From where she sprawls in the overgrown grass the dog snarls wetly, while underneath her bulk, a litter suckles on her teats. She watches Johan as he passes the chicken-wire outside the garden, and he sees madness in her black eyes. The pups feed noisily. Clouds slide beneath the sun, turning her young into a shapeless mass of eager fur.
The house behind is grey and still. Half-light shines in the broken window panes and on the children’s toys in the garden; gaudy plastic tractors and oven sets still speckled with rainfall. There is a potting shed that does not look as though it has seen use in twenty years, flower beds filled with a mixture of daffodils and weeds, and at the front door a thin woman in a dressing gown. She sucks on a cigarette while the door frame supports her weight, and it is not difficult to associate the sounds of the feeding pups with her own lips as they pucker and twitch, milking the cancer stick for every ounce.
He is almost past the house when she catches his gaze. For a few seconds, eyes not unlike those of the bitch on the front lawn, burn into his and he sees the rest of the street reflected in their dejected depths. He does not belong here; a well-fed, clean-shaven man in his work suit, treading the pavement in shoes black not with dirt but strong polish. There is a reason he does not come here often, a reason that he has not visited his sister’s family for over a year. It shines in the woman’s yellow eyes, the yellow fingers by her mouth, the faded yellow lines beside the road; symbols hiding just beneath the surface of the street, in this place where the illusion is shattered and one does not have to strain to see life as it is.
His feet lead him down three more roads no different than the first before he comes to a signpost marked Pasture Street. The house could be any of the terraced red-bricks ahead, and he is thankful its number is committed to his head. He fancies that the street smells cleaner here, the houses newer, the sky brighter at the edges. It is not saying much.
As he walks up the garden path towards the crumbling white-plaster front of the house, his stomach squirms. It is several months since he has spoken to his sister, and they did not part on good terms. That was when she stopped taking his phone calls. He wrote; sometimes defensively, sometimes in anger, even apologetically towards the end, but his correspondence went unanswered.
It did not seem out of place to ask her to move away from here. Theirs was an idyllic childhood, on the farm in rural Sussex. He still remembers days spent running through the paddocks, their fishing lessons with Father, the seasonal festivals heralding summer and winter with wicker offerings; straw men and fruity women paying homage to the spirits of hearth and home.
This hard street is no place for a new family. They deserve better, especially little Chloe.
His finger finds the bell. A shrill sound fills the house, echoed somewhere above by the distant screech of a gull. The seconds tighten his ribs around his heart. He presses the bell again, then knocks against the door.
The windows either side of the house are obscured by curtains of the same floral design they grew up with. Dust clings to the glass. The rooms behind are black, unlit, and it is impossible to see or hear anything within. Hope mingles with concern inside his chest, and he wonders if they have moved house after all, if that is why Liz has not been writing back. Certainly, the battered Vauxhall that he had hated so much is nowhere in sight.
He knocks again, then crouches to the letterbox. His suit trousers ride up the backs of his legs. Lifting the metal sheet, he peers inside. Two wide eyes stare back at him through the slat.
His breath catches in his throat as the young girl vanishes from view. His niece would be six now, he guesses, or maybe seven. They haven’t moved, then. He realises he is shaking; nipped at by the teeth of the street, the stress, poisoned by anxiety and more than anything else a deep, underlying worry for his sister and her family. They are his only family now. Everybody needs blood-ties.
Straightening himself up, he stretches, flexes his arms and throws his weight against the door. When it does not immediately give he goes again, hurling himself into the wood. Each crash fills the street but none of the neighbours notice, or if they do, they do not seem to care. On the fifth try the lock splinters and he falls into the house.
Dust swirls on the unsettled air. It fills his eyes, his nose, the back of his mouth. He tastes ash, and the sweet tang of decay. Slowly his eyes adjust to the still dimness of the hallway. A chest-of-drawers emerges, an empty coat-stand, one small pair of child’s shoes, all covered in a grey coating of hoar-dust.
For a second he sees her in the kitchen at the end of the hallway; a small, thin shape standing beside the dinner table. Then he steps towards her and she flees from sight behind the door.
The girl is fast. She leads him on a chase throughout the house. Twice he almost catches her, in the sitting room and the kitchen, but each time she slips away. Clouds of dust fill the air, mingling with the rotten aroma of the refuse in the kitchen. Rubbish spills out over the lino. Cupboards leak. The fruit bowl swims darkly by the sink. In the sitting room, dust rises from armchairs like ghosts from beige two-piece tombs. He notices the curtains again; lasting impressions from a different life. A small wicker doll, a remnant from his sister’s childhood, watches him from the mantelpiece. The house shifts with silent whorls in his wake.
“Liz,” he shouts as he returns to the hallway. Ankles like bone flash past the bannisters and he realises Chloe has gone upstairs.
Another smell catches in his throat as he ascends through the house. It is deeper, more sickly, cutting through the squalor from the kitchen, reminding him with numbing dread of his father’s study. He found the man four weeks ago, sitting quite cold at his desk next to the photograph of Mother. When Liz had not attended the funeral or so much as picked up his calls, he had been compelled to come back here, where he had sworn he would never come again.
The second-floor seems brighter, where light falls on the landing. Beside it, shadows pool like moisture in the recesses of the walls. He follows the scuff marks around the landing to the room at the far end. The door is already open. Inside, the curtains are drawn, and after the glimpse of sunlight, it takes his eyes a moment to readjust.
It was Liz and Mark’s bedroom, once. Gradually the furnishings emerge from the gloom: the wardrobe, the dressing table, a television mounted on one wall, the king-sized bed, and mounted atop it, propped up against the headrest, two figures, fully-dressed.
Unease sinks into horror as he glimpses limp arms, tattered clothes, heads lolling where they rest on their shoulders. Almost immediately he turns away.
The bedroom feels colder than the rest of the house. The wall in front of him is cream, speckled with damp near the skirting boards, and something else, steaming on the carpet. He realises it is vomit, and that it has come from his mouth. He wonders if it is the damp that he could smell coming upstairs. He knows it is not.
Forcing himself to turn, he looks up; not at the figures on the bed, but their murky reflection in the dressing table mirror. When he grows familiar with their vague silhouettes, he reaches for a wet-wipe from the dressing table. It has long since stopped being wet, but it proves effective all the same when he lifts it to the mirror.
Dust smears from the glass. Wipe by wipe, the couple on the bed become more visible. Realising that a lump has settled in his throat, he swallows it down. His hands are trembling, but he forces himself to address the sight on the bed.
Something is wrong. Even through his tears, through the dirt-spotted glass, he can see that. The trembles have spread to his arms and legs but he manages to turn from the mirror to the bed.
Mark’s legs are flat. Shoes filled with sticks and stones and clumps of soil sit slightly separate from his hollow trousers. The shirt above might have been white, once. Now it is mustard yellow with stains; rot and the brown juice of the fruits used to stuff it. He can see pips, and things that look like pips but wriggle with small lives of their own.
Liz’s tights are not much better; misshapen cloth-limbs stuffed with more clothes. Liquids seep from her torso and the dark gap between her legs. Something that could pass as a pillowcase fills out her form while arms made of bundled branches drape by her side.
Their faces are white polythene bags, filled with what he cannot begin to guess. Children’s paints and marker pen account for the rest; grinning expressions imbued in black ink that they might last forever. Liz’s mouth is drawn in a wide, vacant smile. Stepping closer, Johan notices more branches, moss, shredded paper, teabags and strips of plastic. Where the figures’ hands meet, black twig fingers intertwine and he realises the white-faced macabre effigies are those of motherhood and fatherhood; thin, skinless things filled with silent love of the undying sort that can only be manufactured from crude oil and recyclable waste.
Wicker-Liz shudders, pitching forward, and Johan falls back from the bed with a shout. Mark moves next, head rolling from one shoulder to regard him with wide, empty eyes. Johan flounders across the floor as a third figure climbs spider-like from behind the debris-dolls.
Chloe does not look to have eaten properly for many weeks. Breaths wheeze through small, near-translucent teeth. Her dress might have been pretty, once, but those days are long behind it. She rests on her haunches between mother and father, and even in the dimness he can see the thin bones in her legs. Long arms grope for Scrap-Mark, her skeletal face finding his squishy fruit-chest. She begins to sing.
He doesn’t know where his sister is, or why Chloe is alone. When he tries to approach her, she clings to her makeshift mother and shrieks until he backs away. Sinking cross-legged to the carpet, he stares up at his niece and smiling Wicker-Liz. Caught in her scribbled eyes, time slips away from him, until Liz as he remembers her stares back; beaming as she runs just ahead of him through warm crops of corn, laughing when she turns back to him, goading him faster through the fields, beneath blue cloudless skies. At some point he joins in Chloe’s song, and for a brief moment, in a dark room, in a house filled with dust and decay of all kinds, a broken family finds ragged peace.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved