Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Widow and the Tree House

Eddie had one more signature still to get. One more, then he could go back to the office and tell Grace to shut her stupid anorexic face because he’d got fifty signatures pledging to vote to keep Clive Adamson MP in his seat. Grace had got forty yesterday and had come back to the office at seven minutes to five to gales of applause from the idiots who thought she was brilliant because she tall, blonde, and his superiors struggled to look her in the eye. But he knew that it wasn’t about looks. They’d get you so far, yeah, but it was about character. Image, appearance wasn’t everything. He could turn on the smile if he had to, but it wasn’t about that. It was about convincing the voters that their man was the right man for the job. Because he had something that Grace didn’t have. He believed in what he was doing. You don’t just believe in the party, you believe in yourself. Now he just had to get one more.

He pulled over to the side of the road and looked at the house opposite. Looked OK from the outside. No obvious commitment to any party. Which meant that they were fair game. He straightened his tie (party colours, obviously), checked his hair in the rear view mirror, and spat his half-finished polo mint into the ashtray. Couldn’t be seen to be eating in front of the voters. He checked his jacket pockets and his clipboard to be sure he had all the correct literature with him and walked briskly (but not hurriedly) across the road and up to the front door.

He pressed the doorbell once, holding it for as close to a second as he could make it. You didn’t want to seem insistent but you didn’t want it to seem like you were just going to go away either. Which is why he waited for thirty seconds and then pressed it for a further second. He heard footsteps approaching and readied his best smile.

What were they bothering her with this time? She never had anything to give these people, these people who came to the door and gave her grief about God or Jesus or bloody make-up. She supposed she should just let them ring the bell until they got sick of it and went away but Terence would never have stood for it. Terence would fling wide the door and tell them to stop bloody bothering them, to leave them alone and never come back. She didn’t have the nerve to do that. She could tell them that she wasn’t interested though. Tommy would be wanting his dinner soon and she hadn’t got anything ready.

She pulled the net curtain open just a little, which was a mistake as the chap saw her. He knew she was in. Gave a grin that Terence would have called shit-eating, though she wouldn’t have used such language, not in front of strangers anyway. Then again, she hadn’t talked to anyone at all really, not for a few years now. Oh well. Might as well see what this grinning loon wants. The sooner she did the sooner she’d be rid of him.

He saw the net curtain flicker and he flashed his teeth at her. Sure enough, the front door opened, just like he knew it would. The woman standing before him couldn’t have had many years past forty but she seemed much older somehow. She was hunched to the point where her eyes seemed to be nearly level with her shoulders. Her hand shook on the door. Her greying dark hair was decidedly unkempt. Eddie suddenly registered all the closed curtains, matched by the musty smell that wafted out of the house like it was trying to escape. This woman was clearly a shut-in. Someone who wouldn’t leave the house if it was on fire. Someone like this wouldn’t get out of the house to vote. There was a moment of self-doubt, but only a moment. What a story this would make, if he could get this agoraphobic lunatic to vote. Anyway, even she didn’t get out, he thought, that’s what the postal ballot is for.

“Hello, Madam,” he began before she could ask what he wanted, “my name is Edward Clackett and I’m out here today on behalf of Clive Adamson, your local MP. Can I ask, have you decided how you’re going to vote in the election next week?”

As he suspected, the woman looked utterly confused. He knew she was going to say no before her mouth started trying to form a word.

“Could I possibly come in? I have some literature here that might help you decide one way or the other.”

And with a gentle but forceful push, he was inside. You don’t want to seem threatening when you’re making your way into someone’s house but you want them to know that you are going to get into their living room so they might as well put the kettle on.

What was he doing? What was he talking about? She hadn’t voted in years, not since Terence died. After he passed there didn’t seem to be any point to it. So what was the oily, grinning man-child doing forcing his way into her home? She didn’t like this. She didn’t like this at all.

She looked skittish, which worried Eddie. It had been easy enough to get inside but if she started panicking it was game over. And then the story wouldn’t be about how he convinced a mad shut-in that voting for Clive Adamson MP was the right thing to do, it would be how he terrified a helpless old (but she wasn’t that old, not that they’d care) woman who probably wasn’t in full possession of her faculties. And that would be very bad indeed. So he needed to smooth things over. He needed to correct the atmosphere, get her sitting down and get her calm.

“Is it alright if I take a seat?” he asked. He didn’t want to presume to do anything now; he needed permission with someone this jumpy. There was an awkward pause but finally she gave a tiny tremulous nod and he smiled and took a seat in a white armchair which gave a quiet moan as he put his weight on it. There was a further awkward pause during which it looked like she might not sit down and just stand there staring at him, but finally she sat on the faded green sofa opposite and stared at him from there. He needed an ice breaker. He looked around the room for something banal and comforting to comment on. There it was. A family photo. Her, apparently a hundred years ago, a man slightly older than she was, and a young boy, about five years old.

“Is that your family?” he asked. Stupid question, but stupid was often the best way to start with these ones. She shifted in her seat, her top lip started to wobble. Bollocks, he thought, maybe this wasn’t the best way to start.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s me and my husband Terence, and our son Thomas. Terence…passed. Some years back.”

A grieving shut-in. He assumed his most contrite expression and leant forward. Just far enough to make it clear that he wanted to comfort her but not far enough to make her worried that he was actually going to touch her. She looked like she didn’t want to be touched. A hand on the knee might draw screams.

“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “It’s truly tragic to suffer a loss like that.” Truly tragic. He couldn’t tell if that was good or bad but there was no room for backtracking. He needed to be confident. Sincere. He paused a moment before asking what he knew was a risky bloody question. “And your son?” He held his breath and prayed that Tommy hadn’t been killed in some terrible fire with his father.

What did he want? What was he asking about her husband for, about Tommy? Slimy little shit. She needed to get rid of him before Tommy came in for his dinner. She still had to get it ready, he wouldn’t be at all happy if he came in to find nothing to eat and this salesman on the sofa. Asking about voting, indeed. She’d just have to give him what he wanted and get him out of here.

“Tommy’s living at home now,” she told him. He gave what he hoped was a comforting grin.

“That’s partly what I’m talking about, Mrs…” he left a pause for her to fill in her last name but she didn’t say a word. That didn’t matter; she could put it on the form when she signed the bloody thing. For now he would just carry on with his patter. “The youth of today need to be sent the right message. They need to know that there is someone who is looking out for them. In these uncertain economic times a young man’s future can seem awfully desperate, awfully unclear. Too many young people are simply drifting into a depressing void at the moment, moving home and wondering what they can possibly do with themselves. What Mr Adamson stands for is providing our young people with a strong work ethic and the opportunity to put it to good use.”

He inched a little closer to the edge of his seat, warming to his theme now.

“Because we know, our party that is, we know that things haven’t been easy over the last few years. But we’re determined that we can create a brighter future for the all of us here in the UK. And that’s what’s really important, isn’t it? A brighter future for kids like your Thomas. Our party is committed to your children and giving them the lives they deserve. Tell me, madam. Who did you vote for in the last election?”

He could certainly jabber on, this strange little man. He’d even started sweating when he really got going. She’d seen little flecks of spit flying from between his too-white teeth as he’d hit the word ‘people’ and the ‘s’ in ‘Adamson’. But she didn’t have time for his rambling. She had things to do, things to get ready. She didn’t have time for this man at all.

“What is it you want from me?” she asked, hoping that this would cut right to the point. But he just shook his head and leaned back in Terence’s armchair.

“It’s not what we want from you, Madam. It’s what we can give you. Not just a brighter future for your children but a brighter present for yourself too. Clive Adamson is working tirelessly to help put an end to this terrible state of affairs we’re in at the moment and if you would just sign our…” She nearly leapt to her feet here, hoping for the opportunity to something, anything to get rid of him, but instead he reached into his jacket and took out some leaflets.

“I have some literature here, if you’d care to read it. Just some information and some testimonials about Mr Adamson if you’d like to…”

“Give them here,” she told him. He was surprised to see her so anxious to read them but he didn’t question it. He handed them over and leaned back in his chair. He thought about carrying on talking but thought maybe a bit of quiet would be good, to let the importance of what she was reading really sink in. He turned his head to his left and looked out of the window. He was too committed now. A signature wasn’t going to be enough. He wasn’t going to be fobbed off with some ink on a piece of paper. He wanted this woman convinced. He wanted her to be a real party member. He wanted a fucking sticker in her window for when the papers came so everyone could see just what he’d accomplished.

Not that a sticker would be much use on this back window. The garden was much nicer than he’d expected given the state of the house. A good-sized patch of grass, bordered on all sides with well-kept flowerbeds, a small greenhouse, and what he would have guessed was an oak tree standing tall near the end of the garden. And there, up in the oak tree, was a good-sized tree house. Eddie had longed for a tree house growing up and hadn’t seen one in years. He had assumed the tradition had been lost when pre-teens had started getting iPhones for their birthdays. But here was one, in the heart of his community, in the home of this brave widowed woman who was preparing to commit herself to the right honourable candidate. His candidate. It was perfect. Except…

There was a glow coming from the oak tree that had nothing to do with the sunset. He could see a small but definite flow of black smoke coming from the window of the tree house. He got to his feet and hurried to the window. Yes, there was definitely smoke. The tree house was on fire. He turned to the woman who was flicking quickly through the descriptions of where you could find the party on social media. She hadn’t noticed the fire. If he sorted this out the widow would have no choice but to give them her vote, on account of his heroics. Perhaps even a story in the paper.

“Mrs… your tree house, it’s on fire!” he shouted, and ran to the back door, taking off his jacket and flinging the door open in one fluid movement. He could hear her shouting, probably telling him not to risk himself, or maybe asking him to hurry, it didn’t matter. He was going to put this fire out and win her allegiance.

She told him to stop. He didn’t listen. Going running off to the tree house Terence had built when they’d first been expecting. She didn’t go up there anymore.

Eddie scaled the oak tree with an ease that surprised him, given how little he’d been able to get to the gym recently. He was soon at the tree house door and ducked inside. Sure enough, a small pile of paper had been set alight. Probably some neighbourhood kids messing about, using the tree house without permission, kids that should have been in school. He stamped out the fire; his shoe could take the hit for the story. When he felt a sharp pain he assumed it was the heat, and lifted his foot clear. As he did so, he looked down and saw that his heel had been slashed. His foot stayed where it was, for the most part. Blood gushed from a savage tear in his navy sock. He screamed and fell backwards.

Eddie fell through the opening to the tree house and down to the ground, about twelve feet, landing on his back. As he looked up he saw a dark shape emerge from the tree house, jump, and land on its feet beside him. He wanted to scream but the air had been knocked out of him by the fall. As it knelt down and brought its face closer to Eddie’s, he saw who it was. The boy from the photo. A few years older, yes, and his face blackened by smoke, but definitely him. He grinned. The teeth had been sharpened into yellow points. Eddie now managed a scream, and the boy grabbed his hair and dragged him over the grass back towards the house.

The back door was still open. As Eddie was pulled inside his heel caught on the doorstep, twisting and tearing, sending another jet of pain up his leg. The boy pulled harder and got him inside, slamming the door behind him.

There was Tommy now. And he’d got the stupid man. She didn’t enjoy what Tommy did and she’d tried explaining that he shouldn’t do it. But if she was being honest, she wasn’t sorry to hear that man scream.

He was starting to lose awareness of what was happening to him. He was in the kitchen; his head had bounced off a hob and was now resting on a linoleum floor. He heard the slam of a drawer being yanked open and a clattering of silverware. He heard the boy laughing. Then he wasn’t aware of anything except the pain in his stomach.

So that was what he was doing for dinner then. She needn’t have worried.

It took some effort but Eddie managed to lift his head off the floor too look at what exactly this boy was doing to him. All he could see was a mess of hair above a widening patch of red around his belly. As his mouth dropped open, the boy lifted his head to look back at Eddie. His face was glistening with dark red goo. He flashed those sharpened teeth again. And between those teeth lay a rope of his intestines, skewered on the boy’s fangs, which he was working furiously back and forth. The boy’s grin widened as their eyes met, before he plunged his head back into the messy soup of Eddie’s stomach. Eddie felt his reason depart as the slurping started and let his head drop backwards.

Such a mess. Getting it everywhere. What a mess, what a terrible mess.

Eddie’s head fell to the right. Everything was becoming terribly blurry. But he could still make out the slippered feet of the widow hurrying over, and see Clive Adamson’s campaign literature used to move his blood and a few chunks of what he assumed were his viscera into one neat puddle on the lino by his nose, before he felt a hand reach up and under his ribcage and everything stopped.


Hello there. I hope you enjoyed this story. I hoped to have it up a bit sooner but things have been pretty hectic with the London Film Festival, which I'm covering for Cinetalk (find our coverage there).

This short story title comes from @scottywrotem and I really like it, I was buzzing with ideas as soon as he suggested it, so thank you very much to him for that.

So, I don't really have a lot to say about this story beyond the fact that I didn't want to do another ghost story (at least, not yet), and I wanted to write something that ended messily. I wanted to write something that wasn't subtle at all. So the humour's about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Oh and I promise I will stop ripping off Jack Ketchum soon. Other stories are under-way but please give me your titles! Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jonny, great story as ever. A couple of missing "it"s and so forth in the opening paragraph but nothing to write home about :P. Welcome to the new blog, I suppose!