Unmasked (Part 2 of 3)
Six months had passed since the night Sarah was attacked. Attacked and saved. By whom she never found out, but the memory of that night was hard to shake. However, as she was having breakfast one Saturday something happened that did just that.
Her father died.
Sarah was halfway through her toast when her phone rang. It was her mother. Thinking nothing of it, as Eileen often called of a weekend, Sarah answered the call expecting it to be an ordinary phone call.
It was anything but.
The call didn’t last very long, but what was to be said at a time like this? Her father was dead and things needed to be put into motion. Sarah put her phone down, steadying herself on the kitchen counter as she did so. She had only spoken to her father last week, albeit via text, but he hadn’t mentioned being ill or anything like that. Would he have told her even if he had been? This thought ran through Sarah’s mind as she sat down heavily on one of the stools at the kitchen counter and tried to allow the enormity of it to sink in.
Dad was gone.
Sarah wasn’t sure how to feel. She knew that she should feel sad, and she did, but her sporadic relationship with her father over the past several years had muddled that thought process now that she was faced with the finality of his passing. She hadn’t avoided a relationship with him, at least she didn’t feel she had, and neither had he, from her understanding, but there always seemed to have been more important things to be done. Sarah felt terrible for thinking that, but it was true. Dad had been a workhorse – never stopping, it seemed – and being away in the Army and then working nights can’t have helped. She’d never asked her parents, but she was pretty sure that his work schedule was one of the causes of the breakdown of their marriage. There was no question that he’d worked hard and provided well enough for the family, but through all that hard work he didn’t seem able to provide one thing: time.
Not able or not willing?
No. Sarah stopped herself before the thought could take root. There were many things that could, and no doubt would, be said about her father, but he hadn’t been a neglectful man, at least not on purpose. Sarah sat in her quiet kitchen and thought about how hard he’d been on himself for missing things like birthdays, school functions, and the like. It always seemed to genuinely upset him. Sarah choked back some rising tears as she thought about the sad look he’d get on his face as he apologised for missing this or that.
At least he’d never tried to buy her off with presents, she thought.
That much could be said. Sarah’s father seemed to have respected her enough to know that some cheap toy wasn’t about to make up for him not being there. Thinking this, Sarah reached up and felt the patch of her neck where her favourite necklace used to sit as a teenager, and then again for a few wonderful hours on her birthday. Gone now, lost the night of her attack. Now, with her father gone, she missed the necklace more than ever.
Sarah let out a long sigh and looked at her phone. She wondered for a moment how her mother must have felt. Her voice on the phone had been matter of fact, but not cold. Everybody dealt with this kind of thing in their way, Sarah supposed. Her mother had asked Sarah if she’d mind helping clear out her father’s house. He’d never remarried after the divorce, and had lived alone, but there was still a house full of his things that needed…
Sarah grimaced as the notion of her dead father being in some way an inconvenience to the living rose nastily in a corner of her mind. She mentally squashed it and stood from the stool. Of course she would help. It wouldn’t be fair to leave her mother to do it all alone, and as Sarah prepared to leave the house she realised that she very much wanted to see her father’s house with all of its things in one last time before it all changed. She scooped up her phone and sent a quick text message to her mother:
Please don’t start without me.
She’d know what it meant, thought Sarah, as she zipped up her coat. She shouldered her bag and left the house, bound for her father’s place.
* * *
Three quarters of an hour later, Sarah unlatched the garden gate to her father’s house and made her way up the drive. She was so enveloped in her own thoughts that it took her a moment to realise that someone was talking to her. She looked around and saw an older lady standing in the garden of the property next door.
‘I’m sorry?’ she said, feeling embarrassed that she hadn’t heard a word the woman had said.
‘I said, was he family?’ The woman had a kindly expression.
‘Yes. He was my father. Is my father.’ Sarah wasn’t quite ready to start exclusively referring to her father in the past tense, not just yet.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ said the woman. ‘We won’t see his like again.’ Sarah thanked the woman for her words and entered the house.
You probably knew him better than I did.
Again the thought arose in her mind before she had time to stop it.
No, Sarah. That’s not going to help.
It wasn’t that woman’s fault that Sarah had spent the journey to her father’s house thinking about how much of his life she didn’t know about, but getting bitter about it was only going to hurt her in the long run. She could devote the proper time to her emotions when it was right to. Before any of that she had another task before her.
Her father’s house.
Sarah stood in the living room and felt the alien quality of the space overcome her. How many times had she been to this house since her father had moved here, all those years ago? Half a dozen, if that? She silently cursed herself for not making more of an effort. Again the tears threatened to come, but Sarah knew that if she let them out now she wouldn’t be able to stop, and then she’d be no use to anyone. Fighting them back, she looked around the room.
‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ she said, in a whisper.
‘Sarah? Is that you?’ Eileen’s voice was calling down from upstairs. Sarah swallowed down the last of the threatening tears and walked over to the foot of the stairs.
‘Yes, Mom, it’s me.’
‘Come on up when you’re ready, dear.’ Sarah ascended to the second floor and found Eileen on the landing, looking at the pictures that hung on the wall. She smiled when she saw Sarah and reached out to give her a daughter a hug. Sarah fell into it gratefully, and the two of them stood there for a few moments, saying nothing, as nothing needed to be said. When they separated Sarah saw that her mother’s eyes were glassy. She reached into her pocket and offered Eileen a handkerchief. She took it with a silent nod of thanks.
‘Where do you want me to start?’ asked Sarah. She needed something to do, to keep her busy. She didn’t want to slow down or stop for too long because she was afraid it would all catch up with her and then she wouldn’t be able to get going again.
‘I think the attic would be best for you, dear. I’m a little old to be climbing ladders.’
‘Okay, Mom. What about downstairs?’
‘Gary’s bringing a couple of his friends with him to help with the bigger things. They’re going to start downstairs.’
‘Okay.’ Eileen kissed her on the cheek, and Sarah moved along the landing to where the attic hatch was.
‘Hmm?’ Sarah turned. Eileen was at the top of the stairs, her hand on the banister. She had an odd expression on her face; wistful, yet concerned.
‘Your Dad really did love you, you know. Gary, too. He’d want you to know that. It’s just his work…’
Sarah felt the sting of tears again as she walked back across the landing to her mother. She placed a hand on her shoulder and looked sadly into her eyes.
‘Mom, don’t. I know he loved us. I love him, too. Both of you.’ They stared at each other for a moment, and Sarah could feel it coming; she could so easily break down and let it all out, collapsing into her mother and letting the emotion take over. Eileen seemed to have the same thought.
‘Right, let’s get started, shall we?’ she said, sniffing audibly. ‘Last thing that’s needed now is us both getting all teary.’
‘Okay, Mom. Thank you.’ Sarah leaned in and pecked her mother affectionately on the cheek. Eileen smiled and went downstairs, leaving Sarah alone. She walked back towards the attic hatch and reached up and pulled on the rope dangling from it, stepping back to allow the ladder stairs to unfold. Once they were securely in place, Sarah climbed carefully into her father’s attic.
And into her father’s world.
A life in one room, Sarah pulled the small chain attached to the light bulb in the attic’s ceiling and bathed her father’s possessions in its unforgiving glow. She stood there for a moment, as the dust motes drifted lazily in the light, and she suddenly felt like an intruder. This was her father’s personal space, and though she knew she must, she still felt invasive, like an outsider.
Again she said: ‘I’m sorry, Dad.’
Not knowing really where to start, Sarah dove in and began going through boxes. It was an odd sensation, rifling through the belongings of someone she felt she both knew and did not know. She also felt a strange claustrophobia pressing in on her. The attic felt more cramped than it should be. It was full of her father’s things, but the walls felt too close together, as if the attic was too small for the size of house it was on top of. Sarah shrugged it off and carried on.
A noise downstairs let her know that her brother and his friends had arrived. She hoped that they would be too busy to come and find her. The more she dug through her father’s things the less she wanted to be bothered. They could handle the rest of the house; she would sort the attic. As much as she didn’t like going through her dead father’s things she felt it was a private moment between him and her; one last time to connect with a man whom she didn’t realise how much she would miss until he was gone. Wasn’t that always the way, she thought: you never truly appreciate something until it’s taken away from you. Looking around the attic, she knew that she would want to keep some things for herself to remember her father by. On the journey to his house she had devised a system for how she was going to sort through his things. She would be as sparing as possible in the things that she wanted to keep, because she knew, if she allowed herself to, she’d end up trying to keep it all, and with all the will in the world she didn’t have the room for all of her father’s things. Also, her mother was a longstanding member of the local Royal British Legion committee, so a lot of her father’s things could and probably would go there for various charity events.
Dad would have liked that, Sarah thought. He always liked helping people.
Thinking that stopped Sarah in what she was doing. She sat back on her haunches and let her memory travel back to another time, another world. Silence wrapped itself around the attic again as she sat lost in her memories. She smiled thinly to herself as her father came to her in her mind. She was brought back to the here and now by her mother calling up from the landing.
‘Sarah, would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Coffee, please. Thank you.’ When her drink was ready Sarah climbed down the ladder and drank with her mother. Gary and his friends had taken their drinks outside so that they could smoke. Sarah had thought of taking up the habit again since finding out that her father had died, but she had resisted. It had been ten years since she had quit, and she remembered how proud her father had been. He had never smoked, apparently, which was strange for a man of his generation. Sarah thought everyone did back then. She thought some more about her father as she sipped her coffee. Her mother always did make the best coffee.
‘How are you getting on, dear?’
‘Have you decided what you want to keep yet?’
‘I’ve got a few ideas, but I don’t want to think about it too much yet, you know?’
‘I understand.’ Eileen sipped her tea and looked over her cup at her daughter with a knowing glance. ‘You keep going. I’m sure you’ll find something. Your Dad was nothing if not interesting.’ Sarah smiled and finished her coffee, silently wondering what was meant by that comment. Her parents had been divorced for a long time, but they had been together longer, so she simply chalked it up to her mother indulging in her own reminiscing. She drained the last drops of her drink and gratefully handed her cup back to Eileen.
‘Thanks, Mom. I’d better get back to it.’
‘My pleasure, dear. I’ll be down here if you need me.’
Sarah climbed back up the ladder and looked around again. The attic definitely felt smaller than it should have been, but she couldn’t quite make out if that was because of the boxes stacked up against one of the walls or not. Not wanting to get sidetracked, she continued to go through the remnants of her father’s life.
She worked her way from one side of the attic to another, unearthing an old record collection, various boxes of clothes and linens, and then…
A box with her name on it.
Pulling away the ancient brown tape, Sarah opened the box and gasped, clasping her hand over her mouth as she did so, at the contents. Filling the box to its brim were drawings she had done as a child, school reports, all manner of things pertaining to her own life. Sat atop it all was a photograph. It showed Sarah as a young girl with her father, she sitting on his shoulders. Both of their faces were creased with the joy of laughter. Sarah was wearing the blue dress that she remembered being her favourite when she was a child. Her father always said she looked so pretty in it. She was holding a red balloon in one hand and the other was clasped tightly in her father’s hand. She had not thought about that day for years, but seeing the photograph shot her back through time in an instant. Immediately she was seven years old again, laughing and playing with her father, the cares of the world a lifetime away.
Moving the box she noticed a similar one with Gary’s name on it.
He really had cared.
Now the tears came.
‘Oh, Dad.’ Sarah made no effort to stop herself as she erupted into heaving sobs for the loss of the most important man in her life. She hugged the photograph to her chest and rocked back and forth, crying deep and sorrowful tears for a great man now gone. Still crouching, her thighs started to burn in protest, so she clumsily shifted position and sat down on the dusty floorboards. Leaning back, she felt the rough brick of the attic wall scrape along her clothing, and…
Sarah felt colder air against the back of her neck. She shivered slightly and turned in her sitting position to look at the wall. There were no noticeable holes or places where a draught might be coming from, but holding her hand up close to the brickwork she definitely felt something. Frowning, she moved her hand to the left, and the draught was gone. The same when she moved her hand from the draught to the right. Moving her hand upwards, it continued. It was slight but definitely there. Sarah extended her arm as she felt the cooler air on her palm. It kept going, so she rose from the floor and stood up. The draught extended to above her head, and eventually she stopped feeling it as she moved her hand upwards. Sarah bit her lip and looked down at where she had first felt it to where she had felt to; it was a straight line. She took a step back from the wall and looked at it with a puzzled expression.
‘I wonder…’ she said to herself.
Stepping back to the wall, she found the spot where she had left off. She took a deep breath, held it in, and moved her hand to the right, feeling the draught continue as she did so. A prickle of nervous, excited sweat threatened to break across her brow, as she continued to trace a shape in the wall that was emitting this strange draught. A shape like…