Saturday 31 October 2015

Phantom (short fiction)

"Is it haunted?" 

Jenny couldn't have explained why the question rose in her mind, but the look on the estate agent's face made it worthwhile: his eyes widened as he tried to work out from her tone, from her expression what answer she wanted. Credit to him, he didn't stutter as he replied: "Well, these old houses all have their stories...". She stifled an inner giggle at finally having broken his smarmy exterior, whilst keeping her face as blank as possible. 


Old houses! It wasn't that old, late Victorian, red brick, and last decorated in the 70's. An inheritance from Nick's great aunt was supplemented by help from Jenny's grandparents and brought the house well within their budget. Despite needing some work, it suited their hopes for a family home: no forward chain meant they were settling in just a couple of months later. "Just don't tell Nai Nai and Ye Ye about the ghost", she joked.


Nick was grinning when Jenny returned from work. Leaving dirty handprints on her shoulders, he guided her into the lounge to show her the fireplace he'd discovered behind a sheet of hardboard under layers of paint and paper. 

"Got a guy coming to look tomorrow, but I reckon it's all in working order. Imagine it: fire crackling, us in comfy armchairs with a cat on your lap and our kids on the rug." 

His bright blue eyes infected her with his energy, and Jen found herself helping him clean the large hearth long after she'd intended to cook their dinner. She wasn't sure why they bothered - with 'a guy' coming to investigate the next day, the place would likely get filthy again, but there was something satisfying about communing with their new find this way.


They lit their first fire the evening Humphrey came. They'd known they needed a pet for any house to be a home, and adult black cats find it much harder to find new owners. His yellow-rimmed amber eyes made him stand out, but it was the quiet way he'd greeted them as if he already knew them that decided them. He'd gone to sleep in the carry case when they brought him home, and had had a good sniff of the lounge where they'd be keeping him for the first few days before curling up beside Jen on their new sofa, purring softly. The fire crackled; Nick sat opposite his wife, sketching her as she read her book. Both felt utterly content, fully relaxed for the first time in the six weeks since they'd moved. There were still boxes to unpack and a new kitchen badly needed, but this room in this moment was complete and beautiful. 


The jungle of a garden fell to Nick's sweat, revealiing an apple tree and a rotten swing. Humphrey circled it warily until Nick carefully repaired the swing, imagining his children playing on it. The black cat jumped on it, maiowed for attention then settled to sun himself.


The second room tackled had been the dingy converted attic bedroom that Nick wanted for an office. The builders had found an old shoe in the rafters as they installed the new window he needed for optimum light, which had appealed to the romanticist in both the couple. Nick was working there, Humphrey settled at his feet, when Jen returned early from her job. She seemed pale even by her standards and felt sick, so Nick tucked her into bed and returned to designing their new kitchen, so engrossed in his plans he missed her concerned look. They'd both put her late period down to the stress of moving, but she wasn't so sure, and all Nick's talk of children... 

He hugged her with delight once she'd confirmed her suspicions. The house should be ok by the time the baby arrived. They were a little behind target, but they'd half expected that, and this motivation would help.


Another shoe showed up in the kitchen. Another when they replaced the windows by the front door. A single shoe each time, now amounting to one adult, two child.


Nick's first clue anything was wrong was the flicker of the sonographer's eyes at their first scan. The woman - blonde fringe falling into her eyes so that she kept having to shake it back, a little detail that kept coming back to him - carefully laid down the wand. "I'm so sorry," west country widening of the vowels, "there's no baby."

Jen burst into tears.


"They must have been wrong." Hand on stomach, holding the dog-eared image. "I can see the shape of the baby, here. And..." Jen faltered. It was 4 weeks since that first scan, a bit over 4 months since they moved in, and Jen's body had continued to develop as though pregnant: her breasts and stomach were swollen, she'd continued to miss periods, and now, "I can feel it. The foetus. I can feel it moving." Nick wrapped his arms around her, desperate to distract her. 

Within a week, the movements were strong enough to have convinced her there was a baby. She refused to return to the doctors, confused as to why they would be lying to her. Nick watched warily, running a hand through his lengthening hair, relieved that she seemed at peace again but unable to relax himself for fear of her mental state. Humphrey stayed by her side when she was home or in the garden - their strange cat never travelled further afield than that. He seemed to avoid Nick, even though Nick spent more time at home.


The renovations had fallen further behind as they'd tried to deal with the shock of the false pregnancy - the pseudocyesis - but they were still trying. Another adult's shoe showed up when they broke down the cupboard under the stairs. As Nick brought it out, Jen gasped and grabbed his hand as she had before when she'd felt her not-there foetus move. This time, he felt the movement also and dropped the shoe. Humphrey, purring, rubbed his cheek against it, then against Nick's ankle. Jen's dark eyes lit with victory.

Over the next few weeks, he felt the child move more and more often until he, too couldn't doubt its reality.


Jen curled up on the sofa chewing the end of her long, black plait, laptop on the adjacent table. Nick's acceptance of the pregnancy seemed to give her an extra energy, and she was finally researching the origin of their strange shoe collection.

"I think we're pretty lucky. Other people find mummified cats." She absently scratched Humphrey's ears as he jumped over to headbutt her bump. "It's a form of 'apotropaic magic'. Wards off witches." She paused. Humphrey's purring increased as he rubbed himself closer against her bump. "Or... or as a fertility charm."

The hairs on Nick's neck rose as she spoke, as he watched Humphrey stop rubbing himself against her and move to the hearthstone. If Jen was right, the baby she may or may not be carrying would have been conceived the day he'd ripped the hardboard off the sealed chimney, and now their little black cat sat before it, staring at him with large eyes the colour of fire. A wave of nausea passed over him, with a feeling as though he'd just understood something he couldn't see. Or seen something he couldn't understand.

When Jen left for work in the morning, he found Humphrey back by the hearthstone, mewling and pawing at it. Dazed, he found a crowbar and carefully prized it up. Beneath, he found the mummified remains of a soot black cat and a premature infant. Humphrey purred and entwined himself around Nick's ankles as he lifted the two tiny bodies out with shaking hands. He carried them to the garden, followed Humphrey to the apple tree, and reinterred them among its roots. He looked at the shoes, suddenly sickened by their presence, and buried them too. That done, he stripped down and scrubbed himself using cold water from the small bathroom sink, still under Humphrey's gaze, until finally he retched into the sink and sunk into dry sobs. Now Humphrey came to offer comfort, rubbed against him, mewed gently. Nick came round, stroked the cat and met his clear, green gaze.


Jen gave birth at home, Nick and Humphrey in attendance. The baby boy was declared healthy by the paramedics who arrived in time to help her through the final stages. They took her to hospital, and none of the midwives nor doctors could explain how their equipment had so utterly failed and could only apologise over and over again for the distress they'd caused.

No comments:

Post a Comment