At first Clary didn't recognise her surroundings, half-painted by moonlight, half by sodium. She had fallen asleep by the lounge window; the sun had kipped up hours ago.
Felix! She checked her mobile. No messages. Had something gone wrong? Note to self: must stop watching all those true crime programmes on Quest.
She had started to dial when the mobile pinged, an incoming text message she could read by the light of the sodium outside. Don't worry cariad, Taid thought you needed a rest so we'll keep Felix tonight unless we hear from you. Love you more than all the stars in the sky. xxx
Clary smiled, licked her dry lips. Mum―typical English teacher―must be the one person left in the world who didn’t text phonetically. She hit lock and shoved the mobile into her pocket. She shivered, her skin painful with goosebumps.
She needed a change of clothes, something warm. But of course it was all packed, and her body felt stuffed with concrete. Clary staggered to her feet, jerking like a marionette, her head pounding. A big glass of cold water and three paracetamol, that’ll sort me out. But she had no idea where the paracetamol was. She managed to drag herself all the way into the kitchen before she remembered the water was off. Had she missed the Tai Ffrynt plumber? They might think her a timewaster and not send anyone out now until Monday.
Bottles. Bottles of water in my handbag. And paracetamol. She ruffled through the bag. Damn thing was so big, the black leather interior made finding things impossible. A plastic bag containing bottles of water should be locatable by feel. The supermarket bag she'd packed was not in her handbag.
Clary didn’t even like water, but knowing she couldn’t have any made her want it more. She lay on the couch, sweaty yet barbed with chill, teeth on edge, burning up.
Outside and inside, nothing. No hum of traffic, no bass lines, no insects; not even seagulls. The building’s location a few yards away from a roundabout meant there should at least be the occasional car. But there was no sound at all.
I've never lived anywhere so quiet in my life. This must be what it's like to be dead.
She shifted on the couch and puled her knees up to her aching belly. Somewhere, above or below her, she couldn’t tell, a clock chimed the hour. One, two, three, four . . . seven, eight, nine . . . eleven o’clock. 11.00 p.m. They’d all be asleep at her mum’s. She couldn’t wake them up just because she felt a bit flu-y.
A full moon, fat and sanguine, looked about to roll off the black slope of Tan-y-Gopa. The harsh rasp of her breath caught in her throat, rattled in her chest. She hated noise, but it was preferable to this kind of quiet, the quiet of cemeteries and crems.
And as if in answer to her thought, the first footstep fell . From below, ascending. Slow and dragging. No ring or aggressive staccato tap of high-heels. She heard the footsteps turn the corner of a downstairs landing, rise towards her flat.
Had she given her mother the spare key? She couldn’t remember.
Her cracked lips parted but no sound came out. Up another staircase feet plodded, relentless. The banister groaned as a hand clutched it; the footsteps rounded another landing.
But there was only one landing that led to her flat. The new flat.
Mum, is that you?
More steps, more stairs, two more landings. A floorboard creaked. Someone inside the flat. Someone who hesitated on the threshold.
She shut her eyes. Maybe she could imagine it away. Breathing in the room, ragged, wet, said no.
She opened her eyes, and gasped. She was not in her new flat; it was the old one. She could just make out a dark shape, hulked in the lounge doorway. Moonlight fell on a dress pattern, dark and viscous, as two square hands kneaded the sodden material. Then a deep voice groaned, creaky, as if not often in use.
Clary tried to shout. Her throat rasped with the effort. Stay back. You just stay back.
Help me. Don’t want to hurt you. Need help.
How did you get in?
The white hands twisted and turned. Please, it’s my mother. She won’t wake up. I’ve shook her and shook her and she just won’t wake up.
The figure shambled into the patch of moonlight. It dripped on the carpet. Its hands and dress disappeared into gloom. Lank grey hair framed a candle-yellow face that hung as if disembodied, open idiot mouth filled with blood. The left eye so pale it seemed all white, no iris. The head caved into a red sodden mess where the right eye should be.
Him. Him. Why was he in a dress? Why did he babble about his mother when he’d once said that his mother had been dead for years?
She was back in the old flat in the Kinmel Estate. On the couch, the window behind her open, blown by wind and rain.
As he shambled towards her she shouted at him but her voice had gone. Then he reached the patch of moonlight, and brought up his hands again, and she saw that he held Felix in his arms, and her voice returned, scream after scream that rasped her throat and woke her up.
. . .
The doorbell shrieked. Clary jerked up on the couch; a flailing limb knocked over the picture frame on the coffee table. The room was still dark, though afternoon sunshine laced through the soaped window and the open light. No one stood in the lounge doorway.
Clary’s handbag lay fallen open by the couch. Two bottles of water and a bag of microwave rice poked out of the supermarket bag inside. Beside it was her mobile. She checked the messages: nothing. No text from her mother.
She picked up the picture frame. A large crack in the glass split her and Felix; a long shard of glass fell out of the frame. Best wrap it in some newspaper before she cut herself. Clary wrapped all of it, glass and frame, in a sports page from the Ffrynt Voice and put it back in the box she’d brought it in. She’d get the glass replaced before her mum saw she’d broken it.
The doorbell shrilled again, over and over, insistent. Not like Anita. Her mum knew with Felix it sometimes took Clary a few moments to get to the door.
But Clary didn’t have Felix.
Maybe something had happened to them. Maybe it was the police.
‘Can’t be the police, stupid,’ she told the panic voice. ‘How would they get in the front door?’ Fuck off, panic voice. You gave your mum the spare key and forgot.
Clary ran to the front door and threw it open. She expected to see Anita, cradling Felix like the best present in the world.
But it wasn’t Anita with Felix.
The woman on the doorstep panted, like she’d just finished a marathon; she smelled as if she had. Stale sweat, not fresh. A bulbous nose threaded with the little red veins of a drinker, vivid against bloodless cheeks. Dishevelled salt-and-pepper hair in need of a cut. Plastic glasses didn’t hide her odd eyes, the curve of eyeball visible against pale muscle, as if the eye sockets were too large. Did she talk to herself? No sound came out, though her mouth worked.
Standing on tiptoe, Clary held the door in such a way as to give the impression she had to fly. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Downstairs,’ gulped the woman. ‘I’m . . .’
Having a fit? ‘Are you all right?’
The woman nodded. She wore a pink Minnie Mouse Disneyland Paris tee shirt, two sizes too small for her, over stained jogging pants. A flowery apron was tied round her thick waist. A strong smell of stale alcohol permeated her breath.
Clary didn’t know where to look. ‘Look, whatever you’re selling, I haven’t got time. My son’s due back.’ She started to close the door.
The woman’s head jerked from side to side with the effort of speech. ‘No. Downstairs. Your neighbour. I’m your . . . downstairs . . . neighbour.’
Shit, Clary thought. Then felt bad for judging. The woman wasn’t drunk but il . Clary didn’t feel so great herself.
And as suddenly as she appeared unwell the woman pulled herself together; a posh voice emerged from the wreck.
‘Sorry about my clothes, I’ve been . . . ’ Gardening? The upper crust loved their gardens. Though it wasn’t evident by that tangle of brown weeds in the front yard.
The woman took a few deep breaths and placed a hand on her stomach as if to make the air stay down. Colour seeped back into her face. ‘I just wanted to show you this.’
She held out an object wrapped in a tissue. Something stained with dried blood.
The tip of a severed finger!
You and your horror films and true-crime junk. Time you stopped watching so many, they give you bad ideas, not to mention nightmares. In the daytime.
But what looked like blood was dirt stuck to the tissue. This woman held a dirty piece of tissue out to her. What was in it? A half-sucked sweet? A dried bogey?
Then Clary recognised the smell. Stared at a part-smoked cigarette―the cigarette she’d thrown out the window. Picked out of the weeds and brought to her.
She almost said, ‘Hands up, ever so sorry, it was me. But I meant to pick it up later on.’
But she was tired, her head banged, there was still so much to do, the broken picture frame for starters as Felix would be back any second. Also an instinct made her hold back. Anyone could see the poor woman’s wiring was loose. Could she get away on the pretence she had to go out?
The woman barked. Perhaps it was supposed to be a laugh. ‘Look, I am sorry to bother you, but the people who used to live here, they were pigs, absolute pigs. Used to fly tip the front yard. They didn’t care. They loved to live surrounded by filth.’
‘That’s awful,’ Clary said, trying to sound sincere. ‘People can be horrible.’
‘How right you are. Look, I won’t keep you; I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Daere, I live in the ground-floor flat with my mother.’
‘Clary. I can’t stop. My son’s due back in a moment. Oh, I left you a note. I hope you don’t mind about the pram?’
Daere blinked. ‘Pram?’
‘Because’―Clary placated with both hands―‘with my baby, having to hump it all upstairs, it would be such a help.’
Daere frowned. ‘You have a baby.’
So no offer to babysit there. Clary made herself smile. ‘Yes, his name’s Felix. Anyway, it would just make everything easier if for now I could leave the pram downstairs?’
Daere said, ‘But that would make things difficult for my mother.’
‘I wasn’t going to leave it in front of your door.’
‘Maybe, maybe you wouldn’t mind putting it’―Daere pointed behind her―‘to the side of the stairs. Mum doesn’t go out much these days―she can’t―but if I have to take her to the doctor I need clear access.’
Clear access? Anything, say anything to get rid of her. It doesn’t matter now, you can sort it later. ‘Thank you so much for coming up. Maybe we can have a coffee sometime,’ Clary said, and started to shut the door. But Daere put a clogged foot in it.
‘You know, Clary, is it? Can I ask you a personal question? I won’t keep you long. Though I’m all right for the moment, my mother sleeps most afternoons.’
‘Day-ere,’ the woman corrected.
‘Sorry, Daere, but I’ve really got to―’
‘It’ll only take a moment. It’s what I’ve seen―well, what I see in your eyes.’ Clary’s new neighbour wrapped up the fag in its tissue with care, as if it were precious, and tucked it in her apron pocket. ‘People around here say I’m psychic. I have to ask you, were you abused as a child? Did you have to be put in care?’
Clary enjoyed reading her stars and had always fancied going to a psychic. Not any more, if this was the sort of stuff they came up with. Shocked, she would have slammed the door in her neighbour’s face, but behind her unwelcome visitor she saw Anita hurry up the stairs, Felix held facing away from the unpleasantness. Her mother shouted,
‘What the hell do you think you’re after with my daughter? Bugger off before I smack you.’
The neighbour whined, ‘You can’t hit me, I’ll call the police.’
Anita snarled, ‘I am the fucking police. Now clear off.’