She stretched out her feet to the bottom of the bed and wrapped herself in the blankets luxuriating in the knowledge that she didn’t need to get up for anybody or anything. She closed her eyes for a second.
She was blue with the cold, in total darkness. The pinprick of light hurt her eyes, down and down the flame came, growing brighter, following the path cut into the mountain hide. She could hear the grunt of someone, or something, being carried and the jangle of a chain, much like the one that entombed her. The smell of incense almost made her gag. A bong sounded like thunder, when they reached the pit bottom, where she was anchored and there was a flash of light and she screamed.
Helen's mouth shaped itself into an O shaped comet, and she felt her vocal cords resonating like metal wire and pushing out a shout, startling her body into waking.
‘What was that?’ she heard her dad's voice booming through the thin chipboard wall next door.
There was nothing on the telly when she got up and nothing to eat. So she just had cornflakes with three teaspoons of sugar and no milk. She sat with her feet underneath her on her favourite chair, to keep them warm and looked out of the window. If she rocked back the way she could just make out the slate grey roof of Dr Fleming’s old house. She felt older, being the only person up in the world at that time of the morning. The whole day stretched ahead like a lifetime.
She yawned loudly, not caring if it was unladylike or that she never seemed to fit into dresses the way that Angela Tilby did, or that she was able to keep her shoes so spit and polish clean that it seemed hurtful to smudge then with an envious look. She’d show her. Angela had dared her to stay the night at Dr Fleming’s house. And it was almost still nighttime. She’d show her and all her stupid friends, that didn’t really like her. She’d go up to Dr Fleming’s house and bring something back to show that she’d stayed the night there all alone. A bet was a bet and a dare was a dare.
The long grass was still wet with morning dew, catching on her clothing and soaking through her only pair of good shoes. The midges hung low and snacked on her unmarked white skin as she passed. She picked up a stick and tried being old and limping alone and using it as a walking stick, but it just slowed her down, so she flung it into the brambles and heard some small animal scurrying away. She hadn’t been paying attention so that Dr Fleming’s house seemed to loom up suddenly in front of her, like some great beast, and then she noticed how still and silent it was. There was no birdcall and the silence unnerved her. Then she heard footsteps. She looked around, at the house and back the way she had come, for somewhere to hide. But it was too late.
The man didn’t notice her at first. She was frozen in indecision and her lack of movement made her difficult to spot. But he wasn’t looking at the shrubbery or the surrounding terrain; his eyes did not waver from the windows and doors of the house. He looked at each one as if inspecting its value. He stopped at one of the side doors, squatting down, settling onto his haunches, his round glasses glinting and his beaky nose pointing downwards, like a vulture, with a monk’s crop of grey hair.
Helen couldn’t help letting out a squeal as his hands worked their way into the sack he was carrying. She was sure it held the bodies of the types of small animals she’d disturbed earlier. The man head swivelled around and he scratched his head and shook it from side to side as if to shake out the fact that a girl was standing stock still in front of him.
He unwound himself slowly up to his full height like a self-tacking jib, so as not to startle her away. ‘What are you doing here little girl?’ His voice was warm, soft as the burr of summer.
‘Don’t know,’ She took a step back. Then another. Then another. He made no sudden movements, so she felt confident enough to ask, ‘what are you doing here?’
He smiled at her and it reached all the way across the lines in his forehead, smoothing them out and reached his eyes. ‘Ah, it’s a long story.’
That meant, she knew from when her mum said much the same thing, that she wasn’t going to be told any more.
‘And who are you?’ he asked.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, at the same time, pointing at the sack.
‘Salt,’ he said, pulling some out and sprinkling it in a double line around the door. ‘You see here.’ He bent down once more his fingers tracing a set of parallel lines in outline. ‘That’s a chain line. Someone kicked it over when they stole into the house. Probably some young boys up to mischief and that means that it can reach out.’
Helen wanted to be good: own up and say it was her and Angela that scuffed away the salt-chain, but he looked so upset she decided to change the subject. ‘That doesn’t look like salt.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, his head bopping up and down, ‘you get different types of salt.’
Helen followed him around the perimeter of the house. He stopped at each door and squatted down, drawing his double lines in front of each entrance. ‘What are you doing that for?’ she finally asked.
He drew himself up to his full height again as he considered his answer. ‘Hand me that bag of salt please.’
Helen pulled at the sack and pulled at it again, moving it about half an inch. ‘I didn’t think it would be so heavy. I can’t lift it,’ she said, looking up at him.
He nodded, ‘sometimes little girl, it’s better to let adults carry things for you. There are some things that you cannot yet understand and some knowledge that you shouldn’t be burdened with.’ He leaned down looking into Helen doe brown eyes. ‘Promise me, promise me, you’ll never come back to this house again. It’s dangerous. That’s all you need to know.’ His finger stroked underneath her chin as if she was some kind of wild animal, that needed taming and wasn’t in the least creepy, like it was when Danny Porter tried to tickle her.
‘I promise,’ said Helen yawning.
‘Shoo,’ he said waving both hands at her and laughing. ‘Shoo,’ he said again, in an even more animated fashion, caught up in his own joke, until she couldn’t help smiling as well and turning away.
He stood and watched her bolting home, winding her way through the scrub and undergrowth and out through the hole in the fence.